Homeric cento subtly reverses gender to refigure men’s sexuality

As if she were incapable of thinking about power differently, a widely acclaimed classicist speaking from the commanding heights of the symbolic economy declares that women’s voices are silenced. No one laughs. About three hundred years after a woman translated the Odyssey into French, the first woman with a first name that begins with a vowel translated the Odyssey into English. The nightingale Itylus sings mournfully for her dead son. Should we hope that a woman whose first name begins with a consonant will pioneer a new Odyssey translation that breaks from the dominant English meter and finally offers fresh insights into gender? We must overturn the intellectual hierarchy. A Homeric cento written in Late Antiquity offers reason for hope.

Men being killed or raped haven’t counted as significant. King Alcinous, eager to serve his princess-daughter’s interests, hosted a farewell feast for the promising young man Odysseus. The blind bard Demodocus sang of epic violence:

A woman wails as she throws herself upon
dear husband’s body. He has fallen in battle
before the town walls, fighting to the last
to defend his city and protect his children.
As she sees him dying and gasping for breath,
she clings to him and shrieks, while behind her
soldiers prod their spears into her back,
and as they lead her away into slavery,
her tear-drenched face is a mask of pain.
So too wept Odysseus, pitiful in his grief.

{ ὡς δὲ γυνὴ κλαίῃσι φίλον πόσιν ἀμφιπεσοῦσα,
ὅς τε ἑῆς πρόσθεν πόλιος λαῶν τε πέσῃσιν,
ἄστεϊ καὶ τεκέεσσιν ἀμύνων νηλεὲς ἦμαρ·
ἡ μὲν τὸν θνήσκοντα καὶ ἀσπαίροντα ἰδοῦσα
ἀμφ᾿ αὐτῷ χυμένη λίγα κωκύει· οἱ δέ τ᾿ ὄπισθε
κόπτοντες δούρεσσι μετάφρενον ἠδὲ καὶ ὤμους
εἴρερον εἰσανάγουσι, πόνον τ᾿ ἐχέμεν καὶ ὀιζύν·
τῆς δ᾿ ἐλεεινοτάτῳ ἄχεϊ φθινύθουσι παρειαί·
ὣς Ὀδυσεὺς ἐλεεινὸν ὑπ᾿ ὀφρύσι δάκρυον εἶβεν. } [1]

Odysseus wasn’t weeping for the man, the husband who was killed. That husband was killed along with many other men in the horrific violence against men of the Trojan war. After Odysseus stopped weeping, he told an epic account in which he engaged in similar gender-specific killing:

From Ilion the wind took me to the Cicones
in Ismaros. I pillaged the town and killed the men.
The women and treasure that we took out,
I divided as fairly as I could among all hands

{ Ἰλιόθεν με φέρων ἄνεμος Κικόνεσσι πέλασσεν,
Ἰσμάρῳ. ἔνθα δ᾿ ἐγὼ πόλιν ἔπραθον, ὤλεσα δ᾿ αὐτούς·
ἐκ πόλιος δ᾿ ἀλόχους καὶ κτήματα πολλὰ λαβόντες
δασσάμεθ᾿, ὡς μή τίς μοι ἀτεμβόμενος κίοι ἴσης. }

Kill the men and capture the women remains a dominant symbolic strategy in today’s democratic politics. Women’s lives have long been valued more highly than men’s lives. Today, about four times more men than women are murdered, yet violence against men generates no public concern. Violence against men is normalized and obscured as merely violence.

Calypso, blonde goddess

Even while anti-sexual Stalinism is descending on decaying democracies, few dare speak about sexual violence against men. In the Odyssey, the goddess Calypso held Odysseus by force and had sex with him repeatedly against his will. Echoing the sexual violence of castration culture at the origin of the cosmos, Odysseus enters the epic weeping while being held captive in sexual servitude:

I saw him on an island, shedding salt tears,
in the halls of Calypso, who keeps him there
against his will. He has no way to get home.

{ τὸν δ᾿ ἴδον ἐν νήσῳ θαλερὸν κατὰ δάκρυ χέοντα,
νύμφης ἐν μεγάροισι Καλυψοῦς, ἥ μιν ἀνάγκῃ
ἴσχει· ὁ δ᾿ οὐ δύναται ἣν πατρίδα γαῖαν ἱκέσθαι· }

The god Zeus, showing more concern for men being raped than many do today, ordered that Calypso let Odysseus leave. When Hermes arrived conveying that order, Calypso was singing and weaving within her vast cave in a remote, isolated place of natural pleasure, at least for her. Calypso declared that she had made Odysseus her “bed-companion {ἀκοίτης}.” He was an unwilling bed-companion. Calypso went to speak with Odysseus:

She found him sitting where the breakers rolled in.
His eyes were perpetually wet with tears now,
his life draining away in homesickness.
The nymph had long since ceased to please.
He still slept with her at night in her cavern,
an unwilling lover mated to her eager embrace.
Days he spent sitting on the rocks by the breakers,
staring out to sea with hollow, salt-rimmed eyes.

{ τὸν δ᾿ ἄρ᾿ ἐπ᾿ ἀκτῆς εὗρε καθήμενον· οὐδέ ποτ᾿ ὄσσε
δακρυόφιν τέρσοντο, κατείβετο δὲ γλυκὺς αἰὼν
νόστον ὀδυρομένῳ, ἐπεὶ οὐκέτι ἥνδανε νύμφη.
ἀλλ᾿ ἦ τοι νύκτας μὲν ἰαύεσκεν καὶ ἀνάγκῃ
ἐν σπέσσι γλαφυροῖσι παρ᾿ οὐκ ἐθέλων ἐθελούσῃ·
ἤματα δ᾿ ἂμ πέτρῃσι καὶ ἠιόνεσσι καθίζων
δάκρυσι καὶ στοναχῇσι καὶ ἄλγεσι θυμὸν ἐρέχθων
πόντον ἐπ᾿ ἀτρύγετον δερκέσκετο δάκρυα λείβων. }

Calypso told Odysseus that now she willing to let him go home. She deceptively mentioned nothing of Zeus’s order. Like a husband who had endured years of lies and verbal abuse from his wife, Odysseus was suspicious of Calypso’s motives and statements. He insisted that Calypso swear a binding oath that she wasn’t plotting some new intrigue to harm him. So she did. She didn’t break her oath. She sent Odysseus on his way home with a favorable wind, warm and gentle.[2]

Odysseus weeping as captive of Calypso

More prevalent than rape of men is brutalization of men’s sexuality. Reflected today in the huge gender protrusion among persons incarcerated and laws criminalizing men seducing women, a man’s sexuality is readily represented as a vicious attack upon a woman. A Late-Antique poem drew upon epic Greek phrases from the battle between Amazon warrior-women and Greek warrior-men to figure brutally men’s sexuality:

Swiftly he pierced the god-like maiden. His stout spear went right through her belly and dark blood spurted out, and her dear bed was stained. With sharp spear he pierced the maid between her thighs, her with the fair ankles, unwed, and cut through her blood-filled veins, and the dark blood bubbled swiftly through the wound that had been dealt, and the sinewy spear brought her low.

{ Αἶψα δ’ ὅγ’ ἀντιθέην κούρην βάλε· τῆς δὲ διαπρὸ
ἦλθε δόρυ στιβαρὸν κατὰ νηδύος, ἐκ δέ οἱ ὦκα
κήκιεν αἷμα μέλαν, φορύνοντό τε δέμνια φίλα·
ἔγχεϊ δ’ ὀξυόεντι μεσηγὺ κόρην βάλε μηρῶν
εὔσφυρον, ἀδμῆτιν, διὰ δὲ φλέβας αἱματοέσσας·
κέρσε· μέλαν δέ οἱ αἷμα δι’ ἕλκεος οὐταμένοιο
ἔβλυσεν ἐσσυμένως, δάμνα δέ ἑ νεύρινον ἔγχος. } [3]

Widely read newspapers deceptively reported that a nearly 25% of Asian-Pacific men admitted to raping women. Many persons probably believed that claim. Who would believe that Sabina and Ausonius, wife and husband, loved each other?

A Homeric cento written in Late Antiquity subtly reverses gender to refigure men’s sexuality.  On its surface, the poem seems disjointed:

My cruel-hearted mother, an evil mother to me;
it pains me much, the wound that a mortal man inflicted on me
in the dark night when other mortals sleep.
Naked, without a helmet and shield, nor had he a spear,
and all his sword was bathed in hot blood, but afterwards
he sent forth a favorable wind, warm and gentle.

{ Μῆτερ ἐμὴ δύσμητερ, ἀπηνέα θυμὸν ἔχουσα,
λίην ἄχθομαι ἕλκος, ὅ με βροτὸς οὔτασεν ἀνὴρ
νύκτα δι᾿ ὀρφναίην, ὅτε θ᾿ εὕδουσι βροτοὶ ἄλλοι,
γυμνὸς ἄτερ κόρυθός τε καὶ ἀσπίδος, οὐδ᾿ ἔχεν ἔγχος.
πᾶν δ᾿ ὑπεθερμάνθη ξίφος αἵματι· αὐτὰρ ἔπειτα
οὖρόν τε προέηκεν ἀπήμονά τε λιαρόν τε. } [4]

The poem seems to tell a reluctant bride’s story of her wedding night. The bride blames her mother for forcing her into marriage. The middle four lines figure the penis as a sword in painful, wounding sexual intercourse. But the final line expresses appreciation for the groom’s erection labor.

This poem should be appreciated as a Homeric cento subverting dominant gender representations. A meaningful relationship exists between the underlying Homeric source text (hypotext) and the surface text of the poem (hypertext). The six lines of the poem have the following Homeric sources:

1: Odyssey 23.97, Telemachus to his mother Penelope, she not recognizing Odysseus
2: Iliad. 5.361, Aphrodite to Mars, after Diomedes speared her
3: Iliad 10.83, Nestor to Agamemnon, worriedly waking him
4: Iliad 21.50, Lycaon, by the river Scamander, before Achilles killed him
5: Iliad 16.333, Oilean Ajax (little Ajax) killing Trojan Cleobulus
6: Odyssey 5.268 / Odyssey 7.266, Calypso sending Odysseus on his way

The first and last lines of the poem reverse the gender of the subject. In the first line, the wife, not the son, disparages the mother. In the final line, the groom, not the goddess Calypso, provides a helpful, gentle, warm flow. Yet a concluding difference is telling. Calypso actually dominated and raped Odysseus, despite classical scholars longstanding blindness to that clear representation. The husband is figured as brutalizing his bride on their wedding night, yet that figure is only a shallow, conventional representation. The Homeric cento ingeniously encodes a subversive thrust against poetically stale and oppressive representations of men’s sexuality.[5]

Creative forms of literature are necessary to liberate men from conventional, prejudicial representations. The great heroines of today’s classical scholarship are mainly apparatchiks serving gynocentrism. In contrast, Decimius Magnus Ausonius, Faltonia Betitia Proba, John Tzetzes, and Joseph of Exeter demonstrate that daring and innovative classical scholarship can sound unheard voices and help to make gynocentric power work differently.

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1] Odyssey 8.523-31, Latin text from Murray & Dimock (1995), English translation (adapted slightly) from Lombardo (2000). All subsequent quotes from the Odyssey are similarly sourced. They are: Odyssey 9.39-42 (From Ilion the wind…), 4.556-8 (I saw him on an island…), 5.120 (bed companion), and 5.151-8 (She found him sitting…). The Perseus Digital Library provides online a Greek text of the Odyssey and the English translation of Samuel Butler (1900), as revised by Timothy Power and Gregory Nagy.

The starting point for Odysseus’s journey home is revealed in the very beginning of the Odyssey:

Calypso detains the poor man in his grief,
sweet-talking him constantly, trying to charm him
into forgetting Ithaca. But Odysseus,
longing to see even the smoke curling up
from his land, simply wants to die.

{ τοῦ θυγάτηρ δύστηνον ὀδυρόμενον κατερύκει,
αἰεὶ δὲ μαλακοῖσι καὶ αἱμυλίοισι λόγοισιν
θέλγει, ὅπως Ἰθάκης ἐπιλήσεται· αὐτὰρ Ὀδυσσεύς,
ἱέμενος καὶ καπνὸν ἀποθρῴσκοντα νοῆσαι
ἧς γαίης, θανέειν ἱμείρεται. }

Odyssey 1.55-59(partial). Odysseus’s son Telemachus subsequently learns that Proteus told Menelaus that Calypso was holding Odysseus by force. Calypso held Odysseus captive for seven years. She had been raping him for a long time. When Hermes arrived at Calypso’s cave,

Odysseus was sitting on the shore,
as ever those days, honing his heart’s sorrow,
staring out to sea with hollow, salt-rimmed eyes.

{ ἀλλ᾿ ὅ γ᾿ ἐπ᾿ ἀκτῆς κλαῖε καθήμενος, ἔνθα πάρος περ,
δάκρυσι καὶ στοναχῇσι καὶ ἄλγεσι θυμὸν ἐρέχθων.
πόντον ἐπ᾿ ἀτρύγετον δερκέσκετο δάκρυα λείβων. }

Odyssey 5.81-3. This passage echoes Proteus’s description of Odysseus weeping in Odyssey 4.556-8. It emphasizes Odysseus’s grief from Calypso’s sexual violence against him. Calypso boasted that she, a goddess, was more beautiful than his wife Penelope. Odysseus, however, preferred having mutually loving sex with Penelope.

[2] Calypso is among “passionate models of female power” to a professor writing from a pinnacle of symbolic power:

The divine Calypso, Aphrodite, and Circe provide passionate models of female power — idealized fantasies of how much agency mortal women might have, if only social circumstances were completely different.

Watson (2017). Women already have astonishing power to escape punishment for raping men and boys. Only through suppressing thought of gynocentrism does this authority have true insight into Homer:

I read Homer’s great poem as a complex and truthful articulation of gender dynamics that continue to haunt us.

Id. Another authority ran the standard gynocentric trick of making the victimization of men be about women:

At the opening of the poem Odysseus languishes on the island of Ogygia, transfixed by the spellbinding words of Calypso (1.56-58), who also compels him to have sex with her — a very obvious conflation of the twin dangers of women’s language and sexuality.

Fletcher (2008) p. 78. In a similar line of thinking, men’s gender loss in lifespan and the gender bias toward killing men hurts women’s ability to collect compulsory sex payments.

McCarter questioned, “Is Homer’s Calypso a Feminist Icon or a Rapist?” The correct answer is both. McCarter shows little concern about women raping men. Her primary concern is how Homer’s Calypso relates to “feminist potential” and “feminist empowerment.” McCarter (2018).

[3] Anthologiae Planudeae, Appendix Barberino-Vaticana (Anthologia Barberina) 7, Greek text and English translation from Cameron (1992) p. 172. For philological notes, see id. p. 173, n. 14 and Sternbach (1890) pp. 7-11. The Anthologia Barberina was compiled about 919 GC in Byzantium. Lauxtermann (2003) pp. 123-8.

This poem has an anonymous attribution in the manuscript. Cameron attributes it to the same period as the ninth-century polymath Leo the Philosopher / Leo the Mathematician. Cameron (1992) p. 173, n. 14. But it would be a highly unusual Byzantine poem. It may have been written centuries earlier. Lauxtermann (2003) p. 101.

The first two lines are nearly identical to Quintus Smyrnaeus, Posthomerica 1.235-6. Thematically, the whole poem is similarly to Posthomerica 1.235-43. The language of the Posthomerica is drawn largely from Homer’s work. However, as Sternbach (1890) pp. 7-11 makes clear, this poem is not a Homeric cento, nor is it a cento, strictly speaking.

[4] Greek Anthology 9.361, Greek text and English translation (adapted slightly) from Paton (1920). The manuscripts attribute the poem to “Leo the Philosopher {Λέοντος Φιλοσόφου}.” Lauxtermann describes it as a “late antique” Homeric cento that “cannot have been written by Leo the Philosopher.” Lauxtermann (2003) p. 101. Cameron believes Leo wrote it. Cameron (1992) pp. 172-3.

Lauxtermann described this Homeric cento as “a girl’s complaint about the painful experience of her defloration.” He further characterized it as having a “scabrous subject.” Lauxtermann (2003) p. 101. Sex, of course, is a subject central to the evolution of species. Moreover, sex is vitally important in the everyday lives of a large share of adults. The term “defloration” pejoratively characterizes a woman’s first heterosexual intercourse of reproductive type. It reflects the symbolic brutalization of men’s sexuality.

[5] Late Antique poetry has long been under-appreciated. Agosti perceptively observed:

A long-established critical tradition speaks of the ‘ivory tower’ of the late antique poets (and especially of Nonnus and his ‘school’), stressing the literary side of their activity. As for myself, I am firmly convinced this is only one side of the coin and that we cannot float on the calm surface of literary analysis without considering the possible reactions of Nonnus’ contemporary audience.

Agosti (2014) p. 312. The Homeric cento on a wedding night is an ingenious, socially engaged literary work. It should be interpreted with appreciation for the dominant pattern of representing men’s sexuality, gynocentrism, and the transgressive tradition of Ausonius’s Wedding Cento.

Recent study has shown that Homeric verses had a variety of applications. On using Homeric verses for divination, Martín-Hernández (2013). See similarly the oracles of Astrampsychus. Context of use is critical for interpretation:

Any interpretation of the homeromanteion as it currently survives is based on the reciprocity of answer and question, a concept which invites us to ask to what inquiries the homeromanteion responded; how, more precisely, Homer’s lines were used from a performance perspective; and how meaning was further constructed.

Karanika (2011) p. 273. Homeric verses also were used apotropaically.  Renberg (2017). The Homeric cento on a wedding night addresses a plague-like representational problem.

[images] (1) Calypso, blonde goddess. Painting by Jan Styka. Made early in the twentieth century. Via Wikimedia Commons. (2) Odysseus weeping on the shore as a captive of Calypso. Painting by Arnold Böcklin. Made in 1882. Held as accession # 108 in Kunstmuseum Basel (Switzerland). Via Wikimedia Commons.


Agosti, Gianfranco. 2014. “Greek Poetry in Late Antique Alexandria: between Culture and Religion.” Pp. 287-312 in Guichard, Luis Arturo, Juan Luis Garcia Alonso, and María Paz de Hoz, eds. 2014. The Alexandrian Tradition: interactions between science, religion, and literature. Bern: Peter Lang.

Cameron, Alan. 1992. The Greek Anthology: from Meleager to Planudes. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Fletcher, Judith. 2008. “Women’s Space and Wingless Words in the Odyssey.” Phoenix. 62 (1-2): 77-91.

Karanika, Andromache. 2011. “Homer the Prophet: Homeric Verses and Divination in the Homeromanteion.” Ch. 13 (pp. 255-278) in A. P. M. H. Lardinois, Josine Blok, and Marc van der Poel, eds. Sacred Words: orality, literacy, and religion. International Conference on Orality and Literacy in the Ancient World. Leiden: Brill.

Lauxtermann, Marc D. 2003. Byzantine Poetry from Pisides to Geometres. Vien: Der Osterreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften.

Lombardo, Stanley, trans. 2000. Homer. Odyssey. Indianapolis: Hackett Pub. Co.

Martín-Hernández, Raquel. 2013. “Using Homer for Divination: Homeromanteia in Context.” CHS Research Bulletin 2, no. 1 (online).

McCarter, Stephanie. 2018. “Is Homer’s Calypso a Feminist Icon or a Rapist?Electric Lit (online, Jan. 30).

Murray, A.T., trans., revised by George E. Dimock. 1995. Homer. The Odyssey. New ed. Loeb Classical Library 104-5. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

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).

Renberg, Gil H. 2017. “Homeric Verses and the Prevention of Plague? A New Inscription from Roman Termessos and its Religious Context.” Pp. 165-171 in Coleman, Kathleen M., ed. Albert’s anthology. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Sternbach, Leo, ed. 1890. Anthologiae Planudeae: appendix Barberino-Vaticana. Lipsiae: Teubneri.

Watson, Emily. 2017. “A Translator’s Reckoning with the Women of the Odyssey.” The New Yorker. Dec. 8.

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