What’s Troubling Telemachus?

When Athena first goes to Ithaca to see Telemachus in the Odyssey, the narrator shifts focus and describes Odysseus’ son witnessing Mentes’ appearance (Athena in disguise, 1.113-120):

“God-like Telemachus saw her first by far.
For he was sitting among the suitors, tortured in his dear heart,
Dreaming about his noble father in his thoughts, if he should come home
From somewhere and scatter the suitors from his home,
And have his own place [honor] and rule over his possessions.
As he say imagining these things, he saw Athena,
And went straight to the entryway, rebuking himself
That a guest should stand in the doorway for so long…”

τὴν δὲ πολὺ πρῶτος ἴδε Τηλέμαχος θεοειδής·
ἧστο γὰρ ἐν μνηστῆρσι φίλον τετιημένος ἦτορ,
ὀσσόμενος πατέρ’ ἐσθλὸν ἐνὶ φρεσίν, εἴ ποθεν ἐλθὼν
μνηστήρων τῶν μὲν σκέδασιν κατὰ δώματα θείη,
τιμὴν δ’ αὐτὸς ἔχοι καὶ κτήμασιν οἷσιν ἀνάσσοι.
τὰ φρονέων μνηστῆρσι μεθήμενος εἴσιδ’ ᾿Αθήνην,
βῆ δ’ ἰθὺς προθύροιο, νεμεσσήθη δ’ ἐνὶ θυμῷ
ξεῖνον δηθὰ θύρῃσιν ἐφεστάμεν·

Telemachus is roused from a reverie by the appearance of a new stranger—and the characterization of his repose intrigues me. He does not appear to me to be a man of action except in the offering of hospitality. His emotional state is withdrawn: he inhabits his own thoughts, he is emotionally distressed, and he fantasizes about things being different from what they are. His first response is to rebuke himself for failing to live up to the very standard of hospitality that has been offered to the suitors, the abuse of which is a source of his frustration, and his daydream that his father will come home and put everything to rights.

telemachusgiovanni-battista-tiepolo-c-1740
By Giovanni Battisa Tiepolo, 18th Century

Although the phrase τετιημένος ἦτορ (“tortured/troubled in the heart”) does not have broad representation in the extant epic tradition, it does appear to have a rather marked one that indicates forced action or unwilling inaction. For instance, in the Iliad Ajax has to retreat from the Achaeans unwillingly (ὣς Αἴας τότ’ ἀπὸ Τρώων τετιημένος ἦτορ / ἤϊε πόλλ’ ἀέκων, 11.556-557). Odysseus describes himself the same way when mentioning the night he spent sleeping alone in the bushes on the shore of Skheria (7.287). The conceptual union between these two instances is that both Ajax and Odysseus are compelled to action by external forces. Later on in the Odyssey, the narrator describes Amphinomos suffering in the same way in book 18 when he feels fear at Odysseus-in-disguise’s prophecy (153-155)

“He went through the dear home, tortured in his heart,
And nodding his head. For he was imagining doom in his mind.
But there was no way to flee his fate….”

αὐτὰρ ὁ βῆ κατὰ δῶμα φίλον τετιημένος ἦτορ,
νευστάζων κεφαλῇ· δὴ γὰρ κακὸν ὄσσετο θυμῷ.
ἀλλ’ οὐδ’ ὧς φύγε κῆρα·…

Here, we have a thematic parallel for Telemachus’ first appearance. Amphinomos is full of dread over what he has just heard and cannot escape the future he is fearing. Note how both Amphinomos and Telemachus are characterized as occupied by their own thoughts, living an internal dream rather than engaging in the outside world.

There are other accounts that strengthen these associations in variations on the standard Homeric texts. When commenting upon Odysseus’ first appearance in book 5, the scholia record Aristonicus’ comment that the language is more fit (οἰκειότερον ἐν ᾿Ιλιάδι) for the Iliad at 2.721 where Philoktetes is described as “he lies there on the island suffering harsh pains” (ἀλλ’ ὃ μὲν ἐν νήσῳ κεῖτο κρατέρ’ ἄλγεα πάσχων, =Od. 5.13). He adds that it would be right for him instead to be “tortured in his heart” (νῦν δὲ ἔδει τετιημένος ἦτορ εἶναι, Schol. H ad Od. 5.13). Similarly Menelaos retreats from Patroklos’ body under force in book 17 of the Iliad, described as “troubled in his mind” (τετιηότι θυμῷ) and unwillingly—a phrase the scholia record appeared in the alternative τετιημένος ἦτορ in some manuscripts (Schol. Ad Il. 17.664b2). Another textual variant offers support: after Hera has been rebuffed by Zeus at the end of Iliad 1, most manuscripts depict Hephaestus as ministering to his mother, “white armed Hera” (λευκωλένῳ ῞Ηρῃ, 1.572) while the scholia report τετιημένῃ ἦτορ as a variant (Schol. bT ad Il. 1.572 Did. (?) λευκωλένῳ ῞Ηρῃ: ἄμεινον γράφειν „τετιημένῃ ἦτορ”). Hera’s ability to affect the action or even know Zeus’ plan has recently been limited—it makes sense that she would be characterized as being upset, unwilling, and trapped.

The description appears again once more with Telemachus and at a rather important juncture. After he has announced his departure at the assembly, Telemachus returns to his home in book two “tortured in his heart” (2.298) before he insults the suitors and declares that he is a grown man with a plan Od. 2.312–317):

“Isn’t it enough that you wasted my many fine possessions before, when I was still just a child [νήπιος], suitors? But now, when I am big, and I have learned by listening to the speech of other men, and the heart within me grows, I will discover some way that I may visit upon you wicked fates either when I go to Pylos or here in this country.”

ἦ οὐχ ἅλις, ὡς τὸ πάροιθεν ἐκείρετε πολλὰ καὶ ἐσθλὰ
κτήματ’ ἐμά, μνηστῆρες, ἐγὼ δ’ ἔτι νήπιος ἦα;
νῦν δ’ ὅτε δὴ μέγας εἰμί, καὶ ἄλλων μῦθον ἀκούων
πυνθάνομαι, καὶ δή μοι ἀέξεται ἔνδοθι θυμός,
πειρήσω, ὥς κ’ ὔμμι κακὰς ἐπὶ κῆρας ἰήλω,
ἠὲ Πύλονδ’ ἐλθὼν ἢ αὐτοῦ τῷδ’ ἐνὶ δήμῳ.

The application of the “tortured in the heart” phrase here troubled ancient readers—a scholion glosses its use as “not because he is sullen, but because he is thinking about how to leave” (φίλον τετιημένος ἦτορ] οὐκ ἐσκυθρωπακὼς, ἀλλὰ καὶ φροντίζων ὡς ἀποδημεῖν μέλλων, Schol ES ad Od. 2.298). The scholiastic adjustment here points both to the ‘typical’ interpretation of the line—that it indicates an isolated rumination—and the sense that something critical has changed here. As Telemachus moves into action and declares himself as an agent and a thinker, he also moves from his state of paralysis and rumination into a different part of his tale.

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

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Murderous Odysseus and His Murderous Sons

Joannes Malalas, Chronographia, 5.21 6-7 (=Diktys BNJ 49 F 10)

“Some time passed and Odysseus began to see dreams which told of his death. After he woke, he summoned everyone who had experience in interpreting dreams—among whom was Kleitophon of Ithaka and Polyphemos of Argos. He told the dream to them and said what he thought:

“I was not lying on my own bed but instead there was a beautiful and frightening divine creature which could not keep the shape of a grown man. I saw it happily. But I was also disoriented by it. That bed from which it took life was no longer obvious to me from my familiarity with it or by knowledge. Therefore, once I recognized this, I wanted to throw my arms around it eagerly. But it spoke using a human voice and said there was a connection and binding of relationship between us and that it was my fate to be destroyed by him. As I was thinking about this a sudden stab came at me from the sea, targeted at me by his order. I became paralyzed by my great panic and I died shortly. These are the things I saw and you need to fear nothing when you offer me an interpretation. I know well that the vision is not a good one.

Then those who were there were examining the interpretation and they said that Telemachus should not be there. When he left, they said that Odysseus would be struck by his own child and die. He immediately rushed toward Telemachus because he wanted to kill him. But when he saw his son crying and begging him and he returned to a paternal mindset, he decided to have his son sent away and he ordered him to guard himself. Then he himself returned to the farthest part of Kephalenia, believing he would protect himself from fear of death.”

6 χρόνου δὲ διεληλυθότος ὁρᾶι ᾽Οδυσσεὺς ἐνύπνια τὴν αὐτοῦ τελευτὴν σημαίνοντα· καὶ διυπνισθεὶς συγκαλεῖ πάντας τοὺς πεῖραν ἔχοντας, ὅπως διακρίνωσι τὰ ὀνείρατα, ὧν ἦν καὶ Κλειτοφῶν ὁ ᾽Ιθακήσιος καὶ ὁ Ἀργεῖος Πολύφημος. τούτοις ἀπαγγέλλει τὸ ὄναρ καί φησι νομίζειν ῾μὴ ἐπὶ τῆς ἰδίας εὐνῆς με κατακεῖσθαι, <ἦν δὲ> εὐμορφόν τι καὶ φοβερὸν ζῶον θεοειδές, οὐκ ἀνθρώπου τελείου σχῆμα σώζειν δυνάμενον, ὅπερ ἑώρων ἡδέως· καὶ εἶχον αὐτοῦ δυσνοήτως. τὸ δὲ λέχος ἐκεῖνο ὅθεν ἐζωογονήθη οὐκ ἦν μοι φανερὸν οὐτε τῆι συνηθείαι τῆι ἐμῆι οὐτε τῆι γνώσει. γνοὺς οὖν ἠβουλήθη<ν> τὰς χεῖρας αὐτῶι περιπλέξαι σπουδαίως· τὸ δὲ ἀνθρωπίνηι φωνῆι χρηματισάμενον ἔφη θεσμὸν εἶναι καὶ σύνδεσμον οἰκειότητος ἀμφοτέρων ἡμῶν, καὶ εἱμαρμένον εἶναι ὑπ᾽ ἐκείνου με ἀφανισθῆναι. ἐμφροντίστως δέ μου ἔχοντος περὶ αὐτοῦ αἰφνίδιόν τι κέντρον ἐκ τῆς θαλάσσης ὑπὸ τῆς ἐκείνου ἐπιταγῆς ἀοράτως ἀναδειχθὲν ἐπ᾽ ἐμὲ ἦλθεν· ἐγὼ δὲ ὑπὸ πολλῆς ἐκπλήξεως ἐγενόμην ἀδρανής, καὶ μετ᾽ ὀλίγον ἔθανον. ταῦτά ἐστιν ἅπερ ἐθεασάμην· ὑμεῖς δὲ διακρίνατε μηδὲν δεδιότες· ἐπίσταμαι γὰρ ὡς οὐκ αἴσιον τὸ ὅραμα.

7 οἱ δὲ καθ᾽ ἑαυτοὺς γενόμενοι ἐσκόπουν τὴν διήγησιν καὶ ἔφασαν ἵνα ἐκ ποδῶν γένηται ὁ Τηλέμαχος· τοῦ δὲ ὑποχωρήσαντος ἔφησαν ὑπὸ ἰδίου παιδὸς πληγέντα τελευτήσειν. ὁ δὲ εὐθὺς ὥρμησεν ἐπὶ τὸν Τηλέμαχον ἀνελεῖν αὐτὸν βουλόμενος. θεασάμενος δὲ τὸν υἱὸν δακρύοντα καὶ δεόμενον, εἰς ἔννοιαν πατρικὴν ἐλθών, προέκρινεν ἀφεῖναι τὸν παῖδα, ἐκέλευσε δὲ αὐτὸν φυλάττεσθαι· εἶτα μετώικισεν αὑτὸν εἰς τὰ ἔσχατα τῆς Κεφαληνίας χωρία, ῥυσάμενος αὑτὸν τῆς ὑπονοίας τοῦ θανάτου.

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Dreaming Of Death: Murderous Odysseus and his Murderous Sons

Joannes Malalas, Chronographia, 5.21 6-7 (=Diktys BNJ 49 F 10)

“Some time passed and Odysseus began to see dreams which told of his death. After he woke, he summoned everyone who had experience in interpreting dreams—among whom was Kleitophon of Ithaka and Polyphemos of Argos. He told the dream to them and said what he thought:

“I was not lying on my own bed but instead there was a beautiful and frightening divine creature which could not keep the shape of a grown man. I saw it happily. But I was also disoriented by it. That bed from which it took life was no longer obvious to me from my familiarity with it or by knowledge. Therefore, once I recognized this, I wanted to throw my arms around it eagerly. But it spoke using a human voice and said there was a connection and binding of relationship between us and that it was my fate to be destroyed by him. As I was thinking about this a sudden stab came at me from the sea, targeted at me by his order. I became paralyzed by my great panic and I died shortly. These are the things I saw and you need to fear nothing when you offer me an interpretation. I know well that the vision is not a good one.

Then those who were there were examining the interpretation and they said that Telemachus should not be there. When he left, they said that Odysseus would be struck by his own child and die. He immediately rushed toward Telemachus because he wanted to kill him. But when he saw his son crying and begging him and he returned to a paternal mindset, he decided to have his son sent away and he ordered him to guard himself. Then he himself returned to the farthest part of Kephalenia, believing he would protect himself from fear of death.”

6 χρόνου δὲ διεληλυθότος ὁρᾶι ᾽Οδυσσεὺς ἐνύπνια τὴν αὐτοῦ τελευτὴν σημαίνοντα· καὶ διυπνισθεὶς συγκαλεῖ πάντας τοὺς πεῖραν ἔχοντας, ὅπως διακρίνωσι τὰ ὀνείρατα, ὧν ἦν καὶ Κλειτοφῶν ὁ ᾽Ιθακήσιος καὶ ὁ Ἀργεῖος Πολύφημος. τούτοις ἀπαγγέλλει τὸ ὄναρ καί φησι νομίζειν ῾μὴ ἐπὶ τῆς ἰδίας εὐνῆς με κατακεῖσθαι, <ἦν δὲ> εὐμορφόν τι καὶ φοβερὸν ζῶον θεοειδές, οὐκ ἀνθρώπου τελείου σχῆμα σώζειν δυνάμενον, ὅπερ ἑώρων ἡδέως· καὶ εἶχον αὐτοῦ δυσνοήτως. τὸ δὲ λέχος ἐκεῖνο ὅθεν ἐζωογονήθη οὐκ ἦν μοι φανερὸν οὐτε τῆι συνηθείαι τῆι ἐμῆι οὐτε τῆι γνώσει. γνοὺς οὖν ἠβουλήθη<ν> τὰς χεῖρας αὐτῶι περιπλέξαι σπουδαίως· τὸ δὲ ἀνθρωπίνηι φωνῆι χρηματισάμενον ἔφη θεσμὸν εἶναι καὶ σύνδεσμον οἰκειότητος ἀμφοτέρων ἡμῶν, καὶ εἱμαρμένον εἶναι ὑπ᾽ ἐκείνου με ἀφανισθῆναι. ἐμφροντίστως δέ μου ἔχοντος περὶ αὐτοῦ αἰφνίδιόν τι κέντρον ἐκ τῆς θαλάσσης ὑπὸ τῆς ἐκείνου ἐπιταγῆς ἀοράτως ἀναδειχθὲν ἐπ᾽ ἐμὲ ἦλθεν· ἐγὼ δὲ ὑπὸ πολλῆς ἐκπλήξεως ἐγενόμην ἀδρανής, καὶ μετ᾽ ὀλίγον ἔθανον. ταῦτά ἐστιν ἅπερ ἐθεασάμην· ὑμεῖς δὲ διακρίνατε μηδὲν δεδιότες· ἐπίσταμαι γὰρ ὡς οὐκ αἴσιον τὸ ὅραμα.

7 οἱ δὲ καθ᾽ ἑαυτοὺς γενόμενοι ἐσκόπουν τὴν διήγησιν καὶ ἔφασαν ἵνα ἐκ ποδῶν γένηται ὁ Τηλέμαχος· τοῦ δὲ ὑποχωρήσαντος ἔφησαν ὑπὸ ἰδίου παιδὸς πληγέντα τελευτήσειν. ὁ δὲ εὐθὺς ὥρμησεν ἐπὶ τὸν Τηλέμαχον ἀνελεῖν αὐτὸν βουλόμενος. θεασάμενος δὲ τὸν υἱὸν δακρύοντα καὶ δεόμενον, εἰς ἔννοιαν πατρικὴν ἐλθών, προέκρινεν ἀφεῖναι τὸν παῖδα, ἐκέλευσε δὲ αὐτὸν φυλάττεσθαι· εἶτα μετώικισεν αὑτὸν εἰς τὰ ἔσχατα τῆς Κεφαληνίας χωρία, ῥυσάμενος αὑτὸν τῆς ὑπονοίας τοῦ θανάτου.

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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

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Avenging Vengeance: Murder, Exile, and ‘Justice’

When Telemachus slips their ambush, the suitors hold an assembly and reflect on the political consequences.

Homer, Odyssey 16.372–382

“…For I do not think
that our acts will come to good while [Telemachus] is alive.
For he is smart in plans and thought on his own,
and the people are no longer completely showing us favor.
Come, before he gathers the Achaians in assembly.
For I do not think that he will delay at all,
but he will be angry and he will rise and speak among everyone
because we were weaving sheer murder for him and we did not catch him.
They will not praise it when they hear these evil deeds,
but they will accomplish something terrible
and drive us from our land, and we will go to another’s country.

“…οὐ γὰρ ὀΐω
τούτου γε ζώοντος ἀνύσσεσθαι τάδε ἔργα.
αὐτὸς μὲν γὰρ ἐπιστήμων βουλῇ τε νόῳ τε,
λαοὶ δ’ οὐκέτι πάμπαν ἐφ’ ἡμῖν ἦρα φέρουσιν.
ἀλλ’ ἄγετε, πρὶν κεῖνον ὁμηγυρίσασθαι ᾿Αχαιοὺς
εἰς ἀγορήν· —οὐ γάρ τι μεθησέμεναί μιν ὀΐω,
ἀλλ’ ἀπομηνίσει, ἐρέει δ’ ἐν πᾶσιν ἀναστάς,
οὕνεκά οἱ φόνον αἰπὺν ἐράπτομεν οὐδ’ ἐκίχημεν·
οἱ δ’ οὐκ αἰνήσουσιν ἀκούοντες κακὰ ἔργα·
μή τι κακὸν ῥέξωσι καὶ ἥμεας ἐξελάσωσι
γαίης ἡμετέρης, ἄλλων δ’ ἀφικώμεθα δῆμον.”

After slaughtering the suitors, Odysseus tells Telemachus to think about what happens when someone murders someone else.

Odyssey 23.118–122:

“For whoever has killed only one man in his country,
one who does not leave many behind to avenge him,
flees, leaving his relatives and his paternal land.
And we have killed the bulwark of the city, the best by far
of the young men in Ithaca. I order you to think about these things.”

καὶ γάρ τίς θ’ ἕνα φῶτα κατακτείνας ἐνὶ δήμῳ,
ᾧ μὴ πολλοὶ ἔωσιν ἀοσσητῆρες ὀπίσσω,
φεύγει πηούς τε προλιπὼν καὶ πατρίδα γαῖαν·
ἡμεῖς δ’ ἕρμα πόληος ἀπέκταμεν, οἳ μέγ’ ἄριστοι
κούρων εἰν ᾿Ιθάκῃ· τὰ δέ σε φράζεσθαι ἄνωγα.”

Peter Ahrensdorf emphasizes that in times of civil war “human hopes, especially for immortality, tend to overwhelm human fears, even of violent death”  (2000, 579). It changes the threshold of expectation the way that epic tales of vengeance set a horizon of expectation for proper behavior and outcomes in narratives (587). In contemplating the Thucydidean claim that men “preferred to suffer injustice and then take revenge than not suffer injustice at all. They believed it was better to be wronged and to avenge that wrong than never to wrong at all”, he explains that “ the passion for vengeance is, from the viewpoint of one who seeks vengeance, a passion for justice, since it necessarily entails seeking to punish what is thought to be previous injustice.”

Peter. J. Ahrensdorf. “The Fear of Death and the Longing for Immortality: Hobbes and Thucydides on Human Nature and the Problem of Anarchy.” The American Political Science Review 94 (2000) 579-593.

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Odyssey 22.11-14

“Murder wasn’t on his mind at all.
Who would think that one man alone among many dinner guests
Even a really strong one, could contrive a wicked death
And dark fate?”

… φόνος δέ οἱ οὐκ ἐνὶ θυμῷ
μέμβλετο. τίς κ’ οἴοιτο μετ’ ἀνδράσι δαιτυμόνεσσι
μοῦνον ἐνὶ πλεόνεσσι, καὶ εἰ μάλα καρτερὸς εἴη,
οἷ τεύξειν θάνατόν τε κακὸν καὶ κῆρα μέλαιναν;

“A Little Bit, But Not Too Long”: One of Homer’s Most Chilling Passages

In her introduction to the Penelopiad, Margaret Atwood notes that two lingering questions from the Odyssey inspired her– (1) the ancient question of what Penelope was up to (during Odysseus’ absence and in the Odyssey itself where many have seen her toying with the suitors, recognizing Odysseus ahead of time, etc. and (2) the brutal savagery of the slaughter of the handmaids who allegedly gave comfort to the suitors. The epic implies, I think, that Odysseus is tyrannical with his mutilation of Melanthios, but its presentation of the hanging of the maids is far more ambiguous and challenging to explain/defend/contextualize for students (or for myself). In preparation for a lecture on the Odyssey and the Penelopiad, I revisit this passage.

Homer Odyssey, 22.446-73

“So he spoke and all the women came in close together,
Wailing terribly, shedding growing tears.
First, they were carrying out the corpses of the dead men,
and they put them out under the portico of the walled courtyard
stacking them against one another. Odysseus himself commanded
as he oversaw them—they carried out the bodies under force too.
Then, they cleaned off the chairs and the preciously beautiful trays
With water and much-worn sponges.

Meanwhile Telemachus, the cowherd and the swineherd
were scraping up the close-fit floors of the home
with hoes—the maids were carrying the remnants to the ground outside.
Then, when they had restored the whole house to order,
They led the women out of the well-roofed hall,
Halfway between the roof and the courtyard’s perfect wall,
Closing them in a narrow space were there was no escape.
Among them, learned Telemachus began to speak.

“May I not rip the life away from these women with a clean death,
These women who poured insults on my head and my mother
These women who were stretching out next to the suitors”

So he spoke. After attaching a ship’s cable to a pillar he bound it around
The dome of the house and stretched it up high
so that no one could be able to touch the ground with feet.
Just as when either thin-winged thrushes or doves
step into a snare which has been set in a thicket,
as they look for a resting plate, a hateful bed receives them—
Just so the women held their heads in a line, and nooses
fell around every neck so that they would die most pitiably.
They were gasping, struggling with their feet a little bit, but not for very long.”

ὣς ἔφαθ’, αἱ δὲ γυναῖκες ἀολλέες ἦλθον ἅπασαι,
αἴν’ ὀλοφυρόμεναι, θαλερὸν κατὰ δάκρυ χέουσαι.
πρῶτα μὲν οὖν νέκυας φόρεον κατατεθνηῶτας,
κὰδ δ’ ἄρ’ ὑπ’ αἰθούσῃ τίθεσαν εὐερκέος αὐλῆς,
ἀλλήλοισιν ἐρείδουσαι· σήμαινε δ’ ᾿Οδυσσεὺς
αὐτὸς ἐπισπέρχων· ταὶ δ’ ἐκφόρεον καὶ ἀνάγκῃ.
αὐτὰρ ἔπειτα θρόνους περικαλλέας ἠδὲ τραπέζας
ὕδατι καὶ σπόγγοισι πολυτρήτοισι κάθαιρον.
αὐτὰρ Τηλέμαχος καὶ βουκόλος ἠδὲ συβώτης
λίστροισιν δάπεδον πύκα ποιητοῖο δόμοιο
ξῦον· ταὶ δ’ ἐφόρεον δμῳαί, τίθεσαν δὲ θύραζε.
αὐτὰρ ἐπεὶ δὴ πᾶν μέγαρον διεκοσμήσαντο,
δμῳὰς ἐξαγαγόντες ἐϋσταθέος μεγάροιο,
μεσσηγύς τε θόλου καὶ ἀμύμονος ἕρκεος αὐλῆς,
εἴλεον ἐν στείνει, ὅθεν οὔ πως ἦεν ἀλύξαι.
τοῖσι δὲ Τηλέμαχος πεπνυμένος ἦρχ’ ἀγορεύειν·
“μὴ μὲν δὴ καθαρῷ θανάτῳ ἀπὸ θυμὸν ἑλοίμην
τάων, αἳ δὴ ἐμῇ κεφαλῇ κατ’ ὀνείδεα χεῦαν
μητέρι θ’ ἡμετέρῃ, παρά τε μνηστῆρσιν ἴαυον.”
ὣς ἄρ’ ἔφη, καὶ πεῖσμα νεὸς κυανοπρῴροιο
κίονος ἐξάψας μεγάλης περίβαλλε θόλοιο,
ὑψόσ’ ἐπεντανύσας, μή τις ποσὶν οὖδας ἵκοιτο.
ὡς δ’ ὅτ’ ἂν ἢ κίχλαι τανυσίπτεροι ἠὲ πέλειαι
ἕρκει ἐνιπλήξωσι, τό θ’ ἑστήκῃ ἐνὶ θάμνῳ,
αὖλιν ἐσιέμεναι, στυγερὸς δ’ ὑπεδέξατο κοῖτος,
ὣς αἵ γ’ ἑξείης κεφαλὰς ἔχον, ἀμφὶ δὲ πάσαις
δειρῇσι βρόχοι ἦσαν, ὅπως οἴκτιστα θάνοιεν.
ἤσπαιρον δὲ πόδεσσι μίνυνθά περ, οὔ τι μάλα δήν.

Eustathius, Comm. Ad Od. II 290

“It is clear from the words uttered that the father ordered one thing but the son ordered another. For since it seems that a clean death is from a sword, and an unclean one is hanging, as is clear from the Nekyia, he thought it was right that unclean women should not have a clean death, since they were not clean themselves nor did they leave their masters clean of insults.”

δῆλον δ’ ἐκ τῶν ῥηθέντων ὅτι ἄλλο μὲν ἐκέλευσεν ὁ πατὴρ, ἄλλο δὲ πεποίηκεν ὁ υἱός. ἐπεὶ γὰρ καθαρὸς μὲν ὁ διὰ ξίφους ἐδόκει θάνατος, μιαρὸς δὲ ὁ ἀγχονιμαῖος, ὡς ἐν τῇ νεκύᾳ προδεδήλωται, ἔκρινε μὴ χρῆναι καθαρῷ θανάτῳ τὰς ἀκαθάρτους πεσεῖν, αἳ οὔτε αὐταὶ καθαραὶ ἦσαν οὔτε τοὺς δεσπότας καθαροὺς εἴων ὕβρεων.

Terracotta stamnos (jar)
Women at a banquet, Metropolitan Museum of Art, acc. # 06.1021.178