Female Characters Subverted By Men In The Odyssey

Women’s portrayal in Greek literature is varied and reveals attitudes towards women’s status. The Odyssey is full of a wide variety of female characters, each with their own personality and motivation. However, these women are subverted by the men. The most striking example of this inequality comes in the form of Odysseus’ maids who are sentenced to death for having a relationship with the suitors. The grim fate of the maids illustrates how women are treated with disdain and distrust in classical Greek stories. The maids’ executions are a powerful reminder that the honor of women in classical Greek literature, and even today, is closely linked to their sex and physical appearance.

Odysseus is informed by Eurykleia that the servants have defiled his house by engaging in sexual relations with the suitors. This is because the nature, if not explicit, of the sexual relations that led to these maids being killed deserves attention. The suitors’ behavior is described from the very beginning as disrespectful and unacceptable. Telemachus comments early that the suitors are acting as if Odysseus and Penelope don’t matter, and they take whatever they want. The suitors’ disrespect towards Penelope is evident by their entry into her house, courting her, and even courting her when she was married. The suitors’ and maids’ relationship is also not described. It is clear from their behavior that the maids, who were powerless against the mob of violent suitors, were forced into sexual relations. Powerless to stop such a reckless mob, the servants were forced to engage in sexual relations to appease these men. Odysseus makes them clean the halls to get rid of the bodies. The description states: “As she spoke/ there came a group of women all wailing with soft tears running down their cheeks. They started to move the bodies out of the courtyard/under a gate, and stacked them against one another according to Odysseus’s orders (Book 22, lines 448-453). It is a shame that they have to do this, even though it is a painful task. Odysseus tells Eurykleia about what happened: “Your duty is to inform me of all the women who have dishonored you, as well as the innocents.” The Greek literature is filled with references to dishonor and women in particular. For men, dishonor comes from failing in battle or not protecting others. But for women, it is almost always a result of “improper” relations. The maids’ execution is particularly gruesome because of this concept of dishonor. They are treated with disdain because they had relations, sexual or otherwise, with Odysseus’s opponents, the suitors. But the women were also scorned in the beginning for their sexual relationships. Telemachus expresses his disgust at the execution of the maids: “I will not let trulls mock my mother/ and me as well-you sluts. Who slept with suitors.” This insult originates solely from disdain for the sexual activity of women and is reserved exclusively for women.

The Greek women are also idealized and praised for their chastity. However, this is not true of the men. Odysseus and other men are not expected to remain faithful to their wives while on the journey. Calypso is the first to speak out against this double-standard in Book 5, after she was told to allow Odysseus his journey. Her argument is not about the gods but the differences in standards between men and woman. She says, “Oh, you vile, supernal gods!/ You hate that we choose to lie down with mortals-/ immortals flesh by some dear mortal sides” (Book 5 lines 119-121). Calypso claims that goddesses are not treated the same way as gods when they try to seduce mortal men. Calypso is then forced to concede to Zeus and return Odysseus on his journey. Calypso is a good example of the importance women are given for their chastity. The Odyssey uses her sexual aggression and power to make it an antagonistic weapon. Odysseus must overcome her sexuality, just as he did with the sirens. Penelope will be expected to remain faithful until Odysseus’s son has facial hair. Telemachus can only marry Penelope after he assumes an important role in authority and power.

Women’s history of sexuality has been an important part of history. Today, women’s bodies and their use are still given an overly-significant and damaging importance. The Odyssey’s maids are an extreme example, but it is not uncommon. Women are made out to be guilty of their sexual relationships. This is true even when they have been raped or assaulted. The maids’ execution places blame on women, not the aggressors. They were victims of their circumstances. It is not uncommon for women to be put to death in other countries for having sexual relations. In our country, women are still blamed for assaults and rapes, even though they can’t claim it without having their sexual history, behavior, or dress questioned. Women are still under constant scrutiny, and have no autonomy over their bodies. The maids are a perfect example of the dangers of basing women’s worth on faulty ideals of chastity. The maids, who are viewed as disloyal by the suitors, suffer an even worse death. The maids’ crime is more severe than that of violent mobs because women are judged harsher for sexual activity and using their bodies.


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    Bailey Williams is an educational blogger and school teacher who uses her blog as a way to share her insights and knowledge with her readers. She has been teaching for over 10 years and has a deep understanding of the school system and how to help students reach their goals. Her blog is packed full of helpful information and resources, so be sure to check it out if you're looking for help with your schoolwork!