What role do women play in The Odyssey?

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While our epic hero is male, his counterparts who hold far more power are female. Take Athena for example. The goddess of wisdom is by his side through his trials and tribulations, and she will stop at nothing to get Odysseus home safely. He trusts in her power and wisdom...

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While our epic hero is male, his counterparts who hold far more power are female. Take Athena for example. The goddess of wisdom is by his side through his trials and tribulations, and she will stop at nothing to get Odysseus home safely. He trusts in her power and wisdom to fight monsters, go to the Underworld, and kill 100 suitors in his home.

Then there is Penelope. She is Odysseus' wife who is able to fend off the suitors for almost 20 years as she raises their son alone while waiting patiently and faithfully for her husband.

In both of these scenarios, we see the women doing the bidding for a man. This point leads to the other women in the story. Look at the devious and destructive monsters Odysseus must face--Scylla and Charybdis, the Sirens, Circe, and Calypso--all personified as women who aim to tempt, harm, and destroy Odysseus and his crew. However, their powers extended far beyond Odysseus' mortal soul.

It seems the role of women in the Odyssey and in Ancient Greece was to hold power yet step aside for the male hero to complete his journey. Women are secondary characters who act as obstacles or guides. They are not the main focus, yet they are integral to the story.

In Ancient Greece, women were not allowed to dance with men nor take part in the Olympic games, yet they were oracles for the high priests and took care of the homes. They were something to be revered, yet they were never in the spotlight. It seems those cultural norms were reflected in this epic tale which served as a teaching tool for generations to come.

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Women in The Odyssey serve as obstacles, guides, and goals.

Calypso and Circe are major obstacles for Odysseus in the story. They're also temptations he has to overcome. They both keep him from reaching his goal. Calypso is a nymph who keeps him trapped in pleasure; Odysseus still wants to be with his wife in Ithaca. Nevertheless, he was stuck there for seven years. Circe was a witch who trapped Odysseus by turning his men into swine. He freed them, and then they all stayed with her in comfort for a year before continuing their journey.

Athena is a major guide for both Odysseus and Telemachus. It is she who convinces Zeus to allow Odysseus to go home at all. She helps Telemachus resist the suitors who are plying Penelope for her hand. She convinces him to stay strong and train and to believe that his father is still alive. She helps him figure out what path to take. Without Athena, the story would have turned out quite a bit differently.

Penelope serves as a goal in The Odyssey. She is Odysseus's wife and the personification of the life he wants to get back to. Penelope is the goal to which Odysseus hopes he can return. She is clever and faithful. She tricks the suitors and convinces them she's weaving a shroud for years, unraveling it each night. Even when Odysseus appears, she tests him to be sure that he's really her husband. He is able to achieve the goal of going home to Ithaca and to her.

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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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