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Odysseus faces numerous obstacles on his jury home to Ithaca. Some of these involve powerful women while others involve monsters. Each of his encounters are different and each comes at a turning point in his journey home to Ithaca. Helen he meets before he has even left Troy, so he is not yet focusing on his journey home. Circe he meets before going to Hades, where he learns of his wife’s suitors from the prophet Tiresias that causes him to worry more about getting home. Calypso he meets after losing his entire crew, yet he is still anxious to get home. Nausicaa he meets after his time on Calypso’s island where he had given up on ever returning home. Each time he meets one of these women his desire to return home is questioned, and each time he gives a different answer. Likewise, each woman treats him differently; some see him as a potential husband, others as a potential lover. He not only changes his answer about wanting to get to Ithaca, but also how affectionate he is. Some, he willingly has sex with, others he does so unwilling or not at all. Each woman is a signpost on his journey home.

When Telemauchus goes to see King Menelaus and his wife Helen, Helen recognizes him right away and cunning as ever drugs the entire court to make them, “forget [their] pains,” (4.246). She then tells them a story about Odysseus sneaking into Troy towards the end of the war and making his way into her chamber. She questions him about the Achaeans plans and he eventually tells her everything. However, before he leaves she bathes him and rubs him down with oils, during which we cannot stretch our imaginations too far to believe that they had some form of sexual encounter while she bathes him (4.283).  Before he leaves he makes her swear a binding oath, something we will see repeated again with two of the other women. While there is no direct statement of how concerned he is about home it is easy to imagine that it is not the foremost thing in his mind at that moment.

The second woman he encounters is Circe who is a witch of great power. Circe is interesting, we first encounter when she drugs Odysseus’ men who go scout the island they have just landed on (10.257). This is a direct parallel to Helen drugging Telemachus when she tells him of his father. Also like Helen Odysseus makes Circe swear an oath to him, this time its is that she will, “never plot some new intrigue to harm me,” (10.382). He knows that she is cunning and could betray him, so he covers all his bases before getting into her bed. At this point he has already faced a few monsters, such as the Cyclops so he knows to be wary of new islands. After swearing this oath, just as Helen did in Troy Circe bathes Odysseus (10.399) the one difference being that we are told that he has sex with Circe while it is only implied with Helen. He then stays on the island for a year with his men, it is as if this oath has made him feel settled and safe and is now not as concerned with getting home as he was when he was on the Aeolian island. He has also yet to have ventured into Hades, so he knows not what has been occurring on Ithaca since his departure.

After going to Hades and learning from the prophet Tiresias that when he gets back to Ithaca he will find, “crude, arrogant men devouring all your goods, courting your noble wife,” (11. 133-34) he is thrown onto Calypso’s island after losing the rest of his crew. What he hears about his wife upsets him and he feels an urgency to get home; which causes him to lose track of his crew and allows them to kill the cattle of the sun god. This leads to him being the only survivor when they try to make it past Scylla and Charybdis. What he does not know is that the suitors have not yet set upon his palace, so if he had taken his time and been more vigilant with his crew they would have been saved and he would have made it home seven years sooner. But this did not come to pass and he ultimately ends up on Calypso’s island; a place he does not wish to be.

Calypso is a goddess and while we are not certain why she is off on an island totally alone we do know that she ends up truly wanting Odysseus to herself. She is a very different sort of woman to that of Helen and Circe. Her desire to keep Odysseus seems to stem from a place of resentment. We do not know why she is on this island totally isolated from the gods and the real world, it is easy to guess that she did something terribly wrong and so has been banished here as a punishment. She tells Hermes that she wished to make Odysseus immortal and that she deserves to keep him because she took care of him when he washed up on her shore (5.144-151). She is more in love with him than Circe or Helen were, they saw him as an object to conquer while Calypso and later Nausicaa see him as a man who they can settle down with. He is described as an “unwilling lover,” (5.172) and it is said, “he had no choice,” (5.171).  This implies that even though he has shared her bed he did so only in the beginning and against his will. This could be because at this point he has given up on ever returning to Ithaca and he has resigned himself to this fate.  However, Calypso finally admits that Odysseus must leave and at this point Odysseus becomes suspicious, and says he refuses to even set foot on a raft until Calypso has sworn an oath (5.197-199). This is the third woman he has made swear an oath to him, he is right to be wary of women but he is not of monsters, if he had been wary of both his crew might have survived. He has once again been set on the path home; Calypso acted as both a hindrance and an aid.

The final woman is Nausicaa, she is the daughter of Alcinous who is the king of the Phaeacians. Nausicaa meets Odysseus the day after he washes up on the shore after escaping Calypso’s island. The first thing he does upon waking up is to investigate the noises he hears. As he emerges from the bushes he grabs an olive branch to cover himself (6.139-142). This is interesting because in the past he did not seem to have this self-consciousness that he now has, it is probably because these are the first people he is going to encounter after seven years alone with Calypso. Nausicaa is unafraid of Odysseus and tells her maids to help him bathe. Odysseus refuses their help and tells them to go off and wait somewhere saying, “I won’t bathe in front of you,” (6.245). This is a new side to Odysseus, is he being so guarded because he does not wish to waste this newfound freedom by doing something he should not or is he truly embarrassed? It is more likely the first idea, he made numerous mistakes and ended up on Calypso’s island for seven years and now does not wish to ruin this new chance. Indeed when he gets to Alcinous’ court he refuses an offer from Alcinous to marry his daughter Nausicaa. Nausicaa wants him to be her husband (7.358), but Odysseus has a newfound determination to make it back to Ithaca.

Each woman Odysseus encounters on his travels has a different effect on him and he reacts to each advances differently. Three he refuses to trust until they have sworn oaths and each time he meets a new woman he becomes more and more reluctant to enter their bed. This could be because each woman treats him differently, Helen treats him almost as a god; he is her savior. While Circe treats him as in a way an equal, she also comforts him. Calypso covets him as a trophy that she is reluctant to let go of, while Nausicaa is a young princess totally enchanted by the sight of him. These different reactions shape his journey, and act as much as plot devices as the terrifying monsters he runs into.

 

20 Responses to “Lizzie – Odysseus and Women: His Road Home”

  1. khoneycutt says:

    Lizzie,

    You make some interesting points about the various women that Odysseus encounters. I think that most of them (Helen perhaps the exception, though perhaps not) could be seen as possibilities or variations on Penelope, just as most of the monsters could be seen as possibilities or variations on Odysseus. In Books 9-12, all sorts of human possibilities are explored.

    The point about Helen and Circe bathing him themselves is a good one. We discussed the Helen point in class, of course, but I don’t think I have noticed (or don’t remember us discussing) the point about Circe. So good eye there; Circe clearly has servants but she bathes him herself. And I think you are right to imply some kind of tryst between Helen and Odysseus; if it is not sexual, it is at least romantic. Helen reacts fondly to Telemachus and treats him kindly. Imagine what Telemachus must have been thinking when he was called a man, perhaps for the first time, by Helen, of all people.

    I am not sure that Odysseus “allows” his men to kill the cattle of the Sun. There is every indication that he has lost the crew by that point and cannot even force them to do his will; furthermore, Homer suggests at the beginning of the Odyssey that the crew are responsible for their own actions. But your other points on this score are well-taken.

    Sometimes readers give Odysseus a hard time for sleeping with these other women, and perhaps he should not be let off the hook. However, it is worth keeping in mind that he is sometimes forced (e.g., with Calypso) and sometimes he is encouraged (e.g., Hermes re: Circe). Regardless, maybe it is important for him to go through these experiences in order to realize that Penelope has no peer. For him to choose Penelope after having the option of staying with Calypso, Circe, and perhaps even Helen is quite a thing and speaks to her immense qualities.

    KH

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