Homer’s Epic – the Odyssey
Homer’s epic, The Odyssey, demonstrates many forms of character such as gods, paupers, the rich, and even monsters. The main character that is contrasted amongst the others is Penelope, Odysseus’ wife. During ancient Greek times, women did not play a significant role in society. Whether mortal or immortal, women in The Odyssey are always beneath the caliber of men and are proven as inferiors. Through her cunning attitude, faithfulness, and desire for love, Penelope is shown as a well-rounded character who battles social extremes and finds her status in line with superiority. Homer uses Penelope to strengthen the role of women in Greek society, signify the theme of loyalty, and create a comparison between herself and the other feminine figures in The Odyssey. The role of women in ancient Greece was mostly focused on domestic duties. While Penelope follows this tradition and watches over the palace alone for twenty years, she also manages to strengthen her role to go beyond the surface of childbirth and the preservation of her home. Homer uses Penelope to fight this social misconception of the motherly figure in society by depicting her as the figure that ran over Ithaka.
While Odysseus is absent, it is only up to Penelope to act as the king of the island. Homer purposely makes Telemachos too young to rule and Laertes unfit for the position, in order to define the strength of women in society. With her intelligence, cunningness, and wisdom, Penelope takes the role of a male and protects the whole land, as opposed to only preserving her home. Penelope faces barriers and oppositions by the men in her life. Firstly, the strict expectations of the role of women in society are shown by Telemachos, after Penelope asks Pheimos to stop singing about the Trojan War. Telemachos reprimands his mother, stating his belief of the real job for a woman in society; Go therefore back in the house, and take up your own work, the loom and the distaff, and see to it that your handmaidens ply their work also; but the men must see to discussion, all men but I most of all (I, 356-359). Telemachos attempts to convince his mother that he is required to rule over the palace by reminding her about her role as a woman in society but Penelope does not give in and doesn’t agree to remarry so easily. Additionally, the suitors continuously force Penelope to find a new husband to rule over Ithaka and return the position of rulership to a male figure. Although the suitors believe Telemachos should instruct her to be married to any man her father desires (II, 113-114), Penelope remains independent and true to herself, rather than easily handing her power over to a more suitable and expected male. Furthermore, unlike most women at the time, Penelope feels completely comfortable exploiting her power and courage over the suitors and has pride in herself amongst the men; she, shining among women, came near the suitorsholding her shining veil in front of her face, to shield it’Hear me now, you haughty suitors, who have been using this house for your incessant eating and drinking’ (XXI, 63-69). Lastly, Penelope’s strength and power is shown as Odysseus refers to her as a king who, as a blameless man and god fearing, and ruling as lord over many powerful people, upholds the way of government (XIX, 109-111). This implies that Odysseus believes that Penelope successfully ruled over Ithaka as a king would. Homer significantly portrays Penelope’s character in order to explain the defiance of feminine power in Ancient Greek society.
Additionally, Homer uses Penelope’s character as a way to define the theme of loyalty in his poem. At the start of the epic, Penelope’s devotion for her husband is shown as she tells the singer to quickly change the topic of the song, which always afflicts the dear heart deep inside (I, 341). Furthermore, Penelope remains consistent with her beliefs and refuses to remarry for twenty years. Other women would usually give up, betray their faith for their husband’s return, and remarry one of the hundreds of men begging for her hand. Penelope, however, waits and as she mourns him the tears run down from her eyes, since this is the right way for a wife when her husband is far and perished’ (XIV, 129-130). Penelope also uses her cunningness and intelligence to help remain loyal to Odysseus and disloyal to the suitors. For three years, Penelope convinces the suitors that she spends all day weaving, a shroud for the hero Laertes, however, in the night she would have torches set by, and undo it (II, 98-105). Homer uses Penelope’s act of disloyalty to the suitors to highlight her fidelity towards her beloved husband. He may have created Penelope as a deceiving and intelligent character to help signify the importance of remaining faithful to marriage, as opposed to acting disloyal to others. Moreover, Homer utilizes Penelope’s acts of loyalty as a way to demonstrate the Greek concept, kleios, which means renowned and glory. While many of the dominant male characters such as Odysseus and Telemachos grant kleios for their bravery, Penelope actually receives this glory through her adherence for her husband’s return. By protecting the home and patiently waiting for her husband, Penelope receives the eternal kleios of a faithful wife.
Although she feels her reputation decreasing as her husband leaves for war, she continues to rebuild it while he is gone by waiting for him and remaining loyal; all my excellence, my beauty and figure, were ruined by the immortals at that time when the Argives took ship for Illion, and with them went my husband, if he were to come back to me and take care of my life, then my reputation would be more great and splendid (XIX, 123-128). Although Penelope’s loyalty begins to fade when she considers finding someone to marry through the bow challenge, she is still proven to be renowned for her loyalty as the immortals will make for the people of earth a thing of grace in song for prudent Penelope (XXIV, 197-198).