Author: Matt Munyon
When reading the Odyssey, it is hard not to notice that women do play
strong roles. During this time period and up until the twentieth century
when women were given suffrage, women were looked down upon. Homer instead
creates several strong female characters such as Penelope, Athene, and
Calypso. All of these women are not only a main part of the story, but are
active participants in it. Not only are these women involved, but they play
respected roles that bring attention to their qualities, such as guile,
virtue, and devotion. They are treated seriously by Homer, not ridiculed
for disobeying the traditional norms of women of the time. These women,
most notably Athene, do not stay at home or at least remain idle. Athene is
the heroine in the story and the main woman that will be looked at, for it
is she who protects Odysseus from harm. Homer writes:
Pallas Athene, daughter of Zeus, who always stands Beside you and guards
you in all sorts of troubles (page 181, lines 300-301).
Up until World War II, women stood by the side and watched men go off to war
and then waited hopefully for their return. But in the Odyssey, it is a woman
who saves the day several times. The story starts with Athene interrupting
the chief god, Zeus, and reminding him of Odysseus' troubles on Earth. She
convinces them to back her against Poseidon, who is angry with Odysseus, and
allow her to start him on his journey home. She then continues to watch him
throughout the story to make sure he was safe. Everywhere he goes, she is
there. In Book Five, when Odysseus is leaving Calypso's island, Poseidon is
leaving Ethiopa, where he was visiting. When he sees Odysseus on his turf,
he whips up a large storm to kill Odysseus. As the waves crash all around
his ship, a woman, a goddess named Ino, gave him a veil that would protect
him from the sea. Once he has put this on, Athene calms down the winds and
sets him on a course with the North Wind to the land of the Phaeacians. As
he approaches the isle, he sees huge rocks that are about to crash into him.
The poem says that Athene was the one who put the idea into his head to
grab onto it quickly with both hands. She is an angel on his shoulder.
The point is that Athene has real adventures and protects the hero without
being mocked or ridiculed for being active. She is smart, clever, and
sophisticated. Women were not known to be any of these things in Homeric
Greece. Her role in the story is not separate from a man's presence, but
this is only because she was protecting him. Homer does not mock her or
treat her or for that matter the other women in the Odyssey differently
from the men. Greek men probably love their women and treat them well, but
it was not great treatment. Homer shows that they are just as capable as
men. That is an important idea, especially when considering that it was
written 2,500 years ago.
This freedom of hers is very important in the story. She displays a gusto
for life and a compulsion to be involved. A lot of women today do not have
the autonomy she displays. She has the honor of being recognized for her
mind and craftiness, not her looks or background. This also would not have
been reguarly displayed in this society. The other strong female character
is Odysseus' wife, Penelope. Her husband has been gone for twenty years,
and through her cunning, guile, and loyalty, remains true to her husband.
From the beginning of time, women have been considered more promiscous and
less trustworthy. This is still true in our society. In many societies in
Homer's time, it was legal for men to have extramarital affairs, but any
woman who did the same was killed. Penelope loved her husband so much that
she passed on younger suitors throughout the poem. She spends her days
delaying the suitors and praying for the safe return of her husband. She
prays in Book XX that should Odysseus not return and she be forced to take
another husband for her death. Homer writes:
Or may fair-braided Artemis strike me, so that With Odysseus in my mind's
eye, I may go beneath the hateful earth, (page 276, lines 80-83).
That is what is called marital devotion. She would rather die than be with
another man than the hero Odysseus. Another example of this is displayed in
Book XVIII, lines 203-207.
Would that chaste Artemis might bring soft death upon me At once now, so
that I should no longer waste my life away Mourning in my heart and longing
for my dear husband Who had excellence of all kinds, since he was foremost
of the Achaians!
Homer gives the women in this story, especially Athene and Penelope, hero
qualities. Both women are virtuos. They are also brave. Penelope, living in
a male-dominated society, survives for twenty years as a "widowed" queen,
rebuking the advances of many noble suitors. She outsmarts them and never
stops waiting for Odysseus' return. Athene goes up against Poseidon, albeit
with the help of Zeus, to ensure Odysseus' passage home. This is also gutsy
because Poseidon is one of the primary gods, while Athene is slightly
lesser than he.
I think the roles that Penelope and Athene play in The Odyssey are
important and special because they give women respect and recognition for
skills and qualities that they display. Only a few women throughout time
were given this compliment until recently. It is also important because he
got this message across, whether he intended it or not, through the popular
medium of the time, storytelling. Even more descriptive, mythology. It is
hard not to recognize that women are not idle nor house ridden in the poem.
Homer shows that women are capable of nobility, virtue, and strength. That
is an important idea no matter what era you hail from.