Was the Odyssey written by a woman? The theory has been raised in the past—and long before the rise of late 20th-century feminism, which is when, historically, you’d expect to see that kind of theory put forward. The earliest proponent of it was Samuel Butler (1835 – 1902) in his 1897 work The Authoress of the Odyssey, which is available online. One of the things which Butler—quite correctly—points out is how this epic is crowded with single, strong-willed women who live alone and possess immense supernatural powers. The first deity to undertake any significant action in the epic is Athena—also headstrong, also capable of holding her own against male gods—who disguises herself as Mentes and counsels Telemachus. One of the things she says is that if his mother Penelope wishes to marry one of the suitors, let her go to her father’s house and let her father’s family take care of the wedding festivities and gifts. It’s actually not a version of “Telemachus, tell your dear longsuffering mother to wait for her husband”—which is, I confess, how I misremembered that passage in Book I.
In fact, scanning all the epics I’ve ever read (and I had a real obsession with this kind of work back in my youth; I geeked out on ancient heroic-epics-in-translation the way my friends geeked out on comic books), I’d say there’s no other epic, east or west, that is as woman-centered as the Odyssey. It’s supposed to be about wily Odysseus, but strong women keep showing up as the most fascinating characters in the story. In the Celtic and Nordic myths, there is some role for a Brunhilde or a Morgana LeFay, and fairies generally; but chivalric romances usually have a straightforward wicked sorceress or damsel in distress—simplified descendants of Circe and Penelope respectively. Grendel’s mother in Beowulf is a monster; Milton’s Eve is a cipher, more or less; it’s called the Ramayana, not the Sitayana, for good reason; the Mahabharata, although it does have several women characters, is dominated by males, especially in its most dramatic sequences. The Iliad does attribute some aggression to Athena and Aphrodite, but the women are more often seen in relation to the warriors, like the scene where Andromache and Hecuba plead with Hector; or the one where Paris is whisked away from the battlefield and delivered to Helen. Likewise the famous Dido scene in the Aeneid shows a single (widowed) woman, living alone, and a powerful queen…immolating herself because her wandering veteran goes sailing off without her. Neither Circe nor Calypso would show such weakness when Odysseus left.
Was the Odyssey written by a woman? Butler’s work is available online, and while I have perused it, I don’t plan on reading the whole thing: his entire question, who wrote this?, suffers from a lack of historical or biographical evidence one way or the other. (Incidentally, I note that authorship questions are a form of flattery reserved for only the greatest writers: Scholars have disputed the existence of Homer, Shakespeare, and the Sanskrit poet Vyasa, author of the Mahabharata. These oeuvres are so superhuman, their authors, we start thinking, can’t possibly be real people.) Like Butler, we can only speculate. But if we stick solely to textual evidence, which is the only evidence we really have (other than centuries of classical tradition, which assumed Homer was a man), it’s clear that if there were an epic poem written by a woman, it would probably look a lot like the Odyssey. Kudos, author(ess), whoever you were: This one remains the most readable epic ever.
And the most listenable, too: I am currently embarking on Ian McKellan’s recording of Robert Fagles’s translation. Fancy that: while I drive home from the evening shift, my eyes sore from reading CT scans, Gandalf reads me Homer! When else was this possible? Nights like these—terrorism and immanent worldwide epidemics notwithstanding—I feel lucky to be alive at this point in history. …Technology, I know you’ve fixed it so that a single madman with a nuke can blot out the sun; I should, if I were a purely rational creature, hate your guts. But damn it, you can entertain.