Wednesday, May 30, 2007

The Marriage Bed and Olives

This post is about sex, but nothing risqué… not that olives are really sexy or anything… unless you’re a vegetarian maybe… Anyway, before Christmas, I taught Homer’s The Odyssey to my Grade 12 Classical Civilization students. What startled my students was the supreme importance Homer places on family. As mentioned earlier in my posts on Family, this view is counter-culture. At the heart of the family is the marriage bed (that’s where babies are made…) As a result, the major symbol in the epic poem is the marriage bed. Getting into bed with his wife marks the end of Odysseus’s “odyssey”---his return journey. My students were used to “sex” being described in every way but within marriage. Marital sex is the supreme goal of Odysseus’s adventures. Let me give you the scoop on ancient Greece’s take on love and marriage…

In the epic poem, Odysseus’s wife and son have been waiting for Odysseus’s return. In the meantime, a bunch of free-loading suitors are loafing around Odysseus’s home, trying to woo the lonely wife and murder the inexperienced son. The home is in chaos and disarray. The suitors are pigging out on Odysseus’s food and wine and treating Odysseus’s servants badly. They are also incessantly flirting with Odysseus’s wife.

When Odysseus returns home, he comes in disguise as a beggar. He is treated badly by the rude suitors who occupy his home, violating Zeus’s doctrine of hospitality. When Odysseus reveals himself as the returned husband, he slaughters everyone in a gloriously vindicating bloodbath. While the hall dripped with blood and bodies were stacked outside the palace, Odysseus makes his way to bed with his wife Penelope.

His marriage bed, which Penelope has kept undefiled, was built by Odysseus before he left on his voyage to Trojan War (cf. The Illiad---by the way, Odysseus is the guy who cooked up the Trojan Horse scheme).

Using a rooted olive tree as the “cornerstone” bed post, he built his bed around the tree. The significance of a “rooted” marriage bed cannot be ignored. Like marriage itself, the bed is permanent and unshakeable. Then he built his bridal chamber around his bed; then he built his palace and city around that. At the centre of the city, literally and symbolically, is the marriage bed. As racy as that sounds, it is the undefiled marriage bed that is the centre of the civilized world in Homer’s mythological masterpiece.

Marriage was Ancient Greece’s way of countering the Fall, returning to Eden.

On a side note, I personally think it would be great to have an olive tree as a bed post.


Kristina Cammpell said...

Sheldon always said that you couldn't trust someone who ate olives (especially if he ate them while watching figure skating)

Sheldon also said that the Psalms is his least favourite book ... along with poetry as a whole.


methinks an olive tree bed would definitely speak of masculinity, especially if you made it yourself...
cool post, though I never read the piece.
I did just recently purchase a copy of Conrad's Heart of Darkness.

Laur said...

Very educational. Seriously. I really need to read that book sometime (especially since I own it)That definately would be cool to have an olive tree..... are you planning some major remodelling? I'm all for it, although olive wood is very expensive, I think.

Barbara said...

What a shame that our old cell group gave you an oak tree instead of an olive tree...hmmm. Maybe next time. Although I suppose Hamilton isn't a really great Olive growing climate.

Neal Campbell said...

An olive tree bed would definitely make a statement. Very cool.
Laurie noted that olive wood is expensive, but sometimes you can get olive wood spatulas and christmas ornaments on sale. If you keep saving them up, you could laminate them together and make a fine bed, I am sure.

barbara said...

waiting patiently for a new post Mr. Neal knows, I have nothing better to do than sit around and "blurf" all day (that was a slang for blog-surf for you un-computer people. Kind of like "brunch" except 'funner' to say)

Jeremy W. Johnston said...

Hey Barb,

I just started final exams... I will be marking into infinite for the next little while... I'm glad to have an anxiously waiting fan...


Lancey said...

It always irritated me that such importance was placed on Penelope's faithfulness to her husband, while Odysseus' flings with Circe and Calypso are completely overlooked...just saying...

Jeremy W. Johnston said...

Hey Lancey,

You are right about the double standard here. Interestingly enough, Calypso complains to Hermes in Book 5, about the similar double standard between gods and goddesses. When a goddess mates with a mortal man, there is outrage in Olympus. However, when a god mates with a mortal woman, nothing is ever said.

That being said, in Odysseus's defence, he was held captive by goddesses and he was not unfaithful with a mere mortal woman. Had Odysseus been unfaithful with mortal women, then he would be significantly less heroic. Likewise, if Penelope had exchanged the heroic Odysseus for one of the cowardly (and mortal) suitors, then she would be considered a great fool in her lack of fidelity. Despite his time spent with the goddesses, he did choose Penelope over them. Had Odysseus remained with Calypso, he too would have been a fool for abandoning his faithful wife and for choosing obscurity.

Anyway, thanks for commenting!