Female Characters in The OdysseyIn the Odyssey, there are typically two ways women are depicted – the pure, devoted housewife, or the enticing, irresistible seductress. For the most part, the housewives are seen as useless without men, only there to do household chores, domestic tasks and to take care of the children. Penelope is seemingly a great example of that; she’s seen as weak and very loyal towards Odysseus, in hopes that he will return. The seductresses mainly exist as trouble for men – drawing them off course and “forcing” them to be unfaithful to their wives.
This is the case with Calypso as she traps Odysseus and refuses to let him go until a god interferes. Calypso, in simplest terms, is a femme fatale – attractive, seductive, and without a shadow of doubt, will reign disaster and bring calamity to any man who gets involved. She shows female dominance and knows that although she is a woman, she is equal to Odysseus, and refuses to be overpowered by him (similarly to Circe). After she traps Odysseus on her island, Calypso comes off as very selfish and obsessive.
She refuses to set Odysseus free until another god convinces her (however, she still attempts to manipulate him into staying). Until then, she is very demanding, and forces Odysseus into a position of, essentially, a sex slave. For seven years, he is trapped on Ogygia, obeying her every command and desire. This is proven when the story tells us, “By nights Odysseus would lie beside her, of necessity, in the hollow caverns, against his will, by one who was willing, but all the days he would sit upon the rocks, at the seaside, breaking his heart in tears and lamentation and sorrow as weeping tears he looked out over the barren water” (5.152-158). Odysseus craved his home, he did not want to stay in Ogygia any longer, yet, Calypso still kept him even though he was miserable. Calypso, however, doesn’t understand his need for home and his family.
She also has reasoning behind trapping Odysseus. She has been alone for a very long period of time, and it isn’t often that people find Ogygia. She doesn’t have much company, and she values every single person who ends up on her island. Calypso obviously needs a cure for her loneliness, however, she is doomed to be stuck on that island. Therefore, she tries to convince every single stranger who happens to show up, to stay with her and keep her happy, at least for awhile.
While Calypso’s actions were anything but positive, she does have her own values, and she definitely stands by them. When Hermes interfered in order to save Odysseus, she became enraged. She called out the gods on the obvious double standard they use to their advantage very often – it’s acceptable for the males to have affairs with mortals, yet, the goddesses cannot. I saw her as a free woman, one who does as she wishes without giving into the social standards in 8th century Greece.Penelope is a strong female in The Odyssey, however, one could find her character to be wasted.
She serves as a plot device, the perfect, obedient wife, only there to give birth to Telemachus and to give Odysseus a reason to come home. She is well developed, however, the only qualities that stand out at first glance are her loyalty and submission. She has been extremely faithful over the many, many years that Odysseus has been gone, yet, all she gets in return is an adulterous husband that had been gone for twenty years. However, this does not mean that she is stupid or deluded. In fact, Penelope is actually very clever, smart, and cunning. This is shown when she tricks the suitors, telling them that she would choose one of them to marry right after she finished weaving her burial shroud for Laertes, the father of Odysseus.
However, she only tells the suitors this to keep them away for another period of time. She tricks them, for she unravels her work every night. One night, the suitors catch her unweaving the shroud and grow upset. They remain on her tail, relentlessly asking her to choose one of them as her husband. Of course, the suitors completely place the blame for their unethical and disrespectful behavior on her.
As Antinous puts it, “It is your mother’s fault not ours, for she is a very artful woman. This three years past, and close on four, she has been driving us out of our minds, by encouraging each one of us, and sending him messages without meaning one word of what she says.” The woman, in his case, Penelope, has no choice other than letting the suitors stay. Turning them away could result in angering gods, if any of the suitors were, in fact, gods – however, she cannot prove that they aren’t, so she cannot force them to leave.
At the time of this epic, women weren’t very respected in Greek culture. They were treated as if they were second class citizens, never to be regarded as equal to men. Typical housewife-esque women are usually portrayed as “unstable” if they didn’t have a man looking after them, while seductresses were “the destroyers of heroes.” Men also had a very prominent advantage: they could exploit any woman, whether it be a minor goddess or a mortal, and it was acceptable for them to be in polygamous relationships. Unfortunately, it was deemed “disgraceful” when women committed the same acts (which wasn’t very often because they didn’t want to be shunned).
Homer, even from the way he wrote, was obviously not very aware. He separated women into three categories: housewives, temptresses, and goddesses. He wrote about Odysseus, a man who left his faithful wife to travel and sleep around with many women instead of pushing to leave the women and return to Penelope. He only portrayed women as three different types, as if all women would fit into one of his categories. They were either pure and loyal, Penelope being a good example, fatal to men, like Calypso or Circe, or useful and helpful, such as Goddess Athena. Homer, himself, seemed to have valued men much more than women, and in the way he wrote about women, they seemed to either be the downfall of men, or only valued to please the man.