WOMEN OF SUBSTANCE IN HOMERIC EPIC: Objects, Gender, Agency

Lilah Grace Canevaro

OUP (2018) h/b 316pp £70 (ISBN 9780198826309)

This book is a literary study about women using, rather than merely being, objects to influence and making their own contribution to the action of the Iliad and Odyssey as well as that of the Hesiodic corpus. It positions itself as part of the new generation of female viewpoints on Homeric poetry, not just in academic studies, but also in modern translations of the epics and re-imaginings of the stories, self-consciously applying a multifaceted framework of modern theoretical approaches from outside classical studies, such as New Materialism, Gender, Thing and Stuff theories and memory studies, to the appreciation of ancient Greek literature and thus cultivating an ‘attentiveness to things’ (p. 9).

The introduction sets out the general approach and provides a survey of the contents of the book, which begins by investigating the terms ‘object’ and ‘agent’ and the representation of the relationship between people and things in literature and other art forms, showing how objects can possess a form of agency that affects the course of the narrative. C. demonstrates the importance of objects in elite male gift exchange, which gain their cultural biography by being passed from one hand to another, and explores the difference between male and female interaction with objects: how men tend to use them, while women make them and often give the objects they have made to preserve ‘the memory of the present for posterity’ (p. 3).

Chapter Two highlights the differences between the agency of women in war and in peace (i.e. between the Iliad and the Odyssey, in which they have much greater influence on the action of the poem). Key figures are ‘liminal’ women like Helen and Penelope, who display exceptional autonomy through being outside normal kurios control and through their weaving demonstrate awareness of kleos and take part in xenia with their own gifts. This chapter also shows women as both supporting and taking strength from the architecture of the house, discusses Eurycleia’s effect on the narrative pace of the later books of the Odyssey through her command of doors and locks, and examines the idea of woven textiles as a means of sending messages beyond the household as well as being an indication of productivity, collaborative gender relations and domestic stability.

Chapter Three is devoted to Odysseus as a unique example of a liminal man, both creator and re-purposer of objects, sensitive to the feminine viewpoint, who is passed from one female possessor to the next, each of whom uses textiles to try to shape him to their own desires. This chapter also deals with handiwork and hands as the point of contact between person and object, and veils as liminal objects used at points of life transition.

Chapter Four explores the limitations of objects as media of memory, proposing that woven textiles are as transient as the women who make them, whereas epic poetry is a more secure memorial, and also how objects overcome their limitations through association with the gods and how gods can exert control over the mortal sphere partly by using objects in ways coherent with mortal practices, able both to create and destroy.

The final chapter deals with objects in the Hesiodic corpus, the intertextuality of the ‘jar’ motif in both Homeric epic and the story of Pandora and how the deceptive nature of Iron Age women is emphasised through objects. The final exploration of the relationship between women, objects and agency is in the stories of Mestra, Alcmene, Atalanta and the suitors of Helen in the Catalogue of Women. There is a short epilogue about the likeness between handicrafts and poetry—the interweaving of textile and text and how objects facilitate communication and transmit messages, so that female forms of communication operate in parallel to male honour and gift exchange.

The book contains an extensive bibliography and indices of passages cited and subjects as well as a small number of black and white illustrations. All Greek is translated so it is accessible to non-Greek readers, but it will remain chiefly of interest to an academic audience with a specialist interest in Homeric poetry. 

Claire Gruzelier

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