About the author:
Unsurprisingly, I have been an avid reader since I was a kid. I love reading books and thinking about books; I also love science fiction, painting, and plants that don’t die easily. I am currently in Pure & Applied Science and will be pursuing a career in physics, and I hope to eventually work in medical imaging and research.
“I am taller too”: Power, Insecurities, and Popular Fears in The Odyssey
By Yuliya Shpunarska
For Unmapped: Encountering the Other with Prof. Rebecca Million
Stories emerging from popular culture inevitably reflect the culture’s fantasies and its fears. The popular French story of Cinderella can be interpreted as an early “underdog story” in which a young girl escapes poverty by the goodness of her soul, possibly betraying a fantasy of the common folk of that context. Similarly, Homer’s Odyssey can be read as a patchwork of memoirs, from different places and time periods in ancient Greece. Power dynamics being crucial to understanding the social structures in the various city-states, representations of beings from monsters to gods, along with differences in power between people, serve as a depiction of the concerns and cognitions of the ancients. Different social phenomena, including anxieties relating to the Other, depictions of strength and masculinity, and sexual taboos are illustrated in the epic in ways that allow the reader to analyze the fears of the storytellers relating to the established system.
A tendency to alienate others and discuss mostly points that render them inferior or terrifying all reveal insecurities about the storytellers’ own selves. In Book Nine of The Odyssey, the Cyclopes are described primarily by the opportunities they miss: they “have no red-cheeked ships” and do not colonize the neighbouring island despite its abundance (l.125). Similarly, Odysseus projects Greek values on the Laestrygonians by imagining “what people […] ate bread in this land”, implying that his diet is the default one, and by expecting non-Greek strangers to apply xenia. Our narrator of course skims over Polyphemus’ cheese, cattle, and wine as signs of civilization, or the Laestrygonians’ monarchy and their “high-roofed palace” (Book 10, l.111), but these details are nevertheless significant in showing the audience that the creatures are not completely monstrous. Rather, as Erwin F. Cook puts it, “this constructed other is primitive but not inhuman” (2000), because that allows for the culture telling the story to depict people living in the known world to be unlike them and potentially dangerous. Moreover, the demeaning depictions explain and justify, in the conqueror’s eyes, the necessity to dominate the Other. Submission to the gods often serves as a proof of civilization, be it on the island of Aeolus or that of the Phaeacians, and it is implied that a disbelief in the “natural” hierarchy of beings should ultimately be punished. This is exemplified most notoriously by the son of Poseidon, Polyphemus, exclaiming shortly before being blinded that his “people think nothing of that Zeus with his big scepter” (Book 9, l.274-275). Ironically it is not a god that punishes him for his pride, but a Greek hero, symbolic of an obligation to culturally dominate the neighbouring peoples. This strong sense of cultural and spiritual superiority, coupled with the fact that the journey depicts most of the known world of the time, are an indication of how the people of the many Greek societies positioned themselves with respect to the Other in their popular culture.
Odysseus’ heroism and masculine strength are often challenged to show the legitimacy of his status as a man and as a warrior. His pride is put on trial most prominently upon meeting the royal princess Nausicaa, in an episode in which the great hero looks “a dreadful sight” (Book 6, l.137). Crawling out of the bush naked and dirty, Odysseus is metaphorically rebirthed after losing his men and his fortune: he is now frail and vulnerable, and must beg a young girl for help. In the context of a heavily patriarchal society, this reversal of the power dynamics between strong hero and elegant princess is an episode of humility in which the warrior must yield. An earlier event, in which Circe scolds Odysseus for wanting to fight the monstrous Scylla, induces even greater grief and helplessness in him. She declares that he “must surrender to the gods” (Book 12, l.117), a devastating statement for a man used to fighting his way to power; this time he is not excused from fighting because of his poor physical condition, rather, he simply must choose the passive way and let his men be killed. This difficult choice of course challenges Odysseus’ character as a whole but also his status as a warrior, perhaps revealing the fear of a warring nation that an insurmountable evil may one day surface. As the nobility of men was determined by their skills in war, it would be particularly embarrassing to encounter an enemy he cannot even try fighting against, not only as a soldier, but also as a leader that knows he is sending men to their deaths.
Finally, sexuality in Ancient Greece was strictly regulated by custom, and the consequences for infringement are made apparent in Odysseus’ encounters. More specifically, feminine archetypes of sexuality are embodied in the goddesses: because they are above humans, their ways of life and demeanors are meant to justify the systems that regulate life on earth. Calypso daringly complains that “[the] male gods are upset with [her] for living with a man. A man [she] saved!”, but she has to give up her prisoner nonetheless (Book 5, l.129-130). There are multiple layers to the power dynamics here: the woman, despite being a goddess, is not allowed to have such control over a mortal man. This is considering that women in most of the city-states were not allowed to own property, that the wife essentially belonged to her husband (Gill), and that slavery was common, so that evidently there was no ethical boundary preventing the ownership of another person. It seems that this kind of story in folklore justified the common belief that this hierarchy was natural and necessary (Braiden), and in return the women could not retort because of, among other things, the fear of falling outside of the natural order of things. This “natural order” was enforced by rules of self-control called sophrosyne: in the men’s case, it discourages one from shows of cowardice on the battlefield; for women, modesty and lack of sexual interest are considered the norm. Either way, the man was to be dominating and the woman subdued. In the same way that Odysseus must “tame” the mysterious Circe by leaping at her with a sword “as if [he] meant to kill her” (Book 10, l.322), women as sexual beings are depicted throughout the story as being mystically powerful and needing to be controlled, as a warning to young men of their viciousness. On the other hand, feminine figures are widely respected for motherhood and fertility (the best example being Hera, queen of the gods), while having their sexuality erased from the equation. In a warring country where there would often be a shortage of men, the most important role of a female was her ability to continue the paternal bloodline. As such, the story, oft-repeated throughout The Odyssey, of Clytemnestra committing possibly the worst crime done by a woman, the killing of her husband and as such the symbolic cutting of her son’s manhood, is indicative of fears surrounding the true power of mothers over life and death.
Ultimately, Odysseus’ journey is not the journey of a man but the journey of a choir of voices expressing unspoken fears and ideas about themselves and about the world. Power, and all the struggles that may arise from it, were evidently a great cause of concern for the ancients. Power also seemed to arise from blood: from heritage, from war, or from childbirth. Despite all of its references to creatures and adventures out there, The Odyssey screams one thing: power comes from within.
Braiden, Michelle. “Aristotle: Four Causes.” 2018, PowerPoint file.
Cook, Erwin F. Review of The Returns of Odysseus: Colonization and Ethnicity, by Irad Malkin. Bryn Mawr Classical Review, 2000, p. 22.
Gill, N. S. “Women and Marriage in Ancient Greece.” ThoughtCo, Dotdash publishing family, 28 August 2018, www.thoughtco.com/greek-marriage-traditions-121476.
Homer, The Odyssey. Trans. Emily Wilson. New York, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc, 2018.