"The Odyssey": The original chick lit?

Shaking up the academy, an independent scholar argues that Homer didn't write the great epic poems -- and that their author was likely a woman.


Andrew O'Hehir
July 27, 2006 4:45PM (UTC)

For most of the past 2,500 years, scholars and aficionados of what we would now call the Western literary tradition had little doubt about its point of origin. At the dawn of Greek civilization, nearly 1,000 years before the birth of Christ, a blind poet named Homer (Homeros, in Greek) had written or composed -- and here we feel the first faint stirrings of an irresolvable ambiguity -- two great epic poems, "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey."

These poems were not the beginning of literature; the Sumerian epic of "Gilgamesh" was first written down at least 1,000 years earlier (but was not widely known in the West). Just as Greek society and politics would set the table, for better and for worse, for the 3,000 years of Occidental civilization to follow, so too would the Homeric epics generate a fertile, extensive and continuing literary culture. There is no story about the cruelty and heroism of warfare in the Western tradition -- and no story about men fighting over a woman -- that does not refer back to Achilles and Agamemnon, Paris and Helen, Hector and Andromache, and the other characters and themes of "The Iliad."

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Every tale of a hero who survives many hardships and adventures on the long road home -- and every tale of a woman who remains true to her long-lost husband, in defiance of her own family and community -- is essentially a reworking of the saga of the wily Odysseus and the steadfast Penelope in "The Odyssey." In many ways, the world of Achilles and Odysseus seems enormously distant from our own, sometimes to the point of incomprehensibility. At the same time, imagining what Western culture would be like without these poems and the stories they tell is literally impossible; it's like imagining contemporary America without cars or guns.

As the English historian and linguist Andrew Dalby reminds us in his new book "Rediscovering Homer," most of what was understood about the Homeric epics, for most of Western history, was wrong or misleading. Conventional ways of thinking about history and legend, about authorship and the oral tradition, about the structure and language of the poems, and about what they actually say, have clouded men's minds for generations -- and continue to do so today, Dalby thinks, even in an age of more rigorous scholarship.

Dalby's headline-grabbing assertion is that Homer, if he ever existed, was certainly not the author of "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey," and not even the author of early drafts or proto-texts. The author was the person who decided to write down (or dictate) the legendary stories of the Trojan War and the wanderings of Odysseus as epic narratives, far longer than would be suitable for an evening's tale spinning. That author had at least the faint glimmering of an idea that would change the world: Writing a long poem on a stack of cured goatskins (the only available medium) might ultimately reach a larger audience than that available to the traditional poet-singers who traveled from place to place as after-dinner performers. Dalby thinks that author was probably, or at least plausibly, a woman.

"Rediscovering Homer" is certain to rile professional Homeric scholars, whose view of the epics has changed cautiously and gradually over the past century or so. Some may seek to dismiss Dalby, who is a free-floating, unaffiliated author and researcher of the sort once described as a "gentleman scholar." (He holds a Ph.D. in ancient history, but makes his living by writing books for general readers, not by teaching in a university.) They will argue that his dating of the poems is unorthodox -- he thinks "The Iliad" was written around 650 B.C. and "The Odyssey" around 630, whereas most scholars would date them 70 to 90 years earlier -- and that his identification of a female author is no better than guesswork.

Dalby himself cheerfully acknowledges these criticisms. His work is full of speculation and supposition, he admits, but at least those are rooted in the best available linguistic, literary and historical scholarship rather than antiquated tradition. Many contemporary textbooks and teachers, on the other hand, offer a half-hearted and indecisive mishmash of information: "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey" are the work of person or persons unknown, conventionally called Homer, perhaps literate and perhaps not. Some authorities try to make Homer coincide with the birth of Greek writing, while others ascribe authorship to an anonymous process called the "oral tradition" rather than to specific people. Either way, these are fuzzy, self-undermining notions.

The Homeric epics have been surrounded by an aura of mystery and controversy since they first became popular (sometime around 500 B.C.), and this has never prevented readers from enjoying them, or grasping their seminal importance. If anything, the idea that "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey" offer a window onto human prehistory, onto a past that is otherwise silent piles of dust and bone, has formed a considerable part of their allure. But anyone who admires intellectual puzzles will appreciate Dalby's attempt, imaginative as it may be, to synthesize the arguments of many other scholars with his own and untangle the tortured question of Homeric origin.

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If you read the poems in school sometime in the last 30 years or so (most likely in Richmond Lattimore's dutiful but leaden 1961 translation), you already have a vague sense that the question of who wrote them, and when and how and why -- and even the question of what we mean when we ask who wrote them -- has no easy answer. Homer isn't mentioned in Greek sources until at least 300 years after his presumed lifetime, and many scholars view him as a folkloric figure, a "personification of epic," in Dalby's phrase, rather than a remembered human being. Spurious biographies of Homer were published later, after the poems had achieved widespread fame, but those bear roughly the same relationship to historical truth as the books about Nostradamus available in today's supermarkets.

If Homer was a real person, he almost certainly lived and died before the introduction of the Greek alphabet. (Yes, language wonks, written Greek existed centuries before "Homer," in the alphabet known as Linear B, but that had vanished by 1100 B.C. and in any case was never used for literary purposes.) Even early Greek commentators saw this problem, and so a traditional answer emerged: Homer was an oral poet or bard (Dalby prefers the simpler term "singer") who composed the epics during the Greek Dark Ages, sometime between the 10th and 8th centuries B.C. After that they were handed down from poet to poet, essentially intact, for decades or centuries, until someone wrote them down.

Across the succeeding millennia, Dalby observes, scholars quarreled over the details of this history without ever confronting the weakness of its fundamental premise. Some argued that Homer had really existed and others that different poets were responsible for the two epics. Some found evidence that the Spartan lawgiver Lycurgus had ordered the poems written down in the 7th century B.C., while others looked to the 6th century Athenian dictators Peisistratos and Hipparchos. No one challenged the idea that authorship lay somewhere in the pre-literate past.

Other scholars puzzled over the text, debating the poems' internal inconsistencies and their insistent usage of repetitive formula. Scenes of bathing and eating recur over and over again, in virtually the same words, and people and things always carry the same attributes whether or not they seem appropriate in context. The Trojan hero Hector is "man-killing Hector" even in a peaceful setting; Odysseus is "resourceful" or "wily" even when he is lost, clueless and terrified. The "life-giving Earth" is still described that way when fallen heroes are being buried in it, and "The Odyssey" actually includes the line "the noisy dogs were silent." Was this laziness or irony or just a constricted view of the world? (Some translations, like E.V. Rieu's Penguin Classics prose version from 1946, deliberately conceal these poetic formulas.)

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Bizarre as this may seem, during all that time no one paid attention to the surviving traditions of oral epic storytelling in Europe and elsewhere. The same oral-literary culture that had produced the Homeric epics had endured into modernity in relatively remote areas like the Balkans, Finland, Russia and Central Asia, rural Ireland and Scotland. This may seem obvious to us now, with our multicultural, anthropologically conditioned vision of the world, but it flew in the face of everything classical scholars believed. Their discipline was at the pinnacle of the humanities, and the cultures they studied were by definition superior to everything that came later. It was axiomatic that the classics could shed light on modern life, but it was ludicrous to suggest that the reverse might also be true.

As early as the 18th century, British scholars like James Macpherson made awkward efforts to compare the Homeric epics to existing Gaelic oral tradition. But the breakthrough didn't come until the 1930s, when the American classicist Milman Parry and his assistant Albert Lord began intense comparative studies of the rich oral traditions in the Balkans, especially among Bosnian Muslims, who at that time were a largely illiterate people still untouched by mass media. What they learned would change Homeric scholarship profoundly, but Dalby believes the changes have still not been fully absorbed or understood.

The key discovery of Parry and Lord's "oral theory" is that entire poems are never transmitted intact from one oral poet to another, let alone across several generations. "In modern oral traditions," Dalby explains, "poets or singers often claim to be repeating word for word a composition by some famous, honored predecessor, but it has been shown by experiment and fully confirmed by research that this claim is not and never can be true in our terms. There is no possibility of exact transmission. Narratives in oral tradition are created anew every time they are performed."

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In other words, poets don't perform works exactly as they heard them from others, and themselves never perform works the same way twice. To anyone who has ever told a campfire ghost story or a shaggy-dog joke this may seem glaringly obvious, but again, the professoriate is not noted for its ability to draw appropriate lessons from everyday life. In the face of this evidence, Lord and other scholars sought to redate Homer such that he could plausibly have written or dictated the epics himself, but this contradicts every ancient authority on the subject.

To Dalby, the real conclusion is clear: "As the tradition says, Homer was a famous singer who worked long before the use of writing. We are therefore reading not his work but that of a later singer in the same tradition, the one who composed the 'Iliad' and the 'Odyssey' and saw them written down. She (or he) was a seventh-century [B.C.] contemporary of Archilochos [one of the earliest identified Greek poets] and was among the greatest creators of literature that the world has known, but is not named in the poems."

Every reader will be eager to evaluate Dalby's case that this neo-Homer was female, but before he gets to that, Dalby demonstrates how Parry and Lord's oral theory has helped illuminate many of the epics' most mysterious ingredients. When you accept the premise that "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey" were semi-improvised oral epics, but composed at a highly unusual length and composed to be written down, many things become clear. The repeated scenes and the use of formulaic adjectives are found in every oral tradition. They supply the poet with ready-made metrical material and allow him to think ahead, and they simultaneously refer to shared assumptions about heroes, gods, social relations and the natural world.

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Some of the language used by Mr. or Ms. Homer is already archaic by the standards of 7th century Greek, while some is contemporary. Much of the legendary history presented in the poems is clearly hundreds of years old and may contain real history at its core. In the wake of Heinrich Schliemann's famous 19th century excavations, archaeologists have established that there really was a city called Troy, or Ilion, in Asia Minor (on the northwestern coast of contemporary Turkey), and it really was burned down around 1200 B.C., very close to the traditional date of the Trojan War.

One of Dalby's most delightful nuggets is that when Alexander the Great visited Ilion in 334 B.C., it was basically a tourist trap. Someone had built a spurious "tomb of Achilles" where admirers of the legendary hero could leave offerings; there were guides available and phony Trojan War souvenirs for sale. Yet if ancient beliefs about the time and place of that conflict now look surprisingly accurate, the society depicted in "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey" is basically that of the poet's own time, at the dawn of classical Greece, which was quite different from the lost Mycenaean civilization of the 13th or 12th centuries.

Dalby unpacks an intriguing series of snippets from historical or archaeological evidence to support the view that the epics have a historical basis but were built up over the years from a wide variety of materials and also have specific roots in the middle of the 7th century. He suspects that the Trojan War of "The Iliad" comprises two different military campaigns, the one mentioned above and another found in the records of the Hittite king Tudhaliya I, who claimed to have conquered "Wilusiya" and "Truisa," Hittite names for Ilion, or Troy, around 1410 B.C.

He adds that Paris, in "The Iliad" the son of Troy's King Priam and the seducer of Helen, probably has two names for a similar reason. He is often called Alexandros, a fact never explained in the text, and his life history is an odd one: He was expelled from the household as an infant, raised by a herdsman, and later accepted back into the royal family. Hittite records of the 13th century refer to the king of "Wilusa" (Troy again) as Alaksandu, who was the adopted son of his predecessor. This king's dates do not fit either possible Trojan War, and the Paris/Alexandros of "The Iliad" never becomes king of Troy. So maybe we have a composite literary character here, derived from "a prince of Troy named Alexandros and a seducer named Paris -- not the same person, not necessarily in the same place or at the same date."

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Dalby's argument that the author of the epics was a woman, probably an aristocratic wife, rests heavily on the oral theory, other recent developments in Homeric studies, and a couple of imaginative leaps. But it isn't a completely new idea. Samuel Butler (whose 19th century translations of "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey" are probably the best freely available on the Internet) shocked other Victorian scholars with his 1897 treatise "The Authoress of the Odyssey," in which he identified "The Iliad," with its treatment of warfare, bloodshed and honor, as a manly yarn and the "The Odyssey," with its heightened focus on human relationships, the domestic realm and the subtle play of sexual power, as the Western world's earliest example of chick lit.

It's possible that Dalby is guilty of the same kind of oversimplification, or at least a simplistic view of gender and its literary consequences. When he writes that the poet presents Helen and Andromache (Hector's wife) in "The Iliad," or steadfast Penelope in "The Odyssey," as complicated, insightful and largely sympathetic characters, he is surely correct. Furthermore, both poems offer unflinching depictions of sexual relations in a world where women are literally property and must use their domestic and erotic power subtly while presenting the appearance of total subservience.

Maybe most men couldn't capture those subjects, but that isn't evidence. Men, after all, wrote "A Doll's House" and "Three Sisters" and "A Portrait of a Lady," along with any number of lesser chick-lit classics. When you add these observations to the question of how and why the Homeric epics were composed, however, Dalby's hypothesis begins to gain momentum. First of all, there is no convincing indication that any poetic work the size or scale of these epics had existed previously in Greek. Other early epics from roughly the same period, like Hesiod's "Theogony" or "Works and Days," are less than 1,000 lines, a length that could comfortably be heard by a boozy after-dinner audience. "The Iliad" runs to almost 16,000 lines and "The Odyssey" to about 12,000.

Six centuries or so before the time of Christ, writing something that long "was an extremely daunting project," Dalby says. "A great many goats would have to be killed and skinned, and the chosen singer and the scribe [he assumes they were not the same person] would have to set aside many weeks." Later, he writes that "the 'Iliad' had to be composed privately, with an extended effort of voice and concentration, without the reward in audience appreciation that a singer normally enjoyed ... How would a popular ancient oral singer, accustomed to vocal praise and varied rewards from live audiences, have regarded such an offer?"

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Indeed, who would have had the freedom, and the inclination, to do something so peculiar? Singers were traveling tradesmen, dependent on each night's audience for food and shelter, eager to move on to the next town and the next rich man's banquet hall. One can certainly imagine some local aristocrat, who perhaps understood the possibilities of reading and writing, deciding to pay a favorite singer a few weeks' wages to compose and dictate a long-form version of the Trojan War story. But why didn't that singer stick his own name in the poem somewhere and indulge in a little poetic braggadocio, the way Hesiod, Archilochos, Alkman and other early Greek writers did?

Dalby's idea that the poet was someone acculturated to reticence and privacy, someone who was already accustomed to composing and performing at home, is seductive. He demonstrates considerable evidence that women have been among the foremost practitioners of oral epic in many cultural traditions. Researchers (generally male) have tended to miss them because female poets in most patriarchal societies have performed in private, "to please themselves or for a few friends or family members."

A wealthy wife who was skilled in the poetic tradition, and who had slaves to perform most of her expected domestic chores, would have been in an ideal position to devote herself to composing and writing a lengthy epic. She could have paid for the goatskins and the scribe, and would have inconvenienced no one except herself with her weeks of literary work. "Such a woman, if she were as perceptive as the poet of the 'Iliad' and the 'Odyssey' must have been," Dalby writes, "might have realized that a new potential audience undreamed of by male singers -- an audience of women -- existed and could be reached with the help of writing."

None of this rises anywhere near a standard of proof. But growl as they may, the members of the Homeric academy will have to wrestle with it. I came away from Dalby's book convinced that he has destroyed any sensible connection between the Homeric epics and Homer himself, and that all arguments that the author can only have been a man are on equally shaky ground.

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As mentioned already, "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey" tell us a great deal about how gender, sexuality and property relations worked in early classical Greece, and it isn't pretty. Briseis, the girl over whom Achilles and Agamemnon have their near-deadly feud in "The Iliad," endangering the Greek siege of Troy, is nothing more or less than a sex slave. (Achilles' true romantic love is of course his valiant companion Patroclus.) When Odysseus, the unquenchable and largely sympathetic hero who has battled the Cyclops, the sorceress Circe, an island of cannibals and numerous other foes, finally gets home, how does he reward his household's slave girls? He has them all killed for having sex with Penelope's loutish suitors, and specifically for enjoying it.

Helen, who has abandoned her husband Menelaus for Paris and thereby launched a thousand ships, is also an item of stolen property, albeit one who comes at a higher price than slave girls do. Whether Helen and Paris truly love each other is of no consequence in the poem's world, and neither is the fact that their affair was compelled by the goddess Aphrodite (who herself loves Paris and therefore acquires him the woman of his dreams). Their coupling violates numerous fundamental social codes; all Greek audiences understood that the resulting 10-year war was justified and the fall of Troy inevitable.

Dalby makes the valid points that Helen and Andromache supply important moments of commentary in "The Iliad," and that Penelope, who without ever leaving home outwits the suitors and her own headstrong son Telemachos, is the co-heroine of "The Odyssey." I think a perceptive male writer could have managed all that, and I'm not sure Dalby gets anywhere with his claims that the poet "subverts" epic and gender in a distinctively female manner. But when you return to the text after reading Dalby, and encounter again the poems' flashes of psychological insight, and their brutal sexual frankness, it's hard to resist the feeling that a woman is addressing us.

Helen is consumed by a passion for Paris that she knows is wrong, does not understand and cannot resist. It's the work of Aphrodite, but one could say that men and women of all eras have sought similar explanations for ill-advised love affairs that ruined their lives and destroyed their families. When Helen comes face to face with Aphrodite in Book 3 of "The Iliad," she tells the goddess spitefully (in Dalby's translation):

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Go to Paris yourself, then! Stray from the high road of the gods,
Never again turn your feet toward Olympos;
Whine around him and watch him all the time
Till he makes you his wife, or rather his slave girl!

Aphrodite answers her just as angrily, saying, "Don't rouse me, wretch, or I shall ... hate you as wildly as until now I have loved you, and expose you to the hatred of both armies, Trojans and Greeks. You would die a vile death."

There is no mistaking the underlying electrical charge of fear and emotion beneath this exchange. Helen says: If you love him so much, then crawl to him and beg him for sex, as I have done. Pushing this vulnerability even further, Aphrodite threatens to turn Helen over to the soldiers on both sides, to be raped and killed. Can there be a more real or primordial fear for any woman, whether slave or princess, in a militaristic and male-dominated society? It happened often; it undoubtedly happened to the women of Troy when their city was sacked. Did a male poet of the 7th century B.C. really understand that fear, from a woman's point of view?


Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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