Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Odysseus' Infidelities

Odysseus Chasing Circe (photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen at Wikimedia Commons)
In my previous post I mentioned in depth Penelope's steadfast devotion to her husband. No matter how much her refusal to be unfaithful to Odysseus was costing her- both materially and psychologically, she continued to hold out against the suitors, hoping for Odysseus' miraculous return. Her faithfulness and management of the household were as crucial to Odysseus' success as other allies like Telemachus, Eumaeus the swineherd, Philoetius the cowherd, and even Athena. Faithfulness can be seen to be in some ways the ultimate test of a good woman in the eyes of the Homeric audience. Penelope passed, so she was good. Clytemnestra failed, so she was bad.

These same rules however, did not apply to men. Odysseus did not pass the test of faithfulness to his wife, but he wasn't denigrated or scorned for it. On the other hand, Homer doesn't praise him for it either, it simply was.

We know of at least two affairs that Odysseus had, and they were with two goddesses- not too shabby, I take it? The likely answer is that he could have had more. He was one of the Greek commanders and as such was in a position to amass a lot of wealth while on the expedition against Troy, wealth that included slave girls who as a matter of routine would be expected to convey sexual favors to their masters.

Clearly not hypocrisy, right? Feminists understandably have a field day with these sorts of things, pointing to it as evidence of a suppression of female sexuality while glorifying male sexuality. While Penelope is suffering in her husband's absence, Odysseus is off fucking Calypso and Circe.

While Odysseus' actions simply can't be entirely explained away under a modern egalitarian lens, I wouldn't go so far as to label him entirely a hypocrite. Odysseus too, is clearly suffering from such a prolonged absence from his wife. The poem even begins by telling the audience that Odysseus sits on the shores of Ogygia (Calypso's island), longingly looking out to sea, crying every day, despite the fact that he shares the nymph's bed every night. He is clearly not enjoying his time with Calypso, and is desperate to go home. The most startling illustration of this is his refusal of Calypso's offer to make him immortal, and pointing out that though Penelope could never match the beauty of an immortal goddess, she is still his wife and he wants to be with her.

His affair with Circe is a bit more difficult to judge. After a year passed on Circe's island, Odysseus' men prompted him to set into motion events for which they would return home, implying that Odysseus may have grown content to simply stay there.

However the only reason Odysseus began his affair with Circe is because Hermes told him that it was necessary for him to- in order to rescue his men from her spell that turned them into animals. He started it out of a sense of duty and loyalty to his comrades, not lust.

There is a double standard, but this does not mean Odysseus isn't suffering as badly as Penelope is from their separation. The fact that he was willing to go through such hardships instead of giving up, and willing to go through them even when tempted with more immediately gratifying things, including immortality itself, speaks volumes as to his love and affection for her.

Ultimately I think the chief discrepancy between the treatment of male and female sexuality comes down to one simple biological reality- women bear children and there is thus no question as to maternity. However, in an age long before the advent of DNA testing, there was no way to tell who the child's father was unless the woman was having sex with one man and one man only around the time of the child's conception. Inheritance of property was a foremost concern and thus the legitimacy of the child needed to be above suspicion. Indeed, a central theme of the Odyssey is the estate that Telemachus would inherit. The continuation of the male line was of paramount importance, and the faithfulness of the mother was thus of equal importance as it was necessary for that continuation.

The logical response to this biological reality is that Odysseus, in theory, gets to sleep with other women (or goddesses) without anyone questioning the ethics of his actions. Penelope does not. But this isn't to say that Odysseus is terrible. One thing a romantic could take out of the Odyssey is that despite his affairs with two goddesses, Odysseus wanted more than anything to return back to the wife that bore him his son, the only woman he ever truly loved.

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