Feminist Archetypes in The Iliad and The Odyssey: Two Cases Considered
By Jonathan DeSousa
As a result of postmodern philosophical thought, the 20th century saw significant change in the operating principles governing the Western World; however, no facet of this mode of thinking was quite so transformational, perhaps, as the feminist movement. This movement brought about substantial changes in the way that both men and women perceive the roles of women in society as well as the normative practices that those of the female gender espoused as the century progressed.
Prior to the 20th century and even through the mid-point, the role of women in society was significantly more restricted than today and the normative practices that women engaged in were predominantly domestically-focused. Judeo-Christian practice expected that women would “. . . be subordinate to their husbands as to the Lord.1” It was also expected that “As the church is subordinate to Christ, so wives should be subordinate to their husbands in everything.2” These attitudes did not originate from Judeo-Christian sources. Aristotle, in his Politics, said “Again, the male is by nature superior, and the female inferior; and the one rules, and the other is ruled; this principle of necessity extends to all mankind.3” Ultimately with influences from foundational authors and texts such as Aristotle and the Bible, it is no surprise that women have played a limited role in the active development of the Western World.
Looking back further to the foundational texts of Western Culture: specifically, The Iliad and The Odyssey, one realizes that our understanding of the role of women in society has changed substantial over the intervening millennia; though, Homer seems to have provided us with two diametrically-opposed archetypes for acceptable behavior from his female characters. In Ancient Greece, women were expected to be subservient to their husbands by implementing his wishes and commands, always speaking of their husbands with respect and deference, and focusing their energies on oeconomia (Greek: οἰκονομία): the management of the household. In this paper the actions and behaviors of Penelope and Hera are contrasted with respect to these normative expectations of feminine behavior.
Hera, the Queen of the Olympian Gods. It would not be unusual then to think of Hera as the quintessential archetype for what feminine behavior should be. Hera, married to her brother Zeus, the King of the Olympian Gods, has significant difficulties in playing the subservient role to her husband. In the Trojan War epic, The Iliad, Hera seems at odds with Zeus’ position on many points including which side of the war to support and whom Zeus should be helping. Zeus initially appears to be supporting King Priam and the Trojans; however, Hera, who was slighted by Priam’s son Paris prior to the start of The Iliad, is determined to punish the Trojan people by supporting their arch rivals, the Achaeans. Her daughter, Athena, equally slighted by Paris, stands by her side; however, when it comes time to stand up to Zeus on this point “. . . Athena held her peace and said nothing . . . smoldering at the Father [i.e. Zeus] seized with wild resentment.4”
Meanwhile, “[But] Hera could hold the anger in her breast no longer, suddenly bursting out, “Dread Majesty, son of Cronus, what are you saying? How can you think of making all my labor worthless, all gone for nothing? Mortal labor – the sweat I poured, my horses panting, spent from launching Achaea’s armies, heaping pains on Priam and Priam’s sons. Do as you please – but none of the deathless gods will ever praise you.5” These do not appear to be the words of a wife committed to subservient acquiescence of her husband’s commands. Zeus responds by chastising her for the rage she feels toward the Trojans and responds “. . . never attempt to thwart my fury, Hera, . . . 6”
When it comes to respect and support, Hera shows very little care for her husband’s position. Even after she supposedly makes peace with Zeus, Hera pushes the other gods to revolt against Zeus’ expressed wishes for the war’s outcome, saying “If only we, we gods who defend the Argives had the will to hurl the trojans back and hold off thundering Zeus – there he would sit and smolder, throned in desolate splendor up on Ida.7“ Poseidon, her brother and God of the Sea, Earthquake, Storms, and Horses, warns her, “Hera, what wild words! What are you saying? I for one have no desire to battle Zeus, not you and I and the rest of the gods together. The King is far too strong – he’ll crush us all.8” Zeus seems not to be surprised by his wife’s disobedience, though, telling Hermes, the messenger god, “But with Hera, though, I am not so outraged, so irate – it’s always her way to thwart my will, whatever I command.9”
Penelope, the wife of Odysseus, King of Ithaca, respects her husband’s commands and tries to obey them even 20 years after his departure to fight the war at Troy. She is so trusted by Odysseus that when he departs, he leaves everything in Penelope’s hands saying “So I cannot tell if the gods will sail me home again or I’ll go down out there, on the fields of Troy, but all things here must rest in your control.10” A king would only be able to leave his wife completely in control if he felt she would respect his wishes and run the kingdom as he would have run it. His trust is well placed as Penelope asks each visitor to Ithaca whether they have any information to share regarding the whereabouts of her loving husband, Odysseus.
In speaking of her husband Zeus, Hera refers to him as “Dread Majesty11”, and belittles him both when they are alone and when they are with other gods. Hera does not respect Zeus in the way that the wives of Ancient Greeks would respect their husbands. To be fair to Hera, Zeus’ philandering ways do not exactly endear him to readers as a loving, devoted husband in the way Odysseus does. Zeus even brags to Hera in The Iliad of seven other women both mortal and immortal.
Penelope, by contrast sincerely misses her long-awaited husband, Odysseus, and speaks only the highest praise for him. She laments, “How I long for my husband – alive in memory, always, that great man whose fame resounds through Hellas, right to the depths of Argos!12” She also extols his courage calling him, “My lionhearted husband13”. Odysseus, likewise, respects his wife’s honor calling her “wise Penelope”. She tells the suitors that Odysseus has “Never an outrage done to any man alive.14”
Hera, rather than spending her time supporting her husband and focusing on her “wifely” duties, spends her time focused on moving her own agenda forward: namely, the defeat of the Trojans and other interference in the affairs of men. She temporarily supports Zeus’ agenda only when she realizes that she will ultimately get her way, the Achaeans overpowering the Trojan forces by the end of The Iliad. Her lack of focus on oeconomia means that the Olympic household is in disorder with a lack of cohesion amongst the gods. Ultimately, Hera’s sister Hestia is the goddess of the hearth, home, and other aspects of domesticity, one would expect that the Queen of the Olympian Gods would have some level of contribution to the idea of felicitous domestic conditions. Hera’s actions demonstrate that she doesn’t seem to agree with this line of thinking.
Penelope clearly demonstrates this to the best of her ability by trying to minimize the damage done by the consumption of the suitors. When she prepares the test for the suitors, she tells them they “plague the palace day and night” and she wishes them to stop. She tells the suitors that one of the ways they could win her over is to bring gifts which ultimately will help increase Odysseus’ property. At this, “Staunch Odysseus glowed with joy to hear all this – his wife’s trickery luring gifts from her suitors now, enchanting their hears with suave, seductive words but all the while with something else in mind.15”
Wise Penelope also spends time weaving a shroud for her father-in-law’s future death to both stall the suitors as well as to take care of her beloved father-in-law. She is able to efficiently and effectively support the household and respect her husband with her shrewd actions. She is an unquestionably loyal and worthy wife by the standards of Ancient Greece. Ultimately even Agamemnon speaks highly of Penelope’s virtue telling Odysseus, “What good sense resided in your Penelope – how well Icarius’ daughter remembered you, Odysseus, the man she married once!16”
Throughout The Iliad and The Odyssey, Homer has provided (at least) two interesting archetypes of strong females to consider. The Penelope archetype has been one of the examples frequently extolled throughout history as the ideal, virtuous wife for other women to emulate. Although Western Culture has shifted from this ideal, it is still worth considering in contrast to the more outspoken, fiercely independent archetype demonstrated by Hera.
1. Ephesians 5:22
2. Ephesians 5:24
3. Aristotle, Politics, 1254b13-14
4. Homer, The Iliad, Book 4, Lines 26-27.
5. Homer, The Iliad, Book 4, Lines 28-36.
6. Homer, The Iliad, Book 4, Line 49.
7. Homer, The Iliad, Book 8, Lines 232-236.
8. Homer, The Iliad, Book 8, Lines 238-241.
9. Homer, The Iliad, Book 8, Lines 465-467.
10. Homer, The Odyssey, Book 18, Lines 297-299.
11. Homer, The Iliad, Book 4, Line 28.
12. Homer, The Odyssey, Book1, Line 395-397.
13. Homer, They Odyssey, Book 4, Line 815.
14. Homer, The Odyssey, Book 4, Line 780.
15. Homer, The Odyssey, Book 18, Lines 315-318.
16. Homer, The Odyssey, Book 24, Lines 213-215.
The Bible. Saint Joseph Edition of The New American Bible, Catholic Book Publishing Co., 1991.
Barnes, Jonathan, editor. “Politics” The Complete Works of Aristotle. The Revised Oxford Translation, 1984.
Fagles, Robert, translator. The Iliad. By Homer, Penguin Classics, 1990.
Fagles Robert, translator. The Odyssey. By Homer, Penguin Classics, 1996.