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Having never been mentioned until book twenty-two of the Odyssey, the scar on Odysseus’s leg is a unique detail that uncovers many underlying themes within the last half of the book. After Penelope has probed the disguised Odysseus for news of her lost husband, she offers that one of her maids wash his feet in return for his kindness. Already mentally stressed from keeping up his disguise, Odysseus asks for only someone trustworthy to touch his feet. When Eurycleia comes forward, she swears that he reminds her of her master and that never “has one so struck my eyes—your build, your voice, your feet—you’re like Odysseus” (19: 431). Scrambling to keep his secret hidden, Odysseus is not focused and forgets that the scar above his knee will give himself away. Trying to correct his misgiving, Odysseus attempts to hide the scar by turning away from the light, but Eurycleia immediately recognizes Odysseus when she finds the scar. From here, Homer retells the history of Odysseus’s scar (19: 455-527). What makes this story unique above Odysseus’s tales is that this one cannot be refuted because the evidence is imprinted on his leg and in the minds of those who are old enough to remember Odysseus as a child. Whether intentionally overlooked or not, Athena’s disguise fails to conceal Odysseus’s scar which almost jeopardizes his cover. Why then are the scar and the scar’s history significant?

The beginning of the story starts with Autolycus, Odysseus’s grandfather on his mother’s side. From this short description, the readers see that there are many similarities between grandfather and grandson.  The man in all sense of the word is a pirate, a raider of cities just like Odysseus. Both are described as masters of deceit and are known as being crafty thieves. Like the relationship between Odysseus and Athena, Autolycus is also in good standing with another Olympian god Hermes. Known to be “the ready partner in his crimes”, Hermes later helps Odysseus on Circe’s island possibly as a favor to Autolycus’s grandson (19: 452). More important than their similarities is the fact that Autolycus is also responsible for naming Odysseus. As an experienced man who has travelled to far off places and has caused pain for many people, he chooses to name his daughter’s son Odysseus, “the Son of Pain, a name he’ll earn in full” (19: 461-464). Perhaps, this part of the story is significant because the audience can learn that Odysseus has been fated from his birth to be the Son of Pain. In the Odyssey, names have a way of marking the character and personality of that person. Odysseus has certainly fulfilled his grandfather’s prophecy and has taken on the meaning of his name. First at Troy, Odysseus was the mastermind behind the Trojan horse and was therefore responsible for the suffering at Troy. Then on his journey home, Odysseus had to endure the pain of watching all his men die around him and the heartbreak of his homesickness. Without the scar, Homer might not have had to opportunity to express this connection to the audience that it is important to know how a person got his name and how his name will affect his journey.

From this story, the readers learn not only of Autolycus’s connection to Odysseus’s name but also discover that it was on his grandfather’s island of Parnassus that he receives the scar. While Odysseus is hunting with Autolycus’s sons, a boar’s tusk tears a big piece of flesh right above his knee. When he returns to Ithaca recounting “his tale with style”, Odysseus is beginning to show signs of becoming the skilled and honored fighter that he will one day be known for (19: 526). Perhaps, this boar scene really is the start of Odysseus’s adventure, and the scar marks a tremendous transition from being a boy and becoming a young man. When he first arrives on Parnassus, Odysseus is described as a young boy getting hugged and kissed by his grandmother. However, after receiving the near fatal wound, Odysseus is greeted at home by his happy parents as “a young man filled with joy” (19: 523). This hunt on his grandfather’s island is really Odysseus coming of age. This idea of shipping someone away to make a name for oneself is a repeated theme in the Odyssey. Perhaps, Homer is using this story to draw a connection to Telemachus’s transition from boy to man. Unlike Odysseus, Telemachus is far older than his father was when he leaves first home, and when Amphimedon’s javelin “nicked Telemachus on the wrist”, this could very well be the first time he has ever been hurt (22: 290). Though not to the same scale as Odysseus’s wound from the boar, this scratch and the battle with the suitors is Telemachus’s own kind of coming of age. Homer might be using the scar’s history to draw a connection of this transformation from innocent boy to experienced ruler.

Even before Odysseus kills the boar, there is a significant moment in the story where Homer uses the same language he used previously in the Odyssey. He describes the boar’s lair almost exactly as he did when he describes Odysseus’s shelter under the two olive trees on Scheria. Both places are described as shelters so thick with brush that “the sodden gusty winds could never pierce it, nor could the sun’s sharp rays invade its depths, nor a downpour drench it through and through” (19: 496-499). Perhaps, this scene represents how Odysseus’s journey has come full circle. As a boy, he was the warrior standing outside the lair prepared to attack, and as an adult, Odysseus is the boar emerging from its den to surprise Nausicaa and her servants. One can see how similar Nausicaa’s position was to Odysseus’s position standing poised with his spear outside the boar’s lair as a young boy. Only this time, Nausicaa has the power to either strike Odysseus down or not. One can imagine that Odysseus, after years of seclusion on Calypso’s island and days on the rough sea, might look like a wild, grisly boar to Nausicaa. Thankfully, Nausicaa did not have a spear at the moment and chose to rescue Odysseus. In both circumstances, Odysseus’s quick decision-making to appeal to Nausicaa and to strike the boar saved his life. In telling of the scar’s history, the readers are shown once again that split second decisions can mean life or death, and this same lesson becomes very useful in the battle against the suitors.

The scar’s history reveals a lot about Odysseus’s past that becomes relevant to the immediate future. Still, the fact that the scar was there at all is puzzling. Now the question becomes why the scar was not disguised like the rest of Odysseus. Being an immortal god, Athena should have been able to hide it. She might have overlooked this detail, could not conceal the scar, or chose not to hide it intentionally. It is highly unlikely that Athena would overlook such a vital detail. Knowing how important it is for Odysseus to remain undercover and considering how much she had invested in the scheme to kill the suitors¸ Athena would not have risked anyone finding out that the beggar was really Odysseus. If instead she could not conceal the scar, then it is possible that the scar is somehow a part of Odysseus that he cannot hide. Throughout the Odyssey, Athena has been able to glamour appearances, but she has never seemed to have the power to change the person outright. Just like his voice, his wit, and his mannerisms, perhaps this scar is too much a part of Odysseus that it cannot be altered or hidden by a god. If, however, Athena intentionally did not hide his scar, then she might have reasons for someone to find it. Perhaps Athena purposefully wants Odysseus to gain the trust of Eurycleia. As seen, she becomes a vital character in the last couple of books. Because of Eurycleia, Odysseus is able to round up the unfaithful maids, and she also plays another important role by helping to convince Penelope that Odysseus has really returned. Penelope even tells Eurycleia that “if any other woman of mine had come to me, rousing me out of sleep with such a tale, I’d have her bundled back to her room in pain” (23: 23). Eurycleia has known Odysseus since he was a child so she is quite possibly the only person alive besides Laertes or Penelope that might know about the scar. The scar is the last piece of evidence that Eurycleia needs to see this stranger for who he really is.

The scar and its history are very significant to the plot of the Odyssey. From this story, Homer reveals how Odysseus was named by his grandfather Autolycus and how his name has shaped his life. The reader also discovers that the scar represents Odysseus’s coming of age and how it relates to Telemachus’s maturation. The wording Homer uses in the story of the boar also plays a significant role in drawing a connection between Odysseus’s adventures as a boy and as a man. Lastly, the scar itself turns out to be an important tool of gaining trust between Odysseus and Eurycleia who turned out to be essential to Odysseus’s final task to cleanse his household.

 

 

Picture from: http://www.panhistoria.com/Stacks/Novels/Character_Homes/homedirs/9626images/EURYCLEIA-DISCOVERS-ULYSSES.gif

20 Responses to “The Scar, Its History, & Its Significance”

  1. khoneycutt says:

    Chelsea,

    I think this is a nice essay which weaves together some disparate clues into a coherent whole. You are right to point to all of the places that you investigate.

    I think the part about getting wounded is right. As Alex wrote in her essay and as you also note with Odysseus going off to Parnassus, there is something about going out into the world that makes someone grow up. But perhaps the real key, as you point out, is getting wounded (because the wound is just a nick on Telemachus’ wrist, but it does importantly draw blood, from what we can tell). It is a superb point to note that Odysseus is called a “boy” when Amphithea (his grandmother) hugs him (19.473) but that he is called a “young man” after he returns from the boar hunt (19.523). I would have to check the Greek to be sure, but I am confident that you are correct–so great eye there.

    I also like the point about Nausicaa. I made the thicket point in class, so of course I agree with you on the language similarity. But you are right to suggest that maybe there is more to it than we discussed. To wit, Odysseus is described as a wild animal (a mountain lion) when he stalks out to meet Nausicaa (6.143). Maybe Odysseus is barely human after being battered in the seas for three days straight.

    Why the scar is not concealed is the big question. One possibility, which you raise, is that it is part of the plan of Athena (or Zeus?). Another possibility, which you also raise, is that it is somehow part of him and can’t be hidden–a particular likeness that cuts through the false likeness. Greatness, by virtue of being great, in some sense always reveals itself; I think one can find many instances in Homer of this. And of course it allows Homer to artfully bring in the story of Autolycus and the rest via a flashback–the scar is the occasion.

    One thing re: the name that we never discussed–and we would probably need Prof. Casey to really talk about it–is all the Greek resonances. Odysseus’ name is given in the middle voice, so his name is fraught with ambiguities about whether he deals or suffers pain (or both). By the end of the Odyssey, it’s worth asking which of those poles is the one that the plot gravitates more to.

    Nice work overall

    KH

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