Love and Marriage Throughout the Ancient Greek World

(Antigone, Hymn to Demeter, Sappho, The Odyssey)


By: Jamie Wolfe

Julie Stein

Katie Schoenbaechler

Makena Coscarelli




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Marriage is a milestone in many people’s lives; every person in the world is touched by marriage in some way or another and for the people of ancient Greece it’s no exception. The Greek authors: Homer, Antigone, and Sappho each had different views about marriage, but each incorporated it into their works.




Antigone’s Heartache

by Jamie Wolfe


            In Greek literature there are many themes that arise from not only reading the history, but in the text as well.  Marriage is one of those themes that are key to the Greek society at the time Antigone was written.  Marriage, which is a sacred bond between two people, is portrayed in the Sophiclean play Antigone.  Antigone is the main reason and source of all the heartache of not only her life, but also the lives of her family around her.

            In my opinion her tomb and deathbed could be considered in a way her bed of marriage.  What I mean by this is Haemon and his mother queen Eurydice falls due to Antigone's demise.  If you consider the facts that both Antigone's pursuit for truth of her brother and her bond to Haemon were very important to her.  One can see that upon her sentence of death, she brings down Haemon.  Instead of being killed though she hangs herself because of her love for her brother.  This devastates Haemon, her love, who then kills him.  The bond that they had full of love did not just bring one person down, but the entire household.  Their love seemed unbreakable to Haemon, and even if she was defying the polis his love for her was so powerful. 

            I think that in this play marriage could be considered not only a bond between two people, but a marriage between the household and family as well.  I think that in Greek literature being a part of the household was a very important factor when it came to marriage.  When you marry you become a part of the household, but since Antigone was already apart of the families bond.  Since in the play Haemon kills himself his mother, queen Eurydice full of grief, because of not only his death, but Antigone's as well, kills herself.  She being the mother of the household whose love is bond for both of them. 

            I think that it is important to think about the circle of this love that brings the entire family to shambles.  Even though Creon does not die he feels the repercussions of his actions in life.  He not only loses a niece, but a son, and a wife.  To Creon the polis was the most important item in his life.  I think he was so wrong that not considering the consequences brings his family down as well.

            The story of Antigone is tragic, but keeps the theme of marriage alive.  I think that love and marriage in Greek literature is important because it shows the reader how this was accomplished.  Marriage is not discussed in the story, but assumed to be an integral part of keeping the polis together.  If Antigone's brother did not die the chaos that erupted from it could have been prevented.  There could have been a ceremony for Antigone and Haemon.  The queen would not have suffered from grief and their lives would be saved.  I think the story brings tragedy with love together in a twisted way that shows the polis is in power.




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Season of marriage

by Julie Stein


Each year the seasons change from a time of fertility and maturity, to a time of death.  In the Homeric poem Hymn to Demeter, youth, fertility, marriage, old age and death are themes addressed with relation to gods, mortals, and the earth itself.  Cycles are a very prominent theme in this poem as well, especially life cycles.  In ancient Greek times women were valued for their beauty, ability to maintain a household, and their ability to raise children.  In a sense women were valued for their maternal instincts.

 In this poem, when Hades captures Persephone, Demeter loses her value because her daughter has now matured to the age of marriage.  In my opinion, there are four stages to a woman’s life: birth, youth, marriage (or age of maternity), and old age or eventual death.  When you are in your stages of youth, there is nothing but happiness and a slow maturation process; your mother is your closest bond.  Even though Persephone and Demeter were gods, they showed human dependency on each other.  Demeter relies on Persephone to maintain her value as a mother and a fertile being, and Persephone needs Demeter to remain youthful.  Hades comes and robs them both of their youth and maternity.  Zeus gave him Persephone as his bride.  This identifies marriage as a turning point in the life of a woman.  In this day in age, marriage is still a pivotal moment in a woman’s life.  It is a complete change from childhood to adulthood as well as a unique bond between two families.  Today there is more emphasis on love in a marriage and less on the economic bond of families.  In the poem Hades and Demeter make compromise on the life of Persephone as if she has no say in the matter.  Women today have the option of being in love with their husband, which makes the change from youth to adulthood one that is valuable and exciting.  It may even be something to look forward to.  Such is no the case for the two goddesses, it causes incredible upset not only for the women, but for humankind as well.  Marriage means that a woman must leave her youth behind and embrace her maternity, as any change in life is difficult this one proves no let down.  Persephone is very melancholy without her mother, for now she must step up from youth and become the bride of Hades, the god of the underworld.  This is an even further representation of marriage having a negative effect on women.  Demeter is absolutely ill at ease with grief from her missing daughter.  Disguising her self as an elderly and wise woman to try and adopt a new child from Metaneira was simply a way to test her newest stage of life, old age.  She discovered that not only was it impossible to return to her matronly ways, but humankind revealed a lack of trust in her.  This lack of trust depicts another cycle connected to the maturity into marriage issue. 

Demeter is in charge of the fertility of the earth and the land of humankind.  When they display a lack of trust in her she gets angry and decides to make the land barren and non-productive.  This is like the season of death or winter, when her daughter is trapped in the world of the dead with Hades.  When Zeus sends for Persephone, Hades removes the power of the land from Demeter and gives it to his bride.  This is where the cycle becomes complete.  The responsibility of the mother has been passed down to the child.  This coupled with the eating of the pomegranate seeds (showing that she is now bound to Hades), is the beginning of Persephone’s passage into the world of adulthood and motherhood.  When Demeter and Persephone reunite the world is just as it should be lush, full of life, and ripening, just as the two women are.  They are maturing to their next stage of life, and marriage is the pivotal event here.  When Hades and Persephone are together, the world is locked in a season of death, and when the women are together the world is growing and prospering.  Marriage is not depicted well in this poem; however, it is a part of the cycle necessary to all life.  Reproducing and aging are all important aspects of the life cycle of the earth and of humans.  Perhaps the Hymn to Demeter was comparable to a fable with a moral.  Although maturing can be painful, it is necessary to life, for without it humankind would have died out due to Demeter’s anger. 




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Unconventional marriage practices for Sappho

by Katie Schoenbaechler


            The topic of marriage is something that in each person’s mind is different and takes on a different meaning. Each person has experienced and been touched by marriage, but couples portray it in different ways. Everyone has a story to tell about marriage and a viewpoint about it that just can’t be changed.

            For the early Greeks, marriage is nothing different than what we experience right now in the year 2002. Each poet or writer had a different story to tell about marriage and what was good and bad about it. For Sappho being a girl gives marriage a different perspective. Women hold onto a dream, a starry hazy way that love makes you feel and how it should be. With Sappho’s views on free love and her attraction to women makes her poetry and song much move unconventional and interesting to read.

            Sappho was a young girl; rebellious and original. This came out in what she wrote. Sappho had an almost young, girly tone and almost plays with the minds of the people that are reading her poetry and songs.

She was married to a rich man and had a daughter named Cleis, but she also had an attraction to women and often wrote about that. I think that Sappho in modern times would have been said to be “bisexual”; you would to compare it to modern times. The most interesting aspect of her poetry is the seeming naïve way that she writes about love and marriage, but is seemingly connected to her husband and has taken on the responsibility of having a child.

            Style and behavior aside I can’t help but feel that Sappho and her husband’s marriage was lacking something. She had a loving relationship it seems because of the things that her husband did for her and the love that he showed her on a day-to-day basis. The free spirit and free love attitude that Sappho had makes me free that she didn’t love her husband or lacked the love that he felt for her.

I believe Sappho loved her daughter, she writes about it many times in her articles, but I find it hard to believe that she has a very strong relationship and bond with her husband. Sappho writes about how young girls should look forward to marriage and how much of a happy time it is, but then her husband is conveniently absent from many of the poems and songs that she writes. I don’t understand here thought process on this. Was she in love with marriage, but not her husband? He gave her a child and maybe that’s all she wanted from him. In another way I could see that she could have just liked the fact that she is married; every girl wants that for herself, but being in love with marriage and not her husband is what I think might have been the case with Sappho.

Another thought on Sappho’s aversion to marriage could be that she was nothing more than a free loving woman like someone out of the popular television show “She and the City”, but I can’t help but wonder why; if she had such a great marriage she could have been having the feelings that she did about women. If a marriage is stable and loving I feel that you don’t need to go outside of it to satisfy love, wants, and needs.

            I think the most touching and interesting aspect of Sappho’s writing is her attraction to women and the perspective that she brings to that. Many people can write about love, but an unconventional and almost taboo relationship is something that is interesting and sexual to read. The fact that Sappho is having feeling for these women even though she has made a bond with her husband makes her risqué, erotic, and something more out of a soap opera then real life.

            Sappho’s take on marriage is never very clear to me, but I just feel that there isn’t something that she is telling her audience about her marriage and the bond that she shares with her husband. Maybe she had a loving relationship and I would like to believe that, but I have had time doing that with the many things that she has written about women. I think that overall Sappho is more of a confused young girl that she searching for herself in any medium that she can find; whether it be her art or her heart.



An Unfamiliar Marriage in The Odyssey

by Makena Coscarelli


Marriage in The Odyssey is much more about winning the woman then actual having the best relationship though it is apparent that Odysseus and Penelope have a close connection and are in fact, a good match, which is different than most of the other Ancient Greece relationships and marriages.  The oikos, also known as the household, has played a very important role in Odysseus and Penelope’s marriage throughout The Odyssey.  Odysseus’ personal oikos is sent into a downward spiral as his time away from his wife and property grows longer and longer.  His marriage to his wife Penelope changes dramatically when it is assumed that he is dead and no longer able to provide for the family or household.  The changes, such as the many suitors contending for Penelope’s hand in marriage and the archery competition, in the household are a good representation of the way marriage was portrayed throughout Ancient Greece.

            While Odysseus is on his journey, his household is taken over by suitors looking to win Penelope’s hand in marriage.  They shower her in gifts and continuously try to impress her hoping that these small signs of affection will win her into marriage.  This style of courting and impressing for marriage seems in many ways very typical for ancient times but when compared to modern times, it seems frugal and an odd way to gain status and a marriage.  It is in many ways the opposite of what a marriage “should” be.  Marriage is used as a way to become connected to the different oikos, which can then be used to gain status among the polis (Ancient Greece, 102).  The way the men try to overly impress Penelope and at the same time disrupt the actions of the other suitors around them makes the act of finding a wife more about the others then the actual woman or love.  It is strange how marriage is not about finding the perfect mate or companion but about doing what seems to be the best for the household and personal status.  On the other hand, for the women, such as Penelope, marriage is about finding the best suitor that provides the best gifts and will run the household well.  This, in some ways, is closer to what takes place in more modern marriages.  The women are often looking for a husband that can provide for the household and please her at the same time.  It seems that throughout Ancient Greece marriage is looked upon as an institution rather than a companionship.  The women are in it for the need to be married and have a household (oikos) and the men are in it for the status among the polis.  The marriages in Ancient Greece seem to revolve around the oikos and not around love, which is hard to understand in modern times due to the way marriage is represented now as a symbol of love and commitment.  It is also odd that when Penelope presumes that Odysseus is dead or never returning she is automatically pushed into finding a new husband as soon as possible.  It appears that it is wrong for a woman of her age to not have a husband and so she is presented with suitors that she will have to pick from although she is still looking for her lost husband, Odysseus.  But when Odysseus does return home, although he is disguised as a beggar, it throws all the plans of the suitors into a whirlwind because they no longer have the right to seek Penelope’s hand in marriage.  The actual act of marriage has now become a game and the many men seeking Penelope’s hand are all competing for the win.  It is obvious that Odysseus will win her back because of their connection but the fact that he must compete and struggle for her is a good representation of the way marriage was looked upon in Homeric times.




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Links to Other Student Pages


If you want more insight into Antigone, go to Madness and Logic in Antigone.  This site discusses Antigone and Creon by comparing and contrasting them.


To read more about Antigone, the Odyssey, Sappho, and the Hymn to Demeter, go to the Role of Marriage in Ancient Greek Culture.  This site provides another take on Marriage in Ancient Greek Culture.


For more information on Sappho, go to the student site Interpretation of Sappho's Poetry.  This site gives Sappho's poems #2, 4, and 12, which are discussed in detail with an interpretation of each.


To read more about Penelope in the Odyssey, visit The Psychology of Penelope.  This site discusses Penelope's personality traits, dreams, rejection of hope, and her cleverness.




For more information regarding the types of marriage, the history of marriage, the wedding ceremony, and marriage traditions in Ancient Greek Culture from the University of New York in Albany, click here.  For more information on the women of Athens and the legitimacy of marriage as well as the typical day as a Greek housewife, click here.  For more information and images of pottery containing marriage in Ancient Greek Culture from museums, click here.  For more information on marriage and funeral rites of Ancient Greek Culture, click here.  For a website based on women in Ancient Greece from Hymn to Demeter written by students from the University of Colorado, click here.



Sappho Links

Sappho’s wedding songs -- A look at in-depth research on Sappho's songs that include her attitude towards marriage.  This link also includes critics' comments on Sappho's writings.


Introduction -- This link explores Sappho's early days leading up to her career as a writer.  It also includes her motives and desires for writing and explores her childhood.


Book of Epithalamia -- The final and shortest book of Sappho's poetry, Book Nine, is devoted to epithalamia, wedding songs.  This link includes examples of Sappho's wedding songs and interpretations of her work.


Other of Epithalamia -- This link stems from the previous link and continues to explore Sappho's wedding songs. -- Exploring Sappho's work through more than just words, this site includes photos and chances to listen to interpretive music that was inspired by Sappho's works.