Another big issue in the Odyssey that gives a picture of
the Greek society during Homer’s time is the representation of the ideal
woman. The Odyssey gives us two extreme versions of women in ancient
Greek society. Penelope is the version of the ideal woman. She
is the embodiment of chastity, generosity, cunning, and intelligence.
Throughout the years that Odysseus is gone, she remains loyal to her husband,
devising schemes to keep the suitors at bay. She never turns away
a suppliant and she even possesses t`he wit to test her husband upon his
Penelope remains faithful to Odysseus after his twenty year absence and
is even hopeful of his return home. This remains true even after
she has seen no evidence to support this. This is not something a
normal woman might be able to accomplish, especially with so many respectable
men of Ithaca trying vainly to court her. She does not turn away any
suppliant. This not only makes her unfalteringly loyal to Greek custom,
but shows her selflessness even when the suitors are plundering her household.
The fact that she chooses a death shroud shows her cunning because this
is something the suitors cannot deny her or they would be denying Greek
custom also. The final testing of Odysseus illustrates her intelligence.
Whereas most women would be so overcome with emotion at her husband’s final
return home, Penelope remains in control of her emotions and devises a test
to prove Odysseus’ identity beyond any reasonable doubt. All of these
characteristics make Penelope the ideal woman. Although in modern
society this is not something we would expect of any woman, it only further
proves her excellence as a woman and as a character.
Penelope is sharply contrasted with the somewhat parallel story of Clytemnestra.
Clytemnestra not only cheats on her husband with Aegisthus, but plots to
kill her husband, lacking the wit of Penelope. She later incurs the
wrath of her own son for this action. The action that Clytemnestra
undertakes when being unfaithful to Agamemnon, illustrates her status as
a weak character, and furthermore the fact that she is a bad wife.
She also conspires with Aegisthus to kill Agamemnon upon his return home.
This is a huge statement about Clytemnestra. In ancient Greece, the
simple action of a woman going against her husband was perceived as a horrible
thing. But, a woman actually taking a part in her husband’s murder
was simply unheard of. Women did not take on such endeavors in this
society. Finally, we have her own son coming back to take revenge
for his father’s death. Even by more modern standards, a mother would
have to commit a very serious offense for a son to be even somewhat justified
in taking action against his own mother. These three combine to show
Clytemnestra’s status as a loathed character.
This extreme contrasting of stories only further serves to exemplify Penelope
as the ideal woman. From a modern standpoint, it would be ridiculous
to expect the things of Penelope that she performs in the Odyssey.
Her ever-faithful characteristics combined with her extreme cunning make
her an independent, intelligent woman from any standpoint, admirable even
in the eyes of today’s readers. Perhaps it is this perfect picture
of her as a woman, who did not have much standing in ancient Greek times,
that has allowed her to become immortalized even to this day. This
can be seen in the Greek song by Miltiades Paschalides. In his
song Penelope, he also configures Penelope as the ideal woman in comparison
with his wife. Even after thousands of years, he uses Penelope as
the picture of the ideal woman, which proves that Homer’s depiction of Penelope
has become immortalized to this day. This
can be found in Greek on our website, with the English translation also
available. Following the first two issues that show a picture of the
beliefs in the Greek society, comes an analysis of how the Odyssey pictures
a transition in this ancient society.
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