Magazine article The Spectator

A Woman's Place in Homer

Magazine article The Spectator

A Woman's Place in Homer

Article excerpt

Christmas is the time in the church calendar when Woman-as-Mother comes into supreme prominence. But in classical literature, Women-as-Anything never seem to enjoy much of a press, being either ignored or depicted as sex-mad, treacherous drunkards - and this despite a world teeming with goddesses, as well as stories about mortal women producing offspring from divine encounters. The reason most often given is simple:

misogyny. But it is not as simple as that.

The West's first and most influential author is Homer (c. 700 BC). Composer of the Iliad and Odyssey, he paints a quite different picture of women in many roles - as wives, mothers or slaves.

The Iliad opens with Apollo sending a plague against the Greek army. The reason is that the Greek leader at Troy, Agamemnon, has taken as concubine Chryseis, the daughter of a priest of Apollo, and refused to hand her back.

When Agamemnon explains why he wants her, it is not because she is a brainless slapper who is fantastic in bed. It is because she is 'in no way inferior [to my wife Clytaemestra] in build or stature or intelligence or accomplishment'. That she is physically attractive is not in doubt ('build and stature'), but her cleverness and skills are just as important.

Likewise, when Achilles' concubine Briseis sees the dead Patroclus (Achilles' dearest companion) carried into the hut, slave though she is she laments gentle Patroclus' kindness to her. For Homer, that position does not mean she forfeits her voice or our sympathy. The poet thinks she is worth hearing.

Odysseus' wife Penelope, waiting 20 years for him to return to Ithaca from the Trojan war, is beset for the last four years by suitors, and they well understand what a prize she will make. When they are urging Penelope's son Telemachus to tell his mother to hurry up and marry one of them, they take her attractiveness for granted and concentrate on 'skill in handicrafts, intelligence and cunning . . .

none of the heroines of the past could match Penelope'.

Odysseus knows it too. On his journey home, the goddess Calypso falls in lust with him and detains him for seven years.

The gods eventually order her to let him go, but she tries to persuade him to stay, pointing out she is an immortal and surely Penelope's 'equal in looks and figure'.

Odysseus will have none of it. He knows Penelope's worth is far greater than even divine physical beauty.

One important economic aspect of that worth emerges when Odysseus arrives home and, disguised as a beggar by the goddess Athena, is privately questioned by Penelope: does he know anything about Odysseus, and if he claims to, what is his proof? Odysseus describes the wonderful tunic Odysseus was wearing, sheer and soft, bright as the sun; 'I tell you, many women admired it.' That is not just an exquisite compliment to Penelope but an acknowledgement of Odysseus' appreciation of and pride in her skills.

Weaving was the wife's major economic contribution to the household: all the cloth, clothing, coverings, bedspreads and so on for family and slaves alike, for all circumstances, were her responsibility.

Indeed, Penelope is actually the equal of Odysseus, as Homer delicately suggests in a 'reverse' simile at the moment the two are reunited. It was like a shipwrecked man swimming through a storm, says the poet, pounded by wind and wave, and thrilled finally to set foot on dry land. …

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