Semonides (seh-MON-ih-deez) is a figure so historically obscure that he can only be identified with the small island he helped settle, around the year 680 b.c.e., as a colonist from the larger imperial island of Samos. Many sources depict him as a leader of the colonizing forces. What is not obscure is a large and almost complete poem about women Te gene ton gynaikon (seventh century b.c.e.; Female of the Species, 1975), which, at 118 lines, is the longest specimen of Greek iambic poetry to have survived and the longest piece of non-hexameter Greek verse that precedes the fifth century b.c.e.
Semonides views women as a plague created by Zeus to disturb the mental tranquillity of men. He caricatures women in terms of eight animal types, among which are the continually yapping bitch, the filthy and disorderly sow, the sly and manipulative vixen, the overly proud mare, and the thieving hedonistic ferret. Only the busy and industrious bee is worthy of praise. Semonides also categorizes lazy and insensitive women made from the earth and temperamental women made from the sea.
Ignored by polite Victorian society and discussed only by a handful of German scholars as a work without charm or wit, Semonides’ poem has come down to modern times as a means for understanding gender bias in ancient Greek society. The industrious bee and “the bitch” have also remained as stereotype caricatures misused in today’s world.
Lloyd-Jones, Hugh. Females of the Species: Semonides on Women. London: Duckworth, 1975.
West, M. L. Greek Lyric Poetry. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1993.