The Massachusetts Medievalist on archetypal moments and problematic episodes (Odyssey, Books 21-24)

There are so many iconic literary moments at the end of The Odyssey that it’s hard to do more than simply touch on them (and inevitably leave some out). But here’s a starter list:

The bow that seems to know its true owner (just like “the wand knows the wizard”?)

The test of military skill with specific weapons (think Excalibur or Luke’s light-saber)

The choice to let the bard/poet live during the battle so he can sing immortal songs afterward (think about the various bards that appear during Beowulf)

The test of the bed that can’t be moved (with the special satisfaction of knowing that Odysseus, the wily hero, is now being tested himself by his perhaps equally wily wife)

Athena holding back the dawn so that Odysseus and Penelope can catch up a bit (we have all wanted this skill at some point, if not for this specific reason)

The imposition of peace from the gods to end the action (not technically a “deus ex machina” but pretty darn close)

Each of these moments defines a trope or archetype that is then repeated throughout narrative traditions — sometimes intentionally (think about the preparations for the fight between Hector and Achille in Walcott’s Omeros), sometimes unintentionally (think about the courtroom scene at the end of My Cousin Vinny). The parallels with the Ramayana‘s scene with the bow are so striking that they have led to much critical discussion about whether the original compositors of the Ramayana knew a form of the Odyssey.

But there are also some problems with the end of The Odyssey, all of which tie into Wilson’s description of Odysseus as a “complicated man.” Foremost is the issue of the slaughter of the slave girls in Book XXII – Odysseus orders Telemachus to murder them for their sexual infidelity to his house.  Numerous feminist critics have pointed out that these “maidservants” (see last week’s post for references to translation choices around these and other enslaved characters) had no choice in the matter, as female slaves were assumed to be sexually available to male guests.  Both Margaret Atwood and Madeline Miller have provided fictional redress to this problem as part of their novels that re-tell (some of) the events of The Odyssey from the points of view of female characters. (Side note: fanfic is an entry at Merriam-Webster but only a “draft addition” in the Oxford English Dictionary.)

For me this time around, Odysseus’s test of his father in Book XXIV was especially infuriating.  He’s back, he’s beaten the suitors, he’s reunited with Penelope, he has the adulation of his young adult son….but he still needs to make up one more lie, one more fake back story for Laertes to see if he can fool him. He can’t just give the old guy a break, announce his identity, show his scar, and get on with the important point that he’s just killed a lot of the young male population of Ithaca and surrounding districts.  The peace at the end of the epic is a divinely-imposed peace which seems very precarious to me right now (August 2018); the humans in the narrative have agreed to peace only under duress, and the violence under the surface has not been eradicated or dealt with but merely suppressed.  It seems like the end of any epic sequence (Beowulf, the Ramayana, Star Wars, Harry Potter…..) in that the ending isn’t really an ending but more of a pause. Homer didn’t compose a sequel — the Telemachy of books I-IV did not presage a separate epic of the heroic deeds of Telemachus — but he has definitely left wide open the door of opportunity to continue to think about what could happen next. Many of the authors in global literary traditions have walked, consciously or unconsciously, through that door.

So here ends the Lesley summer reading group 2018, though I’ll be monitoring comments here and on twitter through the month of August – I have very much enjoyed this chance to revisit one of the cornerstones of literary tradition!

The Massachusetts Medievalist on marital recognition and our discomfort with slavery (Odyssey, Books 17-20)

As promised, I’ve done some more research and thinking about slavery in Ancient Greek culture in general and in the Odyssey in particular. Twenty-first century Americans think of slavery almost wholly in the terms defined by American history: chattel-slavery based on race and ethnicity, the horror of the Middle Passage, the Civil War and its ongoing aftermath.  We need to wrench ourselves away from that mindset and realize that the term “slaves” in Ancient Greece had a variety of meanings; the most common was a reference to people who were enslaved because they had been captured in war. Cassandra was technically a slave of Agamemnon before Clytemnestra killed her; her previous statuses as Princess of Troy or Priestess of Apollo had no bearing on Agamemnon’s absolute power over her as a war prize.  Eumaeus’s story of his kidnapping and sale into slavery details a slightly less common route to enslavement, since he was not a war prize but more of an economic risk and investment.

While these slaves may have been defined or defined themselves as ethnically distinct from their enslavers, “race” did not define Ancient Greek slavery the way that it did in the pre-Civil War United States. There may not have been dramatic or even subtle differences among the phenotypes of Odysseus and the enslaved people on his lands in Ithaca (or among analogous historical people of the same period).

In numerous interviews, Wilson has been emphatic about her translation of Homer’s vocabulary that referred to “slaves” – to people who were unfree, bound to others through law and custom and violence. Most twentieth-century translators try to avoid their/our discomfort around Homer’s matter-of-fact assumption of the moral neutrality of slavery; in terms of our modern understandings of literary character, Odysseus is a hero, so he cannot be an enslaver. Translators have thus tried to euphemize Homer’s language of enslavement. Compare the following lists (all references are to Book XVII but similar examples throughout the epic):

Wilson:

Women owned by strong-willed Odysseus (l.32-33)
Slave girls (l.88)
Humble slave girl (l.94)
Slaves……slaves (l.321…323)

Fagles:

Maid(s) (ll.34, 97, etc)
Women (l.94)
Serving-women (l.546)
Housekeeper (ll.100, 284, etc)

Wilson’s translation does not indulge in euphemism; she forces us to remember that Odysseus is a “complicated man” (I.1). A New York Times article remarks that  (spoiler alert: this NYT article and the podcast linked below refer to episodes from the final four books of the epic):

…. “maidservants” has often been put forward as a “correct” translation of the Greek δμωαι, dmoai, which Wilson calls “an entirely misleading and also not at all literal translation,” the root of the Greek meaning “to overpower, to tame, to subdue” — [these women] weren’t free.

In an episode of the Endless Knot podcast (at about minute 38, although the whole interview is interesting), Wilson notes “how much slavery is erased in other translations,” arguing that Eumaeus is not just some “faithful retainer” who has chosen his life and loyalty; she makes the very uncomfortable and very important point that Eumaeus is an “ideal kind of slave from the owner’s point of view” since he seems to harbor no resentment or anger towards Odysseus or Telemachus, his “owners” – instead, he loves Telemachus as a son and dreams of the day Odysseus will return.

To close this week’s musings, I’ll touch briefly on one of the most prioritized critical questions about this section of Odyssey: whether or not Penelope recognizes Odysseus during their interview in Book XIX.  Fagles obviously thinks she does, as his punctuation choice here makes clear (Penelope seems to stumble verbally, almost saying “wash your master’s feet” before she recovers):

Up with you now, my good old Eurycleia,
come and wash your master’s . . . .. equal in years.
Odysseus must have feet and hands like his by now (Fagles XIX.406-408)

But the original Greek is less forthcoming – it’s simply not explicit in the text whether she knows (or if he knows that she knows, or if she knows that he knows that she knows……). Your own answer to this question will tell you a lot about your own views of marriage and relationships in general and of these characters in particular. So maybe think about that in comments or discussion this week, either here on the blog or with friends who are reading along with you. And gird yourself for the final battle that you know is coming.

 

The Massachusetts Medievalist on epic similes and building tension (Odyssey, Books 13-16)

This week, I’d like to veer slightly off course to think about literary tropes rather than epic structure.  Books 13-16 are very satisfying in terms of plot development: we get to see Odyseeus and Athena making their plans and then Odysseus and Telemachus reuniting. We get a lot of important exposition/backstory about where Odysseus’s father is, where Odysseus hid the Phaiacian treasure, how the suitors were foiled by Telemachus’s return from Sparta.  There’s an exciting, anticipatory sense of building tension in these books.  The feeling is like that of an action movie right before the big heist or the big mission — except Homer invented that feeling and our contemporary film directors just try to recreate and build upon it.

So instead of thinking about plot development or structure, I want to call your attention to what literary critics call the “epic simile,” which is basically an extended comparison using like or as. Homer uses them frequently throughout both Iliad and Odyssey (so they are also referred to as “Homeric simile”).  One of the most famous from the Odyssey occurs as Odysseus comes out from hiding to present himself to Nausicaa, the Phaiacian princess:

……And out he stalked
as a mountain lion exultant in his power
strides through wind and rain and his eyes blaze
and he charges sheep or oxen or chases wild deer……
(Fagles VI.142-145)

The “as” in l.143 triggers your awareness that we’re heading into an epic simile, wherein the lion is powerful, blazing, driving — but Odysseus is as well, thanks to the power of the comparison.

Odysseus and Telemachus are similarly compared to other wild animals during their reunion in Book XVI:

[They] wailed with cries as shrill as birds, like eagles
Or vultures, when the hunters have deprived them
Of fledglings who have not yet learned to fly
(Wilson XVI.217-219)

This simile is incredibly nuanced and interesting in that it compares Odysseus and Telemachus to birds of prey, but also shows those birds in time of weakness, when “hunters” (humans? or other animals?) have raided their nests and taken their young. The comparison thus presents the father and son as simultaneously powerful and vulnerable.

One final literary observation about this week’s section: did you note that our narrator refers to Eumaeus the swineherd in the second person?  Eumaeus (and no other character in the epic) is defined as “you.” Fagles states: “‘Good news,’ you replied, Eumaeus, loyal swineherd” (XIV.192, with a very similar line at XIV.408); Wilson tells us that “You answered him, swineherd Eumaeus” (XIV.166).  Much critical ink has been spilled about this point, of course. It creates something of meta-fiction, another layer of narrative structure, that the poet is speaking to an audience of one (Eumaeus) and the rest of us are just pretty much eavesdropping. So the fictively privileged audience member of this heroic, aristocratic epic is an enslaved agricultural worker.

More about slavery — especially Emily Wilson’s extra-textual remarks about it — in the next post. Enjoy the building suspense!

The Massachusetts Medievalist on Odysseus’s wondrous adventures and self-promoting narrative (Odyssey, Books 9-12)

The impetus for this online reading group was my realization this past year that most of my undergraduate students hadn’t read Homer’s Odyssey, although some of them said that they had read excerpts from it.  The episode with the Cyclops (Book Nine) is without question the most frequently-anthologized section of The Odyssey, as it stands on its own pretty well and showcases Odysseus’s character — his cleverness (the scheme to blind the Cyclops and escape from the cave) as well as his arrogance (his continued taunting after they’ve barely escaped).  Most undergraduates have probably read a version of Book Nine somewhere in their academic pasts.

The Cyclops episode kicks off Odysseus’s narrative in Books 9-12, which is something of a travelogue of miraculous, supernatural adventure – every book in this week’s reading focuses on episodes outside of mortal, human experience so that the settings and characters seem like an endless parade of wonders: the drugged-up Lotus Eaters; the one-eyed, monstrous Cyclops; Circe the powerful, sexy witch; the ghosts of the land of dead and Odysseus’s maneuverings to call them; the seductive and deadly Sirens; the sea monsters Scylla and Charybdis…… you may feel like you already know many of these archetypal figures, as they appear in a variety of retellings of the Greek myths, not just here in the epic.

In the midst of Odysseus’s flashback, Homer has a fabulous moment when the framed narrative breaks (Fagles XI.378, Wilson XI.335), when he reminds us that Odysseus is sitting in Alcinous’s hall and telling his story. Odysseus stops at what could be called a cliff-hanger; he has told us how he has spoken with Tiresias and some ghosts of women in the land of the dead, then states that “I cannot name each famous wife and daughter / I saw there; holy night would pass away / before I finished” (Wilson XI. 330-332).  The voice of the poet/narrator returns to remind us that the Phaiacians are Odysseus’s ‘real’ audience: “They were silent, spellbound, / listening in the shadowy hall” (Wilson XI.335-336). Odysseus allows himself to be convinced to continue, with the promise of even more, and more elaborate, parting gifts when the Phaiacians take him home.  The moment can come as something of an interrupting jolt, as Odysseus has “spellbound” us, the modern readers, as well as the Phaiacians — we have forgotten that he is safely in a palace, drinking wine and recounting his adventures.

A point which leads me to a warning about Odysseus and his famous flashback in Books 9-12: he is not an objective narrator.  The poet/narrator isn’t objective either (can any narrative voice be objective? A philosophical question for another time, perhaps), but Odysseus is definitely telling the story the way he wants it told. It’s convenient that everyone else who journeyed with him from Troy is now dead – there is no one to contradict him, or correct a faltering memory, or to provide information about events that occurred when he was absent.

Just as an example, Odysseus relates his conversation in Hades with Agamemnon about the horrors inherent in women (on his homecoming from Troy, Agamemnon was murdered by his wife Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus). Agamemnon says that “there’s nothing more deadly, bestial than a woman / set on works like these — what a monstrous thing / ……the queen hell-bent on outrage” (Fagles XI. 484-490); Odysseus agrees with and expands upon this point, stating that “Zeus from the very start, the thunder king / has hated the race of Atreus with a vengeance — / his  trustiest weapon women’s twisted wiles” (Fagles XI.494-496).

Odysseus and Agamemnon both fail to mention the extremely legitimate causes of Clytemnestra’s anger. Before the war, Agamemnon sacrificed their daughter Iphigenia to get the right wind to blow the fleet to Troy. After the war, Agamemnon brought home as captive war-prize and concubine the Trojan princess Cassandra, who had been a priestess of Apollo. So while maybe Clytemnestra wasn’t justified in murdering her husband, she certainly had reasonable grievances that Agamemnon and Odysseus don’t mention.

We have to trust Odysseus, but (and here again is Homer’s brilliance) we already know that Odysseus is wily, clever, manipulative. Be careful: He’s messing with us in the same way that he messed with the Trojans, with the Cyclops, and now with the Phaiacians. He’s very seductive and very good at getting what he wants. He will need all of these skills when he finally gets home; meanwhile, he has seduced us, his audience, and we are rooting for him, knowing that he will have to get back to Ithaca and deal with the upstart suitors, his adolescent son, and his grieving wife.

The Massachusetts Medievalist contextualizes Odyssey 5-8

This week, #LesleyHomer will investigate books V-VIII of theOdyssey, which introduce the hero and set the stage for the most famous flashback in literary history.  We finally meet Odysseus, four books in, and he’s NOT super heroic when we first see him — in fact, he’s crying for home. Wilson tells us that “By day he sat / out on the rocky beach, in tears and grief, / staring in heartbreak at the fruitless sea” (V.157-159).  He does perform some more standard masculine achievement later in book five — he single-handedly builds an amazingly seaworthy raft, and then sails it expertly, unsleeping. Fagles provides this stunning image:

The wind lifting his spirits high, royal Odysseus
spread sail — gripping the tiller, seated astern —
and now the master mariner steered his craft,
sleep never closing his eyes, forever scanning
the stars…..  (V.295-299)

The contrast between the man crying on the beach and the man sailing the raft emblematizes Odysseus’s character. In the epic’s famous first line, Wilson calls Odysseus a “complicated man” (Fagles says “the man of twists and turns”), and he is indeed complicated.  He is mourning the loss of his home and family, but this heartbreak doesn’t keep him from sleeping with Calypso on a regular basis.  He initially ignores the advice of the sea-nymph Ino, but eventually realizes he’ll need to do as she instructed, leave his wrecked raft, and swim for shore with only her scarf to protect him. He cries some more at the various festivities at Alcinous’s palace, but rises to the challenge of masculine performance in athletics, easily beating all of the young whippersnappers at the discus throw (Wilson VIII.187).

I’d venture that it’s precisely this complicated-ness that makes Odysseus so appealing to us, thousands of years later.  He’s full of contradictions in his thoughts and actions, and those contradictions make him seem human. I certainly wouldn’t say that Odysseus is realistic but he does seem real to me. There are a number of moments in the epic when I’d like to strangle him for his arrogance and sexism, and an equal number where I’m cheering him on and would fight next to him if I could.

I mentioned in the intro post that Homer uses epithets throughout the epic both as mnemonic devices and as literary descriptors. While Athena is always “gray-eyed” and the sea is always “wine-dark,” Odysseus’s epithets change according to the the rhythm needed in the poetic line and according to the translator’s choices.  For instance, Fagles uses “long-enduring Odysseus” (V.190) and “worldly Odysseus” (V.237). Wilson seems to avoid epithets in their classic adjective-noun pairing as much as possible; for instance, she refers instead to “Odysseus, / informed by many years of pain and loss” (V.169-170). Other translators have settled on “crafty,” “clever,” “wily,” or “wise.”   Overall, Odysseus is characterized not by his martial skills or physical strength but by his experience, his wisdom, and his creative thinking (in book eight, we hear the Bard sing of Odysseus’s plan to construct the Trojan Horse – the tactic that won the Trojan War when more traditional military strategies had failed). His is heroism of brain, not brawn.

Finally, Books V-VIII set up Odysseus’s narration recounting his last ten years.  Book VIII ends with Alcinous asking Odysseus who he is, where he’s been, and where he’s going. The last time anyone saw Odysseus was at the end of the Trojan War, and the next set of books will provide Odysseus’s answers to those questions in flashback – thus providing one of the first framed narratives in western literature.

 

I’m hoping for some more comments and questions on this post than last time (thanks, Colin!), so here are some starter ideas- please use the comments function to ask questions and share ideas!

What are you thinking about Athena’s character and her role in the narrative? How does she inform your ideas about the gods in this text/culture? Can we discuss her as a “female character” (like Penelope or Nausicaa) or does divinity trump gender?

The nymph/minor goddess Calypso: does she qualify as an antagonist? Is she a positive or negative character? Or maybe both simultaneously?

Any ideas about the character Demodocus, a blind poet (just like Homer????), and his role in Odysseus’s diplomatic maneuverings?

The Massachusetts Medievalist introduces the Odyssey

Welcome to #LesleyHomer! The opening four books of the Odyssey comprise the initial installment for our online reading group, but first some very basic items about the epic as a whole (note that citations are to book # in upper-case Roman numeral and line # in Arabic numerals; exact line references may vary depending on the translation you are using):

The actual Trojan War (the Greek attack on Troy – see maps here if your edition doesn’t provide some) probably happened around 1200 BCE. In the years following the war, an enormous literary tradition grew up telling, embellishing, and inventing the stories of the various characters in the war; the most famous of these narratives are Homer’s Iliad (which tells the story of only a few days towards the end of the war and not even the actual end) and Odyssey (the story of Odysseus’s 10-year journey home to Ithaca from Troy).

The epic was created orally in a nonliterate tradition: yes, that means that highly specialized bard-poets could recite all of Odyssey (twelve thousand lines) and probably Iliad too (fifteen thousand lines). While there is a lot of academic speculation about the power and process of memory in preliterate cultures, all we can really say for sure is that poets used formulas as mnemonic devices as they performed the poem. These formulas fit smoothly into the meter of the poem; that’s why we hear repeatedly about “gray-eyed Athena,” the “wine-dark sea,” and the rosy fingers of the dawn.  Note repetition between sections as well, as when Athena gives Telemachus instructions I.325 and then he basically repeats but adapts them II.238. Because of this oral composition, it’s usual to speak of when the Odyssey was composed rather than when it was written.

As you read, remind yourself that this poem was originally performed aloud for a group, probably semi-enacted and with musical accompaniment. Each performance would have been slightly different, as performers adapted, expanded, or curtailed the “text” as their abilities and audiences required. (We have a cool kind of meta-performance example I.375, when the bard sings a song in Odysseus’s hall).

The poem as we have it – preserved in various written forms that date from about 700 BCE– may have been compiled and refined by a blind poet named Homer. Alternately, “Homer” may simply be a legendary figure.

The Odyssey uses the same literary form as the Iliad: dactylic hexameter (the form’s wikipedia page is actually pretty solid if you want more detail).

Onward! The first four books of the Odyssey are often referred to as the “Telemachy,” kind of a quasi-stand-alone section that provides exposition for whole epic but also sets up a segment of the narrative as a coming-of-age story for Telemachus, who’s almost 21 (Odysseus himself does not appear in these first four books). Athena even tells Telemachus, “It’s time you were a man” (I.342) and he begins that process in I-IV.

Undergraduates are often confused by logistical questions that address Telemachus’s issues with the suitors: why are they in his house, consuming his wealth? Why can’t he make them leave? Answers to those questions are connected to his transition into adulthood.

Telemachus and his mother Penelope are in socially, politically, and financially precarious positions because of his age.  He is not strong enough to assume his father’s place as King of Ithaca (which would put Penelope in the somewhat comfortable role of dowager/widowed Queen). However, he is old and strong enough to be a problem for anyone else looking to assume Odysseus’s place.

If Odysseus is dead, then Penelope is a very rich, young-enough, and beautiful widow with no powerful adult male looking out for her interests. While Telemachus and others suggest that he could return her to her father, who would then assume the financial burden of her remarriage, it’s evident that many of the suitors are much more interested in moving directly into Odysseus’s social and political position through marriage to Penelope. Neither Penelope nor Telemachus is interested in such a marriage for her, but as the epic opens they can’t make the suitors leave for a number of reasons:

First off, they can’t violate the divine laws of hospitality. A guest must be fed and clothed and sheltered (note how Telemachus immediately offers food, clothing, cleanliness, and a bed to Athena disguised as Mentes). Since the suitors at one point were welcomed as guests, it could anger the gods to force them to leave (although Telemachus frequently expresses how much he would like to do that).

Second, he doesn’t have the military or political strength to make them leave on his own.  There are a lot of suitors, and they are all older (probably 25-35) than he is. He can’t act the Alpha-Male with veiled threats against them; they know he couldn’t back up any of those threats and he doesn’t have any powerful political/military allies in Ithaca. As we see in the council, some of the older men sympathize with his position but also don’t have the status or force it would take to get the suitors to leave.

Third, the suitors are taking advantage of Penelope’s maneuverings against them. In book II, Antinous blames her for leading them on, saying that she would choose one of them once she had woven her father-in-law’s funeral shroud (a dutiful, pious act that they would never interfere with).  Since she was un-weaving at night what she had woven during the day, she would never finish the shroud; they discovered her ploy and forced her to finish it, bringing her to deadline. But since she still hasn’t chosen, they are feasting at Odysseus’s/her house every day, consuming her wine and other high-status goods, forcing themselves sexually on the female slaves, giving orders as if they are trying out the role of master of the house. Telemachus is old enough to deeply resent this behavior (rightfully) but not yet mature or powerful enough to do anything about it.

Part of Telemachus’s journey to Pylos and Sparta, then, is to begin that process. He is seeking for information about his father–the official purpose of the journey — but he is also making friends, meeting allies, and getting experience of the world outside Ithaca.

So much more to think about as you reflect on books I-IV! But I hope that’s a good start — Looking forward to comments and questions from group members!

The Massachusetts Medievalist announces the Odyssey reading group (summer 2018)

Over the course of the 2018-2019 academic year, I realized that many of my undergraduate students at Lesley do not know Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey.  While both epics used to be assumed in the canon and thus in the high school curriculum, many undergraduate students now have read only excerpts, if anything, from them.  Both epics are touchstones for all of literature — not just for obvious descendants like Joyce’s Ulysses or Walcott’s Omeros, but for any narratives that include children growing up, long-lasting marriages, war, issues around masculinity and heroism, issues around femininity and agency, or humanity’s relationship to the spiritual and the supernatural (which is to say: pretty much everything).

Originally, I had thought that a summer reading group could attempt both of these behemoths, but soon realized that would be a chore rather than a pleasure. The Iliad will have to wait. So — THE INVITATION:

SUMMER READING GROUP ON HOMER’S ODYSSEY

Spend part of the summer (re?)reading Homer’s Odyssey with a low-key online book group loosely affiliated with Lesley University and managed through The Massachusetts Medievalist. From the end of May to the beginning of August, group members will read Homer’s epic in 4-book sections. There are no writing assignments, expectations, grades, or credit – just a virtual group of interested people reading and thinking about the epic.

To join the group, follow @MDockrayMiller on Twitter and also check #LesleyHomer on Twitter for reminders/updates about group activities. I’m working with the tech people from Humanities Commons to figure out how to add an email alert/subscription option to this Massachusetts Medievalist blog (updates and details to follow soon, I hope!).

Group members can work with any translation of The Odyssey they prefer, although it should be a poetic rather than a prose translation.  I’ll be using both the Fagles (1996) and Wilson (2017) translations. If you’re an audio book fan, note that the fabulous Derek Jacobi voiced the audio book for the Fagles translation. And remember that all these materials are available through Lesley’s Sherrill Library as well your local library! You don’t need to buy anything–

My introductory comments for each set of four books will be posted on dates noted; group members can choose to read that post before or after reading the text, whichever makes more sense for them.  The comments section will be open for asynchronous discussion, comments, and questions as soon as the intro is posted.  I’ll monitor comments regularly throughout the summer, answering questions, suggesting potential secondary readings, and trying to shepherd all of us as we make our way through this incredibly important and deeply problematic cornerstone of literary tradition.

Please join me on this literary odyssey (did you see what I did there??):

1-4:  intro post loaded Monday 28 May
5-8: intro post loaded Monday 11 June
9-12: intro post uploaded Sunday 24 June
13-16: intro post uploaded Monday 9 July
17-20: intro post uploaded Monday 23 July
21-24: intro post uploaded Monday 6 August

The Massachusetts Medievalist begins to think about nation, race, and ethnicity in the Old English Exodus

In preparation for my new research project on the Old English Exodus, I’ve been reading the poem in its original language and in a variety of translations; I’ve also been reading its source text, the book of Exodus from the Hebrew Bible.  I’ve known for a while that I would turn next to this poem, as I think it can inform and be informed by this particular cultural moment, when many Americans are having difficult but essential conversations about race, ethnicity, immigration, and nationhood.  For me, the text’s original appeal was the brief mention of the Afrisc meowle at its very end (l.580) – the gold-adorned African woman who celebrates the triumph of the Israelites as they cross the Red Sea out of slavery towards the promised land.  I think she is the only woman of color in the Old English poetic corpus.

Here’s an image of that text from the manuscript (Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Junius 11, f.171):

image of the Exodus manuscript (detail)

A transcription of the text in question (starting from the second word):

              afrisc meowle on geofones staðe gol
de geweorðod

Which translates into Modern English as  “the African woman, on the water’s shore, with gold adorned.”

Most commentators on this part of the poem identify this woman as Moses’s Ethiopian wife, who is understood exegetically to represent the “Church gathered out of the nations.”1 Whatever her patristic meaning, she is also the only individual woman mentioned explicitly in this poem focused on battle, armies, tribes, and miracles.

Her participation in the celebration constrasts her with the most famous meowle in Old English poetry, the geatisc meowle (Geatish woman) who mourns at the funeral pyre at the end of Beowulf (l.3150). Both of them, however, are distinguished as a single woman in a group, separated from the group lexically if not logistically.  The meowle in Beowulf is surrounded by her people, the Geats for whom she predicts sorrow and defeat in the near future.

In Exodus, the afrisc meowle is eð-fynde (easy to find) within the group of celebrating Israelites – perhaps because of her gold ornaments, but more likely because of her physical difference from the Israelites, the phenotype of her skin color. The meowle of Exodus is in the group but not entirely part of it – she is differentiated as Afrisc rather than included as one of the Israhelum (Israelites) even as she sings and collects treasure with them. Her marriage with the leader of the group, the celebrated hero and law-giver, is not enough for her to completely assimilate into the folc or the Isrehela cynn (terms the poet uses to refer to the Hebrews following Moses).  Even alliance with the most powerful of patriarchs cannot fully integrate her into the group.

Marked as Other by her gender, her skin color, and her geographical origin, this easy-to-find woman has begun to represent for me the deep history of tensions in cultural assimilations and exclusions. Twentieth-century critics focused almost entirely on her exegetical meaning, allegorizing the actual meowle out of their interpretation of the poem. It’s time to refocus critical attention on her and her place in the text.

More updates to follow throughout the summer as I deepen my lexical and literary investigations into the Old English Exodus…..

  1. Fred Robinson, “Notes on the Old English ExodusAnglia 80 (1962): 363-378, at 376.

 

The Massachusetts Medievalist on the Medieval Echoes of Jesus Christ Superstar

If my twitter feed is any indication, much of the United States watched Jesus Christ Superstar on NBC last night and loved every minute of it.  I loved it as well, and I spent a lot time thinking about the medieval aspects of the production, a topic that would probably surprise many of the cast members.

Image of John Legend as Christ on the set of JCS

The set was brilliant – open scaffolding, a “deteriorating basilica” ceiling and back wall, an open fire pit (how’d they get a permit for THAT?), and an asymmetrical, multi-segmented stage that allowed the dancers and main cast members to get close to different parts of the audience. The costumes nodded to biblical-theatrical convention (John Legend’s deliberately timeless pants and shirt) as well as to the musical’s roots in the 1970s (Brandon Victor Dixon’s outfit for the last number) and to our contemporary moment.

Promo poster of Brandon Victor Dixon as Judas

But the medieval vibe came not from the set or the costumes but from the event.  All evening, I felt like I was having an experience something like that of the audience of one of the medieval miracle plays. In late medieval England, communities gathered on Corpus Christi day (21 June) to perform what we now call Cycle Plays — a series of dramatic re-enactments of the narratives of biblical history. The City of York actually still produces its Cycle, although quadriennally rather than annually.

With a probable origin in smaller-scale re-enactments in the church building, by the late Middle Ages the English cycle plays had moved out of the church and into the community with elaborate portrayals of the Creation of the World, the story of Noah, the Last Judgment – and many, many highly focused episodes of the Life of Christ. These included the Last Supper, the trial before Herod, the raising of Lazarus, and of course the betrayal and the Crucifixion. Last night, we watched John Legend as Christ submit to the Crucifixion just as medieval English people watched one of their neighbors enact Christ’s death on the cross in the Cycle Play.

I watched the broadcast with a small group at a neighbor’s house, rather than in a large group of townspeople on the village green. But the live broadcast, an event now reserved almost entirely for sports competitions, provided that sense of larger community. Our band of neighbors knew that we were experiencing the performance in real time with thousands of other Americans and viewers all over the world.  Because of the general decline in religous observance in the United States, many of those viewers were watching the performance as a cultural rather than religious experience. The Christiological narrative was the vehicle for the dancing and singing, rather than the opposite.

In the English Middle Ages, the Corpus Christi play was an annual event of civic pride and community celebration, and perhaps NBC will follow that medieval lead and present us every year with a version of Jesus Christ Superstar. If so, perhaps my future students will know the narrative of the life of Christ, whether or not they believe in it, seeing it as an important part of a shared, American cultural expression.

The Massachusetts Medievalist praises the small, local art show

Small, local art shows have become an inadvertant theme for the Massachusetts Medievalist this month.  I’ve always inclined toward larger, established institutions when seeking out art; I get to the MFA and the Harvard Art Museums pretty regularly. Three small art shows in Cambridge this March have me rethinking that strategy, however, as I’ve found that I enjoy thinking deeply about fewer pieces seen in a shorter period of time.

Anthony Apesos, my erstwhile co-conspirator for an interdisciplinary class on Milton’s Paradise Lost, features in a show at the Cambridge Art Association; all of Tony’s paintings are “illustrations” of Greek myths, but the moments he chooses to depict are not the typical epitomic moments of those narratives.  For example, in “Dedalus and Icarus” (below, with the artist), the illustration is set in a contemporary landscape; Dedalus digs a grave in the sand for the body of his dead son. Perhaps assisted by the presence of a nice white wine, I spent a long time looking at this image, much longer than I would have in a larger exhibition context.  Dedalus’s modern shorts contrast with the timelessness of Icarus’s plain shroud, and Tony forces the viewer to look at the exposed face of the dead boy, to imagine the grief of the isolated father digging the grave.

Anthony Apesos in front of "Dedalus and Icarus"

Right around the corner from my office, Maud Morgan Arts provides exhibit space for local artists. Renaissance man Bill Porter works in the academic technology department at Lesley; he also teaches animation and makes very cool paintings. I popped into his show “Impact” as part of an extended lunch break on a Friday afternoon and was immediately taken by his use of nontraditional items as “canvases” for his paintings. He uses old shingles, boards, and even bits of fences, as in “Clearing Skies,” with the whimsical but unsettling unicorn/narwhal skull as the perch for the pipe-smoking raven. The fence injected a note of reality into the otherwise almost absurdist image.

Bill Porter's "Clearing Skies"

Finally, two Lesley students have installed a specatcular series of portraits of African-American women in the atrium of our university library. “Portraits and Power” by Mosheh Tucker and Rocky Cotard presents larger-than-life images of women in the artists’s communities. Tucker works on traditional canvas, while Cotard’s pieces use loose fabric hung on rails, evoking the femininity implied in cloth and cloth making. Tucker’s “Ms. Marcel” (below) plays with geometry and space in the background of this full-length portrait in an almost Escher-like way; I also really enjoyed the ways that the colors of the figure’s clothes and skin interact with those of the background.

Mosheh Tucker's "Ms Marcel"

I’m realizing as well that all of these shows are associated with Lesley University, so I’m suddenly feeling a warm regard for my university as an art-supporting venue in the community. As spring semester progresses, I’ll be looking for more small art shows to explore.