What role do women play in The Odyssey? 

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Stephen Holliday | College Teacher | (Level 1) Distinguished Educator

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Various women, including gods and mortal women, have a pivotal role in the Odyssey, which is, for the most part, about Odysseus's journey home from the Trojan War, a journey complicated by the intervention of women.  For example, the rape of King Priam's daughter Cassandra by Ajax enrages the goddess Athena against the Greeks, and she is initially responsible for delaying Odysseus's return to Ithaca.  Later, Athena encourages and aids Odysseus's son, Telemachus, to begin the search for his father, who, Athena already knows, is on his way back to Ithaca after a delay of nearly twenty years, many of which have been spent with women.

Throughout the Odyssey, women appear in the form of temptresses and either seduce Odysseus into staying with them, sometimes for years or try to destroy him.  Women's power is always pitted against men's greatest weakness (women), and women almost always win.   In one of the most important episodes, Odysseus's stay with Calypso for seven years, clearly Calypso has seduced Odysseus (who has been willingly seduced).  Scholars have pointed out for years that Odysseus's seven-year stay with Calypso has had the beneficial effect of keeping him out of trouble and out of the god's eyes during that time.  Athena, however, has convinced the gods that it is time for Odysseus to go home, and Zeus therefore sends Hermes to Calypso to tell her that she must let Odysseus go.  Her reply indicates women's ultimately powerless role in this society:

And now you are angry with me too because I have a man here. . . .I got fond of him and cherished him. . . . Still, I cannot cross Zeus (V. 120 and following)

Calypso, even though she has fallen in love with Odysseus and intends to make him immortal, must give him up in accord with Zeus's command, and one can sense the genuine heartbreak in her speech, which depicts the secondary position of women, even immortals, in this male-dominated world.

After leaving Calypso, Odysseus and his men deal with Circe, another temptress, who drugs the men and turns them into swine.  She eventually seduces Odysseus by using the posture of a supplicant (therefore, subservient), and Odysseus stays with her for over a year, and then he and his men escape to continue their journey.  They almost immediately encounter the Sirens, who though permanently part of the rocks from which they sing to passing sailors, use their beautiful voices to lure passing ships onto the rocks.  Although the Sirens have a kind of seductive power over men, their ability to destroy is limited but does display, as Calypso and Circe did, man's weakness.

One can argue that the most powerful woman in the Odyssey is Penelope, Odysseus's wife whom he hasn't seen for twenty years.  Throughout his stays with Calypso and Circe, Odysseus has never lost sight of his goal of returning to Penelope and his son, Telemachus, and it is Penelope's image that repeatedly draws him back to his original goal, which is to return to Ithaca and re-establish his life as husband, father, and king.  Penelope's personal power as a woman is often debated, but throughout the narrative, she remains faithful to Odysseus and waits, sometimes impatiently, for his return.

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