A Woman’s Place: Female Transgression in the Odyssey

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:

18.320-5

“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:

20.5

“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:

22.461-473

“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.

 

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Ovid’s spider girl: Unravelling the female gaze

Arachne in Gustave Doré's illustration for Dante's Purgatorio of the Divine Comedy series.

Arachne in Gustave Doré’s illustration for Dante’s Purgatorio of the Divine Comedy series.

Ovid’s epic the Metamorphoses is constantly playing with different narrative voices. In the myth of Arachne, Ovid uses myth to explore the tension between the fragility of the female voice in literature, in contrast to the authoritative male narrator.

Arachne boasts that she is a better weaver than the goddess Minerva, and challenges the goddess to a contest. Minerva accepts, but when both have completed their tapestries, she can find no faults in her opponent’s work. She destroys Arachne’s tapestry in a fit of rage and, devastated, Arachne tries to commit suicide by hanging herself. At this, Minerva feels a modicum of pity and so spares Arachne by turning her into a spider. She is now sentenced to spend the rest of her days weaving webs.

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Philomela and Tereus: Ovid’s Metamorphoses and the Female Voice

In ancient literature weaving is a metaphor for poetic creation. However, as weaving was a female activity it was often used as a way to convey female messages in texts. One of the most striking examples of this takes place in Ovid’s Metamorphoses in the story of Tereus and Philomena.

The myth is an extremely violent one. The tyrant Tereus has married Procne, the daughter of the King of Athens, and after five years away from home Procne asks her husband to accompany her sister Philomena as she travels over for a visit. However when Tereus sees Philomena he is maddened by his desire for her. He kidnaps her and rapes her, and when she threatens to reveal his crime he cuts out her tongue. He then keeps her hidden away in a forest and pretends that she has been killed. Philomena however weaves a record of what has happened to her, and through a servant manages to send this message to her sister. Procne rescues Philomela and plots a terrible revenge: she murders her own son and feeds him to an unwitting Tereus.

The rape and mutilation of Procne is described in a truly horrific way:

(6.527-530)

The poor child trembled as a frightened lamb,
which, just delivered from the frothing jaws
of a gaunt wolf, dreads every moving twig.
She trembled as a timid injured dove,
(her feathers dripping with her own life-blood)
that dreads the ravening talons of a hawk
from which some fortune has delivered her.

(553-558)

When she first saw his sword above her head.
Flashing and sharp, she wished only for death,
and offered her bare throat: but while she screamed,
and, struggling, called upon her father’s name,
he caught her tongue with pincers, pitiless,
and cut it with his sword —The mangled root
still quivered, but the bleeding tongue itself,
fell murmuring on the blood-stained floor.

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Homer’s Odyssey Book 4: Helen of Troy again

Helen of Troy is one of Homer’s most fascinating female voices. She is an elusive character who defies any attempts to pin her down. This is demonstrated well in the below scene from the Odyssey. On the surface Helen is a kind host and loyal wife, yet underlying this persona is a sinister portrayal of an inscrutable woman.

The scene takes place in Book 4. Helen is returned to her husband King Menelaus and playing the role of an obedient housewife. Odysseus’ son Telemachus has come to the court of Menelaus to seek information about his father’s whereabouts, who since the Trojan War has vanished from Greece. The group drink together and reminisce about the heroes at Troy, weeping for those who are lost. Helen then does something very curious. She mixes a drug into the men’s wine. It is a drug that removes all sorrow, to the extent that a man’s parents could lie dead in front of him and he would not mourn.

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