Monday, July 03, 2006

Wherefore art thou Homer? And not say, Phantasia?

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.


Glaukôpis said...

Yeah, I'm sort of wondering if this book can be written at all without some kind of sexism in one direction or another. Butler managed to have it both ways. And I still hate him for it. :-P

dennis said...

I've never read Butler's book, but I knew about it and assumed that was what David was posting about when I saw the title of his post.

On gender, I don't think it's really useful to argue about it, unless of course one has a political agenda. It's not far off from nationalism. Identity politics are never pretty. If we were to accept that gender enabled a woman to write better poetry (or poetry that is more 'x' or less 'y'), we would be forced to make certain concessions about men and to define gender roles, which is exactly what we're supposed to be arguing against.

I think it should be enough to judge the merits of poetry without trying to assign biological 'reasons' for its character. That's one of the great shortcomings of much late 19th and 20th century scholarship: the pseudo-scientific hunt for causes in humanistic pursuits, as though art were a simple chemical process.

Anonymous said...

Dalby has a M.A. from Cambridge (in classics or linguistics, not sure which), has held at least one academic post in a classics department, and has published several well-regarded books on food in the classial world (e.g. "Siren Feasts"), a translation of Cato's De Agri Cultura, and a book on undeciphered scripts ("Lost Languages"). As the article you linked to mentions, he has a forthcoming book on Homer, "Rediscovering Homer." He doesn't have an ordinary academic career, but it's evident that he can read Greek and Latin.

Obviously, being able to read the languages doesn't guarantee good scholarship.

It's also quite possible to investigate what the ancient Greeks thought about gender without getting caught up in juvenile controversies over whether men or women write poetry differently.

Banshee said...

Robert Graves' novel Homer's Daughter also pushed the idea that the author of The Odyssey was female. So yeah, it's an old idea.

Anonymous said...

OK, Banshee, and the idea that the poet was a man is also old. Does that make it right, or wrong, or neither?

(Incidentally, I'm not ANONYMOUS at all. I'm Andrew Dalby.)

Dennis, I'm glad you brought this topic up, but you have misquoted me -- have you looked at the book? The important point is that we have no early evidence at all about the people involved in getting our Iliad and Odyssey down in writing. By attributing to me the word 'author' (probably taken from the article you read) you have missed the real point. Most ancient writers, from the 5th century on, consider Homer to be the 'author'. But none of them -- correct me if I'm wrong -- says that Homer either wrote or dictated the poems. All the earlier authors insist he worked purely orally. Right? And they believed the poems were passed down to Homer's family/successors.

Unfortunately, now that we really know about oral poetic tradition, and that each performance is a new poem, we have to admit that this Homer as described in ancient tradition cannot have been the 'author' of the written poems -- unless we claim that he DID REALLY dictate or write the poems in spite of what ancient sources say. But what evidence have we for that claim? Just Pseudo-Herodotus. Correct me if I'm wrong.

So, now, think afresh about those anonymous and world-shaking events -- the writing down of the Iliad, and then, maybe a couple of decades later, the Odyssey. Who, when, why, and with what support or patronage? Why did no roughly contemporary writer (Archilochos, Alkman, Alkaios, Hesiod?) even think it worth mentioning the events? One of them, at least, was surely alive at the time when they happened! It's of some importance to us, who still listen to this poetry and learn from it, to know something about the singer if we can.

Thanks for the story of Phantasia, by the way. I heard it once, a generation ago, but I could never track it down again. It's one more example of the 'theft' story which was often told in ancient sources as an attempt to handle the problem of the authorship of oral poetry, a thing that no ancient writer ever
managed to understand. The story will go in the second edition (touch wood), credited of course.

dennis said...

Andrew, thanks for the comment, but I have to confess that I don't understand what you're getting at. I've written a quick response as a new post.

If your book makes it into the library system here I'll take a look.

Anonymous said...

"While a difficult source to track, the story of Phantasia comes from the great Byzantine scholar Eustathius, archbishop of Thessalonica (12th c. A.D.)"
-- I found an older source:
Photius of Constantinople (9th c. AD.)
"Read Ptolemy Hephaestion, New History, intended for scholarship in six books (Manetho?)
Phantasia, a woman of Memphis, daughter of Nicarchus, composed before Homer a tale of the Trojan War and of the adventures of Odysseus. The books were deposited, it is said, at Memphis; Homer went there and obtained copies from Phanites, the temple scribe, and he composed under their inspiration. Adonis, having become androgynous, behaved as a man for Aphrodite and as a woman for Apollo. "