About the Author
I am a second-year student in the Literature Profile of the ALC program. I wrote this essay for my Reflections class, analyzing the female monsters in the Odyssey. I wish to continue my studies in Literature for a Bachelor’s and Master’s Degree.
By Beatriz de Souza Neves
For The Odyssey, with Prof. Rebecca Million
Maleficent, Cruella de Vil, Bellatrix Lestrange, Hela, Queen of Hearts and The Wicked Witch of the West are just a few examples of well-known female villains in pop culture. Women have been represented as threats since Ancient Greece, as is shown in book 12 of The Odyssey by Homer, for instance. The female monsters and threatening figures that Odysseus runs into in his journey reinforce and represent the male fear of women’s potential power over them. Through books 10 to 12, they reinforce this idea through the characters of Circe, the Sirens, and Scylla. Circe, a witch, is the personification of women’s power to evoke both desire and fear; the Sirens are the fear of the sexual curiosity that women provoke; and Scylla is the fear of the fact that men know that they cannot avoid women.
Circe, through the use of her powers and appearance, is a representation of the two opposite emotions that women can cause: awe and lust. In Greek mythology, she stands out for her association with transformation and witchcraft and, therefore, Circe is an example of the witch archetype: a woman connected to nature and animals, who also is linked to magic and, for that reason, provokes fear in men. The first thing that Odysseus observes on Aeaea, Circe’s island, is a “smoke rising up from Circe’s palace, from the earth up through the woods and thickets” (Odyssey 264). The smoke that he sees is the first sign of something mystical involving Circe. The nature present around her palace is a clue of her character as a witch, besides the title of book 10 in Emily Wilson’s translation, “The Winds and The Witch.” When they come closer to her house, the poet says that, “Round it were mountain wolves and lions, which she tamed with drugs” (265-266). She is not only associated with vegetable nature but animal nature as well. This description also shows that she has tame wild animals in her house, which reveals a little about her power with portions and drugs. As Barbara Creed points out in The Monstrous-Feminine, when analysing the reasons why women tend to be witches in the inquisitor’s manual for witch prosecution, The Malleus Maleficarum (1484), made by the Catholic Church, “The reasons all relate to the classic and phallocentric definition of woman as the ‘other’, the weaker but dangerous complement of man” (75). If Circe is represented as a witch, she is seen as a “the weaker but dangerous complement of man.” This mixed feeling of not knowing if she is a friend because she is “weaker,” or if she is dangerous because of her powers, is what causes men to fear her. In The Odyssey, even though she transforms all of his men into pigs and Odysseus fears her at first, he still becomes her lover for a year. She could be a threat or not, which reinforces the idea that men fear women due to their potential power over them.
After Odysseus and his men leave Aeaea, they meet the Sirens, who symbolize the sexual curiosity and desire that women provoke in men and show how men see this as a danger. Before Odysseus moves on in his journey, Circe warns him about the Sirens: “First you will reach the Sirens, who bewitch all passersby. If anyone goes near them in ignorance, […] the Sirens who sit there in their meadow will seduce him with piercing song” (302). However, Odysseus still wants to listen to the “piercing song” that seems so appealing to him, so he asks his men to tie him tightly to the mast to listen to the Sirens. Besides the double meaning and sexual connotation that the word “piercing” can have, Circe says that this song will seduce him. Their song is the representation of women’s sexuality that causes men to be curious about sex and it is seen as a dangerous thing because it shows how powerful women can be if they use their sexuality in their favour. Odysseus himself already experienced this sexual power, since lust was one of the main reasons he stays in Circe’s palace for a year and later in Calypso’s island for seven years. As Karen Hollinger says in her article “The Monster as Woman: Two Generations of Cat People”: “The fear that lurks behind castration anxieties and the fetishized horror monster can be seen as a fear not of the lack represented by the horror monster but of the potency of female sexuality and the power of woman’s sexual difference” (39). Therefore, Odysseus is an example of a man who is scared of the potential power women have through sexuality. This reinforces the idea that men fear women’s potential power over them, in this case using men’s sexual desire against them.
However, even with all these fears, men know that they still need women, so Scylla’s immortal quality shows that despite men’s fears, they still need to be around women. Scylla is, as Circe says “not mortal. She is a deathless evil, terrible, wild and cruel. [Odysseus] cannot fight her” (305). When Circe is describing Scylla to Odysseus she says “her voice is puppylike, but she is dangerous; even a god would be afraid of her. She has twelve dangling legs and six long necks with a gruesome head on each, and in each face three rows of crowded teeth, pregnant with death” (304). Again, the female monsters are represented with contradictory qualities such as a voice that is puppylike, but with six long necks and mouths full of teeth. Circe also says that she is “pregnant with death,” which is an allusion to the main reason why men still need women in a sexual way: reproduction. Scylla cannot be killed, just like society cannot kill one of the genders since they need it to procreate. Men cannot avoid sex, regardless of their fear of being sexually controlled by it. In addition, her baby is “death,” which associates her danger with her ability to procreate. Besides, to intensify the size of this fear, Circe also describes her as something that “even a god would be afraid of” (304), reinforcing the idea that all men fear women because of their possible power over them.
The theory that men fear women is not only seen in The Odyssey, but it is also a topic in discussion in different fields of study, especially in psychoanalysis. Freud, for example, as Barbara Creed says, “linked man’s fear of woman to his infantile belief that the mother is castrated. ‘Probably no male human being is spared the fright of castration at the sight of a female genital’, Freud wrote in his paper, ‘Fetishism’ in 1927 (p. 154)” (Creed). Being a topic rooted inside of our common sense, literature, as a reflection of society, repeats it even if it is something in our subconscious. Therefore, Circe, the Sirens, and Scylla are symbols of men’s fear of the potential power that women can have over them.
Creed, Barbara. The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis. Routledge, 1993.
Hollinger, Karen. “The Monster as Woman: Two Generations of Cat People.” Film Criticism, vol. 13, no. 2, Winter 1989, pp. 36–46. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx? direct=true&db=a9h&AN=31286250&site=ehost-live score=site.
Homer, and Emily R. Wilson. The Odyssey. W.W. Norton & Company, 2018.