Ideal Women in Ancient Greek Society

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 return. 

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 song 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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