The Strength of Women in the Odyssey
Throughout history, women have been considered the weaker sex. They long existed under the domination of men in both political power and physical abilities. Confinement and an emphasis on delicacy have for centuries been the hallmarks of a noble woman’s lifestyle. Education even into the twentieth century frequently held that women were intellectually incapable of comprehending the complexities of male thought patterns and therefore would not benefit from too much educational training. Underlying this myth, though, is a long-held acknowledgement that women held a hidden strength fully equal to and often surpassing that of men. This power was generated through a complex interaction of her various abilities and enabled her to ‘borrow’ the strength of others for her own purposes. This mysterious power of the female is illustrated as far back as Homer in his epic tale, The Odyssey, particularly in the character of Penelope.
Penelope is presented as a fine, upstanding woman, faithful to her husband in her adamant refusal to accept any of the suitors that park in her courtyard seeking her hand after his disappearance. She demonstrates the ideals of womanhood not only in her beauty, which is almost as legendary as her cousin, Helen, but also in her talent as she efficiently manages the household and her husband’s estates while participating in the very feminine duties of weaving and sewing. She does an admirable job of raising a loyal and upstanding son despite the absence of his father. Her strength as a woman is perhaps best illustrated, though, in her 20 year wait for the husband she is sure will return to her although she’s received no word or hope to support her.
Penelope is shown to meet the feminine ideal in her inability to physically remove the suitors from her home, yet she is able to keep them under a semblance of control through the use of ‘feminine wiles.’ When they will not take an outright no for an answer, Penelope devises a scheme that allows her to both remain faithful to her husband and postpone any decisions. In order to keep the men in line, Penelope promises to select and marry one of them as soon as she is finished weaving a funeral shroud for her father-in-law, which she unweaves every night. When this trickery is discovered, the men indicate “She may rely too long on Athena’s gifts – / talent in handicraft and a clever mind; / so cunning – history cannot show the like” (book 2). This intelligence shines through again as she recognizes her husband returned in disguise and offers a final challenge to the suitors that she knows only Odysseus can hope to meet, “come forward now, my gallant lords; for I challenge you to try your skill on the great bow of King Odysseus. And whichever man among you proves the handiest at stringing the bow and shoots an arrow through every one of the twelve axes, with that man I will go.” This provides Odysseus with the means by which to defeat the men that have invaded his home before they gain the ability to overtake him.
In demonstrating the power of women over men through the portrayals of this character, Homer indicates that women were much stronger of intellect and spirit than they were frequently given credit for. Penelope illustrates the constantly of love and family. Her cunning is revealed as she finds a peaceful means of controlling the men who won’t leave and it is only through the interference of another woman that her trick is revealed. Finally, it is only through Penelope’s intellect that Odysseus is given the space he needs in order to retake his home. In none of these instances is Penelope bested by the forceful, physically impressive men of her world.