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Revenons à nos moutons: The Resolution of Corrupted Herding in the Odyssey

Adrienne Hagen

Scholars have long recognized that Odysseus’ wanderings culminate in his reestablishment of order in Ithaca according to traditional notions of elite power (e.g. Foley 2004). Burgeoning work in the field of social history shows that economic, social, and familial relationships intersect in a society’s animal management strategies (Howe 2008). No scholar has yet combined these approaches to assess Odysseus’ leadership in terms of the way he interacts with herds and herdsmen throughout the epic. In this paper, I begin addressing this deficit by considering three episodes that typify the many “corrupt” or improper herding operations Odysseus witnesses on his journey. I show how the animals on Goat Island, Polyphemus’ flocks, and Helios’ cattle are all deficient in Odysseus’ eyes compared to the operation waiting to be restored at home on Ithaca. I conclude that the model of a good king that Odysseus pursues (and provides) is inextricably tied to his ability to manage the people who manage his herds, and that Ithaca offers a unique opportunity in the epic for him to put these skills to good use and to attain his preferred type of glory.

This paper begins with the observation that, along with proper and productive gender relations (Foley 2004) and hospitality rituals (Bakker 2006), Odysseus’ journey demonstrates the importance of properly conducted herding operations and the kind of leadership that is necessary to sustain them. Removed from human contact, the “countless” (ἀπειρέσιαι) animals on Goat Island do not allow the opportunity for prestige that large, well-managed herds grant their owners elsewhere in the Homeric world (Od. 9.116). Polyphemus, by contrast, controls his flocks very tightly, but he lacks a cooperative, hierarchical social network. The sheep and goats in both of these locales provide nourishment, but not prestige; Odysseus also interacts with a number of herds that are kept only for aesthetic enjoyment, not consumption. Helios’ cattle, idyllic as they seem, nevertheless do not conform to the complex, community-supporting social and economic system that serves humans well.

Against this background, the paper explains Odysseus’ need, upon reaching Ithaca, to eliminate a threat to the long-term stability of his household: Melanthius, the corrupt goatherd who willingly provides Odysseus’ animals to the Suitors for his own social gain (Od. 17.247; Scodel 2005). Even if Odysseus were to slaughter the Suitors, reconcile with Penelope, and reestablish proper feasting to correct the imbalances that Foley and Bakker recognize throughout the epic, the future livelihood of his family and kingdom would still be at risk if a troublemaker like Melanthius remained part of the herding operation. Odysseus achieves this resolution with the assistance of his loyal herdsmen, Eumaeus and Philoetius, and by taking up Polyphemus’ herding implement—the ῥόπαλον—as a tool for setting his estate in order (Od. 17.195).

When managed well, Ithaca is preferable to the quasi-Golden Age of Goat Island because it offers prestige to its king and people. Significantly, this is a different type of glory than one could acquire in battle. By struggling to return to “goat-nourishing” Ithaca, Odysseus sacrifices the glory of warfare—which is repeatedly represented in the epic by the ownership and taming of horses—in favor of the prestige that accompanies well-managed herds. Both Telemachus and Athena remind us that Ithaca is fit for goats, not horses (Od. 4.600-8, 13.246). Although Odysseus displays pride in his accomplishments in the Trojan War and uses his deeds there to ingratiate himself with a variety of hosts, the reputation he ultimately seeks in the Odyssey is that which he uses to compliment Penelope in the “good king” simile of Book 19. Proper herding operations in the Odyssey result in abundance and glory, not as a display of wealth or martial prowess, but as an indication of how well one manages the people, land, and animals under one’s control.

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Metageneric Excursions in Early Greek Epic

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