Homer’s epic Greek poem “The Odyssey” centers on the heroic quest of a man, however, a remarkably larger role is played by women in the poem. When discussing roles of women in Homer's “The Odyssey,” the women of Ithaca are perhaps most similar to the women in the Greek society, especially because Homer has described the society in his poem with such vivid detail. In comparison to Homer’s Iliad, where the women are not seen frequently and there is not much emphasis on them, but on the other hand, women are everywhere in “The Odyssey” and they have diverse roles in the action, which should give readers a more apparent concept of their roles of women in the Greek society. Overall, Homer’s obviously “The Odyssey” suggests that women of different classes in the Greek society played a variety of diverse roles, however, apparently none of these women fulfill their roles as they should, with the exception of Penelope.
A discussion about what Homer’s “The Odyssey suggests” about the role of women in the Greek society cannot be complete without stating the fact that like the women in Homer’s poem, the women in ancient Greece also belonged to a variety of classes. What this suggests is that just like the poem, expectations associated with the roles Greek women played apparently varied for women of different classes, such as nobles, everyday women and female slaves.
Apparently, giving birth to a son and providing their husbands with a male heir was the only productive thing that women in the Greek society were permitted to do. For instance, it appears that only major duty that Penelope fulfilled as Odysseus' wife was to give him a male heir in the form of their son, Telemachus. This apparently gives Penelope a singular victory over Helen of Troy, since gods gave no more children other than her lovely daughter Hermoine (IV. 74). Menelaos, Helen's husband, does have a son from a concubine or slave woman, but he names that son Megapenthes (IV.74), which translates to “Great Grief.” This makes it evident how vital it was noble Greek woman to bear a male child, and how disappointing it would be for their husbands if they were not able to do so. This also suggests that even if slave women gave birth to the bastard son of a noble, he would not really be entirely obligated to him or his mother, despite raising him as his own.
A reference to the fidelity of the women in “The Odyssey” and thereby, in the Greek society can also be made here. It can be assumed that noble women, wives in particular, were expected to be faithful so that only their husband was the father of their children, which allows both the biological and the social roles of those women to coexist. Indeed, readers of “The Odyssey” will be well-aware that Odysseus' wife Penelope is a prime example of a faithful wife. If a noble woman like Penelope is able to wait for her husband to return home “with enduring heart” (XVI. 270), then it can at least be assumed that the same was expected of noble Greek women as well. Like Penelope, they would probably consider it “immodest” to even be in the presence of other men in the absence of their husband (XVIII, 307). Sure, Clytemnestra is an exception, and unfaithful and murderous wives may also have been present in the Greek society, but Homeric readers cannot ignore that her act of unfaithfulness stemmed from her husband’s act of sacrificing their daughter, Iphigenia.
There are also female servants in Homer’s “The Odyssey,” who would have most likely been present in the Greek society as well, and based on the poem, apparently these women in the Greek society did not care much about their chastity, whether by choice or force. As seen in the poem, nobles expected these female servants to be willing to sleep with them, but apparently, even for this they would require the permission of their master. This is evident when Odysseus actually has twelve of his housemaids hanged to death for sleeping with the suitors who are at his house to persuade his wife to marry them, who are also killed by Odysseus. Odysseus believes that the act “despoiled [his] household” and this concludes that the place of these female servants in the Greek society was nothing more than that of serving women (XXII, 359).The punishment indirectly labels those housemaids as promiscuous women, but such promiscuousness could be also been as stemming from what Greek men may have expected of these women.
Continuing from the above, a very obvious suggestion that can also be deduced from Homer’s “The Odyssey” is that women in roles of women in Greek society also varied when it came to domestic labor and sexually pleasing men. Greek noble women, much like Penelope, Clytemnestra and Helen, would most likely just supervise their female servants would do all the household work since these three women mentioned here are never really seen doing any work in the poem, in particular Penelope, who spends day and night just “weeping” away. Based on what has been discussed so far, it can also be assumed that noble women in the Greek society were not entirely obligated to provide their husbands with sexual pleasure. It is apparent that concubines or female servants who were obligated to do anything their master commanded, including sleeping with them, were common. Thus, such concubines would have most likely also been present in the Greek society too, where they would have been bound to provide sexual pleasure to their masters, as a part of their job.
If Penelope is seen as the perfect example of an ideal Greek woman, then one last thing that can also be assumed is that noble Greek wives were at least expected to provide their husbands with emotional support, which is probably something that they could not gain from just sleeping with a concubine. However, expectations aside, the fact that contrasting poor relationships between Agamemnon and Clytemnestra and Menelaus and Helen suggest that Greek women may not really have been capable of fulfilling this duty. Greek husbands would probably not have found emotional attachments from their wives. Moreover, these two couples also do not appear to be very likeminded, which further suggests that Greek husbands and wives were most likely not on the same page, perhaps partly due to a considerable difference in their ages. Regardless of how Homer attempts to portray Odysseus and Penelope as equals, the other poor relationships between husbands and wives in the poem seem to pain a more accurate picture of Greek women in terms of their ability to emotionally support their husbands.
Thus, it can be concluded that since Penelope plays all of the above roles quite perfectly, without faltering, she can indeed be regarded as a prime example of the ideal Greek woman. However, based on Homer’s “The Odyssey” as a whole, it should be obvious by now that most women in the Greek society were most likely flawed and did not fulfill the roles that were expected of them. Of course, the class difference between those women may have prevented this, but that does not necessarily seem to be the case.
Homer and Richmond Lattimore. The Odyssey of Homer. Reissue ed. New York City: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2007. Print.