Greeks and sex

(No, this is not another post about buggery)

Put up your weapon in the sheath. We two
shall mingle and make love upon our bed.
So mutual trust may come of play and love.

(Kirke to Odysseus; Odyssey, X:375-7, Fitzgerald’s translation)

This line popped up in a fortune today, and I remembered that it really struck me last time I read the Odyssey.

First of all, in this entire scene, Kirke and Odysseus are negotiating from the perspective of equals. I suppose one could say to this that it’s only because she has frightening and magical powers that a woman can be his equal, but I think that misses a key point: it’s not obvious why Homer would have been able to write any characters who were both distinctly female and distinctly loci of power. I think the existence of this passage (and similar ones about Helen, Athena, Klytemnestra and so on) suggest that we should be digging a bit more into the social models he may have had in archaic Greece.

Second, and on a less historical note: This is a rather interesting use of sex in the text. It reminds me of little more than Bonobo chimps. But it’s a rather surprising thing to see in an 8th-century BC heroic epic.

For that matter, even outside of its literary context, it’s an interesting approach to sex: essentially as the ultimate “getting-to-know-you” exercise.

I will also assume that the double meaning of the first sentence still holds in Greek.

Published in: on November 14, 2003 at 20:32  Comments (13)  


  1. I’m not sure why this came to mind when I read this post, but: I assume you have read at least some Rumi?

  2. I’ve always wondered about the origin of powerful women in Greek stories. They are almost universally gods or demigods; mortals with power, even mythical ones, are male. Most likely the female members of the Greek pantheon were adapted from some other culture with different views on the role of women. The question is: which one?

  3. ooh, love this subject, must talk!
    This is only true if you’re talking about political power. Otherwise, Greek stories feature lots of powerful women–Penelope is not without power, even though she never leaves her house. She also is Odyssius’s equal. Greek religion was influenced by many cultures, including Sumerian and Mycenean, but I think it would be a mistake to think those cultures necessarily had a different view on women. Remember, the gods and goddesses are gendered but they are not code for “men and women”–primarily they represent non-human things, like “elements of nature” (Titans of course), “Wealth” (Pluto) or “society” (the Olympians as a whole).
    P.S. Random thought. Know what’s neat about the Oddyssey? He travels from 9-1 on the Ennogram, a journey home. While in the Iliad things move from 1-9, a journey out.

  4. Re: ooh, love this subject, must talk!
    Some of the women have political power as well, though – Helen and Klytemnestra, for instance. And if we consider more subtle powers like Penelope’s, there are quite a few more examples.
    As far as powerful goddesses, I believe Athena is conjectured to be a Greek original, added in somewhat later to the whole Zeus/etc stratum of gods which showed up around 2000BC with the big run of invasions around then. She also appears in fewer variants than most of the other local goddesses, since she was fairly local, as opposed to cases like Artemis that have hundreds of local variants, some of which are pretty different beasts.
    But as far as gendering, I would suggest that some of the powerful women of the Odyssey – Kirke and Helen in particular, but others too – are distinctly female, both in their actions and in their use of power. (e.g. Helen calming Telemakhos and Menelaos) So I don’t think they should be read as gender-neutral characters.
    (Just me trying to stir up trouble… 🙂

  5. “vagina” means “sheath” in latin. dunno bout greek, though…

  6. Re: ooh, love this subject, must talk!
    Helen and Klytemnestra are both demigods, remember. (Leda got it on with a swan-form Zeus to produce Helen, and Klytemnestra was always considered to have inherited some of this godliness even though her dad was mortal (and king of Sparta, by the way). Anyway, Klytemnestra didn’t hold the power in many versions of the story, in which Aegisthus did the dirty deed; Aeschylus’ version is nonstandard in this respect.)
    I’d argue that both Helen and Penelope don’t really wield all that much power, even if they do get lots of respect. Both need men to come help them out – they can’t deal with situations by themselves.
    Women who do deal with things by themselves, e.g. Aeschylus’ Klytemnestra, Kirke, or Medea, are universally evil. Even sociopathic murders who happen to be male (e.g. Ajax) are considered more morally good than these women who step outside their roles.
    If Athena is a Greek original, it only helps prove my point (that the Greek’s view of women was significantly different than other near-contemporary cultures). She’s about the most masculine goddess around. She doesn’t even have a mother – she’s all sperm and no egg (literally). Other goddess that are probably borrowed from other cultures, are much more traditionally feminine (e.g. Artemis, lover of helpless wild animals and small children).
    (Just stirring up the trouble you asked for.. =) )

  7. a book suggestion
    Ilium, by Dan Simmons.
    Really good historical/science-fiction set during the trojan war, in which a modern day Iliad scholar alters its course pretty drastically.

  8. Re: ooh, love this subject, must talk!
    You: But as far as gendering, I would suggest that some of the powerful women of the Odyssey – Kirke and Helen in particular, but others too – are distinctly female… So I don’t think they should be read as gender-neutral characters.
    Me: Remember, the gods and goddesses are gendered but they are not code for “men and women”–primarily they represent non-human things
    As you can see, we’re not talking about the same things here. You’re talking about mortal women, I’m talking about goddesses. You’re talking about gender-neutral, I’m talking about a direct code: “female goddess” = “woman.” It can get very confusing. : )
    As far as your judgments about what constitutes a “female use of power”, I’d love to hear more about what you mean. That’s always interesting.

  9. Re: ooh, love this subject, must talk!
    Oddyseus needs Athena (and countless others) to constantly come help his ass out–Penelope on the other hand bides her time through sheer cleverness for 20 years before ANYONE helps her.
    Penelope has very little power of mobility or physical strength or even ability to use her body to get stuff (Oddyseus whores himself out to Calypso, Circe, and others). But she has other kinds of power. I think a top-down definition of power really limits the discussion of a text this rich and multi-layered.

  10. Re: ooh, love this subject, must talk!
    Good point. I guess Penelope and Helen do have *some* power – but it is all in the realm of the home and social connections. Outside the home (oikos), if they exert power they’re considered evil (or they’re gods/demigods, in which case exerting power is considered natural, and neither good nor evil).
    Odysseus needing Athena (and other gods’) help does not diminish his position as hero. From a Greek perspective, we all live at the whim of the gods, so needing their help is not a sign of weakness. Rather, receiving their help is actually a sign of *strength*, as odd as that may seem.

  11. Power–it’s not just for ass-kicking anymore
    It’s true that in Greek society women and men ruled separate realms. And like the Greeks, we value what happens in the agora and on the battlefield more than we value the events of the oikos. Not coincidentally, we also value aggressive, blunt, domineering forms of power more than endurance, deception, restraint, and manipulation—those “inferior” powers are considered by us “feminine.” Thus they are associated with women, slaves, the old, the sick.
    As many have quipped, the Oddyssy is an epic poem about a man trying to get to his house. He’s done with war. He wants to see his wife, his dog, his dad, his kid. He wants home, the only place where women have any power, home, which seems to us less glorious than war and politics—home is the cherished goal of the Oddyssy. And on his journey, the hero is vulnerable like a woman. Because all of us, as you say, are powerless before the gods. And as a man gets older, like Oddysseus, he must accept himself as a weak mortal and give up some of his pride. Like all powerless people, he must now rely more and more on the “underhanded” forms of power. Taking the example of Circe:
    After the playful sex, Oddyseus refuses to eat a feast Circle prepares until she frees his men. It could not BE more feminine. (Can’t you just picture Circe saying, “Okay, fine—don’t eat, what do I care?” But because she wants to please him, his not eating is a powerful act.)
    Consider Polyphemous’s prayer to Poseidon, which starts the whole thing: “let him arrive after many years, in distress, without his companions, on another’s ship…” As we travel away from our youth, we find ourselves no longer strong, needing help from everyone, needing creative solutions (tricks), patience, humility. Oddysseus is the right hero to model this for us, because he is primarily cunning and wise rather than, like Hercules, strong and fearless. Oddysseus is seduced by people with frightening amounts of power over him, he is found naked by a young woman whose help he desperately needs to get home, he dresses like a beggar, he escapes death by clinging to a tree growing on a cliff, at his own request he gets tied to the mast of his own ship (and all these are examples of the hero using his power). Even when he comes home, he can’t just march in and kill everyone who’s trespassing and insulting him, much as he’d like to. He has to bide his time, and patiently wait to be recognized by his own family. To me the text seems to be saying, we cannot command the universe from above, we must coax, trick, and seduce it from below—and to do so in the service of our quest is heroic.

  12. Re: Power–it’s not just for ass-kicking anymore
    First, I think that the Odyssey, in particular, paints a more complex picture of women than simply weak or strong. Truthfully, one of the key aspects, I would even say the most important main focus, of greek myth is not this power vs. unempowered, but more a development of the self. This was huge in greek society. Strength was not a product of power but a product of right living, of knowing one’s Self, of living morally and developing what I would call leadership characteristics.
    Looking at Penelope, I think you can see that the greek perception of women was not simply an issue of weak or strong. And really, there are plentiful examples of both men and women succumbing to multiplicitous weakness. Anyhow, Penelope. She staves off a barage of suitors for quite a long time. She protects her home, her pride, her family. She acts courageously. She takes control of the situation as best she can. But, also, she is trapped by societal positions. She is a queen, a wife, a mother. She has responsibilities that need to be addressed in the absence of her king.
    Really, I think talk of whether women or men were more powerful or even dividing it into male and female simplifies greek myth all too much and misses the true messages.
    The point is to teach how to live and how to be a better person. How to live under the gods and such…

  13. Re: Power–it’s not just for ass-kicking anymore
    ..and I know this was mentioned at least once, but Penelope is Odyseus’s equal…
    She has her own quest and battles to manage and deal with…
    She uses wit…
    Im pretty sure there is at least one brief passage in the book where someone (Odysseus?) says something about her being his equal…
    This isnt, however, to say that there weren’t defined roles for men and women in greek society, but thats a totally different subject and really has little to do with women being weak.
    I think thats really the key. Women were not weaker than men, they simply had different roles.

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