The Massachusetts Medievalist on marital recognition and our discomfort with slavery (Odyssey, Books 17-20)

As promised, I’ve done some more research and thinking about slavery in Ancient Greek culture in general and in the Odyssey in particular. Twenty-first century Americans think of slavery almost wholly in the terms defined by American history: chattel-slavery based on race and ethnicity, the horror of the Middle Passage, the Civil War and its ongoing aftermath.  We need to wrench ourselves away from that mindset and realize that the term “slaves” in Ancient Greece had a variety of meanings; the most common was a reference to people who were enslaved because they had been captured in war. Cassandra was technically a slave of Agamemnon before Clytemnestra killed her; her previous statuses as Princess of Troy or Priestess of Apollo had no bearing on Agamemnon’s absolute power over her as a war prize.  Eumaeus’s story of his kidnapping and sale into slavery details a slightly less common route to enslavement, since he was not a war prize but more of an economic risk and investment.

While these slaves may have been defined or defined themselves as ethnically distinct from their enslavers, “race” did not define Ancient Greek slavery the way that it did in the pre-Civil War United States. There may not have been dramatic or even subtle differences among the phenotypes of Odysseus and the enslaved people on his lands in Ithaca (or among analogous historical people of the same period).

In numerous interviews, Wilson has been emphatic about her translation of Homer’s vocabulary that referred to “slaves” – to people who were unfree, bound to others through law and custom and violence. Most twentieth-century translators try to avoid their/our discomfort around Homer’s matter-of-fact assumption of the moral neutrality of slavery; in terms of our modern understandings of literary character, Odysseus is a hero, so he cannot be an enslaver. Translators have thus tried to euphemize Homer’s language of enslavement. Compare the following lists (all references are to Book XVII but similar examples throughout the epic):


Women owned by strong-willed Odysseus (l.32-33)
Slave girls (l.88)
Humble slave girl (l.94)
Slaves……slaves (l.321…323)


Maid(s) (ll.34, 97, etc)
Women (l.94)
Serving-women (l.546)
Housekeeper (ll.100, 284, etc)

Wilson’s translation does not indulge in euphemism; she forces us to remember that Odysseus is a “complicated man” (I.1). A New York Times article remarks that  (spoiler alert: this NYT article and the podcast linked below refer to episodes from the final four books of the epic):

…. “maidservants” has often been put forward as a “correct” translation of the Greek δμωαι, dmoai, which Wilson calls “an entirely misleading and also not at all literal translation,” the root of the Greek meaning “to overpower, to tame, to subdue” — [these women] weren’t free.

In an episode of the Endless Knot podcast (at about minute 38, although the whole interview is interesting), Wilson notes “how much slavery is erased in other translations,” arguing that Eumaeus is not just some “faithful retainer” who has chosen his life and loyalty; she makes the very uncomfortable and very important point that Eumaeus is an “ideal kind of slave from the owner’s point of view” since he seems to harbor no resentment or anger towards Odysseus or Telemachus, his “owners” – instead, he loves Telemachus as a son and dreams of the day Odysseus will return.

To close this week’s musings, I’ll touch briefly on one of the most prioritized critical questions about this section of Odyssey: whether or not Penelope recognizes Odysseus during their interview in Book XIX.  Fagles obviously thinks she does, as his punctuation choice here makes clear (Penelope seems to stumble verbally, almost saying “wash your master’s feet” before she recovers):

Up with you now, my good old Eurycleia,
come and wash your master’s . . . .. equal in years.
Odysseus must have feet and hands like his by now (Fagles XIX.406-408)

But the original Greek is less forthcoming – it’s simply not explicit in the text whether she knows (or if he knows that she knows, or if she knows that he knows that she knows……). Your own answer to this question will tell you a lot about your own views of marriage and relationships in general and of these characters in particular. So maybe think about that in comments or discussion this week, either here on the blog or with friends who are reading along with you. And gird yourself for the final battle that you know is coming.


The Massachusetts Medievalist on epic similes and building tension (Odyssey, Books 13-16)

This week, I’d like to veer slightly off course to think about literary tropes rather than epic structure.  Books 13-16 are very satisfying in terms of plot development: we get to see Odyseeus and Athena making their plans and then Odysseus and Telemachus reuniting. We get a lot of important exposition/backstory about where Odysseus’s father is, where Odysseus hid the Phaiacian treasure, how the suitors were foiled by Telemachus’s return from Sparta.  There’s an exciting, anticipatory sense of building tension in these books.  The feeling is like that of an action movie right before the big heist or the big mission — except Homer invented that feeling and our contemporary film directors just try to recreate and build upon it.

So instead of thinking about plot development or structure, I want to call your attention to what literary critics call the “epic simile,” which is basically an extended comparison using like or as. Homer uses them frequently throughout both Iliad and Odyssey (so they are also referred to as “Homeric simile”).  One of the most famous from the Odyssey occurs as Odysseus comes out from hiding to present himself to Nausicaa, the Phaiacian princess:

……And out he stalked
as a mountain lion exultant in his power
strides through wind and rain and his eyes blaze
and he charges sheep or oxen or chases wild deer……
(Fagles VI.142-145)

The “as” in l.143 triggers your awareness that we’re heading into an epic simile, wherein the lion is powerful, blazing, driving — but Odysseus is as well, thanks to the power of the comparison.

Odysseus and Telemachus are similarly compared to other wild animals during their reunion in Book XVI:

[They] wailed with cries as shrill as birds, like eagles
Or vultures, when the hunters have deprived them
Of fledglings who have not yet learned to fly
(Wilson XVI.217-219)

This simile is incredibly nuanced and interesting in that it compares Odysseus and Telemachus to birds of prey, but also shows those birds in time of weakness, when “hunters” (humans? or other animals?) have raided their nests and taken their young. The comparison thus presents the father and son as simultaneously powerful and vulnerable.

One final literary observation about this week’s section: did you note that our narrator refers to Eumaeus the swineherd in the second person?  Eumaeus (and no other character in the epic) is defined as “you.” Fagles states: “‘Good news,’ you replied, Eumaeus, loyal swineherd” (XIV.192, with a very similar line at XIV.408); Wilson tells us that “You answered him, swineherd Eumaeus” (XIV.166).  Much critical ink has been spilled about this point, of course. It creates something of meta-fiction, another layer of narrative structure, that the poet is speaking to an audience of one (Eumaeus) and the rest of us are just pretty much eavesdropping. So the fictively privileged audience member of this heroic, aristocratic epic is an enslaved agricultural worker.

More about slavery — especially Emily Wilson’s extra-textual remarks about it — in the next post. Enjoy the building suspense!