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“Odyssey” by Homer: Book XVIII – Blows and a Queen’s Beauty

Statue of Penelope, Vatican

Statue of Penelope, Vatican

In this episode, Odysseus, still disguised as a beggar, fights with another beggar named Irus. The rowdy suitors cheer on the fight as entertainment, and Odysseus easily beats Irus. Then Penelope comes down to address the suitors and tricks them into bringing her gifts as a way of winning her. Penelope, like Odysseus, employs trickery and manipulation.

There are two things in this episode I want to point out. The first is the ideal of feminine beauty and the second is the symbol of fire.

Before going down to address the suitors, Penelope goes to sleep. While she is asleep, Athena heightens her feminine beauty. What struck me about this passage is how similar Penelope’s beauty is to Greek statuary. I have always thought of Greek sculpture as the ideal of physical beauty, so essentially, Athena is altering Penelope’s appearance so that she resembles a statue, or the ideal of what female beauty.

And while she slept the goddess
endowed her with immortal grace to hold
the eyes of the Akhaians. With ambrosia
she bathed her cheeks and throat and smoothed her brow—
ambrosia, used by flower-crowned Kythereia
when she would join the rose-lipped Graces dancing.
Grandeur she gave her, too, in height and form,
and made her whiter than carved ivory.

(Fitzgerald Translation: p. 342)

When Penelope appears before the suitors, she is praised for her beauty.

Penelope,
deep-minded queen, daughter of Ikarios,
if all the Akhaians in the land of Argos
only saw you now! What hundreds more
would join your suitors here to feast tomorrow!
Beauty like yours no woman had before,
or majesty, or mastery.

(ibid: p. 344)

What’s interesting about this passage is the claim that Penelope is more beautiful than any woman before. This would mean she is more beautiful than Helen, whose abduction started the Trojan War and led Odysseus from his home. So now, on a smaller scale, we have another battle ready to begin over a beautiful woman. It is almost as if the suitors symbolize the Trojans and Odysseus the Achaeans who went to fight in Troy.

So as I mentioned earlier, the symbol of fire was also significant to me as I read this episode. The first passage I want to discuss is when Odysseus takes his place beside the fire to tend to it while the suitors continue their revelry.

I stand here
ready to tend to these flares and offer light
to everyone. They cannot tire me out,
even if they wish to drink till Dawn.
I am a patient man.

(ibid: p. 346)

The first thing I thought of as I read this is that the fire represents illumination and that Odysseus is being likened to Prometheus. His adventures and tales serve as inspiration, lighting the way for generations of future poets and writers. But then as I thought about it some more, I found a second possible interpretation. The fire could also be a symbol of Odysseus’ wrath. If this is the case, then by standing and tending the flames, he is essentially feeding the rage that burns within him, and being “a patient man,” he will bide his time until he is ready to unleash his fury upon those who usurp his home.

There is another passage that supports the idea of fire as illumination. This is a quote by Eurymakhos as he observes Odysseus near the fire.

This man
comes with a certain aura of divinity
into Odysseus’ hall. He shines.

He shines
around the noggin, like a flashing light,
having no hair at all to dim his luster.

(ibid: p. 347)

As I read this, I had an image of Odysseus with an aura, almost like a halo. He shines with divine light, with an inner fire that makes him like a god.

I really enjoyed this book a lot. I found the symbolism to be intriguing and the flow of the tale to be brilliant. Check back soon for my thoughts on Book XIX.

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