Circe. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Yeah, so, “The Odyssey.” And being still only through the first 14 “books,” I am nonetheless moved to make a few observations.
For one thing, what is with it with all the dames* in this thing?
I looked around. Commentators hold forth on this subject with regularity, if only because “The Odyssey” actually has real female characters, plural, whereas its sister epic “The Iliad” just has Helen of Troy. The common themes are addressed: women are temptresses, they are mother figures, they are obstacles to progress. In the introduction to my edition of “The Odyssey,” translated by Robert Fagles, the English classicist Bernard Knox delights in the “infinite variety of emotional traffic” between men and women. (He might be the only one.)
I sit back in my couch and say, Homeric women seem more like characters out of a bad episode of television. Consider the first time the reader meets Odysseus, a full 170 lines into Book 5. He is a prisoner of the nymph Calypso. He is crying. He misses his home and his wife so much, he is sitting on a headland “his sweet life flowing away with the tears he wept for his foiled journey home.”
That gives us perspective, right? Here’s the subject of our nostoi, our tale of return. And look how much he wants to, you know, return.
“In the nights, true,” Homer continues, elaborating on Odysseus’ “ordeal,” “he’d sleep with her in the arching cave…”
Sleep with her? Of course he’d sleep with her. What else are dames for?
What’s that you say? What else are dames for? To meet us at the door when we leave the next morning. As Homer puts it, Calypso “slipped on a loose, glistening robe, filmy, a joy to the eye.”
You will recognize that uniform as the poem progresses. It is standard for all the women.
“Helen Recognising Telemachus,” by Jean-Jacques Lagrenée. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
It’s not just a man’s world, of course. The women seem to agree. Helen — yes, that Helen — comes downstairs at the palace of her husband, Menelaus, in Book 4. Odysseus’ son Telemachus has just arrived and the queen is, all, Who’s this? Then she seems to recognize him. You know, she says, he’s the “boy that hero left a babe in arms at home when all you Achaeans fought at Troy…”
Oh, Helen. Troy? Really? You’d think, of all people, that you would be smart enough not to bring that up.
But, wait. Helen is ready with a rebuke for herself — 10 years later: “…launching your headlong battles just for my sake, shameless whore that I was.”
And, finally, Circe. A party of Odysseus’ men, in mid-odyssey, encounters her at her mysterious home on the island of good-luck-if-you-can-say-it Aeaea. Initially, she is quite friendly, as are the wild animals that live nearby. But she poisons the lavish banquet she lays out and literally turns Odysseus’ men into swine. One man escapes to tell Odysseus, of course, and he goes back to take care of business — as a hero is wont to do — after getting some immortal coaching from Hermes.
Basically, Odysseus is given an antidote for the poison and advised to threaten Circe with violence. This fits right into the hero’s wheelhouse, of course, but Circe’s first play is give herself up to him. In Odysseus’ words, “She screamed, slid under my blade, hugged my knees.”
What is a hero to do? She fills in the blanks, almost punnily, “Come, sheathe your sword, let’s go to bed together.” And they do!
Meanwhile, the muddy snout-centered faces of Odysseus’ crew are peeking forlornly out of Circe’s pigs pens. There is probably some melancholy oinking as Odysseus finishes up and has a bath. And then is served dinner. And then he gets around to saving his men. “Each man grabbed my hand,” Odysseus says, “and a painful longing for tears overcame us all.”
And that is Homeric women for you. They wear revealing clothes, prepare lavish dinners and are overwhelmed with desire for men — they are what dimwitted men think they are.
In other words, the male opinion of the fairer sex has scarcely changed through the millenniums.
* Forget Odysseus’ wife, Penelope, and her inability to manage a crush of boorish suitors who camp at her palace, waiting for her to you-know-what or get off the pot. Without her 1950s housewife fumblings, there isn’t a story to be told.