Illustration of Odysseus tied to a ship's mast

The Odyssey

by Homer
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How are women presented in the Odyssey? What roles do they play, and what concerns do they express?

In the Odyssey, some women, most notably Nausicaa but also Penelope, are depicted positively and largely ascribe to the values of their male-oriented society. Characters such as Circe and Calypso, as immortals, exist beyond the dictates of this society altogether. Finally, there is Athena, who blurs the lines between traditional masculinity and femininity altogether.

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One thing you should remember is that, like most ancient cultures (and the vast majority of societies historically), the ancient Greeks had a patriarchal and male-oriented society, and the Odyssey reflects that culture and those values with its depiction of the various women seen throughout the narrative.

This does not, of course, mean that there are not positive portrayals of women or that women cannot hold agency within the narrative; but those women do tend to ascribe to and submit themselves before the patriarchal values of their culture. Probably the two most significant variations on this theme can be found in the characters of Nausicaa and Penelope.

In Nausicaa, we find the young, unmarried princess of the Phaeacia who aids Odysseus when he washes up in her father's kingdom: she is, by the standards of ancient societies, an idealized young unmarried woman: she is explicitly characterized as virginal, obedient to her father, and mindful of her reputation as it reflects on her own marital prospects.

On the other hand, Odysseus's wife, Penelope, herself is a far more assertive personality, possessing a cunning comparable to Odysseus himself, as she outmaneuvers the suitors and plays them against one another and later devises a test to discern whether Odysseus is truly her husband or not.

But Penelope, in her own way, reaffirms rather than challenges these societal norms: consider that, for all of her manipulations, Penelope's primary goal lies in the protection of her household and family against those who would exploit it and who, by so blatantly infringing upon the cultural norms and expectations of hospitality, have already proven their unworthiness as prospective husbands. And even then, her manipulations amount to only delaying tactics: in the end, she must be rescued by her husband and her son, who are the ones that claim vengeance against the suitors.

Other notable personalities can be found in Circe and Calypso, who are far more independent and self-sufficient, not to mention far more powerful. Both are minor goddesses, qualities that would tend to place them outside the bounds and the dictates of societal expectations altogether, and both are obstacles in Odysseus's homeward journey. In Circe's case, she must be confronted and physically overcome (and note the role sexuality plays in this confrontation), after which she becomes an ally. In Calypso's case, she holds Odysseus in captivity, and he is only released by Zeus's decree.

Finally, there is Odysseus's own patron, the goddess Athena, the most powerful of the various women in the Odyssey and also, interestingly, the most masculine in her personality and depiction. Indeed, Athena has long had a history of existing outside of traditional gender norms altogether, a quality that can be seen even in her birth, when she sprouts fully formed out of her father's head. She is a virgin goddess, perpetually unmarried and sexually abstinent, not to mention a goddess of war.

At the same time, however, Athena is not without feminine attributes: just as she is the goddess of war (a traditionally masculine pursuit), she also has authority over the art of weaving (which was deeply feminine). There is an ambiguity about her gender, and this is reflected in the Odyssey as well, with her frequent use of disguises (often masculine) and her extraordinary authority and agency within a world predicated around men.

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