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Three Millennia of Greek Literature

D. Snider
A Commentary on the Odyssey of Homer - Part II

From, Homer's Odyssey: A commentary
[Please note that the Table of Contents here published, is created by Elpenor and is not to be found in the print version]

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Page 63

Book Twenty-third. The essential fact of this Book is the reunion of husband and wife after twenty years separation. The eternal nature of the bond of the Family is thus asserted as strongly as is possible in the world of Time. This is the deep institutional foundation upon which the Odyssey reposes. Still the wife also has to be conquered, that is, she has to be convinced that the beggar is her husband. All along we have seen the struggle between her instinct and her intellect; her understanding persists in thinking that Ulysses will not come back, yet she dreams of his restoration, and she feels a strange sympathy with the old man in rags. Thus the two opposing elements of female nature have been in a conflict with each other; her instinct tries to surge over her intellect, but does not succeed; she demands the complete test of identity and gets it in the present Book. The old nurse, her son, and finally Ulysses himself become impatient with her delay and her circumspection, still she holds out against them all, though she has, too, her own inner emotions to combat. The gradual unfolding of this scene to the point of recognition must be pronounced a masterpiece of character evolution.

The book may be divided into two portions—before and after the Recognition, which culminates when Penelope accepts the test of the secret bed which was once made by Ulysses.

I. The movement up to the Recognition shows Penelope undergoing a double pressure, from without and from within. Yet it shows too a corresponding double resistance on her part. First Eurycleia goes to her chamber, and tells her in great glee that the Suitors are slain and her husband has returned. She can accept the slaughter of the Suitors, that could have been done by some God, angry at their injustice; but she will not believe that Ulysses is really in the palace. The nurse cries out: "Truly thou hast ever had a disbelieving mind," and then tells of the scar. Still incredulous; but she goes down to the court, and there sees Ulysses in his rags. No sufficient proof yet, though she has a strange inner struggle not to run up to him that she might clasp his hands and kiss him. But her understanding conquers, she keeps at a distance, scrutinizing, till Telemachus, impulsive youth, breaks out into a reproach: "Mother, thy heart is harder than a rock." But Ulysses himself speaks to his son: "Suffer that thy mother test me;" she is like himself, he understands her better than the son does. Finally Ulysses takes the bath and puts on fresh garments, while Pallas gives him fresh grace and majesty, and increased stature; he comes before Penelope again; still no yielding. Ulysses himself is now forced to exclaim: "Above all women the Gods have given thee a heart impenetrable." Thus the nurse, the son, the husband in turn have failed to shake her firmness, she must have an absolute test, which is "known to him and me, and to us alone."

This is that strange bed, which Ulysses is unconsciously provoked by his wife to describe. Penelope commands the nurse: "Bring the bed out of the chamber which he made." But really it could not be removed, it was constructed of the trunk of an olive tree rooted in the soil and its construction was the secret of himself and wife. Very strong is the symbolism of this bed, and is manifestly intended by the poet. It typified the firm immovable bond of marriage between the two; their unity could not be broken. Mark the words of Ulysses: "Woman, thou hast spoken a painful word," when she commanded the bed to be removed; "who hath displaced my bed?" In it there was built "a great sign" or mystery; "now I do not know if my bed be firm in position, or whether some other man has moved it elsewhere, cutting the trunk of the olive tree up by the roots." Such is his intense feeling about that marriage bed, deeply symbolic, truly "a sign," as here designated.

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Cf. Pharr, Homer and the study of Greek * Odyssey Complete Text
Iliad Complete Text * Homer Bilingual Anthology and Resources * Livingstone, On the Ancient Greek Literature
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