Achilles in women’s clothing: Tzetzes’s allegorical interpretation

Achilles discovered in women's clothing on Skyros

“For the most powerful and most Homeric queen” — so John Tzetzes in twelfth-century Byzantium dedicated a work to “Lady Irene of the Germans.” The description “most powerful and most Homeric” suggests enormous, terrible violence against men. Yet in Greek, which was the language of Byzantine intellectuals, Irene means “peace.” Tzetzes re-interpreted Homer to present strong, independent women rejecting the gender structure of violence against men and insisting that men’s lives matter.

Homer’s Iliad is commonly read with the understanding that men’s lives don’t matter. The Iliad describes horrendous violence against men:

Screams of men and cries of triumph breaking in one breath,
fighters killing, fighters killed, and the ground streamed blood.

the savage work went on, Achaeans and Trojans
mauling each other there like wolves, leaping,
hurtling into each other, man throttling man.

That day ranks of Trojans, ranks of Achaean fighters
sprawled there side-by-side, facedown in the dust. [1]

In the man-slaughtering combat, a spear pieced a man’s temple and his brains splattered out within his helmet. The violence against men is both utterly conventional and grotesquely brutal in its bodily specificity:

a spearhead punched his gullet under the chin
and the bronze point went ripping through his nape

the spearhead punched his back between the shoulders,
gouging his flesh and jutting out through his ribs

he let fly
with a bronze-tipped arrow, hitting his right buttock
up under the pelvic bone so the lance pierced the bladder.
He sank on the spot, hunched in his dear companion’s arms,
gasping out his life as he writhed along the ground
like an earthworm stretched out in death, blood pooling,
soaking the earth dark red.

Whether as leaders or followers in business or politics, men lean in to do violence against men:

there man killed man in the pell-mell clash of battle

his turn next, Menelaus
rose with a bronze lance and a prayer to Father Zeus
and lunging out at Euphorbus just dropping back,
pieced the pit of his throat — leaning into it hard,
his whole arm’s weight in the stroke to drive it home
and the point went slicing through his tender neck.

Violence against men in the Iliad tends to be understood without gender-specific understanding of man. In the U.S. today, about four times as many men suffer violent deaths as do women. That reality attracts no more public concern than pervasive discrimination against men in criminal justice systems, in family courts, and in reproductive rights. Men’s lives don’t matter in gynocentric society, nor in dominant readings of the Iliad.

Under the patronage of Lady Irene of the Germans, John Tzetzes allegorized the Homeric matter of the Trojan War. Lady Irene was Queen of the Byzantine Empire. She had been Bertha von Sulzbach, sister-in-law of Conrad III, King of Germany. In 1142, with Roger II of Sicily threatening the Byzantine Empire, Manuel I Komnenos, the Byzantine Emperor’s son, was pressed into marriage with Bertha. The Byzantine objective for the marriage was to build a political alliance with the Germans. Bertha reportedly had “the natural trait of being unbending and opinionated.” Not surprisingly, Manuel I wasn’t passionately enthusiastic in his arranged marriage to Bertha. For a number years after their marriage, Manuel I didn’t sleep with her. Instead, he engaged in numerous affairs with other women. When his father died in 1143, Manuel I became the Byzantine Emperor. Lady Irene became the Queen of Byzantine. John Tzetzes probably allegorized the Homeric matter of the Trojan War for Irene shortly thereafter.[2]

Seeking to simplify for Irene the subtle Homeric treatment of men, Tzetzes recounted strong, independent women rejecting the dominant gender structure of violence against men. In ancient Greek myth, the goddess Thetis was the mother of Achilles. The prophet Chiron informed Thetis that Achilles would die in battle. In response, she dressed Achilles in women’s clothing and sent him to live among the daughters of King Lycomedes on the island of Skyros. Thetis thus rejected the life-depriving gender position of men for her son.[3]

Tzetzes emphasized that Thetis’s action represented maternal love prevailing over the central Homeric concerns of glory and honor. In Tzetzes’s account, Chiron’s prophecy was clear:

Thetis, my little daughter, hear your father’s words:
your son Achilles, should he stay in his fatherland,
will live many years, but without glory;
but, should he sail with the Greeks against the Trojans,
he will become glorious and radiant, but will die soon. [4]

Gynocentric society throughout history has favored the example of the Spartan mothers. They violently insisted that their sons fight to death. After hearing Chiron’s prophecy, Thetis treated her son much more humanely:

And so Thetis, learning this from her father {Chiron’s prophecy},
wanting him {Achillles} to have an inglorious but long life,
did not want to send him off on the expedition at all,
but held him back with her fervent maternal love,
which the myths call women’s clothing.

Achilles wasn’t disguised in women’s clothing. He was wrapped in a mother’s love for her son against a society that devalued men’s lives. Tzetzes called “nonsense” accounts of Achilles dressed in women’s clothing and working spindles. According to Tzetzes, those stories merely allegorized Thetis’s fervent, socially conscious maternal love for Achilles. If all mothers showed such love, societies would recognize that men’s lives matter.

Further valorizing strong, independent women committed to gender equality, Tzetzes added to the Homeric matter an account of Hiera and the Mysian women responsibly fighting alongside their men. When Odysseus, King Nireus, and other Greeks, with help from Achilles, attacked Mysia, they encounter the fierce resistant of a strong, gender-equitable society. Tzetzes explained:

there would have been a total rout of the Greeks
had not the king of the Mysians, Telephos himself,
the son of Heracles and Auge, the daughter of Aleos,
been wounded by Achilles with a spear in the thigh;
had not Nireus killed Telephos’s wife,
called Hiera, as she was fighting in a chariot,
a woman who surpassed Helen in beauty
as much as Helen surpassed all other women. [5]

Not only Queen Hiera, but also all the Mysian wives took up onerous responsibilities associated with being truly equal partners for their husbands:

the wives of the Mysians, standing upon scythed chariots,
were also waging battle,
with their queen taking the lead of them all;
when Nireus slew that woman, he brought the battle to an end.
Immediately lamentations and cries went up from the Mysians and the Greeks,
when they saw such ineffable beauty suddenly cut down

Many men deeply appreciate the physical beauty of women. Yet men value women for more than just their physical beauty. Men deeply appreciate women who act to lessen historical injustices against men such as the vastly gender-disproportionate exposure of men to bodily violence.

Unlike Helen of Troy, the Mysian queen Hiera had both outer and inner beauty. Helen directly contributed to horrendous violence against Greek and Trojan men. After doing so, she sat in a palace watching while those men brutally fought with each other. Hiera, in contrast, didn’t incite men into violence against men. Moreover, Hiera and the Mysian women joined Telephos and the Mysian men in fighting to defend their city. Ancient readers of the Iliad would have recognized that Homer omitted all mention of Hiera.[6] They would have recognized, as John Tzetzes did, that Hiera was far more beautiful than Helen.

Throughout history, few readers of Homer have been as perceptive, socially conscious, and courageous as John Tzetzes. Himself a victim of a woman’s devastating false accusation, Tzetzes understand that all but the most elite men are subordinate to women in gynocentric society. Rejecting go-along get-ahead collegiality and obeisance to entrenched interests, Tzetzes fearlessly criticized falseness and corruption:

Tzetzes is … always taking issue with something or somebody: fraudulent holy men, conniving clerics, fornicating bishops, ungrateful students, stingy and philistine patrons, even the emperor, and most of all fellow intellectuals, who are airily dismissed as “buffaloes,” or paranoically indentified as the “gang” (κουστωδία) out to get Tzetzes. Even ancient authors are harangued like silly schoolboys. [7]

Most importantly, Tzetzes brought ancient texts to life in his own time:

in his cultural surroundings the ancient text is not just something to be explained but also ready source material for something new. … Most criteria used in the scholarly interpretation of classical texts today are based on the perception that the ancient text is far away and not really “ours.” History, for instance, or form are more easily discerned from afar. Byzantine writers of the twelfth century did not simply take the opposite view. They, too, knew that Homer had died a long time ago. But much more than we today, they felt that the gap could sometimes be bridged, and felt that the ancient material was still alive. [8]

In our time, lack of attention to Homer’s sophisticated marginalization of Hiera and Palamedes has deadened reading of the Iliad. Even more pernicious has been reading the Iliad as if men’s lives don’t matter. John Tzetzes provided Queen Irene with a Homeric interpretation in which strong, independent women affirm that men’s lives matter. Tzetzes’s work should also instruct us.

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[1] Homer, Iliad, 4.521-2, 544-6, 629-30, from Greek trans. Fagles (1990). The book.line numbers are for Fagles’s English translation. They are close to the line numbers of the Greek text. The subsequent two sets of quotes are from id. 13.452-3, 5.45-6, 13.749-55 and 16.361, 17.50-5. The man getting his brain splattered out is from id. 20.451-4.

[2] The two short quotations in the first paragraph of the above post are from John Tzetzes, Allegories of the Iliad, Preface to Prolegomena, from Greek trans. Goldwyn & Kokkini (2015) p. 3. The biographical information in the above paragraph is from id., Introduction, and Annals of Niketas Choniates, from Greek trans. Magoulias (1984) p. 32. The short quote is from 2.1 of the latter.

[3] Thetis also rejected suppression of men’s sexuality. When Achilles was deeply despondent, Thetis compassionately urged him to have sex with women. That’s similar to ancient treatment for lovesickness.

[4] Tzetzes, Allegories of the Iliad, Prolegomena 446-50, trans. Goldwyn & Kokkini (2015) p. 35. Subsequent quotes will be cited by line number and translation page in id. The subsequent quote is from ll. 451-55, p. 35. Tzetzes’s declaring as “nonsense” stories of Achilles in women’s clothing among spindles (at the loom) is from l. 437, p. 35.

The title Allegories of the Iliad obscures that Tzetzes highlighted matter that Homer omitted from the Iliad. Given Homer’s poetic genius, such omissions should be considered as deliberate poetic choices. Tzetzes explicitly sought to teach his patron about Homer. Tzetzes thus took a different approach:

by simplifying and analyzing, he has made it possible for everyone to traverse the difficulties of Homer.

Morgan (1983) p. 175. On the need for Tzetzes to provide students with low-level instruction, Budelmann (2002) pp. 162-3.

[5] Tzetzes, Allegories of the Iliad, Prolegomena ll. 1005-12, p. 77. The subsequent quotes is from ll. 1017-22, p. 77.

[6] Philostratus, Heroicus 23.26 recognizes that Homer excluded Hiera from the Iliad.

[7] Magdalino (1993) pp. 402-3. Intellectuals can be extraordinarily vicious. A gang of intellectuals may well have sought to persecute Tzetzes. Id. p. 397 adds:

Tzetzes deplored the fact that the chains and fetters of bogus holy men were more highly prized in aristocratic chapels that “icons of saintly men by the hand of some first-rate artist.”

The quote is cited to one of Tzetzes’s letters.

[8] Budelmann (2002) p. 164. Tzetzes’s work was regarded as an important, distinctive contribution. His name was attached to his work, he was identified as a grammarian, and in Byzantium he was among those “whose commentaries were treated not just as reworkings of older material but as new works.” Id. p. 150. Yet Tzetzes wasn’t a popularizer who lacked respect for his source material:

He {Tzetzes} tried to understand ancient writers on what he took to be their own terms. Byzantine Hellenism had matured. It had come a long way from the demonization of Hellenism that prevailed in past centuries. A shift in values among the political and intellectual elites, and the rise of professional classicism, had conveyed scholars almost to the opposite extreme. Homer was idolized and one could have a mental life immersed in the classics.

Kaldellis (2007) p. 307. Tzetzes was a professional classicist with a commitment to enlightened public life.

[image] Fresco depicting Achilles between Diomedes and Odysseus at Skyros. Buried in first-century GC in House of the Dioscuri in Pompei. Thanks to Olivierw, Themadchopper, and Wikimedia Commons.


Budelmann, Felix. 2002. “Classical Commentary in Byzantium: John Tzetzes on Ancient Greek Literature.” Ch. 7 (pp. 141-69) in Gibson, Roy K., and Christina Shuttleworth Kraus. The classical commentary: histories, practices, theory. Leiden, the Netherlands: Brill.

Fagles, Robert, trans. and Bernard Knox, intro. and notes. 1990. The Iliad. New York, N.Y., U.S.A.: Viking.

Goldwyn, Adam J. and Dimitra Kokkini, trans. 2015. John Tzetzes. Allegories of the Iliad. Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library 37. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Kaldellis, Anthony. 2007. Hellenism in Byzantium: the transformations of Greek identity and the reception of the classical tradition. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Magdalino, Paul. 1993. The empire of Manuel I Komnenos, 1143-1180. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Magoulias, Harry J. trans. 1984. Nicetas Choniates. O city of Byzantium: annals of Niketas Choniatēs. Detroit: Wayne State University Press.

Morgan, Gareth. 1983. “Homer in Byzantium: John Tzetzes.” Pp. 165-88 in Rubino, Carl A., and Cynthia W. Shelmerdine, eds. Approaches to Homer. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Mabonagrain enthralled: Joie de la Cort shows folly of courtly love

Joie de la Cort

Joy, the love of the knight Mabonagrain from the time of his childhood, asked him to promise to give her a gift. She didn’t specify the gift. In modern Ovidian love literature, that’s called a “shit test.” Present-day teachers of love advise a response such as picking up a pebble, giving it to your girlfriend, and saying, “Here, a gift just for you.”

Mabonagrain lacked Ovidian love learning. Mired in ignorance like many men today, Mabonagrain disastrously failed his girlfriend Joy’s shit test:

Who could deny his love
a gift? No courteous lover
Could refuse her any pleasure:
He’s obliged to oblige her, without
Hesitation, as best as he can.
So I said I would, of course,
But she said she also wanted
My solemn oath. So I swore it
And offered anything else
She might like, but my oath was enough.
I’d promised, but didn’t know what [1]

Joy then declared the gift to be that he would not leave the garden in which she and he lived until a knight came and defeated him in battle. Being defeated in battle implied being seriously injured or perhaps killed. In short, Mabonagrain’s girlfriend had bound him to rules only slightly less oppressive for a man than the modern, legal institution of marriage.

Mabonagrain pretended to like his circumstances even while he despaired of them. He explained:

I’d never known what she wanted
But once I saw what the dearest
Creature in the world craved,
What choice did I have? I’ve done
My best to pretend I approve,
Since once she knew I didn’t
Her heart would never be mine
Again — and God knows nothing
Could make me let that happen.
Which is how my lady has kept me
Here, all these years [2]

The choice of standing up for his own inherent human dignity as a man apparently never occurred to Mabonagrain. Instead, he remained in the garden as his girlfriend Joy’s captive. He perpetuated his captivity by killing many knights in battle. Such violence against men often serves to sustain gynocentrism.

In Arthurian romance, violence against men is pervasive. In this particular Arthurian romance, Erec, seeking fame and devaluing his own lifespan, claimed “Joie de la Cort.” That literally means “Joy of the Court.” In Celtic languages, joy seems to have been associated with women and “bright, pure beings.”[3] Mabonagrain’s girlfriend Joy appeared to be a bright, pure being. She was actually a man-oppressing woman who caused many men to die fighting against Mabonagrain.

Erec prevailed against Joy and the perverse meaning of “Joie de la Cort.” He defeated Mabonagrain in battle and blew a horn that gave Mabonagrain his freedom. The joy of a man breaking free from oppressive gynocentric captivity — such a rare event! — pleased everyone at court. It created a new, liberating meaning for “Joie de la Cort.”

Violence against men wasn’t necessary to create the liberating meaning of “Joie de la Cort.” Mabonagrain should have been wise enough to pass his girlfriend’s shit test. He should have been bold enough to walk out from under her rule.[4] Emancipating men ultimately depends on freeing them from mental slavery. Liberating men’s minds will bring “Joie de la Cort” across centuries and will delight women and men far and wide. Let that horn sound!

every single
Soul was filled with such pleasure
They couldn’t stop singing
And dancing and making merry

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[1] Chrétien de Troyes, Erec et Enide {Erec and Enide} ll. 6058-76, from Old French trans. Raffel (1997) p. 191. The Old French text is available in Foerster (1909). I use line numbers from that edition. Many manuscripts of Chrétien de Troyes’s romances are available online.

Raffel’s phrase “courteous lover” highlights the relation of this text to the man-abasing ideology of courtly love. The underlying Old French:

N’est pas amis, qui antreset
Tot le buen s’amie ne fet
Sanz rien leissier et sanz feintise,
S’il onques puet an nule guise.

Erec et Enide ll. 6059-62, from Foerster (1909) p. 168. Scholars have failed to appreciate the extent to which Chrétien de Troyes mocked the new, oppressive ideology of courtly love.

Mabonagrain’s beloved isn’t literally called Joy in Chrétien de Troyes’s romance. King Evrain, however, says to Erec, “in just a moment Joy / Will arrive, and bring you sorrow.” Erec et Enide ll. 5825-6, trans. Raffel (1997) p. 184. The first person Erec met in the garden was Mabonagrain’s beloved. Meeting her prompted Erec’s fight with Mabonagrain. King Evrain expected Mabonagrain to kill Erec.

[2] Erec et Enide ll. 6079-86, trans. Raffel (1997) p. 192. The subsequent quote is from ll. 6166-9, trans. id. p. 194.

[3] Sayers (2007) pp. 18-21.

[4] Sterling-Hellenbrand celebrated as a “female space” the garden in which Mabonagrain’s girlfriend held him captive. Sterling-Hellenbrand (2001) p. 50. That “female space” became the site of many men’s deaths. Characterizing the garden as a “female space” is unfair to women. Not all women are like that.

Nightbringer’s entry on Mabonagrain’s lady displays the women-are-wonderful effect. That entry declares:

One is tempted to hypothesize that this damsel made her request of Mabonagrain because she wanted to keep him safe with her, secluded in their garden from the violence of the age.

The best cure for such failure in reasoning is reading some Old French fabliaux and learning to appreciate Boccaccio’s humanistic genius.

[image] Three court musicians, perhaps including Berthold Steinmar von Klingnau, who flourished in the second half of 13th century. Illustration from Codex Manesse, Zurich, made between 1305 and 1315. UB Heidelberg, Cod. Pal. germ. 848, fol. 308v. Thanks to University of Hiedelberg and Wikimedia Commons.


Foerster, Wendelin, ed. 1909. Chrétien de Troyes. Erec und Enide. Halle a.S.: M. Niemeyer.

Raffel, Burton, trans. 1997. Chrétien de Troyes. Erec and Enide. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Sayers, William. 2007. “La Joie de la Cort (Érec et Énide), Mabon, and Early Irish síd [peace; Otherworld].” Arthuriana. 17 (2): 10-27.

Sterling-Hellenbrand, Alexandra. 2001. Topographies of gender in middle high German Arthurian Romance. New York: Garland.

Homer effaced Palamedes to heroize word-twisting Odysseus

Palamedes before Agamemnon; history painting by Rembrandt, 1626

In the ancient Greek epic cycle, Palamedes was a culture hero. He invented writing and counting, systems of signalling across land and sea, important aspects of military organization, and leisure-time board games. A scholar observed:

The tradition of his {Palamedes’s} innocence and high-mindedness, combined with his inventive cleverness, made him a favourite character with {ancient Athenian} dramatists and rhetoricians of democratic or progressive sympathies [1]

Homer, however, excluded Palamedes from the Iliad and heroized the word-twisting Odysseus in the Odyssey. In literary history, the most vigorous response to Homer’s treatment of Palamedes came from the marginalized, twelfth-century Byzantine scholar John Tzetzes. Tzetzes work is vital for recovering the figure of Palamedes and broadening critical understanding of Homer and social justice.

Palamedes attempted to live as a man of integrity within dominant gynocentric ideology. When Helen and Paris illicitly fled from her husband to Troy, Palamedes supported the oath of Helen’s suitors to defend her husband’s marital rights.[2] Odysseus took a more critical position. He refused to engage in violence against men over issues centering on women. To avoid being impressed into the Trojan War, Odysseus pretended to be mentally deranged. He plowed his fields with an ox and a horse yoked together (symbolizing the folly of marriage) and sterilized his fields with salt (symbolizing social oppression of men’s sexuality). Palamedes, however, pretended to prepare to kill Odysseus’s son. Odysseus then intervened, revealing that he was actually mentally healthy and possessed a father’s deep love for his children. Palamedes thus foiled Odysseus’s attempt to avoid life-threatening military service.[3] In short, Palamedes acted against Odysseus in support of an oath made under gynocentrism.

Palamedes in many ways provided better leadership and counsel for the Greeks than Odysseus did. Interpreting a wolf attack more wisely than Odysseus did, Palamedes saved the Greek army from a devastating plague. Palamedes effectively managed the distribution of food when the Greek army was in short supply and beginning to quarrel among themselves about provisions. While Odysseus failed to procure additional corn for the army, Palamedes secured an abundant supply. Palamedes also invented the games of dice and checkers to avoid problems arising from soldiers’ idleness and to distract them from their hunger.[4]

Paralleling the tragedy of the Trojan War, a dispute over a woman helped Odysseus to have Palamedes killed. Achilles and Palamedes co-commanded a Greek army that sacked twenty-three cities allied with the Trojans. In ancient warfare, men tended to be killed, while women, who have long been considered more valuable than men, were taken captive. The Greeks had agreed to place captured women into a common pool of plundered wealth to be divided equitably among the Greek warriors. However, after sacking Briseis’s city of Lyrnissos and killing her husband, Achilles became impassioned for her. In violation of the Greek warriors’ sworn operational protocol, Achilles took Briseis for himself. That action generated outrage among the army. Exploiting that outrage, Odysseus falsely claimed that Palamedes was supporting Achilles’s bid for the rights of a king.[5]

Accounts of how Odysseus contrived to have Palamedes killed vary. The most plausible account involves socially constructed treason. Odysseus forced a Trojan prisoner to forge a letter from the Trojan king to Palamedes. The Trojan king described in the forged letter a large payment in gold to Palamedes for betraying the Greeks to the Trojans. Odysseus planted that forged letter and the gold reward in Palamedes’s tent. Odysseus also forged a conspiratorial reply letter from Palamedes. Odysseus then contrived to have the Trojan prisoner killed after being ordered to return to Troy. The forged letter from Palamedes to the Trojan king was discovered on the Trojan prisoner’s body. The Greek leaders believed Odysseus’s social construction of a capital crime. They ordered Palamedes to be executed for treason.

Palamedes as well as Achilles understood too late the underlying problem. Palamedes recognized that embracing the social construction of reality is a horrific substitute for seeking truth. Before being killed, Palamedes spoke only a single, telling sentence:

Farewell, glorious truth, for you have perished before me. [6]

When Achilles learned that Palamedes had been executed on a fabricated charge of treason, he grieved deeply. The grave injustice against Palamedes was commonly recognized to have resulted from Achilles’s betrayal of his fellow Greek men in favor of the woman Briseis. Regretting his action, Achilles gave up Briseis to the Greek commanders. He also angrily stopped fighting alongside of the Greeks. But Achilles’s rage didn’t stop the brutal violence against men of the Trojan War.

Palamedes probably recognized the folly of the Trojan War shortly before he was killed. In the Aeneid, the pretend Greek traitor Sinon in his cunning speech to the Trojans declared:

perhaps you’ve caught some rumor of Palamedes,
Belus’s son, and his shining fame that rings in song.
The Greeks charged him with treason, a trumped-up charge,
an innocent man, and just because he opposed the war
they put him to death, but once he’s robbed of the light
they mourn him sorely.

{fando aliquod si forte tuas pervenit ad auris
Belidae nomen Palamedis et incluta fama
gloria, quem falsa sub proditione Pelasgi
insontem infando indicio, quia bella vetabat,
demisere neci, nunc cassum lumine lugent} [7]

Popular belief that Palamedes eventually opposed the Trojan War would enhance Sinon’s credibility. Virgil, with his profound insight into men’s social position and behavior, probably didn’t fabricate the claim that Palamedes opposed the Trojan War.

Homer’s silence about Palamedes speaks eloquently about false accusations against men and the devaluation of men’s lives. In the ancient Greek epic cycle, Achilles raged about the death of Palamedes. Palamedes death resulted from a false accusation that the word-twisting Odysseus contrived. Homer, writing under gynocentrism, highlighted these issues through silence. The Iliad’s horrendous violence against men moves forward from both Agamemnon and Achilles valuing a woman above the lives of thousands of men. No heroic twisting of words is necessary to recognize that gross injustice. Yet few throughout history have been willing to speak of it.

Drawing upon his own personal experience, the marginalized, twelfth-century Byzantine scholar John Tzetzes directly addressed gynocentrically driven injustice against men. Tzetzes as a young man had been in the employment of Isaac Komnenos, governor (eparch) of Berroia. Isaac’s wife sexually harassed Tzetzes. When he rebuffed her advances, she apparently accused him of attempting to rape her.[8] Tzetzes inserted into his recounting of the Trojan epic an angry condemnation of Isaac, his wife, and men who willfully embrace being cuckolded:

the wretched one had welcomed me before hiring me, the murderous Isaac along with his greedy, petty wife, who feared my display of eloquent words. Foolishly indeed they honored all those who were bodily deformed, lepers, bald men, idiots, men deep in the muck, men who furtively obeyed Isaac’s wife in their marriage beds. But others refused, paying no heed to the cost of refusing. Although they were righteous, virtue didn’t pay. But justice will ultimately aid them. The adulterers in many beds will be destroyed, and so too the husbands with golden horns, who don’t see what they should do and have obeyed their deceitful, snake-like wives and who have been proud of their wives’ secret lovers. They are lepers, idiots, men deep in the muck. [9]

As a result of Isaac’s wife’s false accusation, Tzetzes was fired from his job, had his horse confiscated, and was forced to serve in the army as a foot-soldier. Tzetzes lamented:

the deceitful wife of Isaac caused me great hardship, but provided great favors to the lepers, who did everything that she desired. But I did not obey her. I was not seduced, even if it would have been to my own great profit. … my tongue, from the will of the deceitful wife of Isaac, lacks bread and is not singing [10]

Drawing upon biblical precedents, Tzetzes used lepers as an allegory for sinners. Like Palamedes, Tzetzes suffered great hardships from a false accusation and men’s favoritism toward women.[11]

Tzetzes vigorously praised Palamedes and identified with him. Tzetzes referred to the “wise Palamedes,” “intelligent and most inventive,” “that most wise Euboian most versed in generalship.” Tzetzes stressed Palamedes’s civic spirit and his proto-Christianity:

Palamedes himself, the most wise heart,
being gentle and sociable, and humble before everyone,
loving everyone like himself, was loved by all;
he was honored by everyone in many ways:
as a nobleman, a general, a doctor, a seer,
a builder of siege machines,
for having invented letters, tallying with pebbles, backgammon,
marshaling the army in the crush of war;
in short, he was an inventor of all sorts of useful things. [12]

Tzetzes described Palamedes as being too busy with public affairs to take time to wash his hair. Tzetzes poignantly claimed for himself a similar appearance to Palamedes, including dirty hair.

Relative to Palamedes, Tzetzes regarded Odysseus as a word-twister who scarcely made useful contributions to public life. Tzetzes described Odysseus as “pale and pot-bellied, with plain hair, a twister of meanings, bitter and long-nosed.” Odysseus was jealous of Palamedes’s wisdom. In “anger and wickedness” Odysseus hated Palamedes as his rival and an enemy. The “treacherous Odysseus” continually plotted death for Palamedes “in every way.” Alluding to his own costly virtue in resisting Isaac’s wife, Tzetzes suggested that Odysseus may have slept with the Trojan Queen Hecuba in order to escape from Troy after spying there. According to Tzetzes, Odysseus compared to Palamedes was:

like darkness against light, sickness against health,
a most foul-smelling excrement compared with an Indian perfume. [13]

Odysseus today is widely known as the hero of Homer’s Odyssey. Most persons today have never heard of Palamedes.[14]

Homer’s epics don’t merely celebrate gynocentrically driven heroes of violence against men. Ancient auditors and readers of Homer’s epics knew of Palamedes. They would have questioned the wisdom of Agamemnon and Achilles in devaluing men’s lives so much relative to the lives of a few women. They would have associated Odysseus’s guile with his false accusation of Palamedes and the unjust execution of Palamedes.[15] They would have considered embracing truth and rejecting gynocentrism. Humane civilization depends on sustaining that range of critical thinking.

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[1] Phillips (1957) p. 271. Clua (1985) provides a more recent review of Palamedes. Aitken & Maclean (not dated) noted the under-appreciated importance of Palamedes as a hero:

Of particular interest and worthy of further investigation is Protesilaos’s emphasis on the tales of Palamedes (Her. 21.2–8; 33.1–34.7; 43.11–16) and Philoktêtês (Her. 28.1–14), both of whom figure prominently in the Cypria and the Little Iliad.

[2] The oath is known as the oath of Tyndareus. Tyndareus was Helen’s step-father. Helen’s suitors, who included Odysseus, took the oath. Tyndareus administered it. On the oath of Tynareus, see e.g. Hesiod, Catalogue of Women, Berlin Papyri, No. 10560, ll. 89-100.

[3] For ancient sources for this story, Phillips (1957) p. 268, n. 8. This story is cited to the ancient Greek epic Cypria.

[4] Phillips (1957) pp. 269-71 reviews these and subsequent stories involving Palamedes and provides citations to ancient sources. Philostratus, Heroicus 33 covers many of them, as does Tzetzes, Allegories of the Iliad, Prologomena, ll. 977-1053, in Goldwyn & Kokkini (2015) pp. 74-9. All references to Allegories of the Iliad are cited by line and page in id., which provides the Greek text on facing pages. Tzetzes wrote Allegories of the Iliad in Constantinople, probably in the 1140s.

[5] See, e.g. Tzetzes, Allegories of the Iliad, Prologemena ll. 914-32, pp. 68-71. Briseis, daughter of Queen Briseus, is also called Hippodameia. On killing all the men and keeping women and children alive as captives as the gender structure of ancient war, see e.g. Iliad 4.237-40.

[6] Tzetzes, Allegories of the Iliad, Prolegomena l. 1112, and Philostratus, Heroicus 33.37.

[7] Virgil, Aeneid 2.81-85, from Latin trans. Fagles (2006) p. 77. The word vetabat is a form of the Latin verb vetō. Tribunes in the Roman Senate used the verb vetō to oppose objectionable measures. The English word veto is derived from it. Use of that word emphasizes that Palamedes’s opposition to the Trojan War was civic-minded, not narrowly personal.

[8] Magdalino (1993) pp. 348-9. The sources don’t make clear the specific charge of Isaac’s wife against Tzetzes. The context is sexual. Given the extremely broad meaning of rape today, I’ve called Tzetzes’s alleged offense rape for simplicity.

[9] John Tzetzes, Carmina Iliaca, Homerica ll. 142-56, from Greek my translation, drawing on Jacobs (1793) (Greek text), Braccini (2010) pp. 90-1 (Italian translation) and Untila (2014) (English translation). Other quotes from the Carmina Iliaca are done similarly. Untila (2014) is a rather rough English translation, but still a generous contribution to world culture.

[10] Tzetzes, Carmina Iliaca, Posthomerica 620-2, 754-5. On Tzetzes’s being deprived of his horse and forced to become a foot-soldier, id. ll. 284-8. Braccini (2010) p. 101 sees in Tzetzes’s scholia to Antehomerica l. 284 an allusion to his loss of his horse. Tzetzes, who grew up in a wealthy family, was thrown into impoverished circumstances:

In one letter, Tzetzes describes the three-storey tenement in which he lives, sandwiched between the children and pigs of the priest upstairs and the hay stored by a farmer on the ground floor.

Magdalino (1993) p. 121, citing Tzetzes, Epistles, ed. P.A.M. Leone (Leipzig, 1972) pp. 31-4.

[11] Braccini (2010) trivializes the sexual harassment of Tzetzes and obtusely deploys the gynocentric social construction of misogyny. Such an approach reflects dominant ideology. Nilsson (2004) and De Jesus (2016) point to greater appreciation for Tzetzes’s literary sophistication.

In addition to associating his appearance with that of Cato the Elder (Allegories, Prologomena l. 724, p. 55), Tzetzes displayed some of Cato’s silly traditionalism. Tzetzes declared that in the distant past wives didn’t sexually betray their husbands. Carmina Iliaca, Antehomerica 243-4. More importantly, Tzetzes, like Cato, appreciated men’s subordinate social position.

[12] Tzetzes, Allegories of the Iliad, Prolegomena ll. 968-76, p. 73. The previous short quotes are from id. l. 403, p. 31 (wise Palamedes); l. 872, p. 67 (intelligent and most inventive); l. 900, p. 69 (that most wise…). On the appearance and dirty hair of Palamedes and Tzetzes, ll. 724-30, p. 55.

[13] Tzetzes, Allegories of the Iliad, Prolegomena ll. 966-7, p. 73. The earlier short quotes in the above paragraph are from ll. 704-5, p. 53 (pale…); ll. 1054-5, p. 79 (anger and wickedness, plotting his death in every way); l. 1062, p. 81 (treacherous Odysseus). Tzetzes’s suggestion that Odysseus slept with Hecuba is in Carmina Iliaca, Posthomerica ll. 617-28.

Tzetzes’s view of Palamedes and Odysseus isn’t unprecedented. Philostratus in the third century provided in his Heroicus the account of a vinedresser:

in Ilion a farmer, such as I, who had been moved by Palamedes’ fate, and used to go to the beach on which the Achaeans are said to have thrown his body, and used to mourn him and offer the customary tomb offerings to his dust; he even chose the sweetest grapes and mixed him a bowl of wine, saying that he was having a drinking party with Palamedes when he rested from work. He also had a dog who was clever at fawning, and also at sneaking up on people; him he called Odysseus, and this {dog} Odysseus used to be beaten and reviled constantly for what had been done to Palamedes.

The spirit of Palamedes visited that farmer:

The farmer realized it was Palamedes — its appearance suggested a hero of great size, beauty and courage, not yet thirty years old — and embraced him with a smile, “I admire you, Palamedes, because I think you were the most sensible of men, and the most just competitor in the contest of wisdom, and because you suffered a pitiable death at the Achaeans’ hands because of Odysseus’ plots against you—if his tomb were here, I would have dug it up long ago, for he was foul and more evil than this dog, whom I keep under his name.”

Philostratus, Heroicus 21.3,6, from Greek trans. Rusten & König (2014) p. 167.

[14] Scholars today tend to support the verbal guile of Odysseus, the man of twists and turns. One result is to ignore fundamental aspects of reality such as men’s deaths. Consider this review of literature on the Trojan War:

authors used the epics in a paradigmatic way to support their own preconceived political ideology. … we hope to prove that there is no Trojan War, only Trojan Wars, and that this eternal renewability, enriched by the symbolic weight of past tradition, will no doubt result in its continued use as a source of inspiration for aesthetic innovation and celebration and critique of contemporary individuals and society at large for millennia to come.

Goldwyn (2015a) p. 12. Similarly, Goldwyn (2015b). Reducing public life to nothing but preconceived political ideology signals today’s dark age of ignorance, bigotry, and superstition.

[15] In his Apollonius of Tyna, Philostratus addressed this issue with a question to Achilles:

How is it that Homer does not know about Palamedes, or if he does excises him from his account of you all?’ ‘If Palamedes did not come to Troy,’ he replied, ‘Troy did not exist either. But since that wisest and most warlike of heroes was killed by a ruse of Odysseus, Homer does not bring him into his poem to avoid celebrating Odysseus’s crimes.’ Achilles then lamented Palamedes as the greatest, handsomest, noblest, and bravest man, who surpassed all in chastity and made many contributions to the Muses.

Philostratus, Apollonius of Tyna 4.16, from Greek trans. Jones (2005) p. 355. The translation of F.C. Conybeare (1912) for the Loeb Classical Library is available online.

[image] Palamedes before Agamemnon; a history painting by Rembrandt, 1626. Item B 564 in the Museum De Lakenhal, Leiden, Netherlands. Thanks to Wikimedia Commons. The scene appears to be based on Joost van den Vondel’s 1625 play, Palamedes, or Innocence Murdered. Gershman (2014) pp. 95-6.


Aitken, Ellen Bradshaw and Jennifer K. Berenson Maclean, ed. and trans. Not dated. Flavius Philostratus, On Heroes. Center for Hellenic Studies, Harvard University.

Clua, Josep Antoni. 1985. “El mite de Palamedes a la Grècia antiga: aspectes canviants d´un interrogant cultural i històric.” Faventia 7-2: 69-93.

Braccini, Tommaso. 2010. “Mitografia e miturgia femminile a Bisanzio: il caso di Giovanni Tzetze.” I Quaderni del Ramo d’Oro 3: 88-105.

De Jesus, Carlos A. Martins. 2016. “John Tzetzes and the pseudo-Aristotelian Peplos in middle-Byzantium. The testimony of the Matritenses 4562 and 4621.” Cuadernos De Filologia Clasica. 26: 263-283.

Fagles, Robert, trans. 2006. Virgil. The Aeneid. New York: Viking.

Gershman, Zhenya. 2014. “Rembrandt: Turn of the Key.” Arion – Journal of Humanities and the Classics. 21 (3): 79-108.

Goldwyn, Adam. 2015a. “‘That Men to Come Shall Know of It’: Theorizing Aesthetic Innovation, Heroic Ideology, and Political Legitimacy in Trojan War Reception.” Introduction (pp. 1-15) to Goldwyn, Adam J., ed. The Trojan Wars and the making of the modern world. Acta Universitatis Upsaliensis, Studia Graeca Upsaliensia: 22. Uppsala: Uppsala Universitet.

Goldwyn, Adam J. 2015b. “John Malalas and the Origins of the Allegorical and Novelistic Traditions of the Trojan War in Byzantium.” Troianalexandrina. 15: 23-49.

Goldwyn, Adam J. and Dimitra Kokkini, trans. 2015. John Tzetzes. Allegories of the Iliad. Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library 37. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Jacobs, Friedrich, trans. 1793. Ioannis Tzetzae (John Tzetzes). Antehomerica, Homerica et posthomerica (Carmina Iliaca). Lipsiae: In Libraria Weidmannia.

Jones, Christopher P., trans. 2005. Philostratus. Apollonius of Tyana. Loeb Classical Library 16. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Magdalino, Paul. 1993. The empire of Manuel I Komnenos, 1143-1180. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Nilsson, Ingela. 2004. “From Homer to Hermoniakos: Some Considerations of Troy Matter in Byzantine Literature.” Troianalexandrina. 4: 8-34.

Phillips, E. D. 1957. “A Suggestion about Palamedes.” The American Journal of Philology. 78 (3): 267-278.

Rusten, Jeffrey S. and Jason König, trans. 2014. Philostratus. Heroicus; Gymnasticus ; Discourses 1 and 2. Loeb Classical Library 521. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Untila, Ana, trans. 2014. John Tzetzes. Carmina Iliaca: Antehomerica, Homerica, and Posthomerica. Sponsored by Mitologia em Português.

satire’s end: Momus castrated for offending women

goddess flattens Momus

In a literary tragedy that reverberates through to the present, a conspiracy of goddesses acting as damsels brought about the castration of Momus, the god of satire. Jupiter, nominal Head God in Charge of the cosmos, told Momus to moderate a divine assembly of free, open debate among divine beings. With the encouragement of the goddess Mischief, Pallas Athena, the goddess of justice, and Juno, the ruling wife of Jupiter, conspired to disrupt the assembly and get Momus castrated.

Initially the assembly proceeded in the manner of most august deliberative bodies. The issue to be discussed was destroying and recreating the universe. An eminent, elderly god spoke incomprehensibly. An elderly goddess chewed her gums, looked at her nails, and declared:

Certainly we should think carefully about these serious and unusual circumstances.
{ Enimvero … de his rebus gravissimis atque rarissimis cogitasse oportuit. } [1]

Another god delivered a bombastic oration signifying nothing. Yet another spoke at length complimenting his fellow gods’ speechifying. A warrior god declared that he had nothing to say and was ready to execute the command of Jupiter to destroy the world. A god with underworld commercial interests proposed a bulk purchase of world-renewal kits. A famous god gave a long, well-rehearsed speech recounting all his great deeds.

Pallas Athena’s speech signaled the start of the prearranged disruption. In accordance with the plan, a couple of gods began fighting loudly. Then they harshly criticized Pallas for her arrogance. She sharply disputed their criticism. Various divine beings responded with partisan zeal, and the assembly degenerated into a tumult. After vainly trying to quell the chaos, Momus became extremely angry:

his wrath led him to make a number of intemperate observations. Among other imprudent remarks, he said that the mortals were right to observe the ancient and holy custom and law whereby women were sent away and excluded from public business. He added, “Can the most drunken debauches compare with this gathering?”

{ plurima per iracundiam dixit immoderata, inter quae excidit ut diceret non iniuria apud mortales veteri sanctissimoque more et lege observari ut publicis abigerentur excluderenturque mulieres. Addidit his etiam Momus eut diceret: “Etenim quaenam temulentissimorum lustra iis comitiis comparabimus?” }

While few care that men are vastly disproportionately incarcerated, that men are vastly disproportionately killed in violence and wars, and that men have no reproductive rights whatsoever, Momus’s imprudent remarks infuriated all the divine beings at the assembly. The goddess Mischief urged the goddess Juno to cage the beastly Momus.

Juno, who had long nursed anger against Momus, exerted her female power. She flung off her cloak to display her body and summoned the other females to gather around her. She also commanded Hercules to drag Momus to her. Obeying the woman’s command, Hercules seized the screaming and punching Momus, threw him over his shoulder, and brought him to Juno. There women engaged in vicious violence against the helpless Momus. The narrator of the text demurs:

I shall not elaborate, but in the hands of the women, Momus went from manly to unmanly. They tore off his entire manhood and flung it into the ocean.

{ Nihil plus dico: Momus quidem mulierum manu ex masculo factus est non mas, omnique funditus avulsa virilitate praecipitem in oceanum deturbarunt.}

In short, the women castrated Momus.[3] Then they hurried to Jupiter and, making outrageous claims, manipulated him into administering further punishment to Momus:

They bemoaned their injuries {sic} and demanded that he should either banish Momus as an object of public hatred or send the whole divine populace into exile. The matron goddesses could not dwell safely in places infested by that deadly and destructive monster. In tears they besought Jupiter to consider the prayers and the safety of so many of those bound to him by ties of obligation and merit. He should prefer to punish one thoroughly wicked individual rather than to lose the sympathy of all heaven.

{ iniuriisque deploratis efflagitant ut aut publicum ipsum odium Momum releget aut universum dearum populum in exilium abigat: non posse quidem deas matronas tuto his in locis degere ubi funestum exitiosumque id monstrum versetur. Qua de re etiam additis lacrimis obtestantur ut malit unius consceleratissimi poena tot suarum necessitudinum et optime de se meritarum precibus salutique consulere quam perditissimi unius gratia omni de caelo duriter mereri. }

Women’s tears and claims about safety eviscerate any concern for a man and his free-speech rights under divine law. Jupiter thus approved the matron goddesses’ request to banish Momus and establish him as an object of public hatred.

Momus’s castration wasn’t enough to sate Juno’s hatred of him. The ultimate aim of castration culture is change men into women. Juno kissed her husband and said to him:

You’ve done what’s right, my dear husband. But there is one thing that I’d like to add. Momus has criticized women so petulantly and so rudely, going far beyond the bounds of decency both for him and for us, that I’d like you to turn him from a half-man into a complete woman.

{ Fecisti … ut decet, mi vir. Sed unum est quod addi velim, ut qui tam petulanter, tam impudenter et praeter id quod seque nosque deceat in feminarum genus invectus est. Momum, ex semiviro reddas ut sit prorsus femina. }

Like most husbands, Jupiter did whatever his wife asked him to do. That’s terribly short-sighted behavior. The gods called the castrated, feminized, and banished Momus “humus.” That name evokes Adam, made from the earth, and all the descendants of Adam, subject to being punished harshly for the offense of rudely criticizing women.[2]

Satire, like freedom of speech more generally, is too publicly important to remain castrated, feminized, and banished. Leon Battista Alberti wrote Momus between 1443 and 1450 in Rome. Momus was the last great Latin work encompassing the transgressive, gender-critical tradition of Juvenal’s Satire 6Lamentationes Matheoluli, and Solomon and Marcolf. That vital literary patrimony must be preserved to amuse and instruct intelligent, caring, and progressive women and men.

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[1] Leon Battista Alberti, Momus 3.36, from Latin text and trans. Knight & Brown (2003) p. 235. A Latin text is also available online. In writing Momus, Alberti drew upon Lucian’s works Dialogues of the Gods, The Gods in Council, and Zeus the Tragic Actor. Subsequent quotes from Momus are from id., 3.40, pp. 238-9 (his wrath); 3.41, pp. 240-1 (I shall not elaborate; They bemoaned their injuries); 3.75, pp. 272-3 (You’ve done what’s right). Momus, an ancient Greek god, is also spelled Momos.

[2] Knight & Brown observe:

Humus, a feminine noun, was commonly given in medieval and Renaissance etymological works (for example, Isidore, Etymologiae 7.6) as the derivation for homo, human being. Is Alberti trying to say that Momus is Everyman?

Knight & Brown (2003), p. 394, p. 36. Etymologiae 7.6.4 states:

Adam, as blessed Jerome informs us, means “human” or “earthling” or “red earth,” for from earth was flesh made, and humus (humus) was the material from which the human (homo) was made.

From Latin trans. Barney et al. (2006) p. 162.

Alberti seemed to recognize that all men live under oppressive structures of gynocentrism. Unlike most men, Momus actually uttered words of men’s sexed protest. Most men, in contrast, conform to authority and the dominant gynocentric interests.

[3] With characteristic effacement of women’s role in violence against men, Wikipedia states:

Since his continued criticism of the gods was destabilizing the divine establishment, Jupiter bound him {Momus} to a rock and had him castrated.

A thoroughly scholarly work, McClure (2005), seems to implicitly justify Momus’s castration. McClure explains that Momus was “castrated by Juno and other goddesses for his contemptuous attitude toward women — a reflection of Alberti’s own misogyny in evidence throughout the story.” Lack of concern about castration culture supports the sexual reign of terror currently gripping U.S. college campuses.

[image] Momus, god of satire and mockery, flattened. Detail (with color enhancement) of a ceiling painting (done about 1900) by Hippolyte Berteaux in Théâtre Graslin in Nantes, France. Image thanks to Selbymay and Wikimedia Commons.


Barney, Stephen A., W.J. Lewis, J.A. Beach, and Oliver Berghof, trans. 2006. The etymologies of Isidore of Seville. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Knight, Sarah and Virginia Brown, trans. and ed. 2003. Leon Battista Alberti. Momus. I Tatti Renaissance library, 8. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

McClure, George. 2005. Review of Alberti, Leon Battista, Momus. H-Italy, H-Net Reviews.

“all my success I owe to my wife”: don’t clap, but laugh

husband rides for wife

Most persons have heard an eminent man publicly state, “All my success I owe to my wife.” Persons usually smile and clap when they hear such a pseudo-confession. That response indicates lack of sophisticated understanding of Chrétien de Troyes’s influential medieval romance Erec and Enide. Chrétien’s depiction of the manlet Lancelot generated the ideal of the courtly lover.[1] Erec’s words to his wife Enide seem to have similarly generated modern husbands’ self-abasing crediting of their achievements to their wives.

Erec was the second-ranking knight in King Arthur’s court, behind only the knight Gawain. Erec was young, beautiful, and the son of a king. He was also obedient to women. When Queen Guinevere told Erec to go tell a hostile knight to restrain his dwarf, Erec immediately did so, despite the danger.[2] What heterosexual woman wouldn’t want to marry Erec?

While angels saved Gawain from marriage, Erec married the beautiful, noble woman Enide. She, like most women today, was strong and independent. Erec didn’t understand the virtue in being a pig. He won permission to marry Enide by pledging to fight a ferocious knight and promising to have her crowned queen of three cities. Enide didn’t offer Erec anything but herself. In women, but not in men, just being is valued.

As Erec prepared to undertake a horrendous knightly ordeal, Enide wept. Earlier she had falsely explained to Erec her concern about the social shaming of him for turning from committing violence against men to enjoying time with her. Erec similarly sought to comfort her:

All the courage and strength
I have comes from your love,
And with it I can face, hand
To hand, any man living.
I may be a fool to say this,
But it isn’t pride speaking,
only my need to comfort
You. Feel better! Let
It be! And now I must go [3]

Erec had been a high-ranking knight before he knew Enide. Erec falsely credited her for his achievements in man-to-man battle. When Erec left Enide, he found in a lovely garden a beautiful woman sitting on a silver bed covered with a gold brocade. Erec sat down on the bed next to this beautiful woman.[4] Erec’s ordeal wasn’t initially developing as his wife Enide had feared.

Just before falsely crediting his wife for his courage and strength, Erec had comically comforted her. Erec told his weeping wife:

I know your heart,
I see its fear, which you feel
But don’t know why. But you frighten
Yourself for nothing. Unless
You see my shield shattered
And a blade pierce my body —
Unless you see my gleaming
Mail shirt bathed in my blood,
My helmet cracked and broken,
And me stretched on the ground,
Beaten, defeated, unable
To defend myself, forced
To beg for mercy, and await it,
Helpless, against my will
— Then you can wail in sorrow.

Violence against men is a gravely serious matter, especially today. Addressing his fearful, weeping wife, Erec described at length himself being beaten in realistic detail. In context, a perceptive reader can respond only with laughter. That Erec’s feared ordeal begins with him confronting a beautiful woman sitting on a bed in a garden underscores the comedy.

Erec crediting his wife Enide for his courage and strength is sophisticated literary humor. Husbands today earnestly credit their success to their wives.[5] Those who know can now see the literary humor of Erec and Enide in life.

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[1] Joseph J. Duggan, an eminent scholar of Chrétien de Troyes, described courtly love as “one of the most significant developments in the history of Western civilization.” Raffel (1997) p. 234 (in Afterword). The ideology of courtly love intensified the oppression of men under gynocentrism. Chrétien de Troyes’s romances subtly ridicule courtly love.

[2] With the characteristic tendentiousness of scholars writing in support of the dominant gynocentric ideology, Ramey (1993), p. 385, declares, “The only proper role for women according to this romance is silent submission.”

[3] Chrétien de Troyes, Erec and Enide ll. 5860-9, from Old French trans. Raffel (1997) pp. 184-5. The cited line numbers are from Raffel’s translation, but they are close to the line numbers in the Old French. The subsequent quote is from id. ll. 5840-54, p. 184. The translation of W.W. Comfort (1914) is freely available online. Chrétien de Troyes is thought to have written Erec and Enide about 1170.

[4] Chrétien de Troyes emphasizes the woman’s beauty as well as Erec’s interest in her. The woman sitting on the luxurious bed was:

a young woman, as beautiful
As beauty could be in both face
and body, sitting alone.
What more can I say, except
That simply seeing her beauty,
The delightful way she was dressed,
Would make you swear, truly,
That even Aeneas’ wife,
Lavinia of ancient Laurentium,
Noble and lovely as she was,
Had barely a fourth of her beauty.
Erec went closer, wanting
To see her better, then seated
Himself at her side.

ll. 5888-901, trans. Raffel (1997) pp. 185-6. Hartmann von Aue adapted Erec and Enide into Middle High German about 1190. He added a qualification to the woman’s beauty to lessen the obvious sexual tension of Chrétien’s scene. The woman sitting on the bed was:

the most beautiful woman that {Erec} had ever seen — except for Enite {Enide}, who was more lovely, it must be admitted, than any other woman of that time or this

Hartmann von Aue, Erec ll. 8927-34, from Middle High German trans. Sterling-Hellenbrand (2001) p. 47.

[5] In many states in the U.S., wives upon divorce are legally credited with 50% of the income their husband earns during the marriage. The wife need not do anything to gain that credit under law.

[image] Husband rides in service to wife. Illustration (cropped) by N.C. Wyeth from page 278 of Sir Thomas Malory’s History of King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table, Edited for Boys by Sidney Lanier (New York, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1922). Thanks to Dave Pape and Wikimedia Commons.


Raffel, Burton, trans. 1997. Chrétien de Troyes. Erec and Enide. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Ramey, Lynn Tarte. 1993. “Representations of women in Chrétien’s Erec et Enide: courtly literature or misogyny?” Romanic Review 83(4): 377-386.

Sterling-Hellenbrand, Alexandra. 2001. Topographies of gender in middle high German Arthurian Romance. New York: Garland.

truthful, ancient rule of the Phallus: penetration provides pleasure

sausage fest: podwalwelska & slaska

Almost as hateful as mendacious mainstream media reports that nearly a quarter of men are rapists is the scholarly construction of the penis as an instrument of political domination. That penal construction dominates scholarly understanding of ancient Greco-Roman sexuality. Ideology of the reign of the Phallus is associated with crude stereotypes, deeply rooted hostility toward men’s sexuality, and dominant gynocentric interests.[1] Common human experience connects penetration by a penis with pleasure. But that common-sense understanding of penis, penetration, and pleasure has a relatively weak literary-figurative position.

Ideology of the reign of the Phallus draws upon crude linguistic sensibility. The physiology of men’s erection labor produces a hard, baton-like object. Sticks and stones can break bones and cause hurt. If your ability to construct linguistic figures goes no further than nursery rhymes, then you might understand the penis to be a hurtful weapon. That’s a poor understanding. Across all of the animal kingdom, male animals with their penises amazingly rarely hurt female animals. Hurting a female makes no sense within the fundamental evolutionary role of the penis. Don’t fear the penis. Don’t believe in a mythic, monstrous reign of the Phallus. You will have a more joyful life if you develop richer imaginative capabilities.

Ideology of the reign of the Phallus also draws upon cramped imagination of penetration. One might imagine individuals as having bodily borders that they guard against penetration just as countries guard their borders against penetration. That’s a crude understanding of persons and countries. Penetration, even if undocumented with an affirmative consent form, is often welcomed, with good feeling and good reason. Criminalization of sexual penetration and the ideology of the reign of the Phallus benefit from imagination limited to the figure of one person violently penetrating another person’s body with a weapon such as a knife. In literature as in life, most of the persons violently killed are men. In further gender injustice, penetration historically has been the basis for gender-biased criminalization of men’s sexuality.

Close reading of an ancient Greek epigram exercises broad literary imagination and confirms common sense of the penis. Consider this epigram by a Greek poet probably writing in the second century GC:

Count three for all those on the bed, of whom two are active and two are passive. Do you think I’m speaking of a miracle? But it’s really no lie. The middle one is involved with the other two, giving pleasure behind, getting pleasure in front.

{ Τρεῖς ἀρίθμει τοὺς πάντας ὑπὲρ λέχος, ὧν δύο δρῶσιν,
καὶ δύο πάσχουσιν. θαῦμα δοκῶ τι λέγειν.
καὶ μὴν οὐ ψεῦδος· δυσὶν εἷς μέσσος γὰρ ὑπουργεῖ
τέρπων ἐξόπιθεν, πρόσθε δὲ τερπόμενος. } [2]

The man giving pleasure from behind is using his penis to penetrate the other. That man is also getting pleasure by being in front of a man who is penetrating him with his penis from behind. The focus for the penetrating penis isn’t receiving pleasure. It’s giving pleasure.[3]

A Latin adaptation written about two centuries later shows the literary bias toward criminalizing activity of the penis. This epigram substitutes for pleasure legalistic language of crimes:

“There are three in one bed. Two endure sexual violation,
and two commit it.” “I think that there are four.”
“Mistaken: give one offense each to the ones on the outside and
two to him in the middle, who both does and submits.”

{“Tris uno in lecto; stuprum duo perpetiuntur
et duo committunt.” “Quattuor esse reor.”
“Falleris: extremis da singula crimina et illum
bis numera medium, qui facit et patitur.”} [4]

In this epigram, sexual violation is associated with the activity of the penis in penetrating. Those being penetrated are figured as victims of sexual violation. Yet the ultimate criminal accounting is non-sexist: both penetrating and being penetrated count equally as offenses. That’s consistent with progressive justice systems that recognize that both penetrating and forcing another to penetrate can constitute rape.[5]

Belief in the reign of the Phallus represents crude imagination dominating common sense. Literary study that engages only crude imagination supports gynocentrism and terrible anti-men bias in criminal justice. To promote humane culture, literary study should expand imagination to new and surprising figures. Would you have ever imagined the classical riddle of why two plus two doesn’t equal four?

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[1] Keuls (1985), published a few years after the start of a massive rise in incarceration in the U.S., has been an influential work. Williams (1999 / 2010) illustrates present-day orthodoxy of demonizing penetration as dominance. For a brief presentation of the orthodoxy, see note [4] in my post on Priapea.

[2] Strato (Straton of Sardis), epigram from Musa Puerilis (“Boyish Muse”), Greek Anthology 12.210. Greek text from Paton (1920) vol. 4, p. 388, trans. Kay (2001) p. 165.

[3] The Torah (Mosaic law) confirms this understanding of the penis. Deuteronomy 24:5 states:

When a man has taken a new wife, he shall not go out to war or be charged with any business; he shall be free at home one year, and bring happiness to his wife whom he has taken.

Before the man-oppressing ideology of courtly love swept medieval Europe, the original understanding of chivalry emphasized a husband serving his wife’s sexual needs with his penis.

[4] Ausonius, Epigram 43 (Kay) / 59 (Evelyn-White), my translation from the Latin, with help from Kay (2001) p. 164. As id. p. 165 observes, Greek Anthology 11.225 provides nearly the same epigram in Greek. A Latin text of Ausonius’s epigrams is available online. For discussion of men being sexually penetrated in Ausonius’s epigrams, Floridi (2015).

[5] The U.K. Ministry of Justice, in contrast, has denied a recent petition to remove penetration gender bias from U.K. rape law. A commenter insightful questions, “If forcing a penis through a vulva is rape, why is forcing a vulva over a penis not rape?”

[image] Delightful sausage fest: podwawelska and slaska. Based on photos by Mariuszjbie (podwawelska, slaska), generously contributed to Wikimedia Commons.


Evelyn-White, Hugh G., trans. 1919. Decimus Magnus Ausonius. Ausonius. Loeb Classical Library 115. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard Univ. Press.

Floridi, Lucia. 2015. “The Construction of a Homoerotic Discourse in the Epigrams of Ausonius.” In Richard F. Thomas, ed., Harvard Studies in Classical Philology, Volume 108, Harvard University Press.

Kay, N. M., trans. 2001. Decimus Magnus Ausonius. Ausonius, epigrams: text with introduction and commentary. London: Duckworth.

Keuls, Eva C. 1985. The reign of the phallus: sexual politics in ancient Athens. New York: Harper & Row.

Pate, Pauline J. 1976. A critical text of the Epigrammata of D. Magnus of Ausonius. Ph.D. Thesis. Loyola University of Chicago.

Paton, W.R. 1920. The Greek Anthology with an English Translation. London: William Heinemann (vol. I, bks. 1-6; vol. II, bks. 7-8; vol. III, bk. 9; vol IV, bks. 10-12; vol. V, bks. 13-16).

Williams, Craig A. 1999, 2nd ed. 2010. Roman homosexuality: ideologies of masculinity in classical antiquity. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Johnson and Boswell on sexual behavior in the Age of Enlightenment

Samuel Johnson, of Boswell's Life of Johnson

In the Age of Enlightenment in eighteenth-century England, the double standard in reproductive freedom hadn’t yet emerged to make the dominant understanding of reproductive choice farcically unreasonable. While eighteenth-century English courts were gender-biased toward awarding custody of young children to mothers, that gender bias wasn’t nearly as large as it is today. In the Age of Enlightenment, man tended to be publicly understood as a generic human being lacking men’s sexual distinctiveness. Yet the Enlightenment ideal that all humans are created equal was publicly much more significant in eighteenth-century England than in the present-day United States. In the context of eighteenth-century Enlightenment, Samuel Johnson, arguably the most distinguished literary intellectual in English history, and James Boswell, Johnson’s popular and acclaimed biographer, discussed sexual behavior.

As published in 1791, Boswell’s The Life of Johnson included some discussion between Boswell and Johnson on marital fidelity. Boswell questioned Johnson’s views, which apparently were controversial for that time:

I {Boswell} mentioned to him {Johnson} a dispute between a friend of mine and his lady, concerning conjugal infidelity, which my friend had maintained was by no means so bad in the husband, as in the wife. Johnson. “Your friend was in the right, Sir. Between a man and his Maker it is a different question: but between a man and his wife, a husband’s infidelity is nothing. They are connected by children, by fortune, by serious considerations of community. Wise married women don’t trouble themselves about infidelity in their husbands.” Boswell. “To be sure there is a great difference between the offence of infidelity in a man and that of his wife.” Johnson. “The difference is boundless. The man imposes no bastards upon his wife.” [1]

Under the four-seas doctrine of English common law, a husband was require to support any children his wife had, even if she had children through extramarital sex. The wife had no such legal obligation to support children that her husband had through extra-marital sex. That legal double standard has largely been ignored, as has been undue influence, misrepresentation, and mis-service in present-day paternity establishment procedures. Johnson deserves credit for bringing into reasoned deliberation the legal double standard for spousal responsibility.

In the Life of Johnson, Boswell, conforming to dominant, gynocentric ideology, challenged Johnson’s opinion:

Here it may be questioned whether Johnson was entirely in the right. I suppose it will not be controverted that the difference in the degree of criminality {associated with a husband’s adultery versus a wife’s adultery} is very great, on account of consequences: but still it may be maintained, that, independent of moral obligation, infidelity is by no means a light offence in a husband; because it must hurt a delicate attachment, in which a mutual constancy is implied, with such refined sentiments as Massinger has exhibited in his play of “The Picture.” — Johnson probably at another time would have admitted this opinion. And let it be kept in remembrance, that he was very careful not to give any encouragement to irregular conduct. A gentleman, not adverting to the distinction made by him upon this subject, supposed a case of singular perverseness in a wife, and heedlessly said, “That then he thought a husband might do as he pleased with a safe conscience.” Johnson. “Nay, Sir, this is wild indeed (smiling;) you must consider that fornication is a crime in a single man; and you cannot have more liberty by being married.”

Boswell canceled from an early printing of his Life of Johnson opinions of Johnson that even more vigorously transgressed dominant ideology.  The canceled text:

{Johnson} “they {wives} detest a mistress, but don’t mind a whore. My wife told me I might lye with as many women as I pleased, provided I loved her alone.” Boswell. “She was not in earnest.” Johnson. “But she was; ….” …  Boswell. “Suppose, Sir, a woman to be of a very cold constitution, has she any right to complain of her husband’s infidelity?” Johnson. “Sir, if she refuses, she has no right to complain.” Boswell. “Then, Sir, according to your doctrine, upon every such occasion a man may make a note in his pocket-book, and do as he pleases.” [2]

Johnson seems to have adhered to an accounting version of the ancient Christian doctrine of marital debt. According to that doctrine, wife and husband owed each other sex and were required to make good on that obligation even if one didn’t feel like it.[3] Today, elite opinion scores such sexual behavior as husbands raping their wives. That indicates the collapse of Enlightenment and the rise of virulent anti-men gender bigotry and the carceral state.

Academics in recent decades have debated whether Johnson was a “misogynist.” The most thorough scholarly examination of this question first considers Johnson’s reported remark to a famous theatre manager. Johnson declared that he would not further attend theatre-insider parties, “For the white bubbies & silk stockings of your Actresses excite my Genitals.”[4] Suppression of men’s natural sexuality characterizes castration culture. The relation of castration culture to claims of misogyny becomes clear in the introduction to the subsequent section of the scholarly article:

The second criticism of Boswell is that he misattributes misogynist sentiments to Johnson. Certainly, the Life includes remarks attribute to Johnson that are derogatory of women. The question is whether this aspect of Boswell’s portrait is a distortion. [5]

Did Johnson ever actually say anything mean to a woman or about women? If he did, then he’s a misogynist, according to the dominant understanding of misogyny. Another scholar described representations of Johnson as “the totem of everything anti-feminist in eighteenth-century literature.”[6] Such representations are associated with the mythic monster of patriarchy:

everyone knows that patriarchy has always loved a virgin, for reasons that appear to be transparent and that Johnson has already articulated: virgins help patriarchy reproduce itself. [7]

Men tend to prefer for long-term relationships women who aren’t actually or essentially whores. Men also tend to be concerned about the serious harm to them from being cuckolded. Patriarchy is the mythic monster that gynocentric society invokes to suppress reasoning about men’s interests and preserve gynocentrism. Only those who engage their minds in reason and truth know how patriarchy actually works as an oppressive ideology.[8]

Johnson’s reasoned opinion on spousal sexual behavior depends on accepting the legal double standard in parental responsibility. The legal imposition of financial obligations (“child support” payments) on cuckolded husbands shouldn’t, however, be beyond questioning.[9] Family law is the epicenter of ignorance and bigotry in our present Dark Age. Let the light of reason shine!

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[1] James Boswell’s Life of Johnson (1791), entry under 1779, in Birkbeck, Hill & Powell (1934) vol. 3, pp. 406-7. The subsequent quote is from id. Many different editions, with different volume and page configurations, exist of Boswell’s Life of Johnson. Edmund Malone’s sixth edition, with an introduction by Herbert Askwith, is available online. Charles Grosvenor Osgood’s abridged edition excludes the discussion of marital infidelity.

[2] Id., editorial note. Id. provides additional textual information:

This was cancelled as late as February 1791, for on the 10th Boswell wrote to Malone: ‘I must have a cancelled leaf in Vol. II of that passage where there is a conversation as to conjugal infidelity…. I wonder how you and I admitted this to the publick eye, for Windham etc. were struck with its indelicacy, and it might hurt the book much. It is, however, mighty good stuff.’ Letters, No. 294, ii. 422. A copy of the Life with the passage as originally printed was discovered in May 1929 (see Times Literary Suppl. 16 May, 1929, p. 408) and another copy with the cancelled leaf bound up, with six others, at the end was sold at Sotheby’s on 24 July 1929.

[3] Johnson attached considerable importance to marital sexual obligation. Boswell reported:

He talked of the heinousness of the crime of adultery, by which the peace of families was destroyed. He said, “Confusion of progeny constitutes the essence of the crime; and therefore a woman who breaks her marriage vows is much more criminal than a man who does it. A man, to be sure, is criminal in the sight of God: but he does not do his wife a very material injury, if he does not insult her; if, for instance, from mere wantonness of appetite, he steals privately to her chambermaid. Sir, a wife ought not greatly to resent this. I would not receive home a daughter who had run away from her husband on that account. A wife should study to reclaim her husband by more attention to please him. Sir, a man will not, once in a hundred instances, leave his wife and go to a harlot, if his wife has not been negligent of pleasing.”

Life of Johnson, 1768, from Birkbeck, Hill & Powell (1934) vol. 2, pp. 55-6.

Johnson’s wife deprived him of sex. According to Johnson’s close friend Elizabeth Desmoulins:

They did not sleep together for many years. But that was her fault. She drank shockingly and said she was not well and could not bear a bedfellow.

Quoted in Meyers (2008) p. 204.

[4] Waingrow, Redford & Goldring (1994) vol. 1, p. 147, note a1, quoted and discussed in Bundock (2005) p. 83 and Meyers (2008) pp. 5-6.

[5] Bundock (2005) p. 85. Being masculine, a man’s man, and preferring to associate with men also serves as evidence of misogyny:

Much of our image of Johnson is the product of Boswell’s investment in depicting Johnson as a man’s man. The determination to masculinize Johnson takes its most visible form in the attribution of misogynist and occasionally lewd sentiments to Johnson, but also in the depiction of Johnson eschewing the company of women

Carafelli (1992) p. 61, quoted in Bundock (2005) p. 81. Charging the long-dead Johnson with the crime of misogyny typically introduces into evidence Johnson’s witty remark:

Sir, a woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hinder legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.

Life of Johnson, July 31, 1763, from Birkbeck, Hill & Powell (1934) vol. 1, p. 463.

[6] Basker (1997) p. 180.

[7] Harol (2006) p. 2. Provoking the grim humor with which ordinary Russians viewed Soviet apparatchiks, id. continues, “three explanatory models for the pervasive importance of virginity to patriarchy have been propounded.”

[8] Gynocentric incentives have powerful effects. Consider, for example a leading edge of scholarship on Johnson:

This view {the view that Johnson was the most eminent literary intellectual in the history of English literature}, shared by other critics, holds that Johnson was superior to Carter {Elizabeth Carter, a largely unknown literary woman} in literary force and intellect, and prior to her in professional development— all questionable claims— and that as the superior party, Johnson served as Carter’s mentor, that Johnson is the master and Carter the disciple. Yet a closer scrutiny of their relationship does not tend to corroborate this traditional view. …  a person of prodigious learning and powerful wit and intelligence, Carter was Johnson’s intellectual equal in many respects, and in her acquisition of foreign languages she was his superior. Is it not plausible that in the crucial early stage of their relationship, it is Carter who, at least in part, mentored Johnson?

Lee (2009) p. 194. For anyone exercising reason, the academic’s answer is obvious: “Carter served as Johnson’s mentor and literary ally.” Id. p. 193. Yet, like men recognizing that women are strong and independent, Johnson felt “anxiety toward his partner and mentor Carter.” Id. p. 205. In similar work, Sabor (2012) establishes that Johnson’s literary periodical The Rambler failed because he didn’t follow women’s advice and instruction.

[9] Johnson both indicated reluctance to report a wife’s infidelity and declared wives’ chastity to be fundamentally important to property rights:

It is right, sir. Infamy is attached to the crime {of a wife’s adultery}, by universal opinion, as soon as it is known. I would not be the man who would discover it, if I alone knew it, for a woman may reform; nor would I commend a parson who divulges a woman’s first offence; but being once divulged, it ought to be infamous. Consider, of what importance to society the chastity of women is. Upon that all the property in the world depends. We hang a thief for stealing a sheep; but the unchastity of a woman transfers sheep, and farm and all, from the right owner. I have much more reverence for a common prostitute than for a woman who conceals her guilt. The prostitute is known. She cannot deceive: she cannot bring a strumpet into the arms of an honest man, without his knowledge.

Boswell, Life of Samuel Johnson, 14 September 1773, from Birkbeck, Hill & Powell (1934) vol. 5, pp. 208-9.

Johnson badly misunderstood property right in gynocentric society. Present-day child-support laws in the U.S. make having a child, irrespective of the moral framework in which that child was conceived, highly profitable in favorable circumstances (sex with a wealthy man). Moreover, DNA paternity testing has had little effect on the security of men’s property with respect to false paternity claims.

[image] Doctor Samuel Johnson. By Sir Joshua Reynolds, thought to date to 1772. Tate (Britian), item N00887. Image used under Tate’s license Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-ND (3.0 Unported).


Basker, James G. 1997. “Myth upon Myth: Johnson, Gender, and the Misogyny Question.” The Age of Johnson 8: 175-87.

Birkbeck, George, Norman Hill, and Lawrence Fitzroy Powell, eds. 1934. James Boswell. Boswell’s Life of Johnson: together with Boswell’s Journal of a tour to the Hebrides and Johnson’s Diary of a journey into North Wales. Oxford: Clarendon Press (available as Oxford Scholarly Editions Online, 2014).

Bundock, Michael. 2005. “Johnson and Women in Boswell’s Life of Johnson.” The Age of Johnson. 16: 81-110.

Cafarelli, Annette Wheeler. 1992. “Johnson and Women: Demasculinizing Literary History.” The Age of Johnson 5: 61-114.

Harol, Corrinne. 2006. Enlightened virginity in eighteenth-century literature. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Lee, Anthony W. 2009. “Who’s Mentoring Whom? The Carter–Johnson Relationship.” Ch. 10 (pp. 191–210) in Lee, Anthony W., ed. Mentoring in eighteenth-century British literature and culture. Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate.

Meyers, Jeffrey. 2008. Samuel Johnson: the struggle. New York: Basic Books.

Sabor, Peter. 2012.  “Women Reading and Writing for The Rambler.” Ch. 9 (pp. 168-84) in Potter, Tiffany, ed. Women, popular culture, and the eighteenth century. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Waingrow, Marshall, Bruce Redford, and Elizabeth Goldring. 1994. James Boswell’s Life of Johnson: an edition of the original manuscript in four volumes. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.