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.


3 Replies to “The Massachusetts Medievalist on marital recognition and our discomfort with slavery (Odyssey, Books 17-20)”

  1. Dr. D et al,

    The Wilson translation does not use punctuation in the manner that Fagles does. I agree that the pause in the Fagles edition indicates that Penelope may be minding her speech. Without that punctuation, the meaning of the passage changes significantly. In the Wilson text the passage reads:

    Get up now, Eurycleia, wash your master’s
    age mate. By now, Odysseus himself
    must have old wrinkled feet and hands like these. (Wilson XIX.356-358)

    To me, Wilson’s interpretation makes Penelope’s statement seem more of a comparative remark than an indication that she is in the know.

    Regarding whether or not Penelope is aware that the stranger is in fact Odysseus remains rather ambiguous. I can find evidence that supports either argument. It is a possibility that Penelope does not recognize her husband because of an intervention by Athena. For example, Eurycleia recognizes Odysseus from his scar yet is unable to alert Penelope due to Athena’s manipulation:

    She glanced towards Penelope, to tell her
    it was her husband. But Penelope
    did not look back; she could not meet her eyes,
    because Athena had turned her mind aside. (Wilson XIX.477-480)

    Athena may be preventing Penelope from making the discovery for the sake of the mission. On the other hand, there are examples that support the claim that she does indeed know that the stranger is Odysseus. In addition to her comparison of the stranger’s physique to Odysseus’, the premonition that she describes to the stranger implies that she is aware her husband has returned. Her dream foreshadows Odysseus’ return; an eagle (Odysseus) kills 20 geese (the suitors) that had been feeding on their grain. She concludes that she awoke from the dream to find the geese still feeding. Odysseus then reassures her that the king himself will return to fulfill her premonition. In my opinion, Penelope’s dream implies that she has a suspicion the stranger is Odysseus. She tells him about the dream either to encourage/provoke Odysseus to act, or to subtly hint at that fact that she recognizes him.

    In the Wilson translation it is not 100% clear what Penelope’s stance is at this point, but I find it interesting to try to spin the story either way for the sake of the argument.

  2. As noted above, I think that a reader’s interpretation on the recognition(?) scene says more about the reader than about the text. Pre-Wilson, I’d always figured that she knew — largely because I think that I’d know, that I’d recognize my husband immediately, even after 20 years apart, because I JUST KNOW HIM. But as in many other ways, Wilson is making me re-think that surety. I also think that the performer – the bard singing book 19 for an audience — would be able to skew the performance with tone and gesture and expression to create an answer for this question, so that in some performances Penelope DEFINITELY knows, in others she definitely doesn’t know, and in others it’s just ambiguous (as in Wilson).

  3. I’m not entirely sure but from the previous knowledge that I have of Penelope, my imagination would be that Penelope recognizes Odysseus, but the way that comes across in different interpretations just varies. Some will indicate that she doesn’t know, but my understanding of the character is that even if she’s acting like she doesn’t know or recognize him, she does, because that’s who Penelope is as a person. A different wife may not have recognized him, but she certainly would.

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