lecture

The women of epic. Nausicaa. Circe.

Identifications
— female space vs. male space
— sexual fidelity
— Nausicaa
— Arete

1. Emily Wilson, (2018) introduction to Homer’s Odyssey, p38:

The Odyssey allows us to imagine a far more varied array of possible female lives. Its various settings — in multiple different islands, homes, and palaces, in peacetime rather than war — are mostly places where women or goddesses have a defined position and a voice. Some scholars have tried to find buried memories in The Odyssey of an ancient, pre-Greek matriarchal society — for example, in the peculiarly high status of Queen Arete in Phaeacia, who sometimes, confusingly, seems more important than her husband, or in Penelope’s power in Ithaca over even the male members of her household, most prominently Telemachus. But these elements in the poem probably tell us more about male fears and fantasies, both ancient and modern, than about the historical realities of archaic or pre-archaic women’s lives.

Samuel Butler [1835-1902] famously suggested in the nineteenth century that the Odyssey must have been written by a woman, because it has so many interesting and sympathetically portrayed female characters: ‘People always write by preference what they know best, and they know best what they most are, and have most to do with.'”

2. Emily Wilson, (2018) introduction to Homer’s Odyssey, p40:

“The poem circles around the question of whether an elite woman’s worth depends entirely on sexual fidelity. Odysseus has affairs with Calypso and Circe in the course of his wanderings, as well as a carefully calibrated flirtation with young Nausicaa. These episodes are not presented as a sign of disloyalty to his wife or a blot on his character…”

3. Attic red-figure small box (pyxis), c. 420 BCE in the Boston MFA. The pyxis was used for storing trinkets, ointments, cosmetics, and is therefore generally associated with women. This “vase” shape was regularly decorated with scenes of female activity. This pyxis shows a naked Odysseus encountering Nausicaa, a scene from the Odyssey Book 6.

Odyssey pyxis 1.jpg

odyssey pyxis 2 .jpg

4Homer, Odyssey (8th c. BCE), 6.119-146:

“What is this country I have come to now?
Are all the people wild and violent,
or good, hospitable, and god-fearing?
I heard the sound of female voices. Is it
nymphs, who frequent the craggy mountaintops,
and river streams and meadows lush with grass?
Or could this noise I hear be human voices?
I have to try to find out who they are.”

Odysseus jumped up from our the bushes.
Grasping a leafy branch he broke it off
to cover up his manly private parts.
Just as a mountain lion trusts its strength,
and beaten by the rain and wind, its eyes
burn bright as it attacks the cows or sheep,
or wild deer, and hunger drives it on
to try the sturdy pens of sheep — so need
impelled Odysseus to come upon
the girls with pretty hair, though he was naked.
All caked with salt, he looked a dreadful sight.
They ran along the shore quite terrified,
some here, some there. But Nausicaa stayed still.
Athena made her legs stop trembling
and gave her courage in her heart. She stood there.
He wondered, should he touch her knees, or keep
some distance and use charming words, to beg
the pretty girl to show him to the town,
and give him clothes. At last he thought it best
to keep some distance and use words to beg her.

5. Sarah PomeroyGoddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves (1975: 18): 

“Heroic Greek society demanded that all mature women be married, and destined all young women for that end. In the Odyssey, upon meeting the princess Nausicaa, who is of marriageable age, Odysseus almost immediately [6.180-185] expresses the polite wish that she find a husband and enjoy a harmonious marriage.”

6a. Homer, Odyssey (8th c. BCE), 6.302-308:

Go through the courtyard, in the house and on
straight to the Great Hall. You will find my mother
sitting beside the hearth by firelight,
and spinning her amazing purple wool.
She leans against a pillar, slaves behind her.
My father has a throne right next to hers;
he sits and sips his wine, just like a god.

6b. Homer, Odyssey (8th c. BCE), 7.104-112:

The King had fifty slave girls in his house;
some ground the yellow grain upon the millstone,
others wove cloth and sat there spinning yarn,
with fingers quick as rustling poplar leaves,
and oil was dripping from the woven fabric.
Just as Phaeacian men have special talent
for launching ships to sea, the women there
are expert weavers, since Athena gave them
find minds and skill to make most lovely things.

6c. Homer, Odyssey (8th c. BCE), 7.232-239:

The dishes from the feast
were cleaned up by the slaves. White-armed Arete
had noticed his fine clothes, the cloak and shirt
she wove herself, with help from her slave girls.
Her words flew out to him as if on wings.
“Stranger, let me be first to speak to you.
Where are you from? And who gave you those clothes?
I thought you said you drifted here by sea?”

7. Attic black-figure drinking cup (kylix), c. 560-525 BCE in the Boston MFA. Circe stands in the centre of this scene, stirring and offering a cup to one of Odysseus’ companions, in the middle of transforming: his head is a boar, his hands are still human. Depicts Odyssey 10.228-251, with some differences.

odyseey bk 1o.jpg

odyseey bk 10.jpg

8. Homer, Odyssey (8th c. BCE), 10.229-244:

They shouted to her. She came at once,
opened the shining doors, and asked them in.
So thinking nothing of it, in they went.
Eurylochus alone remained outside,
suspecting trickery. She led them in,
sat them on chairs, and blended them a potion
of barley, cheese, and golden honey, mixed
with Pramnian wine. She added potent drugs
to make them totally forget their home.
They took and drank the mixture. Then she struck them,
using her magic wand, and penned them in
the pigsty. They were turned to pigs in body
and voice and hair; their minds remained the same.
They squealed at their imprisonment, and Circe
thew them some mast and cornel cherries — food
that pigs like rooting for in muddy ground.

9. Homer, Odyssey (8th c. BCE), 10.301-309:

The bright mercurial god
pulled from the ground a plant and showed me how
its root is black, its flower white as milk.
The gods call this plant Moly [=μῶλυ]. It is hard
for mortal men to dig it up, but gods
are able to do everything. Then Hermes
flew through the wooded island, back towards
high Mount Olympus. I went in the house
of Circe. My heart pounded as I walked.

English translations: Homer’s Odyssey, Emily Wilson (2018).

Standard