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The Odyssey Reading Club -- Entry 32 -- Big Ideas: Womanly Excellence in The Odyssey

Penelope. Calypso. Helen. Nausicaa. Circe. Athena. Arete. Anticleia. Clytemnestra. Eurycleia. Ino/Lucothea. Even Scylla is a "she."

For a poem about a man of many ways and his travels, it is interesting how many woman, both mortal and immortal, provide guidance, impetus, and reasons for the journeys of both Odysseus and Telemachus. In fact, it is this narrative import of women, and the variety and depths of their depictions, that led Samuel Butler to deduce that the poem was actually written by a woman, namely Nausicaa, as briefly discussed in my last Big Ideas post. His conclusions are completely bonkers, but he does have a point: there are a lot of important women in this poem.

Now, Ancient Greek poetry, myth, and drama are not devoid of women, so The Odyssey isn't a complete and total anomaly. However, it is a stark contrast to Homer's other great work, The Iliad, and I think that is a deliberate choice for a few reasons. Before I go into them, though, a bit of a disclaimer: whatever modern society, or I, think or believe about the differences/similarities of the sexes, it's clear that the Ancients had definite beliefs pertaining to things that were "manly" or "womanly," and I do think that it's only by accepting and understanding that fact that we can begin to grasp the themes that Homer is working with which, I believe, are those of male and female virtue or excellence, the Greek word for which, incidentally, is arete. Now why does that sound familiar?

The Iliad, set almost exclusively in Troy and its environs during the ninth year of the war, is mainly populated by men. Aside from the goddesses who, as is their wont, aid one side or another according to their preference, the only real female characters are the women behind the walls of Troy, who appear but briefly while the men around them fight over their ultimate fate. The Iliad, first and foremost, is a celebration of martial virtues: honor, fighting spirit, courage. Indeed, the word for courage is actually derived from the word for "man" and is often translated as "manliness." That isn't to say that women couldn't have their own kind of courage, but that the virtue of being brave and bold on a battlefield is, for the Greeks, an inherently manly virtue. For example, Hector's wife Andromache shows great forbearance and self-possession in the face of the siege of her city, but it wouldn't qualify as "courage."

But The Iliad is the song of Achilles and his rage--The Odyssey, in contrast, is the song of Odysseus and his wiles. And wiles, now and then, are often associated with a more feminine turn of mind. It is no accident that, even though he is a great warrior, Odysseus' patron divinity is not Ares, the god of martial war, but rather Athena, the goddess of craft, wisdom, and strategy. Indeed, this division between Ares, whose virtues are those of the battlefield itself: spirit (thumos in Greek), martial skill, courage; and Athena, whose virtues could be said to be those of the general's tent: wisdom, prudent action, technical skill and strategy, illustrates the way that the themes of the poems about each of these men will reflect their subjects.

As the singular virtue of Achilles can only be demonstrated on the battlefield surrounded by soldiers, so could the excellence of Odysseus only demonstrate itself most clearly when surrounded by other great practitioners of the more feminine virtues. Indeed, Odysseus' great losses on his voyage home occur against not the women he encounters, but against men (or male creatures) against whose overwhelming power his martial skill is found inadequate, or even irrelevant. For example, even though he uses craft and guile to escape the cave of the Cyclops, his fighting spirit and need for recognition by his enemy causes him to identify himself as Odysseus. He could have sailed easily away and spared himself Poseidon's curse, but, like a victor on the battlefield, he wanted to be recognized as victorious by his vanquished foe, and so he tells Polyphemus his real name. This action, of course, leads to great ruin for him and his men. The virtues that led to glory on the field of Troy will not grant him safe passage home. He must learn to turn his mind towards its more feminine side if he is to see Ithaca again. Even Menelaus, whose own voyage home is like a mini-Odyssey, finds himself receiving the aid of a goddess and using a stratagem to find safe passage home. Odysseus, of course, is a truly great warrior and (SPOILER ALERT...for a book over 2000 years old) he will have one final brilliant display of martial greatness before the poem is completed. But even then, there will be guile and cunning involved. In short (too late, I know), the strong female presence throughout the poem serves to highlight and provide color to Odysseus' own more "female" virtues.


But I don't think Odysseus wanders through a world of (often) single women simply as a means of highlighting his own excellence. Rather, I think Homer is also giving us what could be described as an account of the "home front." True, the war is over, but it lasted so long and took so many lives, that what is left of Greek civilization are aimless young men who were too young to go fight (Telemachus, the suitors, Pisistratus), old men who are well past their prime (Nestor, Menelaus), peoples who were either too savage (the Cyclops, the Lotus-Eater, the Laestrygonians) or too godlike (King Aeolus, the Phaeacians) to take part; and of course, the women who were left behind. 


This is most keenly felt, of course, in the contrast between the cousins Clytemnestra and Penelope, the two wives of great Achaeans whose actions hover constantly over the book. After all, what did it benefit Agamemnon to go to Troy to recover his brother's wife, only to return home to be murdered by his own (sister to the treacherous Helen, we should never forget) as soon as he returned? So, too, might Odysseus' struggles be for naught if his Penelope were not displaying her own excellence. Penelope's virtue, her excellence, is both similar to and distinct from Odysseus'; she forebears, she endures, she plots and she schemes, like her husband. But she never takes up arms against her sea of troubles, as Odysseus is sometimes inclined to do. She is a personification of purely womanly virtue. Just as Homer shows us the men on the battlefield and the excellence of men there, he shows us Penelope at home, displaying the excellence required to ensure that Odysseus has something to return home to.


Of course, just as not every man is an Achilles or an Odysseus, so not every woman is a Penelope. It's actually interesting to look at Clytemnestra as a weird and terrible blend of the "manly" and "womanly" virtues--the feminine ones in using guile and cunning, the manly ones in actively striking her husband down herself, instead of having her lover do it. (She's a prototypical Lady Macbeth asking the "spirits that tend on mortal thoughts" to "unsex me.") But if Clytemnestra is a dark, villainous blending of the manly and the womanly virtues, then Odysseus is the perfected blending of the two into one heroic soul. 


Which brings us to Tiresias. (Whaaaaa? I hear you saying in your best Mo Szyslak voice.) Yes, Tiresias, the central oracular voice of The Odyssey, whose predictions always come to pass and whose guidance is so important that Odysseus must descend to the Underworld to seek audience with him. Of the many myths about Tiresias, the most famous is that one of the many sources of his great wisdom came from the fact that he had lived seven years of his life as a woman, and thus possessed insights into the female mind unknowable to any man (and, conversely, insights into the male mind unknowable to women). It only seems right, then, that Odysseus, the blending of male and female virtues, should receive the prophecy of his life from Tiresias, the blending of male and female wisdom and be guided by Athena, the divinity that blends the male and the female so perfectly as to be the greatest representative of both--both the greatest warrior and the greatest weaver, both of tapestries and stratagems. 

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