Friday, August 31, 2007

Homer (c 900 BCE)


Hateful to me as the gates of Hades is that man who hides one thing in his heart and speaks another.


Please browse our Amazon list of titles about Homer. For rare and hard to find works we recommend our Alibris list of titles about Homer.


Lecture - Odyssey: Going Home
Lecture - Odyssey: Hello Freedom
Lecture - Women in the Odyssey
Powerpoint: Women in the Odyssey
Library of Canada: Homer
Library of Congress: Homer
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Homer (Greek Homeros) is the poet to whom history has attributed the Iliad and the Odyssey. According to Greek legends about his life, Homer was blind. Homer did not write the Homeric Hymns; these are other poems in the style of Homer. The poems appear to go back to at least the eighth century B.C.E., and were first written down at the command of the Athenian ruler Pisistratos, who feared they were being forgotten. He made a law: any singer or bard who came to Athens had to recite all they knew of Homer for the Athenian scribes, who recorded each version and collated them into what we now call the Iliad and Odyssey. Homer is also rumored to have written a third, comic, epic. But if it ever existed, no fragments of it have been found. For centuries, scholars have debated whether an individual named "Homer" existed. If he did live, how did he live and compose his poems. The two epic poems seem to be based on the assembly of legends that existed in rough form for many years. Did the man compose the poems, or did he collect traditional verses? An analysis of the structure and vocabulary of the Iliad and Odyssey shows that the poems consist of regular, repeating phrases; even entire verses repeat. Could the Iliad and Odyssey have been oro-formulaic poems, composed on the spot by the poet using a collection of memorized traditional verses and phases? Such elaborate oral tradition, foreign to today's literate cultures, is typical of epic poetry in a pre-literate culture. Seen this way, Homer's distinction is that his performance was recorded. There may have been hundreds of lyric poets in Homer's day, who performed hundreds of versions of the epics, but only one of these was committed to writing and survived to this day. All in all, the belief in the reality of an actual "Homer" may have more scholarly adherents now than in the 19th century. So little is known or even guessed of his actual life, that scholars joke the poems "were not written by Homer, but by another man of the same name," and the classicist Richmond Lattimore, author of a good poetic translation to English of both epics, once named a paper "Homer: Who Was She?"

Another question is: do the tales have a factual basis? The commentaries on the Iliad and the Odyssey written in the Hellenistic period (3rd century--1st century B.C.) began exploring the textual inconsistencies of the poems. Modern classicists and BBC television producers continue the tradition. The excavations of Heinrich Schliemann in the late 19th century began to convince scholars there was an historical basis for the Trojan War. Research into oral epics in Serbo-Croatian and Turkic languages began to convince scholars that long poems could be preserved with consistency by oral cultures until someone bothered to write them down. The decipherment of Linear B in the 1950s by Michael Ventris and others convinced scholars there was linguistic continuity between 13th century B.C. mainland Greek Mycenaean civilization and the Greek language of Homer. [This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License and uses material adapted in whole or in part from the Wikipedia article on Homer.]

Odyssey: The Central Story - Going Home
Russell McNeil, PhD (Copyright 2005)
[Logos Exclusive]

For most readers the Odyssey celebrates and endorses a particular value, one with which we are familiar, and one with which many of us identify: a vision of life in which the home and family are the central and most important reasons for living. In that respect, the Odyssey provides an answer to a question we will encounter repeatedly in Liberal Studies. What is the good life? The Old Testament provided another answer. The good life there means being part of an historical process, adhering to a covenant, and obeying the voice of God. Home and family are not unimportant in the Old Testament. Family values like honoring parents, and fidelity to spouse are essential elements in the covenant. But the overriding reason for doing that in the Old Testament is because it formed part of a bigger demand.

Whatever other tensions arise in the poem, the central fact that concerns all readers is whether the hero Odysseus will ever succeed in overcoming the impossible odds that stand in the way of his successful return.

Whatever else the Odyssey is about, it is first about a man, Odysseus, who is separated from his family, and strives for reunification. This desire and striving for reunion is a two way street. He wants to return and everyone in his family, immediate and extended, want him back. They want him back for all the right reasons. The portraits of each and every member of Odysseus' family are portraits of individuals who reinforce this: Odysseus' wife Penelope, his son Telemakhos, his father Laertes, Odysseus' mother who he meets in the underworld, his old nurse Euryakleia, his loyal servant Eumaios, even his old dog Argos.

Whatever suspicions one may harbour around Odysseus' character, no reader can deny the loyalty or love of those about him. Whatever ulterior motivations we try to attach to Odysseus' penchant for adventure, there is no denying that when reunion or anticipation of reunion occurs, that idea is charged with the most genuine and human of emotions; be it expressed as a salt tear shed for his old dog, Argos, or a day of quiet weeping on the Divine Kalypso's magical island.

Whenever the idea of home is represented in the Odyssey it is represented as the most desirable of ideals. The obvious examples are the idyllic settings and portrayals of the Phaiakian king, his daughter Nausikaa and his wife Arete (which means excellence), the home of the king Nestor, and the reunited family home of Menelaus and Helen.

Whatever tragic elements this poem contains, the one that most effect the reader is the repeated reminder of the fate of Agamemnon, who lost everything on his triumphant return with the complete destruction of his home at the hands of his adulterous wife Clytemnestra and her lover Aghisthos. Even that greatest of Greek heroes, Achilles, for whom home took send place to a heroic death at Troy admits in the underworld that he would prefer to be a living serf [at home], than a dead hero.

While it is clear to me that the ideal of home is central to this story, that does not imply that Homer's portrayal of home fully matches the modern vision of suburban bliss. Some of the elements of that ideal have survived the 3,000 years, some have not. For example, among the values Homer seems to endorse include the ideas that:

- A dead father is better than one who is lost or is a coward.
- There are troubles in the house when the father is gone.
- Son should take vengeance of his father.
- Women should stay home.
- Bad women commit adultery. Men are off the hook.
- Good men should play sports.

Yet, as stale as some of those values may seem, this story still appeals. Because, there is much more to the poem than a dated 1950's father Knows Best ethos. Before addressing the question of what this more is, I'd like to comment on ways this poem differs from the Old Testament Hebrew writings we have just reviewed.

Background on Homer

It is important to emphasize that the Odyssey is a poem; it is a fictional narrative designed to entertain. In its original form it was developed as an oral device composed before the development of writing, sometime around the 8th century before the Common Era. Whatever historical events the poem alludes to, such as a real Trojan war - and there's some evidence of that, those events would have occurred 3 or 4 hundred years earlier - at roughly the same historical time as the equally uncertain historical events alluded to in Exodus. Nothing certain is known about the author of the Odyssey, other than the tradition that he or she was blind. However, the stylistic and thematic differences between the Odyssey and the Iliad, the other great poem attributed to Homer are so diverse, that this work is considered to have been composed by a second author - some theories have
suggested female authorship.

Whoever the author or authors were, the Homeric poems remained essentially unchanged and the imaginative ideals and sentiments the stories express had become tightly integrated into the Greek world by the fifth century Athens during the time of Socrates and Plato. As we'll see soon in Liberal Studies, especially in the radical proposals developed by Plato in the Republic, several of those Homeric ideals, especially the ideal of the family as developed in the Odyssey, would eventually be challenged.

Gods and History

It would be a mistake to read this text as a Greek equivalent to the Exodus and Genesis. Even if the historicity of the Hebrew work is suspect, the writings are presented and intended as historical. We should also exercise caution is comparing the two texts in terms of their so-called canonical worth. Greek pagan religion whatever it was, was not in Homer's time, nor in subsequent eras did it develop in a codified way. There were no
official creeds or attempts to develop a consistent picture of the pagan gods. The gods of Hesiod differ from the gods of the Iliad. The gods of the Iliad differ from the gods of the Odyssey. There was no Vatican. There was no Greek Bible or catechism.

That does not mean that there is no internal narrative consistency in the portrayal of the gods by a specific author. The gods Zeus, Athena and Poseidon in the Odyssey may retain consistent character traits in that text - even if those traits may in several cases seem to display inconsistent behaviors. But we should not expect to learn much from comparing the actions of Zeus in the Odyssey based on the portrayal of Zeus by Hesiod in the Theogony. That same advice could be extended to portrayals of the Biblical God and His representation in Genesis, Exodus, Job and later writings. The problem is further exacerbated when we confuse the poetic representations of the Biblical god by more modern authors such as Milton in Paradise Lost with the canonical representation of that same God in any one of the Biblical sources. That does not mean that the different portrayals of the gods within and between Greek and Hebrew writing is unimportant. I think it is very important.

Our modern popular imaginative construction of the gods or the god is certainly a synthesis of Greek and Hebrew influences - a pattern set in the writings of Dante who managed to superimpose Homer's vision of Hades, in combination with the God of Exodus, onto the Greek developed cosmology of Ptolemy. As colorful and poetically brilliant as Dante's scheme is, it would be a mistake to try to assume that this is the scheme intended by unrelated authors.

What is important in the Odyssey are the differences in portrayals of the gods within the text from differing narrative points of view . What the gods in the story say they are about, and what the men in the story say the gods are about, are often radically opposed. Right at the beginning of the text Homer lets us in on an important cosmic fact when Zeus says:

My word, how mortals take the gods to task!
All their difficulties come from us, we hear.
And what of their own failings? Greed and folly
Double the suffering in the lot of man.

We see the Gods - from Homer's perspective of the gods - as actors indeed, but they act as guarantors of the Homeric vision of Greek values - in this case as guarantors of the ideal of hearth and home - values the gods also endorse even though they themselves play fast and loose with the rules as they apply to their own behavior. When the major gods do intervene in the lives of men - and they do all the time, they intervene either as protectors of hearth and home, shielding Odysseus and Telemakhos at critical moments or they issue warnings or punish those who abuse those sacred values. Listen to what Zeus says about Aigisthos lover to the adulterous Clytemnestra - who we'll meet in full glory in the Oresteia.

Zeus says:

We gods had warned him, send down Hermes
our most observant courier, to say:
Don't kill the man, don't touch his wife,
or face a reckoning with Orestes

When the daughter of Zeus, the goddess Athena, acts on behalf of Odysseus and Telemakhos, and she seems a constant if sometimes invisible companion, it is obviously action designed to protect those values. The God Poseidon gives Odysseus and his crew a rough ride. But Poseidon's rage is based on that God's fidelity to his own family . The one eyed Kyklopes Polyphemos is after all Poseidon's son. In any event, Poseidon's hand is restrained by Zeus.

However, when seen from the narrative point of view of men in the Odyssey, the Gods are fickle and reckless and unpredictable much like the gods portrayed by Hesiod. We can speculate the reasons for this. Homer, in harnessing the gods - in a literary sense - as protectors of ideals produces for the reader a sort of cosmic security around the sanctity of those ideals.

The overall effect, as the reader is concerned, is a Homeric vision of rightness, but also a view that if one does right, the gods will come to our aid. The modern notion that right action produces right rewards could well stem from this particularly Homeric strategy.

Greek and Hebrew Texts compared

Homer's divine universe of beautiful gods contrasts markedly with the Old Testament vision of god. Not only are there many gods, as opposed to one, the gods are remarkably like humans and highly visual. The Old Testament God is never seen. We hear only His voice. There are also important associations between the gods and the forces of nature. Interestingly Zeus and Yahweh are both gods of thunder. But there is a difference. In the Greek scheme Zeus in a strange way is thunder. Yahweh, on the other hand, is the maker of thunder. The Hebrew god is clearly over nature. The Greek god(s) is (are) in nature. The religions derived from the Hebrew tradition including Christianity preserve these distinctions and consider heretical practices such as nature worship. The Hebrew God who is building an historical relationship with a chosen people. There is certainly nothing like this unfolding in the Homeric world.

These distinctions help explain differing attitudes to nature in the Greek and Hebrew texts. When Odysseus encounters the wilderness in an important way he encounters the divinities with which the various elements of the wilderness are associated: sirens, cannibals, witches, Lotus Eaters. The point to note about the wilderness is that it is uncivilized and therefore lacks all the most important values manifested in the home.

In a lecture delivered here two years ago Ian Johnston suggests that this especially Greek tension between the security of home and the uncivilized and irrational vision of nature fueled the imagination of early colonial exploration. North America and its inhabitants may have been subjected to a the tyranny of oppression, but the roots of that oppressive history were fueled as much by the Greek attitude to wilderness as it may have been by Christian zeal.

The Greek attitude to nature is still alive and well an anyone here who has seen its most recent public manifestation in the 1999 Movie, The Blair Witch Project can attest.

In the lecture delivered on this theme here by Ian Johnston, Ian summarized the importance of these overall distinctions in this way:

The [Homeric vision] stresses an understanding of the world which is predominantly spatial, celebrating the presence of divinely shaped human personalities. From this we derive a number of our major concerns, ranging from the fine and plastic arts to geometry and our attempts to understand the world mathematically. From the [Hebrew] inheritance, we derive a historical sense of our civilization as in process, in a march towards the promised land, under the divine guidance of God himself. When these two come together, so that we put a geometrical or mathematical understanding of the world [from the Greeks] in the service of a sense of unfolding historical destiny [from the Hebrews] we have the essence of a belief system that has, more than anything else, made the Western enterprise so dominant.

To conceive the universe and everything in it as guided by the interactions of the divine family is to place us immediately into direct emotional contact with everything we see around us. When we hear thunder and lightning, we may be afraid, but we can emotionally grasp what is going on when we call these the tools of Zeus and signs that he is angry. And we can readily understand bad things that happen: they are the result of the emotional ups and downs of the gods. That system is much easier to grasp in some ways than a world order which is the product of an all-powerful, single, all-knowing, and good God.

Thus in the Odyssey the constant urge to self-assertion, which we recognize as a character trait fundamental to the classical Greeks, their love of competition, their obsession with public status as determined by competition, their sense of a human excellence defined by striving always to be the best (an ethos very different from that the Old Testament, where the equality of all before the Lord and the Mosaic Law is the operating principle of the community)--all that characteristically Greek spirit is placed in the context of and tempered by the value of the home as the area which justifies all that striving.

Underlying meaning of the text

Of course the Odyssey raises many questions. Not the least of which is the rather unsatisfying ending, especially the artificial reign of justice established after the slaughter of the suitors. How can Odysseus and Penelope really achieve a good relationship in the end, in view of his own and multiple infidelities. Can a man truly be called a hero when he is so
accomplished at lying and deceiving?

Yet in spite of these troubling and obviously hypocritical elements, the Odyssey endures. Why? Is it because underneath the trickery, the deceit and infidelity, we see in the hero Odysseus someone who means to do what is right and good? Whatever the hero's vices, he does not come off as a hardened and callous man - at least around those values central to the story line. He sheds a tear for his dog, loves his wife, father and son and shows that he does in his most private emotional reactions. This is no Clint Eastwood or Rocky - the pages of the Odyssey are drenching with his tears.

On the other hand his cruel and abusive treatment of the 12 bad women -- who slept with the suitors, the sadistic torture and dismemberment of the defenseless Melanthos - whatever his crimes - are actions moderns find difficult to explain, particularly in light of the mercy he did show towards the musician Phemios and the Herald Medon.

But perhaps these are not the reasons the Odyssey endures. I think the Odyssey endures not because Odysseus' heroic success comes not from luck, or bald courage, or raw strength - although he has his share of all three. No, Odysseus succeeds because he understands the lay of the land. Where he does not understand the lay of the land he is not afraid to figure it out. He alone amongst men understands that the gods are with him. Whatever obstacle he sees on his path he is willing to face it. He is willing to face it because he has confidence in his wit, and the understanding that all problems are soluble. If trickery, cunning and deceit are what we need to penetrate the mysteries of the world, then trickery, cunning and deceit are what he will use to get to the heart of the problem. The Odyssey endures because at the end of the day Odysseus has acquired extraordinary wisdom. He opened himself up fully to the call of the Sirens and surely was altered forever by an experience no other mortal had ever been able to do without succumbing to whatever dangers that knowledge implied. He has visited the underworld and seen what lies on the other side of life. He has wrestled with the most seductive elements in the cosmos, overcome them, with cunning, and opted in the end for those values he originally set out to reacquire. Seen in these terms Odysseus Odyssey is in effect a journey of enlightenment. His 20 year ordeal is an educational experience - in a very real way the Odyssey can be seen as a metaphor for intellectual achievement. Odysseus never abandons his goal. When at last he is victorious we appreciate that he gets what he wants and unlike no other Greek hero before fully understands

Odyssey: Goodbye Zeus, Hello Freedom
Russell McNeil, PhD (Copyright 2005)
[Logos Exclusive]

What are we to make of this poem about an adventurous super hero who wanted only to return to home and wife, and whom all the gods pitied--except Poseidon? Zeus suggests one
answer on page two: how the mortals [blame us]. No, it's greed and folly that bring them down...

What an extraordinary proposition! Greed and folly bring us down! What does Zeus mean? Isn't he one of those gods who pokes his grubby nose into every corner of our lives? The nerve!

What does Zeus mean? He probably means what he says. Greed and folly are your business--that's interior stuff, moral stuff. Thunderbolts and hurricanes are our business--that's external stuff, God stuff.

Make sense? Acts of God certainly do affect our mortal existence in every imaginable way, but moral existence is up to us. Moral life is freely determined. Sure, the gods may tempt and test our moral fiber--it's part of their job description--but we are still free to say, thanks, but no thanks.

The Odyssey is a poem about moral freedom. It is also a poem about injustice, which I will argue, is the price--a necessary price--we pay for freedom.

By the end of the Odyssey we see that our moral existence is not only self determined, but that the choices are clear. They are clear because the moral principle guiding moral choice is clearly defined.

There one game, one game plan--and one set of rules. And Odysseus--rule follower and game tactician extraordinaire uncovers the rules and plays the game with remarkable finesse. This is a liberating discovery. Moral freedom is impossible if the rules are arbitrary or ever-changing. Moral freedom is impossible too in a universe populated and governed by a rag tag collection of warring gods playing different games with ill defined rules.

The Odyssey is more than a grand adventure. Those existential Jobian question are there too. The innocent suffer, the wicked prosper and the good--well, they die young. Life, as Homer discovers, is indeed a bitch.

Why? Here's my feel good answer. I also believe it's the right answer. Moral freedom is a meaningless concept in a universe where injustice is a no-no. Moral freedom gives us the right to screw up. When we screw up, people get hurt. If we were not allowed to screw up, no one would get hurt and life would be a drag--Eve learned this truth and rescued Adam from a life of intolerable boredom a long time ago: thank you Eve!

I want now to skip forward to a particularly revealing episode in the life of Odysseus. Odysseus is back in his homeland and Athena appears to him as Athena--for the first time. Odysseus expresses doubt and skepticism. Why? Where were you when I needed you, he seems to say. What kind of god do you represent? Can mortal man be sure of you on sight...I never saw you after [Troy], never knew you aboard with me, to act as shield in grievous times ... .

In other words, what kind of god is this that allowed us to suffer so? Why did you not intervene? And what of my son Telemakhos? Why not tell him, knowing my whole history, as you do? Must he traverse the barren sea, he too, and live in pain, while others feed on what is his? Like Job, Odysseus views himself a right acting man--right acting meant something else to Job but the point is the same--and like Job he wonders why he has been put through the grinder for the past 20 years.

But in all those years of trial Odysseus responded in a singularly free way from here (reason) and here (heart) and here (muscle) whenever God or Fate test him on the moral plane. Odysseus survived his tests of will as a free man must, in human terms using human resources.

He survived the temptation of the immortal Kalypso--an immortal with unmatched beauty. He said that although Penelope would seem a shade before Kalypso, he still long[ed] for home.

Odysseus repeats this same theme over and over. To the princess Nausikaa--a young woman who he treated with enormous respect he says that home, and harmony are the best thing in the world. With Kirke, the most lovely of all immortals, he nearly lost his will. Odysseus and his men lingered with Kirke until a year grew fat. But on this Odysseus says in his apologia to the lords and captains of Phaiakia, in my heart I never gave consent, where shall a man find sweetness to surpass his own home and parents?

On the Lotus Eaters--tempted again--he says: no one taste the Lotus, or you lose your hope of home.

When Odysseus does go home--redeemed???--he undergoes a remarkable metamorphosis. The tested becomes the tester. Odysseus is transformed by his moral ally Athena into a shriveled and decidedly unheroic wrinkled old beggar clothed in foul and tattered rags. His guise serves as a vehicle for testing others and as a device for exploring a new relationship between man and the gods. We discover here what the game is and what the rules are.

His first encounter with the swineherd Eumaios reads much like a Christian parable. In spite of his physical appearance, Eumaios treats this unlikely beggar hero with dignity and respect. All wanderers and beggars, he says to the beggar Odysseus, come from Zeus.

This idea that man comes from Zeus is important. Is human nature more than the corruptible flesh? It suggests an aspect or element of something sanctioned or fashioned by the divine.

There is something suggestively messianic in all of this. Who is this first born of a first born who comes from the First Born of Heaven, Zeus? Who is this humble beggar exuding wisdom, bearing the mark of a prophet, in search of a new relationship with God?

There is something suggestively messianic in all of this. Who is this first born of a first born who comes from the First Born of Heaven, Zeus? Who is this humble beggar exuding wisdom, bearing the mark of a prophet, in search of a new relationship with God?

During the symbolic meal Odysseus shares with the swineherd Eumaios, we see an unquestioning willingness by Eumaios to shelter a hungry and homeless man. In his Sermon on the Mount, an occasion involving another symbolic meal, Christ delivered his familiar beatitudes, to feed the hungry, to shelter the homeless. It was on this occasion that Christ startled his followers with a revolutionary declaration of moral responsibility. to love thy neighbour as thyself

That simple moral principle did not preclude the moral freedom to hate and the injustice of Christ's eventual crucifixion as a direct consequence of this heretical moral stance and--stands as poignant example of the consequence of moral freedom.

Homer uses the meal between Odysseus and Eumaios to bring forward an equally startling perception of moral responsibility. The gods living in bliss are fond of no wrongdoing, but honor discipline and right behavior. In other words, do good, practice moderation, and avoid evil: exactly what the evil doing, immoderate suitors were not--the Pharisees of their day.

Do good, practice moderation and avoid evil. Why? For reward? Maybe, but not always. Odysseus--presumably the standard of right behavior--does recover his home, is rewarded and the evil suitors are punished--in a remarkably decisive way. Yet, the injustice of Agamemnon's fate remains unresolved. Furthermore, tens of thousands of virtuous young men bit the dust at Troy and dozens of virtuous men fell to the random acts of the likes of Skylla and Polyphemos--injustices that cause great distress to Odysseus and cause him to weep uncontrollably during the scene Song of the Harper.

The gods may demand right behaviour, but they can not guarantee the right reward. Justice, if it is done, is not always done in ways we might expect. Zeus grants us this or that, or else refrains from granting, as he wills; all things are in his power. Is this inconsistent with an all powerful deity who blames our fall on folly and greed? On the surface, yes, certainly no less than the apparently random acts of the God of the Old Testament. But we need to reconcile this apparent godly impetuousness with Zeus who says, our will is not subject to error. In other words, what we immortals do to mortals may not always appear right, but it is not subject to error.

A Question of Justice

Does Homer himself offer any clues to this Jobian dilemma: Why do the good suffer while the wicked prosper? I've suggested several times here that moral freedom demands this. The gods might deal with injustice in their own immortal courts, but in this world the field of moral freedom must be level: whenever the gods interfere moral programs lose their meaning and humans cease to be free.

That doesn't prevent mortals from addressing the question of justice in human terms. In fact the existence of this horrific dilemma suggests an obligation on our part to do so. Mortal justice then must become a human even sacred moral responsibility. Incidentally, this sets us up for the Oresteia--and in contemporary terms suggests the importance of case study trials such as those of O.J. Simpson and Paul Bernardo.

Where mortal justice fails, and it can because it is mortal, we might take some comfort in the justice of reputation. As Penelope relates: The hard man and his cruelties will be cursed behind his back, and mocked in death. But one whose heart and ways are kind--of him strangers will bear report to the wide world, and distant men will praise him.

In this newly emerging relationship between man and the gods, the gods do of course continue their interventions. But in a new and indirect way that is not incompatible with this idea of freedom and I think similar to the quality of divine intervention observed in the Gospels. The best example of this is Athena's intervention with Telemakhos--in the guise of a mortal friend Mentes--when she put a new spirit in him. Telemakhos still has to get out there and do his thing. However, he knew in his heart his visitor had been mortal. This spirit and heart stuff is a far different form of intervention. The gods--the important ones at least--seem to have abandoned their earth shaking bolt throwing tactics of yesteryear. Let's face it those old time terror tactics are incompatible with free choice. The gods have abandoned brute coercion for gentle persuasion: obscure disguises, symbolic omens and gentle reminders in the form of faith or hope.

Women in Homer's Odyssey
Powerpoint Presentation: Women in The Odyssey
Russell McNeil, PhD (Copyright 2005)
[Logos Exclusive]

What we know of woman until now from Hesiod is this, about that first woman: For from her is the race of women and female kind: of her is the deadly race and tribe of women who live amongst mortal men to their great trouble, no helpmeets in hateful poverty, but only in wealth... Zeus who thunders on high made women to be an evil to mortal men, with a nature to do evil. And he gave them a second evil to be the price for the good they had: whoever avoids marriage and the sorrows that women cause, and will not wed, reaches deadly old age without anyone to tend his years...

[AUDIENCE: Damed if you do and damned if you don't. What do you make of that? Is this misogyny? If not what? Poll the class. In what ways can we be generous in interpreting these global characterizations?]

Was Homer in keeping with this tradition in the Odyssey?

That naturally depends upon what you argue the tradition is that Homer is in keeping with. Let's look at some of the raw material in the Odyssey.

Language and specific incidents aside, is the nature of woman as depicted in the Odyssey in any way revealing? And what is it in human nature we scan for when excavating for gender bias? And how do we separate systemic bias from innocent ignorance? I heard a woman author yesterday morning desvcribe difficulties male writers have when writing about birthing--no matter how hard they try, they usually get some of it wrong. So, what do we look for? Sexuality? Emotional quality? Intellect? Drive for power? Need to control? Capacity for labour? If we detect differences in the text how do we distinguish between three possible conclusions. One, differences in treatment reflect the underlying Homeric thesis that women are different but equal in nature, Two, different treatment of men and women in the text reflect a thesis that women are different and unequal in nature -- arguments about misogyny fall in here but a host of other interpretive possibilities are possible too. Three, the different treatment reflects simple ignorance. How much do we attribute what we discover to male authorship -- or female authorship?

In beginning, we might look to the gods for a clue. The adultery between Ares and Aphrodite for example is evenly represented -- both parties are to blame -- both are shamed -- both are banished. Although there is some locker room talk between two of the male gods that they would willingly lie in chains several layers thick to be beside Aphrodite.

Sexuality among mortals is another key to this poem and this question. Women and men are represented differentially in this regard -- The herdsman Eumaios -- Odysseus brother by adoption recounts how he came to Ithaka a captive of a slave woman Phoinikia -- a woman who had been seduced by a roving seafarer who, ...made such love to her as women in their frailty are confused by, even the best of them. The god Artemis later kills Phoinikia for her treachery? I think this example speaks volumes about male and female sexuality. Male seducers are represented as boys sowing their oats -- part of normal living. Seduced females are viewed as weak and treacherous -- a treachery that woman in her frailty is unable to avoid. This is a very bizarre message.

The overt and easy emotional character of men and women is possibly one of the reasons many find this poem so enduringly human. Whatever our weaknesses and failings as humans men and women both are deeply moved by thoughts of home; memories of old love; lost friends; lost youth; and death. Men weep -- Odysseus prodigiously throughout the poem -- the poem is drenched in tears (squeeze text)-- and laughter too. The emotional overtones here are easy and free -- it's an attractive and I think healthy world in that regard. there are contemporary understandings of human nature that view the capacity for easy emotional discharge as a key to thinking well, thinking rationally. Our intellectual capacities can be stopped up, occluded by, unfinished emotional work. A good cry, a good laugh, a good scream, is just what the doctor ordered. Retentive individuals, cultures, genders, tend to act differently -- irrationally in some areas.


An alternate tack is to confront the unequal in nature charge -- misogynist in particular claim head on. Far from evil -- women in the Odyssey -- Penelope in particular -- present and offer that which is most prized in human life -- a harmonious environment for living well -- the good life -- the community of family -- and all that entails. That ideal -- that which Odysseus strives to reestablish through his 20 year Odyssey elevates Penelope to the status of hero in this poem. Her world and all that it represents stands as a commentary on, resolution of, and alternative to, the effect of the war and violence brought by the males into their world. This approach is core to any argument that represents women as different but equal.

Were that this sort of analysis was that easy. Penelope's character is complex enough. There is unease throughout much of the poem about how Penelope's relationships will resolve. Two other mortal women loom prominently over these uncertainties: Helen and Clytemnestra!

The seeds of doubt over Penelope are sown by the shade of none other than Agamemnon who says to Odysseus in Hades that Clytemnestra will give "an evil reputation to all women, even on one who does good" (p..201-202). The possibility that Penelope might yet prove unfaithful builds suspense throughout the narrative.

[AUDIENCE: Odysseus of course returns to Ithaka in disguise--in part on Agememnon. ‘s urging. Osysseus needed to know that Penelope was faithful. There was a parallel earlier in the story in Haephaistos snaring of Aphrodite with Ares. I am curious! How might Odysseus have responded IF he had discovered Penelope had been untrue? (ask audience)]

Penelope is not always represented as having the best judgment. Telemaklos her son notes, mother is like that, perverse for all her cleverness: she'd entertain some riff-raff, and turn out a solid man. (p. 379) And, the suitors as shades recount how Penelope tricked and deceived them over a three year period (p. 449). What is Homer up to? Why offer these seemingly contradictory colorations to the otherwise idealized Penelope? Is it to build intrigue. Or does it reflect a fundamental anxiety about and distrust of women--even with this the best of women?

If we look to another best of women Penelope's counterpart -- Helen -- to see how Homer depicts her character in this regard, our anxiety only deepens. We see her as formidable--a women endowed with priestly powers: a possessor of secret mind altering recipes, and a capacity to interpret omens. Penelope may stand as a commentary on the effect of the war and violence brought by the males into their world, but where do we place Helen catalyst of one of the gravest battles in antiquity? One must respects such charisma and charm and power. One fears it too. Kirce and Helen actually share much in common.

All these best of women in the poem, Penelope, Helen, Arete and Nausicaa, represent ideals for marriage. Odysseus hears Arete described on p.112 by Athena: no grace or wisdom fails in her; indeed just men in quarrels come to her for equity. Suppose, then, she looks upon you kindly, the chances are that you shall see your friends under your own roof, in your father's country. Yeah! If Arete looks kindly -- if not -- will it be like like the red queen -- off with his head? That I suggest might be part of our anxiety.

In fact, if you look squarely at those women in the story who are capable of not looking at you kindly: Calypso, Circe, Scylla and Charybdis, and the Sirens. Here we receive that overwhelmingly western and overwhelmingly modern message of woman as femme fatale: that deadly admixture of lust and love, pleasure and danger, pleasure and pain, pleasure and death pleasure and slavery. Women consume, women demean, women destroy. Kirke's trance beguiles and bewitches. The Sirens lure. Skylla devours.

Or, if we listen to the shade of Agamemnon, Odysseus' earthly equal, we are exposed to some of the most troubling dialog in the poem. Agamemnon's condemnation of Clytemnestra is effectively a curse on all women: ...[she] defiled herself and all her sex, all women yet to come, even those few who may be virtuous. Agamennon has a chip on his shoulder -- he was hacked to pieces by his wife -- but still, we respect his perspective as the shade of a great king -- and counterpart to Odysseus.

Agamemnon then advises Odysseus thus: ...indulge a woman never, and never tell her all you know. Some things a man may tell, some he should cover up.. [repeat] Advice like this has been the warp and weft of contemporary male culture.

And God help the 12 slave women who shamed Odysseus. To one of those who shame, Melantho, who sleeps with Eurymaklos, Odysseus says, in response to her impudence, ...let me tell Telemaklos how you talk in hall, you slut; he'll cut your arms and legs off...

These women who dishonored Odysseus were butchered in a most cruel and heinous way. In a modern context the behavior against these women would be viewed universally a serious war crime.

Case closed? No.

In this question I find myself honestly confused by the Odyssey. Misogyny is such a powerful term. And while one can build a case -- with examples such as those we're drawn on here -- I do not find myself walking away from this poem with that sort of taste in my mouth. Much to the contrary. Fundamentally, as I've said earler, this poem is so outrageously human. The emotional landscape so rich. The tears so real. The feelings so honest. The laughter so genuine. Misogyny -- as a pervasive and systematic hatred for women does not work here.

There are simply too many contradictions. For one thing Athena, a female figure, a deity, a role model, a stand in for female virtue, an asexual one at that, is allied not just with Odysseus--as she indeed is, throughout the poem, but she is allied to Penelope too. The dream sent to comfort Penelope in her anguish over Telemaklos' safety is but one example of this. Penelope's anguish is thus real. She cares for her son and her husband and her moral position. If any of those things were fabrications, deceptions, tricks, dissembling, evil, the gods would not be deceived. Penelope is as virtuous as Clytemnestra vile. Women and men are treated as made of the same moral stuff as men.

On a higher plain -- the Olympian plain -- there are several cool allusions to gender balance that hint at mortal analogs.

Odysseus in addressing Nausikaa -- who he says he will invoke for the rest of his days as if she were a goddess - ...may Zeus the lord of thunder, Hera's consort, ... grant me...This invocation implicitly recognizes that Hera is at least coequal to Zeus -- if not the ideal who is really in charge.

Menelaos addresses Telemaklos in a similar vein on p.271 ...may Hera's Lord of Thunder see you home...

Telemaklos addresses Helen, ...may Zeus, the Lord of Hera...

Are these gender balances -- acknowledged in formal address significant?

These are not the appellations of a culture steeped in misogyny. These are the appellations of a culture which recognizes and celebrates gender harmony as much as it recognizes the mystery of the sexes.

If there is bias in the writing -- that comes from the tone of the oral and written ciulture -- it is expressly male -- that does not mean misogynist. Pleasure and fear where they do coexist need not equate to hate and anger. Turn the tables. Women then as now have at least as much reason to fear men -- has that sentiment translated as hate -- from women?

A pity more is not written about Princess Ktimene -- Odysseus' sister -- unfortunately Homer refers to her but once and has her given away to a Samian prince. A great project might be to recover -- recreate -- construct the adventures of Ktimene -- in story and song!

Books from Alibris: Homer

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