Is Odysseus a Hero - Hidden Sexism in Ancient Literature

“The classicist Mary Beard opens her book “Women & Power” with a scene out of the Odyssey”, states an article from The Los Angeles Times, where Penelope attempts to approach the suitors who occupy her mansion and her adolescent son, Telemachus, tells her to return to her room; “public speaking is for men”. This strongly proves how misogyny and sexism have dominated society since the Ancient Times, and was reflected by literature and philosophy, more specifically in Ancient Greece. In “The Odyssey”, which is a sequel to “The Illiad”, Homer tells the story of Odysseus, a hero of the Trojan war, who, after ten years away from his home, goes on a journey to return to Ithaca. Odysseus faces the wrath of gods (mostly Poseidon) and overcomes many obstacles, often thanks to the help of Athena. That being said, the role of women in the Odyssey was very different than the one of men. In reality, Homer’s piece shows that even between aristocrats themselves, female characters were marginalized or even excluded. Women were subjects of misogyny, in a society where patriarchy ruled. In is Odysseus a hero essay we will take a closer look at whether he was a true hero or a sexist.

To begin with, the women in the story have a very minor role compared to the men. Mothers are persistent figures throughout “The Odyssey” and are seen as the givers of pity and sorrow rather than true “supporters' of their sons and husbands in terms of military or personal quests. In most instances of depictions of mother figures in “The Odyssey”, they’re in need of support and guidance because they are weak and fragile. Without a steady male hand to guide them, these women appear to be lost and inconsolable. Men are free to spend time with strange women, but women are held to strict social codes of conduct that seem to drive these extremes of either intense and self-sacrificing motherhood or selfish betrayal.

The hero, Odysseus, is a man. And although Athena helps him throughout all of the books, her role stays neglectable compared to his. Despite constantly being there for him when he deals with problems, she never acts directly. She’s a goddess, the daughter of a god, and yet she doesn’t show any traits of divinity through her actions. The goddess of wisdom, justice and courage actually helps Odysseus by telling him what he should do and giving him the tools for it instead of concretely giving him what he wants. It makes us wonder why Poseidon is so different than Athena; his anger against Odysseus drove him to take serious measures in order to kill him, such as starting a storm to ruin his ship and drown him. However, Athena never killed the suitors herself, which would’ve saved Odysseus a long journey. Her job, throughout all the books, was to push Odysseus forward, but it was always up to him to take action.

In reality, at first glance, Athena seems like a dominant character whose gender doesn’t detract from her influence in The Odyssey. She uses her power to disguise Odysseus as a beggar, to inform Telemachus of how to safely travel home to Ithaca and avoid the suitors and to help Odysseus and Telemachus conquer and kill the suitors. However, a closer inspection of Athena reveals that all of her power is used to assist men in the story. Athena doesn’t benefit personally from aiding Odysseus or Telemachus, and she acts as a servant to their needs. Therefore, Homer’s portrayal of Athena detracts, rather than adds, to the rights of women in The Odyssey.

In addition, there’s the perpetuation of gender stereotypes, the simultaneous sexualization and stigmatization of women who engage in behavior judged to be promiscuous, which is crudely alluded to “slut shaming”, of female characters, besides their objectification and routine disposal. Throughout “The Odyssey”, Homer seems to be fascinated with taking awesome female characters and turning them into seductresses; women are usually depicted as sexual aggressors. In fact, even the female enemies of Odysseus are often portrayed as beautiful, attractive women who use their sexuality to get what they want by seducing men. Circe exemplifies this characteristic among the goddesses, turning the foolish men she so easily seduces into the pigs she believes them to be, while Calypso imprisons Odysseus as her virtual slave. The Sirens, too, try to destroy passing sailors with their beautiful voices, by seducing and then drowning them.

Furthermore, the women are usually correlated to the vices of mischief, cunning, evil and manipulation. On his way back home, Odysseus disguised himself mainly in order to have the upper hand when it comes to facing the suitors, but partially because he wanted to make sure his wife, Penelope, was faithful and loyal. Although Penelope never showed any unfaithfulness and has always been completely devoted to her husband, multiple characters pushed Odysseus to doubt her, because it was always assumed that women betray their husbands. Many female characters in the book were shown to be unfaithful women, who used their sexuality in order to manipulate men and get what they want; most of the monsters in the book are females (Charybdis, Scylla, The Sirens).

On a different note, women in the book are constantly marginalized and put aside. Their opinions are ignored, the big decisions are made by men, the major roles are taken by men. A woman, in the Ancient Greek society, is defined by her appearance, her social status, or the importance of the men around her (her father, husband, sons). During Odysseus's journey to the underworld he sees many different types of women. We hear about their beauty, their important sons, or their affairs with gods, we hear nothing about these women's accomplishments in their lifetime. Some women are known for the deeds of their sons or husbands, but never for a heroic deed of their own, their personalities, and what they do themselves. It seems the only accomplishment women could achieve was being beautiful. Penelope, Odysseus' queen, is paid attention to only because of her position. Because she has a kingdom, she has suitors crowding around her day and night. Being a woman, Penelope has no control over what the suitors do and cannot get rid of them, they want her wealth and her kingdom. They don’t respect her enough to stop feeding on Odysseus's wealth; and think she owes them something because she won't marry one of them. Even Telemachus doesn't respect his mother as he should: when the song of a minstrel makes her sad and Penelope requests him to stop playing, Telemachus interrupts and says to her, 'Mother, why do you grudge our own dear minstrel joy of song, wherever his thought may lead.”

In fact, throughout the story, Homer refer to objects as females. He uses the pronouns “she” and “her” when describing objects and their movements, such as Odysseus’s ship on his way back to Ithaca. This insists on the idea that society considered women inferior, and that was shown in literature and philosophy. Sexism against women wasn’t solely expressed in Ancient Greece’s society (which existed in 800 BCE) through the people’s actions on a daily basis, but also through Homer’s style of writing.

If we take a closer look at the roles that female characters had in the book, we can clearly see the gender stereotypes. Women, even goddesses, are here to serve men and gods. They take care of the household, of guests who come over (the suitors), and act with the sole purpose of satisfying men around them. And if any woman decides to go against these stereotypes, they’re excluded, weirded out, pushed away, and punished. We can even consider that Circe and Calypso are punished for defying the gender expectations by having to live on their own islands, alone, isolated from everyone.

To sum up, the Odyssey is a patriarchal myth that amplifies the greatness of man, and insists on the weakness of women. It shows that men are capable of achieving far more than a woman ever could, and reiterates that women must obey men. Nevertheless, the amount of sexism and misogyny found in “The Odyssey” isn’t surprising at all; it reflects the reality of society back then. It also reflects the misogyny that authors and philosophers themselves expressed through their work back then. And although societies developed immensely over the years, with women becoming almost equal to men, misogyny and sexism still haven’t disappeared.

Ever since the emergence of feminism in the nineteenth century, societies have changed much faster and much more efficiently. Women are fighting for equality to men, but here’s where, in the twenty-first century, the problem arises; the definition of feminism is slowly changing. What originally meant equality between the two genders is sometimes misunderstood for an “anti-men” movement, which is starting to push people, including women, to doubt the principles of feminism.        

08 December 2022
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