Eve of the Festival: Making Myth in Odyssey 19

  Levaniouk, Olga. 2011. Eve of the Festival: Making Myth in Odyssey 19. Hellenic Studies Series 46. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies. http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hul.ebook:CHS_Levaniouk.Eve_of_the_Festival.2011.

Chapter 14. The Decision

In response to the dream tale, Odysseus implicitly asserts that he will do just what Penelope expects, and Penelope is by no means blind to this assurance. She does act accordingly, even though her verbal response is skeptical. The scenario she described is a dream, and dreams, she reminds Odysseus, are not always fulfilled (Odyssey 19.560). Much has been said about Penelope’s famous gates of dreams, and the punning wordplay on ἐλέφαντος (564) and ἐλεφαίρονται (565), κεράων (566), κραίνουσι (567), and ἀκράαντα (565). I do not have much to add to the previous scholarship on this matter, but one thing that is important to note is that Penelope does not question the interpretation of the dream. [1] The meaning of the dream is not in doubt, but only whether it will come to pass. A comment on the baffling nature of dreams might be expected to be about the difficulty of understanding what dreams mean, but that is not what Penelope says. In her words the only difference between the two kinds of dreams has to do with whether or not they turn out to be true. [2] There is no reason to conclude from Penelope’s pessimism that she has no inkling of the beggar’s identity. The feat of killing all the suitors is, after all, something miraculous and possible only with active divine help, given their sheer number. Penelope has reason to doubt that it can ever be accomplished, even if the beggar is indeed Odysseus. In her desire to believe his hints she may also, of course, worry about being deceived by this stranger who seems to be Odysseus but who might even be a god in disguise. Still, in spite of the inevitable risks, proceeding on the assumption that the beggar is Odysseus is Penelope’s best strategy and best hope. And so she announces to Odysseus her well-considered and motivated decision: she will provide him with a chance to accomplish his return by staging the bow contest. [3] {247|248}

The decision to hold the contest makes sense as an outcome of the dialogue in Book 19. It is true, as has been suggested, that the contest may make sense for Penelope whether or not she suspects the beggar of being Odysseus. For one thing, she can expect that none of the suitors will be able to string Odysseus’ bow, and if all suitors lose, Penelope would at least gain another delay. [4] As Marquart puts it, “The proposal of the contest of the bow, suggested to her by talk of Odysseus’ apparel (19.218–42), is another example of her cunning, a desperate, final attempt to put off the suitors forever, with any luck.” [5] She would also damage the suitors’ standing on Ithaca, something that could be advantageous to Telemachus. [6] Scodel suggests further that the suitors begin by hoping to gain not only Penelope but also Odysseus’ property, (which could happen if Telemachus is immature and can be pushed aside or else murdered), but shift their attention to competing just for Penelope as their original goal becomes less and less realistic. [7] Scodel sees Penelope’s alluring appearance in front of the suitors in Book 18 as a turning point, an attempt to seduce them into competing only for herself and leaving Telemachus alone. [8] The staging of the contest is then the continuation of the same strategy, since “she will have emphasized that she is the only prize and {248|249} distracted them from Telemachus.” [9] Indeed, by soliciting gifts from the suitors Penelope signals that she will marry soon, and therefore seems to be moving towards remarriage even before her dialogue with Odysseus, though this is hardly conclusive: Penelope has encouraged the suitors before, and always delayed. She could solicit gifts, and even promise to set up a contest, and continue to delay. Still, there is a theoretical possibility that Penelope could free herself from the suitors by staging a contest in which they would all lose. Scodel accordingly suggests that there is no need “to collapse various possible outcomes into a single gamble and say either that she gambles that no suitor can succeed or that she gambles that the beggar is Odysseus.” [10] By contrast, I do not see Penelope’s two possible gambles as equal, though they are perfectly compatible. The hope that all suitors will lose may be real, but it is not clear what would happen in this case. Could the suitors request a different contest? There do not seem to be any mythological parallels that could help answer this question. Though there is much comparative evidence for bow contests, including some in cognate Indic epic, that share telling details with the Odyssey, I do not know of an example where such a contest would be lost by all. In the absence of any parallels, it is hard to know how much weight can be assigned to this possibility.

The particular way Penelope presents her decision and the way Odysseus reacts are consistent with this interpretation. It seems to be the pattern in this part of the conversation for Penelope to dazzle her audience and then move on to the next step without letting them (and him) come up for air. She ends her dream tale by saying that she does not expect it to come true, though that would be a welcome joy for her and her son (19.569). This line marks yet another change of pace in the conversation, one that Penelope accomplishes on her own, while Odysseus is silent.

It is time to move on to the stratagem for completing Odysseus’ return, the contest of the bow. Penelope announces her decision and then describes the set-up of the contest – for the benefit of this beggar – in every detail down to the number of the axes through which the competitors will have to shoot an arrow. [12] Penelope does not invite any questions, but simply asks her guest to ‘put it into his mind’, fittingly enough, since it is important for Odysseus to know the logistics of her plan. If the beginning of their conversation was marked by an overflow of emotion, its end contains a concise statement of practicalities. Odysseus’ response makes it clear that he stands by his claims and yet again reasserts his identity:

τὴν δ’ ἀπαμειβόμενος προσέφη πολύμητις Ὀδυσσεύς·
ὦ γύναι αἰδοίη Λαερτιάδεω Ὀδυσῆος,
μηκέτι νῦν ἀνάβαλλε δόμοισ’ ἔνι τοῦτον ἄεθλον·
πρὶν γάρ τοι πολύμητις ἐλεύσεται ἐνθάδ’ Ὀδυσσεύς,
πρὶν τούτους τόδε τόξον ἐΰξοον ἀμφαφόωντας
νευρήν τ’ ἐντανύσαι διοϊστεῦσαί τε σιδήρου.

(Odyssey 19.582–587)

And responding to her much-devising Odysseus spoke:
“Respected wife of Odysseus, son of Laertes,
do not postpone this contest in your house any longer.
For much-devising Odysseus will come back beforehand,
before these men can handle the polished bow
and string it and shoot through the iron.” {250|251}

There is no question any more of Odysseus’ being in Thesprotia. Penelope makes no mention of it, even though the beggar who gave her that information has proven his reliability by describing Odysseus’ clothes and even though she has never accused him of lying. The beggar, for his part, does not pretend to sustain the verisimilitude of his Thesprotian story. He does not ask Penelope to wait until Pheidon sends Odysseus to Ithaca, nor at least inquire about her apparently illogical haste with the contest. The Thesprotian story has done its service and is now abandoned. [
13] Instead, her guest assures Penelope that Odysseus will be back before the suitors can string the bow, an assurance that seems preposterous in the mouth of anyone but Odysseus himself, and which nevertheless elicits no skepticism from Penelope. She does not suggest that the stranger not stoop to lies, as Eumaeus does earlier. She does not even treat Odysseus’ statement as a prediction of a prophetic type by responding in a conventional way along the lines of “I wish that may come to pass, but it will not.” That she has done before. Now Penelope simply says that she wishes she could stay with her guest all night and not go to sleep:

εἴ κ’ ἐθέλοις μοι, ξεῖνε, παρήμενος ἐν μεγάροισι
τέρπειν, οὔ κέ μοι ὕπνος ἐπὶ βλεφάροισι χυθείη.

(Odyssey 19.589–590)

If only you were willing, stranger, to keep delighting me,
sitting by me in the house, sleep would not flow over my eyes.

That, of course, cannot be. Penelope quickly adds that sleep they must, and that she will now retire to her sorrowful bed, wetted by tears ever since Odysseus’ departure, while the beggar should also go to sleep, on the ground or in bed, as he chooses:

ἀλλ’ οὐ γάρ πως ἔστιν ἀΰπνους ἔμμεναι αἰὲν
ἀνθρώπους· ἐπὶ γάρ τοι ἑκάστῳ μοῖραν ἔθηκαν
ἀθάνατοι θνητοῖσιν ἐπὶ ζείδωρον ἄρουραν.
ἀλλ’ ἦ τοι μὲν ἐγὼν ὑπερώϊον εἰσαναβᾶσα
λέξομαι εἰς εὐνήν, ἥ μοι στονόεσσα τέτυκται,
αἰεὶ δάκρυσ’ ἐμοῖσι πεφυρμένη, ἐξ οὗ Ὀδυσσεὺς
ᾤχετ’ ἐποψόμενος Κακοΐλιον οὐκ ὀνομαστήν. {251|252}
ἔνθα κε λεξαίμην· σὺ δὲ λέξεο τῷδ’ ἐνὶ οἴκῳ,
ἢ χαμάδις στορέσας, ἤ τοι κατὰ δέμνια θέντων.

(Odyssey 19.591–599)

But it is impossible for people to remain forever without sleep.
For in everything immortals set up a proper measure
for mortals on the life-giving earth.
But I will go to the bedroom upstairs
and lie in my bed, which has become sorrowful for me,
always stained with my tears, since that time when Odysseus
left for that accursed Troy, not to be named.
There I shall lie, and you lie down in this part of the house.
Either spread bedding on the ground, or let the maids make a bed for you.

The deadly contest is still in the future, and yet the mention of her bed at the end of the conversation in Book 19 seems like a glimpse of affection already now proffered to Odysseus. It is, needless to say, camouflaged, and directed not to the beggar but to the supposedly absent Odysseus. Still, Penelope first mentions the pleasure she derives from the beggar’s presence and then describes her lonely bed. She asserts her fidelity to Odysseus, whose departure turned her bed into a place of sorrow, and draws his attention to the fact that for all these years she sleeps alone in the same bed in the same room. In contrast to Penelope’s nightly confinement to the bed, the beggar can sleep where he chooses: he has no sleeping place that is his own. This contrast emphasizes the permanence of the bed but also draws attention to the fact that Odysseus has no access to it yet. Penelope devotes four lines to the bed, and this focus on it at the very end of the dialogue inevitably resonates with what is still in the future in the unfolding plot, but what was surely known to most audiences of the poem, namely her famous final test of Odysseus by means of this very bed. [
14] For the moment, the bed remains empty and stained by tears, but it offers to Odysseus a vision of constancy in his house. This vision will make the test in Book 24 all the more effective because it fosters in Odysseus expectations that the test will suddenly undermine. Paradoxically, it is after the contest, when Odysseus does gain access to the bed and when {252|253} so much uncertainty is removed and resolved, that the bed suddenly appears uprooted. The mention of the bed on the eve of the contest is striking in itself, but it is also marked by verbal symmetry. Penelope puts two forms of the verb λέγω, ‘to lie down’, in the same line, one before and one after the caesura, one referring to herself and one to the beggar:

ἔνθα κε λεξαίμην· σὺ δὲ λέξεο τῷδ’ ἐνὶ οἴκῳ.

(Odyssey 19.598)

There I shall lie, and you lie down in this part of the house.

These final words both underscore the separation between herself and her guest and bring them together. Moreover, this connection between husband and wife reappears again at the beginning of Book 20 when Odysseus wakes up (in his improvised bed, 20.95) to the sound of Penelope’s crying (in her bed, 20.58). Her crying is described as a reaction to her dream, mentioned above, in which Odysseus sleeps next to her. For his part, Odysseus wakes and thinks for a moment that Penelope is next to him (20.91–94). At the end of their dialogue Penelope establishes a symmetry and nighttime connection between herself and her guest, and this theme is continued in Book 20.

At the very end of Book 19 Penelope retreats to her room accompanied by the maids (Odyssey 19.600–601). It seems that no part of the conversation in Book 19 is free of witnesses, and the brief and quiet mention of ἀμφίπολοι, ‘maids’, at the end echoes the much louder and larger scene of the maids taunting Odysseus at the beginning of the book. In the very last line, Penelope, as usual, cries for Odysseus until Athena puts her to sleep: a formulaic ending endowed by its context with a special meaning.

Penelope’s tears at the end establish a symmetry with the beginning of the dialogue. There, Odysseus frames his perfect-king utterance not only as a praise for Penelope but also as a contrast to his own misfortune. As an expert performer, Odysseus begins with a captatio benevolentiae of sorts and refuses at first to recollect his native land because it is too painful:

τῶ ἐμὲ νῦν τὰ μὲν ἄλλα μετάλλα σῷ ἐνὶ οἴκῳ,
μηδέ μοι ἐξερέεινε γένος καὶ πατρίδα γαῖαν,
μή μοι μᾶλλον θυμὸν ἐνιπλήσῃς ὀδυνάων
μνησαμένῳ· μάλα δ’ εἰμὶ πολύστονος· οὐδέ τί με χρὴ
οἴκῳ ἐν ἀλλοτρίῳ γοόωντά τε μυρόμενόν τε
ἧσθαι, ἐπεὶ κάκιον πενθήμεναι ἄκριτον αἰεί· {253|254}
μή τίς μοι δμῳῶν νεμεσήσεται ἠὲ σύ γ’ αὐτή,
φῇ δὲ δάκρυπλώειν βεβαρηότα με φρένας οἴνῳ.

(Odyssey 19.115–122)

Therefore question me now in your house about all the other things,
but do not ask about my family and my native land,
lest you fill my heart with pains even more
as I recollect. For I am full of grief, and it is not fitting for me
to sit in another’s house wailing and crying,
since it is bad to mourn incessantly forever.
And there is a danger that one of your maids, or you yourself, may become indignant with me
and say that I flow with tears because my brain is heavy with wine.

This preemptive apology for tears contrasts sharply with what follows. When Odysseus does in fact tell his tale he demonstrates prodigious feats of memory and precise selection of detail rather than any excessive emotion: Penelope is the one who cries, while his own eyes remain dry. But Odysseus’ mention of tears establishes yet another level of connection between himself and his wife, since it frames his whole performance as a kind of lament. Odysseus speaks of tears as unseemly in another’s house and mentions the nemesis that would fall on him for crying and howling like a drunk (19.122). By virtue of saying all this, however, Odysseus associates his performance with lament, as he makes clear that he is kept from lamenting only by the external circumstances. This motion towards lament comes immediately after the “perfect king” comparison, and is connected to it by a causal τῶ (19.155), leaving Penelope in no doubt about the reason for her guest’s grief: his lost home, where he is the perfect king.

When Penelope begins the second part of the conversation she echoes Odysseus’ hints at lament by talking of her own tears. Although she responds to the perfect king comparison at once, with her loom tale, she now reciprocates Odysseus’ original performance on a different level, taking into account everything that has happened in the meantime. By comparing herself to the nightingale, she in effect begins with a lament, a genre proper to her, and the main genre of public discourse available to a woman. [15] Like the lamentations {254|255} of Helen and Hecuba in the Iliad (22.430–443 and 476–515), it is a muthos in the full sense of the word, a powerful “act of self-presentation with an emphasis on extension and detail.” [16] The story of Aedon is a finely tuned instrument for achieving this self-presentation, and it is also what Martin calls a “narrative from memory,” the most difficult and important genre which becomes a part of every other kind of discourse, when practiced by a master. [17] Penelope uses both lament and narrative from memory as a poet would, varying and recombining the tales to convey her emotions, tell her story, and exert influence on her audience. Further, in her dialogue with Odysseus Penelope emerges not only as a self-conscious and adroit performer, but also as a performer who, like Odysseus elsewhere, crosses over into the poet’s territory. Odysseus’ tendency to take control of his own narrative has not gone unremarked. As one scholar observes, “Odysseus’ power to create the narrative, the plot, of his own life, both verbally and in action, is one of the crucial elements in his likeness to an aoidos.” [18] In Book 19, Penelope does the same, though on a smaller scale: in her dialogue with her disguised husband she simultaneously composes, in performance, both her sad song and the plot of her life, and displays awareness of her own composition. [19]

In conclusion, I come back to Nagy’s argument that the nightingale’s song is distinguished both by its rich vocal modulations, its variety, and also by its duration and continuity, and that “the continuity is implicit in the variety.” [22] Being also a lament, an everlasting expression of grief, the nightingale’s song seems quintessentially Odyssean. It is described by epithets beginning with polu (poluekhes, poludeukes), it is said to last without interruption, and it is characterized by ‘frequent turns’, thus recalling not only Penelope’s performance, but the personality of the poem’s protagonist, the polutropos Odysseus, himself much given to grief. The same qualities belong also to Penelope’s weaving, with its repeated reweavings and returns, each reweaving being both a repetition and different from the preceding ones, and to oral poetry. The fact that the nightingale’s song seems so Odyssean is hardly separable from the fact that the Odyssey is so self-reflective about its own oral poetics. This poetics, in turn, and with it the song of the nightingale, resonate with the fundamental Odyssean idea, the idea of return. Citing a study of actual nightingale songs Nagy observes that the bird is capable of complex patterns of interplay between combination and selection, a way of manipulating the combinations of sounds similar to poetic sequences. To quote Nagy: “The idea of re-selecting, that is, selecting again the same combination in order to make another combination, fits the image of coming around, turning, re-turning.” [23] The variant epithet of the nightingale in Book 19, poludeukes , is particularly telling in this regard, since this adjective is also the derivational source for the noun Polydeukes, the name of one of the Divine Twins. As Nagy suggests, the Divine Twins are a model of “consistency, perseverance and reliability” but their myth also has deep links to astral and solar lore. [24] By virtue of being equated, from the Indo-European standpoint, with the evening and morning star, the Divine Twins rise again and again, in a cyclical pattern of eternal return. In Vedic, their epithet is Nasatyau, the ‘retrievers’ or ‘returners’, because they bring back the light of the sun. [25] While the solar aspect of the Dioskouroi is attenuated in Greek, their role as saviors who can bring one back to life is well attested. [26] This theme of return to life, and specifically its solar manifestation, is obviously central to the Odyssey. Significantly, Odysseus arrives on Ithaca just as the morning star announces dawn: {256|257}

εὖτ’ ἀστὴρ ὑπερέσχε φαάντατος, ὅς τε μάλιστα
ἔρχεται ἀγγέλλων φάος Ἠοῦς ἠριγενείης,
τῆμος δὴ νήσῳ προσεπίλνατο ποντοπόρος νηῦς.

(Odyssey 13.93–95)

When the brightest star is in the sky, the one that especially
comes announcing the light of the early-born Dawn,
at that time the seafaring ship put in to the island.


[ back ] 1. As observed by Winkler 1990:54.

[ back ] 2. Winkler 1990.54.

[ back ] 3. The bibliography on Penelope’s decision is immense. Many scholars have argued that Penelope’s decision is opaque and her behavior ambivalent and contradictory, and meant to be so (Murnaghan 1986 and 1987, Felson-Rubin 1987 and 1994, Katz 1991). Others see her decision as the result of an unconscious recognition (e.g. Amory 1963, Austin 1975) or an intuitive response to the beggar’s presence (Russo 1982). Finally, some see Penelope’s decision as fully rational, but taken in ignorance of the beggar’s identity because her situation is such that she simply cannot wait any longer. The fact that she takes this decision in Odysseus’ presence is, on that view, a coincidence and a source of narrative irony (Foley 1995, Heitman 2005).

[ back ] 4. Combellack 1973:39–40 seems to have been the first to suggest this. See especially Scodel 2001:323–324.

[ back ] 5. Marquardt 1985:41.

[ back ] 6. Scodel 2001:323–324. Eurymachus, at least, fears public disgrace if the beggar succeeds in the contest after the suitors have failed (Odyssey 21.230–229).

[ back ] 7. Russo 1992 on Odyssey 20.336–337 offers a similar, though not identical, interpretation of the change in suitors’ strategy. Russo seems to take Eurymachus’ assertion at 1.402–404 that Telemachus will have his inheritance at face value, while Scodel sees it as a ploy (2001:310).

[ back ] 8. Scodel presents this as part of Athena’s rather than Penelope’s strategy: Athena is intent on death for the suitors, and therefore wants them to compete in the bow contests. This requires that “the suitors be so bedazzled by Penelope that they will be willing to compete in the bow contest.” Accordingly, Athena renders Penelope irresistibly beautiful (18.190–196), and Penelope succeeds in dazzling the suitors: their knees go slack and their thoughts at once turn to sharing her bed (18.212–213). This is in contrast to their earlier designs on Odysseus’ property. Thus Penelope’s strategy succeeds, but it is distasteful to her and could be seen as improper. Accordingly, Scodel suggests, Penelope is distanced from her own actions, and instead Athena manipulates her (2001:319–320). The distancing, of course, is only partial. Athena beautifies unwilling Penelope in her sleep, but the decision to show herself to the suitors is Penelope’s own, even if inspired by the goddess (18.158–196).

[ back ] 9. Scodel 2001:324.

[ back ] 10. Scodel 2001:324.

[ back ] 11. Cf. Foley 1995:102–103 on this point.

[ back ] 12. 19.572–575. The details might be insufficient for us to picture the set-up, but it is surely enough for Odysseus.

[ back ] 13. This is, of course, not to say that the Thesprotian story is non-traditional and does not have its own resonances in the Odyssey. On the Odyssean engagement with local traditions of Thesprotia and Epirus see Malkin 1998:120–155.

[ back ] 14. There is vast bibliography on the test of the bed. I find Zeitlin 1995 and Heitman 2001:98–100 most relevant for my purposes.

[ back ] 15. The nightingale is above all a bird of lament, described in poetry as δακρυόεσσα, ‘tearful’ (Euripides Helen 1109), βαρύδακρυς, ‘weeping grievously’ (IBID., 1110), and ὀδυρομένη, ‘lamenting’ (Moschus 3.9). The song of the nightingale is called μινύρισμα, ‘warbling’ (Theocritus Epigrammata 4. 11), πολύθρηνος, ‘much-wailing’ (Euripides Phaethon fr. 773.23), and πολύδακρυς, ‘of many tears’ (Aristophanes Birds 211).

[ back ] 16. Martin 1989:88.

[ back ] 17. Martin 1989:44 and 77–88. On the conventions of Greek laments, some of which persist from antiquity to modern times, see Alexiou 1974. On the social function of lament in a modern Greek context, see Herzfeld 1993:244.

[ back ] 18. Holmberg 1995:117.

[ back ] 19. All of this is not to say that Penelope is equal to Odysseus in the Odyssey, only that they mirror each other in many respects.

[ back ] 20. Chantraine 1968–1980, s.v. See also Nieto Hernández 2008:39–62, on the relevance of this etymology in the Odyssey.

[ back ] 21. For more on the implication of the fact that “Penelope’s song” is a lament see Nieto Hernández 2008:39–62.

[ back ] 22. Nagy 1996:36.

[ back ] 23. Nagy 1996:41.

[ back ] 24. Nagy 1996:51.

[ back ] 25. Frame 1978:134–152, Nagy 1990:258–259.

[ back ] 26. They are called σωτῆρας in their Homeric Hymn 33.6. See Burkert 1985:213 with further references.

[ back ] 27. Cf. Felson’s comments on fluidity vs. stability in the Odyssey: “The paradox underlying the return of Odysseus – that two fluid polytropes, or figures of many turns will return to the fixity of their steadfast marriage, symbolized by their steadfast bed – matches the paradox underlying Homeric epos in general: that the freshest and newest and most spontaneous is rooted in the most abiding, most traditional, and indeed, most formulaic of genres.” (1994:144)