The Return of Homer’s Women

We’re on break until Labor Day. Meanwhile, please enjoy some of our most-read articles since last summer. Today’s originally appeared on May 16, 2019.
Emily Wilson’s Odyssey, Pat Barker’s Silence of the Girls, and Madeline Miller’s Circe speak the lost and muted voices of ancient Greek women ...

Emily Wilson’s Odyssey, Pat Barker’s Silence of the Girls, and Madeline Miller’s Circe speak the lost and muted voices of ancient Greek women. Wilson’s translation of the Odyssey focuses on the experiences and especially the injustices endured by female characters in Homer’s poem. Barker’s novel gives voice to the thousands of silenced women in the Iliad, through the specific voice of Briseis, former queen of a city allied with Troy, now enslaved to Achilles. Miller’s novel provides the backstory and afterstory of the witch Circe, Odysseus’s lover for a period during his voyage home.

These three Homeric adaptations are all, in their own ways, piratic feminist manifestos. And in that dimension, they are laudable. But they all also body forth a strong impulse to shut down the moral undecidability that typifies Homer’s art. The Homeric tradition asks readers and hearers to practice forbearance in assigning justification or culpability to characters for their actions. Or, more precisely, the tradition encourages us to accept the fact that, almost always, we are constrained to think, feel, and act without moral certainty, without absolutes. Our heroes are often partially or even mostly self-serving, and our enemies are often brave. But we cheer for our heroes anyway.

These three works are unabashedly feminist, unabashedly trying to set a record—maybe even the record, from the vantage point of European literary history—straight. They create space within which the countless unarticulated voices of ancient women can be conjured and reimagined, so as to resonate across millennia with contemporary readers. And they do a beautiful job at that, each in its own way, though that beauty would have been totally unfamiliar to Homer.

When Barker’s Briseis is first taken captive, she realizes the Greeks want her to forget her past, her family, everything: “Forget. So there was my duty laid out in front of me, as simple and clear as a bowl of water: Remember.” The line seems at first to point back to the Greek command to forget, but ultimately points forward to Briseis’s own injunction to herself—to remember. It is Barker’s clearest articulation of her own cultural mandate: in the face of untold centuries and men’s voices telling us to forget Briseis, Barker will remember. She will invent a past in which the forgotten women speak for themselves. Miller, analogously, reports about the scene of Circe’s own birth, “At my birth, an aunt—I will spare you her name because my tale is full of aunts—washed and wrapped me.” Circe’s birth and its inundation with unnamed aunts figure a literary history replete with women who do all the difficult work of Bringing Things into Life, but who are never named, never credited. Wilson’s translation repeatedly calls the slaughtered slave women of the Ithacan court “girls”:

The girls must help … take out the girls … the girls came, weeping, clutching at each other … The girls picked up the trash … The men created order in the house / and set it all to rights, then led the girls / outside and trapped them … “I refuse to grant these girls / a clean death …” … As doves or thrushes spread their wings to fly / home to their nests, but someone sets a trap— / they crash into a net, a bitter bedtime; / just so the girls, their heads all in a row, / were strung up with the noose around their necks / to make their death an agony.

This echoic insistence on their status as “girls” ramps up our sympathy for them, our awareness of the patriarchal constraints under which they live, our openness to the idea of their innocence (even in the face of Odysseus’s condemnation of their sexual mores).

So, just a touch of the manifesto, laudable and well executed in each. But manifestos don’t tend to be very comfortable with ambiguity and ambivalence. Which are at the heart of Homeric literature.

Wilson’s Odyssey is a marvel: it is beautiful, powerful, present, rich, brave. And I think that if I had only been reading Wilson’s Odyssey for myself, I would have loved it, full stop. But I was also reading it because I was teaching it to a group of Columbia first-year students. In that context, I found myself frustrated. Because Wilson’s Odyssey really is Wilson’s odyssey. She is a splendid poet, and a great translator, but she is also—and I say this as a credit to her—a sharp-eyed, fleet-footed interpreter. Her poem is not just a rendering of the Odyssey, but a readingher reading—of the Odyssey.

In the Odyssey, we are supposed to root for Odysseus, but are we supposed to like him? Odysseus is the best at so many things—storytelling, sailing, tricking monsters, charming women—but he is also, as my students often point out, the worst. He lets his own men die. He cheats on his wife. He rarely accepts blame for his conduct. He’s a murderer. Homer registers Odysseus’s ethical complexity in a host of epithets—polytropos, polymetis, polymechanos, and polytlas. He is the man of many turns, the man of many means, the man of many devices, and the man of many torments. Are we, then, supposed to admire Odysseus for his cunning, for his resourcefulness, for his sorrows, for his devices? Or are we to recognize—as the prefix poly- urges us to do—that Odysseus’s nature may be multiplicitous, unpredictable, inconsistent, and, hence, undecipherable? Yes, he is the man of many sufferings, but whose sufferings are they, anyway? His own, to be sure, but also the sufferings of those to whom he brings suffering. He is the torment of the Phaiakians. He is the torment of the Cyclops. He is the torment of all of his crewmen, who die en route to Ithaca under his leadership. Odysseus is a hero, but he is also a villain. Homer’s Odyssey makes readers recognize and wrangle with their willingness to root for a villain, to get behind someone who is, in many ways, quite terrible.

Our heroes are often partially or even mostly self-serving, and our enemies are often brave. But we cheer for our heroes anyway.

My only complaint against Wilson’s Odysseus is that she reduces that ethical ambiguity and ambivalence. For her, Odysseus is “lord of lies.” Not a lot of ambiguity there. Now, having read Sophocles’s Philoctetes and Ovid’s Metamorphoses, I too have a hard time seeing Odysseus’s conduct in anything other than condemnatory terms. Wilson’s Odysseus—lying and sadistic as he is—is my Odysseus, too. But it’s decisively not Homer’s Odysseus, precisely because Homer is not decisive about Odysseus. Wilson’s interpretation of Odysseus’s moral character takes out of the poem the ethical kaleidoscopism that makes it such an ecstatic puzzle to teach and learn.

This ratcheting down of ambivalence also plays out formally in the translation. Wilson’s chosen meter is iambic pentameter, anointed form of great English poetry for centuries. Iambic pentameter is familiar to the mind’s ears because of Shakespeare, Milton, and numerous others. As such, iambic pentameter is aesthetically comfortable. But I don’t want to be comfortable in the poetic meter of Homer. I want to be alienated. I want to be ejected from my time. I am happily provoked by alien forms. But then, I’m a medievalist, so I believe that the experience of cultural and historical alienation is salutary.

Even apart from salutary alienation, iambic pentameter loses us something else: it entails a shorter line length than the traditional Homeric hexameter. So it feels terser, more muscular, punchier than many hexametric translations of the Odyssey. That is very exciting, but with the shorter line length, you lose a solid unit of poetic time. It’s easier to fit more sense and more syntax into a longer line than into a shorter one; as medieval prose theorists well recognized, the trouble with meter is that you have to contort sense and syntax to fit the meter. The shorter the meter, the more contorted the sense. So, if Wilson is going to match Homer’s line count, which she does, and fit Homer’s poem into pentameter, we’re going to have to sacrifice something: book 9 opens, in Wilson’s Odyssey, with “Wily Odysseus, the lord of lies, / answered”; where, by contrast, Robert Fagles writes, “Odysseus, the great teller of tales, launched out on his story.”

Barker’s own discomfort with ambiguity arises primarily in her treatment of Achilles and his principal relationships. In Silence, we learn that Achilles and Patroclus have a close, almost preternaturally close, but not sexual, relationship. Others in the novel think it is sexual, but we, through Briseis’s nearly all-seeing eye, discern that Achilles’s intimacy with Patroclus is not quite that of lovers. Barker’s novel wants Achilles to be heterosexual. It also wants concrete and surprisingly Freudian reasons for Achilles’s particular heterosexual preferences, as well as for his overall temper. His straight but weird sexuality has to be caused by someone or something. And that cause turns out to be another historically undervoiced woman: Achilles’s sea nymph mother, Thetis. Achilles has abandonment issues. His “mummy” left him when he was little, and he’s so damaged by that rejection that he has a pronounced sexual response to the ocean itself, fucking Briseis with ardor only when she’s salt-crusted and seaweed-entangled from her nocturnal dips in the sea.

Barker’s Achilles got all twisted up inside because of an early narcissistic injury; he came by his sadism and cruelty honestly, thanks to an emotionally and physically unavailable mother. But that kind of psychological justification is utterly foreign to Homer. Achilles’s rage—his menin—is the very first word of the Iliad and dominates it throughout. And though the proximate cause of that rage is Agamemnon’s stealing of Briseis, there’s no explanation in Homer about why Achilles is prone to raging like he does. We see Achilles and Thetis interact in Homer’s poem, but we don’t see a whole host of swirling abandonment issues well up with Thetis from the deep. Instead, we’re left to tolerate Achilles’s wrathful nature and vengefulness on its own terms, without seeking outside justification or explanation.

The Achilles of Barker’s novel, by contrast, is dominated by his sexual obsession with his mother and with her abandonment of him; it is that abandonment that even promotes and structures his not-quite-queer but nevertheless passionate love of Patroclus. Barker gives us not Homer’s Achilles, but a reading of Homer’s Achilles, an interpretation of him, his sexuality, his psychology, his motives. She makes him three-dimensional, which is great on its own terms and produces a gripping novel. But it does constitute a break with what Homer does, which is to make a hero whose precise psychological dimensionality is unknown and unknowable.

The Homeric tradition encourages us to accept the fact that, almost always, we are constrained to think, feel, and act without moral certainty, without absolutes.

Miller’s Circe also seems unable to tolerate characterological ambivalence—perhaps even less able than the other two works. The witch Circe is given a pitiable childhood—she is the unfavored child of both her parents, the only quasi-ugly child of the Sun, stricken with a voice unpleasant to the gods. Despite these disadvantages, she manages somehow to see past the oppressive and tyrannical ideologies of the gods and titans, providing Prometheus with comfort and drink after he is publicly tortured for his disobedience to Zeus. She’s resilient, independent, scrappy, and generous.

She only rarely commits acts of violence—one is the vengeance she takes against Scylla, another is the turning of sailors into swine. The former is an act that she deeply regrets, one that she will ultimately risk her safety to undo. We can relate to that; it’s a common fantasy, of being able to take back the worst thing one has done in one’s life. The latter act of violence—the pig-turnings—are something, Miller tells us, that Circe only does after being gang-raped by a group of soldiers who come to her island and find her alone. Hard to find fault with magical comeuppance like that—comeuppance that simply concretizes what was already clear morally.

So Circe, who in the Odyssey hovers right on the line between horrible (witch, turns men into pigs, imprisons Odysseus) and wonderful (responds to reason, helps Odysseus get home, turns the pigs back into men and feeds them), becomes in Miller’s novel a sympathetic, justice-seeking, justified heroine, one who is rational as well as relatable, one who learns from her mistakes and evolves toward ever greater humanness. We root for her not because she’s the protagonist, but because we understand her, we like her, we relate to her, and we think she’s suffered enough to deserve her happy ending. Homer doesn’t ask us to understand, like, relate to, or assess the suffering of Circe in any way. She is a cipher, and we are left to wonder what it was like for Odysseus to be with her for so long, how it changed him; but there is no hint that it substantially changed her. Homer’s Circe, like Homer’s Achilles, is not so much flat as monolithic, grand, impregnable, and epic.


Translators and Other Icons

By Lily Meyer

Of course, this disambiguation of Circe’s character is the point of Miller’s novel, so it’s not all that fair to critique that choice. But there is another disambiguation that takes place in the novel. And that is the disambiguation of Odysseus’s own character. Miller doesn’t do what Wilson does: making Odysseus’s monstrousness and deceitfulness paramount and ungainsayable. Instead, Miller disambiguates Odysseus’s character by having him degenerate, through what seems to be a case of PTSD upon returning to Ithaca.

When Circe is with Odysseus, he is ruthless and powerful, but admirable and possessed of sound judgment. But, by Telemachus’s later report, soon after his return to Ithaca, Odysseus became savage, unreasonable, bent on destruction, unable to recognize that the war against the Trojans was long over.

But still my father brooded. He was sure they were plotting against him. He wanted sentries posted all around the palace, day and night. He talked of training dogs and digging trenches to catch villains in the dark. He drew up plans for a great palisade to be built. As if we were some war camp. I should have said something then. But I … still hoped it would pass … At night, he paced the hearth, and every word from his mouth was guards and spies, measure and countermeasures.

Much as Barker accounts for Achilles’s rage by devising a cold and withholding mother for him, Miller accounts for Odysseus’s sadism and vengefulness by imagining him compromised by years and years of trauma. Sure, Odysseus was a brute, but he was damaged by the war and his travels home. Sure, Achilles let his friends die, but he was abandoned by his mother. In both cases, contemporary notions of psychological unwellness become screens through which moral inscrutability is made parsable, tolerable, comprehensible. And interestingly, much as Wilson doubles down on the cruelty of Odysseus’s ordering the slaughter of the palace women—by referring to them as “slaves” rather than, say, “maidens” or “servants”—Miller doubles down on it by having Telemachus voice profound regret for his part in their slaughter: “I have never known such ugly, drawn-out deaths. I will see their feet twisting the rest of my days.”

To be clear, I adored all three of these texts, because the disambiguating choices they made all square nicely with my own contemporary politics. I believe that antisocial behaviors often have their origin in misfortune and trauma (Miller’s Odysseus, Barker’s Achilles). I believe that abuse victims can retain and even refine their moral and ethical compasses in the wake of their suffering (Barker’s Briseis, Miller’s Circe). And I believe that Odysseus is an asshole (Wilson). But that’s all about me, my beliefs, my moment, my biases. It’s not in Homer. It’s not about him, not about the poems he wrote. And, in the end, I think that’s OK, too.


This article was commissioned by Sharon Marcus. icon

Featured image: Frederick Stuart Church, Circe (1910). Wikimedia Commons