"Tears fell from his eyes"

September 17, 2008

At some point, whether in the recent or distant past, crying became feminized. Boys don’t cry, as the movie tells us. Those aren’t tears, there is something in his eye. Frankly my dear, he doesn’t give a damn.

By contrast, the Odyssey is riddled with incidents in which the male characters shed tears and are not condemned or criticized. Telemachus cries in frustration. Eumaeus cries in joy when Telemachus returns. Menelaus cries for his dead comrades. Odysseus cries for his unreachable home. Odysseus and Telemachus cry when they are reunited.

Does any of this make these characters unmanly? Menelaus is married to the most beautiful woman in the world, whom he won back after ten years of war against a formidable foe. Odysseus not only bested scores of warriors in open combat, but was the mind behind the Trojan horse among other twists and turns. Telemachus–well, he’s just growing into his beard, but he cuts the apron strings and sneaks off to seek word of his father’s fate, and eventually fights alongside his famous father when the midden hits the windmill. These are not wimpy, effeminate men by any stretch of the imagination.

So it would seem that, to Homer at least, it wasn’t a big deal for men to cry. They weren’t exactly bursting into tears at the drop of a tunic, but when their emotional cups overflowed, they were not ashamed to show it. One wonders at what point such displays became taboo, and whether the unwritten proscription is unique to American society or is descended from the English and other European predecessors.

Plato, for one, was apparently opposed to Homer’s depictions and, in his ideal city, would have them expunged from the epics. Then again, Plato pretty much hated poets in general, so I could tell him a thing or two about where he can stick his Republic.

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