Symbolism in Homer’s Odyssey: On the Blindness of Polyphemos

As many of you know, I have been teaching Homer’s Odyssey for four years now. During this time I have taught it four times to high school students, and I have also had the pleasure to teach community members and parents for the last three years in bi-weekly seminars. So, by the end of this year, I will have taught this Ancient epic poem through lecture and seminar seven times. Add to that my reading it during graduate school, taking an Ancient Greek preceptorial on it, and having “read” it in undergraduate education, and this is my tenth time going through the ancient epic. So, it is high time to share some mature reflections on the meaning of certain key moments in the text as something of a celebration of this feat! Today, we will begin with the cyclopes episode and the dread monster, Polyphemos.

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As almost everybody knows, during the “cyclops episode” Odysseus gets himself into trouble looking for a “guest-gift” from a man with savage and wild nature, who also happens to be a giant, man-eating cyclops. This cyclops eats six of Odysseus’ men, famously believes Odysseus when he calls himself ou tis or Nobody, and is eventually physically blinded by Odysseus before calling down a curse on him after he reveals his name. Below, we will consider the ways in which Polyphemos is illustrated as truly blind, regardless of whether he has his physical sight, and that in fact he only “sees” after he loses his capacity for physical sight, much as the illuminated poet of the Phaiakians, Demodokos, cannot physically see anything but the truth of stories, and the blind prophet Teiresias, cannot physically see, but can see the truth of the future.

The four examples of Polyphemos’ blindness to intangible truths is illustrated in four events: 1) his blindness to being deceived about Odysseus’ “given” name, Nobody; 2) his blindness of the fact that Odysseus would dare injure or kill him; 3) his blindness to seeing the path beneath his rams as a means of escape, and of course 4) his blindness to the fact that a small and insignificant appearing man might be the very man of prophecy who was sent to bring about his blindness (sort of similar and opposite to another man sent by prophecy to the Western world to alter one’s vision.) Let us now consider what these illustrative examples teach us about the true nature of the cyclops’ sight.

First and foremost, one immediately knows that sight and seeing will be huge parts of this episode by the fact that Polyphemos is a cyclops or a Kuklos+ops=Circle-eye. Though he is reported to have “brows” which are singed by Odysseus’ olive-brand, the cyclops is known to have one eye by nature or due to some injury at another time. The point, however, is to note that a creature with one eye lacks depth-perspective in the natural world, but in this world of epic imagination, his one eye indicates his lack of perspective in general.

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How he demonstrates his lack of perspective* is by the following acts. First, Odysseus lies to him multiple times: the first time, Polyphemos asks after Odysseus’ ship’s location, and though Odysseus has 12 ships docked at the island, he savvily responds that Poseidon had destroyed his ship and that only he and his 12 companions remained. Later again, while Odysseus is ingratiating himself to the cyclops and the monster is consuming unmixed wine, the cyclops asks who Odysseus is, to which Odysseus famously responds: Nobody. All this goes to show, so far, that Polyphemos does not see through the words and intentions of Odysseus, whereas Odysseus in his responses to Polyphemos, clearly sees what the monster is up to. Therefore, if Odysseus happens to defeat the monster, who is much stronger and larger than Odysseus, the reason would be that seeing through, or having perspective, or cunning, is a more valuable skill than brute and blind strength. Odysseus, of course, does escape.

Next, the foolish cyclops assumes or does not see the threat posed by Odysseus. He falls asleep drunk, vomits up both wine and human remains, and leaves himself open to attack. To his mind, Odysseus would not dare attack him because only Polyphemos can move the boulder blocking the entrance to the cave. He has however miscalculated, failed to see, that Odysseus might come up with a circuitous and complex plan of escape, which involves physically blinding the cyclops. The cyclops therefore fails to account for a threat precisely because he does not see Odysseus as one. He pays with his physical sight for this. And as Polyphemos yells out that “nobody is hurting me by force or violence,” of course nobody helps him!

After losing his sight, Polyphemos then himself hatches a plot to catch Odysseus. He opens the cavern and sits himself at the entrance to touch and inspect the backs of his goats, sheep, and rams as they exit. That said, he fails to see that Odysseus and his men might just as well lash themselves beneath the rams and escape scot-free. He even fails to see, while wishing that his ram could speak, that it could tell him where Odysseus was. But since it always leads the pack, and today is so clearly weighed down, he fails to see that the ram has told him where Odysseus/Nobody is! And it is the cyclops’ foolish assumptions which keep him from seeing it! So, though his plan takes account of part of the whole situation, again he lacks the perspective necessary to see the situation correctly, or wholly, blinded by his own presuppositions.

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Lastly, as Odysseus and his men escape on their ships, Odysseus himself losing perspective yells out to the cyclops twice, both times risking disaster as the cyclops slightly misses the mark (hamartia**) throwing large boulders (one is called a mountain-peak) near enough Odysseus’ ship to wash it back ashore. The blindness, however, is even more lucidly illustrated by the fact that when Polyphemos learns the name Odysseus, he recalls a prophecy by a former prophet named Telemos who said that one day some Odysseus would blind Polyphemos. Polyphemos, however, trenchant in his blinding arrogance had expected a bigger and more exceptional man to fulfill this prophecy! So, he tragically, for himself, failed to see that a man who seemed to be weak and of no account, could be the fulfiller of his destiny. The man who would physically take the sight which he symbolically lacked. So, like Teiresias, the blind prophet, and Demodokos, the blind but illuminated singer, the cyclops loses his physical sight, but in this moment of realization he finally sees what has happened to him, and how symbolically fate tends to work! His physical sight blinds him to what is real, but ultimately, only through losing his physical sight does he acquire the insight or the hindsight that the prophecy about his blindness had already been fulfilled!

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*The word perspective of course comes from the Latin word Perspectivum, or an optical glass through one sees, from perspicere: to look closely.

**Hamartia comes from the Greek alpha-privative and marturos (seer/witness), so “not-witness”, or one who errs by failing to see the truth.

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Conversations with Students X: The Sacking of Troy and Beginning of an Odyssey

In transitioning from Homer’s Iliad, his story of war, high emotion, and the toll that such emotion takes on mortal lives, to the far-blown fame and person of Odysseus in Homer’s Odyssey, we first took a moment to look at the summaries that still remain of “The Epic Cycle”, and then we moved forward through the first book of Homer’s Odyssey (Lattimore’s translation). Thus begins our second seminar series.

We discussed all that happened between the Iliad and Odyssey, with the sage help of Proclus who preserved summaries of the six lost epics of the Epic Cycle (found here or here) These lost epics: The Cypria by Stasinus of Cyprus (staged as immediately preceding Homer’s Iliad), The Aethiopis of Artinus of Miletus immediately afterward, The Little Iliad of Lesches of Mitylene, The Sacking of Troy also by Arctinus of Miletus, The Returns of Agias of Trozen, and eventually, after Homer’s OdysseyThe Telegony comprise the story called “The Epic Cycle”. Together they form the events which lead up to the Trojan War, the Trojan War, and the after-math of the war for the Achaians. Traditionally, they would have filled in many, many gaps left by the Iliad and Odyssey as a pair, but sadly, over time, and lack of reproduction, each of the other six epics was lost to time. This was not, however, the deepest tragedy, says Aristotle in his praise of Homer’s unity of plot and criticism of The Cypria and The Little Iliad in his Poetics (1459a-b)

“So in this respect, too, compared with all other poets Homer may seem, as we have already said, divinely inspired, in that even with the Trojan war, which has a beginning and an end, he did not endeavor to dramatize it as a whole, since it would have been either too long to be taken in all at once or, if he had moderated the length, he would have complicated it by the variety of incident. As it is, he takes one part of the story only and uses many incidents from other parts, such as the Catalogue of Ships and other incidents with which he diversifies his poetry. The others, on the contrary, all write about a single hero or about a single period or about a single action with a great many parts, the authors, [1459b] [1] for example, of the Cypria and the Little Iliad. The result is that out of an Iliad or an Odyssey only one tragedy can be made, or two at most, whereas several have been made out of the Cypria, and out of the Little Iliad more than eight, e.g. The Award of Arms, Philoctetes, Neoptolemus, Eurypylus, The Begging, The Laconian Women, The Sack of Troy, and Sailing of the Fleet, and Sinon, too, and The Trojan Women.”

For though we have lost the other six epics, apparently they were not of the same caliber as are the two epics we have remaining to us. So, confident that two masterpieces will do and summaries filling in our knowledge where it is lacking will suffice, let us move forward to consider the fates of several heroes we knew well during the interim between Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey.

The students were shocked by the men who died during and after the war, and some felt emotion even for the basest Achaians. Achilleus, Paris, both the Aiantes, Antilochos, Priam, Astyanax, Deiphobos (many Trojans during the sacking, of course), Phoinix, Thersites, and even Agamemnon, but the deaths which are most shocking are each of the Aiantes, Agamemnon, and some students even showed sadness for poor hunched-backed Thersites. So we know, Achilleus died either by the hand of Paris and Apollo or Apollo alone. Not a surprise to the students given the several prophecies of Achilleus’ death the Iliad. That Paris should get the winning shot was a true moment of humility for all students, though the fact that Apollo helped him along helped to alleviate the sort of “Evil David vs. Good Goliath” effect.

Aias the Greater’s death was more of a disappointment to the students. During the Iliad, he was a brave and supreme hero. He went on the Embassy to Achilleus, was clear in his purpose, and twice almost killed Hektor. He, unlike Achilleus, Menelaos, Eurypylos, Machaon, Agamemnon, and Odysseus, was one of the few major champions who remained uninjured throughout the fighting. He was glorious and bold, and the fact that through his pride and folly that he took his own life in suicide was a bitter disappointment to the students. Naturally, they learned that it was because according to his code, he was disgraced, and by his code he died: he lost the speech-contest to Odysseus for the “arms of Achilleus” and proceeded to attempt to kill Odysseus, Menelaos, and Agamemnon, but he was thwarted by Athene “mazing” his vision so that he only killed cattle. Feeling disgraced and abandoned by the gods, Aias felt that his final dignity would be to deny his former friends the glory of ending his life, and thus was the fate of Aias the Greater.*

Aias the Lesser met with considerably less pity. In an attempt at raping the cursed prophetess daughter of Kassandra in the temple of Athene, Lokrian Aias defamed and damaged an image of Athene therefore earning her ire for himself and the rest of the Achaians. The students did not care for how quickly Athene turned on the Achaians, but in matters of sacrifice and honor to the gods, the students have learned that the gods come first to the gods. Aias, then, when accosted by a great storm sent by Athene is nearly drowned with his ship and men, but after Poseidon saved him, Aias lost his mind, and recklessly declared his supremacy to the gods. Poseidon then used his trident to break the rock onto which Aias was clinging and send him to a watery doom. The students almost universally said, “that was so stupid.”

Agamemnon will later receive an article essentially all his own, but for now it is enough to mention that the students remembered his betraying of Klytaimnestra by deceiving her into sending Iphigeneia to be sacrificed at Aulis under the pretence of marriage to Achilleus. Many students said that this was justice, but further conversation will be reserved until later.

Moving from the time between and the many, many questions which we will return to (like do the students feel OK with the fact that Troy was taken by cunning, not strength), we then considered the importance and difference between the proems (first few lines) of each of the poems and how their themes, tones, and manners of presentation may be different.

Homer’s Iliad (1.1-1.7)

SING, goddess, the anger of Peleus’ son Achilleus
and its devastation, which put pains thousandfold upon the Achaians,
hurled in their multitudes to the house of Hades strong souls
of heroes, but gave their bodies to be the delicate feasting
of dogs, of all birds, and the will of Zeus was accomplished
since that time when first there stood in division of conflict
Atreus’ son the lord of men and brilliant Achilleus.

Homer’s Odyssey (1.1-1.10)

Tell me, Muse, of the man of many ways, who was driven
far journeys, after he had sacked Troy’s sacred citadel.
Many were they whose cities he saw, whose minds he learned of,
many the pains he suffered in his spirit on the wide sea,
struggling for his own life and the homecoming of his companions.
Even so he could not save his companions, hard though
he strove to; they were destroyed by their own wild recklessness,
fools, who devoured the oxen of Helios, the Sun God,
and he took away the day of their homecoming. From some point
here, goddess, daughter of Zeus, speak, and begin our story.

We immediately notice some distinct differences between the two proems. The Iliad sings of the emotion of a semi-divine man and his feud with a “leader of men” and the many men on their side of battle who will die because of this. The Iliad is also sung (aeide). The Odyssey is the telling (ennepe) of the many struggles of a suffering man who fails to save his companions due to their own recklessness. The distinction between the Iliad being sung and the Odyssey told (though of course both would be sung in dactylic hexameter by rhapsodes) is one the students made a strong attempt at. Emotion, they say, is a higher theme, or at the least, song is more appropriate to conveying of emotion–it is more emotional the students say, and “gut-wrenching” does seem a word more aptly ascribed to painful dirges. (Viz. (or rather Aud.) Adele’s Hello).

Another important difference is that the focus of the book will shift from the interplay between the will of the gods and man to how man inevitably adds to his own suffering and destruction. In fact, this theme of wild “recklessness” (atasthalia) is repeated in the words of no smaller a figure than Zeus, king of the gods, not twenty lines later:

“Oh, for shame, how the mortals put the blame upon us gods, for they say evils come from us, but it is they, rather, who by their own recklessness (atasthalia) win sorrow beyond what is given…” (1.32-35)

So, though the students gave a detailed list of times when the gods seemed to add to the suffering of mortals, the most provocative of which is likely during Book III of the Iliad when Hera and Zeus agree to let Ilion be destroyed and Athene convinces Pandaros to break the truce between the Trojans and the Achaians, we will remain sensitive to the statement that mortals create their own suffering and that their own lack of resiliency, perseverance, discernment, or fidelity lead to their destruction during the Odyssey.

In conclusion, as an extra treat, I will include here major themes we will consider, and which will be present all through Homer’s Odyssey and our seminars on it:

(1) Father and son relationships and their complexity;

(2) Concealed (kalupto) or veiled truths and the art of misdirection;

(3) Perseverance and the “hero’s” journey;

(4) Homecoming (nostos) and what makes a home (so important);

(5) The Xenia or guest/host relationship and its importance;

(6) Detainment, both mental and physical, and its hateful nature.

And bonus number two is a list of Relevant Quotes to the first Seminar which may well earn their own post soon:

1.347-349 Telemachos blames Zeus for all mortals’ troubles.

“They [the suitors] all would find death was quick, and marriage a painful matter.” (1.266)

“You should not go on clinging to childhood. You are no longer an age to do that.” (1.296-297)

“The gods have not made yours a birth that will go nameless…” (1.222)

Nobody really knows his own father.” (my bold; 1.216)

“Your words to me are kind…what any father would say to his son.” (1.307-308)

“Do not detain me any longer, eager as I am for my journey.” (1.315)

“The daughter of Ikarios, circumspect Penelope, heard and heeded the magical song from her upper chamber, and descended the high staircase that was built in her palace, not all alone, since two handmaidens went to attend her. When she, shining among women, came near the suitors, she stood by the pillar that supported the roof with its joinery, holding her shining veil in front of her face, to shield it, and a devoted attendant was stationed on either side of her.” (1.328-335)

“But if she continues to torment the sons of the Achaians, since she is so dowered with the wisdom bestowed by Athene, to be expert in beautiful work, to have good character and cleverness, such as we are not told of, even of the ancient queens, the fair-tressed Achaian women of times before us, Tyro and Alkmene and Mykene, wearer of garlands; for none of these knew thoughts so wise as Penelope knew;” (2.115-122)

*Greater detail will be given to Telamonian Aias during our seminar on The Ajax of Sophocles.

The Monstrous and the Divine in the Homeric World

If ever there were a world meant to make one feel small it would be Homer’s.  As one reads through the lines of his Iliad and Odyssey, time and time again one observes that which could never be observed: semi-divine heroes and absolute monarchs; creatures of unstoppable might or gargantuan size, and gods on high, beyond all things mortal, except for, of course, the affairs of man. The question thus arises, what might one learn from such untouchable and unbelievable characters, creatures, and gods? What could one learn from say Achilleus and Agamemnon, the Cyclopes and the Sirens, and Zeus and his distinguished family? Let us find out.

One meets Achilleus and Agamemnon in the first seven lines of Homer’s Iliad:

“Sing, goddess, the anger of Peleus’ son Achilleus
and its devastation, which put pains thousandfold upon the Achaians,
hurled in their multitudes to the house of Hades strong souls
of heroes, but gave their bodies to be the delicate feasting
of dogs, of all birds, and the will of Zeus was accomplished
since that time when first there stood in division of conflict
Atreus’ son the lord of men and brilliant Achilleus.” (Iliad Bk I 1-7, Lattimore tr.)

The rest of the story, though featuring gods, machinations, and bouts with and decisions about iron-clad fate, is essentially an off-shooting from these first lines. All that happens during the course of the Iliad stems from the strife between Agamemnon and Achilleus. Achilleus, the semi-divine and near invincible son of Thetis, the Nereid, conqueror of twenty-three cities, and Agamemnon, lord of Mycenae and Argos, leader of 100 ships, and the field marshal of the 1000 ships of the Achaian fleet. These men are giants in the truest sense of the word. However, they are both profoundly human in that they are childish and emotionally weak–and that their emotions lead them both to smallness and perdition from mightiness and grandeur.

Agamemnon, by dishonoring Achilleus in the first book (by taking his concubine, Briseis), loses his greatest warrior–the only warrior keeping Hektor of Troy from routing the Achaians, burning their fleet, and sending Agamemnon’s name into posterity as the king who lost the biggest war in history–Ignominy for the price of one girl.* Achilleus, on the other hand, knows that he has two destinies and that one includes his sky-borne fame:

“For my mother Thetis the goddess of the silver feet tells me
I carry two sorts of destiny toward the day of my death.  Either,
if I stay here and fight beside the city of the Trojans,
my return home is gone, but my glory shall be everlasting;
but if I return home to the beloved land of my fathers,
the excellence of my glory is gone, but there will be a long life
left for me, and my end in death will not come to me quickly.” (Iliad Bk IX 405-416, Lattimore tr.)

And though Achilleus valued glory above all else in the time before the Iliad, the disrespect Agamemnon paid him has made him question the whole heroic code of conduct–so much so that he dared to speak: “Fate is the same for the man who holds back, the same if he fights hard. We are all held in a single honor, the brave with the weaklings.” (Iliad Bk IX 318-320, Lattimore tr.) Achilleus, though he may be making a cogent point, has become surly and self-absorbed. He now matches the covetousness of Agamemnon with his own rage and his own self-interested pursuit of whichever destiny suits him best.

Both Agamemnon and Achilleus are beyond human in their gifts and abilities, and yet both are so small and so utterly human in that they are controlled and harnessed by their emotions, rather than vice versa. Perhaps divine gifts are not always quite so divine as they seem, especially when one considers Achilleus and Agamemnon in light of Nestor and Odysseus, who, though wise and cunning, respectively, held nowhere near as much physical or political power. Both men, though, make it home alive and well, and both are still lauded to this day.

The monstrous then rears its ugly head in Homer’s Odyssey. Though the Iliad featured many semi-divine warriors (Sarpedon, Achilleus, Memnon (technically after), Tlepolemos, Aeneas, etc…) it is Homer’s Odyssey which showcases monsters as invincible and irresistible as forces of nature. On the one hand, there is the Lotus Flower of the Lotus Eaters, which causes all men who consume it to forget themselves and their homecoming, and then there is the sweet and all-knowing song of the Sirens which all men succumb to if they hear it. One sees also giant and uncivilized murderers like Polyphemos, the Cyclops and Antiphates and his Laistrygones, who happen to kill 10/11 of Odysseus’ men. There are then also more selective or limited monsters–still as irresistibly powerful: Circe with her “malignant drugs” which cause Odysseus’ men to turn to swine (only Hermes’ advice to eat the divine plant “Moly” saves Odysseus from this fate), or Skylla and her killing with her six vicious heads, and Charybdis who swallows the salt-sea and all that travels across her whirlpool’s edge.

Truly, what lessons could be learned from the Lotus Eaters and Sirens? Is it that certain forces, precisely because of their pleasant nature, will always be beyond human will and control? Or perhaps, when encountering the Cyclopes and Laistrygones, what the price of false expectations and assumptions is? Or is it that no amount of human physical strength will win out in certain situations? Again with Skylla and Charybdis, does one learn that in life there will be times when one is faced by decisions where pain and suffering will be the result of either path, and one must choose the lesser of two significant evils? And then Circe, and the power some divinity, or some pursuit may have to turn men into baser animals, pigs. These monsters exist within Homer’s Odyssey not as simple and imaginative fanfare, but as illustrations of situations, events, and conditions that are at once beyond human control, and universally and commonly present in the life of any man or woman.

Having seen magnificent men and monstrous creatures, let us now consider the gods. As early as the end of Book I of Homer’s Iliad one has the opportunity to see the consort and relationships between the gods and the necessity for peace between them. After Achilleus begs his mother, Thetis, to have Zeus honor him because the Achaians, and specifically Agamemnon, have dishonored him, Thetis flies to Zeus in heaven to request that he give honor to her poor son, Achilleus.Though Zeus is loath to go against the will of his wife Hera (Hera, Poseidon, and Athene are all staunch supporters of the Achaians), Thetis reminds him of the time that she freed him from the clutches of the same three gods/goddesses and restored him to power. Zeus then nods his head, and immediately after Thetis flies off, Hera starts berating him, in all too familiar way, for consorting with Thetis and no doubt hurting her plans to destroy Troy. Zeus replies to her with a show of force that would become common throughout the Iliad:

“Dear lady, I never escape you, you are always full of suspicion.
Yet thus you can accomplish nothing surely, but be more
distant from my heart than ever, and it will be the worse for you.
If what you say is true, then that is the way I wish it.
But go then, sit down in silence, and do as I tell you,
for fear all the gods, as many as are on Olympos, can do nothing
if I come close and lay my unconquerable hands upon you.” (Iliad Bk 561-567, Lattimore tr.)

Hephaistos, son of Hera, and by some accounts Zeus as well, steps between the two, reminding them that gods ought not to quarrel on the behalf of mortals and that there will be no pleasure in feasting because “vile things will be uppermost”. Hephaistos then reminds Hera of the power of Zeus and how he once threw Hephaistos off of Olympos–who had stepped between Zeus and Hera–so that he fell from the sky for an entire day until plummeted to the earth of the island of Lemnos (an image repeated by Lucifer in Book I of Milton’s Paradise Lost). (One can read the whole exchange here.)

Although the basic foundation of morality and politics does appear to be the absolute power of Zeus, if one looks closely, that looks more like  starting point for the interactions of the gods than it does an ending point. For one, Zeus goes against the will of his wife in order to honor a debt he has to Thetis. Is honoring a debt something that an all-powerful and tyrannical ruler is required to do by law? Certainly no law above him could bring this about; it is his own code applied to himself–and it takes the form of honoring a debt, or a favor done for him, above honoring the will of his own wife. This is a very interesting insight into the ways of politics as exemplified by the gods. For if he is all powerful, why does Zeus feel the need to act politically at all? And if an all-powerful god acts politically, honoring debts, listening to reason, and refusing at all times to assert his power, is one to understand that a human, far less powerful, ought to do the same? Does one imagine that haughty Agamemnon would honor a debt that would cause him any discomfort at all? Was not the entire ordeal between him and Achilleus brought about precisely because he would not be without “every honor” a leader deserves?

Secondly, what is Hephaistos’ role on Olympos here? He already knows that he is risking severe physical punishment (he either limps because he was thrown by Zeus off Olympos or because he was born deformed, depending on account) by standing between Zeus and Hera, but it is telling that he plays the role of peacemaker. He reminds Hera of the power of Zeus so that Zeus need not express his power himself. Again this is a lesson both Achilleus and Agamemnon could learn from. Agamemnon expresses his power by taking the concubine of Achilleus. And Achilleus nearly expressed his power by reaching to pull his sword and kill Agamemnon until Athene pulls his hair to stop him from acting rashly (Bk I 197-200). Nestor steps between the two men and he calms their emotions for a moment, but where Hephaistos brings the gods to peace, Nestor only prevents further immediate physical and disastrous conflict. The damage to the relationship between Achilleus and Agamemnon, though, is done. It seems that as human as the gods can be, in terms of having emotions and acting violently, that at least in the first book of Homer’s Iliad they are capable of a peace or political order that the men below are not.

*One is almost tempted to observe the subtle and pervading presence of women’s power in the Homer, but that is the subject of another essay soon to come