Recognition scenes in Greek and Roman literature privilege sight and hearing above touch as sensory media. This preference is in keeping with the general belief that those are the higher senses. There is, however, a famous exception: Eurycleia’s recognition of Odysseus by touching his scar in Od. 19. This paper discusses the significance of touch in that scene and in Petronius’ perceptive parody of it (Sat. 105).
While a fifth-century image heightens the presence of touch in the scene in Od. 19 by representing Eurycleia in the act of moving her hand up Odysseus’ leg (Havelock 188), ancient critics underplay the role of touch either by not mentioning it (so Aristotle at Poetics 54b) or by “diffusing” the recognition, which would happen not just by touch but also by sight and hearing (so Eustathius, who takes Eurycleia’s words to the “stranger,” “I have not yet seen any man so similar to another as you are to Odysseus in appearance, voice, and feet,” to mean that she had already recognized Odysseus by those features). Modern scholarship focuses mainly on the flashback prompted by the recognition (Auerbach, de Jong, Goff, and the scholars in Russo, pp. 95-6), and the prominence of touch is not sufficiently appreciated.
Homer, however, puts the entire burden of the recognition into Eurycleia’s hands by emphasizing that she washes Odysseus’ feet in the dark, and by employing a rich palette of at least four verbs for touching. Odysseus moves away from the fire in order not to be seen (the darkness, he hopes, will “dull” Eurycleia’s tactile intelligence). Of the verbs describing Eurycleia’s touch, amphaphaasthai denotes the groping of the blind, and epimaiomai specifically of Polyphemus patting the belly of the ram. Eurycleia gropes for Odysseus’ leg as if she had no eyes. The exceptional privileging of touch as the means to recognition is related to the strongly “tactile” relationship that bonds Odysseus in a literal way to Eurycleia, his substitute mother (19. 355, 401; Murnaghan 40-41, Frank 518).
Like Eurycleia, Lichas in Petronius uses his hand to identify the disguised “stranger,” Encolpius. Before disclosing that the scene in the Odyssey is his subtext (miretur aliquis Ulixis nutricem), Petronius harks back to it by introducing Lichas’ action with the mention of Encolpius’ hands, voice, and face. But Lichas has no use of those features, and aims straight for the “scar” (Encolpius’ penis), which he “identifies” by an officiosa manus. Lichas does not acknowledge Encolpius except for that particular item, the only argumentum of identity, whereas Odysseus’ appearance and voice trigger Eurycleia’s almost-recognition of him, before she comes to the actual recognition by touch. Even her touch is not localized: as she says with a moving hyperbole, “I did not know you until I handled all of my master.” Her empathy translates into “expansive” hands; Lichas’ crude knowledge of Encolpius, into his dismissal of his former lover but for that one spot, the touching of which alone, like a handshake, elicits a greeting (Salve, Encolpi! Vannini 171). Petronius degrades the epic hypotext by converting Eurycleia’s motherly love into aggressive and pointed eroticism; but he catches the importance of touch in the Homeric scene, and makes it the protagonist of his own.