The Women of the Odyssey
Many people regard Homer's epics as war stories--stories about men; those people often overlook the important roles that women play in the Odyssey. While there are not many female characters in the Odyssey, the few that there are, play pivotal roles in the story and one can gain a lot of insight by analyzing how those women are portrayed. Homer portrays the females in contradictory ways: the characters of Athena and Eurykleia are given strong, admirable roles while Melantho, the Sirens and Circe are depicted in a much more negative way. Penelope--the central female character--is given both negative and positive attributes.
Athena, the grey-eyed goddess of wisdom and battle, has a soft spot for Odysseus and Telemachos. The action begins with a meeting of the gods, where Athena makes a plea on behalf of Odysseus, asking her father, "Why, Zeus, are you now so harsh with him?" (I, 62).
This action, paired with another intervention into a meeting of the gods, shows Athena's initiative and nerve, two traits which would have been greatly admired by Homer's audience. Athena also shows cleverness and ingenuity when she disguises herself and others on several occasions: The goddess first appears as Mentes, and then later as Mentor, Telemachos himself, Penelope's sister, a friend of Nausikaa's, and various servants. Not only is she a master of disguises, but Athena has an incredible sense of when it is necessary to appear as someone else in order to achieve her goals. While possibly just a product of Athena's goddess status, her ability to view the "big picture" is quite a highly regarded trait. Athena also has the virtue of restraint which she demonstrates when she does not take part in the final battle between Odysseus and Telemachos and the suitors.
In addition to Athena's abilities and traits, the traits which she herself values give great insight into her own virtues. For example, she considers hospitality to be of great importance. This is shown several times in the Odyssey: first, when she arrives in Ithaka and is received so well by Telemachos, and a second time when she assists Odysseus by gaining the favor of Arete and Nausicaa. Athena is also very concerned with glory, which becomes clear when she sends Telemachos on his voyages with the primary purpose to grow up so that he does "not go on clinging to [his] childhood" (I, 296-7). She does not seem to take into consideration that the trip could be dangerous; it is more important that he become a man and achieve glory. While Athena is divine, she is still a central female character and the way in which she is portrayed makes an impact on the way Homer's women are perceived.
Another female who is portrayed in a very positive light is Odysseus' and Telemachos' old nurse, Eurykleia. Eurykleia is repeatedly shown to be noble and extraordinarily devoted. Laertes, Odysseus' father, in fact, favored her as much as his own wife. Also, Homer says that she loves Telemachos more than any other servant does. These traits are admirable and again show the female as virtuous. Like Penelope, Eurykleia is described as "shining among women"; a trait which, while not exactly virtuous, is positive. Homer also gives Eurykleia traits which are stereotypically male. She is commanding and can keep the other servants in line: "she spoke, and they listened well to her, and obeyed..." ( XX, 157). Eurykleia plays a minor role, but still contributes to the favorable view of women in the Odyssey.
Other women in the Odyssey are not portrayed as well as Athena and Eurykleia. Melantho, for example, is one of the debauched maids in Ithaka. She is rude and inhospitable to Odysseus when he is disguised as a beggar. She says to him: "Wretched stranger, you must be one whose wits are distracted, when you will not go where the smith is at work, and sleep there, or to some public gathering place, but staying here speak out boldly..." (XVIII, 327-330). She is also unappreciative of all that Penelope has done--ungrateful of the hospitality she has been shown, a virtue greatly valued by the Greeks. Penelope has taken Melantho in and cared for her like a daughter and still Melantho disregards this and is rude to Penelope's guest. Other maids in the house of Odysseus show disrespectful and disobedient behavior when they sleep with some of Penelope's own suitors. One, in fact, betrays Penelope by informing the suitors of her scheme of weaving and then unraveling Laertes' funeral shroud. These women are more than portrayed in a negative light; they taint the audience's perception of all women in the story. The female characters now seem petty and unthoughtful.
During Odysseus' voyage home, he must face several obstacles--many of which are female. Kalypso, goddess-nymph, keeps Odysseus on her island for almost ten years, and in doing so, keeps him from returning home to Penelope and Ithaka. Family is evidently an important part of the Odyssey, so again, Kalypso is another female being portrayed negatively. In a similar situation, Circe, goddess of Aiaia, is also portrayed as an unvirtuous woman, keeping Odysseus from his home and family. Circe tries to cast a spell on Odysseus, but when she fails and is threatened, she quickly retreats and offers to become Odysseus' mistress, convincing Odysseus to remain there for a year (XX, 466). This very action presents the audience with one of the worst female stereotypes: fickleness. The last female obstacles which Odysseus must face are the Sirens--whose seductive songs lure sailors to their death. While Odysseus is able to avoid the Sirens, they symbolize temptation, another non-virtue which is then associated with women in the audiences' minds.
The main female character, Penelope, wife of Odysseus, is presented with contradictory traits. Agamemnon describes her as "all too virtuous" and says that her mind is stored with good thoughts (XII, 446). Penelope is devoted, resourceful, clever, and circumspect, or prudent. Several times in the text Penelope states that she has been crying since the day Odysseus left, and yet she still hopes for and expects his return. Because of that, she must find some way to avoid the suitors. She cleverly decides upon a plan where she can put off marrying any of the suitors: she tells them that she will marry one when she finishes weaving the funeral shroud for Laertes, but all the while is unraveling her day's work every night. As stated before, she is revealed by one of her maids.
She is clever with avoiding the suitors again later in the story when she creates a plan to decide who to marry: "the one who takes [Odysseus'] bow in his hands, strings it with the greatest ease, and sends an arrow clean through all the twelve axes shall be the one I go away with..." (XIX, 576-9). Penelope must know that only Odysseus can string the bow and arrow.
"Circumspect Penelope" also has a good view on what is right or wrong. For example, she never goes anywhere alone; she always takes a maid or two with her because she thinks it would be immodest to be without a 'chaperone' (XVIII, 184). Penelope also has the good traits of being well-spoken and a gracious hostess; however, those traits are not as prominent as her others and are not as persistent.
Penelope also has traits which put her in a much more negative light; she is seen as overly-emotional, indecisive and in denial about Odysseus' return. Penelope is repeatedly described as weeping until Athena brings sleep. Also, Telemachos makes Eurykleia promise not to tell his mother that he is leaving for he knows that it will greatly upset her. She is seen as indecisive in the sense that she never outright refuses to marry any of the suitors and leads them on to an extent (I, 245). Finally, while the audience is certainly sympathetic to Penelope's grief, it has been twenty years since she has seen Odysseus and ten since she expected him to return. Even Odysseus himself told her that if he did not return, she had his permission to marry again when Telemachos was grown. The fact that she has not done so and has not made any progress towards that end gives her a negative image, consequently affecting the image of all females in the Odyssey.
The contradictory views of women presented by Homer, and the complexities of all main characters in the Odyssey, prove that Homer had a very good sense about human nature. Not all women are virtuous and admirable, but not all women lack positive virtues; and of course, some women cannot fit either extreme. Even the characters he sets up as role models are not perfect. Homer's works have been so successful throughout history largely for that reason, I believe. Regardless, the Odyssey is a fascinating study of human nature and an exciting story of homecoming.