Daughters of Zeus: Opportunism, Chaos and Trauma

By Tom Hallett


Is there a theme of immoral opportunism to Homer’s female characters? This essay argues that there in fact is. I also argue that the wider context surrounding this opportunism should be acknowledged before we judge their actions. The Iliad and Odyssey describe a world where might makes right. Helen, the captured women of Achilles and Circe all act opportunistically in response to their lives being disrupted by the mighty. Aphrodite betrays Hephaestus for a chance to sleep with war. Athena hints that even Penelope, as consistent as her character is, will not hold out for mighty Odysseus forever. In light of the world inhabited by these characters, can they be blamed for their behaviour by a modern audience?

Might is important in the world of Homer, as it is a violent one. In the Odyssey the otherwise heroic Odysseus describes matter of factly to his Phaeacian hosts: “The wind drove me out of Ilium on to Ismarus, the Cicones’ stronghold. There I sacked the city, killed the men, but as for the wives and plunder, that rich haul we dragged away from the place–we shared it round” (The Odyssey, Book IX, lines 45 – 49). Homer does not feel the need to either defend the morality of raiding, plunder and enslavement or join in their condemnation. Instead he does neither. They seem to be taken for granted by Homer and his audience, not the moral outrages they would be taken for today. The gods of Homer also reflect this dynamic of might makes right.

The gods impose themselves on man and each other by virtue of their strength: “Obey my orders, for fear the gods, however many Olympus holds, are powerless to protect you when I (Zeus) come to throttle you with my irresistible hands.” (The Iliad, Book 1, line 683). Man cannot oppose their will directly: “Doesn’t the son of Tydeus know, down deep, the man who fights the gods does not live long?” (The Iliad, Book V line 465). Christopher Cataldi spoke to this dynamic in his own Colloquium: “In so far as mortal powers conform to the actuating principle of Zeus’ divine will, or an uncontested will of another god, then they enjoy all the benefits of grace and honor; if not, then falsehood, plague, weakness, disgrace and ignominy proceed.” (OGB Blog, The Iliad, Book 1 Analysis: Rage against the will of Zeus). Homer’s female characters are no less dependent on harmony with the wills of the mighty. They frequently find themselves thrown into chaos by them.

Helen finds her life turned upside down not just by Paris’ seduction, but again by the sack of Troy. After returning to Sparta she tells Menelaus and Telemachus of Trojan soldiers slain by Odysseus: “The rest of the Trojan women shrilled with grief. Not I: my heart leapt up– my heart had changed by now– I yearned to sail back home again…” (The Odyssey, Book IV line 291). No matter how regretful or homesick Helen really was at this moment, how likely is it that her ‘heart leapt up’ upon hearing the grieving of Trojan women? These are women Helen would surely have become familiar with. Would she really have had no empathy for their grief? Homer does not explicitly describe Helen as cold or in some way psychopathic. Whatever the truth behind her claims, her dialogue certainly helps to harmonize her with her victorious husband.

The captured women of Achilles have a similar ‘leaping of the heart’: “… the women he and Patroclus carried off as captives caught the grief in their hearts and keened and wailed, out of the tents they ran to ring the great Achilles, …” (The Iliad, Book XVIII line 31). One would assume that at least some of these women grieved for their former husbands and the loss of their own freedom. Now however they seem to have forgotten all this allowing for sympathy with their captor. This too would harmonize the slave girls with mighty Achilles. Homer doesn’t describe the women as effecting a conscious stratagem or trick. Instead they simply ‘caught the grief in their hearts’.

Circe however does employ some conscious trickery. Tricking Odysseus’ crew into a feast where she turns them into swine. However, she too has a change of heart, which appears to be very genuine. She attempts to turn Odysseus into a pig, with a hint of contempt: “Now,’ she cried, ‘off to your sty, you swine, and wallow with your friends!” (The Odyssey Book X line 355). ” Instead Circe gets a surprise, finding Odysseus immune to her potion. Now her contempt vanishes: “Never has any other man withstood my potion, never, once it’s past his lips and he has drunk it down. You have a mind in you no magic can enchant! … Come, sheath your sword, let’s go to bed together … we’ll breed deep trust between us.” (The Odyssey Book X line 363) While very sudden and dramatic Circes’ change of heart is described as genuine. She is no longer contemptuous of Odysseus and his crew: “they knew me at once and each man grasped my hands and a painful longing for tears overcame us all, a terrible sobbing echoed through the house . . . The goddess herself was moved and, standing by me, warmly urged me on–a lustrous goddess now” (The Odyssey Book X line 438). After feasting Odysseus’ crew, Circe advises Odysseus on the next stage of his Odyssey. She does this without being asked by any higher power. Her last deed is to gift Odysseus’ crew the sacrificial animals they need to speak to the seer Tierses in the underworld.

Odysseus’ wife, Penelope, on the other hand is a much more consistent female character. She holds out for Odysseus for many years, postponing a new marriage and tries to protect her son. Agamemnon praises her loyalty: “She’s much too steady, her feelings run too deep” (The Odyssey, Book XI line 504). Homer refers to her as ‘self-possessed’ as he does Odysseus himself. However despite all this Athena warns Telemachus that given enough time Penelope will forget about her former husband and move on: “You know how the heart of a woman always works: she likes to build the wealth of her new groom—of the sons she bore, of her dear, departed husband, not a memory of the dead, no questions asked.” (The Odyssey, Book XV line 16). Penelope’s steadiness has its limits.

What then defines the limit? Will the passage of time allow Penelope to have ‘not a memory of the dead, no questions asked’? Is time what allowed Helen to distance herself from the tragedy experienced by her Trojan contemporaries? Or of Achilles’ war brides to forget their own slain husbands? Circe didn’t need much time to go from contemptuous to ‘lustrous’. Circe’s disposition changed after she failed to enchant Odysseus. Penelope had this in common with Circe. Odysseus was the mightiest man either of them had come across.

Speaking of her husband Penelope exclaims in prayer “Never let me warm the heart of a weaker man!” (The Odyssey, Book XX line 92). None of Penelope’s’ suitors can match the mighty Odysseus. Helen had the victories Menelaus in place of Paris, the captive women of Achilles had the greatest warrior of the Achaeans in place of their former husbands but all Penelope had was young and untested suitors, not heroes of the Trojan war like famed Odysseus.

Menelaus, Achilles and Odysseus are all mighty and successful men compared to the defeated Paris, the husbands killed by Achilles or the suitors of Penelope. This contrast of might is reflected in a similar contrast between Ares and Hephaestus: “Her (Aphrodite’s) heart raced with joy to sleep with War” (Odyssey book VIII line 335). “Just because I (Hephaestus) am crippled, Zeus’s daughter Aphrodite will always spurn me and love that devastating Ares, just because of his striking looks and racer’s legs while I am a weakling, lame from birth, and who’s to blame?” (Odyssey book VIII lines 350 – 353).

Homer’s is a violent world where might makes right, where your whole life can be uprooted in a moment’s notice. Human relationships are deeply psychological and emotional, their dissolution can be catastrophically traumatic. Can these characters be blamed for ‘forgetting’ or at least ‘compartmentalizing’ their previous relationships or dispositions when they find them suddenly turned upside down? We live today in a remarkably peaceful and stable world. We might not appreciate the extent to which global economic and political institutions, or the threat of nuclear weapons and American aircraft carriers underly our assumptions about human nature, both male and female.

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Daughters of Zeus: Opportunism, Chaos and Trauma

By Scott Hambrick, Reader-In-Chief


Recently, I’ve had a few dust-ups with folks that don’t understand how VERY basic logic can be used to test for rhetoric and other nonsense.  I’ve also had a number of very kind emails from readers who are interested in learning more about how we might do that.  I’ve read a great deal on the subject, but it’s been a while, so writing a quick primer on the subject for ya’ll would help me a great deal as well.  Here it is.

Firstly, I’m mostly Aristotelian. People that aren’t mostly Aristotelian are bed-wetters. Lots of clownery has been introduced in the world of logic since him, and some little good has been done too. We’ll get to some of that as well. But, I’ll be drawing mostly on Aristotle, the father of reason. Aristotle believed that his senses plus his rationality could be trusted to get at The Truth.  Not everyone believes this. I do. I also believe all instrumentation is a rational way to increase the resolution and/or sensitivity of our own senses. I don’t think Aristotle would reject the thermometer, the microscope, the electron microscope, or the Large Hadron Collider, as means of gathering sense data.  I don’t either.

Aristotle believed that his senses and his rationality were enough for him to undertake a deep study and to develop a better understanding of the world around him.  As such, he starts with his senses and his mind. That’s where we’ll start.

In thought, as in all things, there must be a beginning.  This is an axiom. It’s a self-evident assumption that requires no additional proof.  Stuff has to have a beginning. If there is no beginning there is always another pre-condition, another input, another argument, something lower down, earlier, more primary.  We never get to bedrock. This is the problem of Infinite Regress. This violates our axiom. If we assume there is no beginning we get the Infinite Regress paradox. That can’t be, reality can’t be paradoxical, it must not contradict itself. IF there is a beginning, there’s no Infinite Regress paradox. That lets us know we are on the right track.  Where do we start then? Where do we begin when we think?

Aristotle tells us in his book IV of “Metaphysics” that we must start with the fact that stuff “is.” The fact that things exists tells us something.  We need to start with the stuff that is true of everything that is.  It’s the stuff that is true of all things that are. It’s Being qua Being.  (“Qua” means “In so far as” or “as it is”.) These things that are true of everything are the primary principles that everything follows from. They are at the beginning.  Everything else follows. That’s what the beginning is, it’s the thing everything follows from. Aristotle tells us that these laws are “Prior” to everything, and all that follows is “Posterior.”  If we start with anything more complex or “posterior” to this stuff, we’ll be in trouble.

Aristotle goes to great lengths to show us that being exists.  He even says in Book IV, part two of Metaphysics that even “non-being is non-being.”  Being is the thing common to all things, and the study of this is the study of the attributes of the state of being qua being. This is Metaphysics. Metaphysics is the study of what we can know from the very fact that something exists. If your Metaphysics is wrong everything else posterior to that will be wrong.

Because everything has being, insofar as they “be,” they are the same.  This makes the study of this stuff universal and primary.

Uncle Ari says, “…..the attempts of some who discuss the terms on which truth should be accepted, are due to a want of training in logic; for they should know these things already when they come to a special study, and not be inquiring into them while they are pursuing it. — Evidently then the philosopher, who is studying the nature of all substance, must inquire also in the principles of deduction.”  Further, “he whose subject is being qua being must be able to state most certain principles of all things.” (Metaphysics Book IV part 2)

In other words, when it’s time to evaluate the truth of something we need to already know the “most certain principles of all things” and be able to build arguments from them.

Luckily these most certain of principles are self-evident. They are axiomatic. Bertrand Russell named these laws before World War I, but Aristotle told us what they were in the 360’s BC.  Russell named them:

  1. The law of Identity (LOID)
  2. The law of Non-Contradiction (LONCON)
  3. The law of the excluded middle (LOTEM)

I’ll cover these in turn, very, very soon.

Originally posted at scotthambrick.com



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