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Penelope, Circe and the Patriarchal Gaze

We have been reading and listening to the adventures and conquests of formidable mythical characters like Achilles and Odyssey; and when we were young and naïve we were used to looking at these stories without giving them an analytical look. Take it from someone who grew up reading Percy Jackson and had an obsession with Greek Literature that it wasn’t until I came to college that I realized that the black and white world I had created in my head for Greek Mythology never truly existed.

The ‘heroes’ I adored were just misogynistic power-hungry men and the women who were demonized were merely victims of abuse trying to save themselves. I started to really look into this and realized that the things I had overlooked were due to the patriarchal lens through which these stories had been passed down.

To understand this better let me tell you the story of Circe. To my friends who haven’t heard about her before, she was famously known as the witch who used her magic to turn men into beasts. Her fame comes from when she was mentioned in The Odyssey where she turned Odyssey’s crew into pigs. The Greek God Hermes himself had to advise Odyssey to take some herbs to protect himself from the ‘witch’ and then he continued to almost stab Circe with his sword to get her to release his men.

She does as she is told and somehow ends up falling in love with Odyssey, they have sex, and because Odyssey has to remain ‘faithful’ to his wife Penelope he leaves Circe alone on her island. This is the tale that we are told. Somehow even though Circe helped Odyssey immensely and willingly let his men go, whenever you ask someone about Circe, the first thing they can come up with is the evil witch who turned men into animals.

Where did this demeaning negative perspective come from?

To put it out there bluntly, women with power ignite anxious reactions. Circe is the first witch in Western Literature, a woman with powers strong enough to scare both mortals and immortals such that she was banished to an island to live alone. Circe was the daughter of the Titan Helios and a nymph; thus, power and beauty ran through her veins. Now, imagine living alone on an island where dozens of ships used to come in search of sustenance, ships full of men who haven’t been around women for a very long time. This island would have been the easiest way for these pirates to take advantage of Circe and that is exactly what they tried to do. Long story short, Circe could turn men into the very things their minds thought like, thus Odyssey’s crew turned into pigs. Yet somehow Circe, who was just trying to protect herself from being r*ped, was demonized.

Circe is a witch and the main link that this creates is that all witches are women who transgressed the norms of female power. They are frightening because they cannot be controlled by society, they cannot be controlled by men and something which cannot be controlled by men was called abnormal or termed a demon.

You would think that the power dynamics between the female entities in Greek Mythology would be evident in some way. We already saw that if you have too much power, you’d be termed a demon or an evil sorceress (doesn’t matter that you were just trying to save yourself). So, anything that is portrayed as opposed to that must be the norm to follow. This brings me to the second person often overlooked in Greek Literature, Penelope.

Penelope was Odyssey’s wife; she was known for remaining pious and chaste for twenty years as she waited for her husband to return. She was a gorgeous Queen who lived alone in a palace with her son. Of course, this attracted multiple suitors who wanted her and the kingdom in the absence of Odyssey. To keep the suitors at bay, Penelope proclaimed that she needed to weave a shroud for her father-in-law Laertes and every night as the men went to sleep, she would un-weave the shroud and start over the next day. Somehow, she managed to get away with this for a very long time. Such is the tale of Penelope, she is remembered and praised as one of the sole queens who remained faithful to her husband. Thus, she is a paradigm for her faithfulness and chastity.

Penelope was reduced to the symbol of how a wife should be when left alone. When I read about Penelope, the first thing I noticed was how remarkably deceitful she was to those suitors. It was Penelope’s personal choice to not marry any of those men who only wanted to use her to attain the kingdom that came with her. Yes, she was faithful but she was also astoundingly smart and kept several men at bay with a simple lie. Her cunning and resourceful ways to preserve her own status was overshadowed by the view that she did all this to protect the memory of her husband’s household. A husband, might I remind you, who had multiple sexual encounters in the 20 years he had been away.

Myths and tales have often been censored to appease the patriarchal regime. It has demonized women in power and canonized women who mollified their husbands. Penelope and Circe are just two names out of the hundreds of female characters that are made to be subjugated by society. However, times are changing and we are learning to question our folklores and literature itself. Emily Wilson is the first woman to have translated The Odyssey and Madeline Miller’s novel Circe has been breaking much of the orthodox thinking set by men like Homer 4000 years ago.

Women were not given a voice for a very long time but now we are breaking those barriers and voicing the truth of the figures from our past, those that were shunned by society or reduced to mere examples used to fear retribution. It is now our duty to support the artists that are coming up and pushing the ideals set by powerful literary figures eons ago.

Samantha Roy

Delhi South '21

Samantha is currently doing her final year of B.A English honours from Jesus and Mary college. Most of her time is spent watching underrated shows on Netflix and rereading books to relish the sense of nostalgia and comfort.
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