Women of Substance in Homeric Epic

book cover


Ahead of the publication of her new book on women in Homeric epic, Dr Lilah Grace Canevaro talks about the feminist revolution in readings and rewritings of Homer, and about the secret female codes which we are only now starting to decipher.


Men carve meaning into women’s faces; messages addressed to other men. In Achilles’ compound, the message had been: Look at her. My prize awarded by the army, proof that I am what I’ve always claimed to be: the greatest of the Greeks. Here, in Agamemnon’s compound, it was: Look at her, Achilles’ prize. I took her away from him just as I can take your prize away from you. I can take everything you have.

Pat Barker, The Silence of the Girls


Pat Barker’s new novel The Silence of the Girls has made quite a splash on the literary scene. (For me, it has come close to home: the author spoke at the Edinburgh Book Festival this summer, and my PhD supervisor Prof. Barbara Graziosi reviewed the book for The Times Literary Supplement.) In the book, Barker tells the story of Briseis: once queen of Lyrnessus, then slave of Achilles, later of Agamemnon, then back to Achilles; torn from her home to be passed around as a prize. The book’s blurb urges us to ‘Discover the greatest Greek myth of all – retold by the witness history forgot’. The retelling is a brutal one, as Barker bombards the reader with all the horrors of Homeric warfare. As well as the rats, disease and general filth, common to the whole Greek horde in its decade-old camp, there is a further danger specific to the women – the men. Briseis wonders about us, about those who will hear the story of the Trojan War, about future readers of the Iliad:

What will they make of us, the people of those unimaginably distant times? One thing I do know: they won’t want the brutal reality of conquest and slavery. They won’t want to be told about the massacres of men and boys, the enslavement of women and girls. They won’t want to know we were living in a rape camp.

The Silence of the Girls is one of a wave of novels giving a ‘herstory’ angle on Greek epic: from Margaret Atwood’s Penelopiad to Emily Hauser’s For the Most Beautiful and Madeline Miller’s Circe, there is no shortage of female perspectives on the Homeric poems. Combine this with Caroline Alexander’s translation of the Iliad and Emily Wilson’s of the Odyssey, each the first English translation of their poem to be written by a woman, and we have a real feminist revolution in our mainstream engagement with Homer. The tables have well and truly turned.

What fascinates me is that the radical change is in the reception of Homeric epic, not Homeric epic itself. The poetry hasn’t changed – only the way we look at it. It’s not Homer’s fault that his poetry is rarely translated by women. It’s not Homer’s fault that Classics has historically been a male-dominated province. It’s not Homer’s fault that groups like the Women’s Classical Caucus still have a long, arduous road ahead of them. Books like The Silence of the Girls give voice to silenced women, women constrained by a patriarchal society and a masculine epic idiom of action. They prove so compelling because we want to hear these ‘alternative’ stories, the stories the classical tradition has suppressed for so long. Because there is a critical mass of people listening for the woman’s voice.

But are they really ‘revisionist’ readings? Or are they, rather, bringing out something that is already there in the Homeric poems? In my book Women of Substance in Homeric Epic: Objects, Gender, Agency, I show that the ostensible masculinity of the Iliad belies a sensitivity to the female viewpoint, which is further developed in the Odyssey. Homer is not uninterested in his female characters – we just need to find the right tools to see it.

The portrayal of women in Greek epic is firmly grounded in commodification. Through social processes as diverse as marriage and the spoils of warfare, the women of Greek epic are caught up in a male-controlled network of exchange. In fact, the first woman is given to mankind as part of an exchange of tricks between Zeus and Prometheus (Theogony 534–601, Works and Days 42–105) – and indeed Pandora’s very name, ‘All-Gift’, connects her with gift giving (Works and Days 80–2). When Agamemnon tries to appease Achilles’ wrath with material offerings in the embassy of Iliad 19, the list runs seamlessly from metal to livestock to women, with little differentiation between them:

They brought seven tripods from the hut, those which he had promised,

and twenty shining cauldrons, and twelve horses.

And they brought straightaway seven women whose work was blameless,

and the eighth was fair-cheeked Briseis.

Iliad 19.243–6

Cue Pat Barker. Homeric women even have prices put on them: we are told, for example, that Eurycleia is bought by Odysseus’ father Laertes for the price of twenty oxen (Od.1.431). In the giving of dowries and bridewealth, women’s worth becomes quantified, measured against or along with material goods – and that is only the more palatable side of commodification. In this sense women become objects which exist for the purpose of, or find their identity in, exchange. And yet, as Deborah Lyons writes in her 2012 book Dangerous Gifts: ‘As much as men may define women as exchange objects, there is always the possibility that women will find a way to express their own agency’. In the Iliad 19 passage, the women are prized for their ‘work’, which in Homeric epic implies more often than not the production of woven objects. And restricted to their domestic sphere, they are left to their own devices in a domain in which objects proliferate. Homeric women use such objects to express and negotiate their agency: a subversion of the male viewpoint, as women enact their agency through the very form they themselves are thought by their men to embody.

So telling the story from the perspective of a female character, who is key to the narrative but relatively minor in her Homeric setting, is one way to give voice to the women of Greek epic. Another way, I argue, is to consider these women from a different angle – through the objects they use to negotiate their agency, to express themselves, and to contribute in their own way to the action. One of the central themes of my book is communication: the understanding that objects are used for communication when more conventional channels are unavailable – and particularly by women as characters in Homeric society’s shadows.

Sadie Plant in her 1997 book Zeros + Ones traces female involvement in technology from Ada Lovelace and her thinking machines to the Bomb Girls or the woman at the telephone switch-board. She sees the development of technology as one continuous process whose common denominator is weaving: ‘The yarn is neither metaphorical nor literal, but quite simply material, a gathering of threads which twist and turn through the history of computing, technology, the sciences and arts.’ Women can be liberated by technology, much of which is concerned with communication. Plant writes: ‘They “signal to each other”, whispering in their own strange codes, ciphers beyond his linguistic powers, traveling on grapevines which sidestep centralised modes of communication with their own lateral connections and informal channels.’ Similarly Jean Baudrillard in Cool Memories: ‘They are all involved together in secret discussions. Women weave amongst themselves a collusive web of seduction.’ Yet these threads can be traced back to before the Jacquard loom, before wires and software – to woven objects in Homeric epic. These informal channels and secret discussions are already embedded in archaic Greek poetry.

Homeric women too use technology for autonomy, for a negotiation of agency within gender constraints. Luce Irigaray expresses the concern: ‘what if these “commodities” refused to go to market? What if they maintained “another” kind of commerce, among themselves?’ Through their ‘work’, Homer’s supposedly ‘commodified’ female characters create their own kind of commerce, and their own channels of communication. Barker’s Briseis tells us that ‘Men carve meaning into women’s faces; messages addressed to other men’ – but what my book shows is that there are just as many messages being exchanged between women. And what is even more interesting is that, whilst Briseis can interpret the men’s messages (‘the message had been…’), in the Homeric poems it is often the case that the female communicative code cannot be interpreted by the men. These really are secret discussions.

Homeric women are not only objectified but are also well-versed users of objects. This is something that Homer portrays clearly, that Odysseus understands—but that has often escaped many other men, from Odysseus’ alter ego Aethon in Odyssey 19 to modern experts on Homeric epic. The time is definitely ripe for the feminist wave to make something of this.

By focusing on the objects that facilitate this communication and through which messages are transmitted, what is revealed is a complex network of communications sent and received, understood and misunderstood; multi-layered messages encoded and decoded, missives caught by some characters and missed by others. This gives us a new insight into the landscape of Homeric society, allowing us to map not only male honour codes and gift exchange between elite men but also the female codes and communiqués operating in parallel. Further, the complexity of this composite picture is testament to the nuance, sensitivity, and even, something underplayed in scholarship, femininity of the Homeric tradition.

In the eighteenth century, Bentley claimed that the Iliad was written for men, the Odyssey for women. Samuel Butler’s response to this in the nineteenth century was to argue that the Odyssey ‘was written for anyone who would listen to it. What Bentley meant was that in the Odyssey things were looked at from a woman’s point of view rather than a man’s.’ Butler reshapes Bentley’s claim from one about audience to one about authorship. This debate reflects, firstly, on the difference in terms of female presence between the Homeric poems, and, secondly, on the appeal of Homeric poetry, in particular the Odyssey, for women. This is, of course, the far end of the spectrum, as Butler controversially argued for female authorship of the Odyssey, and his views have been universally discredited. Yet whilst we may dismiss Butler’s conclusions, the debate itself deserves some consideration. In terms of audience, I hope that my book might contribute to the current wave of foregrounding Homeric poetry for women; and in terms of authorship, although we do not need to posit an ‘authoress’, we can certainly see a sensitivity to the female viewpoint.


In the introductory note to her Odyssey, Emily Wilson reflects on the status of the female translator: ‘The gendered metaphor of the “faithful” translation, whose worth is always secondary to that of a male-authored original, acquires a particular edge in the context of a translation by a woman of The Odyssey, a poem that is deeply invested in female fidelity and male dominance.’ The status of the female academic, too, continues to be something for reflection. We are at a turning point in the gendering of Homeric studies – and it is my hope that my exploration of gender, agency, and their material manifestations can give us a new way in to these poems, and these debates.

Lilah Grace Canevaro


Lilah Grace’s book, Women of Substance in Homeric Epic: Objects, Gender, Agency, will be released on 20th September 2018, published by Oxford University Press.


4 thoughts on “Women of Substance in Homeric Epic

  1. Reblogged this on Classical Fix and commented:
    ‘Ahead of the publication of her new book on women in Homeric epic, Dr Lilah Grace Canevaro talks about the feminist revolution in readings and rewritings of Homer, and about the secret female codes which we are only now starting to decipher‘.

    This is a brilliant article! Strongly recommend you give it a read.



  2. Words represent mental constructs of symbolic meaning. Words which represent objects create meaning beyond that of the original objects themselves. Meaning creates value and teaches new forms of desire. Culture develops these symbolic meanings and the signifiers depend on who makes up the coding. Meaning has to be agreed upon collectively which gives power to the codifiers and value to the codified. Human beings also become objects of value and desire within the symbolic order and become commodified (slaves, women) representing the power of their possessors. Objectified people become marginalised social groups who develop their own symbolic orders from within. These recodifications remain invisible on the surface but their networks of meaning become the subcultural symbolism that holds human society together. The dynamics between these symbolic orders were fully formed long before writing was invented and are intricately entwined even in the earliest surviving literature.


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