Nestor’s Sacrifice (1805). Engraving after John Flaxman (1755-1826). Purchased as part of the Oppé Collection with assistance from the National Lottery through the Heritage Lottery Fund 1996. / Creative Commons
By Louise Taylor / 05.06.2013
Books One through Eight
Books I through VIII of Homer’s Epic is where the story of Telemachus unfolds. We learn about Odysseus, his house, Ithaca, Penelope, through his eyes. He tells us about what it is to be a Greek hero and about the negative aspects of being a hero. Telemachus is a young man, not quite ready to step up into the hero role that his father has been executing for his adult life. He’s only twenty years old and his father’s been gone for ten years of fighting and ten years of wandering. For the Greeks twenty is old enough to take some action, the great Greek warriors who became grand heroes started at about that age, or a little bit younger. Achilles was conquering whole swathes of territory at this age.
Blaming the Gods
THE FAREWELL OF TELEMACHUS AND EUCHARIS – JACQUES-LOUIS DAVID (WIKIPAINTINGS)
This is David’s representation of him filtered through the Renaissance, but truly captured something of what Homer had in mind with this figure, Telemachus as a young man not quite ready to take action and in this feeling of kind of languor over the situation. In the opening scene Telemachus is daydreaming. Athena, in disguise, makes contact with him, and the narrative jumps into Telemachus’s head. He could almost see his magnificent father here in the minds eye. If only he might drop from the clouds and drive away his mother’s suitors, Telemachus is waiting for something to happen, a miracle or some other impossible thing. Rather than affect it himself, as a Hero, he blames the gods, blames the situation, blames fate, blames others, but especially he blames the gods.
“Once we were a wealthy house now the gods have reversed our fortunes with a vengeance. The gods have invented other miseries to plague me as well.”
From this we can understand that the Greeks had a very broad understanding of divine involvement in the world, it might make perfect sense for someone to turn around and say it’s the gods’ fault. Take a look at another example of this. Penelope has just come down, from her chambers, she hears Phemius the bard singing tales of homecomings of the great heroes coming back from Troy.
“Phemius!So many other songs you know to hold us spellbound, works of the gods and men that singers celebrate. Sing one of those as you sit beside them here and they drink their wine in silence. But break off this song—the unendurable song that always rends the heart inside me …the unforgettable grief, it wounds me most of all!!”
At which point Telemachus jumps in and says
“Why, mother,” poised Telemachus put in sharply, “why deny our devoted bard the chance to entertain us any way the spirit stirs him on? Bards are not to blame—Zeus is to blame. He deals to each and every laborer on this earth whatever doom he pleases. Why fault the bard if he sings the Argives’ harsh fate?”
Heroes don’t typically jump in with this kind of fatalistic talk; they don’t typically blame the gods for all the things that go on in the world. Heroes jump in and try to take action as best they can. There is a kind of double determination that’s at work in the Homeric world, if Zeus or one of the other gods declares something, it’s going to happen, and they’re much stronger than we mortals. But that determinism doesn’t turn into fatalism that is a discussion of the weak. Heroes assume that they are powerful cogs in the machineries of fate, and their hands will bring the fated outcome to fruition. They need to be involved, they need to be engaged, the more engaged the more heroic, and the less engaged the less heroic.
Zeus himself comments in on this particular issue. He says
“Ah how shameless—the way these mortals blame the gods. From us alone, they say, come all their miseries, yes, but they themselves, with their own reckless ways, compound their pains beyond their proper share.”
Growing up and taking responsibility.
Telemachus needs to make this turn from the kind of a person that sits back and lets bad things happen, and feels bad for himself, to someone more like Odysseus who takes action and gets things done. He needs help and guidance which comes in this figure of Athena, disguised usually as Mentor. The first time we see her in Book I she’s in the figure of Mentes, but typically she is in the form of Mentor. (The English word “mentor” is drawn directly from the Greek proper name.) Athena leads Telemechus on a journey literally as well as figuratively in order that he can grow up. She’s standing next to him and says
“You must not cling to your boyhood any longer—it’s time you were a man.”
With a nudge from Athena, Telemechus decides to call an assembly at the end of Book l.
When he does call the assembly it has a pretty sad result. He brings all the people together and says “Oh. You, suitors, I’ve had it up to here with you”. He gesticulates and gets angry and fulminates and says that it all has to stop. The reaction of this crowd of people who are violating him is that they all feel sorry for him. They pat him on the head and they say, so sorry Telemachus we are eating you out of house and home we can see how that makes you sad but really don’t blame us you should blame your mother. They pass the buck and talk as if there is some abstract thing that is hurting Telemachus.
After his failed attempt to rile the suitors he gets ready to go off on a tour with Mentor (Athena) as his guide. Travel is a way for him to gain knowledge. In his tour round these great capitals in books three and four, what he is doing is taking a journey into a past which has a kind of grandeur to it.
Here is a slide of a famous probably our most famous ancient citadel from this time, the citadel of Mycenae, Agamemnon’s palace. This is the lion gate and it has an air of majesty to it. When this was built back in the first millennium BCE there would be these grand citadels. As the citadels aged and as history built up around them people started to wonder how they were all those centuries. They imagined that their ancestors were greater than they were. They even called these stones Cyclopean stones because they felt there was no way a human being could have moved them and they are kind of things that only a Cyclops could move. There was a mythic orientation toward their deep past that the Greeks already had during Homer’s time. The impulse here to look at your ancestors as being much greater than you were leads us to our first universal law in the course.
Universal law number one, nostalgia is the most powerful force in the universe. When people are looking back to their past they always imagine that it must have been better.
Telemachus visits two amazing places starting with Nestor’s coastal city on the island of Ithaca. He has a trip by boat to Pylos. When he arrives in Pylos there are nine divisions of 500 people each (4,500 in total) on the beach each of those groups is slaughtering nine bulls, 81 bulls being slaughtered simultaneously on a beach. This is extraordinary to him; the grandeur of this scene is something amazing, a conspicuous display of wealth. 81 bulls during Telemachus’ time is a fortune. This is a world of grandeur Telemachus takes a little while to consider that this should be the kind of grandeur that exists in his household.
TELEMACHUS DEPARTING FROM NESTOR (CREDIT : WIKIMEDIA)
From Pylos he goes over land to Sparta where he meets Menelaus, Agamemnon’s brother, and Helen of Troy, that face that launched a thousand ships. Throughout this trip Telemachus gains knowledge, and at the same time he’s mirroring in a smaller, more controlled way, the kind of adventure that his father is on. For each of them the experiential knowledge that’s gained through travelling is something that’s profound, that’s powerful, that’s life-shaping that gives them tools, and that allows them to advance in their own lives. Travel is a deeply powerful tool according to the scale of values.
Telemachus has his audience with Nestor, in Sparta he has an audience with Menelaus and Helen. The elders sit back and listen to Telemachus’ version of events. The first thing they do, when they hear what is happening, is to react the way a person should react they’re angry. We see this multiple times as the story is being told. Athena has already shown it as Mentor, she is outraged and she talks about how shameful this exhibition is. Here, we hear from Menelaus, we also hear from Nestor, that this is shameful what’s happening.
The tour is partly education for Telemahus to be schooled in how his emotions ought to be working. His emotions need some calibration. There’s an acculturation that he needs to do to know that it is right now to feel anger. That is the kind of emotional response he should be having. Each person that he talks to expresses that. Then also, at each turn, we hear a particular name that’s brought up. When we’re talking to Nestor on page the name Orestes comes up. Athena disguised as Mentor talks about Orestes. Menaleus, after hearing the story of what’s happening in Telemachus household, talks about Orestes, and in Zeus in his introductory remarks right at the very beginning, talks about him. At each point a person who mentions Orestes is an older authority figure. They’re reacting to this expression of powerlessness. In Zeus’ case, it’s the idea that people just toss up their hands and it just feels like everything is just faded and it’s the gods fault. Instead, take action like Orestes did.
THE MURDER OF AEGISTHUS (CREDIT : WIKIMEDIA)
One of the famous stories of homecoming that is percolating in the background is that of Agamemnon’s voyage home. He gets home pretty quickly, with no struggle to get a ship back to his to his citadel. His wife, however, has taken up with a lover and the two of them murder Agamemnon shortly after he arrives. Clytemnestra, Agamemnon’s wife, and her lover killed the head of household, Agamemnon, her husband. Within the Greek ethical code, if someone kills your father as a son or a daughter, it is now your duty to kill your father’s killer. Agamemnon’s son and daughter are responsible now for taking revenge against this killer, which means for them, killing their own mother. This is a nasty business, ugly, and awful. In Homer’s version the lover, Aegisthus, is the one most responsible for the death of Agamemnon. Orestes, Agamemnon’s son, takes care of business and kills Aegisthus. Later we will look at a classical Athenian tragedy where the story of Agamemnon is told through Aeschylus’ eyes. Homer’s focus points to Orestes who, in a situation that was very ugly and very nasty, had the gumption to do what needed to be done.
Orestes’ story shows up multiple times in The Odyssey always as this kind of code when Telemachus feels sorry for himself. It comes from an older more experienced person saying giving the message that even in the nasty business that Orestes had to deal with he took care of business.
Helen of Troy
HELEN RECOGNISING TELEMACHUS (CREDIT : ARTCLON.COM)
In book four, there’s a wonderful scene when we see what’s happening, in the house of Menelaus and meet Helen of Troy herself. There are some interesting things for us to note about Helen, first of all, her beauty, her bewitching guile. It’s extraordinary, and obviously overwhelming. She is indeed the face that launched a thousand ships. When meet her she brings in a nice bowl for them to drink from that is going to soothe their pains. She adds to it something extra, special drugs that she got on her sojourn in Egypt when she and Menelaus were blown off course. She mixes them into wine that creates a wonderful potion. The narcotic effect of the wine is another thing that seems to be hovering around the aura that is Helen.
In the case of Helen, we have beauty, magical power, intoxication and a little bit of danger, as well, because she can bring you out of this world. This is a cluster of ideas that we’re going to see regularly in Homeric epic, women who have power, who have very clear erotic dimension to their power and who are mixed up in the idea of magic. They have extraordinary beauty and when they arrive in a room they turn heads. There’s a tremendous power that Homer sees in this cluster of ideas, and we’re going to see it represented in multiple places as our story moves forward. Not least, when we turn to away from our story of Telemachus in the first four books of the Odyssey and move on to meet our hero, the man himself the man the muses are singing of, Odysseus.
Odysseus on Ogygia
HERMES ORDERING CALYPSO TO RELEASE ODYSSEUS (CREDIT : WIKIMEDIA)
At last we meet Odysseus and we meet him exhibiting his hero-ness not straight away but by the middle of book five and forward. Now given all the characterizations of Telemachus up till now, as someone who sits around, feels sorry for himself, doesn’t take action, as being not heroic, when we meet Odysseus, he pretty much matches that description as well. He’s just sitting on the beach and he’s got Calypso who’s keeping him captive. This nymph goddess has him in her clutches and won’t let him go. He feels sorry for himself and cries on the beach. There’s not much he can really do. That situation that he is in of powerlessness, though, is soon going to change. But why does Odysseus spend quite so long on that island? Why doesn’t he break free and get out of there? Is it so bad to be on an island with this beautiful nymph? She has desires for him, and he seems to be in a kind of Bower of Bliss. The ancients, when they read this epic, were wondering why Odysseus spent so much time with that with that Goddess. But he’s there and he’s stuck and there’s no way for him to get off, that’s clear.
To mark the transition between Telemachus’ journey and that of Odysseus we have, as we did at the beginning of book one, an audience with Zeus. We go back up to the very top of the universe. The message is given to Hermes, go down and tell Calypso it’s time to free Odysseus. When the message is given to Calypso Hermes adds an interesting note that we shouldn’t just let pass, he basically says, don’t cross Zeus. If you don’t do what Zeus says he’s going to make your life a living hell. It means Zeus is going to crush you, physically. Zeus’s power in the Universe comes from violence and people are frightened of him.
Odysseus re-finding his Hero-ness
Hermes comes down and delivers the message to Calypso; it’s time to let him go. Calypso isn’t very happy about this but relents. This goddess whose name, Calypso comes from a verb meaning to hide. Odysseus is out of touch from life and from the wider Greek world for those seven years. When, Calypso gets the message she lets him go. To do this all she has to do is give him some tools. Zeus decreed that he should leave her island by raft and not by ship. With tools, Odysseus can fix anything. He gets his axe chops down the trees, strips them, plains them, gets them perfectly true, binds them together, erects a mast, puts together the all the different kinds of tackle that are required to make his sailing vessel sound and he’s got a perfect ship ready to go. Odysseus is a great builder. This use of hands and the introduction of Odysseus in the scene of the, of the raft building shows his hero-ness fully on display, heroes are just good at things.
Odysseus jumps onto his boat and he’s able to sail it as a master sailor. He’s not only good at building a craft; he’s good at sailing one too. In his hands is becomes a perfectly seaworthy vessel. But Poseidon crushes him as he’s trying to make his way. Odysseus then tries to find where he can land. If you’re a sailor you know that seeing a shoreline is not necessarily a good thing. If it is a gentle shoreline or if it’s has an inland or a port, that’s perfectly good you can get in and get out of the storm. But if there’s a, a shoreline that doesn’t have a nice place for you to land, a shoreline means certain death. Odysseus is facing that kind as he’s being tossed by the waves and trying to calculate his way into the shoreline that’s nearby him after Poseidon crushes his raft.
ANCIENT OLIVE TREE (CREDIT : WIKIMEDIA)
He’s able to sense when he gets close to the current of a river that’s flowing out from the mainland. This is a sign that there’s safety there, he can sense in his body the river nymph as it’s second nature to him to know where safety’s going to be. He finds his way in and uses the river to swim in to get away from the violent crashing of the waves of the sea against the shore line. Then he crawls out without, without problem. When he gets into the inlet he gets out of the river washes up on shore, literally naked from the roiling sea. There’s not much life left in him. All that he really has is the ticking of his heart, that’s the only thing left operative. He still has enough of his brainpower to start a calculation.
He wonders to himself whether it will be wise for him to, stay nearby the river overnight and if he does that he runs into a danger, he realizes, he calculates. That danger is that he could be exposed, because the he remembers that a cold wind blows from a river at around dawn. It may seem okay now but by dawn there will be a cold air blowing across him and he could expire from exposure. So he considers going inland more, but then if he moves inland, he’s going to make himself vulnerable to becoming prey for animals that will hunt him and eat him. He chooses a middle course; he sets out for the woods not far from the water. He makes a rudimentary shelter for himself, showing us again his skills as a craftsman. He found a grove with a clearing all around and crawled beneath two bushy olive springing from the same root, one olive wild the other well bred stock.
“No sodden gusty winds could ever pierce them, nor could the sun sharp rays invade their depths, nor could a downpour drench them through and through, so dense they grew together, tangling side by side.”
Odysseus gathers up what he finds an abundance of leaves. He is overjoyed at the abundance of leaves. He anchors on to the positive things, focuses on what he’s capable of, and he doesn’t sit back and feel sorry for himself. That’s kind of poignant when you think about poor Odysseus when he’s stuck at the very end of book five. The leaves are all around him, he’s crafted himself this special kind of bed out of olive leaves that’s going to keep him alive enough for the evening, When Homer closes with really a wonderfully poignant simile about the situation our hero finds himself in.
“As a man will bury his glowing brand in black ashes off on a lonely farmstead, no neighbours near to keep a spark alive – no need to kindle fire from somewhere else -so great Odysseus buried himself in leaves and Athena showered sleep upon his eyes….sleep in a swift wave, delivering him from all his pains and labours, blessed sleep that sealed his eyes at last.”
Odysseus gets his rest at the end of book five after getting away from Calypso, escaping the dangers that he finds at the sea, getting himself inland, escaping the danger of crashing against the shore, escaping the danger of dying of exposure, escaping the danger of dying of exposure and escaping the danger of getting eaten by a wild animal.
Odysseus on Scheria
ODYSSEUS, ATHENA, AND NAUSICAA (CREDIT : LIVIUS.ORG)
When morning comes, Odysseus is still alive, he comes up out of his leaves and when he does, he sees this scene in front of amazing beauty, young women washing laundry at the nearby edge of the river. He has to figure out a way to get clothes and that’s going to mean regaining his speech. He finds near by him that these young women are doing laundry, he’s in an embarrassing state Odysseus is now utterly bereft of everything, including clothes. Despite the embarrassment of the situation and the abject position that Odysseus is in, bedraggled, starving, hungry, pummelled, he approaches one of the young women.
“I am at your mercy, princess. Are you a goddess or a mortal? If one of the gods who rule the skies up there, you’re Artemis to the life, the daughter of mighty Zeus. I see her now. Just look at your build, your bearing, your lithe flowing grace. I hope you get everything you want in life, and may the gods bring you a husband, a house, and lasting harmony. “
Odysseus is no one to be starting making overtures to this young woman. But, he right away talks to her in ways that in Greek society at the time, Homer would have assumed a young woman wants to be addressed. You’re beautiful, you must be a goddess, your parents must be very proud, soon enough you’re going to be having a husband. He instantly wins over some affection from her when her guard is dropped a little. She wants to help him; she’s ready to give him some clothes. He doesn’t come on strong; he just does it in a kind of meek way, playing his weak hand in a way that’s appropriate to that weak hand. Interestingly he hints about marriage because Athena had planted the seed of marriage in Nausicaa’s mind when she suggested that she go wash her clothes.
“Nausicaa, how could your mother bear a careless girl like you? Look at your ﬁne clothes, lying here neglected—with your marriage not far off, the day you should be decked in all your glory and offer elegant dress to those who form your escort. That’s how a bride’s good name goes out across the world and it brings her father and queenly mother joy. Come, let’s go wash these clothes at the break of day— “
This is the crucial first step for Odysseus, he needs to make an alliance to get himself into human society. Odysseus arriving on an unknown shore is a way that many of his adventures are going to start.
ZEUS AND SEMELE (CREDIT : MYTHOLOGY.WIKIA.COM)
Odysseus goes into the centre of the city which is not quite like a normal citadel. The Phaeacians have a slightly different kind of reality that they live in. They are far away and they don’t mix all that well with others we’re told. They’re at the world’s frontier out of all human contact. There’s plenty of food there, the crops are irrigated by springs with a natural irrigation system. There’s a gentle wind that brings ripeness in all seasons. There are lush, almost magical orchards that just produce fruit. They have boats that steer themselves without steersmen, the boats just know where they’re supposed to go.
The strangest thing of all is the idea that the Gods talk to them Face to face. They don’t usually disguise themselves when they come and talk to the Phoenicians. There’s a story of Zeus and Semele, a young mortal girl who has a tryst with Zeus and convinces him to show himself to her in all his full glory. He asks her not tom make him do it, when he does, she gets incinerated because of how amazingly glorious Zeus is. There are other stories of humans getting in trouble by getting too close to gods. But the Phoenicians seem to have this easy rapport with the gods face to face. This puts them in a mythic space. They are also extraordinary sailors, their sailing prowess, brings them what sailing prowess always does, extraordinarily rich trade, and tremendous amounts of wealth.
This scene, where the wealth of the palaces is described, gives us a chance to talk about one of the common Homeric techniques of telling the story. Homer uses a technique called ‘ring composition’. In ring composition, some specific thing, A, is articulated in the story. Then there’s a long digression, B, where we talk about something that is related to this, usually specific, physical thing we just ran into, and then we know that we’ve finished with the digression when we mention A again. For example he might say “and then the general picked up that sword, that sword which was handed down many generations earlier to his grandfather and his grandfather and got passed down to him. That sword is the one he picked up now.” So usually we will have an articulation of the physical object, we’ll have long digression, and then another articulation of the physical object to finish off the circle.
This technique is used in great effect when Homer is describing the riches at the palace of King Alcinous.
“Now as Odysseus approached Alcinous’ famous house, a rush of feelings stirred within his heart, bringing him to a standstill even before he crossed the bronze threshold…. A radiance strong as the moon or rising sun came flooding through the high roofed halls of generous King Alcinous. Walls plated in bronze crowned with a circling frieze glazed as blue as lapis, ran to the left and right from outer gates to the deepest court recesses and solid gold doors enclosed the palace.”
The description goes on and lots of details are brought out in a long digression of tales of the extraordinary wealth of Alkinoss’s Palace, visible to Odysseus. At the end of this digression:-
“Such were the gifts, the glory showered down by the gods on King Alkinoss’ realm. And there Odysseus stood, gazing at all this bounty, a man who borne so much once he had his fill of marvelling at it all, he crossed the threshold quickly, strode inside the palace.”
So with our ring composition, we have an A and a B, and an A. The A is our threshold and the digression in B is our long and detailed tales of wealth and A again is our threshold.
Odysseus enters the palace and we see it through his eyes. He walks in, hits the threshold and then he’s overwhelmed
Knee Grabbing and Xenia
Odysseus makes his way through this extraordinarily wealthy palace. He gets close to Arete and Alcinous, the queen and the king and grabs the queen’s knees. This is a Greek custom that gives him instant status as a guest friend. To grab hold of someone’s knees makes you their suppliant and they then owe you guest friendship and the kind of hospitality that is required of great Greek person to give to someone who’s one of those guest friends. This is a good thing; it entitles you all kind of stuff of your hosts, if your hosts are good hosts. If your hosts are bad hosts you never know what you’re going to get, but good hosts demonstrate how good they are by their hospitality. This hospitality is not just any kind. It’s a special, overwhelming kind of hospitality. In Greek, they gave it a special word. It’s called, xenia, a custom of extraordinary, overwhelming hospitality.
Earlier Odysseus didn’t grab Nausica’s knees.
“Plead now with a subtle, winning word and stand well back, don’t clasp her knees, the girl might bridle, yes.”
In the Iliad also we have seen how Thetis grabbed Zeus’s knees when begging him to honour Achilles to compensate him for losing Brisires. I am not at all sure about knee grabbing. I hope to find out more about it. I don’t think it can be purely for the guest friend relationship. Thetis used it to elicit a promise from Zeus. It was used this way by Medea in Europides’ Medea (thanks for reminding me Joyce)
Hospitality is an important central component of aristocratic Greek behaviour. Visitors are thought to come from Zeus and suppliant’s rights are sacred. The prominent Phoenician, in book seven, lays down the whole law, saying, we got to watch out for this, we got to be really nice to these guests because that’s a sacred duty of ours. The need to be hospitable is also mentioned by Nausicaa to her maidens. It’s a further marker of just how important it is. Hospitality is thought to answer to a scale, where more is always better. The more lavish, the more extravagant you can offer. You demonstrate your own status by your ability to give lavish gifts. The more you give the better person you are.
Odysseus’ obligations are zero, he’s just there to be willingly entertained, fed, taken care of, flattered, cajoled, to be the centre of attention. His lack of obligation is so extreme that they don’t even bother to ask him his name. They don’t even know who he is up through book eight. Only at the close of book eight does King Alcinous think it’s now appropriate to ask our stranger’s name.
Now, so, what is it about xenia? Why this kind of hospitality? It’s probably answerable best by a single word, trade. The Mediterranean Sea brought all kinds of ancient cultures together to benefit from mutual trade with one another. Having a cultural plank in your cultural platform that says that you ought to treat strangers really well helps grease the wheels of trade for all the cultures involved. The Greeks surely benefited from this and the demonstration of overwhelming hospitality was at the same time a way to ensure that people thought that your shores will be friendly ones and will look at you kindly as trading partners.
Reassembling the Hero
On Scheria Odyseuss he washed up onshore, made his connection with the king and queen, secured his status as a guest friend and now he enters into the next step of his recovery. In these books we are rebuilding the hero. In book five he acquired the very basics that he needed to escape from Ogygia and be autonomous again. In book six he pieces together the rudimentary regaining his ability to speak and getting some clothes and making his way into the centre of the palace. Now he’s going to slowly rebuild his strength and pivotal to that is food. He has to eat something and then we see him start to perform in these physical games. The games play a role in book eight as Odysseus is rebuilding himself and rebuilding his hero-ness. Strength is an important thing of what it is to be a hero. We also get in this, this exhibition of Odysseus’ strength through the games.
DISC THROWER (CREDIT : ANCIENTSITES.COM)
Odysseus shows himself to be extremely skilled. For example, near the end of book seven Odysseus shows us how alliances work. He made an alliance with Alcinous, it’s been very valuable to him. After he makes his contact with Queen Arete you’ll notice a kind of strange back and forth between Alcinous the King and Odysseus. Alcinous is ready to kind of scold his daughter because Nausicaa has allowed Odysseus to come into the palace unaccompanied. He’s hinting that he’s a little disgruntled with his daughter at not displaying the kind of hospitality, Xenia that is so important in this part of the in this part of the story. Odysseus right away jumps in Nausicaa , and makes up a lie. He said that she offered to bring him to town but he insisted. Odysseus now is protecting the one that protected him. That white lie is only going to secure his position with Nausicaa and it does him no harm with respect to anything else. So it’s an automatic kind of incremental gain in his closeness with Nausicaa and his back and forth with her securing that relationship.
Odysseus knows full well what to do in sometimes complex social interactions where conflict arises. The prince, Broadsea, in book eight starts taunting Odysseus. Now, taunts are kind of standard stuff for heroes, taunts and epithets, you take the stuffing out of your enemy and call them nasty names. But when you do, you’re being aggressive and getting in that person’s face, that person, if they’re a real hero, is going to come right back at you. Odysseus is not quite yet ready to do that. Some teasing happens early on, and he lets it go. But when Broadsea comes and really gets into his face, Odysseus draws a firm line. He steps up and throws the discus farther then anyone had ever seen. He knows when to draw a line; he also knows how to enforce that line. When to give ground and be flexible and when it’s necessary to draw a line is a very important leadership skill.
He also shows later in book eight that he knows when it’s right to make up. After the conflict with Broadsea, Broadsea offers amends, and offers him the sword. Odysseus is gracious about accepting the gift and is ready to be friends with this person that had basically insulted him.
What makes a Hero?
We’re seeing him piece together of his hereoness. From this we can start to sketch in a rough definition or at least a rough set of qualities, characteristics, and attributes that we see in heroes. First of all they suffer, Odysseus suffers tremendously. The hero also endures these difficult situations don’t only cause the hero pain, but the hero bears up under the pain and endures. A hero is intelligent and is able to use their mind to figure the best course of action in any situation. A hero will also be a great craftsman. Odysseus built his boat, is good at sailing, good at discus throwing, he’s just good at things.
A hero is also going to be, maybe, crafty someone who’s a little sneaky. Odysseus is a big liar. He has always lied to a purpose but he does lie, this craftiness is something that we are going to see him exhibiting. A hero clearly gains knowledge through experience especially through travel. It is much more than just data. Odysseus needs to learn the details of where he is going, but his living through the experience always is something that gains an additional kind of knowledge for him, something extraordinarily valuable.
The title hero is hard won and has to be won through the only through the knowledge that only comes through experience. A hero makes alliances. Odysseus is good at drawing up those connections. A hero also clearly has strength. That’s being put together reassembled in book eight. A Hero is not a merchant. When they’re insulting Odysseus and taking the stuffing out of him. They tease him and say
“I never took you for someone skilled in games, the kind that real men play throughout the world. Not a chance. You’re some skipper of proﬁteers, roving the high seas in his scudding craft, reckoning up his freight with a keen eye out for home-cargo, grabbing the gold he can! You’re no athlete. I see that.”
Odysseus is greatly offended by that. A hero has to be better equipped to do stuff on the battlefield. That’s typically where the hero shows his strength.
By the end of book eight Odysseus he is still nameless. They don’t even know who he is; we have not heard his name. It’s related to us through Homer’s narrative but looking at it and through the eyes of the Phaeacians, he is still anonymous.
In book eight, there’s a statement from Alcinous who says now, it’s time for us to get to know you, Odysseus, and who you are. We need to know your identity. When he makes this statement, we get a really clear definition about what it is that these ancient Greeks in mythic times thought an identity was all about.
“So don’t be crafty now, my friend, don’t hide the truth I’m after. Fair is fair, speak out!!. Come, tell us the name they call you there at home -your mother, father, townsmen, neighbours, roundabout, surely no man in the world is nameless, all told. Born high, born low, as soon as he sees the light, his parents always name him, once he’s born. And tell me your land, your people, your city too. So our ships can sail you home- their wits will speed them there. ….But come, my friend, tell us your own story now and tell it truly. Where have your rovings forced you? What lands of men have you seen, what sturdy towns, what men themselves? Who were wild, savage, lawless? Who were friendly to strangers, God-fearing men? Tell me why do you weep and grieve so sorely when you hear the fate of the Argives, hear the fall of Troy?”.
These are the pieces that will make up a heroic identity. Odysseus in order to plug us in to the rest of himself will have to take over and give us some more details about his background.
We have seen these type of questions posed early in book one when Telemachus asked Athena (disguised as Mentes )
“Tell me about yourself now, clearly, point by point. Who are you? Where are you from? your city? your parents? What sort of vessel brought you? Why did the sailors land you here in Ithaca? Who did they say they are?I hardly think you came this way on foot! And tell me this for a fact—I need to know—is this your ﬁrst time here? Or are you a friend of father’s, a guest from the old days?”
Poetry and Demodocus
Demodocus makes an appearance in book eight. Through this character we get a little window into what it might’ve been like for this guy, Homer in his own world. We have a kind of vision through Homer’s eyes of how a poet functions in society .
DEMODOKOS (CREDIT : WIKIMEDIA)
We know from Homer’s portrayal of Demodocus that ancient poets had a bardic role in their society. They sung songs in order to entertain. They were part of the retinue of wealthy, aristocratic people. They had some light musical accompaniment. They may well have had dancers accompanying the different stories that they told. They were to tell episodes from famous mythic past. In this story we have Odysseys himself asking the poet to play the one about the Trojan horse. Demodocus answers his call, picks up his musical instrument and tells the story. Odysseys figures prominently in the story and this provokes him to tears, and sets off the course of events that leads to the king asking him who he is.
After dinner a poet will listen to requests, will tell episodes from great ancient narrative tales and has a role as an entertainer in the court of aristocratic people. They’re also known for a few feats. They’re able to do things that are a little extraordinary. Two things in particular. Number one memory. An ancient poet could sit down and recite from memory huge chunks of poetry and recite them in perfect metrical cadence with musical accompaniment in way that was stunning.
Secondly poets exhibited a certain kind of wondrousness in their ability to take some emotional state that they themselves may feel, and impersonate, and exhibit as they are performing their poetry and then, transfer that to large groups of people. So, almost by magic, they can internalize some subjective state and transmit it to other people. Anyone who’s been in a room where a charismatic figure is working their wiles already knows that this feels like a kind of magical power. The bard was thought to have the magical power residing in them of having other people around being moved by his or her song be affected by the song that was being sung. Some people in antiquity compared this power to magnetism something extraordinary action at a distance that made a certain subjective state and the poet f be like a contagion and spread around the crowd around them.
ARES AND APHRODITE CAUGHT IN BED (CREDIT : GREEKMYTHCFS.WIKISPACES.COM)
Looking at Demodocus gives us a window into how Homer imagined ancient bards to act. We can look at the traditions that surround Demodocus and the stories that he tells. One of his stories in perhaps, Demodocus’ most famous story, not the Trojan Horse, it’s this scene where Aphrodite has an affair with Ares to the detriment of her loving husband, Hephaestus. This story unfolds in detail that gives us pause and makes us feel a little bit sorry for Hephaestus. Ares comes along and seduces Aphrodite, they have an amorous tryst. Helios, the god who inhabits the sun sees everything, since he can see everything that’s happening on Earth, and he tells Hephaestus. Hephaestus then is angry of course he makes special netting made out of very fine metal. He is perfect at working with different kinds of metals and makes a trap that not even gods can escape from. So, next time Ares and Aphrodite get into the bed they get trapped by Hephaestus’ net and all the gods come around and start to laugh. They laugh at this awful scene – poor Hephaestus, look, Ares is having sex with Aphrodite – one or two of them says, oh, boy wouldn’t it be nice to be Ares right now because you could have this beautiful queen to yourself and so on and so on.
It’s a story that has a certain edginess to it, it pushes the boundaries of propriety and if it does to our eyes, well, it surely did to ancient eyes as well. The tryst of Ares and Aphrodite was something that was fascinating to ancient commentators. They were trying to figure out Homer was trying to tell us with this tryst of, of Ares, the God of War and Aphrodite, the Goddess of Love. And what’s Hephaestus’ role in all this? Well, the allegorists have a field day with this. They jump on in and claim, in antiquity, that there are all kinds of hidden subterranean messages in this story. One of them, Heraclitus from the first Century CE (not Heraclitus from the pre-Socratic philosopher) he was a commentator on Homer’s poetry. He tells us that the union of Aphrodite, love and Ares of strife, is, is actually the union of love and strife. There’s laughter, surely, when the gods gather round, but it’s divine laughter because it’s a cause for joy when love and strife come together. Never mind Heraclitus that they seem clearly to be laughing out of a snickering, sardonic kind of emotion, not out of joy, but it didn’t matter to Heraclitus.
Another idea claimed that this whole story was a comment on the art of blacksmithing. So, we have fire, Hephaestus who softens iron, Ares by capturing him, and then we need to apply passion, here represented by Aphrodite to the work in order to be good blacksmiths. And at the end it’s Poseidon who calls everything off and all the other gods are snickering and Poseidon says, no, no, that’s enough. Let’s let them free. So, Heraclitus reads that as an indication that water, in a form of Poseidon holes the iron out and cools it off.
Another commentator from the first century a man named Cornutus tells us that when Aries and Aphrodite get together it’s kind of adultery. So fair enough and he says the brutal and the violent do not correspond well with the cheery and the gentle nor is one naturally intertwined with another but there is a noble offspring because the legend had it later on that after Ares and, and Aphrodite got together, there was indeed an issue from their romantic relationship and this is the god the deity Harmony. So, we have, in Cornutus’ reading yes, it’s a representation of adultery but in the end harmony. Something good comes out of the brutal and the violent and the cheery and the gentle coming together.
Finally, the author of The Life of Homer, an unknown person, who was known in antiquity as Plutarch, in the first century CE, writes this, Ares and Aphrodite are love and strife and they sometimes get together then there is harmony and sometimes they’re apart. Helios denounces them, Hephaestus chains them, and Poseidon water, frees them. He claims that it is clear from this that the hot, dry essence and its opposite the cold, wet one, sometimes draw the universe together, sometimes pull it apart. So, there are lots of interpretations that get kicked off by this story that Demodocus tells us of Ares and Aphrodite. This probably still the case today, it is the parts of it ancient myths that seem to be the strangest, that are the most disturbing to us, that are the most provocative the most unsettling. These are the parts of myth that draw the most attention and get the most commentary as people try to figure out what the heck just happened. The Odyssey is an example from antiquity of a myth that gets told, retold, interpreted and reinterpreted.
Books Nine through Sixteen
PICTURE CREDIT : BBC.CO.UK
Odysseus starts telling his hosts who he is. At the end of book eight the King Alcinous asked him
“Come, tell us the name they call you there at home?”
For him the question of identity had several points -name, lineage and origin. Odysseus answers those questions and then he tells them about his past. Alcinous had asked him “What great things have you done?” A great Greek heroes identity is more than his name, lineage, and where he is from, it is also about his grand adventures in their past.
PICTURE CREDIT : USERS.GLOBALNET
Odysseus in telling his stories takes over the role of the bard in the story. Just like a real poet he performs his own identity.
The stories tend to come in threes. In book nine, we have a group of three, the adventure with the Cicones, then the Lotus Eaters, then the Cyclops. In book ten, we have another three, Aeolus, the Laestrygonians and Circe then in book eleven a long journey into the underworld. In book twelve another group of three, the Sirens, Scylla, and Charybdis, and the Cattle of the Sun.
In each of these groupings there are two short ones and a long one. I found this very interesting because of the dactylic hexameter that Homer uses. That is one long and two shorts. This format is a reflection of that so we have dit dit dum rather than dum dit dit. I am not sure that this is at all important but it struck me as pertinent.
Look out for the idea of temptation. There are pleasures awaiting Odysseus, but those pleasures sometimes come at a price. There is also the idea of curiosity and gaining knowledge. We get examples of how not do Xenia, how not to treat your guest and ‘food crimes’. Most of what happens in this exploration is driven by a search for knowledge. There’s a specific search for knowledge, that’s anchored from Circe forward but all the episodes have temptation toward built into them.
THE LOTUS-EATERS. (PHOTO CREDIT: WIKIPEDIA)
The further Odysseus ventures out the stranger things get. Firstly he lands on the shores meets the Cicones, beats them, grabs their treasure and leaves. This is standard, hero pillaging behavior Then he meets the Lotus eaters, they seem roughly like normal people but they do like a certain food, the lotus leaves. They make everyone feel marvelous There must be some pharmacological effect. Odysseus loved this but knew that they should leave.
Then they reach the Cyclops. The ship lands on shore, a party of men gets out and explore. What they find on their way in is that these strange creatures are not quite like themselves. These Cyclopses lack cultivation; they don’t know anything about farming, so they don’t have the tools and resources to subsist on a grain-based diet. They don’t have councils where they might get together to solve problems. They don’t have homes, they live in caves. Most remarkably they don’t have ships, Cyclopses don’t know how to build ships, so they don’t have contact with the outside world. They don’t meet people who are different from them. This is a sign of great lack of civilization for these Greek sailors.
PHOTO CREDIT : THEJOYOFSHARDS.CO.UK
The Cyclopses entirely lack the idea of Xenia. Polyphemus doesn’t realize that he’s supposed to be providing a gift to the people that arrive in his house. He doesn’t provide Odysseus and his men with hospitality. Odysseus and his men rummage around on their own, looking for food and gifts and asking for them. That might seem a little presumptuousness but Homer seems to think that this is normal. The gifts in the episode show up in interesting ways. Odysseus repeatedly asks for one but the Cyclops doesn’t provide it.
PHOTO CREDIT : SPERLONGA.ORG
Odysseus brings wine from this ship. He remembers it as a gift that he received from a hero called Maron. Odysseus had saved his family. The wine becomes his perverted gift to Cyclops. The wine utterly debilitates him and Odysseus and his crew poke out the one eye the Cyclops has. They drill this awful heated poker into the Cyclops’s eye blinding him.
The laws of Xenia are consistently violated, firstly when Cyclops doesn’t serve food but instead uses Odysseus’s men as food. He grabs two of them, smashes their head against the ground and eats their brains. But it’s not only that the Cyclops is ignoring the rules of Xenia, it’s that he is perverting them.
Universal law number three “it’s not good to be food.”
Humans don’t like the idea of becoming food for other creatures. It is a source of revulsion to us. It’s so awful that it’s not just terrifying or frightening, it’s utterly disgusting. The violence that’s involved in killing someone is taken a step further as a human is chewed, swallowed and metabolized. The full annihilation that comes through metabolism seems to be at the core of just how awful it is to image a human being becoming food. There’s a part of us that likes to think of ourselves as much more special than a member of the food chain.
To escape this particular problem Odysseus has the idea of debilitating the Cyclops. If they killed the Cyclops they’d be stuck in the cave. Then he straps himself to the bottom of the ram and has his mates strapped to the bottom of the other animals in the flock and they escape. When Cyclops checks the animals he doesn’t feel Odysseus and his men underneath. Odysseus introduces another of his famous tricks. The Cyclops asks his name and he says
“Nobody—that’s my name. Nobody—so my mother and father call me, all my friends”.
When his neighbors ask him who was hurting him, the reply was
“Nobody,friends’—Polyphemus bellowed back from his cave—‘Nobody’s killing me now by fraud and not by force.’‘
So the go home.
Odysseus then adopts this pure anonymity in some ways he loses his name not quite well enough though. Odysseus is on his way out, like great heroes he can’t stand the idea that the Cyclops might go through the rest of his life not knowing who it is that beat him. As he and his men are escaping, Odysseus shouts out
‘Cyclops—if any man on the face of the earth should ask you who blinded you, shamed you so—say Odysseus,raider of cities, he gouged out your eye, Laertes’ son who makes his home in Ithaca!’
When he does that Odysseus gives Polyphemus a means to draw down a curse. Without the name, Polyphemus would have been powerless to do that but now he can ask his father, Poseidon, to punish Odysseus.
Cyclops represents an example of a social lesson on the importance of Xenia. He stands as a perfect example of what not to do. All the Greeks that read this can sit back and listen to a myth that emphasizes the importance of proper guest treatment. If you don’t do that, a person runs the risk of being compared to one of these awful criminals the Cyclops.
Cycle Two : Cicrce
Next is a short episode with Aeolus and other with Laestrygonians, then a longer one with Circe. With Elias, there is a pretty strange environment. A foreign king has control of the winds, and he has them all stuffed into a bag. Aeolus’s sons and daughters marry one another. The lines that are drawn around incest taboos are sometimes different from society to society, but in most of them, brother and sister marriage is prohibited. Again curiosity leads to a problem, the crew can’t wait to see what’s inside that bag and they get blown back to Aeolus who sends them away. They then meet the Laestrygonians where they have a bloody battle. The Laestrygonians eat some of Odysseus’s men.
CIRCE PHOTO CREDIT : MYTHOLOGICA.FR
The next episode involves Circe. They are again washed up on an unknown shore and a search party goes off to explore with Odysseus staying behind. The most powerful piece of this episode is that Odysseus’s men get turned into pigs they have their humanity taken away from them. They are turned into animals that are in a standard repertoire of food. Odysseus’s men wonder how a woman can turn a man into a swine. Homer is a man and men who liked to hear the story it from each other, may well have feared that women had the power to turn men into some other creature, a beguiling magical power. Circe’s not the first female character that we’ve seen that has magical powers. There is also an erotic dimension to Circe. Odysseus wins her over and she has an erotic relationship with Odysseus that lasts a year.
Magical powers and an erotic lock on men are standard pieces of ancient myth. Odysseus’s way of overcoming Circe’s is to pull his sword on her but he also has a special magical potion from Hermes which gives him power to resist her magic.
After a year Odysseus’s men have to talk Odysseus out of this one and when they do, Odysseus then prepares to leave. First Circe gives him a special secret knowledge, clues that he needs to find his way home. There’s one problem with his journey home that Odysseus needs and she says, to ask the smartest man around Tiresias who is unfortunately dead. In order to talk to Tiresias. Odysseus has to go to the underworld. Circe helps him to lay out a trench and lay out an attractive, bait for the shades to come out of the underworld and help him to find his way to Tiresias. Before they leave Circe, there is a loose end that doesn’t quite get tied up. One of the crewmen, Elpenor, drinks too much and falls off the roof and dies completely alone. No one realizes what’s happened. They’re off on their next adventure and they don’t even know he’s dead.
In book eleven they go to the Underworld which isn’t really under anywhere, it’s far away. Odysseus and his follow Circe’s instructions and up out of the earth come these shades. To do this he uses bait one of the ingredients in the bait is blood. The shades need blood, they are human beings who have lost all their blood and their substance, and are disembodied. Getting the blood in them allows them to talk and Odysseus can have conversations with them. They don’t get fully re-embodied though, as we learn in that very famous scene of Odysseus trying to hug his mother; they are insubstantial shades.
PICTURE CREDIT : ENGLISHARE.NET
The Greeks would much rather be alive than dead. Even the great ones, don’t seem to have a very good life. We hear this in a poignant piece from Achilles. But first they come across Elpenor. He tells Odysseus and his men to bury him so he can be peaceful. A functionalist would say that what Homer is doing here is providing a sense of legitimacy to the social, cultural and religious custom of burying dead bodies.
PICTURE CREDIT : MYTHOLOGICA.FR
Next we meet Tiresias who is Apollo’s priest. He has deep wisdom of not only the future, as a seer in Ancient Greece is not just about seeing future events. It’s also about seeing the present and the past in a different way than us. Odysseus asks Tiresias for help and Tiresias tells Odysseus that he has run afoul of Poseidon. Odysseus realizes that it’s time for him to make amends and to Poseidon for the awful thing he did to his son Polyphemus. The punishment seems to be a little strange at first what Tiresias says is that you have to take an oar and take it so far inland that people don’t know what it is. Then plant the oar in the ground and build a temple to Poseidon.
Poseidon’s temples mostly are nearby the sea where people know of his powers and worship him. Those that are inland may not have even heard of him. Odysseus has therefore been told to spread the word about Poseidon beyond areas of the landscape that are effected by the sea, so far inland that people would mistake his oar for a winnowing fan.
Other dead people come out, drink some blood and talk with Odysseus. He sees his mother and has a sad and poignant if quick chat with her. We hear from lots of female heroes and the adventures they’ve gone through. We hear from someone we haven’t heard for a while, Alcinous, this is Homer’s way of breaking the flow of the narrative to remind us that we are on the island of Scaria and Odysseus is telling Alcinous and his people the story. Odysseus seems to be quiet tired and exhausted. Alcinous breaks in and says please Odysseus go on and tell us more. Odysseus then jumps in carries on with the narrative and starts to tell stories about the heroes of the ancient past.
He sees his dead compatriots and Agamemnon and Agamemnon warns him to be careful when he goes home. He tells Odysseus how his wife and her lover killed him. This message is not going to be lost on Odysseus. He’s a very clever and cautious man. He also meets Achilles this is where Homer tells us about the killing of Achilles, not in the Iliad.
‘No winning words about death to me, shining Odysseus! By god, I’d rather slave on earth for another man—some dirt-poor tenant farmer who scrapes to keep alive—than rule down here over all the breathless dead”
The opposite of what he said in the Iliad underscoring just how awful it is to be dead. Odysseus and his men go to the underworld and getaway.
After burying Elpenor and getting some more help from Circe they head off homeward bound. Odysseus knows to watch out when he runs into the sirens and the Scylla and Charybdis and to be careful when he run into the cattle of the sun.
The Sirens’ story is a short episode represented by this image with Odysseus strapped to his mast his men are busy rowing impervious to the beautiful sounds that are coming at them from these figures that this artist has chosen to represent as being in position on either side of the vessel. He looks glued to his mast but still craning towards this beautiful sound. Here is the siren song.
“Come closer, famous Odysseus, Archaea’s pride and glory. Moor your ship on our coast so you can hear our song. Never has any sailor passed our shores in his black craft until he has heard the honeyed voices pouring from our lips, and once he hears to his heart’s content, sails on a wiser man. We know all the pains of the Greeks and Trojans, once endured on the spreading plain of troy when the gods willed it so. All that comes to pass on the fertile earth, we know it all.”
PHOTO CREDIT : WIKIMEDIA
The next stop they have to make somehow threads the needle between two awful things. The Scylla and Charybdis. Here the Scylla is represented as Homer talks about a monstrous woman with horrible mouths and this snakelike underneath. Odysseus in making his way through the Scylla and the Charybdis has some advice that he relies on from Circe but he also faces just awful situation. He knows that if he gets too close to Charybdis he’ll lose all his men, so he decides, to do the opposite and get a little too close to the Scylla. He knows he’s going to lose some men.
Universal law number “Usually making leadership decisions means choosing between two bad things”
Although there is logic to what Odysseus decides to do he is the one who decides that some of his men are going to die. They get eaten by this creature. Having known all things, having made the tough call that is required for him to get his ship intact through these two awful things, he now has his final adventure, the cattle of the sun. He was told to steer clear of this but Odysseus’s men prevail when the winds blows in the wrong direction they’re stuck without food.
The role of cattle in ancient Greece
PHOTO CREDIT : METMUSEUM.ORG
For Sacrifice cattle are the most appropriate gift a person can give, and therefore they’re the thing that is grand enough to be a gift to the gods. Greeks sacrifice other things too, if they’re less prominent, if they’re less wealthy it’s perfectly fine to sacrifice a pig to the gods or a chicken or whatever you have around. Humans usually partake of the killed animal and eat the flesh, the gods usually only want just the smoke, and a few other things. The Greeks, spent a lot of time trying to get more cattle, they were fascinated by cows, cattle and oxen. We find these representations, of cattle in prominent places in the artistic record.
For example the beautiful golden cups above that were recovered at the site of Vaphio in southern Greece their representative of a very old time. The cups probably date from around 1500 B.C.E. We see this time on these Vaphio cups, and on the island of Crete, and other archaeological finds from the Mycenaean and Minoan period, known as a high heroic age, where bulls are a central subject matter for the most lavish beautiful artistic representations we can find. This is true in Fresco’s, in wall paintings, and above in the amazing cups made of gold, so already a luxury item.
NESTOR MAKES A SACRIFICE PICTURE CREDIT : BC.EDU
There are also social and cultural roles of meat. Meat especially cattle meat is extremely important. Eating beef is an experience of overwhelmingly rich protein. There is just no question that what is being ingested into a body that’s eating meat is scratching some itch. Now, vegetarians and those who for whatever reason don’t eat meat may poo-poo this and yet there is enough anecdotal evidence out there of the rapturous effect that the eating of high-protein food in does to people for us to recognize that having a hyper protein-rich food source is something that some people at least find thrilling. Beef is the most expensive form of this super rich protein to be found in antiquity. Only the most aristocratic and most wealthy people could have afforded it. It was the luxury food item. When Telemachus goes to see Nestor and there’s this demonstration of wealth, 81 bulls are being sacrificed.
Most ancient temple sites where cattle are being slaughtered in a regular way also, needed to control huge lands around them in order to raise the meat that they needed to sacrifice at the temple. The famous temple site of Delphi required control of thirteen square kilometres in order to provide enough grazing land for the cattle that they needed to raise to slaughter at that temple.
CATTLE OF THE SUN PHOTO CREDIT : MATH.NYU
The Odysseus’s men are punished severely. They’re supposed to starve to death when all of this food, which is fully authorized by their cultural norms, is sitting right in front of them. Homer says, I can’t believe they did that, it’s awful, and they get blotted out from the face of the earth. Odysseus’ men cross the line and eat the Cattle of the Sun. Although this seems ruthless to punish them so awfully for just doing what normal people would do the point is that Helios has declared that these cows are not food.
When start talking about what counts as food we can encounter some strong opinions. Some people may look at a lamb and feel it couldn’t possibly count as food or meat. Some others eat insects whilst others balk at the idea. The disgust response will be provoked even at a creature that other people think is just fine to eat.
The line between what counts as normal authorized food is clear for most of us. Most of us think that it’s absolutely natural, but when we look at the cultural differences in an historical context as well as a contemporary context. It’s obvious that this line is not natural. It’s culturally informed, culturally determined. Just because the line is culturally constructed doesn’t mean it’s irrelevant. It’s one of the basic building blocks of how we decide on associations with people. Do they eat the same a food that I do? We may have a disgust response watching the other people eat food that’s not authorized in our cultural categories.
When someone is entering into that disgust response it’s not something you can talk them out of it even if it’s a perfectly clean protein source. There is a strong, firm line between what’s food and what’s not food.
At the far end of the ‘not food’ category is humans, we count as ‘not food’. Mostly it’s universally true, very widely is it true that eating other human beings is considered to be an awful ‘food crime’. This was absolutely the case for the Greeks.
Food crimes happen when things enter the food chain that shouldn’t be there. If other human are responsible for metabolizing, then it is worse. Crossing that line between what counts as food and not food provokes a disgust response. The most extreme of food crimes which we would put in the category of cannibalism, eating something that’s not authorized as food, can provoke that disgust reaction.
Odysseus and his men transgress this line and eat something that they already know a god has declared as being ‘not food’. This is a much more serious thing than just satisfying their hunger because they happen to have got into a bad spot in their journey. They have committed a food crime and therefore the god is going to punish them with utter severity.
Inner and Outer Worlds
Back in Ithaca Odysseus is home. He washes up on shore, not sure where he is. The same thing that he wonders whenever he washes up anywhere. This is very similar to the start of his other adventures. Odysseus realizes that whatever situation he’s running into is bound to be very complex. He has to get some information about it and figure out what’s happening. Penelope is doing the same thing. These two great figures, Penelope and Odysseus, are characterized by the same verb. In Greek, there’s a verb that means ‘to weave’ used for things like plots and plans and schemes. When Odysseus is plotting and planning, he is weaving and Penelope is famously a skilled master weaver.
In Ithaca the land and the territory there is as complex, rich and packed with meaning as the rest of the wider world, as though Homer is giving us equivalence between Odysseus’s wide world and what he sees when he washes up on shore. This beautiful land of Ithaca is waiting for him. Odysseus spends some time making alliances on the outskirts laying back in the weeds trying to figure out what’s happening in the city. It has taken half of the book to get back there; it’ll take the second half of the book for him to get from the edges of this little area up to the center.
It was relatively simple for him to wash up on the shores of Ithaca. He needs to make his way to a town center which is something that belongs to the people of Ithaca. He’ll be recognized there as a stranger, someone who doesn’t quite belong, that’s okay Further inward is the outer courtyard of Odysseus’s house. A stranger may walk in there somebody who wants to make contact with the household. If a person walks into that space he would be questioned. The interior rooms of the house; this is the ‘oikos’ or the inner rooms of the house, where Penelope is in charge. To make it into that space requires something much more than curiosity on the part of the visitor it requires an invitation. Inside there is an inner room, Penelope’s bedroom to get is not going to be easy for Odysseus, it will require all the skills that he can muster. There’s a final point inside the bedroom, Odysseus’s and Penelope’s bed. He wants to make it to that spot. That’s going to require all the ingenuity he’s been able to muster, up till now in the epic, all the skills, the wits, the game playing will be required.
Before he can get there, he needs some guidance. Athena is his first guide when he washes up on shore. Earlier when Odysseus washes up on Scheria, he had a guide. Athena is here playing the same role as Nausicaa did. Odysseus’ immediate response is the same too he instantly comes out with a lie. When Athena asks him who he is and what he is doing there. He just starts lying instantly. Athena’s response to this is quite fascinating, she loves this.
“As his story ended,goddess Athena, gray eyes gleaming, broke into a smile and stroked him with her hand, and now she appeared a woman beautiful, tall and skilled at weaving lovely things. Her words went ﬂying straight toward Odysseus: Any man—any god who met you—would have to be some champion lying cheat to get past you for all-round craft and guile! You terrible man,foxy, ingenious, never tired of twists and tricks—so, not even here, on native soil, would you give up those wily tales that warm the cockles of your heart!Come, enough of this now. We’re both old hands at the arts of intrigue.“
Odysseus starts to make connections that are crucial in his finding his way into his own house. The first connection we see him make is a sad one with his dog that recognized him and then died. He spends time with Eumaeus, the swineherd, who will be crucial as he has a position in the household. With his help Odysseus enters society at the very lowest point.
Xenia is very well practiced here. Eumaeus exercises it in his own humble way appropriate to what he is able to offer. He offers pig meat not cow, and sheepskin for a bed. He gives Odysseus a simple cloak. Odysseus is a good guest, he accepts the gift, they make a connection. Eumaeus is pretty consistently referred to in the second person. Homer says,
“You answered the prince, Eumaeus, loyal swineherd.”
EUMAUS PICTURE CREDIT: MAINLESSON.COM
That happens several times. There are a couple of characters that Homer addresses in the second person. These are very well trusted people in the inner circle of Odysseus’s household. It suggests some intimacy as though Homer wants us to have a special connection with that person in Odysseus’ house.
Odysseus wants something out of that connection. He wants information and he gets it by circuitous routes, mostly via conversation. The two of them go back and forth, weaving the fabric of their social interaction. Odysseus is an eminent liar and he lies a lot, a long lie that goes on for many pages. It is a long digression, but Odysseus is trying to make that connection. Eumaeus then tells Odysseus an important piece of information.
“Many strangers come to visit the island and approach Penelope. She welcomes them in and listens for news of Odysseus”
Eumaeus asks Odysseus (in disguise) “Who are you?” That “Who are you?” is similar to that we have heard before it includes questions of name, lineage, origin and background. Odysseus is persuasive (universal law number two) he knows his audience. He tells Eumaeus the story that he thinks Eumaeus wants to hear. It’s something that dovetails with some aspects of Eumaeus’s own background to make a connection. It is also quite close to the truth.
Universal law number five “When you tell a lie, you should tell a lie that’s close to the truth”.
Odysseus tells a story that is rife with all kinds of adventurous details about being blown from pillar to post, it involves some engagement in Troy, and it talks about the heroes there. We have lots of detail that maps on to what Odysseus has really experienced. He tells Eumaeus that Odysseus is coming to test his reaction. At the end of this long story though, Eumaeus says
“So much misery, friend! You’ve moved my heart,deeply, with your long tale … such blows, such roving.But one part’s off the mark, I know—you’ll never persuade me—what you say about Odysseus. A man in your condition, who are you, I ask you, to lie for no good reason? Well I know the truth of my good lord’s return, how the gods detested him, with a vengeance—never letting him go under, ﬁghting Trojans,or die in the arms of loved ones”
The connection, between the two of them, is sealed on this host-guest relationship of Xenia. Neither one of them is a fool, even Eumaeus, at the low end of the social totem pole, is not a fool. So, the connection between them is just getting started.
PICTURE CREDIT : BC.EDU
While Odysseus is making connections with Eumaeus, Telemachus is still with Menelaus. Athena appears to him in a dream, a standard feature of how epic poetry works. Homer understands that dreams come in the middle of the night. A diety will take a particular form, hover over the person’s head, and say, why are you asleep? You have a lot to do. Then the person who has the dream starts to wake up and says, Why am I sleeping? I need to start worrying and that’s the end. Dreams bring news that’s supposed to shake your world. This is a turning point for Telemachus
He leaves Menelaus’ palace back through Pylos, and home to Ithaca picking up Theoclymenus on the way. This is a person has an interesting story, he is running away from his hometown because of blood guilt, and is trying to find a place to go and he wants passage to Ithaca. Telemachus agrees to take him. In Homeric times the idea of having a blood guilt because you killed someone and were therefore in exile didn’t necessarily mean that you were a crazed murderer to be ostracized. Often it was portrayed as a duel situation where one aristocrat had to kill another. That was bad for both of them the dead one and the other guy who is now banished from his city. The person escaping the blood guilt is someone that is a sympathetic character who needs some extra help.
The name Theoclymenusis interesting. It is ends with two Greek words meaning someone who listens to, or someone who hears and starts with ‘Theo’ a God. Theoclymenus has a special relationship with the gods. He is capable of reading signs. Signs are an important theme for us as these books unfold. A lot of them are going to be signs from the gods but also special human to human kinds of communications and secret codes that especially Odysseus and Penelope engage in. The idea of a stranger from the outside world in Theoclymenus is also mirrored in Odysseus. He too is a stranger from the outside world.
Back in the hut Eumaeus tells his tale. Odysseus listens and is a sympathetic audience and he learns more things about the lay of the land around his home. All of this intelligence Odysseus is gathering in a very subtle way. He is learning the things he needs to know, getting prepared the sign readers are coming in. Telemachus is on his way back, we’re on our way to the crucial moment or the climax of the book.
Reunion Father and Sons
In books thirteen to sixteen, Odysseus is reunited with his native land. He makes connections with people but not quite his own inner circle until book sixteen. He is reunited with his son, Telemachus, in quite a moving scene
There’s a wonderful simile that starts this book off. Homer uses similes to tremendous effect through the poems in both the Iliad and the Odyssey. They work slightly different in each epic. In the Odyssey what we often get is a way for the, the characters in the story to change places. They get compared to things that seem like other characters should be being compared to drawing connections inside the stories. For example. Telemachus comes home and we hear Odysseus looking at him and thinking about him. Then we have
“Straight to the prince he rushed, and kissed his face, and kissed his shining eyes. Both hands, as the tears rolled down his cheeks. As a father brimming with love, welcomes home his darling only son in a warm embrace, what pain he’s borne for him and him alone. Home now, in the tenth year from far abroad. So, the loyal swineherd hugged the beaming prince. He clung for dear life, covering with kisses, yes, like one escaped from death.”
At first it seems like it is Odysseus welcoming him like a father. He’s been gone for a long time. But Homer put Eumaeus in the place of Odysseus making him the father. Odysseus still needs to keep his distance. Eumaeus has a chance to play Odysseus here and Telemachus has a chance to be Odysseus, too. Because when Eumaeus welcomes him home, he welcomes him home like someone who’s been gone for ten years from far abroad.
REUNION OF ODYSSEUS AND TELEMACHUS” (PHOTO CREDIT : ACSU.BUFFALO.EDU)
Eumaeus goes off on his mission, and Odysseus is alone with Telemachus. Athena leaves and when she leaves, she gives a wink, she nods and wrinkles her eyebrows at Odysseus. This wink back and forth between them is a secret sign Telemachus doesn’t see her. Odysseus then reveals himself to Telemachus and the revelation of father to son is abrupt. Telemachus is confused, doesn’t realize, wait a minute it can’t really be you. Then they just break down and embrace. Telemachus quickly mistakes Odysseus for a god, and just like Odysseus did when he washed up on Scheria, he is quick to say no, I’m not a god. When a hero is identifying him or herself, they first disclaim a divine aspect showing deference to the divinities. Then Odysseus is ready for business and asks about the suitors.
Eumaeus is taking message from the stranger to Penelope. He is shuttled back and forth with messages between Penelope and Odysseus who continues lying. He can’t walk in and announce himself as that doesn’t work so well, we’ve seen that in Agamemnon’s case.
There are some points in Penelope’s story that make us wonder about how much Penelope knows and when she knows it. It seems like she’s moving along this course of events not just as a passive player but as a very active player.
Books Seventeen through Twenty-Four
Odysseus Meets the Suitors
Odysseus is now ready to move towards the centre of his world, in particular he wants to be reunited with Penelope.
TELEMACHUS DEPARTING FROM NESTOR : COMMONS.WIKIMEDIA.ORG
Telemachus has learned all he needed on his journey, and is a purposeful, slightly angry man, in charge of a house that other people are abusing. He starts to take responsibility and lays markers for the suitors. He really grows up a lot in book seventeen. At the beginning of the book he lies to Eumaeus about Odysseus bringing him into Odysseus’s inner circle of lies.
He says to Eumaeus,
“take this luckless stranger to town, so he can beg his supper there, and whoever wants can give the man some crumbs and a cup to drink. How can put up with every passer-by? My mind’s weighed down with troubles. If the stranger resents it, all the worse for him. I like to tell the truth and tell it straight”
Telemachus is positioning his father, disguised as the beggar, so that he can get to know the situation with the suitors. Telemachus then tells Penelope that he needs to meet his friend, Theoclymenus. We can by this that Telemachus is now ready to start taking responsibility for some of the things in this house. At the end of book seventeen, he says
“ I’ll tend to all things here, I and the deathless gods.”
This is much more what a hero says than the things he was saying that the beginning when he blamed the gods for all his troubles.
In book eighteen Telemachus is still in the centre of the city. He sees Odysseus and Iris another beggar arguing and about to get into a fight. They have sworn about what will happen if either wins. Telemachus steps up and presented himself as the guarantor of the oaths. That authority to execute on someone else’s promises is the thing that someone who’s in charge of a situation takes. So Telemachus is showing himself to be that way. After Penelope points out how this stranger Odysseus was abused by the suitors, he jumps in and starts to take responsibility for that situation too. Telemachus basically undoes any doubt that we had about whether he’s grown up.
ODYSSEUS FIGHTING WITH THE BEGGAR BY LOVIS CORINTH : MUSEUMSYNDICATE.COM
“I cannot fault your anger at all this. My heart takes note of everything, feels it, too, both the good and the bad—the boy you knew is gone. But how can I plan my world in a sane, thoughtful way?”
He is ready to take on responsibility, not just his own messes, but other people’s messes which is a strong part of what it is to grow up. He makes threats that the suitors take seriously. The suitors bite their lips, amazed at Telemachus stepping up and taking responsibility for what’s happening around him.
Through Odysseus’s eyes we also see what the suitors are like. We’ve seen the misery and threats to Telemachus and Penelope’s interactions, but haven’t seen them at work. When Odysseus as a beggar comes in and ask them for their scraps, they turn him away. The suitor’s not only abused the xenia that they expect as guests but they also refuse to offer the xenia they should offer to the stranger. They treat him with abuse, they don’t give him any food, and they surely don’t wash his feet, none of the things that a great aristocrat is supposed to do when a stranger comes up on their shores.
SLAUGHTER OF THE SUITORS BY ODYSSEUS, TELEMACHUS AND EUMEUS : WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
Early when Nausicaa saw him naked and destitute, she said even this person deserves our respect because all guest friends come from Zeus. But the Suitors don’t have any of this graciousness. They hoard and take Odysseus’ goods without sharing. Then Odysseus as he works his way into this group has a chance to tell his story. We’ve seen him do this in the context of Eumaeus. When he tells a story, Eumaeus listens to all the details and makes a connection with them. Not so, with the suitors. Odysseus talks about being a Cretan sailor but they don’t understand the meaning.
Eumaeus by contrast is doing the right thing. The suitors treat a beggar poorly, and they should have treated him well, they are violating a core social code that is built into what it is to be Greek. You ought to treat strangers well. Not only is this strongly knitted into the Greek cultural fabric but it also comes from Zeus himself. They are committing an offense against Zeus
“And the gods do take on the look of strangers dropping in from abroad—Disguised in every way as they roam and haunt our cities, watching over us—All our foul play, all our fair play too!”
In book twenty, one of the suitors, Ctesippus comes to Odysseus up and says,
“Listen to me, my ﬁne friends, here’s what say! From the start our guest has had his fair share—it’s only right, you know. How impolite it would be, how wrong to scant whatever guest Telemachus welcomes to his house. Look here, I’ll give him a proper guest-gift too, a prize he can hand the crone who bathes his feet or a tip for another slave who haunts the halls of our great king Odysseus!” On that note, grabbing an ox hoof out of a basket where it lay, with a brawny hand he ﬂung it straight at the king”
This is a further perversion of the custom of the xenia.
PICTURE CREDIT : DARVILLSRAREPRINTS.COM
Eumaeus develops in his role as messenger. He brings a message from the ‘stranger’ to Penelope, then comes back and talks to Odysseus who asks then Eumaeus to take another message back to Penelope. The message from Penelope invites him to talk to her. Odysseus sends back the message, not yet; let’s wait until night-time. Very interesting exchange of messages there. On the surface level all that’s happened is Penelope has said, sure I’d like to talk to this stranger, I could find out about my husband, and this stranger says, well let’s do it later on, it’s more convenient for me. But, there’s something also the forwardness of Penelope asking for an audience with this stranger who is nothing but a beggar, and the stranger coming back and wait until night-time. There’s a back message being sent in the message, metadata built into the message that’s being sent that says “I want to pay some attention to you” on both sides.
Signs as a Way of Knowing
Across the books, seventeen to twenty, there is an interesting new language in the story. It move, by secret signs and secret codes. We’ve already seen Odysseus and Athena especially share some secret codes, they do their winks and their nods back and forth. There is a further kind of richness in secret languages that gets built into this part of the story.
In antiquity it was understood that messages from the gods were built into the world around us, they were not just leaving us hanging, that we had to figure everything out on our own, but they were purposely trying to send us messages in the otherwise innocuous things that seem to be happening around us. So if there was a strange coincidence, something fell off a mantelpiece or something, there must be a god trying to talk to us. The gods talked to us in certain types of ways. They talk to us through the behaviour of animals, so the flights of birds, the croak of a frog before a storm, the screeches of a bird or the flight path, the darting to the left or to the right. They also were interested in things like thunder and lightning. Overheard words were also important. So if you were walking past a window and someone just happened to be saying you’ll win the lottery today to their friend that was a message for you. There are direct visions that sometimes people get. So if you see something and it reveals a future state of events that is a message. There are dreams that the ancients are interested in. The gods were thought to send messages this way to us. So we could hear what was going on in their minds, and what was going to happen in the universe, as long as we paid attention to what we saw in our dreams. Things that we might use our intuition to draw conclusions from so, I just don’t like the feel of this place or this seems a little bit strange to me, I’m not sure why. When you and I start talking about intuition, it’s during those moments that the Greeks start talking about signs. They don’t talk about intuitive knowing; they talk about knowing by signs. Signs that show up physically that give information that sometimes some people are able to see and other times other people are not.
ODYSSEUS AJAX LOUVRE : COMMONS.WIKIMEDIA.ORG
If we take as an example the body of Odysseus itself is a sign. The Greeks thought that great person would have a marvellous physique and would be beautiful. On the surface he is a beggar but on occasions we get little glimpses that there is amazing physique underneath all those rags. If we’re smart Greeks, we would know that he can’t be just any beggar, he must be someone really important. The suitors get chance to see this happening at a couple of really interesting points and they blow it; they don’t draw the right conclusion. Melanthius, the goat herd, giving Odysseus a hard time and he hauls off and kicks Odysseus really hard right in the hip. The kick, though, doesn’t leave any mark, it just bounces off. Odysseus is so strong that the kick basically just bounces off. No one around seems to notice. The suitors are not good at drawing conclusions from the signs around them. Then we have Antinous, who is this lead suitor, he picks up a stool and hurls it at Odysseus, this just bounces off of him and again doesn’t leave a mark, and the suitors don’t draw the right conclusion that there is probably someone other than just a wayward beggar here. In his fight with Iris we see Odysseus lifting the rags that are forming his garment, and we see huge thigh muscles rippling. The suitors take note of this, but they don’t draw any conclusions from it.
“They all shouted approval of the prince as Odysseus belted up, roping his rags around his loins, baring his big rippling thighs—his boxer’s broad shoulders, his massive chest and burly arms on full display as Athena stood beside him, ﬂeshing out the limbs of the great commander …Despite their swagger, the suitors were amazed, gaping at one another, trading forecasts:
Irus will soon be ironed out for good! He’s in for the beating he begged for all along. Look at the ham on that old gaffer—Just under his rags!”
THEOCLYMENUS, : SACRED-TEXTS.COM
There are signs coursing around in these events. Some of them are purposeful and intentional like when Athena gives the wink to Odysseus, and Odysseus is ready to give a wink back. Telemachus gets in on these signs, eventually. There are the signs that are being registered in the events around us like Odysseus’ body, and it’s revealing itself, if you know how to draw the conclusion.
What the Greeks would have thought of as the most important of the signs are the ones thought to come from the gods. We see an example of importance when Theoclymenus just jumps in almost interrupting a conversation with Penelope and says, he swears by Zeus that Odysseus is already here. Remember Theoclymenus. He’s this person who’s come with us, escaping blood guilt, links up with Telemachus in Pylos and comes back to Ithaca, a stranger in our midst who’s good at reading divine signs. When he lays down this remark we should take note. Another sign in book seventeen is when we hear the statement made that if only Odysseus would come back that would be a grand thing. At that point we get a sneeze from Telemachus, right at the end, as a punctuation mark to that statement.
Dear god, if only Odysseus came back home to native soil now, he and his son would avenge the outrage of these men—like that!
At her last words Telemachus shook with a lusty sneeze and the sudden outburst echoed up and down the halls. The queen was seized with laughter, calling out to Eumaeus winged words: “Quickly, go! Bring me this stranger now, face-to-face! You hear how my son sealed all I said with a sneeze?
ZEUS WIELDING HIS THUNDERBOLT : OOCITIES.ORG
A sneeze in classical Greek times was thought to be a divine sign and it was thought to be, a punctuation mark that said that what was just said was indeed true. There’s something powerful in that remark and the Gods are underlining it. In case we missed that connection between sneezes and divine signs, Homer adds another one for us because the sneeze of Telemachus is like a thunder clap comparing it to the most well-known sign from Zeus, the thunderbolt. This is how Zeus sends us messages. The Queen understands this sign.
In book eighteen, there is a strong speech that comes after Odysseus beats the other beggar, and he speaks in a full-throated ominous way to the suitors. When he lays down that to the Suitors, just how awful they’ll be and the trouble that they’re about to face, it has an heir of a divine pronouncement almost because it’s so strongly worded it’s not normal. It sounds almost like something Theoclymenus would say. Odysseus is becoming that seer now and reading the riot act to the suitors. Again, they don’t notice.
So we’ve got example of examples of thunder that shows up. Then we have the overheard words. We see birds being talked about. Then Theoclymenus has this direct vision.
“Poor men, what terror is this that overwhelms you so?
Night shrouds your heads, your faces, down to your knees—cries of mourning are bursting into ﬁre—cheeks rivering tears—the walls and the handsome crossbeams dripping dank with blood! Ghosts, look, thronging the entrance, thronging the court, go trooping down to the realm of death and darkness! The sun is blotted out of the sky—look there—a lethal mist spreads all across the earth!”
Every time these signs come to the suitors, they just brush them off. Odysseus’ inner circle sees what’s happening, they feel what’s happening, they see the coursing of the energy building toward the sense that the suitors’ days are numbered. The only ones that don’t see it are the suitors themselves.
The most important one of these signs and the most lengthy and detailed one comes in book nineteen.
What Does Penelope Know?
Odysseus is going to come to see her in the evening and Athena in the shape of Eurynome appears to her persuades her to talk to these suitors. Athena makes Penelope even more beautiful and desirable. She puts on her finery comes down from her chambers. She chides Telemachus for allowing the stranger to be abused and then makes a speech.
“Your way is a far cry from the time-honored way of suitors locked in rivalry, striving to winsome noble woman, a wealthy man’s daughter. They bring in their own calves and lambs to feast the friends of the bride-to-be, yes, and shower her with gleaming gifts as well. They don’t devour the woman’s goods scot-free.”
She says, Odysseus told me just before he left that is as soon as my son grew some hair on his chin, that if he still wasn’t back by that time, it would be okay for me to go ahead and take up with someone else. We know that that’s a lie; we know it through Odysseus’s eyes.
“Staunch Odysseus glowed with joy to hear all this—his wife’s trickery luring gifts from her suitors now, enchanting their hearts with suave seductive words but all the while with something else in mind.”
According to Odysseus she’s lying with something else in mind. It could be that she just wants to get gifts from the suitors. It could also be a way for Penelope to tell that stranger who she knows is out there in that group of people that if you are really Odysseus you’re the one person in the world who’s going to know that this is a lie you’ll know that there’s a subterranean message here.
She then calls these things to a head. She tells the suitors that they will have to compete for her and that’s when the axe trick comes up. Odysseus by cleverness gets the bow in his hands and all the other weapons away from the suitors, he becomes maximally powerful and they become maximally vulnerable. The way he does that is by using this bow and arrow trick.
ODYSSEUS AND PENELOPE;COMMONS.WIKIMEDIA.ORG
Nineteen is an amazing book where all kinds of things happen. Odysseus and Penelope come together. Odysseus has made his way back home, and now he’s made it into the inner chambers of his house. He has a private audience with his wife, Penelope. She has gone through her own long path her suffering, all these years not having had this person nearby has led her to this spot now in the room with Odysseus. It is not quite private. When Penelope and Odysseus are talking together, there are servant girls that are around the outside who can hear. The indirection and the carefulness of both of them in revealing themselves to each other is likely because they’re worried about what the other one is going to think, but also, especially in the case of Penelope, she does not want to tip off these serving maids. If they ran and embraced each other right here in their chambers on their first meeting, those servant girls would see what was up and tip off the suitors. The surprise Odysseus is about to spring on them would be completely lost.
She then asks his identity, his name, where he’s from, and his parents. She also tells him of her own weaving and un-weaving. She lets him in on some of her schemes that she’s been trying to play out with to keep these suitors at bay. Odysseus answers her question of who he is with a lie about his Cretin background. He gives his name there as Aethon, and claims to have seen Odysseus who is away at the Dodona. He says, your husband, Odysseus, I’ve seen him. I know him and I know he’s on his way home right now, he’s trying to decide whether he should come back home just straight away or in a disguise. Again, a subterranean message that this Odysseus disguised is saying, if the real Odysseus ever does come back he’s going to be careful. Penelope is getting the message. She responds quickly
“Now, stranger, I think I’ll test you, just to see if there in your house, with all his friends-in-arms, you actually entertained my husband as you say. Come, tell me what sort of clothing he wore, what cut of man was he?”
Odysseus can go through and say exactly what Odysseus wears, being him. She then starts to quiz him on more and more intimate details that only Odysseus would know. Even after he reveals himself to Penelope there’s more test’s he’s going to have to pass. Penelope will be cautious, she will be circumspect. Neither of them are able to drop everything and rush into each other’s arms, there’s too much danger afoot.
At the end of book twenty Penelope sits within earshot of the door
“…wise Penelope, had placed her carved chair within earshot, at the door, so she could catch each word they uttered in the hall. Laughing rowdily, men prepared their noonday meal, succulent, rich—they’d butchered quite a herd. But as for supper, what could be less enticing than what a goddess and a powerful man would spread before them soon? A groaning feast—for they’d been ﬁrst to plot their vicious crimes.”
Homer highlights the difference between Penelope sitting and listening and this revelry, this awful stuff that’s about to happen to the suitors. It seems that Homer’s giving us another hint, that Penelope might know these suitors are about to, about to go down.
Penelope has heard the story from this stranger about being a Cretan sailor. She’s not sure she trusts it. They turn then to the next point in their conversation, and now Penelope has her turn to talk for a little while. She extends the hospitality in her first gesture saying well, let’s wash your feet and you can sleep here inside the inner rooms. She has her trusted maid servant, Eurycleia, who raised Odysseus at her knee, and knows him extremely well, wash his feet, stranger. At that point he thinks, she’s going to see the scar. He has a scar near his inner thigh, a part of his body that you wouldn’t just necessarily see if you saw him up on the street. Not everyone knows about it, but some people do and it’s surely the case that Eurycleia does. If she gets involved in the washing she’s going to see it. In antiquity, as today, if someone’s trying to verify an identity finding a scar is great. Scars operate in order to identify people they are the remnant trace of some past. Eurycleia comes over to greet him and starts the foot washing.
“Listen to me closely, mark my words. Many a way worn guest has landed here but never, I swear, has one so struck my eyes—your build, your voice, your feet—you’re like Odysseus …to the life!”
“Bending closer she started to bathe her master … then, in a ﬂash, she knew the scar—“
We then have a very long extended discussion of where the scar came from. Homer intrudes in this moment with a beautiful example of Ring Composition. All of this, you can imagine going through Eurycleia’s mind for that momentary- look, oh my gosh it’s the scar. She is going through and re-living the memory of the scar.
The scar is something we learn in the story that is deeply connected to an intimate part of Odysseus’ past. Odysseus goes through in this manhood ritual of joining a dangerous hunt, waking up early in the morning with a chill in the air, carrying a spear and goes with the maternal side of his family, the grandfather and the uncles, out to seek a boar. A boar is a very dangerous creature. Those tusks in the front are nasty. It’s territorial and doesn’t like its territory encroached upon. It also is very good food, so people hunt and kill boar, and then eat it. The boar is hunkered down, Odysseus is approaching and making his lunge but the boar comes out and gets a gore out of him first. Then Odysseus comes back and kills the boar. So he gets his scar, he earns his scar and the scar is forever attached to this moment in Odysseus’s life where he passes from being a boy to being a man. It is a pivotal part in Odysseus emerging into his own mature identity.
YOUNG ODYSSEUS FIGHTS A WILD BOAR : ALLPOSTERS.CO.UK
There are other things that happen during the story as well. Odysseus actually gets his name from such an event. The maternal grandfather, at that point, bestows upon him the name Odysseus, which he, at that point, ties to an, an etymology in Greek, linking that name with Greek words for “pain.” It’s a little bit of a stretch, but good enough, that the idea of painfulness dwells inside of the sounds that make up Odysseus’s name. Odysseus then earns his name, earns that critical piece of his own identity, in this incident with the boar. Not only is Eurycleia recognizing just any scar, a scar which acts as an identity token to verify that this really is Odysseus, but it’s one that Odysseus himself earned, in earning his own identity and earning his own name. The scar is deeply tied in with Odysseus’ own identity. Homer also has a particular way of describing this very dangerous creature, one that ties back to Odysseus. We have a discussion of that boar and where it is, just before it comes out and lunges at Odysseus.
“Then and there a great boar lay in wait, in a thicket lair so dense that the sodden gusty winds could never pierce it, nor could the sun’s sharp rays invade its depths nor a downpour drench it through and through, so dense, so dark, and piled with fallen leaves. Here, as the hunters closed in for the kill, crowding the hounds, the tramp of men and dogs came drumming round the boar—he crashed from his lair, his razor back bristling, his eyes ﬂashing ﬁre and charging up to the hunt he stopped, at bay—
This is the boar’s thicket and where the boar is waiting to strike against Odysseus. Compare it to what we saw at the end of book five. Odysseus at this point is trying to find a spot to shelter so that he can have a lair in which he’ll be protected for the night.
“[He] found a grove with a clearing all around and crawled beneath two bushy olives sprung from the same root, one olive wild, the other well-bred stock. No sodden gusty winds could ever pierce them, nor could the sun’s sharp rays invade their depths, nor could a downpour drench them through and through, so dense they grew together, tangling side-by-side.”
EURYCLEIA : EN.WIKIPEDIA.ORG
Homer repeats the exact same four sentence Greek description of the shelter that Odysseus has at his most extreme moment. Odysseus is connected to the boar in the sense of not only having the challenge to slaughter this thing so that he can have a great exploit. It gives him a chance to move from being a boy to a man and also earns him his name.
Eurycleia sees it and now she knows that this is indeed Odysseus. Having made this connection, she is sure this is the real Odysseus. There’s a secret that shouldn’t be out there, Odysseus is not ready for Penelope, for all the serving women that are sitting around the outsides that are sleeping with the suitors. He’s not ready for that secret to get out. He stops her; he takes his hand and puts the secret back down in her mouth and says don’t you dare tell or I’ll kill you. This is someone who’s an intimate of his a very close in with his family, this serving woman, Euryclea, beloved by the family. Not just Odysseus, but Telemachus also all the way back to, the, the, back to the times when Telemachus was a small child. He takes this secret very seriously; it is not now time for it to come out.
PENELOPE : BEAZLEY.OX.AC.UK
Penelope tells Odysseus her dream. This dream of Penelope’s was perhaps the most elaborate and most carefully wrought of all the divine signs, suggesting that Odysseus is indeed really here. It’s a move of almost vertiginous ingenuity. Homer has Odysseus involved in his own self-revelation to Penelope but through his own disguise. What’s been happening in these secret codes of knowledge back and forth with Odysseus and Athena, and then Odysseus and Telemachus, and the, the special messages that they send one another is that they have some proprietary knowledge. Knowledge that not everybody knows, but only a select few know. This is secrecy and it’s worked to a great degree in this part of the story.
Universal law number six – secrecy creates intimacy.
Proprietary knowledge makes people feel closer together. There’s a corollary to this universal law which says, that if you want to flirt with someone, tell them you had a dream about them. However, this corollary should only be used with extreme caution; it has a very high degree of difficulty. If you just walk up to someone and say, I had a dream about you, they might think, that’s creepy, it’s a little bit too intimate.
Penelope seems like she’s sensed something’s going on but she never says and Homer never says it.
She knew it was Odysseus but there’s stuff that’s been happening and Penelope’s not unobservant. She is sitting on a chair laid with ivory Odysseus is looking at her with “eyes made of horn”. She says, I want you to help me because I recently had this dream and I need you, stranger, to help me interpret the dream. She tells him that an eagle comes down and kills some birds that had been feeding in a trough at her house. She’s upset at the violence and the carnage. Then the eagle flies over to her, as if to reassure her, and says, I am Odysseus. I am here in order to set your house right and all is going to be well. Then, the eagle flies away. She asks him to be the interpreter of her dream.
It already has an interpreter, the eagle interprets the dream. So, when she asks Odysseus to be the interpreter, she’s also simultaneously asking him to please, be the eagle. She’s asking Odysseus, then, not only to be the interpreter of her dream, but also, by the language of her dream itself, to be Odysseus.
“Dear woman, quick Odysseus answered, “twist it however you like, your dream can only mean one thing. Odysseus told you himself—he’ll make it come to pass. Destruction is clear for each and every suitor; not a soul escapes his death and doom.”
“Ah my friend,” seasoned Penelope dissented, «dreams are hard to unravel, wayward, drifting things—not all we glimpse in them will come to pass …Two gates there are for our evanescent dreams, one is made of ivory, the other made of horn. Those that pass through the ivory cleanly carve dare will-o’-the-wisps, their message bears no fruit. The dreams that pass through the gates of polished horn are fraught with truth, for the dreamer who can see them. But I can’t believe my strange dream has come that way”
Earlier in Book nineteen, we’ve been told Penelope is sitting on a chair inlaid with ivory. She is associated with the gate of false dreams. Homer tells us that Odysseus is looking at her with eyes made of horn associating him with the gate of true dreams. Now, what’s happening with those associations is very subtle. It seems that Homer is making a suggestion in associating Penelope with the gate of false dreams that what she’s really telling him here is a story to carry on what she’s already been doing in Book nineteen, to test. It could be that Penelope’s dream is something she’s just made up in order to test Odysseus. Homer has her sitting on a chair inlaid with ivory, associating with false dreams and Odysseus associated with horn; it could be that he’s now speaking the truth. Very subtle things it seems that the dream is a world that is packed with hidden meanings.
What we know for sure is that Penelope claims to Odysseus that she had a dream, that Odysseus is here and he’s come and set her house right. She’s asking him whether, what he thinks about that, and whether he thinks that might be true. He’s saying, yes, indeed. It’s true.
Odyssey has made his way back into the external area of his own house. Now he has to get to the inner area. That requires some violence as there are all the suitors between him and occupying his rightful place in his own house. His only way to be able to deal with that is going to be with a bow and arrow. Penelope has set up things so that Odysseus will have a chance to have his bow in his hand. She has set up the contest to see among the suitors who could earn a place with her, whoever is strong enough to string the bow and send it through the axes. No one of course is, they go around giving it a try, they all fail apart from Odysseus. He strings it not just like someone who knows how to use bows well, but like someone who makes bows, his intimacy with that object is so deep and it’s like a creator of the object, rather than just somebody even who knows how to use it. He then plucks it like a lyre at which point the suitors start to take note.
Odysseus turns and nods but this time it’s not to Athena but to Telemachus. Telemachus is now in on this inner circle of knowledge. He’s getting the secret signs from his father, it’s time to pull the trigger and, and jump into action. When he does Telemachus is there right next to him and Odysseus, Telemachus, and Eumaeus form a, small army and they operate just like a hero army should. They’re extremely effective; we see them practice their war skills. The suitors give us an education in how not, to fight, in how to lose. The first one to go down is Antinous
“But Odysseus aimed and shot Antinous square in the throat and the point went stabbing clean through the soft neck and out—and off to the side he pitched, the cup dropped from his grasp as the shaft sank home, and the man’s life-blood came spurting out his nostrils—thick red jets—“
Odysseus turns around and gets ready to fire at his next victim, Eurymachus. At that point Eurymachus gives us a next lesson on how you should turn on your friends. Don’t stick together, that’s how to lose. Eurymachus says
“If you, you’re truly Odysseus of Ithaca, home at last, you’re right to accuse these men of what they’ve done—so much reckless outrage here in your palace, so much on your lands. But here he lies, quite dead, and he incited it all—Antinous—look, the man who drove us all to crime!”
Odysseus doesn’t take that for a minute, and down goes Eurymachuss. From then on there’s just wave after wave of violence as the suitors get taken out and Odysseus, Telemachus and Eumaeus, clean the house. It’s ugly, it’s nasty, and the fighting is very violent and brutal. It’s shocking for us to see violence like this, this is pretty standard here, Guerrilla war stuff, it’s nasty, it’s very gruesome and very, very graphic. There are a couple of people that get spared, Telemachus urges that Odysseus should spare Phemius, and Odysseus relents. A lot of us look at this as Homer telling us they ought to be nicer poets. It’s a poet saving a poet. Then Telemachus also urges that Medon, a loyal herald be spared.
Odysseus calls for the old nurse
“She found Odysseus in the thick of slaughtered corpses, splattered with bloody ﬁlth like a lion that’s devoured some ox of the ﬁeld and lopes home, covered with blood, his chest streaked, both jaws glistening, dripping red—a sight to strike terror. So Odysseus looked now, splattered with gore, his thighs, his ﬁghting hands”
THE SUITORS BY GUSTAVE MOREAU. BEGUN: VICTORIANWEB.ORG
The nastiness of this all comes through. Odysseus shows us mostly utter mercilessness. In one scene in particular with Leodes the seer, Leodes comes up and gets a hold of Odysseus’ knees. From all that we’ve learned in prior books, and especially through Odysseus himself, on the island of Phaeacia, getting a person’s knees earns you instant suppliant status. It puts you under the protection of Zeus and makes the other person have an obligation to treat you like a guest in their home. You should get overwhelming hospitality once you make contact but, Odysseus does not heed Xenia, in this case he takes a weapon and cuts Leodes’ head off. Xenia is overrun in this episode. It should be disturbing but Homer spends no time though being disturbed by it. The conclusion we have to draw is that at certain times there are certain people in extreme situations that pieces of the social code need to give way. Other pieces of the social code are more important and require that we cut corners in order to meet the end, a justice that’s dictated by the overarching social code. Homer’s telling us that there’s no way that Odysseus should have spared Leodes even despite of Leodes getting hold of his knees. Odysseus’s need for revenge and the crimes of the Suitors are in direct conflict with Xenia, his need for revenge and the duty to avenge the wrong that’s happening in his own house overrides even such an important value as Xenia.
He then punishes the unfaithful maids in an awfully violent scene executed by Telemachus. They first have to clean up all the dead, and then they are killed at the end to join them, a really disturbing, coup de grace, on this scene of carnage and killing.
Telemachus gave the men their orders: “No clean death for the likes of them, by god! Not from me —they showered abuse on my head, my mother’s too! You sluts—the suitors’ whores! ”With that, taking a cable used on a dark-prowed ship he coiled it over the roundhouse, lashed it fast to a tall column, hoisting it up so high no toes could touch the ground. Then, as doves or thrushes beating their spread wings against some snare rigged up in thickets—ﬂying in for a cozy nest but a grisly bed receives them—so the women’s heads were trapped in a line, nooses yanking their necks up, one by one.
The confusion of the violence is serious, it’s profound. Odysseus and his team are able to keep things together through their skill and their sticking together through their ability. Odysseus is almost like a God, an invisible avenger that arrives deals out justice of a summary way to these human beings they are all dead in a way that recalls Apollo in the Iliad mowing down the great warriors with his arrows. The sulphur and fire at the end as cleansing agents give a further sense of Odysseus as a God. He is careful always and also in this case, to separate himself from the Gods. It’s the will of the gods that needs to be done. He takes a step back in seriousness and says; now this is what the divine required in this particular circumstance. I’m not a divinity; I’m a human executing a divine will. There’s also an earlier mention of such a set of thoughts by Odysseus when he’s talking to Eurycleia. He talks about himself as a hero jumping into these events and you, the Gods will use his hands in order to execute. Fate, this is what a great hero thinks the Gods and Fate all work together through human agency to make things work. A far cry from Telemachus saying if only the God would make me powerful Odysseus says the Gods have made me powerful and that is why I am executing their will even in circumstances that are messy and nasty. Now as harsh as this has all been it’s not quite as hard as what Odysseus has to do next. He has earned his way into the inner courtyard of his house he belongs there. Now he’s got to have to earn his way into the inner rooms and eventually into the bedroom and eventually into the bed of his home. To get to that point it’s going to require even more of his skill.
In Book 23 Penelope’s dream becomes a reality. Eurycleia trundles upstairs and gives Penelope the news.
“Up to the rooms the old nurse clambered, chuckling all the way, to tell the queen her husband was here now, home at last. Her knees bustling, feet shufﬂing over each other, till hovering at her mistress’ head she spoke: “Penelope—child—wake up and see for yourself, with your own eyes, all you dreamed of, all your days! He’s here—Odysseus—he’s come home, at long last! He’s killed the suitors, swaggering young brutes who plagued his house, wolfed his cattle down, rode roughshod over his son!.”
That “all you dreamed of” gives us already an indicator that what we’re talking about is a world of dreams that’s actually coming true. Further, the way Homer positions Eurycleia, he puts her precisely in the shape of a dream. Eurycleia is precisely in the position of one of these dreams. The way she shuffles over trundling over to where Penelope is, standing at, hovering at her head, speaking at her, Penelope, wake up. Penelope is being given the, the word Odysseus is here. She is thrilled but then, she holds back she is circumspect. She asks for more proof and Eurycleia tells her of the scar. Penelope hears that and that’s pretty good evidence but still Penelope needs more testing.
Odysseus has gained access to the inner rooms, he’s cleared house in the exterior rooms he’s earned his way in, but Penelope’s not quite ready to have him. In order to get to the next stage, he’s going to have to pass the final test that she’s going to give him. When Odysseus walks in, there’s this quite marvellous scene. She sees Odysseus
“As soon as she stepped across the stone threshold, slipping in, she took a seat at the closest wall and radiant in the ﬁrelight, faced Odysseus now.”
Penelope is making herself available to Odysseus; she’s ready to start to hear what he has to tell her. She’s thinking things through, calculating where we are. They haven’t quite come to the point where they’re ready to have a shared embrace. Odysseus is pretty much there but not quite Penelope. The two of them are going back and trying to find their mode of connection. Penelope says, eventually,in a short, sharp retort as both Eurycleia and Telemachus are saying, come on Penelope, you should relent. She cuts them off and says,
“I’m stunned with wonder, powerless. Cannot speak to him, ask him questions, l ook him in the eyes … But if he is truly Odysseus, home at last, make no mistake: we two will know each other, even better—we two have secret signs, known to us both but hidden from the world.”
It’s a way for her to say, step back, Telemachus; you don’t know the full story here. You’re not in control. In fact, I am in control. Penelope is now going to jump in to figure out in her final test whether this really is the true Odysseus. The real deep importance of storytelling for understanding one’s own identity, knowing your past having it as a cohesive story, sharing it with people all of these things the, the idea of telling and re-telling all of these things are very important and built in to a Greek notion of what an identity is.
Penelope gives us another way into this whole question. Her story registers for us the importance in a Greek context of sometimes not telling, of sometimes keeping some things secret. Odysseus tried to keep his secret of the scar by holding back Eurycleia’s mouth and swearing her to secrecy under pain of death. He hid his scar underneath his underneath his clothes so that people wouldn’t see it. But it’s something that is public and visible, and he can show it to people. Penelope has a different sign of who she is and also who Odysseus is. The two of them can only verify each other’s identity through this sign. For Penelope, it’s her last way of making sure that the person in front of her is truly Odysseus. The final sign, the sign of signs is, of course, her bed. This bed that Penelope is going to use in this last proof draws an analogy to another bed that we’ve seen in this epic at the close of Book five. Odysseus there as the firebrand trying to figure out if he could make it through the night., calculating whether it was better off to bury himself under some leaves so that he could have some shelter and keep his way or not die from exposure to the elements and then also trying to avoid taking too much shelter in the forest and making himself a victim to animals at that to be eaten by animals. He buries himself in the leaves of an olive tree. That bed made at the far end of Odysseus’ journey, is made with material drawn from the farthest point away from the root of the olive tree.
The bed that Penelope makes reference to is from a different part of the olive tree. It’s actually rooted. Odysseus himself crafted the bed, he made it with his axe and we’ve seen him wield axes before to great effect his skill with axes is tremendous. He took a living, breathing tree carved up pieces of it, cut others, linked it all together, and left the roots in the ground. It’s immovable, a gravitational centre of Odysseus and Penelope’s life together. When Penelope makes her very sly gesture saying, he may be Odysseus but we can’t really be sure. We’re going to have to wait another night, at which point, everyone’s exasperated and Odysseus says he will sleep alone.
“Strange man, ”wary Penelope said. “I’m not so proud, so scornful, nor am I overwhelmed by your quick change …You look—how well I know—the way he looked, setting sail from Ithaca years ago aboard the long-oared ship. Come, Eurycleia, move the sturdy bedstead out of our bridal chamber—that room the master built with his own hands. Take it out now, sturdy bed that it is, and spread it deep with ﬂeece, blankets and lustrous throws to keep him warm.”
Odysseus then realizes that all of the sly, subtle subterfuges of Penelope have been put in place because she is testing him with the final test. The only response that is possible if he truly is Odysseus is the one that he knows, you can’t move that bed. It’s rooted in the ground and I’m the one that made it that way. Penelope then is able to prove that is truly Odysseus but he, she proves something else to him at the same time. The reason that the secret configuration of what this bed is all about and how it works still works for Penelope as a sign of verification is because she, herself, has kept it secret all those years that Odysseys is gone. Imagine if she let lots of people into her bedroom, and lots of people into her bed while Odysseus was gone. There’s no way she could use that bed to verify that this is truly Odysseus. Anyone would know about it. But instead, what she’s doing is saying, yes, I can verify who you are, Odysseus, because I’ll know that you know about that bed. But because she’s exhibiting to him that she’s relying on it to verify his identity, she’s also communicating to him that I have kept our bed secret, meaning, that our marriage is exclusive and remains so.
The gender balance is such that Odysseus has not done the same thing, she doesn’t demand it from him, but it’s quite a subtle craft that she’s able to pull in verifying both Odysseus and herself and having them both be verified to each other. This is something that she could not have done had she not lived up to what Odysseus expected of her. She does live up to what her part of the bargain from an Ancient Greek perspective is supposed to be.
Comparing these two signs is, is interesting. Odysseus as a marker of his identity, has this one mark on his body, it is a marker of past pain. It’s got a story embedded into it, but it’s visible by everybody. He doesn’t have to do anything to maintain it as being a marker of Odyssiusness. He will verify himself to whomever he wishes to. When he gives away information that I he is truly Odysseus, he doesn’t give anything extra away. Penelope’s sign, her marker of her bed, is something that she actively must maintain in an on-going act of the exclusivity of their marriage, her faithfulness to Odysseus.
Having earned his final step his final way in Odysseus finally gets to have his reunion with Penelope. Homer expresses this moment in a wonderful simile.
“The more she spoke, the more a deep desire for tears welled up inside his breast—he wept as he held the wife he loved, the soul of loyalty, in his arms at last. Joy, warm as the joy that shipwrecked sailors feel when they catch sight of land—Poseidon has struck their well-rigged ship on the open sea with gale winds and crushing walls of waves, and only a few escape, swimming, struggling out of the frothing surf to reach the shore, their bodies crusted with salt but buoyed up with joy as they plant their feet on solid ground again, spared a deadly fate. So joyous now to her he sight of her husband, vivid in her gaze, that her white arms, embracing his neck would never for a moment let him go …”
As Homer starts the comparison it seems to be a comparison of one person that you pretty sure who it is, but then, it gets turned around and matches another person who is taken the place of that other one. We saw that Eumaeus was compared to a father welcoming home a son who’s been gone a long time when Eumaeus embraced Telemachus. Look at the joy that Penelope feels, she feels the joy of someone who is like a sailor who’s been shipwrecked and then she feels like someone who has just landed on home ground. What Homer does with this simile is to allow Penelope to be Odysseus for a while. Odysseus, the one that welcomes home the one that’s been so far away for so long, plays the role of Penelope. It’s a wonderful simile that shows the closeness of their intimacy. Penelope’s suffering at home is here compared and made congruent with, Odysseus’s tremendous suffering out there on the wilder world. The two of them share their reunion. They also have shared an identical, in this case at least congruent pain Homer’s very clever and subtle way for continuing the connection between these two. Now, that they have made their connection, the two of them sit down and have their reunion.
The reunion, first of all, starts with a lot of talking, a lot of telling. The whole epic comes out again as Odysseus tells Penelope where he’s been. He needs to share with Penelope all this past that she has missed out on in his own life for him to fill her in.
Book 24 begins and things are not over. The Odyssey is in some ways, it’s like a story that just can’t quite end. Some have suggested who’ve taken a close look at Book 24 that this must have been added on later to the original Odyssey that had only 23 books. The basis for the argument is only what is there there’s no exterior evidence base. It’s just how closely Book 24 fits in with all the rest. The thematic statement that it’s making it that Odysseus’s Journey, this great archetypal wayfarer is not going to end with him safe at home. There’s always more wandering, the Odyssey is not really going to end. My essay argues that book 24 is required to finish the epic despite there being more stories in the future.
We follow the suitors down to the underworld. They’ve been killed and down they go. We hear then, the whole story one more time as the suitors recount it to Agamemnon, they tell him all the things that have gone on and how Odysseus set things right. He is thrilled or his friend and contrasts his own situation with that of Odysseus and Penelope.
Happy Odysseus!” Agamemnon’s ghost cried out. “Son of old Laertes—mastermind—what a ﬁne, faithful wife you won!What good sense resided in your Penelope—how well Icarius’ daughter remembered you, Odysseus, the man she married once! The fame of her great virtue will never die. The immortal gods will lift a song for all mankind, a glorious song in praise of self-possessed Penelope. A far cry from the daughter of Tyndareus, Clytemnestra—what outrage she committed, killing the man she married once!—
There is a strong indication of the momentousness of what has just happened, where it’s so huge that tales about it are not just limited to this upper world but also buzzing across the whole cosmos. Up in Olympus, they care, down in the underworld, they care and surely in our world people care. Odysseus, as this all is going on, heads off to visit his father, Laertes, finds him rolling around in the mud. Odysseus almost strangely, a little perversely decides to start testing his father and lying to his father and all these things. It’s difficult to say why he does this, but it is just Odysseus’s way, he is a tester, he is a trickster, and he is a liar. So, he goes through his testing of his father. His father then, wants some test in return and Odysseus shows him his scar, so his identity proof comes back again he can show himself to Laertes as being the man that he is.
The town’s people in Ithaca are upset about what’s happened. Ttheir relatives their suitors have just been killed they are ready for battle. They get ready to bring things to a head. Odysseus now stands again with his allies, he’s got Telemachus, he’s got Eumaeus, and now, he’s got his father by his side Laertes too is ready to do battle. Athena comes in and prevents another episode of cascading violence and wave after wave of, of killing. She has a spear throw from Laertes made into a clean kill which saps the energy of the enemy. She then comes in, makes peace
“Hold back, you men of Ithaca, back from brutal war! Break off—shed no more blood—make peace at once!” So Athena commanded. Terror blanched their faces, they went limp with fear, weapons slipped from their hands and strewed the ground at the goddess’ ringing voice”
The suitors’ relatives now slink away. With that, Odysseus has regained all of the things that make him Odysseus. His house is now stable. We know what he has to do next, he’s got to go take the oar and take it all the way inland until someone mistakes his oar for a winnowing fan. Once he does, he’ll know he’s far enough away from the sea that should he build a temple there, Poseidon will feel as though recompense has been made for the blinding of his son Polyphemus.
We know that Odysseus has more adventures ahead of him. He has recovered now his identity. He’s pieced together his name, his strength his capabilities, his family, his house, his city his relationship, his connection with Penelope solidified. His connection in an epilogue moment with his father, his connection with his past is now re-joined. Odysseus now is finally whole again, this poor, beaten and battered man that we saw at the beginning of Book one is now ready to be Odysseus again. He’s earned his place back to being himself.