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The first person in Ithaca Odysseus visits is his loyal swineherd, Eumaeus. He appears to Eumaeus under Athena’s disguise, as an old beggar who looks filthy and disease-ridden. Ironically, The first thing Eumaeus says to the stranger happens to be about his master and how much he misses and worries about him. He continues with his belief that his lost master might be roaming a strange town as a beggar. There are many inclinations to the fact that Eumaeus was the first person on Ithaca to recognize Odysseus for not an old beggar but for who he really is- Odysseus, raider of cities, king of Ithaca.
Eumaeus is quick to prove to the stranger how loyal he has been to his king in his absence. He offers up this information without even asking any explanation from the beggar himself. He reassures Odysseus that if his king were to return to Ithaca, he would quickly be repaid for all the trouble he has partaken in tending to Odysseus’s palace. Eumaeus remarks, “My master, I tell you, would have repaid me well if he’d grown old right here. But now he’s dead…”(14.80). In the context of this discussion, this belief appears to be an intentional over-share. Eumaeus also contradicts himself; first saying that Odysseus is roaming the streets somewhere as a beggar, and now claiming he is dead. One could argue that Eumaeus is simply being dramatic and irrational, but he could also be attempting to trick Odysseus into blowing his cover by correcting him. Maybe if the proud king heard someone talk of him as a beggar, or worse- as not even being alive, Odysseus would jump at the chance to falsify these claims.
Eumaeus continues on by going into grave detail about how horrible the suitors are, and how they are eating up all the king’s wealth and ruining the palace. Another strange fact to be telling a drifter he knows nothing about. The use of specifics about the suitors’ atrocious ways almost makes it seem like Eumaeus is trying to provoke a feeling of anger out of Odysseus. Possibly another test he is using to get a rise out of the king. He continues by adding that the suitors are most likely doing this because they too think Odysseus is dead, and therefore are not concerned with any kind of punishment. There’s a definite feeling of enticement as Eumaeus goes on about the suitors by saying, “No, at their royal ease they devour all his goods, those brazen rascals never spare a scrap!” (14.100). This is also interesting because later, the suitors do not originally give Odysseus any of their scraps when he goes to the palace, reinforcing Eumaeus’s profession of the suitor’s disrespect.
When Odysseus begins to describe his own past and attempts to explain how he has ended up in Ithaca as a beggar, he goes into extreme and lengthy detail. He continues on with his story for pages, probably being one of the longest tales he tells in the entire book. One explanation for why he feels it necessary to do this is out of fear that Eumaeus does know who he is. Even more curious is Eumaeus’s reaction to this long soliloquy of Odysseus’s fake whereabouts. He barely comments on any of the things Odysseus had just said, only again bringing up his missing king and how he will never believe that his master will return. It’s as if Eumaeus is inferring that Odysseus’s story was all some sort of fairytale and the truth is being withheld. Eumaeus goes on to say, “A man in your condition, who are you, to lie for no good reason?” (14.410) One could argue that he is only calling the part about Odysseus’s definite return a lie, but perhaps he is calling everything but that fact a lie. It seems as though Eumaeus is coyly calling Odysseus out so he does not upset or offend him, but so he comes to admit his true identity willingly. Eumaeus is referred to again and again as loyal because he clearly knows his place. This could be the reason that even though he has discovered the truth about the beggar, he would never overstep his position as swineherd and challenge the king of Ithaca.
When Eumaeus brings Odysseus to the palace, he does not treat him like a beggar that his helping, but rather Eumaeus is acting like he owes the stranger a favor, being attentive and respectful towards him. Odysseus commands Eumaeus to tell Penelope he is there secretly and Eumaeus obeys without hesitation: “Back the swineherd went, following his instructions.” (17.640). After getting Penelope to agree to meet with the beggar, Homer describes the scenario by stating, “mission accomplished” (17.660). There is a distinct sense of compliance that derives from not only Eumaeus’s remarks toward the beggar, but also Homer’s choice of words in the narration. The two are not talking like people who have just met and are definitely not treating each other as equals. The beggar has a strong sense of dominance over Eumaeus who in turn, does not seem to mind.
Eumaeus is the only character Homer addresses directly in the Odyssey and when once referencing him Homer said, “The swineherd, soul of virtue” (14.480). Obviously, there is more to Eumaeus’s position in the Odyssey than that of a swineherd- he can easily be seen as a leader of men as well. His cunningness throughout the Odyssey might not be as important as the personal restraint he demonstrates. It is clear that he holds not only the virtue of knowledge but also of patience, which he displays while aiding Odysseus.

20 Responses to “The Swineherd, Soul of Virtue”

  1. khoneycutt says:

    Bridget,

    I think you are right to point to the importance of Eumaeus. As we discussed and as you note, he is indeed the only person (as far as I can tell) in the Odyssey who is directly addressed, and several times, by Homer. Only Patroclus, and only in the Iliad, is similarly honored by Homer’s direct address, I believe.

    I like how you expand on what we discussed and go beyond it. For instance, your point about Eumaeus immediately mentioning his loyalty without being asked is a good one. Also conspicuous is the fact that he does not really respond to the “Cretan tale” which Odysseus spins (and why such a long tale, as you note?).

    I don’t think there is an outright contradiction between the first claim that Odysseus is a “beggar adrift in strangers’ citites” (14.48) and the second claim that he is dead (14.80). After all, Eumaeus qualifies the beggar comment in the next line: “if he’s still alive, that is, still sees the rising sun” (14.49). But you are right in that by 14.80 there seems to be no doubt. Maybe he is indeed trying to overstate the case to draw Odysseus out. But then plenty of other people (e.g., Telemachus) seem dead set on denying that Odysseus could be alive. So who knows.

    The point about Eumaeus volunteering the information about the suitors is interesting. It would probably have been the hot topic around Ithaca. He doesn’t spare a curse for Helen and her line, after all (14.79), so it stands to reason that he would discuss the present shenanigans. But I think you’re right that he may recognize Odysseus. He tells an ostensible stranger that Odysseus is his “old friend” (14.169), as well as his “master” and “brother” (14.171). These are strong words to trot out for little reason.

    Of course, it may be that Odysseus knows it’s all a game and plays along–he says that he “hates the man like the very Gates of Death who, ground down by poverty, stoops to peddling lies” (14.182-183). These words, we should note, are very similar to what Achilles said to him in Book 9 of the Iliad–when Achilles pretty clearly is letting Odysseus know that he knows that Odysseus is not quite telling the truth. So maybe Odysseus is just seeing how long he can maintain the charade. Or maybe Homer is having some fun at our expense?

    KH

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