Masculinity in the Odyssey

 

I am finally on spring break, and therefore I finally have time to post something.

This was actually an assignment from last semester. I did it at the last minute, and before my professor handed back the assignment he said “Some of you did really well, others of you…well, it looks like you forgot that you had a paper due and then tried to write it ten minutes before class.” So, I slid in my seat while thinking Oh shit! That’s me. But, when I got the paper back, I got 100% on it, and his comment was “Well thought out”, and I felt like a badass.

The assignment was to pick a quote from something we had read that semester and then analyze that quote by itself and in relation to the text as a whole. This is the quote I selected:

Take this herb with you when you go to Circe,

And it will protect you from her deadly tricks.

She’ll mix a potion and spike it with drugs,

But she won’t be able to cast her spell

Because you’ll have a charm that works just as well–

The one I’ll give you–and you’ll be forewarned.

When Circe strikes you with her magic wand,

Draw you sharp sword from beside your thigh

And rush at her with murder in your eye.

She’ll be afraid and invite you to bed.

Don’t turn her down–that’s how you’ll get

Your comrades freed and yourself well loved.

But first make her swear by the gods above

She will not unsex you when you are nude,

Or drain you of your manly fortitude.

Homer, The Odyssey, Book 10, Lines 308-322

Translated by Stanley Lombardo

One other thing I want to point out is that I obviously didn’t swear when I actually turned in the assignment. I also did not refer to the moly as drugs. I made these changes for this post, because this is my website and I can do what I want. I did not have this power when I turned in the assignment.

CONTEXT:

Some of Odysseus’ men have been turned into pigs by Circe. Odysseus is on his way to save them when Hermes delivers some drugs that will make Odysseus immune to Circe’s magic. Hermes also advises Odysseus to fuck Circe.

ANALYSIS:

When Hermes grants Odysseus the herb that will prevent his transformation to a pig, he transfers control from Circe to Odysseus. Without the herb, Circe would have had the upper hand when Odysseus arrives to save his men, and therefore would have been dominant over him. Since Odysseus now has a method of thwarting Circe’s trick, he has regained his dominance.

The idea of dominance also applies to Odysseus’ and Circe’s sexual roles. Before Odysseus arrives to rescue his men, Circe already plans to sleep with him. In the passage, Hermes suggests Circe’s plans to have sex with Odysseus when he describes Circe’s “deadly tricks”, and when he says she will “cast her spell.” These phrases suggest that Circe would have been seducing him, and therefore would have had control over Odysseus sexually. Hermes also describes Circe’s “magic wand” in the passage, which refers to Circe’s metaphorical dick. If Circe has a magic wand, she is sexually dominant, and therefore seems fulfills a masculine role, both sexually and because of her magical power over Odysseus and his men.

When Hermes gives Odysseus the moly to stop Circe’s spell he gives Odysseus control of both the situation as a whole and control of Circe sexually, because Odysseus now has knowledge that Circe does not have. Circe plans to trick Odysseus, thus gaining the upper hand, but when Odysseus tricks Circe instead, he becomes the one in control. By becoming the trickster, as opposed to the one being tricked, Odysseus also regains his dominance over Circe, and with his dominance, he also regains his masculinity.

Hermes instructs Odysseus to seduce Circe with symbolic terms. He refers to a sword which symbolizes Odysseus’s dick. The symbolism of the sword is clear because of its placement at Odysseus’ thigh. Therefore, when Hermes instructs Odysseus to charge at Circe with his sword, he is actually instructing him to sleep with her, and because Odysseus is the one actively doing the charging, he becomes sexually dominant over Circe. By charging at her with the sword, Odysseus regains his manhood from Circe who had been fulfilling a masculine role with her magic wand. Hermes also says that Odysseus should charge “with murder in his eyes”, which indicates that Odysseus has to take over Circe’s dominance and replace it with his own. The word murder implies a conquest of Circe’s previously established control. When she becomes afraid, she submits, and is defeated by Odysseus.

You could argue that Odysseus never establishes control of the situation, because Hermes is the one who advises him and provides him with the plant to protect him from Circe’s spell. Therefore, Hermes would be the one who is ultimately in control. However, Odysseus freely chooses to obey Hermes’ advice which further establishes his character as both wise and devout. Odysseus follows Hermes’ advice without question, which establishes that he is devout. Since following those orders makes him victorious over Circe and makes him successful in saving his men, Odysseus was wise in choosing to obey Hermes, even though Hermes’ advice is to ingest some weird plant. Thus, readers can assume that being pious is wise in Greek culture.

Whether the credit goes to Hermes or to Odysseus, a male is ultimately in control of Circe by the end of Book 10. The importance of masculinity in The Odyssey is emphasized in Hermes’ speech with the word “unsex.” Perhaps this also could have been translated from Greek to “unman”, in which case it could have had two meanings: to both remove Odysseus’s masculinity, and dehumanize him. Circe would have hurt his masculinity with her dominance over him, but she also could have dehumanized him by turning him into a pig.

The idea of being “unsexed” is carried throughout the Odyssey, and readers see it at the beginning of the epic when Odysseus is on Calypso’s island. Although, chronologically, this happens after Odysseus has already encountered Circe, the audience is already aware of Odysseus’ lack of masculinity when he is on the island. Since he is held on Calypso’s island against his will, he has neither dominance nor control, and therefore no masculinity. Calypso fills the role usually taken by the male, and has control of Odysseus sexually, and has therefore robbed him of his masculinity. By establishing control with Hermes before his arrival on Circe’s island, he prevents Circe from removing his will power. Odysseus does not regain his masculinity from Calypso until she restores him with the freedom to leave and with axes to build a raft. These axes are also phallic symbols, and when Odysseus receives them, he is given back control over his situation, and thus he reclaims his manliness. Without Hermes’ help, Odysseus may have suffered a similar experience with Circe, which indicates that Odysseus needs divine intervention when dealing with women. Hermes’ advice is important because it allows Odysseus to maintain control when he is on Circe’s island, and it also reemphasizes Calypso’s power over his masculinity.

 

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