Homer's tale of the Odyssey is populated by many female characters, ranging in nature from the silent and submissive to the ferociously lethal. If one were to pick out two women who are most influential in the shaping of the story, however, the choice would certainly linger on the strange dyad of Athena and Penelope. Athena serves as the direct initiator of much of the action, and it is her force of will that drives the return of Odysseus and the death of the suitors. Penelope, on the other hand, is the inspiration which motivates the principle actors -- for herself, she takes precious little action and is deeply passive, even paralyzed, yet her very existence is enough to spur Odysseus from the side of his goddess-lover and to inspire the blind devotion of her suitors. There are certain ways in which Penelope and Athena have a great deal in common, yet in others they are particularly different and even serve as foils for one another. Even as Odysseus and Telemachus serve to illustrate the different directions in which a man may need to evolve to be fully functional (the father needing to learn to temper his brash rage, and the son to develop his), so Penelope and Athena serve to illustrate the opposite ways in which a woman may have strength and goodness. Athena tends to have strength by being assertive and masculine, and her guile is as active and forthright as Odysseus, it is through this masculine strength that she is able to be a protector and maintainer. Penelope, on the other hand, has strength by being passive and overly feminine, and though she is also guileful, her trickery is subtle social manipulation; through her hyper-feminized strength, she too manages to protect and maintain her family. If one were to choose three areas in which to compare and contrast these two heroines, and their impact on the story, it would be these three: Gender role, power, and guile.
The assignment of Athena as a masculinized woman and Penelope as a feminized woman is an oversimplification, though there is a great deal of truth in it nonetheless. Certainly, Athena does come across as being very masculinized in Homer's telling of the tale. In Greek mythology, Athena is not just a goddess of war and wisdom; she is equally renown as a patron and teacher of the female arts. Athena is particularly associated with the craft of weaving, which should give her a certain linkage to Penelope in this area. It is somewhat odd, in fact, that throughout Homer's work, whenever Penelope calls on Athena she does so by saying "if ever Ulysses [Odysseus] while he was here burned you fat thigh bones of sheep or heifer, bear it in mind now as in my favor..."
rather than by directly addressing the goddess as a female supplicant and a follower of the sacred female arts which Athena taught. This tends to indicate that, though to the listener Athena is likely to be well-rounded in terms of gender -identification, Homer tends to identify her almost entirely with the masculine. The majority of the time when she appears to mortals in the story, she appears in a male form. She impersonates several well-known male warriors, and generally acts in stereotypically masculine ways. This is in sharp contrast to Penelope, who is constantly being referred to in very feminine terms, and is revered for her beauty. (Yet at the same time, it is worth mentioning that Penelope herself claims that her beauty left her when she assumed control of the house) Despite some blurring of the roles, however, Athena remains by far the most obviously masculinized, and most likely to use this masculinity to gain power. Indeed, it is precisely this which Homer admires in her. "The Greeks favored her because she was a woman goddess of rare quality. Women were never portrayed with the masculine characteristics of Athena, such as her need for dominance and passion for war. This makes her more appealing and puts her in a class above all the rest."
Athena is not only warlike, she is also very assertive and takes an active interest in the affairs of those men about whom she troubles herself. Especially in the Iliad, other deities are shown interfering with the fates of men in Homer's work. Ares, for example, also took to the field at Troy, and Zeus' with was also directly concerned with the outcome of the battle. However, unlike Athena, Hera is not generally shown masquerading as important political figures and trooping about directly arranging affairs. Athena's activities in this respect set her apart and make her unique assertive. There are multiple examples of her direct intervention in the lives of Odysseus, and especially Telemarchus. She masquerades as Mentor and spends a great deal of time in this form guiding Telemarchus -- she also on occasion pretends to be Telemarchus! In male form, she is able to easily interact with and influence the world. This is in direct contrast to Penelope, who has a great deal of difficulty even having enough power to influence or control her own home. It is no coincidence that Penelope seems to end most of her scenes by retiring to her room where she lies prone and paralyzed, mourning the death of her husband. "Penelope lay in her own room upstairs unable to eat or drink, and wondering whether her brave son would escape, or be overpowered by the wicked suitors. Like a lioness caught in the toils with huntsmen hemming her in on every side she thought and thought till she sank into a slumber, and lay on her bed bereft of thought and motion."
One notices the emphasis on the lack of thought and action, which is the perfect description of passivity. This ritual, as it were, gives a visual representation of her inability to act more decisively -- her emotional and social paralysis. Where Athena is active, Penelope is passive.
Though Penelope is unable to take direct command of the situation like Athena, her feminine charms give her power of a different sort. One must not forget that the reason Odysseus is away in the first place is because he sailed to fight in the Trojan war -- a war which was not started with blades, but with a kiss. The inclusion of Helen in the narrative, and the scene in which she meets Telemarchus, helps to illustrate the kind of power which extremely feminine and beautiful women actually hold in Homer's world -- not the power to act, but the power to inspire the actions of men. In Penelope and Alcestis: Are they Sophron?, Laura Slapikoff writes that Penelope may appear to be powerless, but this is only relative. "As a woman, Penelope has no momentum of her own, but must operate on that of her kyrios [men]. This is not to imply that Penelope is by definition powerless, but it is worth noting that the sphere of her effectiveness is actively determined by the wishes of the men responsible for her."
However, despite this limitation Slapikoff appropriately notes that Penelope has actually accomplished quite a great deal. She has managed to stave off the suitors for decades while Telemarchus grew into a young adult, and moreover she managed to successfully care for all the properties of Odysseus while he was gone. Though the suitors had recently gotten out of control, one understands that she held them off delicately for years, while conniving to maintain a certain power over them. "She does all this while maintaining the surface appearance of feminine obedience. Penelope is not directly subversive; however, she manages to incorporate the characteristics of the sophronein (good wife) into a role more nearly resembling that of the saophron man. Penelope's 'faithfulness' (undermined by the suggestion of eroticism in her dream of the geese) is above all strategic."
The idea that Penelope's faithfulness and her stringing-along of the suitors might actually have given her a sort of power leads comfortably into another comparison between herself and Athena: they are both tricksters, of a sort. "Penelope, Odysseus and Athena are the three main plotters of the poem, contrivers of schemes and storytellers at the same time."
Athena's schemes are obvious. She disguises herself constantly and masquerades as various mortals, while manipulating all the characters like pawns. She also plays the Olympian political game with great savvy. Penelope's trickery is less blatant, but in some ways more impressive. The most obvious trick she has played is that with the weaving, when she swore to marry when she had finished weaving a piece, but "I used to keep working at my great web all day long, but at night I would unpick the stitches again by torch light. I fooled them in this way for three years."
However, she has other tricks in her bag as well. One notices the delicate way in which she manages…