Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Women of the Odyssey, part two

The OdysseyIn my post about The Odyssey last Wednesday, I discussed Homer's characterizations of Penelope and Athena.  Today I want to think about a few other women who are central to the story: Calypso, Circe, and Nausicaa.  These three female characters seem to serve two major functions in the book.  First, they serve as obstacles (or potential obstacles) to Odysseus's quest to return home.  Second, they are all mirrors of some aspect of his wife Penelope.

Odysseus spends seven years on Calypso's island as her prisoner--spending every day weeping for home and his beloved Penelope and every evening sleeping with Calypso.  She, the immortal daughter of the Titan god Atlas, loves Odysseus and wants him to stay with her forever and become her husband.  Although Calypso promises him immortality if he will only marry her, Odysseus tells her that he wants to be a human man at his own human home.  After Zeus orders her to let Odysseus leave, Calypso sadly outfits a boat with bread and wine to see him off safely. 

Althouth we know Calypso has held the man of twists and turns against his will for many years, she remains a very sympathetic character for many readers.  Her unrequited love for her captive seems honest and terribly sad.

Circe, on the other hand, is not pathetic--nor is she sympathetic.  When Odysseus and his men approach her home, she feeds them poison and uses her wand do turn the men into pigs.  Informed by the gods to injest an herb to avoid being turned into an animal by her transformative powers, Odysseus maintains his humanity.  He then celebrates by spending a year there--feasting, drinking, and sleeping with Circe by his own choice.

While Calypso offers him love which he does not want, Circe offers him sex and other pleasures.  Odysseus does not weep on the shore while dreaming of home.  In fact, he has to be reminded by his men (who had been much earlier restored to humanity) that they really need to be getting on their way.

A third character who has the potential to delay Odysseus's journey home is Nausicaa.  The young and innocent daughter of the royal family of Phaeacia, Nausicaa offers Odysseus neither mature love (as does Calypso) nor illicit sex (as does Circe).  Instead, Nausicaa presents the opportunity for innocent and honorable marriage.  She tells her friend that she wants Odysseus to become her husband.  Her father hopes for the same outcome and in fact tells Odysseus that he would allow a marriage to take place.  Nothing seems to come of the affair, but Homer emphasizes the story enough that the possibilities become clear.

Although Homer portrays Nausicaa as an innocent and kind young woman, her presence is quite dangerous for Odysseus.  Here he has a possibility to start afresh, with a young woman just coming into bloom rather than with a wife now twenty years older than when he last saw her.  At the same time, the presence of Nausicaa might remind Odysseus of the pure importance of family life and of home.

Calypso keeps Odysseus away from home by force.  While she has Odysseus in the flesh, she does not have his love.  Penelope has the love of her husband but does not have him at home with her in her arms.  In other words, one has his body but not his heart, while the other has his heart but not his body.

Circe also presents a reversal or mirrored image of Penelope.  While Circe offers herself up to Odysseus sexually, the male suitors want sexual favors from Penelope.  And when Circe turns her male guests into pigs, Penelope also has to contend with a house full of "pigs" herself--the male suitors.

*  *  *

Thanks for sticking with me as I have journeyed slowly through The Odyssey.  I plan to discuss a few modern retellings of the Odyssey next week, then after that I'll head forward to the Homeric Hymns and to Hesiod.


  1. Homer gives the outline for some interesting female characters, it's just too bad they weren't fleshed out to be more than just a stepping stone for Odysseus's adventure. I love the idea of Circe as the reversal of Penelope

  2. This is a fascinating analysis. I love the comparison between the women and Penelope's situation.

  3. Reading through your post reminded me of another woman that is a threat for Odysseus’ safety—his nurse that recognizes him from his scar. While she does not mirror some aspect of Penelope she does connect the “old” Odysseus with the “new” and provide confirmation that he is indeed who he will later claim to be. I find myself recognizing how important the nurse is while reading the story but then struggle to remember her later—she doesn’t quite “hang” in my memory the way the other women you mention though she is just as important.

  4. Red: Absolutely. Homer includes so few female characters in The Iliad. Women are much more central in The Odyssey--but you are right that they do not have the complexity of Odysseus. I guess that development is coming up soon as I get to the Greek dramatists!

    Avid: Homer's epics have SO much in them. I love all the resonances I keep finding. Glad to have you here.

    Dwight: Absolutely! By recognizing Odysseus before Penelope can, the nurse almost seems more devoted or connected than Penelope does, doesn't she? I'll have to think more about what Homer might have thought he was doing with her. Thanks for the comment.

  5. I have a soft spot for Circe simply because, at some level, she seems like the only woman who doesn't just sit around waiting for her life to be defined by a man - not that I condone turning people into pigs, and what not, either. I thought it was interesting that she WAS the only woman who tempted O to stay away from home longer (unless you count the Sirens which is a comparison that has struck me before). The other women, in O's mind, seem to more or less not exist - they are plot devices there mainly to illuminate his magnaminous loyalty to his favorite piece of female property (not that he isn't willing to diddle around while detained - he didn't exactly spend his years with Calypso playing pinochle every night).

    I think that the nurse's affection for Odysseus is interesting on two levels - on the one hand, being someone's nurse was in a lot of ways a lot like being their adoptive mother - she raised O. And the bind between a mother and a son is, in a lot of Greek literature, presented as far healthier and more permanently binding between that of a husband and a wife (a wife, after all, murders a husband not too infrequently, whereas if a mother is to murder her own child, that's horrifying an unnatural - Iccan't htink of a myth where it even happens. Fathers, yes, not mothers).

    The other ting that is interesting to me is that the TWO people who seemmost loyal to O are the nurse and the swineherd - both of them basically representatives of the perfect peasant. And I felt like, in both cases, the depiction was fairly condescending. The third character that was endlessly loyal, after all, was the dog, who is treated with more or less the same elvel of respect as the two loyal servants, and I'm not sure that's on accident.

  6. Jason:

    I really like your point about Circe and independent life. Although I agree with you to a certain extent, I'm still a bit troubled by the fact that she invites him into her bed only after he proves to her that she does not have power over him. Does that make him "man" enough for her? Perhaps I am reading too much in to it.

    Your analysis of the nurse, the swineherd, and the dog is fabulous. Have you written a post about that? If so, I would love to link to it.


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