Hum 110 | Reed Classics | Reed Library | Reed | Perseus

Elizabeth Drumm
Reed College
August 25, 2004

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 are equal.

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.

Hum 110 | Reed Classics | Reed Library | Reed | Perseus