The Authoress of the Odyssey, by Samuel Butler

Chapter iv

Jealousy for the Honour and Dignity of Woman — Severity Against Those who have Disgraced Their Sex — Love of Small Religious Observances — Of Preaching — Of White Lies and Small Play-Acting — Of Having Things Both Ways — And of Money.

Not only does the writer shew a markedly greater both interest and knowledge when dealing with women, but she makes it plain that she is exceedingly jealous for the honour of her sex, and by consequence inexorable in her severity against those women who have disgraced it. Goddesses may do what they like, they are not to be judged by mortal codes; but a mortal woman who has fallen must die.

No woman throughout the “Odyssey” is ever laughed at. Women may be hanged but they must not be laughed at. Men may be laughed at, indeed Alcinous is hardly mentioned at all except to be made more or less ridiculous. One cannot say that Menelaus in Books iv. and xv. is being deliberately made ridiculous, but made ridiculous he certainly is, and he is treated as a person of far less interest and importance than his wife is. Indeed Ulysses, Alcinous, Menelaus, and Nestor are all so like one another that I do not doubt they were drawn from the same person, just as Ithaca and Scheria are from the same place. Who that person was we shall never know; nevertheless I would point out that unless a girl adores her father he is generally, to her, a mysterious powerful being whose ways are not as her ways. He is feared as a dark room is feared by children; and if his wife is at all given to laughing at him, his daughter will not spare him, however much she may cajole and in a way love him.

But, as I have said, though men may be laughed at, the women are never taken other than quite seriously. Venus is, indeed, made a little ridiculous in one passage, but she was a goddess, so it does not matter; besides, the brunt of the ridicule was borne by Mars, and Venus was instantly re-adorned and comforted by the Graces. I cannot remember a single instance of a woman’s being made to do anything which she could not do without loss of dignity — I except, of course, slaves, and am speaking of the higher social classes.

It has often been observed that the Messenger of the Gods in the “Iliad” is always Iris, while in the “Odyssey” he is no less invariably Mercury. I incline to attribute this to the author’s dislike of the idea that so noble a lady as Iris should be made to fetch and carry for anybody. For it is evident Iris was still generally held to have been the messenger of the gods. This appears from the beginning of Book xviii., where we are told that Irus’s real name was Arnæus, but that he was called Irus (which is nothing but Iris with a masculine termination) “because he used to carry messages when any one would send him.” Writers do not fly in the face of current versions unless for some special reasons of their own.

If, however, a woman has misconducted herself she is to be shewn no mercy. There are only three cases in point, and one of these hardly counts inasmuch as the punishment of the guilty woman, Clytemnestra, was not meted out to her by the authoress herself. The hold, however, which the story of Clytemnestra’s guilt has upon her, the manner in which she repeatedly recurs to it, her horror at it, but at the same time her desire to remove as much of the blame as possible from Clytemnestra’s shoulders, convinces me that she actually feels the disgrace which Clytemnestra’s treachery has inflicted upon all women “even on the good ones.” Why should she be at such pains to tell us that Clytemnestra was a person of good natural disposition (iii. 266), and was irreproachable until death had removed the bard under whose protection Agamemnon had placed her? * When she was left alone — without either husband or guardian, and with an insidious wretch like Ægisthus beguiling her with his incessant flattery, she yielded, and there is no more to be said, except that it was very dreadful and she must be abandoned to her fate. I see Mr. Gladstone has wondered what should have induced Homer (whom he holds to have written the “Odyssey” as well as the “Iliad”) to tell us that Clytemnestra was a good woman to start with, * but with all my respect for his great services to Homeric literature, I cannot think that he has hit upon the right explanation. It should not be forgotten, moreover, that this extenuation of Clytemnestra’s guilt belongs to a part of the “Odyssey” that was engrafted on to the original design — a part in which, as I shall show later, there was another woman’s guilt, which was only not extenuated because it was absolutely denied in the face of overwhelming evidence — I mean Penelope’s.

The second case in point is that of the woman who stole Eumæus when he was a child. A few days after she has done this, and has gone on board the ship with the Phœnician traders, she is killed by Diana, and thrown overboard to the seals and fishes (xv. 403-484).

The third case is that of the women of Ulysses’ household who had misconducted themselves with the suitors during his absence. We are told that there were fifty women servants in the house, of whom twelve alone were guilty. It is curious that the number of servants should be exactly the same as that of the maidservants in the house of king Alcinous, and it should be also noted that twelve is a very small number for the guilty servants, considering that there were over a hundred suitors, and that the maids seem to have been able to leave the house by night when they chose to do so (xx. 6-8)— true, we are elsewhere told that the women had been violated and only yielded under compulsion, but this makes it more wonderful that they should be so few — and I may add, more terribly severe to hang them. I think the laxity of prehistoric times would have prompted a writer who was not particularly jealous for the honour of women, to have said that there were thirty-eight, or even more, guilty, and only twelve innocent. We must bear in mind on the other hand that when Euryclea brought out the thirty-eight innocent women to see Ulysses after he had killed the suitors, Ulysses recognised them all (xxii. 501). The youngest of them therefore can hardly have been under forty, and some no doubt were older — for Ulysses had been gone twenty years.

Now how are the guilty ones treated? A man who was speaking of my theory that the “Odyssey” was written by a woman as a mere mauvaise plaisanterie, once told me it was absurd, for the first thing a woman would have thought of after the suitors had been killed was the dining room carpet. I said that mutatis mutandis this was the very thing she did think of.

As soon as Ulysses has satisfied himself that not a single suitor is left alive, he tells Euryclea to send him the guilty maidservants, and on their arrival he says to Telemachus, Eumæus and Philœtius (xxii. 437-443)

“Begin to bear away the corpses, and make the women help you. When you have done this, sponge down the seats and tables, till you have set the whole house in order; then take the maids outside. . . . and thrust them through with your swords.”

These orders are faithfully obeyed; the maids help in the work of removing the bodies and they sponge the chairs and tables till they are clean — Ulysses standing over them and seeing that they lose no time. This done, Telemachus (whose mother, we are told (xxii. 426-427) had never yet permitted him to give orders to the female servants) takes them outside and hangs them (xxii. 462), as a more dishonourable death than the one his father had prescribed for them — perhaps also he may have thought he should have less blood to clean up than if he stabbed them — but see note on p. 98. The writer tells us in a line which she borrows in great part from the “Iliad," * that their feet move convulsively for a short time though not for very long, but her ideas of the way in which Telemachus hanged them are of the vaguest. No commentator has ever yet been able to understand it; the only explanation seems to be that the writer did not understand it herself, and did not care to do so. Let it suffice that the women were obviously hanged.

No man writing in pre-Christian times would have considered the guilt of the women to require so horrible a punishment. He might have ordered them to be killed, but he would not have carried his indignation to the point of making them first clean up the blood of their paramours. Fierce as the writer is against the suitors, she is far more so against the women. When the suitors are all killed, Euryclea begins to raise a cry of triumph over them, but Ulysses checks her. “Hold your tongue, woman,” he says, “it is ill bragging over the bodies of dead men” (xxii. 411). So also it is ill getting the most hideous service out of women up to the very moment when they are to be executed; but the writer seems to have no sense of this; where female honour has been violated by those of woman’s own sex, no punishment is too bad for them.

The other chief characteristics of the “Odyssey” which incline me to ascribe it to a woman are a kind of art for arts sake love of a small lie, and a determination to have things both ways whenever it suits her purpose. This never seems to trouble her. There the story is, and the reader may take it or leave it. She loves flimsy disguises and mystifications that stultify themselves, and mystify nobody. To go no further than Book i. and iii., Minerva in each of these tells plausible stories full of circumstantial details, about her being on her way to Temesa with a cargo of iron and how she meant to bring back copper (i. 184), and again how she was going to the Cauconians on the following morning to recover a large debt that had been long owing to her (iii. 366), and then, before the lies she had been at such pains to concoct are well out of her mouth she reveals herself by flying into the air in the form of an eagle. This, by the way, she could not well do in either case if she was in a roofed hall, but might be conceived as doing if, as I suppose her to have been in both cases, she was in a roofed cloister that ran round an open court.

There is a flavour of consecutive fifths in these flights, * if indeed they are not downright octaves, and I cannot but think that the writer would have found a smoother progression open to her if she had cared to look for one; but letting this pass, the way in which white lies occur from the first book to the last, the punctiliousness, omnipresent, with which small religious observances are insisted upon, coupled with not a little unscrupulousness when these have been attended to, the respect for gods and omens, and for the convenances generally — all these seem to me to be more characteristic of a woman’s writing than a man’s.

The seriousness, again, with which Telemachus is taken, the closeness with which he adheres to his programme, the precision with which he invariably does what his father, his mother, Minerva, or any responsible person tells him that he should do, except in one passage which is taken almost verbatim from the “Iliad," * the way in which Minerva beautifies him and preaches to him; the unobtrusive but exemplary manner in which he discharges all his religious, moral, and social duties — all seem to me to point in the direction of thinking that the writer is a woman and a young one.

How does Minerva preach to him? When he has washed his hands in the sea he prays that she will help him on his intended voyage in search of news concerning his father. The goddess then comes up to him disguised as Mentor, and speaks as follows:

“Telemachus, if you are made of the same stuff as your father you will be neither fool or coward henceforward, for Ulysses never broke his word nor left his work half done. If, then, you take after him your voyage will not be fruitless, but unless you have the blood of Ulysses and Penelope in your veins I see no likelihood of your succeeding. Sons are seldom as good men as their fathers; they are generally worse not better; still, as you are not going to be either fool or coward henceforward, and are not entirely without some share of your father’s wise discernment, I look with hope upon your undertaking” (ii. 270-280).

Hence the grandmotherly reputation which poor Mentor is never likely to lose. It was not Mentor but Minerva. The writer does not make Minerva say that daughters were rarely as good women as their mothers were. I had a very dear kind old aunt who when I was a boy used to talk to me just in this way. “Unstable as water,” she would say, “thou shalt not excel.” I almost heard her saying it (and more to the same effect) when I was translating the passage above given. My uncles did not talk to me at all in the same way.

I may add parenthetically here, but will deal with the subject more fully in a later chapter, that all the time Minerva was lecturing Telemachus she must have known that his going would be worse than useless, inasmuch as Ulysses was, by her own arrangements, on the very eve of his return; and indeed he was back again in Ithaca before Telemachus got home.

See, again, the manner in which Penelope scolds him in Book xviii. 215, &c., for having let Ulysses and Irus fight. She says:

“Telemachus, I fear you are no longer so discreet and well conducted as you used to be. When you were younger you had a greater sense of propriety; now, however, that you are grown up, though a stranger to look at you would take you for the son of a well-to-do father as far as size and good looks go, your conduct is by no means what it should have been. What is all this disturbance that has been going on, and how came you to allow a stranger to be so disgracefully ill-treated? What would have happened if he had suffered serious injury while a suppliant in our house? Surely this would have been very discreditable to you.”

I do not believe any man could make a mother rebuke her son so femininely.

Again, the fidelity with which people go on crying incessantly for a son who has been lost to them for twenty years, though they have still three sons left, * or for a brother whom they have never even seen,  is part and parcel of that jealousy for the sanctity of domestic life, in respect of which women are apt to be more exacting than men.

And yet in spite of all this the writer makes Telemachus take no pains to hide the fact that his grievance is not so much the alleged ill-treatment of his mother, nor yet the death of his father, as the hole which the extravagance of the suitors is making in his own pocket. When demanding assistance from his fellow countrymen, he says, of the two great evils that have fallen upon his house:

“The first of these is the loss of my excellent father, who was chief among all you here present and was like a father to every one of you. The second is much more serious, and ere long will be the utter ruin of my estate. The sons of all the chief men among you are pestering my mother to marry them against her will. They are afraid to go to her father Icarius, asking him to choose the one he likes best, and to provide marriage gifts for his daughter, but day after day they keep hanging about my father’s house, sacrificing our oxen, sheep, and fat goats for their banquets, and never giving so much as a thought to the quantity of wine they drink. No estate can stand such recklessness” (ii. 46-58).

Moreover it is clear throughout Books iii. and iv., in which Telemachus is trying to get news of his father, that what he really wants is evidence of his death, not of his being alive, though this may only be because he despairs of the second alternative. The indignation of Telemachus on the score of the extravagance of the suitors is noticeably shared by the writer all through the poem; she is furious about it; perhaps by reason of the waste she saw going on in her father’s house. Under all she says on this head we seem to feel the rankling of a private grievance, and it often crosses my mind that in the suitors she also saw the neighbours who night after night came sponging on the reckless good nature of Alcinous, to the probable eventual ruin of his house.

Women, religion, and money are the three dominant ideas in the mind of the writer of the “Odyssey.” In the “Iliad” the belli causa is a woman, money is a detail, and man is most in evidence. In the “Odyssey” the belli causa is mainly money, and woman is most in evidence — often when she does not appear to be so — just as in the books of the “Iliad” in which the Trojans are supposed to be most triumphant over the Achæans, it is the Trojans all the time whose slaughter is most dwelt upon.

It is strange that the “Odyssey,” in which money is so constantly present to the mind of the writer, should show not even the faintest signs of having been written from a business point of view, whereas the “Iliad,” in which money appears but little, abounds with evidence of its having been written to take with a certain audience whom the writer both disliked and despised — and hence of having been written with an eye to money.

I will now proceed to the question whether Penelope is being, if I may say so, whitewashed. Is the version of her conduct that is given us in the “Odyssey” the then current one, or is the writer manipulating a very different story, and putting another face on it — as all poets are apt to do with any story that they are re-telling? Tennyson, not to mention many earlier writers, has done this with the Arthurian Legends, the original form of which takes us into a moral atmosphere as different as can well be conceived from the one we meet with in the Idylls of the King.

There is no improbability (for other instances will occur to the reader so readily that I need not quote them) in the supposition that the writer of the “Odyssey” might choose to recast a story which she deemed insulting to her sex, as well as disgusting in itself; the question is, has she done so or not? Do traces of an earlier picture show up through the one she has painted over it, so distinctly as to make it obvious what the original picture represented? If they do not, I will give up my case, but if they do, I shall hold it highly improbable that a man in the Homeric age would undertake the impossible task of making Penelope at the same time plausible and virtuous. I am afraid I think he would be likely to make her out blacker than the last poet who had treated the subject, rather than be at any pains to whiten her.

Least of all would Homer himself have been prompted to make Penelope out better than report says she was. He would not have cared whether she was better or worse. He is fond of women, but he is also fond of teasing them, and he shows not the slightest signs of any jealousy for female honour, or of a desire to exalt women generally. He shows no more sign of this than he does of the ferocity with which punishment is inflicted on the women of Ulysses’ household — a ferocity which is in itself sufficient to make it inconceivable that the “Iliad” and the “Odyssey” should be by the same person.

116:* The part about the bard is omitted in my abridgement.

117:* Studies on Homer and the Homeric age. — Oxford University Press, 1858, Vol. I., p. 28.

118:* “Od.” xxii. 493, cf. “Il.” xiii. 573.

119:* I should explain to the non-musical reader that it is forbidden in music to have consecutive fifths or octaves between the same parts.

120:* “Od.” i. 356-359, cf. “Il.” vi. 490-493. The word “war” in the “Iliad” becomes “speech” in the “Odyssey.” There is no other change.

121:* “Od.” ii. 15-23.

121:† “Od.” iv. 186-188. Neither of these passages is given in my abridgement.

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