In Homer’s writings of ancient Greece, which of course were contemporary visions to him and to Greek society, readers are faced with a dilemma. First of all, there are established facts within the writings; in the case of this essay there exists the factual evidence of Odysseus’ intimate relations with women other than his Penelope while meandering back to Greece (Homer, 1998). Secondly, beyond sheer facts is the sticky subject of how to rightfully determine the interpretations of these facts.
This interpretation must be viewed through the glass of author and audience of the time in which the writing took place – in this situation Homer and ancient or ‘classical’ Greece. Though one may certainly be tempted to interpret the events of books like The Odyssey with personal understandings and modern social dictates and mores, this temptation must be resisted. It is nice to believe that the poet was writing with today’s readers in mind, but this is simply not the case. It is imperative to be informed by Greek tradition and cultural values when properly placing judgment upon circumstances within the pages of the epics.
A primary consideration in the Homerian epic The Odyssey is whether or not the actions of Odysseus regarding his relations with Circe and Calypso constitute a violation of the Greek cultures and expectations of his time. Period. Again, the facts speak for themselves – he undeniably mingled in intimate fashion with these women. In doing so, however, one must ascertain whether he was indicted by the times in which he lived. This he did not do. The Greek ideals of the times indicate no wrongdoing on his part. Odysseus’s intimate relations with both Calypso and Circe were justified based on Greek culture and values.
There are two ways of looking for proof of this thesis. One is the normative method in which standards are found that would uphold actions directly on their face. In other words, Greek textual evidences exist in which the male virtues were exemplified and extolled. They were the rulers who waged wars and created standards. Though these evidences do exist, this is trivial and easy. More constructive is to look for the opposing points of view which by default will shed light upon the common cultural norms. This proves insightful and fascinating.
Of particular interest is the expression of this found in Reading Sappho: Contemporary Approaches (Greene, 1996). In reading the fragments of Sappho an element of feminine equality informs the approach, which though an effective set of arguments in their own behalf, do as much to expose the popularly held traditions and notions of Athenian society itself. The primary reading that can be centered on from Greene’s book is found as early on as page 6. One need go no further than that to find great clarity of expression regarding the topic of the Greek value system, especially as expressed through its literature.
Again, it is the argument of holding a mirror up to the intended thesis. Greene offers this splendidly. She writes, A number of essays in this volume argue that Sappho assimilates conventional social and literary formulas to a woman’s consciousness. Stehle, Williamson, Skinner, and I argue that although Sappho utilizes many conventional formulas of archaic Greek poetry, her poems, nonetheless, speak a different language than that of her male counterparts and produce a significantly different version of desire – one that is markedly nonhierarchical, or as Marilyn Skinner puts it, “conspicuously nonphallic.
” So what are the critics showing about Sappho’s arguments? What are they saying about the cultural values of the Greek society? By showing that her writings are ‘markedly nonhierarchical’, the indication is obvious: the prevalent system was one of hierarchy. This is easily understood to be the classical representation of the male dominated society. From The Iliad to The Odyssey, Homer’s heroes were of two sorts: males and decision makers. This is inclusive: it is neither an ‘or’ situation nor an ‘and/or’ situation.
This is the system against which all of the epics were written. This is certainly supported by the second description of Sappho’s writings: they were ‘nonphallic’; so by the obverse we can see that the culture itself, indicative of the hierarchy, was phallic in nature. Thus it was male focused and we can agree that male actions, therefore, unless specifically expressed as a wrong, must then be right. That would correspond to Odysseus’ pursuits of amore during the long voyage back home. Interestingly, another secondary source authored by a male, Jack Winkler (Greene, p.
4) promotes just this understanding. He describes the Sappho fragments as an appropriation of the Homeric text, and thus begins to attempt to revise the ‘male’ readings of traditional literature. This, too, supports the thesis, again from the converse side of things. Where there is no judgment upon Odysseus for his actions, we can understand that this is because of the Homeric, male, interpretations of the context. If Sappho is attempting to revise male readings, then the male readings of the actions must have been the paragon of its understanding.
We are left with no other conclusion. Ultimately, beyond any other considerations, it can be seen that The Odyssey represents an adventure story. It tells of other things, for sure, and can even function as a default history primer – but more than anything it explains how the male dominated society exists without question from its cultural context. Odysseus can run around for years during an extended voyage home. He can become paramour on this trip. In the end, however, it is an adventure story, a perfectly fine excuse for behaving within Greek norms.
To paraphrase Marilyn B. Skinner’s essay within Greene (pp. 175-192), Odysseus in his intimate relations with Circe and Calypso was simply operating within the normative subject values of the patriarchal Greek times. The thesis rings true: Odysseus’s intimate relations with both Calypso and Circe were justified based on Greek culture and values.? References Greene, E. (Ed. ). (1996). Reading Sappho: Contemporary Approaches. Berkeley: University of California Press. Homer. (1998). The Odyssey. New York: Oxford UP.