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Oedipus Rex and The Odyssey: The Treatment of Women in Ancient Greece

Throughout the course of history, women were considered naturally weaker than men. Most civilizations have been patriarchal in nature; men have held power over economics, politics, and society in general. During the twentieth century women finally started to liberate themselves from the subjugation that men had subjected them to for thousands of years. Today it may be argued that in many respects men and women are equal. However, women still have a long way to go before they become completely equal to men. When looking back on how past civilizations treated women it would be most enlightening to consider how women were treated by the ancient Greeks, the founders of democracy and champions of equality. In order to render a complete, objective account of the way in which women were treated in ancient Greece, two central works of literature will be considered: Homer’s epic The Odyssey and Sophocles’ tragedy Oedipus Rex. Ancient Greeks treated women as lesser beings who were obliged to provide pleasure, lineage, and above all, utmost obedience and fidelity to men.

Literature in ancient Greece is characterized by praising the heroics of men; it also highlights the independence, strength, and bravery of figures such as Odysseus (protagonist hero of The Odyssey) and Oedipus (tragic hero and protagonist of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex). Conversely, it can be seen that strong, independent, and brave women are not praised or recognized, but antagonized and even demonized. This is most evident in The Odyssey, principally in the characters of the sirens and the goddesses Calypso and Circe. The sirens are described as dangerous, vicious women figures that enchant men with their singing; if a man hears their song “his wife and children will never welcome him home again, for they sit in a green field and warble him to death with the sweetness of their song” (Homer, 1998, p. 145). Similarly, Calypso and Circe are characterized as dangerous and vicious women figures that wish to enchant Odysseus, hold him prisoner and eventually dispose of him and his men by killing all of them.

This demoniacal characterization of strong, independent women is very important because it portends that women must never engage in such types of behaviors. Instead, women needed to subject themselves to the authority and guidance of their male counterparts (whether they be fathers, husbands, or older brothers). First and foremost, it should be noted that ancient Greeks viewed women as purveyors of pleasure. Touching back on the demoniacal women presented in The Odyssey, it can be seen that Homer develops a male hero (Odysseus) that manages to outsmart and subject those female figures to his authority. One example may be found in the goddess Circe, who upon finding herself outwitted and overpowered by Odysseus, falls to his feet and tells him: “sheathe your sword and let us go to bed, that we may make friends and learn to trust each other” (Homer, 1998, p. 122). Odysseus goes to bed with Circe; he goes to bed with Calypso too when being held as her prisoner. Such situations make it clear that the role of women is to provide men with pleasure and comfort until they wish it. Once he has been satisfied he resumes with his affairs and the woman once again returns to her lesser situation.

In Oedipus Rex the only relevant female character developed by Sophocles is Jocasta, who is the Queen of Thebes; she is also the mother and wife of the tragedy’s protagonist: Oedipus. In truth her participation is minor throughout most of Oedipus’s tragic story. However, it can be seen throughout the story that she is a woman deeply devoted to her family and her husband. She is a woman that puts her husband’s interests before her own and is even willing to endure hardship in order to assure that Oedipus will be calm and satisfied. For example, when Oedipus begins to discover what his true identity is (and who his true parents are), Jocasta starts feeling distressed. However, she continues answering Oedipus’s questions because it is more important for her that he is at peace: “What say’st thou? When I look upon thee, my king,I tremble… I quail; but ask, and I will answer all” (Sophocles, n.d., p. 21). Jocasta also evidences the obedience towards male authority in the way that she intercedes in favor of her brother, trying to reconcile Creon with Oedipus: “Are ye not ashamed, while the whole land lies striken, thus to voice your private injuries? Go in, my lord; go home, my brother, and forebear to make a public scandal of a petty grief” (Oedipus, n.d., p. 17). Here again, her obedience and loyalty towards both her husband and brother are incontestable. Jocasta too is a woman who places men’s interests above her own (in order to give them pleasure and peace).

Another major point worth noting when describing the women’s treatment in ancient Greece and how they were often objectified and always subjugated can be found in the fact that they were also considered as a source of lineage. When talking about lineage reference is not only made to the fact that women had to provide children (preferably male heirs) for their husbands, but also that they were important in securing status and political alliances for their husbands. In The Odyssey this aspect is clearly developed in the character of Penelope. Penelope is the Queen of Ithaca; she is Odysseus’ wife and the mother to Telemachus (heir presumptive to the throne of Ithaca). Odysseus spends years away from home; he endangers his life and he sleeps in other women`s beds throughout his travels. However, Penelope remains steadfast at home, raising Odysseus’s son (and future heir) faithfully. Not only does she honor her husband by remaining faithful to him, but she also guarantees continuation of family lineage through a male heir.

In Oedipus Rex Sophocles develops the aspect of lineage somewhat differently. In this particular case, Jocasta first performs her duty to her husband Laius by giving him a male heir, Oedipus. Years later, after Laius is slain by his own son, the prince of Thebes returns to his kingdom without knowing who he is. Oedipus then finds that Thebes is threatened by a terrible monster that is known as the Sphinx. Upon finding that whoever manages to vanish the Sphinx will be awarded the queen’s hand (and will therefore ascend to the throne of Thebes as its rightful king), Oedipus risks his life, confronts the Sphinx, and defeats it. Following this heroic act, Oedipus married queen Jocasta and became the king of Thebes. This is a woman who married a man who was younger than her and who she had never before met. It is safe to say that she did not love Oedipus (unlike Penelope, who did love Odysseus), but still she was compelled to the man who had saved her kingdom and to whom she had been promised.

Finally, it is important to review what was mentioned earlier about the obedience and fidelity that women were obliged to profess to their respective husbands at all times. On this point it must be said that despite the different outcomes that women encounter in the two works covered, they both exemplify the utmost obedience and fidelity towards their husbands. First, in Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex it can be seen that Jocasta, despite marrying her own child and giving birth to her own grandchildren, she did so unknowingly. Towards the end of the tragedy, she is devastated by coming to the realization that she brought great dishonor to her house and to her late husband, Laius, by marrying his killer (who just so happened to be the child that they conceived together): “Long, long ago; her thought was of that child by him begot, the son by whom the sire was murdered and the mother left to breed with her own seed, a monstrous progeny” (Sophocles, n.d., p. 34). In the end she commits suicide; she kills herself because she cannot forgive herself for having betrayed her house and her deceased husband so flagrantly. Contrary is the case of Penelope, who protects the kingdom of Ithaca from greedy suitors and gives time for her husband to return to her. On one occasion she tells one suitor: “… heaven robbed me of all my beauty whether of face or figure when the Argives set sail for Troyand my dear husband with them. If he were to return and look after my affairs..:” (Homer, 1998, p. 226). Her words clearly indicate how committed she is to her husband Odysseus; she owes herself completely to him, even to the point that she cannot see herself as the beautiful woman that she is if he is not with her.

Ancient Greeks were the artifices of democracy and modern civilization. Today it is precisely democracy which has allowed women to gain a lot in terms of independence, justice, and equality. This, however, was not the case in ancient Greece. After having reviewed Homer’s epic, The Odyssey, and Sophocles’ tragedy, Oedipus Rex, it becomes clear that women were viewed as lesser beings, which were valued for pleasure, lineage, obedience, and fidelity that they could provide their families and husbands with.

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