Tension and Precarity: The Iliad’s Simile of the Weaving Woman

Recently, I posted about the simile that helped to make me spend the last twenty years studying Homer. I did not provide the full context that really got to me for sake of brevity. After Homer compares the sides of the battle over the wall to two men struggling over a corner of a field, the slaughter is also compared to the scales of a woman measuring out wool for weaving.

Iliad 12.427-438

“Many were struck across their flesh by pitiless bronze
Whenever they turned and bared their backs
As they struggled, although many were also struck through their shields.
The towers and walls were decorated everywhere with the blood
Of men from both sides, from Trojans and Achaeans.

Yet, they still could not force the Achaians to flee—
No, it held as when an honest weaving woman holds
The balance and draws out the weight and the wool on both sides
to make them equal so she might earn some wretched wage for her children.
So the battle and the war was stretched even on each side
Until Zeus gave the glory over to Hektor
Priam’s son, who first broke through the wall of the Achaeans.”

πολλοὶ δ’ οὐτάζοντο κατὰ χρόα νηλέϊ χαλκῷ,
ἠμὲν ὅτεῳ στρεφθέντι μετάφρενα γυμνωθείη
μαρναμένων, πολλοὶ δὲ διαμπερὲς ἀσπίδος αὐτῆς.
πάντῃ δὴ πύργοι καὶ ἐπάλξιες αἵματι φωτῶν
ἐρράδατ’ ἀμφοτέρωθεν ἀπὸ Τρώων καὶ ᾿Αχαιῶν.
ἀλλ’ οὐδ’ ὧς ἐδύναντο φόβον ποιῆσαι ᾿Αχαιῶν,
ἀλλ’ ἔχον ὥς τε τάλαντα γυνὴ χερνῆτις ἀληθής,
ἥ τε σταθμὸν ἔχουσα καὶ εἴριον ἀμφὶς ἀνέλκει
ἰσάζουσ’, ἵνα παισὶν ἀεικέα μισθὸν ἄρηται·
ὣς μὲν τῶν ἐπὶ ἶσα μάχη τέτατο πτόλεμός τε,
πρίν γ’ ὅτε δὴ Ζεὺς κῦδος ὑπέρτερον ῞Εκτορι δῶκε
Πριαμίδῃ, ὃς πρῶτος ἐσήλατο τεῖχος ᾿Αχαιῶν.

Schol D + bT ad Il. 12.433-435 ex.

“The equal balance of those fighting, [Homer] compared to the beam of a loom, again. For nothing is so precisely similar to an even balance. And the one weighing this out is not the mistress of the household—for she does not often trouble this much for so small an equal bit—nor is it one of the household maids—for they would not seek to make so precise a measure since they are fed by the household’s master and do not risk their nourishment if they mess up on the loom weights—but it is a woman for hire who must provide what is needed for living by the effort of her hands.”

ex. | D ἀλλ’ ἔχον ὥς τε τάλαντα<—μισθὸν ἄρη-ται>: πάλιν τὸ ἰσοπαλὲς τῶν μαχομένων παρέβαλε ζυγῷ· οὐδὲν γὰρ οὕτως ἀκριβὲς πρὸς ἰσότητα. καὶ ἡ ταλαντεύουσα οὐκ ἔστι δέσποινα οἰκίας (ταύτην γὰρ οὐ λυπεῖ πολλάκις τὸ παρὰ βραχὺ ἴσον), ἀλλ’ οὐδὲ θεραπαινίς (οὐ γὰρ αὗται ζητοῦσι τὸ ἀκριβὲς εἰς τοσοῦτον, ἅτε δὴ ὑπὸ τοῦ δεσπότου τρεφόμεναι b [BCE3E4] T καὶ οὐκ ἐν τῷ διαμαρτεῖν περὶ τὸν σταθμὸν κινδυνεύουσαι περὶ τροφήν), T χερνῆτις (433) δέ, ἡ χειρὶ τὰ πρὸς τὸ ζῆν πορίζουσα, ἵνα παισὶν ἀεικέα (435) φησίν.

This passage has always moved me because, as with the earlier simile, the great ‘epic’ themes and images of war were reduced to something simple, daily, and completely understandable. Even in the ancient world where many members of the audiences probably had considerably more experience of violence than we do and where most aristocratic audience members would certainly have nothing but contempt for working for a living, many probably heard a crucial echo of their own lives in this surprising comparison.

I also appreciate the way that the scholiasts here home in on how dire this woman’s position is, making the dubious but nonetheless striking claim that the household servants led less precarious lives than the woman of the simile who draws the weight so precisely because her pay—and the lives of her children—depend upon it. In a crucial way, this simile evokes the same sense of scarcity as that of the men on the field—but it adds that an all too familiar anxiety from the precarity that emerges when one lives constantly with the sense of how scarce those things we value are.

It may seem a stretch, but the image of the weaving woman evokes for me the creative power of women presented elsewhere in Homer–Helen weaves the story of her own kleos, Penelope weaves shroud whose images are never revealed. In a way, the tension prepared by the woman’s hands within the simile is a comparison for the balance of war and a metaphor for an act of creation. The epic’s plot and the audience’s experience are similarly drawn out in the narrator’s hands.

Indeed, the scarcity and precarity evoked by this simile and the one that precedes it extends the transitional moment begun with the image of the farmers to create anticipatory tension in the audience. At the epic’s middle, before we move from book 12 to 13 and to the slaughter of the Achaeans at the ships, the balance hangs ever briefly before it breaks. Hektor surges through the Achaean fortification: the balance of action fails just as the balance of the plot will too—the story of Achilles’ withdrawal will now translate into the slaughter he asked Zeus to precipitate leading to the death of Patroklos, Hektor and, ultimately, Achilles too.

 

Weaving, spinning, carding wool, and combing flax. MS Royal 16 Gv, f. 56, British Library, London  France 1400s

MS Royal 16 Gv 56 British Library (France, 15th Century)

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