Odysseus and the Women

Odysseus is much probably the most famous of Homer’s heroes and I am inclined to believe that it was also the author’s favourite character. He concentrates many talents and represents how far a gifted human can go, sometimes regardless – as well as sometimes thanks – to the help of the Gods.

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Many aspects of Ulysses personality and behaviour have been long and deeply pondered by numerous authoritative scholars: his temper, his shrewdness, his eloquence and his courage on the battlefield, just to name some. Odysseus multifaceted and intricate relationships with the women he met during his wandering is another perspective through which is interesting to understand the personage as well as the age into which he was living.

Clearly from this standpoint the first place is occupied by his loyal and wise wife, Penelope; nonetheless several others will try to win his heart and have him for good. Some of them will even succeed in this hard intent, albeit always temporarily.

A very courteous behaviour characterises the relation between Odysseus and Nausicaa: the very young daughter of King Alcinous. When she finds him shipwrecked, dirty and naked, Odysseus shows the utmost respect for the young innocent lady and her accompanying companions:

To them the king: “No longer I detain
Your friendly care: retire, ye virgin train!
Retire, while from my wearied limbs I lave
The foul pollution of the briny wave.
Ye gods! since this worn frame refection know,
What scenes have I surveyed of dreadful view!
But, nymphs, recede! sage chastity denies
To raise the blush, or pain the modest eyes.”

Then, after conquering her trust, Odysseus with sweetest words, swiftly wins also her heart and devotion:

If from the skies a goddess, or if earth
(Imperial virgin) boast thy glorious birth,
To thee I bend! If in that bright disguise
Thou visit earth, a daughter of the skies,
Hail, Dian, hail! the huntress of the groves
So shines majestic, and so stately moves,
So breathes an air divine! But if thy race
Be mortal, and this earth thy native place,
Blest is the father from whose loins you sprung,
Blest is the mother at whose breast you hung.
Blest are the brethren who thy blood divide,
To such a miracle of charms allied:
Joyful they see applauding princes gaze,
When stately in the dance you swim the harmonious maze.
But blest o’er all, the youth with heavenly charms,
Who clasps the bright perfection in his arms!
Never, I never view’d till this blast hour
Such finish’d grace! I gaze, and I adore!

Regardless the young girl’s dreams, Odysseus will eventually leave her island to go back to his Ithaca:

Oh heaven! in my connubial hour decree
This man my spouse, or such a spouse as he!

Odysseus can be also pitiless with regards to women, as it happens after his return with the punishment of twelve maids and other female members of his household for having betrayed him and slept with the suitors/invaders. He orders that they will have to clean the room where the hero’s vengeance has taken place and then after them having performed this duty, his son Telemachus will hang them to death:

Now to dispose the dead, the care remains
To you, my son, and you, my faithfull swains;
The offending females to that task we doom,
To wash, to scent, and purify the room

Calypso, a minor Goddess, succeeds instead in conquering Odysseus using all her powers: beauty, authority. Besides how could Odysseus refuse her avances and resist to her beauty superior even to Penelope’s:

Loved and adored, O goddess as thou art,
Forgive the weakness of a human heart.
Though well I see thy graces far above
The dear, though mortal, object of my love,
Of youth eternal well the difference know,
And the short date of fading charms below;

But after seven years, Ulysses, in spite of her profuse offers to stay with her for good and even to become immortal, wishes to leave the island where he was kept unwillingly – at least so he protests – albeit, I presume his “reluctant” seven years on the isle of Ogygia must have been not that unendurable…:

Met by the goddess there with open arms,
She bribed my stay with more than human charms;
Nay, promised, vainly promised, to bestow
Immortal life, exempt from age and woe;
But all her blandishments successless prove,
To banish from my breast my country’s love.
I stay reluctant seven continued years,
And water her ambrosial couch with tears
,

Circe uses all her magic powers to subdue Odysseus, as she already has easily succeeded with his crew. Nevertheless soon she comes to the conclusion that the hero is not an ordinary man and consequently decides to change her tactic into something more attracting and appealing…:

What art thou? say! from whence, from whom you came?
O more than human! tell thy race, thy name.
Amazing strength, these poisons to sustain!
Not mortal thou, nor mortal is thy brain.
Or art thou he, the man to come (foretold
By Hermes, powerful with the wand of gold),
The man from Troy, who wander’d ocean round;
The man for wisdom’s various arts renown’d,
Ulysses? Oh! thy threatening fury cease;
Sheathe thy bright sword, and join our hands in peace!
Let mutual joys our mutual trust combine,
And love, and love-born confidence, be thine.

Again in Odysseus reason prevails. He perceives the peril of her charm. He succeeds in seducing Circe and after obtaining freedom for his crew, and after enjoying her favours for quite a while he set sails – again homeward bound.

In each occasion Ulysses some how lets himself go, he releases himself and consequently emotions prevail on reason, but this happens only to a certain extent and only for a short period of time. He well knows the risks a man runs when he abandons himself to the irrationality of passions, lowering his defences and forgetting any usual and wise precaution.

So I guess even the greatest of the heroes is afraid of something: his own feelings, which makes him human after all…

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15 comments on “Odysseus and the Women

  1. Angela says:

    I read your blog regularly. This last one is really a lovely post! My compliments. Angela

  2. stoa says:

    Thank you for your comment Angela, and also for your email – sweet as usual.
    It is always a pleasure to read from you.

    Atheneion

  3. inel says:

    Dear Atheneion,

    Your blog is always so fascinating, and this post especially so, even though I really only know about Greek heroes from reading myths with my sons. Thanks for choosing thought-provoking topics and for writing clear posts for non-classicists to enjoy.

  4. stoa says:

    Thank you very much for your kind comment. You have deeply understood the true spirit of my writings and this means a lot to me.
    I hope to be able to keep meeting your expectations in the future.
    It is always a great satisfaction to read your insightful words.
    Thank you again.
    Atheneion

  5. Karen says:

    Beautiful and original article indeed. What about Penelope? Could you write some more on her, I’m so curious! Karen

  6. stoa says:

    Hello Karen! I haven’t heard from you for a while, I hope all is fine with you.
    Thank you for your comment. I promise you I will write on Penelope soon.

  7. Teena says:

    Too many people hide their feelings, this is why this world is becoming such a bad place to live in, Teena

  8. stoa says:

    Dear Teena,
    thank you for your comment and your insightful email too, I wrote you back a few minutes ago.
    I know, disappointingly this is true. I guess this is just self defence – a matter of survival. But the worst is that setting this “high guard” we create barriers that prevent us from living and feeling as we should.
    In other words: hiding feelings for the sake of not being disillusioned or even hurt makes us live a less intense life experience. Personally I don’t know if this is worth, I am still trying to figure it out…

  9. Ana de La Robla says:

    Ulises es uno de los personajes más fascinantes de la Antigüedad. Para mí encarna el nacimiento del Hombre moderno, frente al hombre tradicional, estrictamente clásico que representa a la perfección Aquiles. Aquiles está sometido a los designios de los dioses, e incluso contradiciéndolos vive en su entorno limitado; su poder es el mero poder ejecutivo, que no cuestiona la sagrada nómos transmitida por los siglos. Ulises, en cambio, es el astuto, el heterodoxo, el burlador, el que sabe rodear los vericuetos de la divinidad para convertirse en “humano, demasiado humano”, como diría Nietzsche; en cierto modo, Ulises es un superhombre avant la lettre: sin matar a los dioses, se sirve de ellos y los coloca en entredicho. Con Ulises sobreviene una nueva moral, que no es marmórea sino llena de latidos, no es apolínea sino en cierto modo dionisiaca. El único problema de Ulises se llama Homero.
    Un beso.

  10. stoa says:

    You cannot be more right!
    Most definitely Achilles represents the last stereotyped hero of a fading paradigmatic tribal society where strength in duel and battlefield courage are the only measurement units to be socially accepted and recognized as a leader. Odysseus of course possesses these qualities too, moderately; but they are coupled – or better balanced – with more modern attributes of success such as being timely, compromising, diplomatic, acute, eloquent and observer.
    Clearly to find in a single person so many endowments, altogether in the best fair assortment and combination seems “too good to be true”… this is why I cannot disagree with Nietzsche.
    And yet, I am sure that any reader still feels he can reach Odysseus, be like him, perhaps just for once, because in spite of his incredible abilities and because of his unstoppable appeal, any reader still feels him as human, as his peer.
    Thank you for stimulating me towards more reflections and thoughts.

  11. [...] in the shadow of this tree, writes in the pages of his Stoa Poikile about Dido and Aeneas and Odysseus and his women. No Comments Leave a Commenttrackback addressThere was an error with your comment, please try [...]

  12. lola says:

    how did they love

  13. daniela says:

    hi! i am from argentina

  14. stoa says:

    Hola Daniela,
    por supuesto eres bienvenida en mi blog cuando gustes.
    Hasta pronto

  15. Rubal Kaur says:

    “‘My word, how mortals take the gods to task!
    All their afflictions come from us, we hear.
    And what of their own failings? Greed and folly
    double the suffering in the lot of man.
    See how Aigisthos, for his double portion,
    stole Agamemnon’s wife and killed the soldier on his homecoming day.

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