ACE & Creativity: The Muses Sang Not of Us

Posted on: 25 April 2023 by Helena Maria Czaykowski in 2023 posts

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In this ACE & Creativity blog, Helena Czaykowski explains how she retells Book 22 of the Odyssey with a different perspective. 'If you look at a great hero through the eyes of the innocent girls he murdered, what do you see?'

“As doves or thrushes spread their wings to fly

home to their nests, but someone sets a trap—

they crash into a net; a bitter bedtime;

just so the girls, their heads all in a row,

were strung up with the noose around their necks

to make their death an agony. They gasped,

feet twitching a for while, but not for long.”

(Homer, Odyssey, 22.468-74)

At the end of Book 22 of Homer’s Odyssey, following the prolonged and gory deaths of all one hundred and eight of Penelope’s unfortunate suitors, one final act of mass murder takes place. His bloodlust apparently still unsatisfied, Odysseus demands to know whether any of the household slave girls have dishonored him or been impure in his absence from Ithaca. Eurycleia, once Odysseus’s wet-nurse and still his most loyal slave, describes the disobedience of twelve of the house’s fifty slave girls. Odysseus requests these girls be called and instructs his son Telemachus to have them clean the bloodied hall, then kill them. “Hack at them with longswords,” he tells Telemachus, although Telemachus elects ultimately to hang them instead.

In the grand scheme of the Odyssey, this is not an especially significant moment. What importance should these twelve girls have to a reader? They are unnamed, they are given no backstory or lineage. They are presented as a singular unit, all weeping and clutching at each other, and exist on the page for less than thirty lines of text altogether. It seems their only narrative purpose is to die—they are created, then taken down within the same breath. In exchange for their deaths, they get one bird metaphor, and twitching feet. There is something about the simplicity of that description that haunts me. Such a gentle, objective way to describe the agony of these deaths: their feet twitched, but not for long. These twelve girls are not even given the regard of having their deaths confirmed outright—we are left to the implications of their motionless feet.

Originally for this piece, I was intending to write something about Penelope. It was an assignment for my classical literature course: write a modern reception based on one of the ancient texts we read in class. I had no interest in focusing on any mythological men, which eliminated the majority of the source material. I had already spent five pages of a previous assignment psychoanalyzing Medea and felt that to do so anymore would border on excessive. Madeleine Miller had already written Circe far too well for me to attempt anything about her. And admittedly, I had kind of given up on the Aeneid (sorry Dr. Swain), which eliminated Dido as well. Out of those who I considered the major women in the texts we had read, that really only left Penelope. And to be fair to Penelope, she is a fascinating character! I was fully set on writing about her until skimming the Odyssey brought me back to those twelve slave girls.

What strikes me the most about the murder of these girls is not that it occurs. After all, murder and death are plentiful in both the Odyssey and the Iliad. But even in their deaths, these girls are granted none of the spotlight. Not a single one of them is named within the scene. They are homogenous, a blob of slave girls. And above most other deaths in the Odyssey, there is something unspeakably cruel in their murders. The biggest facet of their disobedience is that they supposedly have slept with Penelope’s suitors, which, as slaves, they do not have the right to refuse regardless. As women, as property, they have no right to their own bodies. They are helpless to their deaths.

In addition to their violations and murders, these twelve slave girls have also spent many years being abused by translators. Emily Wilson, translator of the version of the Odyssey I was reading and retelling, noted in an article for the New Yorker how the word choice surrounding these slave girls often degrades them and paints them as the responsible parties for their own murders: “The murdered slaves are routinely described in contemporary American English translations as ‘disobedient maids,’”, Wilson says, “and are labelled as ‘sluts’ or ‘whores’—a level of verbal abuse that finds absolutely no analogue in the Greek”. If they are sluts, the translators seem to say, perhaps they deserved to die after all. In her translation, Wilson describes them only as “these girls”.

A single one of the girls in my short story, Melantho, is an actual named character in the Odyssey, and not even she is expressly mentioned in the scene where the girls are killed. I think it’s safe to infer that she is among them, however, since her previous appearance in Book 18 features her mocking a disguised Odysseus and mentions that she is sleeping with one of the suitors—offenses more than punishable by death in this context. For the rest of the girls, the Odyssey leaves them two-dimensional enough that I had the creative freedom to decide every detail.

So, Penelope, interesting as she is, fell to the wayside. The spotlight was better focused on these twelve insignificant girls. I wanted the horror of that brief scene laid bare and awful and unfiltered. To reframe Odysseus and Telemachus, these timeless heroes, with a different perspective. If you look at a great hero through the eyes of the innocent girls he murdered, what do you see?

More importantly, I wanted to give these girls a story of their own, however brief—the story that Homer’s Muses would not sing. I wanted to give them distinct appearances, personality quirks, names of their own.

I thought they deserved, for a moment, to be known.

Find the PDF of Helena's retelling here: The muses sang not of us