Pleasing Odysseus: Sex and Sorrow in the Odyssey

Odyssey 6.151-159

“Hermes found him sitting on a cliff. His eyes were never dry
Of tears and his sweet life drained away as he mourned.
Over his homecoming, since the goddess was no longer pleasing to him.
But it was true that he stretched out beside her at night by necessity
In her hollow caves, unwilling when she was more than willing.
Though he sat by day on the rocks and sands
Wracking his heart with tears, groans and grief,
Shedding tears as he gazed upon the barren sea.

τὸν δ’ ἄρ’ ἐπ’ ἀκτῆς εὗρε καθήμενον· οὐδέ ποτ’ ὄσσε
δακρυόφιν τέρσοντο, κατείβετο δὲ γλυκὺς αἰὼν
νόστον ὀδυρομένῳ, ἐπεὶ οὐκέτι ἥνδανε νύμφη.
ἀλλ’ ἦ τοι νύκτας μὲν ἰαύεσκεν καὶ ἀνάγκῃ
ἐν σπέεσι γλαφυροῖσι παρ’ οὐκ ἐθέλων ἐθελούσῃ·
ἤματα δ’ ἂμ πέτρῃσι καὶ ἠϊόνεσσι καθίζων
[δάκρυσι καὶ στοναχῇσι καὶ ἄλγεσι θυμὸν ἐρέχθων]
πόντον ἐπ’ ἀτρύγετον δερκέσκετο δάκρυα λείβων.


I have always read and taught the line emphasized above as indicating that Odysseus’ displeasure had not lasted seven years–that he took some pleasure in the events described in the following line (having sex with Kalypso) and that his sorrow over his homecoming had increased over time.

Ancient scholarship does not agree with this reading. Instead, it makes a strange distinction in marking Odysseus as having once been pleased by Kalypso:

Schol ad Od. 6.153

“She never was making good by sending him away—first he was pleased because she saved him, but after this, no longer. This ‘longer’ can indicate the following authoritatively: she was pleasing to him before when she plucked him up from the shipwreck, but no longer because she is restraining him.”

ἐπεὶ οὐκέτι ἥνδανε νύμφῃ] κατ’ οὐδὲν ἤρεσκεν ἀποπέμπειν ἔτι αὐτὸν, ἤτοι τὸ μὲν πρῶτον ὡς σώσασαν ἔστερξεν, τὸ δὲ μετὰ ταῦτα οὐκέτι. P.Q.V. δύναται δὲ κυρίως κεῖσθαι τὸ ἔτι, ἤρεσκε γὰρ αὐτῷ πρότερον ἀναλαβοῦσα αὐτὸν ἐκ τοῦ ναυαγίου, κατέχουσα δὲ οὐκέτι. P.Q.

The Lexicographer Hesychius reduces the meaning of this verb as well, though in reference more to the Iliad:

hêndanen: “it was pleasing to, it gratified” [from aresko]. So “it was pleasing to his thumos” [Il. 1.24] means “it was gratifying to his mind.”

*ἥνδανεν· ἤρεσκεν n, [ηὔξανεν] ὡς τὸ· ἥνδανε θυμῷ (Α 24)  ἤγουν ἤρεσκε τῇ ψυχῇ

The passage he refers to (Il. 1.24, ἀλλ’ οὐκ ᾿Ατρεΐδῃ ᾿Αγαμέμνονι ἥνδανε θυμῷ) might be a less than pleasing parallel, since this is where Agamemnon is shown to be displeased with Chryses’ supplication—which turns out rather poorly for the Achaeans

But the root of the verb ἁνδάνω is certainly related to the same root that gives us “pleasure”(hêdus) in Greek. From Chaintraine’s Dictionarie Etymologique:

Et. Aucun présent du même type hors du grec, mais le skr. a svádati, svádate “plaire, se plaire à” et le latin le factifif suadeo. Le tout appartient évidemment à la familie ἥδομαι.

The adjective ἥδυς and the verb ἥδομαι are also related to the noun ἡδονή–whence English hedonism and the more clinical anhedonia. The English derivative is easier to see from the Latin suadeo and Sanskrit su/vad: sweet!

The story, of course, doesn’t end there. After Kalypso promises to send him home, they retire into those aforementioned caves:

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.

It is only fair to contrast this description with Odysseus’ other narrated lovemaking in the epic, when he reunites with Penelope (23.300-301):

“Thus then, after hey 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 similarity of line 5.227 and 23.201—they are structurally (and nearly syntactically) identical. But where Kalypso and Odysseus merely “are present near one another” (παρ’ ἀλλήλοισι μένοντες), Penelope and Odysseus tell each other their stories (πρὸς ἀλλήλους ἐνέποντες) and take pleasure in words (μύθοισι) not just in sex. And I have posted before about the importance of post-coital conversation in Homeric sex.

Lucretius, De Rerum Natura 4.1192-1200: Sometimes Women Don’t Fake It

“A woman doesn’t always gasp with counterfeit passion
when she joins her body in embrace with a man
and holds his lips with a drawn, moist kiss.
Often she acts from her spirit and as she seeks shared happiness,
she incites him to race through the course of his love.”


Nec mulier semper ficto suspirat amore,
quae conplexa viri corpus cum corpore iungit
et tenet adsuctis umectans oscula labris;
nam facit ex animo saepe et communia quaerens
gaudia sollicitat spatium decurrere amoris.