In my posts on Helen of Troy and the Sirens I look at how formidable women use their voices to bewitch men and shape the narrative. In the following episode in Book 22 we see the sad fate of ordinary women, maidservants, who are punished for their transgressions and silenced by the epic.
When Odysseus finally gets back to Ithaca it is to find his home overrun by unruly suitors, all vying for his wife Penelope’s hand in the belief that he is dead. Some of the female servants of Odysseus’ household are sleeping with these men. They are mentioned on two occasions. First is Melantho, Penelope’s foster-daughter, who scorns Odysseus while he is dressed as a beggar:
“So Odysseus spoke, and the maids broke into a laugh, and glanced at one another. And fair-cheeked Melantho rated him shamefully, Melantho, whom Dolius begot, but whom Penelope had reared and cherished as her own child, and gave her playthings to her heart’s desire. Yet even so she had at heart no sorrow for Penelope, but she loved Eurymachus and was wont to lie with him.”
And then in Book 20:
“And the women came forth from the hall, those that had before been wont to lie with the wooers, making laughter and merriment among themselves.”
In both passages female laughter is associated with sexual misconduct. There is here a link between the female voice and women who need to be contained, just like the sirens who lure men to their deaths with their song.
The fate of these women as a consequence of their affairs is terrible. Once Odysseus has slain the suitors they are forced to clean up the bloody bodies of their former lovers. Then Odysseus hands them over to his son Telemachus, with the order that the punishment for their crimes must be death:
“Then wise Telemachus was the first to speak to the others, saying: ‘Let it be by no clean death that I take the lives of these women, who on my own head have poured reproaches and on my mother, and were wont to lie with the wooers.’ So he spoke, and tied the cable of a dark-prowed ship to a great pillar and flung it round the dome, stretching it on high that none might reach the ground with her feet. And as when long-winged thrushes or doves fall into a snare that is set in a thicket, as they seek to reach their resting-place, and hateful is the bed that gives them welcome, even so the women held their heads in a row, and round the necks of all nooses were laid, that they might die most piteously. And they writhed a little while with their feet, but not long.”
For all their crimes it is a horrible death, and Homer highlights this with the metaphor comparing them to birds caught in a net and describing their twitching feet.
Dangerous women must be kept well away from the Greek household. So sirens can be found on a far-away rock, and Calpyso and Circe, a nymph and a sorceress, live on islands beyond the edges of the known world. These powerful women are a threat to normal Greek society, and so they can only exist far from civilisation. It is perhaps for this reason that the maids are killed outside, away from the household they have polluted with their sexual behaviour. Hanging is a specifically female form of death in Greek literature, particularly female suicide. There is perhaps here the implication in this that if they had had any shame the women would have hung themselves.
To a modern audience this attitude is brutal and unfamiliar. The tragic description of the women’s death suggests that the poet has some pity for them, but overall the scene is a sharp reminder that the world of the Odyssey is not our own.
In her novel the Penelopiad, Margaret Atwood tells the tale of neglected characters in Homer’s epic. These maids appear as ghosts, reproaching Penelope for allowing them to die. Atwood gives the story a twist, adding the detail that Penelope specifically ordered the women to spend time with the suitors in order to spy on them, and as a result she is haunted by their reproaches. They feature in the narrative in a role similar to a Greek chorus in tragedy and the below is their first song. As well as Penelope, they also accuse Odysseus, pointing out that he too had affairs but they went unpunished. Atwood here captures the unease a modern audience feels with the epic’s double standards and its cruel treatment of these women.
Fletcher, J. (2008) “Women’s space and wingless words in the Odyssey” in Phoenix, Vol. 62, No. 1/2.
Fulkerson, L. (2002) “Epic ways of killing a woman: Gender and transgression in ‘Odyssey’ 22.465-72” in The Classical Journal, Vol. 97, No. 4.
Levine, D.B. (1987) “Flens Matrona et Meretrices Gaudentes”: Penelope and her maids” in The Classical World, Vol. 81, No. 1.
Translations by A.T. Murray (1919)