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Epic Heroes and Women: Odyssey, Aeneid, and Jason and the Golden Fleece: Argonautica
In epic hero relationships with women, there are three types of heroes, as seen in the texts of Homer’s Odyssey, Vergil’s Aeneid, and Apollonius of Rhodes’ Jason and the Golden Fleece: Argonautica. In these three works, the epic heroes each identify with a primary function: Odysseus functions in the epic as an example of the marriage bound hero, who wants to return home to his loving wife at all costs, Aeneas functions as an example of the hero focused on his destiny who views women as objects to be obtained, and, finally, Jason functions as an example of the counter to both Odysseus and Aeneas—Jason is the reluctant hero who welcomes women into his life as distractions, but is willing to find love if it comes to him. Their relationships with women and each heroes’ unique destiny will be reviewed and explored as to their basis and validation in the epics.
The Temptation and Infidelity of Odysseus
In Homer’s Odyssey, Odysseus functions as the example of the marriage bound hero. Throughout the epic he is married to Penelope, yet, along the way, he continually has relations with other women. His infidelities with Calypso and Circe will be questioned as to whether or not he used these women (goddesses) for their ability to help him get home, or if he actually had feelings for them, despite what he steadfastly professes for his wife, and despite how many years it has been. Finally, Odysseus’s determination to return home to his wife will be reviewed. Indeed, Odysseus’ mission is twofold: he wishes to return home to his wife, and he wishes to return home with honor after being a hero in war, despite the years that have passed.
When the story emerges, Odysseus is trapped, both by the sea that separates him from finally returning home and by the goddesses, creatures, and monsters that attempt to detain him from ever doing so. Indeed, it can even be concluded that Odysseus “represents his experiences with sea dangers as encounters with the feminine and repeatedly tells of escaping these dangers when the threatening females eventually befriend him, after he survives or overcomes them” (Cohen, 19). The dangers are such that Odysseus is taken in at every turn—either in battle or in lust. Every goddess has a hold over him, every monster is the epic battle fought until finally destroys them, but neither is without cost.
In fact, his odyssey is truly that of the symbolic journey of life, to never obtain what he truly desires until his life is nearly over, to miss important life events because of his duty, and to struggle against temptation at every turn—but ultimately deciding that his life is best fulfilled by keeping to his one true love, Penelope.
Odysseus’ relationship with Penelope has been one of romance from the beginning. He professes his love to her, and she to him, with the knowledge that he may never return home from his journey. One never really knows of her true beauty, because the narrator focuses on her actions rather than her looks, but in the way that Odysseus speaks of her, and remembers her despite the years, one captures her beautiful essence that keeps Odysseus’ heart regardless of the tempting goddesses in his path.
Never once does Odysseus become unfaithful in his heart. He makes it clear throughout that he will return home one day to his wife and he never gives up that hope—and that hope sustains him and keeps him alive in the world that threatens to not only detain him, but to destroy him as well.
To contrast the situation, “ Penelope might well be considered a beneficent version of the seductive and dangerous nonhuman females Odysseus encounters” (Cohen, 23). Penelope has no magical powers, but she is the queen of Odysseus’ kingdom and she has power in her authority over that domain. Indeed, her power is such that “when she weaves a plan or a garment, she helps preserve Odysseus' home and kingdom. When he goes to bed with her in Book 23, he is neither threatened with destruction nor deflected from his journey homeward. Rather, their sexual union marks the end of his wanderings, at least in this poem, and his restoration to his full identity as husband and king” (23). Unlike his relationship with all of the other women in the Odyssey, Odysseus’ relationship to Penelope is one of true love and desire for a future. Despite his quest, temptations, and distractions, Odysseus never gives up the home that he will return home to her some day.
And, to add a bit of feminism to this epic tale, Odysseus gives in to every temptation offered to him by the goddesses, especially Calypso, who he stays with for years. But, Penelope remains constant and faithful to Odysseus. Her story revolves around the many suitors who, because Odysseus has been away for so many years, fight over who she will marry to keep the kingdom running.
But, Penelope never gives in. She tells them that she will finally choose a suitor to marry once she finishes her weaving—which she undoes every night so no real progress is made—because she maintains the hope that Odysseus is alive and will return home to her and their kingdom, despite the years that have passed.
Penelope is so faithful to Odysseus that she never gives in to any of the suitors and remains steadfast in her love for him until he does, indeed, return home to her. And this is what counts most to Odysseus. His infidelities, despite their number and duration, do not count in his eyes and breaking the vows of their marriage. However, if Odysseus had returned home—and indeed, this is his greatest fear upon doing so—to find her with another man, her infidelity would have been a cross too difficult to bear.
Odysseus’ infidelities are, to him, essentially his means of survival, to get through his odyssey with as much dignity and salvation as he can possibly muster. In fact, he does not consider them infidelities at all, in his heart, as he even later tells Calypso, he is still in love with his wife and always will be. His infidelities are, fundamentally, then, distractions to get him through. And, on a deeper level, they often aid him and provide an essential function for his odyssey.
Odysseus’ comes into contact with the goddess Circe, and their romance lasts about a year until they must proceed with other adventures. Their resulting shipwreck lands Odysseus alone on the island of Calypso, who he stays with upwards of seven years. With Circe, Odysseus fell for her charms and entered into a relationship with her with the underlying knowledge that he and his men had to move on eventually. However, with Calypso, Odysseus is tied into a greater struggle. He has lost his men, his odyssey has lasted many years, and he has begun to question his wife’s fidelity to him. Besides, he lives like a king with Calypso, who tries to entice him into becoming her husband for eternity.
Of all his infidelities, Calypso was Odysseus’ longest and greatest temptation. With her, time seemed to stop and he often forgot where he was or what he was supposed to be doing. Her kingdom was one of lust and contentment. However, deep inside Odysseus was the desire that he must one day return home to his wife.
Indeed, Odysseus stays with Calypso for comfort and because he has been targeted by the gods. He knows that he might never return home, not without help, at least, because Poseidon rules the sea and has thus far, made his life and journey into utter misery. But he knows, too, that someday Poseidon might let things slide and he will have the chance and opportunity to return to Ithaca, and if that chance arises, he must take it.
Odysseus’ determination to return home to his wife throughout is seen when he “hastens to make explicit his yearning for home… he mentions the beautiful goddesses Calypso and Circe, who wanted him to stay with them and be their husband, and his refusal to succumb to their temptation. His intent may be to communicate, by innuendo, to Arete and Nausicaa that a man who can resist a goddess can resist a princess” (Ahl, 96). By resist, Odysseus actually means ability to leave them and not be trapped into marriage with them, because in no way does he actually resist temptation.
Temptation is simply part of Odysseus’ odyssey. He finds himself trapped in situations where goddesses want to keep him, and he goes along with their games, because he has unlimited time. There is always the edge that he must return home, but too, Odysseus seems content, when in the arms of Circe and Calypso, to make the most of his situations.
Ultimately, however, Odysseus must return home. But he also fears his arrival in Ithaca because he knows how much time has passed and he knows that his wife would have long ago taken a new suitor to continue her rule of Ithaca. More than that even, Odysseus returns home with the knowledge that he has a score of suitors to dispatch of, which relates deeply to his inner need to be seen as a war hero upon his return. Of course, Odysseus is able to slay the suitors, and makes it back into the arms of his ever-faithful wife in the bed that he crafted himself—and it is in that moment that he realizes that she has been faithful to him, that he has his kingdom back, and that his odyssey is finally over.
Throughout the Odyssey, Odysseus is presented with temptations, battles, and challenges that all prevent him from returning home to Ithaca. As the epic hero, he fights brave and hard, but always thinks that he may one day return home, despite the time it has taken, and despite the years that have passed. To him, Penelope is suspended in time, and he lives through his odyssey with the hope—sometimes it is all that gets him through—that she has remained faithful to him and that Ithaca still stands, waiting for his return.
Odysseus is ultimately the marriage bound hero, in this sense. Despite his many infidelities and distractions, in the end, all he wants is his life back with Penelope. He is thrust into the odyssey, he did not choose it—and it is through this knowledge that he can still remain faithful in his heart, while his body lies in other beds. To Odysseus, he is simply doing what he must to make it through. His actions, while they may seem incompatible with the marriage bound hero, in truth, are exactly what one would expect of a man who is placed in the situations that Odysseus faces. Never, however, does he forget Penelope, and never does he ever give up the hope that he will return home to her.
The Binding Destiny of Aeneas
Not all heroes are like Odysseus, however—even though they may have served together during the same battle at Troy. In Vergil’s Aeneid, Aeneas functions as the hero with a binding destiny. Based on his treatment of his wife, Dido, and his treatment of Lavinia, it becomes clear that Aeneas does not have compassion for the women in his life; instead he views them as objects to be obtained. Indeed, his wife’s death at the beginning of the epic results in Aeneas’ focus on his future destiny rather than on the present life that he has. Aeneas always moves on when he is reminded of his destiny—for example, he pursued a relationship with Dido, which served as only a minor distraction to him until his destiny reminded him that he must keep going. Aeneas’ actions throughout will be reviewed as he focuses on his destiny while obtaining and discarding women along the way.
Aeneas is depicted during the time in Rome where heroes were honored and reviled. In roughly the middle of the epic, Aeneas “is shown a succession of the leaders who in a still distant future will shape the history of the Roman state. Such pageants were familiar in Roman life in less extraordinary contexts” (Camps, 21). As the story emerges, it becomes clear how much duty, essentially, binds Aeneas, and how much value he places upon that duty.
Aeneas has a destiny, that, despite the distractions and his own desires, he must fulfill—and he not only knows this but embraces it. His story, in this sense, is similar to that of Odysseus in that he is presented with obstacles and temptations, yet he knows he must not dally with them to long or he won’t be able to fulfill his destiny. For Odysseus, that meant returning home to his wife, but for Aeneas, that means the Trojan battle in Italy where he is destined to found the city of Rome.
And, much like Odysseus, Aeneas travels towards his destiny for upwards of seven years, facing adventures and temptations at every turn. Aeneas, at least, is more successful in this because his odyssey lasts half as long and that of Odysseus, plus he makes it to his end point with his men and army intact.
Aeneas, however, is the complete opposite to Odysseus when it comes to his treatment and compassion for women. Where Odysseus maintains his love for his wife while entering into relationships with goddesses, who, it stands to say, he treats with kindness and respect, some form of love even, Aeneas sees women as objects to be obtained and discarded along the way. To Aeneas, women serve as helpful distractions while he maintains his “love” for the destiny he must fulfill instead. Moreover, to Odysseus, being a war hero held honor and respect, but to Aeneas, it seems that the only value in life is to be a war hero, and he focuses on that destiny with the hope that he may someday become honored by a statue himself—like all true war heroes are.
Aeneas comes into contact with Dido when his ships get thrown off course—Aeneas, too has the wrath of a god impinging on his destiny—and they land in Carthage. He is welcomed by her with open arms as he relates his sad tale and epic journey in the sea. Dido, for her part, falls deeply in love with Aeneas and hopes that he will marry her and become king to Carthage. Aeneas is content with his mistress until he is reminded by the gods that he must continue on his destiny to found the city of Rome.
It was the god Mercury that called Aeneas lazy, asking “so you’re a city planner now, are you? And like a good husband you’re laying out a good capital for your queen? Have you forgotten your own kingdom and your own destiny?” (Cobbold, 98). As if that weren’t enough to get the young warrior back on track, Mercury goes on to say that “Jupiter himself, the ruler of heaven and earth sent me down to you from Olympus. He asks you: ‘what are your intentions, what are you doing lazing away your days in Libya? If you do not look to win glory for yourself, think of the prospects of your young heir Ascanius: he at least has deserved a throne in Italy and an empire—the future empire of Rome’” (98). In this, Mercury is harsh where he needs to be.
The gods saw Aeneas lazing about in contented marriage when he had greater, and more pressing, things to attend to. They saw him as a lazy mortal, giving in to the sins of the flesh when he was one of the few chosen to fulfill a destiny. And they were angered that he would so easily forget and dismiss their grand plans for him. If that weren’t enough to persuade him, the final insult that convinced Aeneas to get back to his destiny with haste was that if he wasn’t going to take care of things like a good warrior, then the gods would see to it that his son got the glory instead. To the gods, a hero can be chosen again, though they’d prefer that he completed the task they laid out for him instead.
Not one to miss out on a chance at glory, and without looking back, Aeneas dutifully got back on his ship and sailed away with his fellow Trojans to complete their destiny at last. But, he gave no consideration to what he left behind. Indeed, Dido was so distraught by his departure that she killed herself with the sword that he left behind, and was burned to ash by the funeral pyre she ordered built out of Aeneas’ castaway possessions.
In this, Odysseus and Aeneas could not be further apart as heroes. Odysseus was tempted by the goddesses Circe and Calypso, falling into their luscious traps of temptations and comfort. Both times, however, he was foundered on their islands with only the hope that they would be able to set sail again, once the wrath of the gods settled. At all times, however, Odysseus kept the faith that he would return home to his wife—he never gave up that cause, nor did he fool either goddess into believing that he had. Odysseus was always strong in his cause that his destiny was to return home and be with his wife.
On the other hand, Aeneas partnered with Dido, not a goddess, but a mortal princess, and lured her into thinking that they could have a life together by professing his doubts and worries. It helped that he was charming in his own right and seemed to be able to settle down, despite his destiny. To Dido, once Aeneas agreed to be her husband, he would be hers forever—he wouldn’t so easily leave her. But, she had no charms with which to hold him other than her love—and the gods had an entirely different plan for their chosen one.
However, it can be said, that despite their plan for him, Aeneas still viewed Dido as an object to be obtained, with no greater or lasting value to him than that of momentary pleasure and satisfaction. Indeed, it can even be speculated that if the gods hadn’t reminded him of his duty to fulfill a greater destiny, Aeneas would have eventually moved on to bigger and better things. In truth, Aeneas is a hero that knows he is destined to do something exceptional, and because of this trait, he had no qualms about leaving his wife and kingdom. Neither love nor marriage could hold him—because his destiny to be a hero and found a new city was too great to resist. And, to Aeneas, love was nothing compared to ultimate glory.
Aeneas’ true nature comes to light when he readies to leave Dido and get back to his quest. He, of course, chooses the route of less resistance and plots with his men to leave in secret, without her suspecting anything. In this, Aeneas is a coward and his complete lack of respect for the woman who loved him becomes clear. But, Dido is not the fool he takes her to be (his thinking is that if a woman is so helplessly in love with him—that she must also be an simpleton) and confronts him before he can depart. She begs him to stay, citing that because of her love for him she has become a hated and disrespected woman—and that she is nothing without him.
Aeneas, at being confronted in such a manner, tells her without feeling that he has no choice in the matter and refuses to feel guilt for the quest he was chosen to complete. He refuses to feel love for her, because his duty is too great to even compare to such a small and pathetic emotion.
His duty becomes even more bound within him when Dido comes out to the ships to convince him one last time to stay with her. But, “he was not moved by her tears or convinced by her reason. The fates had made him adamant, and now he was content for the gods to make him deaf” (Cobbold, 103). The moment Mercury made his accusations, Aeneas had checked out of his life wife Dido and had switched gears to get his mind back on fulfilling his destiny. And in this, he couldn’t let such petty things as love, tears, or pleas convince him otherwise.
Aeneas isn’t entirely heartless, however. When Dido makes her pleas, he does feel some emotion for her—though it is hard to say whether he truly felt love, or if it was simply companionship for her that gave him some emotions towards her agony at his leaving. But, his need and purpose for his destiny is, simply, stronger.
It would be cruel to say that Aeneas has no compassion for women, whatsoever—but, in many ways the statement is true. In his relationship with Lavinia, her father had found a prophecy that his daughter would marry a foreigner, despite the fact that she was already in love with another man, and that foreigner was to be Aeneas. In this, Aeneas does not intend to dally—nor do the gods have any intention of allowing it. But, like Odysseus, Aeneas takes pleasure while he can (and sires a child called Silvius with Lavinia), knowing all the while that he will leave to get back to his destiny. This layover would not last, and he did not intend it to last.
Ultimately, Aeneas is the hero with the binding destiny. He is the epic hero that will stop at nothing to fulfill his quest. Twice he falls into the trap that will keep him from his destiny—as seen through his relationships to Dido, and later in his relationship to Lavinia. In both cases, cosmic forces (the goddess Juno, prophecies, and the kingdoms themselves) conspired to get him to marry and become ruler to their kingdoms. But, to Aeneas, these women were not meant to be wives and stability, at least, long-term. To Aeneas, women serve no greater value than to momentarily distract him from his mission. They serve to ease his pressure, to provide transitory comfort while he takes a break from his overwhelming and complicated destiny.
In this, Aeneas is very different from Odysseus. Where Odysseus was always kind and valued his trysts with the goddesses, because he had no other options, really, than to wait for a chance to leave them. But, the women Odysseus dallied with were goddesses, and though they fell for him, it was by their spell that Odysseus remained captive for the time that he did.
On contrast, Aeneas knowingly took time out from his destiny to be with women; and it was a choice that he made to intentionally provide a distraction from his quest—he was not spelled into being with them, and he did not have the wrath of the gods forcing him to stay with them—and, he had the grace of the gods on his side, with the spur in his side that he stop frittering away his time and get back to his destiny. Ultimately, Aeneas felt that women were objects to be conquered, but that they held no more value to him that that.
Jason the Reluctant Hero
And finally, as the balance the two epic heroes comes Jason. In Apollonius of Rhodes’ Jason and the Golden Fleece: Argonautica, Jason functions as the counter between Odysseus and Aeneas. He is the reluctant hero, he did not choose his fate, does not want to be a leader, and only takes up the mantle when it is thrust upon him. However, Jason, while showing some of the mistreatment towards women that Aeneas shows, for example in his relationship with Hypsipyle, also shows a desire for the future with his relationships, much like Odysseus. If his child with Hypsipyle is a boy, he wants the child to be sent to his parents, though he seems unconcerned if the child were to be a girl. His relationship with Medea also highlights a turning point for the reluctant hero, as he gives up the fleece, and his destiny.
To begin with, the Argonautica is very different narratively from the Odyssey and the Aeneid. A reader is introduced to a platoon of characters with the same zest and clarification as the main hero. In this epic, Jason isn’t the only one who can be considered a hero, and it is only because the tale is named after him that one can truly define the fact that he is the main hero.
In fact, generations of critics have faulted the poem for not having a strong central character upon whom the unity of the narrative could be built. Jason, say they, is too weak, too often absent at decisive moments, to be a real hero; he is made to share so much of the important action with the other Argonauts that the narrative focus becomes uncertain” (Beye 78). In this, defining Jason as an epic hero has its flaws. He does have hero-like qualities, but then again, so do the men who follow him. It can even be said “that Apollonius meant the crew collectively to be the hero” (78). Directly, comparing Jason to Odysseus and Aeneas based upon their hero-qualities, then, is a bit faulty.
However, this difficulty is what makes the Argonautica a unique balance for the other two epics because a reader has to look more intently at Jason to not only differentiate him from the other Argonauts, but to pinpoint his qualities as the epic hero. Indeed, Jason functions as the true counter between the epics. Unlike Odysseus who is a renowned warrior returning home to his beloved wife from battle, and unlike Aeneas who is a warrior setting out to fulfill his destiny and receive glory, Jason is the reluctant hero, drawn into his leadership role—and he has little to no say about his destiny.
The interesting aspect of Jason’s function is that most character-driven stories follow the reluctant hero path. The reluctant hero has the most to lose—and the most to gain. He neither wanted his destiny nor feels a strong compelling desire to complete it. And it is through this nature that Jason’s relationships can be looked at in an entirely different light than those of Odysseus and Aeneas because he is the only hero that has the ability to see the future of his relationships with them.
Moreover, Jason is the only epic hero of the three who falls in love. Odysseus may have felt a sort of love for Calypso, but his heart truly belonged to Penelope for all time, and again, while Aeneas may have felt something for Dido, he did not love her—he loved his mission instead. In this, Jason’s relationship with women is the complete counter to the other heroes.
Jason’s relationship with Hypsipyle is, unfortunately, similar to Aeneas’ relationship to Dido. He bides his time with her, fathering children, and is easily called away from her affections when his duty to destiny is reinforced. A reader is introduced to Medea in the third book of the Argonautica, during which Virgil “chose to represent her daring in the way she went to the assignation at the temple, her courage in willingness to betray her father, her power as a sorceress, and finally her strength of character in negotiating a marriage for herself with Jason… it is fair to say that Medea emerges from that exchange with Jason very much his formidable equal” (Beye, 144). Medea is much like the goddesses that Odysseus faces. She has her own agenda for Jason, one in which Jason is unable to not only resist, but really, put up much of a fight.
Medea can also be seen as one of the most insidious characters that any of the heroes have to face. Medea is the infidel in this case, cheating on her husband Pelias with Jason. Moreover, she convinces her daughters to slice and dice Pelias into little pieces, at which point she will add in a bit of potion with which to make him younger. Of course, Pelias dies and Medea and Jason run away together, marked as murderers.
As a comparison, while Calypso uses her magic to lull Odysseus into compliancy, she does not have Penelope killed so that they may be together—she relies on her charms alone, which, as a result, Odysseus is able to overcome because of the strength of his love for his wife. Dido, too, has only her charms with which to keep Aeneas by her side—but he, too, is able to leave her without much remorse.
Even more, when Jason leaves Medea to marry Creusa, Medea goes into a rage and curses and kills the young woman who stole away Jason’s affections. For his part, Jason did love Medea, but her love for him was induced by Aphrodite’s meddling and he felt that he could be unfaithful to her. In fact, because he left Medea, he became cursed himself, dying unhappy and alone—killed by his own boat.
Ultimately, Jason is the reluctant hero, who, it can be said, treats women like the average man. While he does show emotion and falls in love, he is also willing to break his vows for greener pastures, without regard to the woman’s feelings.
Indeed, it can even be said that Jason’s actions are the most cruel. Odysseus entered into his relationships with the solid fact that he had a woman who he loved and would return home to. At no point did he tell Calypso or Circe that he would remain in their warm embraces forever. And, his dalliances were wrought with the grief that years of enduring his odyssey brought him. His infidelities were not true infidelities, as he remained faithful in his heart to Penelope throughout.
On the other hand, Aeneas treated women as if they were objects to be obtained and discarded, when he grew tired of them. By marrying Dido, he pledged his eternity to her, even though he had no plans to stay with her forever. His duty was more important than any one relationship.
And finally, with Jason, a reader is introduced to a man who has a purpose in life, but cannot keep his commitments to women. He, like Aeneas, pledges his life and eternity to Medea—but then reconsiders his offer once the opportunity arises. But, unlike Aeneas, duty isn’t the sole purpose of life. He does not leave Medea to fulfill his destiny—he leaves her for the simple reason that he has found someone better to love.
Three Types of Heroes In Epic Texts
In epic hero relationships with women, there are three types of heroes, as seen in the texts of Homer’s Odyssey, Vergil’s Aeneid, and Apollonius of Rhodes’ Jason and the Golden Fleece: Argonautica. In these three works, the epic heroes are distributed into three main functions: Odysseus functions in the epic as an example of the marriage bound hero, who wants to return home to his loving wife at all costs, Aeneas functions as an example of the hero focused on his destiny who views women as objects to be obtained, and, finally, Jason functions as an example of the counter to both Odysseus and Aeneas—Jason is the reluctant hero who welcomes women into his life as distractions, but is willing to find love if it comes to him. All three men have a destiny that they must fulfill and all enter into relationships with women during them. Of the three, only Jason enters into those relationships with the outlook that there can be a future, outside of his destiny to be the hero.
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