Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Odysseus' Infidelities

Odysseus Chasing Circe (photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen at Wikimedia Commons)
In my previous post I mentioned in depth Penelope's steadfast devotion to her husband. No matter how much her refusal to be unfaithful to Odysseus was costing her- both materially and psychologically, she continued to hold out against the suitors, hoping for Odysseus' miraculous return. Her faithfulness and management of the household were as crucial to Odysseus' success as other allies like Telemachus, Eumaeus the swineherd, Philoetius the cowherd, and even Athena. Faithfulness can be seen to be in some ways the ultimate test of a good woman in the eyes of the Homeric audience. Penelope passed, so she was good. Clytemnestra failed, so she was bad.

These same rules however, did not apply to men. Odysseus did not pass the test of faithfulness to his wife, but he wasn't denigrated or scorned for it. On the other hand, Homer doesn't praise him for it either, it simply was.

We know of at least two affairs that Odysseus had, and they were with two goddesses- not too shabby, I take it? The likely answer is that he could have had more. He was one of the Greek commanders and as such was in a position to amass a lot of wealth while on the expedition against Troy, wealth that included slave girls who as a matter of routine would be expected to convey sexual favors to their masters.

Clearly not hypocrisy, right? Feminists understandably have a field day with these sorts of things, pointing to it as evidence of a suppression of female sexuality while glorifying male sexuality. While Penelope is suffering in her husband's absence, Odysseus is off fucking Calypso and Circe.

While Odysseus' actions simply can't be entirely explained away under a modern egalitarian lens, I wouldn't go so far as to label him entirely a hypocrite. Odysseus too, is clearly suffering from such a prolonged absence from his wife. The poem even begins by telling the audience that Odysseus sits on the shores of Ogygia (Calypso's island), longingly looking out to sea, crying every day, despite the fact that he shares the nymph's bed every night. He is clearly not enjoying his time with Calypso, and is desperate to go home. The most startling illustration of this is his refusal of Calypso's offer to make him immortal, and pointing out that though Penelope could never match the beauty of an immortal goddess, she is still his wife and he wants to be with her.

His affair with Circe is a bit more difficult to judge. After a year passed on Circe's island, Odysseus' men prompted him to set into motion events for which they would return home, implying that Odysseus may have grown content to simply stay there.

However the only reason Odysseus began his affair with Circe is because Hermes told him that it was necessary for him to- in order to rescue his men from her spell that turned them into animals. He started it out of a sense of duty and loyalty to his comrades, not lust.

There is a double standard, but this does not mean Odysseus isn't suffering as badly as Penelope is from their separation. The fact that he was willing to go through such hardships instead of giving up, and willing to go through them even when tempted with more immediately gratifying things, including immortality itself, speaks volumes as to his love and affection for her.

Ultimately I think the chief discrepancy between the treatment of male and female sexuality comes down to one simple biological reality- women bear children and there is thus no question as to maternity. However, in an age long before the advent of DNA testing, there was no way to tell who the child's father was unless the woman was having sex with one man and one man only around the time of the child's conception. Inheritance of property was a foremost concern and thus the legitimacy of the child needed to be above suspicion. Indeed, a central theme of the Odyssey is the estate that Telemachus would inherit. The continuation of the male line was of paramount importance, and the faithfulness of the mother was thus of equal importance as it was necessary for that continuation.

The logical response to this biological reality is that Odysseus, in theory, gets to sleep with other women (or goddesses) without anyone questioning the ethics of his actions. Penelope does not. But this isn't to say that Odysseus is terrible. One thing a romantic could take out of the Odyssey is that despite his affairs with two goddesses, Odysseus wanted more than anything to return back to the wife that bore him his son, the only woman he ever truly loved.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Penelope- The Most Fascinating Woman of Her Era

Penelope, Laertes, and Telemachus

The title is a dead-ringer for what this entry is all about. There are few notable women to compare her to, but Penelope stands head and shoulders above the other women of her era not only in terms of her intelligence, but the overall depth of her character. Even the infamous Helen serves as a rather one-dimensional persona- to tempt every man around her with her beauty, which often leads to their ruin.

Certainly Penelope is described by Homer as being a great beauty, even in her middle age during the events of the Odyssey. But the difference is that her beauty is incidental and doesn't define her. While Helen doesn't seem to be much of a life partner to anyone- whether that be Menelaus or Paris (although we see hints of a partnership during Helen's cameos in the Odyssey, perhaps as a sign of arranged marriage partners gradually warming to each other over the years), and Clytemnestra, Agamemnon's wife is the ultimate example in the myths of a relationship gone bad (more on that later), Penelope is the ideal companion that any strong man even today would want. Like Agamemnon serving as Odysseus' foil throughout the Odyssey, Clytemnestra serves as Penelope's. The former's relationship disintegrated while the latter's stood firm despite all the signs throughout the poem that it should not have.

Penelope has been praised in the poem and for thousands of years for her faithfulness. Despite the fact that it would be common sense that Odysseus should be assumed dead after a decade of not returning home after the cessation of hostilities at Troy, Penelope cannot accept such a train of thought. Despite two decades of separation she still loves him dearly, even when continuing to be devoted to him is profoundly straining to both her emotional well-being and her son's future inheritance and interests. In modern economic theory, Penelope might be described as being irrational. She is hoping beyond hope that Odysseus is still alive, despite overwhelming evidence pointing to the contrary, and is seemingly acting against her own self-interest (and certainly the interests of her son) in holding out, spurning the suitors. The link between love and insanity is quite often described by scientists, and Penelope seems to fit the bill.

And yet Penelope is clearly not acting insane or irrational (in the common parlance of the terms) in the poem and throughout her ordeal with the suitors. She is shown to be extremely clever and manipulative, matching her husband's own infamous wiles. While Odysseus devised the Trojan Horse, tricked the cyclops Polyphemus, and masterfully donned a disguise to manipulate the suitors, Penelope kept the suitors at bay for three years with her famous shroud ruse. Telling the suitors that it wouldn't be right to leave her house without weaving a shroud for her elderly father-in-law Laertes, she would weave by day and unweave by night, until she was finally caught shortly before the beginning of the Odyssey and forced to finish. She makes it as hard on the suitors as she possibly can the entire way through, and ultimately sets before them the trial of the bow- the means of their destruction.

The bow raises some interesting questions into which Penelope's womanhood and faithfulness are intimately tied. Just as Odysseus returned home, it seems that Penelope is ready to marry another. Yet Penelope blurts out to the nurse Eurycleia to wash her master's feet when describing the stranger that is Odysseus. She quickly corrects herself by saying that the stranger was Odysseus' age only. Does Penelope know it was actually Odysseus or doesn't she? Homer gives us no definitive answer and the question is left ambiguous (this is a scene in which I particularly praise the TV miniseries in 1997 starring Armand Assente- it nailed the ambiguity spot-on). Perhaps Penelope simply knew that no suitor would be able to string Odysseus' bow, and could have used it as another ruse to wait out longer.

Regardless of the truth of the matter which we will never know, Penelope was instrumental to the suitors' destruction and setting things to rights. Without her steadfast resolve and her cleverness, Odysseus would never be able to have his aristeia of the poem- his triumphant return.

Agamemnon admits as much at the beginning of Book 24, when he praises Odysseus- not for returning home and defeating the suitors, but for choosing the right woman in Penelope as his wife.

Agamemnon serves somewhat as Odysseus' antithesis throughout the poem. While his journey home was short and without trouble, his time at Troy left him out of the loop regarding the goings-on in Mycenae. Unlike Penelope, who managed to withstand two decades of her husband's absence without infidelity to him, Agamemnon's wife Clytemnestra was seduced by Aegisthus, and the two ruled Mycenae in his absence.

When Agamemnon returned, he suspected nothing and took no precautions. He proceeded to be murdered by the pair in his own home. This stands in contrast to Odysseus, whose journey home was the hardest of all the Greeks. Not knowing what went on in Ithaca in the two decades of his absence, Odysseus leaves his impulses behind and proceeds along a cautious route, winning him much praise from Athena in Book 13.

Likewise, Penelope held her fidelity to her husband, and was devoted to his interests. She is the opposite of Clytemnestra, who was unfaithful and devoted herself to causes opposing her husband's interests. A typical feminist might look at this as the reason why Clytemnestra is reviled while Penelope is praised. To a certain extent that's true, but it goes far deeper than that.

No one wants to be betrayed. The innermost sanctum of Hell in Dante's Inferno was reserved for traitors for a reason. It is probably the most insidious act humankind is capable of, and it rightly brings out strong emotions in the victims of betrayal- building trust and intimacy with a person only to see it come crashing down in the worst way possible when the deception is revealed. Infidelity in matters of the heart is the worst of all acts of betrayal since intimacy is the closest between romantic and sexual partners. Such betrayal by a woman he shared the closest possible bond with is what happened to Agamemnon, and he praises Penelope for keeping true to her heart and not betraying Odysseus.

There is one other caveat to this. Obviously in the world as written by Homer, it was expected that women would marry and not remain single. If her husband died, she would marry someone else. However, Homer makes clear just how inferior the suitors were as compared to Odysseus. They couldn't even string the man's bow. I highly doubt this would be the case if Odysseus' peers at Troy were amongst the suitors, but they weren't. The suitors, despite their noble lineage and ample wealth, were simply not Odysseus' peers- they were still lesser men.

Hypergamy- the act of marrying or mating 'up' in social status amongst women in particular, is a common notion in the field of evolutionary psychology. From a female perspective, it simply makes sense to mate with a man of higher standing than herself (for men it may in fact be somewhat the opposite). Yet the suitors, in addition to being rude and discourteous, were simply not in Odysseus' league, and Penelope was not attracted to them. It is not surprising that she was hesitant to remarry.

And? She shouldn't have had to to. Telemachus, despite lamenting at the loss of his inheritance, couldn't bear pushing his mother out against her will, showing his respect for her. Odysseus' triumphant return nulled that possibility.

Through their love and devotion to each other, against all odds and despite the high costs in emotional turmoil and drained wealth over the years, Odysseus and Penelope were reunited and their marriage seemed to be as strong as it ever was. They are the perfect companions- equal in status and intelligence, respectful of one another to the foremost extent, and united in their interests to have a strong family. They would never turn their backs on each other and would feel incomplete without the other's presence, supreme in their diametrical spheres (the battlefield and politics versus the domestic life at home).

Of course, Odysseus did in fact sleep with other women than Penelope during the two decades of his absence, but that's another topic.

Overall, Penelope is the most dimensioned, interesting, and threshed out woman in the Epic Cycle (the only other woman that comes close is Andromache, Hector's wife, but she is not given agency to the extent Penelope is). She is not merely incidental to the male action that is the central focus of the story of the war in Troy and the heroes that fought in it, but a crucial player in the life of one of the central characters, and thus becomes one herself. While other women in the story can simply be seen as sometimes dangerous status symbols conferred upon the heroes (Briseis and especially Helen come to mind), Penelope controls her fate in a way many others do not- and bears the at-times awful responsibilities of such agency in her world. She rises to meet these challenges, and unlike Clytemnestra (who is thus cast into the role of the evil, though one-dimensional villain for the hero to take revenge upon), does so in the best of ways, making her happy reunion with Odysseus all the happier.

Odysseus and Penelope, by Francesco Primaticcio

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Bronze vs Iron: A Clarification

It's common amongst the average public and to a certain extent students and afictionados that are interested in military history to proclaim that iron is a superior metal to bronze, and that when people began to have the technology to create hotter furnaces that could smelt iron, it immediately replaced bronze tools and weapons, making them obsolete. The Bronze Age ended and the Iron Age began.

This is something that permeates even in circles that should supposedly know better. For instance, I still remember a 9th grade history textbook I had a long time ago (really, over ten years ago...I feel old!) that stated that a certain group of people (I can't remember which, sadly) established superiority on the battlefield because they wielded iron weapons, making their bronze-wielding opponents inferior.

In reality, this notion is as every bit as mythical as Achilles and the gods of Olympus tussling over the destruction of Troy. The end of the Bronze Age came as a result of many factors (natural disasters, the incursions of the so-called "Sea Peoples," the breakdown of old trading routes and organized bureaucratic centers of authority such as the grand palaces in Mycenae and Hattusa). The replacement of bronze with iron was not one of them. Indeed, it could partially be seen as a result of the collapse of the great Bronze Age civilizations that iron came to replace bronze.

The differences between iron and bronze simply explained.

So with these things in mind, how do they stack up against each other in a combat situation?

 Unfortunately I don't currently have any equipment available to conduct a test of my own (remind me to do that someday). However one historian attempted to clash the weapons against each other and both bronze and iron weapons sustained a lot of damage.

So as you can see there was no real battlefield advantage that iron conferred over bronze. In fact, some studies and many reports (including the one cited above detailing the differences between the two metals) suggest that iron was actually inferior to the older bronze weapons. It really wasn't until the advent of steel-making (alloying iron with carbon) that the old bronze tools and weapons were truly eclipsed in quality. But that didn't occur until centuries after the transition from the Bronze to the Iron Ages. Why then, was iron adopted over bronze, as passages in the Iliad and Odyssey clearly reference, if only in passing?

I'll borrow an oft-quoted catchphrase- "it's the economy, stupid!"

Bronze, again as we know, is an alloy made of copper and tin. Copper is very abundant in the world, moreover, it is a very recyclable resource. Tin on the other hand occurs only very rarely. The closest abundant tin resources to the centers of the large Bronze Age civilizations were in Iran and Afghanistan- nearly 1,000 miles away. This required an extensive trade network that, as we know, collapsed along with the civilizations that spawned them at the end of the Bronze Age.

Iron on the other hand is very abundant and found everywhere (even more so than copper), comprising 5% of the Earth's crust. Once furnace technology improved to the point of being able to work with it, and given its abundance (plus lack of tin available to make bronze), it isn't hard to see why iron would be an attractive alternative. More weapons could be produced with more readily available resources, meaning larger, more powerful armies that were less reliant on foreign trade and thus less vulnerable- more able to secure the state.

Related video.