Ambiguity and Violence in the Odyssey
It is my pleasure to welcome you to the academic year that looms before us
like one of the mythical lands on Odysseus’s journey: unknown, a little
scary, and full of promise for the intellectual adventurer.
This is the seventh year that convocation has included a lecture on Homer’s Odyssey. For parents who read the text over the summer, I hope to provide one focus for your conference discussion tomorrow. And as a quick aside: for those of you who haven’t quite finished, jump ahead to book XXII and you should be fine. For students new to Reed – and, please, never do what I have just suggested that your parents do – the lecture will provide you a general introduction to Reed’s Humanities program. For faculty colleagues, staff members and guests who may never have read the Odyssey, well… I know that some of you have given in and read it. Welcome to the Humanities program!
I have chosen for my topic this afternoon images of violence in the Odyssey.
I admit that I have had more than a few doubts about this topic which is, in
many ways, contrary to our occasion and the promise of the new academic year.
But violence is, of course, a topic that is in the air as we confront our country’s
actions in Iraq or the continuing violence around the world, a perceived threat
of terrorist violence in our cities and, the real violence which surrounds us
and of which we are constantly reminded through newspapers, television news,
movies, video games, and other media. It seems that just when we are steeled
to one variety of violence a new form assaults us and shakes us anew. The photos
of Iraqi prisoners and their torture by US soldiers serve as a recent example
of the shock of the new. After these photos circulated last Spring, Susan Sontag
wrote in the New York Times Magazine: “The horror of what is shown in
the photographs cannot be separated from the horror that the photographs were
taken – with the perpetrators posing, gloating, over their helpless captives.”
I believe that Sontag is correct here: we are, sadly, accustomed to photos of
victims of torture. The new twist and what is difficult to comprehend is that
these photos were staged, taken and disseminated by young people, many of whom
are the same age as Reed students, who would choose to record their satisfaction
or glee at the torture of other human beings.
This afternoon, I will look at the representation of violence in the Odyssey.
Specifically I will look at Odysseus and Telemachus’s actions in book
XXII: here, Odysseus, with the help of Telemachus and the herdsmen, methodically
slays the suitors and reestablishes order in his household. There is no question
that within the logic of the text, this violent action is justified. The scene
is followed by another, though, in which Telemachus disobeys an explicit order
of Odysseus concerning how the serving women who have been disloyal to Penelope
must die. At this point, and as he does throughout the text, Homer stops the
action and presents us with a simile, a verbal photograph if you will, of Telemachus
and his brutality. The scene is disturbing both because Telemachus acts contrary
to his father’s wishes and because he acts more violently than he needs
to. If Odysseus’ slaughter of the suitors is justified in the text, Telemachus’s
actions are less clear and highlights the fact that not all instances of violence
When I first read the Iliad as a college sophomore I was overwhelmed by its
graphic violence. It was difficult to assimilate the variety of horrors that
the heroes could inflict on each other; the countless pierced livers and perforated
throats, each painstakingly and sometimes beautifully described as when Homer
creates a simile to describe the death of Priam’s “beautiful”
son, Gorgythion in Book VIII. That Gorgythion’s epithet is “the
blameless” only makes his death more disturbing:
“He [Gorgythion] bent, drooping his head to one side, as a garden poppy
bends beneath the weight of its yield and the rains of springtime;
so his head bent slack to one side beneath the helm’s weight” (Lattimore, 190).
If one purpose of a simile is to compare one image or idea to a separate image
or idea and thus create new meaning, Homer’s simile stops the action in
the heat of battle and asks us to consider how the death of a blameless young
person is like a poppy in a Spring rain. Homer creates a striking visual image
that is contrary to the chaos of the battlefield and that, as the Classicist
Ralph Johnson has put it, aestheticizes death. What does it mean that Homer
makes violent death a part of the cycle of nature? What does it mean that Homer
makes this destruction of young life beautiful?
The Odyssey is in many ways a relief to the catalogue of violent deaths in
the Iliad. It too contains many images of violence but it is often of a different
type. There are certainly moments of extreme violence as, for example, Circe
turns Odysseus’s unsuspecting men into swine or Polyphemus, the Cyclops,
sees through Odysseus’s lie and eats his comrades, two at each meal. But
from a contemporary perspective at least, these episodes are easy to dismiss
as fantastic, almost of a comic book sensibility, and are much different in
kind from images of extreme violence directed by one human being at the other.
When we witness the slaughter of the suitors and of the serving women in Book
XXII, then, we encounter a type of violence that is very different from the
violence that Odysseus encounters on his journey home. We learn of the eventual
slaughter of the suitors from the earliest books of the Odyssey – it has
been ordained by Athena and prophesied by Teiresias. Within the logic of the
text, the slaughter is not questioned and is accepted as the eventual outcome
to Odysseus’s return. As modern readers we may puzzle over why the suitors
must die, but we know from the first moments of book one that they will die.
Odysseus himself accepts that they must die, and, considering that he knew many
of these young men as babies and has been a friend of their families and their
king, this is no small feat.
When Odysseus reveals himself to the suitors in the great hall, his actions
are eerily methodical: he is the Odysseus that we know in the Iliad, the great
sacker of cities; despite the very different settings, the killings here in
the hall of his family home are like the battle scenes from the Iliad. After
the slaughter, Odysseus, “narrow-eyed”, surveys the scene and Homer
presents the following simile:
Think of a catch that fishermen haul in to a half moon bay
in a fine-meshed net from the white-caps of the sea:
how all are poured out on the sand, in throes for the salt sea,
twitching their cold lives away in Helios’ fiery air:
so lay the suitors heaped on one another. (Fitzgerald, 421).
Once again, the simile stops the action and gives us a visual image with which
to understand the scene before us. If we didn’t know it before we are
aware now that Odysseus’s opponents were beneath him; it is the sheer
numbers that have been killed that speak to his greatness.
After the slaughter, Homer tells us that Eurykleia, Odysseus’ former nurse and loyal servant, finds him “spattered and caked with blood like a mountain lion/ when he has gorged upon his kill” (422). Eurykleia’s response to this terrible sight is to begin to raise her head and scream in triumph, an action that is immediately checked by Odysseus: “To glory over slain men is no piety.” In the carefully controlled scene that follows, Odysseus orders Telemachus and his loyal herdsmen as well as the disloyal servant women to clear the bodies, wash down the hall, scrape the floors so that he can then purify the hall. Odysseus’s directions throughout are thoughtful; he has completed the slaughter that was ordered by the gods and that restores order to his household; he has completed this task ferociously but accepts full responsibility. When the nurse suggests that he wash before meeting Penelope, Odysseus refuses; he knows who he is and he knows what he is about.
We can’t say the same for Telemachus. From the very first books we find
a young man struggling to set a course of action that would restore order to
the household, to accept the great responsibilities before him. The suitors,
although they know well that Telemachus represents a tremendous future threat
and thus plot to kill him, know too that for now they can continue to run roughshod
over him. Telemachus is aware that he is not taken seriously and uses this to
his advantage when he enters the contest of the bow in Book XXI and almost succeeds
in stringing his father’s bow – a task we soon learn that not one
of the suitors will be able to do. When Telemachus is about to complete the
task, he receives a sign from Odysseus and immediately stops. He feigns defeat
and in a manner much like his father, dissembles to the suitors: “…
must I be a milksop/ all my life? Half grown, all thumbs,/ no strength or knack
at arms, to defend myself/ if someone picks a fight with me. Take over,/ o my
elders and betters…” (Fitzgerald, 395). Telemachus here shows incredible
self-awareness and uses the disdain in which the suitors hold him to the further
the trap that Odysseus has laid. In this scene, and in the slaughter of the
suitors as he fights alongside his father, he is sure of himself and his place
in the world that is finally ordered for him upon Odysseus’s return.
Given the confidence and discipline that Telemachus demonstrates here, then,
it is difficult to understand his brutality with regard to the serving women.
After the great room has been cleared of the bodies and cleaned, Odysseus tells
his son to take the serving women to the corral behind the hall and kill them
with his sword. In what is to my mind the most brutal scene of the text, Telemachus
disobeys his father (and I should add that disobeying one’s father clearly
receives more weight in Homer’s time than it might now). Instead of what
he acknowledges to be the “clean death of a beast” that his father
orders, and that, again, suggests the piety of animal sacrifice, Telemachus
hangs the women. I am not sure that it would be better to be hacked by a sword
than hanged, but it is clear in the text that death by hanging is unclean and
disgraces the women. Homer tells us that the women “perished there most
piteously. Their feet danced for a little, but not long” (Fitzgerald,
424). Melanthios, the disloyal cowherd, is also brutally killed as a “raging”
Telemachus and the herdsmen dismember him and feed him to the dogs.
In his description of the death of the disloyal serving women, Homer presents
another simile to describe the scene:
Then, as doves or thrushes beating their spread wings
against some snare rigged up in thickets – flying in
for a cozy nest but a grisly bed receives them –
so the women’s heads were trapped in a line,
nooses yanking their necks up one by one
so that all might die a pitiful, ghastly death… (Fagles, 453).
The simile refers back to the crimes of the serving women: if they had dishonored
Penelope by sleeping with the suitors, here they hope to nest but rather are
trapped by the hunter’s nets. The hunter, of course, is Telemachus and
we are left with the image of Telemachus standing beside his hunting trophy,
the gaggle of dead women, hanging from the roundhouse beam.
I would like to return now briefly to Sontag’s article on the photos
of Iraqi prisoners and their US captors. Clearly there is a world of difference
between the photos Sontag discusses and a Homeric simile, not the least being
that one image refers to contemporary and “real” events and Homer’s
epic to a distant, mythic past. But I believe that Homer’s similes share
at least one point in common with our modern technologies: they allow him to
still and frame an action, presenting us with a powerful visual image. Telemachus,
the young man we cannot help but root for throughout this text, standing beneath
the hanging serving woman is not an image that we can easily forget. Homer explores
our attraction to violence in verbal images that capture its mesmerizing power
once and again. Sontag compares the pictures from Iraq to “photographs
of black victims of lynching taken between the 1880s and 1930s, which show Americans
grinning beneath the naked mutilated body of a black man or woman hanging behind
them from a tree.” The lynching pictures, she writes, “were in the
nature of photographs as trophies.” They “were souvenirs of a collective
action whose participants felt perfectly justified in what they had done. So
are the pictures from Abu Ghraib.”
Telemachus and his cohort, the herdsmen, believe that their actions are justified and yet his disobedience of his father’s explicit order and the “unclean” death that he inflicts on the women are contrary to Odysseus’s control as he kills the suitors. Where Odysseus checked his rage at the serving women, Telemachus responds emotionally and seemingly gives in to vengeance. Yes, Odysseus acts ferociously and horribly, but within the logic of the text the action is necessary: it is ordained by the gods, piously executed and Odysseus’s stature grows because of it. Telemachus’s actions here are ambiguous at the very least.
One could argue that Telemachus’s actions result from a system of justice
very different from our own. The serving women have been grievously disloyal
and, like the suitors, must be punished. The two similes suggest a type of equivalence:
the slain suitors as fish caught in a net and the hanging women as birds caught
in a snare present images of death that are natural to this world. Like the
actions of a fisherman or hunter, the actions of Odysseus and Telemachus are
necessary for their family or community.
This explanation, however, cannot explain the fact that Telemachus disobeys
his father and kills the women in a manner more brutal than he needs to. Within
the world of the Iliad and Odyssey, whom you kill and, as we have seen, how
you kill someone is very important. Telemachus is not acting on the battlefield
surrounded by princes but rather secretly behind the house and accompanied by
his father’s slaves. He does not kill a brave son of Priam but rather
a group of helpless female slaves. One cannot help but believe that Odysseus
has let his son down by putting him in this situation before he is ready. After
carefully orchestrating the battle against the suitors and supervising the cleanup
and purification of the hall, Odysseus leaves Telemachus to his own devices
at a crucial moment.
So where does this Telemachus’ violence leave us? Violence is part of
the fabric of both the Iliad and Odyssey and to interpret them as anti-violence
clearly sends us off in a direction that is counter to the text. But these two
scenes – the slaughter of the suitors and the hanging of the serving women
– and their proximity in the text suggest that all instances of violence
are not equal. In suggesting differences between Odysseus’ actions and
that of Telemachus, we see how quickly violence accelerates, how necessary action
gives way to vengeance, and how piety moves toward impiety.
In book one, Telemachus wonders poignantly how he can know that he is his father’s
child and prays to the gods for guidance once and again. Athena, in the guise
of Mentor, consoles him: “The son is rare who measures with his father
and one in a thousand is a better man.” Telemachus learns, finally, that
he is his father’s son. But we learn that it is unlikely that Telemachus
will surpass his father, that he will be the “one in a thousand”
that betters his father as Odysseus has bettered Laertes (27). “To glory
over slain men [or serving women]” is no piety.
In the intense media coverage that Barack Obama, the candidate for US Senate from Illinois, has received, he acknowledges that he has learned many of the most important things in life [not from a certain prestigious east-coast law school] but from literature (NYT editorial, 7/30/2004). It should come as no surprise that this statement would catch the eye of a professor of literature who hales from Chicago or that she would agree wholeheartedly. Great works of literature like the Homeric texts – the Odyssey that some of us will discuss in conference tomorrow and the Iliad which our beginning students will discuss next week – present a rich array of ideas and images that make them texts we want to come back to. That they are from a tradition so distant in time and space from our own to my mind makes them all the more powerful. Their effect, in this sense, is not unlike that of Homer’s great similes: they allow us to examine together two things that, at first glance, don’t have much in common; they force us to pause, to struggle to understand, and, perhaps, to consider our own world anew.