counter nostos: wonder of men willing to marry in ancient Greece

ODysseus struggling in nostos

Homer’s myth of Odysseus overcoming all obstacles and pain to return home to his wife Penelope (nostos) has greatly influenced western Eurasian imagination. Archilochus, another archaic Greek poet, apparently addressed the imaginative force of Homer’s tale of Odysseus:

There is nothing now you can’t expect, nothing’s against the odds,
there are no miracles, now Zeus the father of the gods
has turned noonday into night and hidden the bright sun
out of the sky, so clammy dread came over everyone.
From now on all is credible, and like enough to be:
let none of you now be surprised at anything you see,
not even if land animals switch to where dolphins roam,
and the salt sea and the crashing waves become their chosen home,
while dolphins take a fancy to the mountains and the trees. [1]

The poem then takes a surprising turn. What follows has survived only in fragments, but a key feature can be discerned. A eminent classical scholar explained:

The text then becomes very fragmentary, but we can see that in the next line the speaker focused on a particular happening in the local community, no doubt one that was unexpected or contrary to the natural course of things. It concerned an Archeanactides and a marriage which he or someone else contracted, and we know that the speaker went on to talk about his own daughter. [2]

The scholar partially reconstructed the text as:

Indeed, already we observe that Archeanactides,
the … the son of ..
had entered wedlock …
… but my daughter … [3]

What is a wonder like the wonder of land animals making their homes in the sea and dolphins living in trees? It’s the wonder of a man getting married!

Within gynocentric society, many men have long been reluctant to marry. The specific ways in which marriage increased the oppression of men in ancient Greece haven’t been clearly preserved. That’s not surprising. Written records are created and preserved within the gynocentrism that vigorously suppresses challenges to its fundamental order. Yet a surviving couplet of archaic poetry hints at the oppression and abuse of men within marriage:

Two days in a woman’s life give greatest pleasure:
those of her wedding and of her funeral. [4]

Records from the Roman period indicate Roman men’s reluctance to marry. Moreover, Juvenal, through the undeniable force of his poetic genius, managed to have disseminated poetry that questions the sanity of a man who plans to marry. Many men in ancient Greece probably faced marriage in a similar way.[4]

Of course, marriage in ancient Greece almost surely wasn’t as oppressive as marriage in many countries today. Anti-men sex discrimination in child custody and child support appears not to have been as severe in ancient Greece as it is today. No evidence indicates that laws like the four-seas law of cuckoldry existed in ancient Greece. Ancient Greece didn’t have a huge legal apparatus to gender-profile men for domestic violence and evict them from their homes through a shocking despotism completely inconsistent with fundamental principles of law and justice. Nonetheless, that a man got married in ancient Greece was an event of great wonder.

Many persons are deeply ignorant of the truth about men’s personal and social positions. Husbands and fathers deserve much more gratitude and appreciation than they typically receive.

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[1] Archilochus, fr. 122, from Greek trans. West (1993) p. 10. Archilochus apparently is drawing upon his experience of an eclipse of the sun. Such an eclipse occurred in 648 BGC. Davenport (1980), p. 1., names Archilochus (Archilochos) as the “second poet of the West,” after only Homer. Harris (2005) provides a detailed poetic appreciation of Archilochus.

[2] West (1997) p. 501.

[3] Archilochus, fr. 122, from Greek trans. West (1993) p. 11. The poem might include more direct reference to Odysseus or nostos in a part that hasn’t survived.

To both ancient Greeks and Romans, Archilochus was known as “the Satirist.” Davenport (1980) p. 2. Davenport observes:

Though he is said to have written with venom and, according to Gaitylikos, splashed Helicon with gore, we have no evidence of anything so caustic. We have to take antiquity’s word for it, or assume that the Panhellenes were far touchier than we about satire. Certainly their sense of honor was of an iron strictness. To mock, a Greek proverb goes, is to thumb through Archilochos.

Id. p. 4. Aristophanes associated Archilochus with lengthy poetry. Id. The ancient Greeks revered Archilochus’s poetic skill. In the third century BGC, a shrine to Archilochus was constructed on his home island of Paros. Archilochus thus would have been a worthy rival to Homer. What’s know about Archilochus is consistent with him making a lengthy, satiric challenge to Homer.

Hipponax, a Greek poet from the sixth century BGC, provides an example of Homeric parody:

Tell me, O Muse, of Eurymedontiades the Charybdis,
him of the gastric carvers, who eats in irregular fashion:
tell how amid the shingle the wretch will wretchedly perish
by the vote of the people beside the limitless seashore.

Hipponax, fr. 128, from Greek trans. West (1993) p. 123.

[4] Hipponax, fr. 68, from Greek trans. West (1993) p. 119. The Greek: δύ᾿ ἡμέραι γυναικός εἰσιν ἥδισται, ὅταν γαμῇ τις κἀκφέρῃ τεθνηκυῖαν. Hipponax’s proverb of men’s sexed protest seems to have managed to make its way to the present only in the neutered proverb:

The two happiest days in a man’s life are the day when he buys a boat and the day when he sells it.

On the modern history of that proverb, see Barry Popik.

Eminent Professor Gregory Nagy’s online discussion series “The Homeric Odyssey & the Cultivation of Justice” (introduction, outline) makes clear that the Odyssey is deeply concerned with social justice. Men’s relation to women, particularly in current benighted circumstances, is a critical but marginalized issue of social justice.

[image] Nostos. Odysseus and Polyphemus. Painting by Arnold Böcklin, 1896. Thanks to Wikimedia Commons.


Davenport, Guy, trans. 1980. Archilochos, Sappho, Alkman: three lyric poets of the late Greek Bronze Age. Berkeley: University of California Press. (online introduction to Archilochos)

Harris, William. 2005. Archilochus: First Poet after Homer. Worldwide: the Internet.

West, M. L. 1993. Greek lyric poetry: the poems and fragments of the Greek iambic, elegiac, and melic poets (excluding Pindar and Bacchylides) down to 450 B.C. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

West, M. L. 1997. The east face of Helicon: west Asiatic elements in Greek poetry and myth. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

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