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The Odyssey Reading Club -- Entry 38: Thoughts on Book XVIII

Here we have a rather strange little section. The main dramatic incident comes from a fight between Odysseus (still in disguise as the old beggar) and another beggar, named Arnaeus, but called Irus because he runs messages for the suitors, Iris being, along with Hermes, one of the two messenger gods of Olympus. The fight and the events around it are brutal and squalid and I think fairly shocking to modern sensibilities. The fact that it's meant to be at least a little shocking doesn't really lessen its effect for most people, I'd expect. Still, it's an unpleasant thing to read and congratulations if you made it through; I wish I could say that it's the last passage in The Odyssey that might give more sensitive readers pause, but there are still those pesky suitors to deal with.

First, however, we have what is, to the eye, a sort of proto-historic "Bumfights" where the two beggars fight for the amusement of the suitors. There is, fortunately, more than sheer violence on display here. It's important to recognize that Irus, in his own way, has broken the sacred laws of hospitality. When Irus confronts Odysseus, telling him essentially to get lost, Odysseus responds rationally saying that, since there was room enough for two and that they were both beggars, they had an equal right to beg for their food. That is the proper attitude for beggars to have under the laws of hospitality--remember, any beggar could be a god in disguise, so all should be treated equally. Irus, however, views himself as superior, perhaps because of his relationship with the suitors, or perhaps because he is a natural bully--in any case, his threatening of Odysseus, and it is implied all the other beggars of Ithaca, is a gross violation of the spirit of hospitality.

It is not surprising, then, that Odysseus essentially chooses to make an example of Irus. Mercy, we should remember, is not a Greek virtue. So, he readily agrees to the fight, insisting only that the fight be allowed to be conducted cleanly; Telemachus, trusting his father and his father's skill (and aware of Athena's protection of him), adds his own strength to the suitors' oath not to interfere. Now, we should also remember that boxing was a highly prized sport in Ancient Greece and was one of the original Olympic sports, along with wrestling and the insanely brutal pankration, which was essentially the Ancient version of MMA where only biting and eye-gouging were forbidden; as such, the fact that there is a boxing ring at the palace is no surprise. Indeed, it is the fact that all of this is so normal that allows Odysseus to use it as a way to both set right something amiss in his kingdom (Irus threatening and berating the other beggars) and to subtly warn the suitors that ingratitude and violation of the guest-host relationship will be punished brutally. The suitors, by watching the spectacle and taking even further actions on their own to punish Irus, are implicitly accepting and inviting their own fate, for they reinforce, unwittingly but clearly, Irus' fate as a punishment for his behavior.

It is telling, however, that Odysseus, after easily defeating Irus, takes one of the wiser suitors aside, Amphinomous, and explicitly warns him that Odysseus is in Ithaca even now and making plans to murder the suitors. Being basically a good man, and one with good sense, Amphinomous is disturbed by this. Athena, however, has already sealed his fate--Telemachus will kill this man with a spear, and it is too late for his own good sense or even the grave warnings of Odysseus to save him. Readers of the Bible may remember a similar divine intervention to forestall the use of intelligence in God's repeated hardenings of Pharaoh's heart in spite of the pleas of Moses that the his people be released from slavery. In both cases, while the divine is using human actors, it is controlling all aspects of the scenario and refuses to allow anyone who is deemed guilty to escape unscathed. Which raises the question: exactly whose revenge is Odysseus planning--his own, or Athena's?

There is much more at work in this book, including Penelope being encouraged by Athena, who beautifies her just as she had Odysseus earlier (again--whose plan is this?). Penelope appears before the suitors to bring on even greater excitement among them and to demand they, if they want to properly woo her, offer her gifts (which she and Odysseus will enjoy once they are all dead--rather distasteful, that). She also chides Telemachus for allowing the beggars to fight when they should be treated as guests. But the one other thing I would call attention to here is the first appearance of Melantho. Melantho, whose name means "black"--as in "of heart"--was raised by Penelope herself but feels no loyalty toward her mistress. Indeed, she is Eurymachus' lover, as we are not only told but shown by Homer, who has she and her lover use the exact same speech to criticize Odysseus the beggar. This is the first indication that the rot caused by the suitors will not be entirely removed by their deaths. No, there will be other victims of the revenge of the royal house of Ithaca.

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And now it's time for quotations...

"They put up their hands, and Iros hit him on the right shoulder, / but Odysseus struck the neck underneath the ear, and shattered / the bones within, and the red blood came in his mouth, filling it. / He dropped, bleating, in the dust, with teeth set in a grimace, / and kicking at the ground with his feet" (Lattimore translation, lines 95-9)

I cite this not because it's pretty or profound, but rather because it's so reminiscent of the many battle scenes in The Iliad, right down to the body falling down into the dust. If you thought this was gruesome and unpleasant to read, I'd recommend avoiding that other great Homeric epic until you feel up to reading such passages again and again at great length. It is not an easy text to stomach if you have a problem with blood, gore, or violence.

"Of all that breathes and crawls across the earth, / our mother earth breeds nothing feebler than a man. / So long as the gods grant him power, spring in his knees, / he thinks he will never suffer affliction down the years. / But then, when the happy gods bring on the hard times, / bear them he must, against his will, and steel his heart. / Our lives, our mood and mind as we pass across the earth, turn as the days turn... / as the father of men and gods makes each day dawn." (Fagles translation, lines 150-8) 

&

"No man should flout the law, / but keep in peace what gifts the gods may give." (Fitzgerald translation, lines 176-7)

This beautiful speech from Odysseus, essentially his reminder to Amphinomous that all men are at the mercy of the gods and should not think themselves above reversals in fortune, seems to have struck a chord with the much later Greek tragedian Sophocles. In his great play Antigone, Sophocles crafts a speech for the chorus that is sometimes called the "hymn to man." In both an echo and reversal of Homer, Sophocles writes, "Many are the wonders, but nothing goes upon the earth that is more wonderful than man," which is my remembered translation of the text from Sophomore Greek. Of course, the Antigone is a tragedy; whereas the Odyssey essentially has a happy ending in that the good are rewarded and the bad are punished. I'll leave you to tease out any larger implications from that contrast.

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