Chapter 11. The Conversation

I focus initially on the second part of the dialogue, after Odysseus’ footbath. At this point, the conversation between Penelope and Odysseus changes in tone and substance: Penelope now takes the center stage, the beggar primarily expresses his agreement, and the fictional Odysseus in Thesprotia drops out of view. The focus shifts back to Penelope’s position and options, and now there is talk of her next step. Tears are never far from the surface, but they no longer well up to interrupt the conversation, and large emotion-laden speech-frames disappear with them. The interpretation of this part of the dialogue is strongly affected by the question of recognition, and therefore particularly problematic. It is here that Penelope announces her decision to hold the bow contest, a decision that can be understood in different and even opposite ways depending on one’s answer to the recognition question. What Penelope says to Odysseus before the announcement is equally hard to decode, and here the meaning of each utterance depends not only on its internal qualities but also on its role in the unfolding conversation.
Before turning to the concluding part of the dialogue, therefore, it may be useful to take stock of how things stand before the conversation is interrupted by Odysseus’ foot-bath. The great difference between the way Penelope and Odysseus talk before and after that interruption is, in my opinion, best explained on the assumption that recognition takes place in the first part. In response to Odysseus’ description of his own long-gone clothes Penelope cries and recollects how she herself folded the cloak and khiton and put in a pin. She says that the beggar is now no longer a stranger to her, but someone dear and respected:
νῦν μὲν δή μοι, ξεῖνε, πάρος περ ἐὼν ἐλεεινός,
ἐν μεγάροισιν ἐμοῖσι φίλος τ’ ἔσῃ αἰδοῖός τε.
(Odyssey 19.223–224) {195|196}
Stranger, before I felt pity for you, but now
you are for me, in my house, a dear and respected friend.
Later, she addresses him as ξεῖνε φίλ’, ‘dear stranger’ (19.350), and a hint at recognition may be present in her words. Athanassakis suggests, on the basis of comparative evidence from Modern Greek, that the phrase ξεῖνε φίλε used here by Penelope may mean more than ‘dear guest’. [1] In Modern Greek songs, a person long absent from home, or dead, is said to be away in a ‘foreign place’, (ξενιτειά), and sometimes the absent person himself is talked of as a xenos, as in the following lines, addressed “to an absent husband or to the dead in the underworld,” two overlapping situations that are intertwined in the Odyssey: [2]
τί νὰ σοῦ στείλω ξένε μου, τί νὰ σοῦ προβοδήσω;
νὰ στείλω μῆλο σέπεται, κυδῶνι μαραγκιάζει.
What shall I send you, my stranger, what can I bring to you?
An apple will rot, and a quince will wither. [3]
Athanassakis concludes that possibly “given the semantic compass of ξεῖνος, ξεῖνε φίλε means also ‘my stranger’, a collocation which definitely shows her [Penelope] alert to the possibility that this stranger may be the one for whom she has been pining away.” [4] Be that as it may, the expression doubtless indicates that Penelope quickly identifies the beggar as someone close to herself. He is no longer an unknown wanderer, protected, to be sure, by Zeus xenios, but not expected to receive anything beyond the minimal hospitality granted to all. Instead, he now resembles an old and treasured friend. In Homeric diction, the collocation of xenos and philos always seems to refer to those especially valuable among friends, and is frequently connected with gifts. For example, Diomedes calls himself ξεῖνος φίλος, ‘dear stranger’, to Glaukos when he realizes that they have ties of hospitality inherited from their fathers and manifested in gifts (Iliad 6.224). The bow Odysseus leaves at home is referred to as a memory of a dear friend (μνῆμα ξείνοιο φίλοιο, Odyssey 21.40). This could quite possibly be Odysseus’ first alliance, made with Iphitos during his youthful trip to the Peloponnese (Odyssey 21.13–16), and there is no need to comment on the significance of the gift, Odysseus’ bow. In the Odyssey the combination of xenos and philos is used surprisingly {196|197} sparingly (considering the centrality of hospitality in the poem) and always weightily. Telemachus addresses Athena disguised as Mentes as ξεῖνε φίλ’, ‘dear stranger/guest’, not yet knowing who his guest is but imagining, and perhaps hoping, that he might be one of his father’s friends (Odyssey 1.175–177). The guest does not disappoint, and soon Telemachus is grateful to the pseudo-Mentes for speaking to him as a father would and wants to reciprocate with a precious gift that would remain in Mentes’ family as a long-lasting and valuable possession, a κειμήλιον (Odyssey 1.308–313). Telemachus surely does not treat all his guests in this way, but on this occasion he is specific about wanting the stranger among his friends, and the gift is supposed be such as to solidify and memorialize the relationship.
τιμῆεν, μάλα καλόν, ὅ τοι κειμήλιον ἔσται
ἐξ ἐμεῦ, οἷα φίλοι ξεῖνοι ξείνοισι διδοῦσι.
(Odyssey 1.312–313)
“An honorable [gift], very beautiful, which will be a treasure for you
from me, such as dear strangers/guest-friends give to each other.”
As for the combination of xenos, philos, and aidoios, it is used in the Odyssey only twice, in the passage under discussion where Penelope so describes her beggar-guest, and just a little earlier in the same conversation, where the beggar himself so describes Idomeneus in relationship to Odysseus:
αὐτίκα δ’ Ἰδομενῆα μετάλλα ἄστυδ’ ἀνελθών·
ξεῖνον γάρ οἱ ἔφασκε φίλον τ’ ἔμεν αἰδοῖόν τε.
(Odyssey 19.190–191)
And immediately he came to the citadel and asked for Idomeneus,
for he said that Idomeneus was a dear and respected guest-friend to him.
When Penelope calls the beggar ξεῖνε and says that he is philos and aidoios in her house, her words resonate with Odysseus’ Cretan story, as if confirming its validity. Just as Idomeneus was a dear friend to Odysseus, so now the beggar, Idomeneus’ supposed younger brother, becomes a dear friend to Penelope, as if he has established his credentials as a person belonging to the world of Odysseus’ closest guest-friendships. He achieves this, of course, not by giving {197|198} Penelope any proof that he actually belongs to Idomeneus’ household, but by recalling Odysseus’ own clothes with precision. The beggar’s Cretan story is a vehicle for his riddling claim to be Odysseus, and perhaps by playing along with this story Penelope hints that she understands who its subject really is. When she then uses ξεῖνε φίλ’ (Odyssey 19.350) at the conclusion of the conversation, it is to remark on the beggar’s intelligence and to say that no other guest has ever been nearer and dearer to her, a remarkable statement to be uttered at a first meeting, and another hint that this guest is not, in truth, a stranger:
“ξεῖνε φίλ’· οὐ γάρ πώ τις ἀνὴρ πεπνυμένος ὧδε
ξείνων τηλεδαπῶν φιλίων ἐμὸν ἵκετο δῶμα,
ὡς σὺ μάλ’ εὐφραδέως πεπνυμένα πάντ’ ἀγορεύεις.
(Odyssey 19.350–352) [5]
Dear stranger – for never has such an intelligent man come to my house, from among the strangers who live far away,
and none has been dearer, so sensible and wise is everything you say.
Needless to say, Penelope also denies the possibility of ever seeing Odysseus again and blames the Trojan war and grievous fate for the loss:
. . . τὸν δ’ οὐχ ὑποδέξομαι αὖτις
οἴκαδε νοστήσαντα φίλην ἐς πατρίδα γαῖαν.
τῶ ῥα κακῇ αἴσῃ κοίλης ἐπὶ νηὸς Ὀδυσσεὺς
ᾤχετ’ ἐποψόμενος Κακοΐλιον οὐκ ὀνομαστήν.
(Odyssey 19.257–260)
I will not welcome him home again
upon his return to his dear native land.
And so with bad fate did Odysseus leave in his hollow ship
to look at Accursed-Troy, a city not to be named.
It is possible to see Penelope’s words as an indication of her sincere despair and complete absence of any suspicion regarding her guest. In this case, her words do not advance the conversation, but simply reflect her emotion. On the other hand, the way Penelope talks about the absent Odysseus shifts depending {198|199} on the demands of the situation. Here Penelope says that Odysseus will not come back and seems to imagine him as dead, and yet just a hundred lines further she says that Odysseus must now look as aged as her guest, apparently imagining her husband alive and wandering somewhere far away from Ithaca (19.358–360). In each case, Penelope’s words cannot be understood simply as statements about herself, because they are part of a dialogue. It is possible to see her words at 19.257–260 as a prompt for Odysseus to go further with his claims. In this case, her words do advance the conversation: by offering her philia to the stranger, yet asserting that Odysseus will not come back, Penelope lets him know that she is sensitive to his suggestions but her doubts are not yet dispelled. She also brings him to the question at hand, namely the return of Odysseus.
And this is precisely the subject to which Odysseus turns next. Nothing more is said about Crete or Aithon’s own past misfortunes, no further comment made on his own transition from riches to rags. [6] Instead, the beggar announces that he has news of Odysseus’ return and will reveal this unfailingly:
ἀλλὰ γόου μὲν παῦσαι, ἐμεῖο δὲ σύνθεο μῦθον·
νημερτέως γάρ τοι μυθήσομαι οὐδ’ ἐπικεύσω,
ὡς ἤδη Ὀδυσῆος ἐγὼ περὶ νόστου ἄκουσα
ἀγχοῦ, Θεσπρωτῶν ἀνδρῶν ἐν πίονι δήμῳ,
(Odyssey 19.268–272)
But stop crying, and listen to my words,
for I will tell you unerringly and will not conceal
that I have already heard about the return of Odysseus,
who is nearby, in the fertile territory of Thesprotians,
and alive.
In the next moments, Penelope hears that Odysseus is alive and is now in Thesprotia, gathering gifts. He is bringing home much wealth, and returning alone, all his companions lost. The beggar mentions the episode on Thrinakia where Odysseus’ men perform a perverted sacrifice and eat the cattle of the sun, their subsequent death at sea, and Odysseus’ own escape to Phaeacia, details that are in agreement with the macro-narrative of the Odyssey (19.273–282). In this version of the story, the Phaeacians apparently do not give Odysseus sufficient gifts, for he decides to wander and gather more, even {199|200} though he could have been home earlier. At the moment, the beggar claims, Odysseus is in Dodona, consulting the oracle of Zeus as to whether he should return openly or secretly (19.283–299).
Penelope, then, learns that Odysseus may come back secretly, that he is alone, and, strikingly, that he is now engaged in begging. This last detail has obvious suggestiveness to it, coming as it does from the mouth of a beggar, and it deserves further attention. Penelope’s mysterious interlocutor describes Odysseus’ accumulation of wealth in terms that leave no doubt about its nature:
αὐτὰρ ἄγει κειμήλια πολλὰ καὶ ἐσθλά,
αἰτίζων ἀνὰ δῆμον.
(Odyssey 19.272–273)
But he is bringing treasures, many and excellent ones,
begging throughout the land.
The verb αἰτίζω, which describes Odysseus begging as himself in this passage, is used to describe the beggar-Odysseus in Ithaca. [7] Eleven verses later, at 11.284, the verb is ἀγυρτάζω. The latter verb is highly appropriate since elsewhere it tends to denote not strictly speaking beggars, but vagabond priests and musicians, who are paid for their services. A begging priest of Cybele is called ἀγύρτης (Anthologia Palatina 6.218), and Orpheus is described by Strabo as a man who started his career by soliciting money (ἀγυρτεύοντα) in exchange for music and prophecy (ἀπὸ μουσικῆς ἅμα καὶ μαντικῆς). [8] In Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus, Teiresias is called ἀγύρτης when he is accused of both trickery and an excessive desire for possessions (388–389). Thus when Aithon refers to Odysseus’ activity as ἀγυρτάζειν, he describes adequately the way Odysseus does in fact acquire his possessions at the court of Alkinoos – both as a king among kings, and also, even primarily, as an aoidos. [9] When the Phaeacians send Odysseus home with lavish gifts, it is certainly not in any expectation of reciprocity. Commenting on the relationship between Odysseus and Phaeacians, Redfield observes: “Such unreciprocated reception of gifts is really {200|201} a form of begging, but on a heroic scale.” [10]
The imaginary Odysseus in Thesprotia also begs on a heroic scale. Penelope’s guest repeatedly mentions that Odysseus is bringing home wealth, and attributes its quantity to Odysseus’ unmatched mastery of gainful cunning. In fact, Penelope is even told that Odysseus could have come back home long ago, had he not chosen to enlarge his fortune instead:
καί κεν πάλαι ἐνθάδ’ Ὀδυσσεὺς
ἤην· ἀλλ’ ἄρα οἱ τό γε κέρδιον εἴσατο θυμῷ,
χρήματ’ ἀγυρτάζειν πολλὴν ἐπὶ γαῖαν ἰόντι.
(Odyssey 19.282–284)
Odysseus could have been here long ago.
But he thought in his heart that it would be more profitable
to collect possessions, roaming over much land.
This is a strange thing to say to a grieving wife about an absent husband, especially considering the pressure on Penelope to resolve the situation on Ithaca in one way or another. Yet this too is consistent with Odysseus’ actual behavior among the Phaeacians, where he says that, eager though he is to be home, he is willing to stay even for another year if that will bring more gifts:
Ἀλκίνοε κρεῖον, πάντων ἀριδείκετε λαῶν,
εἴ με καὶ εἰς ἐνιαυτὸν ἀνώγοιτ’ αὐτόθι μίμνειν
πομπήν τ’ ὀτρύνοιτε καὶ ἀγλαὰ δῶρα διδοῖτε,
καί κε τὸ βουλοίμην, καί κεν πολὺ κέρδιον εἴη
πλειοτέρῃ σὺν χειρὶ φίλην ἐς πατρίδ’ ἱκέσθαι,
καί κ’ αἰδοιότερος καὶ φίλτερος ἀνδράσιν εἴην
πᾶσιν, ὅσοι μ’ Ἰθάκηνδε ἰδοίατο νοστήσαντα.
(Odyssey 11.355–361)
Lord Alkinoos, most exalted of men,
even if you should urge me to stay here for a year,
and arrange a send-off and give me splendid gifts,
even to that I would agree. It would be much more profitable
to return to my dear native land with a fuller hand.
I would be more respected and dearer
to all men who should see me upon my return to Ithaca. {201|202}
The beggar’s claim that Odysseus is begging – and on a grand scale – and that he is delaying his return home in order to accumulate more wealth, fits into the context of Odysseus’ deliberate self-revelation and Penelope’s understanding of his implicit messages. It may be understood as a veiled conversation between husband and wife, though a wife who has not yet accepted her husband’s claims – which is quite distinct from not understanding or even not believing them. In the words of Kurke, “the Odyssey reveals a culture pattern centered on the oikos and structured as a repeating loop of departure and return.” [11] The household is sustained by its individual representatives and their achievements. Fame, prestige, and wealth as their material manifestation belong to the household, and the household’s individual representatives have to leave in search of glory and then return with reports of their achievement and ‘treasures’, keimelia, to be added to the household’s store. [12] Part of this pattern, however, is the inherent risk to the household of abandonment by the best of its members. [13] If Odysseus disappears without a trace, the household is deprived of both his presence and the kleos and booty that were the hoped-for results of his quest. Both Penelope and Telemachus bemoan the diminution of their household, in livelihood as well as in prestige. [14] This throws light on why Odysseus assigns such importance to not arriving home empty-handed. His expedition has gone astray and his absence has become inordinately long – long enough to put the household in danger of ruin. Only by coming back with extraordinary fame and wealth can Odysseus hope to “make right” his dangerously long absence. If a longer absence means a more glorious return, the risk may be worth taking. At the palace of Alkinoos Odysseus is ready to take that risk, even though he must know that each additional year makes Penelope’s task of guarding the house in his absence harder. Yet it is this very concern for the house, which Penelope expresses repeatedly, that also makes accumulation of wealth an acceptable justification for Odysseus’ delay. When she envisages marrying one of the suitors, it is the house that is foremost on her mind, a house that is full of life-sustaining wealth:
τῷ κεν ἅμ’ ἑσποίμην, νοσφισσαμένη τόδε δῶμα
κουρίδιον, μάλα καλόν, ἐνίπλειον βιότοιο, {202|203}
τοῦ ποτε μεμνήσεσθαι ὀΐομαι ἔν περ ὀνείρῳ.
(Odyssey 19.579–581)
Him I would follow, leaving behind this house,
the house of my marriage, a very fine one, full of livelihood,
the house I think I will remember in my dreams.
The stranger is speaking Penelope’s own language when he explains Odysseus’ long absence in economic terms. He appears to have a heightened awareness both of the problems faced by Odysseus’ household and of the means Odysseus will use to resolve these problems. Unromantic as this may sound, it may be important for Penelope to know that her husband is bringing home much wealth and also that it is his desire to increase the loot that has so prolonged his absence.
The beggar-Odysseus concludes his words with an oath, a detail no less telling than his references to begging:
ἴστω νῦν Ζεὺς πρῶτα, θεῶν ὕπατος καὶ ἄριστος,
ἱστίη τ’ Ὀδυσῆος ἀμύμονος, ἣν ἀφικάνω·
ἦ μέν τοι τάδε πάντα τελείεται ὡς ἀγορεύω.
τοῦδ’ αὐτοῦ λυκάβαντος ἐλεύσεται ἐνθάδ’ Ὀδυσσεύς,
τοῦ μὲν φθίνοντος μηνός, τοῦ δ’ ἱσταμένοιο.
(Odyssey 19.303–307)
First of all, let Zeus be my witness, the highest and best of the gods,
and then the hearth of flawless Odysseus, to which I have come:
all the things I proclaim will come true.
Odysseus will come back here within this very lukabas,
with one month waning and the next one beginning.
The fact that Odysseus utters such an oath is remarkable in itself and argues strongly in favor of the notion that Odysseus is not attempting to conceal his identity from Penelope but rather to reveal it indirectly. An actual beggar could be expected to swear that all he told is true (for example, that he actually did meet Odysseus on Crete or hear his story in Thesprotia), but he would hardly be likely to utter an oath regarding the precise timing of Odysseus return. Yet this is what the beggar-Odysseus does when he says that Odysseus will come back during ‘this very lukabas’. The lukabas itself is an obscure word, {203|204} but it seems to denote the interlunium, the dark period of several nights when no moon is visible; luckily the temporal reference is somewhat clarified by the context. [15] Odysseus connects the lukabas with waning of the old moon and rising of the new. This has long been seen as a reference to Apollo’s festival, on the model of the celebrations of Apollo Neomenios (‘of the new moon’). [16] In other words, the beggar predicts that Odysseus will come back on the day of Apollo’s festival. Penelope presumably can observe the phases of the moon, and she certainly knows when the festival of Apollo is taking place. In the course of the narrative, it will become apparent that the very next day is in fact the day of the festival. At the end of Book 19, when Penelope announces her decision to set the bow contest for tomorrow, Odysseus responds by actually {204|205} predicting that Odysseus will come back in time to string the bow. [17] It appears, therefore, that the lukabas is coming to an end on the very next day, with the end of one month and the beginning of the new one. This would be consistent with the other calendar signs in the Odyssey. For example, the wintry night Odysseus spends with Eumaeus is described as σκοτομήνιος, ‘moonless’, or ‘in the dark part of the month’ (Odyssey 14.457), so that the new moon is expected shortly.
To return to the dialogue, the beggar then utters an oath promising that Odysseus will come back on the very next day, an oath that seems to contradict what he himself said about Odysseus’ being in Dodona and the plans of the Thesprotian king, Pheidon, to send him home by ship. The oath seems absurd on the assumption that Odysseus wants to preserve any verisimilitude in his disguise, but it does make sense in the mouth of Odysseus himself. He is indeed in a position to know that Odysseus will be back tomorrow, and at this point in the dialogue he is no longer concerned with sustaining the disguise. [18]
It seems fitting that the final remarkable claim by the beggar (that Odysseus will come back tomorrow) leads to a marked change of pace in the dialogue. For the moment, Odysseus has gone as far as he can, and now Penelope in effect calls for an intermission, a time for her to assess the situation perhaps. After that, she will come back and, in effect, announce her decision. For now, however, she does not call into question the stranger’s extravagant oath, but simply responds in the same way as she did earlier when Theoklymenos predicted Odysseus’ imminent return, by expressing her wish that the prediction may come to pass:
αἲ γὰρ τοῦτο, ξεῖνε, ἔπος τετελεσμένον εἴη·
τῶ κε τάχα γνοίης φιλότητά τε πολλά τε δῶρα
ἐξ ἐμεῦ, ὡς ἄν τίς σε συναντόμενος μακαρίζοι.
ἀλλά μοι ὧδ’ ἀνὰ θυμὸν ὀΐεται, ὡς ἔσεταί περ·
οὔτ’ Ὀδυσεὺς ἔτι οἶκον ἐλεύσεται, οὔτε σὺ πομπῆς
(Odyssey 19.309–314) [19]
If only your words may come true, stranger.
Then you would quickly come to know my friendship and receive many gifts {205|206}
from me, so that a person meeting you would say how blessed you are.
But this is how it seems to me in my heart, and how it will be:
neither will Odysseus come back home, nor will you receive your send-off.
Penelope’s reaction is subtly different from that of Eumaeus, who hears the same oath earlier and who does call it into question (14.166–173). Both Penelope and Eumaeus express pessimism regarding Odysseus’ return, but Eumaeus also says that the oath is a falsehood, futile and unworthy of his guest: τί σε χρὴ τοῖον ἐόντα/μαψιδίως ψεύδεσθαι; ‘Why should you, such as you are, tell lies idly?’ (Odyssey 14.364–365). [20] Penelope, on the other hand, does not call the oath false or express any indignation at her guest for pronouncing it, but rather makes her own prediction, that Odysseus will never come back. Russo observes that this is an instance of “a psychological pattern that Homer has consistently used in his portrait of Penelope: she lets hopes buoy her up briefly, then sinks into pessimism.” [21] There is indeed a psychological dimension to Penelope’s reaction, but her immediately renewed pessimism may also be strategic. It is Penelope’s protection against false hopes, but it could be a signal to Odysseus that more will need to be said and done before his wife falls into his embrace. An emphatic denial also protects her from the maids who are within earshot and whom she immediately addresses. Penelope’s pessimistic words could serve to diffuse any suspicions on their part that something unusual has gone on between Penelope and the beggar, for example, that she has received any unusually trustworthy information regarding her husband’s return. Penelope does not need to put up such a defense earlier in her conversation with Theoklymenos, even though the seer also utters an oath no less remarkable than that of Odysseus: he tells Penelope that Odysseus is already on Ithaca, (something that she can be presumed to remember in Book 19). On that occasion Telemachus is present, but the suitors are not, nor are the maids mentioned as being in the immediate proximity, and Penelope does not react to the astonishing prophecy by denial, but simply expresses her wish that it may come to pass and promises the prophet a reward if it does, using exactly the same words as she later addresses to Odysseus (17.163–165 = 19.309–311). The same formulae are used in the oaths on all three occasions: when Penelope talks to Theoklymenos, in conversation between Odysseus and Eumaeus, and in the interaction between Odysseus {206|207} and Penelope in Book 19. A dictional link between these three scenes is thus established. [22] All of this suggests that Penelope’s professed pessimism is conditioned by its conversational context.
It has been argued that Odysseus’ oaths are only offered, but not actually sworn, because they lack certain elements present in other Homeric oaths, namely the spelling out of the oath’s conditions, (for example, what will happen to the swearer if he lies), or a depiction of the actual swearing, or an authorial assertion that the oath has been sworn. [23] The reason that the oaths are not sworn, the argument goes, is their rejection by the addressees, Eumaeus, Penelope, and Philoitios. The fact that the oaths are not accepted may then be seen as an indication of how desperate Odysseus’ supporters are and how hard it will be for Odysseus to convince them that he is back when not a single person believes that he is still alive. [24] According to this scenario, the fact that she does not accept Odysseus’ oath indicates that Penelope is far from any suspicion of his identity. There is indeed irony in the fact that Odysseus, who is not prone to statements of fact, is offering, for once, to swear to something that is actually true, and no one will accept his oath. At the same time, the question of acceptance is a complicated one. Eumaeus does explicitly refuse to enter into a pact by which Odysseus proposes that Eumaeus reward him if his words come true or kill him if they do not. The pact, however, is distinct from the oath, and the word used to designate it, rhetra (Odyssey 14.393), appears nowhere else in Homer in connection with oaths. The fact that a separate pact is needed to augment the oath, and the fact that all Odysseus’ oaths remain unsworn underscores their unusual nature, namely the fact that they contain not a promise, but a prediction of the future and a prediction of something supposedly beyond the swearer’s control. In this, they are distinctly unlike the actually sworn oaths elsewhere in Homer and it is not clear whether they need to be, or can be, accepted. When Circe swears not to harm Odysseus, or Achilles swears not to return to fighting until the Achaeans recognize his worth, their oaths have to do with actions the swearers can control. The beggar-Odysseus’ oaths are different and present a puzzle to their audiences: how can this beggar know exactly when Odysseus will come back? {207|208} Theoklymenos’ oath, phrased in the same way as those of Odysseus, is also a prediction, or rather a profession of the seer’s superior vision. [25] By offering the oath Theoklymenos is not taking on any obligation, but rather emphasizing his confidence in his powers as a seer and in the knowledge he gains through them. The effect of these oaths, both that of Theoklymenos and those of Odysseus, does not depend on whether they are accepted or not, and there would in any case be little benefit for the addressee in acceptance of such an oath. This, too, is unusual. When Circe swears not to harm Odysseus, this is of distinct benefit to him because it affects Circe’s behavior. But whether the beggar’s words are true or not, it is (at least ostensibly) not up to him to accomplish Odysseus’ return. These prediction-oaths do not function like other oaths do, but they do have meaning beyond the actual prediction they contain. They raise the question that is immediately voiced by Eumaeus, namely why should the beggar utter them at all? Theoklymenos utters his because he is a seer and through his art can know what is concealed from others. The beggar, by uttering his, lays claim to similar knowledge, which, not being a seer, he can only possess because he is Odysseus himself.
Penelope’s reaction to the oath is as complex as the oath itself. The difference in her response to the similar oaths by Theoklymenos and Odysseus suggests what is perhaps obvious, namely that her words should not be taken as simple expressions of her thoughts and feelings, but rather should be seen in their conversational contexts as part of her strategies, which are different on different occasions. Nowhere does Penelope deny the possibility of Odysseus’ return more frequently and emphatically than in the conversation in Book 19, precisely when the signs of that return are coming thick and fast and when she herself gives indications of understanding them. In this setting, Penelope’s insistence that Odysseus will not come back suggests not that she is hopeless and in the dark about her guest’s identity, but rather the opposite. The more Penelope inclines towards believing the beggar, the more urgently she needs to be sure, and expressions of pessimism about Odysseus’ return are both a way of drawing more information from the beggar and a way of letting him know that words alone will not suffice. Besides, now that the return is finally in the making, stronger than usual defenses are needed to safeguard it. Just as Odysseus refuses to make himself at home in his house before his vengeance on the suitors is complete, so Penelope will not admit {208|209} her husband’s return until it is as certain as it can ever be. Anticipation of the desired end is psychologically risky and fraught with the real danger of jeopardizing their ultimate success.
Penelope’s protestations are not born of obliviousness to the beggar’s hints, however, and she lets him know as much by pointing out, in her last words before the intermission, that Odysseus himself might now look like her guest:
ἀλλ’ ἄγε νῦν ἀνστᾶσα, περίφρων Εὐρύκλεια,
νίψον σοῖο ἄνακτος ὁμήλικα· καί που Ὀδυσσεὺς
ἤδη τοιόσδ’ ἐστὶ πόδας τοιόσδε τε χεῖρας·
αἶψα γὰρ ἐν κακότητι βροτοὶ καταγηράσκουσιν.
(Odyssey 19.357–361)
But come now, wise Eurykleia, rise
and wash your master’s age-mate. Odysseus’
feet and hands look like this now probably,
for mortals age quickly in hard times.
Eurykleia immediately echoes these words by saying that she has never seen anyone so like Odysseus:
πολλοὶ δὴ ξεῖνοι ταλαπείριοι ἐνθάδ’ ἵκοντο,
ἀλλ’ οὔ πώ τινά φημι ἐοικότα ὧδε ἰδέσθαι
ὡς σὺ δέμας φωνήν τε πόδας τ’ Ὀδυσῆϊ ἔοικας.
(Odyssey 19.379–381)
Many sorely-tried strangers come here,
but I think I have never seen anyone so like Odysseus,
the way you resemble him in your looks, your voice, and your feet.
The first part of the dialogue thus ends with clear hints not only of the beggar’s true identity, but also of the fact the Penelope is aware of it. The words Eurykleia utters before the footbath presage her actual assertion that the beggar is Odysseus (19.474–475), and the two utterances by the nurse constitute a ring composition that encloses the narrative of Odysseus’ naming and of his boar hunt, full as it is of premonitions of his return.
The only thing that seems to go against the flow amidst these accumulating signs of Odysseus’ imminent return is Penelope’s failure to look at him precisely at the moment Eurykleia recognizes her master. Instead, {209|210} Penelope is famously distracted, oblivious to the winking of the old nurse: ἡ δ’ οὔτ’ ἀθρῆσαι δύνατ’ ἀντίη οὔτε νοῆσαι, ‘she could neither see nor clearly perceive’ (19.478). I do not think, however, that these lines constitute an argument against recognition. Penelope’s failure to look at Odysseus may be an obstacle to complete certainty on her part, but it does not prevent her from guessing who the stranger is. She has plenty of evidence apart from the scar. The verb νοέω, used here to indicate what Penelope is unable to do, conveys the idea of sharp vision, both physical and mental. [26] For example, in a scene from Book 16 Athena appears in Eumaeus’ tent and Odysseus sees her (νόησε 16.164) while Telemachus does not. [27] The phrase used in the scene is reminiscent of Penelope’s failure to see the scar: οὐδ’ ἄρα Τηλέμαχος ἴδεν ἀντίον οὐδ’ ἐνόησεν, ‘but Telemachus did not see her in front of him nor clearly perceive her’ (16.160). Still, Telemachus can perceive Athena’s presence indirectly, and does so. He sees Odysseus’ transformation and concludes that either the stranger is a god himself or that a deity is present. Odysseus then explains that Athena is at hand (16.207). In the same way, Penelope is prevented from experiencing the full enargeia of Odysseus’ identity, but she is not prevented from deducing it. [28]
Moreover, quite apart from Athena’s intervention, an argument can be made that averting her eyes is a sensible thing for Penelope to do. The nurse’s attempt to attract Penelope’s attention is dangerous, or at least it is so seen by Odysseus, and surely not only because he may be recognized by Penelope, but because he may be discovered by the maids and therefore the suitors. Odysseus quickly plugs the opening gap in his disguise by grasping his old nurse by the throat and imposing silence on her under the threat of death. This gap would be considerably larger if the nurse succeeded in exchanging glances with Penelope. Further, the whole interaction between Penelope and Odysseus at this point is based on communicating indirectly, and it is in their mutual interest to keep it that way. Among other things, it allows them to probe and test each other’s mind before reuniting. The same kind of probing would be awkward or offensive if Odysseus’ revelation were complete. In Book 23, although Penelope does not accept Odysseus immediately, she also does not engage in the kind of testing that goes on in Book 19, but rather sits silently looking at her husband for a long time. On that occasion, even {210|211} though Odysseus understands that Penelope wants to test him (πειράζειν, Οdyssey 23.114), she in fact asks not a single question. The final test of the bed is administered under the guise of an order given to Eurykleia to make up Odysseus’ bed outside his bedroom. The kind of questioning and doubting that takes place before the bow contest is evidently out of place in its aftermath, perhaps because of the inequality between them, which is doubtless a part of this marriage, and which Penelope seems to accept, much to the chagrin of many a feminist reader of the poem. [29] Before the contest the balance of power is different, and it is not to Penelope’s advantage to accept Odysseus as himself until he has proven his worth by killing the suitors. Faced with the scar, however, she may be unable to postpone such acceptance, especially considering Eurykleia’s open recognition of her master. Both for Penelope and for Odysseus it is better that Penelope not look.
While Eurykleia discovers the scar Penelope recedes into the background and when the conversation is resumed it is not the same as before. It has been observed that the first part of the dialogue is full of emotion and characterized by elaborate speech frames, such as the comparison of Penelope to the melting snow, or the description of Odysseus keeping his eyes dry and firm like horn or iron. [30] The second, shorter, part of the conversation contains some remarkable muthoi but no elaborate speech frames and considerably less emphasis on outward emotion. [31] In my opinion, the high emotional pitch of their first exchange is consistent with recognition, though perhaps not in the way this term is usually understood. [32] Penelope’s emotion suggests that she understands the stranger’s hinted self-revelation and is inclined to believe it. The question of her certainty or lack thereof will never be answered, but {211|212} in the second part of the dialogue Penelope proceeds, in my opinion, on the assumption that her guest is Odysseus. Her withdrawal from action and the interlude with the boar hunt provide a pause that makes this change all the more visible. The almost melodramatic recognition by Eurykleia, the recollections of how Odysseus acquired his name and with it the identity he is now in the process of regaining, and the boar hunt with all its connotations of furious virility – all these parts of the intermission are in harmony with the developments between Odysseus and Penelope. The interlude enlarges upon the theme of recognition and points to Odysseus’ Autolycus-like cunning and the boar-like force with which he will take vengeance on his foes and regain his wife. Notionally, this process is already in motion, but not yet in practical terms. The second part of the conversation is, among other things, about the practicalities of Odysseus’ return. In what follows I will suggest that Penelope at the end of Book 19 in effect proposes a course of action for Odysseus, but that the practical subtext does not exhaust the complexity of her performance, or rather, several sequential performances which constitute the second part of her conversation with Odysseus. It is to these performances, rich with mythological allusion, that I now turn. I will begin with the myth of Aedon and Penelope’s dream and then come back, briefly, to consider her most famous tale, which is actually told in the first part of the dialogue, namely the tale of weaving and unweaving the shroud for Laertes. {212|}


[ back ] 1. Athanassakis 1994:127–131.
[ back ] 2. Athanassakis 1994:130.
[ back ] 3. Saunier 1983:103,108 (10A and15A respectively), cited by Athanassakis 1994:130.
[ back ] 4. Athanassakis 1994:131.
[ back ] 5. On the meaning of pepnumenos, see Cuypers 2001 and above p115-116.
[ back ] 6. On this point see Clayton 2004:72.
[ back ] 7. Odysseus: 17.222, 228, 346, 351, 502, 558; 20.180, 182.
[ back ] 8. Strabo 7 fr. 18.
[ back ] 9. For a discussion of the reciprocal relationship between poet and patron, see Watkins 1994a:536–543. For comments on aoidoi and beggars within the social scale, see Nagy 1990:56–7. Begging for objects of value rather than food is mentioned in a taunt directed at Odysseus by Melanthios, Odyssey 17.222.
[ back ] 10. Redfield 1983:234.
[ back ] 11. Kurke 1991:19, cf. Redfield 1983.
[ back ] 12. On the significance and value of precious objects in pre-monetary society, see Gernet 1981.
[ back ] 13. Kurke 1991:17–19.
[ back ] 14. E.g., at Odyssey 1.232–243, 2.40–49, 19.124–135.
[ back ] 15. Scholia explain lukabas as ‘year’, and Wilamowitz accordingly interpreted the expression τοῦδ’ αὐτοῦ λυκάβαντος to mean ‘within this year’. Suggested etymologies connect the word with light, (root *leuk- as in λύχνος, λεύσσω, Latin lux), and βαίνω (Leumann 1950:212n4, Stanford 1965:222 ad loc., Ameis and Hentze 1895 ad loc.) Koller 1973:29–33 suggested *λύκα βάντα, ‘the light having gone’. Others seek pre-Greek origins connecting the word with the name of the Attic mountain Λυκαβηττός (Ruijgh 1957:147, 1979:559–60), or suggest a Semitic connection (Szemerenyi 1974:144–57), see also Hoekstra 1992:204 (on Odyssey 14.161) and Russo 1992:91 (on Odyssey 19.306) and Chantraine 1999 s.v. The idea that lukabas is a festival of Apollo Lykeios or Lykios was put forth by van Windekens 1954:31–4. Whether this is actually the meaning of lukabas seems doubtful, but a connection with the festival of Apollo is clear in the context of the Odyssey (see Russo 1992:92 on Odyssey 19.306–7). Austin (1975:244–246) argues that the word signifies the ‘dark of the moon’, a period of a few days when the old moon has waned but the new one is not yet clearly visible. He is followed on this point by the recent commentaries (Rutherford 1992:175, Russo 1992:92, both on Odyssey 19.306–307). In Book 19, therefore, lukabas denotes “the interlunar period about to end with the new moon festival of the god” (Russo 1992.92).
[ back ] 16. Russo 1992:91–92 on Odyssey 306–307. Herodotus (6.57) mentions monthly celebrations of Νεομηνία, and Apollo Neomēnios is also mentioned by scholia on the Odyssey 20.155. Several sources mention that the first day of every month, as well as the seventh, is sacred to Apollo (Scholia on Pindar Nemean 3.1, Scholia on Aristophanes Wealth 1126). See the Herodotean Life of Homer 462-465 on Samian Neomenia, for which Homer supposedly composed the eiresione-song, sung for a long time afterwards by paides when they gathered for the festival of Apollo. There is no indication that the festival of Apollo in the Odyssey is a monthly occurrence, and it is hardly possible to equate it with Neomenia, but if the transition from one month to the next was sacred to Apollo, then it seems unsurprising that his festival, monthly or not, would fall on that day. See Roscher 1884–1891:423–425 for a discussion of Apolline calendar points. It has been pointed out (Robertson 1991:46) that the appearance of a new moon is often hard to detect and so it may be impractical to hold a festival on the very day of a new moon, whereas the seventh day of a new month is a more practical marker, so that the festival may not literally coincide with the first of the month. Apollo is associated with the seventh day of the month no less than with the new moon. In Sparta the kings sacrificed to Apollo not only on the first but also on the seventh day of each month (Herodotus 6.57) and at Olbia there were even two priestly colleges, one of Neomeniastai and one of Hebdomiastai, one for the first and one for the seventh day (Graf 1974:210–215). It seems that Odysseus arrives on Ithaca during the dark interlunar period which lasts for several days, and kills the suitors on the day of Apollo’s feast, which may be the seventh, but in any case is the day of the moon’s clear return.
[ back ] 17. See below, p250-251.
[ back ] 18. See further below, p251.
[ back ] 19. Cf. Penelope’s response to Theoklymenos, 17.163–165 = 19.309–311.
[ back ] 20. Cf. 14.387: μήτε τί μοι ψεύδεσσι χαρίζεο μήτε τι θέλγε.
[ back ] 21. Russo 1992:92.
[ back ] 22. Another oath is offered to the cowherd Philoitios at Odyssey 20.229–235.
[ back ] 23. See Callaway (1998), who offers Circe’ oath to Odysseus (Odyssey 10.343–347) as an example of a basic oath pattern. Odysseus requests the oath and then describes its execution: ὣς ἐφάμην, ἡ δ’ αὐτίκ’ ἀπώμνυεν, ὡς ἐκέλευον | αὐτὰρ ἐπεί ῥ’ ὄμοσέν τε τελεύτησέν τε τὸν ὅρκον (Odyssey 10.345–346). The same formula occurs at 14.280 = 2.378 = 10.346, and cf. Iliad 19.113, where again the completion of the oath is explicit (ὄμοσεν μέγαν ὅρκον).
[ back ] 24. Callaway 1998:167–168.
[ back ] 25. Callaway (1998) unfortunately does not consider Theoklymenos’ utterance in her discussion of Odyssseus’ three oaths.
[ back ] 26. Snell 1931:77, von Fritz 1945:223, Ruijgh 1967:371–72, Frame 1978:28–33, Bakker 2002:76–80; see especially Nagy 1990:202–222, esp.205–12, for a discussion of νοέω in archaic Greek poetry.
[ back ] 27. Bakker 2002:78.
[ back ] 28. Interestingly, Eurykleia herself also does not see the scar, but rather feels it by touch (19.468, 475). See Clayton 2004.74–78 for a discussion of the significance of this detail.
[ back ] 29. The famous homophrosune of the couple does not presuppose equality but rather mutual agreement about each other’s roles. On the question of homophrosune, the inequality and domination it involves (or conceals, depending on one’s perspective) and the unequal roles Odysseus and Penelope play in the poem, see Doherty 1995, Wohl 1993, Holmberg 1995 and Nieto Hernández 2008:39–62.
[ back ] 30. Beck 2005:100–107.
[ back ] 31. Beck 2005:105–107.
[ back ] 32. Beck (2005), to whom I am indebted for her useful discussion of speech frames, emotion in the dialogue, and distinctions between its two parts, has a different explanation for this change, namely that the focus of the episode is on its first emotional part and the “ironic and moving gulf between the sorrowing Penelope, ignorant of the stranger’s identity and mourning her husband’s supposed absence, and the ease and skill with which Odysseus conceals his identity from her.” (107) The shorter frames of the second part signal that it has less to tell us about Penelope: “at this point in the story, the narrator is not particularly interested in Penelope’s decision to hold the bow contest, her motivation in doing so, the effect of her statement to this effect on Odysseus, etc.” (107). As will be clear from what follows, I have a different assessment of the second part.