The divine Calypso, Aphrodite, and Circe provide passionate models of female power—idealized fantasies of how much agency mortal women might have, if only social circumstances were completely different.
I read Homer’s great poem as a complex and truthful articulation of gender dynamics that continue to haunt us.
I completed my translation of the Odyssey, which is the first published version of Homer’s epic in English translated by a woman, readers have often assumed that I must sympathize above all with the story’s female characters.
I am asked, in particular, about my interpretation of Penelope, Odysseus’ faithful wife.
Right from the point Odysseus enters the land of the Cimmerian people, “shrouded in mist and cloud,” he enters a territory of obscurity (250).
This idea of the “abject” or “uncanny” becomes especially clear with Odysseus’ encounter with three monsters: the shades of Anticleia, Agamemnon, and Achilles.The study guide Spark Notes describes these women as “disloyal women servants” who must be “executed,” while Cliffs Notes calls them “maidservants” who were “disloyal,” and claims that their murder has a “macabre beauty.” In the poem’s original language, Telemachus refers to them only with , the feminine article—“those female people who . They gasped, / feet twitching for a while, but not for long.”There is a vision of empowered femininity in the Odyssey, but it is conveyed not in in the mortal world but in that of the gods.The poem’s plot is, of course, engineered by the wonderfully gender-fluid goddess Athena, who protects and saves her favorite human from the Sirens, goddesses and female monsters who try to entrap him or transform him or hide him or devour him or swallow him up, with their dangerous feminine wiles.Penelope spends twenty years in tearful isolation, waiting for her man to come home from war—and also, as it happens, from the cave and bed of two beautiful goddesses—while caring for her son and warding off the advances of her abusive suitors.At the same time, she manages to fool the suitors with her sneaky trick of weaving by day and unpicking her work at night, telling them that she can never marry until her project is finished.Whereas Odysseus has many choices, many identities, many places to go and people to be and to see, Penelope has only one choice, and it is defined exclusively by her marital status: she can wait for Odysseus, or marry someone else—and even this very limited choice is not open forever, since the abusive suitors can eventually force her hand.In Mary Beard’s forthcoming pamphlet, “Women and Power,” she writes about a scene in the Odyssey that she calls Western literature’s “first recorded example of a man telling a woman to ‘shut up’ ”—Telemachus telling Penelope, in Book One, to be silent after she asks the poet performing in her palace to sing a different tune.In translating this passage, I wanted to bring out both the beauty and the precision of the imagery, and the horror—a common, relatable horror—of being a woman who experiences her attachment to her husband as the destruction of her self.I wanted the reader of my English to feel as I do in reading the Greek: for Penelope, and with her pain, rather than prettifying or trivializing her grief.It is comforting to subscribe to the notion—as Daniel Mendelsohn does in his recently published memoir, “An Odyssey,” and as Robert Fagles does, in his translation of the poem—that the marriage between Odysseus and Penelope is a partnership of intellectual equals, based on true love and a shared outlook on life.Odysseus speaks, in Homer’s poem, of the ideal of like-mindedness () in marriage.