In 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.
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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.