In this chapter, the Maids’ commentary takes the form of an Anthropology lecture in an academic setting. The Maids begin their lecture by asking what the number of Maids, twelve, signifies, and then, in turn, what the word “month” suggests to an educated person. Someone in the back of the lecture hall responds, correctly saying that it recalls moons. The Maids insist that this is no coincidence.
In the Anthropology Lecture chapter, the Maids’ commentary enters an academic setting, reading the events of their deaths as an anthropological metaphor. In doing so, the Maids explicitly lay out one possible reading of the text with a distinctly women-focused bent.
The Maids suggest that they were ritual sacrifices to Artemis, part of a fertility rite that began with sex with the Suitors and then purification in their blood to renew their virginity. Their deaths, then, would be a willing self-sacrifice to satisfy Artemis. The Maids tie this reading of the end of their lives to their hanging on the mast and to the bow used to shoot the Suitors (since Artemis is an archer goddess). The Maids see their hanging from the boat, according to this reading, as a connection to the sea, whose tides are dictated by the moon.
The Maids’ understanding of themselves as worshippers of a goddess cult in this reading of the text renders the events of the novel more female-focused, centering women and the female experience rather than Odysseus’s masculine adventures. Their reading does, however, seem somewhat overly schematic, as they fit each aspect of the millennia-old myth neatly into their reading.
The Maids, supposedly responding to a question from the audience, agree that the number of lunar months is actually not twelve, but thirteen. They say that they were, in fact, thirteen counting the “High Priestess” Penelope. According to the Maids, all together this reading shows that the Maids’ deaths are a metaphor for the overthrow of a matriarchal cult of the moon by a patriarchal, male-god-worshipping religion. Odysseus’s marriage to Penelope was his way of cementing his power, according to the Maids.
The Maids finally make their radical reading explicit here, suggesting that their deaths represent the overthrow of matriarchy by patriarchy. The Maids’ argument that Penelope and Odysseus’s marriage is Odysseus’s way of cementing power over this matriarchal moon cult suggests that marriage is a means for subjugating women.
Responding to a critic in the audience, the Maids deny that their theory is “feminist claptrap.” They say that they understand that subjects like rape and murder are unpleasant, but assert that there is plenty of archeological evidence that such overthrows did occur. The Maids associate the axes that the Maids were not killed with to the axes of the Great Mother cult of the Minoans.
The audience member’s question seems to call their reading “feminist claptrap.” With this comment and the Maids’ frustrated, evidence-heavy response, Atwood critiques the high level of resistance to feminist and women-focused readings in modern academia.
Prior to male-dominated society, the winner of the bow-shooting contest that Penelope initiated would have become King for a year and then would be hanged and have his genitals torn off to ensure a good harvest. However, Odysseus did not fulfill this role, and instead tore off the genitals of a goatherd and hung the Maids.
The female-dominated society that the Maids describe being metaphorically overthrown, although better for women than Greek society was, seems to have been brutal and oppressive to men.
The Maids state that they could continue to prove their point that the story could be read as an allegory for the male overthrow of female-run society. They then say that, if readers think about the Maids as an allegory and as symbols, they don’t have to think about them as real girls who experienced real pain and injustice.
Although the Maids have just laid out this highly metaphorical, radically women-focused reading, they also suggest that such a symbolic reading can distract from their humanity and the real pain of their deaths. It’s easy to lose sight of individual human suffering when it’s viewed through lenses of history, metaphor, or myth.