Wednesday 23 May 2018

The authoress of the Odyssey

In the 1890s Samuel Butler argued that the Odyssey was composed by a young unmarried girl living in Trapani, western Sicily, in the 11th century BCE.

The basic idea is that the character of Nausicaa, in Odyssey books 6 to 8, is an authorial self-insertion. Nausicaa is a woman, young, single, and doesn’t live in mainland Greece or Ionia. Therefore the author of the Odyssey must be all those things too. (Demodocus the blind bard represents Homer, boring the author’s socks off with his interminable recitations of the Iliad.)

Trapani, Sicily (Source: Google Streetview)

Butler first presented the idea in a lecture on 30 January 1892, at the Working Men’s College in London; then in a series of magazine articles and pamphlets (1892a-e, 1893); and a few years later in a book, The authoress of the Odyssey (1897).

The reception of Butler’s idea

Butler’s argument has had great longevity, and at the same time, has persuaded almost no one. Butler himself predicted that he’d encounter an entrenched opposition (‘How can I expect Homeric scholars to tolerate theories so subversive’, etc., 1897: 3). He imagined he’d find academics insisting that epic poets must have been men. A much more serious problem is that he starts with a complete absence of evidence, and concludes something incredibly specific.

And, in regard to Trapani, something impossible. Butler was infuriated when he was told that Trapani didn’t exist when the Odyssey was composed. He insisted that his argument proved the archaeologists wrong, so their ‘views must be reconsidered’ (1893: 13)! Just to be clear: Greeks didn’t start to colonise Sicily until the late 700s BCE, and they never held western Sicily. The west belonged to the non-Greek Elymi until Roman times.

Still, the idea gets trotted out every generation or so. First by the classicist Benjamin Farrington (1929); then in one of Robert Graves’ less-known novels, Homer’s daughter (1955); then by Andrew Dalby (2006). Its longevity probably owes a lot to Butler’s translations of Homer, which were the first English translations of Homer to use a modern prose style. Plus, Butler has celebrity status: he’s still famous for his classic satirical novel Erewhon (1872). Dalby’s version, too, has become better known than you might expect, thanks to his very successful publicity campaign.

Excursus: the authoress of the ‘Rediscovering Homer’ and ‘Andrew Dalby’ articles on Wikipedia
Dalby and his book Rediscovering Homer (2006) both have substantial Wikipedia articles devoted to them. At the time of writing Dalby’s is the only non-fiction book about Homer to have a Wikipedia article. So you might imagine this indicates that Dalby and his book have had a major impact.

And that would be wrong. Dalby is a prolific Wikipedia-editor. He created the book article himself. It’s strictly self-promotion. Outside the ‘Rediscovering Homer’ article, Wikipedia has fifteen citations of the book -- but fourteen of them were inserted by Dalby (1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14, between May 2006 and May 2007; no. 15 is someone else’s doing, and dates to 2010).

So these articles and citations don’t in any way indicate acceptance of Butler’s (or Dalby’s) ideas. Look to the reviews instead. Here’s what they say about Dalby: ‘inventive’ but ‘weak’ and unproveable (Kelly); ‘speculations ... inadequate argument and dicey assertions’ (Lateiner); ‘lively’ but ‘thinly grounded’ (Lentini, Classical Bulletin 82.2 [2006]: 221-3); ‘enjoyable’ but ‘unconvincing’ (Loney).

But wait, there’s more. The ‘Andrew Dalby’ article is self-promotion too. For that one, Dalby tried to be sneaky: he used a sockpuppet account called ‘Charles David Douglas’ to create it. The entire Wikipedia career of ‘Charles David Douglas’ lasted just over two hours, and in the surrounding five days Dalby’s main account edited most of the articles that ‘Douglas’ worked on, 1 2 3 4, including the ‘Andrew Dalby’ article, ten minutes after ‘Douglas’ created it; ‘Douglas’ displayed an intimate knowledge of Dalby’s employment history in the 1970s and 1980s, his unpublished essays, and even ‘informal’ work; and more than half the article was (and still is) publicity for Dalby’s books.

Incidentally, Wikipedia does have policies on conflicts of interest, spam, and sockpuppet accounts which look like they ought to prohibit all of this (links are to 2006-2007 versions of the policies). Not very effective policies, it seems.

Even setting Butler aside, gender in the Odyssey continues to be a hot topic. For lots of reasons. In the 1990s, literary criticism was popping with ideas about the topic, and that excitement hasn’t quite worn off yet. In 2017 Emily Wilson published a new high-profile translation of the Odyssey, its first translation into English by a woman (not the first into any modern language: a French one by Anne Dacier appeared in 1716). Also in 2017, Mary Beard’s Women & power: a manifesto opened by citing Odyssey book 1 as a classic example of women’s speech being suppressed.
I want to start very near the beginning of the tradition of Western literature, and its first recorded example of a man telling a woman to ‘shut up’; telling her that her voice was not to be heard in public. I’m thinking of a moment immortalised at the start of Homer’s Odyssey ... Penelope ... [finds a bard] singing about the difficulties the Greek heroes are having in reaching home. She isn’t amused, and front of everyone she asks him to choose another, happier number. At which point young Telemachus intervenes: ‘Mother,’ he says, ‘go back up into your quarters, and take up your own work, the loom and the distaff ... speech will be the business of men, all men, and of me most of all; for mine is the power in this household.’ And off she goes, back upstairs.
-- Beard 2017: 1
(= London review of books, March 2014)
Some people will want to make excuses for the Odyssey, arguing that its misogyny is a product of its time. While true, that doesn’t mean the misogyny isn’t there. Whether or not that damages the quality of the Odyssey is in the eye of the reader.

Mt Sunday (foreground right), upper Rangitata River valley, a stone’s throw from ‘Erewhon Station’. Butler spent the first part of the 1860s farming sheep here, and the opening section of Erewhon is based on it. More recently, Mt Sunday served as the set for Edoras in The Lord of the Rings films. (Source:

Butler on Penelope

Excuses or no excuses, Butler’s Authoress of the Odyssey makes a weird contrast with this Penelope scene. Because the core of Butler’s argument is that the epic has a firmly and exclusively feminine sensibility.
What, let me ask, is the most unerring test of female authorship? Surely a preponderance of female interest ... Hence if in any work the women are found to be well and sympathetically drawn, while the men are mechanical and by comparison perfunctorily treated, it is, I imagine, safe to infer that the writer is a woman.
-- Butler 1897: 105
‘The Odyssey takes more interest in women than the Iliad, therefore the Odyssey was written by a woman.’ No, that doesn’t make a lick of sense. Can he really have meant to say something that daft? Yes, yes he did. Here’s the next page.
Men seem unable to draw women at all without either laughing at them or caricaturing them ... I doubt whether any writer in the whole range of literature (excepting, I suppose, Shakespeare) has succeeded in drawing a full length, life-sized, serious portrait of a member of the sex opposite to one’s own.
-- Butler 1897: 106
Make no mistake: even though this is halfway through the book, it’s the foundation for the whole thing. His argument is this: in any literary work the characters, physical settings, and interests necessarily represent people, settings, and interests in the author’s everyday life. Nausicaa may be Butler’s motivation, but this is his rationale.

Butler in 1858, two years before he laid claim to farmland in inland Canterbury. (Source:
Let’s imagine his logic somehow worked, and follow up his line of thought. If the Odyssey really had ‘a preponderance of female interest’, with women ‘well and sympathetically drawn’, you’d assume the poet would be keenly interested in exploring what it is that makes Penelope tick. For example: after the incident with Penelope and Telemachus, you’d expect the narrator to track Penelope a bit, maybe follow her upstairs to her private quarters, maybe spend some time describing how she copes with her plight, and her efforts to keep peace with the army of violent suitors inside her house.

Nope. We don’t get any glimpse of Penelope’s inner life until she talks about it in book 19. Even there, many readers doubt she means anything she says. After the incident in book 1, the narrator stays by Telemachus’ side until near the end of book 4; book 2 focuses entirely on Telemachus, the suitors, and the male population of Ithaca, and the motivations driving each of them. (Men are ‘perfunctorily treated’? Hah!) Penelope only reappears briefly at the end of book 4. When we’re told about the problems caused by the suitors, it’s Telemachus talking to Nestor or Menelaus, or Eumaeus talking to the disguised Odysseus.

Butler’s argument also revolves around how he thinks the ideal Victorian lady -- personified as Nausicaa -- ought to feel about the world. At page 107 he invites his reader to ask any single woman that ‘he’ knows whether they like having men about the house. Chapter 4 is about the poet’s ‘jealousy for the honour and dignity of women’. Chapters 5 and 6 argue that the poet has ‘whitewashed’ Penelope out of feminine sympathy, and that in reality Penelope was ‘scandalous’, ‘an artful heartless flirt’. At page 136 he states, ‘The authoress of the Odyssey is never severe about theft’, with the assumption that that’s a feminine perspective. Chapter 7 is about ‘Further indications that the writer is a woman -- young -- headstrong -- and unmarried.’

Butler argues his point with a classic case of victim-blaming. If Penelope really wanted to get rid of the suitors, he says, ‘[o]ne would have thought all she had to do was to bolt the doors as soon as the suitors had left for the night’ (page 126). Or again: ‘The reader will have noted that on this occasion the suitors seem to have been in the house after nightfall’ (page 129).
A man ... would not have made the suitors a band of lovers at all. He would have seen at once that this was out of the question, and would have made them mere marauders, who overawed Penelope by their threats ...
-- Butler 1897: 128
The weird thing is that the suitors are mere marauders. Very very obviously so. They try to assassinate Telemachus. They threaten violence constantly. They commit actual violence throughout books 17 and 18. They force unwilling people into a fist-fight, with promises of torture and mutilation for the loser. They’re brutal monsters.

But no. For Butler, the suitors are romantic lovers: their morals are imperfect, but their love is pure.

And Penelope is leading them on. Butler doesn’t use the word ‘slut’, but if he did, it would be completely in place. He’s an archetypal ‘nice guy’. If Penelope had been able to keep out the suitors with a bolted door, Butler would be the first to complain that she was ghosting her former lovers.

I find it gobsmacking that a noted feminist writer has characterised Butler’s book as ‘[t]he most elegant, ingenious, imaginative and imagination-respecting of feminist gestures’ (Brophy 1985: 814). It’s worrying to see any critic regarding him as a ‘careful reader’ (Kendal 2016: 1). The Odyssey has loads of misogyny, as Mary Beard points out -- but maybe not quite as much as Butler has.

Penelope’s perspective, and that of the slaughtered maids: Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad, from a trailer for the 2013 stage production by the Nightwood Theatre, Toronto. (Source: YouTube)

Penelope’s perspective

In the real Odyssey, we only get occasional fragmentary glimpses of what it is that drives the women of the poem. Often that’s exactly the point: we’re not supposed to see what makes Penelope tick. People tell stories about her, they describe her, they interpret her: everything is from someone else’s viewpoint.
‘A night will come when a hateful marriage meets me,’ (says Penelope,)
‘my end, when Zeus takes away my joy.
But ... this isn’t how suitors do things -- it never has been --
when they want to court a noble woman, a wealthy man’s
daughter, and compete with one another.
They bring oxen and fat sheep,
as a feast for the girl’s family. They give fine gifts.
They don’t devour someone else’s livelihood for free!’
    So she spoke. And long-suffering noble Odysseus laughed
because she coaxed gifts out of them, and she charmed their hearts
with soft words while her mind intended something quite different.
-- Odyssey 19.274-283
Penelope flatly declares that she’s going to give in and marry one of the suitors. Is it really a trick? Can we be sure? If we can, it isn‘t because of anything she says. It’s only because Odysseus is there to explain that she didn’t really mean what she said.

So this is a little more involved than your everyday misogyny: it’s essential to her character. In the Odyssey there’s no such thing as Penelope’s perspective, only perspectives on her. Entire books have been written about how there is no inner psychology there, and how her character is created by what other characters think about her motives, and by her role in the plot. (It’s a pity some of those books are notoriously difficult to read: the underlying idea is really solid.)

If Butler had really been a careful reader, he might have argued that this characterisation of Penelope, with her character as a kind of blind spot in the story, shows a more powerful insight into gender relations than any supposed whitewashing could. (More powerful than any of his actual arguments, anyway.)

When the poet keeps Penelope’s inner life obscure, it isn’t easy to tell if it’s because the poet is being misogynistic -- a creature of his time, if you prefer --, or because the whole point of Penelope is that her inner life is inscrutable.

It’s a bit of both. Take the ‘soul-summoning’ scene in book 11: Agamemnon’s ghost advises Odysseus as follows. (a) You must never under any circumstances trust Penelope; (b) Penelope is a really good egg and she’ll always stand by you; and (c) you must never ever trust Penelope ever. Mixed messages much?
‘Never be nice to your wife!
Don’t tell her everything you know.
Say some things, keep some hidden.
But your wife won’t kill you, Odysseus ...
Still ... arrive in your home country secretly, not openly.
Because there’s no trusting women these days.’
-- Odyssey 11.441-456
What a testimony to the Odyssey’s ‘female interest’; what a great benchmark for virtue. ‘Your wife is so virtuous that she isn’t actually going to murder you.’ Well ... yay, I guess? Here we’ve got someone telling us how to think about Penelope, while at the same time stressing that women are scary.

Agamemnon’s words, and other similar passages, tend to suggest the obscurity of Penelope’s inner life isn’t just an insight into the feminine condition in a patriarchal society: it’s also a refusal to engage with the feminine condition.

I don’t think that says anything about the author, though. That would be the same kind of fallacy as when Butler insists that the epic is transparent and the author’s identity is plainly visible through it. Butler’s argument says a lot more about Butler than it does about Homer.
He seems to have rewritten an ancient epic as a Victorian novel ... Along with other Victorians, he is skeptical of Homer worship, but he resents the German classical scholars who deny the great poet his identity. His ‘authoress,’ an inventive restoration of that identity, has the appearance of an exotic, but she is very much at home in the Victorian tradition. ... Butler regenerates a classic as the offspring of a modern temperament: the artist as a young Victorian lady.
-- Booth 1985: 865-867
Butler’s modern critics seem to sway between regarding him as a crackpot (Whitmarsh 2002 -- but maybe I’m interpreting Whitmarsh uncharitably) and an iconoclast (Beard 2007). I think Booth, above, is closer to the mark: Butler wasn’t just an iconoclast, he was a Victorian gentleman’s image of what an iconoclast ought to look like.

That’s not to say he didn’t mean his argument seriously. His dedication to it over several years strongly suggests he was entirely serious. But that doesn’t mean we have to go re-writing the history of Sicily at the drop of Butler’s stovepipe hat.


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