Gender Roles in The Odyssey, by Homer
The Odyssey is the product of a society in which the dominant role was played by men. In ancient Greece, just as in the whole of the ancient world, and in America and Western Europe until the last century, women occupied a subservient position. Society was organized and directed by men, and all of the most important enterprises were those which men arranged and implemented. Women were valued, but they participated in the affairs of the world only when they had the tacit or open approval and permission of the men who directed their lives.
The literature of this sort of masculine society, of which the Iliad and Odyssey are examples, aptly illustrates these social conventions. The themes of these works are subjects which are of interest to men; warfare, hunting, the problems of the warrior and ruler, and so forth. That which would concern women, such as domestic affairs, is not involved in this literature, or is dealt with only casually. Keeping in mind this important attribute of epic poetry, which is the direct result of its social and intellectual environment, one cannot help noting the great difference between the Odyssey and all other epic poems. No other literary work of this period, or of a similar cultural background, gives such a prominent position to women. No reader of the Odyssey can help having vivid memories of the poem’s outstanding female characters.
There are many women in the Odyssey and all of them contribute in meaningful ways to the development of the action. Furthermore, the poet treats them seriously and with respect, as if there were no difference between his attitude toward them and his feelings toward the chieftains for whom his epic was composed. Among the memorable women in the poem are Nausicaa, the innocent young maiden; Arete, the wise and benevolent queen and mother; Circe and Calypso, the sultry and mysterious temptresses; Penelope, the ideal of marital devotion and fidelity; Helen, the respectable middle-class matron with a past; and others, like Eurycleia and Mel-antho, who have much smaller roles, but equally well defined personalities. Finally, there is Athene, the goddess, who more than any other of these women, has the intelligence, sophistication, and independence that the modern world expects of a woman.
The influential feminine strain in the Odyssey also has important effects upon the whole flavor of the poem. Many other early epics are...