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The Odyssey: Female Power

This lesson is a part of an audio course Why Read Homer's "Odyssey" by Robert Garland

Back in 1897, a Victorian writer called Samuel Butler wrote a book called The Authoress of the Odyssey. Butler based this claim on the fact that the poem is full of strong-willed women who dictate the terms of Odysseus' return home – the goddess Athena, who supports him and his family, the nymph Calypso, who keeps him as her sex slave for seven years, the witch Circe, with whom he has a year-long dalliance, the princess Nausicaä, who welcomes him when he swims ashore, instead of running away screaming, Nausicaä's mother Arête, who receives him in the palace, and last but by no means least his wife Penelope, who holds things altogether during Odysseus' twenty-year absence by deceiving a whole army of suitors, 108 in total.

In Greek society, generally, a woman's place was in the home. Men, by contrast, spent the day outside, conversing, deliberating, and decision-making. Greek society was patrilineal and patriarchal. Women were necessary for propagation, but there was little else they were permitted to do. But that isn't how the world of Odysseus is organised. In the Odyssey, women's routine tasks are relegated to the background and obscured by their active involvement with the plot. The eventual outcome depends as much if not more on the devising and intervention of women as it does on the devising and intervention of men.

Let's begin with Penelope. We know at least three important facts about her. Number one: Penelope holds the key to sovereignty on Ithaca. In the belief that her husband is dead, the greatest men on Ithaca and on the neighbouring islands are besieging her palace in order to claim her hand in marriage – 108 in all. They do so not exclusively or even primarily because she is desirable (although she undeniably is desirable) but because whoever wins her hand in marriage will inherit Odysseus' oikos and assume power in Ithaca. It is not entirely clear why this is so, but it is a fact. This does not make Penelope powerful in her own right, of course, but it makes her the source by which others might attain power.

The second point about Penelope is that she is capable by her intelligence and handicraft alone of waging single-handed war in defense of both the household and her chastity against suitors, who seek to capture the one and compromise the other. For three years, she has succeeded in hoodwinking the suitors by pretending to weave a shroud for her father-in-law while unpicking the threads by night. Had she not practiced this deception, Odysseus' oikos would have been wiped out. It is precisely because Penelope is so limited in the weapons which she has at her disposal that she is such a formidable opponent.

Thirdly, it is Penelope who finally allows Odysseus to re-establish himself as her husband after he has proved to her satisfaction that he is privy to their most intimate secrets. I'll talk about this in a later lesson.

Penelope's fidelity is not something that we should take for granted any more than Odysseus does – and indeed, the unpredictability of a woman in Penelope's situation is very much the point of the entire second half of the poem. Though we might take exception to the fact that Odysseus doesn't trust his wife, the poet leaves us in no doubt that his mistrustfulness is an entirely appropriate response and by no means the consequence of paranoia. He does this by drawing our attention – subliminally, so to speak – to a much less fortunate husband than Odysseus, the incautious Agamemnon, who serves as an object lesson in how not to return to one's wife after an absence of nigh on 20 years. How not to return home is by the front door. That is what Agamemnon does and he is butchered in consequence by his wife Clytemnestra and her lover. Homer alludes to the murder of Agamemnon both at the beginning of the poem and in Book XI when Agamemnon lectures Odysseus on the dangers of placing one's trust in women and urges him to return in secret.

We've already talked about the minor deity Calypso. A few words about the witch Kirke, who exudes an air of confirmed spinsterhood. The condition of spinsterhood tended to arouse fear and loathing among the Greeks, as it did till recently in modern society. Women remained unmarried in ancient society because their ugliness, deformity, poverty, or unsociability made them unattractive bed-partners. Circe is presented as a vamp, arguably the least sympathetic woman in the poem, preying on any man who turns up in her life.

Most mysterious of all the women in the poem is Arete, the queen of the Phaiakians. As her daughter Nausikaa indicates, it is in her gift, rather than in that of her husband Alcinoüs, to grant Odysseus a passage home from Scheria. Of Arete's husband, we learn nothing, other than that he is her husband and that he defers to her. Does her pre-eminent status afford evidence of a matriarchal substratum otherwise expunged from the poem? We cannot answer that question because the locus of power on Scheria is never revealed to us. When eventually Arete breaks her silence, she speaks as follows: "Stranger, I myself have a question to put to you. Who gave you these clothes? Didn't you say you came here roaming over the deep?

Odysseus is wearing the clothes that Nausikaa gave him, of course. In alluding to this fact, Arete gets Odysseus to reveal the part that her daughter has played in helping him because she's worked out that the two of them have already had contact. For once, Odysseus has to tell the truth. Is this the reason that Arete is so powerful? Because she has the ability to put a man on the spot?

Homer's Odyssey holds up a mirror to women of different character, different status, and different ages, who occupy different rungs in the evolutionary ladder. No woman in the Odyssey is powerless vis-à-vis Odysseus, whatever her age or station in life. As in the real world, the world outside the poem, female power takes many guises: beauty, intelligence, perseverance, resourcefulness, manual dexterity, counterfeiting, savagery, wisdom, seductiveness, and sweet innocence. Odysseus encounters all these types in the course of his wanderings and homecoming. Female power is exercised in ways that are normally indirect, sometimes magical, rarely unconscious, and often lethal.

Women protect or seek to destroy Odysseus' household. They possess access to privileged information. They control hidden forces. They possess the ability both to retard and to expedite his return. And they can kill or conscript others to kill. It is due to the intervention of Athena that the Council of Gods, an evidently overworked consultative body like all consultative bodies, puts the issue of Odysseus' return at the head of its agenda, thereby setting the action of the poem in motion. It is due to the sea-goddess Ino that he narrowly escapes being dashed against the rocks and gets washed up safely on the shores of Scheria. It is due to Nausikaa that he obtains an audience in the court of the Phaiakians, and due to her mother Arete that he secures his passage home. It is due to his old nurse Eurykleia that his identity in his own house is kept secret despite her discovery of the scar. And it is due to Penelope that he has a home to which to return after nineteen years. Whether this dependency was part of the original storyline which Homer 'inherited' from his fellow bards or whether it was a subversive element which he himself introduced is impossible to determine.

So what does all this mean? Am I implying that Homer is implying that early Greece was a crypto-gynocracy? No. Social transformation is part of the deep structure of fairy tales, one of whose functions is to give expression to the desire for a reversal of social roles. At the same time, it would be entirely possible to turn my argument upside down and claim that Odysseus takes advantage of vulnerable and isolated women. But I do not believe that the poem works half as well that way.

To be sure, Greek society was repressive and sexist, and there is more than abundant evidence in our poem for that view. And nothing in what I am proposing diminishes that fact. My claim is simply that Homer was not blind to the fact that the qualities such as grace, beauty, cunning, resoluteness, intelligence, and so on, when vested in a woman, provide her with some means of defence against the worst abuses of her society, however repressive and sexist that society may be, and that he undoubtedly relished, being the cunning artificer that he incontrovertibly was, inverting a traditional story tale motif – for 'damsel-in-distress' read throughout 'middle-aged-man-at-the mercy-of-maidens' – and made that, or so it seems to me, the cornerstone of his entire plot. And speaking of cunning artificers, it's time to examine Odysseus in that role, which we will do in the next lesson.

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Written by

Robert Garland