Gendered Knowledge and the Impossibility of Love?

Plato, Alcibiades 127a-c

Socrates: Hey, Alcibiades, do you think that a man can agree with a woman about wool-working when he doesn’t know anything about it and she does?

Alcibiades: Not. At. All.

Soc. Yeah, that’s not right at all. For that’s a woman’s kind of learning.

Alc. Yup.

Soc. What about this: Can a woman agree with a man about being a soldier when she hasn’t learned anything about it?

Alc. Not. At. All.

Soc. So, perhaps you would say that that is a masculine kind a knowledge.

Alc. Yes I would.

Soc. So according to your argument there are women’s types of knowledge and men’s kinds of knowledge?

Alc. How wouldn’t there be?

Soc. So in these matters, then, there’s no agreement between women and men?

Alc. Nope.

Soc. And there’s no love, if love is truly agreement?

Alc. It does not seem so.

Soc. So, because they do their own thing, women are not loved by men?

Alk. I guess not.

Soc. And men aren’t loved by women, because they do their own thing?

Alk. Nope.


ΣΩ. Οἴει ἂν οὖν, ὦ Ἀλκιβιάδη, ἄνδρα γυναικὶ περὶ ταλασιουργίας δύνασθαι ὁμονοεῖν, τὸν μὴ ἐπιστάμενον τῇ ἐπισταμένῃ;

ΑΛΚ. Οὐ δῆτα.

ΣΩ. Οὐδέ γε δεῖ οὐδέν· γυναικεῖον γὰρ τοῦτό γε μάθημα.

ΑΛΚ. Ναί.

ΣΩ. Τί δέ; γυνὴ ἀνδρὶ περὶ ὁπλιτικῆς δύναιτ᾿ ἂν ὁμονοεῖν μὴ μαθοῦσα;

ΑΛΚ. Οὐ δῆτα.

ΣΩ. Ἀνδρεῖον γὰρ τοῦτο γε ἴσως αὖ φαίης ἂν εἶναι.

ΑΛΚ. Ἔγωγε.

ΣΩ. Ἔστιν ἄρα τὰ μὲν γυναικεῖα, τὰ δὲ ἀνδρεῖα μαθήματα κατὰ τὸν σὸν λόγον.

ΑΛΚ. Πῶς δ᾿ οὔ;

ΣΩ. Οὐκ ἄρα ἔν γε τούτοις ἐστὶν ὁμόνοια γυναιξὶ πρὸς ἄνδρας.

ΑΛΚ. Οὔ.

ΣΩ. Οὐδ᾿ ἄρα φιλία, εἴπερ ἡ φιλία ὁμόνοια ἦν.

ΑΛΚ. Οὐ φαίνεται.

ΣΩ. Ἧι ἄρα αἱ γυναῖκες τὰ αὑτῶν πράττουσιν, οὐ φιλοῦνται ὑπὸ τῶν ἀνδρῶν.

ΑΛΚ. Οὐκ ἔοικεν.

ΣΩ. Οὐδ᾿ ἄρα οἱ ἄνδρες ὑπὸ τῶν γυναικῶν, ᾗ τὰ αὑτῶν.

ΑΛΚ. Οὔ.

Women working with wool, scenes on an Attic black-figure lekythos of the third quarter of the VI century B.C. in the Metropolitan Museum, New York. Right, spinning; left, folding woven cloth. F. Chamoux, La civilisation grecque, Paris, 1963, fig. 143.
Black figure Lekythos, MET

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)

The Design of Penelope’s Web

In the Iliad, Helen appears weaving a pharos that depicts “The many struggles of the horse-taming Trojans and the bronze-girded Achaeans / All the things they had suffered for her at Ares’ hands.” Τρώων θ’ ἱπποδάμων καὶ ᾿Αχαιῶν χαλκοχιτώνων, οὕς ἑθεν εἵνεκ’ ἔπασχον ὑπ’ ῎Αρηος παλαμάων, 3.121-128). And elsewhere she seems keenly aware that her story will be the subject of future songs (ὡς καὶ ὀπίσσω / ἀνθρώποισι πελώμεθ’ ἀοίδιμοι ἐσσομένοισι, 6.537-538).

Andromache, too, in the Iliad, weaves a garment whose imagery is described, even if briefly (22.437-441):

“So she spoke in mourning—but Hektor’s wife did not yet know anything.
For no one had come to her as a trusty messenger
To announce that her husband remained outside of the gates.
But she was weaving in the innermost part of her high-roofed home,
A double-folded raiment, on which she embroidered delicate flowers.”

῝Ως ἔφατο κλαίουσ’, ἄλοχος δ’ οὔ πώ τι πέπυστο
῞Εκτορος· οὐ γάρ οἵ τις ἐτήτυμος ἄγγελος ἐλθὼν
ἤγγειλ’ ὅττί ῥά οἱ πόσις ἔκτοθι μίμνε πυλάων,
ἀλλ’ ἥ γ’ ἱστὸν ὕφαινε μυχῷ δόμου ὑψηλοῖο
δίπλακα πορφυρέην, ἐν δὲ θρόνα ποικίλ’ ἔπασσε.

There is weaving throughout the Odyssey. Helen gives Telemachus a garment to give to his future wife (Od. 15.123-130). Calypso (5.62) and Circe (10.222) also weave while singing (what songs might they sing?). Nausicaa leaves a robe for Odysseus (6.214) which Arete recognizes because she made it (7.234-235). We even hear that the Naiads who live on the shore in Ithaca weave “sea-purple garments, wondrous to see” (φάρε’ ὑφαίνουσιν ἁλιπόρφυρα, θαῦμα ἰδέσθαι, 13.108).

But nowhere in the Odyssey is the imagery on any of these garments described. This might be less confounding if the works were not so prized, if those in the Iliad were not clearly described as bearing decoration and if an ancient scholar had not recognized in Helen’s weaving an embedded metaphor for Homer’s own art, which he calls “a worthy archetype for his own poetry” (ἀξιόχρεων ἀρχέτυπον ἀνέπλασεν ὁ ποιητὴς τῆς ἰδίας ποιήσεως, Schol. bT ad Il. 3.126-127)

The most famous woven garment in the Odyssey is Penelope’s delaying trick which she weaves and unweaves over nearly four years to avoid committing to a marriage. The famous stratagem is mentioned three times. At no time is any image on the cloth mentioned—in its final appearance, it is described as “shining like the sun or the moon”, but that is likely because it has just been cleaned. Here are the three passages:

Continue reading “The Design of Penelope’s Web”