“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.
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.”
“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.”
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 memoriae. I 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.”
(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.”
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.
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:
#ClassicsParenting Thread About a month ago my daughter (7, now 8) tried to jump from a dresser to a bed and missed. She lacerated her leg 5 inches long and down to the bone (1/7)
“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.”
“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.”
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.
“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.”
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.
“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.”
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.
“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…”
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.”
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.
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
Homer had a real concern for dogs as reflected in the epigram attributed to him by the pseudo-Herodotean Life of Homer:
“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.”