Homer’s great epic about the family as the center of civilization portrays two different types of woman: women who are pro-marriage and pro-family and women who are anti-marriage and anti-family. Penelope, the faithful wife of Odysseus who waited twenty years for her husband’s return from war and exile, defends her home from the suitors who want to marry her and inherit her wealth. She raises her son Telemachus in the absence of his father, welcomes guests with hospitality, and creates a home that embodies the ideal of civilization: manners, morals, and culture. She continues to uphold the stability and permanence of the home in her husband’s absence. Her contribution to civilization and to the family is so great that Homer attributes to her the highest honors: “The fame of her virtue will never die. The immortal gods will lift a song for all mankind, a glorious song in praise of self-possessed Penelope.”
Queen Arete, the wife of King Alcinous, welcomes Odysseus into their country of Phaeacia with all the amenities of old-world hospitality that her reign of the home provides. She and her husband preside over a country that is renowned for its high level of culture, a people accomplished in shipbuilding, weaving, dancing, song, athletics, and agriculture—a productive society fruitful in its cultivation of the practical arts and fine arts. Their daughter Nausicaa, the fruit of a family’s love for its children, is a paragon of beauty, gracefulness, modesty, and kindness. When Odysseus beholds her for the first time, he praises her with the highest accolades: “… he is the one more blest than all other men alive, that man who sways you with his gifts and leads you home, his bride! … I look on you and a sense of wonder takes me.” As wives, mothers, and daughters Penelope, Arete, and Nausicaa nurture lives, create beautiful homes, extend hospitality to weary travelers, and cherish marriages that transform the world from barbaric to civilized.
Calypso, Circe, and the Sirens, on the other hand, epitomize a kind of womanhood that scorns marriage, dishonors men, and reduces love to the passion of lust and carnal pleasure. These women emasculate the men they lure or capture, depriving them of their manhood as fathers, husbands, and leaders. For seven years Odysseus has been held hostage on the island of the goddess Calypso whose peerless, ageless beauty surpasses the loveliness of mortal woman. She strives to dissuade Odysseus from leaving her island and returning to his home in Ithaca, promising him immortality, the luxurious paradise of her island home, and the raptures of a goddess’ love. Calypso’s passion for Odysseus is sterile and fruitless, and she never entertains the idea of marriage, only an endless future of cohabitation. As her captive, Odysseus never exercises his manhood by way of leading his nation, governing his family, educating his children, or using his mind and body to accomplish a man’s work.
Circe too emasculates the men she seduces them with her haunting, spellbinding voice. Feigning hospitality, she puts a potion in their drink that lulls them into a stupor and robs them of all motivation, determination and will power: “… into the brew she stirred her wicked drugs to wipe from their memories any thought of home. Once they’d drained the bowls she filled, suddenly she struck with her wand, drove them into her pigsties.” The loss of manhood coincides with the loss of memory of home. Circe lures men away from their natural duty as husbands and fathers by pandering to the men’s desires of the flesh, their hunger and thirst which she poisons to reduce them to tame animals instead of valiant men. She attempts to lure Odysseus to her bed and enslave him with the prize of her beauty and pleasure—a temptation that wary Odysseus resists, protesting “you’ll unman me, strip away my courage!” Both Calypso and Circe deprive men of their masculinity by inebriating them in pleasure, dulling their memories of home, and delaying their journey homeward to their families.
The Sirens too divert men from their duties as husbands and fathers with the lure of their musical voices that distract them from the main course that leads home: “no sailing home for him, no wife rising to meet him, no happy children beaming up at their father’s face. The high, thrilling song of the Sirens will transfix him.” These temptresses all exert the power of feminine attraction and artfulness to either reduce men to the state of captivity, to lull their reason and memory to a state of stupefaction, or to rob them of their natural role as the heads of a family. As Homer demonstrates, for civilization to prosper, families need to flourish. For homes to be permanent and stable they require the virtues of prudent, faithful women like Penelope, hospitable, devoted women like Arete, and brides like Nausicaa prepared to assume and continue the work of creating culture and civilization by way of the home. For these women to fulfill their feminine and maternal roles in ordering and beautifying the environment of homes with the domestic arts that nurture life, they need noble, manly men who resist the Sirens of the world in their commitment to their wives and children.
Just as men can forget their wives and degenerate to pigs when cast under the spell of Circe, women can ignore their roles as homemakers, dignified mothers, and honorable wives to manipulate, ensnare, and exploit men for their own use and pleasure. The married women and the bride in the Odyssey raise the level of manhood by the high ideals that inspire the admiration of true men. The love goddesses, seductresses, and Sirens make men waste their virility and live sterile, unfruitful lives that contribute nothing to life, family, or civilization.