Sheila Murnaghan, Disguise and Recognition in the Odyssey: Chapter 1

Chapter One: Recognition and the Return of Odysseus

During their meeting in Book 13, Athena and Odysseus sit down together at the base of an olive tree and concoct the plot through which, imitating the story of a disguised god, he will defeat his enemies. This then becomes the plot, in a literary sense, of the second half of the poem, a plot shaped by the deployment of a divine strategy to make possible a story of mortal revenge. Its climactic moment is Odysseus’ imitation of a divine epiphany when, having strung the bow, he reveals himself to the suitors with bewildering suddenness and proceeds to punish them for their transgressions against him.

But while Odysseus’ moment of triumph over the suitors resembles a divine epiphany, it also differs from one in that it is only possible with the aid of certain human accomplices, whose help is secured in a series of private scenes of recognition that structure the second half of the poem. [1] As he advances geographically towards the center of his house, where he will confront and defeat the suitors, Odysseus also advances strategically. He accumulates a group of supporters who will make his success possible in a series of reunions that take the form of recognition scenes: with Athena when he arrives on the shore of Ithaca; with Telemachus when he has arrived at the hut of the swineherd Eumaeus at the edge of his own holdings; with the [20] dog Argus when he arrives at the threshold of his house; with his nurse Eurycleia at the hearth; with Eumaeus and Philoetius in the courtyard outside the megaron as he embarks on his action against the suitors.

When the decisive moment of the contest of the bow is at hand, Odysseus is able to rely on the aid of all those to whom his true identity is known, and they act as a kind of team to bring about his success. Penelope—who, uniquely, acts as his accomplice without knowing who he is—proposes the contest and insists that Odysseus be allowed to take part. Telemachus orders that the bow be placed in Odysseus’ hands and urges Eumaeus on when he falters. Eumaeus hands Odysseus the bow and tells Eurycleia, in Telemachus’ name, to close the doors. Similarly, when Odysseus has moved from his recovery of the house to his recovery of the estate as a whole and has been recognized by Laertes and by Dolius and his sons, he forms from them, and Telemachus, a band of followers with whom to face the attack of the suitors’ relatives. These encounters diminish the success of the suitors’ challenge, both in the sense that they reduce the number of people from whom Odysseus’ return is concealed, of whose recognition he is deprived as a result of the suitors’ presence, and in the sense that they give him the allies he will need to remove the suitors from his house.

Odysseus’ time-defying defeat of the suitors requires this acquisition of accomplices and thus depends on the conquest of time in another, more ordinary way as well: it depends on the reanimation of past relationships. The permanence of Odysseus’ claim to his position may mimic the timeless power of the gods, but it actually rests on the durability of his domestic relationships, his capacity to recover a series of roles defined by his relations with others: father, son, husband, and master. [2] The success of his return is dependent on the qualities that make such relationships last, the close identification of interests that makes the association beneficial to both participants. The successive [21] scenes of recognition in which Odysseus’ base of support in Ithaca is reconstructed articulate the Odyssey‘s account of his return in two senses: through their sequence, these scenes provide the structure of the plot; and through their internal form, they express the interdependence of the relationships that make it possible for Odysseus to come back.

In their typical form, the Odyssey‘s recognition scenes act out the essential mutuality of the relationships that are being revived. [3] They involve a process of identification and testing leading to emotionally-charged reunions, which are experienced in gestures of physical union such as embracing, kissing, or in the case of Odysseus and Penelope, making love. [4] Within these episodes there is often a progression from expressions of solitary, one-sided emotion, which often evoke the pain of the separation that is now to be cured, to the shared emotion of reunion. [5] These reunions are achieved through a two-sided process consisting of disclosure of identity on one side and recognition of identity on the other, gestures which are not neutral but have the broader connotations of mutual acknowledgment or praise, implying a willing concession of honor or service on both sides. [6] [22]

When, under the dangerous, necessarily clandestine conditions of Odysseus’ return, he identifies himself to one of his loyal supporters, that gesture of self-disclosure is also a gesture of acknowledgment; it acknowledges, sometimes after a considerable period of testing, the demonstrated reliability and loyalty that make him willing to risk disclosing himself. At the same time, when Odysseus identifies himself, he stakes a claim to a certain status, and those who recognize him acquiesce in that claim. [7] Their recognition of his identity is not unlike the modern idea of political recognition, acknowledgment of legitimacy in a position of power. Penelope’s suitors, who withhold this acknowledgment from Odysseus, prove to be incapable of recognizing his identity, while each of his loyal supporters acts out his acquiescence to Odysseus’ claims by recognizing him. The importance of mutual loyalty to the meaning of recognition scenes is underscored by the way these scenes regularly end with the two figures who have been reunited plotting together against their shared enemies. [8]

The account of Odysseus’ self-disclosure to Eumaeus and Philoetius illustrates well how these episodes of recognition of identity also act out an identification of interests that is based on mutual recognition in a broader sense and outweighs in importance the immediate occasion of the removal of one figure’s disguise. [9] [23] First, Odysseus asks for a hypothetical show of loyalty by asking what Eumaeus and Philoetius would do if Odysseus were to return. When Eumaeus responds by praying to all the gods for Odysseus’ return, then Odysseus discloses himself.

αὐτὰρ ἐπεὶ δὴ τῶν γε νόον νημερτέ᾽ ἀνέγνω,
ἐξαῦτίς σφε ἔπεσσιν ἀμειβόμενος προσέειπεν·
“Ἔνδον μὲν δὴ ὅδ᾽ αὐτὸς ἐγώ, κακὰ πολλὰ μογήσας,
ἤλυθον εἰκοστῷ ἔτεϊ ἐς πατρίδα γαῖαν.
γιγνώσκω δ᾽ ὡς σφῶϊν ἐελδομένοισιν ἱκάνω
οἴοισι δμώων. . .”
But, when he had recognized their unswerving mind,
he spoke to them again, answering them with words,
“Here I am, myself, within the house, having struggled much;
I have returned in the twentieth year to the land of my fathers.
I recognize that I come wished for by you
alone of my servants . . .”

(Od. 21.205-210)


Here the language of recognition (ἀνέγνω, 205; γιγνώσκω, 209) is applied to Odysseus’ apprehension of Eumaeus and Philoetius’ loyalty, their willingness to recognize him, [10] which he acknowledges through his self-disclosure. The words with which Odysseus discloses himself are at once the announcement of a prayed-for benefit and a boast containing a bid for acknowledgment of his achievement in returning home and for aid in his [24] further struggle. [11] An action consisting of the revelation and recognition of identity becomes the occasion for a dialogue articulating a series of mutual claims and obligations, a dialogue involving expressions of praise that are verbal tokens of a mutual commitment to material aid.

The mutuality and interdependence of Odysseus’ relationships with members of his household is, then, represented formally in the structure of the scenes of recognition in which, as his identity becomes more and more widely known, his disguise is gradually dispelled. But the mutuality of experience between Odysseus and the loyal members of his household is more complex and pervasive. As his dependents, these characters derive their identities and capacities from their place in the oikos, “household,” of which he is the head. In his absence, Laertes, Telemachus, Eumaeus, and Penelope cling to their literal identities as father, son, loyal servant, and wife of Odysseus. But Odysseus’ absence and the presence of the suitors make it difficult for them to enjoy the status, to exercise the power, that ought to be inextricable from those roles. Like Odysseus when he lands on the shore of Ithaca, they experience a disjunction between their nominal identities and the places they ought to occupy in the social world. And that disjunction is similarly represented in their cases as a kind of disguise. Theirs is not the deliberately contrived and willfully assumed disguise that Odysseus takes on, but rather genuine experience of the unimpressive appearance, powerlessness, subjugation to time, foreignness to the house of Odysseus, and lowered social status that are elements in his disguise. But these experiences nonetheless take on the character of disguises because they prove reversible, and like Odysseus’ more literal disguise, are removed with the revelation of his return.

Thus the reunions of these characters with Odysseus involve these characters’ own shedding of disguise and recognition as well as his. And Odysseus, in the course of repossessing his [25] house, imitates Athena not only by revealing himself but also by bringing out of disguise those on whom his recovery of Ithaca depends, much as she uncovers Ithaca from its obscuring mist. In different ways, depending on the nature of their relationships to Odysseus, the members of Odysseus’ household rehearse their own versions of return and recognition. The way in which each recognition scene functions as a climactic moment in both of two intersecting stories of recovery and recognition conditions, in each case, its particular timing and construction; in responding to these factors, these episodes become precise depictions of how the distinct but interdependent characters involved are related to one another.

That the effects of Odysseus’ absence create a kind of disguise is most apparent in the case of the last of the figures by whom Odysseus is recognized, his father Laertes. The condition into which Laertes has fallen is described to Odysseus by his mother Anticleia when he meets her in the underworld.

πατὴρ δὲ σὸς αὐτόθι μίμνει
ἀγρῷ, οὐδὲ πόλινδε κατέρχεται· οὐδέ οἱ εὐναὶ
δέμνια καὶ χλαῖναι καὶ ῥήγεα σιγαλόεντα,
ἀλλ᾽ ὅ γε χεῖμα μὲν εὕδει ὅθι δμῶες ἐνὶ οἴκῳ
ἐν κόνι ἄγχι πυρός, κακὰ δὲ χροῖ εἵματα εἷται·
αὐτὰρ ἐπὴν ἔλθῃσι θέρος τεθαλυῖά τ᾽ ὀπώρη,
πάντῃ οἱ κατὰ γουνὸν ἀλωῆς οἰνοπέδοιο
φύλλων κεκλιμένων χθαμαλαὶ βεβλήαται εὐναί·
ἔνθ᾽ ὅ γε κεῖτ᾽ ἀχέων, μέγα δὲ φρεσὶ πένθος ἀέξει
σὸν νόστον ποθέων· χαλεπὸν δ᾽ ἐπὶ γῆρας ἱκάνει.
Your father stays there
on the farm, and does not go to town. He has no bed
or bed clothes or blankets or shining coverings,
but in the winter he sleeps in the house where the servants do
in the dust near the fire, and wears vile clothing;
but when summer comes and the fruitful harvest-time,
everywhere along the slope of his vineyard,
he throws together his bed of fallen leaves. [26]
And there he lies grieving, and a great sorrow grows in his mind
as he longs for your homecoming. And harsh old age comes over him.

(Od. 11.187-196)


In response to Odysseus’ absence, Laertes himself has withdrawn from both home and society. He has fallen into a state of grief that combines elements of Odysseus’ anonymous persona on Phaeacia and his deliberate disguise on Ithaca. [12] Like Odysseus when he arrives on the Phaeacian shore, Laertes is barely [27] alive and barely participating in civilized life. In both cases this virtually uncivilized state is represented through sleeping, not indoors in a bed or at least in a fixed place, but outdoors on the ground in a random pile of leaves. In fact, Laertes is dressed in an anomalous costume [13] that seems to suggest a kind of animal suit, as if he were no longer fully human (Od. 24.229-231). [14] Like Odysseus when he disguises himself both on his return to Ithaca and during the spying mission to Troy (as is recounted to Telemachus by Helen in Odyssey 4), Laertes has taken on the rags and activities of a poor servant and the outward signs of old age.

When Odysseus meets Laertes in Odyssey 24, Laertes is much more conspicuously disguised than Odysseus is. [15] When Odysseus first addresses his father, he comments on his appearance, saying to him, in essence, “You seem to be in disguise.”

ὦ γέρον, οὐκ ἀδαημονίη σ᾽ ἔχει ἀμφιπολεύειν
ὄρχατον, ἀλλ᾽ εὖ τοι κομιδὴ ἔχει, οὐδέ τι πάμπαν,
οὐ φυτόν, οὐ συκέη, οὐκ ἄμπελος, οὐ μὲν ἐλαίη,
οὐκ ὄγχνη, οὐ πρασιή τοι ἄνευ κομιδῆς κατὰ κῆπον.
ἄλλο δέ τοι ἐρέω, σὺ δὲ μὴ χόλον ἔνθεο θυμῷ· [28]
αὐτόν σ᾽ οὐκ ἀγαθὴ κομιδὴ ἔχει, ἀλλ᾽ ἅμα γῆρας
λυγρὸν ἔχεις αὐχμεῖς τε κακῶς καὶ ἀεικέα ἕσσαι.
οὐ μὲν ἀεργίης γε ἄναξ ἕνεκ᾽ οὔ σε κομίζει,
οὐδέ τί τοι δούλειον ἐπιπρέπει εἰσοράασθαι
εἶδος καὶ μέγεθος· βασιλῆι γὰρ ἀνδρὶ ἔοικας.
τοιούτῳ δὲ ἔοικας, ἐπεὶ λούσαιτο φάγοι τε,
εὑδέμεναι μαλακῶς· ἡ γὰρ δίκη ἐστὶ γερόντων.
Old man, you show no lack of skill in tending
the orchard. It is well cared for, and there is no
tree, no fig, no vine, nor any olive,
no pear, and no bed of greens uncared for in your garden.
But I will tell you something else, and you must not be angry:
you yourself are not well cared for. For you are wretchedly old
and miserably dirty and you wear shabby clothes.
It is not on account of laziness that your lord neglects you,
and nothing about you suggests a slave,
neither your form nor your size, for you seem like a king.
You seem like the kind who, when he has bathed and eaten,
sleeps comfortably. That is the way of the elders.

(Od. 24.244-255)


In this speech Odysseus contrasts Laertes’ current appearance with what appears to be his proper role, [16] and he does so in a way that associates Laertes’ proper role with qualities and gestures that are, in the Odyssey, specifically associated with the removal of disguise or the establishment of identity. He contrasts Laertes’ shabby appearance to his careful tending of the orchard; when he proves his own identity to Laertes, it is by recalling how he learned to tend that very orchard. Then he goes on to say that Laertes looks as if he could be altered by a bath [29] and that he might end up by sleeping more comfortably, presumably in a bed. In the Odyssey a bath is often the occasion of the removal of disguise, and sleeping in a bed is often its result—most notably, of course, in the recognition scene between Odysseus and Penelope in which Odysseus proves his identity and regains his marriage bed all at once.

Odysseus counters this disguise by bringing himself to his father’s attention; first he evokes an absent, fictitious version of himself in the false tale that he tells, and then he identifies himself openly and announces that he has defeated the suitors. The sequel to this revelation is the removal of Laertes’ disguise. When Laertes returns to his house, he has a bath, through which both his rags and his old age are cast aside, and he emerges looking like the gods (Od. 24.365-370). When Odysseus comments on this change, he is, in a sense, recognizing his father. Laertes answers with a wish: that he could have been as he was during one of the great victories of his youth and could have joined in the previous day’s battle against the suitors (Od. 24.376-382). This wish is reminiscent of the wishes of Odysseus’ friends that Odysseus would return as he was on some past occasion. Odysseus’ success in fulfilling those wishes is here transferred to Laertes, who, by recognizing Odysseus, also puts aside the effects of time and then goes on to play a leading role in the battle with the suitors’ relatives, which reenacts the battle with the suitors themselves.

The reunion of Odysseus and Laertes, then, combines a graphic reversal of the effects of time with a demonstration of reciprocity: Odysseus brings Laertes out of the state of weakness and grief that oppresses him and obscures his identity, and Laertes helps Odysseus ward off the final threat to his own recovery of his proper position and identity. This reciprocity is reinforced by the effective leveling of their ages that occurs as Laertes is restored to his prime. The reversal of the effects of time involved in Laertes’ reanimation not only signals the return of the past but also removes the imbalance inherent in the chronologically unequal relationship of father and son, an imbalance which, at this time in their lives, makes the son [30] more powerful than his aged father. This imbalance is also countered by the proof that Odysseus is obliged to offer his father. Odysseus may be a more powerful figure in this encounter, confronting a father who is his dependent and controlling his own self-disclosure, but he cannot win Laertes’ recognition without satisfying his demand for proof. In meeting this demand he recalls times in their lives when the balance of their relationship was different. He shows him the scar, which evokes the time when he was only just entering manhood and underwent a kind of initiation; and he recalls an even earlier time when Laertes showed him the orchard, taught him the names of the trees, and gave him some of them—a time when he was Laertes’ dependent and received only a token portion of his inheritance (Od. 24.330-344).

But at the same time that this episode, in one way, plays down the imbalance in their relationship (by making it clear that the imbalance stems only from this particular point in their history), it also, in other ways, draws attention to that imbalance. It does so especially through two related features: the extremity of Laertes’ destitution, which is expressed in the transfer of the motifs of disguise to him, and the placement of the episode late in the narrative, which gives it a belated or tacked-on quality. Laertes’ condition of extreme dependency means that Odysseus can only appear to him late in the story when his return is virtually complete. Only then is Odysseus’ presence sufficiently powerful to bring Laertes out of the decline that has been his response to the suitors’ presence. Simply the prospect or likelihood of Odysseus’ return is insufficient to revive Laertes, as is clear when he responds to Odysseus’ false tale by nearly dying. Thus Odysseus appears to Laertes virtually undisguised himself and couples the revelation of his identity with the announcement that he has destroyed the suitors. The confrontation with the suitors’ relatives, which still remains and with which Laertes does help, is not as essential to Odysseus’ recovery as the defeat of the suitors themselves. That this confrontation lies before him is not as great a challenge to his identity as the presence of the suitors has been, and the help that [31] Laertes gives him is not as decisive as the help he has received from other supporters within the house.

This depiction of the imbalance between father and son, even in an encounter which also does away with it, is partly a reflection of the Odyssey‘s partiality for its hero, which causes him to be portrayed to best advantage, and thus at that time in his life when his glory cannot be rightly challenged, even by his own father. It also expresses a constant feature of the relationships between fathers and sons as they are affected by the passage of time. It is always the case that, while the father is the chief source of the son’s identity, his continued presence is not necessary for the continuation of that identity. The father is likely to die while the son is still alive, but the son must be able to continue on without him and thus must not depend on him to retain the position he inherits. Odysseus can, and must, remain the son of Laertes with all that that means, even after Laertes is no longer alive. On the other hand, it is only through his son’s possession of this heritage that the father’s identity can, in any sense, continue after his death, as the loss of selfhood with which Laertes responds to Odysseus’ absence attests. [17] The sense of many readers from antiquity on that the recognition between Odysseus and Laertes is an inessential appendage is appropriate, [18] but that does not mean that our Odyssey has been added to; rather it gives in this way an accurate account of the relationship of father and son. [19] The Odyssey would be presenting [32] a less true picture if it made it seem indispensable that Odysseus be reunited with his father in order to resume his place in his home. At the same time, the poem recognizes that Odysseus’ place derives above all from his relationship to his father and acknowledges this in its final episode. [20]

The same features of the relationship of father and son that cause Odysseus’ reunion with his father to be the last in the series that makes up the account of his return cause his reunion with his son Telemachus to be the first (or first with an actual member of his household). Odysseus encounters Laertes only after his victory over the suitors is complete because Laertes’ recovery is so thoroughly dependent on his return and because he does not need Laertes’ help very much. He encounters Telemachus when he has still made very little progress towards the achievement of his return because Telemachus needs the assurance of his presence relatively little and is more in a position to help his father than to be helped by him.

Like Laertes, Telemachus is not fully himself when the story opens but becomes so by the end; the way in which, by the poem’s conclusion, events have brought both of them into a similar state of paramount vigor is expressed in the final tableau in which they both fight at Odysseus’ side in his battle against the suitors’ relatives. But while Telemachus’ distance from his proper state also manifests itself in powerlessness in the face of the suitors’ presence and mournful longing for Odysseus’ return, what keeps him from asserting himself is not his father’s absence but his own immaturity. The change in him that comes to be recognized in his encounter with his father is not the recovery of a previous state but growth into a new state of maturity, and the role played in this change by Odysseus is consequently different. [33]

Laertes has become Odysseus’ permanent dependent whose survival depends absolutely on his return. But it is Telemachus’ role to stop being Odysseus’ dependent eventually and to become his successor. When that happens, Telemachus must be able to survive even if Odysseus is not present, even if, as will sooner or later be the case, Odysseus is dead. Furthermore, he must be capable of succeeding his father on the basis of his own comparable merits. It is essential to the poem’s celebration of inherited excellence that Telemachus be able to take his father’s place even if his father does not return to hand it to him personally. Therefore Telemachus must be seen not to need his father’s direct influence in order to attain to a state in which he can take hold of what is rightfully his. [21]

When the poem opens, Telemachus is in a state of unreadiness to assert himself that is reminiscent of Odysseus’ reticence on Phaeacia. This is a less extreme version of disguise than that displayed by Laertes, which depends on Odysseus’ miraculous presence for its reversal; Telemachus’ state is not a debilitating decline but an indication of still-unfulfilled potential. Much as Odysseus holds back his identity unnecessarily on Phaeacia, Telemachus refuses the recognition spontaneously offered him by “Mentes.” When “Mentes” suggests to Telemachus that he must be the son of Odysseus, Telemachus gives a noncommittal answer: his mother says that he is, but he is not sure; no one knows for sure who his father is, and he would rather have been the son of someone more fortunate, someone who died at home among his possessions (Od. 1.214-220).

While Telemachus believes that his father’s absence is his problem and dreams of his father’s return as the solution (Od. 1.113-117), his discernable resemblance to Odysseus suggests that the capacity to heal the Ithacan situation is also present in him. As it turns out, he does not overcome this uncertainty about himself by being exposed to Odysseus and recognizing him. At the prompting of Athena, he adopts another, more satisfactory [34] and realistic solution: rather than simply waiting for his father to return, he grows up independently. He asserts himself against the suitors and takes a voyage to Pylos and Sparta, where he comes to know his father from others’ memories of him. He undertakes an independent voyage that is in its structure and import parallel to the return of Odysseus. [22] Like Laertes, he responds to Odysseus’ absence with an absence of his own, but his absence takes the form of an autonomous voyage from which he can make a more forceful return.

Telemachus’ voyage, like Odysseus’ return, takes the form of a series of encounters; in each of these encounters Telemachus is recognized as his father’s son and heir: by “Mentes,” by Nestor, by Helen and Menelaus—an episode in which the discovery of his identity is a central element—by Theoclymenus, [23] and finally by Odysseus himself in a reunion that marks simultaneously the return of Odysseus and the return of Telemachus. In these encounters Telemachus meets people who both recognize him as Odysseus’ son and tell him stories that reveal Odysseus’ greatness. As a result, he learns both that he actually resembles Odysseus—that his connection to Odysseus is inherent and apparent and not simply something his mother asserts—and that Odysseus is someone whose son he would want to be, a great hero whether he succeeds in returning to Ithaca or not. By the last of these encounters, the meeting with the stranger in Eumaeus’ hut, Telemachus identifies himself unhesitatingly not only as the son of Odysseus but also as part of a line that includes Arcesius and Laertes (Od. 16.117-120).

The story of Telemachus’ journey is an adaptation of the disguise-and-recognition plot structure that shapes the story of Odysseus’ return to the particular dimensions of Telemachus’ situation. Although elements in Telemachus’ story—most notably [35] his recognition by Menelaus and Helen because of his secret weeping at the mention of Odysseus—are reminiscent of Odysseus’ visit to Phaeacia, Telemachus has a much easier time establishing his identity than Odysseus does in that episode. Telemachus is able to benefit from some of the privileges of his position as Odysseus’ son; his discovery of his identity is paralleled by his learning to take advantage of that legacy. While he arrives at Pylos and Sparta in the anonymous condition of all strangers, Telemachus is also traveling with the proper trappings of his station, especially a ship full of companions. He goes among people who have a connection to his father, and who are prepared to recognize him and welcome him because of that connection. Telemachus also inherits the help of his father’s supporters, in particular his father’s divine patron Athena, who helps him in the guise of old friends of his father. Because of his father’s connection with Nestor, Telemachus gains his own companion, Peisistratus, whose capacity to help him be recognized is seen when he speaks up to confirm Menelaus’ and Helen’s spontaneous identification (Od. 4.155-167).

The way Telemachus discovers his identity reflects the degree of dependence that a son has on his father at Telemachus’ stage of life. His father must be in his background—the son must inherit some advantages from him and must have access to memories of him—but he no longer needs to be an actual presence in his life. Telemachus’ journey is not at all an attempt to bring Odysseus back: it is an attempt to bring about his own emergence as the son of Odysseus so that he can take control of his household in his father’s absence. [24] When “Mentes” tells Telemachus to go on the journey, he does not tell him to look for Odysseus but to look for information about him (Od. 1.279-283). [36]

Telemachus’ reunion with Odysseus is the culminating moment of Telemachus’ growth to a point where he no longer needs Odysseus’ return. Thus, the scene is placed at the beginning of Odysseus’ homecoming, when Odysseus can offer little support and needs a good deal of help. At the same time, Telemachus’ attainment of this condition is made premature by Odysseus’ return, and his new prominence must be suspended as long as Odysseus is still alive. This suspension is dramatized during the contest of the bow, when Telemachus nearly succeeds in stringing the bow himself but steps aside at a signal from Odysseus (Od. 21.101-135). Thus, although the placement of their recognition acknowledges Telemachus’ newfound maturity, other aspects of the subsequent scene are designed to play down this maturity or to counter it in the light of Odysseus’ return.

While still disguised, Odysseus as the stranger suggests that the situation on Ithaca could be remedied either by a son of Odysseus or by Odysseus himself (Od. 16.100-101). But he does not recognize at first that Telemachus is ready for recognition; he has to be told by Athena not to wait any longer before disclosing himself to him. The words Odysseus uses to impress his identity on Telemachus also emphasize Telemachus’ dependence on him.

οὔ τίς τοι θεός εἰμι· τί μ᾽ ἀθανάτοισιν ἐΐσκεις;
ἀλλὰ πατὴρ τεός εἰμι, τοῦ εἵνεκα σὺ στεναχίζων
πάσχεις ἄλγεα πολλά, βίας ὑποδέγμενος ἀνδρῶν.
I am no god. Why do you compare me to the immortals?
But I am your father, the one for whom you have been grieving
as you suffer many hardships, receiving the insults of men.

(Od. 16.187-189)

As they make his own presence known, Odysseus’ words return Telemachus to the helpless condition he was in when the poem opened, when Athena came upon him, grieving and dreaming of his father’s return (Od. 1.113-117). They serve to deny the [37] effects of his intervening voyage on Telemachus, effects that must, for the time being, be suspended.


These two recognition scenes, the one between Odysseus and Telemachus and the one between Odysseus and Laertes, frame the story of Odysseus’ return, but are segregated from the central action and central arena of the narrative, Odysseus’ defeat of the suitors in his own house. The recognition scenes that cluster around the defeat of the suitors involve the recreation of more difficult relationships with people to whom Odysseus is not related by blood: his loyal servants, Eurycleia, Eumaeus, and Philoetius, and his wife Penelope. Because these relationships are not based on any natural tie but are artificial social constructs, their continuity over time is genuinely subject to question as the continuity of the indissoluble kinship of father and son is not. Thus the aspects of Odysseus’ identity affirmed by his relations with these figures are more seriously threatened by his absence than is his identity as son of Laertes or father of Telemachus. This great threat is registered in the narrative by the way in which reunions with those figures take place close to the center of his home and of the story of his recovery and, especially in the cases of Eumaeus and Penelope, only after a long period of testing and renegotiation.

Odysseus’ ties to his servants are even more vulnerable to the effects of his absence than is his tie to his wife. While a marriage begins without any kinship between husband and wife, it creates kinship between them through their children. But the relationship of master and servant is permanently unequal in status and, on the part of the servants, or more properly slaves, originally involuntary. Although the poem refers to the acts of generosity with which masters win the loyalty of their servants, it also acknowledges that slaves are won by force (for example, Od. 1.398). And it shows, especially in its portrayal of the majority of Odysseus’ servants who have not remained loyal to him, that such gracious acts are not sufficient to create ties that automatically endure when the master is not present.

The Odyssey registers the inherent difficulty of such relationships by making their revival important and far from routine [38] prerequisites to the hero’s triumphant self-revelation. It has often seemed to interpreters of the poem that the placement of the recognitions involving Eumaeus and Eurycleia is determined by considerations having to do with the treatment of other, more important characters. A recognition with Eumaeus in his hut seems to have been postponed to make way for the reunion with Telemachus; [25] the recognition by Eurycleia seems to have been inserted to avert a premature recognition with Penelope. In other words, these characters’ subordinate, servile status has seemed to be recapitulated in the way in which their allotment of narrative attention is designed to serve the presentation of other, more socially elevated characters. But it is possible to read the distribution of Odysseus’ recognitions in another way, to see it as a means of highlighting his dependence on the loyalty of his social subordinates, a loyalty that is far from automatic. The tense moment of real danger to Odysseus’ whole project created by Eurycleia’s recognition of him dramatizes how much he needs to be able to rely on her and on others like her. The recognition by Eumaeus comes as a crucial prelude to Odysseus’ participation in the contest of the bow and is given weight both by the long account of Odysseus’ preceding encounter with Eumaeus and by the way Eumaeus’ role is duplicated in the figure of Philoetius. [26]

In addition, the Odyssey makes sense of the continued voluntary submission of unrelated subordinates by assimilating these relationships to the socially equal and involuntary relationships of kinship. As they recognize Odysseus and are recognized by him, the poem suggests that Eurycleia and Eumaeus are more [39] like relatives than like servants. The capacity of mutual recognition to bring to light kinship where none has been apparent is here used to imply a metaphorical kinship where none actually exists. Odysseus’ retainers lose their social inferiority as if it were, like his, a disguise.

As their similar names suggest, Eurycleia is, in many ways, a doublet for Odysseus’ mother, Anticleia. Her role of nurse is naturally very close to that of mother. The account of her history given at Odyssey 1.429-433 makes it clear that she is Anticleia’s equal in social status and nearly her equal in position in the household of Laertes. [27] Although she is now a slave, she was originally an aristocrat, as the provision of her father’s and grandfather’s names at 1.429 attests, and has received as much honor as his wife from Laertes, who has only refrained from sharing his bed with her out of fear of his wife’s anger (Od. 1.432-433). In the account of how Odysseus got his scar that evokes their past relationship, Eurycleia is virtually identified with Odysseus’ mother.

Αὐτόλυκος δ᾽ ἐλθὼν Ἰθάκης ἐς πίονα δῆμον
παῖδα νέον γεγαῶτα κιχήσατο θυγατέρος ἧς·
τόν ῥά οἱ Εὐρύκλεια φίλοις ἐπὶ γούνασι θῆκε
παυομένῳ δόρποιο, ἔπος τ᾽ ἔφατ᾽ ἔκ τ᾽ ὀνόμαζεν·
“Αὐτόλυκ᾽, αὐτὸς νῦν ὄνομ᾽ εὕρεο ὅττι κε θῆαι
παιδὸς παιδὶ φίλῳ· πολυάρητος δέ τοί ἐστι.”
Τὴν δ᾽ αὖτ᾽ Αὐτόλυκος ἀπαμείβετο φώνησέν τε·
“γαμβρὸς ἐμὸς θυγάτηρ τε, τίθεσθ᾽ ὄνομ᾽ ὅττι κεν εἴπω. . .”
Autolycus came to the rich land of Ithaca
and there found a child newly born to his daughter;
this child Eurycleia laid on his knees
as he finished his dinner, and called him by name and said to him,
“Autolycus, you yourself find a name to be given
to this child of your child. You have prayed much for him.”
Then Autolycus spoke and gave her an answer, [40]
“My son-in-law and daughter, give him the name I tell you. . .”

(Od. 19.399-406)

The child of his daughter whom Autolycus has come to see is presented to him by Eurycleia, and she poses a question to which the answer is addressed to Odysseus’ father and mother. Any reader of these lines who did not know otherwise would assume that Eurycleia was Odysseus’ mother.


Eumaeus has a history similar both to the history that goes with Odysseus’ disguise and to Eurycleia’s history. He, too, is originally of noble birth and has occupied a place in the house of Laertes comparable to that of a member of the family. He has been raised almost as if he were Odysseus’ brother, only a little less honored than Odysseus’ sister Ctimene (Od. 15.363-365). [28] Only on reaching adulthood has he been relegated to a farm on the periphery of the estate and to the status of a servant (Od. 15.370). And only with the advent of the suitors has he been truly confined to that place and role.

Odysseus’ recognition of Eumaeus repairs Eumaeus’ social subordination. As they are recognized by Odysseus, Eumaeus and Philoetius are absorbed into Odysseus’ family as brothers to Telemachus. Between his declaration and his show of proof, Odysseus promises,

εἴ χ᾽ ὑπ᾽ ἐμοί γε θεὸς δαμάσῃ μνηστῆρας ἀγαυούς,
ἄξομαι ἀμφοτέροις ἀλόχους καὶ κτήματ᾽ ὀπάσσω
οἰκία τ᾽ ἐγγὺς ἐμεῖο τετυγμένα· καί μοι ἔπειτα
Τηλεμάχου ἑτάρω τε κασιγνήτω τε ἔσεσθον.
If by my hand a god destroys the arrogant suitors,
then I will get you both wives, and allot you possessions
and houses built next to mine. And then
you both will be companions and brothers of Telemachus.

(Od. 21.213-216) [41]

The assimilation that is implicit in the recognition scene with Eurycleia is here made explicit.


Eumaeus’ recognition comes not at a hut at the edge of the estate but in the courtyard of the house, only a small distance from the center of Odysseus’ power. Similarly, Eumaeus’ relationship to Odysseus is revealed to be not that of a distant inferior but one that involves only a relatively minor degree of subordination. Eumaeus’ subordination is that of a son to his father (which is, after all, only temporary) or that of a great hero’s companion, neither of which involves social inferiority. [29] Eumaeus’ servile status, like Laertes’ old age and peasant’s rags, is not an inescapable condition but a form of disguise that Odysseus’ return, rather than reaffirming their unequal relationship, removes.

Like his reunion with Eumaeus, Odysseus’ reunion with Penelope comes only after a long period of testing and negotiation and involves a more complex interrelation of two separate stories of recovery and recognition than do his reunions with Laertes and Telemachus. The recognition of Penelope and Odysseus occurs only after a series of meetings that are difficult to interpret and that are intertwined with Odysseus’ other interactions with his household. This greater complexity is a reflection of the nature of Odysseus and Penelope’s relationship, which is more definitive, more nearly balanced, and less intrinsically secure than Odysseus’ relationships with his father and with his son. As husband and wife Odysseus and Penelope are closer in age and are involved in a more nearly equal relationship than fathers and sons usually are. While Laertes may have been the source of Odysseus’ identity in the past, and Telemachus may represent the greatest prospect of its continuation into the future, Penelope is the figure on whom the recovery of [42] his power to assert it in the present most depends. In the middle of his life, Odysseus is most decisively defined by his role as her husband. At the same time, that role, because it is created through an artificial and reversible social tie rather than through an unalterable bond of blood kinship, is vulnerable in a way that his identity as Laertes’ son and Telemachus’ father is not. Odysseus is not naturally Penelope’s husband, as he is naturally Laertes’ son; that role could have been played by any of a number of men and now that he is absent could be taken over by someone else. Consequently, the most serious challenge to Odysseus’ identity comes from Penelope’s suitors, rivals who would like to replace him in that role.

The inherent instability of the roles of husband and wife as expressions of identity can only be countered by the willingness of the partners to see it as inviolable, as having the irreversible quality of a tie of blood. A successful marriage comes to resemble kinship both because husband and wife come to be related through their children and because they invest their relationship with the particularity and permanence of kinship. But this kinship always remains metaphorical, the product not of biology but of an attitude of mind. This notion of mental kinship is expressed in the idea of homophrosynē, “likeness of mind,” which is identified by Odysseus in his speech to Nausicaa as the central quality of a successful marriage (Od. 6.180-185). Because the form of kinship represented by marriage is in this way entirely voluntary, its recognition—expressed in this poem by Penelope’s recognition of Odysseus as her husband and by Odysseus’ recognition of Penelope as his wife—signals not the effects of heredity but the virtue of marital fidelity.

Odysseus’ definitive yet inherently difficult relationship to Penelope is expressed in the plot of the Odyssey in Penelope’s decisive role in the suitors’ defeat through her setting of the contest of the bow, and in the placement of their recognition scene. Because the status of this relationship is so profoundly affected by the suitors’ presence, the relationship is reinstated immediately after, but only after, the suitors have been eliminated. Thus, Odysseus can neither wait to be reunited with Penelope, [43] as he can with Laertes, nor reveal himself at once and plot openly with her, as he does with Telemachus. And because Penelope’s continued identity as Odysseus’ wife is dependent on his actual return in a way that Telemachus’ identity as his son is not, that identity can appropriately be resumed only when Odysseus’ homecoming is truly secure.

Penelope’s dependence on Odysseus’ presence for her identity is reflected in her response to his absence, which, like Laertes’, combines elements of mourning and disguise. It involves partly physical withdrawal to the inner portion of the house, from which she emerges only rarely, but primarily emotional withdrawal into grief, despair, and inactivity. Furthermore, she is in a state of physical decline that resembles a disguise. She describes this condition to the stranger during their meeting in Book 19. When he compliments her by saying that she has been able to take Odysseus’ place in his absence, she quite correctly denies it.

ξεῖν᾽, ἦ τοι μὲν ἐμὴν ἀρετὴν εἶδός τε δέμας τε
ὤλεσαν ἀθάνατοι, ὅτε Ἴλιον εἰσανέβαινον
Ἀργεῖοι, μετὰ τοῖσι δ᾽ ἐμὸς πόσις ᾖεν Ὀδυσσεύς.
εἰ κεῖνός γ᾽ ἐλθὼν τὸν ἐμὸν βίον ἀμφιπολεύοι,
μεῖζόν κε κλέος εἴη ἐμὸν καὶ κάλλιον οὕτω.
Stranger, all my excellence, my form and appearance,
were destroyed by the immortals, when the Argives
embarked for Ilium and my husband Odysseus went with them.
If he were to come back and take care of my life,
my glory would be greater and so more beautiful.

(Od. 19.124-128)

As in the case of Laertes, the outward effects of time and unhappy experience are here given the obscuring and reversible qualities of a disguise, but a disguise that can only be lifted with Odysseus’ return.


Penelope’s recognition of Odysseus, then, represents for her, as it does for him, emergence from a debilitating state of eclipse. [44] Like the reunion of Odysseus and Telemachus, the reunion of Odysseus and Penelope marks a double return. But Penelope’s return is emotional rather than physical, and so resembles Odysseus’ only metaphorically. [30] This metaphorical resemblance is delineated in the simile describing the embrace which marks their reunion.

κλαῖε δ᾽ ἔχων ἄλοχον θυμαρέα, κεδνὰ ἰδυῖαν.
ὡς δ᾽ ὅτ᾽ ἂv ἀσπάσιος γῆ νηχομένοισι φανήῃ,
ὧν τε Ποσειδάων εὐεργέα νῆ᾽ ἐνὶ πόντῳ
ῥαίσῃ, ἐπειγομένην ἀνέμῳ καὶ κύματι πηγῷ·
παῦροι δ᾽ ἐξέφυγον πολιῆς ἁλὸς ἤπειρόνδε
νηχόμενοι, πολλὴ δὲ περὶ χροΐ τέτροφεν ἅλμη,
ἀσπάσιοι δ᾽ ἐπέβαν γαίης, κακότητα φυγόντες·
ὣς ἄρα τῇ ἀσπαστὸς ἔην πόσις εἰσοροώσῃ,
δειρῆς δ᾽ οὔ πω πάμπαν ἀφίετο πήχεε λευκώ.
He wept holding his beloved wife, whose thoughts were sound.
And as the land appears welcome to men who are swimming,
whose well-built ship Poseidon has smashed
on the sea, driven on with winds and big swells.
A few escape from the gray sea to dry land
swimming, with sea-salt coating their skin,
and rejoicing they step on shore, escaping evil,
so welcome was her husband to her as she saw him before her,
and she clung to his neck with her white arms.

(Od. 23.232-240)


The way this simile identifies Odysseus and Penelope’s experiences is enhanced by its construction: a reader or listener first [45] assumes that the simile applies to Odysseus and realizes only at line 239 that it applies to Penelope. This poetic relocation of experiences like Odysseus’ in Penelope’s emotional life not only suggests an internalized version of the withdrawal and return plot that is basic to heroic narrative [31] but also evokes the necessarily imaginary or notional kinship on which their marriage is based: Penelope’s ability to experience Odysseus’ trials in her imagination is a sign of their homophrosynē, their “likeness of mind.”

Not only does the recognition scene of Odysseus and Penelope mark Penelope’s return as well as Odysseus’, but there is also a notable similarity between her experiences in the second half of the poem and his. Just as Odysseus undergoes a series of preliminary, clandestine recognitions that lead up to his open self-disclosure and general acknowledgment, so Penelope undergoes a series of experiences that in important ways resemble recognition scenes, in which she somehow acknowledges Odysseus’ presence and is recognized by him and through which important steps are taken towards securing Odysseus’ reinstatement: her appearance in the hall in Book 18, her meeting with the stranger in Book 19, and her institution of the contest of the bow in Book 21. But while Odysseus’ recognitions remain generally unacknowledged, in the sense that they are kept secret by the participants, Penelope’s recognitions remain unacknowledged in a further sense. They are not perceived as [46] recognition scenes by the characters involved; they are recognition scenes only at the level of their thematic and structural affinities.

The ambiguous status of these episodes as both recognition scenes and not recognition scenes can be understood as the narrative accommodation of a certain necessary paradox. On the one hand, Penelope must not know that Odysseus is back until the end of her gradual recovery because her recognition of him actually signals its completion; on the other hand, she must know that Odysseus is back from the beginning because she cannot begin to recover until she does know. Only as she recovers does she become capable of helping Odysseus in his operations against the suitors, and thereby of bringing about the circumstances under which her actual recognition of Odysseus can take place. This means that, for most of the narrative, she must somehow know and acknowledge that Odysseus is back but still not recognize him.

These paradoxical conditions are met through a narrative characterized by ambiguity and indirection. Odysseus remains disguised from Penelope but makes his presence known to her in indirect ways. He impresses himself upon her in two distinct forms—as her absent, remembered husband and as the present stranger—while refraining from the crucial revelation that would collapse these two figures into one. He evokes his absent self by making predictions of his own return, by introducing himself as a character into his own false tales, and by encouraging the hopes that still linger in Penelope’s dreams and private thoughts. As the stranger, he stirs up the household, reenacts their courtship, [32] and—in a process to be discussed in some detail in a later chapter—reawakens her interest in performing the duties of a host. In a response to these gestures, Penelope acts out a kind of recognition of Odysseus but does not actually recognize him. Thus, like Odysseus after each episode of recognition, [47] she, after each of these encounters, firmly disavows what has just occurred. But while Odysseus denies his own return by reassuming his beggar’s disguise, she denies it by asserting her certainty that Odysseus will never return (for example, Od. 19.568-569).

Perhaps the best illustration of the kind of scene of self—revelation that Odysseus’ presence causes Penelope to stage is her appearance before the suitors in Book 18. [33] While this scene does not involve actual revelation of identity, it is very much an episode of recognition in the broader sense. Athena implants in Penelope a desire to appear before the suitors,

. . . ὅπως πετάσειε μάλιστα
θυμὸν μνηστήρων ἰδὲ τιμήεσσα γένοιτο
μᾶλλον πρὸς πόσιός τε καὶ υἱέος ἣ πάρος ἦεν.
. . . so that she might open as much as possible
the hearts of the suitors and become even more honored
in the eyes of her husband and son than she was before.

(Od. 18.160-162)

Penelope’s appearance is an opportunity for her to display before a gathering of those best suited to acknowledge them her most glorious attributes, the combination of sexual attractiveness and chastity that makes her at once desired by the suitors and valued by her husband and son. In the course of her appearance, she wins praise from the suitors (Od. 18.244-249) and then insists that that be followed with material recognition in the form of gifts. In addition, she earns Odysseus’ admiration for the way she uses trickery to elicit the suitors’ gifts (Od. 18.281-283).


The timing of this episode is like that of Odysseus’ self-disclosures, for it marks a significant moment in Penelope’s psychological return. It is her first response to a cluster of events that have brought Odysseus to her notice: Telemachus’ report of what he has learned on his journey, Theoclymenus’ “prophecy” [48] that Odysseus has already returned, Odysseus’ actual entrance into the house in disguise, and Eumaeus’ praise of his guest of the night before.

While Penelope’s behavior in this episode is inspired by Odysseus’ presence, the workings of this inspiration are obscured in the narrative both by what she doesn’t know and by what she won’t admit. No indication is given of precisely how the impulse to descend to the hall, which Athena sends her, presents itself to Penelope’s mind. As she expresses it to her nurse, she seems to be openly puzzled by her wish to show herself to the suitors, but to have already formulated a justification for acting on it based on her maternal duty to Telemachus.

ἀχρεῖον δ᾽ ἐγέλασσεν ἔπος τ᾽ ἔφατ᾽ ἔκ τ᾽ ὀνόμαζεν·
“Εὐρυνόμη, θυμός μοι ἐέλδεται, οὔ τι πάρος γε,
μνηστήρεσσι φανῆναι, ἀπεχθομένοισί περ ἔμπης·
παιδὶ δέ κεν εἴποιμι ἔπος, τό κε κέρδιον εἴη,
μὴ πάντα μνηστῆρσιν ὑπερφιάλοισιν ὁμιλεῖν,
οἵ τ᾽ εὖ μὲν βάζουσι, κακῶς δ᾽ ὄπιθεν φρονέουσι.”
She laughed in an idle way and called her by name and addressed her.
“Eurynome, my heart desires, although before it did not,
to appear to the suitors, although they are still hateful to me.
I would speak a word to my son, for it would be more to his advantage
not always to go among the arrogant suitors,
who speak nicely, but have evil intentions.”

(Od. 18.164-168)

Penelope’s own words point to the way in which this desire represents a change in her and thus reveal that, however unaware of it she may be, her action is a response to the changes that have occurred in the household, of which the most important is Odysseus’ entrance into it as the stranger.


During her appearance, Penelope effectively acknowledges that Odysseus is somehow behind her actions, although she does not know that that is literally the case and she does so in [49] statements whose sincerity is impossible to assess. When she confronts Telemachus, she does not warn him against the suitors as she has suggested she would; rather, she scolds him for the mistreatment that the disguised Odysseus has suffered (Od. 18.215-225). When she turns to her other purpose of extracting gifts from the suitors, she says she has finally reached the point when she must marry again and claims that this decision is in accord with instructions given her by Odysseus when he left for the Trojan War (Od. 18.251-280). Her gesture of acting more like a potential bride so that the suitors will act more like proper suitors is, in this way, tied to an evocation of Odysseus as he was when she last saw him, the point at which his image was left in her memory and from which she herself dates her decline. Odysseus’ role in motivating Penelope’s behavior is thus expressed, but indirectly and in a sense inaccurately in speeches that are far from straightforward. She alludes to him as he presents himself, in disguised or distanced forms, as either the present beggar or the long-absent Odysseus of the past.

Penelope’s self-revelation in this scene is further allied to more narrowly defined scenes of recognition by the element of physical transformation. As Odysseus’ disguise often is, Penelope’s careworn appearance is suspended temporarily for a preliminary scene of recognition. With Athena’s aid, she is suddenly transformed so that she looks more beautiful and resembles the gods (Od. 18.190-196). In this case, though, she is herself unaware of her transformation and denies that it has taken place, responding to Eurymachus’ praise in the same words with which she denies the stranger’s praise in the passage quoted above (Od. 18.251-255). In fact, when this transformation occurs, she actively resists it. When she tells Eurynome that she would like to show herself to the suitors, Eurynome suggests that she should wash and anoint herself, that is, that she should willfully change her appearance, and links the cessation of mourning that this would signal to Telemachus’ maturity (Od. 18.171-176). Penelope responds by saying, in effect, that Telemachus’ maturity is not sufficient to rouse her from her present condition; she must remain disguised as long as Odysseus is absent. [50]

Εὐρυνόμη, μὴ ταῦτα παραύδα, κηδομένη περ,
χρῶτ᾽ ἀπονίπτεσθαι καὶ ἐπιχρίεσθαι ἀλοιφῇ·
ἀγλαΐην γὰρ ἐμοί γε θεοί, τοὶ Ὄλυμπον ἔχουσιν,
ὤλεσαν, ἐξ οὗ κεῖνος ἔβη κοίλῃς ἐνὶ νηυσίν.
Eurynome, don’t suggest such things, much as you care for me,
as washing my body and anointing myself with oil.
For the gods who live on Olympus destroyed my beauty
since the day when that man embarked in the hollow ships.

(Od. 18.178-181)

From her perspective, the event that is necessary for her deliverance has not occurred. Not knowing that Odysseus has returned (however much she may be acknowledging Odysseus’ return in her behavior) Penelope cannot cooperate with Athena in bringing about the transformation that precedes her descent into the hall. Instead, Athena must first make her unconscious by putting her to sleep in order to accomplish it.


The way in which, throughout this episode, Penelope persistently denies and resists those aspects of her own behavior that make it most like the combination of revelation of oneself and recognition of another of which episodes of recognition consist, highlights the paradoxical or ambiguous character of her preliminary encounters with Odysseus. In many of their formal characteristics, these encounters are episodes of recognition, but they are not acknowledged as such by any of the participants. This is particularly apparent during their meeting in Book 19 where the growing psychological sympathy that precedes recognition is achieved through a series of displaced gestures of recognition. In the early part of the episode Penelope recognizes, not the stranger, but the absent figure of Odysseus whom the stranger claims to have met, [34] in a process that shares the formal features of actual recognition scenes: the expression of solitary emotion (Od. 19.209-212); a demand for proof (Od. 19.215-219); the presentation of tokens (Od. 19.220-248); [51] even the formula describing recognition, “σήματ᾽ ἀναγνούσῃ τά οἱ ἔμπεδα πέφραδ᾽ Ὀδυσσεύς,” “as she recognized the sure signs that Odysseus had pointed out” (Od. 19.250, cf. Od. 23.206, Od. 24.346). [35] Later, Odysseus’ recognition is evoked obliquely through Penelope’s account of her dream and the stranger’s response to it. But again the recognition does not actually occur. Yet, this interchange leads directly to the typical conclusion of a recognition scene, the construction of a plot (Od. 19.570-587), a plot that so strongly suggests the sequel to recognition that it is interpreted as a sure sign that a recognition has taken place by at least one of the suitors (Od. 24.167-169) and by many readers of the poem. [36]

At the surface level of the plot, Odysseus does not reveal himself to Penelope and she does not recognize him until after the suitors have been dealt with. But in terms of the patterns their actions fulfill, Odysseus and Penelope participate in a series of encounters in which they go through the motions of recognition, each acknowledging the other, which anticipate and lead up to their openly-avowed reunion in Book 23. These encounters are, in a sense, recognition scenes that have gone underground: they resemble the moment of open recognition that they anticipate, but do not share its openness; they are recognitions on the level of the underlying import of the actions that make them up but not in the consciousness of the characters. In the case of Penelope, the meaning that her actions derive from their formal and thematic associations assumes special importance as a guide for interpreting them, because the poem is silent about her thoughts and feelings at crucial junctures in the narrative. (The implications of Penelope’s reticence and the interpretive problems it causes will be discussed in a later chapter.)

The plot of Odysseus’ return to Ithaca is thus complicated by [52] the intertwined stories of the loyal supporters who recognize him, stories that, in various ways, resemble his own. The differences between these stories and the ways in which they intersect delineate the important distinction that always remains between Odysseus, as the dominant heroic figure on whom the poem centers, and his followers. Just as Odysseus’ extraordinary voyage remains different from Telemachus’ tame trip to the mainland and from Penelope’s difficulties at home, so there is finally a significant difference between the literal disguises that Odysseus assumes and discards at will and the metaphorical disguises of Laertes, Telemachus, Penelope, and Eumaeus. These characters’ oppressive conditions take on the reversible quality of disguise only because of Odysseus’ return against all odds and against all expectations. In various ways, the encounters discussed above all delineate relationships that, while reciprocal, also involve dependence on Odysseus. Odysseus’ single-handed self-restoration in Phaeacia and his resort to literal disguise on Ithaca set him apart as a hero who is not subject to these limitations, a hero who is so thoroughly in control of his situation that he can adopt and abandon these limitations at will, and who can serve as the agent of their transcendence by others. With these characters Odysseus is able to play the role of a god, to act towards them as Athena acts towards him.

Odysseus’ disguise is an artificial device that allows him to structure the plot of his return by controlling the timing of his self-revelations so that he can, at the proper moment, disclose himself like a disguised god instead of running headlong into destruction like that ordinary mortal Agamemnon. Similarly, the Odyssey‘s plot of the hero’s return in disguise and recognition is an artificial device through which the poem organizes and controls the celebration of its hero Odysseus. And just as the success of Odysseus’ strategies and of the divine scheme into which they are subsumed depends on proper timing, so the poem’s success in presenting Odysseus playing this godlike role with the various dependent members of his household also depends on timing, on the story being set at a particular point in Odysseus’ life.

The importance of the story’s timing is suggested most urgently [53] by the mounting pressures on Penelope to marry again, to cast someone else in the role of her husband. It is also seen in relation to the two members of Odysseus’ own family who recognize him: his father, who was once a more powerful figure than he, and his son, who someday will be. The challenge to Odysseus’ preeminence that these figures represent is implicit in the poem’s nearly final image of Odysseus fighting the suitors’ relatives with Laertes and Telemachus, both in a state of paramount vigor, at his side. Only because the poem is set at the time when Telemachus is still too young and Laertes is already too old to assert himself effectively can Odysseus remain the dominant figure in this tableau.

The significance of timing is further reflected in the way Odysseus times the self-revelations that animate the heroism of his father and son. Telemachus is encountered soon after Odysseus’ arrival and is consigned to the role of his father’s lieutenant. Laertes does not realize his wish of recovering his youth in time to fight against the suitors. Odysseus’ delay in revealing himself to Laertes assures that his father is not able to share the limelight when Odysseus performs his most glorious feat. Only in the context of what is represented as a secondary challenge, the battle with the suitors’ relatives, does the poem directly represent the competition between the generations. [37] And then this generational competition is depicted as a welcome rivalry: Odysseus reminds Telemachus of the tradition of heroism he must live up to (Od. 24.506-509); Telemachus responds that he will do his best (Od. 24.511-512); and Laertes rejoices that his son and his grandson are vying in aretē, “excellence” (Od. 24.514-515). This final vision, which stresses the family’s figurative conquest of time through the continuity of the line, cannot outweigh the singularity of Odysseus’ achievements as revealed in the actions that lead up to it.

Finally, the poem’s success in depicting Odysseus as extraordinary is aided by its geographical as well as its temporal setting. [54] For it is only at home in Ithaca that Odysseus can find people with whom he has relations of mutual support capable of being revived after many years in which he plays this dominant role. Only there can he defeat his enemies by putting together a band of followers consisting solely of family members and personal retainers. Outside his own home he must cooperate with others who are not naturally subordinated to him by virtue of their age, gender, or social status. Only at home can he count on being able to play the central part in a godlike scenario. The setting and the action that occurs in it are entirely interdependent, and what is in one sense the goal of the story is in another its precondition. The apparent conquest of limitation implied in the hero’s achievements is inextricable from an acceptance of limitation, the limitation of his sphere of action to his own home. What appears to be a story of godlike transcendence is in fact bounded by the restricted conditions of ordinary human life. [55]


[ back ] 1. On recognition by a future accomplice as a standard feature of South Slavic return songs, see Albert B. Lord, The Singer of Tales, 103. That Odysseus’ return takes the form of a series of reunions means that it is an especially elaborate and dramatic version of the narrative pattern through which return is regularly expressed in Homeric epic. Cf. Nausicaa’s return to the house of Alcinous (Od. 7.1-13), Telemachus’ return to the house (Od. 17.26-43), Priam’s return to Troy with Hector’s body (Il. 24.697ff).

[ back ] 2. On the second half of the Odyssey as expressing Odysseus’ self-definition through the recovery of social roles, see Cedric H. Whitman, Homer and the Heroic Tradition, 301-305.

[ back ] 3. For a more detailed account of the Odyssey‘s recognition scenes as versions of a narrative type, see Sheila H. Murnaghan, “Anagnōrisis in the Odyssey, ” Chapter 2.

[ back ] 4. Od. 16.213-219; 21.222-225; 23.205-246, 288-296 (cf. 10.347); 24.345-348. Cf. Od. 13.353-360, where Odysseus kisses the shore of Ithaca when he has recognized his home. During the tense recognition with Eurycleia in 19, this element of physical contact recurs in a hostile form: Od. 19.479-481, cf. 4.259. At Od. 23.32-34, where for a moment Penelope accepts the news of Odysseus’ return, this embrace is displaced from Odysseus to his messenger Eurycleia.

[ back ] 5. These expressions of one-sided emotion, which give way to the shared joy of reunion, may take the form of pleasure in a reunion the other person does not yet realize is taking place (e.g. Od. 16.190-191); or sorrow at the absence of someone who, while present, is still unrecognized (e.g., Od. 19.361-362; 24.315-317); or pity at the sorrow of someone who mourns someone who is present but unrecognized (e.g., Od. 24.234).

[ back ] 6. This connotation is reflected in the use of diction associated with honor to describe recognition of identity. For example, when Odysseus explains to Telemachus that Penelope cannot recognize him because of his beggar’s disguise, he says “that is why she dishonors [ἀτιμάζει] me and does not say that I am her husband” (Od. 23.116).

[ back ] 7. Gregory Nagy has shown that in Homeric poetry recognition entails knowledge of the code or system in which a sēma, “sign,” participates. “Sēma and Noēsis: Some Illustrations,” 38-39. Recognition of identity, then, entails appreciation of the system of social relations according to which people are at once connected to one another and ranked in relation to one another.

[ back ] 8. Od. 4.253-256; 13.361-428; 16.235-320, where this element of plotting seems to be present largely in order to complete the recognition scene, since the plans made are impractical and are never fulfilled. (On this problem, see Hartmut Erbse, Beiträge zum Verständnis der Odyssee, 3-41; Bernard Fenik, Studies in the Odyssey, 111-117; W. J. Woodhouse, The Composition of Homer’s Odyssey 158-168); Od. 19.495-498; 21.228-241; 23.350-365; 24.351-360. Cf. also Od. 19.570-587, where this element occurs in the absence of actual recognition.

[ back ] 9. Cf. Od. 22.501, where, in the account of Odysseus’ reunion with his faithful serving women, what is stressed is Odysseus’ recognition of them, even though he is the one who has been in disguise. Similarly, Odysseus’ companions recognize him after they have been turned back from swine into men (Od. 10.397). And in the episode from Iliad 15 discussed in the Introduction, Hector recognizes his companions even though he is the one who has nearly died (Il. 15.252). In those examples, the characters who have, in some sense, returned to life experience that return by acknowledging other people who play some role in making it possible.

[ back ] 10. Specifically, he recognizes their noos, “mind,” which is precisely the mental faculty involved in recognition. See Gregory Nagy, “Sēma and Noēsis: Some Illustrations.”

[ back ] 11. Odysseus’ words of self-revelation typically contain this element of boasting: Od. 9.19-21; 16.205-206; 24.321-322.

[ back ] 12. The way Laertes’ response to Odysseus’ absence both mimics the effects of that absence on Odysseus himself and has the temporary and inessential qualities of disguise reflects the conception of mourning as sympathetic imitation that is found throughout Homeric poetry. As James Redfield puts it, ‘The dead person is going on a journey and the impulse of the mourners is to go with him; the most perfect mourning would be suicide, and this is treated as a real possibility ([Il.] 18.34). Short of this the mourner may suspend his life, as Achilles abstains from food, sleep, washing, and the act of love ([Il.] 24.129-131)” (Nature and Culture in the Iliad, 181). This conception involves the same kind of ambiguity inherent in literal disguises: the mourner’s seeming death expresses the degree to which his own efficacy and identity are threatened by the loss, while the affinity of his behavior to playacting expresses the intrinsic transitoriness of mourning. In the Odyssey one character, Anticleia, does respond to Odysseus’ absence with mourning so intense that it leads to her own death, but for the other characters, mourning remains a different experience from the one it imitates. The close connection between the themes of mourning, disguise, and the imitation of death also underlies the myth told in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter. Like Laertes, Demeter disfigures herself in grief for the loss of a child, with the result that she is unrecognizable (94-95). Similarly, when she first misses Persephone, she refuses to bathe (50), an action that regularly leads to recognition, and when she enters the house of Celeus, she holds a veil in front of her face (197), a gesture of mourning that is also, like Odysseus’ similar attempts in Phaeacia, designed to conceal her identity. Demeter’s mourning and disguise also involve a kind of mimicking of death (and, because she is a goddess, the idea that any involvement with death is only playacting is a given of the story). She takes on the appearance of an old woman and withdraws from Olympus to involve herself with mortals—an action that parallels Persephone’s removal to the realm of death. Cf. Hymn to Aphrodite, 241-246, where Aphrodite says she is enveloped by ἄχος, “grief,” because of her involvement with the mortal Anchises who will be enveloped (the verb used in each case is ἀμφικαλύπτω) by γῆρας, “old age.” On the many parallels between the plots of the Homeric Hymn to Demeter and the Homeric epics, see Mary-Louise Lord, “Withdrawal and Return”; Howard W. Clarke, The Art of the Odyssey, 70-71.

[ back ] 13. Cf. Stanford’s commentary on Od. 24.229-230.

[ back ] 14. Cf. the way Menelaus and his men are disguised as seals in order to surprise Proteus (Od. 4.435-440) and the way Odysseus disguises himself as a ram to outwit the Cyclops (Od. 9.431-435). The capacity to adopt an animal disguise is clearly a sign of the ability to survive; the capacity actually to become an animal, as in the case of Odysseus’ companions who are transformed by Circe, is an indication of the opposite.

[ back ] 15. That Laertes is essentially in disguise is noted by Μ. E. Heatherington, “Chaos, Order, and Cunning in the Odyssey,” 233 n19. Barry Powell comments on the formally reciprocal character of this recognition scene: “Thematic elements in this final recognition are curiously transferred back and forth between father and son.” Composition by Theme in the Odyssey, 49. It is possible that a very slight indication of disguise for Odysseus is given when he puts aside his armor (Od. 24.219). It will be seen in Chapter 3 that during Odysseus’ visit to Eumaeus, Odysseus’ lack of a cloak constitutes part of his disguise.

[ back ] 16. One element of this contrast, the difference between the condition of the farm and that of Laertes himself, has been cited as a problematic inconsistency by some critics of the end of the poem (cf. G. S. Kirk, The Songs of Homer, 250; Μ. I. Finley, The World of Odysseus, 87). But that difference can be understood as an account of the disjunction between Laertes’ true and apparent states that makes his condition similar to a disguise. Cf. Dorothea Wender, The Last Scenes of the Odyssey, 52-53.

[ back ] 17. Notably, Laertes’ condition intensifies when he learns that his grandson may be lost as well (Od. 16.141-145).

[ back ] 18. This issue is, of course, inseparable from the larger issue of the authenticity of the entire ending from Od. 23.297 on. For a forceful statement of the arguments against authenticity, see Denys Page, The Homeric Odyssey, 101-136; for rebuttal of those arguments see Hartmut Erbse, Beiträge zum Verständnis der Odyssee, 166-244; Carroll Moulton, “The End of the Odyssey“; Dorothea Wender, The Last Scenes of the Odyssey. Of particular relevance to this discussion is the recurrent sense that the recognition scene with Laertes is misplaced because Odysseus’ continued self-concealment is, at this point in the story, gratuitously cruel. This point is stressed by Page (112), but also acknowledged by critics who are less certain that the scene is inauthentic, e.g., Bernard Fenik, Studies in the Odyssey, 47-50.


19. That many features of this scene, including its placement, stem from universal features of the relationship of parent and child is suggested by Albert Lord’s observation that the Odyssey conforms to a pattern common in Yugoslav return songs in which the hero’s recognition by a parent comes after his recognition by his wife. The Singer of Tales, 178.

[ back ]

20. On the necessity for this episode, see Dorothea Wender, The Last Scenes of the Odyssey, 57-59.

[ back ] 21. On Telemachus’ recognition in the Odyssey as the assertion of the inheritability of aretē, “excellence,” as the basis of hereditary monarchy, see Peter W. Rose, “Class Ambivalence in the Odyssey” 138.

[ back ] 22. On the structural and thematic parallels between the Telemachy and the story of Odysseus, see Bernard Fenik, Studies in the Odyssey, 21-28.

[ back ] 23. Cf. Howard Clarke’s comment on Theoclymenus’ speech at 15.533-534, “. . . it is not a prophecy; it is an accolade, a ceremony to complete the Telemacheia by marking Telemachus’ attainment to true manhood.” The Art of the Odyssey, 39.

[ back ] 24. This way of dramatizing a son’s relationship to his father is not unique to the Odyssey. As David E. Bynum has shown in his study of analogous narratives of initiatory journeys undertaken by young heroes, the young hero’s failure to recover his father, even when it is his ostensible purpose to do so, is a standard feature of such stories. “Themes of the Young Hero in Serbocroatian Oral Epic Tradition,” 1300-1301.

[ back ] 25. For this view, see W. J. Woodhouse, The Composition of Homer’s Odyssey, 151-152. Cf. also Karl Reinhardt’s remarks on Eumaeus’ role, “Homer und die Telemachie,” 45.

[ back ] 26. Cf. Helene P. Foley, “‘Reverse Similes’ and Sex Roles in the Odyssey,” especially the observations that “Through Eumaeus, Odysseus symbolically recovers an understanding with those men, often originally strangers, who maintain the external economies of the household” (15), and, commenting on the recognition with Laertes, “. . . its late appearance in the poem makes clear that the success of Odysseus’ homecoming does not depend on his father. Odysseus renegotiates his social, not his natural relationships” (25 n21).

[ back ] 27. On Eurycleia’s position, see Jean-Pierre Vernant, Mythe et société, 67.

[ back ] 28. See the comments of Barry Powell, Composition by Theme in the Odyssey, 53. At 14.147 Eumaeus refers to Odysseus as “ἠθεῖον” instead of naming him; see W. B. Stanford’s discussion of that line in his commentary, which includes his report of a scholiast’s observation that this is the proper term for an older brother or close friend.

[ back ] 29. This transaction recreates a relationship that Eumaeus has compared favorably to his relationship to his parents in his original, princely home (Od. 14.140-141).

[ back ] 30. This parallelism is well described by John Finley, who writes that, “Each of the three main characters dominates a part of the Odyssey, and each makes a journey, son and father outward journeys on sea and land, Penelope an inner journey from the sad fixity of her twenty-year isolation.” Homer’s Odyssey, 2. Grief and the loss of the desire to live such as Penelope and Laertes manifest are explicitly opposed to return in the Iliad when Achilles expresses his grief at the death of Patroclus (Il. 18.89 ff). See Douglas Frame, The Myth of Return in Early Greek Epic, 122-124.

[ back ] 31. On Penelope’s experience as a realization of that plot type, see Cora W. Sowa, Traditional Themes and the Homeric Hymns, 107. While Penelope’s story represents a striking example of the internalization of this plot, it is also true that the stories of Achilles’ and Odysseus’ withdrawals and returns are not told in the Homeric epics solely in terms of physical presence and absence, but have a component that might variously be labeled mental, ideological, or psychological. Achilles’ physical withdrawal from the Achaean army, which is geographically rather slight, is the outward expression of a more considerable sense of ideological alienation from the Achaean leaders, which, like Penelope’s emotional withdrawal, stems from a lack of appropriate recognition. And Odysseus’ attempt to overcome the very great distances that separate him from his family and home depend as much on what might be called presence of mind as on physical accomplishments.

[ back ] 32. On Odysseus’ behavior towards Penelope as a form of courtship, see Norman Austin, Archery at the Dark of the Moon, 211; Alice J. Mariani, “The Forged Feature,” 146 ff.

[ back ] 33. For references to the main discussions of this scene, see Thomas Van Nortwick, “Penelope and Nausicaa,” 267 n1.

[ back ] 34. On the present stranger and the absen

t Odysseus as two distinct figures in this scene, see H. Vester, “Das 19. Buch der Odyssee.”

[ back ] 35. See also the similar discussion of this episode by Chris Emlyn-Jones, “The Reunion of Penelope and Odysseus,” 8.

[ back ] 36. This problem will be discussed at greater length in Chapter 4. It should, however, be noted here that this episode’s resemblance to a recognition scene between Odysseus and Penelope may well spring in part from the influence of an earlier version of the story in which such a scene did take place at this point.

[ back ] 37. Although W. B. Stanford finds latent antagonism between father and son in the recognition scene earlier in Book 24. The Ulysses Theme, 60.