In Homer, is the translation παλλακίς = concubine a euphemism?

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bcrowell
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In Homer, is the translation παλλακίς = concubine a euphemism?

Post by bcrowell »

Most dictionaries seem to define παλλακίς/παλλακή as "concubine" or "mistress." English "concubine" seems like an ambiguous term that can mean either a sex slave or a consensual sex partner. The first time I run across it in Homer is Iliad 9.449:

ὅς μοι παλλακίδος περιχώσατο καλλικόμοιο,

"[my father,] who was angry at me because of a fair-haired concubine"

This context doesn't really clarify for me the concubine's status. The family is having sort of a Woody Allen/Mia Farrow fight over the status of this woman.

Is this one of those euphemisms like when 19th century books say that Zeus "married" Leda? I'm not getting the impression that a παλλακίς was analogous to a 1950's French mistress. Maybe more like Sally Hemings?
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Re: In Homer, is the translation παλλακίς = concubine a euphemism?

Post by jeidsath »

I'd also look at how Herodotus using the word (even making it into a verb, once). The consent status of such relationships, as with bride-snatching in the Caucasus, is not possible to generalize about. And Sally Hemmings' relationship with Randolph Jefferson (likely) or Thomas Jefferson (rather less likely) is hard to say a lot about. What would they have said if you could ask them about it? Unknowable, I think. But unlike the Homeric society, there was no social approval of the (common) practice in the American South, and the cases of the relationships (or at least the offspring) becoming regularized were extremely rare, as far as I know. [Still, I can't recommend enough a careful read of the Slave Narratives collection at the Library of Congress for anyone interested. I recall a number of frank discussions about personal feelings about this sort of thing.]

Anyway, as usual, maybe a better model than the American South would be the North African slave trade, where the concubinage of the often white Christian slaves had a recognized place in the society, possibly one that traced back to an earlier period. But that was a far more complex and advanced place and time than the Homeric. Maybe a still better model for the Homeric Greek concubinage could be in tribal slavery practices, either in Africa or among American Indians? In the last at least, captured "concubines" could often be fully legitimized fairly quickly.
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Re: In Homer, is the translation παλλακίς = concubine a euphemism?

Post by Paul Derouda »

I suppose that for the ancient Greeks the point about παλλακίς is not so much what they were but what they were not: a παλλακίς is a female companion who does not have the legal status of a wife. So I think some will be slaves and some will be consensual, and everything in between. I don’t know if any one time sex partner qualifies to be a παλλακίς or whether the term is usually restrictred to more permanent relationships.

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Re: In Homer, is the translation παλλακίς = concubine a euphemism?

Post by mwh »

Yes I think Paul has put his finger on it: concubines are not wives. But surely all of them are slaves, even if not referred to as such—war booty, at any rate in the Iliad. (Eurycleia is a marked anomaly: Laertes purchased her but never had sex with her, Od.1.432.) The relationship tends to be stable (of course not necessarily permanent), and exclusive. Briseis belonged to Achilles, and only when deprived of her did he take a substitute (Il.9.665). Wives tend to disapprove (Clytemestra, for one). In the Iliad the men are either unmarried or their wives have been left at home.

I don’t think there's anything euphemistic about it. Just as with wives (and slaves), it’s a well defined category, even when the actual term is not used.

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Re: In Homer, is the translation παλλακίς = concubine a euphemism?

Post by jeidsath »

So what's a legal wife in a pre-legal society? Wife is our word, and ἄλοχος is just "bedmate" by etymology. Does it simply mean that there are in-laws around with an interest (perhaps also contractural, with a dowry) in the woman's wellbeing and (more importantly for some/most?) inheritance rights for her offspring?

ἔγνωκε δ᾽ ἡ τάλαινα συμφορᾶς ὕπο
οἷον πατρῴας μὴ ἀπολείπεσθαι χθονός.
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Re: In Homer, is the translation παλλακίς = concubine a euphemism?

Post by Paul Derouda »

”A παλλακίς is a female companion who does not have the legal status of a wife.”

I suppose you could just drop out the word ”legal”. Surely the social status of a wife and a concubine were altogether different, and not just in terms of dowries and inheritance.

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Re: In Homer, is the translation παλλακίς = concubine a euphemism?

Post by Paul Derouda »

” But surely all of them are slaves, even if not referred to as such—war booty, at any rate in the Iliad”
That’s quite possible, I don’t really know as I haven’t really looked into this. I’ve sort of assumed that free girls whose families are not rich enough to pay dowries might end up as concubines, a slightly better alternative to prostitution. I don’t remember any clear example in Greek literature though, so it was just my assumption. I’d note though that in our sources, heroic, martial contexts are overrepresented, and the problems that poor farmer families who are have a hard time to provide themselves with enough food might encounter are probably grossly underrepresented.

As to whether a word is a euphemism or not, I think the ancients were quite aware of the implications of a word like παλλακίς. We might of course translate it throughout with a shock work like ”sex slave”, but that would change tone of the text. You could also start calling your wife ”consensual long-term sex partner”, but that might raise eyebrows (and in the worst case, you would have to add ”ex-” to the beginning, if the wife in question doesn’t find it funny). We’ve discussed Emily Wilson’s translation of the Odyssey before - when Homer calls slaves by words that are deliberately euphemistic, she de-euphemizes them throughout; in my opinion, that changes the tone of the work

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Re: In Homer, is the translation παλλακίς = concubine a euphemism?

Post by mwh »

Joel’s etymologizing won’t get us very far. αλοχος is a term reserved for wives. It wouldn't be used of the likes of Briseis, Chryseis, Iphis, Diomede, etc., who are concubines. That too is our word—Homer is very sparing in his use of παλλακίς—but Joel will have a hard time arguing that wives and concubines are not discrete and recognizable categories in the Homeric world (just as they were in 5th-century Athens, incidentally).
[Edit. Achilles refers to Briseis as αλοχος in the embassy scene (9.336), but that’s clearly for rhetorical purposes. The exception proves the rule.]

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Re: In Homer, is the translation παλλακίς = concubine a euphemism?

Post by jeidsath »

This tilting at windmills of things I didn't say whenever I post is getting annoying. I did not, of course, say that ἄλοχος and παλλακίς were not distinct. (Though I expect that there were edge cases.) I said that our category "wife" doesn't necessarily help us much in understanding what the one was, any more than "concubine" helps with the other.

Following my "in-laws being present" spitball, note that the Medea quote was an example of one wife that wound up getting treated exactly like a concubine, and one of the claims made in the argument there is that it never would have happened if she had had her relatives around.

To further muddy the waters though, the LSJ gives 9.449-452 for an example of παλλακίς being used opposite ἄκοιτις and glosses this as "concubine" versus "wife". However, the male form, ἀκοίτης, doesn't seem to be "husband" in the Odyssey 5.118- examples. "Boyfriend", if we're charitable.
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Re: In Homer, is the translation παλλακίς = concubine a euphemism?

Post by Paul Derouda »

The Odyssey passage (5.120) is analogous to Achilles and Briseis the Iliad. Calypso is replying to Hermes, who is acting as a messenger of Zeus and demands her to let Odysseus go. It would be a rather weak move rhetorically on Calypso’s part to complain that the gods are robbing her of a sex toy. No, ἀκοίτης means husband in the full sense of the word and stresses the dignified nature (whether imagined by Calypso or not) of her relationship with Odysseus.

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Re: In Homer, is the translation παλλακίς = concubine a euphemism?

Post by jeidsath »

Her examples of goddesses done'd wrong don't seem to be about husbands though. Anyway, the full sense of the word husband/wife (for us) includes the thousands of years of a particularly stringent Christian sacrament and a complex legal society making guarantees about divorce, custody, etc. Even in Athens, we're still a thousand years before the Justianian Code where, I believe, actresses or waitresses were barred from ever becoming wives, but could still be concubines. Justinian's wife being a rather famous exception.
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Re: In Homer, is the translation παλλακίς = concubine a euphemism?

Post by Paul Derouda »

You have to read the passage in context and distinguish between what the narrator says and what a character says. Calypso is complaining that whenever a goddess finds true love, male gods spoil everything. That would hardly make sense if ἀκοίτης meant toy boy. The word is used for rhetorical effect, just as Achilles calls Briseis ἄλοχος.

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Re: In Homer, is the translation παλλακίς = concubine a euphemism?

Post by jeidsath »

It's our term "wife" that I object to as a way for defining anything in Homeric times. The inherent division between παλλκαίς and ἄλοχος is obvious. But our marital arrangements just don't look like theirs.

For pre-legal societies like this, the wife/concubine division was very close to hierarchical polygamy, with a single chief wife in a far superior position to the others, who were basically servants or slaves. Until later legal systems codified it, this chief wife position was inherently unstable. The position was secured by: 1) a woman's in-laws, 2) male children, 3) social mores, 4) her husband's regard.

I think that the instability actually explains a few of the features of the poem.

For example, concubines are generally taken from lower social brackets and war captives, with concubines of the same social status being a serious threat to an established wife. Absent an established wife, the difference between a concubine and wife is almost entirely up to the whim of the male. So maybe it's not all that strange that Achilles is the one to call his war-bride an ἄλοχος. (She may well have found that position hard for her to keep once he got her home, though.)

A concubine that is honored above an established wife by her husband has a high possibility of displacing her (absent family or heirs to protect her rights). This seems very close to the Clytemnestra and Medea stories.

For Homeric society, Odysseus' philanderings are in stark contrast to Agamemnon's crimes (although he may seem just as bad as Agamemnon to us today). Unlike Agamemnon, Odysseus has done nothing to threaten Penelope's position as his chief wife. In fact, he confirms it every chance he gets. Sex is entirely beside the point.

The explanation for Calypso's language, I think, is that while we define "husband" as an equal term opposed to a "wife", that simply isn't the case for their society. While there was a παλλακίς/ἄλοχος distinction, there was no similar relationship hierarchy for men. ἀκοίτης for Calypso does not mean "husband" in its eternal sacramental/legal bond sense, because there was not really a distinct category for that for her, as opposed to us with our clear "boyfriend/husband" division.
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Re: In Homer, is the translation παλλακίς = concubine a euphemism?

Post by mwh »

I really don’t think this “chief wife” notion has much mileage in it, when marriage is so firmly entrenched as a monogamous institution in Homeric society as well as in historical Greek culture.

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Re: In Homer, is the translation παλλακίς = concubine a euphemism?

Post by jeidsath »

I'm not the one who came up with it. The Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics has fairly good articles on the scope of human traditions here (see the Concubinage articles in vol. 3). It's just very hard to tell, from the functionalist standpoint, chief wife polygamism from monogamism + concubinage.

The two questions that I have are: under what conditions did Homeric Greeks divorce their wives (divorce is common to all societies), and under what conditions war-captive/slave/concubine mates ever become official wives (ie., their children inherited)? There were very many societies that had established concubinage systems alongside monogamy, and they didn't tend to look much like the American South.

The Code of Hammurabi describes a rather monogamous society, but 144-153 show a lot of seeming instability in that institution. The answer to my two questions for that society would be: "probably under a lot of diverse conditions." And Hammurabi's society was a literate legalistic society, more advanced than the Homeric Greeks in the respect of official standards. Pre-legal, pre-literate societies practicing monogamy + concubinage (ie., numerous Amerindian groups, etc.) are a closer model.
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Re: In Homer, is the translation παλλακίς = concubine a euphemism?

Post by mwh »

To answer your two questions: (1) Homeric Greeks do not divorce their wives, and (2) war-captive/slave/concubine mates never become official wives. (Briseis says that Patroclus had said he would make her Achilles’ wife, but would he have?)

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Re: In Homer, is the translation παλλακίς = concubine a euphemism?

Post by jeidsath »

You mean, that if we were only to consider the "Homeric Greeks" of the literary conception, there was no divorce? It's an idealized society. There's no barrenness in the poems either, and everybody has plenty of sons. All the language around marriage, ἔδνα, μοιχάγρια, ἀλφεσίβοια, etc., suggest fairly transactional social practices here. (Aristotle: καὶ τὰς γυναῖκας ἐωνοῦντο παρ’ ἀλλήλων).

Regardless, the Odyssey scene sure seems to describe a bog standard return-of-bridal price divorce practice, in the case of adultery:

εἰς ὅ κέ μοι μάλα πάντα πατὴρ ἀποδῷσιν ἔεδνα,
ὅσσα οἱ ἐγγυάλιξα κυνώπιδος εἵνεκα κούρης,

When a bride is returned absent adultery, there appears to be a fine due the parents:

ζώει ὅ γ’ ἦ τέθνηκε· κακὸν δέ με πόλλ’ ἀποτίνειν
Ἰκαρίῳ, αἴ κ’ αὐτὸς ἑκὼν ἀπὸ μητέρα πέμψω.

Odysseus gives, as a cover story for himself (14.200ff), the interesting description of an inheriting νόθος, though the Odyssey doesn't use the word.
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Re: In Homer, is the translation παλλακίς = concubine a euphemism?

Post by mwh »

Yes Joel that’s what I mean. The Homeric poems are poetic artifacts, and their relation to historical reality is inherently problematic. As to bride-price, that’s a notoriously thorny issue. Finley went into it years ago, and it remains a subject of much debate.

But I think I’ve said all I need to in this thread. Ben Crowell’s original question about the status of a παλλακις has been more than adequately addressed.

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Re: In Homer, is the translation παλλακίς = concubine a euphemism?

Post by jeidsath »

I just discovered Herodotus 5.39-41 due to the Rouse thread. Interesting things happening there 1) divorce is the first recommendation. 2) He sets up two wives in separate households (separate households being mentioned in the EoRandE article as the way that concubine-societies would conduct actual polygamy). 3) The second wife winds up having the children, leading to that age-old Sarah/Hagar dynamic.
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