Term Paper: Odyssey

Pages: 5 (1692 words)  ·  Bibliography Sources: 5  ·  Level: College Senior  ·  Topic: Sports - Women  ·  Buy This Paper

Odyssey

At first glance, it might be tempting to imagine that Homer's Odyssey is at least partially about female power, considering how many ostensibly powerful female characters it contains. Athena is crucial to the story's progression, Circe simultaneously guides and challenges Odysseus and his crew, and Calypso manages to keep Odysseus captive for seven years. Even relatively minor characters and scenes seem to suggest that women in the Odyssey are powerful and independent; for example, the sirens nearly drive Odysseus insane, and Eurycleia, a seemingly lowly maid and wet nurse, is the first person in Odysseus' house to recognize him. However, all of this ostensible power, independence, or authority must be weighed against the disempowerment of women that permeates the play, and the degree to which female autonomy and power, and particularly sexual power, is subordinated to that of men. For example, Eurycleia participates in the execution of Penelope's maids by informing on them for having sex with the suitors, and Calypso's control over Odysseus evaporates once a male god tells her to let him go. Thus, when considering the Odyssey's ostensibly powerful female characters in the context of male privilege and dominance, it becomes clear that the women in the poem are ultimately powerless, because their wishes and desires are allowed expression only with the implicit or explicit blessing of males characters. By examining the some of examples discussed above, one is able to see how any apparent female power in the Odyssey is ultimately a ruse, because this power is always already constrained by male authority and dominance.

One may begin by examining the character of Athena (or Minerva depending on the translation), because she is both the first female character to appear and the one who seems most autonomous and powerful out of the entire poem. The poem begins in medias res, and Athena initiates the narration of Odysseus' plight by remarking that he has been stranded on an island for years, away from everyone he knows and loves (Homer 4). In this sense, she has a privilege position in the narrative, because she is the one who initiates the change that ultimately makes the story. However, her privilege and narrative power are immediately undercut, because she is only able to initiate the narration by begging Zeus to act (Homer 4-5). She apparently lacks her own true power, and thus must get the blessing of Zeus if the story is even to begin.

This initial scene is crucial for understanding the power (or powerlessness) of women in the Odyssey, because it serves as a kind of rough introduction into the gender dynamics of the poem's universe; again and again, the apparent power or autonomy of women will be undercut as it is revealed that this autonomy and power is infinitely constrained by the true autonomy and power of male characters. Athena's pleading with Zeus demonstrates that the gender inequity that exists among humans simultaneously exists among the gods, and reveals that the hierarchy of men over women seems to transcend the difference between human and god; that is to say, while a goddess might have more supernatural power over a human man like Odysseus, the fact remains that Odysseus is linked to male gods through his sex and thus retains some degree of power even over goddesses. More specifically, this scene serves to undercut Athena's actions throughout the rest of the story, because everything else she does is done with the express permission of Zeus, the literal embodiment of male, and particularly patriarchal, authority and power. Although she is a goddess, this scene demonstrates that for all intents and purposes, Athena remains squarely a child of Zeus, with all of the powerlessness and lack of independence being a child implies.

Circe's power is similarly undercut by male authority, and the degree to which male authority seems to rest on retaining a monopoly on sexual activity and expression is highlighted by her experience. Circe drugs Odysseus' men and turns them into swine, and Odysseus is on his way to suffer the same fate until Hermes supplies him with a special herb to protect him from Circe's magic. The interaction between Hermes and Odysseus is particularly telling, because it demonstrates in detail the twisted view of female autonomy and sexuality that permeates the entire poem.

Hermes instructs Odysseus to keep the herb on him, as it will protect him from magic, and to attack Circe as if to kill her when she attempts to use her wand on him (Homer 82). Specifically, Hermes tells Odysseus that if it looks like he is going to kill her, she will become frightened and want to have sex with him (Homer 82). Hermes really is that blunt, and examining this statement will reveal not only the perverse view of female sexuality that the poem suggests, but also the underlying reason male power must be constantly reinforced at the expense of women. The assumption that Circe will want to have sex with Odysseus after he threatens to kill her inserts a kind of violence into sexuality that is particularly disturbing, because it is not that far off from the belief (frequently expressed by rapists) that a woman might actually want to be raped due to some kind of thrill or excitement. That Hermes can instruct Odysseus to engage in a kind of implied sexual violence reveals quite a lot about the larger social context, because the idea that a woman will want to sleep with a man threatening to kill her is only normalized in a society that accepts sexual violence against women in the first place.

That Circe must be overcome with the threat of sexual violence seems to stem from a deep fear of true female autonomy and power, but even, this fear is entirely expressed in male terms. Circe's magical power is expressed through her wand, a phallic symbol, and Odysseus is instructed to attack with his own symbolic phallus (his sword) only after Circe has attempted to use the wand on him (Homer 82). With the threat of sexual violence in place, Odysseus then forces Circe to promise that she will not try anything else, specifically because Odysseus and Hermes both believe that if Odysseus goes to bed with Circe, she will attempt to castrate him and make him "fit for nothing" (Homer 82-83). The fear of castration demonstrates that from the male perspective, power and autonomy is a zero-sum game, and one that depends solely on male symbols and structures. From Hermes' and Odysseus' perspective, Circe's power comes from her adoption of a symbolic phallus, and that power rests specifically on the threat of castration, because a woman's power and autonomy necessarily comes at the expense of men. This is not to say that female power does actually rest on adopting male symbols, but rather that because men retain all ultimate authority in the world of the Odyssey, any female power necessarily means a reduction in male hegemony.

Like Circe, Calypso is interested in keeping Odysseus as a sexual partner, and like Circe, this sexual desire is simultaneously a sign of female power encroaching on male authority and indicative of a fairly misogynistic interpretation of female sexuality. While Calypso keeps Odysseus safe after he washes ashore following the disastrous passage next to Charybdis, her actions are seemingly not rooted in anything other than sexual desire, and she gives up her hold of him as soon as Hermes tells her to (Homer 69, 192). Odysseus is presented as a noble, incorruptible man whose own sexual potency allows him to resist the temptations of Calypso and Circe. This idea even extends to Odysseus' confrontation with the Sirens, because he is able to resist their call by having his men lash him to the mast of their ship; is effect, he… [END OF PREVIEW]

Homer's Odyssey: Odysseus' Universal Journey Term Paper


Scott Fitzgerald Tender Is the Night Term Paper


James Joyce Ulysses: Chapter 5 Analysis Essay


Homerian Epic Term Paper


Occam's Razor Cuts Up Term Paper


View 10 other related papers  >>

Cite This Term Paper:

APA Format

Odyssey.  (2012, August 5).  Retrieved August 18, 2019, from https://www.essaytown.com/subjects/paper/odyssey-first-glance/7633985

MLA Format

"Odyssey."  5 August 2012.  Web.  18 August 2019. <https://www.essaytown.com/subjects/paper/odyssey-first-glance/7633985>.

Chicago Format

"Odyssey."  Essaytown.com.  August 5, 2012.  Accessed August 18, 2019.
https://www.essaytown.com/subjects/paper/odyssey-first-glance/7633985.