The Odyssey is the product of a society in which men played the dominant role. In ancient Greece, just as in the whole of the ancient world, and in America and Western Europe until the last century, women occupied a subservient position. Society was organized and directed by men, and all of the most important enterprises were arranged and implemented by men. Women were valued, but they participated in the affairs of the world only when they had the tacit or open approval and permission of the men who directed their lives.
The literature of this sort of masculine society, of which the Odyssey is an example, aptly illustrates these social conventions. The focus of the Odessy centers on traditional interests of men; warfare, hunting, the problems of the warrior and ruler, and so forth. That which would concern women, such as domestic affairs, is not involved in this literature, or is dealt with only casually. Keeping in mind this important attribute of epic poetry, which is the direct result of its social and intellectual environment, one cannot help noting the great difference between the Odyssey and all other epic poems.
No other literary work of this period, or of a similar cultural background, gives such a prominent position to women. No reader of the Odyssey can help having vivid memories of the poems outstanding female characters. There are many women in the Odyssey and all of them contribute in mean-ingful ways to the development of the action. Furthermore, they are treated seriously and with respect by the poet, as if there were no difference between his attitude toward them and his feelings toward the chieftains for whom his epic was composed.
Among the memorable women in the poem are Nausicaa, the innocent young maiden; Arete, the wise and benevolent queen and mother; Circe and Calypso, the sultry and mysterious temptresses; Penelope, the ideal of marital devotion and fidelity; Helen, the respectable middle-class matron with a past; and others, like Eurycleia and Mel-antho, who have much smaller roles, but equally well defined personalities. Finally, there is Athene, the goddess, who more than any other of these women, has the intelligence, sophistication, and independence that the modern world expects of a woman.
The influential feminine strain in the Odyssey also has important effects upon the whole flavor of the poem. Many other early epics are characterized by coldness, morbidity, and brutality, caused by the subjects with which they deal. The virtues, such as courage and martial prowess, which are seen in the Iliad are impressive, but they are undistinguished and limited, for they exist in a world of masculine competition and warfare. It is only in the Odyssey, among early Greek works, that such familiar ideas as love, family loyalty, and devotion, and other such important ethical attitudes, are both illustrated and advocated.
It is the presence of these unconscious moral lessons that makes the Odyssey so unique in its genre and produces its humanitarian and optimistic outlook. The nature of the events described in the Odyssey and the character of Odysseus necessitated that many women had to be present in its verses. Beyond this, however, the poet had a rather free hand in choosing how to deal with them. The women of the Odyssey could have been treated as casually and cavalierly as Andromache and Helen were in the Iliad. Homer, however, made another choice.
In a way, the Odyssey is not just the tale of the wanderings of Odysseus. The poet has made it, also, into a type of descriptive catalog of women, in which he examines women of all kinds and from all backgrounds. These feminine portraits are always objective and fair, for Homer never made judgments, and each of these women has a certain appeal. It is interesting to notice, however, that the woman who is most worthy of respect and emulation is not a mortal. Homer seems to comment that no human being, limited as she was by the environment which he portrays, could de-velop herself in this fashion.
His admiration for Athene is made even more evident by the fact that she, and not Penelope or one of the others, is the heroine of the poem and the sole companion and confidante of Odysseus. It is only in our modern world that women have been given the opportunity to fully utilize their talent and ability, in order to become equal and contributing members of so-ciety like Athene. Developing over a period of close to three thousand years, a womans role in society has only begun to emerge.
Homers society, however so well developed it may have seemed, came much too early for anyone of his one day to appreciate its significance. The role of women in Homers society and in modern day society closely resemble each other, even though three thousand years later, there is still much women have yet to accomplish. Homer saw a ray of light for women in society. One that would not be matched for many centuries to come. Still asserting that women were in no means equal to that of men, Homer still saw the capability for the development of women in Greek society, even if the one women he developed most was not mortal.