Wednesday, June 15, 2022

Marital Fidelity in the Odyssey

"The Trunk of the Olive Tree": The 'Testing of the Bed' As a Symbol of Fidelity and Like-mindedness in Homer's The Odyssey by Erin Whittemore
The old nurse went upstairs exulting. to tell the mistress of her lord's return, and cried out by the lady's pillow: "Wake, wake up, dear child! Penelope, come down, see with your own eyes what all these years you longed for! Odysseus is here! Oh, in the end, he came! And he has killed your suitors, killed them all Penelope said: "I am stunned, I cannot speak to him. I cannot question him. I cannot keep my eyes upon his face. If really he is Odysseus, truly home, beyond all doubt we two shall know each other better than you or anyone. There are secret signs we know, we two." Homer's The Odyssey, Book 23 (lines 1-10, 119-125)
A 20-year separation would be enough to force even the most loving, well-matched couple into experiencing feelings of doubt and struggle- even the hero and heroine of Homer's epic, The Odyssey. Odysseus, though he longs solely for home and wife, is plagued with uncertainty after hearing the stories of the adulteresses, Klytaimnestra and Helen, and the warnings of Agamemnon regarding unfaithful wives. For Penelope, the dilemma is even greater, lacking the knowledge of whether her husband is even still alive and needing to marry to rid her home of the destructive suitors. For these reasons, Odysseus' homecoming and discussion with Penelope of their marriage bed found in Book 23 is a pivotal point of recognition and reconciliation for the lovers. The bed of Penelope and Odysseus serves as a symbol of their similarities, the like-mindedness which makes them a love match, and the fidelity and devotion that has successfully withstood an extensive separation.

By the beginning of Book 23, Odysseus has destroyed the suitors and reveals himself to Penelope as the husband she has desired to be reunited with for so long. The goddess Athena transforms Odysseus' beggar state into a new being, even more beautiful than before: "taller, and massive, too, with crisping hair in curls" and "lavished beauty over [his] head and shoulders." To Telemakhos, his mother's cold response to Odysseus' showing appears cruel and unfeeling, but Penelope, still detached and possibly unbelieving of the moment, decides to "keep her distance and question him" until their "secret signs" are revealed. She orders Eurykleia to make up a sleeping place for her husband and to place the large bed outside of the bedchamber that the two lovers formerly shared. This test "tried him to the breaking point" since the bed, fashioned by Odysseus from an old olive tree trunk in the center of their - 143- room, was their "pact and pledge, [their] secret sign [was] built into that bed- [Odysseus'] handiwork and no one else's!" His knowledge of their private bed produces a realization and acceptance of reality for Penelope. Her knees "grew tremulous and weak" and "her heart failed her" with this exciting identification. They finally experience a physical and emotional reunion, and Odysseus, weeping, holds "his dear wife, clear and faithful, in his arms" at last.

The wedding and marriage bed of Penelope and Odysseus becomes the center of the unfolding drama of recognition once he enters his home in his real physical state and is seen by his wife. Just as the discovery of the scar on Odysseus' upper thigh is Eurykleia's indication of her master's identity, the bed is Penelope's identification of her sweetheart. The circumstance of the bed is a private knowledge that only they two share (and one trusted servant). After 20 years of disunion, their bed is still unique, made from a huge oak tree, and remains immovable. Crafted by Odysseus with great skill, the heavy monument could be moved only by someone very strong or by a god, and the idea of someone moving it suggests to Odysseus that his work has been altered or that he has been replaced by Penelope. But the bed is secure, fixed in place for all time, exemplifying Penelope's constant fidelity while - 144- Odysseus has been away.

Although informed by his deceased mother at the gathering of shades that Penelope continues to spend her days in weeping over her husband and has chosen no man to take his place, Odysseus is still subjected to doubting her faithfulness. Penelope's suggestion that the bed has been moved angers Odysseus because it indicates that Penelope does not trust his identity and that she may have moved on to another man in his absence. Any man who has moved the bed, however strong and remarkable, has not only relocated a stable marriage but is subsequently undoing what Odysseus himself had done. On the contrary, Penelope has kept her bed and her body private while her husband was gone, and the importance placed upon Penelope's sexual fidelity addresses the central concern for Odysseus' odyssey: to return to wife and home.

Following her test of his identity, Penelope urges Odysseus, "Do not rage at me ... No one ever matched your caution!" This statement is not entirely true, however, since there is at least one woman who has equaled him in heedfulness and testing: Penelope. "Careful Penelope," called an "incomparably cunning mother" by one of the deceived suitors, shows her wisdom in testing, and her likeness to her husband throughout the epic. The tricking of the suitors with the shroud she is continuously - 145- weaving and unweaving, the "unknowing" choice of the test of the bow to select her new husband, and her clever ploy when pretending the bed had been moved, proves Penelope to be on a par with her quick-witted husband, "skilled in all ways of contending." Understanding his wife's contentious ways as he knows his very own, Odysseus encourages Penelope to test him "at her leisure," since this "noble and enduring" hero had been proving his wife's fidelity and deceiving her with his disguise all along. This like-mindedness shows the two switching rolesOdysseus from the tester to the tested- until they finally reunite on their nuptial bed. In fact, this similarity among spouses is something Odysseus truly values and he desired this harmony for Nausikaa, saying, "the best thing in the world [is] a strong house held in serenity where man and wife agree."

Penelope's "test of the bed" is crucial since it leads to the moment when she can "see [him] and know [him] best," even if testing is the upsetting means to a happy end. Penelope's test of the bed not only proves her fidelity to Odysseus but also proves Odysseus' identity to her. They are reunited and begin their second courtship, having been "denied life together in [their] prime and flowering years." Odysseus is able to reclaim his role and true identity as husband and father as both he and Penelope end their contention and testing of one - l4- another. The passage of the bed in Book 23 serves as a kind of epithalamion, in which the marriage bed and the loyal couple are praised and rewarded for their goodness and chastity. This level of spousal devotion is refreshing, especially in the 20th century when relationships fail so often without even having to face hardships like those of our epic heroes, Odysseus and Penelope. The Odyssey is, above all, the tale of a homecoming and of the reunification of a couple who love and know one another so remarkably that they are not only lovers, but best friends as well. Similar to the ever-living trunk of the olive tree that constitutes their bed, the union of Odysseus and Penelope did not wither with their separation but rather was sustained, and upon their reuniting can renew itself and grow once again.

Works Cited Homer. The Odyssey. Translation by Robert Fitzgerald. Vintage Books, New York; 1990.

P.S. I first came across this idea of the sacredness of the Odyssey marriage bed at a lecture given at a Humanae Vitae conference a few years ago.
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