Rediscovering Homer, His Women and Goddesses

Homer 950-850 BC
by Christopher Xenopoulos Janus

Homer, the first poet of the West, remains to this day the greatest. Composed eight centuries or more before the dawning of the Christian era, Homer's two great poems The Iliad and The Odyssey were the first masterpieces of world literature and even after 3,000 years, their power, vibrancy, influence and allure have not diminished. Today they rank second only to the Bible among the most widely recognized and most often critically studied western literary classics. Part of the reason for their continuing appeal is that the two works encompass such a wide range of human concepts, emotions and experiences.

The Iliad, which is based on the story of Troy, recounts the struggle of man against fate in a mighty war. Many in our time are facing the same world problems of war - for example, Iraq.

The Odyssey relates the struggle of an intrepid man pitted against the mysterious forces of nature. Odysseus is the prototype of all explorers and adven-turers from his time to that of. Vasco da Gama.Odysseus is Christopher Columbus, James. Bond's agent 007 and Ernest Sharkelon all in one and more.

The appeal and influences of Homer's grand epics also reach beyond the limits of classroom and academic circles. They have been translated into nearly every language, memorized and routinely quoted for both pleasure and inspiration. Soldiers have gone into battle with lines from Homer on their lips. Statesmen quoted Homer in grave debates and conferences and poets have tried in vain over the centuries to rival Homer's music and storytelling power. One reason that these works reach out to and connect with so many people in so many different cultures is that they capture and glorify admirable qualities; many see humanity as being lost. The events of the Iliad and The Odyssey take place in an age of larger-than-life heroes who lived and often died, according to strict codes of courage, honor and loyalty and who interacted directly with the gods on high.

What is remarkable about Homer is also the fact that his greatness burst forth in splendor and maturity out of the chaos of a disintegrating society which has left hardly any traces of coordinated literary expression. But Homer is no primitive poet. He may write about a war between semi-private peoples, but he does so from the point of view of a man who is himself completely civilized and mature.

And as Edith Hamilton other women scholars write, Homer wrote about women at a time when they were recognized only for their child bearing and for the pleasure of man.

Women occupy a place of honor in Homer's works. As we read in his epics, Homer is obviously very sensitive to their charm and beauty and confesses it with pleasure more so than any other ancient Greek writer. He is generally full of admiration for them, but at times he is just of kindly indulgence or a pity sometimes tinged with irony.

Following is an admirable gallery of feminine portraits he gives us:

Nausicaa - That unmatched type of the young maiden, radiant with modest grace and youthful

Arete - The accomplished mistress of a great house, affable and dignified, full of native authority -the beloved counselor of her husband.

Penelope - A symbol of anxious and rather tearful fidelity, living a life of memories and instinctively dis-trustful of the happiness of which she has a glimpse and when she at last recovers, Homer treats her with great and understanding sympathy.

Helen - That mystery of femininity whose halo of beauty preserves her from any meanness whether in the tumult of passion or in the calm of the home she returns to.

Andromache - The loving wife, flushed with admiration and fear for her hero and lastly, the old stewardess Eurycleia, all affection and grumpy devotion.

And we must not forget the goddesses whom Homer treats with a certain flippancy. There was Athena, Hera and Aphrodite, about whom he especially wrote.

Now to return to his comments and philosophy about women, unlike during the Golden Age of Greece three or four hundred years later, Homer writes that the woman was in no way confined to her house.

The gynaecum in which women at one time lived was a semi-recluse as not a Homeric word of conception.

Homer's women move about freely. Helen, when warned by Iris, quickly leaves her house and climbs to the city walls to witness the duel between her two husbands. Andromache, on hearing that the Trojan Army is drawing back, rushes like a mad thing to the Scaean Gate bringing with her the nurse and little Astyanax. Arete, we are told moves freely about town and everyone salutes her as though she were a goddess.

Nausicaa goes alone with the servants to wash the palace linen some way from the town. Homer likes to write at great detail about the conduct of his women.

While women were rather free and independent compared to the women during the time of Socrates and Plato, Homer's women still lived with certain restrictions especially when it came to marriage. Arranged marriage was the norm. The woman's apartment was separate from her husband's. The marriage chamber belonged to the husband. Here he invited his wife, but also upon some occasions some concubine. Husband and wife took their meals in their own rooms. They shared neither the men's rooms nor in the banquets for guests. But here again Homer points out that women did not lead a cloistered life. When the men had finished eating and banqueting, the women joined them. Even more Homer writes with a certain assurance, women presided over the gathering and even directed the conversation.

Finally Homer writes the wife was in no way the property of her husband. He was her master. He could punish or repudiate her if she seriously compromised the interest of her home. He could even kill her in caseof adultery, though he took care not to do so for he would otherwise incur the vengeance which was obligatory on her family. Yet, all in all, the women of Homer possessed vague but unquestionable rights. She remained, above all, under the protection of her paternal family.

Homer shows his humanity and his humor when he says that one should remember that regardless of the many restrictions women faced in her life and marriage, still a wise and clever woman using her
natural guiles could rule her husband and her house, even when he thinks he indeed is the boss.

Educated at Harvard and Oxford, Christopher Xenopoulos Janus started his writing career as a reporter for the Chicago Daily News. Later he became a special writer for The New York Times Sunday News Magazine section where the late Lester Markel was his editor. During World War II, Janus joined the Department of State serving in Washington, Cairo and Athens on Greek War Relief and Rehabilitation programs. This experience had a great influence on his writing.

After World War II, the author was involved in various entrepreneurial experiences. At one time he owned Adolph Hitler's Mercedes Benz and toured it through the United States. He was an Investment Banker, but always took the time to be involved in the world around him.

Since his retirement from business, the author has devoted his time to writing, publishing and traveling. He founded and published the widely acclaimed Greek Heritage, The American Quarterly of Greek Culture, and with William Brashler wrote Search for Peking Man (Macmillan 1975). Janus' novel Miss Fourth of July, Goodbye has been filmed by Disney Productions. Around the World in 90 Years reflects much of the author's own warm and caring philosophy of life embodying unconditional loyalties and boundless enthusiasm. They feature a strong sense of self-reliance and the courage and wisdom to be interested in everything. Yet, as his mentor, George Santayana once cautioned the author: "Don't be awed by anything."

Most recently, the prestigious American Hellenic Institute Foundation of Washington, D.C. awarded its Hellenic Heritage Lifetime Achievement Award to Christopher Xenopoulos Janus.

Mr. Janus is the author of numerous articles appearing on HCS. Readers are invited to view: "The Girl With Melancholy Eyes," "Our First and Only Christmas in Sistersville"

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