There was no shortage of powerful female characters throughout the Archaic world. In fact, many of the most widely renowned figures in history are found in the works of Homer and other authors from this time period. These women often play an influential—and essential—role in the story. However, despite the presence of multiple powerful and strong-willed women in works such as Homer’s Odyssey, the most significant of these characters were created as hinderences to the male hero by means of their sexuality. Through Odysseus’ encounters with the likes of Calypso and Circe—contrasted by young Narsicaa’s morality and Penelope’s fidelity—the negative light shed on female sexuality in Archaic Greece is apparent.
The lengthy and perilous journey that Odysseus experiences as he returns home from war is fraught with obstacles of all kind. However, the most frequent, and arguably the most dangerous of these encumbrances are the temptations that women who are free with their sexual desires present. This pattern is first seen when Odysseus is washed ashore onto an island inhabited by the nymph Calypso. Not only does she prevent the hero from resuming his journey, but she also entices him with the prospect of immortality if he were to remain on the island. It is not until the goddess Athena takes it upon herself to help Odysseus that the hero has any hope of leaving the island. “For all that any of Odysseus’ people / Remember him, a godly King as kind as a father / No, he’s still languishing on that island, detained / Against his will by that nymph Calypso” (lines 13-16). The explicit blame of Calypso and the delay in the hero’s return home is credited to her unbridled lust and affection for him. Given tha...
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...n’s duty in marriage as “not only to produce and raise heirs but also preside over her household by weaving and watching over the domestic slaves and goods” (Fantham et al. 32). In fact, Penelope maintains all of these obligations over the many years of Odysseus’ journey home. For this reason, she is presented as moral and upright character, contrasted by those of Calypso and Circe.
Women in Archaic Greece had few—and very specific—roles to play in their society. They were discouraged from giving free reign to their sexuality (as many of the men were allowed to do), and consequently had many negatively portrayed female characters to use as examples in their moral development. In contrast, those who were characterized as ‘ideal’ women often displayed some sort of restraint in regards to their sexual urges—or, like Athena and Artemis, were considered asexual beings.
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