The Role of Women in the Odyssey
In Homer’s The Odyssey, there are a number of women presented in the storyline from goddesses, lower-class women, to upper-class women. Throughout his journey, Odysseus interacts with a number of female figures that reveal the nature of women in Ancient Greece. The characters of The Odyssey show the respect of mortal women that women were respected and regarded in their society. The text shows examples of how women were treated as second-class citizens but also foreshadows the changes in gender roles and over time makes history. By analyzing the women in Homer’s The Odyssey, the readers can understand the role of women as a secondary citizen, the support towards men, and through displaying certain characteristics not seen in men.
With historical equivalence, the women’s role in society in Ancient Greece were that of a secondary citizen where they were denied political freedom, were subject to their husbands, and limited in their duties and household activities. Although women were above slaves, they were beneath their male counterparts because they were denied political freedom. As seen in the epic poem, Athenian women had the same rights and responsibilities as Athenian men. The difference lies in political freedom which excited in a significant law disadvantage. It was a belief this period that man had This birthright [which] constitutes men as individuals possessing a natural political right, and as `individuals’ all men are owners, in that they all own the property in their persons and capacities over which they alone have right of jurisdiction (Katy 82). By contrast, women did not have the same legal rights compared to their male counterpart. In the modern day, romantic love is the reason people marry. However, during this period, women were subject to their fathers until they become subject to their husbands. Unlike her husband that can travel and meet people, Penelope is defined exclusively by her marital status. She has the option to either wait for Odysseus or marry someone else, but the suitors in the later years start forcing her hand.
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Another example of women subject to men can be seen in Nausicaa of the Phaecians who is subjected to her father until a male heir is found. Not only were women regarded as second class citizens, but they were limited to their abilities of household activities in their own home. Women in Ancient Greece, if they had wealth, were limited to the duties of the household that did not require heavy work since they left it towards the slave. They were in charge of the heir of the household, so women were limited to the rule of childbirth. The women in the work also present support towards men through the use of their voice, remaining loyal, and protecting them. Due to customs, women have supported men, whether they wanted to or not, through the use of their voice, or lack of one. In The Odyssey, there exist the first instance where men tell women to essentially shut up. The silencing of the female voice in Book One shows the problem of supporting men as, Penelope was stunned and turned to go, / Her son’s masterful words pressed to her heart (lines 380-381). The quote provides support showing how Telemachus tells Penelope to be silent when she asks the poet performing in her house to sing a different tune. Although older, she allowed her son to take her voice away in her household. There exist both positive and negative forms loyalty that women present towards men as seen in The Odyssey. Penelope had exhibited a positive loyalty by remaining loyal towards Odysseus for 20 years despite the realism she faced with the suitors entering her husband’s land. This is a sharp distinction to what Odysseus faces where he believes that after 20 years things will go back to the way they were (Combellack 164). The female slaves had exhibited a negative loyalty towards Odysseus by sleeping with the suitors. In turn for their disloyalty, they were faced with a justified massacre. Through the envisioning of empowerment, many people believe that women were protecting men, at least those that had the power such as the gods. Through the wise-one, Athena, she can protect her favorite human from the wrath of the sirens, other goddesses, and monsters on his journey. The imagery of the birds allude towards the sense of freedom of women, The Odyssey traces deep male fears about female power, and it shows the terrible damage done to women (Wilson). Thus, one can infer that the Goddess Athena, often seen throughout the epic poem transforming herself into a bird, fits the idea of a liberator by not wanting to silence the voices of women.
Whether it is their physic or cunningness, women display certain characteristics such as real feelings, real plans, and characteristics not seen in men. Unlike the common man, women are not afraid to show their real feelings. Whether they need to weep or use facial expressions to convey how they feel, there is not a moment in which a solid emotion cannot be seen from women’s characters in the epic poem. Women tend to have a goal in life while a man tends to be impulsive. Belsky stated that through Odysseus listening to his self over the needs of his crewmates was the reason he was blinded from the situation at hand with the Cyclops. As can be seen, Through, examination of Odysseus’s response suggest that he perpetuates his own blindness to the severe reality of the situation (Belsky 218). This quote symbolizes his flaw that ego gets in the way of doing things for the better, as well as him impulsive behavior. Differences between men and women go beyond the physical body, as seen in the epic story women present characteristics not seen in men. The divine Calypso and Circe showed the power of seduction that allowed them to transform themselves and entrap Odysseus with their feminine charms. The Homeric poem, with its marginalization of women through its emphasis on conventionally masculine heroic values, could offer a fitting framework within which to think about women’s experiences (Bridges 73). This included their nature where women are supposed to be pure, innocent, and righteous. Through the rules defined by men, women hold the power to start or end wars. A woman was the reason that the characters in the previous epic story went towards war.
It is evidently seen to the reader that women were regarded as second-class citizens, provided support towards men, and displayed certain characteristics not seen in men in Homer’s The Odyssey. All women in the epic were different, but they all helped to define the role of the women in Ancient Greece. Often considered inferior, women played important roles in The Odyssey that was seen as different in other stories at the time. As barrier continues to be pushed for women, people should remember that work is still needed to be done to erase the discrepancies that exist between men and women.
- Belsky, Scott A. The Poet Who Sings through Us: Homer’s Influence in Contemporary Western Culture. College Literature, vol. 34, no. 2, 2007, pp. 216-228. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/25115428.
- Bridges, Emma. Left behind: Naomi Mitchison’s Cloud Cuckoo Land (1925) and the women of ancient Greece and the First World War. Classical Receptions Journal, Vol. 10, no. 1, 1 January 2018, pp, 70-85, Oxford University Press, https://doi-org.ezproxy.uta.edu/10.1093/crj/clx014
- Combellack, Frederick M. Homer and the Heroic Tradition. Comparative Literature, vol. 12, no. 2, 1960, pp. 159-166. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1768338.
- Homer. The Odyssey. Trans Stanley Lombardo, The Norton Anthology of World Literature, edited by Martin Puchner, 3rd ed, Vol. A. Norton, 2012, pp 340.
- Katz, Marilyn. Ideology and The Status of Women’ in Ancient Greece. History and Theory, vol. 31, no. 4, 1992, pp. 70-97. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2505416.
- Wilson, Emily. A Translator’s Reckoning With the Women of the Odyssey. The New Yorker, 8 Dec. 2017, Conde Nast, https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/a-translators-reckoning-with-the-women-of-the-odyssey