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Odysseus’s Scar

            Throughout The Odyssey a detailed physical description of Odysseus is never given. The readers can assume certain aspects of his appearance such as his age and strong build but Homer never provides other details such as hair or eye color. Homer does not speak of Odysseus having a prominent nose or a sharp jawline but one detail of Odysseus’s physical appearance that is mentioned numerous times is the scar on his leg. This scar is the single way that Odysseus is identified, even when he is disguised. The scar is unique to Odysseus and an essential part of who he is.

The first mention of Odysseus’s scar is not until Book 19, when Eurycleia is bathing Odysseus and she notices the scar and recognizes him immediately. Homer goes on to tell the story of how Odysseus received the scar when he was just a boy. When hunting with Autolycus’s sons the boar surprised them, “and Odysseus rushed him first, shaking his long spear in a sturdy hand, wild to strike but the boar struck faster” (19. 505-510). Even as a boy Odysseus was a fearless warrior.

When Odysseus returned home from this hunting trip “He told his tale with style, how the white tusk of a wild boar had gashed his leg” (19. 526-527). This adventure marks the first of Odysseus’ many exploits. In a way the scar is representative of the lifestyle Odysseus would lead. Odysseus’s entire life consisted of going on adventures to foreign lands and then returning with stories of his escapades. Upon finally returning to Ithaca after being at war for twenty years and then lost at sea he has no desires to settle down but rather he begins to prepare for yet another adventure.

In order to prove his identity to others Odysseus uses the scar. He said to his men, “Come, I’ll show you something—living proof—know me for certain, put your minds at rest” (21.243-244). Odysseus’s scar is well known among his men. For some reason this scar has become the way to identify Odysseus. The scar is not merely a scar though, it is a representation of Odysseus. It represents his bravery and his adventures and his pride. The scar has become the embodiment of all that makes Odysseus who he is and therefore it makes sense that in the Homeric world the scar would become the main identifier of Odysseus.

The nurse, Eurycleia, tries to convince Penelope of her husband’s return by telling her that she has seen the scar on Odysseus’s leg. Eurycleia says, “if I am lying to you—kill me with a thousand knives of pain” (23. 89). Eurycleia is so certain of Odysseus’s identity simply because she saw his scar that she is willing to bet her life on it. Upon being told this Penelope, although unsure of how to approach her husband, is certain that it is indeed him.

There is also significance in the fact that the scar of Odysseus was made by a boar. The boar appears frequently in the Homeric World. It is used as a sacrifice to praise the gods and it is also used as an animal to have a feast of in celebrations. Although a boar gave Odysseus his scar he has since not only conquered boars but he has conquered cities and kingdoms. The boar was merely representative of the first conquest of Odysseus as a boy.

Scars are reminders of humanity and of weakness. Odysseus’s scar does not just show his weakness but it also shows his ability to overcome. He was not defeated or made afraid by the boar, but rather he was emboldened and made more brave. The episode with the boar marks the beginning of Odysseus’s life as a conqueror and as a man. That single scar encompasses who Odysseus is and what he is known for. That is why the scar is so important and why everyone who knows him knows of the scar.  It defines him.

20 Responses to “The Scar of Odysseus”

  1. khoneycutt says:

    Lindsey,

    The scar is definitely important; I think you are right about that. Though Odysseus disguises himself as a beggar both at Troy and Ithaca, the scar is a way in which he can be identified. As you note, it is the proof of his identity to several of his servants. Why Penelope does not resort to it and instead resorts to the test about the bed is an interesting question. Maybe she is worried that even a scar could be faked.

    What is particularly strange is the scar shows up to Eurycleia through Athena’s disguise (who is clearly present in that scene in some way, as Homer says that she turned Penelope’s attention away at the crucial moment [19.539-542]). One might presume that Athena doesn’t know about the scar, but that would seem strange. So maybe it is better to presume that she knew about it but allowed it to be seen. Or I suppose another alternative is that the scar is so much a part of who Odysseus is that even Athena cannot conceal its presence.

    As you note, boars are key in the Homeric world in all sorts of ways, and especially to Odysseus. He also possesses (or at least used to possess) a boar’s tusk helment, as we learn from Iliad Book 10. And of course one of the labors of Heracles involved killing the Erymanthian Boar (note the appearance of Heracles near the end of Odyssey Book 11).

    There is an old post under the 2012 Roots category by Chelsea Kane; I don’t know if you have looked at it, but it would be worth reading if you haven’t. She also explores the significance of the scar and the boar imagery.

    KH

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