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. These attributes were imposed upon women more out of a sense of control and fear than out of any real need due to actual delicacy or peril. In establishing these customs, it has been generally acknowledged that women had a power that was beyond men’s comprehension, originating from her ability to conceive and bear children and continuing in her ability to control those around her through various, non-physical means. Outer control over the female person, through physical strength, bodily confinement, and emphasis on physical frailty were often enough to keep women docilely occupied within the home while fictions were established that would help to protect the status quo. One such fiction was in the concept that women should not receive too much education, an idea that ran even into the twentieth century, as they were considered intellectually incapable of comprehending the complexities of male thought patterns and therefore would not benefit from too much educational training. Despite the constraints, though, women continued to prove that their strength was beyond the reach of men, demonstrated again and again through the characters of mythology and legend. 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.
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The status of women in ancient Greece, even in the great first Republic of Athens, was not the same kind of freedom women experience in today’s republics, despite the rumors of Athens’ greatness and equality. According to Vrissimtzis (1997), women were refused citizenship and were not allowed to hold property in Athens in the old days. In Sparta, women were able to hold onto these rights but were not allowed to conduct significant business, although some worked as court entertainers or concubines. The most women could expect to own was the right to their dowries, which would go with them should they divorce or re-marry following a husband’s death. It is seen through the many suitors seeking Penelope’s hand that the culture in which she existed enabled her to safeguard her husband’s property for as long as the two were wed, but that the wealth of her dowry would go with her, encouraging the many suitors who camped out on her doorstep. Within this culture, women like Penelope could obtain a divorce in theory, but it carried great social consequences and was difficult to obtain. Socially, women could only appear in public if chaperoned by their husbands or female servants and education was withheld from them Guardianship of the female person was considered necessary in the Greek culture because it was thought that without the judicious governance of the male, the female “would incline to complete wantonness” (Carson, 1990: 140). Penelope is a paragon of womanhood because, although she is not guarded by any male protector in Odysseus’ absence and she is actively pursued by a number of young men, she remains faithful to her vows of marriage and keeps herself surrounded by female servants at all times, even within her own home where the suitors have taken up unwelcome residence.
Throughout the play, 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. In all respects, Penelope demonstrates the ideals of womanhood not only in her beauty, which is almost as legendary as her cousin, Helen of Troy, 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. This activity is seen to take over the primary duty of the wife in ancient Greece, that of procreation since her husband is not available (Thompson, 2005). It is the one activity that she, as a proper noblewoman, is able to participate in personally, tying her hands and her notice to her project and providing her an excuse to spend her hours alone or at least not in the immediate company of the suitors. However, she is also working on a shroud, a symbol of death, and spends her nights pulling the threads from the project, undoing the work she’s completed, signifying the unproductive and ultimately useless nature of the business (Lowenstam, 2000: 333). That she is capable of fulfilling her wifely duty to produce children is also illustrated throughout these scenes as the activities of her loyal and upstanding young son are depicted, despite the absence of his father and the similarly futile attempts of this son to produce positive action. Her real strength as a woman, though, is perhaps best illustrated in her 20-year wait for the husband she is sure will return to her although she’s received no word or hopes to support her. As is discussed through Carson (1990), this was considered to be a very unusual trait for a woman and a mark not only of the high esteem Penelope held for her husband but also in her own stellar qualities. It is helpful to remember that Helen, Penelope’s cousin, was the woman who started the Trojan War as a result of her own fickle-hearted attachments.
Penelope’s proper feminine weakness is shown to meet the ideal in her inability to physically remove the suitors from her home, indicating she is not stronger than the male members of her society. Despite this, she is able to keep them under a semblance of control through the use of ‘feminine wiles’, that other form of strength possessed by women. When the suitors 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). Therefore, despite a lack of education or ability to wield any real power in the court, Penelope is seen to keep the entire realm in line by the simple application of cunning and intellectual resourcefulness. Her 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. Like her faithfulness which continues to create even as it doesn’t create, Penelope’s intelligence enables her to remain superior to the suitors that constantly pressure her to accept one of them, never succumbing to their accusations that the misfortunes of their own estates and the drain on Odysseus’ property are entirely her faults.
Through her faithfulness, her properly womanly activities, and her exercise of intelligence within this realm, Homer indicates that women were much stronger of intellect and spirit than they were frequently given credit for in his time and in the many years that intervene between the modern age and ancient Greece. Through her activities, staying confined to the house, keeping female servants around her, and occupying herself with the appropriate activities of weaving and sewing, Penelope illustrates the constancy of love and family. The hopelessness of her work reflects the emptiness of her life without her husband and her reluctance to take on a new mate even while her dedication to keeping the peace encourages her to devise a means of accomplishing both her own chastity in her husband’s absence and his court’s coherence. Her cunning is revealed as she finds a peaceful means of controlling the men who won’t leave and its success through a period of more than three years. It is significant that it is only through the interference of another woman that her trick is finally revealed to the suitors, forcing her to determine a new ruse. Fortunately, this occurs at just about the same time as Odysseus, disguised as an old man, finally returns to the court. Again, it is through her intellect and cunning that Odysseus is first recognized for who he is despite the costume and then 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. Penelope’s weaving, seen to be a passive, fruitless thing by the outside world, thus takes on a world of the connotation that reverberates with meaning even in today’s industrialized society.
Carson, Anne. “Putting Her in Her Place: Woman, Dirt and Desire.” Before Sexuality: The Construction of Erotic Experience in the Ancient Greek World. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990.
Homer. The Odyssey. Trans. E.V. Rieu. New York: Penguin Books, 1946.
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Lowenstam, Steven. “The Shroud of Laertes and Penelope’s Guile.” The Classical Journal. Vol. 95, N. 4, (April-May, 2000): 333-348.
Thompson, James C. (2005). “Women in Athens.” Women in the Ancient World.
Vrissimtzis, N.A. Love, Sex and Marriage in Ancient Greece. Edinburgh: Agia Books, 1997.