There are actually many moral ambiguities that plague male and female characters in the Odyssey for both mortals and gods. Characters like Penelope, Helen, and Clytemnestra are all mortal women that have been held up to this standard. And it is the male heroes and gods like Odysseus who have become praised for the low standards they have set for themselves. Throughout the Odyssey we see signs and blatant references to the fact that Odysseus has ben unfaithful to Penelope. The first one being on the island with the “lustrous Calypso” (5. 129.
It may be true that Odysseus was held captive on the island, but that does not mean he wasn’t once willing. Odysseus is presented as if he has lost his agency; “In the nights, true, he’d sleep with her in the arching cave- he had no choice” (5. 170-171). However, Odysseus has been on the island with Calypso for some time and he even alludes to having been pleased at one point when it is revealed that he has been crying over his unfortunate expedition (5. 169). The epic indicates that Odysseus was once happy, “He wept for his foiled journey home, since the nymph no longer pleased”(5. 170).
Furthermore Odysseus compares Calypso with his own wife Penelope. He shows us just how much he admires Calypso when he tells why he must proceed home. Odysseus says, “Look at my wise, Penelope. She falls far short of you, your beauty, stature”(5. 239-240). Odysseus once thought that the nymph would satisfy him. Yet he has now come to learn that Penelope is whom he must be with. This recognition is portrayed as honorable and heroic, but also an after thought. Though Odysseus eventually figures out that he does not want Calypso, the fact that his will, could even be tested is duly noted.
Penelope on the other hand has remained faithful throughout Odysseus’ absence. She could have gone off and married one of the many suitors, but she remained unwed. She has simply led her suitors on, and has neither given herself physically or emotionally to someone else. This “matchless queen of cunning” (IV. 95), as an enraged suitor calls her, has been undeniably loyal. Odysseus has been gone for twenty years, and she hasn’t even known if he is alive or dead. This loyalty shown by Penelope is something that is expected from a woman no matter the circumstances.
Although the expectations for women are set high like Penelope has proven, other mortal women have not been as faithful. In Book IV we come across Helen, the wife of Menelaus. When she sees Odysseus she is reminded of the war in Troy in which she indicates she may have been unfaithful. Helen tells of the brave men that fought in the war, and calls herself “a shameless whore”(IV. 163). Helen gives us reason to believe that she was morally indecent while the men were away. Although Helen may have been unfaithful, no man who was gone during the war would have been deemed morally indecent had he engaged in an affair.
Another important character is that of Clytemnestra. She is given as an example of a woman who did not follow the rules. In fact her story is the worse case scenario. She gave in to the temptation of the suitor Aegisthus while her husband Agamemnon is away. Upon his return, she allows for Aegisthus to kill him. In the end her and Aegisthus are both killed and everyone ends up dead. “Prince Orestes home from Athens, yes he cut him down, that cunning, murderous Aegisthus, who’d killed his famous father”(III. 348).
Then Prince Orestes buries his own mother for her treasons; “He held a feast for the Argives, to bury his hated mother, craven Aegisthus too” (III. 349-350). From this example we can conclude that nothing good can come from a woman being unfaithful to her husband. Yet this example is but another double standard that doesn’t hold true for men. Where is an example of a man being unfaithful to his wife and it ending poorly? Throughout the epic we have seen both mortal and immortal women being upheld to the standards of a true and moral spouse while their husbands are simply championed for coming back home.
However there is another double standard that Homer alludes to, it is between the goddesses and mortal women. Unlike mortal women, goddesses are given more freedom to participate in affairs. With Circe and Calypso we see them take Odysseus under their wing, and they are not reprimanded for doing so. Calypso might be angry the gods have taken Odysseus away, but if she had been mortal, she would have been shunned or maybe even killed for having such an affair. Or be deemed “a shameless whore”. The same can be said for Circe. So we might ask why Odysseus and even the goddesses have not been held up to the same standards of Penelope.
Well there is a simple answer. Power lies within fertility. It can be argued that, though Odysseus was unfaithful, Penelope could not do the same because she could bare children. Or it could even be argued that Helen was indeed a “shameless whore,” because she could have caused a war with the birth of a child that was not her husbands. All these arguments are valid, but often, validity is not all there is. Though men are not fertile, they posses the ability to remain faithful, just as a women do. It is you choice and agency that make you a true hero. Works Cited Homer. The Odyssey. Trans. Robert Fagles. New York: Penguin Books Ltd. , 1996.