16 July 2019

HOMER'S ILIAD BOOK 6 AND S AMBROSE: Episode 2

No; Hector does not accept Helen's transgressive invitation to join her in the thalamos. You knew he wouldn't. Before returning to the battle, he goes back to his own house. But Andromache is not there. Standing ep'oudon, on the threshold, he demands an answer from the housewomen: "C'mon! Tell me the truth". He wonders if she has gone to visit her sisters-in-law, or to the Temple of Athene, with all the other well-haired (would our Holy Father have described them as capillary?) women, to propitiate the goddess (in fact, she had gone, with chaperon and child, to a vantage point to watch the battle).

Observe that Hector, apparently, does not go beyond the threshold of even his own home. And notice that he is surprised that his wife is not where a wife might normatively be expected to be: at home. And don't let it elude you how few are the alternative possibilities which Hector, rather hectoringly, offers. To an extent which it is difficult for us to appropriate, pre-modern societies had very definite assumptions about this sort of thing. Even in the twentieth century, women would not visit the billiards room in a gentleman's house. There was no rule; no notice on the door; it was simply assumed that women didn't go there. And I don't think it was expected that men would galumph at all hours around the Morning Room. In Rebecca the belle anonyme gets it wrong by trying to enter her own bedroom at the time when the maids expect to have it to themselves to get it straight, after the butler has made it clear that it is very unexpected that she might wish to be in the library.

Ethnosociologists have written fascinating articles about the customs of instinctive, customary, gender segregation that still exist in traditional Middle Eastern societies. There are times when no man would dream of going near the village fountain because that is when the women go there to collect water and to do their business there with each other ... We need to grasp how totally exceptional is our Western assumption that men and women just wander anywhere and mix with anybody at any time.  For that matter, it is still as a general rule true, in my local Orthodox Church, that men are on the right and women are on the left. The custom survived into mid-twentieth century Ireland. We've moved a long way, fast, so as to reach the situation in which, not long ago, in an English university, a major row could erupt when, exceptionally, it was proposed to have segregated seating in a lecture-room to accommodate the unusual preferences of a visiting lecturer.

I find it frankly frightening how readily we assume that our own habits, different, I suspect, from those of every other known culture, are a norm to which others ought to conform or to be forced to conform. I'm not suggesting starting a great campaign to return to pre-modern habits; I haven't lost all touch with reality. I'm simply suggesting that, since we are the cosmic Odd Men Out, we ought to let just the tiniest smidgeon of humility enter our treatment of others. But I know even that is a lost cause: so arrogant have we become. We are the big global cultural bullies who know exactly how everybody else should behave, from Saragossa all the way to Sarawak.

The third and final Episode will bring us up to S Ambrose.

3 comments:

Fr PJM said...

On this feast of the Virgin, I think of St Louis de Montfort relating how very powerful it is that the Rosary be prayed in a choral fashion, back and forth, the women on one side of the church, the men on the other.

Banshee said...

That brings up the reason hijab is not the same as a Western headscarf or stola, even when it looks similar. Hijab means barrier, partition, screen, or curtain. In the olden days, an Arabic man of high estate would receive someone lowly from behind a curtain. Women were to remain at home and only look outside through the curtains.

And that is why Islamic people can say crazy stuff about how Islamic women should only expose one eye when they go outside. It is how someone stuck in the house is allowed to look out a window -- one eye showing through a gap in the curtains.

Every developed form of specifically Islamic outerwear for women, including the hijab, is a form of bringing the house outside, pretending that the woman never leaves and never interacts with the outside world, and that therefore an attack on her is an attack on her clan and menfolk. Most Islamic societies before the rise of Islamism had abandoned this pretense a long time ago; radical politics brought it back.

So yeah, it is not an honorable garment. It is a portable prison of isolation.

vetusta ecclesia said...

When I spent 3 months in the French Basque Country in 1962 the women sat in the gallery of the church and the men in the main body (going out for a smoke during the sermon!)