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In the Odyssey, Homer brings us back to the society of his times through his writings about the people, their lifestyles, perspectives and values. In the patriarchal perspective of women in Homer’s society, women hold very low status in comparison to men. In fact, they are considered tokens of male power-struggles. We will study how Homer uses language and style in the portrayal of some women characters to understand what views of women are presented and how these may represent the patriarchal perspective of this male value-system society.
Thus, prominent characters such as Penelope, Arete, Nausikaa and the maidservants, will be the focus of our discussion. Penelope is a woman of many virtues and through her longing for her husband and views about remarrying, she presents to us as a woman with not just beauty and intelligence, but also faithfulness and passion towards her husband. Penelope is a well-respected lady who always appears veiled and accompanied by her servants whenever she meets up with people as the use of veil in her society is a sign of her chastity and modesty (Od.
This explains why Homer compares her to Artemis, the goddess of chastity in the metaphor “looking like Artemis, or like golden Aphrodite” (Od. 17. 37). In fact, Eurymachos describes her as one who surpasses all women for beauty, stature and for her well-balanced mind. Her beauty makes her desirable among the suitors who want her as their wife. Even without knowing her intellect and virtues, men from different places and backgrounds are already attracted by her beauty alone.
This love-at-first-sight shows that in their society, the rich generally consider the outward beauty and status of a person as more important factors than the inner beauty of her heart. Bestowed with the wisdom by Athene, Penelope is gifted in weaving, the value placed on women’s work at home by the society. She is also a lady with cleverness, faithfulness and good character. When the suitors gave her problems, she does not lose her anger easily. In the contest where every suitor gets to string the bow to win for her hand in marriage, she displays fairness to all, even to the vagabond whom Odysseus was disguised as.
Her fairness and her kind temper matches the epithet ‘temperate Penelope’ as described by Menelaos (Od. 4. 111). Even Agamemnon compliments Odysseus for having a wife endowed with great virtues. He uses the epithets ‘blameless Penelope’ and ‘prudent Penelope’ which she indeed lives up to as seen in her character and love for Odysseus (Od. 24. 191-198). To the society, a virtuous woman is one who makes a good wife. Thus, Homer uses the epithet ‘virtuous wife’ to describe her (Od. 20. 57). In Od. 4. 91, Penelope is being compared to the simile ‘as a lion’.
This simile is rarely used for woman in the Homeric society as it seems strange to compare a woman to a lion. However, Penelope is a heroic woman and warriors are unusually likened to lions more than any other animals. In addition, her suitors threaten her way of life with their plans to kill Telemachos. Thus, the image of a lion at bay is appropriate. Desperately helpless at her husband’s absence, Penelope uses her wits and charms to play a waiting game with the suitors.
Although she was holding some hope for the suitors, there are other intentions in her mind (Od. 13. 376-381). Her longing for Odysseus’ return is unchanging and she always goes to bed in tears (Od. 4. 800-801). She despairs of Odysseus ever returning to the point of hoping that Artemis can grant her death (Od. 18. 200). Thus, she uses her wits to think of ways to delay her marriage. In the day, she weaves, but at night she secretly undo it so as to delay its completion and thus her marriage, since she promises the suitors to remarry upon completion of the weaving.
In fact, her decision to remarry is to fulfill the instructions that Odysseus left her, that when Telemachos reaches maturity, she will consider remarrying (Od. 18. 269-273). Nobody knows the plans she has in mind to deal with the suitors, who are feasting at the expense of her household, not even her son (Od. 1. 249-250). This matches the simile “none of these knew thoughts so wise as those Penelope knew (Od. 2. 121-122). ” The suitors thought that offering her the best gifts can win her heart, but Penelope was no typical lady and she holds on firmly to her stand.
In fact, she beguiled gifts out of them not out of greed, but to teach them a lesson for the ravages they have inflicted upon the palace. Through the suitors’ bride-gifts, in terms of dowry, as well as a gift-contest, Homer is suggesting that the patriarchal perspective of a woman’s value in the society is nothing but an object or ‘currency’ by which men are defining their deal (Od. 18. 275-280). Penelope definitely does not conform to the pressures of her society. This matches the epithet ‘circumspect’, since Penelope is one who does not compromise her stand.
This distinct character in her makes her different from other women whose fate lies in the hands of the men. Penelope’s concerns and love towards her son is typical of every mother in the society. Although Penelope is served by many maids, she does not leave the upbringing of her child to them, but raises him up by herself. This mother-child relationship encompasses not just respect and love, but also forgiveness over all misunderstandings and anger. This is seen when Penelope forgives Telemachos for leaving her secretly in search for Odysseus (Od. 17. 36-48).
This love Penelope which showers upon her family matches the metaphor “shining among women” since she is outstanding not just in her virtues, beauty and love for her husband, but also as a caring and affectionate mother (Od. 23. 302). This shows us that while a woman’s status in the Homeric society is defined very much in terms of their relationship to men, Penelope is one who earns the respect worthy of her own beliefs and virtues. In the next example, we will be looking at a delightfully portrayed character, Nausikaa, the daughter of great-hearted Alkinoos.
This father-and-daughter relationship is so closely knitted that when Nausikaa uses the words “Daddy dear” in her opening speech, Alkinoos already knows what she is up to (Od. 6. 57). Homer uses this exchange beautifully to illustrate their close relationship. Nausikaa’s request for her father’s consent to go and wash clothes is inspired by Athene, as this will significantly imply that she is ready to be responsible. Her respect for her father is typical of the Homeric society, as they are the leaders of their households. In the Homeric society, the use of veil is a sign for a lady’s modesty and chastity.
Yet Nausikaa, a young lady of marriageable age, is unveiled even when she is out in the open (Od. 6. 100). This makes her vulnerable and it contradicts with how Odysseus describes her as having the ‘likeness to Artemis the daughter of great Zeus, for beauty, figure and stature’ since Artemis is a goddess of chastity (Od. 6. 151-152). This betrays the patriarchal perspective of women where they should protect their own reputation. In Nausikaa’s encounter with Odysseus, she shows that she is easily trusting just by the words he says and displays xenia as seen in Od. 6. 90-192 where she assures him that he will lack nothing. In fact, she asks her attendants to feed and bathe him (Od. 6. 209-210). This xenia sequence resembles her father and is no wonder she is the daughter of the ‘great-hearted Alkinoos’ (Od. 6. 17).
This hospitality is untypical of the Phaiakians as they are reputated for their hostility to strangers. In Od. 6. 313, the metaphor “how I wish… be called my son-in-law” displays Alkinoo’s offer of his daughter’s hand in marriage. This is legitimized since it has come from him as her father. In return, he offers Odysseus a house and properties.
This offer of marriage is common in the Homeric society since fathers, as heads of the household, give the ultimate consent to their daughters’ hand. Nausikaa’s mother, Arete, is another prominent woman that we will be studying. Arete is well-respected by her children, people as well as her husband. She lacks no good intelligence and is renowned for her ability to dissolve quarrels among men (Od. 7. 69-76). She even takes care of Odysseus though he is a stranger, bringing out the splendid gifts for him and asking her maids to prepare a bath for him (Od. 8. 433-439).
This matches the simile “look toward her as to god” since she is being held high in their hearts (Od. 7. 71). Arete is indeed an extraordinary woman and to a woman who is endowed with such wisdom and power, it is no doubt that the people in her society holds her high in respect. When Arete questions Odysseus about his background, including ‘Who are you? ‘, Odysseus does not answer her directly. In view of that, Arete does not pursue it (Od. 7. 237-239). This response of not probing further is unlike of Arete, a queen. It conflicts with the epithet ‘white-armed’ (Od. 7. 233).
Perhaps Arete has her own unique approach as compared to other women in the book. In the next example, we will discuss about the maids mentioned in the Odyssey as they hold the lower status in the society. Through the examples of Penelope, Arete and Nausikaa, we can see that they are always accompanied by their serving maids. These serving maids do the household chores and serve their masters and their guests. In the society, to serve with loyalty to their masters is important. From the example of the maids in Odysseus’ household, they are put to death because they slept with the suitors (Od. 20. 7).
This is why Homer uses the epithet ‘faithless maids’ to describe them as they have betrayed what the society deemed as loyalty. Even when one of the maids was rude to the vagabond, Penelope gave her a hard scolding, using the words ‘bold and shameless bitch’ on her (Od. 19. 90-92). In the society, maids hold one of the lowest ranks in status for women and it is a job which only the poor will work for since their fate will lie at the hands of their masters. Indeed, Homer intelligently uses special features in his language and style in the presentation of women through the examples of Penelope, Nausikaa, Arete and the maids.
Having studied the use of epithets, similes and metaphors on these women, we have a better picture of where women stand in society as well as the value placed on them. Some of the evidences do represent the patriarchal perspectives of women by the society while some do not, as seen from the discussion above. Through studying Homer’s use of language and style in the portrayal of women in the Odyssey, it has remarkably enriched our understanding of how they reflected the attitudes of his society with regards to women.
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