Reading book 12 of The Odyssey always prompts the following question from students: Why are all the sea monsters women? Meaning, why is the Kyklops of Book 9 characterized as male while Skylla, Karybdis, and, of course, the Sirens are characterized as female? In mythology, some of these creatures were once human, and so they retain the gender of their original form. But still, we wondered, is there something uniquely feminine about sea monsters? And, in this context, what does their gender suggest about Odysseus? Below is our latest class thesis:
Where The Iliad tells the story of a war, The Odyssey tells the story of a warrior's terrifying journey home. For Odysseus, homecoming is especially fraught because it is marked by a return to the women in his life, and, subconsciously, Odysseus is terrified of these women. He is afraid of their endless demands, their uncompromising loyalty, their tricks and manipulations, and the power they have over him.
These particular monsters, who drown and consume their victims, are characterized as female because they are representations of his repressed fear of his wife (surrounded by "lusty suitors"), his demanding mother (who commits suicide, by drowning herself, in grief over his absence), and his mistresses, the clingy Kalypso (who manipulates him with tears and threats) and Kirke (who manipulates time to trick him and keep him forever)