The Gendered Stories of the Odyssey

June 21, 2019 by Essay Writer

In the Homeric world, the very roots of stories were gendered. The Muses, who inspired humans to create story and song, were women, the daughters of Memory. Stories thus have gendered identities from their very inception, and in the Odyssey, the men and women telling them are adhering to the strict gender roles ascribed by ancient Greek culture. Female stories and songs are generally used to seduce, and to otherwise gain control over men by luring them in or by deceiving them. Men tell stories to relate facts, and to reinforce codes of behavior; frequently, male storytelling occurs as part of proper etiquette or ritual. Since the Odyssey itself is of the second type, each of the instances of storytelling are instructive.The Sirens sing to seduce; their song is the entirety of their existence. They are, like the rest of the Greek pantheon, humans on a grander scale. In particular, the Sirens are larger-than-life women, and they amplify the misogyny of the Odyssey to its clearest incarnation. Their song is a symbol for the power of desire; it strips men of their defenses and self-control, distracting them from their everyday lives and concerns. They sing of some unique knowledge they possess, extending back into antiquity the contemporary more that women have secret information which men must constantly attempt to divine from them. There is pleasure in the attainment of this knowledge ‹ “You can have joy in hearing the song of the Sirens,” Circe tells Odysseus ‹ but he must physically restrain himself against the irrationality that lust will produce in him (XI.52). In general, storytelling bridges pleasure and pain, and in this instance, the ultimate pleasure of the Sirens’ song brings the ultimate pain.Not only is the seduction itself more powerful, but the consequences of it are deadly. Circe paints an ugly picture of this for Odysseus, saying that the Sirens “sit in their meadow, but the beach before it is piled with boneheaps of men now rotted away, and the skins shrivel upon them” (XI.45-46). The Sirens, epitomes of female desirability, are untouchable. Perfection and its achievement are inversely related; Homer seems to be saying that the greater the desire and lust, the smaller the possibility of its attainment. If the Odyssey is a morality tale ascribing self-control and moderation to the perfect man, then the Sirens, through hyperbole, represent the dangers seductresses present.The Sirens are not the only female characters whose song represents their seductive power. When Hermes comes to tell Kalypso the will of Zeus, who has commanded her to release Odysseus, he stands and admires the scene before him. The garden is lovely; the interior of the cave warm and sweet-smelling; in short, all is idealized, including Kalypso’s activity. “She was singing with a sweet voice as she went up and down the loom with a golden shuttle” (V.61-62). Because this passage falls in the midst of others describing a kind of domestic paradise, Kalypso is presented as the ultimate domestic icon, in the same way that the Sirens are the ultimate seductresses. Her power in this area is so absolute, in fact, that Odysseus cannot escape this divine oikos until Zeus himself demands his release. There is also a slight extension of the Sirens’ seductive power into Calypso’s “sweet voice.” Kalypso’s song, as well as her weaving, seem to symbolize her femininity; in the idealized home, these are the activities of its female head-of-household.Circe, too, was “singing in a sweet voice as she went up and down a great design on a loom” when Odysseus’s men came upon her (X.221-222). It is this song which draws them in, since, as Polites says “the whole place murmurs to the echo of it” (X.227-228). Outside Circe’s home are lions and wolves, which she has tamed by drugging them, causing them to forget their ferocious natures. As soon as she has drawn the heroes to her with song, Circe serves them a potion which makes them forget their homes. For the animals, the drug was enough, but for the humans, it must work in conjunction with the song. Songs, then, are perhaps drugs that work on the intangible essence of humanity, on some element of the consciousness, rather than on the physical bodies and basic needs that humans have in common with animals.Helen, too, drugs her listeners. Her potion is “heartsease, free of gall, to make one forget all sorrows” (IV.221). Storytelling, which at its best transports its listeners to an alternate world, causing them to forget their own, simultaneously encourages memory of things past. The Muses are, after all, the daughters of Memory, so perhaps it is appropriate that in the ritual of her storytelling, Helen is causing her audience to forget some things and to remember others. Hers is an almost masculine story-type, intended, like the stories of Nestor and Menelaos, to teach Telemachos more about his father. However, she tells it because she experienced it firsthand, and was the only person to see through Odysseus’s disguise. When Helen is finished, Menelaos interprets the story into the fully masculine format for Telemachos’s instruction.Penelope, too, tells a story. It is initially told before the action of the Odyssey commences, and is present in the text only through retellings. Penelope’s story crafted from necessity; she tells it in order to postpone having to choose between the suitors, so as to give Odysseus more time to come home. Like Kalypso, Penelope tells her story while she is weaving. Homer thus sets up a parallel between the two women which illumines their disparity: one divine and one mortal, one holding Odysseus captive and one awaiting his return. The action of weaving gains another symbolic dimension when we consider the idiom “weaving a tale.” Penelope is rumored to be skilled at weaving ‹ “expert in beautiful work” ‹ and, if this is considered to represent skill in storytelling, it makes sense that she was able to deceive the suitors for three years (II.17). Penelope’s story is also a lie, which is another predominantly masculine story-type. She tells it, however, precisely because there is no man to tell it for her; it is because Odysseus is gone that she is being courted.Whereas women tell stories to gain power over men, men tell stories to achieve some concrete goal, or as part of a formalized cultural practice. Demodokos is the most accomplished storyteller in Phaiacia, a place renowned for its storytelling. He represents the ideal storyteller from a formal perspective. When he sings, Odysseus says that it is as if “you had been there yourself or heard it from one who was” (VIII.491-492). Indeed, Odysseus tells him that he prizes him “above all mortals beside,” elevating him to an almost divine level (VIII.487). Storytelling was among the most valued skills in ancient Greece, and its formal practice was generally constrained to men. Demodokos also sings exclusively of gods and heroes, excluding mortal women. His tales reify the heroic ethic and the Greek patriarchy.Storytelling and singing play another, more specific, role when the deeds being sung of are factual rather than fictional. Telemachos has grown up not knowing his father; he has never had a male role model. When Athena sends him on a journey for news of his father, the information he finds is more useful to fill this gap in his education and personal growth than it is to find his father in a literal sense. During his visits to Nestor and Menelaos, Telemachos hears many stories about his father’s past. Rather than just allowing their listeners to visualize the action, these stories act in the place of actual experience or first-hand knowledge. Even as Telemachos is using these stories to come closer to his father, the other men are using his stories to identify him as Odysseus’s son. Nestor says to Telemachos that “surely your words are like his words, nor would anyone ever have thought that a younger man could speak so like him” (III.124-125) Here, stories are being used to reinforce a weak point in the patriarchal lineage so important to the heroic tales.If Demodokos exemplifies storytelling as a formal performance art, then Odysseus is its ideal practitioner among non-professionals. For him, storytelling and singing are practical skills which he employs to smooth his journey and to conform with good etiquette. As one of the legendary Greek heroes, and a man renowned for his skill in discourse, Odysseus is a talented storyteller and singer. Alkinöos, the king of Phaiacia, compliments him, saying:”Odysseus, we as we look upon you do not imagine that you are a deceptive or thievish man, the sort that the black earth breeds in great numbers, people who wander widely, making up lying stories, from which no one could learn anything. You have a grace upon your words, and there is sound sense within them, and expertly, as a singer would do, you have told the story” (XI.363-368).The irony of this is that at times in his travels, Odysseus chooses to tell lies. They are often the most pragmatic and polite option. When he would like a mantle to sleep under, Odysseus simply tells a pointed ‹ if fictional ‹ tale, and at its conclusion, one is promised him. Athena, who favors Odysseus, often helps him to lie, or disguises him so that his lies will be convincing, as when he returns to Ithaca claiming to be an old man. Lying well is an extremely useful talent, since, while traveling, Odysseus is often asked to identify himself through story, since, apart from memory and legend, there were no other available sources of information about a stranger. Men in the Odyssey generally use singing and storytelling for entertainment, information or “crafty purposes”­ namely spying or disguise.Homer is himself one of the male storytellers he describes in the Odyssey. If Odysseus can distort the truth to gain what he wants, whether it be a mantle to sleep under or immortalization in song, Homer, too, can lie. As the most famous of the Greek epic poets whose works we have today, he is, in some ways, Demodokos ‹ the foremost storyteller of a culture renowned for its poetry. The distinction he makes between male and female storytelling may be entirely consistent with ancient Greek culture, or it may be a fiction all Homer’s own, which he made for purposes unknown to us. Aristophanes’s Lysistrata, for one, paints an entirely different picture of the role of women. The idea of gendered storytelling, whether bias, fact, or some gray area between the two, is nonetheless an important facet of the Odyssey.

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