The climax of the Odyssey is the great reunion between Odysseus and Penelope. He has already killed the suitors with the help of his son Telemachus, but his wife, having waited for him for twenty years, is not easily persuaded that he is her husband. Penelope wants to test the stranger, so she pretends that she is now sure that he is really her husband. She asks an old nurse, Eurycleia, to take their marital bed out of their marital chamber and make it for them somewhere else. Odysseus responds bitterly with a story about how he had built the chamber around a living olive tree whose trunk formed one of the bed’s legs (Odyssey 23.183–207). By this sign of intimate knowledge Penelope finally accepts that the stranger is indeed her beloved husband.
One of the first things Odysseus reveals in his speech is the concern that someone might have “set his bed elsewhere” (ἄλλοσε θῆκε). In this expression there seems to be an allusion to the great theme of the Odyssey – moving, wandering, and coming home. The assumption that home is still where it has always been underlies all of Odysseus’ efforts. His astonishment and pain that the bed might have been moved somewhere else seems to have a broader meaning, since the bed becomes a metonymy of his marriage, home and fatherland. Is everything just the same as he left it twenty years ago? Obviously not. But how deeply has ruthless Time changed the foundations of Odysseus’ life? The idea that the bed might have been moved elsewhere undermines the whole meaning of Odysseus’ many years of wandering.
The profound symbol of the bed’s stability and the suggestion that it may stand for something like the centre of the human world, is further developed when Odysseus says that only a god could set his bed elsewhere (23.185–6). The stability of the marital bed is founded on divine law (nomos): it is part of the cosmic order of human life, which no man should violate. A god could do this, perhaps, but even he could not do this “easily” (μὴ ῥῃδίως). The reading of the bed and its immobility as a symbol of marriage, family, home and fatherland – all the foundations of safety and order in the human existence – is hinted at by Odysseus himself. He says that the bed is a “great sign” (μέγα σῆμα).
Commentators on this passage understand the word σῆμα (sēma) as a reference to a token which enables recognition. But it is often used in the Iliad in the sense of some divine omen, a sign from heaven (see, for instance, at Iliad 2.353, 8.171, 13.244). The poet repeats the term also towards the end of the passage in question. In verse 203 the bed is a “firmly-set” or “grounded” sign (σῆμα ἔμπεδον), because it is not only a sign from heaven but also something rooted in the earth – in both worlds, that of the gods and that of men. When Penelope recognizes the sign and reacts with an emotional storm, the poet comments that she “recognized the firm signs” (ἔμπεδα σήματα ἀνάγνυσε), as if she were an interpreter of a divine oracle.
Therefore, the bed and what it stands for are rooted both in the heavens and in the earth. The grounding motif is further elaborated by Odysseus, when he tells the story of building his marital chamber. He mentions an olive tree that grew there: the chamber was built by human craft, but the tree was alive and growing, being part of the order of nature. The tree was “within a courtyard” surrounded by fences. So we have a space, protected and separated from the outside, and in the midst of this grows a tree. This invokes a kind of a sacred space.
The living, beautiful tree is the centre of this space, just as the marital bed is the living centre of the human world. Moreover, the tree is “mature and blooming”, and its feminine gender brings associations with a beautiful and fertile mother. But the same tree seems also to symbolize the masculine principle, because it is “thick and massive like a pillar”. Thus the tree has a double meaning – its gender and its leafy crown suggest a feminine aspect, while the thick trunk suggests a masculine one. At the same time, the trunk-pillar has a symbolic significance that is called axis mundi in religious studies, a sacred pillar joining the heavens with the earth, standing at the centre of the world.
The next set of meanings circles around the idea of close-fitting, tight and solid bonds between various things. The walls of the chamber are built of close-set stones and the doors are also described in a similar way. This kind of language emphasizes the solid nature of marriage, which is a “good fit”, a complementary union of man and woman, but on another level it brings to mind the sexual connotations of intercourse. Building the walls and adding the roof to the chamber-to-be invokes the idea of intimacy, privacy, and separation from the outside world, as if the room was something intensely private and closed; this is also an allusion to the symbolic meanings of the mysterious interior of the female body, where all human life begins.
Such sexual meanings can also be found in the description of Odysseus’ work upon the tree: leaves that he cuts off are compared to hair, as if the olive tree were a young maid losing her virginity with her husband. Trimming the trunk and smoothing it also invokes images of marital intercourse, as well as the image of boring the wood, of perforating it. Odysseus is making his marital chamber, which means that he is building his life with Penelope, his home and family, around a firm foundation of the living tree, both feminine in its gracious, leafy fertility and strong in its erected masculinity. Towards the end he embellishes the bed with gold, silver, ivory and purple, which may signify divine and royal splendor of marriage. The whole work of Odysseus is diligent and meticulous, expressing his full involvement in the process. After this point Odysseus says to Penelope: “I show you this sema”, this divine symbol. But what follows is the most exquisite contrast of emotions.
After this erotic and religious abundance of symbolic significance, hidden in the scene of building the chamber, Odysseus becomes sad and nostalgic. He began by saying that no human being can remove the bed and only a god could perhaps do it with effort, emphasizing that the mystery of marriage and the whole structure of human life, which is built on this, are protected by the gods and their nomos. The tree is rooted in the ground and reaches the heavens with its beautiful foliage. But now Odysseus says something contrary, confessing his doubts: “I do not know, woman, whether my bed is still fast in its place, or some man set the bed elsewhere, cutting it from the bottom.”
Odysseus becomes sad, because he realizes that, if men can violate divine laws through their recklessness, greed or lust (as they often do), the whole order of things can be thrown off balance, if not destroyed. The poet suggests that, despite marriage, home, and family being firmly rooted in the divine order of life, they grow slowly, like trees, and require diligent work, like that of a carpenter. Spoiling and destroying is much easier and quicker than growing and building.
This scene and the image of a bed stands in striking contrast to the second grand scene in the Odyssey, which revolves around the symbol of the bed. In Book 8, Odysseus hears in the royal palace of the island Scheria a song by the poet Demodocus (8.266–81). It is placed in the middle of the Odyssey, so in the midst of Odysseus’ wandering when he is still far from home. So we would expect that some aspects in opposition to the stability and order of Book 23 are to be depicted in Book 8. And they indeed are, since it is a song about marital betrayal. It is a scene of “shaming the bed” (λέχος δ᾽ ᾔσχυνε καὶ εὐνήν), which in the context of the later scene seems to be almost the ultimate crime against human life.
The song tells a story of the goddess Aphrodite, wife of the lame and ugly Hephaestus, who cheated on him with the handsome and manly Ares. The metaphors of hiding and privacy are also present here, as in the scene from Book 23, but they have a contrary meaning. While privacy in the later book is the expression of the mysterious intimacy that protects marriage from the outside world, in Book 8 it serves the destruction of marriage. Ares and Aphrodite wanted to hide themselves, but Helios, the god of light, prevented this. A similar image of dark privacy is reflected in Hephaestus’ planning of the revenge “in the depths of his heart”, while being in the dark depths of his forge.
The growing, living olive tree of Book 23 is contrasted with the inanimate art and craft of Hephaestus. Ares’ and Aphrodite’s betrayal makes something fake out of marriage, so the punishment of it will also be something fake. An eye for an eye. Hephaestus in his forge makes bonds for his wife and her lover that are strong and unbreakable. This is also a reversal of the symbol of a close-fitting marriage in Book 23. Ares and Aphrodite will be bound together in a false, treacherous union. Marriage, the poet seems to say, should be as stable as the anvil block and strong like Hephaestus’ bonds, but Ares and Aphrodite destroyed it. Ares and Aphrodite will remain “fixed” (ἔμπεδον), but while this word in Book 23 describes the stability of marriage, here it emphasizes the punishment for the perverse destruction of the marital bed.
Hephaestus spreads his bonds around the bed and above it, just like Odysseus built his marriage around the center, but the divine craftsman shows that the centre is shattered by betrayal and has to be punished. The poet compares Hephaestus’ magical net to a spider’s web in which Ares and Aphrodite are imprisoned and immobile, which is a mocking variant of the genuine immovability of marriage. Another theme of the song is the opposition between a surface, fake beauty and inner corruption. Hephaestus is ugly and lame, Ares is handsome and athletic, Aphrodite is beautiful. But their beauty is fake and deceitful. For Homer, Aphrodite has the eyes of a “lustful bitch”. Also the craft of Hephaestus can be interpreted in such a way: the solidity of marriage cannot be provided by creating unbreakable metal bonds. It has to grow out of the soil, like an olive tree.
Those two scenes, from Books 8 and 23, can be seen, then, as a powerful expression of the meaning of Odysseus’ wandering and coming home. The search for stability, safety, family, and fatherland, represented by the marital bed, contrasted with the change, chaos, insecurity of his exile. When Odysseus hears Demodocus’ song, he is still wandering far from home, while his wife is oppressed by the suitors who want her to betray her husband. The interesting thing is that it is the gods who are treacherous and destructive, while men remain faithful. Penelope stands in striking opposition to Aphrodite. When Odysseus is tempted by a nymph Calypso to marry her and become immortal, he replies that his wife, Penelope, is not as beautiful as the goddess, but she is still his wife and he wants to come home to her.
Mateusz Stróżyński is a Classicist, philosopher, psychologist, and psychotherapist, working as Associate Professor in the Institute of Classical Philology at Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań, Poland. He is interested in ancient philosophy, especially the Platonic tradition. He has written previously for Antigone on mindfulness in Plotinus and on children in Homer’s Iliad.
The best opportunity to explore the context of these passages further is given by these three commentaries:
A.F. Garvie (ed.), Homer: Odyssey, Book VI–VIII (Cambridge UP, 1995).
A. Heubeck, S. West & J.B. Hainsworth (eds.), A Commentary on Homer’s Odyssey: Volume III: Introduction and Books I–VIII (Oxford UP, 1990).
M. Fernandez-Galiano, A. Heubeck & J.A. Russo (eds.), A Commentary on Homer’s Odyssey: Volume III: Books XVII–XXIV (Oxford UP, 1993).