Language and the Female in Early Greek Thought

Detail from greek vase showing women preparing wool. Diosphos Painter. / British Museum, London

By Dr. Ann Bergren
Professor Emeritus of Classics
University of California, Los Angeles

The Speech of the Muses[1]

The Nine Muses, by Lodewijk Toeput, c.1585 / Artnet via Sotheby’s, Wikimedia Commons

At the start of the Theogony, Hesiod describes his poetic initiation. As he was tending his lambs under Mt. Helicon, the Muses “taught him beautiful singing” (καλὴν ἐδίδαξαν ἀοιδήν, Theogony 22), when to him for the first time they made this pronouncement:

ποιμένες ἄγραυλοι, κάκ’ ἐλέγχεα, γαστέρες οἶον,
ἴδμεν ψεύδεα πολλὰ λέγειν ἐτύμοισιν ὁμοῖα,
ἴδμεν δ’ εὖτ’ ἐθέλωμεν ἀληθέα γηρύσασθαι.

Shepherds of the wild, base reproaches, bellies only,
we know how to say many false things like to real things,
and we know, whenever we want, how to utter true things.

Theogony 26–28

The poet then continues:

So they spoke, these daughters of great Zeus, joiners of words,
and they gave me a scepter, having plucked a branch of teeming laurel,
wondrous to see. And they breathed into me divine voice (αὐδὴν θέσπιν)
so that I might celebrate the things that were and will be.

Theogony 29–32

This text introduces the relation between language and the female in early Greek thought: a male author ascribes a kind of speech to a female and then makes it his own. Let us look more closely.

First, what is the nature of the Muses’ speech? [2] They claim to know two modes, both “false things like to reality” and “true things,” and to be able to switch from one to the other at will. What is their purpose in making this claim? Evidently, it is to declare the extent of their knowledge—note the repetition of ἴδμεν “we know”—to declare the unqualified knowledge and power of speech they must possess, if they are to inspire the “divine voice” of the “things that were and will be.” [3] Accordingly, they claim control of both truth and falsehood, since, as Odysseus proves when he tells ψεύδεα ὁμοῖα ἐτύμοισιν “false things like to real things” about himself (Odyssey xix 203) (the only other attested instance of this phrase), the ability to utter falsehood implies and requires knowledge of the truth. [4] The Muses can speak both the truth and fictions that imitate fact, with no constraint. [5] No knowledge or power of utterance could be more complete.

These two modes of the Muses’ discourse parallel the two kinds of speech attributed to women throughout Greek tradition. Women are both prophets and teachers, voices of truth. Think of the Moirae (Fates) who spin out the future, [6] the Sirens who “know all that comes into being upon the much-nourishing earth” (Odyssey xii 191), [7] Nereus’ daughters, Nemertes “Unerring” (Iliad XVIII 46, Theogony 262) and Apseudes “Without-Falsehood” (Iliad XVIII 46), the Pythia at Delphi, Teiresias’ daughter Manto, Cassandra, [8] Aspasia, teacher of rhetoric to Pericles and Socrates, [9] and Diotima, Socrates’ teacher of love. [10] Women are also tricky, alluring imitators in words. [11] Recall the speech in which Aphrodite imitates a “virgin” in order to seduce Anchises (Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite 108–142, νύμφαι and παρθένοι, 119) [12] and Hera’s similar deception (ἀπάτη) of Zeus. [13] But most females are, like the Muses, capable of both modes—indeed, as we have observed, the ability to falsify implies command of the truth. Remember Calypso and Circe in the Odyssey, each a “dread goddess endowed with speech” (δεινὴ θεὸς αὐδήεσσα) who weaves, sings, seduces and prophesies; [14] the Bee Maidens in the Homeric Hymn to Hermes whose oracular response is true when they are fed honey and false when they are deprived (Homeric Hymn to Hermes 552–563); the Delian Maidens in the Homeric Hymn to Apollo, the θεράπναι “ritual substitutes” of Apollo who can imitate voices so well that “every man would say that he himself was speaking” (Homeric Hymn to Apollo 157–164); [15] Gaia (Earth) in the Theogony who both prophesies (Theogony 463, 475, 891–893) and devises plots (μῆτιν, 471) and tricks (Γαίης ἐννεσίῃσι πολυφραδέεσσι δολωθείς, 494) on the basis of her prophetic knowledge (Theogony 626–628); [16] and, of course, the Sphinx, whose song of man’s essential nature comes in the form of a riddle that “chokes” both the man who cannot and the man who can solve it. [17] In these figures we see a degree of knowledge attributed to the female that results in a capacity for double speech, for both truth and the imitation of truth, a paradoxical speech hopelessly ambiguous to anyone whose knowledge is less than the speaker’s. For if the Muses speak truly when they say that they can at will speak either truth or falsehood that is the perfect likeness of truth, who except the Muses themselves can tell whether this very declaration is an instance of the first or the second category, an instance of their true or their apparently true speech? [18]

What, then, do men do when they confront this double nature of female discourse? Again, the Hesiodic text provides the model. Thanks to the Muses’ inspiration, the poet acquires their capacity for knowledge and speech. Such appropriation by the male of what he attributes to the female persists throughout Greek literature. What varies, as we shall see, is the degree to which he attempts to demote, divide, or expel the “female” at the same time as he takes on her powers, and then to proceed as if they had always been his own. [19]

But why should this be so? Why should a certain power of language be thought of in terms of gender at all? To pursue this question, I will compare this “female” language with the sign-making activity of women par excellence in Greek, namely, weaving. This comparison will reveal that the tricky ambivalence ascribed to the speech of women is consonant with the semiotic character of weaving and of graphic art in general, and that it finds its intellectual counterpart in the Greek concept of mêtis or “transformative intelligence,” itself portrayed as the goddess, Metis. An instance of this mêtis, one that concerns both the production of signs and sexual reproduction, will suggest another comparison, this time between woman’s language and her role in marriage exchange, a relation I will explore in the opening chapters of Herodotus’ Histories. To conclude, I will illustrate the thesis that results from these investigations through the signal example of Helen.

The Signs of the Female: Weaving

Penelope at her loom (Greek pot, circa 440 BC) / British Museum, London

A significant connection between women and language in Greek thought might seem prima facie unlikely, since the semiotic activity peculiar to women throughout Greek tradition is not linguistic. Greek women do not speak, they weave. [20] Semiotic woman is a weaver. Penelope is, of course, the paradigm. [21] When we examine this activity in its cultural context, however, the phenomenon that emerges is not simple. We see first the simple fact: women weave. Why? The Greeks record the fact without analysis. For an aetiology we have to look to Freud whose account is interestingly consonant with but finally inadequate to the ancient evidence. To illustrate the connection between penis-envy and the development of a sense of shame, Freud declares:

It seems that women have made few contributions to the discoveries and inventions in the history of civilization; there is, however, one technique which they may have invented—that of plaiting and weaving. If that is so, we should be tempted to guess the unconscious motive for the achievement. Nature herself would seem to have given the model which this achievement imitates by causing the growth at maturity of the pubic hair that conceals the genitals. The step that remained to be taken lay in making the threads adhere to one another, while on the body they stick into the skin and are only matted together. If you reject this idea as fantastic and regard my belief in the influence of lack of a penis on the configuration of femininity as an idée fixe, I am of course defenseless. [22]

A woman weaves, in Freud’s view, in order to hide and compensate for her lack of all that the phallus represents, the capacity to engender life and in patrilinear society to give that life a legitimate name. And indeed, in Greek culture, where women lack citizenship, where men play all the parts in drama, and from which no poetry by women remains except for the lyrics of Sappho and fragments of a few others, the woman’s web would seem to be a “metaphorical speech,” a silent substitute for (her lack of) verbal art. But this is not a complete picture, for in Greek the utterance of poetry or prophecy is described as “weaving.”

Greek culture inherits from Indo-European a metaphor by which poets and prophets define themselves as “weaving” or “sewing” words. [23] That is, they describe their activity in terms of what is originally and literally woman’s work par excellence. They call their product, in effect, a “metaphorical web.” But which, then, is the original and which the metaphorical process? Is weaving a figurative speech or is poetry a figurative web? The question cannot be decided. Weaving as the sign-making activity of women is both literal and metaphorical, both original and derived. It is, like the Muses’ speech, ambiguously true speech and an imitation of true speech.

The myth of Tereus, Procne, and Philomela provides a good example. It testifies to the regular limitation of women to tacit weaving, while exposing the magical power of a silent web to speak. When Tereus, the husband of Procne, rapes her sister Philomela, he cuts out the woman’s tongue to keep her silent, but Philomela, according to Apollodorus (3.194.5), ὑφήνασα ἐν πέπλῳ γράμματα “wove pictures/writing (γράμματα can mean either) in a robe” which she sent to her sister. Philomela’s trick reflects the “trickiness” of weaving, its uncanny ability to make meaning out of inarticulate matter, to make silent material speak. In this way, women’s weaving is, as γράμματα implies, a “writing” or graphic art, a silent, material representation of audible, immaterial speech.

This paradoxical capacity of weaving has an intellectual counterpart in Greek. It is the skill known as mêtis. As Detienne and Vernant have shown, mêtis denotes throughout Greek thought the power of transformation, the power to change shape continuously or to imitate the shape of your enemy and defeat him at his own game. [24] It is both a strategy of deception, the plot itself, and the mental ability to devise one. The connection between the woman, weaving, and mêtis is explicit in two divine figures, the goddess Metis and her daughter Athena, goddess of weaving and as she herself says, “famous among all the gods for mêtis” (Odyssey xiii 299). [25] In the Odyssey Athena “weaves a mêtis” (μῆτιν ὑφαίνειν, Odyssey xiii 303, 386) for Odysseus through which he can take revenge upon the suitors (who themselves “weave a mêtis” to kill Telemachus, Odyssey iv 678). She changes Odysseus’ appearance to that of a beggar (Odyssey xiii 397–403), someone with the status his enemies actually occupy, when they are in his home. But this recipient of Athena’s mêtis had himself already “woven a mêtis” when he devised escape from Polyphemus by clutching the belly of the ram (Odyssey ix 422). [26] Indeed, through the epithet πολύμητις “he of much mêtis,” used only of Odysseus from the start of the epic, the text testifies to the hero’s prior possession of this quality, and Athena herself admits that she aids Odysseus because of his constant cleverness (Odyssey xiii 330–332).

To recapitulate: early Greek thought draws an analogy between woven fabric, poetry, and mêtis by making each the object of a verb “to sew” or “to weave,” the object, that is, of the woman’s sign-making art. If we keep this analogy in mind, the myth of the marriage of the goddess Metis and Zeus becomes an αἴτιον “aetiological myth” of the semiotic power assigned to the female and its (re-)appropriation by the male. According to the Hesiodic account (Theogony 886–900), Zeus’ first action after securing his kingship was to make Metis his wife, she “whose knowledge was greatest of gods and mortal men” (πλεῖστα θεῶν εἰδυῖαν ἰδὲ θνητῶν ἀνθρώπων, Theogony 887). But when she was about to give birth, he “deceived her mind with a trick through wily words (δόλῳ φρένας ἐφαπατήσας αἱμυλίοισι λόγοισιν) and put her into his own belly” (Theogony 889–890), “so that the goddess might devise on his behalf both good and evil” (ἀγαθόν τε κακόν τε, Theogony 900; compare above note 5). Later, he himself gave birth from his head to Metis’ daughter Athena (Theogony 924). The female as weaver of mêtis thus (re-)enters the divine cosmos as a perpetually virgin daughter, loyal solely to her father. And Zeus as sovereign male appropriates a quality that the text has attributed to him from the start. For just as Odysseus alone is πολύμητις “he of much mêtis” from the start of his epic, so Zeus is μητίετα “endowed with mêtis” from the start of the Theogony (56), and just as Odysseus wove a mêtis for himself before Athena wove one for him, so Zeus outwits the goddess Metis with his own mêtis of wily words. [27] Indeed, even before he swallows the goddess. Zeus is the beneficiary of the one instance in the Theogony when a female wields this power, that is, when Gaia and Uranus devise a mêtis for Rhea to keep Cronus from swallowing Zeus. But it is this very trick by Rhea that best shows how mêtis is related to the power of speech ascribed to the female and why the male needs to possess it.

The fundamental struggle of the Theogony is over the power of reproduction. In the three generations that culminate in the rule of Zeus, the male moves progressively closer to appropriating the reproductive process. [28] Uranus tries to block the birth of his children by keeping them within the body of Gaia; Cronus moves closer to the female role by swallowing his children so that they are kept within his own body. But even this measure is not wholly successful, since Rhea, when she is about to give birth to Zeus, asks Gaia and Uranus for a mêtis by which to elude Cronus (Theogony 468–478). The trick they devise is to substitute a stone wrapped in swaddling clothes for the real infant. Here is the primary mêtis, the first imitation, one that seems to symbolize a suppositious child. For Cronus is baffled by the disguise, as any man might be, when his wife presents him with what she says is his child, for who except his wife can vouch for his true child, the legitimate heir to his property and his proper name? [29] Only the female has the knowledge necessary to tell the true from the false heir, but it is this very knowledge that also makes her able to substitute for the truth a false thing that resembles it. Her knowledge gives her the power of falsification in the domain of sexual reproduction, just as on the level of language the knowledge of the Muses makes it possible for them to utter either alêtheia “true things” or pseudea homoia etumoisin “false things like to real things.” The (re-)production of social legitimacy and true meaning are in the hands of the female, but so thereby is the power of mêtis, the power of substitution and transformation, the power, therefore, of the tropos or “turning” that will later become the foundation of rhetoric. [30]

Yet even in this early mythic text, the semiotic implications of Rhea’s mêtis are not overlooked. Zeus himself makes them clear. Zeus, as we have seen, improves upon Cronus’ attempt to control reproduction by swallowing not the children alone, but the mother Metis as well, thus ensuring that he alone will now possess the knowledge and power she represents. In commemoration of this ascendancy through and over mêtis, Zeus sets up “at very holy Pythia in the hollows under Parnassus” the very stone Rhea gave to Cronus “to be a sign (σῆμ’) hereafter, a wonder (θαῦμα) for mortals” (Theogony 500). He sets up the stone to be a sign of his control of signification, to be a sign to all who come to learn the mind of the father through the oracle of his son, that Zeus’ regime is built upon the knowledge necessary to disguise, to imitate, to substitute—a knowledge now securely embodied by the father of men and gods.

If, then, on the divine level, the power of language attributed to the female is (re-)appropriated by the male, it remains the case that the human male is, in the perspective of early Greek thought, forever plagued by his vulnerability to the woman as the ambiguous source of truth and falsehood. In the Hesiodic texts the mortal woman is presented as a duplicitous product of Zeus’ power to substitute. [31] For Pandora, the origin of the “race of women” (γένος γυναικῶν, Theogony 590), comes to men as a “beautiful (καλόν) evil (κακόν) in place of good (ἀντ᾿ ἀγαθοῖο)” and “in place of fire (ἀντὶ πυρός)” (Theogony 570, 585, 602; Works and Days 57), another θαῦμα “wonder” (Theogony 588) like Zeus’ stone/σῆμα “sign.” This “sculpted female” (πλαστὴν γυναῖκα, Theogony 513, σύμπλασσε 571, πλάσσε, Works and Days 70) incarnates the problem of imitation, the problem that disguise presents to anyone without the mind of the disguiser. She comes as a κόσμος “order, ornament” (Theogony 587, Works and Days 76), a cosmetic composite of all the qualities we have seen so far associated with the language of the female. She can speak “falsehoods” (ψεύδεα) and “wily words” (αἱμυλίους λόγους, Works and Days 78); she can “weave a web full of artifice” (πολυδαίδαλον ἱστὸν ὑφαίνειν, Works and Days 64); like Aphrodite when she seduces Anchises, she is the “likeness of a reverend virgin” (παρθένῳ αἰδοίῃ ἴκελον, Theogony 572). But she is also the maternal source of truth, of the reality that is the next generation. [32]

In Pandora as source of both false words and true offspring and in Rhea’s mêtis stone as both substitute child and sign of true sovereignty over substitution, we have detected an analogy between the reproduction of legitimate or only apparently legitimate children and the utterance of true or only apparently true words, an analogy that suggests that the power of language ascribed to the female may be a reflex of the role she plays in the social process by which her re-productive role is assured, namely, the process of marriage exchange. To explore this possibility, I have looked to the early Greek text that comes closest to an anthropological analysis of this process, the Histories of Herodotus. [33]

The Female as Sign in Marriage Exchange

Penelope at her loom (Greek pot, circa 440 BC) / British Museum, London

Reflecting the perspective of structuralist anthropology, Claude Lévi-Strauss closes his Elementary Structures of Kinship with the observation that women are like words, insofar as they are exchanged in marriage by men so that men can communicate. But the female, he adds, is not “just a sign and nothing more,” since she is also “a generator of signs.” [34] Women are like words, they are “metaphorical words,” but they are also original sources of speech, speakers themselves. They are both passive objects and active agents of linguistic exchange, just as their weaving is both a metaphorical compensation for and the original meaning of poetic speech. In this relation to the linguistic and the social system, the woman, like her weaving, is paradoxically both secondary and original, both passive and active, both a silent and a speaking sign. [35]

Greek tradition has a version of this anthropological and linguistic analysis of the signifying function of the female in the social code. It is contained in the opening chapters of Herodotus’ Histories (1.1–5). Before turning to the events that precipitate the war, Herodotus looks back in time to the origin of the διαφορά, both the “difference” and the “conflict” between barbarian and Greek, an origin to be found in a series of marriage exchanges. But by virtue of its legendary material and time frame, this opening section seems to act as myth as well as history. The series of particular exchanges seem to illustrate how the system always works. [36] Specifically, as we shall see, the exchange of women and other merchandise always turns out to be uneven, and this unevenness results in “conflict” which constitutes the “difference” between the two sides. Marriage exchange thus becomes the ἀρχή “origin” not just of a given war, but also of social communication and differentiation. And further, insofar as kinship and language are, as Lévi-Strauss maintains, structurally homologous systems of meaning-making, this account of the exchange of women will apply mutatis mutandis to the exchange of language as well. [37]

Herodotus begins not with the Greek but with the Persian account, thus exposing at once the problem of competing perspectives and various degrees of knowledge about any given phenomenon. According to the Persians, he says, it was the Phoenicians who originated (αἰτίους γενέσθαι) the διαφορά “difference, conflict,” when on one of their stops to trade Egyptian or Assyrian goods in Greece, they stole (ἁρπασθῆναι) the king’s daughter Io, along with some other women (Histories 1.1.1–4). The Phoenicians, those proverbial traders (it is they who introduced the exchange medium of the alphabet into Greece), are in this case not merchants but pirates, taking goods without making payment, practicing ἁρπαγή “rape, theft” rather than γάμος “marriage” and ξενία “exchange.” In return for this ἁρπαγή, the Greeks steal (ἁρπάσαι) Europa from Tyre (Histories 1.2.1). By this repetition, theft is transformed into a sort of exchange, for it was, says Herodotus, ἴσα πρὸς ἴσα “equal for equal, tit for tat” (Histories 1.2.1). The Phoenicians are simply forced by the abduction of Europa to pay a “fair price” for their abduction of Io. In like manner, rape is turned into a marriage, the union by which a foreign female becomes the origin or perpetuation of the race, a function symbolized here by the fact that the name of the stolen woman, Europa, becomes the name of her new land (Histories 1.4.4). [38] Ἁρπαγή “rape, theft”, when doubled, becomes ξενία “exchange” and γάμος “marriage.”

Then the Greeks initiate (αἰτίους γενέσθαι) a “second illegality” (δευτέρης ἀδικίης) (Histories 1.2.2). They initiate the process of theft/exchange again by stealing (ἁρπάσαι) Medea from Colchis. Instead of retaliating with a theft, Medea’s father asks through a herald for the return of his daughter, but also for something in addition, δίκας τῆς ἁρπαγῆς “appropriate damages for the rape, theft.” In effect, this request turns commerce back to something like robbery, for the Greeks will be giving back more than they took, and accordingly, they refuse on the grounds that they got no δίκας τῆς ἁρπαγῆς “appropriate damages for the rape, theft” of Io (Histories 1.2.3). The behavior of the Greeks is then copied by Paris who “steals Helen” (ἁρπάσαντος αὐτοῦ Ἑλένην) and refuses both her return and damages, citing the ἁρπαγή “rape, theft” of Medea (Histories 1.3.2). And so again, the situation was equal, since, as Herodotus puts it, there had been only thefts/exchanges (ἁρπαγάς) between the two sides (Histories 1.4.1).

But when the Greeks do not accept Paris’ refusal and instead mount an army to recover Helen, they escalate the conflict—mindlessly, in the judgment of the Persians, who believe it is illegal to steal women, but irrational to be zealous in revenging the theft, since no woman is ravaged against her will (Histories 1.4.2). Nevertheless, the Greeks “on account of a Lacedaemonian woman” (Λακεδαιμονίης εἵνεκεν γυναικός, Histories 1.4.3) invade Asia and eradicate the dynasty of Priam. This act of aggression is so excessive that it defines a permanent, polemical opposition between barbarian and European/Greek. The attempt not just to match one ἁρπαγή with another or one ἁρπαγή-plus-δίκαι with another, but instead to re-take the woman by force, this attempt is the origin (ἀρχήν) of the enmity (ἔχθρης) through which the terms “Greek” and “barbarian” acquire their enduring meaning. [39] Such is the logos of the Persians (Histories 1.5.1).

But theirs is not the only account. The Phoenician version disputes the very foundation of the process, for they claim the abduction of Io was no ἁρπαγή “rape, theft” at all. Rather Io had slept with the Phoenician captain, become pregnant, and run away with him to avoid discovery by her parents (Histories 1.5.2). Like the Persians (who think that no woman is unwillingly raped), the Phoenicians believe that Io was a willing captive, but to them this means that there was no ἁρπαγή “rape, theft” at all. If in the Persian account, the women are passive objects of theft/exchange and rape/marriage and thus function like silent signs, in the account of the Phoenicians, they are the active agents of the process and act, as it were, like speakers.

This two-sided account of the origin of Greek/barbarian διαφορά “difference, conflict” reveals a series of irresolvable conflicts, ambiguities and tensions intrinsic to the exchange of women, oppositions that parallel the double status we have seen before in the weaving and the discourse of the female. First, who originates and who merely repeats the ἁρπαγή “rape, theft”? The Persians attribute the “beginning” to the Phoenicians (Histories 1.1.1–3) and then to the Greeks (Histories 1.4.4). Clearly, any starting point in the process is arbitrary. Is ἁρπαγή theft or rape or marriage? When one abduction is followed by another, the result is termed ἴσα πρὸς ἴσα “equal for equal.” Is Europa the barbarian’s daughter or the mother of the European Greeks? First one, and then, when she is exchanged, the other? So we might conclude. But these exchanges are not final. A woman can always be re-abducted, as was attempted in the case of Medea and achieved in the case of Helen. The even exchange can (re-)turn into excess, if, again as in the case of Helen, not just the woman but damages are (re-)captured. It is, however, only such an (attempted) excess that (re-)establishes the difference that creates meaning between otherwise equal parties. Signification is both an exchange and a theft of the sign. And, finally, it is possible that the man himself may be deprived of both the power to exchange the female and the control of her (re-)productive capacity. For just as a woman is able herself to speak, so Io may have “stolen or exchanged herself,” so to speak, by sleeping with the Phoenician captain. And it may be impossible for any interested male, be he Io’s father or the Greeks or the Phoenicians or the Persians or, as Herodotus admits at the end of this opening narrative (Histories 1.5.3), even the “father of history” himself, to find out for sure. The institution of marriage attempts to regulate the (re-)productive power of the female, but without total success. The woman can stay exchanged or be (re-)abducted, her offspring can be legitimate or illegitimate, and there is no way for any man either to control her completely or even to know for certain the extent of his control. Only the female knows for sure, and she, like the Muses, can either tell the truth or imitate it.

In Herodotus’ account we see marriage exchange not as an even reciprocity, but as a system in which an excess is added to an evenness, thus creating διαφορά, conflict as meaningful difference. In such a system, there is no single status of the female, but her meaning varies according to whether she is being viewed as agent or object, whether as someone to take or someone to be (re-)taken. And there is, accordingly, no univocal origin of truth, but competing versions, one from each perspective upon the woman’s role. One woman persistently embodies this mobile doubleness of language and the female throughout Greek tradition—that woman is Helen.

Helen as Female/Rhetorical Logos

Helen and Homer

Idealized portrayal of Homer dating to the Hellenistic period. / British Museum, London

The figure of Helen in Homer takes us back to the beginning, back, that is, to women and weaving. [40] In each epic Helen is both woven and the weaver of speech, both subject of the song and figure within the text for the poet’s own activity. When we first see her in the Iliad, she is weaving a tapestry of the ἀέθλους “contests” between the Greeks and the Trojans to possess her (Iliad III 121–128). As the scholiast on this passage remarks, “the poet has fashioned a worthy archetype of his own poetic art.” [41] Both the role and the tapestry of Helen share the contradictory, double status we noted before in weaving. She is both the passive object of the war and the creator of its emblem. And it is the art of the tapestry—whether Helen’s literal web or the “woven words” of the Iliad itself—both to represent action and to freeze it at a point before its completion. Helen depicts the contending armies, but she captures them, so to speak, at a point before either side has finally captured her. Helen’s art thus ever defers the end of the contest, the final capture of herself. The “text” of the Iliad mirrors Helen’s web by “weaving the war” up to a point where Achilles’ death is certain, but not yet accomplished. It thereby achieves the goal of Iliadic tradition, that is, to keep the glorious death of the hero perpetually alive. In the Iliad, therefore, tapestry and text are similarly paradoxical.

In the Odyssey, too, Helen acts as both subject and the poet’s counterpart. We see her in Book iv reunited with Menelaus in Sparta, giving a double wedding feast. She has acquired some marvelous things from Egypt: equipment for weaving and magic drugs. When the recollections among the men—Menelaus and his visitors, Telemachus and Peisistratus–of the losses at Troy provoke lamentation that would spoil the feast, Helen attempts to turn the evening from Iliadic mourning by means of the Egyptian drugs and an Odyssean tale. She pours into the wine some drugs (φάρμακα) that are “good” rather than “baneful” (ἐσθλά not λυγρά) and are “full of mêtis” (μητιόεντα) (Odyssey iv 227–228), [42] drugs that can keep a man from weeping even at the sight of his mother or father or brother or son being slaughtered (Odyssey iv 224–226). Shared epithets link these drugs with epic diction itself, so that when Helen follows the pouring of the drugged wine with a recollection of her own, we are led to see in her narration another emblem of the poet’s own art, especially since Helen’s tale, like the Odyssey itself, is about Odysseus, how when he entered Troy disguised as a beggar, she secretly aided him out of re-acquired loyalty to the Greeks (Odyssey iv 235–264), and since the Odyssey, like Helen’s tale, attempts to create Odyssean pleasure in place of Iliadic pain. [43]

But Helen’s drug/speech has a curious effect upon its audience. It provokes a second recollection of Odysseus’ exploits at Troy, this one by Menelaus. His tale is clearly the doublet of his wife’s, since they both begin with the same words: “but such a thing as this the strong man did and endured” (Odyssey iv 242 = iv 271). But this doublet counteracts the rhetoric of its model. For Menelaus belies Helen’s claim of new-found loyalty to the Greeks, when he mentions (apparently en passant) her second Trojan husband, the man she married after the death of Paris (Odyssey iv 276). Before beginning her tale, Helen had said “Enjoy these speeches (μύθοις). For I will narrate fitting, seemly things (ἐοικότα)” (Odyssey iv 239). But after Menelaus’ response, Helen’s tale becomes retroactively an imitation of what is fitting. Indeed, Menelaus himself testifies to Helen’s mastery of the verbal mimêsis “imitation” of truth, when he tells how Helen tested the content of the Trojan horse by imitating the voices of all the Greek wives (πάντων ἀργείων φωνὴν ἴσκουσ᾿ ἀλόχοισιν, Odyssey iv 279) and only Odysseus was able to restrain himself and the other men from answering her call (Odyssey iv 280–288). And when we recall that the opening description of Helen’s drug linked it with epic art, we see that in the effect of this narrative diptych upon the speech of his surrogate Helen, the poet exposes a “pharmacology” that can apply to any storytelling: the double capacity both to represent and to imitate truth can recoil upon anyone who tries to control it.

Helen and Stesichorus

A scene from the Tabula Iliaca, bearing the inscription “Sack of Troy according to Stesichorus” / Capitoline Museums, Rome

The texts of Homer not only reveal but do not attempt to regulate the doubleness of Helen—it is no wonder that an ancient biographical tradition made Metis Homer’s mother (Contest 314). With the poet Stesichorus, however, we encounter an effort that continues into the 5th century BCE to master the ethical and ontological uncertainty inherent in Helen and the logos. Although his traditional floruit is about a century after the Iliad and the Odyssey were probably composed, Stesichorus is to be understood in relation to Homeric and Hesiodic poetry. [44] His lyric is metrically and thematically cognate with hexameter epic, and ancient tradition either parallels him with Homer or makes him the son or grandson of Hesiod. [45] His complex relationship with Homer and Hesiod appears, in fact, to have become an actual theme of his poetry, specifically, his poem called Helen.

The orator Isocrates in his own Helen (Isocrates, Helen 64) summarizes the situation: “Helen demonstrated her power also in the case of the poet Stesichorus. For when at the beginning of his ode he uttered some slander (ἐβλασφήμησε) about her, he stood up deprived of his eyes; but when he recognized the cause of his affliction and composed what is called the recantation (παλινῳδίαν), she restored him again to the same condition.” Plato in the Phaedrus quotes some lines from this “palinode.” He introduces them by saying:

There is an ancient purification for those who err in story-telling (μυθολογίαν) which Homer did not perceive, but Stesichorus did. For having been deprived of his eyes on account of his slander (κακηγορίαν) of Helen, he was not ignorant like Homer, but being a true servant of the Muse (μουσικός), he recognized the cause (αἰτίαν) and composes at once: “This account (οὗτος λόγος) is not true (οὐκ ἔτυμος), you did not embark upon the well-oared ships, you did not come to the citadel of Troy.” And once he had composed the whole of what is called the recantation (παλινῳδίαν), at once he recovered his sight.

Phaedrus 243a–b

If the true Helen never went to Troy, for whom did the armies fight? In Book IX of the Republic Plato says “phantoms of true pleasure” (εἰδώλοις τῆς ἀληθοῦς ἡδονῆς) cause themselves to be fought over “just as Stesichorus says that the phantom (εἴδωλον) of Helen was fought over by those at Troy in ignorance of the truth (τοῦ ἀληθοῦς)” (Republic 586b–c). The true Helen was in Egypt.

Assuming that Plato is quoting the poet’s own terminology, it appears that Stesichorus’ Helen was another “diptych” (as Kannicht 1969:1.40 terms it): first, a κακηγορία “slander” or βλασφημία “damaging speech” in which he repeats the Homeric account of Helen, a repetition that results in his blinding, and second, a παλινῳδία “recantation” in which he calls the earlier logos false (οὗτος λόγος οὐκ ἔτυμος “this account is not true”) and tells instead the ἔτυμος “true” story in which an εἴδωλον “phantom” of Helen goes to Troy, while the real Helen stays in Egypt, a recantation that restores his sight. [46] Many aspects of this text would reward close study (in particular, the motif of blindness and insight as signs of false blame and true praise), [47] but for our immediate purposes it is most important to observe what is and is not new about Stesichorus’ Helen. Stesichorus did not invent the doubleness of Helen and her logos. For doubleness is the distinguishing mark of her entire tradition—from her two abductions, first by Theseus before her marriage to Menelaus and afterwards by Paris, to her twin brothers, the Dioscuri, whose alternation between death and divinity parallels the εἴδωλον/ἔτυμος pairing, and above all, her dual paternity, Tyndareus and Zeus. Along with these doublets, we should recall the shape-shifting mêtis of Nemesis, the mother of Helen in the Cypria, who resisted ἁρπαγή “rape, theft” by Zeus by transforming herself into one dread creature after another (Cypria 9). Multiformity in the mother is mirrored in the daughter’s ability to imitate the voices of the Greek wives. Even Helen’s association with Egypt is reflected in the Odyssey where her two mediums of transformation, the equipment for weaving and the magic drugs, are said to be gifts of two Egyptian women, Alcandre (Odyssey iv 125–132) and Polydamna (Odyssey iv 228–232). Like her Iliadic tapestry and her Odyssean pharmakon/tale, Helen is forever double. This ambivalence is, in fact, the essence of her tradition. She is the female forever abducted but never finally captured.

It is against this traditional meaning of Helen that we can appreciate the innovation of Stesichorus. He is not the first to make Helen guilty or innocent. We can see such evaluations in the poetry of Sappho and Alcaeus. [48] What is distinctive in Stesichorus seems to be the attempt to divide the sexual and ethical ambivalence of Helen into two figures, assign them two logoi, label one true and the other false, and assign the false one to his older poetic rivals, while arrogating the true one to himself. Yet even separating the female/logos into true and false and claiming to represent the true may itself be a traditional device by which a male poet tries to master the semiotic power he attributes to the female and thereby to assert himself vis-à-vis his male rivals. For it is often observed that in repeating the Muses’ description of their two-fold speech, Hesiod means to imply not just that the goddesses have power over both modes, but that in contrast to the ψεύδεα ὁμοῖα ἐτύμοισιν “false things like to real things” of epic, his song of the gods’ generation is ἀληθέα “true things.” [49] The innovation of Stesichorus may be limited to particular terminology such as ἔτυμος “true” and εἴδωλον “phantom.” In any case, it is this treatment of Helen as a competition between a true logos of praise and a false logos of blame that we see again in the first rhetorical version of the subject, Gorgias’ Encomium of Helen.

Helen and Gorgias

Bust of Gorgias / British Museum, London

In Gorgias’ treatment of Helen, we encounter a parallel to the story of Zeus and Metis. [50] Like the poets, the rhetorician needs to possess the power of signification we have seen attributed to the female. But unlike Homer or Hesiod or Stesichorus who signify this need by identifying themselves with the woman, whether as the Muses’ speech or the weaving/drug/speech of Helen or as Helen’s ἔτυμος “true” story, Gorgias attempts an appropriation of Helen’s logos no less total than Zeus’ swallowing of Metis. In fact, his procedure in the Encomium of Helen is the very essence of mêtis, that capacity to take on the shape of the enemy, to win by disguise, to create falsehoods that imitate truth. As many commentators on the text observe, Gorgias’ apparent “Praise of Helen” is in fact an encomium of logos in general and his logos in particular. [51] What has not been seen is how Helen—or rather, more precisely, Helen’s traditional meaning—is used by Gorgias. Gorgias proves the power of logos over Helen. But that is not all. He endows the logos that overpowered Helen with just those characteristics traditionally attributed to the sêmeiôsis of women and especially to Helen’s signs. And even this is not all, for having appropriated the language of Helen, he tries to regulate its fundamental constitution, its unstable, ever (re-)turning doubleness. Dressed in Helen’s costume, as it were, Gorgias’ mêtis-like logos tries to divide the traditional mêtis of female speech. But, as often happens, when one creature of mêtis hunts another, Gorgias’ quarry eludes capture by circling round against the hunter and exposing his ruse. Let us track the turns and counter-turns of this rhetoric.

At the start of his speech, Gorgias defines his goal: it is to be the first to replace the tradition of false speech (ψευδομένους) blaming Helen with a true (τἀληθές) speech of praise (Gorgias Encomium of Helen [82] B11.2 DK). He argues that the poets who unanimously assert her guilt are wrong, since she was the victim of irresistible forces, either divine or human. In the human category, he lists “abduction by force” (βίαι ἁρπασθεῖσα), “persuasion by speech” (λόγοις πεισθεῖσα), and “capture by love” (ἔρωτι ἁλοῦσα) (Encomium of Helen 6). Gorgias passes quickly over ἁρπαγή “rape, theft” as a literal possibility (Encomium of Helen 7), but then returns to it as a metaphor for the power of persuasion by speech. For despite the textual corruption, all readings of section 12 agree that the logos is said to have compelled Helen not otherwise than if she had been raped. [52]

But Helen is “raped,” as it were, by a logos/phallos with the character of female language. Here it is logos that makes poetry “divinely inspired” (ἔνθεοι, Encomium of Helen 10), just as the Muses inspire the song of Homer and Hesiod. In Hesiod a man is “turned away” (παρέτραπε) from painful memories by poetry as a “gift of the goddesses” (δῶρα θεάων), presented by a poet, the θεράπων “servant” of the Muses (Theogony 98–103). But here it is through the logos alone that poetry brings “pleasure” and banishes “fear” and “pain” (Encomium of Helen 8, 10). Rather than Calypso or Circe or the Sirens, it is the poetic word that “enchants” (ἔθελξε) by “wizardry” (γοητείαι), one type of which are “deceptions” (ἀπατήματα), like those practiced by Hera and Aphrodite (Encomium of Helen 10). The deceptive wizardry of the word consists in being, like the “woven song,” an uncanny synesthesia of plastic and verbal artforms, a “sculpted word” that “persuades” like Pandora, or more precisely, a “sculpted false word” (πείθουσι δὲ ψευδῆ λόγον πλάσαντες, Encomium of Helen 11), just as the “woven words” of the Muses can be ψεύδεα ἐτύμοισιν ὁμοῖα “false things like to real things.” [53] Indeed, like the γράμματα “pictures, writing” of Philomela’s web, the persuasive logos is a kind of writing, another visual and verbal medium, for in legal contests the logos “persuades” (ἔπεισε) because it is “written with skill, not spoken with truth” (τέχνηι γραφείς οὐκ ἀληθείαι λεχθείς, Encomium of Helen 13). [54]

But it is not just these general characteristics of the signs of women that Gorgias’ logos shares. In assimilating logos and φάρμακα “drugs” (Encomium of Helen 14), Gorgias links his speech with the drug/speech of Helen herself in the Odyssey. [55] Just as the drugs in the Odyssey are divided into “good” and “baneful” (Odyssey iv 230), so here Gorgias differentiates between those that end disease and those that end life. With her φάρμακα/speech, Helen attempted to control the emotional response of her audience, and here Gorgias claims a particular effect for a given logos: pain, delight, fear, courage. But the question in both texts is whether the “pharmacology” of speech can be controlled. We saw before how the double of Helen’s drug/speech reacted against its practitioner, when she attempted to divide Odyssean pleasure from Iliadic pain. What is the fate of him who attempts a similar control over logos here?

The speech of Gorgias counteracts its own strategy. Even without knowledge of the tradition of Helen, we can detect that Gorgias is “costuming” the logos with Helen’s own powers and leaving the woman a mere εἴδωλον “phantom” of her former self. The logos, he says, produces the “most divine works” (θειότατα ἔργα), although it is “the most small and invisible body” (σμικροτάτῳ σώματι καὶ ἀφανεστάτῳ) (Encomium of Helen 8); “one speech” (εἷς λόγος) in a legal contest “delights and persuades a huge crowd” (πολὺν ὄχλον ἔτερψε καὶ ἔπεισε) (Encomium of Helen 13). But earlier in the speech, in a brief passage of direct praise, Gorgias attributes to Helen just this quality of controlling “many” while being “one”: her “divine beauty” (τὸ ἰσόθεον κάλλος) activated “the greatest number of desires in the greatest number of men” (πλείστας δὲ πλείστοις ἐπιθυμίας); “in one body it brought together many bodies” (ἑνὶ δὲ σώματι πολλὰ σώματα συνήγαγεν ἀνδρῶν), men of every distinction—wealth, lineage, strength, wisdom (Encomium of Helen 4). Similarly, Gorgias claims that if it was a god who willed Helen’s going to Troy, she, as only a mortal, was powerless to resist (Encomium of Helen 6). But this argument ignores the inborn doubleness of Helen, the divine-plus-human nature that derives from the double paternity cited by Gorgias himself, when he praises Helen’s lineage (Encomium of Helen 3). Not just the tradition but Gorgias himself ascribes to Helen, what he then denies her and ascribes to the logos alone.

But it is in his claims for his own speech that Gorgias is most clearly self-confuting. In the opening words of the Encomium of Helen, Gorgias asserts that what gives logos its κόσμος “order, ornament” is “truth” (ἀλήθεια) and that the opposite, that is, falsehood, is without κόσμος (τὰ δὲ ἐναντία τούτων ἀκοσμία) (Encomium of Helen 1). Here κόσμος implies “the attribute necessary for successful operation,” as we can tell from the parallel cases Gorgias lists: the κόσμος of the city is “good manhood” (εὐανδρία), of the body, “beauty” (κάλλος), of the soul, “wisdom” (σοφία). If, then, the κόσμος of a logos is ἀλήθεια “truth” and falsehood would mean ἀκοσμία, this implies that for Gorgias’ speech to succeed, that is, for it to be persuasive in exonerating Helen, it must be true. But later, as we have seen, he claims persuasive force for ψευδής λόγος “false speech” (πείθουσι δὲ ψευδῆ λόγον πλάσαντες, Encomium of Helen 11). Now either way he turns, the sophist is trapped by the principle of exclusive opposites that he introduced to control the doubleness of language. Either way his logos fails of its stated goal. If a false logos is without κόσμος, it cannot be successful, it cannot be irresistibly persuasive: Helen is still guilty. If there is any false logos that can be irresistibly persuasive, then the true logos of praise cannot defeat the tradition of false blame: Helen is still guilty. Or at least her ethically double nature, like that of her logos, continues to elude capture. The κόσμος of Gorgias’ speech becomes a “cosmetic” like the κόσμος of Pandora. [56]

Or is Gorgias a greater master of mêtis than we realize? Is he in the Encomium of Helen imitating Helen’s logos to the point of allowing his own text, as did Homer, to demonstrate her uncontrollability? In his last words, he says, “I wanted to write the logos, a praise of Helen on the one hand, and on the other, my plaything” (ἐβουλήθην γράψαι τὸν λόγον Ἑλένης μὲν ἐγκώμιον, ἐμὸν δὲ παίγνιον, Encomium of Helen 21). Is this an enigma, an αἶνος “testing discourse” to determine whether we realize that only a demonstration of the ungovernable rhetoricity of language can be both Helen’s ἐγκώμιον, “praise,” and his παίγνιον, “plaything”? [57] Perhaps. What we can say with security is that Gorgias’ encomium of Helen cannot be adequately understood apart from the tradition of Helen and her logos, a tradition that is part of the larger phenomenon by which a female is endowed with a degree of knowledge, especially sexual knowledge, that gives her a mêtis-like power over the utterance of both truth and imitation, a power that every male from Zeus to Gorgias himself must make his own. As for the degree to which Gorgias, like Zeus, succeeds in his attempt to leave the female bereft of this power, we cannot at this point answer fully, but we can speculate at least on this anecdote contained in a brief report by Plutarch on Gorgias’ private life: “When Gorgias, the rhetorician, read to the Greeks at Olympia a discourse about harmony, Melanthius said, ‘This man is giving us advice about harmony, when in his private life he has not persuaded himself, his wife, and his maidservant, although being only three persons, to live in harmony.’ For there was, as it seems, some passion [ἔρως] on the part of Gorgias and some jealousy on the part of his wife toward the little serving girl.” [58]


1. An earlier version of this essay appeared in Arethusa 16 (Semiotics and Classical Studies) 1983:69–95. I am grateful to Margaret Alexiou, David Blank, Nancy Felson, Bruce Rosenstock, and the UCLA Faculty Seminar on Women, Culture, and Theory for critical reading of that text.
2. Of previous work on the Muses’ speech, mine is most indebted to Pucci 1977. Like Pucci, I focus upon the rhetorical structure of the lines and how that structure affects what the lines say about truth and falsehood in language. While Pucci does not treat the speech as specifically female in origin, his brilliant analysis of Pandora as an allegory of discourse points the way for my emphasis on the connection between the operation of the speech and the gender of the speaker.
3. Compare the Muses’ omniscience as the ultimate source of epic song at Iliad II 484–492.
4. Note also the epithets of the goddess Metis, πολύιδριν “with much knowledge” (Hesiod fr. 343.6 MW) and πλεῖστα θεῶν εἰδυῖαν ἰδὲ θνητῶν ἀνθρώπων “with the greatest knowledge of gods and mortals” (Theogony 887); and compare Socrates’ argument in Plato’s Hippias Minor (365d–368a) that the best teller of falsehood must have the best knowledge of truth. Many studies of the Muses’ speech assume that its main purpose is to distinguish two classes of poetry, one, ἀληθέα “true things” and the other, ψεύδεα ὁμοῖα ἐτύμοισιν “false things like to real things,” and attempt, consequently, to identify the ψεύδεα “false things” either as epic (Neitzel 1980), the Theogony itself (Stroh 1976), or epichoric traditions in contrast to their panhellenic synthesis (Nagy 1982). Pucci (1977:36n11), too, takes the ψεύδεα “false things” to refer to Homeric epic, though with important qualifications. While reference to specific poetic creations cannot be ruled out, the logic of the context and the parallel of invoking the Muses’ omniscience in Iliad II 484–486 suggest that the immediate aim of the Muses’ words is to validate their inspiration, that is, to establish their unqualified veridical authority in contrast to that of humans whose status as “bellies”—creatures who need food to live and ultimately will die—compromises their ability to know the truth and to speak it whenever they wish (on the “belly” as sign of the mortal condition, see Arthur 1982 and for its qualification of human truthfulness, see also Svenbro 1976, esp. 57–73). If that is the purpose of the Muses’ speech, then the ψεύδεα ὁμοῖα ἐτύμοισιν “false things like to real things” are mentioned not so much as particular compositions, but as a category of utterance that implies and proves a knowledge of truth. This interpretation is supported by another archaic account of poetic initiation that includes the words of the divinity. The Cretan Epimenides, to whom a “Theogony” was attributed among other poetic works, was sent out by his father to search for a sheep (Epimenides [3] A1 DK). When he fell asleep in the cave of Dictaean Zeus, the gods spoke to him in a dream, among them Ἀληθεία “Truth” and Δίκη “Justice” (Epimenides [3] B1 DK). Of Epimenides’ report of that epiphany, one line remains: Κρῆτες ἀεὶ ψεῦσται, κακὰ θηρία, γαστέρες ἀργαί, “Cretans, always liars, base beasts, idle bellies” (Epimenides [3] B1 DK). The purpose of this address appears to be to contrast the truth that the divinity is about to reveal with the Cretans’ usual falsehood. But the proverbial circularity of the “Cretan lie” is, however, embedded in the account, since if this is the voice of Ἀληθεία “Truth” or some other source of truth, and if she says Cretans always lie, then Epimenides’ own report of the truth that Cretans always lie, can itself be a lie. As we shall see, there is a similar ambiguity in the Muses’ assertion to Hesiod of their command of the truth.
5. In his comprehensive study of true and false speech in archaic thought, Detienne (1967) concludes apropos of the “ambiguity of speech” that “to possess the truth is also to be capable of deception” (77) and of the Muses’ speech in particular he observes that “ambiguity” is “here the object of a rational analysis that proceeds in terms of imitation, of mimêsis” (77). It is such “ambiguity,” the simultaneous capacity for truth and the imitation of truth, that characterizes the language attributed to the female.
6. See Odyssey vii 197. At Theogony 905 they are named: Κλωθώ “spinner,” Λάχεσις “apportioner,” and Ἄτροπος “she who does not turn,” or as is suggested by Thompson (1966:44) with a-intensive, “she who cannot be kept from turning,” the spindle itself. The two possible meanings of Ἄτροπος capture the doubleness of the language associated with the female. Note also that the Fates parallel the Muses both in the truth and in the ambivalence of their dispensation: the Muse gives to her best loved poet and the Fates give to mortals ἀγαθόν τε κακόν τε “both good and evil” (Odyssey viii 63 and Theogony 906). For the same phrase with regard to Metis, see the discussion below of the union of Metis and Zeus.
7. On the Sirens, see Pucci 1974 and Kahn 1980; and for their relation with the Muses, formally evident in the double “we know” (ἴδμεν) declaration and in the tradition that makes the Muse Terpsichore their mother (Apollonius of Rhodes Argonautica IV 892–896), see Buschor (1944) who identifies the Sirens as a deadly, underworld double of the Olympian daughters of Zeus. The differences between the Sirens and the Muses marshaled by Pollard 1952, especially that Orpheus as the Muses’ champion defeats the Sirens, tend to support rather than invalidate the basic correlation of the two groups. In this connection, note the following parallels: (1) the Sirens “charm” (θέλγουσι, Odyssey xii 40, 44) with their “shrill song” (λιγυρῇ ἀοιδῇ, Odyssey xii 44); Calypso “charms” (θέλγει) Odysseus with “wily words” (αἱμυλίοισι λόγοισι) so that he will forget Ithaca, but he desires death (Odyssey i 56–59); (2) the bones of the Sirens’ victims “rot” (πυθομένων, Odyssey xii 46); Pytho, the victim of the Olympian god of song Apollo, counterpart of the Muses, gets her name from “rotting” under the Sun, a name that becomes the god’s epithet “Pythian” (Homeric Hymn to Apollo 368–374); (3) the compensating gain and loss from the Muses (song-craft and blindness for Demodocus, Odyssey viii 64; song-craft and mutilation for Thamyris, Iliad II 594–600), from the Sirens (knowledge and death), and from the Fates (good and bad).
8. See Davreux 1942 who points out the ambivalence in the epic cycle tradition over whether Cassandra was a “seer,” whose speech is directly inspired by divinity, or a “reader of auspices,” the god’s secondary signs (10–11).
9. See Plato Menexenus 235e. In this dialogue Socrates repeats a funeral oration he heard from Aspasia who composed it of fragments of the one she had composed for Pericles, together with some additional improvisations (236b).
10. See Plato Symposium 201d–212a.
11. On “the categories of Greek thought which associate the feminine with mimesis,” see Zeitlin 1981. In tracing the background of the connection between women and mimesis in Aristophanes’ Thesmophoriazusae, Zeitlin analyzes Pandora and Helen in Homer, Hesiod, Stesichorus, and Gorgias. Zeitlin sees Helen in Homer as the “weaver” of the Iliad and her story-telling in the Odyssey as a self-reflexive revelation of the nature of fiction (203–205). Zeitlin’s analysis also includes the tale of Proteus in relation to those of Helen and Menelaus and the connection of the whole cluster of these stories to the reunion of Odysseus and Penelope. On Stesichorus, Zeitlin focuses upon the poet’s use of Helen, the εἴδωλον “phantom” motif, and the palinode to reflect the working of his art. Zeitlin also emphasizes the role of the erotic (“Stesichorus’ story also suggests that eros is not divided from poetics,” 202) and stresses his “invention” of the εἴδωλον “phantom” motif as applied to Helen and of the palinode form (201–203). With regard to Gorgias’ Encomium of Helen, Zeitlin shows how λόγος “speech, account,” δόξα “opinion,” ὄψις “visual appearance,” and ἔρος “erotic desire” operate to persuade, seduce, and deceive the ψυχή “soul” (208–211).
12. This speech functions as the verbal counterpart of the visual disguise the goddess assumes at the Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite 82. Note her effort to lend credence to her story on the topic of language itself, when at line 114 she explains that her Trojan nurse taught her his “speech” (γλῶσσαν), an effort that for the hymn’s audience draws attention to her verbal ἀπάτη “deception.” And compare her later description (Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite 249) of how she used to make all the gods “mix” in sexual intercourse with mortal women through her “gossips” (ὀάρους) and “wiles” (μήτιας). For the correlation of woman’s language and mêtis, see below. For more on the complex relation between language and the female in this hymn, see “Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite: Tradition and Rhetoric, Praise and Blame” in this collection.
13. See Iliad XIV 153–360, especially 301–311 and 330–340, the counterparts of the πάρφασις “speech that turns aside, persuasion, deceit” embroidered on Aphrodite’s girdle (214–217). For the detailed correspondences between the Διὸς ἀπάτη “Deception of Zeus” and the Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite, see “Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite: Tradition and Rhetoric, Praise and Blame” in this collection, and for the relation of Hera’s βουλή “plot” in the Διὸς ἀπάτη to that of the Iliad as a whole, see “Helen’s Web: Time and Tableau in the Iliad,” in this collection.
14. For the meaning of this epithet and the function of the goddesses, see Nagler 1977. Before sharing with Odysseus her knowledge of navigation (Odyssey v 275–277), Calypso had “beguiled” him with “soft and wily words” (Odyssey i 55–57). When Hermes arrives to release the hero, he finds Calypso “singing as a bard sings (ἀοιδιάουσ᾿, compare ἀοιδός ‘singer, bard’) with a beautiful voice, as she walks before the loom, weaving with a golden rod” (Odyssey v 61–62). Similarly, when Odysseus’ shipmates arrive at Circe’s threshold, “they heard Circe within singing as a bard sings (ἀειδούσης) with beautiful voice, as she walked before the great loom” (Odyssey x 220–222). Along with Teiresias, Circe provides Odysseus with prophecy, describing her prophetic “signs” as antidote to another’s malevolent weaving: “And I shall show the way and signify (σημανέω) each thing, so that you may not through grievous evil-stitching (κακορραφίῃͅ, compare ῥάπτω ‘stitch, sew’) come to grief, suffering pain either on sea or on land” (Odyssey xii 25–27).
15. On the role of the Bee Maidens and the Delian Maidens, and on the translation of θεράπναι as “ritual substitutes,” see “Sacred Apostrophe: Re-Presentation and Imitation in Homeric Hymn to Apollo and Homeric Hymn to Hermes” in this collection.
16. On Nemesis, Thetis, and Themis, who also embody both prophecy and mêtis, see Detienne and Vernant 1978:107.
17. For the “popular etymology” connecting the Sphinx with σφίγγω “bind fast, throttle, choke,” see West 1966:256–257 on Theogony 326.
18. I owe to John Peradotto the observation of the essential paradox in the Muses’ speech: if they speak truly, when they say they can speak truth and the perfect likeness to truth at will, no listener whose knowledge is less than theirs can tell whether in this instance they are speaking truly. The Muses’ speech is thus a model instance of the capacity of language for τρόπος “turning” from one modality to another. Here the very utterance that proves the speaker’s consummate knowledge of truth puts in question the truthfulness of that utterance. This circular structure of expression, shared by the “Cretan lie” noted above n. 3, is later categorized as a περιτροπή or a statement that “turns around on itself,” as in the criticism of Protagoras’ man-measure doctrine by Democritus and Plato (Democritus [68] A114 DK = Sextus Empiricus Against the Mathematicians 7.389). Sextus Empiricus records a version of the “Cretan lie” as περιτροπή: “And indeed we have shown before that those who say that all things are false refute themselves (περιτρεπομένους); for if all things are false, then also the phrase ‘all things are false’ will be false” (Against the Mathematicians 8.55). On the role of περιτροπή in Greek philosophy, in particular, in the criticism by the Stoics of the Skeptic denial of decidability between competing claims on the basis of reason, see Burnyeat 1976.
19. On this process, compare Arthur 1982 who shows how in the Theogony the powers of the female are treated “metonymically,” that is, displaced and distributed among other goddesses and gods; see especially 64–65, 71, 72, 76. Arthur 1983 argues that the inspiration of Hesiod is “a highly sublimated form of reproduction . . . facilitated . . . by the belly/womb/mouth equation which becomes explicit in the succession-myth, and which attracts into the same symbolic field the acts of ingesting, conceiving, and receiving poetic inspiration, and of vomiting, giving birth, and singing or speaking.” In addition to this reproductive symbolism—the Muses as “male” inseminators of αὐδή “speech” into the “female” poet—we may note the masculine force of the σκῆπτρον “sceptre” they give him. Nagy (1982:52–53) has shown on the basis of a survey of the archaic usage of the term, that the σκῆπτρον “indicates that the poet will speak with the authority of a king—an authority that emanates from Zeus himself.” Combining these two readings, we may conclude that in the Theogony the poet is cast simultaneously as “male” in social and juridical authority by the σκῆπτρον and as “female” in terms of reproductive capacity by the Muses’ infusion and his subsequent emission of poetic αὐδή. The two dimensions of reproduction and sovereignty come together when Zeus, father and ruler of men and gods, gives birth to Athena, after having swallowed her mother Metis, and mêtis is, as we shall see, analogous to poetic song at the level of diction, since both are objects of the verb ὑφαίνειν “to weave.” Outside of the Theogony, the texts I study below repeat the pattern of appropriation by the male of “female” language. Once the male takes upon himself the power of prophecy and imitation, it is often presented as something he always had (for example, Zeus, see discussion below) and something he can give to others (for example, Zeus’ gift of prophecy to Apollo, Teiresias, etc.). Those gods presented as wholly independent sources of this power—Nereus, Proteus, Hermes, Hephaestus, and Prometheus (but note his occasional reliance upon his mother, Themis)—share an “intermediary” status of being “male” in sex but closer to “female” in function, since they are deprived of the regular male prerogative of sovereignty (they rather lend their skills, as women do, to rulers; see Detienne and Vernant 1978:84–130) and often inhabit the margins of civilization. On the capacity for falsehood inherent in the truthfulness of the sea gods Nereus and Proteus, see Detienne 1967:72–77.
20. On the fact that women rather than men weave as a mark of Greek vs. Egyptian culture, see Herodotus Histories 2.35 and Dissoi Logoi [90] 2.17 DK.
21. Mactoux 1975 argues against the traditional interpretation of Penelope as the exemplar of unwavering faithfulness by pointing to signs of a fundamental ambiguity in her role and conduct at Ithaca that is resolved only with the close of the epic, an ambiguity symbolized by her weaving and unweaving of Laertes’ shroud. On the relation between Penelope’s weaving and her position as Odysseus’ wife, see “The (Re)Marriage of Penelope and Odysseus” in this collection.
22. Freud 1933 [1932]:132.
23. Durante 1960. See also Schmitt 1967:299–301, Durante 1976:48, 167–179, Snyder 1981, Scheid and Svenbro 1996:esp. 111–130, Nagy 1996a:84–92, Nagy 1996b:63–74, Graziosi 2002:18–40, Nagy 2002:70–98.
24. Detienne and Vernant 1978, esp. 27–53.
25. See Detienne and Vernant 1978:179–183 for the mêtis of Athena and 299–300 for weaving as mêtis.
26. For the role of Odysseus’ mêtis in this episode in the achievement of his νόστος “return,” see “Odyssean Temporality: Many (Re)Turns” in this collection.
27. Detienne and Vernant (1978:57–130, esp. 67–68, 109) observe that by “marrying, mastering and swallowing Metis,” Zeus makes himself μητίετα “endowed with mêtis” and becomes “more than simply a monarch: he becomes Sovereignty itself.” But, as they also point out, Zeus “attacks Metis with her own weapons,” the αἱμύλιοι λόγοι “wily words” (Theogony 890), and the text calls him μητίετα even before his defeat of the goddess. Such chronological or causal inconsistency is a typical feature of mythic expression, but here it also contributes to the goal of the text to validate Zeus’ rule: Zeus is able to acquire mêtis and the sovereignty it brings because he has already always possessed it, and to a greater degree than his rival, Κρόνος ἀγκυλομήτις “Cronus of the crooked-mêtis.” In fact, the need to appropriate mêtis through prior possession of mêtis is, as Detienne and Vernant show, characteristic of several myths of conquering heroes (for example, Heracles, Menelaus, Peleus). This “inconsistency” is, therefore, at the heart of the “myth” of valid sovereignty or the “right to rule”: the ruler takes what has always been inherently his own.
28. See Arthur 1982. In her detailed demonstration of this process in the Theogony Arthur treats the homology between the mastery by the male through craft and his mastery of reproduction, Zeus’ swallowing of the goddess Metis, the stone/σῆμα “sign” as a duplicitous gift, and the link between the stone/σῆμα “sign” and Pandora as θαῦμα “wonder” (see especially 72–78). Arthur analyzes the stone/σῆμα “sign” as an advance from vengeance in the pattern of social retaliation: “This more subtle form of retaliation now introduces the notion of justice as symbolic exchange or reciprocity . . . The stone which he [Cronus] vomits up and which is taken up and established as a sêma by Zeus is like a point, albeit achieved through trickery, in that it stands as a symbol of recompense given . . . The characterization of Zeus’ rule as the reign of justice, then, has to do with the emergence of symbolic exchange and balanced reciprocity” (73). Arthur finds in the word link between stone/σῆμα “sign” and Pandora the fact that each “is a symbol of the intersection between natural and artificial creation, and between the divine and human realms” (72). Arthur’s analysis provides essential support for the point I stress, the analogy between sexual reproduction and verbal production, when she describes Zeus’ swallowing of Metis as a “transformation of progeny into pro-phecy,” since “Metis remains within Zeus as his prophetic voice” (78).
29. Compare Telemachus’ response when asked if he is Odysseus’ son: “My mother says that I am his, but I do not know. For no man of himself (αὐτός) ever knows his own father” (Odyssey i 215–216).
30. On the tropos “turning,” see Cicero Brutus 17.69: ornari orationem Graeci putant, si verborum immutationibus utantur, quos appellant tropous, “the Greeks think that a speech is ornamented if they use transformations of words which they call tropoi,” and Quintilian Institutio Oratoria 9.1.4: est igitur tropos sermo a naturali et principali significatione tralatus ad aliam ornandae orationis gratia, vel, ut plerique grammatici finiunt dictio ab eo loco in quo propria est tralata in eum in quo propria non est. “A tropos is therefore terminology that has been transferred from its natural and primary signification to another for the sake of ornamenting the speech, or, as most grammarians define it, a saying that has been transferred from that place in which it properly belongs into that in which it is does not.”
31. In my interpretation of Pandora I follow Pucci (1977:82–126) and Loraux (1981:75–117). See also Detienne (1967:66n104 = 1996:178n85) on Pandora as a creation of Zeus’ mêtis in conception and of the mêtis of all the gods in execution: “Toute la mêtis des dieux contribue à en faire la forme plus achevé de la mêtis.” “All the mêtis of the gods combines to make her the most complete form of mêtis.”
32. West 1966:405 on Theogony 899, 900 draws a parallel between the “Hope” left in the jar of Pandora and Metis in the belly of Zeus, and notes the ancient notion of the belly of Zeus as a source of prophecy. If the “jar” of Pandora is rightly likened to a “belly,” then this compound analogy would imply that the “hope” in the jar is comparable to the new generation and would thus further support the idea that the capacity for reproduction was conceived in archaic thought as analogous to the power over deception (mêtis) and truth (prophecy). See also Arthur (1982:74–75) on Pandora as “bringer of fertility and of the principle of reproduction” and the founder of the race of women as “drone-bellies,” “the belly that consumes,” but “brings forth the child as well.”
33. The idea of a parallel between the role of women in marriage exchange and the female as source of poetic speech was first formulated through conversation with John Peradotto. The work of Carolyn Dewald led me to investigate this relation in the Histories of Herodotus.
34. Lévi-Strauss 1967:548–570 = 1969:478–497.
35. For more on the relation between the woman’s weaving and her role in marriage exchange, see “The (Re)Marriage of Penelope and Odysseus” in this collection.
36. Compare Vernant’s observation (1974 [1965] = 2006:28) apropos of Hesiod’s myth of the Five Ages: “Pour la pensée mythique, toute généalogie est en même temps et aussi bien explication d’une structure; et il n’y a pas d’autre façon de rendre raison d’une structure que de la présenter sous la forme d’un récit généalogique.” “In mythical thought, any genealogy is also the explanation of a structure, and there is no way to account for a structure other than to present it in the form of a genealogical narrative.”
37. See also Lévi-Strauss 1967:34–79 = 1969:29–68.
38. In historical Greece, of course, children took their father’s not their mother’s name, but as Dewald (1981:120n27) points out: “It is through myth, after all, that cultures define their own past, and each of the myths told at the beginning of the Histories involves a foreign woman who is brought in and helps thereafter to identify the culture to which she is brought. Io in Greek myth becomes an Egyptian goddess and mother of a god; Medea names the Medes; Europa has a continent named after her; and, finally, Helen is the mythic cause of the first open military split between East and West. In Herodotus’ carefully indirect account, it is the act of exchanging women back and forth that causes East and West to define themselves, and to define their differences with each other. This is, perhaps, the essence of exogamy as the Greek understood it, but practiced on a cultural rather than a narrowly familial scale.”
39. Herodotus Histories 1.4.4: “From this event they always considered that Greece was their enemy (πολέμιον). For the Persians consider Asia and the barbarian tribes living within to be their own, and they hold Europe and Greece to have been separated from them (κεχωρίσθαι).”
40. For the details of the analysis here, see “Helen’s Web: Time and Tableau in the Iliad” and “Helen’s ‘Good Drug’” in this collection.
41. Erbse, ed. 1969 on Iliad III 126–127: ἀξιόχρεων ἀρχέτυπον ἀνέπλασεν ὁ ποιητὴς τῆς ἰδίας ποιήσεως “the poet has fashioned a worthy archetype or model of his own poetic art.”
42. On the correlation of drugs and mêtis, compare Detienne and Vernant 1978:120–126, 128n7: Metis provides Cronus with a pharmakon that is supposed to increase his strength, but actually forces him to disgorge his children, and later is tricked by Zeus into turning herself into a drug that he can then swallow.
43. For the specifics of the diction linking drugs with epic, see “Helen’s ‘Good Drug’” in this collection. On Helen’s poetic role, see Clader 1976:33n13 who notes that the phraseology preceding Helen’s entrance at Odyssey iv 120 usually signals the appearance of a goddess and that Helen’s own words at Odyssey iv 140, ψεύσομαι ἦ ἔτυμον ἐρέω “shall I speak falsehood or shall I say what is real,” parallel the Muses’ speech at Theogony 27–28. The identification of Helen’s tale with her pharmakon is also an ancient interpretation found in Plutarch Quaestiones Convivales 1.14.614 and Macrobius 7.1.18.
44. According to the Lexicon of Suidas, s.v. Σαπφώ, the floruit of Stesichorus was Olympiad 42 (612–609 BCE) and, s.v. Στησίχορος, his birth and death are given as Olympiad 37 (632–629 BCE) and Olympiad 56 (556–553 BCE) respectively.
45. Cicero (Republic 2.20) records the tradition that Stesichorus was Hesiod’s grandson; Tzetzes in his Prolegomenon to Hesiod’s Works and Days (Gaisford, ed. Poetae minori Graeci, vol. 2, pg. 18, lines 3–9) says that Aristotle (compare Aristotle fr. 565 Rose) made him Hesiod’s son, but that “this Stesichorus was a contemporary of Pythagoras and Phalaris of Agrigentum.” An epigram in the Palatine Anthology (7.75) notes a Pythagorean saying that in Stesichorus the soul of Homer had found its second home [Στασίχορον, ζαπληθὲς ἀμέτρητον στόμα Μούσης, / ἐκτέρισεν Κατάνας αἰθαλόεν δάπεδον, / οὗ κατὰ Πυθαγόρεω φυσικὰν φάτιν, ἁ πρὶν Ὁμήρου / ψυχὰ ἐνὶ στέρνοις δεύτερον ᾠκίσατο]. On the meter and language of Stesichorus, see Haslam 1978
46. Kannicht’s reconstruction (1969:1.38–41) of the two parts of the Helen reveals an even more complex structure of doublets. In the first part, the κακηγορία “slander” or βλασφημία “damaging speech,” the οὐκ ἔτυμος λόγος “not true account,” Stesichorus first recounted the Hesiodic aetiology of Helen’s μαχλοσύνη “sexual excess” (Stesichorus 223 PMG, Hesiod fragment 176 MW) and then the Homeric version of her abduction by Paris as the cause of the Trojan War; in the second part, the παλινῳδία “recantation,” the ἔτυμος λόγος “true account,” Stesichorus (according to the Peri Stesichorou of Chamaeleon: see Stesichorus 16 PMG, P.Oxy. xxix fr. 26 col. i) “blamed” (μέμφεται) both Homer and Hesiod—Homer, when he says that only the εἴδωλον “phantom” of Helen went to Troy and Hesiod, when he says that the true Helen remained in Egypt, thus remaining sexually faithful to her one true husband Menelaus. If this reconstruction is correct, Stesichorus’ diptych (first a negative, then a positive version of Helen’s sexual loyalty) is the mirror image of the two tales of Helen in the Odyssey (first a positive, then a negative version). Such a narrative doublet exemplifies the παλίντονος ἁρμονία “bent-back harmony” that Kannicht observes in Stesichorus’ Helen. For an account of the operation of the double structure in the Homeric text, see “Helen’s ‘Good Drug’” in this collection.
47. Note the parallel between the traditional blindness of Homer, Demodocus who receives blindness as well as song-craft from the Muses (Odyssey viii 64), and Thamyris who is “maimed” (πηρός, compare πήρωσις “mutilation, blindness,” πηρόω “mutilate” and see Chantraine s.v. πηρός) for challenging the Muses (Iliad II 594–600). Blindness and mutilation (with the suggestion of castration) as marks of the male poet suggest that his craft is something conceived of as “female” or feminizing. Compare the case of Teiresias who receives prophecy from Zeus, but blindness from Hera because he “saw” and revealed the secret of female sexuality (that it is greater than the male’s) and the fear of Anchises, after his intercourse with Aphrodite, that she will leave him ἀμενός “without μένος” (Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite 188; for μένος “strength” as connoting both intellectual and sexual vigor, see Nagy 1974:266–269). To know what the female knows, to speak what she can speak is a gain that is also a loss of the full measure of male identity and power, for it violates the boundary between the sexes. To speak of regaining sight, therefore, as a result of uttering a different, true logos of the female as innocent and passive is ironically to retract insight in favor of a new “blindness” about the female, while restoring the sexual and verbal power of the male, a condition we shall observe in Gorgias. See the suggestion of Zeitlin (1981:319n19) that Euripides’ second version of the Hippolytus, in which he presented a virtuous Phaedra, was in effect a secular version of Stesichorus’ palinode on Helen. It was this version that won him the prize from his male audience.
48. For Helen as guilty, see Alcaeus 42 and 283 LP and for a neutral if not positive presentation, see Sappho 16 LP.
49. See above note 3.
50. For the text, see Gorgias [82] B11 DK.
51. For Gorgias’ philosophy of the logos, see especially Segal 1962 and for the role of ἀπάτη “deception,” Rosenmeyer 1955.
52. See the apparatus on Gorgias [82] B11.12 DK.
53. The πείθω “persuasiveness” of the logos “moulds” (ἐτυπώσατο) the soul as it wishes (Encomium of Helen 13), just as “through spectacle (ὄψεως) the soul is moulded (τυποῦται) even in its turnings (τρόποις)” (Encomium of Helen 15).
54. Similarly, “spectacle” (ὄψις) is said to “write” or “paint” (ἐνέγραψεν) upon the mind “likenesses” (εἰκόνας) of the things seen (Encomium of Helen 17).
55. In her study of how Gorgias ascribes to logos the traditional characteristics of poetry, de Romilly 1973 notes the earlier connection between drugs and verse, but not the connection between drugs and Helen.
56. I owe the linking of this usage of κόσμος with the κόσμος of Pandora to Charles Segal. For another collocation of κόσμος “order, ornament” with language, see Parmenides κόσμον ἐμῶν ἐπέων ἀπατηλόν “deceptive kosmos of my words” (Parmenides [28] B8.52 DK).
57. On the αἶνος, see Nagy 1979:234–241.
58. Plutarch “Advice to Bride and Groom” 43, Moralia vol. 2, p. 144 B–C = Gorgias [82] B8a DK.

From Weaving Truth: Essays on Language and the Female in Greek Thought, by Ann Bergren (2008)