Ten years have passed since the fall of Troy, and the Greek hero Odysseus still has not returned to his kingdom in Ithaca. A large and rowdy mob of suitors who have overrun Odysseus’s palace and pillaged his land continue to court his wife, Penelope. She has remained faithful to Odysseus. Prince Telemachus, Odysseus’s son, wants desperately to throw them out but does not have the confidence or experience to fight them. One of the suitors, Antinous, plans to assassinate the young prince, eliminating the only opposition to their dominion over the palace.
Unknown to the suitors, Odysseus is still alive. The beautiful nymph Calypso, possessed by love for him, has imprisoned him on her island, Ogygia. He longs to return to his wife and son, but he has no ship or crew to help him escape. While the gods and goddesses of Mount Olympus debate Odysseus’s future, Athena, Odysseus’s strongest supporter among the gods, resolves to help Telemachus. Disguised as a friend of the prince’s grandfather, Laertes, she convinces the prince to call a meeting of the assembly at which he reproaches the suitors. Athena also prepares him for a great journey to Pylos and Sparta, where the kings Nestor and Menelaus, Odysseus’s companions during the war, inform him that Odysseus is alive and trapped on Calypso’s island. Telemachus makes plans to return home, while, back in Ithaca, Antinous and the other suitors prepare an ambush to kill him when he reaches port.
On Mount Olympus, Zeus sends Hermes to rescue Odysseus from Calypso. Hermes persuades Calypso to let Odysseus build a ship and leave. The homesick hero sets sail, but when Poseidon, god of the sea, finds him sailing home, he sends a storm to wreck Odysseus’s ship. Poseidon has harbored a bitter grudge against Odysseus since the hero blinded his son, the Cyclops Polyphemus, earlier in his travels. Athena intervenes to save Odysseus from Poseidon’s wrath, and the beleaguered king lands at Scheria, home of the Phaeacians. Nausicaa, the Phaeacian princess, shows him to the royal palace, and Odysseus receives a warm welcome from the king and queen. When he identifies himself as Odysseus, his hosts, who have heard of his exploits at Troy, are stunned. They promise to give him safe passage to Ithaca, but first they beg to hear the story of his adventures.
Odysseus spends the night describing the fantastic chain of events leading up to his arrival on Calypso’s island. He recounts his trip to the Land of the Lotus Eaters, his battle with Polyphemus the Cyclops, his love affair with the witch-goddess Circe, his temptation by the deadly Sirens, his journey into Hades to consult the prophet Tiresias, and his fight with the sea monster Scylla. When he finishes his story, the Phaeacians return Odysseus to Ithaca, where he seeks out the hut of his faithful swineherd, Eumaeus. Though Athena has disguised Odysseus as a beggar, Eumaeus warmly receives and nourishes him in the hut. He soon encounters Telemachus, who has returned from Pylos and Sparta despite the suitors’ ambush, and reveals to him his true identity. Odysseus and Telemachus devise a plan to massacre the suitors and regain control of Ithaca.
When Odysseus arrives at the palace the next day, still disguised as a beggar, he endures abuse and insults from the suitors. The only person who recognizes him is his old nurse, Eurycleia, but she swears not to disclose his secret. Penelope takes an interest in this strange beggar, suspecting that he might be her long-lost husband. Quite crafty herself, Penelope organizes an archery contest the following day and promises to marry any man who can string Odysseus’s great bow and fire an arrow through a row of twelve axes—a feat that only Odysseus has ever been able to accomplish. At the contest, each suitor tries to string the bow and fails. Odysseus steps up to the bow and, with little effort, fires an arrow through all twelve axes. He then turns the bow on the suitors. He and Telemachus, assisted by a few faithful servants, kill every last suitor.
Odysseus reveals himself to the entire palace and reunites with his loving Penelope. He travels to the outskirts of Ithaca to see his aging father, Laertes. They come under attack from the vengeful family members of the dead suitors, but Laertes, reinvigorated by his son’s return, successfully kills Antinous’s father and puts a stop to the attack. Zeus dispatches Athena to restore peace. With his power secure and his family reunited, Odysseus’s long ordeal comes to an end.
In Homer’s Odyssey, the reunion between Penelope and Odysseus is marked by tests, disguise, and concealed motivations. Some of which are exposed by Homer, but others remain open to interpretation. In particular, the first interview between Penelope and Odysseus is fraught with inconsistencies. Many, if not all, could be explained and contextualized if Penelope is assumed to have identified the stranger as Odysseus. This too, however, also raises questions about her behavior. On one level, it does not provide any explanation as to why Penelope does not openly greet the stranger as Odysseus, or in some other way confirm she recognizes him. Additionally, it is unclear why, if she knows his identity, Penelope still implements the test of the bed. Upon examination of these scenes, their first conversation and the test of the bed, Penelope’s secrecy and hesitation can be resolved through links to both tactical and personal motivations, and it ultimately remains consistent with an early identification of the visitor as Odysseus.
While the exact moment of Penelope’s recognition is not specified, it is clear that she is suspicious from even before their first interview. While she states that her purpose for wanting to speak to the visitor is to “probe this stranger… and ask him about my husband”, she instead asks him to “tell [her] who [he] is” (19.102, 19.182). This discrepancy between her stated intentions and actual actions indicates that Penelope has motives and suspicions that she does not explicitly state, particularly in regards to the visiting stranger. From there, her suspicions seem to be concretized after she hears the beggars story, and establishes that he does have true information about Odysseus. What is bizarre, however is her response to hearing this information. Rather than feeling reassured, she emphatically declares that she “will never again embrace [Odysseus]” (19.295). This incongruity, along with some ambiguities surrounding her dream and the contest of the bow, make more sense if it is allowed that when “recognizing the strong clear signs Odysseus offered” Penelope does indeed identify the stranger as her husband (19.286).
To begin, the dream may be read as her way of communicating to Odysseus that she wants him to confront the suitors. She asks him to “read this dream for me” and to “listen closely” (19.604). This request is interesting in two ways. On a grammatical level it is interesting that she places the request to “read” before the request to “listen”, which is inconsistent with the order in which those actions would be performed. The ordering of the request then must reflect the primacy of reading above listening, instead. This leads to the second discrepancy; curiously, despite the emphasis she places on her desire for interpretation there is nothing in the dream that needs to be explained. The eagle in the dream offers an explicitly clear reading that he is “[her] husband, back again at last,/ about to launch a terrible fate against [the suitors]” (19.618-19). As such, her request for an interpretation from the beggar seems strange, unless it is considered that what Penelope wants is not an interpretation of the dream, but an interpretation of the message she is trying to send to Odysseus by means of a symbolic story about a dream. Another point that could be explained by assuming Penelope’s recognition of Odysseus is the line where she recalls she “wept and wailed” over the death of the geese, which symbolized the suitors (19.610). Instead of revealing an unconscious affection for the suitors, she may instead be responding in kind to Odysseus earlier remark about his own admirers. During his story about Crete, he alludes to “women galore” who “would gaze on… with relish” at Odysseus in his “glossy tunic” that “[clung] to his skin” (19.270, 19.266). As we know the story about Crete is a lie, the inclusion of this detail is intentional on the part of Odysseus, perhaps meant to tease or rile Penelope. If so, her comment about possible affection for the suitors could be interpreted in the same way, although she is quick to assure Odysseus that it “was only a dream, of course” (19. 610).
Moreover, her recognition of Odysseus also contextualizes her speech about the gates of horn and ivory. The dreams she identifies as “fraught with truth” are those “that pass through the gates of polished horn” (19.637). As the bow of Odysseus’ is also described as “polished” and made of “horn”, Penelope is perhaps attempting to encourage Odysseus to use the bow in order to make the her dream of the suitor’s deaths come to pass (21.320, 21.442). This is particularly compelling seeing as she immediately progresses from her musings about these gates to her plans to set “a trial for [her] suitors”, a trial that requires them to “string the bow” (19.648, 19.649). In addition to the relation between the bow and the gate of horn, her decision to announce the contest of the bow also seems like a direct address to Odysseus because of its lack of precedence. She has repeatedly expressed her disdain of a marriage to the suitors, and has just been informed that her husband will return “this very month” (19.351). Accordingly, her decision does not make sense in context of her personal feelings or the current information she has. Instead, the explanation must be that she is communicating her desires to Odysseus and then doing what she can to give him the opportunity to bring them to fulfillment.
Her decision to communicate in such a fashion can be explained from a tactical standpoint. Homer notes as Penelope leaves the visitor and goes “up to her lofty well-lit room” that she is “not alone: her women followed close behind” (19.677, 19.678). As such, her use of secrecy and symbolism may be in an effort to keep Odysseus’ identity hidden from any maids who could be listening in. This is even more likely given that some of the maids have already been highlighted as disloyal. It was, afterall, “one of the her women, in on the queen’s secret” who revealed to the suitors “the truth” about Penelope’s shroud (2.120). More specifically, Melantho is singled out for “her heart” that “felt nothing for all her mistress’ anguish now”, and Melantho is “the maid” that Penelope addresses “smartly” before speaking to Odysseus the first time, indicating that she is around to overhear the conversation (18.367, 19.98). In effect, whatever conversation that is exchanged between Penelope and Odysseus must be exchanged with the knowledge that they are not alone, and those who are around are not necessarily loyal. The best course of action is to attempt to communicate through symbols, while at the same time outwardly distancing suspicion from the stranger by claiming to believe that “Odysseus… is never coming back” (19.359). Given this, Penelope’s behavior not only makes more sense, but also further establishes her as exemplifying cunning and shrewdness.
More obscure is why, if she knows the stranger is Odysseus, Penelope still feels the need to put him through the test of the bed. I would suggest that the test is used not to find proof of his identity but of his character and his feelings. While Penelope may feel confident about her recognition of his identity, she continues to display some anxiety. The night after her interview with the stranger, Penelope is shown to be tormented by a dream in which “someone lay beside [her]…/ like Odysseus to the life” (20.98-99). This scene echoes her earlier sentiment in which she wondered if Odysseus “was… all a dream”, and also foreshadows their future meeting in which she comments that “one moment he seemed… Odysseus to the life – / the next, no, he was not the man she knew” (19.363, 23.108-9). Each of these scenes reveal the uncertainties that Penelope still experiences, uncertainties that are tied to things that look and seem like the true Odysseus, but are perhaps only the same in appearance. As such, what Penelope seeks to discover is if the Odysseus that has returned after twenty years is the same man in character, rather than just appearance and name.
Additionally, her uncertainties about Odysseus’ character are not unfounded. Not only has it been twenty years since their last interaction, but his behavior upon his return has not been notably reassuring or communicative towards Penelope. She has made her feelings clearly known during their conversation with her tears that “flowed and soaked her cheeks” as she wept “for him, her husband” (19.236, 19.242). In contrast, Odysseus’ “eyes remained stock-still – / they might have been horn or iron” (19.244-45). In effect, Odysseus knows that Penelope still cares deeply for him and that she has remained loyal to him over the years, but she is in the dark in regards to both his actions and his affections. Finally, when they meet for the first time without pretense, Odysseus still remains aloof his “eyes fixed on the ground” (23.104). He does not greet Penelope, apologize for his deception, or thank her for setting up the contest of the bow; instead he waits “poised for whatever words” Penelope will offer him in greeting (23.104). She does not speak, however; she chooses instead to meet his aloofness with aloofness of her own, just as she met his earlier teasing with teasing of her own, and just as she will meet his secretive testing of her with a test of her own.
The design of the test is such that it will provoke an immediate emotional response from Odysseus. This is important because Penelope is well aware of Odysseus’ ability to deceive and improvise; she has, in fact, just witnessed his ability to give “his falsehoods all the ring of truth” (19.235). As such, the only proof she will accept of his character and continued affection is a spontaneous and visceral reaction. To this end, she instructs Eurycleia to “move the sturdy bed out of [their] bridal chamber” in order to gauge his reaction to what seems to be a betrayal of something sacred to their relationship. Odysseus’ response is immediate; he becomes “blazed out in fury” and declares that Penelope “[cuts] [him] to the core” (23.204, 23.205). In addition to this volatile reaction, Odysseus also proceeds to recall the importance of the bed and how it is “[their] life story” (23.226). In light of this “living proof”, Penelope felt “her heart surrender” and she “flung her arms around/ [Odysseus’] neck” (23.230, 23.123-4). It is evident through this that “the strong clear signs” Penelope sought were proof of Odysseus’ unpremeditated character and emotional expression before judging whether his character is still true to the man she knew (23.232). Penelope is no fool, and refuses to be treated with nonchalance or deception when she is Odysseus’ equal. Instead she reminds him that she is his match in cunning until he reveals that he is her match in devotion, and only then does she accept him.
Her following actions also support the idea that Penelope was seeking honesty and openness from Odysseus. She again delays their reunion by requesting to know “about this trail still to come” (23.296). This emphasis on wanting to hear the truth, the full truth, again indicates that Penelope places a priority on confidence between her and Odysseus. When he finally agrees to “hide nothing now”, Penelope has accomplished her goal of disclosure (23.302). It is also worth noting that in response Penelope hopes “we’ll escape our trials at last” (23.228). That she uses “we” may indicate another facet of Penelope’s motivations. Within her repeated demonstrations of matching Odysseus’ actions with her own, and in her demand to have nothing hidden from her is a reminder that she is the equal of Odysseus, and, consequently, he is not alone. She too, as Homer remarks, is like a “shipwrecked sailor… struggling… to reach the shore” and, in the words of Odysseus, “like a flawless king”, and as they share these descriptions, characteristics, and a relationship, they also share each others trials (23.262-65, 19.119).
Early recognition or not, the Odysseus that returns to Ithaca is not the same man Penelope knew before. He has spent ten years immersed in the violence of the Trojan War, he has suffered the loss of his entire crew, and he has languished for seven years on Calypso’s island. As such, it is necessary for Penelope to test and judge the nature of the man who has returned before she can welcome him back into her affections. The test of the bed accomplishes exactly this; it reveals Odysseus’ unguarded self to Penelope for the first time since his return. Perhaps, too, as her testing breaks down the emotional wall he has built over his years of trial and solitude, it allows Odysseus to regain more of his humanity and to become more of the man he was before.
Posted in Roots of Western Thought 2014