A sampling of comments on Odyssey Rhapsody 17

2017.07.14 / updated 2018.10.13 | By Gregory Nagy

Back in Rhapsody 16, Eumaios the swineherd had left behind in his shelter an unrecognized Odysseus and had gone off to the palace in order to contact Penelope; in the swineherd’s absence, Telemachus, left alone with Odysseus, could now get to see his father transformed into an idealized godlike hero, made visible through a luminous epiphany produced by the sacred wand of the goddess Athena. This way, Telemachus could recognize the true Odysseus. But this true hero must not yet be recognized by the returning Eumaios. So, before the swineherd had ever made his return from the palace to the shelter, Athena had already produced a reverse transformation of Odysseus, and the hero could thus revert to his disguise as a lowly beggar. Now, at the beginning of Rhapsody 17, Odysseus can ready himself to go off to the palace in order to engage the suitors as a beggar, thus testing them. The testing will clearly reveal that all the suitors, down to the last man, are morally debased on the inside while seeming to be noble on the outside. Odysseus, in his degraded state as an elderly beggar, is matched by the degradation of his beloved hunting dog Argos, who at least lives long enough to recognize the hero. [[GN 2017.07.09.]]

“Ulysses and his Dog” (1805). John Flaxman (English, 1755–1826). Purchased as part of the Oppé Collection with assistance from the National Lottery through the Heritage Lottery Fund 1996. Image via the Tate.
“Ulysses and his Dog” (1805). John Flaxman (English, 1755–1826). Purchased as part of the Oppé Collection with assistance from the National Lottery through the Heritage Lottery Fund 1996. Image via the Tate.


subject heading(s): dais ‘feast, division of portions (of meat); sacrifice’

To beg for a meal is to engage at ground zero, as it were, in the protocols of the dais as a ‘feast’. But even at ground zero, a dais is a dais, and such feasting requires the moral observance of ritualized protocols. [[GN 2017.07.09 via BA 231.]]


subject heading(s): dais ‘feast, division of portions (of meat); sacrifice’

Again, a dais is a dais, even for beggars. [[GN 2017.07.09 via BA 231.]]


subject heading(s): endukéōs ‘continuously, uninterruptedly’

See the anchor comment at O.07.256. [[GN 2017.07.11.]]


subject heading(s): argós ‘swift, alert; bright’

This adjective argós ‘swift, alert; bright’, applied here at O.17.062 to two hunting dogs of Telemachus (κύνες … ἀργοί), is relevant to the name of the dog Árgos: see the comment at O.17.292. [[GN 2017.07.11.]]


subject heading(s): endukéōs ‘continuously, uninterruptedly’

See again the anchor comment at O.07.256. Here at O.17.111 and at O.17.113, Telemachus is saying that Nestor as a host ephílei ‘loved’ him endukéōs ‘continuously, uninterruptedly’, fostering him as if he had been a son of his own who had just returned after an absence. In this case, then, the status of a child as a dependent has been interrupted, but the love of the father has not, thanks to the ritual and moral correctness of observing the protocols of fosterage: Nestor as a foster father substitutes for Odysseus in fostering Telemachus. [[GN 2017.07.11 via PasP 43–44.]]


subject heading(s): endukéōs ‘continuously, uninterruptedly’

See again the anchor comment at O.07.256. [[GN 2017.07.11 via PasP 43–44.]]


subject heading(s): analtos ‘unnourished’

The element al– of an–al–tos ‘unnourished’ here is cognate with the root al– of Latin alō ‘nourish’. [[GN 2017.07.14 via GMP 157.]]


Q&T via GMP 300
subject heading(s): wishes correlated with premises

The outrageousness of the wish here is correlated with the self-deluding assumption that is built into the premise. [[GN 2017.07.14 via GMP 300.]]


subject heading(s): Phemios; aeidein ‘sing’; anaballesthai ‘begin performing’; phorminx ‘special lyre’

On Phemios as a singer of tales, see the comment at O.01.153–155. On anaballesthai ‘begin performing’, see the comment at O.08.266. On the phorminx as a ‘special lyre’, see the comment at O.08.067. [[GN 2017.07.14 via HC 3§41; see also PH 360.]]


subject heading(s): noeîn ‘take note (of), notice’

In the exchange that takes place between Eumaios and Odysseus here at O.17.273–289, both speakers express their awareness of the need for awareness as indicated by the verb noeîn ‘take note (of), notice’, O.17.281, which must anticipate the awareness of those who are ready to harm them, O.17.278. [[GN 2017.07.14 via GMP 208.]]


subject heading(s): name of Argos the hunting dog; argós ‘swift, alert; bright’; argeïphóntēs ‘killing by way of speeding brightness; Argos-killer’; [name of Argos the panoptic;] Hermetic signature; name of Eumaios; “speaking name” (nomen loquens)

The comments here can be divided into five parts.

Part 1. The form Árgos, as used here at O.17.292 and also at O.17.300, derives from the adjective argós ‘swift, alert; bright’. For example, hunting dogs or kúnes are conventionally described as argoí (κύνες … ἀργοί). See the comment at O.17.062. The recessive accentuation of Árgos marks it as a proper noun—a name—as distinct from the adjective argós ‘swift, alert; bright’, which has a word-final accent. This “speaking name” (nomen loquens) here applies to a beloved hunting dog of Odysseus. It has been twenty years since the hero last saw Argos, and he finds the hound in a pathetically degraded state: old and decrepit, Argos dies almost immediately after recognizing Odysseus, who appears on the surface to be similarly old and decrepit. The recognition is signaled by the verb noeîn ‘take note of, notice’, O.17.301, which is used elsewhere as well in contexts of signaling recognition, as at O.08.094 and at O.08.533. See the comments there. See also the anchor comment at I.05.669 on noeîn ‘take note (of), notice’. Relevant is the note at I.13.726–735 about a generalizing statement that is made in those lines: it is said there that a person’s nóos ‘mind’, I.13.732, is what enables him or her to ‘recognize’, gignōskein, I.13.734.

Part 2. At O.17.301, the recognition of the true Odysseus by a hound named Árgos can be seen as a Hermetic signature. In Homeric diction, the god Hermes is conventionally described as argeïphóntēs, as at O.01.038, and this agent noun can be read etymologically as ‘killing by way of speeding light’. The translation ‘speeding light’ corresponds to the etymology of the adjective argós ‘swift, alert; bright’, the more basic meaning of which is ‘shining with the speed of light’. (The etymology is analyzed at length in DELG under ἀργός.) Such a meaning is evident in forms that we find attested also in other Indo-European languages: for example, a cognate form of the es-stem arges- as in argeï-phóntēs is attested in the Indic epithet/name r̥jí-śvan (as in Rig-Veda 1.101.1), where –śvan- is cognate with Greek kúon- ‘dog’: this epithet means something like ‘he whose hounds are swift’. But argeï-phóntēs must also have meant ‘killer of Argos’ in contexts where the name Árgos refers to a many-eyed and thus all-seeing hound that had been killed once upon a time by the god Hermes. The relevant myth, which centers on the transformation of a woman named Io into a cow guarded by Argos, is reflected for example in Aeschylus Suppliants 305: Ἄργον, τὸν Ἑρμῆς παῖδα γῆς κατέκτανεν ‘Argos the earthborn, whom Hermes killed’; at 304, in the same context, Argos is described as panóptēs ‘all-seeing’. In this myth, the name Árgos signals a monstrous double of Hermes himself, who is in his own right a panoptic marvel of perception and perceptiveness.

Part 3. We find a comparable situation in a medieval Irish myth about the hero Cú Chulainn, whose name is overtly understood to mean ‘Hound of Culann’. This hero had once upon a time killed a monstrous watchdog belonging to a smith named Culann. According to the myth as retold in Recension 1 of The Cattle Raid of Cooley (http://celt.ucc.ie/published/T301012/index.html, p. 142), the smith laments the death of the hound, saying that this wondrous beast had been the main protector of his herds of cattle and flocks of sheep; responding to the lament, Cú Chulainn promises that (1) he will raise another hound to replace the watchdog he had killed and that, in the meantime, (2) he, Cú Chulainn, will serve as the main protector of the smith’s herds of cattle and flocks of sheep. Hearing the twofold promise of Cú Chulainn, a man named Cathbad, who is the druid of Conchobar, king of the Ulstermen, now makes a pronouncement: from here on, says the druid, the hero who killed the hound of the smith Culann will forever be called Cú Chulainn, which means ‘Hound of Culann’. Cú Chulainn responds to the druid’s pronouncement by formally accepting his new name. In this Irish myth, the detail about the association of Cú Chulainn with herds of cattle and flocks of sheep is comparable with what we know about the association of the god Hermes with cattle and sheep, as for example in the Homeric Hymn (4) to Hermes: sheep at line 2, cattle at line 14. In the same Irish myth, we see another detail that is comparable to what we know about Hermes: Cú Chulainn, before he kills the Hound of Culann, is named Sétantae (http://celt.ucc.ie/published/T301012/index.html, p. 137). Etymologically, the meaning of this name seems to be ‘knower of the roads’ (sét mean ‘road’: see Ó hUiginn 2006:508). [[I owe this reference to Joseph Nagy.]]

Part 4. By way of comparison, I highlight a detail in the Homeric Hymn (4) to Hermes, line 303, where Hermes is told to lead the way to the secret place where he had hidden the cattle of Apollo: ‘you lead the way’ (σὺ δ’ αὖθ’ ὁδὸν ἡγεμονεύσεις); the idea of ‘leading the way’ is repeated at line 392 (Ἑρμῆν δὲ … ἡγεμονεύειν). In the case of Hermes, the myth about his killing Argos, who can be seen as a monstrous canine version of his other self, signals the god’s absolutized powers of perception and recognition. Such powers are characteristic of the hero Odysseus as well, who as we have seen already at O.01.001 is linked with the god Hermes by way of his own heroic capacity for shape-shifting, which can be viewed as the ultimate challenge to a recognition of the true self. See the comment on O.01.001–010, Point 2.

Part 5. Another relevant Hermetic signature, I propose, is the name Eúmaios, the first occurrence of which can be found at O.14.055. The context there is this: Eumaios the swineherd has just called off a pack of fierce watchdogs that had been threatening to harm the disguised Odysseus, O.14.029–038. What seems to be Hermetic about the name of this swineherd is the element –maios, which I connect with the name of the god’s mother, Maîa, as in the Homeric Hymn (4) to Hermes line 4. This name is derived from the noun maîa, meaning ‘midwife’ (DELG under μαῖα). Accordingly, I interpret Eúmaios as a “speaking name” (nomen loquens) meaning something like ‘linked with good midwifery’. [[GN 2017.07.14.]]


subject heading(s): daiesthai ‘feast; divide (meat), apportion, distribute’; daitros ‘distributor (of meat)

On daiesthai ‘feast; divide (meat), apportion, distribute’, see the comments at O.03.066 and at O.08.061. The one who cuts and distributes the meat is the daitros ‘distributor’, as here at O.17.331. [[GN 2017.07.14 via MoM 4§73.]]


subject heading(s): testing of generosity

What the speakers are speaking about here at O.17.336–355 is the ethical imperative of feeding the hungry who cannot afford to feed themselves. Someone who responds to such an ethical imperative will be performing an act of generosity that shows ethical nobility. Such nobility, which comes from within, distinguishes Telemachus from the suitors of Penelope, who are noble only in their exterior appearance. The begging that is about to be performed by the disguised Odysseus here will be a testing of the suitors—whose lack of generosity will fully expose them in all their ethical deficiency. [[GN 2017.07.14 via BA 231–233.]]


subject heading(s): xenos ‘stranger; guest’

Addressing Antinoos, Eumaios scolds him for his lack of generosity. Antinoos, he says, fails to observe the common rules of decency, which require that you treat any ‘stranger’ as a ‘guest’, xenos, O.17.382. Thus you must perform the role of a good host. See the comment at O.08.026–045 on the meaning of xenos as both ‘stranger’ and ‘guest’. If you treat a stranger as a guest, then you will be reciprocated—unless of course the stranger turns out to be an enemy, in which case the reciprocity can be canceled. Still, you must first presume that the stranger will reciprocate you. True, strangers who are beggars can reciprocate you the least or not at all, but, all the same, your inner nobility must still oblige you to treat even beggars as guests. The irony here, of course, is that Antinoos is in no position to act as a host, since he is expropriating the property and livelihood of the absent Odysseus, who should be the real host, while Antinoos is the worst of guests, since he denies food to strangers when the food does not even belong to him. [[GN 2017.07.14.]]


subject heading(s): dēmiourgoi (dēmioergoi) ‘craftsmen of the dēmos’; [dēmos ‘community, district’;] mantis ‘seer’; iētēr ‘physician’; tektōn ‘carpenter’; aoidos ‘singer’

Aside from beggars, there are of course many other kinds of xenoi ‘strangers’ to be hosted as potential guests. In the wording of Eumaios, such potential xenoi include various kinds of craftsmen or dēmiourgoi (dēmioergoi), O.17.383. This word means literally ‘craftsmen of the dēmos’, where dēmos ‘community, district’ is to be understood as a legally-sanctioned zone of activity within which craftsmen are authorized to be practicing their crafts. Comparable is the concept of áes cerd ‘people of the crafts’ in medieval Irish legal traditions: these craftsmen are entitled to juridical immunity as they travel from one petty kingdom or túath to another in the course of practicing their crafts, and the practitioners of such crafts include various social grades of poets. (Details in Nagy 2011a §149.) Similarly in the case of the dēmiourgoi (dēmioergoi) ‘craftsmen of the dēmos’ at O.17.383: these craftsmen too must have been juridically immune as they traveled from one dēmos to another in the course of practicing their crafts. The practitioners of such crafts included the categories of mantis ‘seer’, iētēr ‘physician’, and tektōn ‘carpenter, joiner’, as we see at O.17.384. And, as in the case of the medieval Irish craftsmen, these crafts also included the category of the aoidos ‘singer’ or poet, as we see at O.17.385. [[GN 2017.07.14 via BA 234, 298; also GMP 3.]]


subject heading(s): tektōn ‘carpenter, joiner’; aoidos ‘singer’; name of Homer; “speaking name” (nomen loquens)

The parallelism of the tektōn ‘carpenter’ with the aoidos ‘singer’ is particularly noteworthy, since the craft of the singer is conventionally compared to the craft of the carpenter. Especially relevant is the wording in Pindar Pythian 3.113–114: here the poets of epic are compared metaphorically to tektones ‘carpenters, joiners’ who ‘join together’— as expressed by the verb-stem harmot-/harmod– —the epea ‘words’ of poetry (ἐπέων … τέκτονες οἷα … | ἅρμοσαν). The verb-stem harmot-/harmod- that I translate as ‘join together’ here (ἅρμοσαν) derives from the root *ar-, meaning ‘join’. Relevant is the “speaking name” (nomen loquens) of Homer, Hóm-ēros, which can be analyzed morphologically as a compounding of homo- ‘together’ with the root ar- ‘join’, meaning ‘he who joins together’ in the metaphorical sense of a ‘joiner, carpenter’. See also the note at I.05.722. . [[GN 2017.07.14 via PasP 74–75; also PH 56.]]


Q&T via GMP 297
subject heading(s): wishes correlated with premises

Here at O.17.494 the premise is indicated simply by way of houtōs ‘thus’. [[GN 2017.07.14 via GMP 297.]]


subject heading(s): wishes correlated with premises

Here at O.17.496–497 the wish is predicated on the wish that has just been uttered at O.17.494. That previous wish, since it is a curse, can be treated as a premise in its own right. [[GN 2017.07.14 via GMP 298.]]


Q&T via BA 234
subject heading(s): Odysseus as aoidos ‘singer’

Speaking to Penelope, Eumaios describes the stranger whom he has been hosting in his shelter: for Eumaios, the disguised Odysseus is comparable to an aoidos ‘singer’, O.17.518. Thus the reciprocity that this would-be beggar is offering in the role of a would-be guest needs to be reassessed from minimum to maximum. The reciprocation that Eumaios as a good host will ultimately receive from Odysseus—and from the poets for whom Odysseus as poet will be a model—is destined to be most positive. Most negative, on the other hand, is the reciprocation that is destined for Antinoos and for the other suitors. [[GN 2017.07.14 via BA 234.]]


Bibliographical Abbreviations

BA       = Best of the Achaeans, Nagy 1979/1999.

GMP    = Greek Mythology and Poetics, Nagy 1990b.

H24H   = The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours, Nagy 2013

HC       = Homer the Classic, Nagy 2009|2008

HPC     = Homer the Preclassic, Nagy 2010|2009

HQ       = Homeric Questions, Nagy 1996b

HR       = Homeric Responses, Nagy 2003

LSJ      = Liddell, H. G., R. Scott, and H. S. Jones. 1940. A Greek-English Lexicon. 9th ed. Oxford.

MoM    = Masterpieces of Metonymy, Nagy 2016|2015

PasP    = Poetry as Performance, Nagy 1996a

PH      = Pindar’s Homer, Nagy 1990a



See the dynamic Bibliography for AHCIP.


Inventory of terms and names

See the dynamic Inventory of terms and names for AHCIP.