“Full of Ticks and Fleas”: The Odyssey and a Life of Pets

CW: Animal abuse

Odyssey 17.290-304

“So they were saying these kinds of things to one another.
And a dog who was lying there raised his head and ears.
It was Argos, enduring Odysseus’ dog the man himself
Had raised but never used before he went to sacred Ilion.
In earlier years young men used to lead him to hunt
Wild goats and hares and deer. But now
he was lying there, put aside in his master’s absence
on a pile of manure heaped up from mules and oxen
right in front of the door waiting for the slaves
to take it away to fertilize Odysseus’ great dominion.
There Argos the dog was lying full of ticks and fleas”

ὣς οἱ μὲν τοιαῦτα πρὸς ἀλλήλους ἀγόρευον·
ἂν δὲ κύων κεφαλήν τε καὶ οὔατα κείμενος ἔσχεν,
῎Αργος, ᾿Οδυσσῆος ταλασίφρονος, ὅν ῥά ποτ’ αὐτὸς
θρέψε μέν, οὐδ’ ἀπόνητο, πάρος δ’ εἰς ῎Ιλιον ἱρὴν
ᾤχετο. τὸν δὲ πάροιθεν ἀγίνεσκον νέοι ἄνδρες
αἶγας ἐπ’ ἀγροτέρας ἠδὲ πρόκας ἠδὲ λαγωούς·
δὴ τότε κεῖτ’ ἀπόθεστος ἀποιχομένοιο ἄνακτος
ἐν πολλῇ κόπρῳ, ἥ οἱ προπάροιθε θυράων
ἡμιόνων τε βοῶν τε ἅλις κέχυτ’, ὄφρ’ ἂν ἄγοιεν
δμῶες ᾿Οδυσσῆος τέμενος μέγα κοπρίσσοντες·
ἔνθα κύων κεῖτ’ ῎Αργος ἐνίπλειος κυνοραιστέων.

Attic Red Figure Chous, Penn Museum

I have always had mixed feelings about this very famous passage from the Odyssey. I side in part with Plutarch who notes that Odysseus seems to shed more tears (one) for his dog than he does his wife. And I also bristle at how much empathy people seem to be able to generate for the aged hunting dog when they can muster so little for the mutilated Melanthios or the hanged enslaved women at the epic’s end.

If I have to be honest with myself, this scene does not inspire contempt in me as much as a deep sorrow. We talk much of Argos’ loyalty, but his loyalty is a mere prop to aggrandize Odysseus and increase the value of his return home. I care far less about Odysseus’ tear than I do about the neglect: Argos, abandoned by Penelope, Telemachus, and Laertes. Argos, infested with fleas and sleeping on a mound of shit.

My wife wants us to get a puppy and name him Zeus. The second half of that sentence is calculating because she knows that I would enjoy nothing more than training a dog to follow commands in ancient Greek and shouting the vocative O Zeu in city parks. She also made this argument after watching me play with her sister’s dog, Apollo: down on the floor wrestling with an energetic English cream retriever of over 70 pounds, she said I looked happy.

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Apollo as a puppy

I have been saying no to pets for a decade. After our daughter and son were born our first cat together, Chineh had to be put to sleep. She had been on hormone supplements for a year and was suffering from congestive heart failure three weeks after our son was born. I took her to the vet knowing it would be the last time and did not know that the Dr. would ask me to stay and hold her while he administered the drugs. I told myself that would be the last time. And I had to say that, because it was not the first by far.

Anyone who follows the twitter feed for this account knows that my promise went unfulfilled. Last year, we capitulated and got a cat from a shelter. He’s a polydactyl tuxedo cat named Mowgli. He might be the sweetest cat I have ever known. But he was so sweet that he ruined our family. There was just not enough cat to go around.

One day, I came home from some summer meetings at work and the family was huddled around a computer. The three of them (with Mowgli in hand at 10 weeks) had been watching cat videos all day. My wife informed me that we had to drive to Maine. My first thought was that someone had died (I grew up in Maine). When I asked what was wrong, she told me, “Oh, nothing, we have to go put a deposit on a cat and choose which one we want.”

I do not talk a lot about my wife in essays because she is not a social media person and values her privacy. But anyone who knows her also knows her powers. We were in a car and looking at Maine Coon Cat kittens within three hours. Three weeks later, we returned.

Again, anyone who follows this account on twitter knows Hermes, his attempts to escape our home, his eye infections, and his surgery. (Oh, the cat birthday parties too.) What people do not know is that when I can’t sleep at night and lay on the couch wondering what the fuck is happening to the world, Hermes comes over and starts grooming me. He licks my hair from root to end and then, if I do not start petting him, he bonks me in the cheek with his massive hairy paw.

If we get a dog, it’s Hermes’ fault. He’s, well, unleashed something that’s hard to explain.

Homer, Od. 17.301-305

“Then, indeed, [Argos] noticed that Odysseus was near
And he wagged his tail and relaxed both ears,
But he wasn’t able to go any closer to his master then.
Odysseus saw him to the side and wiped away a tear,
Keeping it secret from Eumaios….”

δὴ τότε γ’, ὡς ἐνόησεν ᾿Οδυσσέα ἐγγὺς ἐόντα,
οὐρῇ μέν ῥ’ ὅ γ’ ἔσηνε καὶ οὔατα κάββαλεν ἄμφω,
ἄσσον δ’ οὐκέτ’ ἔπειτα δυνήσατο οἷο ἄνακτος
ἐλθέμεν· αὐτὰρ ὁ νόσφιν ἰδὼν ἀπομόρξατο δάκρυ,
ῥεῖα λαθὼν Εὔμαιον….

When I talk about the Odyssey’s crucial recognition scenes, I always forget about this one. Odysseus needs his scar to be known to Eurykleia; he needs the story of the bed to finally prove himself to Penelope; and he has to tell the story of generations of trees to calm his father’s suspicions. Argos seems to need no sign, he just knows (ὡς ἐνόησεν). All that worry about some other Odysseus coming home dissipates with a wag of the tail.

I came from one of those families that always had a dog. I do not think it was possible for my parents to conceive of a family that did not have a dog. Before I was born, that had an Irish Setter named Duchess and a St. Bernard named Sam who used to follow the kids to the school bus and ride around town to the school (it was the 1970s, the world was different). When I was born, in a rare show of unity, my grandmothers made them give Sam away because they thought he was too dangerous. I used to see him at my godfather’s farm, tied up on a heavy chain, laying a distance from the house, flies swirling around him.

One of the things that is hard for me to explain to my spouse and impossible for me to talk about to my kids is that my life with pets is not a source of happy memories. My earliest memories of Duchess are of fear. And not fear of her, but fear for her. My parents, unlike Odysseus it seems, never trained their dogs well. Duchess used to run away and return after some time. It was such a regular occurrence that once my grandfather showed up in a pickup with someone else’s Irish Setter because he thought she was ours.

Duchess used to have accidents in the house because she was never walked and she was poorly trained. Every time, my father would scream, swear (“duchess, you fucking stupid bitch” is probably the earliest profanity I ever heard), and often hit or kicked her. More than once, he opened the door to the basement and threw her down the stairs. These are some of my earliest memories of my father and they do not add up to the man my wife met nearly 20 years later. And my siblings never saw him that way either.

When Duchess was a decade old, she gave birth to a single puppy. I must have been too young for kindergarten at the time, but I remember the utter confusion this inspired in our household but I do not quite remember my parents’ response. I was enchanted with this little squealing thing, this new life in our home. I named him Mud.

Three days later, I found Mud stiff and dead in the basement. My parents tried to explain to me that Duchess was too old to take care of a puppy and that Mud wasn’t meant to be born to begin with. We buried him in our back yard not too far off from where we grew squash and green beans.

We moved a few years later. Duchess was alive when we were getting ready to sell our home. Then, she was not when we moved. I have no memory of what happened to her. My father died almost ten years ago and I never asked him about it.

Homer, Od. 17.305-310

“…then Odysseus asked him
‘Eumaios, it is a great wonder that this dog lies in the manure.
His form is beautiful and I do not know clearly
Whether his speed was equal to his looks,
Or he was like those table dogs of certain men,
Those ones their masters raise for appearances.”

…ἄφαρ δ’ ἐρεείνετο μύθῳ·
“Εὔμαι’, ἦ μάλα θαῦμα κύων ὅδε κεῖτ’ ἐνὶ κόπρῳ.
καλὸς μὲν δέμας ἐστίν, ἀτὰρ τόδε γ’ οὐ σάφα οἶδα,
ἢ δὴ καὶ ταχὺς ἔσκε θέειν ἐπὶ εἴδεϊ τῷδε,
ἦ αὔτως οἷοί τε τραπεζῆες κύνες ἀνδρῶν
γίνοντ’, ἀγλαΐης δ’ ἕνεκεν κομέουσιν ἄνακτες.”

When Odysseus is asking about Argos, he wants to know if he grew up to be the dog he trained him to be. Odysseus applies an epic physiognomy here he also assumes for people: beauty should translate into good deeds; beauty without action makes you a useless suitor (or Phaeacian prince). But Odysseus also taps into an ancient distinction between working animals and, well, ‘pets’. Do we keep animals close to us just for show?

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Hermes is a “show” cat, for sure. He’s handsome, it’s true. Part of the reason I am so undone by Hermes is that he’s not like other cats I have been around. Where other cats are skittish, he is still. Where Mowgli and other cats I have had have rushed to the sound of cat food being opened, Hermes takes his time, eats a little and then walks away. He watches me do everything. My wife says I anthropomorphize his actual limited intelligence as contemplative. But who knows the thoughts of a quiet cat?

I did not grow up with cats. The first cat we ever had was an accident. We moved to 3 or 4 acres on the age of a large re-forested area in southern Maine (some of the land had been farmland in the late 19th century; some of it had been logged before the second World War; much had been burned in a famous fire mid-century). We had no neighbors by sight and few within a quarter mile.

One day, a small white and brown kitten was sitting, meowing at our door. Honest to goodness, I don’t know if there is anything cuter in the universe than a kitten. My mother was allergic to cats and forbade us to bring it in the house, but my sister and I took out a saucer of milk for the kitten creatively named, “Kitty”. When we returned from school, she was still there. At great urging from three children, my mother got some cat food and we fed her more.

The next day? Kitty was still there. We fed her and played with her outside, losing time the way only kids and new pets can. When we returned from school, she was still there. Later, after dinner, I went out to check on her and she was running strangely in the driveway. I caught her, and something was coming out of her rear end: a lot of something, most of her intestines. I called to my dad, who had recently returned home, and he looked at me, at the kitten and went inside.

He came out with a loaded .22, took the kitten, and walked into the woods. I have no idea how far he walked but there’s no way I wouldn’t have heard the report of the gun firing. I didn’t realize until later than Kitty had probably been hit by a car. It took me years to really think about which car that most likely was.

Homer, Od. 17.311-317

“Eumaios, my swineherd, you answered:
“Yes, this is the dog of a man who died far away.
If he were the way he was in looks and speed
When Odysseus left him to go to Troy,
You’d soon observe his great speed and valor.
Nothing ever escaped him in the deep forest
When he pursued. And he was clever at tracking too.

τὸν δ’ ἀπαμειβόμενος προσέφης, Εὔμαιε συβῶτα·
“καὶ λίην ἀνδρός γε κύων ὅδε τῆλε θανόντος
εἰ τοιόσδ’ εἴη ἠμὲν δέμας ἠδὲ καὶ ἔργα,
οἷόν μιν Τροίηνδε κιὼν κατέλειπεν ᾿Οδυσσεύς,
αἶψά κε θηήσαιο ἰδὼν ταχυτῆτα καὶ ἀλκήν.
οὐ μὲν γάρ τι φύγεσκε βαθείης βένθεσιν ὕλης
κνώδαλον, ὅττι δίοιτο· καὶ ἴχνεσι γὰρ περιῄδη.

Argos has heroic qualities, even specifically Iliadic ones. Speed and valor (ταχυτῆτα καὶ ἀλκήν)? You have an Achillean dog there, sir. But he’s also smart, like Odysseus: he is preeminent at tracking (ἴχνεσι γὰρ περιῄδη) and nothing ever escaped him in the deep darks of the wood. I don’t know if this is some foreshadowing of the murder of the suitors, but if a student claimed it on a paper, I’d give it a nice big check.

I stayed home the next day from school and generally made enough of a nuisance of myself that we got a kitten I named Nina the next week. Nina was the first pet who was almost solely mine. (My sister got a cat the next year named Jackie, mainly to taunt my father whose nickname was Jack.) I tried to establish the rule that she could not go outside, and this held for a while. When she was a month home, I was dropped off by a family friend early from school at the end of our dirt road. I came home to someone breaking into our home and stealing my father’s firearms.

The man in our driveway told me my mother was inside (which I knew to be a lie) and I silently stood at the end of the driveway. I probably scared the thief more than anything, and I certainly never felt myself in danger. He got in his car and drove off. I ran inside, through the door that had been kicked in, and called 911. The dispatcher was, in retrospect understandably, quite concerned about my safety. But I told her I had to put the phone down to find my cat. She was outside and in danger.

(I found her. She was fine, that day.)

My attachment to cats at that moment was linked to our trouble with dogs. After we moved, we had a new home so of course we needed a new dog. We picked up a shepherd-retriever mix from a shelter and named her Alfie after the ever present television Alien. Alfie was pure joy for three kids living on the edge of a forest with no friends around. My strongest memory of the time is just running around that house chased by that adorable puppy.

Puppies grow up to be dogs and when they are not fixed and are let to wander around outside, they get pregnant. Alfie gave birth to a litter of puppies a year later. Neither of my parents talked about her being pregnant and when she started giving birth to puppies, I was the only one down in the basement with her. She had six puppies. Over the next few months, we found homes for four of them.

No one who hasn’t spent time with a half dozen puppies understands how exhilarating and exhausting they are. We named each puppy and trounced around in the Maine snow with them until each one left. The two who remained, stayed for good. And it did not go well with Alfie. My parents built a pen outside and a large shed and the dogs were kept there, rain, snow or otherwise. They got loose once, attacked a neighbor’s dog, and nearly ripped his leg off. Alfie kept trying to run away from her puppies.

One day, I tried to corral the three dogs in the basement. Alfie would not go down the stairs with her offspring. She turned on me and attacked, leaving a four-inch gash in my leg. I don’t think I was mad at that dog for even a second because I never thought she was mad at me. My parents called the game warden. They told us Alfie was getting a “new home”. At age 11, I knew this was not how these stories ended.

I have no memory of what happened to the other two dogs. I do know they were still around two years later when a friend from junior high came to visit. Upon seeing the dogs, chained to trees a 100 feet from the house, dirty and ragged, he asked me how we could treat animals that way. I don’t know if I answered.

Homer, Od. 17.318-323

“But now he is overcome by evil and his master has died
Far away in another land. These shameless women don’t care for him.
The Enslaved women, whenever their rulers are gone,
Aren’t willing to do the right thing any longer.
Wide-browed Zeus strips a person of half their worth
Whenever slavery’s day overcomes them.”

νῦν δ’ ἔχεται κακότητι, ἄναξ δέ οἱ ἄλλοθι πάτρης
ὤλετο, τὸν δὲ γυναῖκες ἀκηδέες οὐ κομέουσι.
δμῶες δ’, εὖτ’ ἂν μηκέτ’ ἐπικρατέωσιν ἄνακτες,
οὐκέτ’ ἔπειτ’ ἐθέλουσιν ἐναίσιμα ἐργάζεσθαι·
ἥμισυ γάρ τ’ ἀρετῆς ἀποαίνυται εὐρύοπα Ζεὺς
ἀνέρος, εὖτ’ ἄν μιν κατὰ δούλιον ἦμαρ ἕλῃσιν.”

Argos serves here, I think, to represent some of the general entropy of the household in Odysseus’ action and as part of a process of vilifying the enslaved women before their deaths. I don’t understand why Eumaios says nothing of the rest of the family. (I mean, Telemachus parades around the island with two dogs.) Perhaps his place as the “good slave” makes it impossible for him to criticize family-Odysseus. But I’ve always thought a pet, because it depends on us, is a family’s shared responsibility.

I don’t usually get to the part of my story where Alfie is put to sleep. And I don’t know if I ever mention her puppies because even though I was not yet a teenager, I feel guilt for their lives and their ends. It is harder to tell the whole story because it is long and it seems embellished. And that’s before the next part.

Our second cat Nina eventually got to go outside. We lived on a large lot and we spent all our time outside in the summers. My mother was a school teacher and now I understand that she was suffering from depression and other issues. At the time, what I knew was that in summers, she slept a lot and spent the rest of the time in her bedroom, with the only air conditioner on, and the door closed. My siblings and I did what kids did then in the summer: we watched TV, we wandered in the woods, and we tried not to bring ticks in the house.

Nina turned out to be pregnant at the beginning of one summer vacation. I don’t know if my parents ever took her to a vet and we had gotten her from someone in the southern part of our town. She gave birth to seven kittens and they were just the cutest things I had ever seen.

The problem was that that summer saw the worst plague of fleas in decades. Our cats brought them home and the infestation was so bad when you stepped on the carpet, you could see dozens of fleas jump up and start to crawl up your leg. A day or two after they were born, the kittens were covered. I would pick one up and they would drip off them like water. And Nina stopped feeding them.

I told my mother. I told my father. Eventually, they called the vet and let me speak to them. I was told to use a comb and rubbing alcohol to try to get the fleas off the kittens. I did this with each one. Multiple times. The fleas came back. Then Nina stopped caring for the litter. One by one, the kittens stopped moving.

I don’t know what was going on between my parents. My father was gone for long days and overnight trips; my mother was distant as always. Neither of them came done to the basement to see the kittens. And I didn’t even think of asking how I would know if they were really dead. Even when I was burying them in our yard, I kept thinking I could hear them meow. We never discussed it.

We had the house fumigated, but the fleas came back. And you know what else? Nina came back, pregnant at the end of the summer. This is the part of the story I shake my head at even now. She gave birth again in a house covered in fleas. The kittens each died again one by one even after I combed them clean and tried to feed them with a washcloth dipped in milk. No one called the veterinarian the second time. Neither of my parents ever talked to me about that summer. That was three decades ago. I still feel nauseous when I think about it.

Homer, Od. 17.324-328

“So he spoke and went inside the inhabited home.
He went straight among the arrogant suitors in the hall.
But then the fate of dark death overtook Argos
Right after he saw Odysseus in his twentieth year.”

ὣς εἰπὼν εἰσῆλθε δόμους ἐναιετάοντας,
βῆ δ’ ἰθὺς μεγάροιο μετὰ μνηστῆρας ἀγαυούς.
῎Αργον δ’ αὖ κατὰ μοῖρ’ ἔλαβεν μέλανος θανάτοιο,
αὐτίκ’ ἰδόντ’ ᾿Οδυσῆα ἐεικοστῷ ἐνιαυτῷ.

Does Argos count as blessed in Solon’s words because he had a happy moment before he died? Does that one moment of relief at his master’s return make up for two decades of neglect? Will Odysseus go and get a puppy after the epic’s end?

There was another cat named Skye who lost an eye in a fight with a raccoon and like my sister’s cat Jackie just ended up wandering away one day as cats on the edge of a forest sometime do. Now I know that the cats probably fell prey to some predator or disease. But then, well, pets just kind of disappeared.

Once the last two of Alfie’s offspring were gone—wherever they went—my parents wanted another dog. This time, they went to a breeder with the plans of doing things right. We got a male chocolate lab and for reasons that are too convoluted to explain but include community theater, he was named Tevye.

We must have gotten Tevye in late spring or early summer, because by the fall he was a good-sized dog, but not yet full grown. My parents tried to keep this dog inside, closer to us, but they never put in the work to train him not to go to the bathroom in the house. He would go sometimes, my dad would explode and open the door and kick him outside. This went on until Tevye mostly whined at the door until someone let him out.

While we lived on a dirt road on one side of our property, the other side was bounded by a state road that ran north-south. There wasn’t a lot of traffic on the road and at night you could hear a car coming from a mile away. Our mailbox was a good walk from the front door to this main road. Tevye would go down there and look over the stone wall. My father would scream if he got too close.

One day, we were outside repairing the stone wall because some car had skidded off the road. As my father and I levered stones back into position, Tevye jumped over the wall and neared the road. My father started screaming and went after the dog, but I stepped in front of him and just said “no.” I pushed him back. I was in eighth grade and I was nearly the height I am now and the same weight. It was the only time in my life that I thought he would hit me and I wanted him too. But he didn’t.

On Thanksgiving, we were racing around the house trying to get everyone ready to go to my grandmother’s when there was a knock on the door. We rarely received door knocks, rarely enough in fact that my father was as likely to answer the door with a gun as he was to answer at all (he was deaf). At the door were two young men. They asked if we had a brown dog and said that one had jumped in front of their car.

They did not have a dog with them. My mother started screaming at them. My younger brother and sister started crying. I don’t know where my father went. But I was silent. I didn’t see any sense of losing it when we knew nothing. The world has more than one brown dog.

The walk from our home to the place where the dog was on the side of the road is three to five minutes, depending on your speed. Tevye was there, definitely dead, near the stone wall we had repaired. I had never handled a corpse that large before. My father hand grown up hunting, but when he took me out to learn to shoot at age six, I had no interest in the firearm or what you might do with it. Tevye was almost 50 pounds of deadweight and carrying him over that wall to a stand of pine trees felt like a lifetime.

No one else had exited the house yet. I walked the same distance back to the garage and got a shovel and then back to the stand of pine trees near the road. I started to dig near a large stone and had a large enough hole dug by the time my father came out to see what I was doing that there was no work left to be done. When I think of this now, I tremble, still confused: it was at least 20 minutes from when I left the house and started digging the hole before either of my parents came to see if their dog was really dead.

 I finished the job alone. I went to three funerals that year and one of them was a cousin who died at age 16 in a car accident. I remember that fourth funeral the most, standing alone over Tevye’s shallow grave.   

In similar tone to Odysseus’ dismissal of “table dogs”, Greek and Latin words for “pets” tend to emphasize their status as a luxury or adornment. In a fragment, Euripides calls a dog a “decoration [agalma] of Hekate” (Ἑκάτης ἄγαλμα φωσφόρου κύων ἔσῃ, fr. 968). Catullus’ Lesbia has a delicia; Martial’s Stella has a delicium (Ep. 1.7; cf. Seneca Apocolyntosis 13, subalbam canem in deliciis habere adsueverat). Exotic pets are signs of decadence: Theophrastus sees an obsequious person as likely to have a pet monkey (Characters 5); Plutarch records that comic poets slandered Perikles’ friend for his pet birds (Perikles 13.14). Diogenes Laertius tells of Heraclides and his pet snake (5.6, 89-90 These animals are different from foodstock and working animals: Alciphron calls his mistress’ Maltese puppy a “delight” (ἄθυρμα, Letters of Farmers 3.22) an here, as in Lucian (Assembly of the Gods, 5) and elsewhere the pet dog gets a diminutive: κυνίδιον.

In ancient literature, we see animals functioning as reflections for human characters. When Achilles’ horse Xanthus talks to him in the Iliad, he has the same color hair as his master and speaks to give a very Achillean message: you’re going to die. Alexander is paired in legend with Bucephalus, a horse who could be tamed only by the man who tamed the world. And Odysseus comes home to a loyal dog he forgot when he went to war. Bucephalus exists in narrative only to confirm Alexander’s greatness. Xanthus would speak for no other hero. Epic Argos exists only to increase Odysseus’ sense of loss and meaning.

Lip-cup from the British Museum

My family got a Newfoundland puppy after Tevye’s death. I kept a cautious distance from that dog and was off to college by the time she was four years old. I never had a conversation with my father about dogs and their deaths. I know he grew up with hunting dogs and my mother grew up with barn cats and farm animals and that both of them saw animals come and go in a way I never would. When my father died, he left behind a golden retriever and a wish that any donations in his name be made to the ASPCA. I bit my tongue at the irony.

When I turned 21 my future wife got me a kitten for my birthday. In truth, I think she really wanted a pet because she had never had one, but she also said that the way I talked about animals made her want to get one. I couldn’t tell her why getting a kitten caused me so much pain because I did not want to detract at all from the joy she experienced at getting one.

Chineh—which was a bastardized version of Tamil for “small”—was a feral cat who hated everyone except for my wife and me. When we went to the shelter, she put her paw outside the cage at us and meowed and it was over. My roommates and parents called her a devil cat. When I was in graduate school, my apartment burned out in an electric fire and somehow she survived. We put several thousand dollars on a credit card and spent a month cupping her rib cages to get her to cough up the smoke. I don’t know if that caused her health problems later, but it may have.

Chineh was 11 when our daughter was born. She was already having serious hormonal problems and was already less friendly than before. But I swear she changed around the baby. As our daughter grew and started to move, she would follow the cat around, pulling her tail, abusing her at every chance. And Chineh, who had scratched and bitten dozens of people before never hurt her at all.

When I left the clinic where Chineh was put to sleep, I gave them two different cat carriers and other accessories (they specialized in cats). They were hesitant because they thought I might get another cat someday. I told them I wouldn’t.

And here we are, a decade later, with two cats and hundreds of pictures on twitter to prove that I am, as my wife declares, obsessed with Hermes. Yes, he follows me to get a treat near dawn every morning. Yes, I brush him every night so his long hair won’t get matted. During the day, though, we stick to our own business.

I didn’t want to get more pets because I didn’t want to fail them. I resisted getting them because I don’t want to feel the grief of loss again. I didn’t want to get pets because I don’t want to see the pain in my children’s eyes when they die. But, as my wife says, that’s really no way to live at all.

I am going to resist getting a puppy named Zeus. Right now, my argument is that it will upset Hermes, because I can’t get these old stories out fast enough to make sense.

“His Heart Barked”: Sex, Slaves, and Transgression in the Odyssey

Earlier I posted a passage from the Odyssey where the narrator tells us that Penelope raised the slave Melanthô and gave her toys. This detail is paired with the slave woman’s sexual behavior—she is now a bad slave because she is having sex with one of the suitors.

Odyssey, 18.321–5

“Then fine-cheeked Melanthô reproached him shamefully. Dolios fathered her and Penelope raised her, she treated her like her own child and used to give her delights for her heart. But she did not have grief in her thoughts for Penelope. Instead she was having sex with and feeling affection for Eurymakhos.”

τὸν δ’ αἰσχρῶς ἐνένιπε Μελανθὼ καλλιπάρῃος,
τὴν Δολίος μὲν ἔτικτε, κόμισσε δὲ Πηνελόπεια,
παῖδα δὲ ὣς ἀτίταλλε, δίδου δ’ ἄρ’ ἀθύρματα θυμῷ·
ἀλλ’ οὐδ’ ὧς ἔχε πένθος ἐνὶ φρεσὶ Πηνελοπείης,
ἀλλ’ ἥ γ’ Εὐρυμάχῳ μισγέσκετο καὶ φιλέεσκεν.

The meaning of this behavior might not be clear to modern audiences. Ancient audiences might have needed clarification too. The epic shows Odysseus witnessing this later.

20.5–24

“Odysseus was lying there, still awake, devising evils in his heart
For the suitors. And the women went from the hall
The ones who were having sex with the suitors before
Greeting one another with a welcome and a laugh.
And Odysseus’ heart rose in his dear chest.
He debated much in his thoughts and through his heart
Whether after leaping up he should deal out death to each woman
Or he should allow them to have sex with the arrogant suitors
a last and final time. The heart inside his chest barked.
And as a mother dog who stands over her young pups
When she sees an unknown man barks and waits to fight,
So his heart growled within him as he was enraged at the evil deeds.
Then he struck his chest and reproached the heart inside him.
Endure this my heart, you endured a more harrowing thing on that day
When the savage Cyclops, insanely daring, ate
My strong companions. You were enduring this and your intelligence
Led you from that cave even though you thought you were going to die.”

ἔνθ’ ᾿Οδυσεὺς μνηστῆρσι κακὰ φρονέων ἐνὶ θυμῷ
κεῖτ’ ἐγρηγορόων· ταὶ δ’ ἐκ μεγάροιο γυναῖκες
ἤϊσαν, αἳ μνηστῆρσιν ἐμισγέσκοντο πάρος περ,
ἀλλήλῃσι γέλω τε καὶ εὐφροσύνην παρέχουσαι.
τοῦ δ’ ὠρίνετο θυμὸς ἐνὶ στήθεσσι φίλοισι·
πολλὰ δὲ μερμήριζε κατὰ φρένα καὶ κατὰ θυμόν,
ἠὲ μεταΐξας θάνατον τεύξειεν ἑκάστῃ,
ἦ ἔτ’ ἐῷ μνηστῆρσιν ὑπερφιάλοισι μιγῆναι
ὕστατα καὶ πύματα· κραδίη δέ οἱ ἔνδον ὑλάκτει.
ὡς δὲ κύων ἀμαλῇσι περὶ σκυλάκεσσι βεβῶσα
ἄνδρ’ ἀγνοιήσασ’ ὑλάει μέμονέν τε μάχεσθαι,
ὥς ῥα τοῦ ἔνδον ὑλάκτει ἀγαιομένου κακὰ ἔργα.
στῆθος δὲ πλήξας κραδίην ἠνίπαπε μύθῳ·
“τέτλαθι δή, κραδίη· καὶ κύντερον ἄλλο ποτ’ ἔτλης,
ἤματι τῷ, ὅτε μοι μένος ἄσχετος ἤσθιε Κύκλωψ
ἰφθίμους ἑτάρους· σὺ δ’ ἐτόλμας, ὄφρα σε μῆτις
ἐξάγαγ’ ἐξ ἄντροιο ὀϊόμενον θανέεσθαι.”

Beyond whether or not the liaison was a good wooing strategy for Eurymachus, these closely paired statements show that despite being integrated into the family structure, Melantho has not internalized her position and has instead exercised agency in pursuing sexuality. (Or, perhaps more accurately, exercising control over her own body to choose a different master.) When the epic returns to the issue, it takes pains to depict the women as in control and to ensure that Odysseus witnesses it. When he reveals himself to the suitors in book 22, he accuses them of forcefully sleeping with the women.

22.35-38

“Dogs, you were expecting that out of the way I would not come
home from the land of the Trojans and you ruined my home,
Took the slave women in my house to bed by force
And wooed the wife of a man who was still alive…”

“ὦ κύνες, οὔ μ’ ἔτ’ ἐφάσκεθ’ ὑπότροπον οἴκαδε νεῖσθαι
δήμου ἄπο Τρώων, ὅτι μοι κατεκείρετε οἶκον
δμῳῇσίν τε γυναιξὶ παρευνάζεσθε βιαίως
αὐτοῦ τε ζώοντος ὑπεμνάασθε γυναῖκα…

The difference in tone is in part due to the level of narrative—in the first two scenes mentioned above, the sexual acts are observed through the narrator. When Odysseus talks about it, he characterizes the acts differently because he sees the sexual acts as transgressing his control of the household. If the women—who are animate objects, not people—have sex, then they are the sexual objects of aggressors against Odysseus’ control. This transgressive behavior on their part helps to explain why Odysseus decides to slaughter them.

Who should have sex with the slave women is implied by a narrative passage from the beginning of the epic (1.428–33)

“And with him Eurykleia carried the burning torches. She knew proper things, the daughter of Ops, the son of Peisênor whom Laertes bought to be among his possessions when she was just a girl and he paid a price worth 20 oxen. And he used to honor her equal to his dear wife in his home but he never had sex with her and he was avoiding his wife’s anger.”

τῷ δ’ ἄρ’ ἅμ’ αἰθομένας δαΐδας φέρε κεδνὰ ἰδυῖα
Εὐρύκλει’, ῏Ωπος θυγάτηρ Πεισηνορίδαο,
τήν ποτε Λαέρτης πρίατο κτεάτεσσιν ἑοῖσι,
πρωθήβην ἔτ’ ἐοῦσαν, ἐεικοσάβοια δ’ ἔδωκεν,
ἶσα δέ μιν κεδνῇ ἀλόχῳ τίεν ἐν μεγάροισιν,
εὐνῇ δ’ οὔ ποτ’ ἔμικτο, χόλον δ’ ἀλέεινε γυναικός·

It is exceptional here that Laertes does not have sex with Eurykleia. This indicates an economy of sexual slavery in which the slave women are the objects to be used by those who own them. If they are used without permission or act on their own, they represent perversions.

See:

Doherty, Lillian. 2001. “The Snares of the Odyssey: A Feminist Narratological Reading.” 117-133.
Thalmann, William G. 1998. “Female Slaves in the Odyssey.” 22–34

Related image
Red-figure Kylix, c. 490 BCE

 

Penelope Gives a Suitor a Tongue-Lashing

Homer, Odyssey 16.418-433

“Antinoos, full of outrage, deviser of evils—they even claim that you
Are the best among those your age among the people of Ithaka
In council and speeches—but you really are not such a man.
Maniac! Why do you weave death and doom for Telemachus
While you fail to give help to suppliants over whom Zeus indeed
Is witness? It is not right to devise evils for one another.

Don’t you know that when your father came here as an exile
He was afraid of the people? For they were completely enraged with him
Because he had fallen in with Taphian pirates
And was harming the Thesprotians who were our allies.
They were willing to destroy him and crush his dear heart
And to consume his great pleasing life altogether.
But Odysseus defended him and held them off even though they were eager.
Now you eat up his dishonored home, you woo his dishonored wife,
And you are killing his child—and you are greatly aggrieving me.
I order you to stop and to compel the others.”

“᾿Αντίνο’, ὕβριν ἔχων, κακομήχανε, καὶ δέ σέ φασιν
ἐν δήμῳ ᾿Ιθάκης μεθ’ ὁμήλικας ἔμμεν ἄριστον
βουλῇ καὶ μύθοισι· σὺ δ’ οὐκ ἄρα τοῖος ἔησθα.
μάργε, τίη δὲ σὺ Τηλεμάχῳ θάνατόν τε μόρον τε
ῥάπτεις, οὐδ’ ἱκέτας ἐμπάζεαι, οἷσιν ἄρα Ζεὺς
μάρτυρος; οὐδ’ ὁσίη κακὰ ῥάπτειν ἀλλήλοισιν.
ἦ οὐκ οἶσθ’ ὅτε δεῦρο πατὴρ τεὸς ἵκετο φεύγων,
δῆμον ὑποδδείσας; δὴ γὰρ κεχολώατο λίην,
οὕνεκα ληϊστῆρσιν ἐπισπόμενος Ταφίοισιν
ἤκαχε Θεσπρωτούς· οἱ δ’ ἥμιν ἄρθμιοι ἦσαν.
τόν ῥ’ ἔθελον φθεῖσαι καὶ ἀπορραῖσαι φίλον ἦτορ
ἠδὲ κατὰ ζωὴν φαγέειν μενοεικέα πολλήν·
ἀλλ’ ᾿Οδυσεὺς κατέρυκε καὶ ἔσχεθεν ἱεμένους περ.
τοῦ νῦν οἶκον ἄτιμον ἔδεις, μνάᾳ δὲ γυναῖκα
παῖδά τ’ ἀποκτείνεις, ἐμὲ δὲ μεγάλως ἀκαχίζεις·
ἀλλά σε παύεσθαι κέλομαι καὶ ἀνωγέμεν ἄλλους.”

Image result for Greek Penelope
Penelope’s Suitors from Wikipedia

The ‘Wives’ of Telemachus

Tell me of Telemachus, Muse, and the tawdry tales
of his trio of tender-ankled temptresses

Hesiod, Fr. 221 (Eustathius in Hom. (π 117—20) p. 1796. 38)

“Well-belted Polycaste, the youngest daughter of Nestor Neleus’ son, gave birth to Persepolis after having sex with Telemachus Thanks to golden Aphrodite.”

Τηλεμάχωι δ’ ἄρ’ ἔτικτεν ἐύζωνος Πολυκάστη
Νέστορος ὁπλοτάτη κούρη Νηληϊάδαο
Περσέπολιν μιχθεῖσα διὰ χρυσῆν ᾿Αφροδίτην

This resonates with one moment in the Odyssey (3.464-5):

“Then pretty Polycaste, the youngest daughter of Nestor
the son of Neleus, bathed Telemachus”

τόφρα δὲ Τηλέμαχον λοῦσεν καλὴ Πολυκάστη
Νέστορος ὁπλοτάτη θυγάτηρ Νηληϊάδαο.

Dictys, BNJ 49 F10

“And Telemachus took the daughter of Alkinoos as bride, her name was Nausikaa.”

λαμβάνει δὲ Τηλέμαχος γαμετὴν θυγατέρα Ἀλκινόου Ναυσικάαν ὀνόματι.

Proclus (?), Chrestomathia 324-330

“And then Telegonos went sailing in search of his father; once he stopped in Ithaca he was trashing the island. Odysseus shouted out and was killed by his child because of ignorance.

Once Telegonos understood his mistake he returned the body of his father along with Penelope and Telemachus to his own mother. She made them immortal. Then he lived with Penelope and Telemachus lived with Kirke.

     κἀν τούτῳ Τηλέγονος ἐπὶ ζήτησιν τοῦ πατρὸς πλέων ἀποβὰς εἰς τὴν ᾿Ιθάκην τέμνει τὴν νῆσον· ἐκβοηθήσας δ’ ᾿Οδυσσεὺς ὑπὸ τοῦ παιδὸς ἀναιρεῖται κατ’ ἄγνοιαν.

     Τηλέγονος δ’ ἐπιγνοὺς τὴν ἁμαρτίαν τό τε τοῦ πατρὸς σῶμα καὶ τὸν Τηλέμαχον καὶ τὴν Πηνελόπην πρὸς τὴν μητέρα μεθίστησιν· ἡ δὲ αὐτοὺς ἀθανάτους ποιεῖ, καὶ συνοικεῖ τῇ μὲν Πηνελόπῃ Τηλέγονος, Κίρκῃ δὲ Τηλέμαχος.

Image result for Ancient Greek vase Circe

Cancel Murderers and Tyrants?

Andocides, On the Mysteries 78 (excerpt from a decree read in the speech)

“…For those who have committed massacres or created tyrannies, in addition to everything else, have the council erase their names everywhere, wherever there is some mention of them in public, in accordance with what we have said and any copy of it which the lawmakers or elected officers possess.”

ἢ σφαγεῦσιν ἢ τυράννοις· τὰ δὲ ἄλλα πάντα ἐξαλεῖψαι τοὺς πράκτορας καὶ τὴν βουλὴν κατὰ τὰ εἰρημένα πανταχόθεν, ὅπου τι ἔστιν ἐν τῷ δημοσίῳ, καὶ εἴ <τι> ἀντίγραφόν που ἔστι, παρέχειν τοὺς θεσμοθέτας καὶ τὰς ἄλλας ἀρχάς

Plutarch, Moralia 473f

“Just as in a painting’s colors, we must put the bright and shining matters in the front of the mind and hide and cover the depressing ones away—for it is not possible to erase them or eradicate them completely.”

δεῖ δ᾿ ὥσπερ ἐν πινακίῳ χρωμάτων ἐν τῇ ψυχῇ τῶν πραγμάτων τὰ φαιδρὰ καὶ λαμπρὰ προβάλλοντας, ἀποκρύπτειν τὰ σκυθρωπὰ καὶ πιέζειν· ἐξαλεῖψαι γὰρ οὐκ ἔστι παντάπασιν οὐδ᾿ ἀπαλλαγῆναι.

I have been thinking for some time about the amnesty at the end of the Odyssey, which creates an erasure of the murders of the suitors family so that the Odysseus and his people can escape the cycle of vengeance. There are some echoes of this in the Roman practice of damnatio memoriaeI have thought a lot about Malcolm Gladwell’s application of Mark Grenovetter’s threshold theory to thinking about he sociology of school shootings. I am not sure that erasing events is the solution (nor am I suggesting that Gladwell and Grenovetter think so). What we are really facing in this question is how the stories we tell, how the way we cover events, creates paradigms and narratives that perpetuate themselves.

At the end of the Odyssey, Zeus intervenes and erases the Ithakans’ memory of the murder of the suitors to re-establish peace and stability for Odysseus’ return.

Homer, Odyssey 24.478–486

“My child, why do you inquire or ask me about these things?
Didn’t you contrive this plan yourself, that Odysseus
would exact vengeance on these men after he returned home?
Do whatever you want—but I will say what is fitting.
Since Odysseus has paid back the suitors,
let him be king again for good and take sacred oaths.
Let us force a forgetting of that slaughter of children and relatives.
Let all the people be friendly towards each other
as before. Let there be abundant wealth and peace.”

τέκνον ἐμόν, τί με ταῦτα διείρεαι ἠδὲ μεταλλᾷς;
οὐ γὰρ δὴ τοῦτον μὲν ἐβούλευσας νόον αὐτή,
ὡς ἦ τοι κείνους ᾿Οδυσεὺς ἀποτείσεται ἐλθών;
ἕρξον ὅπως ἐθέλεις· ἐρέω δέ τοι ὡς ἐπέοικεν.
ἐπεὶ δὴ μνηστῆρας ἐτείσατο δῖος ᾿Οδυσσεύς,
ὅρκια πιστὰ ταμόντες ὁ μὲν βασιλευέτω αἰεί,
ἡμεῖς δ’ αὖ παίδων τε κασιγνήτων τε φόνοιο
ἔκλησιν θέωμεν· τοὶ δ’ ἀλλήλους φιλεόντων
ὡς τὸ πάρος, πλοῦτος δὲ καὶ εἰρήνη ἅλις ἔστω.

(To be honest, after yet another national tragedy I cannot read Zeus’ words as anything but bitter sarcasm. This is, in all likelihood, an extremely anachronistic interpretation. But I cannot help but wonder if ancient audiences ever heard these lines and were unsettled, if not angered…)

It is clear that Zeus has to do this in order to end the conflict (and end the epic) because both parties are motivated by the cycle of vengeance. When Eupeithes’ speaks to the assembled Ithakans earlier in Book 24, he specifically mentions the fear of becoming an object of shame in a narrative pattern.

Homer, Odyssey 24.432-437

“Let us go. Otherwise we will be ashamed forever.
This will be an object of reproach even for men to come to learn,
if we do not pay back the murders of our relatives and sons.
It cannot be sweet to my mind at least to live like this.
But instead, I would rather perish immediately and dwell with the dead.
But, let’s go so that those men don’t cross to the mainland first.”

ἴομεν· ἢ καὶ ἔπειτα κατηφέες ἐσσόμεθ’ αἰεί.
λώβη γὰρ τάδε γ’ ἐστὶ καὶ ἐσσομένοισι πυθέσθαι,
εἰ δὴ μὴ παίδων τε κασιγνήτων τε φονῆας
τεισόμεθ’· οὐκ ἂν ἐμοί γε μετὰ φρεσὶν ἡδὺ γένοιτο
ζωέμεν, ἀλλὰ τάχιστα θανὼν φθιμένοισι μετείην.
ἀλλ’ ἴομεν, μὴ φθέωσι περαιωθέντες ἐκεῖνοι.”

Eupeithes–and Odysseus for most of the epic–act according to patterns they have received, embedded cultural expectations about how to behave in certain situations. The Odyssey‘s sudden end–its resolution through an act of erasure that challenges the very nature of the genre of memory itself–should prompt us to understand that the conflict has no resolution according to conventional paradigms. Rather than being a simple, closed end, this ending should incite us to realize that the stories themselves have been a problem.

 

Image result for Ancient Greek Odysseus discus

“The Cyclops Polyphemus ,”by Annibale Carracci

(I have written about some of this the Routledge Handbook of Classics and Cognitive Theory)

Scars, Stories, and Identity

Former Brandeis student and future Rabbi Emily Dana has a great post about how our bodies tell our stories, inspired by and engaged with Odysseus’ scar. I know she read some of Auerbach’s Mimesis recently, but she gets a bit proustian too:

Trauma leaves scars whether we like it or not. Sometimes those scars are visible, but other times we hardly know that they exist until the exact moment that they decide to present themselves to us–the word that reminds us of our scariest memory or a dispute with a friend that jerks us back into childhood, or even a certain smell that is connected to a memory.

What I deeply appreciate about the way Emily puts this is that it draws upon the powerful ambiguity of the traumatic. The Greek word trauma can mean “wound” but it also means “hurt” or “damage”. In modern English usage, trauma can denote a physical ailment (think “blunt force trauma”), but it more often refers to the invisible marks physical suffering can leaving behind.

The Etymology of the word is disputed by modern linguists, but Byzantine scholars presented a folk etymology that it is “from trô (titrôskô [“to pierce, wound”]) [with both spellings] trôma and trauma. It is etymologized from blood flowing [to rheein] through it.” (Τραῦμα: Παρὰ τὸ τρῶ, τὸ τιτρώσκω, τρῶμα καὶ τραῦμα· ἐτυμολογεῖται δὲ παρὰ τὸ ῥέειν δι’ αὐτοῦ τὸ αἷμα, Etymologicum Magnum).

I have spent some time obsessed with this scene over the past few years, seeing the word for scar in versions of Odysseus’ name and finding both wonder and horror in how Eurykleia is instrumentalized to be witness to Odysseus’ history. The scar-scene is one of several moments of recognition in the epic, opportunities for Odysseus’ identity to be confirmed and re-performed. Each one depends on an external sign that carries a story with it. A bed for Odysseus and Penelope; a grove of trees for father and son.

But I also think that beneath this is the recognition that bodies which do not tell stories–perfect, unmarked, even fictional or fictionalized bodies–present a problem in the Odyssey‘s world. The unblemished beauty of the suitors and the young princes among the Phaeacians stand almost in monstrous contrast to Odysseus. The age of his body and the scar from his youth tell his story and represent the promise of kleos to come. An unmarked body is one without a story–or one from which story has been erased.

Emily’s deeply felt post made me think of a twitter thread from last year when I talked about the Odyssey with my daughter:

 

Update: She kept going to swimming lessons…but still hesitates to wear shorts. And, thanks Emily, for reminding me.

Penelope Addresses Odysseus

Homer, Odyssey 23. 205–230

“So he spoke, and her knees and dear heart grew weak there
As she recognized the signs which Odysseus pointed out as certain.
As she wept she went straight to him and threw her arms
Around Odysseus’ neck. She kissed him and spoke:

“Don’t be angry at me Odysseus, since in all other things
You knew the most of humans. The gods granted this grief
Who denied that we would remain with one another
To enjoy our youth and come together to old age.
Do not be angry with me or criticize me for this now,
Because I did not rejoice when I first saw you.
For the heart in my dear breast always was trembling,
Afraid that someone would arrive and deceive me with words.
For there are many men who devise evil plans.
Not even Argive Helen the offspring of Zeus
Would have joined in sex and bed with a foreign man
If she had understood that the warlike Achaeans
Would one day bring her home to her fatherland.
Truly, then, a god drove her to complete the shameful act—
And she did not conceive of this ruinous blindness in her mind,
Before this, the ruin from which grief also first came to us.
But now, since you have laid out the clear signs already
Of our bed, which no other mortal has spied,
Except for you and I and one single attendant alone,
Akrotis, whom my father gave to me when I was on my way here,
The girl who has guarded the doors of our strong bedroom,
You are persuading my heart, even though it is truly resistant.”

ὣς φάτο, τῆς δ’ αὐτοῦ λύτο γούνατα καὶ φίλον ἦτορ,
σήματ’ ἀναγνούσῃ, τά οἱ ἔμπεδα πέφραδ’ ᾿Οδυσσεύς·
δακρύσασα δ’ ἔπειτ’ ἰθὺς κίεν, ἀμφὶ δὲ χεῖρας
δειρῇ βάλλ’ ᾿Οδυσῆϊ, κάρη δ’ ἔκυσ’ ἠδὲ προσηύδα·

“μή μοι, ᾿Οδυσσεῦ, σκύζευ, ἐπεὶ τά περ ἄλλα μάλιστα
ἀνθρώπων πέπνυσο· θεοὶ δ’ ὤπαζον ὀϊζύν,
οἳ νῶϊν ἀγάσαντο παρ’ ἀλλήλοισι μένοντε
ἥβης ταρπῆναι καὶ γήραος οὐδὸν ἱκέσθαι.
αὐτὰρ μὴ νῦν μοι τόδε χώεο μηδὲ νεμέσσα,
οὕνεκά σ’ οὐ τὸ πρῶτον, ἐπεὶ ἴδον, ὧδ’ ἀγάπησα.
αἰεὶ γάρ μοι θυμὸς ἐνὶ στήθεσσι φίλοισιν
ἐρρίγει, μή τίς με βροτῶν ἀπάφοιτ’ ἐπέεσσιν
ἐλθών· πολλοὶ γὰρ κακὰ κέρδεα βουλεύουσιν.
οὐδέ κεν ᾿Αργείη ῾Ελένη, Διὸς ἐκγεγαυῖα,
ἀνδρὶ παρ’ ἀλλοδαπῷ ἐμίγη φιλότητι καὶ εὐνῇ,
εἰ ᾔδη, ὅ μιν αὖτις ἀρήϊοι υἷες ᾿Αχαιῶν
ἀξέμεναι οἶκόνδε φίλην ἐς πατρίδ’ ἔμελλον.
τὴν δ’ ἦ τοι ῥέξαι θεὸς ὤρορεν ἔργον ἀεικές·
τὴν δ’ ἄτην οὐ πρόσθεν ἑῷ ἐγκάτθετο θυμῷ
λυγρήν, ἐξ ἧς πρῶτα καὶ ἡμέας ἵκετο πένθος.
νῦν δ’, ἐπεὶ ἤδη σήματ’ ἀριφραδέα κατέλεξας
εὐνῆς ἡμετέρης, τὴν οὐ βροτὸς ἄλλος ὀπώπει,
ἀλλ’ οἶοι σύ τ’ ἐγώ τε καὶ ἀμφίπολος μία μούνη,
᾿Ακτορίς, ἥν μοι δῶκε πατὴρ ἔτι δεῦρο κιούσῃ,
ἣ νῶϊν εἴρυτο θύρας πυκινοῦ θαλάμοιο,
πείθεις δή μευ θυμόν, ἀπηνέα περ μάλ’ ἐόντα.”

Fracesco Primaticcio, Odysseus and Penelope (1563)

 

Penelope Gives a Suitor a Tongue-Lashing

Homer, Odyssey 16.418-433

“Antinoos, full of outrage, deviser of evils—they even claim that you
Are the best among those your age among the people of Ithaka
In council and speeches—but you really are not such a man.
Maniac! Why do you weave death and doom for Telemachus
While you fail to give help to suppliants over whom Zeus indeed
Is witness? It is not right to devise evils for one another.

Don’t you know that when your father came here as an exile
He was afraid of the people? For they were completely enraged with him
Because he had fallen in with Taphian pirates
And was harming the Thesprotians who were our allies.
They were willing to destroy him and crush his dear heart
And to consume his great pleasing life altogether.
But Odysseus defended him and held them off even though they were eager.
Now you eat up his dishonored home, you woo his dishonored wife,
And you are killing his child—and you are greatly aggrieving me.
I order you to stop and to compel the others.”

“᾿Αντίνο’, ὕβριν ἔχων, κακομήχανε, καὶ δέ σέ φασιν
ἐν δήμῳ ᾿Ιθάκης μεθ’ ὁμήλικας ἔμμεν ἄριστον
βουλῇ καὶ μύθοισι· σὺ δ’ οὐκ ἄρα τοῖος ἔησθα.
μάργε, τίη δὲ σὺ Τηλεμάχῳ θάνατόν τε μόρον τε
ῥάπτεις, οὐδ’ ἱκέτας ἐμπάζεαι, οἷσιν ἄρα Ζεὺς
μάρτυρος; οὐδ’ ὁσίη κακὰ ῥάπτειν ἀλλήλοισιν.
ἦ οὐκ οἶσθ’ ὅτε δεῦρο πατὴρ τεὸς ἵκετο φεύγων,
δῆμον ὑποδδείσας; δὴ γὰρ κεχολώατο λίην,
οὕνεκα ληϊστῆρσιν ἐπισπόμενος Ταφίοισιν
ἤκαχε Θεσπρωτούς· οἱ δ’ ἥμιν ἄρθμιοι ἦσαν.
τόν ῥ’ ἔθελον φθεῖσαι καὶ ἀπορραῖσαι φίλον ἦτορ
ἠδὲ κατὰ ζωὴν φαγέειν μενοεικέα πολλήν·
ἀλλ’ ᾿Οδυσεὺς κατέρυκε καὶ ἔσχεθεν ἱεμένους περ.
τοῦ νῦν οἶκον ἄτιμον ἔδεις, μνάᾳ δὲ γυναῖκα
παῖδά τ’ ἀποκτείνεις, ἐμὲ δὲ μεγάλως ἀκαχίζεις·
ἀλλά σε παύεσθαι κέλομαι καὶ ἀνωγέμεν ἄλλους.”

Image result for Greek Penelope
Penelope’s Suitors from Wikipedia

“His Heart Barked”: Sex, Slaves, and Transgression in the Odyssey

Earlier I posted a passage from the Odyssey where the narrator tells us that Penelope raised the slave Melanthô and gave her toys. This detail is paired with the slave woman’s sexual behavior—she is now a bad slave because she is having sex with one of the suitors.

Odyssey, 18.321–5

“Then fine-cheeked Melanthô reproached him shamefully. Dolios fathered her and Penelope raised her, she treated her like her own child and used to give her delights for her heart. But she did not have grief in her thoughts for Penelope. Instead she was having sex with and feeling affection for Eurymakhos.”

τὸν δ’ αἰσχρῶς ἐνένιπε Μελανθὼ καλλιπάρῃος,
τὴν Δολίος μὲν ἔτικτε, κόμισσε δὲ Πηνελόπεια,
παῖδα δὲ ὣς ἀτίταλλε, δίδου δ’ ἄρ’ ἀθύρματα θυμῷ·
ἀλλ’ οὐδ’ ὧς ἔχε πένθος ἐνὶ φρεσὶ Πηνελοπείης,
ἀλλ’ ἥ γ’ Εὐρυμάχῳ μισγέσκετο καὶ φιλέεσκεν.

The meaning of this behavior might not be clear to modern audiences. Ancient audiences might have needed clarification too. The epic shows Odysseus witnessing this later.

20.5–24

“Odysseus was lying there, still awake, devising evils in his heart
For the suitors. And the women went from the hall
The ones who were having sex with the suitors before
Greeting one another with a welcome and a laugh.
And Odysseus’ heart rose in his dear chest.
He debated much in his thoughts and through his heart
Whether after leaping up he should deal out death to each woman
Or he should allow them to have sex with the arrogant suitors
a last and final time. The heart inside his chest barked.
And as a mother dog who stands over her young pups
When she sees an unknown man barks and waits to fight,
So his heart growled within him as he was enraged at the evil deeds.
Then he struck his chest and reproached the heart inside him.
Endure this my heart, you endured a more harrowing thing on that day
When the savage Cyclops, insanely daring, ate
My strong companions. You were enduring this and your intelligence
Led you from that cave even though you thought you were going to die.”

ἔνθ’ ᾿Οδυσεὺς μνηστῆρσι κακὰ φρονέων ἐνὶ θυμῷ
κεῖτ’ ἐγρηγορόων· ταὶ δ’ ἐκ μεγάροιο γυναῖκες
ἤϊσαν, αἳ μνηστῆρσιν ἐμισγέσκοντο πάρος περ,
ἀλλήλῃσι γέλω τε καὶ εὐφροσύνην παρέχουσαι.
τοῦ δ’ ὠρίνετο θυμὸς ἐνὶ στήθεσσι φίλοισι·
πολλὰ δὲ μερμήριζε κατὰ φρένα καὶ κατὰ θυμόν,
ἠὲ μεταΐξας θάνατον τεύξειεν ἑκάστῃ,
ἦ ἔτ’ ἐῷ μνηστῆρσιν ὑπερφιάλοισι μιγῆναι
ὕστατα καὶ πύματα· κραδίη δέ οἱ ἔνδον ὑλάκτει.
ὡς δὲ κύων ἀμαλῇσι περὶ σκυλάκεσσι βεβῶσα
ἄνδρ’ ἀγνοιήσασ’ ὑλάει μέμονέν τε μάχεσθαι,
ὥς ῥα τοῦ ἔνδον ὑλάκτει ἀγαιομένου κακὰ ἔργα.
στῆθος δὲ πλήξας κραδίην ἠνίπαπε μύθῳ·
“τέτλαθι δή, κραδίη· καὶ κύντερον ἄλλο ποτ’ ἔτλης,
ἤματι τῷ, ὅτε μοι μένος ἄσχετος ἤσθιε Κύκλωψ
ἰφθίμους ἑτάρους· σὺ δ’ ἐτόλμας, ὄφρα σε μῆτις
ἐξάγαγ’ ἐξ ἄντροιο ὀϊόμενον θανέεσθαι.”

Beyond whether or not the liaison was a good wooing strategy for Eurymachus, these closely paired statements show that despite being integrated into the family structure, Melantho has not internalized her position and has instead exercised agency in pursuing sexuality. (Or, perhaps more accurately, exercising control over her own body to choose a different master.) When the epic returns to the issue, it takes pains to depict the women as in control and to ensure that Odysseus witnesses it. When he reveals himself to the suitors in book 22, he accuses them of forcefully sleeping with the women.

22.35-38

“Dogs, you were expecting that out of the way I would not come
home from the land of the Trojans and you ruined my home,
Took the slave women in my house to bed by force
And wooed the wife of a man who was still alive…”

“ὦ κύνες, οὔ μ’ ἔτ’ ἐφάσκεθ’ ὑπότροπον οἴκαδε νεῖσθαι
δήμου ἄπο Τρώων, ὅτι μοι κατεκείρετε οἶκον
δμῳῇσίν τε γυναιξὶ παρευνάζεσθε βιαίως
αὐτοῦ τε ζώοντος ὑπεμνάασθε γυναῖκα…

The difference in tone is in part due to the level of narrative—in the first two scenes mentioned above, the sexual acts are observed through the narrator. When Odysseus talks about it, he characterizes the acts differently because he sees the sexual acts as transgressing his control of the household. If the women—who are animate objects, not people—have sex, then they are the sexual objects of aggressors against Odysseus’ control. This transgressive behavior on their part helps to explain why Odysseus decides to slaughter them.

Who should have sex with the slave women is implied by a narrative passage from the beginning of the epic (1.428–33)

“And with him Eurykleia carried the burning torches. She knew proper things, the daughter of Ops, the son of Peisênor whom Laertes bought to be among his possessions when she was just a girl and he paid a price worth 20 oxen. And he used to honor her equal to his dear wife in his home but he never had sex with her and he was avoiding his wife’s anger.”

τῷ δ’ ἄρ’ ἅμ’ αἰθομένας δαΐδας φέρε κεδνὰ ἰδυῖα
Εὐρύκλει’, ῏Ωπος θυγάτηρ Πεισηνορίδαο,
τήν ποτε Λαέρτης πρίατο κτεάτεσσιν ἑοῖσι,
πρωθήβην ἔτ’ ἐοῦσαν, ἐεικοσάβοια δ’ ἔδωκεν,
ἶσα δέ μιν κεδνῇ ἀλόχῳ τίεν ἐν μεγάροισιν,
εὐνῇ δ’ οὔ ποτ’ ἔμικτο, χόλον δ’ ἀλέεινε γυναικός·

It is exceptional here that Laertes does not have sex with Eurykleia. This indicates an economy of sexual slavery in which the slave women are the objects to be used by those who own them. If they are used without permission or act on their own, they represent perversions.

See:

Doherty, Lillian. 2001. “The Snares of the Odyssey: A Feminist Narratological Reading.” 117-133.
Thalmann, William G. 1998. “Female Slaves in the Odyssey.” 22–34

Related image
Red-figure Kylix, c. 490 BCE

 

Why Does Telemachus Go to The Assembly with Two Dogs?

Odyssey 2.10-11

“He went to go to the assembly—he held a bronze spear in his hand
And he was not alone, two swift dogs were accompanying him.”

βῆ ῥ’ ἴμεν εἰς ἀγορήν, παλάμῃ δ’ ἔχε χάλκεον ἔγχος,
οὐκ οἶος, ἅμα τῷ γε δύω κύνες ἀργοὶ ἕποντο.

Scholia ad. Od. 2.11

[HMQ Scholia]“Two dogs [were accompanying him]”: Some think this signals the rustic life of the ancients; or that the animal follows because it loves to follow not by Telemachus’ choice.

[M Scholia]: “Or it was the custom for ancients for have a dog accompany them as a guard, as Hesiod claims. And Telemachus brings two because of his comparative weakness and the threat of his enemies.

ἅμα τῷγε δύω κύνες] τοῦτό τινες σημειοῦνται πρὸς τὸν ἄγροικον τῶν παλαιῶν βίον. ἢ ὡς φιλακόλουθον τὸ ζῷον ἕπεται οὐ κατὰ προαίρεσιν αὐτοῦ. E.M.Q.

ἢ ἔθος ἦν τοῖς ἀρχαίοις ἕνα κύνα κομεῖν πρὸς φυλακὴν, ὡς καὶ ῾Ησίοδος. ὁ δὲ Τηλέμαχος διὰ τὸ ἀσφαλέστερον καὶ τὴν ἐπήρειαν τῶν ἐχθρῶν δύο ἐκέκτητο. M.

Image result for Ancient Greek hunting dogs vase

Homer had a real concern for dogs as reflected in the epigram attributed to him by the pseudo-Herodotean Life of Homer:

Epigram 11

“Glaukos, overseer, I will place another saying in your thoughts:
Give the dogs dinner first near the courtyard’s gates.
This is better: for the dog hears first when a man
Approaches or if a wild beast dares near the fence.”

Γλαῦκε πέπων, ἐπιών τοι ἔπος τι ἐνὶ φρεσὶ θήσω•
πρῶτον μὲν κυσὶ δεῖπνον ἐπ’ αὐλείῃσι θύρῃσι
δοῦναι• ὣς γὰρ ἄμεινον• ὃ γὰρ καὶ πρῶτον ἀκούει
ἀνδρὸς ἐπερχομένου καὶ ἐς ἕρκεα θηρὸς ἰόντος.