The topos of the fickle woman is well attested in ancient popular misogyny and returns from time to time in several contexts.

Our journey starts from Semonides of Amorgos, the author of the famous iambic poem (fr. 7) against women in which the poet compares women to different types of animals (or natural elements) characterised by specific flaws.

After having emphasised women’s changeability (ὀργὴν δ ἄλλοτ ἀλλοίην ἔχει ‘her mood changes from one moment to the next’, v. 11), Semonides associates the unreliability of women with the unpredictability of the sea (fr. 7, 39-42):

ὥσπερ θάλασσα πολλάκις μὲν ἀτρεμὴς
ἕστηκ’, ἀπήμων, χάρμα ναύτηισιν μέγα,
θέρεος ἐν ὥρηι, πολλάκις δὲ μαίνεται
βαρυκτύποισι κύμασιν φορεομένη.
ταύτηι μάλιστ’ ἔοικε τοιαύτη γυνὴ
ὀργήν· φυὴν δὲ πόντος ἀλλοίην ἔχει.


Just as the smooth unrippled sea at times

stands still, a joy to mariners in summer,

and then at times is wild with pounding waves

This woman’s temperament is just like that.

In this context, the term ὀργή is interesting for its double meaning of ‘temperament’, ‘natural attitude’ (7, 11) and of ‘wrath’ (7, 42).

The woman, then, is fickle like the sea and terrible in her wrath like the stormy sea.

This semantic ambivalence occurs also in Menander’s Monostichoi 371 J.:

ἴσον ἐστὶν ὀργῇ καὶ θάλασσα καὶ γυνή

‘sea and women are equal, as for the temperament’.

Corrado Domenico Giaquinto, Aeneas and Dido caught in a Storm
(Rome, Quirinal Palace)

However, the most significant occurrence of this toposis Virgil, Aeneid 4.569-70

varium et mutabile semper / femina,
‘the woman is always fickle and changeable’

These are the words of Mercury as he forces Aeneas to leave Carthage and the love of its queen, Dido. Actually, this is paradoxical, for the remark on women’s changeability pertains Dido, a character who is anything but fickle and changeable. Such a fictional characterization will similarly occur in Verdi’s Rigoletto, where the most unstable character (the Duke of Mantua) sings the renown canzone La donna è mobile’ just before the tragedy of Gilda, the girl who sacrifices her life for the sake of love.

We can then mention the bucolic writer Calpurnius Siculus (Ecl.: 3,10 mobilior ventis or femina!) and a passage wrongly attributed to Seneca (De Rem. fort.16, 3 nihil est tam mobile quam feminarum voluntas, nihil tam vagum).

The theme is curiously interpreted in Christian literature, where the changeability of women becomes “weakness“, that is a woman’s weak to resist against (mostly sexual) temptations.

Jerome, in his Commentary on Genesis, claims that facilior ad casum est mulier. Woman must then be monitored, because they are ‘rather exposed to the fall’, but at the same time they also more excusable for their weakness is innate. Interestingly, this has also legal implications: according to Rabanus Maurus Magnentius, a Frankish Benedictine monk and theologian, the testimony of women in court is less reliable than the one of men.