Rediscovering Homer

Andrew O’Hehir has written an interesting review of Andrew Dalby’s new book, Rediscovering Homer. Dalby has suggested that Homer was actually a woman and that the Iliad and the Odyssey were written 70 to 90 years earlier. While Dalby’s arguments appear to be more casual conjecture than thesis with examples, O’Hehir, running with the speculative ball, raises a provocative point near the end of his piece, where he identifies Aphrodite’s lay-down-and-take-it-sweetheart advice to Helen as a feminine anxiety that a man might have difficulty understanding and thus writing about.

I don’t know if I completely buy this interpretation, or if the gender question is as important as either of the two Andrews suggest. We are talking about (a) a tale that has been passed down through oral tradition, (b) a translation from Dalby that may very well be as “leaden” as Latimore’s which fails to contain the nuances contained within the original Greek, and (c) a decidedly patriarchal world from about 2,600 years ago in which feminine complexity was discouraged or swept under the sand.

Could the anxiety that O’Hehir detects have more to do with the Iliad‘s considerable cast of vengeful gods (i.e., their behavior)? Let’s not forget how much the gods are responsible for what goes down in the Iliad. Athene provides the arrow that wounds Menelaos. Had it not been for this interference, might the Trojans and the Greeks have patched things up? Had not Apollo provided an assist to Hector in killing Patroclus, would Achilles have been galvanized into action? (My hunch is that he would have remained a wuss. In this sense, it might be argued that he is, centuries before Benjamin Kunkel’s Dwight Wilmerding or Nick Hornby’s Rob Fleming, literature’s ultimate manboy slacker prototype.*) A hardcore gamer might take respawning for granted in a first-person shooter, but this is precisely what Zeus does to Hector after Hector is felled by a stone.

What I’m suggesting here is that the Iliad is as much a tale of gods vs. humans as it is a chronicle of behavioral nuances. (It’s a lot more than that, actually. But one point at a time.) The gods are just as abject, hubristic and inveterate as their human counterparts, but their actions often trump the comparatively picayune efforts of Achilles and his fellow mortals. (And for those curious about the relationship between gods and humans, Mary Lefkowitz’s Greek Gods, Human Lives looks like an interesting book on the subject.)

If Aphrodite’s advice is framed within this larger-than-life attitude, I don’t know if identifying the words as distinctly male or female in origin is any more important than calling a woman who likes “masculine” activities a tomboy or a man who likes “feminine” activities a metrosexual. But if Dalby’s book (and O’Hehir’s reviewing) will get more people thinking about some of the behavioral nuances within one of our most seminal works of literature, then I may just have to pick it up.

* — If O’Hehir is going to have fun with contemporary allusions, I will too.

[UPDATE: Richard Grayson emails in and points to this 1897 Samuel Butler “translation,” which names “The Authoress of the Odyssey.” In other words, between this and the Graves book cited by Jenny Davidson in the comments, the idea of Homer as a female author has been around for a long time.]

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5 Comments

  1. Did you ever read Robert Graves’s novel “Homer’s Daughter”? It’s one of his polemical historical ones, a sort of fictional argument that Princess Nausicaa is the real author of the Odyssey–worth a look (but I am a Graves addict so perhaps not to be trusted…)

  2. I haven’t read that, Jenny. But I am a Graves fan and I will check it out! This also raises the issue of Margaret Atwood’s “The Penelopiad,” still sitting in my TBR pile. Perhaps Atwood was inspired by the same female behavioral nuances.

  3. Ed, I was exposed to the Homer-as-a-woman theory over forty years ago in high school. Jenny’s right about Robert Graves, but the theory is as old as Samuel Butler, so it goes back a really long time.

  4. I’d also recommend the Graves novel and the Lefkowitz book (which isn’t amazing, but did a good job in explicating the ancient greek religious world view much better than anything else I’ve read).

  5. Penelope is one of the more fascinating characters from the Odyssey (which I don’t like as much as the Illiad).
    I haven’t read Atwood’s book yet, but I’m intrigued by the whole Canongate myth series.

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