A Woman’s Place: Female Transgression in the Odyssey

The Odyssey is full of fascinating female characters, and it is great fun to see how women are presented, often as powerful creatures with the ability to shape the adventures of Odysseus. However it is important not to get carried away, and remember the incredibly dark side of Homer’s world in regard to its treatment of women. In my posts on Helen of Troy and the Sirens I look at how formidable women use their voices to bewitch men. In the following episode in Book 22 we see the sad fate of ordinary women, maidservants, who are punished for their transgressions and silenced by the epic.

When Odysseus finally gets back to Ithaca it is to find his home overrun by unruly suitors, all vying for his wife Penelope’s hand in the belief that he is dead. Some of the female servants of Odysseus’ household are sleeping with these men. They are mentioned on two occasions. First is Melantho, Penelope’s foster-daughter, who scorns Odysseus while he is dressed as a beggar:

18.320-5

So Odysseus spoke, and the maids broke into a laugh, and glanced at one another. And fair-cheeked Melantho rated him shamefully, Melantho, whom Dolius begot, but whom Penelope had reared and cherished as her own child, and gave her playthings to her heart’s desire. Yet even so she had at heart no sorrow for Penelope, but she loved Eurymachus and was wont to lie with him.

And then in Book 20:

20.5

And the women came forth from the hall, those that had before been wont to lie with the wooers, making laughter and merriment among themselves.

In both passages female laughter precedes sexual misconduct. There is a link in Homer between the female voice and women who need to be contained, most strongly portrayed in the sirens who lure men to their deaths with their song.

The punishment these women receive for their crimes is terrible. Once Odysseus has slain the suitors they are forced to clean up the bloody bodies of their former lovers. Then Odysseus hands them over to his son Telemachus, with the order that they must die for their crimes:

22.461-473

Then wise Telemachus was the first to speak to the others, saying: “Let it be by no clean death that I take the lives of these women, who on my own head have poured reproaches and on my mother, and were wont to lie with the wooers.” So he spoke, and tied the cable of a dark-prowed ship to a great pillar and flung it round the dome, stretching it on high that none might reach the ground with her feet. And as when long-winged thrushes or doves fall into a snare that is set in a thicket, as they seek to reach their resting-place, and hateful is the bed that gives them welcome, even so the women held their heads in a row, and round the necks of all nooses were laid, that they might die most piteously. And they writhed a little while with their feet, but not long.

For all their crimes it is a tragic and horrific death, and Homer highlights this by comparing them to birds caught in a net and describing their twitching feet.

Dangerous women must be kept well away from the Greek household. So sirens live on a far away rock, and Calpyso and Circe, a nymph and a sorceress, are from islands beyond the edges of the known world. These powerful women are a threat to normal Greek society, and so they must be kept away from civilisation. It is for this reason that the maids are killed outside, away from the household they have polluted with their sexual behaviour. Hanging is a specifically female form of death in Greek literature, particularly female suicide. There is perhaps here the implication in this that if they had had any shame the women would have hung themselves.

To a modern audience this attitude is brutal and unfamiliar. The tragic description of the women’s death certainly suggests that the poet has some pity for them, but overall the scene is a sharp reminder that the world of the Odyssey is not our world.

In her novel the Penelopiad, Margaret Atwood tells the tale of the neglected characters of Homer’s epic. These maids appear as ghosts, reproaching Penelope for allowing their deaths. Atwood gives the story a twist, adding the detail that Penelope specifically ordered the women to spend time with the men in order to spy on them, and as a result she is haunted by them. They feature in the narrative in a role similar to a Greek chorus in tragedy and the below is their first song. The story of the maids in Homer is a short one, but it cannot help linger in the imagination of an audience for whom these attitudes are so alien, and the brief scene overshadows the happiness of Odysseus reunited with his wife. Atwood captures this unease with the maid’s haunting song that runs through the narrative of her novel:

we are the maids
the ones you killed
the ones you failed

we danced in air
our bare feet twitched
it was not fair

with every goddess, queen, and bitch
from there to here
you scratched your itch

we did much less
than what you did
you judged us bad

you had the spear
you had the word
at your command

we scrubbed the blood
of our dead
paramours from floors, from chairs

from stairs, from doors,
we knelt in water
while you stared

at our bare feet
it was not fair
you licked our fear

it gave you pleasure
you raised your hand
you watched us fall

we danced on air
the ones you failed
the ones you killed

(c) Lancaster City Museums; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Penelope by Francis Sydney Muschamp (1861)

Sources:

Fletcher, J. (2008) “Women’s space and wingless words in the Odyssey” in Phoenix, Vol. 62, No. 1/2.
Fulkerson, L. (2002) “Epic ways of killing a woman: Gender and transgression in ‘Odyssey’ 22.465-72” in The Classical Journal, Vol. 97, No. 4.
Levine, D.B. (1987) “Flens Matrona et Meretrices Gaudentes”: Penelope and her maids” in The Classical World, Vol. 81, No. 1.

Translations by A.T. Murray (1919)

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2 thoughts on “A Woman’s Place: Female Transgression in the Odyssey

  1. It is to my mind by far the most shocking part of the Odyssey. The killing is utterly brutal and pitiless. I love the third and fourth verses of Atwood’s poem – the double standards of it. Not much has changed in the completely different way female and male sexual transgressions are judged by the media and society.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes I think the double standards make this especially difficult to sympathise at all with Odysseus. I don’t know if an ancient Greek audience would have recognised this fact, but I imagine that because the women are servants they wouldn’t have spent much time worrying about it. I think its very interesting how today we have such a different reaction, especially in a poem that is usually praised for being so modern. But I agree there are still parallels to draw, especially in our media!

      Like

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