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Σκηπτοῦχος Βασιλεύς: the Σκῆπτρον and Odysseus’ Kingship in the Odyssey

Marie La Fond

At Odysseus’ first appearance in the Odyssey, he is still stranded on the island of Calypso.  Why, then, when he is at his most helpless and hopeless does Athena preface his introduction by calling him “σκηπτοῦχος βασιλεύς” – “sceptered king,” (5.9)?  I argue that the image of the σκῆπτρον, scepter, present through the epithet ‘σκηπτοῦχος’ is meaningful here: it communicates information about Odysseus that at times lies latent, but is never wholly lost or negated. 

The σκῆπτρον has previously been identified as a symbol of authority, in particular authoritative speech (Combellack 1948; Griffin 1980; Unruh 2011).  In addition to being the province of kings, heralds, priests, and judges in Homer, the σκῆπτρον is also explicitly associated with poets in Hesiod, who claims that the Muses gave him a σκῆπτρον when they chose him as their poetic mouthpiece (Theogony 1-34) (Martin 1984).  However, when Odysseus acquires a σκῆπτρον in the Odyssey, it is an accoutrement of his disguise as a beggar.  While an old man’s walking stick might be a far cry from the scepter of a βασιλεύς, I argue that this σκῆπτρον is one of many ways that Odysseus’ true identity as a king is covertly signaled while he still maintains his disguise.

When Odysseus returns to his community in the guise of an old beggar with his σκῆπτρον, his authority is being challenged by the suitors’ courtship of Penelope and their treatment of his household.  The σκῆπτρον is present in a number of instances of faltering or violated authority in Homer; because it is a symbol of authority, the presence of the σκῆπτρον makes a challenge or subversion of power all the more potent.  Athena’s speech in Odyssey Book 5 is also delivered in response to challenged authority: she exhorts the previously kind and gentle king to respond harshly to the community which has disregarded his power (5.8-12).  As a final point, I believe that the call for the king to dole out δίκη as vengeance for the violation of his authority by his community’s hubristic actions is ideologically of a piece with what has been identified as the “ruler’s truth.”  In addition to the association of the σκῆπτρον with speech and authority, this phenomenon (recognized as occurring elsewhere in the Odyssey: 8.166-77 and 19.107-14) is one of authoritative speech: the truth which the ruler speaks actively promotes the prosperity of his land and people (Nagy 1979; Watkins 1979; Martin 1984; Levaniouk 2011).  When Athena introduces Odysseus by calling him “σκηπτοῦχος” and describing the action he should take to counter ὕβρις, she asserts his kingship despite the dire situation at present, and anticipates his ultimate triumph.

Session/Panel Title

Ancient Kingship

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