[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.