Depictions of women in epic texts: Gordon’s art exhibition, Part 1

By Gordon Rugg

My art exhibition consists of twelve canvases.

The first six examine depictions of women in epic texts.

The second six examine ways of categorising gender.

One unifying theme of the exhibition is gender; another is the way that outputs from technology and from formal representations can be artworks in their own right.

header picture

This article unpacks those concepts, and goes through the first six canvases.

One of the main practical problems when examining epic texts is that they are typically large. My copy of the Iliad, for example, is well over four hundred pages long. Trying to see patterns in such huge texts just by reading them is difficult.

For the exhibition, I used the Search Visualizer software to show where mentions of the female protagonists’ names occurred in different texts. Here’s how Search Visualizer works, if you’re unfamiliar with it.

Identifying where words occur by eye is difficult. For instance, I was looking for occurrences of the name Medb in one text, the Irish equivalent of the Iliad. Here’s what the opening paragraph looks like.

para one

Spotting names is difficult enough in a familiar language. It’s more difficult if you’re dealing with a language that you don’t speak fluently. In the image below, I’ve simulated this by showing the same paragraph in an Irish font. However, spotting where names occur is easier if they’re picked out in highlighter. This image shows the names of Medb and her husband Ailill in red and green highlighter respectively. Her name occurs between two mentions of his name.


When you look at text in this way, you soon notice that the other words, without highlighter, are often just a distraction. What happens if you blank them out, and only show the locations of the words that are in coloured highlighter? The answer is that you get an image like this. It’s the same pattern as in the previous image – a red between two greens – but the pattern is much easier to see without distracting clutter.


That’s the principle on which Search Visualizer works. It also lets you shrink the size of the rectangles down substantially, so you can fit the schematic image of an entire book onto a single screen.

Here’s what happened when I looked at occurrences of the name Helen in the Iliad, Homer’s epic story of the Trojan War, sparked by Helen’s eloping with her Trojan lover, Prince Paris of Troy. It’s a long file, so I’ve split it into three parts for easier viewing.

iliad part 1

iliad part2 iliad part3

Although Helen is one of the most famous women in legend, she appears only rarely in the Iliad. She’s mentioned a modest number of times at the start, and a few times in the middle third of the text, but hardly at all in the last third.

We see a very similar pattern with mentions of the word woman (red squares) in the Old Testament book of Genesis.


Again, there are a few mentions in the first part of the text, but hardly any after that.

That isn’t an invariable pattern, however, in ancient texts. Here’s what happens when you look for occurrences of the word Medb in the Tain, the Irish national epic of an Iron Age war a thousand years after the Trojan War. Medb of Connaught is a proud warrior queen, a central figure in the story. Unlike Helen, Medb features prominently in the story right till the end.


We see a similar pattern in a much later classic, Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, when we look at occurrences of Cleopatra’s name.


So does this mean that there has been progress in women’s roles in epics across time?

Here’s what happens when you search for Helen (in red) and her lover Paris (in green) in the script of the 2004 movie Troy.


Even though the movie script dramatically changes the original storyline, Helen is still a marginal feature in comparison to Paris. Little has changed since the original version, three thousand years ago.

One possible objection is that genre is playing a role, and that the minor role of women is simply a feature of the epic genre. That raises the question of what exactly we mean by genre. This leads into categorisation, which is the subject of the second half of the exhibition.


There’s a free online version of the Search Visualizer software here:

Our blog about Search Visualizer is here:

Our article about gendered language in Shakespeare is here:

Our article about the Tain and its characters is here:


2 thoughts on “Depictions of women in epic texts: Gordon’s art exhibition, Part 1

  1. Pingback: One hundred Hyde & Rugg articles, and the Verifier framework | hyde and rugg

  2. Pingback: Gendered language in Shakespeare | hyde and rugg

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