The role of women in the Odyssey.
The Odyssey is a beautiful epic poem relating the adventures surrounding the Trojan war, ten years after the war actually ends, when Odysseus is vigorously attempting to return home to Ithaca, his kingdom, after the war. The Odyssey was written by Homer hundreds of years ago. The Odyssey takes place in Olympus, Ithaca, Pylos, Pherae, Sparta, Ogygia, and Scheria. One of the main focuses of this detailed poem is how individuals act in the face of adversity. Obviously, women are not the main focus in the Odyssey, however, they do play a major part of what goes on in the Odyssey. The roles of women portrayed in The Odyssey by Homer are simply designed to model the roles women play in men’s lives every day. In The Odyssey, the role of women can vary from caretaker, to mother and wife, and finally to goddess.
The fact that there is such an abundance of female characters in the Odyssey seems to be a testament to the importance of women in the Greek lifestyle and culture in that time and place. A short list of female characters from The Odyssey are as follows: Penelope, Athena, Helen, Arete, Calypso, Ino, Nausicaa, Eidothii , Circe, Anticleia, Eurycleia, Eurynome, Melantho, Eurydice, Polycaste, as well as miscellaneous female slaves and assistants.
Women are key to the everyday life of men, other women, and children. Women in this time period are mostly meant to have children, raise them, and take care of the home. Women support and encourage men in their endeavors as important parts of society. Women are supposed to give advice, love, and comfort during times of turmoil and distress. Women are supposed to be passive in their actions and submissive to their husbands, fathers, authorities, etc. Men must keep their women in order and under control so that the proper decisions may be made. Men are meant to be involved in government, war, and be in control of the household. During this time, it was extremely acceptable for a man to be unfaithful to his wife, but it was not okay for a woman to be unfaithful to her husband. It is always said that behind every good man stands a loyal woman. This is very true in The Odyssey. Without women, literally all life would come to an end.
Some women in The Odyssey, as in our everyday life, play not just one, but several different roles as women. Penelope, for example displays the roles of caretaker, mother, and wife. Penelope is the loyal wife of Odysseus and the caring mother of Telemachus. She is also the primary caretaker of Odysseus’s estate and reputation while he is away at war. Penelope has a great deal of responsibility as the queen of Ithaca. While Odysseus is gone, Penelope has to raise their child alone, deal with suitors trying to swoon her, watch over the estate and the daily operations of what must go on, and many other varied tasks. To avoid many difficulties with the suitors, Penelope uses many tricks to keep the suitors at bay and to show her loyalty and love for Odysseus. Telemachus, her son, helps her with some issues that come about while Odysseus is gone, but did not make the problem go away.
In book 19, Penelope offers some advice on dreams, “Ah my friend, dreams are hard to unravel wayward, drifting things-not all we glimpse in them will come to pass.” (lines 630-632) This shows Penelope’s nurturing instincts to give advice. Penelope is also taken care of and looked after by the female servants and slaves of the household. Penelope has a great struggle not only because of all the roles she plays, but also the roles she is expected to play.
A goddess can be defined by Webster as “a female god,” or as “a woman whose great charm or beauty arouses adoration.” (Webster) The role of goddess is portrayed by Athena, Circe, and Calypso. A goddess often times is also a seductress, whose love can become an obstacle for those who are enchanted by it.
Athena is the daughter of Zeus and the goddess of wisdom. Throughout The Odyssey, she is Odysseus’ champion and hero amongst the gods. Athena helps Odysseus and Telemachus in many different ways during the epic poem. In book one, Athena is trying to inspire Telemachus and reassure him that everything will be okay. Athena at one point says to Telemachus “Trust me, the gods have not marked out your house for such an unsung future.” (lines 256-257) Athena displays intelligence, cleverness, tactfulness, and compassion in all of her endeavors involving the father-son duo.
Circe is a goddess that lives on the Aegaen island. Odysseus and his men reached and stayed on her island for a year after and account with the Laestrygonian. Circe is also somewhat of a monster because of her initial harsh treatment of Odysseus and his men. She started out by playing tricks and games, then she turned some of Odysseus’s men into pigs. However, she did end up helping Odysseus and his men get on their way after a year. An unknown author said “When her tricks do not work on Odysseus, she lures him into her bed, and, once again, man gives in to the temptation of woman. Her continued use of the feminine charm distracts Odysseus and his men from their journey for a year.” (Greek Mythology)
Calypso is also a goddess. Calypso is definitely a seductress. She lives on a distant island called Ogygia. Odysseus spent eight years on her island enchanted by her charm. She loved Odysseus dearly, while he most likely felt more lust than love for Calypso. Calypso was very demanding and did not want to let her current love interest leave. Eventually, Calypso had to let him go so he could get back to his wife. After leaving Calypso, Odysseus made it to Phaecia, then Ithaca.
Although Athena, Circe, and Calypso all play very different parts in The Odyssey and display different aspects of the role of women, they are all goddesses that are very instrumental to the story of The Odyssey. Without the help of goddesses, there wouldn’t be nearly as much drama in Odysseus’s life. Depending on the goddess and their attitude, they can make or break the situation.
Whether a woman’s role is as a caretaker, a mother, wife, or goddess, their role is instrumental in the wellbeing of man and society. Through the relation of events during the Trojan War, and the several years following, the varied roles of women are displayed as a model for roles of women in everyday life during that time period and throughout history. It is clear that women are by no means the main focus of The Odyssey, however they are very instrumental in the events that occur in The Odyssey, as well as in modern societies for years to come.