Are the Women in The Odyssey simply figures in the background


The Odyssey is a story which differs greatly from its predecessor the Iliad. Whilst the Iliad takes place during wartime and is predominantly male orientated, the Odyssey on the other hand is filled with female characters many of whom are interesting and important to the plot but does this apply to the vast array of women featured in the books. Are the women in the Odyssey more than just figures in the background?

One of the first women we meet in the Odyssey is Penelope, the grieving wife of the supposedly dead Odysseus ,who has been missing for 20 years, and the long suffering Queen of Ithaca which has since fallen into chaos, the palace besieged by suitors who wish to marry Penelope and gain the land, wealth, power and kleos associated with her. Penelope first appears in the first Book, Athene visits Telemachus. In this book Penelope is a submissive character who is dominated by the suitors, who are free to devour her food and disrespect her household which is a direct perversion of the sacred act of xenia, and Telemachus, her son who sends her away, Penelope does not argue against either. This is not to say that Penelope was not attempting to put off marriage to the suitors for as long as possible by deceiving them with a funeral shroud. Penelope weaves this shroud for Laertes, Odysseus’s father, to commemorate Odysseus and that when she finishes it she will choose one of the suitors to marry. Penelope, however enweaves it, buying her 3 years. This shows that Penelope is as intelligent as her husband. Penelope could also be argued to only be so submissive to Telemachus in order to help bring out his dominance, giving him enough confidence to remove the suitors. The rest of the book also features Penelope, this time more prominently. This had led many people to call the Odyssey Penelope’s song. Odysseus often thinks about Penelope and she is talked about by other characters such as Athene. It is however in the final twelve or so books that Penelope really becomes a major character. Penelope is described by Eumaeus while Odysseus, in the guise of a beggar, is in his hut receiving hospitality, and is seen again in the book the Beggar in the Palace. Here Penelope is still submissive although she does not she away from condemning the suitors loutish behaviour. Penelope also stands up to Telemachus when he tells her to return to her quarters. The dreams Penelope has are often prophetic. An example of this is the dream that Penelope describes to Odysseus when he is in the guise of a beggar. In this dream Penelope witnesses a flock of 20 Geese gorging themselves on the stores of grain. Then an eagle swoops down and kills the geese. The eagle then speaks to Penelope, telling her that Odysseus will return, kill the suitors and save Ithaca. Penelope then asks Odysseus what the dream means and Odysseus tells us just about exactly what the talking eagle did. The dream is of course proved true, as the reader has known from the very beginning and will be confirmed in the last few books. The fact that Penelope features such heavily towards the most important books not to mention her constantly being mentioned throughout the middle of the book and her early introduction in the foundations of the story, the first four books. Surely a woman who is not only married to the main character but is also frequently mentioned and featured throughout the books must be a character firmly in the foreground.

There are two women who act not only as seductresses but also as metaphors, plot pusher and wonderfully complex, deep and interesting characters. These two characters are the sea nymph Calypso, daughter of Atlas, and the witch Circe. However I also feel that a further set of women should be added at this point. The Sirens. The Sirens sing of what men desire most which often lures ships to the rocks and sailors to their deaths. The first of these women to make an appearance is Circe. Odysseus and his men land at the island of Circe. Circe’s home can, and should, be considered as a metaphor for the male mind. Circe lives in a villa surrounded by vicious animals in the middle of a forest. Circe’s villa represents lust, the vicious animals represent violence and the forest disorder and confusion. Even the death of Elpenor can be interpreted in a deep way. Elpenor falls from the roof of Circe’s villa whilst he is drunk. Perhaps this insinuates that a man drunk of passion reaches a great high before falling. These metaphors, vague as they may be, provide us with an insight into the Greek view of women. Circe turns Odysseus’s men into pigs, which is the animal that they most closely represent, leaving only Odysseus’s second in command to return and tell Odysseus of Circe and the fate that has befallen his men. Odysseus then bravely steps up to confront what his men describe as a gorgeous woman with a divine voice, which speaks volumes about Odysseus as a character as he is unwilling to explore the Laestrogonian lands but Circe seems to be an entirely different matter. Odysseus is warned by Hermes not to allow Circe to seduce him immediately and so Odysseus is prepared to face of with the sorceress who sleeps with him only after Odysseus has gained the higher ground by threatening her and using the moly, from which we derive the phrase ‘holy moly’, to return his men to their proper forms. Odysseus and his men stay with Circe for an entire year although in his defence he had been bewitched by Circe so that it would feel like a handful of days. Circe later provides advice for Odysseus, telling him how to go to the underworld and the perils he will face later on in his quest to return home. In this sense Circe plays an important part in the Odyssey and is not just some figure in the background.

The second of these women we come across are the sirens. The sirens deserve to be mentioned here due to their importance in character development. Odysseus and his men come across the sirens after leaving Circe’s island. They know, courtesy of Circe, that if they hear the sirens song that they will be captivated by it and seek to join them, wrecking their ship and loosing their lives in the process. Odysseus then tells his crew to tie him to the mast and for them to plug their ears with wax, preventing them from hearing the sirens song and from being bewitched. This itself tells us much about Odysseus and his men:

1) Odysseus is not a fool and has taken Circe’s advice on board

2) Odysseus has ensured that he is the one that hears the sirens song rather than any of his men. This shows him in an arrogant and selfish light because he desires the kleos that will be gained from hearing the fabled song of the sirens.

3) His men are compliant with his orders although this could derive from two things. Either Odysseus is well respected enough or the crew do not want to risk being tied to the mast.

When the ship passes the sirens Odysseus hears the song which projects his deepest desires. For Odysseus the sirens tell Odysseus that no one has ever passed their island and been able to listen to them and that no one has been delighted by them and gone on his way a wiser man. This refers to kleos which is something Odysseus has strived for throughout the story. If we are told that the sirens sing of what men desire most then we are led to a clear cut conclusion. Odysseus’s greatest desire is kleos. However it is important to remember the nature of the text. This book along with several others, is being presented by Odysseus himself to King Alcinous of Scherie and his court and is therefore subject to some bias. Odysseus could be putting words into the sirens mouths to increase the scale of his achievement and therefore providing him with more kleos than he deserves. The sirens are remarkably interesting characters and in terms of Odysseus’s character development in the eyes of the reader are arguably some of the most important characters in the story. As to whether they are in the foreground or the background, the sirens are certainly minor characters and are therefore in the background in terms of the story itself. If however one is concentrating on Odysseus himself and his development, then, as mentioned before, they are firmly in the foreground and must be given up most consideration if writing about the character of Odysseus.

The third of this trio of seductive, femme fatales is Calypso the sea nymph. Odysseus is washed up on Calypso’s island and is held captive their as, for lack of a better phrase, sex slave for seven years which takes up the majority of the story timeframe. Odysseus spends most of the time either satisfying his mistresses needs or pining for home and his wife Penelope. Calypso is forced to release Odysseus when Hermes, who has been sent by Zeus who was in turn persuaded by Athene, demands that Calypso frees Odysseus. Calypso retorts that it is unfair that the Gods are allowed to liaise with mortals freely but Goddesses must remain loyal and in some occasions completely chaste. The island of Calypso also acts as a metaphor like that of Circe’s home. Calypso lives on an island with is in the middle of a vast sea and is paradise on earth. The island is called Orgyia which in itself carries sexual meaning. Once Odysseus has been freed, Calypso does help him by assisting him in building a raft and even helps plot his route. Calypso is certainly a very powerful character and is integral to the story in some ways, despite some claims that Calypso bears too striking a similarity to Circe to be an independent character. Back however to the point in question. Calypso takes up 1 whole book in the story and is mentioned in several others. Calypso also aids Odysseus and seeing as in the story’s timeframe Calypso occupies seven whole years of Odysseus’s ten year journey, it is same to say that Calypso is as much in the foreground as Circe.

Of the four women, or groups of women in the sirens case, three of them are in the foreground. Penelope is without a shadow of a doubt the most important female character and certainly one of the most important characters of all. She is mentioned in most of the books if not all of them, Penelope is an independent and complex character and certainly her husband’s equal, as seen in book 23 with the bed trick and the archery contest in book 21. Circe and Calypso are also firmly in the foreground. They pose two of the biggest threats to Odysseus and each play a big part in his development as a character. Circe brings out his masculinity, as seen when he threatens hr, and Calypso reunites him with his long dormant femininity, as seen due to the amount of time Odysseus spends lamenting on the beach. In total these femme fatales take up a total of eight years of ten, making them almost as close to Odysseus, in terms of time, as Penelope. Although the Sirens are in the background of the story I still feel that they are in the foreground in terms of Character development. They give us a great insight into the deep psyche of one of literatures most prolific heroes, and so deserve to be mentioned. Despite this they play little part in the actual plot, acting only as yet another obstacle for Odysseus to overcome. In conclusion there are many other minor characters that could have been mentioned. Melantho who frequently insults Odysseus in his beggar guise, The other Goddesses, other than Athene, who although powerful are not important characters. The only other woman in the foreground that springs to mind is Eurycleia, who loyally serves Penelope and Telemachus. Due to the evidence already presented one would be forgiven if they were split over whether the women in the Odyssey are primarily in the background, there are more women in the background although the women in the foreground have such importance that they could be considered to balance the situation out. The deciding factor however is this. The men in the Odyssey also have their background characters, the majority of the suitors, the Cyclopes, the crew. Therefore due to the overwhelming amount of background males it must be considered that the female leads are much more powerful and memorable than the male leads, namely Telemachus and Odysseus. The women are more popular, more interesting and far more complex, and that is why the women in the Odyssey are mainly in the foreground.

Benny4700

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34 thoughts on “Are the Women in The Odyssey simply figures in the background

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