Homer wrote the classic epic The Odyssey more than 2,500 years ago. At that time in ancient Greek society, as well as in the whole of the ancient world, the dominant role was played by men. Society was organized, directed, and controlled by men, and it was accepted that women occupied a subservient and inferior position. Women, of course, were valued, but were expected to possess certain traits and perform certain tasks that men demanded of them. Does Homer’s writing in The Odyssey support or refute the common belief of his time regarding women? Homer endorsed the dominating belief of his time concerning women by treating the female characters unequally and differently compared to the male characters in The Odyssey.
By examining the women of The Odyssey one comes to one conclusion about women in Homer’s epic. Homer’s male characters in The Odyssey consistently treated women differently and unequally throughout The Odyssey.
Concurrent with the time’s belief that women held a subservient position in society to men, the male characters in The Odyssey often expected certain traits and actions that they didn’t expect from men. Also all the societies and lands Odysseus visited that were inhabited by mortals were dominated by men.
In The Odyssey women are unequal, treated differently, and are considered inferior to men. Throughout the epic women are not given an appropriate amount of respect by men. The male characters of The Odyssey expect certain traits and characteristics of women that they do not expect of themselves. Men expect that the women in The Odyssey be loyal to them, and not be adulterous or seductive. When Odysseus returns to Ithaca in disguise, he expects Penelope to be faithful and loyal to him. It is doubtful that Odysseus would have stayed with Penelope if he had found her to be unfaithful and adulterous when he was gone. This was while Odysseus had slept with Circe and stayed with her on her island for one year and then slept with Calypso numerous times on the island of Ogygia. What makes this even worse is that Penelope would have had justification to be unfaithful to Odysseus and remarry. As far as Penelope, and almost everyone else on Ithaca, was concerned Odysseus was dead. Penelope had a strong need for a husband, a companion, a strong man to rule Ithaca in Odysseus’ place, and a male presence to help raise Telemachus. Despite the fact that Penelope would have been justified in taking another husband, it is questionable whether Odysseus would have been able to forgive her if she had remarried. However, Odysseus, after encountering his mother, Anticleia, in Hades and discovering that Penelope was still alive and faithful to him, he still slept with Calypso! When he then returned to Ithaca and was reunited with Penelope, he told her of his encounters with Circe and Calypso without hesitation or shame! Another example of how the rules and expectations for women did not apply to men in The Odyssey is when Eumaeus, the loyal swine herdsman of Odysseus, recounts how he came to Ithaca as a captive of a slave woman, Phoinikia. This woman was seduced by a roaming seafarer who, “…made such love to her as women in their frailty are confused by, even the best of them.” The god Artemis later kills Phoinikia for her “treachery.” Odysseus is doing nothing wrong when, despite knowing his wife was alive and faithful, commits adultery with two other women. However, it would most likely be unforgivable to Odysseus if Penelope had been unfaithful and remarried not knowing whether her husband was still alive, and desperately needing a husband. Male seducers are represented by boys sowing their oats; a normal part of male life. Seduced females are viewed, however, as weak, frail, and treacherous. These examples speaks volumes about Homer’s view regarding the inequalities between men and women in his epic.
Many times throughout The Odyssey men speak condescendingly to women. Several examples can be cited that show the suitors speaking angrily about Penelope. The suitors first accuse Penelope of leading them on. Then on pg. 449 Amphimedon explains to Agamemnon in Hades the trickery and deceit of Penelope: “Here is one of her tricks: she placed her loom, her big loom, out for weaving in the hall…and she said to us: ‘Young men, my suitors, how my is dead, let me finish my weaving before I marry…’ So every day she wove on the great loom, but every night by torchlight she unwove it, and so for three year’s she deceived the Akhaians.” Despite the fact that Penelope’s home was being invaded by these suitors, they were stealing her food and wine, and destroying her life, the suitors had the audacity to claim that Penelope was the one to deceive and trick them. In fact it was the suitors who were doing wrong to Penelope. However, because Penelope is a women the suitors felt they had the right to do as they please. At some points even Penelope’s faithful and loyal son Telemachus talks down to his mother. On pg. 379 Telemachus criticizes Penelope about her sometimes poor judgement, “…my mother is like that, perverse for all her cleverness; she’d entertain some riff-raff, and turn out a solid man.” These examples demonstrate how it is accepted that men commonly speak disrespectfully to women and nothing will be done. However, if a woman speaks insolently to a man, there are severe repercussions. On pg. 347 when the maidservant Melantho speaks impudently to Odysseus when he is still incognito as a beggar, he scolds her fiercely and threatens violence on her, “…let me tell Telemachus how you talk in hall, you slut; he’ll cut your arms and legs off.” The last aspect of The Odyssey that truly defines the subordinate status of the women in Homer’s epic is the fact that one of the main purposes of all the female characters in The Odyssey, excluding Athene, is to serve and please the opposite sex. Penelope exists to serve Odysseus as a loyal wife, lover, companion, and mother to Telemachus. All of Odysseus’ maidservants exist to first serve Odysseus, then later to serve Telemachus and the suitors. Circe and Calypso exist in the epic to satisfy Odysseus by pleasuring him sexually, pampering him, and treating him like a God. Helen and Arete serve their husbands as loyal wives.
Almost nowhere in The Odyssey can one find a woman doing the same things as a man. No women went off to fight in the Trojan War. There were no female members of Odysseus or Telemachus’ crew, nor do any women participate in the battle against the suitors. The character traits that make a man great; strength, courage, and leadership are lacking in female characters of The Odyssey. Throughout The Odyssey women were given a double-standard. They were expected to act a certain way and exhibit certain traits while men had no such limitations. If women did not live up to these standards of behavior, they would be punished. If men broke these same rules nothing would be done. During the time Homer wrote The Odyssey it was the dominant belief that a society should be dominated by men and that women should be subservient to them. This belief is reflected throughout the writing of Homer in The Odyssey.