Peter Jones

A woman’s place in Homer

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Christmas is the time in the church calendar when Woman-as-Mother comes into supreme prominence. But in classical literature, Women-as-Anything never seem to enjoy much of a press, being either ignored or depicted as sex-mad, treacherous drunkards — and this despite a world teeming with goddesses, as well as stories about mortal women producing offspring from divine encounters. The reason most often given is simple: misogyny. But it is not as simple as that.

The West’s first and most influential author is Homer (c. 700 BC). Composer of the Iliad and Odyssey, he paints a quite different picture of women in many roles — as wives, mothers or slaves.

The Iliad opens with Apollo sending a plague against the Greek army. The reason is that the Greek leader at Troy, Agamemnon, has taken as concubine Chryseis, the daughter of a priest of Apollo, and refused to hand her back. When Agamemnon explains why he wants her, it is not because she is a brainless slapper who is fantastic in bed. It is because she is ‘in no way inferior [to my wife Clytaemestra] in build or stature or intelligence or accomplishment’. That she is physically attractive is not in doubt (‘build and stature’), but her cleverness and skills are just as important.

Likewise, when Achilles’ concubine Briseis sees the dead Patroclus (Achilles’ dearest companion) carried into the hut, slave though she is she laments gentle Patroclus’ kindness to her. For Homer, that position does not mean she forfeits her voice or our sympathy. The poet thinks she is worth hearing.

Odysseus’ wife Penelope, waiting 20 years for him to return to Ithaca from the Trojan war, is beset for the last four years by suitors, and they well understand what a prize she will make. When they are urging Penelope’s son Telemachus to tell his mother to hurry up and marry one of them, they take her attractiveness for granted and concentrate on ‘skill in handicrafts, intelligence and cunning ... none of the heroines of the past could match Penelope’.

Odysseus knows it too. On his journey home, the goddess Calypso falls in lust with him and detains him for seven years. The gods eventually order her to let him go, but she tries to persuade him to stay, pointing out she is an immortal and surely Penelope’s ‘equal in looks and figure’. Odysseus will have none of it. He knows Penelope’s worth is far greater than even divine physical beauty.

One important economic aspect of that worth emerges when Odysseus arrives home and, disguised as a beggar by the goddess Athena, is privately questioned by Penelope: does he know anything about Odysseus, and if he claims to, what is his proof? Odysseus describes the wonderful tunic Odysseus was wearing, sheer and soft, bright as the sun; ‘I tell you, many women admired it.’ That is not just an exquisite compliment to Penelope but an acknowledgement of Odysseus’ appreciation of and pride in her skills. Weaving was the wife’s major economic contribution to the household: all the cloth, clothing, coverings, bedspreads and so on for family and slaves alike, for all circumstances, were her responsibility.

Indeed, Penelope is actually the equal of Odysseus, as Homer delicately suggests in a ‘reverse’ simile at the moment the two are reunited. It was like a shipwrecked man swimming through a storm, says the poet, pounded by wind and wave, and thrilled finally to set foot on dry land. We expect ‘So Odysseus was thrilled to hold his wife in his arms’ but what we get is ‘So happy was Penelope to see her husband’! She is the reference point of the simile, not Odysseus. Her 20-year wait for him in Ithaca has been just as much a storm-tossed journey for her too, a trial of grit and endurance the equal of her husband’s.

This is no misogynistic conception of a humiliated woman bossed by her contemptuous man. A famous scene in the Iliad clinches the observation and illuminates the true nature of ancient wife-husband relationships.

The Trojan hero Hector has returned briefly from the fighting and meets his wife Andromache, with their baby, watching for him from the city walls. She urges him to fight a defensive battle, close to the walls of Troy. Far from dismissing her view, he says he cannot: he must lead from the front, though he knows it may mean his death and her enslavement, the very thought of which, he says, is intolerable to him. There is laughter through tears over their son, terrified at his father’s helmet; Hector prays his son may grow up to be the fighter he is; and that is that: ‘“You go home now’ (he says) “and attend to your work, the loom and the spindle, and tell the waiting-women to get on with theirs. War is men’s business; and this war will be the business of every man in Ilium, myself above all.” With these words glorious Hector picked up his helmet with its horsehair plume, while his wife set out for home.’

The point is this. Population stability in the ancient world was a life-or-death matter. Unless every woman produced about eight children to ensure that two or three survived, the state would collapse: so essential was the unseen biological imperative of giving birth. Female roles, in other words, were limited in the main because the very existence of the state depended on a woman’s fertility.

So it was just not possible for a woman to hold down a tightly scripted chat show or run a top law firm. Her work as mother was far too important to society for that. Homer understands this, and the result is that husband-wife relationships are painted in terms of the Hector-Andromache scene — two worlds, each entailing separate responsibilities, skills and demands, with both parties united in respect for and commitment to each other, the family and its needs. Humiliation and subjugation do not come into it.

It is in later authors that the battle of the sexes flourished and women were either passed over in total silence or represented as a sex-mad, drunken, treacherous race in comedy, satire and prosecution material in the courts. That sort of male-generated public image is not exactly unknown today. But Homer, the first and greatest author of the classical world, bucked the trend as a feminist pioneer in delineating the unique capacities and abilities, with their associated duties and responsibilities, of women, in reciprocal and complementary terms to those of men.

The benefits of that ‘complementarity’ for the evolution of the species is obvious to us in a way the ancients would not have understood. But Homer ‘got it’ in a way few other classical authors seemed to.

Darwin would have approved.