Women in Homer's Odyssey

Women in Homer's Odyssey
Russell McNeil
September 16, 1997

(Note: These are the very rough notes of an oral lecture on this topic 
delivered on the date above by a physicist looking at Homer through the 
eyes of a modern. If you plan to use any of this material be advised that 
the grammar and spelling has not been carefully checked.)

What we know of woman until now from Hesiod is this, about that first woman: 
"For from her is the race of women and female kind: of her is the deadly race and 
tribe of women who live amongst mortal men to their great trouble, no helpmeets 
in hateful poverty, but only in wealth... Zeus who thunders on high made women 
to be an evil to mortal men, with a nature to do evil.  And he gave them a second 
evil to be the price for the good they had: whoever avoids marriage and the 
sorrows that women cause, and will not wed, reaches deadly old age without 
anyone to tend his years..."

CLASS: Damned if you do and damned if you don't. What do you make of 
that?  Is this misogyny? If not what? Poll the class. In what ways can we 
be generous in interpreting these global characterizations?

Was Homer in keeping with this tradition in the Odyssey?

That naturally depends upon what you argue the tradition is that Homer is in 
keeping with.  Let's look at some of the raw material in the Odyssey.

Language and specific incidents aside, is the nature of woman as depicted in the 
Odyssey in any way revealing? And what is it in human nature we scan for when 
excavating for gender bias? And how do we separate systemic bias from 
innocent ignorance?  I heard a woman author yesterday morning describe 
difficulties male writers have when writing about birthing--no matter how hard 
they try, they usually get some of it wrong. So, what do we look for? Sexuality? 
Emotional quality? Intellect? Drive for power? Need to control? Capacity for 
labour? If we detect differences in the text how do we distinguish between three 
possible conclusions.  One, differences in treatment reflect the underlying 
Homeric thesis that  women are "different but equal in nature,"  Two, different 
treatment  of men and women in the text reflect a thesis that women are 
"different and unequal in nature" -- arguments about misogyny fall in here but a 
host of other interpretive possibilities are possible too. Three, the different 
treatment reflects simple ignorance. How much do we attribute what we discover 
to male authorship -- or female authorship? 

In beginning, we might look to the gods for a clue. The adultery between Ares 
and Aphrodite for example is evenly represented -- both parties are to blame -- 
both are shamed -- both are banished. Although there is some "locker room talk" 
between two of the male gods that they would willingly lie in chains several 
layers thick to be beside Aphrodite.  

Sexuality among mortals is another key to this poem and this question. Women 
and men are represented differentially in this regard -- The herdsman Eumaios -- 
Odysseus brother by "adoption" recounts how he came to Ithaka a captive of a 
slave woman Phoinikia -- a woman who had been seduced by a roving 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?"  I 
think this example speaks volumes about male and female sexuality. Male 
seducers are represented as boys sowing their oats -- part of normal living. 
Seduced females are viewed as weak and treacherous --  a treachery that 
woman in her "frailty" is unable to avoid. This is a very bizarre message.

The overt and easy emotional character of men and women is possibly one of 
the reasons many find this poem so enduringly human. Whatever our 
weaknesses and failings as humans men and women both are deeply moved by 
thoughts of home; memories of old love; lost friends; lost youth; and death. Men 
weep -- Odysseus prodigiously throughout the poem -- the poem is drenched in 
tears (squeeze text)-- and laughter too. The emotional overtones here are easy 
and free -- it's an attractive and I think healthy world in that regard.  there are 
contemporary understandings of human nature that view the capacity for easy 
emotional discharge as a key to thinking well, thinking rationally. Our intellectual 
capacities can be stopped up, occluded by, unfinished emotional work. A good 
cry, a good laugh, a good scream, is just what the doctor ordered. Retentive 
individuals, cultures, genders, tend to act differently -- irrationally in some areas. 


An alternate tack is to confront the "unequal in nature charge" -- misogynist in 
particular  claim head on.  Far from evil -- women in the Odyssey -- Penelope in 
particular -- present and offer that which is most prized in human life -- a 
harmonious environment for living well -- the good life -- the community of family 
--  and all that entails.  That ideal -- that which Odysseus strives to reestablish 
through his 20 year Odyssey elevates Penelope to the status of hero in this 
poem. Her world and all that it represents stands as a commentary on, resolution 
of, and alternative to,  the effect of the war and violence brought by the males 
into their world. This approach is core to any argument that represents women 
as different but equal.

Were that this sort of analysis was that easy. Penelope's character is complex 
enough. There is unease throughout much of the poem about how Penelope's 
relationships will resolve. Two other mortal women loom prominently over these 
uncertainties: Helen and Clytemnestra!

The seeds of doubt over Penelope are sown by the shade of none other than 
Agamemnon who says to Odysseus in Hades that Clytemnestra will give "an evil 
reputation to all women, even on one who does good" (p..201-202). The 
possibility that Penelope might yet prove unfaithful builds suspense throughout 
the narrative.

CLASS: Odysseus of course returns to Ithaka in disguise--in part on 
Agamemnon. `s urging. Odysseus needed to know that Penelope was 
faithful. There was a parallel earlier in the story in Haephaistos snaring of 
Aphrodite with Ares. I am curious! How  might Odysseus have responded 
IF he had discovered Penelope had been untrue? (ask audience)

Penelope is not always represented as having the best judgement. Telemaklos 
her son notes, "...my mother is like that, perverse for all her cleverness: she'd 
entertain some riff-raff, and turn out a solid man." (p. 379) And, the suitors as 
shades recount how Penelope tricked and deceived them over a three year 
period (p. 449).  What is Homer up to? Why offer these seemingly contradictory 
colorations to the otherwise idealized Penelope? Is it to build intrigue. Or does it 
reflect a fundamental anxiety about and distrust of women--even with this the 
best of women?

If we look to another "best of women" Penelope's counterpart -- Helen -- to see 
how Homer depicts her character in this regard, our anxiety only deepens. We 
see her as formidable--a women endowed with priestly powers: a possessor of 
secret mind altering recipes, and a capacity to interpret omens. Penelope may 
stand as a commentary on the effect of the war and violence brought by the 
males into their world, but where do we place Helen catalyst  of one of the 
gravest battles in antiquity? One must respects such charisma and charm and 
power. One fears it too. Kirce and Helen actually share much in common.

All these "best of women" in the poem, Penelope, Helen, Arete and Nausicaa, 
represent ideals for marriage. Odysseus hears Arete described on p.112 by 
Athena: "no grace or wisdom fails in her; indeed just men in quarrels come to her 
for equity. Suppose, then, she looks upon you kindly, the chances are that you 
shall see your friends under your own roof, in your father's country." Yeah! If 
Arete looks kindly -- if not -- will it be like  the red queen -- off with his head?  
That I suggest might be part of our anxiety.

In fact, if you look squarely at those women in the story who are capable of not 
looking at you kindly: Calypso, Circe, Scylla and Charybdis, and the Sirens. Here 
we receive that overwhelmingly western and overwhelmingly modern message 
of woman as femme fatale: that deadly admixture of lust and love, pleasure and 
danger, pleasure and pain, pleasure and death  pleasure and slavery. Women 
consume, women demean, women destroy. Kirke's trance beguiles and 
bewitches. The Sirens lure. Skylla devours. 

Or, if we listen to the shade of Agamemnon, Odysseus' earthly equal, we are 
exposed to some of the most troubling dialogue in the poem. Agamemnon's 
condemnation of Clytemnestra is effectively a curse on all women: "...[she] 
defiled herself and all her sex, all women yet to come, even those few who may 
be virtuous." Agamemnon has a chip on his shoulder -- he was hacked to pieces 
by his wife -- but still, we respect his perspective as the shade of a great king -- 
and counterpart to Odysseus. 

Agamemnon then advises Odysseus thus: "...indulge a woman never, and never 
tell her all you know. Some things a man may tell, some he should cover up.." 
[repeat]  Advice like this has been the warp and weft of contemporary male 

And God help the 12 slave women who shamed Odysseus. To one of those who 
shame, Melantho, who sleeps with Eurymaklos, Odysseus says, in response to 
her impudence, "...let me tell Telemaklos how you talk in hall, you slut; he'll cut 
your arms and legs off..." 

These women who "dishonored" Odysseus were butchered in a most cruel and 
heinous way. In a modern context the behavior against these women would be 
viewed universally ..today...as a serious war crime.

Case closed? No.

In this question I find myself honestly confused by the Odyssey.  Misogyny is 
such a powerful term. And while one can build a case -- with examples such as 
those we're drawn on here -- I do not find myself walking away from this poem 
with that sort of taste in my mouth.  Much to the contrary.  Fundamentally, as I've 
said earlier, this poem is so outrageously human. The emotional landscape so 
rich. The tears so real. The feelings so honest. The laughter so genuine. 
misogyny -- as  a pervasive and systematic hatred for women doesn't work 

There are simply too many contradictions.  For one thing Athena, a female 
figure, a deity, a role model, a stand in for female virtue, an asexual one at that, 
is allied not just with Odysseus--as she indeed is, throughout the poem, but she 
is allied to Penelope too. The dream sent to comfort Penelope in her anguish 
over Telemaklos' safety is but one example of this. Penelope's anguish is thus 
real. She cares for her son and her husband and her moral position. If any of 
those things were fabrications, deceptions, tricks, disassembly, evil, the gods would 
not be deceived.  Penelope is as virtuous as Clytemnestra vile. Women and men 
are treated as made of the same moral stuff as men.

On a higher plain -- the Olympian plain -- there are several cool allusions to 
gender balance that hint at mortal analogs. 

Odysseus in addressing Nausikaa -- who he says he will invoke for the rest of his 
days as if she were a goddess - "...may Zeus the lord of thunder, Hera's consort, 
..." grant me...This invocation implicitly recognizes that Hera is at least coequal 
to Zeus -- if not the ideal who is really in charge.

Menelaos addresses Telemaklos in a similar vein on p.271 "...may Hera's Lord of 
Thunder see you home..."

Telemaklos addresses Helen, "...may Zeus, the Lord of Hera..." 

Are these gender balances -- acknowledged in formal address significant?  

These are not the appellations of a culture steeped in misogyny. These are the 
appellations of a culture that recognizes and celebrates gender harmony as 
much as it recognizes the mystery of the sexes.

If there is bias in the writing -- that comes from the tone of the oral and written 
culture -- it is expressly male -- that does not mean misogynist. Pleasure and 
fear where they do coexist need not equate to hate and anger. Turn the tables. 
Women then as now have at least as much reason to fear men -- has that 
sentiment translated as hate -- from women?

A pity more is not written about Princess Ktimene -- Odysseus' sister -- 
unfortunately Homer refers to her but once and has her given away to a Samian 
prince. A great project might be to recover -- recreate -- construct the adventures 
of Ktimene -- in story and song!