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Homer’s Odyssey was set 10 years after the Trojan war which would mean the stories taking place in the epic are dated sometime around 1170 BC. This is a time that is arguably unrecognisable by today’s standards in many parts of the world in terms of the models adopted by society and the roles two genders play to contribute to society. Ancient Greece was very much a patriarchal society where men were often seen as the dominant gender. This can be seen by women often being refused basic rights such as education in areas such as literature and philosophy which were instead reserved for the men of society to undertake.
Women instead were expected to be good housewives or daughters to their husbands or fathers who were often the determining factor of their value as very little value was placed upon women alone. This resulted in many women of the time learning household skills like cooking, weaving, and sewing of clothes. It is extremely important to understand the context of the time that the epic is set in to fully appreciate the way in which Homer plays with the idea of gender roles and the balance of power throughout the book.One of the first characters and women that we are introduced to in the epic is Athena goddess of wisdom, courage, strategy, and skill to name but a few exploits. It is her who first brings up the situation with Odysseus. Despite the gathered gods collectively damning man for their shamelessness in blaming the Gods for their misfortune she speaks out claiming how her “heart breaks for Odysseus” and as a result can convince the gods that it is within their interests to intervene and try to guide him home to Ithaca.
Through this opening passage, Homer is able to depict Athena as a powerful woman through the way she instantaneously gives direction to the story, a theme that is constantly carried on throughout the epic. She almost becomes a vessel for the carrying of the story as many crucial parts factors in the epic are only able to come together from her doing. For example, it is her who tells Telemachus that he must set sail and travel in search of word of his father which in turn sets Telemachus on his own psychological story of growth and discovery and when he is struggling to find a crew to help him set sail it is Athena who uses her skills of disguise to disguise herself as the prince and assemble a crew for Telemachus that is ready and waiting for him. Through these passages, we can see her powers as an instigator of events and how well equipped she is to have her wishes carried out. She is lower in status than many of the Gods but through her speaking ability and matters of negotiation she can get what she wants, this combined with her Godly abilities of disguise make her an extremely powerful character and potentially even a dangerous one if one were to cross her the wrong way Another way in which women are portrayed in the epic is as temptresses. They are often used as distractions, delaying Odysseus’ journey or in some cases even trying to destroy him and his crew completely. The prime example of this is the goddess Calypso who uses her powers of seduction to effectively imprison Odysseus on the for a period spanning 7 years clearly delaying his return home.
Calypso emphasises what is arguably mans greatest weakness which can be described as a cocktail of temptation and greed. Odysseus loses sight of his long-term mission and willingly allows himself to be seduced by the goddess in return for the comfy lifestyle she can provide him with as well as her tempting offer of immortality if she were to remain with her. However, it would soon be the case that homesickness would be to fill his heart and each day he would find himself wandering down to the beaches to stare at the water dreaming of getting off the island. His temptation had been his downfall and for 7 years he wept on the island dreaming of seeing Ithaca and his wife one day. After making her offer Odysseus responds by saying “Nevertheless, I long—I pine, all my days— to travel home and see the dawn of my return.
And if a god will wreck me yet again on the wine-dark sea, I can bear that too, with a spirit tempered to endure.” (5.159.243-245) Which captures the idea that he is no longer willingly staying on this Island, therefore, flipping the stereotypical balance of power between a man and a woman in Greece at the time which is amplified through Odysseus’ high status as a well-established warrior and king making it all the more shocking that he finds himself so powerless in the situation with Calypso. However, this image of Calypso being a powerful being coupled with her fierce reputation is quickly squandered as she is forced to submit to the wishes of Zeus to let Odysseus return home despite her falling in love with him and not wanting him to go. This passage is interesting as it gives the impression that the patriarchal society of Greece extends even to the Gods. You can sense the feeling of being powerless as she has her heart crushed by Zeus’ wishes, even the feared and powerful goddess Calypso falls victim to the wishes of the men who run the system and when she is given this order she says “You unrivaled lords of jealousy, scandalized when goddesses sleep with mortals, openly even when one has made the man her husband.” (5.132-34) It is an interesting double standard to point out that male gods always sleep with mortal women yet when female gods sleep with mortal men they are looked down upon, even if the man is their husband.
However, the more delicate double standard is through Homer placing the line about the husband as this draws your attention the fact that while Odysseus’ wife Penelope stays at home trying to outwit the suitors and stays faithful to her husband whom she doesn’t even know is even alive. All the while Odysseus is able to sleep with Calypso and other female characters in the epic without any consequence for his unfaithfulness at all. It happens with a sense of entitlement that makes the reader not even take notice of the gross scale of his unfaithfulness which should, in theory, taint his heroic image. Had the roles been reversed and a woman had been unfaithful to her husband the result would be very different which again is an interesting reflection of the patriarchal society that the book is set within.After leaving the Island Odysseus finds himself again encountering more hindrance in the shape of women through Circe and the Sirens who try to lure sailors to their doom with their lustrous singing. It is a common theme that woman is being presented as distracting and wicked but at the same time, we are presented with Penelope who is arguably one of the most important characters in the story. She is the main drive behind Odysseus wanting to return home and what the whole story essentially, therefore, revolves around. Penelope is an extremely powerful character within the story but not in the sense of her personal power or strength.
While she is depicted as clever enough to mislead the suitors for some time with her trick of unweaving the shroud each night to buy her more time for her husbands return the real power she has is her effect on Odysseus. Her place in his heart is one of the main pulls to return home and it strong enough for him to reject the comfortable lifestyle with the goddess Calypso as well as her offer of immortality. At times when Odysseus is losing his way on his mission but it is the image of Penelope that is used to set him straight and realise that he yearns to return home to his family and his kingdom This is a very interesting contrast as many of the other women in that are portrayed in the epic are either gods or some kind of monster meaning that their power is very apparent upon coming into contact with the character. Calypso is a goddess who can’t be rivaled by mortals in any way yet even she is not enough to keep Odysseus from wanting to go back to Penelope. It is an interesting way in which Homer plays with the Idea of power and what it really is. He spends a great deal of time filling our minds with these images of Gods and warriors only for the true power to come through someone who is not particularly remarkable.
This is apparent throughout the story even with the men we see Odysseus is not your typical hero in any sense. In a similar way, Homer brings Penelope across as one of the most powerful and important characters yet in terms of physical power and ability she is remarkably insignificant compared with the likes of Athena, Calypso, and Scylla. However, her love and bond that she has created with Odysseus is so powerful that her physical strength becomes irrelevant and we are able to recognise her for her true power.The way that Homer is able to portray women and the idea of power is certainly interesting as throughout the story he is constantly building and subsequently destroying the idea of what a powerful person is. The image of what power is, is constantly being challenged through the trials and tribulations of the characters and one could come to the conclusion that the women in the epic expressed different forms of power in terms of ability, sexuality, and intelligence, however, none of them were truly allowed to flourish and demonstrate these powers due to patriarchal constraints on society.
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