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Women's Roles In Homer's 'The Odyssey'

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Homer's epic The Odyssey provides readers with an intimate look into the world of women in Dark Age Greece, revealing apparent social dynamics, roles, and views held of the second sex. Written at a time when women were known to take a subservient position among men; holding inferior roles limited to that of childbirth and domestic duties, the sheer intricacy of this poem enables readings that support as well as refute this common belief of a women's reality in Ancient Greece. Although The Odyssey cannot possibly paint an exact, unbiased portrait of Homeric women, the author does manage to illustrate how most men probably perceived them, shown through the representation of particular female characters. The most memorable mortal women in the poem are Penelope, wife of Odysseus; Naussica, a young innocent maiden; and Anticleia, Odysseus' grieving mother who dwells in the Land of the Dead. It is through these women the reader gains insight into the degree mortal women were respected and regarded in Ancient Greece.

Penelope proves to be a central character throughout The Odyssey and by examining the roles of her as the wife of Odysseus and how she is represented reveals how a wife may have been treated in Homeric Greece. She proves to contain a complex, contradictory character, layered with meekness, submission and frailty, yet later on found to be framed with strength, independence and cunning. But firstly, Penelope appears to possess all the man-made ingredients for an ideal Greek woman: loyalty, submission and fertility. Penelope is shown to pine for Odysseus' return, even after he is missing for years and seemingly dead. At times these concerns make her flighty and restless (19.515) and sometimes Telemachus and Athene do not wish to reveal plans that may upset her. It is often read that Penelope lays on her bed of sorrows; weeping for Odysseus (19.595) till Athene sheds sweet sleep on her eyelids. (19.600) Penelope's tendency to weep and be sorrowful indicates an assumption of the emotional expectation of the woman, to worry about a sons fate and to deeply care and mourn for a husband gone even twenty years.

We see similar attributes stronger still in the mother-son relationship of Odysseus and Anticleia, when he encounters her in the Land of the Dead. She cries out in grief when she recognizes him, and explains her cause of death being that of a broken heart due to Odysseus' absence and probable death. Their close bond allows Odysseus to ask of her many things, eliciting answers predominantly about his family, many of which centre around Penelope. "And what of my good wife? How does she feel and what does she intend to do? Is she still living with her son and keeping our estate safe?"(11.175) Odysseus's obvious concern for Penelope, and his select use of the word 'our' in this example suggests a relationship of more equal footing, where Penelope is presumably capable of running the shared estate without the support of another man.

Penelope does manage to look after the estate to a certain extent, but with her husband gone, Penelope's obedience is still shown through her submission to the will of her son, Telemachus; as she obeys his demands on a number of occasions when she is asked to "go to your quarters and attend to your own work, the loom and the spindle." He continues, "Making decisions must be men's concern, and mine in particular, for I am master of this house." (1.356-59) Even as Queen and mother, her gender seems to place her inferior to a male many years her junior. Telemachus' classification of his mother's and his own separate concerns reveals prominent gender roles; in this case it was fitting for a man to deal with decisions and large matters, whereas women were to tend to the finer homely things.

King Alcinous' daughter Nausicaa and her mother, even as royalty, are also shown to be seen to undertake domestic tasks; her very name Nausicaa "of the white arms" (6.101) indicates her role to be indoors, predominately undertaking household activities. When Nausicaa awakes from her Athene-inspired dream to go to the river and wash her clothes, she emerges to the family room where she finds her mother "sitting at the hearth with her ladies, spinning yarn... and her father just as he was going out to join the distinguished princes at a conference" (6.51-5). Her parent's separate roles are very indicative of the expectations placed on each gender, and furthermore accentuated by the fact that to fulfil the dream, Nausicaa must ask of her father for transport to the river Phaeacia, indicating the evident power structure present in their nuclear family. Differing in nature, Nausicaa is shown as a nurturer, where on the banks of the washing river, where met the naked Odysseus, she clothed, fed and agreed to direct him. Alcinous even at one point his daughter's hand away in marriage to Odysseus without Nausicaa's consultation and without her consent, this not being a concern to the daughter; evidently to obey and be directed by a man, namely her father, was a lady's expected duty. Marriage also shows through to be an expectation of young women, although of course Odysseus did not marry Nausicaa, he does express to her the polite wish that she may be given "a husband and a home... since there is nothing better of finer than



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