Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Penelope as (M)Other: Telemachus’s Coming of Age in The Odyssey

The Odyssey—familiar to most of us although likely read by few—is widely known as an epic love story: Odysseus beats the odds of multiple sea storms, encounters with murderous gods and monsters, and even death itself to reunite with his ever-faithful Penelope. Our cultural memory of this text is curious given that, in keeping with what we know about the historical treatment of women in Homer’s Greece, the story consistently portrays women as mere possessions to be traded among men, symbolic of bonds between upper-class households. Pierre Brulѐ writes of marriage during the period:

Matrimonial transactions set in motion a ‘transhumance’ of wealth—the flocks brought by the suitor, the ‘dazzling gifts’ of the future husband, garments and jewelry (theoretically for the bride, but as she will live with her husband, these riches are merely for ostentation, hardly have they come out of the coffers than they are put back in them), the ‘dazzling gifts’ of the father, which form the true ‘payback’ of the transaction. They legitimize the marriage and the children-to-come, and are the basis of the alliance between the ‘houses.’ (68)

In The Odyssey, much of the action of the plot is actually spurred by the intricacies of this system of exchange between men. Odysseus and Penelope’s son, Telemachus, is fearful that his mother will soon settle on a suitor, which would result in Telemachus’s inheritance transferring to the possession of a step-father and later probably half-brothers. Penelope is allowed to make a decision regarding her fate instead of a male caretaker only because of her very unusual circumstances: she is assumed to be widowed and has no male children of a legal age. Nearing the age of rightful ownership over his mother in the absence of her husband, Telemachus is convinced by the goddess Athene (who reminds him that mothers are apt to forget about sons of a previous marriage when they bear sons for a new husband) to put Penelope in her place, to usurp her tenuous claim to decision rights over her future and to bring his father back in order to ensure a return to the rightful patriarchal order of the household. In this way, The Odyssey is less a love story than a French Feminist nightmare, a bildungsroman in which Telemachus comes of age by learning to recognize Penelope as (m)other.

This claim is demonstrated perhaps most persuasively in the text’s continual upholding of a matricidal model of manhood. Indeed, less than seven pages into the more than 250-page text, we are introduced to perhaps the single most important contextual frame of this story: the widespread celebration of Orestes’s killing of his mother and her lover, Clytemnestra and Aegisthus, in revenge for the murder of his father, Agamemnon. Athene—a motherless goddess, borne of Zeus alone, we must remember—scolds Telemachus for his apparently tardy development of manhood, saying, “You are too old to plead infancy any longer; have you not heard how people are singing Orestes’ praises for having killed his father’s murderer, Aegisthus? You are a fine, smart-looking fellow; show your mettle, then, and make yourself a name in story” (7). Athene here references the story of Orestes’s matricide in the larger context of suggesting that Telemachus kill off his mother’s suitors, who are leaching off of the (now dwindling) wealth of his household. The goddess insinuates, then, that in both Orestes’s and Telemachus’s cases, murder is justified in order to protect the rightful assets of the young sons of politically powerful war heroes. Whether the victims are mothers or lecherous men in pursuit of Odysseus’s wife and fortunes is of little consequence. In fact, Athene does not even mention Clytemnestra by name, which, again, points to her interpretation of Orestes’s matricide as less important than his reclaiming of his father’s property.

In this way, Orestes is celebrated throughout the text as hero despite his killing of his own mother. In a later scene, though, the issue of matricide is finally addressed more directly. Nestor explains to Telemachus Clytemnestra’s complicity with Aegisthus’s treachery against Agamemnon, which led to her murder at the hands of her son, “At first [Clytemnestra] would have nothing to do with the scheme, for she was of good natural disposition; moreover, there was a bard with her, to whom Agamemnon had given strict orders on setting out for Troy, that he was to keep guard over his wife; but when heaven had counseled her destruction, Aegisthus carried this bard off to a desert island . . .—after which she went willingly enough to the house of Aegisthus” (25). This version of the Clytemnestra/Aegisthus myth is telling in several ways. First of all, it entirely omits the event that many versions of the story suggest led to Clytemnestra’s eventual alliance with her husband’s enemy, Agamemnon’s sacrifice of their adolescent daughter, Ighigenia, to the gods in exchange for the guarantee of success in the Trojan War. Indeed, Clytemnestra joined with Aegisthus an angry mother seeking revenge for her daughter’s brutal murder. Also, Nestor portrays Clytemnestra as a mindless being—in keeping with the perception of women as little more than chattel during this period, according to Brulѐ (75)—in need of shepherding by a male bard in Agamemnon’s absence and easily led astray after the bard’s abandonment. Given her object status as well as her inclination—if not held in check by patriarchal forces—toward animalistic behavior, then, it is little wonder that Telemachus is able to learn to perceive his initial obedience to the (m)other as an impediment to his achievement of male subjectivity.

Indeed, before leaving to attempt to retrieve his father, Telemachus signals his newfound manhood by relieving his mother of her duties as interim head-of-household. After she criticizes the musical choices of the household bard, Telemachus instructs Penelope, “Go then, within the house and busy yourself with your daily duties, your loom, your distaff, and the ordering of your servants; for speech is a man’s matter, and mine above all others—for it is I who am master here” (8). Telemachus, thus, silences Penelope’s expression of opinions regarding the public space of the household and banishes her to manage the more inconsequential women’s sphere of spinning and weaving. In a later scene, after he has reunited with Odysseus and secretly plotted with his father to defeat Penelope’s suitors, Telemachus takes yet another opportunity to assert his mastery over his mother. Not knowing that Odysseus has returned in the disguise of a beggar, Penelope has reluctantly agreed to let him participate in the bow stringing contest to win her hand in marriage. Telemachus again orders her into the house, saying, “This bow is a man’s matter, and mine above all others, for it is I who am master here” (231). In both of these instances, Telemachus asserts his own subjectivity by way of reinforcing his mother’s objectivity as a woman in his charge.

Telemachus goes on to demonstrate that he is equal in strength and bravery to father, as the outnumbered pair proceed to massacre Penelope’s suitors after Odysseus successfully strings his own bow and reveals himself to the other men. In the final scenes, then, Telemachus reaches a point of full identification with Odysseus; no longer a child under his mother’s care, he asserts his manhood by fighting side-by-side with his warrior father. When Penelope hesitates in her acceptance of Odysseus’s return, Telemachus again shows his allegiance to his father over his mother: “Mother—but you are so hard that I cannot call you such a name—why do you keep away from my father in this way? . . . No other woman could bear to keep away from her husband . . . but your heart always was as hard as a stone” (246). Here, Telemachus constructs his mother—a woman who, as the story reminds us repeatedly, has mourned the absence of her husband for 20 long years—as an other, insensitive and inhuman in her resistance to his father, the model that Telemachus must approximate in order to attain subjectivity as a man.

Probably recited for decades or even centuries before being written down, The Odyssey was transcribed, translated, and circulated in the Ancient World like no other story except for Homer’s other epic, The Illiad. The two were memorized and taught almost as sacred texts in Ancient Greece and Rome. Amazingly, they continue to enjoy reputations as literary greats. The ageless popularity of The Odyssey speaks, I think, to the power of a patriarchal social structure that positions women as others, obviously established in full force by Homer’s time and surviving even into today.

Works Cited

Brule, Pierre. Women of Ancient Greece. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2003.

Homer. The Odyssey. Ed. Harry Shefter. Trans. Samuel Butler. New York: Washington Square P, 1969.

Monday, May 16, 2011

The Power of Fertility in Inanna Literature and Today

Fertility has been on my mind lately. Not because I want another kid (ever!), but instead because of some lucky confluence of issues in my professional and personal lives. At the same time that I am preparing to teach a collection of myths surrounding Inanna, a Mesopotamian goddess of fertility, in my Honors humanities course in the fall, my daughter (now eight) has decided to educate herself on what will happen to her as she goes through puberty (a process that, experts say, begins for girls in the contemporary US between the ages of eight and 12). In a move surely representative of some sort of developmental milestone, Taegan apparently plucked American Girls’ The Care and Keeping of You: The Body Book for Girls off her shelf one day last week (it’s been there for at least a year) and started flipping through the pages. Minding my own business in another room, I was only alerted to the situation when she then bombarded me with a barrage of questions borne, I am certain, out of a mixture of fascination and horror at the diagrams and frank information presented in the book. Once I figured out what was happening, I made a point of stopping what I was doing and, as all of the childrearing advice books suggest that parents do, answered Taegan’s questions to the best of my knowledge. This was hard for many reasons, not least of all because I could really use a refresher course on female anatomy terms and functions myself (honestly, could you explain the female reproductive cycle off of the top of your head?). But the real stumper was a question fairly unrelated to anatomy: “So, if girls have to go through all of this so that we can have the babies, why don’t we get more respect? Why has there never been a girl president?”

Well, first of all, this is a super question, and I’m proud my little girl for thinking this way (one point for feminism!). Secondly, the answer is kind of counterintuitive. In fact, in a lot of ways, it is precisely because we have the babies that we are still not considered ideal for high-level political leadership. There is still a wide-spread assumption that our capability for nurturing life prevents us from making tough political decisions. And, perhaps more significantly, great measures have been taken over the course of history to contain female fertility, as it has been constructed (by a white, male patriarchal power structure) over time as posing some sort of threat to humanity, civilization, order, etc.

But I am learning that it has not always been this way! As my recent reading has shown, Inanna was revered for her duality of “feminine” and “masculine” traits. Inanna was the most prominent and lasting Mesopotamian goddess, not only of fertility, but also of sexual love and combat; she was worshiped for her ability to make babies and to make war. In a Sumerian hymn to Inanna entitled “Loud Thundering Storm” (ca. 2,000 BCE) for instance, the goddess is portrayed as simultaneously a sustaining life-force (“. . . you pour your rain over the lands and all the people”) and a destroyer of life (“You trample the disobedient like a wild bull . . .”) (Wolkstein 95). Inanna’s power is in her ability to nurture and to kill. And, in our contemporary world, wouldn’t this make her a great president? ;)

Within the context of a fertility cult like that of Inanna, it makes perfect sense that a god or goddess would be both loving and terrible. This is because the god or goddess represents the earth (or “Nature”) itself, the source of all food and shelter and human life, but also the cause of destruction on mass scale, due to flooding, drought, tornadoes, hurricanes, cold, heat, etc. If the earth is the model for god, then of course god is terrifying and unpredictable. This basic ideology, that the divine is both nurturing and destructive, carries over into most major world religions exactly because, at their core, all religions are fertility cults in that they function to explain the dual nature of the earth that both sustains and kills us.

Now, because we are all of the earth (and/or of god, if you prefer), I believe that we are all of dual natures, just like the earth, Inanna, Yahweh, God, etc. We are all capable of nurturing life; we are all capable of battle. The early Mesopotamians seemed to understand this, that fertility was not the purview of only women and that fighting was not the purview of only men. Gods were worshiped for their powers of fertility just as goddesses were; goddesses were worshiped for their powers of destruction just as gods were.

Over time, though, it seems that the Mesopotamians abandoned many of their fertility goddesses and placed more and more faith in their phallic gods. Indeed, Inanna is exceptional in that she lived on as a prominent fertility goddess—as Ishtar in the Semitic languages—until the end of the Ancient Mesopotamian era. Interestingly, though, along the way, Inanna/Ishtar develops in the literature into a castrating matriarch, a man-eater, not unlike the vagina flower in Pink Floyd’s The Wall (see my discussion of this little gem here). In the Babylonian The Epic of Gilgamesh (ca. 600 BCE), Gilgamesh declines Ishtar’s advances because of her long history of wounding and maiming her lovers. By way of refusal, he lists and explains Ishtar’s male conquests:

There was Tammuz, the lover of your youth, for him you decreed wailing, year after year. You loved the many-coloured roller, but still you struck and broke his wing . . . . You have loved the lion tremendous in strength: seven pits you dug for him, and seven. . . . You have loved the shepherd of the flock; he made meal-cake for you day after day, he killed kids for your sake. You struck and turned him into a wolf; now his own herd-boys chase him away, how own hounds worry his flanks. (Matthews 6)

Somewhere along the line, it seems, Innana/Ishtar’s sexuality, once celebrated as a representation of fertile lands and people, became threatening, perhaps especially to male kings like Gilgamesh. From a symbol of the life-giving and destructive powers of the earth, Inanna was therefore turned into an emasculating bitch.

These later Mesopotamian religions are not alone. Many religious traditions depict female sexuality as threatening instead of—as with the early fertility cults—as life-sustaining. Paula Kirby makes this point explicit in her recent post at The Washington Post:

The truth is that the Abrahamic religions fear women and therefore go to extraordinary and sometimes brutal lengths to control them, constrain them, and repress them in every way. Show me a non-religious society that feels so threatened by the thought of female sexuality that it will slice off the clitoris of a young girl to ensure she can never experience sexual pleasure. Show me a non-religious society that feels the need to cloak women from head to toe and force them to experience the outside world through a slit of a few square inches. All three Abrahamic religions share the myth of Adam and Eve, the myth that it was through woman that evil was let loose in the world. They share the heritage of Leviticus, which declared a menstruating woman unclean, to be set aside, untouched, a revulsion that remains even today among some orthodox Jews, who will refuse to shake a woman’s hand for fear she may be menstruating. What kind of lunacy is this? It is the lunacy of a Bronze Age mindset fossilized by the reactionary forces of religion.

Hmmm. So, now we don’t have “girl presidents.” It seems to me that it is perhaps time to reclaim our female right to leadership on the basis of our immense powers of fertility, sexuality, and, yes, even battle. We do have the babies, as Taegan says, which makes us literal embodiments of bounty, regeneration, and violence (see my description of the childbirth process here). Just like men, we are strong and powerful in our life-giving abilities and also weak in the face of an earth that is still so often unpredictable and terrifying. What we may even have over men is that we have not been socialized to deny our weaknesses and to engage in physical combat to protect our interests, but instead to acknowledge our very human shortcomings and work through battles with communication, empathy, and—and here’s that “feminine” word again—nurturance.

Note: I’m also working on putting together a presentation for my Humanities class on the development and meaning of fertility cults. I’d be happy to share my speech notes that will go along with the presentation.

Works Cited

Matthews, Roy T. and F. Dewitt Platt. Readings in the Western Humanities. Vol. 1. 3rd ed. London: Mayfield Publishing Company, 1998.

Wolkstein, Diane and Samuel Noah Kramer. Inanna: Queen of Heaven and Earth. New York: Harper & Row, 1983.