The Authoress of the Odyssey, by Samuel Butler

Chapter vii

Further Indications that the Writer is a Woman — Young, Headstrong, and Unmarried.

I will now touch briefly on the principal passages, over and above large general considerations and the details to which I have already called attention, which seem to me to suggest a woman’s hand rather than a man’s. I shall omit countless more doubtful instances, many of which the reader will have noted, or easily discover.

At the very outset of the poem (i. 13) the writer represents Ulysses as longing to get back to his wife. He had stayed a whole year with Circe, and but for the remonstrances of his men would have stayed no one can say how much longer. He had stayed seven years with Calypso, and seems to have remained on excellent terms with her until the exigencies of the poem made it necessary to send him back to Ithaca. Surely a man of his sagacity might have subtracted Calypso’s axe and auger, cut down the trees at the far end of the island, and made his raft years ago without her finding out anything about it; for she can hardly have wanted either axe or auger very often.

As for the provisions, if Ulysses was not capable of accumulating a private hoard, his cunning has been much overrated. If he had seriously wanted to get back to Penelope his little cunning that is put in evidence would have been exercised in this direction. I am convinced, therefore, that though the authoress chooses to pretend that Ulysses was dying to get back to Penelope, she knew perfectly well that he was in no great hurry to do so; she was not, however, going to admit anything so derogatory to the sanctity of married life, or at any rate to the power which a wife has over her husband.

An older woman might have been at less pains to conceal the fact that Penelope’s hold on Ulysses was in reality very slight, but the writer of the “Odyssey” is nothing if she is not young, self-willed, and unmarried. No matron would set herself down to write the “Odyssey” at all. She would have too much sense, and too little daring. She would have gained too much — and lost too greatly in the gaining. The poem is such a tour de force as none but a high-spirited, headstrong girl who had been accustomed to have her own way would have attempted, much less carried to such a brilliantly successful conclusion; I cannot, therefore, conceive the writer as older than the original of the frontispiece at the beginning of this book — if indeed she was so old.


The very beautiful lines in which the old nurse Euryclea lights Telemachus to bed, and folds up his clothes for him (i. 428-442), suggest a woman’s hand rather than a man’s. So also does the emphasising Laertes’ respect for his wife’s feelings (i. 430-433). This jealousy for a wife’s rights suggests a writer who was bent on purifying her age, and upholding a higher ideal as regards the relations between husband and wife than a man in the Homeric age would be likely to insist on.


The price paid for Euryclea (i. 431) is, I do not doubt, a rejoinder to the Iliadic insults of XXIII. 262-264, in which a woman and a tripod are put up in one lot as a prize, and also of XXIII. 702-705, in which a tripod is represented as worth twelve oxen, and a good serviceable maid of all work only four oxen. A matron would have let Homer’s passage severely alone, and a man would not have resented it so strongly as to make him write at it by declaring Euryclea to have been bought for twenty oxen.


An Iliadic passage of some length is interrupted (iii. 448-455) for the purpose of bringing in Nestor’s wife and daughters, and describing their delight at seeing a heifer killed; the Iliadic passage is then resumed. A man, or older woman, once launched on an Iliadic passage would have stuck to it till it failed them. They would not have cared whether the ladies of Nestor’s household liked seeing the heifer killed or no.


When Helen mixes Nepenthe with the wine which was to be handed round to Menelaus, Telemachus, and Pisistratus, we learn its virtues to be so powerful that a man could not weep during all the day on which he had drunk it, not even though he had lost both his father and his mother, or had seen a brother or a son cut to pieces before his eyes (iv. 220-226). From the order in which these relationships present themselves to the writer’s mind I opine that her father and mother were the most important persons in her world, and hence that she was still young and unmarried.


A little lower we find Helen more or less penitent for having run away with Paris. Helen was Jove’s own daughter, and therefore had a right to do pretty much as she chose; still it was held better to redeem her as far as possible, by making her more or less contrite. The contrition, however, is of a very curious kind. It was Venus, it seems, who ought to be penitent for having done Helen so great a wrong. It is the wrong that has been done to her that she laments, rather than any misdoing of her own.


Is a man, or matron, likely to have conceived the idea of making Helen walk round the wooden horse, pat it, call out the names of the heroes who were inside, and mimick the voices of their wives (iv. 274-279)? Ulysses must have told her that the horse was coming, and what it would contain, when he entered Troy in disguise and talked with her. A man might have made Helen walk round the horse, pat it, and even call out the names of the heroes, but he would never have thought of making her mimick their wives.


The writer finds the smell of fish intolerable, and thinks it necessary to relieve Menelaus and his three men from a distressing situation, by getting Idothea to put some scent under each man’s nostrils (iv. 441-446). There is, however, an arrière pensée here to which I will call attention later (see Chapter XII. near the end). Very daughterly also is the pleasure which Idothea evidently feels in playing a trick upon her father. Fathers are fair game — at all events for young goddesses.


The whole of iv. 625-847 is strongly suggestive of a woman’s writing, but I cannot expect any one to admit this without reading either the original or some complete translation.


Calypso’s jealously of Penelope (v. 203, &c.) is too prettily done for a man. A man would be sure to overdo it.


Book vi. is perhaps the loveliest in the whole poem, but I can hardly doubt that if it were given to a Times critic of to-day as an anonymous work, and he was told to determine the sex of the writer he would ascribe it to a young unmarried woman without a moment’s hesitation. Let the reader note how Nausicaa has to keep her father up to having a clean shirt on when he ought to have one (vi. 60), whereas her younger brothers appear to keep her up to having one for them when they want one. These little touches suggest drawing from life by a female member of Alcinous’ own family who knew his little ways from behind the scenes.

Take, again, the scene in which Ulysses first meets Nausicaa. A girl, such a girl as Nausicaa herself, young, unmarried, unattached, and without knowledge of what men commonly feel on such points, having by a cruel freak of fortune got her hero into such an awkward predicament, might conceivably imagine that he would argue as the writer of the “Odyssey” has made Ulysses do, but no man, except such a woman’s tailor as could never have written the “Odyssey,” would have got his hero into such an undignified position at all, much less have made him talk as Ulysses is made to talk.

How characteristic, again, of the man-hatress is Nausicaa’s attempt to make out that in Ulysses she had found a man to whom she really might become attached — if there were no obstacle to their union.


I find it hard to pass over Book vii., especially line 230, &c., where Arēte wants to know how Ulysses came by his clothes, and 294, in which it is said that young people are apt to be thoughtless. Surely this is a girl giving a rap on the knuckles to older people by echoing what she is accustomed to hear them say.


In Book viii. the games, which are no doubt suggested by those in “Il.” XXIII. are merely labelled “sports,” not a single detail being given except that Ulysses’ disc made a sound of some sort as it went through the air (viii. 190), which I do not believe it would do. In the “Iliad” details are given of every contest, and the games do not take place as they do in the “Odyssey” immediately after a heavy meal, from which we can hardly suppose that the competitors would be excluded.

I say nothing about the modesty of the female goddesses in not coming to see Mars and Venus caught in the toils of Vulcan (viii. 324), nor yet about the lovely new dress with which the Graces consoled Venus when she had been liberated (viii. 366), for I have omitted the whole of this episode in my abridgement.


The love of her own home and parents which is so obvious throughout the poem is never more apparent than in the speech of Ulysses (ix. 34-36). He says that however fine a house a man may have in a foreign land, he can never be really happy away from his father and mother. How different this from the saying which Aristophanes puts into the mouth of Mercury (Plut. 1151) to the effect that a man’s fatherland is any place in which he is making money; or again from Euripides, who in a fragment of Phaethon says that a man’s fatherland is any land that will feed him. It is only a young and affectionate girl who could have made Ulysses (who is not much given to sentiment) speak so warmly. Middle-aged people, whether men or women, are too much spotted with the world to be able to say such things. They think as Aristophanes and Euripides do.


In lines 120, 121 of Book ix. the writer tells us that huntsmen as a general rule will face all sorts of hardship in forest and on mountain top. This is quite true, but it is not the way in which men speak of chamois-hunters.


As for the Cyclops incident, delightful as it is, it is impossible as a man or matron’s writing. It was very kind of Polyphemus, drunk though he was, to stay without moving a muscle, till Ulysses and his men had quite finished boring out his eye with a burning beam that was big enough for a ship’s mast, but Baron Munchausen is the only male writer who could offer us anything of the kind, and his is not a case in point. Neither, after all, is Book ix. of the “Odyssey,” for the writer is not taking Polyphemus seriously.


The distress which Polyphemus caused to Ulysses and his men by flinging down a bundle of firewood is too graphic a touch not to have been drawn from life. I have often fancied that the whole Cyclops incident may have been suggested by one of those merende, or pic-nics which Italians and Sicilians are still so fond of, and that the writer of the “Odyssey” went with her friends to Pizzolungo and the cave where the scene is laid, which was then really much what an alpe is now — an abode of shepherds who made cheese in the cave itself. I like to fancy (for I know that it is nothing more than fancy) that the writer of the “Odyssey” was delighted with all she saw, but that as she was looking at the milk dishes some huge unkempt shepherd came in with a load of firewood on his back, and gave a sudden shock to her nervous system by flinging it down too violently. Him she transformed into the local giant that exists on Mt. Eryx now under the name of Conturràno. *

It is very hard to say what the authoress thought that Polyphemus did in the matter of his ewes and lambs. The lambs were in the yards all day, for Ulysses’ men saw them there and wanted to steal them (ix. 226, 227). Besides, Polyphemus could not have got any milk from the ewes if their lambs had been with them in the day-time. Having driven the ewes into his cave (I omit the she-goats for brevity) he milked them, and then put their lambs with them (ix. 245). The question is, did he take them away again after they had got what they could from a milked ewe, or did he leave them with their mothers all night?

On the one hand we have no hint of their removal, which would be a long and troublesome task; on the other we are told in line 309 that he milked the ewes in the morning, and again gave each one of them her lamb; on the evening of the same day he repeats this process (line 342), and he could hardly give the ewes their lambs unless he had first removed them.

The difficulty is that if he removed them they would certainly die in a very few days of such diet as Polyphemus allows them, for whatever he did was κατὰ μοῖραν, according to his usual practice; while if he did not remove them, he could not have-got any milk. Whatever he did, we may be sure that the writer of the “Odyssey” had got it wrong, and there is not much to be gained by trying to find out what she thought, for it is obvious that she did not think.

I asked my friend, Sig. Giuseppe Pagoto of Mt. Eryx, what was the practice of Sicilian shepherds now, and received the following answer:

In Sicily they do not milk ewes that have lately lambed; they keep the lambs shut up and take the ewes to feed. In the evening they let the lambs suck, and then shut them up again. During the night the ewes make a great deal of milk, and this is again sucked by the lambs in the morning, and not milked. Our shepherds do not take any of the milk until the lamb has been killed. Perhaps in those days the pastures were so abundant that the ewes gave milk enough to nourish the lambs, and still have some for milking. This is the only way in which what Polyphemus did can be explained.

I believe the true explanation to be that the shepherd from whose alpe the scene was in part drawn, drove in a number of ewes some of which had lambs, while the lambs of others had been already killed and eaten. The authoress saw the shepherd milk a number of ewes, and then bring in a number of lambs, but she did not understand that the ewes which had been milked had got no lambs, while those that had lambs still living had not been milked. I think she knew she was hazy about it, otherwise she would not have cut her version short with a πάντα κατὰ μοῖραν all in due course.”


It being evident that Circe is quite as capable a prophet as Tiresias, why should poor Ulysses be sent down to Hades? Obviously because the writer had set her heart on introducing colloquies with the dead. Granted; but a writer who was less desirous of making out that women know as much as men would not have made Circe know quite so much. Why, as soon as Ulysses has returned from Hades, repeat to him the warning about the cattle of the Sun which Tiresias had given him in the same words, and add a great deal more of her own? Why, again, did she not tell Ulysses to be particularly careful to ask Tiresias about the Wandering Cliffs, in respect of which she had confessed that her information was deficient? Ulysses does not appear to have said anything, but he must have thought a good deal. Young people are impatient of such small considerations. Who, indeed, can let fancy, naiveté, and the charm of spontaneity have free and graceful play, if he or she is to be troubled at every touch and turn by the suggestions of common sense? The young disdain precision too contemptuously; while older people are apt to think of nothing else.


The same desire to exalt the capabilities of woman appears in making the Sun leave his sheep and cattle in the sole charge of the two nymphs Lampetie and Phaëthusa (xii. 132) who, by the way, proved quite unable to protect them. But then the Sun was a man, and capable of any folly.


The comparison of Ulysses to a hungry magistrate (xii. 439, 440), which is obviously humorous, is neither a man’s nor a matron’s simile for such a thrilling situation. To me it suggests the hand of a magistrate’s daughter who had often seen her father come home tired and cross at having been detained in court.


The present from Helen to Telemachus of a wedding dress (xv. 125-129) was more likely to occur to a young woman than to a man. I think also that a male writer would have given something to poor Pisistratus, who has been very good and amiable all through. It does not appear that Telemachus tipped Eteoneus or any other of Menelaus’ servants, though from xx. 296, 297 it is plain that it was quite usual for visitors to give something to the servants of a house at which they were staying. He is very rude about not saying good-bye to Nestor (xv. 199-201), and he never says good-bye to Pisistratus as he ought.

Ulysses, again, seems to have no sense of obligation whatever to Circe or Calypso. He has no other idea than that of taking as much and giving as little as he can. So in Hades he does not begin by asking how Penelope is, but how she is behaving, and whether she is protecting his estate (xi. 177, &c.).


In Book xvii. 495 the old nurse and housekeeper, who has hitherto always been Euryclea, suddenly becomes Eurynome, a name which we have not yet had. Eurynome from this point is frequently mentioned, though the context always suggests, and sometimes compels, the belief that Euryclea is intended. In Book xx. 4, for example, we are told that Eurynome threw a cloak over Ulysses after he had lain down to rest, but in line 143 of the same Book, Euryclea says she threw the cloak over him herself — for surely this is intended, though the plural according to very common custom is used instead of the singular. The alternation of the two names becomes very baffling, till finally in Book xxiii. 289-293 both Eurynome and Euryclea appear on the scene together, which cobbles the difficulty, but does not make a good job of it — for one woman would have been quite enough to do all that there was to do.

What happened, I take it, was this. In the first line where we meet with Eurynome, the name Euryclea could not be made to scan very easily, and the writer, thinking she would alter it later, wrote Eurynome. Having done so once, she used the names Eurynome and Euryclea according as metrical convenience inspired her. This went on for some time, till in the end she found it would be a great deal of trouble to re-write all the passages in which Eurynome had appeared; she therefore determined to brazen it out, and pretend that she had all along meant Euryclea and Eurynome to be two people. To put their separate existence beyond question, she brings them both on together. I do not say that this is feminine, but I can find nothing like it in the “Iliad.” I have sometimes thought the last six or seven Books, though they contain some of the most exquisite passages in the whole poem, were written in greater haste than the earlier ones, while the last hundred lines or so of Book xxiv. suggest that the writer was determined to end her work without much caring how. I have also wondered whether the husband who in Book vi. was yet to find may not have been found before Book xxiv. was written; but I have nothing to urge in support of this speculation.


Argus (xvii. 292) is not a very good name for a dog. It is the stock epithet for hounds in both “Iliad” and “Odyssey,” and means “fleet.” The whole scene between Ulysses and Argus is perhaps the most disappointing in the “Odyssey.” If the dog was too old or feeble to come to Ulysses, Ulysses should have gone up to him and hugged him — fleas or no fleas; and Argus should not have been allowed to die till this had been put in evidence. True, Ulysses does wipe away one tear, but he should have broken utterly down — and then to ask Eumæus whether Argus was any use, or whether he was only a show dog — this will not do even as acting. The scene is well conceived but badly executed; it betrays the harder side of the writer’s nature, and has little of the pathos which Homer would have infused into it.


When Eumæus says what kind of man he would be likely to ask to the house if he was free to choose, he puts a divine first, a physician next, then a carpenter, and then a bard (xvii. 384). The only wonder is that the writer did not put the bard before the carpenter, and doubtless she would have done so had she not wanted to give the bard a whole line to himself. A woman, writing at the present day would be apt to consider the clergyman, and the doctor, as the first people who should be invited, but a man in the Homeric age would hardly have chosen as Eumæus is made to do.


I do not believe that any man living could wash Ulysses’ feet and upset the bath so delightfully as Euryclea does (xix. 386, &c.), and at the same time make Penelope sit by and observe nothing of what was going on. He could not rise to the audacity of saying that Minerva had directed Penelope’s attention elsewhere, notwithstanding the noise which Ulysses’ leg made, and the upsetting of a bath full of water, which must have run over all that part of the cloister. A man would have made Penelope desire suddenly to leave the cloister, just before the accident happened, and lie down upon that couch which she had never ceased to water with her tears, &c.; she could then have come back, remembering that she had forgotten something, after the foot-bath had been refilled and the mess cleaned up. But he could not have done it at all.


It will be observed that the stronger the indications become that Ulysses is on the point of returning, the more imperative Penelope finds it to marry one of the suitors without a day’s delay. She has heard about the hawk tearing the dove; she has heard Telemachus sneeze; she has been assured that Ulysses was among the Thesprotians, quite near, and would be in Ithaca immediately; she has had a dream which would have made any one wait, say, for at least a week longer, unless determined to take the gloomiest possible view of the situation; but no; on the following day she must marry and leave the house. Her words seem to me like those of a woman gloating over the luxury of woe, as drawn by another woman who has never known real trouble. Nothing can better show the hollowness of Penelope’s distress from first to last. A woman who felt herself really drowning would have clutched at any one of the straws above mentioned, and made it buoy her up for weeks or months; and any writer who had known real sorrow would also know how certain she would be to do this. A man could only so draw his heroine if he was laughing at her in his sleeve; whereas the writer of the “Odyssey” is doing her very utmost to take herself seriously.


Penelope seems firmly convinced that she is keeping excellent guard over her son’s estate all the time, and that if she were to leave the house everything would go to rack and ruin. She implies this to Ulysses when he is disguised as a beggar (xix. 524). One wonders how Ulysses could restrain himself from saying, “Well, Madam, if you cannot prove more successful as a guardian than you have been doing this many years past, the sooner you leave the house the better for Telemachus.”


No great poet would compare his hero to a paunch full of blood and fat, cooking before the fire (xx. 24-28). The humour, for of course it is humorously intended, is not man’s humour, unless he is writing burlesque. This the writer of the “Odyssey” is not doing here, though she has intentionally approached it very nearly in a great part of the Phæacian episode.

The only other two points which suggest a female hand in Book xx. — I mean with especial force — are the sympathy which the writer betrays with the poor weakly woman who could not finish her task (105, &c.), and the speech of Telemachus about his mother being too apt to make much of second rate people (129-133).


The twelve axes set up in Book xxi. remain in the court during the whole time that the suitors are being killed. How, I wonder, is it that not one of the suitors picked up a single axe? A dozen men with a dozen axes should have made short work of Ulysses and his men. True, by my own hypothesis the heads had been taken off the handles, but they must have been wedged, or bound, either on to the handles or to some other like pieces of wood, so as to raise them high enough for anyone to shoot through the handle-holes. It should have been an easy matter either to fix the heads on to the handles again, or to extemporise new ones. If the writer had not forgotten all about the axes in her desire to begin with the shooting, she would have trumped up a difficulty of some kind. Perhaps she thought that the audience, hearing nothing more about them, would forget all about the axes too — and she was not far wrong.


The instinctive house-wifely thrift of the writer is nowhere more marked than near the beginning of Book xxii., where amid the death-throes of Antinous and Eurymachus she cannot forget the good meat and wine that were spoiled by the upsetting of the tables at which the suitors had been sitting.

The killing of the suitors is aggressive in its want of plausibility. If Melanthius could go to the store-room, no matter how, the other suitors could have followed him and attacked Ulysses from behind; for there is evidently a passage from the store-room to the place where Ulysses is standing.

Again, the outer yard was open to the suitors all the time. Surely with the axes still at command they could have cut the Byblus-fibre rope that was the only fastening of the main gate; some of them at any rate might have got out. The first ninety lines of the book are as fine as the “Iliad,” but from line (say) 100 to line 330 the writer is out of her depth, and knows it. The most palpably feminine part is where Minerva comes to help Ulysses disguised as Mentor (xxii. 205-240). The suitors menace her, and in a rage she scolds not them but Ulysses, whom she rates roundly. Having done this, she flies away and sits on a rafter like a swallow.


All readers will help poets, playwrights, and novelists, by making believe a good deal, but we like to know whether we are in the hands of one who will flog us uphill, or who will make as little demand upon us as possible. In this portion of Book xxii. the writer is flogging us uphill. She does not care how much she may afflict the reader in his efforts to believe her — the only thing she really cares for is her revenge. She must have every one of the suitors killed stone dead, and all the guilty women hanged, and Melanthius first horribly tortured and then cut in pieces. Provided these objects are attained, it is not necessary that the reader should be able to believe, or even follow, all the ins and outs of the processes that lead up to them.

I will therefore not pursue the absurdities with which the killing of the suitors abounds. I would, however, point out that in Book xvi. 281, &c., where the taking away of the armour from the cloister walls was first mooted, it was proposed that enough to arm Ulysses and Telemachus should be left accessible, so that they might snatch it up in a moment without having to go all the way down into the store-room after it, at the risk of Telemachus’s forgetting to shut the door — as young people so often do. I suppose Ulysses forgot all about this sensible precaution, when he and Telemachus were hiding the armour at the beginning of Book xix. Or shall we suppose that the idea of catching Melanthius in the store-room had not occurred to the poetess when she was writing Book xvi., but had struck her before she reached Book xix., and that she either forgot or did not think it worth while, or found it inconvenient, to cancel lines 295, 296 of Book xvi.? From what I have seen of the authoress I incline to this last opinion, and hold that she made Ulysses omit to leave a little of the armour accessible to himself and Telemachus, because she had by this time determined to string Melanthius up in the store-room, and did not see how to get him inside it unless she made Telemachus go there first and leave the door open; and, again, did not see how to get Telemachus down to the store-room if she left armour near at hand, for him to snatch up.

As for Telemachus bringing up four helmets, four shields, eight spears, he was already fully armed when the fight began (xxi. 434), so three helmets, three shields and six spears should have done. Four helmets, four shields, and eight spears is a heavy load; but Melanthius carried twelve shields, twelve helmets, and twelve spears apparently all at one time.


We are in an atmosphere of transpontine melodrama, but the only wonder is that the absurdities are not even grosser than they are, seeing that the writer was a young woman with a strong will of her own. Woman she must have been; no male writer could have resisted the temptation to kill Eumæus. It is the faithful servant’s rôle to be mortally wounded on occasions of this sort. There are very few more suitors to be killed, and Minerva is going to raise her ægis immediately, so that he could be perfectly well spared; possibly the writer felt that she should be shorthanded with the cleaning up of the blood and the removal of the dead bodies, but more probably she hated the suitors so bitterly that she would not let them score a single point.


How evidently relieved she feels when she has got the killing over, and can return to ground on which she is strong, such as the saving of Phemius and Medon, and the cleaning down of the house.


What are we to say of making Penelope, whose room looked out upon the cloister, sleep soundly all through the killing of the suitors? What of her remarks to Euryclea when she has been waked? What, again, of her interview with Ulysses, and the dance which Ulysses presently advises? what, indeed, of the whole Book? Surely it is all perfectly right as coming from some such person as the one portrayed in my frontispiece, but who can conceive the kind of man or matron who could write it? The same applies to Book xxiv. What man or middle-aged woman could have written the ineffably lovely scene between Ulysses and Laertes in the garden? or have made Ulysses eat along with Dolius, whose son and daughter he had killed on the preceding day? A man would have been certain to make Ulysses tell Dolius that he was very sorry, but there had been nothing for it but to hang his daughter and to cut his son’s nose and ears off, draw out his vitals, and then cut off his hands and feet. Probably, however, he would have kept Dolius and his sons out of the Book altogether.


When Ulysses and Penelope are in bed (xxiii. 300-343) and are telling their stories to one another, Penelope tells hers first. I believe a male writer would have made Ulysses’ story come first and Penelope’s second.


147:* See Chapter x.

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