Chapter 13. The Dream

Action by Odysseus is just what Penelope envisages next, immediately after the Aedon comparison, in her dream about the eagle and the geese – or rather her message in the form of the dream. [1] The transition is abrupt, and Anhalt comments that Penelope seems to “deflect interest away from the simile.” [2] The abruptness certainly seems deliberate, but in my opinion it is not because the simile is meant to recede quickly from the audience’s mind. Rather, the dream narrative builds on the simile and presents Penelope’s conclusions derived from it while giving Odysseus no chance to comment on his wife’s dilemma, as he might be expected to do. By plunging into the dream, Penelope lets the beggar know that she is not asking for advice: something entirely different is going on. Far from waiting for Odysseus to propose a solution, Penelope presents her guest with her own vision of how her predicament will end: if he is indeed Odysseus and wants to avoid her remarriage, he will kill the suitors. Although at the resumption of their conversation Penelope says that she will question her guest (εἰρήσομαι, 19.509), she asks no direct questions and only requests that he interpret the dream, which already contains its own interpretation. Towards the end of the conversation, far from asking his opinion, Penelope is emphatic that he should pay attention to what she says: ἄλλο δέ τοι ἐρέω, σὺ δ᾿ ἐνὶ φρεσὶ βάλλεο σῇσιν, ‘I will tell you another thing, and you put it away in your mind’ (19.570). If Penelope does also question the beggar, it is only in an indirect way, by observing his reaction to the dream.
In the dream, Penelope’s domestic geese are destroyed by an eagle and Odysseus makes a remarkable appearance in person:
ἀλλ’ ἄγε μοι τὸν ὄνειρον ὑπόκριναι καὶ ἄκουσον.
χῆνές μοι κατὰ οἶκον ἐείκοσι πυρὸν ἔδουσιν {229|230}
ἐξ ὕδατος, καί τέ σφιν ἰαίνομαι εἰσορόωσα·
ἐλθὼν δ’ ἐξ ὄρεος μέγας αἰετὸς ἀγκυλοχήλης
πᾶσι κατ’ αὐχένας ἦξε καὶ ἔκτανεν· οἱ δ’ ἐκέχυντο
ἁθρόοι ἐν μεγάροισ’, ὁ δ’ ἐς αἰθέρα δῖαν ἀέρθη.
αὐτὰρ ἐγὼ κλαῖον καὶ ἐκώκυον ἔν περ ὀνείρῳ,
ἀμφὶ δέ μ’ ἠγερέθοντο ἐϋπλοκαμῖδες Ἀχαιαί,
οἴκτρ’ ὀλοφυρομένην, ὅ μοι αἰετὸς ἔκτανε χῆνας.
ἂψ δ’ ἐλθὼν κατ’ ἄρ’ ἕζετ’ ἐπὶ προὔχοντι μελάθρῳ,
φωνῇ δὲ βροτέῃ κατερήτυε φώνησέν τε·
‘θάρσει, Ἰκαρίου κούρη τηλεκλειτοῖο·
οὐκ ὄναρ, ἀλλ’ ὕπαρ ἐσθλόν, ὅ τοι τετελεσμένον ἔσται.
χῆνες μὲν μνηστῆρες, ἐγὼ δέ τοι αἰετὸς ὄρνις
ἦα πάρος, νῦν αὖτε τεὸς πόσις εἰλήλουθα,
ὃς πᾶσι μνηστῆρσιν ἀεικέα πότμον ἐφήσω.’
(Odyssey 19.535–550)
But come, respond to a dream for me and listen to it.
I have twenty geese at home, they eat wheat
out of the water, and I delight in looking at them.
But a great eagle with a curved beak came from the mountain
and broke each one’s neck and killed all of them. And they lay in a heap
in the house, while the eagle rose up high into the shining ether.
But I cried and wailed, though in a dream,
and Achaean women with beautiful hair gathered around me
as I was bitterly lamenting that the eagle killed my geese.
But the eagle came back and settled on a projecting roof-beam,
and in a human voice consoled me and spoke to me:
“Take heart, daughter of far-famed Ikarios.
This is not a dream, but a true waking vision, and it will come to fulfillment.
The geese are the suitors, and I was an eagle before,
but now I have come back and I am your husband,
and I will bring an ugly death upon all of the suitors.” {230|231}
According to a popular interpretation, the geese in the dream are the suitors from the very beginning and Penelope’s crying over them conveys her secret (or subconscious) disappointment at the loss of their courtship. [3] Such an understanding of the dream, however, underrates both the precision and resonance of its details and its role as a crucial step in the unfolding dialogue. It is true that within the dream itself the eagle equates the geese with the suitors, but that internal interpretation is presented as a reversal and therefore cannot apply to the first part of the dream. The shift in the symbolism of the geese is supported by the distinction drawn between ὄναρ and ὕπαρ and by the explicit now-then contrast in the eagle’s speech:
χῆνες μὲν μνηστῆρες, ἐγὼ δέ τοι αἰετὸς ὄρνις
ἦα πάρος, νῦν αὖτε τεὸς πόσις εἰλήλουθα.
(Odyssey 19.548–549)
The geese are the suitors, and I was an eagle before,
but now I come back and I am your husband.
The implication is that Penelope at first did not think the eagle was Odysseus, nor that the geese were suitors. What are the geese before they are reinterpreted as suitors? A answer has been proposed by Pratt, who argues that the twenty geese, symbols of conjugal fidelity and good guardians of the house, stand for the twenty years that Penelope herself has been such a {231|232} guardian. [4] Pratt’s interpretation follows, with more precision, the general direction of Finley’s earlier suggestion that the geese do not signify the suitors but the “state of half-orderliness” Penelope has maintained. [5] Equating the suitors with the geese in the first part of the dream fails to explain why Penelope chooses to mention their number, especially since the suitors are far more numerous than twenty and indeed we are told that they are ‘neither ten nor twenty’:
μνηστήρων δ’ οὔτ’ ἂρ δεκὰς ἀτρεκὲς οὔτε δύ’ οἶαι,
ἀλλὰ πολὺ πλέονες.
(Odyssey 16.245–246)
The suitors are not ten exactly, nor only twenty,
but many more.
By contrast, the fact that Odysseus comes home in the twentieth year is repeatedly emphasized: ἤλυθον εἰκοστῷ ἔτεϊ ἐς πατρίδα γαῖαν, ‘he came in the twentieth year back to his native land’ (16.206 = 19.484 = 21.208 = 24.322). [6] The fact that Penelope chooses this number for her geese is a vital clue to their significance. Penelope’s mention of Achaean women who cry along with her (19.543–544) is also hard to comprehend on the assumption that the geese are {232|233} suitors, since from the beginning of the poem public opinion seems to be in favor of Penelope’s remaining in the house, however difficult that is (2.136–137, cf. 16.75, 19.527). It is hard to imagine Penelope wailing over the death of the suitors, or other Achaean women joining her in this questionable lament, and it is even harder to imagine Penelope confessing such a fantasy, especially to a man she at least suspects of being Odysseus, let alone to any stranger. Moreover, Penelope is not simply weeping, but indeed lamenting, and the words used, in particular the verb κωκύω, ‘wail’, and the expression οἴκτρ’ ὀλοφυρομένην, ‘bitterly lamenting’, are especially associated with laments for family members. [7] If she grieves over the loss of her marriage and household with all its hopes, then the language is understandable and the other women may indeed be expected to join her.
Penelope’s initial reaction, then, is grief at the sight of her twenty-year effort gone to waste. The second part of the dream, however, is a sudden reversal. The eagle turns out to be on Penelope’s side, the geese are in fact suitors: it is not the household that is gone, but the suitors who are dead. And the author of this metamorphosis is Odysseus. Penelope has conveyed to her guest what she has accomplished in the twenty years of his absence, the magnitude of the devastation she expects any minute, and the solution that Odysseus must now achieve. In effect, Penelope takes him up on his claim to be Odysseus – the perfect king. And after describing in her dream-narrative the kind of resolution she expects from the “real” Odysseus, Penelope pointedly remarks that this task still lies ahead:
ὥς ἔφατ᾿, αὐτὰρ ἐμὲ μελιηδὴς ὕπνος ἀνῆκε·
παπτήνασα δὲ χῆνας ἐνὶ μεγάροισι νόησα
πυρὸν ἐρεπτομένους παρὰ πύελον, ἦχι πάρος περ.
(Odyssey 19.552–554)
Thus he spoke, and honey-sweet sleep released me.
And looking around I saw the geese in my house,
eating wheat at the water trough, as before.
In the course of the “dream” the geese stood first for Penelope’s twenty years of guardianship and then for the suitors, and now they are equally capable of both meanings: the oikos still perseveres, but the suitors are still at the trough. [8] {233|234}
Polyvalent and shifting in its symbolic values, the dream is equally complex in its genre. It seems to intertwine the themes and conventions of several genres in such a way that they coalesce into a performance most finely attuned to its occasion. Of course, the occasion, a meeting between a wife and her disguised husband on the eve of their momentous reunion, is itself multi-faceted, complex, and certainly unusual.
The very appearance of Odysseus as an eagle is an element rich in connotation, and not only because the eagle is Zeus’ bird and the largest winged predator of Homeric similes. In Modern Greek oral poetry, the eagle often stands both for a warrior and for an aggressive lover or bridegroom, whose bride is usually a partridge or dove. For example, the eagle and the dove are newlyweds in widely used verses from a wedding song:
Σήμερα λάμπει ὁ οὐρανὸς, σήμερα λάμπει ἡ μέρα,
Σήμερα στεφανώνεται ἀετός τὴν περιστέρα.
Today the sky is shining, today the day is shining,
Today the eagle and the dove exchange their wedding crowns. [9]
There is a good possibility that such imagery goes back to antiquity, and indeed there is an instance where it seems to surface in the Odyssey. In Book 20, the suitors are plotting Telemachus’ murder, when they are stopped by an inauspicious omen. An eagle appears on the left, the inauspicious side, carrying a trembling dove. Athanassakis comments: “As a potential bridegroom, each suitor is an eagle, and to each suitor Penelope is a dove. Therefore, the allegorical ‘ideogram’ before them bodes failure for each one of them, and success for the eagle of Penelope’s dream, who is none other than Odysseus.” [10] If the eagle as bridegroom is a conventional metaphor already in the Homeric song culture, then perhaps, like today, it was used in wedding songs. This opens up the possibility that Penelope uses the diction of wedding songs to create her dream tale.
And indeed the very notion of a bride’s dream before wedding or meeting her future husband may be traditional, in which case Penelope is surely tapping into that tradition. In the Odyssey, Nausikaa’s dream before she meets Odysseus may be an example of this, although their marriage, of course, fails to take place. There is, moreover, a curious parallel to Penelope’s dream in an epic poem far removed from Homer geographically, chronologi- {234|235} cally, and linguistically. In a version of the Uzbek epic poem Alpamysh recorded between 1922 and 1939 from performances of Fazil Yuldash-ogly, Alpamysh and his betrothed Barchin are separated when their fathers quarrel and her own migrates to a remote land with all his people. [11] When the time comes for Barchin to marry, a large number of suitors wish to compete for her hand, but she wants to marry Alpamysh alone. She sends a secret message asking him to come to her rescue and in the meanwhile persuades the suitors to postpone their advances for six months. Alpamysh undertakes the long journey, arrives on the last day of the reprieve, is victorious in the contests, and, of course, marries Barchin. There are many interesting parallels between the Alpamysh and the Odyssey, including Barchin’s refusal to choose Alpamysh right away and her insistence that, though her mind is made up, the contests will go on as planned. Although she spends six months longing for Alpamysh and worrying that he will not come, once a messenger tells her that her future husband has finally arrived she responds with something close to, “Arrived, so what of it?” [12] The parallel that concerns me here, however, has to do with the dream Barchin sees on the eve of Alpamysh’s arrival. In that complicated dream she sees a huge eagle, which alights next to her and touches her head with his wing. She also dreams that the top circle of her yurt collapses. When she wakes up Barchin tells her dream to the forty girls who are her attendants, and one of them interprets it. The interpreter begins by saying that Barchin should not fear the dream because it is actually an auspicious one: it signifies that her betrothed will arrive on the next day. She identifies the eagle with Alpamysh, and sees even the damage to the yurt as a positive sign: the number of the poles supporting the yurt is the same as the number of Barchin’s suitors, so that the dream predicts their destruction. [13]
The tale of the Returning Husband is immense if not worldwide in its spread, and virtually inexhaustible in the number of permutations that are wrought on its basic elements. The complex task of grouping its variants (for example, into Western and Eastern groups) and distinguishing between typological and genetic relationships goes far beyond my present concerns. The possibility that the Odyssey and Alpamysh share some of their origins should {235|236} not be excluded and has indeed been suggested, but it is the typological dimension of the comparison that is of interest to me here. [14] Another variation on this theme occurs in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, where Alkyone waits for her husband Ceyx, who has gone on a sea voyage and drowned. One night he appears to her in a dream, naked and wet, and tells her of his death. The next day his body is washed ashore. [15] While Barchin’s dream is much more similar to Penelope’s than that of Alkyone, the latter heroine has nevertheless much in common with Penelope, [16] and structurally her dream occurs at a similar point in the plot as that of Penelope and of Barchin, on the eve of the (future) husband’s return, even if Ceyx does not return alive.
Barchin’s dream, however, is a particularly striking parallel to Penelope’s because it contains the crucial element of reversal in interpretation. While Barchin is disturbed by the dream, her friend interprets it as a positive sign. Both Barchin and Penelope see something that at first seems to be destructive to the dreamer (the damaged yurt, the dead geese) but is actually destructive to her enemies (vanquished suitors). In both cases, numbers are important for the correct interpretation and in both cases the successful suitor is identified with the eagle, which alights in proximity of the dreamer.
The examples of Barchin, Alkyone, and even Nausikaa suggest that Penelope’s dream is a traditional element in a sense that it may be typical for a waiting wife or bride in songs to see a prophetic dream on the eve of her husband’s arrival. The parallel with Barchin opens the possibility that the particular dream Penelope sees, with its eagle and emotional reversal, belongs to a certain traditional type. Penelope’s audience, including Odysseus, might have heard other songs with a woman waiting for her husband or bridegroom and seeing such a dream just before his arrival. In this case, Penelope alludes to such songs in performing for Odysseus her dream-tale about her husband’s return.
The “eve-of-arrival” dreams, such as those seen by Alkyone or Barchin, are always prophetic, and Penelope’s dream is no exception. The Odyssey plays in a rather mind-bending way with the notion of prophetic dream (more on this below), but the fact that Penelope’s dream is in fact mantic poetry is signaled by its diction, in particular by her use of the verb hupokrinesthai when she asks Odysseus to respond to her dream: ἀλλ’ ἄγε μοι τὸν ὄνειρον ὑπόκριναι καὶ ἄκουσον, ‘But come, respond to a dream for me, and listen to it’ (19.535). {236|237} As Nagy has shown, this verb hupokrinesthai refers to “responding by way of performing,” the way a seer would perform oracular poetry “in responding to questions about omens.” [17] There is a related and parallel example of mantic poetry in Book 15 of the Odyssey, where Helen interprets an actual portent similar to Penelope’s dream. Here Telemachus, still in Lacedaimon, prays to find his father at home, and as he prays an omen appears on the right, an eagle carrying off a domestic goose. As in Penelope’s dream, the wild eagle ‘from the mountain’ (15.175) is contrasted with birds of entirely different nature, pampered domestic geese (15.176). As is typical for oracular poetry, the starting point is visual, the portent, the sight of the eagle and the goose. This sight then prompts a question from Peisistratos to Menelaos:
φράζεο δή, Μενέλαε διοτρεφές, ὄρχαμε λαῶν,
ἢ νῶϊν τόδ’ ἔφηνε θεὸς τέρας ἦε σοὶ αὐτῷ.
(Odyssey 15.167–168) [18]
Consider now, Zeus-nourished Menelaos, leader of men,
whether the gods showed this portent to the two of us or to you.
Menelaos ponders how to perform a fitting response (ὅππως οἱ κατὰ μοῖραν ὑποκρίναιτο νοήσας, 15.170), but never does so because Helen anticipates him, and claims for herself the role of a mantis:
τὸν δ’ Ἑλένη τανύπεπλος ὑποφθαμένη φάτο μῦθον·
κλῦτέ μευ· αὐτὰρ ἐγὼ μαντεύσομαι, ὡς ἐνὶ θυμῷ
ἀθάνατοι βάλλουσι καὶ ὡς τελέεσθαι ὀΐω.
ὡς ὅδε χῆν’ ἥρπαξ’ ἀτιταλλομένην ἐνὶ οἴκῳ
ἐλθὼν ἐξ ὄρεος, ὅθι οἱ γενεή τε τόκος τε,
ὣς Ὀδυσεὺς κακὰ πολλὰ παθὼν καὶ πόλλ’ ἐπαληθεὶς
οἴκαδε νοστήσει καὶ τείσεται· ἠὲ καὶ ἤδη
οἴκοι, ἀτὰρ μνηστῆρσι κακὸν πάντεσσι φυτεύει.
(Odyssey 15.171–178)
Helen of the long robes anticipated him and made a pronouncement: {237|238}
“Hear me! I shall prophesy, the way the immortals put it in my heart
and the way I think it will come to fulfillment:
just as this eagle snatched a goose reared in the house,
having come from the mountain, where he has his origins and parents,
so Odysseus, after suffering much and wandering much,
will come home and take revenge
– or he is already at home and prepares evil for all the suitors.”
Relying on this and other examples, Nagy points out two important features of these oracular performances: “the words of such an oracular performance are based on the actual vision of the given omen that is seen ‘in real life’ or in a dream” and “the vision has to be performed first as a question – either by a character in the narration or simply by the narrative itself – before its meaning can be performed as a response.” [19]
Helen’s prophetic episode in Book 15 is helpful in several ways for understanding Penelope’s prophetic performance in Book 19. In both cases there is an omen, a vision (as Nagy points out, in Book 19, “the dream is the omen”), a question prompted by it, and a response to the question. But what is a relatively linear structure in Book 15, (a vision, told by the narrator and actually seen by several characters, followed by Peisistratos’ question, followed by Helen’s response), is woven in Book 19 into a remarkably complex knot. The vision is not told by the narrator, but only by Penelope, so that the possibility is open for the audience to question whether there was ever such a dream “in real life.” [20] We witness, in any case, only a verbal performance of a vision, and Penelope takes on the role of the narrator in performing it. She also poses a direct question to the beggar, asking him to interpret the dream. And then, as expected, there is a response to the question, but who is giving it?
Famously and uniquely, Penelope’s dream contains its own interpretation, the one offered by the eagle-Odysseus himself. This is highly unusual and certainly does not fit into an Alpamysh-like scenario where the woman wakes up distressed by a dream and really is in need of an interpretation. The speaking eagle is all the more remarkable because the dream, even without his speech, would not have been hard to interpret. Helen succeeds in interpreting the eagle and goose omen in Book 15, and no doubt the “real” Odysseus could {238|239} have equally well interpreted the dream in Book 19 without assistance, that is, without its last element. Penelope, apparently, does not require this service of her guest and gives him no opportunity to render it. The communication that takes place here between Penelope and Odysseus is evidently not a consultation regarding an omen, but something different, and this brings me back to the question whether the dream is in fact a dream.
Both the setting and the content of the dream immediately inspire suspicions about the dream’s genuineness as an actual vision. Winkler states simply that, “Penelope is here inventing a dream as a way of further safe communication with this fascinating stranger.” [21] There is some evidence to support this assessment. Penelope’s dream is one of three Homeric dreams that are narrated in the context of loyalty testing, and the other two are false. In Book 14, within his own story about acquiring a cloak in an ambush at Troy, Odysseus produces a dream on the spot to save his freezing companion. The dream is introduced by the same formula that Agamemnon uses to tell his false dream to the Achaean kings: κλῦτε φίλοι· θεῖός μοι ἐνύπνιον ἦλθεν ὄνειρος, ‘Hear me, friends, for a divine dream came to me in my sleep’ (Iliad 2.56 = Odyssey 14.495). When Agamemnon uses his dream to test the spirit of his men, he misrepresents it by adding a layer of his own deception to that of Zeus. He does, however, actually see the dream, and that event is narrated in the poetic voice of the Iliad, not that of Agamemnon. In the case of Odysseus in Book 14 and Penelope in Book 19, however, we are never told in the poet’s voice that the dreams actually took place, and these are the only two dreams in Homer to lack such external confirmation. Odysseus’ dream in the cloak narrative is represented as a clever device for achieving his ends and has nothing to do with anyone’s nighttime visions: if there were no need for a cloak, there would have been no dream. The same is true for Penelope’s dream: it depends on what has happened so far in the conversation between Odysseus and Penelope, and although one could, of course, assume that Penelope saw this dream at some unknown point in the past and has kept quiet about it, nothing in the Odyssey warrants such an assumption and nothing, in my opinion, is gained by it. My suggestion is that in the Odyssey, rather than seeing the dream, Penelope performs for Odysseus a muthos, a prophetic dream narrative, and her performance represents a complex and self-conscious variation on a sequence not unlike the episode with Barchin’s dream in the Alpamysh. Penelope performs her prophetic dream-song for Odysseus just as she performs the myth of {239|240} Aedon, like an aoidos, relying on familiar associations and introducing striking variations to fulfill the demands of her particular performance.
As before, Penelope is engaged in myth-making, and in this case her myth-making has particularly far-reaching implications for her communication with Odysseus and her own role in the Odyssey. To a certain extent, Penelope’s dream is a covert test of Odysseus, an invitation to confirm his wife’s thoughts and plans. Penelope conveys to the beggar that if he is indeed Odysseus then her despair will turn into a triumph over the suitors. If he is Odysseus he will kill them all. Her request for an interpretation is a covert question: is this indeed his intention? Does he claim to be able to do it? Winkler remarked that a dream containing its own interpretation, such as Penelope’s, is “a unique event in the annals of oneirokrisy,” and explained this peculiarity as follows: “She [Penelope] has in effect given the beggar both the allegory and its interpretation and is asking him whether she is right.” [22]
I agree with the substance of this assessment, but it does not entirely explain Penelope’s choice to incorporate interpretation into the dream instead of letting the beggar-Odysseus produce his own. Penelope is not simply asking a question, but uttering a prophecy, and it has been observed that in Homer prophecies predict the plot of the narrative, so that their fulfillment is equivalent to the unfolding of the plot. [23] In Book 15, Helen predicts that her prophecy will come to fulfillment (ὡς τελέεσθαι ὀΐω, ‘the way I think it will come to fulfillment’, 15.173) and so does the eagle in Penelope’s dream (ὅ τοι τετελεσμένον ἔσται, ‘which will come to fulfillment’, 19.547). The telos, or ‘fulfillment’, of these prophecies is also the telos of the Odyssey, namely the return of Odysseus. There is an important difference, however, between the prophetic stance and technique of Helen and Penelope: Helen is an outsider to the plot who utters a prophecy based on an external sign, the way a professional seer would (and the seer Theoklymenos does, for example, at Odyssey 15.530–534). Penelope’s prophecy, on the other hand, is akin to the oaths disguised Odysseus utters regarding his own return, which are based on Odysseus’ own knowledge, concealed from others. In a similar way, Penelope’s dream is prophetic, but also based on the understanding she has reached with the beggar and her opinion (perhaps uncertain) that he is Odysseus. Penelope creates for herself a prophetic dream of the kind she would be likely to see if she were in a song where her husband comes back on the next day. By doing so she in effect makes the next day into the day of her husband’s return and, {240|241} in a typically Odyssean twist, extends her myth-making into the making of the Odyssey itself. [24]
And, of course, Penelope does this in a conversation with the very husband who is the subject of her dream. Next to internal self-interpretation, the most unusual feature of Penelope’s dream-narrative is surely the fact that the supposedly absent husband is present and moreover asked to interpret the dream. The latter fact allows for an entirely new level of signification and communication to be activated. On the one hand, the request for an interpretation of a self-interpreting dream may be an agonistic move on the part of Penelope. As if in a poetic agon, her performance determines the shape of Odysseus’ reply and preempts any changes. Odysseus seems to acknowledge as much when he says that no other explanation of the dream is possible, since ‘Odysseus himself’ told her how it will come to pass:
τὴν δ’ ἀπαμειβόμενος προσέφη πολύμητις Ὀδυσσεύς·
“ὦ γύναι, οὔ πως ἔστιν ὑποκρίνασθαι ὄνειρον
ἄλλῃ ἀποκλίναντ’, ἐπεὶ ἦ ῥά τοι αὐτὸς Ὀδυσσεὺς
πέφραδ’, ὅπως τελέει· μνηστῆρσι δὲ φαίνετ’ ὄλεθρος
πᾶσι μάλ’, οὐδέ κέ τις θάνατον καὶ κῆρας ἀλύξει.
(Odyssey 19.554–558)
Responding to her much-devising Odysseus spoke:
“Lady, there is no way to respond to the dream
by turning it another way, since Odysseus himself
told you how it will come to fulfillment. Doom is apparent for the suitors,
all of them, and not one of them will escape death and destruction.”
There is irony in this confirmation, since this ‘Odysseus himself’ is a creation of Penelope, a character in her tale. On the other hand, by calling the speaking eagle of Penelope’s dream ‘Odysseus himself’ the real Odysseus is confirming the veracity of Penelope’s prophecy: there is indeed only one way to respond to the vision she has performed, the one contained in her dream. In discussing the semantics of hupokrinesthai, Nagy remarks on the notion of unchangeability and quotability built into it. [25] Although, from the point of an outside observer, oral poetry may differ from one performance to the next, {241|242} notionally when Homeric poetry “quotes” the words of a hero, those words are always the original words, exactly the same. In this way, Homeric poetry is like mantic poetry, which also has to be “quoted” exactly because it predicts the future just as it will be. Nagy comments: “It seems that in this case there can be only one way for Odysseus to respond, that is, to repeat the words already quoted by Penelope. For the meaning to be clarified, the quoted words would have to be quoted again, that is, performed. We see here at work the poetic mentality of unchangeability: once the words of response have been performed as a speech act, they are ready to be quoted again as a fixed and unchangeable saying.” [26] Nagy further suggests that the “recurring sameness” of Homeric quotations, (“responses” signaled by hupokrinesthai), corresponds to the “recurring sameness” of visions, which prompt the responses. [27] The strangeness of the oracular episode in Book 19 is that the vision is created by Penelope, who steps into the role of “Homer,” and the response is also performed by her, quoting eagle-Odysseus. At first, this unusual performance seems to correspond to the external reality of the Odyssey no more than Odysseus’s dream in an ambush at Troy does, a never-seen dream, presented as a clever trick within Odysseus’ tale for Eumaeus (14.462–506), which is itself not a “true” tale from the standpoint of the Odyssey, but an ainos aimed at getting a cloak. The words of the self-interpreting eagle, himself both the vision and the seer, within a telling of a never-seen dream, might be expected to have an equally tenuous relationship to any potential reality. But authenticated by Odysseus and fulfilled by the Odyssey, these words turn out to be a true prophecy and the kind of permanent and definitive response that is signaled by hupokrinesthai in Homer. Correspondingly, the dream created by Penelope becomes a real oracular vision, which demands to be interpreted, turned into a speech act, in an unchangeable and definitive way, as done by the eagle “quoted” by Penelope. [28] Penelope performs Odysseus for Odysseus, and the Odysseus of Penelope’s performance turns out to be the real one, according to Odysseus himself, and the Odyssey.
By “authenticating” the words of the eagle, the beggar also, yet again, confirms his identity, or at least his claim to this identity. As one scholar puts it, “[Odysseus’] assurance is so peculiarly explicit that Penelope must realize {242|243} that Odysseus himself is speaking.” [29] Through her dream, Penelope conveys to the beggar that if he is indeed Odysseus he will kill the suitors. The beggar responds that death is what awaits them and even adds that not a single one will escape, thus asserting that he is able to accomplish the deed. In this way, ‘Odysseus himself’ conveys this message to Penelope both in her own dream-narrative and, in disguise, in the macro-narrative of the Odyssey.
I hasten to add that this does not remove from Penelope the burden of her decision. The beggar’s acceptance of her prophecy in fact re-imposes on her the task of making choices and taking actions to bring it to fulfillment. The beggar defers to the eagle-Odysseus of the dream as the only true interpreter of Penelope’s vision, but for the moment this ‘Odysseus himself’ remains her own creation. Her myth-making will merge with that of the Odyssey in the end, but that end is still far from being accomplished, at least from Penelope’s point of view. And if at this stage Penelope has indeed made up her mind about her guest and has decided on a course of action for tomorrow, this would make her worry of being deceived or mistaken, a worry to which she confesses in Book 23 (215–217), all the more acute. The stranger lets her know that he is Odysseus, and she believes him, but, for all that, a successful accomplishment of Odysseus’ return still remains to be seen. If indeed this is the real Odysseus in front of Penelope, then there is no possibility of holding out just a little longer and no room for more hope if he fails. The time for holding tight and avoiding the worst outcomes has passed and the decisive moment is at hand. As Odysseus himself says to Telemachus, ‘no other Odysseus will yet arrive’ (Odyssey 16.204).
The shifting polyvalence of the expression ‘Odysseus himself’ is an indication of the strange permutations that reality undergoes in this conversation, and the strange mixture of certainty and suspense this produces. Another is a phrase that the eagle utters in the dream: οὐκ ὄναρ, ἀλλ’ ὕπαρ ἐσθλόν, ὅ τοι τετελεσμένον ἔσται, ‘not a dream but a true waking reality, which will come to fulfillment’ (19.547). The eagle denies that he is a dream, and claims that Penelope sees what she sees in actuality. Moreover, Penelope is the one who composes these words in her performance, perhaps hinting that this dream is not really a dream but is happening before her waking eyes. But, of course, {243|244} the eagle, who claims to be not a dream, remains a part of Penelope’s dream-performance. In response to the beggar’s upholding of her prophecy, Penelope will famously deny the reliability of dreams, and claim that hers will not come true (19.560–569). Her protests, however, raise another question pertinent to the situation: what about the reliability of waking sight? It is perhaps the uniqueness of this situation that explains the strange usage of hupar by the eagle: ὕπαρ ἐσθλόν, ὅ τοι τετελεσμένον ἔσται, ‘a true waking vision which will come to fulfillment’. It would seem that a prophecy could be fulfilled in the future, or a prophetic dream, but a hupar, the actual reality, is by definition something already come to pass. Indeed, the dictionary of Liddell and Scott even creates a unique translation for hupar in this passage: “no illusive dream, but a (vision of) reality.” The fact remains, however, that elsewhere hupar is not used to designate true prophetic visions as opposed to deceptive ones, but in direct opposition to onar, denotes the state of being awake and actually seeing something with one’s eyes. Used adverbially, hupar means ‘actually, in reality’. [30] Penelope’s unexpected use of hupar underscores, perhaps, the peculiarity of what happens in Book 19: Odysseus is right here before her, and yet, unless and until he can kill the suitors, his return cannot reach its fulfillment.
The collocation οὐκ . . . ὄναρ . . . ἀλλ’ ὕπαρ recurs in Book 20, when Penelope does indeed see a dream, and in her dream Odysseus lies next to her in bed, looking just as he was when he departed for Troy:
τῇδε γὰρ αὖ μοι νυκτὶ παρέδραθεν εἴκελος αὐτῷ,
τοῖος ἐὼν, οἷος ᾖεν ἅμα στρατῷ· αὐτὰρ ἐμὸν κῆρ
χαῖρ’, ἐπεὶ οὐκ ἐφάμην ὄναρ ἔμμεναι, ἀλλ’ ὕπαρ ἤδη.
(Odyssey 20.88–90)
And again this night someone slept with me who looked like him [Odysseus],
such as he was when he left with the army. And my heart
rejoiced, since I did not think it was a dream, but a waking reality already.
Penelope thinks (ἐφάμην) this is a reality already (ἤδη), but it is not: once awake she has to remind herself that the archery trial with all its horrible potentialities is still ahead. And yet the dream is an intimation of hope. It is even too hopeful, and cautious Penelope is afraid of getting ahead of the events: {244|245} the dream is, in her words, one of those ‘bad dreams’, κακὰ ὀνείρατα, ‘bad’ presumably because it is so tempting yet potentially deceptive. [31] At night, with her self-control relaxed, Penelope is presented with just the vision she has been trying not to indulge in for fear of bitter disappointment. The variation between ὕπαρ ἐσθλόν, ‘a true waking reality’, in Book 19 and ὕπαρ ἤδη, ‘waking reality already’, in Book 20, where the other expression is metrically possible, underscores the implications of ἤδη, ‘already’: in her dream Penelope is getting ahead of herself, anticipating reunion with Odysseus all too vividly. The return to reality is wrenching and Penelope greets the dawn in tears (20.58).
There are the only two occurrences of the word hupar in Homer, and it seems that in both cases they express Penelope’s sense that Odysseus’ return is really underway. At the same time the contexts in which these visions occur make this long-awaited reality as yet intangible, like a dream. Penelope’s use of the word hupar in her dream-tale seems to convey both the immediacy of Odysseus’ presence for her and the distance between them, the impossibility of direct communication before the return is indeed accomplished. In Book 19, this effect is augmented by the eagle’s human speech: the eagle is a bird, yet speaks with a human voice; he is Odysseus himself, yet not. The expression φωνῇ βροτέῃ, ‘with a human voice’, unique in Homer, finds many parallels in Modern Greek folk songs, and in fact the whole two lines introducing the eagle’s words are semantically, and even poetically, very close to their Modern Greek parallels. Athanassakis, who has studied these similarities, offers the following relatively older example from Moni Iviron:
κι ἔνα πουλὶ καθέ[ζετο] κι ἐμένα παρηγόρα
ἔλεγεν μὲ [τὸ στόμα] του ἀνθρώπινη λαλίτσα.
And a bird perched and spoke to me,
uttered a human speech with its mouth.
Equally close to the Odyssean lines is another, relatively more recent, folk song from Thessaly:
πουλάκι ἐδιάβη κι ἔκατσε//στὴ σέλλα στὸ καλτάκι
(δέν κελαηδοῦσε σὰν πουλί, σάν τ’ ἄλλα τὰ πουλάκια)
μόν’ κελαηδοῦσε κι ἔλεγε//ἀνθρώπινη λαλίτσα. [32] {245|246}
A bird came down and settled on my saddle
(it did not speak like a bird, like all the other birds),
but it sung and spoke with human speech.
In these modern songs, the birds speaking with a human voice often represent long absent or dead relatives who return in this way to their loved ones and offer consolation. For example, in the song from Moni Iviron quoted above the bird says ὑπόμενε τά θλίβεσαι, ‘Endure your grief’, and Athanassakis compares that with the way the eagle in the Odyssey checks Penelope’s tears (κατερήτυε, 545) and consoles her (θάρσει, 546). Athanassakis attributes the long survival of these lines to “their being an integral part of a theme deeply embedded in Greek culture, that of the return of someone who has been away from hearth and kin for many years, either alive and in person, or imagined and metamorphosed, if he is still away from home, or dead.” [33]
In the Odyssey, the speaking eagle appears in Penelope’s own performance. Not only does she create a unique self-interpreting variant of a pre-return/pre-marriage dream-tale, she might be adopting an element from another kind of song, a song about a dear one returning in the guise of a speaking bird, incorporating into her performance yet another genre that resonates with the macro-narrative of the Odyssey. [34] Odysseus does not come back to Penelope in the shape of a bird, yet he does come back in disguise, and thus not completely. He does offer her consolation when he promises that Odysseus’ return is imminent, but this too is only a promise, not yet a reality. In this sense, as he sits across from his wife, Odysseus both has and has not come back. Penelope’s famous words about the uncertainty of dreams accentuate the tantalizing reality, but not-yet reality, of her hupar. {246|}


[ back ] 1. See Winkler 1990:153–54 and Felson 1994:32 on this point. Cf. Book 4, where Penelope’s first crisis over Telemachus is also followed by a dream (Odyssey 4.795–840).
[ back ] 2. Anhalt 2001–2.145.
[ back ] 3. E.g., Austin 1975.229–31, Katz 1991:146–147, Felson 1994:32, Ahl and Roisman 1996:235–36, McDonald 1997:16. The dream has been also seen as reflective of an unconscious and/or mixed pleasure in the suitors’ presence and attachment to them (Devereux 1957:382, Rankin 1962:622, Russo 1982:8–10, 1992.102, Murnaghan 1987:130, Felson-Rubin 1987:71–74). Devereux’s (1957.382) opinion is illustrative: “It is hard to understand how literary critics could have overlooked the fact that a rapidly aging woman, denied for some twenty years the pleasures of sex and the company and support of her husband, would inevitably be unconsciously flattered by the attention of young men and highly eligible suitors, which is precisely what the chief suitor accuses her of in public.” This, to my mind, overly realistic view is not based on anything in the Odyssey but rather on general assumptions regarding the behavior of women. On the dream as a form of divination see Amory 1963:106 and Allione 1963:90–91. On the dream as Penelope’s creation, see Büchner 1940:149n1, Harsch 1950:16, and Winkler 1990:154. See also Clayton 2004:45–46 on the dream as a self-referential text “centered on self-interpretation and generation of meaning,” which, however, can generate meaning endlessly, thus ultimately eluding interpretation.
[ back ] 4. Pratt 1994. For more on Penelope and water birds, see Bader 1998 and Levaniouk 1999. McDonald (1997:10) notes the excess of Penelope’s grief at the loss of her geese and sees in it an argument against a “literal” interpretation and in favor of equating the geese with the suitors. But if the geese are not “literally” the geese, but instead stand for Penelope’s long effort at preserving the household of Odysseus, then her excessive grief at the devastation makes perfect sense. On analogies to the dream in later (and modern) Greek poetry, see Athanassakis 1994.
[ back ] 5. Finley1978.247. There have been objections to this line of thought: in Katz’s opinion, Finley “disregards the obvious meaning of the text,” (Katz 1991:146) and a similar criticism has been voiced à propos Pratt’s argument by Rozokoki (2001:n6), who claims that it goes against “the interpretation provided within the dream itself (19.548–50).” The latter criticism does not take into account the reversal that is taking place within the dream. As for “the obvious meaning of the text” there is, of course, no such thing. What is clear is that scholars disagree about the interpretation of the dream, which is one of the most complex utterances in Homer. It is also clear is that we are culturally ill-equipped to understand such utterances by virtue of our being outsiders to the song culture of Homeric poetry.
[ back ] 6. Cf. 2.175, 5.34. Rozokoki’s argument (2001:2) that twenty in the Odyssey means simply “a significant number” is not persuasive: at 14.98 it is ξυνεείκοσι that has that function, its exaggerated meaning emphasized by ξυν-, at 22.57 it is another standard expression, ἐεικοσάβοιον, and at 20.158 ἐείκοσι might well be the exact number. The fact that twenty can be used to mean ‘many’ does not, in any case, override the emphasis the Odyssey places on the fact that Odysseus comes home in the twentieth year. Athanassakis (1987:263) suggests that twenty is the number of Penelope’s favorite suitors, but there is nothing in the poem to support this.
[ back ] 7. Pratt 1994:152 and n17.
[ back ] 8. Cf. Felson-Rubin (1987:82n34) who sees unresolved ambiguity in 552–553. I agree that the meaning of these lines is not overdetermined, but see them as polyvalent rather than ambiguous.
[ back ] 9. Cited by Athanassakis 1994:124.
[ back ] 10. Athanassakis 1994:124.
[ back ] 11. Alimjan 1939. This version, which is about 14,000 lines long and which later appeared in Russian translation (Penkovsky 1982) is currently the best-known version of the story. The influential studies of Zhirmunsky are based on it; a different version was translated into German by Reichl (Reichl 2001). The story of Alpamysh is attested in prosaic form and in epic song (dastan) over a huge territory inhabited by Turkic peoples, and multiple versions of it are recorded (Tajik, Kazakh, Karakalpak, Kirghiz, Turkmen etc.).
[ back ] 12. Penkovsky 1982:142.
[ back ] 13. Penkovsky 1982:122–123.
[ back ] 14. Zhirmunsky 1967.
[ back ] 15. Ovid Metamorphoses 11.616–735.
[ back ] 16. See below.
[ back ] 17. Nagy 2002:141.
[ back ] 18. Hollmann shows that the verb φράζεσθαι, especially in the imperative, is used in oracular contexts to describe the process of decoding of a coded message. The use of this verb is thus itself a signal that the message being considered is coded. See Hollmann 3.1.4, forthcoming.
[ back ] 19. Nagy 2002:143.
[ back ] 20. See more on this below.
[ back ] 21. Winkler 1990:154. On the dream as Penelope’s creation see also Büchner 1940:149n1, Harsh 1950:16, Newtοn 1998:144–145.
[ back ] 22. Winkler 1990:153.
[ back ] 23. Nagy 2002:145–146.
[ back ] 24. See below, with references, on Odysseus and Penelope as authorial figures.
[ back ] 25. Nagy 2002:141–142.
[ back ] 26. Nagy 2002:144.
[ back ] 27. Nagy 2002:147.
[ back ] 28. Nagy 2002.147. I draw here also on Nagy’s formulation that “to interpret is really to formalize the speech-act that is radiating from the dream or the omen.” (Nagy 1990:168 n95).
[ back ] 29. Amory (1963:105–106). I agree with Amory on this and several other points about the dream, although I disagree with her opinion on the recognition question, and consequently on the supposed difficulties faced by “the poet” in this scene. According to Amory, Odysseus’ explicit and essentially self-revealing assurance “leaves the poet, who has decided to postpone his recognition scene until after the contest, with the problem of preventing an immediate acknowledgement of Penelope’s recognition.”
[ back ] 30. Cf. Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound 486, Plato, Republic 520c. Cunliffe’s gloss on hupar makes no exceptions for Odyssey 19.547 and reads “a waking reality, the actual sight of something.”
[ back ] 31. And arguably, it is deceptive to some extent: Odysseus is no longer the way he used to be. Nevertheless, the vision of youthful Odysseus and correspondingly youthful Penelope suggests the resumption of marriage. For a different, and fuller, discussion of the dream in connection to the prayer, see McDonald 1997:12–16.
[ back ] 32. Athanassakis 1994:128–129.
[ back ] 33. Athanassakis 1994:130.
[ back ] 34. Incidentally, this is another telling divergence between her dream and that of Barchin in the Alpamysh. While the eagle stands for the bridegroom or husband in both cases, it does not speak in the Uzbek epic.