Posted by Dennis » 7 Comments »
David Meadows quotes from an article on a book by a certain Andrew Dalby who argues that the Iliad and the Odyssey may have been written by a woman. David thinks this is weird, but I have another view: it’s silly, and it’s been done before by a better scholar.
Samuel Butler, perhaps best known for his novels The Way of All Flesh and Erewhon, also translated Homer and published a book in 1897 called The Authoress of the Odyssey: where and when she wrote, who she was, the use she made of the Iliad, & how the poem grew under her hands.
But Butler was not the first to hold that view. Butler himself was asked why he made no mention of the post-classical tradition that not only the Odyssey but also the Iliad were written by a woman (his critic is known only as ‘The Librarian’). It turns out that Butler was ‘entirely ignorant, though he had taken a very good degree in classics.’
[A] certain critic of Homer, Naucrates by name, asserts that Odyssey (and the Iliad!) were written by one Phantasia, daughter of Nicaritius, a professor of philosophy, and were preserved in the library of Memphis, where Homer found them.
Not perfect (she was the daughter of Nicarchus, not Nicaritius, perhaps a typesetter’s error), but accurate enough. Note that Phantasia (fantasy) means imagination. This should send up a red flag, especially when we consider the fascination which Egypt held for the Greeks as a fairy land full of magic, mystery, and divine knowledge. It was very romantic, and in later periods virtually every Greek poet, philosopher, and statesman was said to have studied there under the priests and to have attained its secrets, regardless of anachronisms and wild inconsistencies in the tales.
While a difficult source to track, the story of Phantasia comes from the great Byzantine scholar Eustathius, archbishop of Thessalonica (12th c. A.D.), teacher of Michael Choniates, whom I’ve mentioned before (Michael, archbishop of Athens, delivered a eulogy at Eustathius’ funeral). This is what Eustathius had to say in his commentary on Homer:
φασὶ γὰρ Ναυκράτην τινὰ ἱστορῆσαι, ὡς ἄρα Φαντασία γυνὴ Μεμφῆτις, σοφίας ὑποφῆτις, Νικάρχου θυγάτηρ, συντάξασα τόν τε ἐν Ἰλιάδι πόλεμον καὶ τὴν Ὀδυσσέως πλάνην, ἀπέδοτο τὰς βίβλους εἰς τὸ κατὰ Μέμφιν τοῦ Ἡφαίστου ἄδυτον. ἔνθα τὸν ποιητὴν ἐλθόντα, λαβεῖν παρά τινος τῶν ἱερογραμματέων ἀντίγραφα, κἀκεῖθεν συντάξαι τὴν Ἰλιάδα καὶ τὴν Ὀδύσσειαν. ὅτι δὲ ἢ Αἰγύπτιος ὁ ποιητὴς ἢ εἰς Αἴγυπτον φοιτήσας ἐμαθήτευσε τοῖς ἐκεῖ, ἱστοροῦσι τινές. καὶ ἐν τῷ περὶ τῶν πλαγκτῶν δὲ λόγῳ ἐν τοῖς ἑξῆς τοῦ βιβλίου τούτου τεθήσεταί τις ἱστορία τούτου δηλωτική.
They say that a certain Naucrates records that Phantasia, a woman from Memphis–a skilfull and inspired poetess and daughter of Nicarchus–, having composed works on the war in Ilias and the wandering of Odysseus, deposited the books in the sanctuary of Hephaestus in Memphis. Then (they say), after the poet (i.e. Homer) arrived, he took copies from a certain one of the sacred scribes, and at last composed the Iliad and the Odyssey. And some say either that he was an Egyptian poet, or that studying in (literally “frequenting”) Egypt, he was their pupil.
Homer, like all the rest, was a student in Egypt (‘frequenting’ here is the usual idiom). The whole of Plato’s philosophy was supposedly taken from sacred Egyptian scrolls, so this comes as no surprise. It’s part of the strain of apocryphal stories mentioned above.
Unaware of this story, Dalby is at least as ignorant as Butler, though I suspect more (his talk page at Wikipedia suggests less familiarity with the Greek alphabet than with the Cyrillic, so I suspect that he does not read Greek). For example, how can he argue that the ‘the idea that Homer was the author was first proposed in “one ill-informed post-classical text — the anonymous Life of Homer, fraudulently ascribed to Herodotus”?’ This argument can only be used to show that the Iliad and the Odyssey were not identified by those names in classical antiquity, but even then it would be just plain wrong.
Lines routinely ascribed to Homer by authors such as Plato are those of the Iliad and Odyssey, both directly and indirectly cited. Any good text with an index will bear this out. I’ll point to just one of the (at least) dozens: Republic 393a (book 3), where Plato quotes Iliad 1.15-16 and says that ‘the poet himself is the speaker’ but that the poet then switches,
and tries as far as may be to make us feel that not Homer is the speaker, but the priest, an old man. And in this manner he has carried about the affairs in Ilium, all that happened in Ithaca, and the entire Odyssey. (translator Paul Shorey in Hamilton & Cairns, Collected Dialogues of Plato)
(Yes, I checked the Greek, and that’s what it says.) One cannot deny that Homer was regarded in antiquity as the author of both the Iliad and the Odyssey. But let’s return to Herodotus. Dalby suggests that Herodotus was credited with naming Homer as the author of the Iliad and the Odyssey only in a spurious Life of Homer, but this is incredibly misleading.
In Book II section 116 Herodotus not only names Homer explicitly as the author of the Iliad, but also quotes several line from both the Iliad (6.289) and the Odyssey (4.227 and 4.359). I’m not making this up. It’s all easily checked. He cites Homer elsewhere, but I recommend you see for yourself using the most basic research tools at your disposal. It takes minutes — far less time than researching, writing, and publishing a book.
But let’s set all that aside. Can anyone take seriously the premise that a woman is better suited to write sensitively about human affairs than a man, because men are mere brutish pigs thirsting for blood? I guess reverse sexism sells.
This book smells of amateurish provocation and would-be-valiant lances at straw men such as misogyny in the modern academy. We have no shortage of critics who pretend to challenge doctrines that do not exist, constantly conjuring ghosts of the 19th century in place of the stodgy professors who are no longer there. They epitomize style over substance.
The fact is that this idea is not new, it is not challenging — it is not even sound. Dalby will be able to pretend that misogyny or the power of received opinion is what fuels his critics, but he can not escape his own miserable failure.