A Woman’s Place: Female Transgression in the Odyssey

The Odyssey is full of fascinating female characters, and it is great fun to see how women are presented, often as powerful creatures with the ability to shape the adventures of Odysseus. However it is important not to get carried away, and remember the incredibly dark side of Homer’s world in regard to its treatment of women. In my posts on Helen of Troy and the Sirens I look at how formidable women use their voices to bewitch men. 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 precedes sexual misconduct. There is a link in Homer between the female voice and women who need to be contained, most strongly portrayed in the sirens who lure men to their deaths with their song.

The punishment these women receive for their crimes 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 they must die for their crimes:

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 tragic and horrific death, and Homer highlights this by 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 we are shown how fleeting our stories can be. Ovid looks at the tension between the male and female voice, exploring the fragility a woman’s tale has in contrast to the authoritative male perspective.

In this myth, the young girl Arachne boasts that she is a better weaver than the goddess Minerva. She challenges the goddess to a contest, and the goddess answers. In her tapestry, Minerva depicts the gods and goddesses in all their divine majesty, and in the corners she weaves mortals who have been punished for daring to challenge the divine. Arachne on the other hand portrays the rapes of the gods. She shows them using disguises to deceive girls into sleeping with them. Unlike Minerva’s stately and structured masterpiece, Arachne’s is confused and fluid, and yet when the goddess inspects it she can find no fault with it. Enraged, Minerva destroys the tapestry. Arachne, who is devoted to her art, is devastated and hangs herself. The goddess feels a modicum of pity and rescues Arachne by turning her into a spider, sentenced to spend the rest of her days spinning webs.

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

In ancient literature weaving was a metaphor for poetic creation. However, as weaving was a female activity it also became associated with the female voice within texts. Denied a voice in ancient literature women are portrayed as using a weave to tell their story. Perhaps the most interesting example of this takes place in Ovid’s Metamorphoses in the story of Tereus and Philomena.

After the latest series of Game of Thrones there has been a lot of debate about sexual violence in the media. The Metamorphoses shows us that graphic violence, particularly against women, has been a part of popular culture for a very long time. This is perhaps the most explicit story of Ovid’s epic. 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 bring her sister Philomena 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 her story and through a servant manages to send the message to her sister. On receiving her sister’s weave Procne rescues Philomela and plots a terrible revenge: she murders her own son and feeds him to Tereus hidden in his dinner.

The rape is described in a truly horrific way, and the portrayal of Philomena is desperate:

(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

My last post was on the Sirens in the Odyssey, and as a follow up I thought I’d write a quick post about how Helen is portrayed in the Odyssey. We see Helen in Book 4, returned to her husband and playing the role of the obedient housewife. Odysseus’ son Telemachus has come to the the court of King Menelaus to seek information about his father’s whereabouts. Since the Trojan War Odysseus has vanished from Greece. Menelaus welcomes Telemachus but does not recognise him. It is Helen who correctly reveals the identity of the young prince. 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, so that a man’s parents could lie dead in front of him and he would not be sad.

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