Monday, July 16, 2018

Cuckolds and Consolation: The Song of Demodocus

In Book VIII of the Odyssey, Odysseus—as part of the entertainment staged by the Phaeacian king Alcinous—listens to the blind bard Demodocus tell the story of the time Aphrodite and Ares caught in flagrante by Hephaestus. You’ve probably heard the story retold something like this:

Ares, the god of War, is having an affair with Aphrodite, goddess of sexual passion. Anytime Hephaestus is gone from home, Ares shows up and “shames” the forge-god’s marriage bed. But Helios, Titan of the sun, sees this (as he sees everything) and tells Hephaestus. Hephaestus, being no match for Ares in strength or speed, forges a net of chains so fine not even the gods can see them, and uses them to booby-trap his bed. Then he pretends to leave the house, and when Ares shows up and he and Aphrodite become, uh, entangled, Hephaestus springs the trap. It’s so well made that not even Ares, swiftest of the gods, can escape it, and Hephaestus calls all of the other gods to come and see the adulterous lovers in his bed. The retelling of this story usually ends with Hephaestus as the butt of the joke, the other gods mocking him as a cuckold before forcing him to let Ares and Aphrodite go.

But that isn’t really the version we get in the Odyssey. To be sure, Apollo and Hermes find some humor in the situation:

But lord Apollo, son of Zeus, questioned Hermes:
 “Hermes, son of Zeus, you messenger
and giver of good things, how would you like
to lie in bed by golden Aphrodite,
even though a strong net tied you down?”
The messenger god, killer of Argus, then said
in his reply:
                              “Far-shooting lord Apollo,
I wish there were three times as many nets,
impossible to break, and all you gods
were looking on, if I could like down there,
alongside golden Aphrodite.”

Kidding aside, what has happened is no joke, and the elder and more sober-minded Poseidon recognizes this. It is he who convinces Hephaestus to let the pair go free, but only after the god of the sea and earthquakes promises to be surety for Hephaestus’ demands:

At Hermes’ words,
laughter arose from the immortal deities.
But Poseidon did not laugh. He kept requesting
Hephaestus, the celebrated master artisan,
to set Ares free. When he talked to him,
his words had wings:
                                     “Set him loose.
I promise he will pay you everything,
as you are asking, all he truly owes,
in the presence of immortal gods.”
The famous lame god then replied:
Shaker of the Earth, do not ask me this.
It’s a nasty thing to accept a pledge
made for a nasty rogue. What if Ares
escapes his chains, avoids the debt, and leaves—
how then among all these immortal gods
do I hold you in chains?”
                                            Earthshaker Poseidon
then answered him and said:
if indeed Ares does not discharge his debt
and runs away, I’ll pay you in person.”
Then the celebrated crippled god replied:
“It would be inappropriate for me
to refuse to take your word.”
                                              After saying this,
powerful Hephaestus then untied the netting.

A more idiomatic translation of Hephaestus’ response to this handsome offer might be, as Fagles renders it, “now there’s an offer no one could refuse!” It’s his satisfaction with Poseidon’s offer, not the bullying of the other gods, which finally motivates powerful Hephaestus to loose the chains and set the lovers free. The lovers promptly run off, but we have Poseidon’s guarantee that the wronged husband will be paid reparation. That’s how the song ends, and we are immediately told that “As he listened, Odysseus felt joy in his heart…”

I want to suggest that Odysseus’s joy goes deeper than they joy anyone with a good ear might feel at hearing a good song. Odysseus enjoys this story—and I think, the story is placed just at this juncture in the Odyssey’s narrative—because it provides him a sort of catharsis for his fears about what Penelope might be up to while he’s been away.

All throughout the Odyssey, Penelope and Odysseus both either hint at or explicitly state their misgivings about who their spouse may have become after the long years of the War and the Return. That, in large part, is the tension playing out in the series of “tests” which begin at Odysseus’ homecoming: Odysseus testing Penelope, Penelope testing Odysseus, Telemachus naively expecting them to just pick up where they left off. But at this point in the story, Odysseus has no idea what Penelope’s up to. Has she pulled a Clytemnestra and shacked up with another man, waiting to kill him when he gets home? The evil fate of Agamemnon (and the loyalty of Orestes, who seems to be a sympathetic figure in the Odyssey) has been the constant echo of Telemachus’ own quest to confirm his parentage and reclaim his patrimony.

There are several clues which suggest Odysseus might identify with the lame forge-god. Consider the description of Hephaestus’ forging of the trap:

Once he heard
the unwelcome news, Hephaestus went into his forge,
pondering some nasty scheme deep in his heart.
He set up his massive anvil on its block,
then forged a net no one could break or loosen,
so they’d have to stay immobile where they were.
When, in his rage, he had made that snare for Ares,
he went into the room which housed his marriage bed,
anchored the netting all around the bed posts,
and then hung loops of it from roof beams high above,
fine as spiders’ webs, impossible to see,
even for a blessed god—that’s how skillfully
he made that net. Once he’d organized the snare
around the bed, he announced a trip to Lemnos,
that well-built citadel, his favourite place by far
of all the lands on earth.

This smacks for all the world of one of Odysseus’ classic tricks. We see Hephaestus getting revenge, not through strength, but through guile, weaving (and weaving is what Odysseus, and Penelope, and Athena, chiefly do) a trap that will hold a rival who could otherwise easily outrun him.

Running, or the lack thereof, might be something else Odysseus has in common with the lamed forge-god. Earlier in the day, Odysseus—after being taunted by a hot-headed youngster—challenges the Phaeacian youths to all sorts of contests of strength. He’ll best them in anything, he says, except running. Back in the day he might have been a great sprinter, but years of hardship at sea mean his legs aren’t what they used to be. But Odysseus, like Hephaestus, is still powerful from the waist-up, a match for any at wrestling or boxing, archery or spear-throwing.

Where does the relief, the catharsis, come in? Hephaestus eventually gets what he demands: reparations, in the form of the bride-price he paid for the cheating Aphrodite. Poseidon, effectively Aphrodite’s uncle, assures it. In this story we see Odysseus’ worst fears—that of being cuckolded—and his best hopes—getting his own back—realized in a ribald tale of the light-living immortals.

Nowadays we would probably chide Odysseus for prizing a bride-price as high as so excellent a queen as Penelope, and maybe he would or wouldn’t have, if things had turned out that way. What’s important here, though, is that Odysseus lives in a “heroic” society, which is to say he lives in a society when a man must be extremely conscious of what honors and reparations are due to him. In this respect, I do not think it is a coincidence that it is Poseidon—the god to whom Odysseus owes all the suffering he has experienced during his Return—who guarantees that War will pay.

All quotes are from Ian Johnston’s freely available translation of the Odyssey, located here:

Currently reading: A Companion to Old Norse-Icelandic Literature and Culture by Rory McTurk
Current audio book: The Odyssey, translated by Robert Fagles
Currently translating: Sacris solemniis, by St Thomas Aquinas

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