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Greek Mythology

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Patrick Dyer
November 9th, 2012
CLS 250

The Double Standards of Homeric Greek Women

Odysseus was considered to be the epitome of what a Greek man should strive to be. He was a courageous and clever warrior who earned arête through his feats during the Trojan War. The ancient Achaean male modeled themselves after great men like Odysseus, but the real question is who do Greek woman model themselves after. Clytemnestra’s plight and eventual death is a perfect example of how married women were expected act compared to married men. Also, women like Penelope in The Odyssey were criticized for being untruthful, but men like Odysseus were praised for exceptional cunning in the same epic poem. Calypso is a goddess who is aware of these double standards and makes an eloquent plea to the gods of Olympus, but her speech falls on deaf ears. Essentially Ancient Greek culture had staggering gender inequalities that led to females being confined to the whims of males. Many tales demonstrate how differently married women were expected to act compared to men. When King Agamemnon departed from Mycenae to siege Troy he tricked his wife, Clytemnestra, into sacrificing their daughter to the gods. During the ten years Agamemnon was gone Clytemnestra plotted with her lover, Aegisthus, revenge. Once King Agamemnon returned, he was murdered by the duo, but the gods deemed this act unacceptable. If Clytemnestra were a man the tale would have most likely ended here. But Apollo and Athena hid Orestes until he was of age and convinced that he should follow with the worst crime any Greek could ever commit, matricide. After the murdering his mother, Orestes was haunted by the Furies (who were known for pursuing particularly heinous criminals and exacting revenge, Chiekova, 10/23) until nearly succumbing to madness. Eventually Orestes was given trial, and Athena’s deciding vote expunged his horrible deed. A woman taking a lover was disgraceful in Achaean culture, and a women killing her husband simply unheard of. Women were viewed as objects than could be possessed or traded like Helen of Troy was, and so Clytemnestra needed to be punished. On the other hand married men like Zeus had dozens of affairs (including deceiving Clytemnestra’s mother Leda by appearing as a swan Chiekova, 10/23) while Hera remained faithful to him. The tale of Aphrodite and Hephaestus is another prime example, in which Aphrodite was shamed before all the gods for laying with Ares. The examples of similar myths can be listed ad nauseam, but essentially Greek women were forced to be loyal and obedient while the men took whatever lovers they so desired.
Another example of gender inequalities in ancient Greek Culture can be seen in Penelope’s tribulations with the suitors. As Odysseus left for the Trojan War and did not return with Nestor and Menelaus, some assumed he was dead. Under the pretext of courting Penelope, the suitors proceed to spend their days at Odysseus house and feasting on the livestock. They disrespected and abused the traditional host-traveler relationship and yet still Penelope was left to be the antagonist (Chiekova, 10/26). If she agreed to marry a suitor, she would be dishonoring Odysseus but the longer she did not pick a suitor the more damage they caused. In Richmond Lattimore’s translation of The Odyssey the suitors verbally attack Penelope, “For she holds out great hope to all, and makes promises to each man, sending us messages but her mind has other intentions. And here is here is another stratagem of her heart’s devising (The Odyssey, Book 2, page 41, lines 90-93).” The suitor goes on to describe her cleverness; Penelope declares she will marry a suitor once she finished knitting a funeral shall, but every night she would secretly un-wind the threads, effectively stalling the suitors. These suitors claim that Penelope is being disrespectful for not choosing one of them to marry and call her a liar for supposedly leading them on but never choosing a man. In the same epic poem commended Odysseus for outsmarting and escaping the Cyclops, evading the sirens, and eventually killing the suitors. Both Odysseus and Penelope were incredibly intelligent but because of Achaean double standards, Penelope was portrayed as a liar (at least to the suitors) and Odysseus a hero. Calypso seems to be the only individual aware of, or at least concerned with the mistreatment of Greek women. When Odysseus retells his time spent with Calypso, he adjusts the story to give the perception that he was held prisoner and bemoaned every moment on the island. However, Homer gives insight of how Odysseus actually felt and writes, "the nymph was no longer pleasing to him, (The Odyssey, Book 9, page 92, line 150).” This statement implies that at some point Odysseus did enjoy himself with the goddess on the island, but has become bored with her. After seven years Odysseus finally decides that he should return home, but Calypso insists that he should stay and enjoy the extravagance of immortality with her. This is against the ideals of Homeric Greek women as she displays a dominant and manipulative side, which threatens male supremacy. Eventually Zeus sends Hermes as a messenger to command Calypso to allow Odysseus to return home. Calypso retaliates by making a passionate plea, “ You are hard-hearted, you gods, and jealous beyond all creatures beside, when you are resentful toward the goddesses for sleeping openly with such men as each has made her true husband, (The Odyssey, Book 9, page 91, lines 118-120).” Calypso continues to give three examples of past goddesses being chastised for taking a lover, but ultimately her speech does nothing. She is forced to yield Odysseus or risk angering the all mighty Zeus. Calypso embodied the struggle of Homeric women and pleas with the gods to see the double standard Greek culture imposed. Ultimately she is viewed as an object of physical pleasure and must yield to Zeus and Odysseus’s wishes, further stigmatizing women as being inferior. Analyzing Homeric culture through the lens of a woman provides a stark contrast to the life of a man. Women were subjugated to the commands of men, with little or no personal freedom. The females who broke the culture mold, paid the price. Clytemnestra eventually was murdered by her own son for exacting revenge on her deceitful husband, Penelope was ridiculed for using intelligence to navigate her way through a difficult situation, and Calypso was bullied into giving up the man she loved. Ultimately Achaean women were meant to be objects of desire that exist to satisfy men and the Homeric myths only propagated this idea.

Works Cited

Chiekova, Professor “Introduction to Greek Mythology” Lecture. Bliss Hall. Ewing. 10/23, 10/26, . Oral.

Lattimore, Richmond, trans. The Odyssey. New York: Harper and Row Books, 1967.

Cited: Chiekova, Professor “Introduction to Greek Mythology” Lecture. Bliss Hall. Ewing. 10/23, 10/26, . Oral. Lattimore, Richmond, trans. The Odyssey. New York: Harper and Row Books, 1967.

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