The Odyssey is an ancient Greek epic poem of Homer. It is the continuation of the Iliad, the other Homeric epic poem. In the Odyssey, we can see the journey of the heroes and the literary representation of the ideal woman. It can be said that women in ancient times were not considered equals to men. In Homer’s Odyssey, there are war stories describing the adventures of the soldiers. However, there are not many female characters in the Odyssey that can portray the vital role that Odysseus has in the Odyssey. The Odyssey allows us to understand what is proper and what is improper in relationships between mortals, gods, women, and men. Womens’ roles are vital in the development of this epic poem. However, it is clear that women do not have the same power as men. The women in the Odyssey are unique in their personalities, actions, and servitude. However, this is not very transparent throughout the story. All the women in the odyssey differ but they each encompass character traits that symbolize what an ideal woman looked like during that time. The Odyssey gives us two versions of women in ancient Greek society. Penelope is one version of the perfect woman, and she represents the loyalty and the perfection of what was to be expected of a wife in ancient Greece. Penelope not only portrays commitment to her husband but also, intelligence, obedience, and the power to trick people (such as her husband).
In the Odyssey, the main character, called Odysseus, meets and entertains an impressive array of women. All the women in the Odyssey are very different and have different personalities, and Homer shows his attitude towards each of the women. There are many female characters in the Odyssey, like Nausicaa, a young, innocent maiden, Arete, Circe, Calypso, Helen, and Athena. These characters help us to understand how a woman can be important in the play of a situation. There are many ideal women in the Odyssey, but the central character proves to be Penelope. Penelope is the wife of Odysseus and she represents the ‘ideal woman’, i.e. loyal to her husband. When Odysseus was trapped on the island of Calypso, Penelope was dealing with suitors who wanted her hand in marriage. She did not want to marry any of those men because it was thought that a queen without her king had no power. She made a plan to gain time with the hope that her husband would make it back home. In the text, Penelope says ‘I have worked hard to weave this winding-sheet to bury good Laertes when he dies…she wove the mighty cloth, and then at night by torchlight, she unwove it’ (Homer, Book 2 page 337). Unfortunately for Penelope, this plan did not last long. Penelope showed her wisdom and cleverness during the entire epic poem. Throughout the years that Odysseus was gone, she remained loyal to her husband.
Penelope remains faithful to Odysseus after twenty years of him being absent and is even hopeful that he will return home. She was not seen every day, especially not after so many years of waiting. This makes her gain the name of such a loyal wife in the Homer epic. Odysseus and Penelope share a rational partnership based on true love. However, if we look closely, we can see how Odysseus slept with every Goddess and woman that came into his sight. Infidelity in women results in a disaster and dishonor while infidelity in men is considered natural and maintains a kind of power structure. Penelope is sagaciously contrasted with the story of Clytemnestra. Clytemnestra cheated on her husband with Aegisthus and planned to kill her husband. Clytemnestra’s action takes place when her infidelity to Agamemnon makes her seem like a weak and bad wife. Penelope was waiting for her husband for twenty years, while Clytemnestra conspires to kill Agamemnon upon his return home. This contrast between characters only further serves to illustrate Penelope as the ideal woman.
Another story that contrasts with Penelope’s stories is Helen. Helen was the wife of King Menelaus and soul mate of Paris. She was the cause of the Trojan war and was considered a self-centered person. She did not think about what would happen if her decision and actions were reckless. The Trojan war brought misery and destruction to the Trojans and their families. In Helen’s case, she did not know that her actions would bring the destruction of many people and was selfish to have not considered the consequences of her actions. On the other hand, Penelope thinks carefully about what decisions to make and which actions to take. Penelope is brilliant, like her husband, and knows how to trick people. In a way, Penelope knew that her actions could have horrible effects if she decides to make the wrong decision. There was a part in the text when Odysseus returned home. However, he was disguised as a stranger. Penelope tests him in order to determine if this “stranger” was telling the truth about being Odysseus.
In the text, Penelope exclaims, ‘You extraordinary man! I am not acting proud or underplaying this big event, yet I am not surprised at how you look. You look like this the day your long oars sailed ways from Ithaca. Now, Eurycleia, make the bed for him outside the room he built himself. Pull out the bedstead and spread quilts and blankets on it’ (Homer, Book 23, page 585).
It is easy to infer that Penelope was testing Odysseus. Only Odysseus and Penelope knew about the secret trick hidden within that bed. When Odysseus got angry and began to tell her all of the things that he did to make that bed, Penelope knew that the stranger was Odysseus. It was known that some Gods disguised themselves to accomplish something or to trick a mortal. Penelope knew that it could be a god in disguise trying to trick her by telling her that he was her husband and go to bed with her. However, she knew that by sleeping with a god, she would be being unfaithful to her husband. If this happened, her husband would be looking for revenge and would only be killed since Odysseus did not have the powers of a god.
These actions not only tell us how loyal Penelope was but how intelligent and competent she was also. Penelope had resembled an “ideal woman” of those times. Even though it appeared as though Penelope had some power, it was often questioned because a queen had no power if she had no king. There is another character that is similar to Penelope’s personality when it comes to the representation of ideal women/marriage: Alcestis of Euripides. She came to represent female perfection. The Greeks refer to this perfect female as a good housekeeper, nurturer of her husband, grateful and pure. There are many similarities between these women when it comes to being perfect. It is important to mention how these women represented the ‘ideal women’ of ancient Greece.
The possibility of being a good wife, beautiful and intelligent, is what was expected of a woman. The idea of an “ideal woman” required that women be faithful and obedient. Obedience was an important characteristic for a woman to have. A submissive woman let a man know that they were the one in power. The article ‘A Translator’s Reckoning with The Women of the Odyssey by Emily Wilson, reads: ‘Her keen mind is not liberating it keeps her stuck. By contrast, Odysseus’ intelligence is defined as an ability to find a fix for any situation. This proves that Penelope shares her husband’s brilliant mind, but her ideas are limited. Elite women of ancient Greece had some power that required them to be cautious about how and when to use it. Penelope was balanced: she knew when to trick others and how to use her power. At the same time, she knew when to stop or have a limit. Penelope has the characteristics of both an ideal wife and a perfect lover, which makes her a perfect woman for her husband, Odysseus. This makes me look at how compatible they are with each other. If Penelope represents a good woman (prudent, chaste, and obedient to her husband’s interests) then it seems as though all other women were considered unworthy. However, if they are mortals and had feminist powers, they were Goddesses. As a woman, Penelope’s life is narrowly defined. Over the long journey of 20 years, Odysseus faces a vast sea’s worth of choices, while Penelope only has one stay loyal to her husband or take a new husband. Is Penelope the ideal woman because she is intelligent but obedient to her custom and husband? There is a lot to think about, but it is seen that this is the answer.
If we compare the ‘ideal woman’ from the present and ancient times, we have to admit that things are very different. In the past, women were expected to wait for their husbands, spend their time sewing, and adhere to all the customs and traditions. However, nowadays women can go to work, they can vote, and they have some power in society. The other women in the Odyssey did not represent the ideal woman because they were not obedient. They do not do what was expected of them as a wife. We cannot speak about the Goddess because they have power and can do whatever they want, while mortal women have to follow custom and try to be a good wife. To remind again when Odysseus returns home, it’s Telemachus, who first learns the true identity of the stranger. Telemachus and his father are connected through the truth that is not revealed to Penelope. This relationship perpetuates the idea that women are subordinate to and dependent on, the actions of men. Since Penelope is passive, submissive but at the same time, intelligent like her husband Odysseus, Penelope represents the perfect wife that Odysseus desired which caused him to leave all the other women that he was with on his long journey.