Is there early recognition between Penelope and Odysseus? Book 19 in the larger context of the Odyssey.
John B. Vlahos reconsiders the intricate encounter between Odysseus and Penelope in book 19, and related episodes before and after, arguing that the daughter of Ikarios is fully cognizant of her husband's identity throughout their subtle, many-textured interview. Indeed, he asserts she has already ascertained his identity even earlier, in book 17, on the basis of her discussion with Telemakhos and Eumaios (18: "This is the moment Penelope suspects her husband is back"), and that in book 18, when she appears before the suitors, she is fully aware of Odysseus' presence, seeing through his beggar guise (on 18.160-62). The text as we have it does not say any of this. While he offers some ingenious views, particularly in his discussion of the dream, his approach suffers from multiple weaknesses, and should not persuade anyone who considers the poem as a whole, especially if we place book 19 within the context of the Odyssey's other recognition scenes, and its larger thematics.
What rules do we follow for reading and finding meaning in the Odyssey, or does anything go? Can audiences bring to it the same expectations and reactions that they bring to a nineteenth or twentieth-century novel? Can we ignore the gods in the Odyssey? If not, do we need to consider the extent of their powers? Is it likely that the Odyssey, or other ancient myths, such as the Bible, aim at realism as one of their chief concerns? Any reading of the Odyssey, if it is to be persuasive, needs to address such issues, and hold consistent positions regarding them. I suggest that the poem, through its various forms of repetition and larger thematic structure, the parallels and differences evident between related scenes, provides guidelines or rules, a grammar, for how audiences can best interpret a specific episode.
I, like most other commentators, classify the Odyssey as a myth, for which I use the following definition, a sacred, traditional, narrative, that depicts the interrelations of mortals and gods, is especially concerned with defining what is moral or ethical behavior for a given culture, and passes on key information about that culture's traditions and institutions. (1) The presence of gods is often the most obvious sign that a given narrative is a myth. In the Odyssey the gods are key characters, especially Athena, who appears throughout the poem (books 1, 2, 3, 5, 7, 13, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24). They exert enormous influence on its plot, whether in book 1, book 13, or book 19.
One of the Odyssey's defining features is its thematic structure, a natural consequence of its highly repetitive text. (2) Why does the Odyssey employ so many forms of repetition, from repeated epithets, to repeated lines, to repeated types of episodes, such as a host receiving a guest, or the type we will shortly analyze: recognition scenes between Odysseus and his family members and servants? The likeliest explanation is its genesis from an oral tradition (as is also true of most narratives classified as myth), in which the composer employed repeating elements to improvise a performance before a listening audience, as A. B. Lord, Foley, and Janko, among others, have persuasively argued. Perhaps analogous to a jazz improvisation, in which a performer plays a new version of a well-known piece which members of the audience recognize, the Odyssey is yet like a symphony in terms of its great length and intricate restatement and elaboration of key themes, "The architectonics of thematic structure are wondrous to observe." (3)
Irony is a further defining thematic characteristic of the poem. The Odyssey employs and pursues many different types of irony, but especially features irony involving Odysseus himself, from Melanthios' sneer that a god must be leading the unrecognized Odysseus to the palace (17.217-18) to Leiodes' outburst, after his failure to string the bow, that it will be the death of many suitors (21.152-56). Both members of the suitors' party are completely unaware that they have stumbled on to the truth. Odysseus's back-story establishes him as a master of disguise in his exploits in the Trojan War, most importantly, in the Trojan Horse itself. Thematically, throughout the poem, the Odyssey places Odysseus before characters who know much about him, but fail to recognize that he is in their midst. This is true in all manner of scenes, not just recognition scenes. The Phaiakians, though depicted as something like connoisseurs of epic poetry, who hear multiple songs about him and his exploits (8.73-83, 486-521), are not only unable to recognize him in their midst, but fail to recognize that the prophecy they earlier received (8.564-71, 13.172-78), clearly designates the man before them. Likewise their relative, Polyphemos, earlier hears a detailed prophecy about Odysseus (9.506-17), but cannot recognize him, though in extremely close proximity for sufficient time to do so.
This applies to seemingly all human characters in the poem, including very astute individuals such as Eumaios, who remains in extremely close contact with the disguised Odysseus for days, speaks at length, shares meals with him, but is unable to recognize him until Odysseus discloses his identity to him, proving it with a token (21.188-229). (4)
Only Argos, who is not human, is unquestionably able to recognize the disguised Odysseus (17.291-327), enabled by more highly developed senses of smell and hearing/Though we have yet to consider the Odyssey's recognition scenes in detail, so far the epic's own thematics suggest a greater likelihood that Penelope does not recognize Odysseus in Book 19, but in Book 23. We will adduce two more tendencies to strengthen this reading. First, we place Book 19 in the context of the Odyssey's other recognition scenes. Second, Genesis offers unexpected support for the traditional reading, in its postponed recognition scenes between Joseph and his brothers in Genesis 43. Finally, we consider parallels between Odysseus's intricate negotiations with Arete on Skheria and his trajectory with Penelope on Ithaka.
Many ancient texts, not only the Odyssey, reach their climaxes in recognition scenes. This is the expected conclusion of the story type known in our time zone as romance, which might be loosely characterized as follows,
The protagonist becomes separated from his family for many years, usually the equivalent of a generation. Because of his piety the gods help reunite him with his family, who presume he is dead. Romances climax in a recognition scene, in which the protagonist, in highly emotional circumstances, is reunited with a beloved family member. (Louden 2011, 58-59)
Euripides pursues variants of this kind of plot in Helen, Iphigenia in Taurus, and the Ion. The Greek Romances by Heliodorus, Achilles Tatius and others, also share similar plot trajectories, and, in the Renaissance, the plot type was exceedingly popular including Shakespeare's Pericles, Cymbeline, The Winter's Tale, and The Tempest. Less often grouped with these, but demonstrating the same basic narrative type, is the Old Testament myth of Joseph in Egypt (Genesis 37, 39-47).
As a highly thematic epic, symphonic in its introduction and restatements of themes, the Odyssey has not one climactic recognition scene but a series of such scenes, occurring throughout the second half of the poem, from Odysseus's encounter with a disguised Athena and disguised Ithaka in book 13, to his reunion with his father in book 24. Odysseus has recognition scenes not only with Telemakhos, but with his hound Argos, with Eurykleia, and with the retainers Eumaios and Philoitios, all before the destruction of the suitors. Each scene is unique in some respects, but in other ways each manifests a basic dynamic shared by all the other members of this family of related episodes.
Recognition scenes exist in a few different sub-types,5 on the basis of a few variables. When the protagonist meets up with a long-lost family member, are both characters ignorant of each other's identity, or only one? This difference in knowledge broadly divides recognition scenes into two large types. In most romances (e.g., Ion, Helen, Iphigenia in Tauris; The Story of Apollonius King of Tyre; The Winter's Tale, Pericles), both characters, protagonist and the other family members, are ignorant of each other's identities. Thus in the Ion, for instance, neither Ion nor Creusa is initially aware of the other's real identity, even as Creusa initially plots to kill her long-lost son (925-1047). In Shakespeare's Pericles neither the titular king nor his long-lost daughter Marina is aware of the other's identity as their recognition scene unfolds (5.1). However, both the Odyssey and Genesis' account of Joseph in Egypt use a different subtype of recognition scene. Here the protagonist is fully cognizant of other family members' identities when he encounters them, but he refrains from disclosing his own identity, while he tests and probes them. He reveals his identity only later, some times after considerable time has elapsed.
Other differences, more specific to the Odyssey's plot, divide recognition scenes into additional subtypes. Which character is doing the testing? Though usually Odysseus, in reversed recognition, another character does the testing (e.g., Athena in 13, Penelope in 23). Is there immediate recognition? The Odyssey suggests three different tempos of recognition: immediate (Argos), delayed (recognition occurs, but later in the same scene: Telemakhos, Eurykleia, Laertes), and postponed (recognition does not occur until a later scene: Eumaios, Penelope). Do the recognition scenes take place before or after the suitors are slain? If so, why for some characters and not for others? These variables allow us to construct a typology of the Odyssey's recognition scenes. The typology then shows us which episodes offer the most specific parallels with each other, suggesting some of them function as complementary counterparts to each other.
The first recognition scene on Ithaka is in book 13 (13.221-360), initially between Odysseus and Athena, then between Odysseus and Ithaka. In several respects this episode establishes some of the principal features that recur in the following instances, though it offers variations on others. The variations found here result from Athena's unique status as not only a goddess, but as the deity who sets in motion and directs so many of the plot's chief scenes. More specifically, she herself directs many of the recognition scenes, as first here. This initial instance of recognition is reversed: it is she who tests Odysseus (as will be true of Penelope in 23). It is she, and Ithaka, who are in disguise, she as a young herdsman, the island, shrouded in mist.
Because of its relevance to book 19, the question needs to be asked, can a mortal see through a disguise created by Athena? The answer here, even when the mortal is Odysseus himself, whom both Zeus (1.66-67) and Athena (13.297-98) declare most intelligent of all mortals, is clearly no. I suggest the same implication holds for other mortals in the poem, that they are unable to penetrate a disguise Athena makes, unless they see an explicit token, such as the scar. This is perhaps the poem's favorite irony: that which a given character most desires is now before him/her, but he/she cannot recognize it. Here Odysseus, Mr. Ithaka, so to speak, cannot recognize his island, his persistent goal for ten years. He responds to his initial helplessness by lying, creating a temporary alter ego, as he will in the later interviews, though the lies often contain kernels of truth, or parallels with his actual sufferings. When Athena sheds the mist, disclosing the island's true identity, deep emotions are provoked in Odysseus: he kisses the ground (13.354), as he would his family. This same kind of surrender to emotion, by both parties (though the island's own reaction is not noted) signals the climax of all the recognition scenes. This, then, is delayed recognition: Odysseus can recognize Ithaka and Athena only at the end of the scene, not when he first encounters them.
At her direction, a now disguised Odysseus proceeds to the hut of the swineherd, Eumaios, first to test his loyalty, then to build a relationship with him. Eumaios quickly establishes himself as a moral man through the protection and hospitality he offers the stranger before him. But again the poem employs its favorite irony. Though a discriminating man, uniquely able to resist Odysseus's considerable powers of persuasive speech (he refuses to believe the claim that "Odysseus" will soon return: 14.151-370), absolutely concerned with protecting Penelope against false claims and hopes, and utterly dedicated to his presumably absent lord, he is unable to recognize him, not only as he stands before him, but after sharing close quarters and all manner of contact with him for the next few days. Indeed, his refusal to believe his guest's claim about the imminent arrival of Odysseus is itself a subset of the same larger irony, characters' inability to recognize the disguised Odysseus before them. This, then, is postponed recognition, the same subtype in which Penelope participates in book 19, I argue. Eumaios will recognize Odysseus only at a separate, later occasion.
At Athena's directing, Telemakhos, returning to Ithaka after his brief Odyssey in search of news of his father, goes first to Eumaios's hut. From within, Odysseus, in a pre-recognition scene, deduces from the reactions of Eumaios's hounds, that someone they know is approaching. As Telemakhos enters, the Odyssey employs a structural parallel that will recur in Book 19: as we anticipate recognition between Telemakhos and his father, instead the Odyssey focuses on the deep emotions provoked by the reuniting of Telemakhos and his father-figure, Eumaios. A simile compares Eumaios to a father who, having undergone hardships in distant lands for ten years, now reunites with his son. Weeping, in the deep emotions recognition scenes provoke, Eumaios kisses his head and hands, while Telemakhos responds by calling him father (atta: 16.31). After the swineherd brings Telemakhos up to date about his guest, the disguised Odysseus, Telemakhos sends him ahead to inform Penelope of his safe return.
Athena now enters, described in the same formula as when she revealed herself to Odysseus (16.158 = 13.289), to direct the recognition scene between father and son (16.166-220). His disguise removed and true form and identity restored, Odysseus re-enters Eumaios's hut to reveal himself to his startled son. An unprepared Telemakhos not only does not believe this is his father before him (the same form of irony present in the other scenes), but fears that he is a god (a motif also present in slightly different form with Penelope in book 23). Unlike any of the other characters, for Telemakhos there is no token or sign that will prove Odysseus's status as his father. When Odysseus explains that Athena has transformed him, he is persuaded, underscoring her pivotal role in these episodes. Tears and crying, which figure prominently in several recognition scenes, first appear here, linking the episode with the recognitions of Eumaios and Philoitios, and that by Penelope (16.220-21, 21.226-27, 23.241-42). This, then, is delayed recognition: Telemakhos does not recognize his father at first, initially refuses to believe that it is he (much like Eumaios), and only recognizes him later in the same scene. Telemakhos's encounter is linked with those to come for Penelope in book 23, and Laertes in book 24 as the only characters who get to see Odysseus outside of his beggar disguise. The scene concluded, a concerned Athena restores Odysseus's disguise to prevent premature recognition by Eumaios, lest he then accidentally blurt it out to Penelope (16.457-59), emphasizing the care the goddess takes to prevent her early recognition. Though Telemakhos learns his father's identity, Eumaios remains excluded, a close structural parallel, I suggest, for Penelope's position in book 19.
Proceeding to the palace with an unaware Eumaios, the re-disguised Odysseus now encounters another loyal presence on Ithaka, Argos. In a unique recognition scene (17.290-327), Argos, enabled by better than human senses of smell and hearing, is the only mortal character who instantly recognizes the disguised Odysseus. The strong emotions recognition provokes in both characters (17.301-2) are dramatically underscored in Argos's sudden death (discussed below in connection with the myth of Joseph), followed by Odysseus having to hide his tears from Eumaios (17.305).
Since I prefer to treat Penelope's scene in book 19 last, and it, in turn, is best discussed in connection with Eurykleia's recognition scene and Penelope's recognition scene in book 23, I turn next to Eumaios' and Philoitios's recognition in book 21. Most straightforward of all the recognitions, this and those of Telemakhos and Athena are most closely involved with Odysseus's slaying of the suitors. Though both herdsmen are part of the same scene, each participates in a different subtype of recognition, due to the different tempi at which they resolve, the significantly different lengths of their acquaintance with the mysterious beggar. Philoitios functions as a parallel to Eumaios, albeit with a smaller, less-developed relationship with Odysseus. Arriving at the palace he first meets the disguised Odysseus that morning (20.175,185-96). Like the other characters in recognition scenes, in the presence of the disguised Odysseus he immediately thinks of his presumably absent lord (20.204-5). Like Eumaios, he quickly displays his loyalty to his long missing master (20.208-25, 235-37), while also complaining about the suitors' injustices, and wishes the stranger well.
Shortly thereafter, the contest to string the bow underway, Odysseus leads the two loyal herdsmen out of the palace to reveal his identity (22.188-244). He proves his identity by showing them the scar (21.217-22), linking this recognition with Eurykleia's in book 19 (discussed below). In the strong emotions stirred by their recognition, the men burst into tears, the second of three linked passages (16.220-21, 21.226-27, 23.241-42), all employing the emphatic form of syntax, the pivotal contrafactual (see Louden 1993). For Eumaios, who has associated with the mysterious stranger for some days, this is a postponed recognition, but for Philoitios, who only met him earlier in the episode, it is delayed recognition. I will argue below that Eumaios's postponed recognition offers the closest parallel to, and the best model for interpreting Penelope's scenes in books 19 and 23.
The Odyssey's final recognition scene, though criticized on multiple grounds (especially that Odysseus is unnecessarily cruel to his father), is composed of entirely traditional motifs, is closely linked to other recognitions in the poem, and finds several parallels in Genesis's depiction of Joseph in Egypt. This, and Penelope's in book 23, are the only recognition scenes to occur after the suitors' deaths, since they involve family members whom Odysseus did not think of as suitable to take part in that episode. When Odysseus approaches him, Laertes is busy digging around a plant with a spade (24.227-242), thematically continuing a thread also found in the recognition with Penelope where he describes trimming the trunk of the olive tree from which he made their bed (23.195-95). In the story Odysseus spins for him, he claims to be tied to Odysseus through hospitality (24.266-79, 312-140), as he also does for Penelope in book 19 (19.185-202). Laertes consequently addresses him as xeinos (24.281), as does Penelope in her interview (19.124, 215, 253, 309, 350, 509, 560, 589). Laertes assumes that Odysseus has died (24.284, 291-6), and as a result sheds tears for the son he presumes he will never see again (24.280), while the latter stands before him.
For his part Odysseus, in the tale he spins for Laertes, uses a phrase that is part of the Odyssey's deeper structure, telling him that he came to Ithaka, driven off course, "but a god / drove me away from Sikania, so I came here against my will" (24.306-7).The Odyssey's verb for "drove" (plazo) is employed under highly specific circumstances. Usually line initial, as here, usually referring to Odysseus, as here, it often depicts the working of a divine wrath, as here, and instantiates Odysseus' difficulty crossing the sea to return home, as here. (6) Odysseus's use of the verb at this juncture, even in a fictive tale, encapsulates his actual experiences over the last ten years, serving almost as a recognition token, if more to the audience than to Laertes. The use of plazo demonstrates the traditional nature of the episode, that it deftly employs basic elements central to the rest of the poem, contrary to some commentators' claims.
At Odysseus's repeated claims of having encountered and entertained "Odysseus," Laertes mourns, and pours handfuls of dirt over his face (24.315-17). Laertes's act prompts a unique emotional response in Odysseus, as does Penelope in book 23, Odysseus losing control over the dynamics of the encounter in both episodes. The unusual description of sharp pain welling up in his nostrils (24.318-19) prompts disclosure of his identity, as Odysseus now declares to his father that he is the very man they have been discussing (24.321). But where Penelope intentionally maneuvers Odysseus into disclosing his identity, Laertes is unaware that he has provoked such a disclosure. When de demands proof, Odysseus shows the scar (24.331-5), proof of his identity for Eurykleia, and for Eumaios and Philoitios, but then also recounts the day when Laertes had named and counted all the trees for Odysseus (24.336-44). Wood, woodworking, trees, delicately weave together Laertes' and Penelope's recognitions. But, anticipating repercussions from having slain 108 suitors, Odysseus quickly tries to limit their weeping (24.323-24), much as he does in the recognitions by Telemakhos (16.220-21), Philoitios and Eumaios (21.226-27), and Penelope (23.241-42), where unrestrained mourning that would last until dawn threatens to erupt. The encounter with Laertes concludes with another powerful emotional reaction, as he, now fully persuaded of Odysseus's return, embraces him, but almost faints (24.348-49, discussed below). As with Telemakhos and Philoitios, this is delayed recognition.
Responsible interpretation of book 19 requires recognizing that the Odyssey earlier establishes Penelope as excluded from knowledge about the presence or absence of both Telemakhos and Odysseus. Most relevant, for our consideration, is how, as Telemakhos prepares to go forth from Ithaka in accord with Athena's directives, he asks Eurykleia's help in securing provisions for his voyage. When she would dissuade him from going, he reassures her, but also has her swear an oath specifying that she not tell Penelope anything about his plans (2.347-78). Telemakhos's interactions with Eurykleia here would seem to prefigure Odysseus's interactions with her in Book 19, where again Penelope will be excluded from knowledge, while Eurykleia swears an oath not to tell her mistress what she knows. The parallels are not exact, for when Penelope later learns that the suitors are plotting to slay Telemakhos, thereby learning of his trip, she grieves, accusing her maidservant of intentionally keeping her in the dark, Eurykleia confesses. But shortly thereafter, Athena sends a dream to comfort the greatly troubled Penelope. But, as de Jong notes (458), when Penelope asks the dream about her husband, Athena deliberately keeps her in the dark, which de Jong connects directly with her non-recognition, again prevented by Athena, in book 19. (7) We turn now to Penelope's scene in book 19. It is worth noting that in all of the other recognition scenes (Eumaios, Telemakhos, Argos, Eurykleia, Philoitios, Laertes) no character has suspected that Odysseus is near, though this is the very thing they hope for. Those most eager for his return are at the same time least likely to believe he is before them. This is the pattern the Odyssey carefully establishes, its favored form of irony, and also employs in Penelope's interview with the mysterious stranger, which I argue, forms a counterpart, offering a number of parallels, with Eumaios's scene in book 14, the poem's two instances of postponed recognition (Fenik 1974, 155ff). Like Eumaios in books 14-15, Penelope has a lengthy interview with the disguised Odysseus in which he sees firm evidence of her loyalty. As with Eumaios, the interview results in a relationship established, trust between them, but as with Eumaios, recognition is postponed until a later episode.
Prior to each scene the disguised Odysseus is assaulted, by hounds, outside Eumaios's hut, within the palace, by Melantho, who is figured as a dog, explicitly called a bitch by Penelope (14.29: kunes, 35: kunas, 37:kunes; 19.91:kuon, cf. 19.154, 18.338). Each host intervenes to halt the assault (14.33-36, 19.89-95). Both Eumaios (14.90-99, 122-47) and Penelope (19.126-28) almost immediately think of the presumably absent Odysseus, as he sits unrecognized before them (cf. Telemakhos, as Athena comes before him disguised as Mentes, 1.113-18). Each refers to him as having died (14.130, 19.141). Both episodes, unique among the recognition scenes, have a particular focus on an article of clothing. In both episodes Odysseus encounters resistance, each host remaining somewhat aloof, requiring proof as to his claim that he knows Odysseus will soon return. In a further unexpectedly close parallel, Odysseus describes how women admire the brooch Penelope gave him (19.235), while in his interactions with Eumaios the same motif occurs with the woman who sells him into slavery (15.462).
There are many reasons Odysseus would not disclose his identity to Penelope in Book 19. (8) Throughout, the poem suggests Agamemnon's family inhabits a parallel universe to that of Odysseus's own family (1.35-43, 298-302; 3.193-200, 248-312; 4.517-37, etc.), especially with Agamemnon affording a possible parallel for Odysseus, as Orestes for Telemakhos. Though it is clear to the poem's external audience that Penelope will not murder her husband on his return, Odysseus has the words of his commander, Agamemnon, that all women could (11.409-34, and especially 11.441-56); they are not to be trusted. Odysseus agrees with this perspective in his exchange with Athena in Book 13, when she establishes the parameters according to which he will proceed against the suitors,
Ah me, likely I had met an evil destiny in my own palace, the fate of Agamemnon, son of Atreus, had you not told me each thing in good order, goddess. (Od. 13.383-85) (9)
Athena states a similar perspective on women's fidelity to Telemakhos,
For you know the sort of heart there is in a woman's breast; she wishes to enlarge the household of the one she is marrying, no longer does she think of, or ask about, her previous children by her husband who has died. (Od. 15.20-23)
Two additional passages, that describing the woman who sold Eumaios into slavery, 15.420-22, and how Helen is figured at 4.274-89, by her own husband, Menelaus, supplete the poem's repeated fear of women's slippery fidelity.
The woman who sells Eumaios into slavery, does so in connection with her having sex outside of marriage,
When she had done the washing [a Phoenician] first lay with her
by the hollow ship, in lovely lovemaking, which leads the thoughts of women astray, even she who is moral (euergos). (Od. 15.420-22)
Her extra-marital sex segues into disloyalty, resulting in her betraying Eumaios by selling him into slavery. The phrase "even she who is moral" figures two more times in the Odyssey in comments on the virtues of women, both in Agamemnon's assessments of Klytaimnestra (11.434 = 24.202). The infidelity of both Klytaimnestra and Helen, whom the Odyssey puts forth as possible counterparts and/or foils for Penelope, reiterates this view.
Menelaus's tale of Helen, having guessed the identities of those within the Trojan Horse, calling out to the men inside, imitating their wives' voices, is perhaps the most relevant example of infidelity/betrayal to Odysseus's own circumstances. In Troy, as in the palace, Odysseus hatches a plot that depends on absolute secrecy and loyalty for its success, he, himself, extremely vulnerable to the far greater number of Trojan warriors and suitors, both groups armed and hostile. Each conflict unfolds in large part due to and around a central female figure, Helen/Penelope, around whom the male host has gathered. Penelope herself implies parallels with Helen (23.218-24).
Together these four passages (among others) imply a construction of gender quite different from that which a twenty-first century audience will bring to the poem. The Odyssey is unquestionably the product of a deeply patriarchal culture, reflecting patriarchal views of both genders. Athena, in her comments to both Odysseus and Telemakhos, instantiates the default views and assumptions of this patriarchy, the dharma, as it were, of this culture, of which de Jong offers a reasonable summary,
Athena and Odysseus do not assume Penelope to possess the same self control as Odyssseus and Telemachos, and fear that-in her joy-she might betray Odysseus's presence in the palace . . . Odysseus does not want to burden her with the anxiety of this risky undertaking, just as in 2.373-6. (de Jong 2001, 459)
After Odysseus's return, the Odyssey figures Penelope as a potential Helen, with the concern that she could jeopardize his identity, a motif instead transferred to Eurykleia in the middle of Odysseus's first interview with Penelope (19.474). Eumaios and Penelope are both presented as loyal but vulnerable, hence their postponed recognitions.
Athena, immediately after Odysseus's comments on how his own circumstances seem dangerously close to those of Agamemnon (13.383-85), transforms him with the disguise, so that he will appear aeikelios, "marred, disfigured" (13.402), to all the suitors, and explicitly to Penelope and Telemakhos. I would suggest that, according to the norms of myth, her transformation of Odysseus will be impenetrable to the parties she specifies. They will be unable to recognize Odysseus without a certain proof, such as the scar, which Eurykleia sees, but Penelope does not. While below I consider additional structural reasons why Odysseus would not disclose his identity to Penelope in Book 19, I turn now to his encounter with Eurykleia.
The audience having been teased with the possibility of a recognition scene between Penelope and Odysseus, unexpectedly, a recognition scene does develop, but with Eurykleia. The loyal servant's recognition scene is linked with both Telemakhos's recognition, to which it forms a complement, and with Penelope's first scene, into the middle of which it is inserted. The Odyssey underscores Eurykleia's link with Telemakhos in her first appearance in the poem (2.345-80), noted above for its thematic parallel in her being sworn in on knowledge from which Penelope is excluded. Her recognition scene is set in between the two parts of Penelope's postponed recognition, as Telemakhos's recognition is interposed between the two parts of Eumaios's postponed recognition.
Like Eumaios's first scene, Eurykleia's recognition is grounded in hospitality myth: she is to wash the beggar's feet, a standard motif in hospitality myth (e.g., Genesis 18:4). But her washing of his feet, and her recognition, are delayed by an unprecedented series of special narrative techniques, the most unusual of which is her apostrophe to her presumably absent lord (19.363-69), a tour deforce blurring of Odysseus's roles. As she spots the scar on this thigh, the action halts while the narrative reveals how Odysseus was wounded, and what the scar means (19.393-466). This extraordinary sequence lets the audience share Eurykleia's silent mental processes, as her memories flood her thoughts.
At this point, the recognition scenes of Eurykleia and Penelope briefly merge, as those of Telemakhos and Eumaios almost do in book 16. Eurykleia now blurts out his identity (19.474-75); exactly what Odysseus apparently fears he might suffer from Penelope. And now Penelope would have learned Odysseus's identity prematurely, if Athena had not acted, as she also does in Menelaus's tale, by leading Helen away from the Horse (4.289) after Odysseus prevents Antiklos from crying out (4.287-88). Here Athena directs the scene, as she does in book 16, preventing Penelope from perceiving Eurykleia's outcry (as in book 16 she prevents Eumaios from learning), while Odysseus grabs his servant by the throat. Eurykleia pledges her loyalty, as before she swore an oath for 'lelemakhos. In doing so, Eurykleia utters her most ironic line, "my child, what sort of word has escaped the barrier of your teeth?" (19.492), sly irony at her expense - she who has just let his name escape her teeth.
Eurykleia's scene segues back to a second part of Penelope's postponed recognition scene (somewhat as the disguised Odysseus resumes his close companionship with Eumaios, the two jointly preceding to the palace, after the herdsman is excluded from the recognition scene with Telemakhos), as the queen continues to engage Odysseus in the lengthy exchanges that again link this scene with those between Odysseus and Eumaios in Books 14-15. An intimate bond has been established, as was formed between Odysseus and the swineherd, such that she recounts her dream to him (discussed below). She enjoys their conversations so much, says Penelope, that she could stay up all night taking (19.589-90), again, a motif present in Eumaios's postponed recognition (15.392-94).
In Book 19, the Odyssey, in its virtuoso use of recognition scenes, toys with the conventions it has established, slightly blurring, but not quite breaking, the line between delayed and postponed recognition scenes. Penelope comes teasingly close, as does Eurykleia in her apostrophe. But only the latter sees the scar, while Athena explicitly prevents the former from so doing,
"but she, though facing, was not able to notice (athresai) or perceive (noesai), for Athena turned her mind from there." (Od. 19.478-79)
Athena's action should be seen as a related to two common forms of divine intervention. Twice elsewhere in the Odyssey Athena temporarily incapacitates the suitors, drifting a sleep upon them, so Telemakhos can leave unobserved (2.394-96), or stirring a giddy madness in them when Theoklymenos prophecies their destruction (20.345-49). Perhaps even more apropos is the act of the angels to incapacitate the mob with temporary blindness (Gen. 19:11), a motif also extant elsewhere in Old Testament myth (e.g., 2 Kings 6:18). In what might be thought of as the flip side of the same motif, a god can appear only to one person in a crowd (as Athena does to Akhilleus, Iliad 1.194-221). As Russo observes, "These two verses [19.478-79] are the biggest obstacle to the theory that Homer has tried to describe in this book a subtle and veiled awareness on Penelope's part of the identity of the stranger."
Penelope's recognition in book 23, like Laertes's in book 24, is distinct from all the others in coming after the destruction of the suitors. Consequently they best typify the consummation of a romance, whereas all the other recognitions are partly hybrids, romance type-scenes with elements of the Odyssey's larger theoxeny (divine punishment of those who have violated hospitality) mixed in. Penelope's scene in 23 is otherwise most closely linked with Athena's in book 13 because she tests Odysseus, a reversal of the usual roles (though there is a trace of this element in Eumaios's unexpected resistance to Odysseus's designs). When Eurykleia shuffles up the stairs to tell a seemingly less-than-enthusiastic Penelope that Odysseus has returned, Penelope's reluctance, extending a theme also present in Telemakhos's recognition (16.194-200), becomes the principal force in the scene. Eurykleia tells Penelope that she can see with her own eyes (23.6, perhaps a reference to her inability to do so at 19.478-79) that Odysseus has returned (cf. Joseph's myth: Gen. 46:30), and describes the scar (23.74-77), linking this recognition scene with her own earlier episode. Penelope's rejection of this visual evidence suggests her test will require an entirely different means of proving identity.
Odysseus's gruesome form here, bloodied from his slaughter of the suitors, hinders a recognition based on his appearance, Odysseus's appearance conforms exactly to Athena's earlier declaration of how she expected her protege to proceed against the suitors. Eurykleia assumes that Penelope will want to see Odysseus triumphant," Like a lion, spattered with blood and gore "(23.48). Athena had earlier hoped for a similar outcome, "your immense floor spattered with [the suitors'] blood and brains" (13.395).
In this reversed recognition scene, Penelope does the testing, not Odysseus (much like Athena in book 13). When Telemakhos criticizes her aloofness (23.96--103), without realizing it, he essentially criticizes her appropriation of the testing role. Odysseus, however, accepts Penelope's testing him, but assumes she is concerned about his appearance, and, bathed, oiled and clothed by Eurykleia (23.153-64), then sits opposite Penelope. When she still remains aloof, it is Odysseus who first raises the topic of his sleeping in a bed other than in their bedroom (23.171), asking Eurykleia to make a bed for him. Building on Odysseus' own expression (storeson ... lekhos: 23.177, 171), Penelope proceeds with her test, specifying that the bed is pukinos, "well fitted,"the one Odysseus fashioned himself, explicitly characterized by the narrator as a test (23.181: peiromene). Though renowned for his self-control, as Athena emphasizes in her recognition (13.333-34), Odysseus, provoked by Penelope's testing, angrily blurts out the story of the bed.
The bed is imbued with additional meanings beyond serving as a recognition token, including an erotic element. The Odyssey earlier prefigures Odysseus's delicate negotiations with Penelope in his equally sensitive approaches to Circe and Arete. While we discuss Arete below, on Aiaia, Circe's bed, mentioned several times (10.296-7, 334-5, 340, 342, 347, 480, 497), serves as the means by which Odysseus and the goddess come to an understanding. Once they have made love in it, she ceases to be a threat to him, and restores his crew to their human form. On Ithaka, Penelope's use of their marriage bed as recognition token parallels how Circe comes to an understanding with her husband. On Aiaia Odysseus maneuvers Circe into swearing an oath before they have sex. In her reversed recognition, Penelope maneuvers Odysseus into proving his identity before they have sex. Penelope's bed is literally tied to eros in its epithet, polueratos (23.354).
Other than being "reversed," and using the bed as a proof, this recognition scene is composed of elements found in the other episodes. Before coming downstairs Penelope asserts to Eurykleia that Odysseus must have died far from home (23.68), as do Eumaios (14.68) and Penelope in her postponed recognition (19.141, cf. 315). Eurykleia, telling Penelope about the proof of the scar (23.74-77), indicates that the episode is using recognition tokens here self-consciously, almost in a meta-theatrical sense. The strong emotional element is present in several different registers. Tears and weeping are prominent (23.33, 207, 231-32), as in the other scenes (16.190-91, 17.304-05, 19.211-12, 21.213). Their kiss (23.208) complements Odysseus kissing Ithaka (13.354) in the recognition with Athena. This is the third and final of the three linked pivotal contra-factuals:
And now the rosy-fingered dawn would have appeared while they were mourning, had not Athena, the grey-eyed goddess, thought about other things. (Od. 23.241-42)
But perhaps the strongest such detail occurs the moment Penelope recognizes her long-absent husband: her heart and knees are undone (23.205), which looks ahead to the intensity of Laertes's scene.
I now consider Genesis's depiction of Joseph reuniting with his brothers and father, for the parallels it offers, the expanded context it provides for interpreting book 19. Like the Odyssey, and romance in general, the myth of Joseph reaches its climax in a series of highly emotional recognition scenes. With few exceptions, virtually every detail in these scenes also occurs in the Odyssey. The Odyssey's recognition scenes play out against the backdrop of the suitors' oppression of the household. Drought and famine in Egypt play a similar role, providing the background for the recognition scenes in Joseph's myth. The two sets of oppressive circumstances overlap in the Odyssey's frequent descriptions of the suitors as eating up Telemakhos' possessions (1.160, 2.55-8, etc.).
In terms of the larger typology of the two basic kinds of recognition scenes that exist throughout romance, Joseph's myth uses the same general type that occurs in the Odyssey: though they are unable to recognize him, the protagonist recognizes his relatives, but conceals his identity until they have passed various tests of loyalty or morality. This basic distinction aligns the two works with each other, and separates them from almost all other ancient romances, such as Euripides's Ion, Helen, Iphigenia in Tauris, the Greek novels, Kalidasa's Shakuntala, the Apollonius romance, and from later Shakespearean romance. It also means that Joseph's myth has all of the motifs used in this subtype, such as the protagonist having to conceal his tears, which Genesis employs as extensively as does the Odyssey. In terms of the typology of three subtypes within the Odyssey, Joseph's myth uses the specific form that the Odyssey reserves for Eumaios and Penelope, postponed recognition, as his first encounter with his brothers demonstrates,
Joseph's brothers came and bowed to the ground before him, and when he saw his brothers he recognized them but, pretending not to know them, he greeted them harshly. ... Although Joseph had recognized his brothers they did not recognize him. (Genesis 42:6--8) (10)
But Genesis's use of postponed recognition is even more involved than in the Odyssey.
While withholding his identity and testing his brothers, Joseph goes to greater lengths in his deception than Odysseus does in the Odyssey. He keeps them in the dark longer, making them suffer to considerably greater degrees. While Odysseus makes up false stories about himself, Joseph makes false charges against his brothers, accusing them of being spies (Gen. 42:9, 12, 14-16), and imprisoning them for three days (Gen. 42:16-24).Then freeing the rest, he keeps Simeon in prison even longer (Gen. 43:23). After they purchase grain with silver, he has their silver returned to their bags, which, when found, will make them fear they will be caught as thieves,
My silver has been returned; here it is in my pack. Bewildered and trembling, they asked one another, "What is this that God has done to us." (Genesis 42:28) We have been brought in here because of that affair of the silver. ... He means to make some charge against us, to inflict punishment on us, seize our donkeys, and make us his slaves. (Genesis 43:18)
In a repetition of his deception, Joseph has his steward place his own silver goblet in Benjamin's pack. The deliberate anguish and torment he causes his brothers (Gen. 44:7-13) is far beyond anything Odysseus inflicts upon Penelope or Laertes, his deceptions more misleading and dishonest than anything Odysseus says or does in the Odyssey. But invoking a strange double standard in our culture, commentators criticize Odysseus for his acts, whereas more excessive behavior in Joseph is rarely noted, let alone criticized. Taken together, the parallels suggest that Odysseus's and Joseph's behavior is expected, even condoned in ancient romance.
The postponed recognition of the brothers is set within a hospitality scene, as are the Odyssey's postponed recognitions with Eumaios and Penelope. When Joseph sees that his brothers have brought Benjamin, as he commanded, he has his steward prepare a feast for them (Gen. 43:16). The steward provides them with water to wash their feet (Gen. 43:24), a pivotal motif in Odysseus's recognition scene with Eurykleia (19.343-470). Like Odysseus's relatives (and retainers) in the Odyssey, Joseph's brothers think about him while in his presence (Gen. 42:21, 44:28; cf. 42:32, 38), though they are unable to recognize him. Very much as in the Odyssey, they assume that he is dead (Gen. 42:38, 44:20, 44:28). Joseph and Odysseus both have to make a supreme effort to control their emotions and hide their weeping during recognition scenes. Like Odysseus with Argos (17. 305), and before Penelope (19. 209-12), Joseph has to conceal his weeping from his brothers, as he faces them after twenty years (Gen. 42:24; 43:30; 45:1).
Joseph reveals his identity only after the brothers, and Judah in particular, satisfy him through a series of tests, suggestive not only of Odysseus's general tendency, but also of the test Penelope imposes upon him in book 23. With Joseph presumed dead, Benjamin has become his replacement in Jacob's eyes, his youngest and only other son by the same wife (Gen. 44:20). Having compelled them to bring Benjamin before him, Joseph again has his own silver cup inserted in his younger brother's sack, so he will be found with it. He thus gives his brothers the opportunity to do to Benjamin what they long ago did to him, sacrifice him for their own gain. But his brothers have changed, and their having passed his tests, Joseph finally reveals his identity (Gen. 45:3). The brothers' reaction broadly resembles Telemakhos's response to seeing the undisguised Odysseus,
They were so dumbfounded at finding themselves face to face with Joseph that they could not answer. (Genesis 45:3) And his own son was astonished, and out of fear averted his eyes lest he be a god. (Od. 16.178-79)
Also like Telemakhos with Odysseus, the brothers implicitly equate Joseph with god. Joseph's subsequent remark to them is quite close to Odysseus's to Laertes when his father is reluctant to believe him, "I am he, about whom you were asking" (24.321); "I am your brother Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt" (Gen. 45:12).
In both narratives the protagonists' encounters with their fathers form the final recognition scene. The two elderly fathers are broadly painted in similar strokes as sorrowful old men. Each particularly grieves over his presumably lost son (Gen. 42:36; Od. 24.288 ff.). Beyond anything Odysseus does to Laertes, Joseph repeatedly inflicts considerable anguish by making Jacob part with Benjamin as part of the testing of his brothers,
You have robbed me of my children. Joseph is lost; Simeon is lost; and now you would take Benjamin. Everything is against me. (Genesis 42:36) But Jacob said, "My son must not go with you, for his brother is dead and he alone is left. Should he come to any harm on the journey, you will bring down my grey hairs in sorrow to the grave. (Genesis 42:38) If you take this one from me as well, and he comes to any harm, then you will bring down my gray hairs in misery to the grave. (Genesis 44:31)
In both myths the suffering the protagonist causes his father seems extreme or unnecessary. In Laertes's case commentators argue that, since the suitors have been slain, there is no need for deception (Heubeck 1992:384, in Russo 1992). In Joseph's case he chooses a method of testing his brothers that causes more anguish to his father than to his brothers.
The emotions provoked in the father are so strong that both narratives hint at the possibility of his dying at the moment of recognition. Laertes breaks down and cries (24.280), castigating himself in his sorrow (24.315-17), and then faints (24.348-9). Joseph's scene with Jacob employs a motif found in Argos's scene with Odysseus. Argos remains alive just long enough to take part in his recognition scene, dying as soon as he recognizes Odysseus (17.326-7). When Jacob recognizes Joseph, he articulates the same motif, "I have seen for myself that you are still alive. Now I am ready to die" (Gen. 46:30). Joseph subsequently treats Jacob much as Odysseus does Eumaios and Philoitios, who at the moment of their recognitions are incorporated into Odysseus's family,
I will provide you both with wives and grant you possessions and houses, built next to mine, and in my eyes you will both be companions and brothers to Telemachos. (Od. 21.214-16)
Given that Eumaios was sold into slavery (15.450-83), and given a postponed recognition, his incorporation into Odysseus's family, much as Jacob is incorporated into Joseph's new family in Egypt, reveals a further significant affinity with Joseph's myth.
Joseph's behavior throughout his recognition scenes conforms to Athena's description of Odysseus testing his relatives, if we switch Penelope to father and brothers (13.335--38). The disjunction between the audience's awareness of Penelope's fidelity, but Odysseus's desire to test her in a way that causes her to suffer, is reminiscent of how Joseph treats both Jacob and his brothers. Odysseus's interview with Penelope in book 19 particularly resembles the dynamics in Joseph's first scene with his brothers in Egypt, Odysseus in making her cry, Joseph in his use of lies and deception.
The parallels Genesis provides in its depiction of Joseph's recognition scenes are invaluable for understanding the Odyssey's depiction of Penelope's scenes with Odysseus. Genesis's depiction of Joseph's recognition scenes with his brothers employs all the same elements occurring repeatedly in the Odyssey, particularly forms of irony, as family members immediately think of the protagonist when in his presence, but can not recognize him when he stands before them, repeatedly. As in the Odyssey, they are certain he has died. Genesis uses the same specific subtype, postponed recognitions that the Odyssey employs for Eumaios, and for Penelope. Genesis's account is quite important for our purposes because here we have considerable ancient evidence that no family members are able to penetrate the protagonist's identity, though, the narrative affords them pretty much the same circumstances, and repeatedly employs the same types of irony.
Why are the parallels as close as they are, or is it mere coincidence? Did both cultures, independently comes up with such similar manipulation of the exact same subtype of recognition scenes, though absent, as far as I know, from all other extant ancient narratives? I argue, though I am unable to prove it, that Genesis is influenced by the Odyssey, (11) strange as the notion might first seem when one considers that Genesis, in the form we have it, is not nearly as old as many assume. (12) Add to that a consideration of which characters would have been more well known between, say, Odysseus or Joseph, throughout Mediterranean cultures, it would seem far likelier that OT myth is influenced by some form of Greek myth, than vice versa. When we consider which language, Greek or Hebrew, had the greater number of speakers, which culture, Greek or Israelite, was spread over a larger area, which people, by virtue of its maritime facility, was in contact with the greater number of other peoples, the odds grow far greater that Greek culture would have exerted influence, direct or indirect, on Israelite culture, rather than vice versa.
Before responding to some of Vlahos's assertions, I note one further structural feature of the Odyssey relevant to our understanding of Book 19, thematic parallels between Odysseus's encounters with Arete and Penelope. Many commentators (e.g., Lang: 163, de Jong: 459-60) have argued that Odysseus's progress on Skheria, where it is specified that he needs to come to terms with the queen before he can obtain his homecoming (6.313-15, 7.75-77), serves as a warm-up for his first interview, and postponed recognition by Penelope. I quote de Jong (459), "The interview [in book 19] has been structurally and thematically anticipated in Odysseus's nocturnal conversation with Arete, during which he is also asked for his name." Building on the work of other scholars (especially Fenik 1974), I have elsewhere argued for a narrative pattern underlying these two sections of the Odyssey (and Odysseus's approach to Circe in book 10), that can be summarized as follows: His identity a secret (as approach to the female is perilous), Odysseus reaches her, finding a figure who is initially suspicious, distant, or even hostile toward him. She imposes a test on him, whereupon Odysseus, having successfully passed the test, wins her sympathy and help, obtaining access to the next phase of his homecoming. (13)
On Skheria Odysseus, initially hidden by Athena's mist, makes his way to the queen, and supplicates her, asking for conveyance home. She makes no reply. That night, after all the other nobles have gone home, she questions Odysseus, in circumstances clearly suggesting parallels with those in book 19 when Penelope interviews the mysterious beggar, after the suitors have gone home for the evening. Arete addresses him with the same half-line Penelope uses in 19 (7.238 = 19.105), tacking on a different ending, as she inquires about the clothes he is wearing. Odysseus is wearing palace clothing Nausikaa has given him, and gives Arete an account (7.241-96) of how her daughter bestowed it. This initial account he gives, which includes his stressing that he just wants to return home, and that not even a goddess could dissuade him, satisfies her. At this point, though Odysseus wears no disguise, and many Phaiakians are quite familiar with him (from Demodokos's songs), he remains unrecognized, his identity a complete mystery, a milder form of the irony the Odyssey presents on Ithaka. Both here and with Penelope in book 19, Odysseus reaches an initial understanding with the respective queens by giving an account about an article of clothing he wore but which came to him from the queen herself, and about which each specifically asks (7.238, 296; 19.218, 225-35).
But Arete makes no response to his request for conveyance home. Several books later, when, in his narration of his adventures, after describing the Parade of Heroines he saw in Hades, Odysseus pauses. A general silence ensues. It is Arete who breaks the silence, proclaiming Odysseus her guest (11.336-41), her proclamation the first step in the process of offering Odysseus conveyance. Arete has taken exactly as long as Penelope to recognize the unknown wanderer whom she first meets and talks with, his identity unknown to her until four books later. The distance between complementary scenes, the respective queen's first meeting with the stranger and eventual recognition of his status, could not be more similar, from 7.237-97 to 11.336-41 for Arete, from book 19 to book 23 for Penelope. In this additional sense, then, the Odyssey also points to Penelope's inability to recognize the stranger in book 19.
I turn now to a consideration of some of Vlahos's assertions. His central thesis is that the standard interpretation that recognition occurs in book 23, "diminishes the poet's genius and renders Penelope's conduct simple-minded and inconsistent with the cunning she displays throughout the poem." He refers more than once (3, 4) to "recognition scenes in books 17, 18 and 19," and proceeds to place much of the blame for how widespread the traditional view is at the feet of Eustathius.
With few exceptions, the majority of Vlahos's assertions strike me as quite far-fetched, not only with no basis in the text, but as going against some of the more pronounced tendencies that the poem has taken pains to establish. A great deal of his approach is rhetorical, with a tendency toward exaggeration and oversimplification (if Penelope doesn't recognize Odysseus in 19 she therefore is simple-minded). His lengthy focus on Eustathius is misplaced. In Vlahos's version of events, Eustathius is almost single-handedly responsible for the traditional reading. But there is absolutely no evidence to support the claim that he is the first to espouse the traditional reading (except the argument from silence), or that his reading is in any way responsible for why a majority of the poem's readers have also held to the traditional interpretation. Few modern scholars, if any, turn first to Eustathius for aid in interpretation. While Vlahos claims many do, ("it is apparent that scholars today continue to rely on Eustathius"), he cites only Stanford from some fifty years ago.
He presents a simplistic dichotomy (8) that either Homer is capable of extraordinary subtleties, and has many "brilliant nuances," or he is a "simple and straightforward poet," lacking "subtlety, refinement and sophistication." There are, in fact, many different views of Homer, mostly between these two extreme positions. Some of those who find the greatest subtlety do not support early recognition. Scholars who actually base their arguments on the text of the Odyssey, he dismisses as those who "follow Homer's text narrowly, as Eustathius and his followers do." His main assertions are not supported by the text, but are possible only by a highly selective reading between the lines. In a few cases he dismisses or ignores the text entirely (especially 19.478-79, not to mention 23.206). He repeatedly assigns motives to Penelope that the text does not support. Far too many times he does not accurately describe a scene, but alters it considerably, through summarizing, omitting key details, to fit the interpretation he wishes to elicit from it. But perhaps most problematic of all is his treatment of Athena's intervention at 19.478-79, and a downplaying of her role and powers in the epic in general.
Let us consider some of his arguments concerning books 17-19. For Vlahos, Telemakhos's account of his trip, during which he repeats what Menelaus reported to him, that Proteus had said, about Odysseus being alive, but imprisoned on a distant island, with no ships or companions to convey him across the sea (17.142-46), equates not only to Penelope knowing that he is alive, but to her instant decision not to remarry (16). This, in turn, translates, for him, into "any subsequent suggestion of re-marriage by her will have ulterior motives," and "if Penelope knows that her husband is alive at this point, she is not going to forget it; and as we shall see, any denial she later makes will also have ulterior motives." This view pretty much gives Vlahos license to see any meaning he wishes in Penelope's subsequent words and acts, no matter what the text actually states, or how it depicts her. If she refers to Odysseus as having died, as we have earlier noted, characters do when they meet the disguised Odysseus, now it will have a new meaning. She is lying; she is speaking in code.
Is this the way Homeric characters act, without the narrator telling us? Heitman, in his recent study of Penelope, criticizes just this kind of approach,
Worst of all, the assumption that Penelope is lying about her own motives has become an open invitation to read into her mind motivations that are not hers or to disregard those that are. If we are allowed to pronounce her statements as false when we have no evidence from either her or the narrator that they are, we are free to discount or distort everything she says. (Heitman 2005, 6-7)
Vlahos refers to his method as "reading between the lines." One wonders, is it only episodes in which Penelope appears where this is necessary? Should the whole epic be read this way? Why not?
Vlahos continues (17) with an analysis of what he sees as "the audacity of the stranger's refusal to come and the significance of Penelope's subsequent acquiescence to his postponement of the interview." He declares (18) "No such lowly beggar would have the audacity to refuse the request of his host," which instantly translates to "This is the moment Penelope suspects that her husband is back. ... By his response Odysseus is sending a message to his wife that he is home." The only evidence he offers for this is Odysseus's comment at 19.45, "even more the maids and your mother I provoke," in his own translation. Now, kai eti, "even more," is, in his view (19-20), "an indication of a deliberate, prior communication from Odysseus to Penelope and his anticipation of a further communication" (his italics). I don't see how any of this holds. First, he ignores "the maids" in this interpretation, yet the word order, ophra k' eti dmoas" suggests that "even more" applies to them, not Penelope (i.e., so that even more the maids and your mother I provoke). More importantly, how does erethizo ("I provoke") suggest prior communication? Far too much of Vlahos's argument rests on highly forced interpretations, some of which seem contrary both to common sense, and to the Odyssey's text. He violates the generally accepted meaning of terms such as "recognition scene," when he refers to "recognition scenes in books 17, 18."
He asserts (64) that "a careful reading of Homer's text indicates that at no time does the poet state that recognition takes place in book 23." Quite the contrary, the Odyssey clearly does so, and employs its main verb for "recognize,"anagignosko, right at the point where the traditional view places Penelope's recognition: 23.206, anagnouse. One looks in vain for Vlahos's discussion of the phrase. The same verb is used for the climactic moment in Laertes's recognition (24.346: anagnontos). Eurykleia's recognition twice uses uncompounded forms of the same verb (19.392, 467-78: "autika d'egno/oulen ... Ten ... gno"). This is the Odyssey's vocabulary for recognition. How is this "a careful reading?" This suggests to me that Vlahos sees what he wants to see in the Odyssey, reading and projecting into it, rather than basing interpretation on what the text actually says.
If Penelope has recognized her husband why does she continue weeping, mournfully, over and over (19.603, 20.59, 83-5; 21.55-60)? Vlahos does not offer discussion of all of these passages. Why does she pray to Artemis to snatch her away so she can be with Odysseus in Hades and to avoid the hateful marriage with an inferior man (20.61-90), the likely outcome of the archery contest? (14) Vlahos does address this, and with considerable ingenuity. His interpretation: Penelope, having recognized Odysseus, now fears he will perish, having to confront the suitors alone (since, in his reading, she also knows in advance of the combat to come), and therefore she would be given to a lesser man.
To sum up, the Odyssey is a highly thematic work, at the level of the word, phrase, groups of lines, type-scenes, and even larger sequences, or narrative patterns, which repeat whole series of interconnected type-scenes and motifs. These forms of repetition are evidence, for many scholars, of the Odyssey's origin in an oral tradition, originally intended for a listening, not a reading, audience, as abundant evidence and testimony make clear. In this tradition a performer had at his disposal a number of devices, much like an improvising jazz musician, enabling him to improvise a performance as long and complex as our text, by employing all manner of building blocks, from quite small units to much larger ones. Most relevant to this study is the Odyssey's use of irony, its use of recognition scenes, and combinations of the two. One of the poem's favorite ironies is to place Odysseus in the presence of characters who know much about him, or have received specific prophecies about his coming, such as the Phaiakians, Polyphemos, or the goddess Circe, but who all fail to recognize him, even though he wears no disguise.
Once he returns to Ithaka, transformed beyond recognition by Athena (or if not, what limits should we place on her powers in this regard?), the Odyssey exploits this same dynamic even more strongly. Now, in the presence of family members and loyal servants, who want nothing more than his return, and who immediately think of him when they see the disheveled beggar before them, repeatedly, beginning with Eumaios, whose loyalty to both Odysseus and Penelope is not in question, the poem presents a series of such episodes, each time with increasing intensity.
As a myth, the Odyssey is a traditional story, with characters inherited, not invented, by the poet, relations between them already established, outcomes having already evolved, and largely been determined, in the earlier tradition. Gods, especially Athena, are central to the Odyssey's mythic plot, from the opening line's invocation of the Muse (which defines the subsequent narrative as a myth), to the final four lines that focus exclusively on Athena herself (24.545-48). If the text specifies that Athena motivates Penelope to descend the stairs in book 18, or clearly states that Athena prevents Penelope from sharing in Eurykleia's recognition of Odysseus in book 19 (476-79), one needs to accept these acts as part of the basic plot of the poem, not pretend that they do not occur.
At the same time, the Odyssey allows for considerable ambiguity, as does poetry in general, and on which Vlahos builds his case. But there is just as much ambiguity behind the traditional interpretation of book 19, when it comes to Penelope's motivations. Vlahos's approach may be at its best in his reading of why she would suggest the contest of the bow. His reading of her dream, within his larger theory of early recognition, works quite well, as does his discussion of eestha (23.175): these, for me, are his strongest points. The latter, in particular, suggests that Penelope, who should have no real reason not to trust Eurykleia's declaration shortly before, is moving toward recognition in the last instant before her test.
The Odyssey's larger plot employs several specific types of stories extant in other traditions as well. One of the largest, and most influential, in shaping and determining much of the narrative is Romance, extant in many other Greek myths, and in Genesis's depiction of Joseph in Egypt. Romances climax in recognition scenes, highly emotional encounters, twenty years having passed, which in many ways serve as a reward for the protagonist, recompense for his earlier sufferings, after he has completed his toils. Odysseus's last great labor, in the present time of the Odyssey, is the destruction of the suitors. The poem would clearly seem to arrange the recognition scenes around this act, presenting recognition scenes, for those who will aid him in slaying the suitors, before their destruction, but for the two family members who will not, Penelope and Laertes, after.
Homeric epic does not lack the vocabulary and expressions to express everything Vlahos argues, but the text as we have it, clearly suggests that it has chosen not to. book 1 of the Odyssey depicts a character in circumstances very like those Vlahos argues for in his reading of Penelope in books 17 and ff., coming to a realization of identity, which, since surrounded by enemies, must be kept secret: Telemakhos's retrospective awareness that "Mentes" was some god. Wisely deciding he must keep this secret from the traitors in his midst, he conceals from Eurymakhos most of what their discussion covered, "So Telemakhos spoke, but in his heart he recognized (egno) an immortal god" (1.420; cf. 1.323). I submit that if the Odyssey would have us see Penelope as Vlahos argues, it would have used a variant or similar expression.
(1) Louden (2011, 7); cf. Louden (2006, 9); and Kirk (1974, 27).
(2) "[T]he Odyssey depends upon all manner of repetitive elements, at the level of the word, line, type-scene, and larger units" Louden (1999, xi).
(3) A. B. Lord, quoted in Louden (1999, 1).
(4) I argue below that the scenes with Eumaios provide us with the likeliest guide for responsible interpretation of the scenes with Penelope.
(5) The following discussion builds on Louden (2011, 76-92).
(6) The verb occurs line initial thirteen of sixteen times (Louden 1999: 155, n. 11). It refers to Odysseus ten of sixteen times (155, n. 13). It depicts difficulty in crossing the sea thirteen of sixteen times (155, n. 14).
(7) de Jong (458), "in fact, her exclusion starts back in 4.830-7, when the Dream refuses to tell her about Odysseus."
(8) See de Jong (2001, 458-9) for a summary.
(9) Translations of the Odyssey are my own.
(10) All quotations from the Bible are from the Oxford Study Bible.
(11) See Louden 2011, passim, for a larger argument on this topic.
(12) See Carr for a thorough discussion.
(13) From Louden (1999, 2); the following discussion reworks material from, 6-.
(14) See Felson's article on Penelope in the forthcoming Homer Encyclopedia, for discussion of these passages.
Carr, David M. 1996. Reading the Fractures of Genesis: Historical and Literary Approaches. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.
de Jong, Irene. 2001. A Narratological Commentary on the Odyssey. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Felson, Nancy. 2011. "Penelope, article." In The Homer Encyclopedia. New York: Wiley-Blackwell.
Fenik, B. 1974. Studies in the Odyssey (Hermes Einzelschriften 30). Wiesbaden.
Heitman, Richard. 2005. Taking Her Seriously: Penelope & the Plot of the Odyssey. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Lang, M. L. 1969. "Homer and Oral Techniques." Hesperia 38: 159-68.
Louden, Bruce. 1993. "Pivotal Contrafactuals in Homeric Epic." Classical Antiquity 12:181-98.
--. 1999. The Odyssey: Structure, Narration, and Meaning. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.
--. 2006. The Iliad: Structure, Myth and Meaning. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.
--. 2011. Homer's Odyssey and the Near East. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Russo, J. 1992. "Books XVII-XX." In A Commentary on Homer's Odyssey, Vol. 3, ed. J. Russo, M. Fernandez-Galliano, A. Heubeck. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Suggs, M. Jack, Sakenfield, Katharine Doob, and Mueller, James R. 1992. The Oxford Study Bible. New York: Oxford University Press.
Bruce Louden received his Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from the University of California at Berkeley. He has published widely on Homer. He is especially interested in connections between Greek myth and the Near East.