Bryn Mawr Classical Review 95.11.07

Beth Cohen (ed.), The Distaff Side: Representing the Female in Homer's Odyssey. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. Pp. 288. $39.95. ISBN 0-508682-1.

Reviewed by Mary R. Lefkowitz, Wellesley College (

One of the notable achievements of classical scholarship in the last two decades of this century has been the recovery of the history of women in the Greek and Roman world. It has been, of course, a complicated task. There were considerable data, but most had not been collected, and some had hardly been investigated. Everything had to be read and reread again, with new attention to what the old history books often omitted to mention. Not surprisingly, the Odyssey has proved to be one of the most important sources for understanding the centrality of women's role in archaic Greece. Had there been no Penelope, Odysseus would not have returned to Ithaca, and female figures are involved in every stage of his story.

The essays collected in The Distaff Side provide a useful addition to the sizeable new literature on females in the Odyssey. The essays have been thoughtfully edited, and can be read with profit by undergraduates as well as by their instructors. All Greek is transliterated, obscurities are explained, and technical and theoretical terminology avoided. There are five interesting articles on the literary treatment of females in the Odyssey. These explore the ways in which the goddesses and women of the epic affect the lives of the gods and men, and how they relate in significant ways to one another. But an unusual, and thus especially valuable feature of the book is its comprehensive treatment of the representations of the Odyssey in ancient art. As well as being interesting in themselves, depictions of the Odyssey provide perhaps the most accurate means at our disposal of seeing how Greeks (or at least Greek men) in later centuries understood the roles that females play in the epic. Literature is less helpful for the purpose because so little of it has come down to us. For example, of the many plays about the returns of heroes from the Trojan war, only one drama about events in the Odyssey survives, and that play (Euripides' Cyclops) tells us little about females. Surviving testimonia about the lost plays are not informative. Was Sophocles' Plyntriae or Nausicaa a satyr play, or a drama with a positive outcome, like the Philoctetes? Sophocles' Niptra described how Eurycleia washes Odysseus' feet and how he was wounded (but was it by the boar, or by one of the suitors, or by the spine of the roach-fish that caused his death?) And how were Nausicaa and Eurycleia portrayed?

The introductory section of The Distaff Side consists of three essays. The first is a concise and informative discussion by A. J. Graham of the date of the Odyssey, and of its potential use as a historical document. Graham argues that from all points of view the most probable date for the composition of the epic falls during the period 750-700 B.C.; such dating would be consistent with the description of trade and exploration given in the stories (both false and true) of the characters' lives. If the stories give an accurate impression of the world at the time the epic was composed, slave women as well as men were traded, and Greek women were included in the settlement of new Greek colonies. Graham suggests that Penelope, Nausicaa, and Arete are "the women the Greeks of the eighth century thought of as appropriate wives and partners in a Greek community." In the Odyssey even Helen conforms to this idealized pattern. As Graham showed in an important article, the Greeks' religion required the presence of women, as priestesses of both public and domestic cults.1

The second introductory essay, by Seth L. Schein, discusses problems of interpretation. He explains why Penelope can be regarded as a second hero of the epic and observes that in the Odyssey, it is a harmonious marriage, not just success in war, that brings its hero kleos. Schein also discusses the negative role played by other females in the epic. In his view, Odysseus in his narrative of his adventures defines what is human as male and associates both pleasure and danger with female. Schein's definition works for Calypso, Circe, Scylla and Charybdis, and the Sirens. But what about Odysseus' poignant description in book 11 of his mother Anticleia, and the many women, "the wives and daughters of heroes" who come up to him after her? Schein argues that the Cyclops episode fits this pattern of danger because the hero is enclosed in and reborn from a womb-like cave. Perhaps; but that is surely not what Homer (or Odysseus) seeks to emphasize. What is frightening about the Cyclopes, and the Laestrygonians, is that they are (to put it mildly) uncivilized. Although gender roles matter in the epic, other issues, like justice and hospitality matter even more.

The third chapter, by Diana Buitron-Oliver and Beth Cohen, surveys the portrayal of the Odyssey's female characters in art. (There are black-and-white plates illustrating the objects discussed in the center of the volume). Of the divine females, depictions survive of the Sirens, Scylla, and of Circe. Although Odysseus does not describe the Sirens, in art they are depicted as bird-women; Odysseus' encounter with them is depicted on a beautiful red-figured stamnos (British Museum E 440) with what the authors call a "typically fifth-century twist -- the male hero does not merely outwit these seductive bird-monsters, but vanquishes them:" one is plummeting to the ground because she has failed to seduce him with her song. There is a gruesome description of monster Scylla in the Odyssey, but in art she is treated more sympathetically. Circe's seductive powers are brought out particularly well on an attic calyx-krater (MMA 41.83). The human characters portrayed by the artists include a range of portraits, both serious and comic, of (as we might have expected) Nausicaa and of Penelope. Among these is the portrait of Penelope with her loom and Telemachus on the Penelope painter's red-figured skyphos (Chiusi 1831) that while it does not correspond to any scene in the Odyssey, beautifully expresses Penelope's state of mind. More surprising to discover as an important subject of art are the wives and mothers of book 11 whose presence has caused modern critics so much difficulty. According to Pausanias (10.29.3-7), they were the subject (along with some women Homer does not mention) of a famous painting by Polygnotus. Buitron-Oliver and Cohen suggest that these women were included in the Odyssey because of "their important generative role in the perpetuation of the noble lines that constituted the civilized Greek world." Also important to the ancient imagination were the female slaves who were executed by Odysseus for sleeping with the suitors.

The next section of the book consists of four essays on female representations in the text of the Odyssey itself. Sheila Murnaghan considers the complex and critical role played in the epic by Athena. The goddess' own abstinence from sexuality enables her to control the chaotic forces around her, yet at the same time she is completely capable of working through human sexuality -- even in her teasing of Odysseus in book 13. Murnaghan suggests that Athena's virginity gives her a kind of power that mothers lack, even when they are goddesses; she compares her effectiveness to Thetis' failure in the Iliad to save her son Achilles. The comparison is indeed illustrative; but the ancient audience would have understood that there is another (and ultimately much more important) reason for Athena's success than her maiden status: she is the daughter of Zeus. Her triumph at the end of the Odyssey does not depend on her androgynous sexuality, but rather on her father's authority. When at the end of book 24 Odysseus ignores her command, Zeus himself hurls a thunderbolt at his feet.

Lillian Eileen Doherty discusses narrations by females. Like Schein, she associates females in the Odyssey with danger; in her view, one of their more potent threats is of usurping "the hero's privileges as narrator and focalizer of his own story." She presumes that Helen's story of the Trojan horse is somehow contradicted by Menelaus' longer narrative, and that the Sirens' song must be ignored by Odysseus specifically because it is similarly unauthorized. This suggestion, although intriguing, is somewhat misleading. No one in the Odyssey thinks Helen's story is false; women in the Odyssey, although they are all subsidiary characters, say much that is important and central to the narrative; they are not always threatening. As in the Iliad, one of their important roles is to comment on the effect of the war and violence brought by the males into their world; that is the topic of Penelope's first speech in the Odyssey (1. 337-44).2

The importance of Penelope as such a moral agent is discussed by Helene P. Foley in an interesting and persuasive essay. Foley explains how Penelope is not being disloyal when she arranges (against her own inclinations) the contest with the bow; rather, he is carrying out Odysseus' instructions. She shows that in Aristotle's terms Penelope's action is not dubious or irrational, but tragic, and an ultimate indication of her fidelity. Although other women forget their previous marriage and children, she will remember her home, "even in her dreams" (19.581). Even though she necessarily lacks a man's independence, Penelope wins kleos because of her ability to act unselfishly for the good of her family: "choices made from a relatively marginal, relatively powerless position can also serve to set a new moral direction for the dominant male agents of Homeric poetry."

The symbol of Penelope's fidelity is Odysseus' bed, and Froma Zeitlin discusses the complex ways in which this symbol can be thought to work throughout the narrative: Telemachus' suggestion that his father's bed may now be covered with spider webs (16. 35-36) is prefigured by the bed on which Ares and Aphrodite are trapped by invisible bonds. She finds it significant that no ancient artist ever sought "to translate its presence into visual reality," because of it is not a thing but a sign, a mental construct with an ambiguous significance. But perhaps this characterization of the bed places too much emphasis on the possibility of a wholly imaginary infidelity. It is not the poet (or Odysseus) but the shade of Agamemnon who says that Clytemnestra will give "an evil reputation to all women, even on one who does good" (24.201-202). While (as Zeitlin says) the possibility that Penelope might yet prove unfaithful builds suspense throughout the narrative, I think she is somewhat overstating the case when she says that "the poem self-consciously depicts the formation and authorization of a tradition of misogyny even as it places the counter-example at the center of the story." Why in this case is misogyny (rather than distrust) the mot juste?

The discussion of art is resumed in four essays on particular topics. H.A. Shapiro concentrates on the meeting of Odysseus and Nausicaa. He notes the interpretive details that have been added by the artists, including the names of Nausicaa's companions; he comments on the significance for mortal females of encounters with strange males by the sea shore. Richard Brilliant discusses the Circe episode, and describes how she was connected in art with the Sirens, and the greed of Odysseus' companions was linked to the greed of the suitors. Also he observes that in art, it is the balance of power between Circe and Odysseus and not their erotic relationship that seems to be emphasized.

Jenifer Neils considers Scylla and the Sirens; strangely the half-erotic Scylla "continues to flourish in Roman art." The sea is friendlier to Odysseus in Italian art: he rides away from Charybdis on the back of a turtle. The ancients understood the erotic lure of the Sirens, even though Odysseus does not mention it: the other side of the red-figured vase with the falling Siren depicts Erotes cruising for young boys. The potential allure of the female figures is expressed by various degrees of undress; only Penelope is always fully clothed.

In the concluding essay, Christine Mitchell Havelock surveys artistic versions of the episode in which Eurycleia washes Odysseus' feet, and examines how each artist uses or ignores the literary text. In Greek art Eurycleia is dignified; but in Roman art she becomes stooped and old. Havelock ends with a reflection that provides an instructive epilogue to the book. The footwashing scene was not so popular in art as Odysseus' blinding of the Cyclops; they preferred acts of victorious violence to scenes that revealed a hero's humanity.


  • [1] A. J. Graham, "Religion, Women, and Greek Colonization," Religione e città nel mondo antico, Atti centro richerche e documentazione sull' antichita classica 11 (1980-81): 293-314.
  • [2] Cf. M.R. Lefkowitz, "The Heroic Women of Greek Epic," The American Scholar 56 (1987): 508-13.