Women Writing for Men: Nausicaa Homer and the Odyssey

About the Odyssey credited to Homer but possibly written by a woman, evidence for the theory that it was the work of a female poet.

She Wrote It--He Got the Credit

Nausicaa is one of the female characters in the Odyssey. The English satirist Samuel Butler believed that a woman wrote the epic poem and named her the author. His theory, 1st introduced in literary journals in the 1890s, was systematically expounded in The Authoress of the Odyssey.

After years of benign neglect by scholars, this theory became the subject of lively speculation. In 1970 a literary symposium at the University of San Francisco was delighted by Professor Louise George Clubb's remarks that the Odyssey is a "woman's book"; "Penelope is very strong, very much a female heroine." In her husband's 20-year absence, she had to "manage the property, fend off a horde of suitors, and raise a son, Telemachus." Epigrammatically, Dr. Clubb added, "The Iliad is a story about what men do. The Odyssey is the sort of thing women think men do when they go away from home."

Richard Bentley, the 18th-century critic, commented that the "Iliad was written for men, and the Odyssey for women"--that is, from a woman's point of view. Samuel Butler sees herein a prima facie case for feminine authorship--he says that never in the history of literature has a man written a masterpiece for women.

Butler is struck by the author's realistic portrayal of women, but considers the male characters mechanical and "hopelessly wrong." Ulysses, Alcinous, Menelaus, and Nestor all seem to be alike. Women are never laughed at, and are generally given preferential treatment. As Colonel Mure comments in Language and Literature of Ancient Greece, "the women engross the chief share of the small stock of common sense allotted to the community."

We do not find, in the Odyssey, the Iliad's detailed description of competitive games. Instead, there is a "preponderance of female interest" as seen in the faithful depiction of domestic life. The hand of a feminine author can perhaps be seen in the action of Telemachus' old nurse Euryclea: "She took his shirt from him, folded it carefully up, and hung it on a peg by his bed."

The author makes mistakes which a man would not fall into, such as placing a rudder at both ends of the ship, or "thinking that dry and well-seasoned timber can be cut from a growing tree." In the Iliad, women are few in number and importance, and they are under the protection of men. Women of the Odyssey direct, counsel, and protect men. Minerva is guide to Ulysses and Telemachus; Andromeda rescues Perseus. Helen is master in the house of Menelaus, of whom she can say little in praise. Queen Arete counts for more than King Alcinous; thus Nausicaa advises Ulysses: "Never mind my father but go up to my mother . . ."

Consider the scene between Ulysses and the ghost of his mother, Anticlea, in which he is told to recount his adventures to his wife. Wives are so much more important than husbands that, in his farewell speech to the Phaeacians, Ulysses expresses the hope that husbands will continue to please their wives and children--instead of vice versa.

To find out about the author, Butler traces many kinds of clues in the Odyssey. The entire locale is drawn from Sicily, the one place known to the author. She is a young unmarried woman--who else would make Ulysses say that a man can never be really happy away from his father and mother? She was of a wealthy family, for she must have had abundant leisure in order to complete her work. In fact, she was Nausicaa, a member of the household of King Alcinous and his wife Arete, who represent the author's own family.

So quite possibly Homer--at least the Homer of the Odyssey--was a woman, one of the many female poets of ancient Greece.

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