Greek-style mansplaining. Illustration: Kate Hazell

#MeToo and the Odyssey: the Greek origins of mansplaining

Homer's classic was literature's first example of men shutting up women. But it is a mistake to write off the Odyssey as a misogynist text
September 18, 2018

I would wager that there is no woman reading this who has not experienced—at some point in her life and probably at some point in the past 24 hours—being shut up, talked over, interrupted or simply ignored by a man.

The #MeToo movement has been extraordinary in uncorking a flood of accusations, testimony and sharing of bitter experiences, but cultural norms insist on silencing women all the time—and condemning them as shrill, bossy or hysterical when they do speak out.

Are the ancients to blame for the deeply entrenched habit of silencing women? In her rousing book Women and Power: A Manifesto, classicist Mary Beard notes that shutting women up goes back all the way to the first surviving literature to emerge from Greece—Homer’s epics. She particularly remarks on how, in the Odyssey, Telemachus crossly shuts up his mother, Penelope, in the early part of the poem.

Odysseus has been away for nearly 10 years. At home on Ithaca, suitors are trying to persuade his wife Penelope to choose one of them as a husband. One day a bard sings about the difficult homecomings of the Greeks from the Trojan war. Penelope asks him to choose another subject—this is far too upsetting.

Telemachus then does some pretty heavy-duty mansplaining, telling her it’s not the bard’s fault that things are so terrible but the gods’, before issuing the following charming instruction: “Stick to the loom and distaff. Tell your slaves/ to do their chores as well. It is for men/ to talk, especially me. I am the master.”

"World-historical defeat of the female sex"

Beard wasn’t the first to be struck by this scene in the Odyssey. In The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, Friedrich Engels picked it out, remarking that “in the heroic age we find the woman already being humiliated by the domination of the man…” Engels was fitting this scene into a theory of human development in which a prehistoric matriarchy (or so he thought), gave way to a patriarchy.

This was “the world-historical defeat of the female sex. The man took command in the home also; the woman was degraded and reduced to servitude, she became the slave of his lust and a mere instrument for the production of children.”

For Engels this process was already underway in the “heroic age” of Homer and complete several centuries later in the 5th century BC, when Pericles, in his famous funeral oration, told the Athenian populace that the greatest honour for women was not to be spoken about (let alone to speak out themselves).

The Odyssey's feminists

But it’s too simple to write off the Odyssey as a misogynist text. Even in the passage I’ve quoted, things are more complex than they seem. Telemachus is shown to be rather adolescent, a little sulky; his mother is, despite her limited room for manoeuvre politically, resourceful and canny.

There are other female figures too in the Odyssey—the goddess Athena, the most powerful of the lot; a shrewd witch, Circe; and the extraordinary Helen of Troy, who is shown to be a great deal smarter than her husband, Menelaus—and in one scene doles out drugs to keep PTSD brought on by the Trojan war at bay.

One commentator, Samuel Butler, was so struck by the positive characterisation of women in the poem that he thought its writer might be female—a theory he propounded at entertaining length in his work The Authoress of the Odyssey. That, alas, is highly unlikely. But it is a reminder of the depth and humanity of the poem—one that is far from uncritical of its male heroes, and whose women do not stay silent for long.