Professor of Classics and Humanities
The Sirens’ Song
On behalf of the entire Reed faculty, I want to welcome the Class of 2016! Today you, like Odysseus and his son, Telemachus, will embark on your own journey to gain knowledge, but via the mythical land known as Reed – with its own version of the divine, the monstrous, plenty of exciting adventures, but no destruction – aside, of course, from the crushing of your souls. I have been given the great honor and pleasure of talking to you about the Odyssey, a text composed circa 720 BCE that has demonstrated a remarkable ability to resonate with succeeding generations of readers and thus richly deserves its prominent position as the opening act for Reed’s Humanities program. Even for me, a Greek historian who teaches this text almost every year at Reed, the Odyssey continues to raise new questions and to bring me back to issues that have long puzzled me, such as the topic of my talk today – the surprising amount of attention that this epic gives to women.
The representation of a variety of females – human women, goddesses, semi-divine figures, and monsters – is one of the most striking features of the Odyssey. It was this aspect of the Odyssey that led the Victorian author, Samuel Butler, to claim in his 1897 book, The Authoress of the Odyssey, that this work’s author was a young, headstrong and unmarried Sicilian woman – a theory that fails to account for the largely negative treatment of women in the text. Indeed, as you were reading the text, you may have noted that the majority of the female figures in the Odyssey in some way threaten Odysseus’ return homeward.
More specifically, these figures pose a danger that is literally or symbolically sexual, as we can see in Odysseus’ encounters with a number of semi-divine and monstrous females. Circe ensnares Odysseus’ companions with feminine attractions and skills linked to sexuality – her sweet voice, lovely hair, beautiful weaving, and the drugs that allow her to turn men into swine. Although Odysseus resists Circe’s magic, he, too, succumbs to her physical charms and spends a year on her island, lost in pleasurable pursuits. Calypso similarly weaves, sings, and uses sex and seductive language (1.67) to keep the weeping and passive Odysseus enthralled on her island for seven years (7.298) in a space described as, among other things, a “spacious cave” surrounded by luxuriant woods and soft, verdant meadows (1.62-81; cf. 1.18, 86, 250; 9.34) – an image that, as the immortal George Carlin would say, “you don’t have to be Fellini to figure out”! The Sirens, who likewise occupy a flowery meadow along with the rotting remains of their victims, try to lure Odysseus and his men to a violent death by means of yet more singing that is said to delight (terpein: 12.189) and to charm (thelgein: 12.44), two verbs that Greek authors associated with the pleasure provided by both poetry and sex. Further danger awaits from Scylla, who may shoot forth from yet another deep cavern and devour Odysseus and his men with row upon row of her fangs, and from Charybdis, who threatens to swallow the men in her huge whirlpool and drag them to her seabed before spitting them out.
Human females prove equally menacing, particularly Odysseus’ wife, Penelope, another weaver and singer whose beauty bewitches the suitors and turns them, figuratively, into beasts, just as Circe literally turned men into swine. Now, you may object that Penelope in the end proves to be a dutiful and loyal wife; but as Classical scholar Froma Zeitlin has argued, “the question of Penelope’s fidelity is the principal anxiety that hangs over the whole poem” (1995: 122). This anxiety likely explains Odysseus’ decision to keep his wife, alone of his intimates, in ignorance of his plans upon his return to Ithaca (13.378-82). Odysseus seems to have followed the advice given to him in the underworld by the shade of slaughtered Agamemnon, whose own return home was cut short by his adulterous wife, Clytemnestra and her lover, Aegisthus. Understandably suspicious of all women, Agamemnon warns Odysseus to hide his plans from Penelope (11.515-18; cf. 491, 499-502): ‘I tell you this – bear it in mind, you must – / when you reach your homeland steer your ship / into port in secret, never out in the open . . . / the time for trusting women’s gone forever.” The goddess Athena supports this view of women in her later advice to Telemachus to rush back to Ithaca to keep his mother from absconding with his belongings (15.23-26): “You know how the heart of a woman always works: / she likes to build the wealth of her new groom – / of the sons she bore, of her dear, departed husband, / not a memory of the dead, no questions asked.”
Females in the Odyssey, however, prove frightening and dangerous not just because of their sexual power but also because of their intelligence. In addition to repeated accounts of Circe’s use of drugs and spells to enchant men and make them forgetful (10.259-60, 304, 320-23, 351-65), the poem provides three lengthy descriptions of Penelope’s cunning ruse with the burial shroud she wove for her father-in-law, Laertes (2.94-122; 19.152-75; 24.130-60). Even more dangerous is the Sirens’ song, which tempts Odysseus with the promise of knowledge (12.200-207): “Never has any sailor passed our shores in his black craft / until he has heard the honeyed voices pouring from our lips, / and once he hears to his heart’s content sails on, a wiser man. / We know all the pains that the Greeks and Trojans once endured / in the spreading plain of Troy when the gods willed it so -- / all that comes to pass on the fertile earth, we know it all.” The Sirens’ knowledge, as Circe points out, is far from benign in its power – like that of Circe’s drugs – to make Odysseus forget home (12.44-50; cf. 10.260).
The Odyssey’s interest in uncontrolled female sexuality and intelligence becomes particularly clear when we consider the prominence in the text of the infamous Clytemnestra, the sister of Helen and the wife of Agamemnon. Even though she never appears as an active participant in the epic, Clytemnestra’s adultery and complicity in the murder of her husband, Agamemnon, receives mention no less than seven times in the Odyssey (1.34-52; 3.218-25, 281-352; 4.573-616; 11.457-518; 24.102-5, 219-23). Most striking, perhaps, is the murdered Agamemnon’s description of Clytemnestra in Book 11 (484-6): “There’s nothing more deadly, bestial than a woman / set on works like these – what a monstrous thing / she plotted, slaughtered her own lawful husband!”
At this point I think that we can agree with most modern scholars that females largely get a bad rap in the Odyssey and that this work reveals the belief that “women are vulnerable to seduction in the absence of their husbands and are endowed with deceptive intelligence that can be used to destroy them if they decide on another man” (Foley 1995: 97). What I would like to do now is move beyond the simple claim that the Odyssey is misogynistic to consider why anxiety about female sexuality and knowledge pervades the text. Here I think that attention to the famous “bed scene” in Book 23 (183-258) may prove illuminating. After freshening up a bit following his slaughter of the suitors, Odysseus encounters a cold reception from his still wary wife. Penelope tests her husband by asking the nurse, Eurycleia, to move their marital bed out of their bedchamber and to ready it for Odysseus, knowing full well that the bed cannot be moved, built as it is out of an olive-tree around which Odysseus had constructed their bedroom. Once Odysseus reveals his knowledge about the bed’s secret, the couple finally reunites – in bed, of course.
Most studies of this scene have viewed it as wholly positive, marking (1) the end of Odysseus’ wanderings, (2) the perfect pairing of cunning Odysseus and his clever wife; and (3) Penelope’s fidelity to Odysseus, represented by the rootedness of their bed, their lechos, a term which can stand for both the bed as a material object and for the institution of marriage itself. Indeed, we do witness the reaffirmation of a certain set of social roles and values: Odysseus regains his identity as lord and master of his household and Ithaca. Penelope becomes the exemplary wife, whose intelligence serves, rather than undermines, her fidelity, the mark of her excellence, as Agamemnon makes clear in his praise of Penelope near the end of the work (12.211-14): “‘Son of old Laertes -- / mastermind – what a fine, faithful wife you won! / What good sense resided in your Penelope – how well Icarius’ daughter remembered you . . .’”
At Reed, however, we tend to be suspicious of happy endings, and I will argue that the scene is actually fraught with a great deal of tension. Even at the very moment of their reunion, Penelope’s fidelity remains questionable, and Odysseus appears shaken by Penelope’s suggestion that their bed has changed position (23.205-6): “Woman – your words, they cut me to the core! / Who could move my bed? Impossible task . . .” After describing how he constructed the bed, Odysseus continues, “Does the bed, my lady, still stand planted firm? – I don’t know – or has someone chopped away / that olive-trunk and hauled our bedstead off?” (23.227-9).
What is so striking about this passage is both Odysseus’ fear concerning the loss of the bed’s rootedness and the Greek term that he uses when he questions whether the bed remains fixed in place, empedos, which literally means “grounded in the earth” (23.227). The same anxiety and terminology notably figure in Odysseus’ description of his encounters with other females. For example, we learn that when they were passing the island of the Sirens, Odysseus ordered his men to bind him to the mast so that he could hear their seductive song but still remain empedos, which Robert Fagles translates as “bound to the spot” (12.175-6). Later, Odysseus claims that when he encountered the twin dangers of Scylla and Charybdis, he clung to a fig tree for life but searched in vain for a foothold to brace himself firmly (empedon) (12.468).
This fear of losing one’s grounding, I will argue, likely reflects the rapid social and political change that occurred in the Greek world in the eighth century, as Greeks moved away from loosely organized communities to form larger and more cooperative socio-political units known as poleis, or city-states – polis being the root of the English term politics. This was also the age that witnessed the beginning of the widespread colonization movement that led Greeks to form new settlements all over the Mediterranean and beyond (from modern day Spain and Egypt to the shores of the Black Sea). Colonization ushered in new ideas, as Greeks came into contact with different peoples, as well as major economic changes, as the growth of economic exchange between new colonies and the cities that sent them promoted a rise in trade and manufacture. The creation of a new wealthy artisan class, in turn, led to the gradual shift from aristocratic governments, in which power was based on birth, to oligarchic governments, still controlled by small groups of men but now based on wealth instead of birth. We really start to see this change in a work written around the same time as the Odyssey, a poem entitled the Works and Days, by a man living in central Greece named Hesiod. As many of you will soon discover in Hum 110, Hesiod complained bitterly about the injustice and corruptibility of the aristocrats who controlled his community.
As the ancient historian Ian Morris has argued, it was this very threat to their power that drove members of the elite to undertake the monumental task of committing the 28,000 verses of poetry that had previously been transmitted orally into written texts soon after the introduction of the alphabet into Greece from Phoenicia in the middle of the eighth century BCE. Following Morris, I believe that it was the elites alone who had the leisure, resources, and ideological need to codify these oral traditions into the epics that we have now, the Iliad composed c. 750 BCE and the Odyssey composed c. 720 BCE. While these poems may have developed over a number of centuries, they were constantly changing until this moment in the eighth century when they were fossilized in writing. The Homeric epics that we read today, in other words, provide a sort of snapshot of the institutions, modes of thought, and values shared by their audience and patrons in late-eighth-century Greece. Indeed, both works tend to glorify aristocratic political, social, and economic dominance and to critique change in any form, especially social change, in the form of uppity servants or loose wives, and political change in the form of back-talking commoners. Whether or not we believe in a historical Homer, we should thus see him as the Bob Dylan of his day, except that his greatest hit would be titled “The Times They Are Un-changing.” The Odyssey was, in other words, far more than an exciting story for its late-eighth-century audience. It also functioned as a prescriptive guide to individual and social behavior that attempted to enshrine a certain set of values. However, as Odysseus himself seems to have realized – and as the audience of these poems undoubtedly understood – the times were changing.
While this period of tremendous flux may account for the Odyssey’s fascination with rootedness, it does not explain why this anxiety about change becomes mapped onto concern about female sexuality and knowledge in the text. I began to wonder if, when, and where else this same phenomenon – the seemingly counterintuitive link between the broadening basis of male power and the decrease of women’s status – has played out. As I was thinking about this question during the drive home from Reed one night, I had one of those NPR moments. It was a story, one of many that would be reported this year, on the worrying effects of the “Arab Spring” on women’s rights in Tunisia and Egypt. As the report made clear, the political liberalization that has recently occurred in both countries has been accompanied by challenges to women’s rights. For example, there have been calls in Egypt for the reversal of the – albeit minimal – legal gains made by women in terms of child custody and divorce rights. In Tunisia, which has been at the forefront of gender equality in the region – beginning with its 1956 personal status code that granted equality to men and women – women fear the loss of their rights, as Ennhada, the dominant party in Tunisia’s Constituent Assembly, calls for traditional Islamic law, or Shariah, to be recognized as the principal source of legislation. After glimpsing a possible link between the world of Homer and the events unfolding in north Africa, I consulted with a colleague in our Anthropology Department, who pointed me toward some interesting reading on women’s status in that region. These readings confirmed that women’s rights and status in north Africa – as in late-eighth-century Greece – have been a flashpoint in a period of intense socio-political change.
I’ll be the first to tell you that it is dangerous to make comparisons between societies separated so greatly in both time and space. However, I think that the risk is worth taking, as I can attest from the strange but rewarding path on which my work on this lecture took me . As I learned again and have tried to show today, the Odyssey – like the other texts that we cover in the Humanities program at Reed – are not simply quaint artifacts of another time and place and wholly alien to you and your world but raise questions on the human condition that remain salient today. In response to anyone who questions the relevance of such works, I would say that “relevance” consists in active and on-going reflection on the links between past and present, between different societies, between different disciplines, between the realms of thought and action, and between the protected bubble that is Reed and the outside world. This is the journey that I hope you will take at Reed. It’s a journey that may – like that of Odysseus – prove challenging as you pursue knowledge, expand the breadth of your experience, and figure out how to make your education meaningful for you. Long after you have forgotten the details about Odysseus’ adventures with the Sirens and the other females in the text, it is the links that you forge between texts like the Odyssey and your own values that will help you to navigate whatever versions of Scylla and Charybdis you may encounter in your own adventures.