Sex, Trees, and the Structure of the Odyssey

Odysseus begins and ends his journey in groves of trees:


“When morning-born, rosey-toed Dawn appeared,
Then Odysseus immediately donned his tunic and cloak
And the goddess put on her great silvery robe,
Well-made and well-decorated, and she wrapped her belt around her,
A golden, fine piece, and put her band around her head.
Then she was planning out a departure for great-hearted Odysseus.
She gave him a great ax that was well-sized for his hands,
A bronze one, sharp on two sides. And in it was well fit
A smooth, well-made handle.
She gave him the smooth axe and then took him on the path
To the farthest part of the island where the tale trees were growing,
Alder, ash and fir trees reaching to the sky,
Dry for a long time, long-seasoned, perfect for sailing.
Once she showed him where the great trees were growing,
Kalypso, the beautiful goddess, returned to her home,
While he was cutting out planks. The work went quickly.
He picked out twenty altogether and cut them with bronze.
He skillfully planed them down and made them straight with a level.
At the same time, the shining goddess Kalypso was bringing him augers
And he drilled all the pieces and fit them together.
As wide as a man who is skilled in wood-working
Traces out the line of a merchant ship—that’s
How wide Odysseus made his skiff.
Once he set up the deck beams he attached them to the
Close-placed ribs. And then he finished out the raft with long gunwales.
He fashioned a mast and placed on it a yard-arm.
He also made a rudder to steer with and then
He fashioned willow-branches and brush into a wall
To stand against the waves around the vessel.
And then Kalypso brought him a bolt of cloth
To make into a sail. He crafted that too, skillfully.
He tied into the raft braces, and restraints, and sheets
And using levers moved it down toward the shining sea.
It was the fourth day and everything was complete.”

ἦμος δ’ ἠριγένεια φάνη ῥοδοδάκτυλος ᾿Ηώς,
αὐτίχ’ ὁ μὲν χλαῖνάν τε χιτῶνά τε ἕννυτ’ ᾿Οδυσσεύς,
αὐτὴ δ’ ἀργύφεον φᾶρος μέγα ἕννυτο νύμφη,
λεπτὸν καὶ χαρίεν, περὶ δὲ ζώνην βάλετ’ ἰξυῖ
καλὴν χρυσείην, κεφαλῇ δ’ ἐφύπερθε καλύπτρην.
καὶ τότ’ ᾿Οδυσσῆϊ μεγαλήτορι μήδετο πομπήν·
δῶκε μέν οἱ πέλεκυν μέγαν, ἄρμενον ἐν παλάμῃσι,
χάλκεον, ἀμφοτέρωθεν ἀκαχμένον· αὐτὰρ ἐν αὐτῷ
στειλειὸν περικαλλὲς ἐλάϊνον, εὖ ἐναρηρός·
δῶκε δ’ ἔπειτα σκέπαρνον ἐΰξοον· ἦρχε δ’ ὁδοῖο
νήσου ἐπ’ ἐσχατιήν, ὅθι δένδρεα μακρὰ πεφύκει,
κλήθρη τ’ αἴγειρός τ’, ἐλάτη τ’ ἦν οὐρανομήκης,
αὖα πάλαι, περίκηλα, τά οἱ πλώοιεν ἐλαφρῶς.
αὐτὰρ ἐπεὶ δὴ δεῖξ’ ὅθι δένδρεα μακρὰ πεφύκει,
ἡ μὲν ἔβη πρὸς δῶμα Καλυψώ, δῖα θεάων,
αὐτὰρ ὁ τάμνετο δοῦρα· θοῶς δέ οἱ ἤνυτο ἔργον.
εἴκοσι δ’ ἔκβαλε πάντα, πελέκκησεν δ’ ἄρα χαλκῷ,
ξέσσε δ’ ἐπισταμένως καὶ ἐπὶ στάθμην ἴθυνε.
τόφρα δ’ ἔνεικε τέρετρα Καλυψώ, δῖα θεάων·
τέτρηνεν δ’ ἄρα πάντα καὶ ἥρμοσεν ἀλλήλοισι,
γόμφοισιν δ’ ἄρα τήν γε καὶ ἁρμονίῃσιν ἄρασσεν.
ὅσσον τίς τ’ ἔδαφος νηὸς τορνώσεται ἀνὴρ
φορτίδος εὐρείης, εὖ εἰδὼς τεκτοσυνάων,
τόσσον ἐπ’ εὐρεῖαν σχεδίην ποιήσατ’ ᾿Οδυσσεύς.
ἴκρια δὲ στήσας, ἀραρὼν θαμέσι σταμίνεσσι,
ποίει· ἀτὰρ μακρῇσιν ἐπηγκενίδεσσι τελεύτα.
ἐν δ’ ἱστὸν ποίει καὶ ἐπίκριον ἄρμενον αὐτῷ·
πρὸς δ’ ἄρα πηδάλιον ποιήσατο, ὄφρ’ ἰθύνοι.
φράξε δέ μιν ῥίπεσσι διαμπερὲς οἰσυΐνῃσι,
κύματος εἶλαρ ἔμεν· πολλὴν δ’ ἐπεχεύατο ὕλην.
τόφρα δὲ φάρε’ ἔνεικε Καλυψώ, δῖα θεάων,
ἱστία ποιήσασθαι· ὁ δ’ εὖ τεχνήσατο καὶ τά.
ἐν δ’ ὑπέρας τε κάλους τε πόδας τ’ ἐνέδησεν ἐν αὐτῇ,
μοχλοῖσιν δ’ ἄρα τήν γε κατείρυσεν εἰς ἅλα δῖαν.
τέτρατον ἦμαρ ἔην, καὶ τῷ τετέλεστο ἅπαντα·

Trees are special…


“If truly you are my child Odysseus come home,
Signal to me a clearly-known sign that I might believe.”

Very-clever Odysseus answered him as he spoke:

“First, recognize this scar with your eyes,
The one a boar tore into me on Parnassos with his white tusk
When I went there. You and my queen mother sent me
To her father Autolykos so that I might gain gifts,
The ones he promised and guaranteed to give me when he came her.
Or, come, and let me describe to you the trees in this well-planned orchard
Which you once gave to me as I asked you about each one
When I was a child asking about them throughout the garden.
We walked through them; you described and named each one.
You gave me thirty pear trees, ten apple trees and
Forty fig trees. You set apart fifty rows of vines
To give me too, vines ripening in turn.
There every sort of grape hangs down
Whenever Zeus’ seasons make them heavy from above.”

τὸν δ’ αὖ Λαέρτης ἀπαμείβετο φώνησέν τε·
“εἰ μὲν δὴ ᾿Οδυσεύς γε, ἐμὸς πάϊς, εἰλήλουθας,
σῆμά τί μοι νῦν εἰπὲ ἀριφραδές, ὄφρα πεποίθω.”
“οὐλὴν μὲν πρῶτον τήνδε φράσαι ὀφθαλμοῖσι,
τὴν ἐν Παρνησῷ μ’ ἔλασεν σῦς λευκῷ ὀδόντι
οἰχόμενον· σὺ δέ με προΐεις καὶ πότνια μήτηρ
ἐς πατέρ’ Αὐτόλυκον μητρὸς φίλον, ὄφρ’ ἂν ἑλοίμην
δῶρα, τὰ δεῦρο μολών μοι ὑπέσχετο καὶ κατένευσεν.
εἰ δ’ ἄγε τοι καὶ δένδρε’ ἐϋκτιμένην κατ’ ἀλῳὴν
εἴπω, ἅ μοί ποτ’ ἔδωκας, ἐγὼ δ’ ᾔτευν σε ἕκαστα
παιδνὸς ἐών, κατὰ κῆπον ἐπισπόμενος· διὰ δ’ αὐτῶν
ἱκνεύμεσθα, σὺ δ’ ὠνόμασας καὶ ἔειπες ἕκαστα.
ὄγχνας μοι δῶκας τρεισκαίδεκα καὶ δέκα μηλέας,
συκέας τεσσαράκοντ’· ὄρχους δέ μοι ὧδ’ ὀνόμηνας
δώσειν πεντήκοντα, διατρύγιος δὲ ἕκαστος
ἤην; ἔνθα δ’ ἀνὰ σταφυλαὶ παντοῖαι ἔασιν,
ὁππότε δὴ Διὸς ὧραι ἐπιβρίσειαν ὕπερθεν.”


Both of these tree-moments are preceded by sex:

Od. 5.226-227:

“Then, after going into the deepest recess of the hollow cave
They took pleasure in sex, staying next to one another.”

ἐλθόντες δ’ ἄρα τώ γε μυχῷ σπείους γλαφυροῖο
τερπέσθην φιλότητι, παρ’ ἀλλήλοισι μένοντες.

These lines are very close to the description of his sexual reunion with Penelope in book 23:

“Thus then, after they each had their pleasure from lovely sex,
They took pleasure in words, telling tales to one another.”

τὼ δ’ ἐπεὶ οὖν φιλότητος ἐταρπήτην ἐρατεινῆς,
τερπέσθην μύθοισι, πρὸς ἀλλήλους ἐνέποντες,

Note the differences!

Both scenes are part of six day sequences. From the moment the gods tell Odysseus he can leave until he departs Kalypso’s island, six days pass:

Book 5

Day 1

5.1 the gods gather at dawn and send Hermes to Ogygia; Odysseus is found on the shore (5.151); Kalypso and Odysseus Dine (5.197-201); they have sex (5.227)

Days 2-5

Dawn Rises (5.228); Odysseus begins to build the raft; on the fourth day, the raft is complete (τέτρατον ἦμαρ ἔην, καὶ τῷ τετέλεστο ἅπαντα· 5.262)

Day 6

On the sixth day, Odysseys departs (fifth day from the beginning of the construction (τῷ δ’ ἄρα πέμπτῳ πέμπ’ ἀπὸ νήσου δῖα Καλυψώ, 5.263)

Odysseus sails for 17 days and nears Skheria on the 18th (5.278-9); Poseidon wrecks his ship and he floats for two days and nights and is near the land again on the third (5.388-390) and he falls asleep on the shore (5.492-3)

As I mentioned in an earlier post, the time that passes from one Odysseus arrives on Ithaca until the end of the epic should also be counted as 6 days:


Day 1
14: Odysseus goes to Eumaios, they sleep (14.523)

15: Telemachus leaves Sparta, sleeps at Diokles’ house (Simultaneous action shown in parallel)

Day 2
15.301-494: Eumaios and Odysseus dine again and talk through most of the night

15: Telemachus bypasses Pylos for his ship,(15.296-300) (Simultaneous action shown in parallel)

Day 3
15.495-500: Telemachus arrives arrives in Ithaca and goes to Eumaios’ home (16); the suitors return from their ambush; Eumaios, Telemachus and Odysseus sleep (16)

Day 4
17: Telemachus and Odysseus go to their home separately; the suitors go home to sleep (18.427-428); Penelope sleeps (19.600-604); Odysseus sleeps (20.54-55)

Day 5
20.91: Dawn comes and the suitors return; 21: The Bow; 22: Mnesterophonia; 23.342-43: They sleep

Day 6
23.345-349 Dawn comes, Odysseus wakes and goes to see his father; the second Nekyuia; Testing of Laertes; Ithacan Assembly; Final showdown

9 thoughts on “Sex, Trees, and the Structure of the Odyssey

  1. Hi

    I looked up the meaning of ἀκαχμένος in Legeionἀκαχμένος

    ἀκαχμένος (root ακ): sharpened, pointed; ἔγχος ἀκαχμένον ὀξέι χαλκῷ‘tipped with sharp point of bronze,’ πελεκὺς ἀμφοτέρωθεν ἀκ., ‘doubleedged’ axe, Od. 5.235.

    I don’t understand why it is specified as “doubledged” in the passage you quoted. Some ritual significance?

    1. Also, does the word appear only in Homer and Hesiod? I did Philologic, and all the passages are from these works.

      I know zilch Greek, but am interested in knowing where the word came from. Double-edged I assume is not the same as double-axe. The wiki on axe says double edged axe is the most common form, but I can only find the word used in Homer and Hesiod.

    2. You have a good sense here. The commentators wonder as well why a double edged axe would be used for carpentry. Their answer is that it reflects a traditional ritual object.

  2. Hello,

    Further to the above, I have a question that I hope you might be able to assist me with. For a while now (over a year), I have been wondering about the swineherd Eumaios and his role in the story of Odysseus. He plays a pivotal role in Odysseus reconnecting with his son and Penelope, and in the slaughter of the suitors. He is also the only person in the entire Odyssey whose speech is marked by Apostrophe. The other day I was watching prof Robert Martin’s discussion on the Celtic myths of cattle raid, and from his talk I got the impression the raid part is more important than the cattle, i.e. there are similar raid stories of sheep, pigs and so on. He also mentioned the roots of the cattle raid to the tales of the pig herders who have “magic powers”. That reminded me of the swineherd Eumaios and Apostrophe. I had counted the number of Apostrophe applied to him to (14), a very large number when you consider this occurs for no one else.

    I tried to analyze exactly what was emphasized by these Apostrophes, and this is the conclusion I have come to.

    wiki Apostrophe comes ultimately from Greek ἡ οφοἀπόστρς [προσῳδία] (hē apóstrophos [prosōidía], “[the accent of] ‘turning away’, or elision”), through Latin and French.[2][3]
    Whatever it was meant as, the ancient audience recognized it as a cue for something. And he is the only one who is recognized that way.
    I think it is connectedness with Gods (he is very pious and observes the law of xenia for example), Sarah says Muses are cued that way, too.

    I would love to hear your opinion on this, time permitting.
    Thank you.

    1. Hi!

      Sorry for not responding earlier to all of your wonderful comments–it is the end of the semester and grading madness is upon me.

      As far as apostrophe goes, it is used in the Iliad too of Patroklos (and I think of Menelaos?). The basic scholarly treatment is that this is for emphasis; why the special emphasis for these characters is not ultimately agreed upon. It is clear to me that it functions to show affection on the narrator’s part for a character and points the audience’s attention. The positive emphasis changes the way we view the character.

      When it comes to Eumaios, I believe the standard idea has been about xenia, as you note, that Eumaios is exemplifying positive and desired behavior (including loyalty). There may also be a class-based affinity as well: many of Homer’s ancient audience members would not have been ruling aristocrats, so Eumaios occupies an interest space for their interest and values. There are negative ramifications for this (about keeping people in their social classes etc.).

      Does that help?

      1. Hello Dr. Christensen,

        Thank you so much for your detailed reply.

        Yes, it makes lots of sense. It helped me to clarify some issues. I had just watched prof Martin’s presentation on the Irish epic Cattle-Raid of Cooley (Táin Bó Cúalnge), and he discussed the IE aspects of the myth. I guess I started to wonder if IE was the factor in several curious aspects of the slaughter of the suitors in the Odyssey, such as
        1. (4) speeches of Telemachus which is near identical to Hector’s speech to Andromache in the Iliad. These appear specifically around the slaughter of the suitors.
        2. (4) unwinged words, which again occurs only in the Odyssey specifically around the slaughter of the suitors. They appear nowhere else in the Homeric poetry or any other place that i am aware of.
        3. The faithful nurse’s epithet change to the one usually applied to Penelope, following her famous bath foot washing scene in scroll 19, and she maintains that epithets till all the suitors are killed. She is also the one who speaks these unwinged words during the slaughter (except one occasion where Penelope speaks).

        And so on. I guess I started wondering if the Apostrophe of the swineherd served the same, “signify or indicate” type function to the audience.

        What do you make of these coincidences? Why is Telemachus speech in these situations identical to Hectors? Only a word seems to change from “power”, to “bow” and so on, and why does the nurse respond to Telemachus and so on with “unwinged words” specifically in these situations? That is what has been a puzzle to me.

        So, I guess I was doing a bit of over-reach..

        Thank you so much for your feedback.

        I realize you are quite busy with the transition phase of your career. If you have any other feedback, I would be very appreciative, as always.

        Thank you so much and I wish you and your family a great summer!!

      2. These are all very good questions and I am not sure I can answer them any better than Martin could. I don’t know how much I would make of the speeches of Telemachus, but I haven’t thought about it deeply. If we want to accept that the scenes are supposed to recall one another I would venture a guess that one scene is about the dissolution of a home and the other is about its reintegration. But I would really have to contemplate it more thoroughly.

        The wingless word situation is a bit more difficult. Many people have written on it who are smarter than I am by far. The ancient scholia don’t see this as an issue of being without wings, but that the words don’t need wings: they are obeyed right away. Another idea is that the words don’t have wings because they are quiet and spoken closely, directed at one person. But again, I should think more on this.

        As far as the epithetchange for Eurykleia, I think this probably signals her position as a family member and here the ranking woman (a surrogate mother for Odysseus) when Penelope is withdrawn.

        My advice for you would be to look at these contexts and see what you see: what are the similarities and differences? Is there a meaningful pattern?

  3. Re: “unwinged” words (4) occurring only in the Odyssey, around the slaughter of the suitors.

    My thoughts on the “unwinged” words come largely from the below article. He has also written a full book on the subject, analyzing the linguistic structure of the word as well as the “winged” words.
    It seems to me the winged words are the words (and thoughts) that fly through the air to the intended recipients as well as to others, i.e. the audience. Unwinged words on the other hand do not cross the barrier of teeth, thus remaining in the speaker’s mouth as an unspoken word (or thought).
    In the case of the Odyssey, the planning and the execution of the slaughter of the suitors, the “unwinged” word remains with the speaker as “a secret” thought that he/she receives from Telemachus, or from the Swineherd. She (the nurse) remains silent, and “does as she is told”, silently carrying out the insturction.
    Steve Reece
    Classical Philology
    Published by: The University of Chicago Press
    Article Stable URL:

  4. The analysis of Telemachus’s speech comes from the following, and I interpret the passages as he claiming the position of authority over that of Penelope. He is the man of the house, and he has the authority while her authority remains within the house regarding women’s tasks. Hector’s speech differentiates his authority as the man who defends his home, and thus the war, while Andromache’s role is to remain within the hearth and women’s tasks.

    1. Homer. Iliad [ Hom. Il. book 6 line 490 ] *Hektor’s speech
    ἔμμεναι ἀνδρῶν,
    οὐ κακὸν οὐδὲ μὲν ἐσθλόν, ἐπὴν τὰ πρῶτα γένηται.
    490 ἀλλ’ εἰς οἶκον ἰοῦσα τὰ σ’ αὐτῆς ἔργα κόμιζε
    ἱστόν τ’ ἠλακάτην τε, καὶ ἀμφιπόλοισι κέλευε
    ἔργον ἐποίχεσθαι• πόλεμος δ’ ἄνδρεσσι μελήσει
    πᾶσι, μάλιστα δ’
    So saying, he laid his child in his dear wife’s arms, and she took him to her fragrant bosom, smiling through her tears; and her husband was touched with pity at sight of her, [485] and he stroked her with his hand, and spake to her, saying: “Dear wife, in no wise, I pray thee, grieve overmuch at heart; no man beyond my fate shall send me forth to Hades; only his doom, methinks, no man hath ever escaped, be he coward or valiant, when once he hath been born. [490] Nay, go thou to the house and busy thyself with thine own tasks, the loom and the distaff, and bid thy handmaids ply their work: but war shall be for men, for all, but most of all for me, of them that dwell in Ilios.” So spake glorious Hector and took up his helm [495] with horse-hair crest; and his dear wife went forthwith to her house, oft turning back, and shedding big tears.

    2. Homer. Odyssey [ Hom. Od. book 1 line 355 ] Telemachus speech #1
    οἶος ἀπώλεσε νόστιμον ἦμαρ
    355 ἐν Τροίῃ, πολλοὶ δὲ καὶ ἄλλοι φῶτες ὄλοντο.
    ἀλλ’ εἰς οἶκον ἰοῦσα τὰ σ’ αὐτῆς ἔργα κόμιζε,
    ἱστόν τ’ ἠλακάτην τε, καὶ ἀμφιπόλοισι κέλευε
    ἔργον ἐποίχεσθαι• μῦθος δ’ ἄνδρεσσι μελήσει
    πᾶσι, μάλιστα δ’ ἐμοί•
    [345] Then wise Telemachus answered her: “My mother, why dost thou begrudge the good minstrel to give pleasure in whatever way his heart is moved? It is not minstrels that are to blame, but Zeus, I ween, is to blame, who gives to men that live by toil,2 to each one as he will. [350] With this man no one can be wroth if he sings of the evil doom of the Danaans; for men praise that song the most which comes the newest to their ears. For thyself, let thy heart and soul endure to listen; for not Odysseus alone lost [355] in Troy the day of his return, but many others likewise perished. Nay, go to thy chamber, and busy thyself with thine own tasks, the loom and the distaff, and bid thy handmaids ply their tasks; but speech shall be for men, for all, but most of all for me; since mine is the authority in the house.” [360] She then, seized with wonder, went back to her chamber, for she laid to heart the wise saying of her son. Up to her upper chamber she went with her handmaids, and then bewailed Odysseus, her dear husband until flashing-eyed Athena cast sweet sleep upon her eyelids.

    3. Homer. Odyssey [ Hom. Od. book 21 line 350 ] Telemachus speech #2
    βιήσεται, αἴ κ’ ἐθέλωμι
    καὶ καθάπαξ ξείνῳ δόμεναι τάδε τόξα φέρεσθαι.
    350 ἀλλ’ εἰς οἶκον ἰοῦσα τὰ σ’ αὐτῆς ἔργα κόμιζε,
    ἱστόν τ’ ἠλακάτην τε, καὶ ἀμφιπόλοισι κέλευε
    ἔργον ἐποίχεσθαι• τόξον δ’ ἄνδρεσσι μελήσει
    πᾶσι, μάλιστα δ’ ἐμοί•
    Then wise Telemachus answered her: “My mother, as for the bow, no man of the Achaeans [345] has a better right than I to give or to deny it to whomsoever I will—no, not all those who lord it in rocky Ithaca, or in the islands towards horse-pasturing Elis. No man among these shall thwart me against my will, even though I should wish to give this bow outright to the stranger to bear away with him. [350] But do thou go thy chamber, and busy thyself with thine own tasks, the loom and the distaff, and bid thy handmaids ply their tasks. The bow shall be for men, for all, but most of all for me; since mine is the authority in the house.” She then, seized with wonder, went back to her chamber, [355] for she laid to heart the wise saying of her son. Up to her upper chamber she went with her handmaids, and then bewailed Odysseus, her dear husband, until flashing-eyed Athena cast sweet sleep upon her eyelids.

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