Bill Beck has a good article on Eidolonabout the way ancient (and eventually Modern) etymology and “word science” manipulates the concept of the original meaning of words in order to reinforce various types of dominant cultural discourse.
Here is another example, the history of the word clitoris. I have arranged the examples in roughly chronological order.
“Kleitoris: the over-covering skin [lit. of hypodoris?] of a woman’s genitals. From where we get the word kleitoriazein, which means to rub or touch [as in to masturbate].”
Murton: “myrtle berry” The form of the female genitalia in the middle of which is the clitoris. From this we get the word kleitorizesthai which means to touch oneself licentiously. The lip is the hupodoris and the sides the myrtle-lips
“The rest of them were sitting, and they had taken their seats.
Only Thersites, a man of measureless speech, was still declaring–
A man who knew many disordered things in his thoughts and who
Strived pointlessly with kings out of order,
–whatever he thought would be amusing to the Argives.
And he was the most shameful man who came to Troy.
He was cross-eyed and crippled in one foot. His shoulders
Were curved, dragged in toward his chest. And on top
His head was mishaped, and the hair on his head was sparse.
He was most hateful to both Achilles and Odysseus
For he was always reproaching them. Then he was shrilly cawing
At lordly Agamemnon again, as he spoke reproaches. The Achaeans
Were terribly angry at him and were finding fault in their heart.
As he shouting greatly, he was reproaching Agememnon.”
Homer presents a overlap between ‘beautiful body’ and ‘beautiful mind’. This physiognomic category error pervades a great deal of classical Greek culture. In the Iliad, Thersites transgresses physical boundaries through his unheroic body and ethical boundaries by using the genre of rebuke upward in the social hierarchy. He is hateful to both Achilles and Odysseus because they exemplify in a complementary fashion the ‘center’ or ideal of the heroic person—Achilles is the beautiful body, Odysseus is a beautiful mind. But both of them stay within the boundaries of ‘normal’ in their own deviance (Achilles’ political straying, Odysseus’ aging, imperfect body). Thersites, labelled by many as a comic scapegoat, functions as an inferior in order to define the center as non-transgressive. This is, in particular, why he is hateful to Achilles and Odysseus: without him, their persons might be monstrous or disabled. And this also helps explain why Odysseus must physical beat Thersites in public.
Thomson, Rosemarie Garland. 1997. Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring Physical Disability in American Culture and Literature. New York.
5: “related perceptions of corporeal otherness” includes mutilation, deformation, crippledness, or physical disability…”
7: “..the meanings attributed to extraordinary bodies reside not in inherent physical flaws but in social relationships in which one group is legitimated by possessing valued physical characteristics and maintains its ascendency and its self-identity by imposing the role of cultural or corporeal inferiority on others.”
Mitchell, David T. and Sharon L. Snyder. Narrative Prosthesis: Disability and the Dependency of Discourse. Ann Arbor. 2000. Cf. Wills, David. 1995. Prosthesis. Stanford.
57: “Whereas the “unmarred” surface enjoys its cultural anonymity ad promises little more than a confirmation of the adage of a “healthy” mind in a “healthy” body, disability signifies a more variegated and sordid series of assumptions and experiences. Its unruliness must be tamed by multiple mappings of the surface. If form leads to content or “embodies” meaning, then disability’s disruption of acculturated bodily norms also suggests a corresponding misalignment of subjectivity itself.”
59: “If the “external effect” led directly to a knowledge of the “internal faculty,” then those who inhabited bodies deemed “outside the norm” proved most ripe for a scrutiny of their moral or intellectual content. Since disabled people by definition embodied a form that was identified as “outside” the normal or permissible, their visages and bodily outlines became the physiognomist’s (and later the pathologist’s) object par excellence. Yet, the “sinister capability” of physiognomy proves more complex than just the exclusivity of interpretive authority that Stafford suggests. If the body would offer a surface manifestation of internal symptomatology, then disability and deformity automatically preface an equally irregular subjectivity. Physiognomy proves a deadly practice to a population already existing on the fringes of social interaction and “humanity.””
60: “Elizabeth Cornelia Evans argues that physiognomic beliefs can be traced back as far as ancient Greece. She cites Aristotle as promoting physiognomic reasoning when he proclaims, “It is possible to infer character from physique, if it is granted that body and soul change together in all natural affections . . . For if a peculiar affection applies to any individual class, e.g., courage to lions, there must be some corresponding sign for it; for it has been assumed that body and soul are affected together” (7). In fact, one might argue that physiognomics came to be consolidated out of a general historical practice applied to the bodies of disabled peoples. If the extreme evidence of marked physical differences provided a catalog of reliable signs, then perhaps more minute bodily differentiations could also be cataloged and interpreted. In this sense, people with disabilities ironically served as the historical locus for the invention of physiognomy.”
See Odyssey: 1.302: “I see that you are really big and noble, and be brave / that a man born in the future might speak well of you” μάλα γάρ σ’ ὁρόω καλόν τε μέγαν τε, / ἄλκιμος ἔσσ’, ἵνα τίς σε καὶ ὀψιγόνων ἐὺ εἴπῃ =3.199–200 (Nestor addressing Telemachus). Cf. 4.141–147 where Helen recognizes Telemachus because he looks like his father and Menelaos responds “I was just now thinking this too, wife, as you note the similarity: / these are the kinds of feet and hands / the eye glances, and head and hair belonging to that man” (οὕτω νῦν καὶ ἐγὼ νοέω, γύναι, ὡς σὺ ἐΐσκεις· / κείνου γὰρ τοιοίδε πόδες τοιαίδε τε χεῖρες / ὀφθαλμῶν τε βολαὶ κεφαλή τ’ ἐφύπερθέ τε χαῖται, 4.148–150).
Cf. Achilles to Lykaon, Il. 21.108: “Don’t you see what kind of man I am, beautiful and big?” οὐχ ὁράᾳς οἷος καὶ ἐγὼ καλός τε μέγας τε;
167–8: Rebuke is a speech genre highly marked for social position: Penelope rebukes Eurykleia, Nausikaa rebukes her handmaidens. Melanthô should not rebuke Odysseus because it would transgress the normative boundaries for a slave to reproach a master.
On Thersites as a “bona fide satirist”, see Rosen 2003:123. Halliwell 1991:281 too draws attention to Thersites’ role as a “habitual entertainer”, and points to Plato’s shrewd description of him as a γελωτοποιός (Rep.10.620c3). For Thersites as a blame-poet, see Nagy 1979: 211-75. For Thersites’ in general see Lowry 1991 and Postelthwaite 1998.
Lowry, E. R. Thersites: A Study in Comic Shame.
Marks, Jim. 2005. “The Ongoing Neikos: Thersites, Odysseus, and Achilleus.” AJP 126:1–31.
Nagy, G. 1979. The Best of the Achaeans. Baltimore.
Postlethwaite, N. 1998.Thersites in the Iliad, in Homer: Greek and Roman Studies, eds. I. McAuslan and P. Walcot, Oxford, = 83-95.
Rose, P. W. 1997. “Ideology in the Iliad: Polis, Basileus, Theoi.” Arethusa 30:151-199.
Rosen, R. M. 2003. “The Death of Thersites and the Sympotic Performance of Iambic Mock-ery.” Pallas 61:21–136.
Thalmann, W. G. 1988. “Thersites: comedy, scapegoats and heroic ideology in the Iliad.” TAPA 118:1-28.
Vodoklys, E.1992.. Blame-Expression in the Epic Tradition. New York.
Special thanks to David M. Perry for giving me a starter Bibliography for Disability Studies and to Dimitri Nakassis for adding to the bibliography on Thersites.
In this often overlooked scene we find an unnamed slave at the end of a long night’s work.
[Odysseus] carried it outside and then prayed
while raising his hands to Zeus,
“Zeus, father, if you have willingly led me
over the soil and swell to this land,
after you have made me a much lesser man,
let someone of those gathered within utter my fame
and let some other sign of Zeus appear without.”
So he spoke while praying and Zeus the advisor was listening to him.
He immediately thundered from shining Olympus
high above from the clouds. And brilliant Odysseus smiled.
A woman from the house near the mill released a sound [phêmê]
where the twelve mills were set for the shepherd of the host.
There were twelve women working there
regularly working the barley and the wheat, men’s marrow.
The others were sleeping, since they had finished grinding their grain.
But she alone was not yet stopping, since she was the weakest of all.
But then she stopped her mill and spoke, a sign for her master.
“Zeus, father, you who rule over the gods and people,
how you have thundered from the starry sky
where there is no cloud! In this you show your sign.
Now grant to wretched me this word which I speak:
may this be the last and final day on which the suitors
take their lovely feast in the halls of Odysseus.
These men wear the knees of tired, heart-pained me
as I make their meal. Let them dine now for the last.”
So she spoke and Odysseus took pleasure in the speech and the thunder. For he was thinking that he would pay the guilty back.”
This scene illustrates the extent to which minor characters exist and in fact suffer pointlessly for Odysseus’ benefit: we get the briefest glimpse into the life and suffering of one of the mill-working women in order to satisfy Odysseus’ own desire to hear that he is remembered. For me, this scene is a metonym for the narrative’s use of marginalized peoples in the generic instrumentalization of another’s pain to satisfy Odysseus’ narrative ends.
Earlier I posted a passage from the Odyssey where the narrator tells us that Penelope raised the slave Melanthô and gave her toys. This detail is paired with the slave woman’s sexual behavior—she is now a bad slave because she is having sex with one of the suitors.
“Then fine-cheeked Melanthô reproached him shamefully. Dolios fathered her and Penelope raised her, she treated her like her own child and used to give her delights for her heart. But she did not have grief in her thoughts for Penelope. Instead she was having sex with and feeling affection for Eurymakhos.”
The meaning of this behavior might not be clear to modern audiences. Ancient audiences might have needed clarification too. The epic shows Odysseus witnessing this later.
“Odysseus was lying there, still awake, devising evils in his heart
For the suitors. And the women went from the hall
The ones who were having sex with the suitors before
Greeting one another with a welcome and a laugh.
And Odysseus’ heart rose in his dear chest.
He debated much in his thoughts and through his heart
Whether after leaping up he should deal out death to each woman
Or he should allow them to have sex with the arrogant suitors
a last and final time. The heart inside his chest barked.
And as a mother dog who stands over her young pups
When she sees an unknown man barks and waits to fight,
So his heart growled within him as he was enraged at the evil deeds.
Then he struck his chest and reproached the heart inside him.
Endure this my heart, you endured a more harrowing thing on that day
When the savage Cyclops, insanely daring, ate
My strong companions. You were enduring this and your intelligence
Led you from that cave even though you thought you were going to die.”
Beyond whether or not the liaison was a good wooing strategy for Eurymachus, these closely paired statements show that despite being integrated into the family structure, Melantho has not internalized her position and has instead exercised agency in pursuing sexuality. (Or, perhaps more accurately, exercising control over her own body to choose a different master.) When the epic returns to the issue, it takes pains to depict the women as in control and to ensure that Odysseus witnesses it. When he reveals himself to the suitors in book 22, he accuses them of forcefully sleeping with the women.
“Dogs, you were expecting that out of the way I would not come
home from the land of the Trojans and you ruined my home,
Took the slave women in my house to bed by force
And wooed the wife of a man who was still alive…”
The difference in tone is in part due to the level of narrative—in the first two scenes mentioned above, the sexual acts are observed through the narrator. When Odysseus talks about it, he characterizes the acts differently because he sees the sexual acts as transgressing his control of the household. If the women—who are animate objects, not people—have sex, then they are the sexual objects of aggressors against Odysseus’ control. This transgressive behavior on their part helps to explain why Odysseus decides to slaughter them.
Who should have sex with the slave women is implied by a narrative passage from the beginning of the epic (1.428–33)
“And with him Eurykleia carried the burning torches. She knew proper things, the daughter of Ops, the son of Peisênor whom Laertes bought to be among his possessions when she was just a girl and he paid a price worth 20 oxen. And he used to honor her equal to his dear wife in his home but he never had sex with her and he was avoiding his wife’s anger.”
It is exceptional here that Laertes does not have sex with Eurykleia. This indicates an economy of sexual slavery in which the slave women are the objects to be used by those who own them. If they are used without permission or act on their own, they represent perversions.
Doherty, Lillian. 2001. “The Snares of the Odyssey: A Feminist Narratological Reading.” 117-133.
Thalmann, William G. 1998. “Female Slaves in the Odyssey.” 22–34
“After [the details of] the battles are well-known
Wisdom is publicly rejected, affairs are pursued with force,
A good speaker is spurned, and the wretched warrior is loved.
Men strive not with educated speeches but instead with insults
attack one another and enter into mutual enmity.
They seize property suddenly not by the right of law but with swords
As they seek sovereignty and wander with the power of the mob.
Pellitur e medio sapientia, vi geritur res, 263
Spernitur orator bonus, horridus miles amatur.
Haut doctis dictis certantes sed maledictis
Miscent inter sese inimicitiam agitantes.
Non ex iure manu consertum sed magis ferro
Rem repetunt, regnumque petunt, vadunt solida vi.
The Annales of Quintus Ennius are available only in fragmentary form. They told the tale of Roman history in epic form from the story of Romulus and Remus down to his own time period (2nd Century BCE; Ennius served in the Second Punic War). While there are many fragments, only a handful are longer than a line or two.
It is difficult to evaluate from the short lines the quality of Ennius (his reputation is pretty good). From what we have, however, it seems that he was well-versed in the Homeric epics. One thing to note about the style from a Latin perspective, is how short the sense-units are in comparison to those of a later epic poet like Vergil (the slightly earlier Lucretius seems to be closer to Ennius in allowing most of his lines to make sense on their own).
Indeed, the ringing and repetition of the last line above (Rem repetunt, regnumque petunt, vadunt solida vi) seems much more akin to Lucretian style and some oral Greek traditions, perhaps…
“To me, custom and nature are not merely not opposed but they are most closely related, similar and overlapping one another. For custom is the way we approach nature and nature is our avenue to custom; we do call one the starting point and one the result: let nature be called the leader and culture the follower. For custom never would have built walls or outfitted men against them if nature hadn’t given man hands.”
“Clarity is a good rule for all speech, but especially for a letter. Regardless of whether we are assenting or begging, relenting or not, laying blame or defending, or even in love, we persuade more easily if we explain ourselves clearly. We will explain ourselves clearly and without being vulgar if we phrase common sentiments uniquely and new thoughts in familiar ways.”