Female Stereotypes in the Odyssey: Do Homer’s Women Have Agency?

In Homer’s Odyssey, female characters are often portrayed as either faithful and submissive mortals or seductive and deceitful temptresses.

Apr 29, 2023By Rhianna Padman, BA Classics

female stereotypes homer odyssey


Penelope, the wife of Odysseus, is portrayed as a loyal and patient wife who remains devoted to her husband despite his long absence. Nausicaa is typified as the innocent, virginal character who aids Odysseus in his journey. Contrastingly, the sorceress Circe and nymph Calypso are depicted as alluring figures who attempt to seduce and detain Odysseus. Throughout history, as their descriptions suggest, these women have been characterized by their relationship with Odysseus and his journey. However, while in Homer’s works, they are often portrayed as objects of desire or symbols of beauty and domesticity; they are also shown to have agency, intelligence, and power.


Penelope: The Stereotypical Loyal Wife of the Odyssey 

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Penelope being awakened by Euryclea, Angela Kauffman, 1773, via Britannica


Penelope has become enshrined within literature as the paradigm of the dutiful and devoted wife, the epitome of ‘moral goodness’. Queen of Ithaca and wife of Odysseus, Penelope awaited her husband’s return for twenty years, devising clever schemes to avoid remarriage. Her unwavering faithfulness to Odysseus is a key factor in his eventual return home to reclaim his throne, and she is celebrated for her wisdom, strength, and moral integrity. In this sense, Penelope served as a symbol of the ideal wife in ancient Greek culture and is revered for her virtuous qualities and unwavering devotion to her husband.


A true example of unwavering fidelity, she is established in direct contrast with other Homeric women like the treacherous Helen of Troy and deviant seductresses such as Calypso and Circe. The differentiation between female characters can also be observed through their epithets — repeated adjectives or phrases used to exemplify a character’s personality. Penelope is often referred to as ‘wise’, ‘noble’, ‘prudent’ and ‘loyal’, demonstrating her virtuous character.


Penelope: The Cunning Queen

waterhouse penelope suitors
Penelope and the Suitors by John William Waterhouse, 1912, via Wikimedia Commons


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Penelope is renowned for her cunningness, exemplified in how she deals with the suitors who have come to Ithaca seeking her hand in marriage. Despite being outnumbered and outmatched, she uses her wit and intelligence to keep the suitors at bay and preserve her marriage to Odysseus. These two conflicting traditional duties —fidelity to Odysseus and hospitality to the suitors — bind Penelope. However, she has the resourcefulness to devise a plan ensuring that her household position and loyalty to her husband remain intact through a socially acceptable purpose. Once she has woven a shroud for her deceased father-in-law, Laertes, Penelope promises to marry a suitor. Thus, for years she guilefully weaves and significantly unravels the shroud of Laertes to delay the inevitable decision to remarry. She also devises a contest for the suitors, challenging them to string Odysseus’s bow and shoot an arrow through a row of twelve axes, knowing that only her husband will be able to perform the task.


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Penelope Reading a Letter from Odysseus by Louis-Jean-François Lagrenée, 18th century, via Christies


The poem presents Penelope as a source of temptation for the suitors who have come to Ithaca seeking her hand in marriage, reinforcing the stereotype of women as objects of desire. Her ability to resist their advances and remain faithful to her husband demonstrates her unwavering virtue and loyalty. It is important to note that the suitors’ actions are depicted as improper and disrespectful, and eventually, they are punished for their transgressions. The poem emphasizes the importance of preserving one’s chastity and remaining faithful to one’s spouse, with Penelope serving as a model of these values.


Nausicaa: The Virgin Maiden

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Nausicaa by Frederick Leighton, 1878, via Art Renewal Centre


The sixth book of the Odyssey introduces the daughter of King Alcinous and Queen Arete of the Phaeacians. After washing up on the island’s shore, Odysseus is taken in by Nausicaa and her attendants, who provide him with clothes and food. In return, Odysseus recounts his journey and tells them of his long and arduous journey home from the Trojan War. Nausicaa, impressed by Odysseus’s story, offers to help him return to his home in Ithaca. She takes him to her father, King Alcinous, who agrees to provide him with a ship and crew to help him complete his journey.


Nausicaa is observed as the embodiment of innocence and purity. Along with Penelope, she is one of the only female characters that is not portrayed in a negative, sexually tainted light. She is often depicted as involved in domestic tasks such as washing clothes. Additionally, she is revered for her hospitality towards Odysseus, providing him food, clothing, and shelter as well as helping him reunite with his crew. Her aid is a classic example of xenia, an important custom in ancient Greece. Xenia was considered a sacred obligation and an important aspect of moral behavior. In her encounter with Odysseus, Nausicaa’s demonstration of these traits painted her as a positive female stereotype within Greek culture.


Calypso: The Obsessive Goddess 

draper calypso isle
Calypso’s Isle by Herbert James Draper, 1897, via Manchester Art Gallery


Residing on the island of Ogygia, Calypso was a nymph and goddess renowned for her beauty and seductive singing voice. In the poem, she falls in love with Odysseus and detains him on her island, offering him immortality in return for staying with her. For seven years, Odysseus is trapped on the island, unable to escape the grasp of Calypso. He spends his days longing for his home and loved ones and pining for a way to escape. However, Calypso’s powers are too strong to overcome on his own. Eventually, the gods take pity on Odysseus and intercede on his behalf. The god Zeus sends a message to Calypso, ordering her to release Odysseus and let him return home. Calypso reluctantly agrees, and Odysseus is finally allowed to set sail on his journey again.


Calypso is depicted as a powerful and seductive nymph who uses her beauty and charisma to tempt Odysseus into staying with her, offering him immortality and a life of ease if he abandons his quest to return to Ithaca. This feminine authority portrays her as dangerous and potentially harmful to Odysseus, rooted in patriarchal ideas about women as alluring figures who can lead men astray from their duty and responsibilities. This tension between desire and duty is observed later with Odysseus’ interaction with Circe, mirroring the Calypso episode.


Calypso: The Lonesome Nymph

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Calypso by George Hitchcock, circa 1906, via Indianapolis Museum of Art


Nevertheless, Homer challenges the stereotype of women being submissive to men as Calypso is shown to be dominant over Odysseus. She is afforded this power as she is a goddess. However, this control over men is relinquished with the intervention of a superior male, another god. She is, ultimately, forced to relinquish control with the intervention of Zeus, and Odysseus is allowed to carry on his journey home. A similar situation occurs with Circe; she is only overpowered through the intervention of Hermes.


Although every woman in the Odyssey is characterized by her involvement with Odysseus, Calypso is particularly recognized for her obsession with Odysseus. The stereotypical portrayal of women as emotional and irrational, fixated solely on a man, is reinforced by her overly infatuated character. However, it’s important to note that Calypso also challenges these stereotypes and serves as a complex and multi-dimensional character. She is depicted as a sympathetic figure who is, ultimately, lonely and desires companionship.


Circe: The Deceitful Deity  

barker circe painting
Circe by Wright Barker, 1889, via Wikimedia Commons


Circe is notorious for her mysterious ambiguity, seductive nature, and deceptive wiles. The Homeric Circe is also characterized by a plethora of feminine epithets that construct an image of a sexually powerful goddess. Often, the enchantress is described as “skilled in drugs or charms” or “lustrous”.


In Book 10 of the Odyssey, after arriving on Aeaea’s island, Odysseus sends some of his companions to explore the island. In the woods, the companions find a mysterious palace where they hear singing and discover a beautiful woman sitting at a loom. She lures the companions with food and wine before using her magic to transform them into swine. Circe’s ability to transgress the barrier between goddess and woman, innocently weaving and singing to entrap men into a false sense of domesticity, demonstrates the danger she possesses. She exploits the sacred custom of hospitality to deceive and bewitch the companions, a clear contrast to the actions of Nausicaa.


Circe: The Odyssey’s Seductive Sorceress 

magic circe waterhouse painting
The Magic Circe by John William Waterhouse, 1886, via Tate


Having heard of his companion’s bewitchment, Odysseus ventures to the palace to save them. On his way, he meets the messenger god, Hermes, who provides him with a drug that will make him immune to Circe’s magic. It is only with Hermes’ intervention that Odysseus can subdue the enchantress. Circe’s drugs, crafted to bewitch men, are an evident exhibition of her intimidating feminity. She is even implied to possess a love-related kind of magic. Hermes warns Odysseus that with the failure of her bewitchment, Circe will attempt to sleep with him, but without an oath, she will render him cowardly and unmanly.


Immune to Circe’s magic, Odysseus subjugates the witch, forcing her to swear an oath to him before bedding her. Eventually, Odysseus’ companions are turned back into humans. They spend a year on Circe’s Island feasting and drinking. During this time, Circe provides Odysseus with important information and advice for his journey, becoming a helpful hand rather than a hindrance to him. Indeed, during this time, Circe and Odysseus even become lovers. It is worth noting that, aside from Nausicaa, who is characterized by her innocence and virginity, Odysseus has intimate encounters with the rest of the prominent female characters in the book.


Women, in the book, are clearly sexualized. Even Penelope, who is not branded as overtly sexual, unlike Calypso and Circe, is yearned for by the suitors. Women are often observed as objects of desire to be conquered rather than individuals with their own desires and agency. At the same time, however, they challenge their society’s expectations and norms and serve as important symbols of the power and influence of women in ancient Greece.

Author Image

By Rhianna PadmanBA ClassicsRhianna is a recent Classics graduate from the University of Exeter. Her studies mainly focused on Ancient Greek and Latin, allowing her to explore in depth a range of ancient texts. She is especially interested in mythology, language, and psychology, with her dissertation focusing on applying Freudian psychoanalysis to Homer’s Odyssey. During her year abroad at the University of Malta, she developed a keen passion for traveling. Since her time in Malta, she has been to Italy, Croatia, Indonesia, and Thailand, and she plans on many more places to visit!