Do the Greek Myths pass the Bechdel test? The Iliad

BY Rosie Hewlett

4th Apr 2024 History

4 min read

Do the Greek Myths pass the Bechdel test? The Iliad
Author Rosie Hewlett asks whether Homer's epic poem The Iliad passes the Bechdel test
The Bechdel test was invented by cartoonist Alison Bechdel in the 1980s. Intended as a joke, the test has since gained widespread popularity as a criterion for female representation in film and fiction. To pass the test, a story must feature two (preferably named) women talking to one other about something other than a man. Though seemingly simple, a shockingly large number of beloved books and movies fail. After realising this, it led me to wonder how my favourite Greek myths might hold up.
The world of Greek mythology is incredibly vast, and it would take far too long to analyse everything against Bechdel’s criteria. So, for the purpose of this article, I will focus on one of my favourites—The Iliad.
"The entire story centres around the idea of women as possessions"
Admittedly, I had low expectations for The Iliad passing, as the entire story centres around the idea of women as possessions. It was Helen’s face that famously launched a thousand ships when Menelaus attacked Troy in retaliation for Paris stealing his "property".
In a similar demonstration of the fragile male ego, Achilles and Agamemnon spend the majority of the 24 books squabbling over Briseis, a captive war bride. When Agamemnon takes Briseis away, Achilles whines, “He took my trophy!” Not his "lover", or "concubine", or even his "woman", but trophy
Despite Briseis’ importance to the plot, we only hear her speak in book 19 when she laments the death of Patroclus. Public mourning was seen as a feminine duty in the ancient world, and so it is unsurprising that the main time we see women interacting in The Iliad is when they’re grieving. In book 24, at the very end of the story, we see three of the principle female characters, Helen, Andromache, and Hecuba, gathering to mourn Hector.
Though heart-wrenching, these acts of lamentation do not pass our test, as the women’s dialogue, much like their roles in society, centre entirely around their relationship with the fallen men. Despite this scene in book 24 failing to meet Bechdel’s standards, I have always thought there is a lot to be said about the fact The Iliad ends with the voices of three women.

Women with agency

Fortunately, not all women in The Iliad are treated as mere objects. The goddesses demonstrate a refreshing amount of agency, and we witness some fantastic scenes between them. One such scene is in book 14, when Hera seeks Aphrodite’s aid while plotting against Zeus. This interaction comes tantalisingly close to passing Bechdel’s test, as Hera does not disclose her plan to Aphrodite, and thus does not mention her husband. Instead, Hera claims she requires Aphrodite’s power of desire so she may reunite two lovers.
In response, Aphrodite agrees to aid Hera “because you spend your nights wrapped in the arms of Zeus, the greatest god. Frustratingly, this reasoning means their conversation falls short of Bechdel’s criteria. However, I feel The Iliad still earns points here for having Hera successfully sabotage Zeus.
Another great moment between goddesses appears in book 8, when Hera and Athena fear that the Greeks are losing the war and decide to intervene with the battle. I thought this would surely tick all Bechdel’s boxes, but alas, Athena spends their conversation criticising her father’s actions. However, as with book 14, I cannot be disappointed with this scene, because I always love seeing the goddesses unite in their mutual hatred of Zeus.
When the goddesses yielded no luck, I thought all hope was lost for The Iliad passing this test. But then, tucked away in book 6, there is a short interaction between Hecuba, Queen of Troy, and Theano, a priestess. In this scene, Hecuba brings a robe to Theano as an offering to Athena, in the hopes that their gift will convince the goddess to support the Trojans (spoiler: it doesn’t work). Here we have two named women interacting over something that isn’t a man…could this be our moment?
"Tucked away in book 6, there is a short interaction between Hecuba, Queen of Troy, and Theano, a priestess"
In an episode of Natalie Haynes Stands Up for the Classics, Haynes confirmed that this interaction between Hecuba and Theano does in fact mean The Iliad passes Bechdel’s test. But truthfully, I was still somewhat sceptical, as Bechdel’s standards says two women need to be having a conversation. In Emily Wilson’s recent translation of The Iliad, we see Hecuba giving Theano the robe and we hear Theano’s prayer to Athena but there isn’t any back and forth dialogue between the women. So, where does that leave us?
Though this scene is not explicitly a conversation, it is still an interaction between two women, and I am therefore inclined to agree with Haynes and say The Iliad passes Bechdel’s test, albeit barely. It is depressing, however, to think that across the 24 books and 15,693 lines that make up The Iliad, this tiny scene is the only female exchange we are given that isn’t centred around men.
Putting The Iliad to Bechdel’s test shows us that though there are many remarkable women within the world of Greek myth, interactions between them are noticeably lacking. This is one of the many reasons why the recent surge of Greek myth retellings is so important, for it gives us the opportunity to explore all the fascinating female relationships that history has ignored for far too long. 
Medea HB
Medea by Rosie Hewlett is published by Bantam (£16.99)
Cover image: Briseis taken away from Achilles, Pompeii. ArchaiOptix, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
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