Tag Archives: Penelope

“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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“Odyssey” by Homer: Book XXI – The Test of the Bow

Image Source: Wikipedia

Image Source: Wikipedia

In this episode, Penelope announces she will marry the suitor who can string Odysseus’ bow and shoot an arrow through a line of 12 axe heads. The suitors all fail, and then Odysseus, still disguised as a beggar, easily strings the weapon and shoots an arrow through the axe heads.

The first thing I considered when I read this episode was the symbolism of the 12 axes. My initial thought is that the axes represent the 12 zodiac signs. There is a lot of support for astrological symbolism incorporated into The Odyssey. For more information on this topic, I recommend visiting the Symbol Reader blog. Search the page for posts on The Odyssey. There are several very good posts there on astrological symbolism in the text.

When Odysseus asks for a try at the bow, the suitors are opposed. Telemachus speaks up and strongly asserts his right over who can use the bow. The bow, therefore, becomes a symbol of authority over the household. Once the bow is placed into Odysseus’ hands, then he will once again be master of the house.

Mother, as to the bow and who may handle it
or not handle it, no man here
has more authority than I do—not one lord
of our own stony Ithaka nor the islands lying
east toward Elis: no one stops me if I choose
to give these weapons outright to my guest.

(Fitzgerald Translation: p. 402)

Finally, there is another analogy regarding the bow that is worth noting. The narrator (which we can assume is Homer as poet/bard) establishes a connection between Odysseus’ bow and the harp of the poet/bard. Homer is asserting that warriors and poets are similar in essence, that deep down in the psyches of both, there is a shared attribute which both the bard and the warrior possess.

But the man skilled in all ways of contending,
satisfied by the great bow’s look and heft,
like a musician, like a harper, when
with quiet hand upon his instrument
he draws between his thumb and forefinger
a sweet new string upon a peg: so effortlessly
Odysseus in one motion strung the bow.
Then slid his right hand down the chord and plucked it,
so the taut gut vibrating hummed and sang
a swallow’s note.

(ibid: p. 404)

Just as the tension of the bow increases before the arrow is launched, so the tension of the overall story increases before the moment when Odysseus launches into his attack on the suitors. It is impossible to get to the end of this book without diving right in to the next episode. Check back soon for my thoughts on Book XXII. Cheers!

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“Odyssey” by Homer: Book XIX – Recognitions and a Dream

OdysseusNurse

Quite a bit happens in this book. Odysseus speaks with Penelope (though he is still in disguise and she does not recognize him. The elderly maid, Eurycleia, while washing Odysseus’ feet, recognizes his scar and realizes his true identity. Penelope tells Odysseus about a dream she had, which he interprets for her. And finally, Penelope decides to hold a contest using Odysseus’ bow to see which of the suitors she will marry.

There were several passages in this episode that I found interesting. The first was when Penelope describes how she tricked the suitors by telling them she needed to finish her weaving before she could marry. She would weave during the day and then surreptitiously undo her weaving at night (Fitzgerald Translation: p. 358). The tale presents Penelope as similar to Odysseus, almost like a feminine trickster archetype. It is clear that she also relies upon her wit and craft, as does her husband.

The next passage that caught my attention was when Odysseus swears to Penelope that her husband will return.

Here is my sworn word for it. Witness this,
god of the zenith, noblest of the gods,
and Lord Odysseus’ hearthfire, now before me:
I swear these things shall turn out as I say.
Between this present dark and one day’s ebb,
after the wane, before the crescent moon,
Odysseus will come.

(ibid: p. 363)

I found it interesting that not only does Odysseus swear by the gods, but also by the hearth. I suspect the hearth served as a kind of altar. I can picture statues of gods around a hearth, and it appears that the hearth was used as a place to burn offerings to the gods. The hearth is clearly considered to be something sacred.

What is even more important about this passage, though, is the astrological symbolism. Odysseus predicts his return to coincide with the new moon, the period after the waning cycle before the new crescent forms. So when the moon is in this phase, it is considered to be veiled. The moon still exists, but it is hidden. This represents the state of Odysseus. He is there, but veiled (disguised). As the moon begins the cycle of revealing itself, then Odysseus will also reveal himself. So essentially, we have a cosmic connection between the heavens and the events with which Odysseus is involved.

The last passage I want to discuss from this episode concerns the two types of dreams.

Friend,
many and many a dream is mere confusion,
a cobweb of no consequence at all.
Two gates for ghostly dreams there are: one gateway
of honest horn, and one of ivory.
Issuing by the ivory gate are dreams
of glimmering illusion, fantasies,
but those that come through solid polished horn
may be borne out, if mortals only know them.

(ibid: p. 371)

I interpret this as representing the two types of consciousness: normal waking consciousness and the deeper subconscious. What is puzzling, though, is which type of dream symbolizes which type of consciousness. Are the glimmering illusions and fantasies what we perceive when we delve into our subconscious minds, or are the illusions what we perceive to be real in our normal state of consciousness? Are the dreams associated with the polished horn reality as we perceive it through ordinary consciousness, or is it the realm of forms and archetypes associated with the subconscious that mortals need to interpret symbolically? Personally, I feel that ordinary reality is the glimmering illusion and that the subconscious is the realm of divine truths, “if mortals only know them.”

There are lots of other thought-provoking passages in this episode (I have many more entries in my journal), but as another famous poet wrote, “Brevity is the soul of wit,” so I will choose not to write too much. I do encourage you to read this episode closely, though. There is a lot here and it is worth the effort to read closely and carefully.

Cheers!

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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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“Odyssey” by Homer: Book XVII – The Beggar at the Manor

OdysseusAsBeggar

I don’t have a whole lot to say about this episode. Basically, Eumaeus brings Odysseus (back in disguise as a beggar) to Odysseus’ home. There he is treated badly by the suitors, particularly Antinous who goes as far as hitting Odysseus with a stool. When Penelope hears about what happened, she asks to see the beggar to hear his story about what happened to her husband. Odysseus declines, saying he does not want the suitors to see him going to her chamber.

There was nothing in this episode that I feel needs deeper analysis. It was pretty straight-forward. I felt that the purpose was to move the tale forward and to introduce Odysseus to the suitors. His mistreatment by them will certainly add to his wrath when the time of reckoning is at hand. I guess the only thing I could add is that karma will come back to the suitors, and will do so quickly. When you mistreat someone, especially in that person’s home, then there will be a karmic debt to pay.

Thanks for stopping by, and keep on reading!

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“Odyssey” by Homer: Book XVI – Father and Son

"Reunion of Odysseus and Telemachus" by Henri-Lucien Doucet

“Reunion of Odysseus and Telemachus” by Henri-Lucien Doucet

In this episode, Odysseus and Telemachus are reunited. After Eumaeus leaves his hut to go inform Penelope that Telemachus has returned safely, Odysseus reveals himself to Telemachus and together they plot the overthrow of the suitors.

What stood out for me the most in this episode was all the irony. For example, when Odysseus reveals himself to his son, Telemachus thinks it’s a trick.

You cannot
be my father Odysseus! Meddling spirits
conceived this trick to twist the knife in me!
No man of woman born could work these wonders
by his own craft, unless a god came into it
with ease to turn him young or old at will.
I swear you were in rags and old,
and here you stand like one of the immortals!

(Fitzgerald Translation: pp. 295 – 296)

Here Odysseus is revealing his true self, without disguise, but his own son does not believe it is him. It’s almost like he has been pretending to be someone else for so long that now he cannot be himself. Shortly afterwards, Odysseus says to Telemachus that he is going to tell him the “plain truth” about how he got to Ithaca.

Only plain truth shall I tell you, child.
Great seafarers, the Phaiakians, gave me passage
as they give other wanderers. By night
over the open ocean, while I slept,
they brought me in their cutter, set me down
on Ithaka, with gifts of bronze and gold
and stores of woven things. By the gods’ will
these lie hidden in a cave. I came
to this wild place, directed by Athena,
so that we might lay plans to kill our enemies.

(ibid: pp. 296 – 297)

As far as I can tell, this is the first time that Odysseus has been completely honest in this tale. But the most ironic passage in this section occurs toward the end of the episode, when Eurymakhos lies to Penelope and tells her that there was no plot against Telemachus.

Blasphemous lies
in earnest tones he told—the one who planned
the lad’s destruction!

(ibid: p. 304)

So we have Odysseus, the trickster, who has been lying his way through the entire odyssey so far, who is deemed a hero, and yet the suitor who lies is blasphemous. Not that I am siding with the suitors; I most certainly am not. I just find the comparison to be quite ironic.

That’s all for now. Check back for my thoughts on Book XVII.

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“Odyssey” by Homer: Book VI – The Princess at the River

Painting by Michele Desubleo

Painting by Michele Desubleo

In this book, Odysseus awakens and encounters the princess Nausicaa and her handmaidens at the river. Nausicaa begins to fall in love with Odysseus and agrees to help him enter the city and gain an audience with her parents, the king and queen.

There are a few passages in this section that I found interesting and wanted to discuss. The first deals with beauty.

While Nausicaa is with her handmaidens, Athena bestows divine beauty upon her, “So one could tell the princess from the maids.” (Fitzgerald Translation: p. 102) The passage likens the differentiation between Nausicaa and the maids to the difference between Artemis and the nymphs. This made me think about the association between physical beauty and the divine. In fact, as Odysseus comes upon the young women, he asks Nausicaa: “Mistress: please: are you divine, or mortal?” (ibid: p. 103) It made me think that in this tale, beauty is in essence the divine made corporeal. And as I thought about this more, I began to wonder whether wisdom and courage are also divine qualities that manifest within certain individuals. Anyway, it’s certainly something I will keep in mind as I continue reading.

As Odysseus is coming upon the women, he makes a strange choice to rely upon words instead of actions to win their support.

In his swift reckoning, he thought it best
to trust in words to please her—and keep away;
he might anger the girl, touching her knees.
So he began, and let the soft words fall:

(ibid: p 103)

What struck me about this passage is the reliance on words. On one hand, words are tools of the Trickster, and Odysseus certainly embodies characteristics of this archetype. But words are also the tools of the poet, who uses words to express divine truth. It feels like there is a double entendre here, where words could be used both for expressing truth and deceit.

Odysseus concludes his supplication to Nausicaa by invoking the importance of family and home.

And may the gods accomplish your desire:
a home, a husband, and harmonious
converse with him—the best thing in the world
being a strong house held in serenity
where man and wife agree. Woe to their enemies,
joy to their friends! But all this they know best.

(ibid: p. 104)

This is worth considering because of Odysseus’ plight. He has been kept from his harmonious relationship with Penelope, and his strong house is being attacked by the suitors, who will no doubt become his enemies. One can sense the longing he must feel, to be reunited with the person who he loves, and to be back at home. It’s a very poignant image.

The last passage I want to discuss is when Odysseus bathes himself, away from the view of the women.

They left him, then, and went to tell the princess.
And now Odysseus, dousing in the river,
scrubbed the coat of brine from back and shoulders
and rinsed the clot of sea-spume from his hair;
got himself all rubbed down, from head to foot,
then he put on the clothes the princess gave him.
Athena lent a hand, making him seem
taller, and massive too, with crisping hair
in curls like petals of wild hyacinth,
but all red-golden. Think of gold infused
on silver by a craftsman, whose fine art
Hephaistos taught him, or Athena: one
whose work moves to delight: just so she lavished
beauty over Odysseus’ head and shoulders.
Then he went down to sit on the sea the beach
in his new splendor.

(ibid: pp 105 – 106)

I found this to be very symbolic. The bathing and anointing is a form of spiritual purification, where his soul is cleansed and he is again made holy. It seems very ritualistic in the description and the fact that he now appears in “new splendor” reinforces the image of Odysseus as a divine being. When we consider this in connection with the symbolic rebirth that Odysseus experiences in Book V, the symbolism becomes even more powerful, as the remnants of the past life are washed away and the newly resurrected hero appears in god-like glory.

So that’s all I have to say regarding Book VI. As always, please share any thoughts or comments. I’d love to hear from you. Check back soon for my thoughts on Book VII.

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