Hermes, in medias res by Molly Gaudry
I must confess that for years now I’ve referred to Homer’s The Odyssey for one reason and one reason only—to bring attention to Penelope’s banishment.
One of the first women to appear in the Western canon, she’s (of course) a mother. And her major function (of course) is to portray an exemplary loyal wife. Her husband’s been gone nearly twenty years. We’re talking decades—decades—of not just being a single mother but decades—decades—of celibacy. Seems to me Penelope might be about ready to pop by now, so are we really to believe she isn’t interested in any of those hundred-plus eligible bachelors just lounging around out there? I mean, they all want her and they want her bad. So bad they’ve set up camp and waited years at her very doorstep. Talk about convenience.
And yet, poor Penelope—or rather, loyal, virtuous, and true Penelope—refuses. She just isn’t ready to “move on.”
Meanwhile, poor homeless Odysseus has been miserable all this time, fucking other women. He may even believe it, he may actually even burst into tears over his terrible fate, but when the rest of The Odyssey functions to prove what a great storyteller (liar) he is are we (and is Penelope) meant to believe it too? Yeah babe, it super-sucked boning that goddess on her private island for the last nine years. All I ever wanted was to just come home to you…and the kid.
When we readers and writers see Penelope for the first time, when we see one of the first female characters in the history of the Western canon for the first time, her son, not yet a man, totally gaslights her: “Odysseus is not the only one who lost his homecoming” (1.354). Translation? Good wife though you may be, forever grieving the loss of your husband, you have no right or reason to be grieving. Your grief is inappropriate. So just don’t.
Then he banishes her to her room: “Go therefore back in the house, and take up your own work, the loom and the distaff” (1.356-66). Now in addition to being a good wife (who is somehow failing at being a good wife because she shouldn’t be triggered by reminders of her missing husband?), Penelope’s function is to be a good mother, to shut up, disappear, and go sit on her ass making clothes or something so that her son can at last assert his independence, launch this story into motion by using his big-boy words (which, again, is really what The Odyssey seems to care about most—the power of words), and finally become man of the house: “the men must see to discussion, all men, but I most of all. For mine is the power in this household” (1.358-59).
Man, Telemachos really pisses me off.
Until last week, I hadn’t read The Odyssey in over twenty years, since 1995, freshman year of high school. Coming off this fresh read, I realize I need to change my tune a bit.
While all of the above still stands, Penelope’s banishment is pretty complicated. For one thing, Telemachos tells her to go back to her loom. Whether or not he knows, his mother’s loom, her weaving by day and unweaving by night, is what saved her for at least three years from having to marry one of those greasy louts out there who intends to not just seize her property but no doubt force her to do her wifely duties. No thanks, fellas. Oh, Odysseus, my one true love! Oh, let my missing husband, gone these twenty years, return at last to be embraced by my loving arms! Now leave me be, I must return to my weaving, I must finish this shroud for Laertes, father of my still-living husband! Um, yeah, so Telemachos banishes her to do the thing by which she retained, for years, her power, her property, her independence, her self. Our first woman: fabric weaver. Fabricator of her own freedom-creating narrative: good wife, good mother, and, not least of all, good daughter-in-law.
Furthermore, banishing Penelope isn’t even Telemachos’s idea in the first place.
Athene told me to do it! She said I’m the man of the house now and everyone has to listen when I say what she told me to say, I swear!
Goddess of war.
Gotta say, after all the nurturing and protecting she does for hundreds of pages, she’s brutal out there on the battlefield. Perhaps if I had read The Iliad first, I would’ve been prepared for all the blood and brains and bodies at the end of The Odyssey.
At the end of The Odyssey, “Athene, leader of armies,” is the one who makes “vain” the suitors’ “casts” so that their spears fall useless and never hit their marks (22.256). No doubt every suitor must and will die, but first she might as well put “to proof the strength and courage alike of Odysseus and his glorious son” (22.237-8). And once they feel brave and strong again, then she’ll “altogether turn the victory their way” (22.236-7). End battle scene.
And at the beginning of The Odyssey, she also “altogether” decides to convince Kalypso to release Odysseus, which is the precise plot point where this epic poem begins, as epic poems do—in medias res, or in the middle of things.
And at the very, very end of things, Athene’s is the final speech: “‘Son of Laertes and seed of Zeus, resourceful Odysseus, hold hard, stop this quarrel in closing combat, for fear Zeus of the wide brows, son of Kronos, may be angry with you’” (23.541-4).
Real talk, though—Zeus DGAF!
When Athene asks her father whether or not Odysseus should in fact stop this quarrel, “Zeus, the gatherer of clouds,” says, “My child, why do you ask and question me in these matters? For was it not your intention, as you have counseled it, how Odysseus should make his way back, and punish those others? Do as you will” (23.478-81).
She doesn’t even stick around long enough to see him, presumably, return to halfheartedly making animal shapes out of clouds; “in a flash of speed” she goes and stops the quarrel herself with words (23.541). And has the first and final say. She has the final spoken word (in dialogue, anyway).
Thus “spoke Athene, and with happy heart [Odysseus] obeyed her” (23.545).
Thus, the story of The Odyssey, and everything that happens in it, is set into motion by Athene. Can’t you just hear Penelope slapping her a high-five offstage and saying, Girls rule, boys drool, thanks for getting rid of those guys for me, by the way. I mean, were they annoying or what?
If behind every powerful man is a powerful woman—his wife, or, you know, in this case, Athene, goddess of war (who incidentally spends most of her time disguised as a sage old man who actually gets the final nod and “voice” at the end of the book: “pledges for the days to come, sworn to by both sides, were settled by Pallas Athene, daughter of Zeus of the aegis, who had likened herself in appearance and voice to Mentor”)—then: nothing (24.546-8). Nothing at all. Not a thing. Because behind every powerful woman is still a more powerful man, in this case her father. While Zeus is for the most part disinterested in The Odyssey, he does in fact, after telling her to do as she will, advise her to stop the quarrel—if she wants his advice, anyway. And once she does, he tosses down a thunderbolt to help punctuate her point, for emphasis I guess. Let us not forget that he also, in the beginning, grants Athene his blessing to dispatch Hermes to go tell Kalypso to let go that love-slave Odysseus! Peace, Poseidon!
Which is to say: Penelope’s banishment at the beginning of The Odyssey is a bit more complicated than Western lit’s first stay-at-home mom silenced and dismissed to her room and loom.
My go-to one-liner is due for a rewrite.
If all I’ve written above is just a soon-to-be updated one-liner about Western lit’s first homemaker (which makes Helen our first homewrecker?), what then about The Odyssey do I actually have something of substance to say—to, say, lecture on if need be? And not just about The Odyssey but about it as the first text on my historical list for my upcoming PhD exams. What does The Odyssey set into motion for me, as a reader, a thinker, a writer, a teacher? Of its many influences on later texts, which most interest me? What can I possibly say about it that a hundred people haven’t said before? And how does it speak to my problematic (the lens through which I’ll be examined): liminality and narrativity?
After nights of endless thinking, I’ve got a small thread of an idea at least, and it begins with perhaps one of the most important characters who should matter to me from the Western canon: Hermes, a minor player in The Odyssey, yet sure to be a major player in the context of how I read from now until forever.
Mythology? Really? Of all the things to talk about in The Odyssey—war, for instance, and sackings, colonization, mass murder, women’s rights, gender fluidity, bodily transformations, and on and on—I’m really gonna go with an ancient mythological character? What am I, twelve? In my thirties, thanks, and here’s my one-liner on that: everything is a myth, everything you believe in is a myth; your faith, your deities, your certainties—all myths.
Believe in them if you will, but recognize and know, know, they are only stories—stories inside stories—some of which we just keep telling ourselves, and retelling, and retelling. Odysseus knows and happily tells his story, that he has been punished but also rewarded, aided by the gods whose stories he tells and tells. We like to think it’s because he’s such a hero, such a strong man. Brave explorer. Derring doer. But it’s because he tells stories. Convincingly. Entertainingly. Masterfully. He’s Billy Graham. He’s Joel Osteen. He’s Deepak Chopra. Widely famed in his own time and narrative world, he is also an ancient-day celebrity. He’s Tom Cruise, Will Smith, John Travolta. A superstar. A superhero. Keeping the old myths alive. Toeing the party line, as Rachel said during our last study session. If you don’t fear and revere the gods after hearing Odysseus’s story, then you’re an idiot atheist and you’re going to burn in hell. Wait. I mean the Underworld.
Hermes, god of boundaries.
God of borders.
Messenger of the gods: Hermes, whose winged sandals allow him to travel with ease between Olympus and earth. Between gods and mortals.
With his double-snaked staff, also winged, Hermes puts people to sleep and just as quickly wakes them.
He puts them to sleep forever.
Or brings them back to life.
Hermes passes between the land of the living and the land of the dead, leads souls to the Underworld.
Hermes: father of Hermaphroditus, who is both male and female. Or is, perhaps, neither. Perhaps, instead, is a gender in need of a name.
A word, a label, an identifier by which the rest of us can catalogue, categorize, corral into some neat column on a page, in the news, of a time.
Hermaphroditus, whose body, unnamed, as yet unknown, can be only one thing—anything.
And the embodiment of what could be, of what can be—possibility.
Hermaphroditus, whose mother is Aphrodite, goddess of love of all things.
Hermaphroditus, of Aphrodite and Hermes.
Of love and boundaries.
Now where have I heard that before?
Hermes, god of not just boundaries but of transitions, too.
Hermes, patron of travelers.
And as such, invoked but not named in the opening proem of The Odyssey: “Tell me, Muse, of the man of many ways, who was driven far journeys . . . 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” (1.1-5). The first character is “me” (arguably) and the next is “Muse,” followed by “the man of many ways” (Odysseus as yet unnamed); thus, present too, but invisible—and we’re still in the opening line here—is Hermes.
Patron of roads and ways.
Patron of commerce. Trade.
Of negotiation and exchange.
One woman’s loss is another man’s gain.
Did I get that right?
No matter. Between loss and gain is Hermes.
Between this or that, between now and when, between anything and anyone is Hermes.
His gift to Pandora? Deceit.
Her receipt, the ability to lie.
Between truth and lies, is Hermes.
Between fact and fiction lies Hermes.
Between fiction and poetry goes Hermes.
Between poetry and speech lives Hermes.
Between live speech and song sings Hermes.
Or was it Homer?
What a question.
The Homeric Question: identity, authorship, historicity.
For better or worse, from one moment to the next, from any time to any place, Hermes always, already, happens. Allows Homer.
Because of Hermes, something happens. Tells Homer.
Something changes. Spins Homer.
Someone changes. Tweaks Homer.
Between the pages of The Odyssey, Hermes happens. Recites Homer.
With Zeus’s blessing and on Athene’s orders, Odysseus must be freed. Says Hermes to Kalypso. Sings Homer.
Homer sings, “Then, O swineherd Eumaios, you said to him in answer.”
Out of nowhere. Fifteen times. You you you you you you you you you you you you you you you. Cries Homer. Again and again. But why?
Because no one’s as loyal as Eumaios. He toes the line better than anyone (thanks, Rachel!), and Homer needs us to know it. Old Eumaios is faithful to a fault. He has prayed for Odysseus the “godlike” to return. He never disrespects the house of Odysseus. And those who do, well, they’re either hung (the women) or bound, tortured, their hands and feet lopped off, genitalia fed to the dogs (the most offensive of male traitors).
O loyal Eumaios! You said, you said, you said. These were your words. Celebrates Homer.
O swineherd Eumaios!
You’re in my house! Insists Telemachos.
Odysseus is free. Wills Athene. Retells Homer.
Tells Odysseus. Retells Homer.
So let us begin again.
In medias res.
Always in the middle of things.
Even at the beginning of The Odyssey.
Unseen in, and challenging, the very first line of The Odyssey.
Molly Gaudry is the author of the verse novels We Take Me Apart and Desire.