In her short but powerful book Women and Power, Mary Beard notes that Homer’s Odyssey — an epic poem considered a classic and still taught in schools today — includes the presumed first recorded example in Western history of a woman being told to “shut up” by a man. Penelope, Odysseus’ long-suffering and extraordinarily patient wife, is the lucky recipient of such treatment.
For those who need a refresher, The Odyssey tells the story of Odysseus, the Greek war hero who triumphs in the Trojan War but ultimately spends years trying to make it home, facing a variety of nasty trials and tribulations along the way. Meanwhile, his wife, Penelope, has been faithfully waiting for her husband’s return while also trying to fend off a host of suitors who desire Odysseus’ wealth as much as they desire her.
When Penelope finds a singer entertaining a group of would-be suitors in her house with a particularly dreary song, she requests a cheerier one, only to be told to shut her trap by her own son, Telemachus, who proclaims, “Speech will be the business of men, all men and me most of all; for mine is the power in this household.”
I read The Odyssey in high school or college — I can’t remember which one, but I do know that this passage was neither remarked upon nor considered inappropriate, and that was in the 1990s. That line is just the tip of the Odyssey misogyny iceberg, by the way. Nonetheless, it continues to prevail as a classic, and I’m guessing there’s still very little discussion about what it teaches our boys and girls about relationships between the sexes.
I keep coming back to this: His-story and Her-story are so very, very long.… While it might feel like patriarchal systems are inevitable, our past suggests otherwise.
This morning I read a New York Times article describing how many women are swinging between anger and despair in the aftermath of the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh as a Supreme Court justice. One woman said she felt like she was “screaming into the void.”
Is anybody listening? Are we getting anywhere? Will we be fighting the same battles in another 20 to 30 years? Will students still be reading about Telemachus’ silencing of his mother and blowing right past it to the more exciting stuff?
I’ve been sitting quietly with my own feelings about the Kavanaugh fiasco and the subsequent remarks made by 45, too. I’ve been holding Christine Blasey Ford in my heart and wondering if she’s feeling like her ordeal made any difference at all. And I’ve been feeling sluggish and tired and a need to regroup but not full of despair. Not yet.
I keep coming back to this: His-story and Her-story are so very, very long. I study the ancient traditions of Goddess worship (spiritual traditions that envisioned our source to have feminine attributes), and I’m grateful to those traditions for showing me this. While His-story in this country tends to consider ancient Greek civilization as some kind of beginning, our story as a species is so much older. Human beings who were anatomically more or less just like us have been roaming this planet for as many as 40,000 to 80,000 years. Patriarchy, in comparison, has been documented for a short 3,000–5,000 years at best. The Odyssey is estimated to have been written a mere 2,800 years ago. While it might feel like patriarchal systems are inevitable, our past suggests otherwise.
Are we getting anywhere? Yes. But in order to truly absorb the lessons of the moment, we need to be able to take the long view. This, too, is a lesson of the Goddess traditions.
I had a teacher who once described this to me as “deep time.” This is the way that the Goddess works, she explained. For one thing, deep time is much longer than the span of our human lives. For another, if we were to view ourselves the way our ancestors likely did, we would understand that we are absolutely, unequivocally inseparable from this immense and beautiful ecosystem that surrounds us. The Earth and the cosmos have their own rhythms, and whether we know it (or accept it) or not, we are dancing along in unison with them. We can’t possibly know how this beautiful play of life is unfolding and what will happen next; it’s far too complex, and embracing the mystery is one of the great lessons of life.
Deep time invites the recognition that we are part of something much, much bigger than ourselves and this one moment in time.
But accepting the nature of deep time doesn’t mean sinking into complacency or despair. It’s not a call for patience, either — quite the opposite. In fact, if we are intimately connected to this larger web of life, then each choice we make to raise our voices or be silent, to become despondent or to persevere, ripples out through that same system in ways we can’t really understand.
Deep time invites the recognition that we are part of something much, much bigger than ourselves and this one moment in time. It also invites us to consider this question: How do we want to contribute?
From my vantage point, what’s happening right now is truly extraordinary. As a self-taught student of Her-story, I can say with a decent amount of confidence that there’s never been a time in our recorded past quite like this one when so many women are accessing their anger, reclaiming their voices, and climbing over mountains of ancestral fear to make those voices heard.
It’s amazing, and it has the potential to right a profound imbalance that has been present for thousands of years. Will this rebalancing happen in our lifetimes? I don’t know. Does it matter? Do we raise our voices just for ourselves and our children or for the ones yet to come? Do we raise our voices because we need to see the rightness of our actions reflected back to us in society right now or because we feel the rightness of those actions in our bones, not just for ourselves, but for every inhabitant of this planet?
Don’t be discouraged by your incapacity to dispel darkness from the world. Light your candle and step forward.
In my moments of fatigue, I’m reminded of one of my favorite quotes, spoken by the famous Hindu spiritual teacher Mātā Amṛtānandamayī Devī, also known as Amma, the “hugging saint”: “Don’t be discouraged by your incapacity to dispel darkness from the world. Light your little candle and step forward.”
There is a shift in energy afoot. Step outside and get quiet, and you can hear it. I believe this call for a rebalancing is rippling out through the universe, through the stars and through the rhythms of our planet. And since we’re made of the exact same stuff as everything else in the universe (just ask Albert Einstein or Neil deGrasse Tyson), it’s in our bloodstream too, which may be why things feel so polarized and hostile right now.
Do we respond to change with fear or openness? Do we try to control (a patriarchal construct for sure) or do we surrender and go with the flow of the larger forces at hand (the way of nature and the Divine Feminine)? Each choice we make and don’t make contributes to the dynamics of the present and the future in ways we can’t possibly grasp. Our only choice, then, is to decide how to respond to the needs of the moment. We can give in to despair, imagining ourselves screaming into the void, or we can light our little candle so that others in the void can see it and be inspired to light theirs, too.
Will they still be teaching The Odyssey when my kids are in high school and college? If so, I know my children will see the misogyny present in it. If their teachers don’t highlight this nonsense for them, then I damn sure will.
There are hundreds, thousands, and tens of thousands of these actions I can take in my lifetime — some of them big and some of them deceptively small. What happens after that? Goddess only knows. My only job right now and each day I’m alive is to surrender to deep time — to listen to the rhythms that I hear in nature and within me and to make the choice to respond in kind. To light my candle, again and again, and step forward.