An epic tells the story of a hero, never a heroine. Just that can tell one much about the role of women in ancient literature. Besides an absence of female heroes, there are also some predominant and reoccurring characteristics of the women that appear in these male dominated narratives. Sometimes those characteristics highlight women as virtuous, sometimes wicked, and sometimes the characteristic itself does not determine what side of the line a woman falls. Within the ancient literature of the Epic of Gilgamesh, Exodus, and the Odyssey, a salient feature of the depicted female characters is that women are competent manipulators, whether their methods are blatant or subtle.
Within the Epic of Gilgamesh, the goddess of love, Ishtar proved herself to be a manipulative woman after Gilgamesh spurned her advances. To wreak havoc on Gilgamesh and Enkidu for the young king's rejection of her and his heaping of insults, Ishtar manipulated her father, Anu, into giving her the Bull of Heaven through threat. She told him, "…if you refuse to give me the Bull of Heaven I will break in the doors of hell and smash the bolts; there will be confusion of people, those above with those from the lower depths. I shall bring up the dead to eat food like the living..." Like the harlot tricked Enkidu away from the wild beasts with her body and sexual knowledge, Ishtar used what resources she had available to her to control the situation and gain the outcome she desired, which, of course, was to be given the Bull of Heaven so she could see Gilgamesh fall victim to a bloody death. The resource, in this case, was the ability to throw a temper tantrum of epic proportions that would cause chaos both in the mortal world and underworld because "…the hosts of the dead will outnumber the living." Ishtar knew Anu would not want the dead walking amongst the living and he had no way of stopping her, except to give in to the wrathful goddess's demands. Like many parents have discovered, it is far less of a migraine to avoid the tantrum than to deal with the fit and its aftermath. It was not subtle manipulation on Ishtar's part but manipulation nonetheless and she executes that manipulation successfully. The method of a woman's manipulation, however, is not always so blatant.
A woman's manipulation within Exodus is shown to be far more subtle in its execution. It is difficult to be certain of the portrayal of women in Exodus as there are so few of them with more than a passing mention. Blink and one might miss it, not noticing the evidence of a woman's role as a manipulator occurred during this somewhat unconventional epic. When the Pharaoh's daughter found the Hebrew baby that would be Moses, she was cleverly manipulated by Moses's sister, who will be referred to as Sister within this paper. Sister witnessed her brother's journey down the Nile and when she heard and saw that the Pharaoh's daughter intended to show compassion spoke to the Egyptian princess. "Shall I go and call to thee a nurse of the Hebrew women, that she may nurse the child for thee?" The Pharaoh's daughter, unaware of Sister's identity, approved of the suggestion and sent the girl to do so. Through such a simple way, Sister was able to ensure Moses's care would be in the hands of their own mother while the Pharaoh's daughter still felt in charge of the situation. Also, by gently guiding the princess to choose a Hebrew slave as the baby's wet-nurse, Moses's birthmother was protected from possible punishment for disobeying the Pharaoh's decree to kill all male children born to the Hebrews. Sister manipulated the situation to the benefit of, not herself, but for her mother, who had been willing to give up her child to save him, and her baby brother, who would now be nurtured by someone who definitely valued his health and safety. In this way her use of manipulation can be seen as a positive characteristic. Even as a girl and not a woman, Sister is already an accomplished manipulator, much like the midwives, who when the Pharaoh ordered to kill the Hebrew male infants, convinced him the Hebrew women had no need of them for birthing.
During the Odyssey within Book 18, subtlety is again the name of the game while a woman reveals her penchant for manipulation. Penelope, like Sister in Exodus, is not blatant in her intent to control the situation, but, unlike Sister, the woman's motivation included benefit for herself. Others who benefitted from the queen of Ithaka's manipulation were those of her household. With a home full of rowdy men, the only tool she had against the easily incensed suitors was a woman's charm and she used it well, just as Ishtar made use of her own abilities in the Epic of Gilgamesh. Beginning on line 338, after Penelope came to see the well-on-their-way-to-drunk-suitors, she said to them, "…the night comes when a bitter marriage overtakes me, desolate as I am, deprived by Zeus of all the sweets of life. How galling, too, to see newfangled manners in my suitors! Others who go to court a gentlewoman, daughter of a rich house, if they are rivals, bring their own beeves and sheep along; her friends ought to be feasted, gifts are due to her; would any dare to live at her expense?" Penelope admitted that the time in which she was to wait for Odysseus's return was up, implying that she would remarry soon and likely choose a new husband amongst them. With that implication, she suggested hopeful suitors ought to present gifts to a lady they wished to marry and her household, particularly when a lady held such stature as Penelope did. The truth, of course, was that Penelope had absolutely no intention of marrying again, however, leading the suitors to believe otherwise gave her power over them to ask for repayment of all that they had consumed in the guise of gifts. Again a similarity to Sister within Exodus can be recognized as the use of manipulation is a positive characteristic in the Odyssey too. To reinforce the virtuousness of Penelope's cleverness with the suitors, Homer goes so far as to point out that the disguised Odysseus is pleased with his wife's trickery in line 349. "Odysseus' heart laughed when he heard all this—her sweet tones charming gifts out of the suitors with talk of marriage, though she intended none." Indeed, the suitors fell for the queen's honeyed manipulation and sent for and presented gifts to Penelope like a "resplendent robe" and "other wondrous things." Not a single suitor suspected that she had just duped every last one of them. Many women in The Odyssey share competence in the art of manipulation with Penelope, including Kirkę, who turned Odysseus's men into swine in Book 10, Kalypso, who held Odysseus captive on her island for years, and even Athena, the goddess of wisdom. While the first two women did not always use this competence for anything but their own whims, it cannot be denied that they all were highly successful in their manipulative enterprises.
The Epic of Gilgamesh, Exodus, and the Odyssey all present women as competent manipulators. Motivations differ from female character to female character, as do the methods through which the manipulation is played out, but this salient feature follows women throughout ancient literature. The ability to manipulate a situation and others, however, does not determine a woman's wickedness or virtuousness. Rather it is the manner in which the woman uses her competence that determines her role within the epics.