In the world today, the most common way in which human beings probably distinguish themselves is by their gender. All human beings, or at least the vast majority, are born as clearly male or female. Perhaps this is also why this distinction has, since ancient times, served as a factor in human relationships and indeed vast-scale human oppression and even slavery. Indeed, to this day many women suffer indignities at the hands of patriarchal societies with a sense of entitlement over the fates of half or more of their populations. Whatever one's personal views on this state of affairs might be, it is interesting indeed to consider ancient literature to determine the various cultural roots of many patriarchal societies and viewpoints that remain existing to this day. Often grounded in religious values, the male-female relationship is complicated not only by the "men are from Mars" ideal, but also by the cultural values encouraged by ancient religious texts. As such, the Odyssey, the Bible (and specifically the Book of Genesis), and the Ramayana, provides particular insights in the women and men of Greece, the Ancient Israelites, and India, how they regarded the ideal of woman- or manhood, and how they related to each other on these platforms.
In the Odyssey, men and women had very specifically assigned roles. Men, as a defined ideal in the Odyssey, were warriors, making great, epic journeys to accumulate wealth for their households. Women were expected not to accompany their men on these journeys, but rather to wait for their men to complete their journeys and return home. In the household itself, it was expected of men to do physical work, such as work in the lands while women were expected to do household tasks such as cooking and weaving.
From both of these paradigms, Penelope and Odysseus represented the perfect man and woman. Penelope is generally passive, waiting at home for her husband to return and pining for him. Although many suitors visit her home in an attempt to win her hand, she thwarts them by claiming that she would choose among them when she had finished her weaving, which she unravelled every night.
Another interesting element in this is that, as a woman, Penelope does not have the power or the right to dismiss the suitors from her home. Instead, she uses the wiles in her power to stave them off. This kind of chaos ensued due to Odysseus' absence from his home, which demonstrated the fact that, as a woman, Penelope and the rest of the household was absolutely subordinate to him. Although Telemakhos was the rightful head of the household in Odysseus' absence, hew as absolutely unable to establish himself as such because of his youth and inexperience.
A further element of the gender roles in this book is Penelope's desirability as marriage partner. For the suitors, winning her hand in marriage would mean a prominent leadership position by being associated with the demised leader's widow. Whatever else her charms may have included, this is highest on the list of appeals and also the reason for the many suitors overrunning the household.
As a man, on the other hand, Odysseus is concerned with material wealth almost to the point of obsession. After having been away from his household for some 20 years, he chooses to remain at sea yet another year to accumulate even further wealth. Property owned by the male in the society of the time was absolutely to be respected; this included women. Hence, when Odysseus returns to his household, he does so not only with sufficient wealth to offset the damage done by the suitors, but wreaks revenge for their violation of the social norm by killing them all.
In conclusion then, the role of women in the household and in society is very limited, with weaving and spinning considered to be most acceptable. For men, being warriors and gaining property by means of raiding and war were the most desirable activities. These roles were enforced very strongly, and were to be accepted by all men and women. Women, especially, who did not accept these roles were reprimanded or regarded as non-ideal in terms of their femininity.
Of the three works discussed here, the Book of Genesis probably has the most negative view of women. Rather than clearly delineated male or female roles, depending on which a woman or man is regarded as the ideal, Genesis instead sketches an image of women as continually coming in the way of God's plan for his nation. Indeed, the first woman to transgress is the first in a long line of female obstacles to God's plan for his people.
When regarded in terms of gender roles, Eve's first transgression, by eating the forbidden fruit and successfully tempting her husband to do the same, establishes her as rebelling against the role God created for her. She was to be Adam's companion in the ideal world of Eden. By succumbing to the lures of the paradigms outside of the role, Eve has effectively reduced womanhood to a subordinate but rebellious gender who would do all they can, either by design or not, to rebel against God and his plan. Later in Genesis, Sara's infertility nearly causes the loss of God's people, for example. In their ideal shape, women were therefore to be mothers, to bear children, and to perpetuate God's nation of patriarchs.
Another frequent transgression that women in Genesis committed was seduction. Indeed, throughout the Bible, the role of the seductress was to be the downfall of god-fearing men. Most notably, Joseph, the favorite son of Jacob, was forced to flee when the wife of his master claimed that he tried to rape her. She did this in reward for his refusal to accept her sexual advances.
Hence, in Genesis, the original sin committed by Adam and Even set the roles of men and women in the rest of the book. Men were to work for their living, while women were to bear children with great pain. When the laws of Moses were further developed, women were told to be submissive to their husbands and "honor" them. While men were to be the protectors of their wives. As such, the main conception of women were not only that of sinful creatures, but also of weaklings in need of protection.
While the role of submission was also prominent in Odysseus' Ithaca, Penelope was not seen as any more sinful than Odysseus. She was certainly not considered rebellious against the gods for overstepping the boundaries of her gender on occasion. The Book of Genesis therefore contrasts strongly with the Odyssey in that women are far less recognized for their potential virtue than for their potential vice. Although Penelope and her counterparts in The Odyssey are certainly capable of vice, there is a clear delineation between the virtue of the main female character as cohort to Odysseus and those women who would tempt him away from her. For Adam, on the other hand, there is only Eve, both the cohort and the temptress. For Abraham, there is only Sara, who, by her infertility, disobeys God's command to "multiply." For Joseph, there is no virtuous counterpart to his master's wife. In effect, God stages himself as the only perfect partnership with a sinful and rebellious people, the worst of which are women.
Hence, Genesis creates a rather gloomy vision of women in its gender role divisions. Women have the role of bearing children. However, when they are unable to do this, they are regarded as almost worthless. In fact, whenever a woman cannot conceive, she bears this as a burden and a shame as opposed to other women of the nation who can bear children for their husbands. Furthermore, bearing sons is considered a virtue over bearing daughters.
There is no such specific focus on children in the Odyssey. The gender roles in the Greek work are far more specific to the existing people of the time than to the ideal of procreation. The "household" is seen as women, servants, and children, without any specific focus on a singular biological function as the most important reason for a woman's existence. As such, the role of women in Genesis, and to some extent that of men as well, is far more passive than those portrayed in the Odyssey.
In the Ramayana, the subordinate role of the ideal wife is also emphasized, as in the other two works. This epic poem, however, creates a far clearer delineation between the ideal and its opposite for both men and women than either of the other works. Whereas Genesis delineates God as the only good as opposed to sinful humanity and the Odyssey creates absolute virtue in Odysseus and to some extent in Penelope, the Ramayana represents virtue by means of its main characters and vice by means of their opponents. This is also the case in terms of gender roles.