Wives in the Ancient World
Biblical, Greek, and Roman Models
Why should we begin with biblical, Greek, and Roman wives? Because the religious, legal, and social practices of those ancient civilizations provided the template for the future treatment of married women in the West. The wife as a man's chattel, as his dependent, as his means for acquiring legal offspring, as the caretaker of his children, as his cook and housekeeper are roles that many women now find abhorrent; yet certain aspects of those antiquated obligations still linger on in the collective unconscious. Many men still expect their wives to provide some or all of these services, and many wives still intend to perform them. Those women today who rebel against such expectations are, after all, rebelling against patterns that have been around for more than two millennia. It's important to understand what they are rebelling against, and what some of their antagonists-for example, certain conservative religious groups-are trying to preserve.
The charter myth for the Judeo-Christian wife is the story of Adam and Eve. Ever since their story was written into the Bible (around the tenth century B. C. E.), Adam and Eve have been designated, first by Hebrews and later by Christians and Muslims, as the progenitors of the human race. From the start, Eve has been honored as the foremother of humanity and simultaneously reviled as the spouse who first disobeyed God.
Initially, as related in Chapter One of Genesis, God created man and woman at the same time. "And God created the human in his image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them." But by Chapter Two, a new version of human creation had found its way into Scripture, which suggested that Eve was something of an afterthought. In this version, God created Adam first, from the dust of the ground. Then, reflecting on His handiwork, He declared: "It is not good for the human to be alone. I shall make him a sustainer beside him."
The subsequent account of Eve's creation from Adam's rib has fueled the age-old argument that woman is intrinsically inferior to man and dependent on him for her very existence. Even the Hebrew word icha, or "woman" -- from man - suggests this one-down position.
Eve's story then goes from bad to worse. She follows the serpent's advice to eat from the Tree of Good and Evil, contrary to God's commandment, and then tempts Adam to eat of it as well. These acts have permanent consequences for both sexes: God punishes Eve by inflicting the pangs of childbirth on all mothers and the burden of sweat producing labor on all men. In addition, it is decreed that the female will be in a subordinate position to her husband for eternity. As God tells Eve after the Fall, "Your urge shall be for your husband and he shall rule over you." Like most myths, this one sought to explain a cultural phenomenon that had been entrenched for so long it seemed to be the will of God.
But there are other ways of looking at this story, which put Eve in a more favorable light. Some feminists have suggested that Eve was not just an afterthought, but an improvement over Adam. And even conservative commentators recognize that she represented more than a biological necessity The notion of the wife as a man's companion, "sustainer" or "helpmeet" (from the Hebrew word 'ezer) has had a long and meaningful history among Jews and Christians. Indeed, one later commentary in the Talmud (the code of Jewish religious and civil law) sees the 'ezer as providing a moral check on her husband: "When he is good, she supports him, when he is bad, she rises up against him. And most of all, those arguing for the equal partnership of husband and wife can cite the moving last words of Chapter Two of Genesis: "Therefore does a man leave his father and his mother and cling to his wife and they become one flesh."
Excerpted from The History of The Wife by Marilyn Yalom. Copyright © 2001 by Marilyn Yalom. Excerpted by permission of Harper Collins Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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