This essay is the third 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
Who among us didn’t go at least a little stir crazy during the coronavirus lockdowns of the interminable years 2020-21? But even those of us crammed, say, into a tiny apartment full of cats, litter boxes, and in-laws could not have experienced anything like the strain and misery of imprisonment in the dismal confines of Noah’s ark. The cacophony of animal grunts and groans must have been incessant, the stench of excrement and urine almost unbearable, the pervasive gloom—with natural light entering only through a window way up high—deeply depressing.
Adrift on an endless ocean for more than a year, Noah and his extended family—wife, sons, and daughters-in-law—could hardly have kept their fears, frustrations, and frayed nerves to themselves. They must have bickered and quarreled, sometimes heatedly.
When the flood finally recedes, God commands Noah to “Go out of the ark, you and your wife and your sons and your sons’ wives with you.” The great medieval commentator Rashi notes that family life, suspended during the long months at sea, could now resume. Yet God’s subsequent instruction to “take out” the animals suggests to Rashi that some must have refused to leave the ark and had to be compelled by force. Like more than a few of us in the months when the coronavirus appeared to be receding, these beasts may have feared for their safety outside of the walls that had for so long protected them.
Thus has the flood unwound the work of creation, with the two becoming, in Robert Alter’s words, “reverse sides of the same coin.” Even as Noah’s labor in building the ark and populating it with creatures recapitulated God’s work of creation, the ark’s fetid and suffocating atmosphere was the antithesis of fresh, verdant Eden. The evil of man had become so great that it spilled beyond the human realm, polluting the whole of the created world. With the rank corruption of “all flesh” in His nostrils, God caused the human remnant to experience the decay viscerally. The wretchedness of the ark marked the terminus of a world that had forgotten about God.
The Bible is a story of new beginnings that often end in disappointment, revealing as they do not just the capacities but also the limitations of the free creature made by God in His image. The first, “Adamic” part of the book of Genesis begins in watery chaos and ends in watery chaos; the second, “Noahide” part, from the flood to the dissolution of Babel, repeats the pattern. Secure foundations of hope and aspiration will begin to be established only when the patriarchs appear.
Men predominate in the Noahide portion of Genesis as women did in the Adamic part. Noah’s work—building, herding, harvesting, captaining, and slaughtering—is man’s work. It starts with God commissioning him as master builder in a massive construction job. At 300 x 50 x 30 cubits, the ark enclosed more than 1.5 million cubic feet. It could not have been built without the coordinated labor of Noah’s sons, assisted, in all probability, by the labor of oxen.
When the waters finally recede and the family and all of the animals debark on dry land, Noah again builds something new: the first altar mentioned in the Bible. Here he will perform the Bible’s second recorded animal sacrifice: “And Noah built an altar to the Lord and he took from every clean cattle and every clean fowl and offered burnt offerings on the altar.” We are told that God smelled the “fragrant” or “pleasing” odor (niḥoaḥ is a pun on Noah’s name).
Ritualistically speaking, burnt offerings situate man above the animals and below the gods. Like a god, man commands fire; like the beasts, he must eat food. Although Noah begins to restore order to a disordered world as soon as he steps off the boat, animal sacrifice involves slaughter and bloodshed, the unavoidable price of social and political stability. The commandments issued by God in the immediate sequel acknowledge human impulses to violence while attempting to constrain and channel them—to safeguard both men and beasts from the wildness and harshness of unrestrained human nature.
God allows men to eat any animals they like, only not with their “lifeblood” still in them. The laws of kashrut announced in Leviticus will codify this commandment, requiring the human being (ha-adam) to drain the blood (dam) of an animal and return it to the soil (adamah) before it is eaten. God also acts emphatically to protect human life: “your lifeblood I will requite, from every beast I will requite it, and from humankind, every man’s brother, I will requite it.” The covenant that God seals with a rainbow offers mankind the additional defense of hope; the word b’rit (covenant), notes Leon Kass, derives from a root meaning “to bind together”; in pledging never again to destroy the earth by flood, God “bind[s] up nature’s destructive fury.”
But moral crisis soon strikes Noah’s family:
Noah, a man of the soil, was the first to plant a vineyard. And he drank of the wine and became drunk, and exposed himself within his tent. And Ham the father of Canaan saw his father’s nakedness and told his two brothers outside. And Shem and Japheth took a cloak and put it over both their shoulders and walked backward and covered their father’s nakedness, their faces turned backward so they did not see their father’s nakedness.
We need not approve of Noah’s drunkenness, but we should try to understand it. If he was the first to plant a vineyard, was he also the first to drink wine? When he lifted the cup to his lips, did he foresee its intoxicating effects? Perhaps the trauma of the flood made him seek comfort in oblivion.
In any case, intoxication strips Noah of his dignity. The text repeatedly emphasizes his nakedness. His son Ham invades his tent and exposes what he has seen to his brothers Shem and Japheth. By contrast, they proceed reverently to cover him with no further insult.
The implicit connections in both Genesis and the Greek tradition among clothing, sacred awe, and law offer indispensable clues to the meaning of this event.
For its part, the Bible implicitly connects clothing, awe, and law early on. When the first couple eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge, they violate the commandment that forbade them to do so. Having willingly divested themselves of God’s law, they perceive their nakedness and sew loincloths of fig leaves. They experience their nakedness as vulnerability, for, as the man says in explaining why he hid from God, “I was afraid [yarei], for I was naked.” The Hebrew verb yarei connotes awe and reverence as well as fear. Before expelling the couple from Eden, God will outfit them in animal hides. These serve not just, like the fig leaves, as coverings for their private parts but as durable protection from the thorns and thistles of the wilderness. In shielding their bodies from the harshness of nature, the new clothing serves as a material manifestation of the primary function of law outside of Eden.
The ancient Greek historian Herodotus explicitly develops these associations. Herodotus begins his Histories, an account of the rise of the Persian empire and its wars against the Greeks, by observing the difference between Greek and barbarian attitudes toward women. The Persians, he writes, believe that no woman can be abducted unless she wills it. They therefore fail to understand why the Greeks made such a fuss over Paris’s abduction of Helen. Herodotus then proceeds to tell a story about Candaules, the ruler of Lydia, who commands his bodyguard Gyges to hide in the royal bedroom in order to see the king’s wife naked. But Gyges vehemently objects:
Master, what an unhealthy speech you are speaking, in ordering me to look upon my mistress naked! For when she takes her clothes off, a woman strips off the sacred awe [aidōs] that envelops her. One must learn from the noble and beautiful things that human beings discovered long ago. And among these, this is one: that each should look upon his own things. I do believe that your wife is the most beautiful of all, and I beg you not to demand of me anything unlawful [anomōn].
Clothing and fashion, like law and custom (the Greek word nomos means both), vary widely according to place and time. But Gyges grasps the universal significance of such conventional coverings—and especially of the ancestral piety and reverence that upholds them—as indispensable means of shielding otherwise vulnerable bodies from shamelessly prying eyes.
Pious respect for law and custom protects both perpetrator and victim from dangerous passions. In the garden of Eden, Eve experiences the forbidden fruit as “lust to the eyes” only after the serpent dispels the atmosphere of fear and awe surrounding God’s prohibition. Just as her transgression produces toil and trouble for all human beings, Herodotus suggests that everyone is endangered when what is highest and most authoritative in human life—the origins, beginnings, and ruling principles that the Greek philosophers call archai—cease to elicit reverence.
The unnamed woman whom Gyges balks at seeing naked is not just anyone, but a queen. Candaules nevertheless compels Gyges to spy on her, and unbeknownst to both men she catches him in the act. The queen then presents Gyges with a choice: either to murder her husband and marry her, or to be killed. Gyges chooses regicide, which brings the Heraclid dynasty to a catastrophic end.
Plato adapts Herodotus’ story in the Republic’s Ring Myth, in which a ring of invisibility allows a lowly Lydian shepherd to commit the most terrible crimes with impunity. (This myth would inspire Richard Wagner’s four-opera “Ring Cycle” and J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.) In Plato, the shepherd respects nothing and nobody; his first victims are the king, whom he murders, and the queen, whom he takes in marriage. Like Herodotus, Plato teaches that law and clothing safeguard human beings only insofar as they are regarded with the combination of awe, fear, and reverence that the Greeks call aidōs and the Bible calls yir’ah. (The Greek word for genitals, incidentally, is aidoia.)
These lessons are lost on Ham, who violates his father’s tent and whose deed is patricidal in the way that eating the forbidden fruit was. Both transgressions involve acquiring and sharing illicit knowledge that comes through seeing what ought not to be seen, or in a way that one ought not to see. Whatever explanation might be offered for Ham’s actions, most significant about the story is not that Ham saw his father naked and blabbed about it but that his brothers covered their father up. Walking backward with the cloak between them, they themselves face forward, as though modestly veiling their father’s faults were necessary for securing their own children’s future.
Thus, when Noah awakens from his wine to discover what Ham did, he curses not Ham himself but his son Canaan—“Cursed be Canaan,/ the lowliest slave shall he be/ to his brothers”—while reserving his blessings for Shem and Japheth and their descendants. Noah’s understanding is prophetic: the way of God is the path of freedom, and its transmission depends on filial piety. One who disgraces and betrays his father will reap a bitter harvest in his offspring. (This lesson seems to have been forgotten in our hypercritical time, which delights in exposing the alleged faults of our forefathers and repudiating their cultural and political inheritance.) The fabric of nomos—the ancestral inheritance of law and tradition—protects only insofar as it is upheld, like Noah’s cloak, by keen feelings of reverence and shame.
Which brings us once again to Homer’s Odyssey, where a distant cousin of the story of Noah also appears. In it, Odysseus builds a boat, takes to the sea, is shipwrecked, and struggles, naked and barely alive, onto the Phaeacian shore—his last stop before reaching home in Ithaca. There his salvation will rest on the solidity of the civilizational tripod of awe, law, and clothing that Ham and Candaules so foolishly kicked aside.
The story goes like this. Working behind the back of Poseidon—the god of sea and earth who has long had it in for Odysseus—the goddess Athena persuades Zeus to order the release of Odysseus from the nymph Calypso’s island, where he has been languishing for seven years. Calypso obligingly equips him with an axe, an adze, drills, and bolts of cloth, and leads him to a stand of alders, poplars, and firs. Odysseus fells trees and trims, splits, bores, and bolts the wood to fashion a seaworthy craft that he then rigs with rudder and sail. When his work is done, Calypso stows onboard a supply of food and drink, summons a wind “fair and warm,” and then “the lovely goddess launched him from her island,/ once she had bathed and decked him out in fragrant clothes.”
Odysseus is at sea for twenty days, the same number of years he has been away from home. On the eighteenth day, just as the Phaeacians’ island of Scheria comes into view “over the misty breakers,” Poseidon spots him, whips up “all the gales from every quarter,” churns the waves, and covers the sky with black thunderheads. A great wave snaps the mast and throws Odysseus off the ship; although “his clothing dragged him down—divine Calypso’s gifts,” he swims back to his broken boat.
Leucothea, a deity of the sea who formerly was a mortal woman, now takes pity on Odysseus. “Strip off your clothes and leave your craft,” she instructs him. She then gives him an “immortal” veil that, tied around his waist, will see him safely to shore. Another great wave shatters the planks beneath him, and after two days in the surf a third wave drives him onto a reef and then sucks him back out. Praying for salvation, he is finally drawn to shore at the mouth of a river.
The Greek word kuma (“wave”) designates any sort of swelling, including that of pregnancy; one of its meanings is “fetus.” Odysseus’s passage from Calypso’s cave to the land of the Phaeacians has been an episode of labor and birth. As the sea rests from its contractions, he lies in the river with “brine aplenty gushing/ out of his mouth and nostrils, breathless, speechless,” and naked as a newborn. Rallying to life, he carries out Leucothea’s final instruction: “But once you grasp the mainland with your hands/ untie [the veil] quickly, throw it into the wine-dark sea,/ far from the shore, but you, you turn your head away!”
In his last years with Calypso, Odysseus could be found mainly on a headland facing the sea, “sitting, still,/ weeping, his eyes never dry, his sweet life flowing away/ with the tears he wept for his foiled journey home.” Leucothea seems to be telling Odysseus to put those years of suffering behind him. Like Shem and Japheth, he faces away from what is behind him. But the two sets of gestures have radically different meanings: while Odysseus strips himself of the veil to signal a decisive new beginning, Shem and Japheth, in covering their father’s nakedness, signal continuity with the past.
A closer biblical analogy to Leucothea’s command is the angel’s warning in Genesis that Lot and his family, who have barely escaped a widespread destruction that recalls the flood, must face away from Sodom as they flee. The survivors are deeply traumatized. Lot’s wife does look back—grieving, no doubt, for the daughters she left behind to perish in the conflagration—and turns to salt, the stuff of tears. Lot hides in a cave, and takes refuge in the wine given to him by his surviving daughters; fearing that he is the last man on earth, they sleep with him while he is drunk. Like Ham’s son Canaan, the sons born of these incestuous unions are progenitors of nations—the Moabites and the Ammonites—who will be enemies of the Israelites in years to come.
On emerging from the sea, Odysseus desperately needs some protective covering. His first concern is that he will freeze to death. He solves this problem by bedding down on the riverbank in a pile of dead leaves beneath two great olive trees sprung from the same root, “one olive wild, the other well-bred stock”: a good image of the man himself. But his nakedness exposes him to further dangers, and not because he lacks weapons to fight off savage animals and men. Just the opposite: the Phaeacians are a peaceful people, but civilization—and these islanders are hyper-civilized—poses its own challenges. Odysseus finds himself at the mercy of a people that worships Poseidon above all other gods and is deeply suspicious of strangers.
Too bad for Odysseus. Naked, swollen, dirty, “crusted with brine,” caked with “brackish scurf,” and bloody—he’d lost “strips of skin” when the wave scraped him from the rocky reef—he has never looked more nasty and brutish than when he creeps out of his burrow to scatter some frightened young maidens. It is a dangerous moment.
But Athena has arranged things well. Prompted by a dream sent by the goddess, Princess Nausicaa has gathered her handmaids to wash clothes in the river. Their laundry finished, they toss their veils to the wind and play a game of ball. Awakened by their shouts, Odysseus covers his nakedness with an olive branch and steps forward; while her frightened companions flutter away, Nausicaa alone stands her ground.
“I look at you and a sense of wonder takes me,” Odyssseus tells the tall and lissome princess; “are you a goddess or a mortal?” The word for wonder here is sebas: reverential awe. Supplicants ordinarily fall to the ground and grasp the knees of those they beg for mercy; Odysseus confesses that dread holds him back from behaving so forwardly.
His sense of awe certainly protects the exposed young women; not every man would be so restrained in similar circumstances. More importantly, it protects him: it signals that he is not a wild beast but a civilized human being. Nausicaa’s first word to him is xeina, a vocative form of xenos, which means both “stranger” and “guest.” She holds out the olive branch of hospitality: in the Odyssey, the definitive characteristic of god-fearing people. “Every stranger and beggar/ comes from Zeus,” Nausicaa tells her maids; “give our newfound friend some food and drink/ and bathe the man in the river.”
Bathed, fed, and decked in the freshly washed finery belonging to Nausicaa’s brothers, Odysseus is ready to meet the king and queen, her parents. From a distance, he could pass for a Phaeacian; but there is no distance—no privacy—on this small town of an island. He is not yet out of danger, and neither is Nausicaa. She fears the scandal of being seen with “some alien from abroad,” but she also grasps the importance of custom and propriety. “I’d find fault with a girl who carried on that way,” she adds, “consorting with men before she’d tied the knot in public.” He is to walk behind her wagon and then wait outside of the walled town until she has reached the palace. Then, she instructs him, he must enter the palace and grasp her mother’s knees, for it is she who holds the power in this realm. “If only the queen will take you to her heart,/ then there’s hope that you may see your loved ones,/ reach your own grand house, your native land at last.”
Odysseus follows Nausicaa’s advice to the letter, for good measure sinking down into the ashes by the hearth. All that remains is for him to explain to Queen Arete why he is wearing a cape and shirt that she herself, “with all her women,” made for her son. This he does by fabricating a speech that, like a fine veil, both reveals and conceals with the utmost discretion.
Meanwhile, back in Odysseus’s home in Ithaca, his wife Penelope has been busy fashioning another kind of garment. For three whole years she has managed to forestall the mob of suitors for her hand, saying that she cannot marry until she finishes weaving a funeral shroud for her father-in-law Laertes, a garment intended “for that day/ when the deadly fate that lays us out at last will take him down.” “I dread the shame my countrywomen would heap upon me,” she tells the suitors, “yes, if a man of such wealth should lie in state/ without a shroud for cover.” Each night, she secretly unravels the web she wove by day. But a disloyal maid has exposed her secret, and now she must finally finish the shroud and tie the knot.
Penelope’s web is more than just a clever ruse to entangle her suitors in the bonds of time until her husband returns. A rich symbol with multiple meanings, it is in the first place an emblem of hallowed custom and ancestral piety. It respects the dignity of Odysseus’s elderly father, whom propriety requires to be draped at his funeral in a manner that befits his standing as a former king.
What the boorish suitors and treacherous serving women also do not understand is that the fabric of unwritten law that they have for so long scorned and violated shields everyone from harm, including them. By insisting instead that Penelope finish the shroud, they only hasten their own deaths at the hands of Odysseus. It is their funeral the shroud announces, and that of the fathers who might take up arms against Odysseus when their sons are slaughtered in his halls. What is more, it announces the funeral of Mycenaean civilization itself, done to death when ancient ways and customs once sustained by sacred awe become too torn and tattered to protect it from the worst impulses of human beings.
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