Show how Homer uses a wide range of female characters in the Odyssey in order to define the role and importance of women in heroic society.
Homer uses a vast range of women in the Odyssey, both human and monstrous. The main device he uses to ascertain women’s position in society is through comparison to Penelope, Odysseus’ wife. Penelope is an important woman in the community, running the household, without male assistance, and raising the future king Telemachus. Despite the physical and economic temptations of the suitors, she remains ever faithful to Odysseus - always believing that he will be back again. At the other end of the spectrum, even worse a woman than the monsters, is Clytemnestra. Although a strong woman like Penelope, heroic society demands that she be subservient to her husband, thus making his murder and her infidelity with Aegisthus wrong. We only hear about this story when it is related to men, almost as if it daren’t be mentioned.
Women are divided into good and bad. Both Nausicaa and her mother are good, they adhere to the laws of Xenia and are welcoming hosts. Their roles are matriarchal. Unlike Odysseus, Alcinous is at home, not putting his wife in Penelope’s position. They carry out domestic chores: Nausicaa meets Odysseus while she is washing clothes. Those who do not conduct themselves this way are treated badly by Homer - especially if they are not human, like Scylla and Charybdis, or the Sirens.
However, women are not all either good or bad in the Odyssey. Circe is a witch, she is a powerful woman and turns Odysseus’ men into pigs. This is not Penelope-esque behaviour but she does observe xenia. calypso is a demi-goddess and keeps Odysseus prisoner on her island before reluctantly letting him go. The concept of female power is allowed in the Odyssey, providing that it is relinquished when the husband is present, but women like Circe and Calypso are “dangerous” because they don’t conform to the heroic image of women.
There are also female gods present in the Odyssey - like Athene, to whom Odysseus turns for advice. This is an echo of a real earthly female trait, when Odysseus partakes of his mother Anticleia’s wisdom in the Underworld, as he did when she lived.
Homer has used women from all backgrounds to reiterate the fact that a ‘heroic’ woman was a loyal wife and mother, respected in public, strong for her husband - yet under his jurisdiction.
Angela Fitzpatrick A2