The Authoress of the Odyssey (1897)

First edition title page (BII AUT 1897.1)

Fascinated, however, as I was by its amazing interest and beauty, I had an ever-present sense of a something that was eluding me and of a riddle which I could not read. The more I reflected upon the words, so luminous and so transparent, the more I felt a darkness behind them that I must pierce before I could see the heart of the writer – and this was what I wanted…

So wrote Butler in his preface to The Authoress of the Odyssey, first published in 1897. It was in the summer of 1891, rereading the Odyssey in the original Greek to refresh his memory while working on his musical composition Ulysses, that Butler developed a radical intuition regarding the true identity of the poem’s author. The Odyssey had always been regarded as a companion piece to the Iliad, written by the Greek male poet Homer. Butler conceived the idea that the Odyssey was instead the work of a ‘brilliant, high-spirited’ young woman, and that Trapani in Sicily could be identified as Homer’s Ithaca.

Nausicaa - the authoress according to Butler

Frontispiece to first edition - 'Nausicaa'

Butler first presented his theory in a lecture at the Somerville Club in 1893, where he insisted that ‘the real obstacle to a general belief that the Odyssey was written by a woman is not anything that can be found in the poem itself, but the long prevalence of an opinion that the Odyssey was written by the same person who wrote the Iliad. … If people would read the poem slowly, intelligently, & without commentary, forgetting all past criticism until they have looked at the matter with their own eyes, I cannot think they would have much doubt that they were reading a woman’s masterpiece not a man’s.’ The Authoress of the Odyssey developed this argument fully – to the annoyance of the majority of classical scholars of the time. However, Butler’s theory did win over G.B. Shaw and Robert Graves, the latter of whom developed the idea in his 1955 novella Homer’s Daughter.

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