Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2019.09.11 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2019.09.11

Lilah Grace Canevaro, Women of Substance in Homeric Epic: Objects, Gender, Agency.   Oxford; New York:  Oxford University Press, 2018.  Pp. vi, 316.  ISBN 9780198826309.  $95.00.  

Reviewed by Andrea Pittard, The University of Texas at Austin (


Homeric women have received considerable scholarly attention over the past 40 years. Female characters in the Iliad and the Odyssey in particular have been studied extensively with a wide variety of focuses. Canevaro contributes to this tradition with a new and innovative theoretical approach. She combines gender theory and New Materialism, which allows her to make observations and conclusions that complement and, at times, complicate previous scholarship on Homeric women. Many have recognized the objectification of women in Homeric epics; however, Canevaro shifts the focus to how women use objects in the Iliad and the Odyssey. Canevaro embraces New Materialism’s “attentiveness to things” and aims to “decentre the male subject” (v), focusing instead on female characters asserting, negotiating, and achieving agency through their use of objects in Homeric epic. With this approach, the author demonstrates that Homeric women achieve and display more nuanced levels of agency than have previously been recognized. This is particularly the case for liminal human women, who primarily are in “limbo” between marital statuses, and liminal goddesses, whose liminality is more complex.

Canevaro outlines her theoretical framework and main arguments in a brief Introduction. Chapter 1 restates and extends much of the Introduction, providing synopses of the previous work done on Homeric women as objects of exchange, New Materialist theoretical approaches, and theories of agency. While the combination of theoretical frameworks is promising, the author notes that there is a tension inherent between gender theory, which focuses on the objectification of females, and New Materialism, which problematizes the concept of the object altogether. In addition, another tension exists in pairing New Materialism, a theory that strives to question the prominence given to language, representation, and discourse in general, with literary representations of objects. Canevaro does not address this tension directly, though she does recognize that her study is that of the representation of things and as such departs from previous New Materialist scholarship on things.1 The remainder of the chapter outlines the differences in Homeric epic between objects traditionally associated with females, such as textiles, and those linked to males, such as metal and wood objects, drawing convincing connections between those objects and gender expectations and roles. Male objects are complete, often stand in for the men who own them, and are able to achieve goals and exert independent agency. The author explains that female objects, on the other hand, are often in progress or incomplete and prospective, such as Penelope’s and Helen’s weaving, and therefore demonstrate a diminished level of agency. This chapter thus establishes the ability that objects have for reflecting and constructing the gender roles of their owners or users.

Chapter 2 expands upon the evidence and argument with which Chapter 1 concludes, demonstrating how female characters use objects to exercise and display their agency inside and outside the home. Drawing upon frequent statements from male characters (Hector Il. 6.490-3; Telemachus Od. 1.356; Odysseus Od. 21.350), Canevaro focuses on the home, weaving and textiles as female domains. However, while this is often seen as evidence for a lack of agency and independence for women, Canevaro argues that women, particularly liminal women, are often able to negotiate and claim agency via these domestic objects. Helen believes she can spread her own kleos with her weaving, rather than the kleos of men. Penelope is able to exert agency and control narrative progression with her use of textiles. Canevaro then includes a discussion of other domestic objects, such as Euryklea’s keys and the suitors’ gifts, to strengthen this argument. She also asserts that women use objects to channel their agency and establish lines of communication between women outside the domestic sphere. For example, the author argues that Helen hopes her weaving communicates with Penelope and that Calypso’s gift to Odysseus sends Penelope a more agonistic message. Canevaro implies that these communications were intentional, though the evidence she provides does not make that apparent to the reader. Canevaro successfully demonstrates that women, such as Arete and Penelope, recognize their own textiles; however, it is less certain whether they would have recognized messages from the textiles of other women. Additional evidence that female characters acknowledge these external messages would be helpful for Canevaro’s argument. Without such evidence, it is unclear whether or not textiles would have been seen as effective lines of communication. Regardless of the efficacy of such communications, Canevaro achieves the goal she outlines in her Introduction and complicates the strict dichotomy between female/private and male/public by pointing out the agency that female characters assume through their creation or use of objects and the projection of these objects into the external sphere.

Chapter 3 shifts the focus from female characters and examines Odysseus’ use and creation of objects. The author admits that devoting an entire chapter in a book on Homeric women to a male character may seem odd; however, as she demonstrates throughout the chapter, Odysseus provides an opportunity to contrast how a male liminal character uses objects, as Odysseus has a liminal status similar to the female characters examined in Chapter 2. Odysseus’ liminality is not restricted to martial status, though, as he is also in “limbo” between home and away and between the divine and mortal worlds. His use and creation of objects, such as his marital bed, his bow, Ino’s veil, and Polyphemus’ club, also reflect and construct this liminality. However, unlike the objects used by female characters, Odysseus’ objects do not grant him extended agency, largely because he is an elite male and therefore already possesses considerable personal agency. Instead, his use of objects is more effective. He is able to bring male and female objects together and is able to repurpose objects, rather than just create as female characters do. This repurposing not only reflects expected gender roles and occupations for men, but also reflects Odysseus’ shifting identity as he “changes objects’ identities along with his own” (150). Thus, as with female characters and objects, male objects are linked with agency as well as identity. In examining how objects are represented and constructed differently depending upon the sex of the characters interacting with them, Canevaro is able to further pinpoint how objects and gender intersect throughout Homeric epic.

Chapter 4 is a bit less cohesive as a whole and lacks a central focus; however, the sections of the chapter contribute to the overall argument and goal of the book independently. First, the chapter examines female goddesses, the Sirens, Circe and Calypso, and their use of objects. Although they, as goddesses, are permitted some perversions, Canevaro concludes that even these divine females use objects, such as pharmaka and wands, in a proper gendered manner. Divine (and human) use of pharmaka provides a segue into memory and the ability for objects to preserve and transmit memory. Examining a variety of objects that are meant to preserve memories—tapestries, metal and wood weapons and gifts, tombs, and women themselves—Canevaro claims that all are shown in the poems to be temporary. Tapestries, such as Helen’s, are frequently unfinished. Tombs, like the tomb marker that serves as a racing post in Iliad book 23, are forgotten. The argument continues that the Homeric poems establish these other means of memory as faulty and simultaneously privilege poetry as a superior preserver. This is particularly true for female objects, “We still remember Andromache’s headdress, Helen’s tapestry, and Penelope’s shroud for Laertes, but only because they have been preserved in Homer’s poem” (193). While the temporality of objects and humans is certainly well demonstrated, further evidence for explicit privileging of poetry would have been beneficial for the argument.

The chapter then moves on to immortal objects and their divine creators and users, again focusing on liminal figures, Athena and Hephaestus. As with mortal characters, immortals are able to demonstrate and construct their liminal status through their relationship with objects. Canevaro draws on Athena’s creation and use of woven objects and her use of the aegis as evidence for her transgression of gender boundaries. As with Odysseus, Hephaestus demonstrates his liminal status as a lame god by creating objects. These observations present opportunities for further study and a better understanding of male-created objects. Both Hephaestus and Odysseus’ liminal status is reflected by their creation of objects; perhaps this is indicative of the status of craftsmen and artisans in general, and particularly in the elite, warrior-centered Homeric world. After a discussion of perhaps the most famous Homeric object, the shield of Achilles, the chapter concludes with a section on architecture. Architecture is connected with memory and women in a manner similar to other objects in Homeric epic, further reinforcing the links between objects and gender, as well as the problematic status of objects and women as preservers of memory.

The fifth and final chapter examines the intertextuality of objects in the Homeric and Hesiodic corpuses, focusing on how representations of objects are referenced and relate across Homeric and Hesiodic texts. Canevaro refers to the phenomenon as “interobjectivity” (257). The author first examines representations of Pandora and the jar in Hesiod’s Theogony and Works and Days. She concludes that the objects associated with Pandora, such as the gifts bestowed upon her by the gods and the infamous jar, are reflective of her (and the female) role in society. Canevaro then moves on to female use of objects in the the Catalogue of Women. Women such as Tyro, Atalante, Mestra, and Alcmene are able to exercise their agency and negotiate their liminality via objects associated with them. The connection between Hesiodic and Homeric liminal women (and their objects) is strengthened by a discussion of Odyssey 2.115-22, in which Tyro and Alcmene are connected to Penelope.

Overall, this is an engaging and accessible book that will be of interest to those studying both women and objects in ancient literary contexts. The innovative approach is a significant contribution to studies of Homeric women, as it provides a more nuanced understanding of female gender roles and expectations in Homer. It primarily complicates and expands the category of “woman,” suggesting that there are a variety of sub-categories that female characters may belong to. Agency and gendered expectations fluctuate depending on these categories. This book also contributes to the understanding of how objects operate and how humans interact with objects in Homeric epic. Those interested in male liminality will also find this book useful, due to the inclusion of Odysseus and Hephaestus. The book might also serve as an excellent starting point for further examinations of the relationship between humans and objects in Homer.


1.   New Materialism encompasses a variety of approaches and methodologies, see for example G. Harman. 2002. Tool-Being: Heidegger and the Metaphysics of Objects. Open Court; B. Latour. 2005. Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network Theory. Oxford University Press; and J. Bennett. 2010. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Duke University Press. For object-oriented approaches, see G. Harman. 2012. “The well-wrought hammer: Object-oriented literary criticism.” New Literary History 43.2: 183-203. For an overview and critique of New Materialism approaches, see U. Kissman and J. van Loon (eds.). 2019. Discussing New Materialism: Methodological Implications for the Study of Materialism. Springer. For studies on objects in Homer, see J. Whitley. 2013. “Homer’s entangled objects: Narrative, agency and personhood in and out of Iron Age texts.” Cambridge Archaeological Journal 23.3: 395-416 and A. Purves. 2015. “Ajax and other objects: Homer’s vibrant materialism.” Ramus 44.1-2: 75-94.

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