Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2015.07.13 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2015.07.13

Kirk Ormand, The Hesiodic 'Catalogue of Women' and Archaic Greece.   Cambridge; New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2014.  Pp. x, 265.  ISBN 9781107035195.  $90.00.  

Reviewed by Eve A. Browning, University of Texas at San Antonio (


“All acts of nostalgia are wishes for a past that never was” (51); the Hesiodic Catalogue is, on Kirk Ormand’s reading, a sustained and sophisticated expression of backward-yearning regret and apprehension about the future. The age of the heroes is passing away, along with its celebrated aristocratic ideals and social structures. The gods walk among us no more. The age of the heroes never really existed of course, and the gods probably never walked among us, or had sex with us. It was a beautiful dream-time nonetheless, and the Archaic audience for performances of the Catalogue may have been anxious about what was replacing it: the polis, a middling ideology, noisy opinionated citizens, redefinitions of honor and distinction, and an increasingly unbridgeable chasm between humans and the divine.

In this strenuously argued and very convincing book, Ormand takes on a text that is a brutal challenge. It is “distressingly lacunose” at times (151), its provenance cannot be fixed with precision, its authorship is uncertain, its purpose controversial.

To handle the question of authorship, Ormand utilizes Foucault’s concept of an author-function. This is defined in terms of the way an audience understands a genre and a set of texts or performances within it; if Hesiod did not personally commit the Catalogue to written form, nevertheless the audience and the tradition understood it in relation to that author’s name and thus Ormand uses “Hesiodic” as shorthand for the Prince-like phrase “the author-function designated as Hesiod” (9). In any case, emphasis on individual authors has assumed much less importance in modern discussions of both epic and post-Homeric poetic texts. Ormand quotes a beautiful sentence from Christos Tsagalis: “(T)here is no almighty author but an omnipotent song-tradition weaving its own nexus of associations, evoking other traditions or versions at will, immersing its listeners in an intertext of mythical cross-references”.1 This sentence could stand as a manifesto for Ormand’s approach to the Hesiodic Catalogue.

To handle the broken text, Ormand uses delicacy and where necessary, hedges interpretive claims with terms like “suggests”, or even “suggests, perhaps, a metonymic relationship” (215), as when interpreting Hermione and Pandora as interrelated harbingers of trouble. To handle the uncertain dating of the text, Ormand typically argues that it doesn’t significantly affect the meaning. He situates the Catalogue thematically between Hesiod’s Theogony and Works and Days (8). The cosmic order has been set in place, and the human order and human time are about to commence — after the hero-bloodbath of the Trojan War and our own thumping decline into the Age of Iron. The Catalogue thus looks back with a foreboding of loss on ways of heroes and hemitheoi, and forward with anxiety to their absence and the consequent repositioning of human life on a map that has been entirely re-drawn.

Among these new anxieties are worries about women. Especially after Solon’s reforms, which “had the effect of making marriage a concern of the collective state” (33) due to placing new importance on legitimacy for citizenship and property, women become a nexus of heightened concern and new controls. The Hesiodic Catalogue resolutely turns its eyes away from civic marriage and polis-family mutuality (34), and generates a litany of aristocratic marriages (including rapes and one-night stands in this category; 40-41 discusses this uncomfortable parellelism) in which women are mostly passive objects deployed on a complicated aristocratic field of negotiation that recognized no political border, not even that between gods and humans. “(W)omen are the connection points of human-divine family trees, (allowing) an essentially aristocratic construction of heroic lineages. That is, the women serve as intersections in the genealogical roads, linking important families from different regions or bringing a divine progenitor into an important family line…” (49). Women’s subjectivity is as remote from this picture as the Garden of the Hesperides.

To establish his approach to the Catalogue as a text that looks back wistfully toward powerful and endangered aristocratic forms, Ormand devotes an early chapter to the institution of hedna, gifts offered by suitors to the fathers of their potential brides. Although there is scant historical evidence of this ever having been an actual marriage practice (83), there is testimony in Homer, and in the Catalogue, of men competing with one another in offering rich gifts especially of animals. Fragmentary stories of suitors having come from far and wide, either driving before them or planning to steal cattle and horses, and sueing for the hand of a fair lady, occur 15 times in the Catalogue. The Catalogue therefore is “…more Homeric than Homer in its portrayal of hedna exactly because it is an aristocratic text in the face of an emerging ideology of the middling man, and of all the polis-centered ideas that come with him” (84).

The overall strategy of the book is to trace intertextualities between the Hesiodic Catalogue and other texts, especially Homeric epic. I can best give the reader a concrete idea of how this strategy is implemented by briefly sketching the argument of one of my favorite chapters, “Atalanta Reflects the Iliad” (chapter 4, 119-151). “Atalanta is the quintessential liminal figure in Greek myth” (120). She hunts, and competes with men in athletic events. She postpones marriage with her famous footraces, which by some accounts could end in the death of the failed suitor at Atalanta’s own hand. Ormand argues that the Atalanta story in the Catalogue interacts “in a highly literary way” with aspects of the story of Achilles and Hector in the Iliad. Here is an outline of the evidence:

1. The Catalogue refers to Atalanta as “swift-footed godlike Atalanta” possibly 3 times (one occurrence is a reconstruction), evoking the very similar epithets of Achilles in Iliad (138).
2. Atalanta is said by Apollodorus at 3.13.5-6 to have wrestled with Peleus, and this is evidenced also on numerous black-figure pots (138). The other female character in myth who famously wrestled with Peleus is Thetis; she was subdued into marriage thereby and gave birth to Achilles. Thus Atalanta is “a double” for Thetis, and linked to Achilles therein.
3. For Hippomenes, who will eventually win this runaway bride-to-be, the Catalogue states that “the race was a matter of life”; Ormand takes this to be “a clear reference to that most famous of footraces, when Achilles chases Hector before the walls of Troy” (139); Iliad 22.157-166 in which we find the phrase “they ran for the life of Hector”.
4. Both Atalanta’s footrace and the Iliad’s gruesome chase incorporate inequality, but in ways that the Catalogue plays with and inverts. Atalanta is the faster runner, Achilles is “a much better man”. The outcomes are also unequal: Hector will die, whereas Atalanta will only marry. Yet the drama of the Catalogue’s chase is heightened by the glancing back and forth between the two texts in the minds of their audiences.
5. Hippomenes is said to have “escaped death and dark fate” in the Hesiodic telling; Hector “escaped the fates of death” in the Iliad at 22.199-204 (143).
6. “In both cases, the two heroes avoid death through the assistance of a divinity” (143), at least, in Hector’s case, temporarily.
7. Hippomenes will win an erotic victory. The Catalogue glances back to the terrible moment in Iliad 22 when Hector imagines himself going out unarmed to parley with Achilles, “…naked/like a woman”, and imagines their conversation as when “a parthenos and a youth talk lightly with one another”. Hippomenes and Atalanta are a parthenos and a youth (145). In this dimension, the Catalogue shows its capacity to light up aspects of the Iliad in its own turn. The bridges of intertextuality travel in both directions (145).
8. “Atalanta is the sort of woman that Helen will be in the mythic future” (146). Men will fight for and desire both, and both are disruptive. Thus Atalanta, like Helen, is tinged with the danger that risky beauty entails. Ormand cites Clay on the point that stories in the Catalogue “continually point to the event that brings the heroic age to its conclusion”.2
9. The Catalogue describes the audience watching the footrace in a Homeric formula: “astonishment held all who were watching” (147). In epic, this formula tends to describe watchers of grim battle scenes, having “an element of highly charged danger”.

In light of all this evidence, Ormand concludes that, in the Catalogue’s telling, Atalanta “becomes, through a series of verbal parallels, an Achilles figure, alluding to the force that will destroy not only Hector and Troy but ultimately the race of heroes altogether” (151).

This will give the reader a good idea what methodology to expect in other chapters; chapter 3 places the shape-shifting rape victim Mestra in the context of other shape-shifting myths and changing marriage customs; chapter 5 traces the Catalogue’s time-inverted narrative about Alcmene and Heracles; chapter 6 analyzes the Catalogue’s depiction of the elaborate courtship of Helen, appropriately placed at its end since Helen marks the moment when the walls begin to come crashing down on the entire heroic universe. Ormand notes that the fact that Menelaus wins Helen due to his wealth is already a “crack” in the façade of an aristocracy supposedly based on birth and merit (200-201).

In an Epilogue, Ormand briefly compares the Hesiodic Catalogue to the “other” catalogue of women, that of Semonides, in which women of various kinds are descended from various animals. In light of everything that has preceded, this text can now clearly be seen as “middling”. The best, or only good, woman is descended from a bee. She is distinguished by several features: she doesn’t sit with other women and talk about sex, she’s devoted to her husband, she makes the household thrive, and she produces a good line of offspring. Ormand notes that aristocratic lineage and inherent nobility are nowhere in sight. Her description is “a persuasive redefinition of elite status” (221). Elvis has left the building.3

There are treasures throughout, and all readers who take deep pleasure in Homeric epic, who have themselves struggled with fragmentary texts, who puzzle over the change of altitude and attitude that marks the Archaic era, who are fascinated by silent beautiful women used as pawns in a male power game, or who enjoy being surprised with constellations of intertextualities, will find much to appreciate. Ormand imbues the Hesiodic Catalogue with an energetic coherent emotional life, and somewhat sorrowful political purpose, to a degree that I can hardly imagine being surpassed.


1.   Tsagalis, Christos. 2008. The Oral Palimpsest: Exploring Intertextuality in the Homeric Epic. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, xii.
2.   Clay, Jenny Strauss.2005. “The Beginning and End of the Catalogue of Women and Its Relation to Hesiod, in The Hesiodic Catalogue of Women ed. R. Hunter. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 217-238.
3.   I note a few typographical errors as follows: p.34 line 2 missing word “with” between “aligned” and “those; p.100 “marel” instead of “marvel” in line 1 of English translation; p.153 second-to-last line “comologically”; p. 157 line 10 “competiton”; p.174 bottom of page floating footnote with no number and no number in text; p.197 “Oedipys”; p.208 line 17 “ages” should be “age”.

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