The Authoress of the Odyssey, by Samuel Butler

Chapter iii

The Preponderance of Woman in the Odyssey.

Having in my first chapter met the only à priori objections to my views concerning the sex of the writer which have yet been presented to me, I now turn to the evidence of female authorship which is furnished by the story which I have just laid before the reader.

What, let me ask, is the most unerring test of female authorship? Surely a preponderance of female interest, and a fuller knowledge of those things which a woman generally has to deal with, than of those that fall more commonly within the province of man. People always write by preference of what they know best, and they know best what they most are, and have most to do with. This extends to ways of thought and to character, even more than to action. If man thinks the noblest study for mankind to be man, woman not less certainly believes it to be woman.

Hence if in any work the women are found to be well and sympathetically drawn, while the men are mechanical and by comparison perfunctorily treated, it is, I imagine, safe to infer that the writer is a woman; and the converse holds good with man. Man and woman never fully understand one another save, perhaps, during courtship and honeymoon, and as a man understands man more fully than a woman can do, so does a woman, woman. Granted, it is the delight of either sex to understand the other as fully as it can, and those who succeed most in this respect are the best and happiest whether men or women; but do what we may the barriers can never be broken down completely, and each sex will dwell mainly, though not, of course, exclusively, within its own separate world. When, moreover, we come to think of it, it is not desirable that they should be broken down, for it is on their existence that much of the attraction of either sex to the other depends.

Men seem unable to draw women at all without either laughing at them or caricaturing them; and so, perhaps, a woman never draws a man so felicitously as when she is making him ridiculous. If she means to make him so she is certain to succeed; if she does not mean it she will succeed more surely still. Either sex, in fact, can caricature the other delightfully, and certainly no writer has ever shown more completely than the writer of the “Odyssey” has done that, next to the glorification of woman, she considers man’s little ways and weaknesses to be the fittest theme on which her genius can be displayed. But I doubt whether any writer in the whole range of literature (excepting, I suppose, Shakespeare) has succeeded in drawing a full length, life-sized, serious portrait of a member of the sex opposite to the writer’s own.

It is admitted on all hands that the preponderance of interest in the “Iliad” is on the side of man, and in the “Odyssey” on that of woman. Women in the “Iliad” are few in number and rarely occupy the stage. True, the goddesses play important parts, but they are never taken seriously.

Shelley, again, speaking of the “perpetually increasing magnificence of the last seven books” of the “Iliad,” says, “The ‘Odyssey’ is sweet, but there is nothing like this." * The writer of the “Odyssey” is fierce as a tigress at times, but the feeling of the poem is on the whole exactly what Shelley says it is. Strength is felt everywhere, even in the tenderest passages of the “Iliad,” but it is sweetness rather than strength that fascinates us throughout the “Odyssey.” It is the charm of a woman not of a man.

So, again, to quote a more recent authority, Mr. Gladstone in his work on Homer already referred to, says (p. 28):—

It is rarely in the “Iliad” that grandeur or force give way to allow the exhibition of domestic affection. Conversely, in the “Odyssey” the family life supplies the tissue into which is woven the thread of the poem.

Any one who is familiar with the two poems must know that what Mr. Gladstone has said is true; and he might have added, not less truly, that when there is any exhibition of domestic life and affection in the “Iliad” the men are dominant, and the women are under their protection, whereas throughout the “Odyssey” it is the women who are directing, counselling, and protecting the men.

Who are the women in the “Odyssey”? There is Minerva, omnipresent at the elbows of Ulysses and Telemachus to keep them straight and alternately scold and flatter them. In the “Iliad” she is a great warrior but she is no woman: in the “Odyssey” she is a great woman but no warrior; we have, of course, Penelope — masterful nearly to the last and tossed off to the wings almost from the moment that she has ceased to be so; Euryclea, the old servant, is quite a match for Telemachus, “do not find fault, child,” she says to him, “when there is no one to find fault with” (xx. 135). Who can doubt that Helen is master in the house of Menelaus — of whom all she can say in praise is that he is “not deficient either in person or understanding” (iv. 264)? Idothea in Book iv. treats Menelaus de haut en bas, all through the Proteus episode. She is good to him and his men, but they must do exactly what she tells them, and she evidently enjoys “running” them — for I can think of no apter word. Calypso is the master mind, not Ulysses; and, be it noted, that neither she nor Circe seem to have a manservant on their premises. I was at an inn once and asked the stately landlady if I could see the landlord. She bridled up and answered, “We have no landlord, sir, in this house; I cannot see what use a man is in a hotel except to clean boots and windows.” There spoke Circe and Calypso, but neither of them seem to have made even this much exception in man’s favour.

Let the reader ask any single ladies of his acquaintance, who live in a house of their own, whether they prefer being waited upon by men or by women, and I shall be much surprised if he does not find that they generally avoid having a man about the house at all — gardeners of course excepted. But then the gardener generally has a wife, and a house of his own.

Take Nausicaa again, delightful as she is, it would not be wise to contradict her; she knows what is good for Ulysses, and all will go well with him so long as he obeys her, but she must be master and he man. I see I have passed over Ino in Book v. She is Idothea over again, just as Circe is Calypso, with very little variation. Who again is master — Queen Arēte or King Alcinous? Nausicaa knows well enough how to answer this question. When giving her instructions to Ulysses she says:—

“Never mind my father, but go up to my mother and embrace her knees; if she is well disposed towards you there is some chance of your getting home to see your friends again” (vi. 310-315).

Throughout the Phæacian episode Arēte (whose name, by the way, I take to be one of the writer’s tolerably transparent disguises, and to be intended to suggest Arĕte, or “Goodness”) is a more important person than Alcinous. I do not believe in her myself; I believe Penelope would have been made more amiable if Arēte had been as nice a person as the writer says she was; leaving her, however, on one side, so much more important are wives than husbands in the eyes of the author of the “Odyssey” that when Ulysses makes his farewell speech to the Phæacians, she makes him say that he hopes they may continue to give satisfaction to their wives and children (xiii. 44, 45), instead of hoping that their wives and children will continue to give satisfaction to them. A little lower down he wishes Queen Arēte all happiness with her children, her people, and lastly with King Alcinous. As for King Alcinous, it does not matter whether he is happy or no, provided he gives satisfaction to Queen Arēte; but he was bound to be happy as the husband of such an admirable woman.

So when the Duke of York was being married I heard women over and over again say they hoped the Princess May would be very happy with him, but I never heard one say that she hoped the Duke would be very happy with the Princess May. Men said they hoped the pair would be very happy, without naming one more than the other.

I have touched briefly on all the more prominent female characters of the “Odyssey.” The moral in every case seems to be that man knows very little, and cannot be trusted not to make a fool of himself even about the little that he does know, unless he has a woman at hand to tell him what he ought to do. There is not a single case in which a man comes to the rescue of female beauty in distress; it is invariably the other way about.

The only males who give Ulysses any help while he is on his wanderings are Æolus, who does him no real service and refuses to help him a second time, and Mercury, who gives him the herb Moly (x. 305) to protect him against the spells of Circe. In this last case, however, I do not doubt that the writer was tempted by the lovely passage of “Il.” xxiv., where Mercury meets Priam to conduct him to the Achæan camp; one pretty line, indeed (and rather more), of the Iliadic passage above referred to is taken bodily by the writer of the “Odyssey” to describe the youth and beauty of the god. * With these exceptions, throughout the poem Andromeda rescues Perseus, not Perseus Andromeda — Christiana is guide and guardian to Mr. Greatheart, not Mr. Greatheart to Christiana.

The case of Penelope may seem to be an exception. It may be urged that Ulysses came to her rescue, and that the whole poem turns on his doing so. But this is not true. Ulysses kills the suitors, firstly, because they had wasted his substance — this from the first to last is the main grievance; secondly, because they had violated the female servants of his house; and only, thirdly, because they had offered marriage to his wife while he was still alive (xxii. 36-38). Never yet was woman better able to hold her own when she chose, and I will show at full length shortly that when she did not hold it it was because she preferred not to do so.

I have dealt so far with the writer’s attitude towards women when in the world of the living. Let us now see what her instinct prompts her to consider most interesting in the kingdom of the dead. When Ulysses has reached the abode of Hades, the first ghost he meets is that of his comrade Elpenor, who had got drunk and fallen off the roof of Circe’s house just as Ulysses and his men were about to set sail. We are expressly told that he was a person of no importance, being remarkable neither for sense nor courage, so that it does not matter about killing him, and it is transparent that the accident is only allowed to happen in order to enable Ulysses to make his little joke when he greets the ghost in Hades to the effect that Elpenor has got there more quickly by land than Ulysses had done by water. Elpenor, therefore, does not count.

The order, however, in which the crowd of ghosts approach Ulysses, is noticeable. After the blood of the victims sacrificed by Ulysses had flowed into the trench which he had dug to receive it, the writer says:—

“The ghosts came trooping up from Erebus — brides, young bachelors, old men worn out with toil, maids who had been crossed in love, and brave men who had been killed in battle, with their armour still smirched with blood; they came from every quarter, and flitted round the trench with a strange kind of screaming sound that made me turn pale with fear” (xi. 36-43).

I do not think a male writer would have put the brides first, nor yet the young bachelors second. He would have begun with kings or great warriors or poets, nor do I believe he would make Ulysses turn pale with fear merely because the ghosts screamed a little; they would have had to menace him more seriously.

What does Bunyan do? When Christian tells Pliable what kind of company he will meet in Paradise, he says:—

“There we shall see elders with golden crowns; there we shall see holy virgins with their golden harps; there we shall see men that by the world were cut in pieces, burnt in flames, eaten of beasts, drowned in the seas, for the love they bore to the Lord of that place; all well and cloathed with immortality as with a garment.”

Men present themselves to him instinctively in the first instance, and though he quits them for a moment, he returns to them immediately without even recognising the existence of women among the martyrs.

Moreover, when Christian and Hopeful have passed through the river of death and reached the eternal city, it is none but men who greet them.

True, after having taken Christian to the Eternal City, Bunyan conducts Christiana also, and her children, in his Second Part; but surely if he had been an inspired woman and not an inspired man, and if this woman had been writing as it was borne in upon her by her own instinct, neither aping man nor fearing him, she would have taken Christiana first, and Christian, if she took him at all, in her appendix.

Next to Elpenor the first ghost that Ulysses sees is that of his mother Anticlea, and he is sorely grieved that he may not, by Circe’s instructions, speak to her till he has heard what the Theban prophet Tiresias had got to tell him. As soon as he has heard this, he enquires how he can make his mother recognise him, and converse with him. This point being answered there follows the incomparably beautiful scene between him and Anticlea, which occupies some seventy or eighty lines, and concludes by his mother’s telling him to get home as fast as he can that he may tell of his adventures in Hades — to whom? To the world at large? To his kinsmen and countrymen? No: it is to his wife that he is to recount them and apparently to nobody else (xi. 223, 224). Very right and proper; but more characteristic of a female than of a male writer.

Who follow immediately on the departure of Anticlea? Proserpine sends up “all the wives and daughters of great princes”— Tyro, daughter of Salmoneus, Antiope daughter of Asopus, Alcmena, Epicaste (better known as Jocasta), Chloris wife of Neleus, Leda, Iphimedeia, Phædra, Procris, Ariadne, Mæra, Clymene, and Eriphyle. Ulysses says that there were many more wives and daughters of heroes whom he conversed with, but that time would not allow him to detail them further; in deference, however, to the urgent request of King Alcinous, he goes on to say how he met Agamemnon, Achilles, and Ajax (who would not speak to him); he touches lightly also on Minos, Orion, Tityus, Tantalus, Sisyphus, and Hercules.

I have heard women say that nothing can be made out of the fact that the women in Hades are introduced before the men, inasmuch as they would themselves have been more likely to put the men before the women, and can understand that a male writer would be attracted in the first instance by the female shades. When women know what I am driving at, they generally tell me this, but when I have got another woman to sound them for me, or when I have stalked them warily I find that they would rather meet the Virgin Mary, Eve, Queen Elizabeth, Cleopatra, Sappho, Jane Austen, St. Elizabeth of Hungary, Helen of Troy, Zenobia, and other great women than even Homer and Shakespeare. One comfortable homely woman with whom I had taken great pains said she could not think what I meant by asking such questions, but if I wanted to know, she would as lief meet Mrs. Elizabeth Lazenby as Queen Elizabeth or any one of them. For my own part, had I to choose a number of shades whom I would meet, I should include Sappho, Jane Austen, and the authoress of the “Odyssey” in my list, but I should probably ask first for Homer, Shakespeare, Handel, Schubert, Arcangelo Corelli, Purcell, Giovanni Bellini, Rembrandt, Holbein, De Hooghe, Donatello, Jean de Wespin and many another man — yet the writer of the “Odyssey” interests me so profoundly that I am not sure I should not ask to see her before any of the others.

I know of no other women writers who have sent their heroes down to Hades, but when men have done so they deal with men first and women afterwards. Let us turn to Dante. When Virgil tells him whom Christ first saved when he descended into Hell, we find that he first rescued Adam. Not a word is there about Eve. Then are rescued Abel, Noah, Abraham, David, Jacob and his sons — and lastly, just before the et ceteri— one woman, Rachel. When Virgil has finished, Dante begins meeting people on his own account. First come Homer, Horace, Ovid, and Lucan; when these have been disposed of we have Electra, Hector, Æneas, Cæsar, Camilla, Penthesilea, Latinus, Lavinia, Brutus, Cato’s wife Marcia, Julia, Cornelia, Saladin, Socrates, Plato, Democritus, Diogenes, Heraclitus, Empedocles, Anaxagoras, Thales, Zeno, Dioscorides, Orpheus, Linus, Cicero, Seneca, Euclid, Ptolemy, Hippocrates, Galen, Avicen, and Averroes. Seven women to twenty-six men. This list reminds me of Sir John Lubbock’s hundred books, I shall therefore pursue Dante no further; I have given it in full because I do not like him. So far as I can see the Italians themselves are beginning to have their doubts about him; “Dante è un falso idolo,” has been said to me more than once lately by highly competent critics.

Let us now look to the “Æneid.” When Æneas and the Sibyl approach the river Styx, we read:—

  Huc omnis turba ad ripas effusa ruebat

Matres atque viri, defunctaque corpora vitâ

Magnanimûm heroum, pueri, innuptæque puellæ,

Impositique rogis juvenes ante ora parentum.

“Æn.” vi. 305-308.

The women indeed come first, but the i in viri being short Virgil could not help himself, and the first persons whom he recognises as individuals are men — namely two of his captains who had been drowned, Leucaspis and Orontes — and Palinurus. After crossing the Styx he first passes through the region inhabited by those who have died as infants; then that by those who have been unjustly condemned to die; then that by suicides; then that of those who have died for love, where he sees several women, and among them Dido, who treats him as Ajax treated Ulysses. The rest of those whom Æneas sees or converses with in Hades are all men.

Lucian is still more ungallant, for in his dialogues of the dead he does not introduce a single woman.

One other case alone occurs to me among the many that ought to do so; I refer to Fielding’s Journey to the next World. The three first ghosts whom he speaks to in the coach are men. When he gets on his journey’s end, after a short but most touching scene with his own little daughter who had died a mere child only a few months before Fielding wrote, and who is therefore nothing to the point, he continues: “The first spirit with whom I entered into discourse, was the famous Leonidas of Sparta.” Of course; soldier will greet soldier first. In the next paragraph one line is given to Sappho, who we are told was singing to the accompaniment of Orpheus. Then we go on to Homer, * Virgil, Addison, Shakespeare, Betterton, Booth, and Milton.

Defoe, again, being an elderly married man, and wanting to comfort Robinson Crusoe, can think of nothing better for him than the companionship of another man, whereon he sends him Friday. A woman would have sent him an amiable and good-looking white girl whom the cannibals had taken prisoner from some shipwrecked vessel. This she would have held as likely to be far more useful to him.

So much to show that the mind of man, unless when he is young and lovesick, turns more instinctively to man than to woman. And I am convinced, as indeed every one else is, whether he or she knows it or no, that with the above exception, woman is more interested in woman. This is how the Virgin Mary has come to be Queen of Heaven, and practically of more importance than the Trinity itself in the eyes of the common people in Roman Catholic countries. For the women support the theologians more than the men do. The male Jews, again, so I am told, have a prayer in which the men thank God that they were not born women, and the women, that they were not born men. Each sex believes most firmly in itself, nor till we have done away with individualism altogether can we find the smallest reason to complain of this arrangement. A woman if she attempts an Epic is almost compelled to have a man for her central figure, but she will minimise him, and will maximise his wife and daughters, drawing them with subtler hand. That the writer of the “Odyssey” has done this is obvious; and this fact alone should make us incline strongly towards thinking that we are in the hands not of a man but of a woman.

106:* Select Letters of Percy Bysshe Shelley, edited by Richard Garnett. Kegan Paul Trench & Co., 1882, p. 149.

109:* “Od.” x. 278, 299; cf. “Il.” xxiv. 347, 348.

114:* Talking of Homer Fielding says, “I had the curiosity to ask him whether he had really writ that poem [the “Iliad”] in detached pieces and flung it about all over Greece, according to the report that went of him. He smiled at my question, and asked me whether there appeared any connection in the poem; for if there did he thought I might answer for myself.” This was first published in 1743, and is no doubt intended as a reply to Bentley. See Jebb’s Introduction to Homer, ed. 1888, note 1 on p. 106.

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