The Authoress of the Odyssey, by Samuel Butler

Chapter i

Importance of the enquiry — The steps whereby I was led to my conclusions — The multitude of early Greek poetesses removes any à priori difficulty — The Muses and Minerva as heads of literature — Man, rather than Woman, the interloper.

If the questions whether the “Odyssey” was written by a man or a woman, and whether or no it is of exclusively Sicilian origin, were pregnant with no larger issues than the determination of the sex and abode of the writer, it might be enough merely to suggest the answers and refer the reader to the work itself. Obviously, however, they have an important bearing on the whole Homeric controversy; for if we find a woman’s hand omnipresent throughout the “Odyssey,” and if we also find so large a number of local details, taken so exclusively and so faithfully from a single Sicilian town as to warrant the belief that the writer must have lived and written there, the presumption seems irresistible that the poem was written by a single person. For there can hardly have been more than one woman in the same place able to write such — and such homogeneous — poetry as we find throughout the “Odyssey.”

Many questions will become thus simplified. Among others we can limit the date of the poem to the lifetime of a single person, and if we find, as I believe we shall, that this person in all probability flourished, roughly between 1050 and 1000 B.C., if, moreover, we can show, as we assuredly can, that she had the “Iliad” before her much as we have it now, quoting, consciously or unconsciously, as freely from the most suspected parts as from those that are admittedly Homer’s, we shall have done much towards settling the question whether the “Iliad” also is by one hand or by many.

Not that this question ought to want much settling. The theory that the “Iliad” and “Odyssey” were written each of them by various hands, and pieced together in various centuries by various editors, is not one which it is easy to treat respectfully. It does not rest on the well established case of any other poem so constructed; literature furnishes us with no poem whose genesis is known to have been such as that which we are asked to foist upon the “Iliad” and “Odyssey.” The theory is founded on a supposition as to the date when writing became possible, which has long since been shown to be untenable; not only does it rest on no external evidence, but it flies in the face of what little external evidence we have. Based on a base that has been cut from under it, it has been sustained by arguments which have never succeeded in leading two scholars to the same conclusions, and which are of that character which will lead any one to any conclusion however preposterous, which he may have made up his mind to consider himself as having established. A writer in the Spectator of Jan. 2, 1892, whose name I do not know, concluded an article by saying,

That the finest poem of the world was created out of the contributions of a multitude of poets revolts all our literary instincts.

Of course it does, but the Wolfian heresy, more or less modified, is still so generally accepted both on the continent and in England that it will not be easy to exterminate it.

Easy or no this is a task well worth attempting, for Wolf’s theory has been pregnant of harm in more ways than are immediately apparent. Who would have thought of attacking Shakespeare’s existence — for if Shakespeare did not write his plays he is no longer Shakespeare — unless men’s minds had been unsettled by Wolf’s virtual denial of Homer’s? Who would have reascribed picture after picture in half the galleries of Europe, often wantonly, and sometimes in defiance of the clearest evidence, if the unsettling of questions concerning authorship had not been found to be an easy road to reputation as a critic? Nor does there appear to be any end to it, for each succeeding generation seems bent on trying to surpass the recklessness of its predecessor.

And more than this, the following pages will read a lesson of another kind, which I will leave the reader to guess at, to men whom I will not name, but some of whom he may perhaps know, for there are many of them. Indeed I have sometimes thought that the sharpness of this lesson may be a more useful service than either the establishment of the points which I have set myself to prove, or the dispelling of the nightmares of Homeric extravagance which German professors have evolved out of their own inner consciousness.

Such language may be held to come ill from one who is setting himself to maintain two such seeming paradoxes as the feminine authorship, and Sicilian origin, of the “Odyssey.” One such shock would be bad enough, but two, and each so far-reaching, are intolerable. I feel this, and am oppressed by it. When I look back on the record of Iliadic and Odyssean controversy for nearly 2500 years, and reflect that it is, I may say, dead against me; when I reflect also upon the complexity of academic interests, not to mention the commercial interests vested in well-known school books and so-called education — how can I be other than dismayed at the magnitude, presumption, and indeed utter hopelessness, of the task I have undertaken?

How can I expect Homeric scholars to tolerate theories so subversive of all that most of them have been insisting on for so many years? It is a matter of Homeric (for my theory affects Iliadic questions nearly as much as it does the “Odyssey”) life and death for them or for myself. If I am right they have invested their reputation for sagacity in a worthless stock. What becomes, for example, of a great part of Professor Jebb’s well-known Introduction to Homer— to quote his shorter title — if the “Odyssey” was written all of it at Trapani, all of it by one hand, and that hand a woman’s? Either my own work is rubbish, in which case it should not be hard to prove it so without using discourteous language, or not a little of theirs is not worth the paper on which it is written. They will be more than human, therefore, if they do not handle me somewhat roughly.

As for the “Odyssey” having been written by a woman, they will tell me that I have not even established a primâ facie case for my opinion. Of course I have not. It was Bentley who did this, when he said that the “Iliad” was written for men, and the “Odyssey” for women. * The history of literature furnishes us with no case in which a man has written a great masterpiece for women rather than men. If an anonymous book strikes so able a critic as having been written for women, a primâ facie case is established for thinking that it was probably written by a woman. I deny, however, that the “Odyssey” was written for women; it was written for any one who would listen to it. What Bentley meant was that in the “Odyssey” things were looked at from a woman’s point of view rather than a man’s, and in uttering this obvious truth, I repeat, he established once for all a strong primâ facie case for thinking that it was written by a woman.

If my opponents can fasten a cavil on to the ninth part of a line of my argument, they will take no heed of, and make no reference to, the eight parts on which they dared not fasten a misrepresentation however gross. They will declare it fatal to my theory that there were no Greek-speaking people at Trapani when the “Odyssey” was written. Having fished up this assertion from the depths of their ignorance of what Thucydides, let alone Virgil, has told us — or if they set these writers on one side, out of their still profounder ignorance of what there was or was not at Trapani in the eleventh century before Christ — they will refuse to look at the internal evidence furnished by the “Odyssey” itself. They will ignore the fact that Thucydides tells us that “Phocians of those from Troy,” which as I will show (see Chapter xii.) can only mean Phocæans, settled at Mount Eryx, and ask me how I can place Phocæans on Mount Eryx when Thucydides says it was Phocians who settled there? They will ignore the fact that even though Thucydides had said “Phocians” without qualifying his words by adding “of those from Troy,” or “of the Trojan branch,” he still places Greek-speaking people within five miles of Trapani.

As for the points of correspondence between both Ithaca and Scheria, and Trapani, they will remind me that Captain Fluelen found resemblances between Monmouth and Macedon, as also Bernardino Caimi did between Jerusalem and Varallo-Sesia; they will say that if mere topographical resemblances are to be considered, the Channel Islands are far more like the Ionian group as described in the “Odyssey” than those off Trapani are, while Balaclava presents us with the whole Scherian combination so far more plausibly than Trapani as to leave no doubt which site should be preferred. I have not looked at the map of Balaclava to see whether this is so or no, nor yet at other equally promising sites which have been offered me, but am limiting myself to giving examples of criticisms which have been repeatedly passed upon my theory during the last six years, and which I do not doubt will be repeatedly passed upon it in the future.

On the other hand I may comfort myself by reflecting that however much I may deserve stoning there is no one who can stone me with a clear conscience. Those who hold, as most people now do, that the “Iliad” and “Odyssey” belong to ages separated from one another by some generations, must be haunted by the reflection that though the diversity of authorship was prominently insisted on by many people more than two thousand years ago, not a single Homeric student from those days to the end of the last century could be brought to acknowledge what we now deem self-evident. Professor Jebb, writing of Bentley, * says

He had not felt what is now so generally admitted, that the “Odyssey” bears the marks of a later time than the “Iliad.”

How came so great a man as Bentley not to see what is so obvious? Truly, as has been said by Mr. Gladstone, if Homer is old, the systematic and comprehensive study of him is still young. *

I shall not argue the question whether the “Iliad” and “Odyssey” are by the same person, inasmuch as if I convince the reader that the “Odyssey” was written by a woman and in Sicily, it will go without saying that it was not written by Homer; for there can be no doubt about the sex of the writer of the “Iliad.” The same canons which will compel us to ascribe the “Odyssey” to a woman forbid any other conclusion than that the “Iliad” was written by a man. I shall therefore proceed at once to the question whether the “Odyssey” was written by a man or by a woman.

It is an old saying that no man can do better for another than he can for himself, I may perhaps therefore best succeed in convincing the reader if I retrace the steps by which I arrived at the conclusions I ask him to adopt.

I was led to take up the “Odyssey” by having written the libretto and much of the music for a secular oratorio, Ulysses, on which my friend Mr. H. Festing Jones and I had been for some time engaged. Having reached this point it occurred to me that I had better, after all, see what the “Odyssey” said, and finding no readable prose translation, was driven to the original, to which I had not given so much as a thought for some five and thirty years.

The Greek being easy, I had little difficulty in understanding what I read, and I had the great advantage of coming to the poem with fresh eyes. Also, I read it all through from end to end, as I have since many times done.

Fascinated, however, as I at once was by its amazing interest and beauty, I had an ever-present sense of a something wrong, of a something that was eluding me, and of a riddle which I could not read. The more I reflected upon the words, so luminous and so transparent, the more I felt a darkness behind them that I must pierce before I could see the heart of the writer — and this was what I wanted; for art is only interesting in so far as it reveals an artist.

In the hope of getting to understand the poem better I set about translating it into plain prose, with the same benevolent leaning, say, towards Tottenham Court Road, that Messrs. Butcher and Lang have shewn towards Wardour Street. I admit, however, that Wardour Street English has something to say for itself. “The Ancient Mariner,” for example, would have lost a good deal if it had been called “The Old Sailor,” but on the whole I take it that a tale so absolutely without any taint of affectation as the “Odyssey” will speed best being unaffectedly told.

When I came to the Phæacian episode I felt sure that here at any rate the writer was drawing from life, and that Nausicaa, Queen Arēte, and Alcinous were real people more or less travestied, and on turning to Colonel Mure’s work * I saw that he was of the same opinion. Nevertheless I found myself continually aghast at the manner in which men were made to speak and act — especially, for example, during the games in honour of Ulysses described in Book viii. Colonel Mure says (p. 407) that “the women engross the chief share of the small stock of common sense allotted to the community.” So they do, but it never occurred to me to ask myself whether men commonly write brilliant books in which the women are made more sensible than the men. Still dominated by the idea that the writer was a man, I conjectured that he might be some bard, perhaps blind, who lived among the servants much as the chaplain in a great house a couple of hundred years ago among ourselves. Such a bard, even though not blind, would only see great people from a distance, and would not mix with them intimately enough to know how they would speak and act among themselves. It never even crossed my mind that it might have been the commentators who were blind, and that they might have thus come to think that the poet must have been blind too.

The view that the writer might have lived more in the steward’s room than with the great people of the house served (I say it with shame) to quiet me for a time, but by and by it struck me that though the men often both said and did things that no man would say or do, the women were always ladies when the writer chose to make them so. How could it be that a servant’s hall bard should so often go hopelessly wrong with his men, and yet be so exquisitely right with every single one of his women? But still I did not catch it. It was not till I got to Circe that it flashed upon me that I was reading the work, not of an old man, but of a young woman — and of one who knew not much more about what men can and cannot do than I had found her know about the milking of ewes in the cave of Polyphemus.

The more I think of it the more I wonder at my own stupidity, for I remember that when I was a boy at school I used to say the “Odyssey” was the “Iliad’s “ wife, and that it was written by a clergyman. But however this may be, as soon as the idea that the writer was a woman — and a young one — presented itself to me, I felt that here was the reading of the riddle that had so long baffled me. I tried to divest myself of it, but it would not go; as long as I kept to it, everything cohered and was in its right place, and when I set it aside all was wrong again; I did not seek my conclusion; I did not even know it by sight so as to look for it; it accosted me, introduced itself as my conclusion, and vowed that it would never leave me; whereon, being struck with its appearance, I let it stay with me on probation for a week or two during which I was charmed with the propriety of all it said or did, and then bade it take rank with the convictions to which I was most firmly wedded; but I need hardly say that it was a long time before I came to see that the poem was all of it written at Trapani, and that the writer had introduced herself into her work under the name of Nausicaa.

I will deal with these points later, but would point out that the moment we refuse to attribute the “Odyssey” to the writer of the “Iliad” (whom we should alone call Homer) it becomes an anonymous work; and the first thing that a critic will set himself to do when he considers an anonymous work is to determine the sex of the writer. This, even when women are posing as men, is seldom difficult — indeed it is done almost invariably with success as often as an anonymous work is published — and when any one writes with the frankness and spontaneity which are such an irresistible charm in the “Odyssey,” it is not only not difficult but exceedingly easy; difficulty will only arise, if the critic is, as we have all been in this case, dominated by a deeply-rooted preconceived opinion, and if also there is some strong à priori improbability in the supposition that the writer was a woman.

It may be urged that it is extremely improbable that any woman in any age should write such a masterpiece as the “Odyssey.” But so it also is that any man should do so. In all the many hundreds of years since the “Odyssey” was written, no man has been able to write another that will compare with it. It was extremely improbable that the son of a Stratford wool-stapler should write Hamlet, or that a Bedfordshire tinker should produce such a masterpiece as Pilgrim’s Progress. Phenomenal works imply a phenomenal workman, but there are phenomenal women as well as phenomenal men, and though there is much in the “Iliad” which no woman, however phenomenal, can be supposed at all likely to have written, there is not a line in the “Odyssey” which a woman might not perfectly well write, and there is much beauty which a man would be almost certain to neglect. Moreover there are many mistakes in the “Odyssey” which a young woman might easily make, but which a man could hardly fall into — for example, making the wind whistle over the waves at the end of Book ii., thinking that a lamb could live on two pulls a day at a ewe that was already milked (ix. 244, 245, and 308, 309), believing a ship to have a rudder at both ends (ix. 483, 540), thinking that dry and well-seasoned timber can be cut from a growing tree (v. 240), making a hawk while still on the wing tear its prey — a thing that no hawk can do (xv. 527).

I see that Messrs. Butcher and Lang omit ix. 483 in which the rudder is placed in the bows of a ship, but it is found in the text, and is the last kind of statement a copyist would be inclined to intercalate. Yet I could have found it in my heart to conceive the text in fault, had I not also found the writer explaining in Book v. 255 that Ulysses gave his raft a rudder “in order that he might be able to steer it.” People whose ideas about rudders have become well defined will let the fact that a ship is steered by means of its rudder go without saying. Furthermore, not only does she explain that Ulysses would want a rudder to steer with, but later on (line 270) she tells us that he actually did use the rudder when he had made it, and, moreover, that he used it τεχνηέντως, or skilfully.

Young women know that a horse goes before a cart, and being told that the rudder guides the ship, are apt — and I have more than once found them do so — to believe that it goes in front of the ship. Probably the writer of the “Odyssey” forgot for the moment at which end the rudder should be. She thought it all over yesterday, and was not going to think it all over again to-day, so she put the rudder at both ends, intending to remove it from the one that should prove to be the wrong one; later on she forgot, or did not think it worth while to trouble about so small a detail.

So with Calypso’s axe (v. 234-36). No one who was used to handling an axe would describe it so fully and tell us that it “suited Ulysses’ hands,” and was furnished with a handle. I have heard say that a celebrated female authoress was discovered to be a woman by her having spoken of a two-foot ruler instead of a two-foot rule, but over-minuteness of description is deeper and stronger evidence of unfamiliarity than mistaken nomenclature is.

Such mistakes and self-betrayals as those above pointed out enhance rather than impair the charm of the “Odyssey.” Granted that the “Odyssey” is inferior to the “Iliad” in strength, robustness, and wealth of poetic imagery, I cannot think that it is inferior in its power of fascinating the reader. Indeed, if I had to sacrifice one or the other, I can hardly doubt that I should let the “Iliad” go rather than the “Odyssey”— just as if I had to sacrifice either Mont Blanc or Monte Rosa, I should sacrifice Mont Blanc, though I know it to be in many respects the grander mountain of the two. *

It should go, however, without saying that much which is charming in a woman’s work would be ridiculous in a man’s, and this is eminently exemplified in the “Odyssey.” If a woman wrote it, it is as lovely as the frontispiece of this volume, and becomes, if less vigorous, yet assuredly more wonderful than the “Iliad”; if, on the other hand, it is by a man, the half Bayeux tapestry, half Botticelli’s Venus rising from the sea, or Primavera, feeling with which it impresses us gives place to astonishment how any man could have written it. What is a right manner for a woman is a wrong one for a man, and vice versâ. Jane Austen’s young men, for example, are seldom very interesting, but it is only those who are blind to the exquisite truth and delicacy of Jane Austen’s work who will feel any wish to complain of her for not understanding young men as well as she did young women.

The writer of a Times leading article (Feb. 4th, 1897) says:

The sex difference is the profoundest and most far-reaching that exists among human beings . . . . Women may or may not be the equals of men in intelligence; . . . but women in the mass will act after the manner of women, which is not and never can be the manner of men.

And as they will act, so will they write. This, however, does not make their work any the less charming when it is good of its kind; on the contrary, it makes it more so.

Dismissing, therefore, the difficulty of supposing that any woman could write so wonderful a poem as the “Odyssey,” is there any à priori obstacle to our thinking that such a woman may have existed, say, B.C. 1000? I know of none. Greek literature does not begin to dawn upon us till about 600 B.C. Earlier than this date we have hardly anything except the “Iliad,” the “Odyssey,” and that charming writer Hesiod. When, however, we come to the earliest historic literature we find that famous poetesses abounded.

Those who turn to the article Sappho” in Smith’s Dictionary of Classical Biography will find Gorgo and Andromeda mentioned as her rivals. Among her fellows were Anactoria of Miletus, Gongyla of Colophon, Eunica of Salamis, Gyrinna, Atthis, and Mnasidica. “Those,” says the writer, “who attained the highest celebrity for their works were Damophila, the Pamphylian, and Erinna of Telos.” This last-named poetess wrote a long poem upon the distaff, which was considered equal to Homer himself — the “Odyssey” being probably intended.

Again, there was Baucis, whose Epitaph Erinna wrote. Turning to Müller’s work upon the Dorians, I find reference made to the amatory poetesses of Lesbos. He tells us also of Corinna, who is said to have competed successfully with Pindar, and Myrto, who certainly competed with him, but with what success we know not. Again, there was Diotima the Arcadian; and looking through Bergk’s Poetae Lyrici Graeci I find other names of women, fragments of whose works have reached us through quotation by extant writers. Among the Hebrews there were Miriam, Deborah, and Hannah, all of them believed to be centuries older than the “Odyssey.”

If, then, poetesses were as abundant as we know them to have been in the earliest known ages of Greek literature over a wide area of Greece, Asia Minor, and the islands of the Ægæan, there is no ground for refusing to admit the possibility that a Greek poetess lived in Sicily B.C. 1000, especially when we know from Thucydides that the particular part of Sicily where I suppose her to have lived was colonised from the North West corner of Asia Minor centuries before the close of the Homeric age. The civilisation depicted in the “Odyssey” is as advanced as any that is likely to have existed in Mitylene or Telos 600-500 B.C., while in both the “Iliad” and the “Odyssey” the status of women is represented as being much what it is at the present, and as incomparably higher than it was in the Athenian civilisation with which we are best acquainted. To imagine a great Greek poetess at Athens in the age of Pericles would be to violate probability, but I might almost say that in an age when women were as free as they are represented to us in the “Odyssey” it is a violation of probability to suppose that there were no poetesses.

We have no reason to think that men found the use of their tongue sooner than women did; why then should we suppose that women lagged behind men when the use of the pen had become familiar? If a woman could work pictures with her needle as Helen did, * and as the wife of William the Conqueror did in a very similar civilisation, she could write stories with her pen if she had a mind to do so.

The fact that the recognised heads of literature in the Homeric age were the nine Muses — for it is always these or “The Muse” that is involved, and never Apollo or Minerva — throws back the suggestion of female authorship to a very remote period, when, to be an author at all, was to be a poet, for prose writing is a comparatively late development. Both “Iliad” and “Odyssey” begin with an invocation addressed to a woman, who, as the head of literature, must be supposed to have been an authoress, though none of her works have come down to us. In an age, moreover, when men were chiefly occupied either with fighting or hunting, the arts of peace, and among them all kinds of literary accomplishment, would be more naturally left to women. If the truth were known, we might very likely find that it was man rather than woman who has been the interloper in the domain of literature. Nausicaa was more probably a survival than an interloper, but most probably of all she was in the height of the fashion.

4:* See Introduction to the Iliad and the Odyssey, by R. C. Jebb, 1888, p. 106.

5:* Bentley, English Men of Letters, Macmillan, 1892, p. 148.

6:* Homer, Macmillan, 1878, p. 2.

7:* Language and Literature of Ancient Greece, Longman, 1850, Vol. I., p. 404.

10:* Shakespeare, of course, is the whole chain of the Alps, comprising both Mont Blanc and Monte Rosa.

13:* “Iliad,” iii. 126.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31