October 30, 2011
This was my midterm paper for World Lit. Since the subject was the Odyssey, I thought I’d share it here. I had to wait until it was graded and I got permission from the professor to post it. I didn’t want for her to find it and think I plagiarized it! Anyway, I got an A.
The patriarchal nature of ancient Greece, Athens in particular, is much talked about. Despite this prejudice, with even a cursory reading of the Odyssey a myriad of strong women is revealed, both antagonists to the hero Odysseus and his helpers, both mortal and divine.
First among the allies of Odysseus is Athena, the revered Goddess of wisdom and war. Throughout the Trojan War, recounted in Homer’s Iliad, the precursor to the Odyssey, She often helps Odysseus in battle. The Odyssey begins by showing us a discussion between Zeus, King of the Gods, and Athena. At this point, Odysseus is being held captive by Kalypso, a nymph, on her island. His ship has been destroyed and all his men are dead. Athena convinced Zeus to command Kalypso to let Odysseus go, sending the message through His son Hermes, the Messenger of the Gods. Athena frequently stood up for Odysseus in the counsels of the Gods.
She then disguises Herself as a family friend to go to Odysseus’ adult son Telemachus, to rouse him to action. Athena is acting here in Her role as Guide of Heroes. She does not coddle Telemachus, does not do everything for him. Instead She points out the necessary path and inspires him to action. She helped Telemachus to grow up, to go from being a boy to a man. Indeed, Athena is depicted as being intimately involved with all of Odysseus’ family. There were several times throughout the action of the book when Penelope had retired to her room and cried, “till Athena cast sweet sleep upon her eyes” (book 19, line 646).
Even when Odysseus has returned home, Athena still helped him. She transformed Odysseus into an old man, aged and dirty, a homeless beggar. She plans with Odysseus and Telemachus, helping them to get revenge on the suitors. At the very end, when the friends of the suitors are ready to start a new war with Odysseus and his family, it is Athena who makes peace between them. “’Now hold!’ she cried, ‘Break off this bitter skirmish; end your bloodshed, Ithakans, and make peace.’” (book 24, line 550)
One of the most interesting characters in the Odyssey is the witch Kirke. She starts out as an antagonist, but through the machinations of Hermes and Odysseus becomes an ally. When they landed on Kirke’s island, Odysseus sent out some men to scout the island and look for friendly faces. They come upon the house of Kirke, where she greets them and invites them in for a meal and some wine. One of the men, sensing something is amiss, hangs back, and so he saw the other men turned into swine. He ran back to tell Odysseus, who decided to confront the witch. He took an alternative route through the woods. This time it is Hermes Who helps him. Hermes gave Odysseus a magical herb called moly, which counteracts the witch’s magic. When the cursed wine failed to turn Odysseus into a pig, Kirke is amazed, and she exclaimed, “Ah, wonder! Never a mortal man that drank this cup but when it passes his lips he had succumbed. Hale must your heart be and your tempered will. Odysseus then you are, great contender… Put up your weapon in the sheath. We two shall mingle and make love upon our bed. So mutual trust may come of play and love.” (book 10, line 355-365). She invited the hero into her bed, which Hermes had told Odysseus would happen. Odysseus makes Kirke swear a sacred oath that she will not work any enchantment against him before he will sleep with her, and she turns his men back to their original form, although they are in some ways better than before “younger, more handsome, taller than before” (book 10, line 428).
So Odysseus and his men stay on Kirke’s island for a full year, feasting and enjoying themselves. When it comes time for them to depart once more, it is Kirke who tells Odysseus that he must descend to the Underworld to seek the counsel of the the blind seer Tiresias. When the descent into the Underworld is accompliced, they return again to Kirke’s island. Kirke greets the triumphant travelers with another feast, stocks their ship with needed supplies, and counsels Odysseus on how to get past the sea-monsters Scylla and Charybdis. It is fair to say that without Kirke, Odysseus may have never made it back to Ithaka.
In Greek stories and plays, often the witches are the only (mortal) women with fully fleshed out personalities, besides queens. I cannot recall any instance of a man being portrayed as practicing magic in the stories, although we know from court cases that a few men were historically accused of it. Since, at least in myth, witchcraft is portrayed as a singularly female occupation, we can draw some conclusions about the Greek ideas of female power from Homer’s treatment of Kirke. She does not offer her bed to Odysseus until after he has proved himself her equal, since her magic does not work on him. Perhaps this was a trick to save her life, although it might be that Homer was saying that women really want to be conquered. After she is “tamed”, so to speak, Kirke is indeed very helpful to Odysseus and his men. This reminds me of the story of Jason and the Argonauts, who never would have claimed the Golden Fleece if Aphrodite, the Goddess of Love, had not caused the witch Medea to fall in love with Jason. Once tamed by love, she lent her magic to Jason’s aid. Both these women are described as very beguiling and tempting. Although the Greeks feared the magic (power) of the witch (woman), they found them irresistible at the same time. Odysseus blames both Kirke and Kalypso for his sleeping with them, saying of Kirke “But in my heart I never gave consent”(book 9, line 35) and that Kalypso “compelled” him (book 5, line 163).
Last but not least there is Penelope, the woman who looms over the whole Odyssey as the wife that Odysseus is desperate to return to. She is a fitting mate for the crafty Odysseus, for she is cunning and shrewd in her own way. For twenty years she held the suitors at bay while she waited for Odysseus to return home to Ithaka. As she explains herself “Ruses served my turn to draw time out – first a close-grained web I had the happy thought to set up weaving on my big loom in hall.” (book 19, line 145) She told the suitors that she needed to weave a burial shroud for Laertes, Odysseus’ father, before she can marry one of them. Every day she worked on weaving the shroud, and every night she un-wove it. This trick worked for three years, but during the fourth year Penelope was betrayed by one of her maids, who was sleeping with one of the suitors, and she was caught un-weaving the shroud. Her ruse discovered, she had no choice to but to finish it. Had she not been betrayed by her maid, Penelope’s trick may have worked for much longer. Even after all the suitors have taken advantage of her generosity for so many years, she does not become burnt out on giving and continues to follow the law of Xenia (hospitality). When Odysseus returned home in the disguise of a old beggar man, Penelope graciously offered him her hospitality.
So one can see now that feminine intelligence dominates the Odyssey. This essay has barely discussed the other female antagonist of the Odyssey, the nymph Kalypso. It has focused instead on Odysseus’ patron Goddess Athena, the witch Kirke, and his wife Penelope. Yet we see here three examples of female power, three different manifestations of feminine power. There is of course the double standard of Penelope remaining faithful while Odysseus gets to enjoy himself with several other women. But for the time, this was a very interesting portrayal of women.