lecture

Women poets.

Identifications
— Corinna
— Telesilla
— Praxilla

1. Fragment of a marble head of a woman from the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, c. 550-530 BCE. Cover of Josephine Balmer’s Classical Women Poets. Image: British Museum.

 

2a. Josephine Balmer, Women Classical Poets (1996: 9):

“In the first century AD [=CE], Antipater of Thessalonica‘s enthusiasm for classical women’s poetry was hardly excessive; apart from his nine earthly ‘Muses’ — Praxilla, Moero, Anyte, Myrtis, Erinna, Telesilla, Corinna, Nossis and Sappho — modern scholarship has unearthed the names of at least thirteen additional Greek women poets, while the Roman period yields another seven — twenty-nine names in all. Yet today the question asked first about their poetry is not the customary ‘is it worth reading?’ (although that often comes later), but rather, ‘is there any left to read?’ Here Tillie Olsen’s dictum that ‘we who write are survivors‘ [1978: 39] has a material as well as a metaphorical resonance…And of these twenty-nine, the work of only sixteen is extant, often fragmentary.”

2b. Gerda Lerner, The Creation of Patriarchy (1986: 15):

“When Darwinian theory dominated historical thought, pre-history was seen as a ‘barbaric’ stage in the evolutionary progress of humankind from the simpler to the more complex. That which succeeded and survived was by the fact of its survival considered superior to that which vanished and had thus ‘failed.'”

2c. Tillie OlsenSilences (1979/2003: 39):

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3. Josephine Balmer, Women Classical Poets (1996: 20):

“This is a particular problem with early poetry, originally performed to musical accompaniment, which, like song lyrics, can seem disappointing on the page. Such tampering might appear as cultural arrogance, casting the freshness of classical poetry as ‘inferior’ to the more tortuous semantic complexities of modern (and particularly modernist) poetry. In the case of women poets, there is also the danger of implying — as has often been the case — an ineptitude based on gender.”

4. Corinna, 5th c. BCE? 3rd c. BCE? Tanagra, Boeotia. 

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4a. Josephine Balmer, Women Classical Poets (1996: 33-34):

“To complicate matters futher, although some ancient commentators claim she was a contemporarty with Pindar, a Boeotian male poet of the fifth century BC (and that both were pupils of the poetess Myrtis whose works is now lost), the distinctive spelling conventions found on the surviving manuscript of her work, the Berlin Papyrus, date from the third century BC. An academic debate has ensued…[p34] the arguments seem inconclusive on both sides.”

4b. Pausanias (2nd c. CE), Description of Greece (9.22.3): 

Corinna, the only lyric poetess of Tanagra has her tomb in a, conspicuous part of the city, and in the gymnasium is a painting of Corinna binding her head with a fillet for the victory she won over Pindar at Thebes with a lyric poem. I believe that her victory was partly due to the dialect she used, for she composed, not in Doric speech like Pindar, but in one Aeolians would understand, and partly to her being, if one may judge from the likeness, the most beautiful woman of her time.

4c. Josephine Balmer, Women Classical Poets (1996: 34):

“Modern scholarship has been even less kind; Corinna’s poetry, like that of Sappho and so many other women poets, has often been accused of parochial homeliness and ‘extreme simplicity.’ Feminist critics have been even harsher, charging Corinna’s often brutal mythologies of perpetuating a male-dominated literary traditionn — the ‘male value system’ — with her female world.”

5a. Corinna no. 9* (Balmer): “Songs of Old”:
* transmitted by Oxyrhynchus papyrus, P. Oxy. 2370 (c. 200 CE). Attributed to Corinna because of citations by 2nd c. CE Hephaestion (Ench. 16.3) and 2nd c. CE Antoninus Liberalis (25).

On me my Muse has served her summons
to sing these beautiful songs of old
for Tanagran women in their dawn-
white dresses; as the city takes such
pleasure in my teasing-trilling songs.

for whatever great [deeds great heroes
might perform,] still taller tales [are told,]
the earth their open field for battle.
And so I’ve reset our father’s tales,
[reworked their crown with these new jewels]
as I take up my lyre for my girls:

Often I’ve polished tales of Cephisus,
our country’s own first founding-father,
often of Lord Orion, the fifty
high-and-mighty sons he brought into
being — with help from their mother nymphs;

and then at last I sang of Libya,
[Thebes’ fair fore-mother…]

5b. P. Oxy. 2370 (c. 200 CE). Fragment of Corinna (=5a).

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6. Telesilla, 5th c. BCE. Argos

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6a. Pausanias (2nd c. CE), Description of Greece (9.20.8-9): 

Above the theater [at Argos] is a sanctuary of Aphrodite, and before the image is a slab with a representation wrought on it in relief of Telesilla, the lyric poetess. Her books lie scattered at her feet, and she herself holds in her hand an helmet, which she is looking at and is about to place on her head. Telesilla was a distinguished woman who was especially renowned for her poetry. It happened that the Argives had suffered an awful defeat at the hands of Cleomenes, the son of Anaxandrides, and the Lacedaemonians [494 BCE]. Some fell in the actual fighting; others, who had fled to the grove of Argus, also perished. At first they left sanctuary under an agreement, which was treacherously broken, and the survivors, when they realized this, were burnt to death in the grove. So when Cleomenes led his troops to Argos there were no men to defend it.

[2.20.9] But Telesilla mounted on the wall all the slaves and such as were incapable of bearing arms through youth or old age, and she herself, collecting the arms in the sanctuaries and those that were left in the houses, armed the women of vigorous age, and then posted them where she knew the enemy would attack. When the Lacedaemonians came on, the women were not dismayed at their battle-cry, but stood their ground and fought valiantly. Then the Lacedaemonians, realizing that to destroy the women would be an invidious success while defeat would mean a shameful disaster, gave way before the women.

6b. Telesilla no. 35* (Balmer): “Artemis”:
*transmitted by 2nd/3rd c. CE Athenaeus (Deipnosphistae 11.567); 2nd c. CE Hephaestion (Ench. 11.2); 2nd c. CE Pausanias (2.28.2).

on the round
of the threshing-floor

*

[sing now of] Artemis, my daughters,
slipping
through Alpheus‘ watery fingers

*

of her mountain temple
on the peaks of Coryphum

6c. Pausanias (2nd c. CE), Description of Greece (2.28.2):

As you go up to Mount Coryphum [at Epidaurus] you see by the road an olive tree called Twisted. It was Heracles who gave it this shape by bending it round with his hand, but I cannot say whether he set it to be a boundary mark against the Asinaeans in Argolis, since in no land, which has been depopulated, is it easy to discover the truth about the boundaries. On the top of the mountain there is a sanctuary of Artemis Coryphaea (of the Peak), of which Telesilla made mention in an ode.

7. Praxilla, Sicyon (Gulf of Corinth). 5th c. BCE. 

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7a. Jane Snyder, The Woman and the Lyre (1989: 56):  

“[Praxilla’s] association with such songs [=skolia] has led to one quite unreasonable conclusion, drawn not surprisingly by Wilamowitz (whose distortions of Sappho’s poems were discussed in chapter 1). He concluded, in essence, that only a woman who was not a lady could have written drinking songs and that therefore Praxilla must have been a hetaira, roughly the ancient equivalent of a Geisha girl. There is no evidence of such an assumption.”

7b. Praxilla no 38* Balmer:
*transmitted by commentary tradition to 5th c. BCE Aristophanes’ Thesmophoriazusae (528):

[in love
beware:]

a scorpion waits
under every stone

7c. Praxilla no 39* Balmer: “Adonis in Hades”:
*transmitted by 2nd c. CE Zenobius (4.2). Zenobius translated by Campbell Loeb (1990); Praxilla by Balmer, p55.

In her hymn this Praxilla represents Adonis as being asked by those in the underworld what was the most beautiful thing he left behind when he came, and giving as his answer:

“The loveliest sight I’ve left behind is the sun’s light
or clear stars on a dark dark sky, a full-faced moon;
and fruits in summer — ripe cucumbers [σίκυος, Sicyon?], apples, pears…”

For anyone who lists cucumbers and the rest alongside sun and moon can only be regarded as feeble-minded.

7d. Praxilla no 41* Balmer: “Snatches of Song”:
*parodied in 5th c. BCE Aristophanes’ The Wasps (1236, with commentary):

If you want to cheat death like Admetus could,
my friend, let’s keep up and keep in with the good.
In the meantime let’s drink, let’s live and let’s learn:
bad company can bring only bad return…

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Warrior Women. Amazons. Spartans.

Identifications
— Amazons
— antianeirai
— Spartan women

1. Herodotus, Histories (5th c. BCE) 4.113-114:

[4.113] At midday the Amazons would scatter and go apart from each other singly or in pairs, roaming apart for greater comfort. The Scythians noticed this and did likewise; and as the women wandered alone, a young man laid hold of one of them, and the woman did not resist but let him do his will; [2] and since they did not understand each other’s speech and she could not speak to him, she signed with her hand that he should come the next day to the same place and bring another youth with him (showing by signs that there should be two), and she would bring another woman with her. The youth went away and told his comrades; and the next day he came himself with another to the place, where he found the Amazon and another with her awaiting them. When the rest of the young men learned of this, they had intercourse with the rest of the Amazons.

[4.114] Presently they joined their camps and lived together, each man having for his wife the woman with whom he had had intercourse at first. Now the men could not learn the women’s language, but the women mastered the speech of the men;  and when they understood each other, the men said to the Amazons, “We have parents and possessions; therefore, let us no longer live as we do, but return to our people and be with them; and we will still have you, and no others, for our wives.” To this the women replied: “We could not live with your women; for we and they do not have the same customs. We shoot the bow and throw the javelin and ride, but have never learned women’s work; and your women do none of the things of which we speak, but stay in their wagons and do women’s work, and do not go out hunting or anywhere else. So we could never agree with them. If you want to keep us for wives and to have the name of fair men, go to your parents and let them give you the allotted share of their possessions, and after that let us go and live by ourselves.” The young men agreed and did this.

2. Attic black-figure vase (amphora) by Exekias, c. 530 BCE. Achilles (left) kills the Amazonian queen, Penthesilea (right). Image: British Museum.

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3. Attic red-figure vase (calyx krater), c. 450 BCE. Battle between Greeks and Amazons. Image: Met Museum.

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4. Strabo, Geography (1st c. BCE) 11.5.3:

A peculiar thing has happened in the case of the account we have of the Amazons; for our accounts of other peoples keep a distinction between the mythical and the historical elements; for the things that are ancient and false and monstrous are called myths, but history wishes for the truth, whether ancient or recent, and contains no monstrous element, or else only rarely. But as regards the Amazons, the same stories are told now as in earlytimes, though they are marvellous and beyond belief. For instance, who could believe that an army of women, or a city, or a tribe, could ever be organised without men, and not only be organised, but even make inroads upon the territory of other people, and not only overpower the peoples near them to the extent of advancing as far as what is now Ionia, but even send an expedition across the sea as far as Attica? For this is the same as saying that the men of those times were women and that the women were men. Nevertheless, even at the present time these very stories are told about the Amazons, and they intensify the peculiarity above-mentioned and our belief in the ancient accounts rather than those of the present time.

5. Adrienne Mayor, The Amazons (2016: 19):

“Their [=the Amazons] heroic exploits were imaginary, but their characters and actions arose from a common historical source: warrior cultures of the steppes where nomad horsemen and -women could experience parity at a level almost unimaginable for ancient Hellenes. Myth and reality commingled in the Greek imagination, and as more and more details come to light about Scythian culture, the women of Scythia were explicitly identified as ‘Amazons.’ Today’s archaeological and linguistic discoveries point to the core of reality that lay behind Greek amazon myths.”

6. Mary Beard, Women and Power (2017: 60-62):

“There’s a similar logic in the stories of that mythical race of Amazon women, said by Greek writers to exist somewhere on the northern borders of their world. A more violent and more militaristic lot than the peaceful denizens of Herland [=pp49-51], this monstrous regiment always threatened to overrun the civilised world of Greece and Greek men. An enormous amount of energy has been wasted on trying to prove that these Amazons did once exist, with all the seductive possibilities of a historical society that was really ruled by and for women. Dream on. The hard truth is that the Amazons were a Greek male myth. The basic message was that the only good Amazon was a dead one, or…one that had been mastered in the bedroom. The underlying point was that it was the duty of men to save civilisation from the rule of women.”

7. The Black Sea, Caucasus, and Caspian Sea region. Map by Michele Angel. Map 2.4 in A. Mayor (2016: 42). Image: @amayor 3rd Jan. 2017.

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8. Adrienne Mayor, The Amazons (2016: 20):

“The Scythians themselves left no written records. Much of our knowledge about them comes from the art and literature of Greece and Rome. But the Scythians did leave spectacular physical evidence of their way of life for archaeologists to uncover…Archaeology shows that Amazons were not simply symbolic figments of the Greek imagination, as many scholars claim. Nor are Amazons unique to Greek culture, another common claim. In fact, Greeks were not the only people to spin tales about Amazon-like figures and warrior women ranging over the vast regions east of the Mediterranean. Other literate cultures, such as Persia, Egypt, India, and China, encountered warlike nomads in antiquity, and their narratives drew on their own knowledge of steppe nomads through alliances, exploration, trade, and warfare.”

9. “Amazon” understood as Greek a + mazos = “without breast” 
9a. Strabo, Geography (1st c. BCE) 11.5.1:

…the Amazons spend the rest of their time off to themselves, performing their several individual tasks, such as ploughing, planting, pasturing cattle, and particularly in training horses, though the bravest engage mostly in hunting on horseback and practise warlike exercises; that the right breasts of all are seared when they are infants, so that they can easily use their right arm for every needed purpose, and especially that of throwing the javelin

9b. “Apollodorus”Library (1st/2nd c. CE) 2.98:

For the Amazons cultivated a manly spirit; whenever they had sex and gave birth, they raised the female children. They would constrict their right breasts so that these would not interfere with throwing a javelin, but allowed their left breasts to grow so they could breastfeed.

10a. Homer, Iliad, 3.188-190. Priam speaking to Helen (see wk 2). 

“For I, too, being their ally, was numbered among them on the day when the Amazons came, the peers of men (Amazones antianeirai). But not even they were as many as are the bright-eyed Achaeans.”

10b. Adrienne Mayor, The Amazons (2016: 22):

“There is something remarkable about Homer’s earliest use of Amazones in the Iliad. The form of the name falls into the linguistic category of ethnic designations in epic poetry (another Homeric example is Myrmidones, the warriors led by Achilles at Troy). This important clue tells us that Amazones was originally a Hellenized name for ‘a plurality, a people,’ as in Hellenes for Greeks and Trooes for the Trojans. The Greeks used distinctive feminine endings (typically –ai) for associations made up exclusively of women, such as Nymphai (Nymphs) or Trooiai for Trojan women. But Amazones does not have the feminine ending that one would expect if the group consisted only of women. Therefore, the name Amazones would originally have been ‘understood as… a people consisting of men and women.’ As classicist Josine Blok points out in her discussion of this puzzle, without the addition of the feminine epithet antianeirai ‘there is no way of telling that this was a people of female warriors.'”

11a. Adrienne Mayor, The Amazons (2016: colour plate 3). Warrior woman’s skeleton, with a large iron dagger in her right hand and two iron arrowheads between her legs, 4th-3rd centuries BCE, necropolis 8, Kurgan 1, burial 6. Photos by James Vedder, Center for the Study of Eurasian Nomads, 1992. Image.

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11b. Adrienne Mayor, The Amazons (2016: 64-65):

“Now that modern bioarchaeological methods can determine the sex of skeletons, we know that in some cemetery populations on the steppes armed females represent as many as 37% of the burials…[p64] In the not-too-distant past, archaeologists routinely identified Scythian burials as “male” or “female” based on preconceived notions about the types of grave goods expected for each gender. Weapons and tools were assumed to belong to men, while spindles, jewelry and mirrors were [p65] supposed to be feminine.”

12. Plutarch (1st/2nd c. CE), Sayings of Spartan Women 241

When a woman from Ionia showed vast pride in a bit of her own weaving, which was very valuable, a Spartan woman pointed to her four sons, who were most well-behaved, and said, “Such should be the employments of the good and honourable woman, and it is over these that she should be elated and boastful.

Another, as she handed her son his shield, exhorted him, saying, “Either this or upon this.”

13. Xenophon (4th c. BCE), Constitution of the Spartans 3-4

[3] In other states the girls who are destined to become mothers and are brought up in the approved fashion, live on the very plainest fare, with a most meagre allowance of delicacies. Wine is either withheld altogether, or, if allowed them, is diluted with water. The rest of the Greeks expect their girls to imitate the sedentary life that is typical of handicraftsmen—to keep quiet and do wool-work. How, then, is it to be expected that women so brought up will bear fine children? [4] But Lycurgus thought the labour of slave women sufficient to supply clothing. He believed motherhood to be the most important function of freeborn woman. Therefore, in the first place, he insisted on physical training for the female no less than for the male sex: moreover, he instituted races and trials of strength for women competitors as for men, believing that if both parents are strong they produce more vigorous offspring.

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Penelope II.

Identifications
— female sociality
— lies
— Eurycleia
— status (free, enslaved)
— Homeric women

1. Dora Wheeler, “Penelope Unraveling Her Work at Night” (1886). Silk embroidered with silk thread. Image: Metropolitan Museum.

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2Homer, Odyssey (8th c. BCE), 2.93-112: Antinous speaking:

We suitors have not done you wrong.
Go blame your precious mother! She is cunning.
It is the third year, soon it will be four,
that she has cheated us of what we want.
She offers hope to all, sends notes to each,
but all the while her mind moves somewhere else.
She came up with a special trick: she fixed
a mighty loom inside the palace hall.
Weaving her fine long cloth, she said to us,
‘Young men, you are my suitors. Since my husband,
the brave Odysseus, is dead, I know
you want to marry me. You must be patient;
I have worked hard to weave this winding-sheet
to bury good Laertes when he dies.
He gained such wealth, the women would reproach me
if he were buried with no shroud. Please let me
finish it!’ And her words made sense to us.
So every day she wove the mighty cloth,
and then at night by torchlight, she unwove it.
For three long years her trick beguiled the Greeks.
But when the fourth year’s seasons rolled around,
a woman slave who knew the truth told us.
We caught her there, unraveling the cloth,
and made her finish it.

+Compare Penelope’s version: Odyssey 19.137-163 (p429).

3. Homer, Iliad (8th c. BCE), 9.312-314: Achilles speaking to Odysseus:

I hate that man like the very Gates of Death
who says one thing but hides another in his heart.

4. Homer, Odyssey (8th c. BCE), 19.50-72; 89-97:

Then the queen,
her wits about her, came down from her room,
like Artemis or golden Aphrodite.
Slaves pulled her usual chair beside the fire;
it was inlaid with whorls of ivory
and silver, crafted by Icmalius,
who had attached a footstool, all in one.
A great big fleece was laid across the chair,
and pensively Penelope sat down.
The white-armed slave girls came and cleared away
the piles of bread, the tables, and the cups,
from which the arrogant suitors had been drinking.
They threw the embers from the braziers
onto the floor, and heaped fresh wood inside them
for light and warmth. And then Melantho scolded
Odysseus again. “Hey! Stranger! Will you
keep causing trouble, roaming round our house
at night and spying on us women here?
Get out, you tramp! Be happy with your meal!
Or you will soon get pelted with a torch!
Be off!” Odysseus began to scowl,
and make a calculated speech. “Insane!
You silly girl, why are you mad at me?”

Penelope
had listened warily, and now she spoke
to scold the slave. “You brazen, shameless dog!
What impudence! I see what you are doing!
Wipe that impertinent expression off!
You knew quite well — I told you so myself —
that I might meet the stranger in the hall
to question him about my missing husband.
I am weighed down by grief.”

5. Homer, Odyssey (8th c. BCE), 19.370-381: Eurycleia speaking:

And when that poor Odysseus
stays at the palaces of foreign kings,
I think the women slaves are mocking him
as these bad girls are hounding you. You have
refused to let them wash you, to avoid
abuse. But wise Penelope has told me
to wash you, and reluctantly I will,
for her sake and for yours — you move my heart.
Now listen. Many strangers have come here
in trouble and distress. But I have never
seen any man whose body, voice, and feet
are so much like my master’s.

6. The other side of the Penelope loom vase (see wk 2). Attic red-figure vase (skyphos), 450-400 BCE in Chiusi, Museo Archeologico Nazionale. Odysseus (inscribed) wearing a hat (pilos) with staff and vessel; his leg is washed by the old slave woman, named Eurycleia in the Odyssey but here called “Antiphata” (in the inscription). Eumaeus (inscribed), the swineherd, stands behind. Image: perseus.tufts.edu.

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7. Homer, Odyssey (8th c. BCE), 19.483-503:

“Nanny! Why are you trying to destroy me?
You fed me at your breast! Now after all
my twenty years of pain, I have arrived
back to my home. You have found out; a god
has put the knowledge in your mind. Be silent;
no one must know, or else I promise you,
if some god helps me bring the suitors down,
I will not spare you when I kill the rest,
the other slave women, although you were
my nurse.” With calculation, Eurycleia
answered, “My child! What have you said! You know
my mind is firm, unshakable; I will
remain as strong as stone or iron. Let me
promise you this: if you defeat the suitors,
I will tell you which women in the palace
dishonor you, and which are free from guilt.”
Odysseus already had a plan.
“Nanny, why do you mention them? No need.
I will make my own observations
of each of them. Be quiet now; entrust
the future to the gods.”

8. Homer, Odyssey (8th c. BCE), 22.419-432:

“… But tell me now about the household women.
Which ones dishonor me? And which are pure?”
The slave who loved her master answered, “Child,
I will tell you exactly how things stand.
In this house we have fifty female slaves
whom we have trained to work, to card the wool,
and taught to tolerate their life as slaves.
Twelve stepped away from honor: those twelve girls
ignore me, and Penelope our mistress.
She would not let Telemachus instruct them,
since he is young and only just grown-up.
Let me go upstairs to the women’s rooms,
to tell your wife — some god has sent her sleep.”
The master strategist Odysseus
said, “Not yet; do not wake her. Call the women
who made those treasonous plots while I was gone.”

9. Homer, Odyssey (8th c. BCE), 22.461-480:

Showing initiative, Telemachus
insisted, “I refuse to grant these girls
a clean death, since they poured down shame on me
and Mother, when they lay besides the suitors.”
At that, he would a piece of sailor’s rope
round the rotunda and round the mighty pillar,
stretched up so high no foot could touch the ground.
As doves or thrushes spread their wings to fly
home to their nests, but someone sets a trap —
they crash into a net, a bitter bedtime;
just so the girls, their heads all in a row,
were strung up with the noose around their necks
to make their death an agony. They gasped,
feet twitching for a while, but not for long.
Then the men took Melanthius outside
and with curved bronze cut off his nose and ears
and ripped away his genitals, to feed
raw to the dogs. Still full of rage, they chopped
his hands and feet off. Then they washed their own,
and they went back inside.

10. bell hooksAll About Love (2001: 37):

“Males learn to lie as a way of obtaining power, and females not only do the same but they also lie to pretend powerlessness. In her work Harriet Lerner talks about the ways in which patriarchy upholds deception, encouraing women to present a false self to men and vice versa. In Dory Hollander’s 101 Lies Men Tell Women, she confirms that while both women and men lie, her data and the findings of other researchers indicate that “men tend to lie more and with more devastating consequences.” For many young males the earliest experience of power over others comes from the thrill of lying to more powerful adults and getting away with it. Lots of men shared with me that it was difficult for them to tell the truth if they saw it would hurt a loved one. Significantly, the lying many boys learn to do to avoid hurting Mom or whomever becomes so habitual that it becomes hard for them to distinguish a lie from the truth. This behavior carries over into adulthood.”

11. Homer, Odyssey (8th c. BCE), 23.178-184:

“…Now, Eurycleia, make the bed for him
outside the room he built himself. Pull out
the bedstead, and spread quilts and blankets on it.”
So she spoke to test him, and Odysseus
was furious, and told his loyal wife.
“Woman! Your words have cut my heart! Who moved
my bed?”

English translations: Homer’s Odyssey, Emily Wilson (2018); Homer’s Iliad, Robert Fagles (1990).

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