The Authoress of the Odyssey, by Samuel Butler

Chapter vi

Further Considerations Regarding the Character of Penelope — The Journey of Telemachus to Lacedæmon.

The question whether or no the writer of the “Odyssey” is putting her own construction on grosser versions of Penelope’s conduct current among her countrymen, has such an important bearing on that of the writer’s sex, that I shall bring further evidence to show how impossible she finds it to conceal the fact that those who knew Penelope best had no confidence in her.

Minerva with quick womanly instinct took in the situation at a glance, and went straight to the point. On learning from Telemachus that Penelope did not at once say she would not marry again, she wastes no words, but says promptly, “If your mother’s mind is set on marrying again” (and surely this implies that the speaker had no doubts that it was so set) “let her go back to her father” (i. 276). From this we may infer that Minerva had not only formed her own opinion about Penelope’s intentions, but saw also that she meant taking her time about the courtship, and was not likely to be brought to the point by any measures less decisive than sending her back to her father’s house.

We know, moreover, what Minerva thought of Penelope from another source. Minerva appears to Telemachus in a dream when he is staying with King Menelaus, and gives him to understand that his mother is on the point of marrying Eurymachus, one of the suitors (xv. I-42). This was (so at least we are intended to suppose) a wanton falsehood on Minerva’s part. Nevertheless if the matter had ended there, nothing probably would have pleased Telemachus better; for in spite of his calling the marriage “hateful,” there can be no question that he would have been only too thankful to get his mother out of the house, if she would go of her own free will. Penelope says he was continually urging her to marry and go, on the score of the expense he was being put to by the protracted attentions of the suitors (xix. 530-534). Penelope indeed seems to have been such an adept at lying that it is very difficult to know when to believe her, but Telemachus says enough elsewhere to leave no doubt that, in spite of a certain decent show of reluctance, he would have been glad that his mother should go.

Unfortunately Minerva’s story does not end with saying that Penelope means marrying Eurymachus; she adds that in this case she will probably steal some of Telemachus’s property. She says to him:

“You know what women are; they always want to do the best they can for the man who is married to them at the moment. They forget all about their first husband and the children that they have had by him. Go home, therefore, at once, and put everything in charge of the most respectable housekeeper you can find, until it shall please heaven to send you a wife of your own” (xv. 20-26).

This passage not only betrays a want of confidence in Penelope which is out of keeping with her ostensible antecedents, but it goes far to show that Minerva had read the Cypria, in which poem (now lost) we are told that Helen did exactly what is here represented as likely to be done by Penelope; but leaving this, surely if Penelope’s antecedents had been such as the writer wishes us to accept, Telemachus would have made a very different answer to the one he actually made. He would have said, “My dear Minerva, what a word has escaped the boundary of your teeth. My mother steal my property and go off with an unprincipled scoundrel like Eurymachus? No one can know better than yourself that she is the last woman in the world to be capable of such conduct.” And then he would have awoke as from a hideous dream.

What, however, happens in reality? Telemachus does indeed wake up (xv. 43) in great distress, but it is about his property, not about his mother. “Who steals my mother steals trash, but whoso filches from me my family heirlooms,” &c. He kicks poor Pisistratus to wake him, and says they must harness the horses and be off home at once. Pisistratus rejoins that it is pitch dark; come what may they must really wait till morning. Besides, they ought to say good bye to Menelaus, and get a present out of him; he will be sure to give them one, if Telemachus will not be in such an unreasonable hurry. Can anything show more clearly what was the inner mind both of Minerva and Telemachus about Penelope — and also what kind of ideas the audience had formed about her?

How differently, again, do Minerva and Telemachus regard the stealing. Telemachus feels it acutely and at once. Minerva takes it as a matter of course — but then the property was not hers. The authoress of the “Odyssey” is never severe about theft. Minerva evidently thinks it not nice of Penelope to want to marry again before it is known for certain that Ulysses is dead, but she explains that Eurymachus has been exceeding all the other suitors in the magnificence of his presents, and has lately increased them (xv. 17, 18). After all, Penelope had a right to please herself, and as long as she was going to be bond fide married, she might steal as much as she could, without loss of dignity or character. The writer put this view into Minerva’s mouth as a reasonable one for a woman to take. So perhaps it was, but it is not a man’s view.

Here I will close my case — as much of it, that is to say, as I have been able to give in the space at my disposal — for the view that the writer of the “Odyssey” was whitewashing Penelope. As, however, we happen to be at Lacedæmon let me say what more occurs to me in connection with the visit of Telemachus to King Menelaus that bears on the question whether the writer is a man or a woman.

When Telemachus and Nestor’s son Pisistratus reached Lacedæmon at the beginning of Book iv., Menelaus was celebrating the double marriage of his son Megapenthes and of his daughter Hermione. The writer says:

……they reached the low lying city of Lacedæmon, where they drove straight to the abode of Menelaus, [and found him in his own house feasting with his many clansmen in honour of the wedding of his son, and also that of his daughter whom he was

giving in marriage to the son of that valiant warrior Achilles. He had given his consent and promised her to him while he was still at Troy, and now the gods were bringing the marriage about, so he was sending her with chariots and horses to the city of the Myrmidons over whom Achilles’ son was reigning. For his only son he had found a bride from Sparta, the daughter of Alector. This son, Megapenthes, was born to him of a bondwoman, for heaven had vouchsafed Helen no more children after she had borne Hermione who was fair as golden Venus herself.] (iv. 1-14).

I have enclosed part of the above quotation in brackets not because I have any doubt that the whole of it is by the same hand as the rest of the poem, but because I am convinced that the bracketed lines were interpolated by the writer after her work had been completed, or at any rate after Books iv. and xv. had assumed their present shape. The reason for the interpolation I take to be that she could not forgive herself for having said nothing about Hermione, whose non-appearance in Book xv. and in the rest of Book iv. she now attempts to explain by interpolating the passage above quoted, and thus making her quit Lacedæmon for good and all at the very beginning of this last named book. But whatever the cause of the interpolation may have been, an interpolation it certainly is, for nothing can be plainer from the rest of Book iv. than that there were no festivities going on, and that the only guests were uninvited ones — to wit Telemachus and Pisistratus.

True, the writer tried to cobble the matter by introducing lines 621-624, which in our texts are always enclosed in brackets as suspected — I suppose because Aristarchus marked them with obeli, though he did not venture to exclude them. The cobble, however, only makes things worse, for it is obviously inadequate, and its abruptness puzzles the reader.

Accepting, then, lines 2-19 and 621-624 of Book iv. as by the writer of the rest of the poem, the reader will note how far more interesting she finds the marriage of Hermione than that of Megapenthes — of whose bride, by the way, there is no trace in Book xv. The marriage of the son is indeed mentioned in the first instance before that of the daughter; but surely this is only because υἱέος ἠδὲ θυγατρός lends itself more readily to a hexameter verse than any transposition of the nouns would do. Having mentioned that both son and daughter are to be married, the writer at once turns to Hermione, and appears only to marry Megapenthes because, as his sister is being married, he may as well be married too. A male writer would have married Megapenthes first and Hermione afterwards; nor would he have thought it worth while to make a very awkward interpolation in his poem merely in order to bring Hermione into it, for by this time she must have been over thirty, and it would have been easy to suppose that she had been married years ago during Menelaus’s absence.

As regards the second and shorter interpolation (iv. 621-624), it refers to the day after the pretended marriages, and runs as follows:

Thus did they converse [and guests kept coming to the king’s house. They brought sheep and wine, while their wives had put up bread for them to take with them. So they were busy cooking their dinners in the courts.]

Passing over the fact that on such a great occasion as the marriage of his son and daughter, Menelaus would hardly expect his guests to bring their own provisions with them (though he might expect them, as Alcinous did, * to do their own cooking) I would ask the reader to note that the writer cannot keep the women out even from a mere cobble. A man might have told us that the guests brought meat and wine and bread, but his mind would not instinctively turn to the guests’ wives putting up the bread for them.

I say nothing about the discrepancy between the chronology of Telemachus’s visit to Sparta, and of Ulysses’ journey from the island of Calypso to Ithaca where he arrives one day before Telemachus does. The reader will find it dwelt on in Colonel Mure’s Language and Literature of Ancient Greece, Vol. I., pp. 439, 440. I regard it as nothing more than a slip on the part of a writer who felt that such slips are matters of very small importance; but I will call attention to the manner in which the gorgeousness of Menelaus’s establishment as described in Book iv. has collapsed by the time we reach Book xv., though as far as I can determine the length of Telemachus’s stay with Menelaus, the interval between the two books should not exceed one entire day.

When Telemachus has informed Menelaus that he must go home at once, Menelaus presses his guests to stay and have something to eat before they start; this, he tells them, will be not only more proper and more comfortable for them, but also cheaper.

We know from “Il.” vii. 470-475 that Menelaus used to sell wine when he was before Troy, as also did Agamemnon, but there is a frank bourgeoisie about this invitation which a male writer would have avoided. Still franker, however, is the offer of Menelaus to take them on a personally conducted tour round the Peloponesus. It will be very profitable, for no one will send them away empty handed; every one will give them either a bronze tripod or a cauldron, or two mules, or a gold chalice (xv. 75-85). As for the refreshments which they are to have immediately, the king explains that they will have to take potluck, but says he will tell the women to see that there is enough for them, of what there might happen to be in the house.

That is just like Menelaus’s usual fussiness. Why could he not have left it all to Helen? After reading the “Odyssey” I am not surprised at her having run away with Paris; the only wonder is that a second great war did not become necessary very shortly after the Trojan matter had been ended. Surely the fact that two young bachelors were going to stay and dine was not such a frightful discord but that it might have been taken unprepared, or at any rate without the monarch’s personal interference. “Of what there may be in the house” indeed. We can see that the dinner is not going to be profusely sumptuous. If there did not happen to be anything good in the house — and I suspect this to have been the case — Menelaus should have trusted Helen to send out and get something. But there should have been no sending out about it; Menelaus and Helen ought never to have had a meal without every conceivable delicacy.

What a come down, again, is there not as regards the butler Eteoneus. He was not a real butler at all — he was only a kind of char-butler; he did not sleep in the house (xv. 96), and for aught we know may have combined a shop round the corner with his position in Menelaus’ household. Worse than this, he had no footman, not even a boy, under him, for Menelaus tells him to light the fire and set about cooking dinner (xv. 97, 98), which he proceeds to do without one syllable of remonstrance. What has become of Asphalion? Where are the men servants who attended to Telemachus and Pisistratus on their arrival? They have to yoke their own horses now. The upper and under women servants who appear at all Odyssean meals are here as usual, but we hear nothing more of Adraste Alcippe, and Phylo. It seems as though after describing the splendour of Menelaus’s house in Book iv. the writer’s nerve has failed her, and by Book xv. her instinctive thrift has reasserted itself.

And now let me return, as I said in Chapter iv. that I intended doing, to the very singular — for I do not like to say feminine — nature of the arrangements made by Minerva for her protégé in the matter of his voyage to Pylos and Lacedæmon.

When Minerva first suggested it to him, she knew that Ulysses was on the point of starting from Calypso’s island for Scheria, and would be back in Ithaca almost immediately. Yet she must needs choose this particular moment, of all others, for sending Telemachus on a perilous voyage in quest of news concerning him. We have seen how she preached to him; but surely if Telemachus had known that she was all the time doing her very utmost to make his voyage useless, he might have retorted with some justice that whether he was going to be a fool henceforward or no, he should not make such a fool of any young friend of his own as she was now making of himself. Besides, he was to be away, if necessary, for twelve months; yet here before he had been gone more than four or five days, Minerva fills him with an agony of apprehension about his property and sends him post haste back to Ithaca again.

The authoress seems to have felt the force of this, for in xiii. 416-419 she makes Ulysses remonstrate with Minerva in this very sense, and ask:

“Why did you not tell him, for you knew all about it? Did you want him, too, to go sailing about amid all kinds of hardships when others were eating up his estate?”

Minerva answered, “Do not trouble yourself about him. I sent him that he might be well spoken about for having gone. He is in no sort of difficulty, but is staying comfortably with Menelaus, and is surrounded with abundance of every kind. The suitors have put out to sea and are on the watch for him, for they mean to kill him before he can get home. I do not much think they will succeed, but rather that some of those who are now eating up your estate will first find a grave themselves.”

What she ought to have said was:

“You stupid man, can you not understand that my poetess had set her heart on bringing Helen of Troy into her poem, and could not see her way to this without sending Telemachus to Sparta? I assure you that as soon as ever he had interviewed Helen and Menelaus, I took — or will take, for my poetess’s chronology puzzles my poor head dreadfully — steps to bring him back at once.”

At the end of Book iv. Penelope shows a like tendency to complain of the manner in which she is kept in the dark about information that might easily have been vouchsafed to her.

Minerva has sent her a vision in the likeness of her sister Ipthime. This vision comes to Penelope’s bedside and tells her that her son shall come safely home again. She immediately says:

“If, then, you are a goddess, or have heard news from Heaven tell me about that other unhappy one. Is he still alive, or is he dead and in the house of Hades?”

And the vision answered, “I shall not tell you for certain whether he is alive or dead, and there is no use in idle conversation.”

On this it vanished through the thong-hole of the door.

I may add that I never quite understood the fastening of the Odyssean bedroom door, till I found my bedroom at the Hotel Centrale, Trapani, fastened in the Odyssean manner.

138:* “Od.” viii. 38-40, cf. also 6i. It would seem that Alcinous found the provisions which the poorer guests cooked for themselves and ate outside in the court yards. The magnates ate in the covered cloister, and were no doubt cooked for.

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