Epic Ways of Killing a Woman: Gender and Transgression in “Odyssey” 22.465-72 Author(s): Laurel Fulkerson Source: The Classical Journal, Vol. 97, No. 4 (Apr. – May, 2002), pp. 335-350 Published by: The Classical Association of the Middle West and South, Inc. (CAMWS) Stable URL: https://www.jstor.org/stable/3298448 Accessed: 26-11-2019 06:24 UTC
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EPIC WAYS OF KILLING A WOMAN: GENDER AND TRANSGRESSION IN ODYSSEY 22.465-721
twelve unfaithful serving maids in Book 22 (465-72) other than to discuss the mechanics of the death,2 which, although
problematic, are far from the strangest aspect of the passage. In contrast to the numerous detailed studies of the morality of the suitors’ deaths,3 those who mention the hanging of the serving maids usually justify or condemn the murder.4 In addition, those who do comment on the scene frequently find it indicative of Telemachus’ moral character, concluding that it is a sign of Telemachus’ immaturity and/or brutalitys or, on the other hand, that it “shows Telemachus’ worthiness” to succeed his father.6 In fact, as I will suggest, the passage may engage with the question of Telemachus’ moral maturity, but also shares important thematic connections with significant concerns of the Odyssey, and thus deserves careful examination in its own right. Telemachus’ method of killing the serving women is not only more appropriate than Odysseus’ order, but has larger implications for the issue of women’s fidelity (particularly Penelope’s) in the poem.
i Thanks to Debbie Steiner, who first offered encouragement, to the audience at the 1999 APA session on Homer, particularly Mark Toher and Erwin Cook, to the various anonymous readers for this journal, and, as always, to John Marincola.
2 E.g. Stanford 388-9. Typical of the treatment they receive is Davies 535, who notes that the servants are “(on Odysseus’ explicit orders) awarded a humiliating mode of death by Telemachus.”
3 Useful treatments of the suitors’ death are Allen (who sees them as wicked types of the Aristotelean hero) especially 107ff., Jones 198-201, and Said, whose classic article focuses on their violations of the laws of hospitality.
4 Cf., e.g., Dimock 313-4; Nagler 247. 5 Russo et al. ad 441-73; Felson-Rubin 86-7; Rose 120. Fajardo-Acosta 136 claims
that the deaths of the maids and suitors are “seen by the poet as acts of mindless cruelty.” Clarke 40 suggests that Telemachus’ “savagery toward the servant girls, like his occasional harshness with his mother, is part of a deep-seated reaction against an adolescence spent among women.” I do not intend to address the morality of Telemachus’ (or Odysseus’) choices about the maids. When I argue below that Telemachus’ decision is “more appropriate” I merely mean that it better obeys the gendered constraints the poem seems to impose on means of death.
THE CLASSICAL JOURNAL 97.4 (2002) 335-350
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336 LAUREL FULKERSON
First, the physical aspects of the slaughter of the maids require a brief look. Odysseus’ plan involves forcing the twelve disloyal maids to clean up the remnants of the slaughter of the suitors and then leading them into the courtyard to be executed by the sword (Od. 22.440-45):
“aUT&rp i Tr’v 6 T”nd’vTa 86pov KaTaKOOaIfoIPlOE, cphcS igayay6VTES i UaTa0o OPEy6poto, pEaaoy\iY TE O6XOU Kal pipOVOP 5pKEOS aOXh~i, OEIVIpEVlivat iq)EaIv TaVTVKEOtV, EiG 6 KE TOraycOV yuXiS i?aq)~XIr OE, Kal KXEX6O6COVT’ ‘Appo8TnqS.
T1V ap’ 01Tr6 o PVIOTrlpoIv Xov PIcYyovT6 TE AX6Opf.”
“Then, after you have got all the house back in good order, lead all these maidservants out of the well-built palace between the round- house and the unfaulted wall of the courtyard, and hew them with the thin edge of the sword, until you have taken the lives from all, and they forget Aphrodite, the goddess they had with them when they lay secretly with the suitors.” 7
Telemachus, however, deliberately disobeys his father and engineers some kind of mass hanging instead of the prescribed death by sword. The hanging involves a ship’s cable (Tr~iopa), a pillar (KLcOV), and a round-house (O60Xo); Telemachus describes his decision as follows (Od. 22.462-73):
“Prl Pv 8 Ka6apcp 6avr6Tcp daTr6 Oubv hXo(l.rPv T6CrA, a’t 11 pi KE(paiXi KT’ 6VEi(Ea XE:av l.*Irpt 6′ II.ETip Tlrapd6 TE pVfOTlIpoIV Tauov.” “(.S ap’ Eq), Kati TrETIOFt( VEi6 KUavoTpcPpolo K1QOVOS E~pclZ CiEy6XS”n Trrpi3aXXE 86Xoio, V0O6a’ ETrEVTavOOas, Pll1 TI TrOO’v oii0aI5 KOITO. bS 6″‘ ” Tav il KiXXAa TavUOaTrTEpotI l Tr~XEIa
9pKEI iVITrV1-O)I, T6 0 oT iVi K aK1 ~ pVCp, aiAlv icyOIEVaI, aTUyEp6S ‘ TrE?maTO KT0TOS, &s a’ y’ EEITIS KEqcpXaS EXOV, 6p1pi t Trncats
Et~pfot p3p6Xoi aotcav, aS”rr Cs oKTIOTCa 06VO0EV. fioaraipov 6U Tr68Eaao CviPveUVO rrEp, o0 TI pXa ilv.
“I would not take away the lives of these creatures by any clean death, for they have showered abuse on the head of my mother, and on my own head too, and they have slept with the suitors.” So he spoke, and taking the cable of a dark-prowed ship, fastened it to the tall pillar, and fetched it about the round-house, binding it up high so that none of them could reach the earth. Like thrushes, who spread their wings, or wood-pigeons, who have flown into a snare set up for them in a thicket, trying to find a resting place, but
7 All translations of the Odyssey are modified from Lattimore. Other translations are mine.
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EPIC WAYS OF KILLING A WOMAN 337
the sleep given them was hateful, so were their heads in a line, and each had her neck caught fast in a noose so that their death would be most pitiful. They struggled with their feet a little, not for very long.
The Oxford commentators (ad 441-73) understandably find this description “imprecise and probably fanciful,” and note a variety of insurmountable difficulties, most of which center around the impossibility of hanging twelve women from a single rope.8 While this is undeniably true, I suggest that the physical description of the hanging contains a nexus of imagery that significantly contributes to the meaning of the scene even as it renders physical reconstruction of it problematic.
The hanging involves a TrEiOpa, a Kiov, and a 86’Xo.9 The TrETOpa is a ship’s cable, generally the one that anchors a boat to land.1- Odysseus is of course a sailor and is linked to the sea in several passages, most notably at Odyssey 8.202ff. wherein he refuses to compete in a Phaeacian footrace because he has spent so much time at sea and his legs are infirm.1″ The fixity of the o1KOS (symbolized by the Kikov) contrasts to the wanderings of Odysseus depicted throughout the poem (alluded to by the TrE’apa). We can discern in the particular materials used to hang the maids a symbolic resonance for Odysseus and his family–in effect, Odysseus’ return to (and consequent reestablishment of order in) his house is paralleled in miniature by the combination of ship and pillar which are employed to dispose of the final remnants of chaos in the house.
The Kicav most often denotes a roof pillar in the Odyssey; Demodocus’ chair leans against one, and Odysseus and Telemachus use one on various occasions.12 More significantly, Penelope’s chastity is identified with the pillar in Book 23, when we learn that
8 Merry and Stanford ad loc. posit twelve additional nooses, and Merry seems to envision a pulley system that would lift the maids simultaneously off the ground. Robert 503 ingeniously but implausibly suggests that the maids are hung “autour de la tholos, aux chapiteaux de laquelle le cable prenait appui.” Combellack, on the other hand, suggests that this hanging is portrayed with great verisimilitude.
‘ As one of the reviewers for this journal notes, the word KOLTOS in the passage quoted above is not without sexual overtones: while it refers to sleep, it of course also hints at the other activities of the maids during the night.
10 LSJ s.v; cf. Od. 9.136, 10.127, 13.77. ” Cf. too the simile that marks the recognition between Odysseus and Penelope,
in which a sailor finally reaches his home shore (23.231ff.) 12 8.66 and 8.473 (Demodocus); 1.127 and 17.29 (Telemachus); 23.90 (Odysseus).
338 LAUREL FULKERSON
her bed is fixed (Ep0Eo0S) in part because of a KiCv (191).13 It is likely although not certain that at Odyssey 22.466 the word refers to a column located on the outside of the house. Thus although the maids are hung outside, they are still connected to the house, the very structure they have threatened by their traitorous actions.’4 A KiCov also features in the description of the torture of Melanthius at Od. 22.176 and 193. Melanthius, the brother of one of the maids (Melantho), is their male counterpart, betraying the household even after he knows that the beggar is really Odysseus. During the slaughter of the suitors, he is captured, trussed, and hung from a K(Kv (22.182-200).15 The pillars, then, connect the disloyal servants, male and female, to the very structure that guarantees the continued existence of the house of Odysseus, reinforcing the impression the poem often gives that faithlessness (in companions, servants and suitors) deserves punishment.
e6Aot are mentioned only in connection with the maids in the Odyssey,16 and appear only rarely in literature before the fourth century. The word seems to refer to any round building with a round roof, whatever its function. As it happens, O6Xot have not been discovered on Ithaka, but they were used in Minoan and Mycenean times as burial chambers and it is quite possible that their use on Ithaka as burial chambers is assumed by the Odyssey. At any rate, the discovery of the 66Xos-tombs at Mycenae suggests that it may not have been so strange as first appears to find a 66Xo5 in Odysseus’ backyard; this may be a place in the poem where the “remembered” Mycenean dramatic setting of the Homeric epics is
13 Arete also leans against a pillar (6.307). Nagler 256 finds the pillar used in the hanging “a terrible inversion of the well-built pillars indoors that are Penelope’s symbol.” I see it rather as two sides of the same coin: those women who do not spend their lives near the pillar will inevitably die by it.
14 See below on the significance of the maids’ outdoor death. Cf. too Loraux 24 and 75 note 50 on tragic women’s tendency to hang themselves from the roof-beam (pACa6pov) of the house.
15 Other mentions of K(OVES in the Odyssey are at 19.38, wherein they glow because Athene inspires them, and at 1.53, where Atlas holds the pillars that support
the world. The presence of the K(V in the Melanthius scene suggests that a comparison between Melanthius’ death and the death of the maids might prove fruitful. It seems to parallel the death of the maids, but is different in key ways. First, Odysseus’ orders to truss and hoist him are obeyed by Eumaeus and Philoetius (who are, significantly, servants) (22.171-77; 186-93). Second, although he is hung from a pillar, he is not killed in that way, but is hacked to pieces, a death which, although cruel, is nevertheless masculine (22.474-77). As a (male) traitor, he apparently is considered worthy of being treated as a prisoner of war. (Eumaeus’ words to him at 22.195-6, however, may raise the question of his masculinity: NOv gv y pydrha
-TwrYXu, MEXXVIE, VUKTa (pUVX6EEIS, EOVfI EVL I’avtXaK1 KaTaXEyjYEVOS, COj GE EOUKEV: Now indeed, Melanthius, will you guard through the night, lying on a soft bed, as is
fittin)At 22.442, 459, and 466. At 22.442, 459, and 466.
EPIC WAYS OF KILLING A WOMAN 339
influential.” It is far from clear how to understand the 60Xos, but if it is a burial chamber, its mention may allude to the impending death of the maids.
The bird imagery proves to be even more significant in understanding the nuances of the hanging passage.’8 The main characters of the Odyssey are at times compared to birds, generally at critical junctures in the plot.”9 So too in their death scene, Odysseus’ faithless servants are compared to birds: they hang “like thrushes20 (KiXXat) with broad wingspans, or wood-pigeons21 (rrTAEtal) who have flown into a net set up in a thicket, seeking a resting place” (22.468-70). K(XXaa appear only here in Homer. We learn from Aristophanes and Aristotle that KiXXat build clay nests in tall trees, that there are three main types of KiXAat, and that, although carnivorous, they do not eat the hearts of the animals they kill. Another Aristotlean tidbit is that thrushes line their nests with
myrtle, which, as is well known, was sacred to Aphrodite and was often associated with female genitalia.” There is a proverb
KC.qP6TEpOS KfX\TIS, “lighter than a thrush,” and the verb KIXAIfco means “to titter or giggle.” Clement of Alexandria found the song of the thrush, the KiXAtao[p6s, similar to the giggle of a prostitute. Thrushes, then, may feature in this simile because they are associated with excessive female sexuality in several ways.23
HEEXtat, doves or wood-pigeons, the other birds to which the maids are likened, appear in several places in the Iliad, most often with hawks, to typify timidity as opposed to boldness.24 They were believed to reproduce in an odd manner, and Aristotle devotes much attention to their erotic lives.25 Further, Hyginus tells us that
17 Most Mycenean tombs, however, seem to have been built into a hillside, i.e. outside of a city. Robert, who suggests that Sophocles’ Antigone hangs herself in a Mycenean tholos-tomb, connects her death with the hanging of the maids of Odysseus (501-2 with references).
18 Studies on birds in Homer include Losada and Borthwick (on the swallow) and Boraston (on birds in general). As Loraux notes, birds in tragedy often represent women who die by hanging (18-19 with citations).
19 Borthwick 16 with citations. Nagler 256 suggests that these birds find their counterpart in Penelope’s pet geese, who represent the suitors.
20 See Dunbar ad Av. 591, Thompson 148-50 and Pollard 34-5. 21 On peleia as a general designation for pigeon as well as the particular name of
both the rock (columbia livia) and stock dove (columbia oenas), see Pollard 56, Arist. HA 5.544b1 and Dunbar ad 303.
22 Dierbach 61ff. See also Henderson, 1975:134-5 and 1987: ad 838. 23 KXXAat are discussed at Aristotle, HA 6.559a5 and 9.617a18-32; Aelian 1.35; Fab.
Aes. 194; Geopon. 15.1.19; Eubul. 3.220 (5) (Kcp)6TEpoS KLXAriq); Clement Alex. Paed. 2.196. Roisman and Ahl 256 notices the sexual imagery of the birds, but does not give any specifics.
24Cf. Sauvage 171 and 255-6. 25 They “kiss one another just when the male is about to mount, or the male
would not copulate. An older male would not do so without kissing, at first, but later
340 LAUREL FULKERSON
Aphrodite was hatched from a pigeon egg near the Euphrates (Fab. 197). Pigeons are sacred to Venus according to Thompson, who explains this by noting that the Pleiades rise in the House of Venus.26 Sauvage believes that columba is the generic term for a group of birds, among which is the palumbes, the Latin equivalent for Trria (243 and 245 and OLD). Palumbes are featured as love-presents in Latin poetry27 and columbae are proverbially known for their sexual voracity.28
Finally, the fact that the birds are caught in a EpKoS deserves brief explication.29 “EpKoS in Homer most often refers to the “barrier of the teeth,” but is also used of barriers in general and even of a courtyard.” We shall examine below the connections between Aphrodite (caught by Hephaistos in a net) and the fate of the maids. Here it will be sufficient to note that, although this is the only instance of EpKoS as a net in Homer,31 tragic poets connect net
he will mount without it. Younger males, however, always kiss before copulation [… F]emale pigeons mount one another if no male is present after they kiss as the males do, and although nothing passes between them, they lay more eggs than if they had been impregnated, but these eggs of course produce no chicks and are wind-eggs” (HA 560b 26). Pseudo-Oppian confirms this, adding that breeders place purple cloths near the birds, which causes them to bear purple chicks (Cyn. 1.353ff.). Thompson believes that TrrhEat are wild; if in fact they are, this might further suggest an affinity with the maids.
26 229. Several sources discuss the sacred TrEXELe1Es (apparently identical to 7T6Etat) who gave oracles at Dodona and were later catasterized (Hdt. 2.55; Hes. frr. 240, 319 M-W); the three priestesses who served there were also called “Doves” (Pausanias 10.12.10, Strabo 7.329, Hdt. 2.55). Cf. Alcman 23.69 and Eur. Orest. 1005 for the spelling TTEXELd6ES to refer to the constellation (LSJ 2).
” Sauvage 252 with references. 28 Pliny, N.H. X.110: amore insaniunt. Cf. Otto 88 and Sauvage 252-3 on af-
fectionate columbae. Sauvage discusses the association between columbae and Aphrodite (251 with citations), and suggests connections between women and columbae (255).
29 The following passages refer to trapping birds in nets: S. Fr. 431, Ar. Av. 528, Pherecr. 209, Arist. HA 617b24, Plato Soph. 220c2, Quint. Smyrn. 6.125. Nagler notes that the simile of nets is also used of the suitors, who are “netted fish” (Od. 22.386; 256). Other animals are of course hunted in nets as well (cf. Oppian Hal. 1.33). The Homeric scholia seem to find the word unfamiliar, since they define it as vOv TCJ 8tKTO\c (ad 469).
30 EpKO5 686VTcOV: 11. 4.350, 9.409, et al.; EpKoS as a barrier in general: II. 3.137, 5.90, et al. and of a soldier: 11. 1.284, 3.229, et al.; ‘pKoS of the courtyard: 11. 16.231, 24.306, et al.; EpKO5 for “walls” by metonymy: Od. 21.23 = 21.384. It is possibly coincidental that the maids are led into the courtyard (9pKoS), boundary of the house, before they are compared to birds in a net (‘pKos), but it is nevertheless a neat parallel. The location of the olive tree from which Odysseus has made his bed in an 9pKoS may again draw an implicit contrast between the maids, now trapped in snares, and Penelope, who, like the olive tree, is still nPTrEoS.
3 Other words for net are also rare: rrEpt3oXh, . 6pKUS, a 6px(PirlX Tpov. and
&ypEvpa do not appear, and 81KTuov appears only in reference to the simile of suitors and fish (see note 29). Hephaistos uses bEOao( to entrap Ares and Aphrodite in Book 8.
EPIC WAYS OF KILLING A WOMAN 341
imagery to women with some frequency (Medea’s trap for Creousa which also literally ensnares her, the EpKOS with which Clytemnestra traps and slays Agamemnon, and, perhaps most significantly, Pentheus’ surmise that the Bacchae are iv A6Xapats pvtOeaS cS/ XfKTpCAv EXEOat ~I PAT&TOS EiV EpKEOIV).32
We come now to Telemachus’ choice of hanging for the women servants, in direct disobedience to Odysseus’ order of death by the sword.33 Telemachus hangs the women “so that they might die most pitiably” (STrc~ o’iKrtatra O6votEv, 472), and characterizes hanging itself as “unclean” (pii … KaOapc OavC6Tc … hXoiprlv, 462). Telemachus’ meaning is not clear: as the Oxford commentators note, Kaeap6S does not yet have a religious sense and so Telemachus cannot be signifying that this death is ritually polluted (nor would he wish to). They suggest instead that Telemachus refuses to the maids “a ‘clean,’ in the sense of ‘quick and easy,’ death.”3 Yet the poem draws attention to the brevity of their death throes (they “struggle a little with their feet, but not for very long,” 22.473). Nor (presumably) would Telemachus want to make the death unnecessarily more complicated for himself. Additionally, since no blood is shed in a hanging (particularly as opposed to death by sword), it is, at least physically, a very clean way to die. It is more likely that by the phrase with KaOapC, Telemachus passes a not a religious but a moral judgment on the maids. In his opinion, they do not deserve to die by the sword because they are not themselves clean.35
There is only one other hanging described in Homer, that of Epicasta at Od. 11.271ff. She discovers that she has married her son Oedipus, and as a result commits suicide. There is little information available for the status of hanging in archaic times, but in Classical
32 Eur. Med. 986; Eur. Elec. 155; Eur. Bacc. 957-8. Also worthy of mention, although not utilizing the word EpKo0, is Aesch. Ag. 1115, in which Cassandra refers to the 8iKTUov “At8ou that will entrap Agamemnon. Clytemnestra is associated with a net precisely in the moment of her betrayal of Agamemnon, and she is linked to the net at Ag. 1127, Cho. 492ff., 998ff., Eum. 459ff., and 633ff. (Cf. Fraenkel ad Ag. 1127).
33 See Stanford’s note ad loc. on the strong denial of ip1 piv. Odysseus’ ignorance is rarely emphasized by critics, but is clearly a significant element of the death of the maids.
34 Russo et al. ad 462. The religious examples of the word cited in LSJ all date from significantly later. The uses of the word in Homer all refer to things physically clean (Od. 4.750=17.48, 4.749=17.58, 6.61) or to empty spaces (II. 8.491=10.199, 23.61).
35 See Loraux 14 on death by the sword as “pure” and as opposed to death by hanging. I follow Stanford’s suggestion that this is an early moral use of Ka6ap6S.
342 LAUREL FULKERSON
Athens and thereafter it was clearly a dishonorable means of death.36 Hanging is nevertheless (consequently?) the most common literary method of female suicide.”37 The maids, however, do not commit suicide: they are murdered. Comparable incidents where women are killed by hanging occur far less frequently in myth. In fact, the only other extant example seems to be Pausanias’ version of the fate of Helen. He states that Helen died by hanging at the hands of her friend Polyxo, who had handmaidens disguised as Furies kill her: dTr6yXovo1v Tr’i &ivSpou (3.19.10).38 Helen is the faithless woman par excellence, and if by chance this tradition of Pausanias’ dates back to archaic times, it may suggest that murder by hanging is seen as suitable for women who do not properly control their sexuality. If the women who were hung (Pausanias’ Helen and the maids) had possessed the requisite degree of aibc’S, they would have hung themselves for their behavior.” In the case of the serving women as with Helen, murder by hanging can be seen as a corrective to the aberrant behavior in two ways. First, it eliminates the sexually promiscuous women, which (at least in the Odyssey) is seen as a necessary part of reaffirming the cultural order. Secondly, because it is typically a feminine method of suicide, it posthumously forces the women to atone for their own disloyal sexuality.” They must not only die, but die in a way that exemplifies their repentance while making clear their own inability to recognize their actions as deserving of punishment. To put it another way, it is a worse punishment for the maids (because it is murder and not suicide),41 but a better punishment for the Odyssean household in its struggle
36 As documented by Loraux 9 and 71 note 8 (cf. Stanford ad 462ff). See too Griffin, who concentrates on historical Roman rather than literary Greek suicides.
37 There is a clear but unexplored connection between women hanging themselves (with a girdle or some other woven material) and the quintessentially feminine (but also devious) attribute of weaving. Examples in the Iliad are Helen, who also weaves in II. 3.125ff, and Aphrodite, who disguises herself as an old woman who weaves in II. 3.385ff.
38 Musti ad loc. notes that this passage is “in singolare contrasto con il constante carattere delle diverse versioni,” in which Helen is an adulteress “impunito,” and suggests that “il tratto iliadico dell’odio delle altri donne per Elena” derives from the tradition of her as a goddess (p. 250 and 252). Frazer ad loc. cites Polyaenus 1.13 and Theoc. 18.43ff. as comparanda.
39 The appearance of Epicasta in the Odyssey supports this theory: she hangs herself for a sexual aberration immediately upon discovering it. Cf. too II. 3.171ff., in which Helen wishes she had killed herself before causing the Trojan War. Hers is of course a rhetorical statement, designed to avert blame from herself (Graver 41-43), but it is nonetheless significant as an indicator of what might be expected.
40 This is true regardless of whether the women were sexually active voluntarily or not (discussed below).
41 See Loraux 4 on murdered women in tragedy.
EPIC WAYS OF KILLING A WOMAN 343
to reestablish order (because it is a female death that neutralizes the “male” way they lived).
The difference between death by sword and by rope is one of honor, but death by the sword may also adumbrate the idea of sexual penetration. As King notes, the hanging of young women (even after the event) is “culturally opposed to unwanted sex” (119). Moreover, studies of Greek gynecological texts have revealed a close association of mouth and female genitals (each called oT6paTa).42 In fact, the orifices of women are, in general, dangerous; women can be sexually unchaste or merely talk too much. This occurs as well in the Odyssey; Melantho’s scolding of Odysseus nearly upsets him into attacking prematurely, and Telemachus specifically describes the maids’ crimes as talking and sleeping with the suitors (22.463-4; text above).43 Telemachus’ decision to kill the errant maids by rope rather than by sword may reflect a desire to punish them for their sexuality, perhaps here figured as a poor use of orT6’paTa. Furthermore, because each of the maids’ “mouths” bring trouble upon the household, Telemachus’ decision to close one of them by constricting it reinforces the dangerous connection between women’s or6TpaTa and is, in contrast to Odysseus’ order to make another opening with a sword, far more appropriate in the circumstances.” Death by hanging retroactively corrects the behavior of the maids.
I now turn to some of the connections between Penelope and other female characters in the poem. Many critics have noticed “character doublings” in the Homeric poems.45 Throughout the Odyssey, Penelope is compared implicitly or explicitly to Melantho, Clytemnestra, Aphrodite and Helen,46 and the question of her fidelity is often obliquely raised with reference to these other women, much as the death of Odysseus’ companions is figured as their own fault in order to prepare the audience for the death of the
42 Sissa 63; Loraux 61. Cf. Hanson on the supposed enlargement of a woman’s neck after defloration and the lowering of her voice (328-9 with citations). See too King 113-9 on parthenoi who hang themselves.
43 Cf. too Sissa 53ff. on the dangers to men from the mouths of women. 4 Cf. Loraux 2 and 71 note 9 on the “too open bodies of women”. 45 Fenik 172-207; Stanford passim. ‘ See Felson-Rubin 39-40 and Suzuki 60ff. on the contrasts the Odyssey estab-
lishes between Penelope and Helen. See too Roisman on Penelope’s comparison of herself to Helen in Book 23 (62ff.). Antinoos compares Penelope to certain other women at 2.120.
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suitors.47 Penelope is directly compared to Clytemnestra by Athena (15.20-6) and by Agamemnon in the underworld (11.441ff., 24.192- 202). Melantho is an even closer doublet of Penelope, since she sleeps with Eurymachos (18.325), whom Athena calls Penelope’s favorite suitor and the most likely candidate for her hand (15.16ff). In fact, Penelope raised Melantho as a daughter, which not only makes the latter’s betrayal more egregious, but also suggests the close connection between the two (18.320ff.) Based on many similarities between Penelope and Melantho and the maids, scholars have argued that the question of Penelope’s fidelity is almost entirely displaced onto her servants.48
Further, the maids frame Odysseus and Penelope’s first communication in twenty years, again suggesting that we are to compare the faithfulness of Penelope with the faithlessness of her maids. The fact that Melantho mistreats Odysseus immediately before he speaks to Penelope, and that Odysseus watches the maids leave the house to sleep with the suitors immediately after, draws our attention yet again to the contrast between Penelope and her servants as Penelope displays her loyalty to Odysseus.49
Once we realize that Penelope’s faithfulness is displaced onto her serving women (some of whom are loyal and some not), we can
47 Significantly, as Rose notes, these women are, for the most part, punished. The adjective KVVCjTorS, as Rose notes, is used in the Odyssey to describe Aphrodite (8.319) Helen (4.145) and Clytemnestra (11.424) (69). Kocov is used six times in the Odyssey to denote people, four times for the maids (18.338, 19.91, 154, 372: the first two refer specifically to Melantho) (ibid. 72 and see Graver passim). Zeitlin succinctly notes that on the subject of adultery, the Odyssey is “noticeably reticent” (32). This is the case for the upper-class women of the poem, but when it comes to the maids, it is quite explicit. See Olson 140 on the poem’s expectation that sexual offenses “will inevitably be punished with death.” The death of the maids may be particularly welcome to the Odyssey’s audience because we have seen an apparently unpunished Helen in Books 3 and 4, as well as Aphrodite in Book 8, whose punishment serves merely to amuse the audience of gods. The maids, then, close the question of infidelity (but without actually resolving it): they teach us that women who sleep with men other than their husbands should be punished. The class issues involved in the treatment of women are of course significant and are well explored by Doherty 28-9, 115-16, 119, 144, 153-5 and Felson-Rubin 86-7.
48 Rose 4-5, Felson-Rubin 87, Doherty 155, note 59, Katz 132, Olson 140, and Levine 24ff.
49 19.53: Penelope comes downstairs; 19.60: Melantho is rude to Odysseus and he threatens her; 19.89: Penelope scolds Melantho and invites Odysseus to sit with her; 19.105-360: Penelope and Odysseus converse about Odysseus and about Ithaka; 19.361-475: Eurykleia washes Odysseus’ feet (after apologizing for the behavior of the maids) and recognizes Odysseus; 19.476-507: Odysseus tells Eurykleia to keep his identity a secret and she offers to tell him which of the maids have been faithful, which he refuses; 19.508-605: Odysseus and Penelope talk again and Penelope tells her dream of the geese, which Odysseus interprets. Penelope decides to hold the contest of the bow; 20.1-13: Odysseus sees the maids going to sleep with the suitors and must restrain himself from killing them.
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see the issue of chastity as preemptively closed to discussion by the hanging of the unfaithful servants. Even before Penelope tricks Odysseus and is deemed faithful, the audience has already seen unchaste women punished. The constant contrast between Penelope and her (bad) maids serves to defuse (or at least distract from) the tension mounting as Odysseus persists in withholding his identity from Penelope. With the maids’ death, the issue of loyalty raised by their behavior has now been resolved, and the comparison to Penelope is abruptly ended. Because Odysseus and Telemachus appear satisfied by their solution, the audience may in turn be less inclined to think about what the fixity of Penelope’s bed proves (nothing)’ and how close she seems to have come to marrying one of the suitors.51
On the divine level, Penelope is explicitly compared to Aphrodite in Odyssey 18,52 which may usefully refer us to Odyssey 8.266ff.53 In Demodocus’ second story at the court of the Phaiacians, the adulterous Aphrodite and Ares are captured in a 86o05 Kai BEoCb6 created by Hephaistos (8.317).5 There are few verbal similarities between the two passages, yet a clear connection can be
50 Scholars rarely acknowledge that while Penelope’s bed trick may establish her as Odysseus’ intellectual equal, it is in no way proof of her fidelity. Zeitlin 24-5, 49 and passim is a welcome exception. Cf. Dietz, Felson-Rubin 38-9, Stanford 188-9; and Starobinski 349-51 on the issue of Penelope’s loyalty to Odysseus.
51 The issue of Penelope’s recognition of Odysseus is a complicated one, and some critics insist upon reading Penelope’s actions as indicative of her correct identification of the stranger. Yet, as many critics have pointed out, there is no evidence in the text for this purported identification, and Penelope does decide to hold the contest of the bow, which will presumably select her new husband. Austin 200-238, Emlyn-Jones 2 and Felson-Rubin passim discuss the impossibility of reconstructing Penelope’s thoughts, while Amory and Winkler think the recognition is complete or nearly so by Book 19. Cf. Katz 94-113 and Doherty chapter 1 on the imaginative ways scholars have treated this issue. Zeitlin’s observation that Penelope’s desire is both central to the issues of the poem and deliberately withheld from the audience is key (43). It is in fact precisely because Penelope’s mind is inaccessible that faithless women must be punished, and it is set up in terms of a logic problem: all sexually disloyal women are punished (unless they are divine or semi- divine), Penelope is not punished (and has no divine blood), therefore Penelope is loyal.
52 See Newton 17 and Zeitlin 39 on Penelope’s Aphrodite-like powers over the suitors.
53 Cf. Newton 15-16. Braswell has drawn out some of the associations in this scene and has suggested that the Ares and Aphrodite episode creates parallels between both Hephaistos and Odysseus and between Aphrodite and the potentially unfaithful Penelope (pp.132-7; cf. Rose 71ff., Burkert 136-43, and Olson, especially 138- 9 on the “reassuring moral and literary consequences” of the episode which are subsequently undermined). On the Ares and Aphrodite episode in general, see also Alden, esp. 516-18 and Zeitlin 32-39. Winkler 157-8 nicely connects the bed of Odyssey 23 with the bed of Odyssey 8.
5 The meaning of “snare” or “trap” for 860Xo appears elsewhere in the Odyssey, e.g. at 5.356 when Odysseus wonders if one of the gods has prepared a trap for him.
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made between the unfaithfulness of Aphrodite and the potential unfaithfulness of Penelope. Telemachus questions his mother’s fidelity by wondering if her bed collects spider webs (6p6Xvica, 16.35) because she no longer sleeps in it; Hephaistos’ net resembles fine spider webs (apdXvta E-Trr6, 8.280).’5 The bed of Odysseus and Penelope, symbol of Penelope’s chastity, is ‘lTrEboS, as are the bonds that fasten the adulterous Ares and Aphrodite.6 The birds of Odyssey 22-who represent the maids-are caught in a net, as Aphrodite is trapped in a net. Both Aphrodite and the maids have been associated with Penelope, and both have exercised a control over their own sexuality that the epic has deemed worthy of punishment.7″
Gender reversals also play a role in the interpretation of the death of the maids. The maids sleep with the suitors, but more than that, they leave the house to sleep with them, which both suggests that they play an actively desiring role in these sexual liaisons and simultaneously shows them disrupting the dichotomy between female interior spaces and masculine exterior spaces. While the maids, who behave in masculine fashion, are killed outside (but in a feminine way), the suitors, who spend their days “wasting Odysseus’ substance” (1.160 et al.), are killed inside the house (but fighting); each falls victim to Odysseus’ re-imposition of gender roles on his household.”8 The maids, because of their infidelity, pollute the house of Odysseus.59 This gendered reversal of the normal loci of death further underscores the aberrant aspects of the maids’ sexuality-figured as active-and the suitors’ unmanliness. The women servants are scapegoats and “deserve” such a death because they are the female counterparts to the suitors as well as the stand-
5′ Newton 18 note 22. 56 Zeitlin 29-31.
7 Zeitlin 38 usefully delineates the parallels between Hephaistos’ ruse with the net and Telemachus’ choice to hang the maids. She notes that within the Odyssey, “entrapment in bonds” is seen as “a fitting retribution for sexual transgression.”
58 The outdoor death of the maids has been seen as reminiscent of Antigone’s fate, and Robert has suggested that Sophocles’ Antigone is killed outside because she pollutes the city (504-5). On the indoor death of the suitors as “feminizing,” see Said’s treatment. See Loraux, p. 24 on tragic women’s tendency to die not only indoors, but also in bed.
” Control over the reproductive lives of slaves is surely central to authority over the household, and if the serving women are making their own sexual choices, things are fundamentally awry in Ithaka. See Doherty 155 note 60 on the poem’s tendency to portray these relations as “consensual.” Alden suggests that potxEta refers not only to adultery but also to illicit sex with a woman under someone else’s protection, and argues that the suitors have therefore already committed potXEia although they have not touched Penelope (527). This again reinforces the metonymy between Penelope and her servants.
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ins for all of the unfaithful or potentially unfaithful women of the poem.
To return, finally, to Telemachus’ decision: the Oxford commentators find Odysseus’ acceptance of the change in plan “surprising” (ad 462). Yet Odysseus never accepts this change, nor does he hear of it. Telemachus disobeys his father, and his choice of method serves as an implicit corrective to Odysseus’, who seems unwilling to take the final step of reinscribing their gender upon the disloyal women. Telemachus’ decision to kill them in his own way may suggest that he is being depicted as a worthy son to Odysseus (as when he nearly strung the bow),” but it is more significant in its resonances with female infidelities throughout the poem.
I have suggested that the hanging of the serving women, although often overlooked, proves to be a tightly constructed scene that parallels the Odyssey’s focus on loyalty, a central theme of the poem. More significantly, it serves both to highlight and abruptly to dismiss from consideration of one of Odysseus’ major concerns, the fidelity of his wife. The fact that we cannot reconstruct the actual mechanics of the hanging does not matter, because we are given the necessary information to understand the passage in its context. The bird imagery and the method of death for the maids, to which attention is drawn by the discrepancy between Odysseus’ and Telemachus’ opinions on the matter, each suggest that the women’s death must be read in conjunction with the relationship of Penelope and Odysseus; those deaths (perhaps deliberately) mirror the foreclosed discussion of Penelope’s faithfulness. Just as the recognition between Penelope and Odysseus is displaced onto other characters, so too is the vexed question of Penelope’s fidelity. The women, like the suitors, serve as scapegoats for anything improper that was done in Ithaka while Odysseus was away.
Florida State University
60 See Felson-Rubin 74-91 on Telemachus’ maturation through the epic (especially 84-86 on the bow) and 87 on the ways Telemachus’ action “appropriates-even invents-a benign Penelope.” At the same time, Eurykleia’s suggestion at 22.426-7 that Penelope would not allow Telemachus to rule over the women servants because of his youth may also figure in his final, authoritative decision about them. The disloyalty of the women is dearly a concern for Telemachus (16.316-17), as well as for Eurykleia (19.372-74, 497-98, 22.424-25) and Penelope (19.90-92, 154-55).
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- Issue Table of Contents
- Classical Journal, Vol. 97, No. 4 (Apr. – May, 2002), pp. 319-414
- Volume Information [pp. 413-414]
- Front Matter
- Odysseus, Agammemnon and Apollo [pp. 319-334]
- Epic Ways of Killing a Woman: Gender and Transgression in “Odyssey” 22.465-72 [pp. 335-350]
- Is Sostratus’ Family Urban in Menander’s “Dyskolos”? [pp. 351-358]
- Fifty Years of the FIEC [pp. 359-372]
- Review Article
- Review: Primitivism and Ancient Foreign Relations [pp. 375-384]
- Classical Journal, Vol. 97, No. 4 (Apr. – May, 2002), pp. 319-414