Friday, 10 April 2015

What does Athena REALLY say when she explains her vote in the Eumenides?

In this posting, I want to share one thing I'm currently writing about in my OUP book and which I mentioned briefly in the discussion at a conference at Leuven last month on classics and psychology. These comments were  made in response to a paper about Orestes in the Oresteia from a psychoanalytical perspective.  The paper included an exploration of the meaning of Athena's words at Eumenides 736-8 where the goddess explains why she uses her deciding vote to acquit Orestes of matricide. As usually read - indeed, I think as read by anyone else who has written about the passge - what Athena is saying is that she makes her decision because her origins and her disposition make it inevitable that she will act in such a way. Thanks to the circumstances of her birth she is 'of the male' literally and she is also 'exceedingly of the father' literally. She also 'approves of the male in every respect, with all [her] heart':

Nobody is the mother that gave birth to me (mētēr gar outis estin ē m’egeinato), and I approve of the male in every respect, with all my heart, except for undergoing marriage (plēn gamou tuchein). I am exceedingly of the father (tou patros) (736-8). .

This looks like the most explicity pro-paternal and pro-patriarchal statement ever made by or about the goddess in Greek literature.  It has been taken to encapsulate the nature and mode of action of the goddess. It has also been taken as marking the turning point in the Oresteia between the old ways of vengeance and matriarchy and the new ways that her words inaugurate of justice and patriarchy.

For some years I was bothered about whether such a view can be upheld. Firstly, Athena's proviso, that she upholds all things male 'except for undergoing marriage,' struck me as sitting uneasily alongside the various patriachal statements she piles on. For a goddess seeking to inaugurate a new system that squeeze out powerful females, it makes her rather similar to the Amazons whose establishment of a rival polis is described earlier in the play - and the location of this polis was none other than the Areopagos where the lawcourt to try Orestes, and so start the move away from vengeance towards justice, is situated.

Then Alan Sommerstein pointed out something to me, also some years ago, that took these concerns to a whole new level. What follows are my musings in summary. Previous scholars have missed something vital.  It is not the case that Athena's words mark some kind of haven in the otherwise ambiguous word play of the Oresteia. What she says fits those many other instances in the Oresteia exploring the instability of language and the possibility of logos to deceive.

For at the very same time that Athena says that she does not have a mother she also says that she does have a mother. And she gives that mother a name - in contrast to her father who is not named here.  The mother is: Outis. The name means Nobody or No-one. Thus on the one hand the mother does not exist - and so in English this mother (or non-mother) is 'nobody' with a lower case first letter. But on the other hand Athena's mother is a goddess with the name of Outis. Thus Athena says both
  • 'no-one is the mother that bore me'

  • 'Outis is the mother that bore me.'
And what is Outis? It is the name also used by Odysseus in the cave of Polyphemos - it is at once a name and a non-name - a cunning name... a name of metis.

And there is more: it is also the name of Metis with a capital M. Ou-tis (No-one) is another way of saying Mē-tis (No-one), the goddess who is swallowed by Zeus when pregnant. What then happens? Is the pregnancy transferred to Zeus? Or does Metis continue pregnant and bear her child when ready - the child that grows inside Zeus until it bursts forth out of his head. Athena is - if this is right - twice born (just like Zeus was): from her mother's body then later from her father's body. I argue in the book, in a chapter on Hesiod, that the poet allows for all these possiblities - in ways that past scholars have overlooked. In fact, an overriding theme of the book is things that past scholars have overlooked about Athena.

One final point: it is not just Athena that both denies and names a mother. So does Apollo. As the god makes his case for the acquittal of Orestes he calls on Athena as witness of his case that the claim of the mother is weaker than that of the father - because the role of the mother is supposedly less important than that of the father in conceiving children. He exclaims: 'There may be a father without a mother' on the grounds that 'over here there is a witness, the child of Olympian Zeus, who was not even nursed in the darkness of the womb, but such an offspring to which outis...thea could give birth’ (Eum. 663-6). Outis thea! This is usually taken to mean 'no goddess', making Athena the kind of child that no goddess could have borne. But Apollo is also describing the goddess as ‘such a goddess that the goddess Outis could bear.’ Again, Athena's mother is being denied while simultaneously being named.

The Oresteia charts a progress towards an institutional framework for justice and father-right and the turning point comes with Athena as the child of the father.  But Athena's mother is named by the very gods who are overseeing the transition. Meaning what? That language is as deceitful as it ever was? That meaning remains contested? That the old ways cannot be squeezed out however much they might appear to be?
In the book I'll be considering the various implications of this doubleness for how to read Athena, and for how to read the complexities in Greek thinking around patriarchy in the texts that are usually read as establishing and validating patriarchy. Athena is the 'traitor to her sex' - more so in the Eumenides than anywhere else. But here she is also 'Athena the trickster.'

No comments:

Post a Comment