Odysseus, Mendicant, Pugilist, Philosopher-King (Odyssey, 18.90-98)

[Today the Almeida Theater in the UK is presenting a live reading of the Odyssey. Duly inspired, we are re-posting some of our favorite Odyssey themed posts]

At the beginning of the 18th book of the Odyssey a local beggar, Iros, shows up at the palace of Odysseus and is quite upset at the appearance of a rival mendicant (Odysseus in disguise). He challenges Odysseus’ right to be there and the suitors goad them into a boxing match. After they prepare themselves to fight and taunt each other, Odysseus ponders his approach to the fight:

“Then indeed, much-enduring, shining Odysseus pondered
Whether he should drive home a punch so hard that the soul left his body when he fell
Or whether he should just lay him out on the ground.
As he considered these things, it seemed to him better
Just to knock him down, so that the Achaians would not recognize him.
Then, when the two of them squared off, Iros punched his right shoulder
But Odysseus struck him in the neck under the ear and crushed the bones within.
Immediately, bright blood came out of his mouth
And he fell shaking into the dust: he slammed his teeth together,
And kicked the ground with his feet…

δὴ τότε μερμήριξε πολύτλας δῖος ᾿Οδυσσεύς,
ἢ ἐλάσει’ ὥς μιν ψυχὴ λίποι αὖθι πεσόντα,
ἦέ μιν ἦκ’ ἐλάσειε τανύσσειέν τ’ ἐπὶ γαίῃ.
ὧδε δέ οἱ φρονέοντι δοάσσατο κέρδιον εἶναι,
ἦκ’ ἐλάσαι, ἵνα μή μιν ἐπιφρασσαίατ’ ᾿Αχαιοί.
δὴ τότ’ ἀνασχομένω ὁ μὲν ἤλασε δεξιὸν ὦμον
῏Ιρος, ὁ δ’ αὐχέν’ ἔλασσεν ὑπ’ οὔατος, ὀστέα δ’ εἴσω
ἔθλασεν• αὐτίκα δ’ ἦλθεν ἀνὰ στόμα φοίνιον αἷμα,
κὰδ δ’ ἔπεσ’ ἐν κονίῃσι μακών, σὺν δ’ ἤλασ’ ὀδόντας
λακτίζων ποσὶ γαῖαν…

Ancient Greek boxing was brutal—it went to a knockout, and focused very little on hitting anything but the head. Despite that, there seems to be some technique here: Odysseus knows the difference between a wounding and a killing blow. Compared to the slaughter that will ensure in book 22, this violence seems almost quaint. But Homer, unlike Odysseus, doesn’t pull his punches—bloodsport is about blood.

So much pathos...
So much pathos…

3 thoughts on “Odysseus, Mendicant, Pugilist, Philosopher-King (Odyssey, 18.90-98)

  1. Some of the other students were talking about that boxing match before my class on Thursday night, and one of the undergraduates (it’s a mixed grad/undergrad class) tried to use it as an excuse to delay the assignment due (electronically) on Sunday night.

    Of course, my teacher–being a native of Greece–immediately changed the subject to how brutal ancient Greek boxing was, and talked about the boxing match at the funeral games of Patroclos in the Iliad. I had to bite my tongue to keep from laughing. They should have known he was going to do that. *I* knew he was going to do that.

    But looking at that quote, he should have talked about Odysseus vs. Iros instead, clearly. I’d forgotten it got so bloody.

    1. I almost wrote about the boxing match in the games, but it really doesn’t do well in comparison to the chariot race, footrace, or wrestling match. It is clear that even from the context of the Iliad, boxing is violent and deadly.

      1. Yeah, the races and the wrestling got most of the attention. And then there’s the sword-and-shield match! Poor Aias! He doesn’t seem to fare well at funeral games…

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