In both The Odyssey and Agamemnon the role of women is presented from a patriarchal and misogynist perspective. This is shown in the two main female characters of Penelope and Clytaemnestra. Their situations offer examples of the rewards of fulfilling society’s female gender role in the case of Penelope; the consequences of leaving that role are demonstrated by Clytaemnestra. In both stories women are shown as chattel, possessions for distribution to cement political moves, bind families and produce children. Clytaemnestra and Penelope are diametrically opposed representations of women in ancient Greece and as such allow an understanding of the roles of women and how women were viewed by their society.
possible to give an accurate definition of women’s roles in Greek society from two fictional stories written by men. These will be skewed by the views held by their authors, rather than representative of society’s views. However they do offer at least two viewpoints from which to analyze the roles of women in ancient Greece.
Skills play an important role in determining value among women. This is seen when Athena presents herself to Odysseus (Homer, page 239, lines 368-370) ‘…she seemed a woman,/ tall and beautiful and no doubt skilled/ at weaving splendid things’. Clytaemnestra states how skilled she is at dyeing bronze. Penelope is constantly praised for her weaving, which is used to illustrate her cleverness in one story. Domestic skills are presented as desirable as demonstrated by the reactions of the other characters with whom the women interact.
That women were considered mere possessions is expressed clearly when one of Penelope’s suitors suggests what he thinks should happen with her and the estate: (Homer, page 24, lines 204-207) ‘Before the whole assembly I advise Telemakhos/ to send his mother to her father’s house;/ let them arrange her wedding there, and fix/ a portion suitable for a valued daughter.’ She began as the property of her father, became the property of Odysseus; when Odysseus left she devolved onto her son who was urged to send her back to her original owner, her father, for redistribution. This idea of women as property is held throughout the text. The swineherd offers more support for this notion; his absent lord ‘…would have pensioned me/ with acres of my own, a house, a wife/ that other men admired and courted; all/ gifts good-hearted kings bestow for service…’ (Homer, page 249, lines 76-79). He speaks of acquiring a desirable wife as a gift, a reward from his lord. Would this gift package include a pound of butter and some goats?
Penelope offers a perspective of women’s role rewarded. She suffered for years through her lord’s absence, raising a child alone and eventually besieged by men from the surrounding fiefdoms who demand her person and possessions. Her attributes are listed many times; she is clever and talented (Homer, page 22, lines 124-134) ‘She may rely too long on Athena’s gifts-/ talent in handicraft and a clever mind;…’ She is described as ‘She is too wise,/ too clear-eyed, sees alternatives too well’ (Homer, page 199, lines 519-522). Portrayed as wise, she is seen as compliant and loyal to the man who left her, waiting patiently and faithfully for him to return after twenty years absence ‘…she sits where you left her, and her days/ and nights go by forlorn, in lonely weeping.’ (Homer, page 241, lines 425-426)
praise. They besieged her for marriage to obtain her desirable self as well as her property. She, having no champion in the area except an aged father-in-law, managed through trickery to deceive them and prevent their seizing that which they petitioned for, as seen in Homer on pages 21-22, lines 95-118. She avoids any confrontation which could have led to her forcible remarriage and the loss of her lord’s property. She maintains her sexual purity in the face of overwhelming odds; this behavior is reflective of the archetype of the devoted woman/wife/mother and is the basis of Penelope’s character in this saga.
Night to Penelope’s day, Clytaemnestra is a completely different character, more fully developed, central to the storyline and despicable in her actions. She is presented in the text of Agamemnon as being unwomanly ‘That woman – she maneuvers like a man.’ (Aeschylus, page 103, line 13). Her manner of speech is completely different from Penelope’s ‘Spoken like a man, my lady, loyal,/full of self-command.’ (Aeschylus, page 116, lines 355-356); she holds strong opinions and stands up to criticism, defending her actions and motives ‘…you try me like some desperate woman./My heart is steel, well you know. Praise me,/blame me as you choose. It’s all one.’ (Aeschylus, page 162, lines 1426-1428)
Strong language is used to describe her: ‘fell, bestial, corrupt, godforsaken’ (Homer page 199 & Aeschylus page 146). Placed in a somewhat similar situation to Penelope’s, she might have suffered at home alone if it weren’t for one circumstance: the sacrifice of her daughter by Agamemnon. In response to this act of barbarity she contracted an alliance with Aegisthus, Agamemnon’s cousin and enemy. Along with this man she plotted revenge against her husband and alienated herself from the ideal of womanhood. The Greeks were proponents of the concept of ‘an eye for an eye’, but this only applied to men. On page 199 of The Odyssey, lines 501-504, ‘But that woman,/plotting a thing so low, defiled herself/and all her sex, all women yet to come,/even those few who may be virtuous.’ She is reviled for breaking out of her passive role and taking her revenge with her own hands.
Women’s roles in ancient Greece were essentially submissive; they were viewed as possessions of the males in their families and were utilized
as such. Penelope represents the positive female role model: passive,
faithful, sexually loyal, wise and talented. Clytaemnestra is her opposite: deceitful, manipulative, controlling, assertive and sexually active with others than her husband. The reactions of other characters in the stories give clear indication that Penelope’s role is the desirable one, while Clytaemnestra has deviated from this role and is reviled accordingly. The dualistic perspective presented by these two women offers, through the reactions of those around them, a clear view of the societally approved behavior for women in ancient Greece.