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“Odyssey” by Homer: Book XXIII – The Trunk of the Olive Tree

Odysseus and Penelope in Bed: Source - Wikipedia

Odysseus and Penelope in Bed: Source – Wikipedia

After the battle, Eurycleia wakes Penelope and tells her what happened. Penelope is reluctant to believe what happened, even after seeing Odysseus. She believes she is being tricked, which is ironic considering Odysseus is the consummate trickster. To test whether Odysseus is who he says he is, she instructs Eurycleia to move the bed, which angers Odysseus. He asserts that the bed cannot be moved since it was constructed from the trunk of an olive tree that was still embedded in the ground. At this point, Penelope is convinced. The couple retires together and Odysseus briefly recounts his tale.

The bed is the primary symbol in this episode. The fact that it is built into the trunk of the olive tree implies permanence and stability. It is also the central point of the house, which is constructed around the tree. It is also a symbol of the pledge of love between Odysseus and Penelope, a connection which can never be uprooted.

There is our pact and pledge, our secret sign,
built into that bed—my handiwork
and no one else’s!

(Fitzgerald Translation: p. 435)

As I read the description of the bed, and how the chamber was sealed and no one other than the couple and Penelope’s slave have ever laid eyes on the inner sanctum, I could not help seeing a correlation between the bedchamber and the Holy of Holies in Solomon’s Temple. In Solomon’s Temple, the Holy of Holies contained the Ark of the Covenant; similarly, the bed and the olive tree symbolize the covenant between Odysseus and Penelope.

But here and now, what sign could be so clear
as this of our own bed?
No other man has ever laid eyes on it—
only my own slave, Aktoris, that my father
sent with me as a gift—she kept our door.

(ibid: p, 436)

After all the trials that both Odysseus and Penelope suffered, it is great to see them united and happy. Check back soon for my final installment on The Odyssey.

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