July 5, 2023
Content forecast: violence, sexual assault
In the 1972 cult samurai movie, Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance (子連れ狼 子を貸し腕貸しつかまつる), our hero, the rōnin Ito Ogami, and his three-year-old son Daigoro enter a village controlled by a ruthless gang of thugs. The film emphasizes the thugs’ monstrous behavior and their horrific crimes against the villagers. As a result, the audience can rest assured that they are receiving their just deserts when Ito mercilessly kills them all. I believe that certain passages of Homer’s Odyssey were similarly composed to assure its audiences that the victims of Odysseus’ rampage in book 22 deserved their gruesome deaths. These passages counteract earlier traditions, in which Odysseus’ actions were less justified, and transform Odysseus from a mass murderer into a deliverer of justice.
Odysseus’ and his allies’ victims in book 22 include all of Penelope’s suitors, their priest Leodes, the goatherd Melanthius, and the twelve enslaved women of the household who had slept with the suitors. While the suitors and Leodes die quickly, Melanthius dies by torture and, at Telemachus’ behest, the enslaved women are hanged. Readers and interpreters continue to debate whether the Odyssey wants us to believe that all these victims deserve their fate.
Brad DeLong has discussed how Emily Wilson (a recent translator of the Odyssey) and the science-fiction author David Drake address Odysseus and Telemachus’ decision to slaughter the enslaved women. DeLong sides with Drake, who believes that killing one’s own enslaved people under such circumstances was “‘normal behavior in an Iron Age culture.’” In such a brutal world, acts of brutality were necessary to obtain and maintain power. The integrity of Odysseus’ household is at stake throughout the Odyssey, and these disloyal women threatened that integrity.
Wilson sees things differently. She acknowledges that, to Odysseus and Telemachus, slaying these women is tantamount to taking out the trash. Yet she believes that the text “shows us what it feels like for them to be terrified and strung up,” and asks us to pity them. For Wilson, this episode introduces moral ambiguity and creates an “important grey area” in the Odyssey. Indeed, the comparison of these women to thrushes or doves caught in a net as they prepare to die (Odyssey 22.468–472) arouses pity. It is similar to Hesiod’s fable of the hawk and the nightingale, in which the poet sympathizes with the nightingale as she suffers in the pitiless hawk’s talons (Works and Days 202–212).
I have heard colleagues claim that the massacre is meant to be a horrific moral failing for Odysseus. One pointed to Odysseus’ slaying of the lead suitor Antinous — with an arrow to the throat while he was drinking wine (Odyssey 22.8–25) — as an indication that Odysseus was combining the banquet-hall and the battlefield in a terrifying way. Another pointed to the parallels between Odysseus’ slaughter of the suitors and the hubristic cyclops Polyphemus’ slaughter of Odysseus’ sailors (Odyssey 9.287–293).
Maureen Alden argues that both the suitors and Odysseus replicate Polyphemus’ moral failings: the suitors through their the dull-witted, lawless, drunken, and gluttonous behavior, and Odysseus through the act of trapping and killing people in his own home (Para-Narratives in the Odyssey, pp. 234–255).
The text emphasizes Odysseus’ anger before and during the massacre. He is described as ὑπόδρα ἰδών (“looking angrily”) six times (Odyssey 18.14, 18.337, 19.70, 22.34, 22.60, 22.320). He punctuates the massacre with several angry speeches and he refuses multiple requests for mercy (Odyssey 22.42–501). His name even derives from the verb ὀδύσσομαι (“to feel anger”), suggesting that an act of incredible wrath is fundamental to his story (Odyssey 19.405-8).
There are indications that Odysseus is engaging in literal overkill. Some of the suitors show enough decency to make us wonder if they deserve mercy. Although their leader Antinous refuses to give the disguised Odysseus anything, the others rebuke him and give Odysseus a portion of their feast (Odyssey 17.367–491). When the suitors’ families rally to exact revenge on Odysseus and his family, we see the consequences of this wanton murder (Odyssey 24.232–549).
An act of mass murder is practically a requirement for Greek mythic heroes. Recall Heracles’ murder of his family in a fit of madness (Euripides, Heracles 922–1015), Achilles’ willingness to tilt the tide of Trojan War against his erstwhile companions (Iliad 1.401–412), and Ajax’s attempted massacre of the Greek army at Troy (Sophocles, Ajax 36–73). Could Odysseus’ slaughter of over 100 suitors and 12 enslaved women be the crime necessary to make him a real hero?
This would seem to be the case if the poem did not go out of its way to imply that only those who truly deserved it faced Odysseus’ wrath. The poem repeatedly brings up the suitors’ terrible behavior and violation of civilized norms. They eschew Greek customs of hospitality when they show no respect for their host, Telemachus, and even conspire to ambush him (Odyssey 1.365–424). Although their ringleader, Antinous, is clearly the worst of them, Eurymachus mimics him when he throws a stool at the disguised Odysseus, just like Antinous had done one book earlier (Odyssey 17.373–380, 18.395–400). This doubling discredits Eurymachus when he tries to blame all the suitors’ crimes against Odysseus’ house on Antinous (Odyssey 22.45–58).
The poem similarly assures us of the enslaved women’s guilt. First, it emphasizes Odysseus’ selectivity with these women. As they plot to retake the household, Odysseus urges Telemachus “to find out which of our slave women are dishonoring you [by sleeping with the suitors] and which ones are innocent” (Odyssey 16.316–317). The twelve women who are hung are only the ones that Eurykleia singles out from the household’s fifty enslaved women (Odyssey 22.420–427).
There is even a scene in which Odysseus sees these women happily join the suitors in bed (20.6–13, translation mine):
Then the women who had been sleeping with the suitors came out of the hall, sharing laughter and good spirits with each other. His temper stirred in his chest and he contemplated deeply in his mind and his heart whether he should rush upon them and kill them all, or whether he should let them sleep with the overweening suitors one last time.
This scene’s message is clear: these women are willfully sleeping with the suitors and betraying their household, so they deserve their deaths.
This scene is absurd on multiple levels. Modern readers might ask why these women’s choice of bedmates justifies their deaths, or why they owe any loyalty to their enslavers. But even in ancient Greece, the idea that any women, let alone enslaved women, had much choice in sexual partners was absurd. This absurdity indicates that the poem’s assurances of the guilt of every one of Odysseus’ victims were separate, later traditions.
I believe that earlier versions of the Odyssey did not work so hard to justify Odysseus’ actions. He was depicted as succumbing to the wrath for which he was named and indiscriminately slaughtering a huge number of people. He thus finalized his transition from a man to a hero capable of superhuman feats of both good and evil. This is why the Odyssey emphasizes Odysseus’ extreme feelings of anger and the helplessness of many of his victims: not only the slain enslaved women, but also the prophet Leodes, who supplicates Odysseus only to be slain alongside the others (Odyssey 22.310–329). At some point, one or more poets became uncomfortable with this marring of Odysseus’ character. The magnitude of Odysseus’ actions was probably too integral to the story and too well-known to be erased, but the justifications could be strengthened.
Lingering uncertainty around the “Homeric Question” makes the process of this modification unclear. Parry’s and Lord’s influential theories of oral composition and composition-in-performance suggest a branching rather than linear evolution in which each performance of the Odyssey was different (The Singer of Tales, p. 5, Homeric Questions, pp. 25–27). At some point, traditions must have converged into the version found in manuscripts. Gregory Nagy argues that a gradual convergence began when the Peisistratid tyrants of Athens instated recitations of Homeric epic at Panathenaic festivals (Homeric Questions pp. 38–52). Then, the Odyssey continued to evolve as an increasingly rigid oral composition and as a series of written transcripts until the mid-second century BCE, when Alexandrian scholars created an authoritative written version of the Odyssey (Homeric Responses, pp. 1–7). M.L. West argues that the Odyssey was first written down in the 8th or 7th century BCE, marking a key transition from a fluid body of oral poetry to a singular entity based on an authoritative written text (The Homeric Question Today, p. 390).
As the product of such an unclear composition process, experts continue to debate how to analyze and interpret the Odyssey. Wilson represents a modern belief in the poem’s thematic unity when she argues that the text’s support and repudiation of Odysseus’ actions go together to generate moral ambiguity. I am taking a more 19th-century approach by trying to separate the contributions of individual poets (The Homeric Question Today, pp. 384–385, Inconsistency in Roman Epic, pp. 8–9). August Wolf inspired this approach in 1795 when he first proposed that the Odyssey had multiple authors (Prolegomena ad Homerum). 21st-century geeks like me are good at recognizing the work of different creators and the results of different stages of the creative process on our favorite media, so perhaps we can revive this approach.
The justifications for Odysseus’ actions seem clumsily tacked on. Eurymachus had to be just as vile as Antinous so that Odysseus can justifiably refuse to parley with him. Odysseus had to give ample warning to Amphinomus, the most noble suitor, to leave before the massacre began (Odyssey 18.119–150). Odysseus had to kill the enslaved women selectively, the wise Eurykleia had to sanction their deaths, and audiences had to be assured that these women slept with the suitors willingly.
It strains the reader’s disbelief that Odysseus, enraged as he was, would be selective of his victims. The text even contradicts itself when Odysseus accuses the suitors of raping the enslaved women (παρευνάζεσθε βιαίως) when he had already seen them run off happily to sleep with them (Odyssey 22.37). This could be intentional, to show that Odysseus is exaggerating the suitors’ crimes, but it could also represent overlapping traditions. It may even suggest that, in some traditions, Odysseus acknowledged that the suitors coerced these women into bed, yet he still chose to kill them.
This evolution is reminiscent of the changes made to the first Star Wars movie that have made the phrase “Han shot first” a rallying cry against ex post facto modifications to an original work. In the original 1977 release of Star Wars, when the bounty hunter Greedo threatens Han Solo in the cantina at Mos Eisley, Han shoots him under the table without hesitation.
Fearing that this action compromised Han’s morality too much, George Lucas clumsily modified this scene for the 1997 Special Edition of Star Wars. In the modified scene, Greedo shoots and misses Han from only a few feet away before Han shoots him back. This makes it extra clear that Han Solo is too moral to fire the first shot — even if his posture and facial expression show no hint of having so narrowly avoided death. Subsequent rereleases would modify it further to have Han dodge a more accurate shot, still with a completely straight-face, before shooting back. The awkwardness of these modifications reveals that they were not part of the original work.
One or more of the poets who left their mark on the Odyssey must have felt the same way as George Lucas in 1997: that an important character was too morally compromised and, therefore, the work had to be modified to clarify that anyone he killed unambiguously deserved it. Yet — as in Star Wars — signs of tampering remained. Just like Han, Odysseus shot first.