Sex and the Ancient City

The Hebrew Bible and the Odyssey are both preoccupied by the moral and political consequences of ungoverned sexuality and aggression.

Krater fragment, c. 460-450 BC, creator unknown. Heritage Arts/Heritage Images via Getty Images.
Krater fragment, c. 460-450 BC, creator unknown. Heritage Arts/Heritage Images via Getty Images.
Feb. 10 2022
About the author

Jacob Howland is McFarlin professor of philosophy (emeritus) at the University of Tulsa. His research focuses on ancient Greek philosophy, history, epic, and tragedy; the Hebrew Bible and the Talmud; Kierkegaard; and literary and philosophical responses to the Holocaust and Soviet totalitarianism.

This essay is the second in a six-part series by Jacob Howland on Homer and the Hebrew Bible. Historians of Western intellectual culture sometimes compare “Jerusalem,” or the biblical traditions that erupt into history at Sinai, with “Athens,” the city where Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle sought human wisdom through the exercise of the human mind. In this series, Howland invites a different comparison. Rather than comparing later prophets to philosophers, he looks back at yet earlier cultural cornerstones set at the very foundations of Hebraic and Greek civilizations. Future installments in Howland’s series will arrive monthly. —The Editors

Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, composed around 700 BCE, explore fundamental tensions and conflicts internal to the Mycenaean civilization of roughly 1600-1100 BCE, a period known as the late Bronze Age. These conflicts—between the natures of men and women, the concerns of husbands and wives, the hopes of fathers and sons, the interests of rulers and ruled, the plans of mortals and immortals—are features of every human society. Brought into balance by law and custom, they constitute something like the ribbed backbone of Western civilization. They are especially visible in the tough, lean forms of archaic Hellenism and Hebraism.

Mycenaean civilization is named after the megalithic remains of Agamemnon’s palace in Mycenae, a military stronghold in the Argolid region of Greece. The area’s small, independent communities were formed around such palatial structures and ruled by kings who commanded their own tribal armies. The Homeric heroes who crossed the Aegean Sea to Troy were Mycenaean royalty, each bringing between three and ninety shiploads of warriors to accompany Agamemnon with his own one-hundred ships.

In Homer’s Iliad, named after the city of Ilium (Troy), the conflicting cares and loyalties of men and women play out in the context of a long, bloody war that destabilized the whole of the Mycenaean world. Few passages in literature are as moving as the desperate plea of Andromache to her husband, the Trojan champion Hector, to remain within the safety of Troy’s walls. The fearsome Greek warrior Achilles, she reminds him, had slain her father, a king of Cilicia (in modern Turkey), butchered her seven brothers as they tended their flocks, and taken her mother for ransom. Now she fears he will kill Hector. With their infant son in her arms, Andromache begs for compassion:

You, Hector—you are my father now, my noble mother,
a brother too, and you are my husband, young and warm and strong!
Pity me, please! Take your stand on the rampart here,
before you orphan your son and make your wife a widow.

Hector’s reply encapsulates the central tragedy of the Iliad, which ends with his funeral:

All this weighs on my mind too, dear woman.
But I would die of shame to face the men of Troy
and the Trojan women trailing their long robes
if I would shrink from battle now, a coward.

In the end, princely Hector—a good and noble man who bears the heavy fate of Troy on his broad shoulders—does die in shame at the hand of Achilles. Homer leaves it to us to decide whether his fear of disrepute is ultimately another form of cowardice.

The strained relationships of men and women are also central to the Odyssey, which unfolds in the chaotic aftermath of the Trojan war. Homer composed the Iliad when that war was but a distant memory, separated from the poet by the four centuries known as the Dark Age. Archaeological investigation shows that at some point during that era, Mycenaean civilization collapsed in several waves of fiery destruction. Scholars have struggled to find a satisfactory explanation for this catastrophe, but Homer offers some clues.

At the beginning of the Odyssey, Odysseus’s island home of Ithaca is heaving in the power vacuum left by the expedition to Troy, which for a decade or more has drained the Greek strongholds of able men and leaders. There has been no political assembly since Odysseus’s own departure twenty years earlier. Now, young nobles from Ithaca and the surrounding islands are running riot in his palace.

For more than three years, like vultures tearing flesh from a carcass, these slackers have brazenly gorged themselves on Odysseus’s livestock, guzzled his wine, bossed and bedded his serving women, and courted his beautiful wife, who as queen holds the keys to the kingship. Penelope has artfully avoided committing herself to any suitor, but she cannot hold out much longer.

Nor is Ithaca the only place where women have stepped or been pulled into public spaces once exclusively the domain and concern of men. The widespread crisis of moral and political authority in the war’s wake is exemplified in the fate of Agamemnon himself, whose murder by his wife Clytemnestra upon his return from Troy haunts the Odyssey from start to finish.

The destabilization of the Mycenaean social order is reflected in the Odyssey’s central books. Swept off course on the way home from Troy, Odysseus journeys through a fantastic realm of mythic ogres and witches, goddesses and princesses, where he repeatedly encounters lethal females. These include the giant cannibalistic queen of the Laestrygonians; sea monsters in the form of the six-headed Scylla and the whirlpool Charybdis, twin guardians of the narrow strait of Messina between whom the hero must steer his ship; the Sirens, who lure sailors to their death with their song; the divine enchantress Circe, who turns men into pigs; and the predatory nymph Calypso, who keeps Odysseus as a boy-toy on her island for a full seven years. His salvation depends on his ability to master, endure, or escape their respective body- or soul-killing powers.


The Odyssey’s exploration of the pathologies of sexuality and aggression has deep roots in the Greek tradition. Homer’s contemporary Hesiod explores these disordering impulses in his Theogony, the first and greatest of the Greek origin myths.

First, Hesiod tells us, Chaos came to be, and then Gaia (Earth), which spontaneously gave birth to Ouranos (Heaven). Henceforth, chaotic violence will gradually generate order through the rough logic of force.

How so? Ouranos spreads himself over Gaia and she bears his children, who include Cronos, the one-eyed race of Cyclops, and various other monsters. Ouranos stuffs these loathsome offspring back into the dark soil of Earth, the maternal womb. This act, verging on infanticide, elicits a patricidal response as Gaia, plotting revenge, fashions a jagged flint sickle for Cronos, who ambushes and castrates his father when he approaches Gaia “longing for love.” Having deposed his father, Cronos then forces himself on his sister Rhea and begins to swallow her babies, one of whom is Zeus, to prevent being overthrown in turn.

But there is more: with the help of Gaia and Ouranos, who has learned from experience that children deserve the support of their parents, Rhea hides Zeus in a cave and tricks Cronos by feeding him a rock in swaddling clothes, which causes him to vomit up her other babies. Zeus later leads an army of Olympians against Cronos and his cohort of Titans, defeating them in a tremendous battle that sends great shock waves through everything from the highest heavens to the lowest depths of the underworld.

Where do human beings fit into this dark and violent picture? In Hesiod they are mostly collateral casualties, beleaguered pawns marching to sacrifice beneath lowering skies. Homer and later poets give them greater agency, presenting them as near-equals of the gods—serious rivals who are envious and resentful of their older, divine siblings.

Plato’s Symposium, for its part, relates an origin myth that draws both on Homer’s men and on Hesiod’s gods. It seems the first ancestors of human beings were monstrous children of Earth, Sun, and Moon. Like the heavenly bodies from which they sprang, these protohumans were spherical, each with a face on either side of the head, four ears, arms, and legs, and two sets of sexual organs. They would cartwheel about at great speed on their eight limbs, “terrific in strength and power.” When they rolled up to heaven to attack the gods, Zeus split each of them in half, producing the males and females who exist today. Consumed with longing for their other halves, these wounded, divided beings would at least temporarily cease their aggression against the gods.

Odysseus, too, will be punished for violating the sacred boundary that separates man from the gods. Homer indicates as much in the Odyssey’s first sentence: “Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns, driven time and again off course, once he had plundered the hallowed heights of Troy.” The hero’s decade of wandering on uncharted waters is divine payback: he is blown about in uncivilized wastelands partly because he and the Achaean warriors had pillaged the high and holy ground where Troy’s temples stood.

This outrage against the gods—not the last one committed by Odysseus—seems to have been felt even by the goddess Athena. An ally of the Achaeans, she favors Odysseus above all other warriors but nevertheless abandons him after he pushes off from Troy, returning only on the eve of his arrival back home in Ithaca.

We cannot be surprised by these arrogant Greeks, and certainly not by Odysseus. What else could we expect of this descendant of Zeus, the god who won supreme power and glory among other gods by toppling his own father Cronos? The dynamic of family strife that expands into political conflict and ends in civil war is reflected in Greek epic and tragedy, and in the tumultuous history of the Greek tribes and cities.

Perhaps more surprising is that a similar dynamic is present in the Hebrew Bible. Like the Odyssey, Genesis, too, explores the moral and political consequences of ungoverned sexuality and aggression.


The eastern Mediterranean was a great basin of myths and images that spread from Mesopotamia in the east to Sicily and beyond in the west, crisscrossing the seas like so many Phoenician trading vessels. Some Greek myths may even have influenced later Jewish tradition. Thus, a rabbinic interpretation of the verse “male and female He created them” (in the first chapter of Genesis) appears to echo the Symposium. Male and female, one midrash teaches, were originally fused in a two-faced body, from which God would ultimately split off the female form.

In the Bible, however, this splitting-off is not a punishment but is meant to confer on ha-adam—the original and singular human beingwhat could not be found among the animals: a suitable helper and sustainer. In this, it succeeds. But, in a reversal of the Greek mythical order, it will elicit similarly transgressive impulses.

Men and women may face in opposite directions—Hector looks outward, toward the world of war and politics, and his wife Andromache inward, toward the family—but they are nevertheless meant for each other. They constitute the first natural form of human society, bound together by loyalty to a common good. In Genesis, the first human male intuitively grasps that the first human female is fitted to him in a way that no animal is. When he awakens from sleep and lays eyes on her, he breaks into poetry:

This one at last,
bone of my bones,
And flesh of my flesh,
This one shall be called woman (ishah)
For from man (ish) was this one taken.

But the man’s excited attraction to the woman distorts his understanding. In particular, he is wrong about his priority to her. Ishah was not taken from ish but from ha-adam; only through the separation of ishah from that integral being created by God does man-as-ish come into existence. In forgetting ha-adam, the man also forgets the God in whose image ha-adam was created. This is not a merely innocent mistake; it is a metaphysical and also a moral error.

The appropriation of divine status that is latent in these first quoted human words becomes fully manifest in the episode regarding the tree of knowledge. The woman’s longing for the forbidden fruit is aroused by the serpent, who, according to the medieval commentator Rashi, desires to supplant the man and possess the woman. That desire expresses itself not as poetry but as a cunning plot. The serpent, Rashi writes, trusting God’s pronouncement of a death sentence for anyone eating the forbidden fruit, assumes that the woman will be cautious enough to conduct a test by first giving it to the man, who will expire after tasting it. But instead he arouses in the woman a desire that is strong enough to make her forget God’s warning altogether.

We need not accept Rashi’s details to see that his interpretation grasps the psychological origins of the woman’s transgression. The serpent’s assertion that “God knows that on the day you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will become as gods knowing good and evil” bends otherwise wholesome longings toward illicit ambition. On hearing the serpent’s words, the woman “saw that the tree was good for eating and that it was a lust to the eyes and the tree was lovely to look at and desirable as a source of wisdom.” Even as she is responding to the goodness, beauty, and truth promised by the fruit, her perceptions are inflamed and distorted by passion. (In translating this passage, Robert Alter notes that the word ta’avah, which he renders as “lust,” means “that which is intensely desired.”)

Later, after the pair’s expulsion from the Garden, Eve’s outsized ambitions again achieve expression. When she gives birth to Cain, she boasts: “I have got me a man with the Lord.” Her remark underscores the unique inner capacity of women to form and generate new life, a power that connects them with God’s original creation of human beings. But Eve wrongly implies that Adam has played no part in his son’s conception. Just as he forgot about ha-adam, she forgets about him: both thus overstate their claims regarding the origin of new life.

The immediate consequence is marital and familial deformation. Concerning Eve’s boast, the Midrash comments: “When a woman sees that she has children she exclaims, ‘Behold, my husband is now in my possession.’” And indeed, when it comes to family matters, Adam is not a full partner with Eve. He is mentioned only twice in the narrative of the first family, both times merely to note that he knew his wife. He thereby contributes to the getting of Cain and Seth (and by inference Abel), but not, apparently, to the raising of them.

The results are decidedly mixed. Cain, distressed by the divine preference for Abel’s offering over his, is unmoved by God’s urging that he master his emotions and refrain from sin. Abel thus falls victim to his brother’s murderous envy.

Why does Adam check out of family life? When God confronts him—“From the tree I commanded you not to eat have you eaten?”—he blames Eve. Yet he did eat the fruit, without objection. One wonders what would have happened had he owned up to his part in this bad business. (Would she then have owned up to hers? Would God still have sent them packing?) In any case, the pain and difficulty of life after their expulsion from Eden burst the bubble of delight that formed when he first laid eyes on Eve. “She made this mess,” he seems to have figured; “let her tend to the children; my labor is onerous enough.”


Fratricidal conflict was similarly understood by both the Greeks and Jews of antiquity as another permanent feature of human existence.

The Oresteia, a trilogy of plays by Aeschylus, explores the ramifying familial and political consequences of a vicious quarrel over the kingship of Mycenae between Atreus, the father of Agamemnon and Menelaus, and Atreus’s brother Thyestes. In Agamemnon’s household, the twisted family dynamic leads to regicide. Left alone in Mycenae during the decade Agamemnon is at Troy, his wife Clytemnestra yields to the seductions of Thyestes’ son Aegisthus, who conspires with her to murder her husband on his return.

The Bible, too, teaches that fratricidal violence spills over from the family into larger communities. Little wonder that the millennium-and-a-half between the expulsion from Eden and the Flood is a time of rising chaos.

It is also a period in which women loom larger than men. Cain, condemned to a second exile—God tells him that “If you till the soil, it will no longer give you its strength. A restless wanderer shall you be on the earth”—founds a city and generates a line of artisans, including the first cattle-herder, musician, and smith, who “forged every tool made of copper and iron.” These skilled men are sons of Cain’s descendant Lamech, six generations removed from Adam. The connection between technical knowledge and arrogance, here merely implied, will later be made explicit in the brickmakers and builders of Babel.

As for Lamech himself, who shockingly boasts of killing a man and a boy, he addresses his triumphal song to his wives; it is not other men but they whom he seeks to impress: “Adah and Zillah, O hearken my voice,/ You wives of Lamech, give ear to my speech.” His public displays of violent aggression offer an ugly and pathetic twist on the frustrated idea of male rule within the family.

Finally, Eve’s vaunting claim to have gotten a man with God is distantly echoed in Genesis 6: “And it happened as humankind began to multiply over the earth and daughters were born to them, that the sons of God saw that the daughters of man were comely, and they took themselves wives howsoever they chose.” The offspring of these unions are the Nephilim: semidivine “heroes of yore” and “men of renown” like those whom Homer celebrates. Immediately after they are introduced, God sees that “the evil of the human creature was great on the earth”—so much so that it had corrupted the ways of “all flesh” and the earth itself.

From the time that God decides to release the primeval waters until the building of the Tower of Babel, the primary focus will shift abruptly from women to men. The narrative will center on Noah and his descendants, and we will never learn the name of Noah’s wife.


A violation of divine prerogatives comparable to that regarding the tree of knowledge can be found in the Theogony’s own account of the origin of woman.

While the biblical God gives good things freely to human beings, the gods of Greek myth are grudging. After the philanthropic immortal Prometheus deceptively contrives to keep for human beings the choicest parts of the sacrifices meant for Zeus, the latter withholds fire from him. And when Prometheus once again comes to the aid of mankind by stealing fire for them, he is pinned to a cliff with a shaft through his midriff.

Zeus perhaps intuits that control of fire is the essential precondition for the development of the arts and sciences, by means of which, in our own technological age, mankind has strongly endeavored to make itself, in Freud’s apt phrase, into a “prosthetic God.” In Hesiod’s myth, Zeus pays mankind back with a creation kneaded from clay and decked out to be irresistible: woman, a cursed “drone” for whom man the worker-bee must labor all the days of his life.

One might be tempted to dismiss Hesiod’s story as simple misogyny, were it not for the fact that both Homer and the Bible present the subordination of men by women as a problem with deep and extensive ramifications. When the Odyssey begins, the hero is being held captive by the “bewitching nymph, the lustrous goddess” Calypso, who for seven years keeps him in servitude in her “arching caverns, craving him for a husband.” Their relationship is radically unequal. Odysseus refuses Calypso’s offer to make him immortal and ageless, and not just because “the nymph no longer pleased” but also because he knows she can destroy him when he ceases to please her.

Odysseus is more than once threatened by the seductions of pleasure and plenty, dangers against which the Bible explicitly warns (see Deuteronomy 8:11-20). We know that Calypso pleases him, though for how long we do not know. So does the witchy goddess Circe, whose name means Circle—the most perfectly self-enclosed of geometrical forms.

When Odysseus’s men first encounter her, Circe changes them into pigs by means of “wicked drugs” that “wipe from their memories any thought of home.” Although Odysseus manages to neutralize her rough magic with the help of a potent antidote given to him by Hermes, the messenger of the gods, he succumbs to Circe’s enchantment in a more subtle way. Forgetting his goal, he spends a full year on her island and in her bed, until his companions, urging “Captain, this is madness!/ High time you thought of your own home at last,” prevail over his “stubborn spirit.” He has not yet suffered enough to feel nostalgia, the algos (pain) that accompanies the thought of nostos (homecoming).

Odysseus’s prolonged absence harms his family as well as his polity. His son Telemachus, who was a baby when he left for Troy, has come of age knowing only the guidance of his increasingly fretful and distracted mother Penelope. Telemachus has the emotional pathologies, exacerbated by his peculiar circumstances, that one would expect of a young man raised (as the classicist Bernard Knox writes) without “the correction and support of a father.” He resents and distrusts his mother, complaining that “she neither rejects a marriage she despises/ nor can she bear to bring the courting to an end/ while [the suitors] continue to bleed my household white.” He seems also to be full of pent-up, sexually charged hostility toward women in general. After Odysseus returns and the suitors have been slain, Telemachus gives the “sluts” and “whores” who slept with them a “pitiful, ghastly death” by slow strangulation and not, as his father had instructed, the “clean death” of the sword.


If Homer’s epics are the Bible of the Greeks, Genesis and Exodus could with rough justice be called the Odyssey of the Israelites. But the two sets of stories move in opposite directions. Odysseus, guided by his memories of a healthy family and a well-ordered polity, battles to return to civilization; the men and women of the Bible, guided by God’s increasingly active hope for the same good things, labor to advance toward it.

The Hebrew Scriptures are thus generally not nostalgic. Starting with Abraham, the patriarchs look forward to the fulfillment of the covenantal promise of God: a multitude of descendants, a nation with a land of its own. The fulfillment of that promise relies on social structures within which a particular set of practices, traditions, and virtues can be successfully cultivated and transmitted.

From the first, however, these structures are imperiled by pride and rivalry, and by the trauma such passions produce. We see the effects of the trauma in the apathy of Adam and the confusion of Lamech. We shall see them again in Noah, driven to drink by the destruction of the world and by a year spent adrift on an ocean with no known harbor.

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