The Double Standard: Women’s Role in The Odyssey

Literary critique of The Odyssey.

            Plato said, “Only the dead have seen the end of war.”  In The Odyssey, Odysseus learns this first hand as he fights for ten years more following the end of the Trojan War.  In writing The Odyssey, the blind poet Homer tells the story of Odysseus’, the hero of the Trojan War, journey back to Ithaca and the many trials he faces to get there.  Aside from explosive action, The Odyssey also demonstrates the double standard toward women in ancient Greece. The goddesses’ interactions with the gods, the sexual conduct of the human characters, and women’s submission to men all illustrate this double standard of men being above women.

            Interactions between gods and goddesses are important examples of the hierarchy of ancient Greece because it shows the double standard goes further than mortals.  At the beginning of the poem, Athena speaks to Zeus on Odysseus’ behalf.

                                                            Olympian Zeus,

                        Have you no care for him in your lofty heart?

                        Did he never win your favor with sacrifices

                        burned beside the ships on the broad plain of Troy?

                        Why, Zeus, why so dead set against Odysseus?  (1.72-5)

                                                            Zeus… replied,

                        “What nonsense you let slip through your teeth.” (1.76-7)

The goddess Athena is reduced to begging before the mighty Zeus for Odysseus’ life, to which Zeus practically calls her a silly girl.  The goddess Calypso is also forced to submit to the will of Zeus when he tells her to release Odysseus.  “You unrivaled lords of jealousy/ scandalized when goddesses sleep with mortals, / openly, even when one has made the man her husband” (5.130-33).  After Calypso is ordered by Zeus to release Odysseus she is angered by the indignation of the double standard when gods can take any moral woman, but are now forcing her, a goddess, to release her mortal lover. 

            The sexual conduct of the mortal men and women in The Odyssey is a strong indicator of the double standard.  Odysseus has an affair with the goddess Calypso.  “long in each other’s arms they lost themselves in love” (5.251).  King Odysseus cheats on his wife Penelope by having sex with Calypso.  If a female character were to have an affair, she would be portrayed as an evil woman by the Greeks.  Odysseus also has an affair with Circe.  Odysseus tells the Phaeacians, “I mounted Circe’s gorgeous bed…” (10.385).  In telling his story to the Phaeacians, Odysseus openly admits to infidelity by going to bed with the lustrous Circe and to staying with her for a year instead of continuing home to his wife.  The Phaeacians marvel at Odysseus’ wonderful story, but if a woman had told the same story, she would have perhaps been executed by the Phaeacians.  The foil to Odysseus’ sexual exploits is Penelope’s situation with the many suitors who had taken over her household. 

                        And whoever heard the strains outside would say,

                        “A miracle—someone’s married the queen at last!”

                        “One of her hundred suitors.”

                        “That callous woman, too faithless to keep her lord and master’s house

                        to the bitter end—.”(23.165-69)

As rumors of Queen Penelope’s supposed engagement to one of her suitors circulate, the people are incensed that she married someone else even though she waited for Odysseus’ return for twenty years and even though he cheated on her repeatedly.  The Queen did not, in fact, marry one of her suitors but remained faithful to her husband although she had no way of knowing whether Odysseus was alive or dead, and the suitors pressured her more and more.  This reaction to infidelity is not matched when men in the poem commit adultery.

            Throughout The Odyssey women submit to men repeatedly, perhaps the best indication of the double standard.  Telemachus reprimands his mother harshly.  “So, mother, / go back to your quarters.  Tend to your own tasks, / … As for giving orders, men will see to that” (1.410-13).  At hearing her cries of sorrow over the barb’s song of Troy, Telemachus speaks to his mother, Penelope, as a subordinate, basically telling her to shut up and go to her room.  Telemachus’ last line, “As for giving orders, men will see to that” (1.413), tells the reader exactly what the ancient Greeks thought of women’s rights.  When Princess Nausicaa first meets Odysseus she is first concerned with her own safety rather than with helping him:  “So they’ll scoff…/ just think of the scandal that would face me then” (6.313-14).  Princess Nausicaa will not take Odysseus into the city because of the scandal that would be cause by the sight of her with a strange man.  The scandal would all be on her, and not on Odysseus for being seen with a strange woman.  When Odysseus reclaims his household he deals more severely with the disloyal female servants than he does with the suitors who had hounded his wife for twenty years.  “… once the entire house was put in order, / they marched the women out of the great hall” (22.483-84).  “… the women’s heads were trapped in a line, / nooses yanking their necks up, …/ so all might die a pitiful, ghastly death…” (22:497-500). After forcing the disloyal woman servants to clean the mess made by the suitors’ slaughter, they are executed in a much more gruesome and painful way than the men.  The women were not only killed but also forced to clean the mess Odysseus had made of the suitors in the great hall.  Once Odysseus strings the bow he begins to shoot the suitors, while they had no weapons they still had the over whelming advantage of numbers.  In short, the men had a chance to fight back, and most probably died relatively quickly, while the women were strangled to death by nooses.   

            The Odyssey, the story of Odysseus’ journey home after the conclusion of the Trojan War, is not just an exciting literary work, it is also a valuable history of many values held by the Greeks of the time.  One of these values is the belief that men are above women, and that women must submit to men.  The Odyssey illustrates this belief by the interactions of the gods and goddesses, by the characters’ sexual conduct, and by women repeated submission to the men of the poem.  It would be too easy to mock the ancient Greeks for this backward belief, but one must remember that women in the United States have had equal rights for less than a hundred years.  Not only is The Odyssey an important piece of literature, it is also a testament to how far society has come.    

Liked it
Liked this? Share it!
Tweet this! StumbleUpon Reddit Digg This! Bookmark on Delicious Share on Facebook
Leave a Reply
comments powered by Disqus