The Distaff Side: Representing the Female in Homer's Odyssey

By Beth Cohen | Go to book overview

Athena's final intervention in this plot that she has created and guided throughout constitutes an endorsement of the Homeric oikos, the hereditary extended household to which Odysseus has made his arduous, glorious Return. The oikos is identified as the basis of Odysseus' power, as Athena creates an invincible fighting force out of three generations of his family. Athena's action also reveals the oikos as the sphere in which Odysseus can enjoy the unqualified success that distinguishes him from other heroes; she assures a happy ending to his story by cutting it short just as he begins to move aggressively beyond the boundaries of his estate. 21 Yet if Odysseus' story, like Achilles', ends with the gods imposing limits on the individual hero, Zeus' proposal to Athena makes it clear that that limitation will be painless: Odysseus will retain his preeminence in Ithaka, and the entire population will flourish. The hero's violent obliteration of his rivals will go unavenged for the sake of peace.

The image of the oikos celebrated in this final episode is dominated by men; it is encapsulated in the unbroken male heritage represented by Laertes, Odysseus, and Telemachos. Through a plot constructed around the danger posed by Penelope's Suitors, the Odyssey presents the oikos as having to be protected by force, and that means that it can function properly only with a male hero at its center. Although the poem has done much to indicate the importance of women to the functioning of the oikos and to its preservation, women are notably absent from its concluding pageant. Even Penelope -- who has contrived to preserve Odysseus' household in his absence and who has helped to create the biological tie between Odysseus and his son -- is hidden from view in the inner part of the house. Instead, Odysseus has at his side the one female figure on whom a male hero can most surely depend: the goddess Athena, who devotes to his cause both her masculine ability as a fighter and her feminine skill as a weaver of plots, devising an end to his story that is at once the restoration of society and the fulfillment of his desires.


Notes

This essay is dedicated to Jane Espy Gordon, whose early arrival prevented it from being finished on time. My thanks to Beth Cohen for the good grace with which she tolerated the delay and for helpful editorial comments.

1
The definitive study of mētis in Greek thought is Detienne and Vernant, 1978.

-78-

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The Distaff Side: Representing the Female in Homer's Odyssey
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Preface vii
  • Contents xi
  • Contributors xiii
  • Abbreviations xvii
  • I - Introduction 1
  • 1 - The Odyssey, History, and Women 3
  • Notes 14
  • 2 - Female Representations and Interpreting the Odyssey 17
  • Notes 26
  • 3 - Between Skylla and Penelope: Female Characters of the Odyssey in Archaic and Classical Greek Art 29
  • Notes 50
  • II - Female Representations in the Odyssey 59
  • 4 - The Plan of Athena 61
  • Notes 78
  • 5 - Sirens, Muses, and Female Narrators in the Odyssey 81
  • Notes 89
  • 6 - Penelope as Moral Agent 93
  • Notes 109
  • 7 - Figuring Fidelity in Homer's Odyssey 117
  • Notes 146
  • III - Representations of Female Characters from the Odyssey in Ancient Art 153
  • 8 - Coming of Age in Phaiakia: The Meeting of Odysseus and Nausikaa 155
  • Notes 161
  • 9 - Kirke's Men: Swine and Sweethearts 165
  • Notes 173
  • 10 - Les Femmes Fatales: Skylla and the Sirens in Greek Art 175
  • Notes 183
  • 11 - The Intimate Act of Footwashing: Odyssey 19 185
  • Notes 196
  • References 201
  • Index 219
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