According to Greek mythology, Pandora, the first woman to be created, introduced trouble in the lives of men. As she opened the box containing all the evils of the world, she allowed them all to escape and earned women the designation of troublesome. The curiosity and foolishness which drove Pandora to open the box were forever after viewed as typical attributes of women and supposedly justified their inferiority to men. Additionally, they came to be known as sneaky, conniving temptresses who would carelessly complicate the lives of men. While men were known for their strength, women were associated with trickery. Homer uses these themes in the Iliad and the Odyssey in order to distinguish between the two genders. While the Iliad focuses on brute strength, its companion, the Odyssey, is a poem of cunning. It is not without coincidence that this poem of cunning contains many female figures while the poem of brute strength consists mainly of men.
Throughout the Odyssey, women are used as a symbol of temptation. The main concern of the poem is to discuss Odysseus’ nostos which has been prolonged by Ajax’ raping Cassandra in a temple. Cassandra obviously represents the temptation which Ajax submitted to. The rape of Cassandra angers the female deity Athena who subsequently prevents Odysseus and his crew from safely returning home. This theme of temptation in the form of women continues throughout the poem. After much agony at sea, Odysseus finds himself trapped on an island by the nymph Calypso. Since she is female, Calypso’s force comes in the form of seduction, not brute strength. The goddess’ sex appeal kept Odysseus occupied and temporarily prevented him from continuing his journey home. When Hermes informs her that Odysseus must be released, Calypso tries to convince him to stay. In her conniving feminine way, she has a feast laid before him and tempts him with her beauty which cannot imagine Odysseus’ mortal wife could match. Nevertheless, Calypso is forced to submit to Zeus’ orders and release her captive. When he escapes Calypso, Odysseus must deal with Circe, another female trickster. Circe dupes Odysseus’ men by drugging their beer, turning them into swine, and making them forget about their home. When her tricks do not work on Odysseus, she lures him into her bed, and, once again, man gives in to the temptation of woman. Her continued use of the feminine charm distracts Odysseus and his men from their journey for a year. Once they continue on their course, they are met by yet another female adversary in the form of the Sirens. These women use their beautiful, enchanting song to attract passersby. As Odysseus’ ship sails past, his naked ears are tortured by the sweet song of the Sirens. This song drives Odysseus mad with desire, and his men must keep him tied to the ship rail, prohibiting him from giving in to temptation. If it were not for his men, the Sirens could have caused Odysseus to crash his ship on the rocks.
Even though women serve as a great obstacle on his journey, Odysseus is not the only male to suffer at the hands of females. His wife, Penelope, uses her feminine wiles to ward off the suitors that have overtaken her home. Penelope embodies the passive, pathetic woman in that she does little more than cry for her husband’s return. Being female, however, she does not refrain entirely from using her cunning to her advantage. She manages to successfully prolong a relationship with any of the suitors by telling them she will choose amongst them once she finishes her weaving. Since she undoes all of her work every night, she is able to keep the suitors at bay for some time. Still, they eventually realize the trick and force her to finish her work.
Even though these women use their feminine powers to seduce men, they are ultimately dependent on the actions of men and the gods. As independent and controlling as these women might appear, their social status prohibited their powers to enable them complete freedom. The female with the most control is Athena; however, even she must first consult them male Zeus before she can help Odysseus. Athena’s powerful influence can also be justified in the fact that she considers herself to be androgynous. Since she was born out of Zeus’ head and never knew a mother, Athena errs on the side of the male and does not adopt any particularly feminine characteristics. The immortal Calypso, however, is definitively female. She manages to keep Odysseus on her island for seven years, but the arrival of Hermes brings an end to Calypso’s possession. Even though she is able to use her sex appeal to control Odysseus for some time, Zeus and Athena maintain power over her in the form of the messenger god Hermes. Hermes also interrupts Circe’s plans by giving Odysseus a drug making him immune to her poison. When her scheming potion fails on Odysseus, she immediately supplicates him, thereby acknowledging his power over her. This again shows that the feminine wiles will only carry women so far before they must submit to men. The Sirens are a perfect example of the powerless female using her charm to control men. Even though their enticing song is enough to drive men crazy and lure them to their death against the rocks, the physical representation of these women is symbolic of their ultimately inferior status. The Sirens can project their song out onto the ocean, but they themselves cannot move because they remain fixed to the rocks. Through their image, Homer demonstrates that the women of antiquity could try to improve thier situation and sometimes they could exert power over men, but they were not independent.
The theme of independent versus subordinate women manifests itself in the Odyssey. Ancient Greek society had very specific gender roles expecting men to be masculine and domineering while women were passive and obedient. Greek wives were to stay busy within the home while their husbands tended to affairs beyond the domestic realm. Women’s confinement intended to prevent them from giving in to their inherently wicked nature which would inevitably lead them to trouble. Homer’s inclusion of this gender scheme enabled the Greek audience to accept what he sang about because it made it more believable. Through its focus on the family unit, Homer’s Odyssey clearly establishes gender roles.
As previously mentioned, Odysseus’ journey home to Ithaca involves numerous encounters with female figures who prolong his journey and attempt to earn his affection. The lustrous nymph Calypso longs to have him as her own, but Odysseus only weeps for his beloved who shares with him her enchanting bed along with anything else his heart desires, and Odysseus still longs to return home. While sex and beautiful women might appeal to him, he eventually wants to return to the stability of his own wife and family. Calypso and Circe are both strong-willed, independent figures that have the power to help Odysseus; however, he is attracted to his wife Penelope who is virtually powerless in helping her husband return home and can do nothing but weep for him.
The second half of the Odyssey deals with Odysseus’ return home to his family in Ithaca. All thoughts of the women that have tried to woo him on his journey are abandoned as he works to reaffirm his position in the household. By mercilessly attacking his wife’s suitors, he asserts his masculinity and reclaims his wife and son. This domineering behavior was typical of the ancient Greek male whose responsibility it was to protect the family. While the slaughtering takes place, Penelope is absent from the scene, and this is exemplary of the passive role held by women. When her husband is conducting business, the wife stays away until she is summoned by him. The dynamic between Penelope and Telemachus also demonstrates gender roles. Even though Telemachus is only a child, his masculinity enables him to exert control over his mother as he harshly directs her to go off to bed. When Odysseus finally returns home, it is Telemachus who first learns the true identity of this visitor. He and his father are bonded together through the truth which is originally withheld from Penelope. This relationship perpetuates the idea that women are subordinate to and dependent on the actions of men. Since she is passive and submissive, Penelope represents the perfect wife that Odysseus desires, and he abandons the free-spirited females in order to be with her.