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The Role of Women in The Iliad and the Odyssey

The Iliad and the Odyssey are poems relating adventures surrounding the Trojan War. The Iliad details a short time toward the end of the war, while the Odyssey deals with a period, almost tens years later, when Odysseus is returning home after the war. The focus of both poems are manly acts taken in the face of great adversity. Yet in both stories women are common and important. What is interesting, in fact, is that women are included in many roles. This seems to be a testament to the importantance of women in the Greek culture of that time. It should be further noted that the poems are not a glorification of war or the adventurous struggles of its participants.

Rather, the whole story is told, including the effects on the women. The women of the poems are seen to struggle with the effects of war just as do the men in a way that spells out every detail, including the fate of the dead and the living. It is more than an earthly struggle. It is a struggle to reconcile oneself to the forces of the universe, whether they be gods, goddesses, men or women. For this reason the stories have a universal quality to everyone.

The role of women in the Odyssey is to demonstrate the many and
varied roles that women play in the lives of men. These roles vary from goddess caretaker to monster. Women in the Iliad demonstrate the importance of women in the lives of the ancient Greeks because they are so prominent in a story so dominated with military affairs.

One of the Great mysteries of the Odyssey is contained in Book XI of the Odyssey. In this book Odysseus visits the kingdom of the dead to receive information from the great seer Tiresias. While in the kingdom of the dead Odysseus witnesses the shades of ancient women. This section is referred to as Homer’s catalog of women. The discussion is seen as having nothing to do with the plot of the poem. Rather it appears to be a documention of the contribution of ancient women. It certainly does say someting about the life and expectations of ancient women.

  • Anticleia — Ἀντίκλεια — mother of Odysseus. She lived at Ithica.
  • Tyro — Τυρὼ, Born at Elis, Went to Phocis.
  • Antiope — ‘Αντιόπην, Born at Hyria, went to Sycion, enslaved at Thebes, finally settled in Phocis
  • Alcmena — ‘Αλκμήνην, Born at Mycenae, then Thebes, then Tiryns.
  • Jocasta — ‘Επικάστην, Born at Thebes and stayed there.
  • Chloris — Χλω̃ριν. Born at Orchomenus then went to Pylos
  • Leda— Λήδα , Λήδην. Born is Aetolia an went to Sparta.
  • Iphimedeia — Ἰφιμέδεια, Ἰφιμέδη, ‘Ιφιμέδειαν. Lived in Thessaly. This name means ‘strong measures’ from Indo-European yegwa-, ‘power’ and med- ‘to take appropriate measures’
  • Phaedra — Φαίδρην, Born in Crete and moved to Athens, Princess of Crete torn by love
  • Procris — Πρόκριν. Born in Athens and moved to Phocis
  • Ariadne — ‘Αριάδνην, Born in Crete and may have died on Naxos
  • Maira — Μαι̃ράν. Born in Lycia, moved to Tiryns
  • Clymene — κλυμένην, Lived at Phylace in Thessaly
  • Eriphyle — ‘Εριφύλην, born in Argos, moved to Sicyon, and back to Argos

What is interesting about this list is that these names are not easily translatable from Greek or from its Indo-European roots. “Ariadne” is often translated as “very holy” but this seems wrong. It is just an association that seemed meaningful. Likewise ‘Leda has been trans lated as ‘lady’. If this name is related to the word ‘lady’ then it is derived from germanic ‘hlaibaz’ meaning ‘bread’ and Indo-European ‘dheigh-‘ meaning ‘to knead clay’. But this translation is unlikely as ancient Greek have a common ancestor but the one did not influence the other. “Chloris” is the name of a goddess but this ‘Chloris’ is different. Anyway the name is associated with Demeter and a spring festival Chloia and the meaning comes from this and not from Indo-European sources as would be expected.

These descriptions say much about the place of women in the society that is described. For example consider the following description of Tyro:

Homer, Odyssey 11. 236 ff (trans. Shewring) (Greek epic C8th B.C.) :
“[Odysseus sees the ghosts of heroines in the underworld :] The first that I saw was high-born Tyro, daughter of great Salmoneos and wife of Kretheus son of Aiolos–such was her twofold boast. She fell in love with the river-god Enipeos, whose waters are the most beautiful of any that flow on earth; and she haunted his beguiling streams. But in place of Enipeos, and in his likeness, there came the god [Poseidon] who sustains and who shakes the earth. He lay with her at the mouth of the eddying river, and a surging wave, mountain-high, curled over them and concealed the god and the mortal girl. And when the god had finished the work of love, he uttered these words with her hand in his : `Girl, be happy in this our love. When the year comes round you will be the mother of glorious children (an immortal’s embrace is not in vain); tend them and care for them. Now return home; be wary, and say no word of me; nevertheless I would have you know that I am the Shaker of the Earth, Poseidon.’
With these words he sank beneath billowing ocean. She conceived and brought forth Pelias and Neleus, and both became powerful liegemen of mighty Zeus [i.e. kings]. Pelias, possessor of many flocks, had spacious Iolkos for his dwelling; the domain of Neleus was sandy Pylos. Queen Tyro bore other sons to Kretheos–Aison and Pheres and the chariot-warrior Amythaon.”

First there is the beauty of the women that makes her desirable even to the god Poseidon. Secon there is the deception he uses to impregnate her. This is not a rape in the modern sense because it is an act of passion rather than agression. It is more a sexual fantasy than an experiece to be ashamed of. Perhaps its is a recollection of the times of the Great Goddess when it did not matter how pregnancy was produced, rather the fact of a wonderful baby was the miracle. Then the god says “tend them and care for them” and here the role of women is plain. The fact that Tyro already had children may have made her more desirable to her husband Kretheus. This meant that she would bear healthy children to him as well. These are notions of the role of women that seem to have impact on the reports of the roles of women in the Classical periods.

Consider also this story relating Polymele: (Iliad book 16, line 176) “And of the next company warlike Eudorus was captain, the son of a girl unwed, and him did Polymele, fair in the dance, daughter of Phylas, bear. Of her the strong Argeiphontes became enamoured, when his eyes had sight of her amid the singing maidens, in the dancing-floor of Artemis, huntress of the golden arrows and the echoing chase. Forthwith then he went up into her upper chamber, and lay with her secretly, even Hermes the helper, and she gave him a goodly son, Eudorus, pre-eminent in speed of foot and as a warrior. But when at length Eileithyia, goddess of child-birth, had brought him to the light, and he saw the rays of the sun, then her did the stalwart and mighty Echecles, son of Actor, lead to his home, when he had given countless gifts of wooing, and Eudorus did old Phylas nurse and cherish tenderly, loving him dearly, as he had been his own son.”


  • A resource: Alicia LeVan, Fragments of the primordial Great Goddess:
    CliLYPSO & CIRCE (A Play of Polarities)
    Click Here
  • Homer, “Iliad (Wordsworth Classics)”, NTC/Contemporary Publishing
    Company, June 1995, ISBN: 1853262420.
  • Linn, Bob, “Cliffsnotes Homer’s Iliad”, Cliffs Notes, June 2000,
    ISBN: 076458586X.
  • Jinyo Kim, The Pity of Achilles: Oral Style and the Unity of the Iliad. Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 2000. Pp. x, 203. ISBN 0847686205. $55.00. ISBN 0847686213. $22.95. Review.
  • Homer/ Robinson, Margaret A., “Homer’s the Odyssey (Barron’s Book Notes),
    Barron’s Educational Series, November 1984, ISBN: 0812034295, Study Aid.
  • Baldwin, Stanley P. “Cliffsnotes Homer’s the Odyssey”, Cliffs Notes, June
    2000, ISBN: 0764585991.
  • Bloom, Harold (Edt)/ Bloom, Harold, “Homer’s Odyssey : Bloom’s Notes”
    (Contemporary Literary Views), Chelsea House Publications, October 1995, ISBN:
  • Brann, Eva T. H./ Brann, Eva, “Homeric Moments : Clues to Delight in
    Reading the Odyssey and the Iliad”, ISBN: 0967967562.
  • Sutcliff, Rosemary/ Glenister, Robert (Nrt), “Black Ships Before Troy : The
    Story of the Iliad”, Delacorte Press, ISBN: 1855497875. The stories of the
    Trojan war are made accessible to young people. She uses current research on
    ancient Greece and Troy.
  • Minchin, Elizabeth, “Homer and the Resources of Memory : Some Applications
    of Cognitive Theory to the Iliad and the Odyssey”, Oxford University Press,
    ISBN: 0198152574; (March 2001).
  • Ulysses (1955), Director: Mario Camerini, Mario Bava, ASIN: 1572524421
  • Pink Ulysses (1990), VHS, Director: Eric De Kuyper, Director: Eric De Kuyper
    Erotic Drama, bizarre, offbeat, art, gay/lesbian.
  • The Odyssey (1997) VHS
  • Fables and Legends: Travels of Odysseus, Vol. 1 (1986) VHS
  • Fables and Legends: Travels of Odysseus, Vol. 2 VHS
  • Fables and Legends: Travels of Odysseus, Vol. 3 VHS

There are four sets of questions and answers about women in Homer’s works: