Sunday 1 October 2017

Was Homer a Sicilian Woman?

Butler MS--Cave near Trapani 'where the Cyclops lived'
An invitation to speak at Trapani in north-west Sicily proved irresistible. The topic was Victorian eccentric Samuel Butler. The manuscript of Butler’s notorious book The Authoress of the Odyssey (1897) is in Trapani’s gorgeous Fardelliana Library. It argues that this epic was penned by a young Sicilian woman. After worshipping the manuscript we spoke at a standing-room only public event in the presence of The Mayor.*
With speakers Dr Christiano Turbil & Renato LoSchiavo

Butler was thrilled that one scholar in antiquity, Naucrates, thought Homer was a woman too.** Naucrates claimed both ‘Homeric’ epics were by Phantasia, child of Philosophy Prof. Nicarinos. She put them in the temple of Hephaestus at Memphis. Homer acquired copies and published them under his name. But I argued that Butler had been persuaded of the Odyssey’s feminine authorship for three other reasons.

Breeches Actress plays Mercury in Victorian Burlesque
First, he was influenced by the gender-subverting popular burlesques on the Odyssey and other classical myths which were the mid-Victorian rage at the Strand Theatre, on the corner of the Strand underneath my office where the Aldwych Underground station was built and the KCL merchandise shop now stands. Butler lived a stone’s throw away at Clifford’s Inn. The most popular Odyssey burlesques were by his exact Cambridge contemporary F.C. Burnand. Young women played the heroic male roles and spoke in the street-smart contemporary English which Butler used for his own Homer translations.
Strand Theatre, left corner where KCL now is

Second, femininity is a ‘mask’ for social class.  Butler’s theory and 1900 Odyssey outraged scholars because  he implied that ancient Greeks heroes were working and lower-middle class. His gods, Professors sneered, spoke ‘like angry housemaids’. In Butler’s mind, the plebeian London theatre audiences had fused with the Sicilian peasantry and residents of ancient Ithaca.

Third, in 1882 a student at Butler’s own Cambridge college published the first English translation of the massive Japanese 11th-century epic romance Genji Monogatari, sensationally written by a woman, Murasaki Shikibu. The translator was Kenchio Suyematz, a high-level Japanese aristocrat whose residency at St. John’s attracted national attention.  If the Japanese national epic was authored by a woman, why not the ancient Greek one?

A perfect trip, rounded off by visits to the nearby ancient theatre and temple at Segesta. Then I returned to launch this year’s undergraduate course at KCL and, in Kent, my ACE campaign to get Classical subjects into every state school in the land, on which see the project website. Constant activity, but, however knackering, that's the way I like it.
* Organised by the super-efficient and super-hospitable Renato LoSchiavo and Diego Grammatico.

** As cited by the mythographer Ptolemy Chennos, himself quoted by  Photius of Constantinople.

Segesta Theatre--Diego Grammatico and Christiano Turbil

1 comment:

  1. Jane Ellen Harrison has a reminiscence (pointed), in the third chapter of her "Reminiscences of a Student's Life," of a dinner at a (doubtless the GB) hotel in Athens when Butler imposed himself on her solitary dinner to -- it turned out -- expound his authorship theory. "The buzzing of that crazy bee."