The role of women in Homer’s Odyssey serves to highlight the adventures and problems that Odysseus must face as he journeys back to Ithaka, his kingdom, after completing his part in the Trojan War. His wanderings cover a 10-year period, and while he has been away from Ithaka, Penelope, his wife, has been contending with numerous suitors for her hand. Of course, Penelope is only one woman with whom Odysseus must deal. Actually, the women in the Odyssey fall into two types: immortal and mortal. In ancient Greece there was more of a choice.
Perhaps the Odyssey is one of the first great epic works which shows women in more than just a subservient position. In ancient Greek society, women were not considered to be of very high social rank. All the important matters of life were carried out by men, except such characteristically feminine functions as
H. D. F. Kitto describes the status of women in Athens: “The wife is the domestic manager and little more . . . The education of girls was omitted . . . And finally, no account of the position of women in Athens is complete without a reference to Pericles and Aristotle. Pericles said in his Funeral Speech: ‘The best reputation a woman can have is not to be spoken of among men either for good or evil’: and Aristotle holds (in the Politics) that by nature the male is superior, the female inferior, therefore the man rules and the woman is ruled” (220-221).
Thus, the attitude of the Odyssey toward women is a considerable advancement over the usual Greek conception of that gender. In so much of the literature of the ancients, the themes were what would be of interest to males such as warfare, hunting, and the problems of ruling. The subject considered to be suitable for females was domestic affairs, which did not appear in the early days of creative literary endeavor.
Consequently, there is a marked difference between the Odyssey and all other epic attempts. No other type of literature of that era provides such an important status to females. In fact, one of the Odyssey’s most memorable elements would be the various female personalities who come into contact with Odysseus.
This great epic poem would not be the same without its unique approach to women. Homer has included so many women who are of tremendous importance to the action. The females and males seem to be of equal status and importance in so many ways. It is interesting how women keep the action going in the Odyssey. Odysseus might have perished without the assistance of the females in the epic.
Perhaps one of the most significant women in the Odyssey is Nausikaa, the princess of the Phaiakians. She appears in Book VI, after Odysseus is shipwrecked. He is lying exhausted, and perhaps dying, on the beach when he is found by Princess Nausikaa, who helps him and feeds him. Without her efforts, Odysseus might have died. Princess Nausikaa is one of the mortal females who assists Odysseus, and she says: “My friend, since you seem not like a thoughtless man, not a mean one,/it is Zeus himself, the Olympian, who gives people good fortune,/ to each single man, to the good and the bad, just as he wishes;/and since he must have given you yours, you must ever endure it,/But now, since it is our land and our city that you have come to,/You shall not lack clothing nor anything else, of those gifts/which should befall the unhappy suppliant on his arrival;/and I will show you our town, and tell you the name of our people” (187-94). And so, Princess Nausikaa saves Odysseus from harm.
They both seem like equals, which is most unusual for a woman in ancient Grecian times. However, perhaps Nausikaa envisions Odysseus as a possible husband. She is extremely young, and innocence and virtue are her primary qualities, even though she may be viewing Odysseus with her libido starting to find the light of day. Still, she is of noble birth, and Homer treats her with respect and honor.
In dealing with Nausikaa, we are discussing a mortal; however, one of the most important females in the Odyssey is actually an immortal: the goddess Athene. In fact, in many ways, Athene is closer to Odysseus than his mortal wife Penelope.
Athene appears as the constant friend and adviser of the clever and imaginative Odysseus. Athene is the daughter of Zeus. She is the goddess of wisdom and the patroness of the arts and crafts. In spite of the torments brought on Odysseus by the sea god Poseidon, Athene brings her assistance to Odysseus during the major episodes, and her spirit has a decided influence on Odysseus and his son Telemachos.
Athene feels deep sympathy for Odysseus, and she addresses her father Zeus in this manner: “Son of Kronos, our father, 0 lordliest of the mighty,/Aigisthos indeed has been struck down in a death well merited. Let any other man who does thus perish as he did,/But the heart in me is torn for the sake of wise Odysseus,/unhappy man, who still, far from his friends, is suffering,/griefs, on the sea-washed island . . .” (6.49-50).
Thus, Athene is doing all she can to persuade Zeus, the Father of the Gods, to help Odysseus return to his kingdom in Ithaka.
it might be wondered why Athene is so interested in the welfare of Odysseus. Zeus and his family of gods and goddesses were not interested in the average mortal being, but they were very attracted to the mighty mortals of the earth such as the heroes described by Homer in his great epics. Thus Athene protects Odysseus because he possesses the skill, cleverness, and energy that are also among her qualities. And so in Book XIII, Athene says to Odysseus: “Always you are the same, and such is the mind within you,/and so I cannot abandon you when you are unhappy,/because you are fluent, and reason closely, and keep your head always” (330-332). There appear to be feelings of divine love on the part of Athene for Odysseus.
Actually, it is as if Athene were describing herself because she and Odysseus are so very similar. Athene cannot resist the magnetic attraction of Odysseus. She has to help this great epic hero because the qualities he shares with her provide him with an option on her services. This brings up an interesting paradox: whenever a god helps a mortal, it is because the man is strong, not weak.
Once Athene has asked Zeus for help with regard to Odysseus, she leaves Olympus and goes to Ithaka to encourage Telemachos in his ventures.
Athene is puzzled by the suitors and cannot understand why they are having a never ending feast. When Odysseus finally faces the suitors and kills them, Athene does not intercede. Odysseus is so superpowerful that he does not need Athene’s intervention in a battle. It is only when another god is giving Odysseus problems that Athene feels she must step in. That is why she does so much for Odysseus in his difficulties with Poseidon.
Essentially, then, Athene identifies with Odysseus, who has qualities very much like her own. In a sense, however, Odysseus is more than a mere mortal. He is an epic hero, who has abilities far beyond the average mortal male.
In Book XX, Odysseus wonders how he is going to subdue all the suitors; and so, Athene feels that a few words of encouragement are in order: “And now I tell you this plainly:/ even though there were fifty battalions of mortal people/ standing around us, furious to kill in the spirit of battle,/ even so you could drive away their cattle and fat sheep./So let sleep take you now. There is annoyance in lying/awake and on guard all night. You will soon be out of your troubles” (48-53).
It is obvious, then, that women both mortal and immortal have a considerable part to play in the Odyssey. Most of the early epics concentrated on the masculine side of life. Therefore, the Odyssey is most unique in that the more feminine values of love, family loyalty, and devotion are emphasized and demonstrated, a situation providing a definite humanitarian tone to Homer’s classic epic.