When we think about infidelity, the relationship between Odysseus and Penelope is perhaps among the last to spring to mind. A-list celebrities and reality TV stars are generally the ones to occupy the highest ranks of promiscuity. The famous symbol of Odysseus’ marriage bed, with its olive tree branches rooted into the ground, surely spares this Ithacan hero the shameful epithet of ‘adulterer’? Homer portrays Odysseus and Penelope’s relationship as the embodiment of faithfulness. In a poem centred around the theme of nostos (homecoming), loyalty to one’s partner is more than essential. Odysseus himself emphasises the importance of a man and wife keeping a ‘harmonious’ household.
However, despite his words, Odysseus’ dalliances on his way back home cannot be ignored. True, he suffers many tribulations before he reaches the Ithacan shores, but he also enjoys sexual relations with both Circe and Calypso. For years, scholars have offered the evasive answer that the ancient Greek concept of marital fidelity differs to our modern beliefs. Yet, is it about time we stopped excusing Odysseus’ actions and instead branded him as a philanderer after all?
The Teary-Eyed Hero
When we first encounter Odysseus, he is sitting on the shores of Ogygia weeping for his wife and home. This tableau of dejection is brought up repeatedly to support Odysseus’ all-consuming desire to return home and, by implication, his love for Penelope. Why, then, does he share a bed with not one, but two other women during the story?
It all boils down the definition of fidelity. If marital fidelity is based on trustworthiness, then by all accounts Odysseus is a failure. At Circe’s island, he has to be prompted by his men to leave her embrace and continue on his journey homeward. At Phaeacia, he is offered the tempting choice of Nausicaa’s hand in marriage.
Conversely, if fidelity is defined by the action of trusting in another, then Odysseus passes the test. His entire motivation for nostos is based upon his certainty that he will find Penelope waiting for his return, alone and sad. He left her with tear-stained cheeks and strives to return, expecting their bed not to be warmed by the body of another man. The entire Odyssey is dependent on this notion of faith.
Thus, for Odysseus, faithfulness is about relying on another rather than being faithful himself. He has no qualms about his relationships on the way home because he sees Penelope’s chasteness as more important to the preservation of their marriage. Where do these imbalanced ideals come from?
Marriage and Greek Society
It has been pointed out that the idea of marriage as a partnership based on romantic love was not entirely the norm prior to the eighteenth century. For the Greeks, marriage was seen as essential to the preservation of good society.
Greek girls were typically married at the ages of thirteen or fourteen, and the resulting marriage had little to do with love. Over time, the husband and wife may have developed philia (a friendship or loving sentiment), but eros (desirous love) was to be found elsewhere. Men could seek sexual fulfilment from prostitutes and even in homosexual relationships, while their wives were their property, and came with land and social titles. The burden of sexual fidelity fell to the wife, otherwise another man would have access this property and thus destroy the social economy.
For women of Penelope’s social class, maintaining fidelity was of the utmost importance. This was not an indication of love for one’s husband, but a demonstration of obedience. It was the wife’s task to ensure that she did not allow another man to ruin her husband’s property. Athenian laws of moikbeia did prohibit the seduction of another man’s wife, widowed mother, unmarried daughter, sister or niece. However, it was primarily up to the woman not to be deceived by another man. In the Odyssey, Penelope contrasts herself with Helen, who fell victim to Paris’ seduction and abandoned her husband Menelaus.
As a result of these social ideals, a woman’s adultery was much more shameful than a man’s, as she not only would have defiled her marriage bed but also social order. By contrast, men faced no such pressures and there were fewer repercussions to their infidelity.
The Ugly Truth
As such, Odysseus’ homesickness does not stem his from romantic feelings but rather his commitment to social values. He is more concerned with returning to the arms of his kingdom, which Penelope has been dutifully looking after; the double-standards of marital fidelity (which Calypso remarks upon) do not plague him in the slightest. Odysseus’ goal is to maintain a harmonious relationship, and this involves avoiding confrontation of the difficult topic of sexual promiscuity. Cunning and wise he may be, but it is time that Odysseus is recognised as an adulterer, rather than the epitome of a faithful husband.
Head of Odysseus from a Roman period Hellenistic marble group representing Odysseus blinding Polyphemus, found at the villa of Tiberius at Sperlonga, Italy - Museo Archeologico Nazionale in Sperlonga
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