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The portrayal of women in classical Greek literature is varied but points towards underlying attitudes regarding their status. Within The Odyssey there are countless representations of women with different motives and personalities, but these female characters are always subverted by men. Perhaps the most vivid instance of this inequality is the case of Odysseus’s maids, who are ordered to be executed for their involvement with the suitors. Their grim fate illustrates the pervasive attitude of distrust and disgust directed at women within classical Greek storylines. Most significantly, the execution of the maids points toward the fact that women’s honor both in and out of classical Greek literature is directly correlated with sex and their physical bodies.
The execution of the female servants is ordered by Odysseus when Eurykleia informs him that they have dishonored his household by having sexual relations with the suitors. The nature of these sexual relations is not made explicit and merits attention when considering that it earned the maids their death. From the beginning of the epic, the suitor’s behavior is described as unacceptable and disrespectful. Telemachus remarks early on that the suitors behave as if their house is for plunder, taking what they want without regard for Odysseus, Penelope, or himself. When considering the suitor’s disrespect for Penelope, entering her house and courting her even while she remains married, it is hard to imagine they would reserve much respect for the maids. Again, the nature of the relations between the maids and the suitors is not detailed. Based off of their behavior, it can be inferred that the maids were most likely coerced into sex in the face of the violent mob that is the group of suitors. The servants, powerless against such a reckless group of men, likely had no option but to have sexual relations with them in order to appease them. Their grief is shown when Odysseus commands them to clean the halls of the dead bodies of the suitors before they are executed. The description reads: “As he spoke/ here came the women in a bunch, all wailing,/ soft tears on their cheeks. They fell to work/ to lug the corpses out into the courtyard/ under the gateway, propping one/ against another as Odysseus ordered” (Book 22 Lines 448-453). Even in the face of this grief, they are made to dispose of the suitor’s corpses themselves in order to be reminded of their shame.
Shame and dishonor are the primary reasons for the maid’s execution. Odysseus remarks when told by Eurykleia of what transpired: “Your part is now to tell me of the women,/ those who dishonored me, and the innocent” (Book 22 Lines 418-419). The issue of dishonor is pervasive in Greek literature, especially in regards to women. While dishonor for men stems from failure in battle or failure to protect others, dishonor for women almost exclusively stems from “improper” sexual relations. This concept of dishonor is what makes the execution of the maids especially gruesome. The attitude towards them does derive itself from the fact that they had relations with the suitors, Odysseus’s enemies, but the fact remains that the women are especially scorned for sexual relations in the first place. Telemachus says in disgust before the maids are executed: “I would not give the clean death of a beast/ to trulls who made a mockery of my mother/ and of me too- you sluts, who lay with suitors” (Book 22 Lines 461-464). This insult is derived purely from the disgust of women’s sexual activity, and is exclusively used against women.
In addition, the women of Greek epics are valued and idealized for chastity and abstinence, even while the men in their lives are not. While Odysseus is on his journey, he is not expected, nor is any man, to be faithful to his wife. The goddess Calypso speaks out against this double standard herself in book five, after she is told to let Odysseus complete his journey. While she refers to the activity of the gods, her argument is relative to the different standards set for mortal men and women. She says, “Oh you vile gods, in jealousy supernal!/ You hate it when we choose to lie with men-/ immortal flesh by some dear mortal side” (Book 5 Lines 119-121). Calypso rightly asserts that the endeavors made by goddesses on mortal men are not met with the same reaction as the gods in their pursuit of women. Calypso’s argument is undermined, however, and she is forced to submit to Zeus’s wishes in returning Odysseus to his voyage. Calypso’s situation illustrates the value placed on women’s chastity as well. While she is powerful and sexually aggressive, this sexual interest is weaponized and made antagonistic by The Odyssey. Her sexuality is merely an obstacle for Odysseus to overcome, as is that of the sirens. Meanwhile, Penelope is expected to remain faithful to Odysseus until their son grows facial hair. Only after Telemachus has assumed a significant role of power and authority may she be allowed to remarry.
The value placed on women’s sexual history is one that has persisted throughout history. In the present day, there remains an excessive, and detrimental, emphasis on a woman’s body and how she chooses to use it. The case of the maids in The Odyssey is extreme, but unfortunately not unheard of. Women are scorned for their sexual relationships, and even in cases of rape and assault they are made to be at fault. The execution of the maids places the blame not on the aggressors, but the women who were arguably victims to their situation. Punishment by death for sexual relations is also not unheard of outside of Greek classical texts: women are often put to death even for rape in countries less developed than our own. Victim blaming persists in our own country, where women cannot claim assault or rape without being met with questions about their behavior, dress, and sexual history. While society continues to progress from this dangerous line of thought, women remain under scrutiny and without autonomy over their own bodies. Ultimately, the maids in The Odyssey exemplify the consequences of deriving a woman’s value from faulty idealizations of chastity. What’s more, the maids are made to suffer a worse death than the suitors because of the nature of their perceived disloyalty. Their crime is weighed even heavier than that of the violent mob because a woman’s sexual activity and the use of her body is met with more criticism than any wrong done by a man.
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