Homer’s Women: Helen vs Penelope

greek helmet

The Iliad and The Odyssey are easily the most famous epics known to the modern world. With the introduction to Greek mythology comes a crash course of Homer’s stories that have stood the test of time and captured the imagination of so many. Both children’ and adult books alike have rewritten the episode of The Iliad and Odyssey in a different character’s point of view.

Homer primarily focuses on male protagonists, like many authors of mythology (Read my article on Hindu Mythology). His female characters are cast in the shadows. Even Helen, the woman who made him famous, is shown in a passive light. However, Homer does show growth in his writing over the course of both books and begins to spotlight the strength of women in his second book, redeeming his voice by giving one to women.

Helen of Sparta/Troy:

Helen of Sparta was known as the most beautiful woman in the world. She had many suitors and when she finally married, every man that had once suited her vowed to protect her should another man try to take her away from her husband Menelaus, king of Sparta. She was eventually kidnapped by Paris, Prince of Troy, which led to the Trojan war and downfall of Troy.

Homer depicts her as a meek character. She has no choice in her kidnapping. Paris kidnaps her he asks her to “lay on the bed of love” with him. She follows his demands without any struggle. Helen does not react indignantly to being kidnapped. She has been taken away from her husband and young children yet Helen doesn’t seem to care. Helen does what she is told without any thought of her own. When the war is has ended Helen refuses to leave her apartments. Menelaus has won Troy, Helen remains in the palace waiting for someone to come find her and tell her where to go. She performs no action for herself. She doesn’t fathom the idea that she may have any choice to deny her kidnapper to sleep with her or go looking for husband afterwards. She sits around and waits for someone to save her. Much like a robot, Helen reacts to the commands given to her.

old ship

Penelope:

Penelope is the wife of Odysseus. She waits twenty years for her husband’s return from the Trojan War. During the last four years of her wait, she receives many suitors who offer to give her a life where she doesn’t have to take over a man’s job of running the household. All of these men claim that her husband has died. Penelope refuses all of their offers, choosing to maintain her identity as a widow rather than remarry for convenience. She supports her family by weaving clothes for everyone in her home as well as selling some of the fabric she makes.

While Odysseus is lost at sea he comes across the goddess Calypso’s island. She offers him all the comforts in the world. Her magic island provides all the earthly possessions that one could ever wish for. However, Odysseus refuses her offer, choosing to continue his journey and hopefully return to his wife. Calypso is easily as beautiful as his wife and much more powerful. However, Odysseus respects Penelope because she could support a household alone for the last twenty years and raise his children alone. Her intelligence and ability to be self-sufficient holds Odysseus back from marrying another woman. Penelope proves that she does not need the support of a man to survive or for that matter flourish. Wives of warriors would many times marry other men if their husbands were taken as prisoners of war so that they and their children would not suffer the same fate. Penelope denounced this custom and chose to maintain her individuality rather than try to use a man as her safety blanket. This attitude of self-sufficiency and respect made any potential suitors and her husband realize that Penelope would not marry for convenience. She would only marry a man she could respect.

Waterman Perspective Fountain Pen in Black

Homer’s Change:

Here we see over the course of two books how Homer’s presentation of women changed. In his first story Homer showed that women are completely dependent on men. Helen was completely under the control of the men surrounding her. She was robotic in following orders. Penelope on the hand is completely in control of her fate. She financially supports her household and refuses to rely on any man to “save her” from doing a man’s work. Homer shows that some women are not dependent on and don’t use men for their own benefit.

Based on the transition of female portrayal in his writing, Homer evidently came to realize that women play an integral role in society beyond just bearing children. In the time of very little medical care, women would have many children in hopes that two or three would make it to adulthood without dying and be able to procreate also. Supporting a family with many children was expensive and many times women were quick to remarry after the death of their husbands to support their families. However, there was also a rise in working women in ancient Greece. Many times, these women were discounted by society and seen as lower class. Homer depicts Penelope’s independence as a sign of respect working against the belief of society and allowing women to have identities of their own.

Leave a comment below on your opinions of Homer’s portrayal of women.

 

 

 

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