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Female Power in The Odyssey
Throughout time women have had to fight hard for respect and the rights that come with it. Many societies have potrayed women as second class citizens, teaching that they should be subservient to men. There have been those who have spent entire lifetimes working to break beyond the traditional concepts of women and power. It is very challenging, however, for the sex to achieve higher status, when a society teaches not to speak out or against men’s wishes. How can one try to express a more enlightened view when he or she is not allowed a voice with which to make it? In The Odyssey, Homer shows the reader an ancient Greek society where women are given specific roles and are often underestimated simply because of gender. Characters, such as Penelope, who keeps quiet at the epic’s beginning about her wishes for the suitors to leave, and Odysseus’ nurse, who obediently washes his feet, are examples of the chauvinist mind set. Despite the unfairness of the period in which the story takes place, certain women try in their own way to rise above the binds of tradition and show feminine power. In The Odyssey, through cunning manipulation and plotting three women stand their ground in individual protests to get what they want;
Penelope’s trickery in evading the impatient marriage proposals by suitors, Helen’s deceit over Menelaos during the Trojan War, and finally the control that Nausicaa seems have upon first meeting Odysseus each illustrate power possessed by females of the epic.
At the Epic’s beginning the reader finds Penelope, Odysseus’ wife in Ithica facing the pressure of suitors who wish her hand in marriage. Despite the fact that her husband has been gone for twenty years, she holds true to her husband’s memory and refuses to remarry. At first glance her situation seems hopeless. The men have moved into her home, taking complete advantage of her husband’s land and riches, eating his prize livestock, and drinking his finest wine. Penelope is however in control, carefully plotting against her rude guests. It has been said that one must keep their friends close and their enemies closer. She does just that, by keeping the suitors in her home for three years in order to later seek vengeance:
Here is an instance of her trickery:
she had a great loom standing in the hall
and the fine warp of some vast fabric on it;
we were attending her, and she said to us:
“Young men, my suitors, now my lord is dead,
let me finish my weaving before I marry,
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
So every day she wove on the great loom-
But every night by torchlight she unwove it;
(98-103, 110-111, 2.3)
By sneaking to the loom at night to unweave her threads she is able to stall her decisions. She further buys time by stating that she needs time to pick a husband, giving the impression that she is indeed considering remarriage. Penelope’s devotion in never swayed by the suitor’s begging, presents, or their threats. It is her trickery that is her strength, in which capacity she will have victory.
The manipulation of men is also a source of power for Helen, wife of Menelaos. Helan has left her husband to be with Paris, upon his death she lives with Deiphobos for the remainder of the Trojan War, eventually returning to her husband. Although it is easy to make character judgments on her, even perhaps blaming her for initial cause of the war, the focus must remain on her personal strength in achieving her goals. It is amazing the way that the text depicts her ability to take charge over her husband, even after all she has done to him. This is shown in book IV when Odysseus’ son, Telemacchus, goes the great hall of Menelaos, hiding his identity. With everyone
gathered, ready to eat, Helen takes it upon herself to discover the identity of their guest:
“Menelaos, my lord, have we yet heard
our new guests introduce themselves? Shall I
dissemble what I feel? No, I must say it.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
This boy must be the son of Odysseus
Telemakhos, (145-147,4.3, 150-151,4.4)
Helen, not even waiting for permission from Menelaos, lashes out at Telemakhos. Most women of this time would have never made such a bold move, especially without first consulting their husband. Helen is very secure in her authority using her sex to her benefit rather than as a handicapt.
The third character of Focus, Nausikaa, seems at the start of book VI to be helplessly trapped by gender boundaries. The reader sees her supposed innocence as she waits to be married. She is responsible for her brothers and for making sure that she gets herself married. The tables are suddenly changed when she wakes the sleeping Odysseus. This young woman, having no prier knowledge of the male body is face with this nude warrior:
Streaked to the brine, and swollen, he terrified them,
so that they ran this way and that. Only
Alkinoos’ daughter stood her ground, being given
a bold heart by Athena, and steady knees.(146-149,6.4)
The fact that she stays with the stranger, although all others run displays great courage on her part. She does not allow fear of this strange man’s possible motives frighten her, standing her ground. She continues to show her bravery by providing Odysseus with clothing and a place to stay, inviting him into her own house. Even by today’s standards, her assertiveness to remain in control is remarkable.
As individuals approaching the twenty first century it is hard to believe that the simple actions of the women of The Odyssey are to be viewed as acts of power. It is only when one looks at the society described by Homer and the time period in which the epic is set, that the defiance of tradition can truly be respected for what is. Peneope, Helen, and Nausikaa, lived under strict constraints and were of a gender whose opinion was neither accepted nor wanted. These women are to be applauded as revolutionaries for their actions, no matter how small they may seem, in exercising their natural Feminine power.
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