In The Odyssey, Homer unintentionally illustrated the disparity between male and female expectations of marriage fidelity. While Penelope, Odysseus’ wife, was expected to remain faithful to him even though he was presumed dead, Odysseus was apparently free to form sexual relationships with any woman. This double standard was apparently so accepted by the Ancient Greeks that the author didn’t even seem to notice it. In fact, many scholars and critics of the past have often held the epic up as an illustration of the virtue of faithfulness in marriage.
At the beginning of the book, Odysseus had been living as a god on an island with Calypso, a goddess, for seven years, as well as sleeping with her. “…The sweet lifetime was draining out of him, as he wept for a way home, since the nymph was no longer pleasing to him. By nights he would lie beside her…” (Book 5, Lines 152-154). Later, Odysseus claimed that “never so could she win over the heart within me.” (Book 7, Line 258). It seems like a weak excuse to give his painstakingly faithful wife, Penelope. In fact, Odysseus slept with many women during his sojourn from home without being chastised for it. During wartime in Ancient Greece, it was common practice for soldiers to be given sex slaves from the towns they defeated. Odysseus, as a highly esteemed captain of the army, must have had many such women. Homer addressed this topic lightly in the Iliad as a cultural norm of the time.
Penelope, who had been waiting for her husband’s return for twenty years, had actual problems. Everyone on Ithaca, their home island, believed Odysseus and his crew to be dead, and all the lords and nobles on the island were contending for Penelope’s hand in marriage. There were many of them against only Penelope and her underage son, Telemachus, and so every night they spent their time feasting and wasting Odysseus’ wealth as they waited for Penelope to accept one of them as her new husband.
Afraid for her life and the life of her son, Penelope devised a plan: she asked the suitors to wait for her to spin a funeral cloth for her father-in-law (in preparation for his death), and she promised accept one of them when she finished it. Secretly, however, she was unwinding each day’s weaving for three years so it would never be finished. When the suitors found out, they threatened her with the destruction of Odysseus’ house and property. Telemachus, still a weak young man, spoke against them in the council, but the suitors all blamed Penelope for their actions. She was determined to be faithful, waiting “with enduring heart” in her room. (Book 18, Line 37).
Her patience was in clear contrast with her serving maids, who went to bed many times with several of the suitors. Odysseus returned home in disguise and discovered what they were doing, and “the spirit deep in the heart of Odysseus was stirred by this, and much he pondered in the division of mind and spirit, whether to spring on them and kill each one, or rather to let them lie this one more time with the insolent suitors, for the last and latest time; but the heart was growling within him.” (Book 20, Lines 6-13). Later, he killed the women along with the suitors who were spoiling his wealth. Homer made no mention of the audacity of the suitors to sleep with other women while pursuing one in marriage.
While Penelope’s behavior in the Odyssey has often been cited as an example of a high standard of faithfulness, there was actually a double standard of marriage fidelity in Ancient Greek marriages, judging from the cultural influences on the Odyssey and Iliad. This double standard of acceptable behavior indicated a basic lack of respect for women, who were typically viewed as property, along with animals, houses, and land. Odysseus’ lack of fidelity to his patiently faithful wife may be shocking or irritating to modern readers, but it only serves to indicate a deeper problem within classical Greek culture: the failure to acknowledge all people as equal.