Outline of Session
Lesson 12: Seminar #4 on The Odyssey with Dr. Hannah Hintze Notes: (0:01) HH: Isn’t Penelope the end of The Odyssey? The bed trick, the conversation, and then there are two other moments when she comes up—in Book 24, they talk about her in Hades and there’s a very funny moment when Dolius is talking to Odysseus and asks if he’s told Penelope that he’s back. That’s the last petering out of the Penelope story. It’s odd to me and to many readers that Penelope isn’t actually in the last scene, and yet she has such a substantial role, and she’s been that toward which Odysseus has been traveling all this time. I’d like to make sense of some of those moments and her role. (1:58) Student 1: The thing that strikes me about the bed scene is how Odyssean Penelope is being in that moment. There’s something like a refusal of Odysseus to be home even when he’s in Ithaca in that he’s still in disguises and he gets up in the middle of the night to dress up in armor (which strikes me as very warlike). Is there a way in which Penelope is home, but is not yet home fully in some sort of way? She’s doing something Odyssean and is still under a sort of disguise. (2:57) Student 2: Is that unveiling of her disguise recognizing Odysseus, or something more? The moment when she does accept it’s him after the test of the bed? (3:17) Student 1: It seemed to me that she had accepted Odysseus in some way even before the test of the bed. I thought maybe we as readers needed something additional. (3:50) Student 3: In the last seminar we were talking about how “unflappable” Odysseus is, even when faced with being returned to an island that he’s not sure is Ithaca. He’s immediately ready with a story to tell the “youth” (Athena). Even when he finds out it’s Ithaca, he doesn’t break at all, he just keeps going on. So it strikes me as unique and unusual that Penelope gets Odysseus to break. He can’t keep playing along. Something in him just leaps out—he’s outraged to think that the bed has been moved. Maybe it’s important that she manages to get him to be honest for once, and not just to keep on telling a story. (4:52) HH: Do you think she comes up with the trick in the moment? Because he says, “Set me up a bed out here” and she says, “Wait, we’ll do this other thing.” I’ve always thought of it as something she’d planned long before because it’s such a momentous test. Odysseus can come up with something devious in a moment. (5:25) Student 4: That makes me wonder when was the moment when Penelope actually recognized Odysseus as Odysseus. When he was recognized by others, she said she still needed more evidence that he knows their secret. That’s how she’ll recognize him. But the bed trick seems like they’re mutually testing each other. Odysseus might have deliberately mentioned the bed to see what would happen. (6:28) Student 2: I was surprised at your initial phrasing since I had always taken it the other way around, that Penelope was testing Odysseus. It’s the undercurrent of the unshakeable bed, the bed hasn’t been moved, has he been faithful? Is this Odysseus coming home as her husband? I’ve always been a believer that when she’s speaking to Odysseus as a beggar, at least some part of her recognizes it’s him. The line she says at the end, “I’m going up to my bed alone. You can lie down here in the dirt,” I’ve always taken as “You need to take charge of the situation before I’m going to accept you.” I wonder if this is a different challenge, not just ridding the house of the suitors, but acting as king and husband. (7:51) Student 1: Can we suss out what the bed means? It’s a bed built onto the island. Its structure has to do with the island. Yes, it’s a feat of engineering that is built into this tree. Why does it matter so much that the bed hasn’t been moved? Have both sides been faithful? How is that tied to the land of Ithaca itself? (9:16) Student 3: The bed is made of an olive tree, which is the first thing Odysseus sees when he returns. He’s laid under an olive tree on the beach. It’s the thing from which the rest of the island is revealed as the fog peels back. (9:51) HH: I’ll bring up one of my favorite images. It’s the end of Book 5, where Odysseus climbs under an olive tree to his bed of leaves just before he meets Nausicaa. It’s a place that feels like home. (10:24) Student 2: So does that substantiate the story not ending with the bed, and continuing on? The test with the father involves the island and trees. It’s a progression. (10:50) Student 4: This might be a strange observation, but the unshakeable bed and its connection with Ithaca…but I feel the bed is similar to Penelope. They are both so deep-rooted in the island, Odysseus’s homeland. They are both symbols for home. They feel inseparable. When Odysseus and Penelope go to sleep together finally, a huge part of Odysseus’s journey has ended. That is also when they have each other’s trust—that same moment. (11:47) Student 3: That also helps me make sense of why it should be Poseidon in this epic who is the opponent: the earth-shaker, the god who could undermine everything with Penelope and the olive tree. (12:15) HH: That outstrips for me the common distinction between the natural and the artificial. I thought maybe the bed is a beautiful blend of both and anybody who sawed it apart would be taking artifice to nature in a terrible way. But the fixedness of Penelope and the fixedness of the homeland is not either of those things. (12:58) Student 4: When Miss Hintze asked the opening question about why Penelope shouldn’t be the end of the epic, I was thinking, she is the measure of morality and justice. In the end, who gets to be punished and who gets to be spared is judged based on how they interact with her. She isn’t purely natural or artificial but she represents the core of human society in some way. She’s the measure of how people should behave when something tragic happens. In fact, she also takes up the role of being the judge of the test to see if Odysseus can truly be the person to respect the process. (14:40) Student 2: There are two elements I’m wondering about: what do we make of Odysseus taking on the task of planting the oar inland? Are we extending the realm and bringing knowledge of the ocean to those who don’t have it? Is It giving it its due or is it a mockery? And then the peace at the end seems so artificial—Athena just quelling the anger and the battle… (16:08) Student 1: When Athena comes and breaks up the fight, her line there seems odd. So they didn’t realize they could settle things without blood? Has a different sort of order been created? (16:56) Student 2: Athena, who initiates that rage, now has to stop it. (17:29) HH: I was thinking of a satisfying answer to the ending of the story. The murder within the halls is satisfying because the door is locked, and there are only a certain number of evildoers who need to be finished. Once it’s done, it’s done. It’s a very different thing to go out on the road and do justice. There are any number of friends and relatives and cities who could come be a part of the battle. (18:18) Student 5: The battle that could have happened but didn’t out on the open road doesn’t seem to be Odysseus doing justice. Was it right to kill the suitors? One of them offered to reimburse Odysseus with cattle and such if he would spare them, which is a reasonable offer he should accept. He didn’t, and in fact he slayed most of the young men of Ithaca. It seemed like more than just revenge, as if there were political motivation behind it. He’s affected a large number of people, who are the stronghold of the nation, to secure his own kingship. It’s insensitive toward all the families. (19:52) Student 4: I thought entirely opposite from what you just said. I thought Odysseus was so passionate about taking his personal revenge that I don’t think he even thought of politics. Athena intervened between Odysseus’s passion and revenge and the general wellbeing of society. Do we think Odysseus had some kind of political plans in mind when he killed all those men—the best of Ithaca? (20:57) Student 5: Right before Penelope’s testing of Odysseus with the bed, Odysseus asked Telemachus to think about the aftermath of slaying the suitors. He knows the implications of what he’s been doing and is trying to think of a plan. (22:05) Student 4: I wonder if there’s anything higher than Odysseus’s personal revenge or some kind of political scheme. Odysseus is so furious toward the suitors not just because they have done something personally to him but because they showed no respect to the customs or laws that the gods and goddesses have laid down for human society. Did Odysseus choose to do something greater than revenge or politics? When his old nurse is overjoyed, he says she should not be so happy that he killed all those men, but he still felt the need to do it. (23:20) Student 1: When Odysseus kills the men, he’s described as lionlike. That evokes the image from The Iliad, when Achilles says to Hector that there are no pacts between lions and something and wolves and men. Of course when Odysseus is like a lion, there can be no diplomatic measures or agreements. It’s almost as if the reality of political society is so far removed from him in that state. (24:40) Student 6: I wonder if Odysseus does move between being lionlike and political, or if those two things aren’t separate for him. When he acts out of his own sense of justice, is that political for him? He does represent Ithaca in some way. I don’t know how that works—in his independence can he be political? (25:54) Student 4: I wonder how much of what Odysseus has done is separate from his own will. Book 22, line 160, when the suitors get their weapons and shields, Odysseus’s heart sinks. With Athena’s power, does he become more powerful (or animalistic)? How much of the goddess’s intervention is involved, and how much is Odysseus? (27:10) HH: Is there any indication that his war fury here is like a scene in The Iliad? Is he incensed by a god in the hall here? (27:32) Student 1: The descriptions are Iliad-like. We get to see an image of exactly what the arrows do. (27:47) Student 5: With regard to the rage against the suitors, Odysseus is on the same page as Athena. Both of them get enraged when they hear about the suitors. In a way the goddess isn’t necessarily imposing an external rage upon Odysseus. (28:45) Student 2: Yeah, when Odysseus is a beggar in the hall, a couple of suitors rebuke the others for throwing the stool, and Odysseus in his mind marks them out to be spared. But later on he sees blood running down the walls and he thinks, No, the hall must be cleared for justice to be done. (29:37) Student 5: I still wonder at the justice of it all. Either Zeus or Athena decided that the people of Ithaca should erase the killing of the suitors from their mind. It seems that even the memory is harmful to the city. (30:24) HH: You think that’s an indication that the killing was not just? (30:28) Student 5: Maybe it’s just with respect to the harm the suitors have done to Odysseus himself, but that may not warrant such a bloody end for all of them. (30:48) Student 1: There’s even harm done to the land itself in a way. Odysseus orders the hole filled with sulfur and burned because the smell of the blood is so disgusting to him. The smell of burning sulfur is a very harsh remedy to it. (31:33) Student 3: And they have to scrape up the ground from the hole because it’s so blood-soaked. Something’s been done to the very earth. (31:45) Student 2: And they can’t be the ones to scrape it. It’s the maids who do it. (31:57) Student 4: Yet Odysseus keeps his old blood-soaked clothes on, even when his nurse offers to bring him clean ones. What does that mean? (32:33) HH: Eurycleia, the nurse, says, “Madam, you’ve got to see him yourself in this hear. You’ll love to see this.” And that’s the very thing that estranges them. She can’t see past the gear (and other things). (33:07) Student 3: Penelope says, “The gods have deceived you. I’ll come down and see the man who killed the suitors.” Not “Odysseus” or “my husband.” (33:26) HH: I guess the bloody clothes prove he killed the suitors at least. A man did it, not a god. (33:40) Student 1: He has put down the bow…he’s even further removed himself. (34:05) Student 5: The slaying of the suitors and the bloody gear don’t move Penelope much. It’s when Odysseus himself is moved by the details of moving the bed that she is moved. When he’s taking bloody revenge, it’s one side of himself, but the bed represents another side of him. Does she approve of or respond to one side of him but not the other? Especially in Book 24, at the end of the Hades scene, the ghosts praise Penelope, but then we switch to Odysseus marching to the battle. It seems there’s a contrast between the quiet virtue of Penelope and the “manly” glory of Odysseus and Telemachus. (36:34) Student 7: I want to agree with that, but there’s also that scene where Eurycleia sees the blood and starts celebrating, but Odysseus rebukes her. This, and the incident when Odysseus slays Eurymachus in spite of his pleading. In fact, in his story to Eumaeus, he mentions not killing people who seek asylum, because it upsets Zeus. It seems like there’s a troubling contradiction. (38:07) Student 4: Is there a difference between seeking glory in war versus revenge in your own palace? It’s public versus private. There seems to be a difference in how the Greek heroes regard it (using the example of Agamemnon in Hades). Maybe it’s the way that it’s happened is what makes it in no way glorious. (39:24) Student 7: Why does Athena have to stop him later in his “final showdown”? In some ways it is a good way to conclude—3 generations of men together going into battle. (40:27) Student 5: But there’s a line about Odysseus launching like an eagle. It’s the first time since Odysseus came back that he seems “free.” He’s at least freer than he was in disguise. Athena wants him to prove himself, so it’s fitting that when the males of the family go out together, they are kind of proving themselves to the city. (42:23) HH: It reminds me of when Odysseus asks Athena why she didn’t just tell Telemachus the truth. Her answer is that he needed the voyages so she could build his reputation. If the Ithacans see the grandfather, son, and grandson standing together for battle, it might be enough (no battle needed). I want it to be more than political, though. The ending seems disappointing. But maybe political order should be pleasing after everything we’ve seen. (43:16) Student 5: The ending for me is not the non-battle, but Odysseus’s story of what he told Penelope about eventually needing to wander inland and sacrifice the oar to make peace with the god. That image of the lone man with a long-cast shadow carrying the oar into a spiritual journey. (44:19) Student 4: That’s helpful because you mention the eagle image. On the one hand it represents freedom because they can fly, but on the other, the eagles always have prey. They’re going after something. What is he going after? Odysseus needs some kind of goal, and that’s not going to stop because he’s reunited with Penelope and is king again. So having that last mission before him makes sense. That’s one reason why the end of the book seems very sudden for me. How could someone like Odysseus, who will never stop journeying, stop and be at rest? But knowing he has an unfinished task to do yet helps. (46:14) Student 3: It’s such an interesting kind of test. Walk until the thing you’re holding no longer means what you thought it meant. And what does it mean that it has something to do with the sea? Is there a connection to the “no one” of the cyclops episode? (47:01) Student 5: To wander in order to know and be known until the name is not what’s important anymore. It’s like he’d be suddenly a superficial understanding of what relationships mean. The name isn’t as important as experiences together. When Odysseus left the cyclops, he couldn’t bear that he didn’t know his name and couldn’t resist the dangerous urge. Is he shedding the urge to earn a name for himself? (49:10) Student 6: I wonder how much the oar is a symbol of opposition—you break into the water and push against it. Is it about opposing Poseidon? And we often see Odysseus breaking into nature and changing things like a god. Here in this final mission, he has to plant this symbol of artifice and power against nature as if it were a tree, as a sacrifice to the gods. (50:08) Student 1: This is the first act of planting we see, isn’t it? The other trees were given to him already grown. (50:29) Student 6: But it’s not going to grow. (50:36) Student 3: But it’s symbolic—it came from a tree and is going back as a tree… That’s a step further than I had gotten. You go to the land where an oar seems to be a winnowing fan, but then it becomes neither that nor an oar… (51:39) Student 4: Isn’t that similar to Odysseus going to a state like the cyclops island? They don’t plant or till but the gods smile on them and provide. By letting go of the oar and planting it in the ground, Odysseus is living more in tune with the gods. (52:29) Student 2: That’s a detail I missed. If it’s a sacrifice to Poseidon, is it giving up the power to fight against Poseidon’s waves and will and planting something to bring Poseidon more followers? Or is it testimony that Odysseus made it home against Poseidon’s will? (53:03) Student 4: Can you say more about the second point? Didn’t he get home when he’s reunited with Penelope? Why would traveling away from home be a testimony to arriving home? (53:30) Student 2: This is the one thing Odysseus has yet to do. This was what Tiresias told him would be the completion of his mission, and so it’s not done yet. In a way he is home, and one mission is done, but another begins. This could be a symbol of committing back to the earth. (54:00) Student 5: That speaks to letting go of something he might have held on to earlier in his life. On the other hand, understanding his own limitations or powerlessness before a god is also a powerful gesture. Does such an acceptance add anything to how we think of his journey, since it comes at the end of all his experiences? (55:22) HH: If the epic ended in bed with Penelope, maybe he’d look more like Menelaus, for whom things turned out all right. But it’s important that however he takes up this more reverent attitude, it still has to be an active adventure. It has to be something he does, not something that happens to him. (55:57) Student 7: Menelaus in comparison seems much more defined by the Trojan War than Odysseus is. Having to go out and plant the oar makes sense to me, because if Odysseus goes to a place where an oar doesn’t mean anything, then the name of Odysseus won’t mean anything either. No one will have heard of him. Odysseus will be giving all that fame up and becoming a new man or starting again. All Menelaus does is tell war stories. He can’t get past it. (57:20) Student 2: I like that. That oar being the final test. With Laertes, he still doesn’t quite have a handle on this. I’m trying to account for the scene with his father before we have the scene with the oar. (58:36) Student 1: We were comparing Odysseus and the cyclops earlier—neither plants. Odysseus has been living a lot like the cyclops. The devouring the cyclops does without producing anything in return seems to be like what’s happening with the war, and Odysseus devouring the young men of Ithaca by killing them. It seems to continue until Athena puts a stop to the battle. Planting the oar seems like renouncing being a devourer like the cyclops to become something else. I guess the scene with his father makes me think of this since he goes to his father in his armor. (1:00:00) HH: He hasn’t discovered yet a way to act that isn’t warlike. That’s the lovely thing about the final adventure. He’s not going like Orestes to murder someone, yet it’s active. (1:00:26) Student 7: He’s not even been instructed to teach the people he meets about the ocean. He’s not only not going out to take things, but make a sacrifice and plant the oar and otherwise leave it unaffected. Maybe there will be a whole orchard of oars someday. The trip seems to be entirely for a personal reason. (1:01:20) Student 5: Penelope doesn’t participate in either of the last two scenes (the non-battle and the oar planting) at all. The story doesn’t really seem to allow for the participation of his partner. (1:02:10) Student 3: I want to add a caveat to that. The last we hear of Penelope is that she says she’d rather know of his last adventure than not. She knows he’s not going to stay home forever. She says something very beautiful at the end. Perhaps it is her way of being with him even when she’s not with him: “If the gods are accomplishing a more prosperous old age, then there is hope that you shall have an escape from your troubles.” (1:03:39) Student 1: It seems deeply reflective of the struggles of the book. It’s not so much the physical separation but that Odysseus has all this struggle going on, and Penelope is waiting, waiting for Odysseus to finally make peace with the gods. (1:04:06) Student 2: And waiting for knowledge. She’s so faithful and loyal, but she goes back and forth herself on whether there’s actually something for her to be waiting for. (1:04:28) Student 4: I am seeing Penelope and Odysseus as not two individuals, but that Penelope becomes part of Odysseus. Penelope is the part of himself that’s deep-rooted in his homeland and is patient and calm. They are so connected. Even though she is not physically present, she is always there, always present in Odysseus’s mind. (1:05:18) Student 5: If there’s no Penelope, there’s no homecoming.