The Song of the Bed Revisited

  Levaniouk, Olga. 2023. “The Song of the Bed Revisited.” In “Γέρα: Studies in honor of Professor Menelaos Christopoulos,” ed. Athina Papachrysostomou, Andreas P. Antonopoulos, Alexandros-Fotios Mitsis, Fay Papadimitriou, and Panagiota Taktikou, special issue, Classics@ 25.

Countless Ramayanas have been composed before this. Do you know of one where Sita doesn’t go with Rama to the forest? [1]

Although I will not spend much time in this paper on the temporalities of the Odyssey, I would like to start with that subject since it informs and frames everything that happens in Book 23 and puts the action into a particular perspective. The temporal, even cosmic, plot of the Odyssey is always in the background as Penelope and Odysseus reunite, acting as a counterweight to the human and psychological drama of the poem. Discussing the intricacies of Odyssean temporalities, Menelaos Christopoulos points out the interplay of complementarity and difference between the poem’s protagonists:

Each time that Odysseus’ trip continues, we read / listen that he and his companions (or he alone when he leaves Calypso’s island), “raised the mast and fixed the sail on it” and as long as the sail is raised on the mast, on the histos, it brings him closer to his destination and, then, the course of time is positive for his timely arrival. What happens with Penelope? She also has her own histos, the loom. But as long as the cloth, the shroud for Laertes, is woven on this histos, the course of time is negative for Odysseus’ timely arrival. As he sails for three years and spends another seven waiting in Ogygia, she weaves for three years and spends other seven waiting in Ithaca. Finally, when both histoi stop functioning for both characters, the husband and the wife, the course of time seems to lead to an impasse. Penelope’s trick is revealed and she is now forced to move towards an unwished marital life, while Odysseus is trapped within an unwished substitute of marital life on Calypso’s island, where he had been brought to grasping to the remains of his broken histos. [2]

The stationary point identified by Christopoulos—with Penelope between tricks, Odysseus on Ogygia, and Telemachus still unstirred by Athena—represents a point of stillness right before the chronological action of the poem begins. In Book 23, when Odysseus and Penelope finally embrace and retire to bed for one supernaturally long night, we arrive at a matching, complementary but opposite, point of stillness. Now it is not an impasse, but rather the culmination of the poem’s action, a point beyond which lies a new beginning. What we witness in Odyssey 23 prior to the embrace is the final pair of moves in the game the two protagonists are playing, the final swings of the pendulum, one towards Penelope, one towards Odysseus, before it pauses briefly at a point of balance. Odysseus’ famous description of the bed is part of this momentous interaction. In this paper, I view the sign of the bed as part of this back-and-forth, and I’ll begin with Penelope’s first move before coming to Odysseus. I will look at Penelope’s part of the game by zooming far out and considering traditional oral narratives behind the Odyssey, and then at Odysseus’ part of it by zooming far in to look at language used in the description of the bed.

Part one: Zooming out with Penelope

Penelope’s testing of Odysseus by making him describe their bed is as surprising as it is famous. It is surprising not because we are unable to interpret the scene—on the contrary, we have a plethora of excellent interpretations, theories, and suggestions—but rather because the surprise is built into the scene. [3] Why does Penelope take so long to openly recognize Odysseus and what is it about his description of the bed that makes the difference? [4] Other characters within the poem seem to be as puzzled as the audience. Eurykleia is shocked (Odyssey 23.71–73), Telemachus disbelieving in his reproaches (Odyssey 23.97–99), and even Odysseus, patient and confident at first, appears in the end to give up on trying to understand his wife (Odyssey 23.167–172).
It is worth revisiting the magnitude of Penelope’s action. By the time she comes down to face Odysseus in Book 23, this beggar has already given her sign after sign that he is Odysseus. He has already described for her the clothes he wore on his way to Troy, the ornate pin with a dog and a fawn, and Eurybates, Odysseus’ most trusted companion; he has already approved her plan to stage a bow contest, sworn an improbable oath that Odysseus will come on the morrow in time to string the bow, and, more crucially, fulfilled it. Now the suitors are dead, the scar is confirmed by Eurykleia, and Telemachus has fully accepted this person as his father. It would be hard for Penelope to persuade him otherwise.
Odysseus’ disguise, moreover, seems to fall off even before Athena beautifies him—there is, at any rate, no mention of any disguise, only of “bad clothes,” which, according to Odysseus, cause Penelope to not pay him proper respect and deny his identity:

Τηλέμαχ’, ἦ τοι μητέρ’ ἐνὶ μεγάροισιν ἔασον
πειράζειν ἐμέθεν· τάχα δὲ φράσεται καὶ ἄρειον.
νῦν δ’ ὅττι υπόω, κακὰ δὲ χροῒ εἵματα εἷμαι,
τοὔνεκ’ ἀτιμάζει με καὶ οὔ πω φησι τὸν εἶναι.

Telemachus, let your mother test me
in the halls: soon she will perceive things better.
Now, because I am dirty and wearing bad clothes on my body
for this reason she pays me no honor and does not yet admit I am he.

Odyssey 23.113–116

Note that Odysseus does not claim that Penelope is ignorant about his identity but rather that she denies it, and also that he finds this denigrating. Eventually, even the dirty clothes are removed, Athena works her magic, and Odysseus emerges resplendent and rejuvenated from this bath (Odyssey 23.154–164). Penelope says that she well remembers what Odysseus looked like when he set off for Troy (Odyssey 23.175–176), which is, presumably, exactly the way he looks right now—yet she still just sits there, offering no embrace to her increasingly exasperated husband.

What is she playing at? At this point, even should Odysseus fail the test of the bed, would she be believed against the joint front of Telemachus and Eurykleia, and in light of the manifest destruction of the suitors? A sober, if cynical, assessment of Penelope’s situation might suggest that it is in her interests to accept this man as Odysseus no matter what he knows about the bed.
There are, of course, multiple explanations. The scholarship on the episode is immense and even simply registering one’s agreement or disagreement with each preexisting interpretation would scarcely leave space for anything else. [5] The proposed explanations differ depending on whether one reads the scene as a genuine recognition or assumes that Penelope has already recognized Odysseus in Book 19, but neither position removes the strangeness. I have argued for early recognition elsewhere and will assume it here without restating the arguments, [6] but even on that assumption the scope of available interpretations of Penelope’s behavior is broad, ranging from nonchalant (she just needs “one last confirmation” [7] ) to intriguing and complex (Roisman, for example, argues that in refusing to immediately accept Odysseus Penelope expresses her indignation at his not taking her into his confidence earlier). [8] In an article advertising a “solution” to the puzzle, Vlahos argues that Penelope is testing Odysseus’ feelings for her. [9] Does he still have concern and affection for Penelope, will he esteem and respect her? By showing his emotion about the bed, he signals that he will—or so the argument goes. There is, I think, some truth to these views, but they hardly constitute a solution, each one leaving some questions unanswered and some possibilities open. Would embracing Odysseus at once and registering his reaction not suffice to test his feelings? And what exactly is Penelope going to do if it turns out that Odysseus is cold to her? Modern scholarship demonstrates that it is indeed possible to construct several plausible psychological explanations for Penelope’s behavior, but also, in my opinion, that no psychological explanation is fully satisfying on its own. The explanation I would like to revisit and expand here is centered, instead, on traditional storytelling, admittedly another much-researched subject, but which, in my opinion, still has much to offer. [10]
The Odyssey is an example of what folklorists know as ATU 974, or the Homecoming Husband, a tale attested widely in all senses: in time, geographically, and in terms of variants. [11] It can be a folktale, an epic, a ballad, or quasi-historical legend. [12] To give a bare bones outline of the tale: a man leaves his wife shortly after they are married; he travels to a distant land and is detained for a long time; in the meanwhile, the wife decides or is forced to re-marry; the hero returns just in time to prevent her new marriage; he returns in disguise, gathers information from a local person, gains entrance as a beggar or minstrel to his own house, and is eventually recognized by a token, a song, a mark on his body or a feat only he can accomplish. Then he gets rid of the suitor(s) and regains his wife. Note that he gets recognized before dispatching his competitor(s). Exactly how this happens, and what happens next, is more variable. The suitor might reconcile with the returned hero, or he may flee, or be killed. The wife might be loyal, and reunite with her husband, or she might be unfaithful and be punished. [13] In either case, testing of the husband’s identity by the wife after he disposes of the suitor(s) is not part of the plot. Even though the hero was earlier in disguise, at this point there is there is no longer any question about his legitimacy, and nobody needs to recognize him. The test of the bed is decidedly not a typical feature of this story.
What it typical, on the other hand, is the question mark over the destinies of the wife and her suitors. The usurping suitor could be forgiven if he apologizes nicely and has done no lasting harm. That is a possible outcome Odysseus himself urges upon Amphinomos in the Odyssey (18.125–150), and also the option that Eurymachus hopelessly invokes, entirely too late, in Book 22 (45–59). The wife, too, can be either restored in her position, or punished, sometimes exiled. Alternative versions of Penelope’s fate did exist, though references to them are sparse and late. In these tales, she is unfaithful, is sent back to her father and sometimes gives birth to Pan in Arkadia, although the scholia to Lykophron protest sensibly that it was a different Penelope. [14] I think we can safely assume that the faithful Penelope is the dominant version in Greece, but these other tales are entirely consistent with the overall typology of the Homecoming Husband. The audiences may know full well that Odysseus in this multiform of the poem will not exile Penelope, just as all know well that Odysseus will not remain forever on Calypso’s Island, but the possibility of variation does create some suspense—can Penelope be absolutely sure of what awaits her? Being Penelope, she will hardly settle for anything less than absolute certainty. The typology of the Homecoming Husband urges caution, as does comparative evidence. In the Ramayana, Rama bluntly rejects his divinely pure wife Sita after fighting a cosmic war to reclaim her from her abductor, the demon Ravana. [15] He does so, moreover, even though earlier in the poem we see him weeping and pining for Sita with a dramatic passion and erotic longing that has no parallel in the Odyssey.
In the Ramayana, there is no solution except for deus ex machina—Sita enters the fire and the gods come to her rescue, testifying to her innocence and purity. In the Odyssey, however, there is an element that is absent in the Ramayana—the fact that Odysseus was, for a time, in disguise. To start dispensing judgement, the husband in the Homecoming Husband tale has, first, to be recognized. Rejecting his wife before she acknowledged him is not a good option for our conquering hero: it creates an unpleasant muddle and raises uncomfortable questions about his credentials needed to do the rejecting in the first place. By extending her non-recognition of Odysseus beyond anything we would expect in a Homecoming Husband tale, Penelope in effect forestalls any potential judging of her by Odysseus. Instead, she transitions into a tale of an entirely different type, a tale in which the wife has considerably more agency than she does at the end of the Homecoming Husband.
Already in 1952 Rhomaios pointed out the similarities between the test of the bed in the Odyssey and a Modern Greek ballad known as the Return of the Long Absent Husband. [16] In a variant of the ballad given by Politis, [17] which I quote with translations of Kakridis, [18] a long absent husband rides up on his horse, at daybreak, to a place where he sees a young woman doing laundry. He greets her but she remains silent: τὴ χαιρετάω, δὲ μοῦ μιλεῖ, τῆς κρένω, δὲν μοῦ κρένει, “I greet her, she answers not; I speak to her, she speaks not” (Politis 84.6). He asks for water for himself, his horse, and his hounds, and the woman gives him plenty but does not lift her eyes: σαράντα σίκλους ἔβγαλε, ’ς τὰ μάτια δὲν τὴν εἶδα, “of water forty buckets she drew, yet I saw not her eyes” (Politis 84.9). Finally, at the forty-second bucket, he notices that she is weeping and asks her why. The reason, it turns out, is her husband:

Ξένε μου, κι’ ἂν ἐδάκρυσα κι’ ἂ βαριαναστενάζω,
τὸν ἄντρα ’χω ’ς τὴν ξενιτειὰ καὶ λείπει δέκα χρόνους.

Good stranger, if you see me weep, and see me sigh so sadly,
My husband is in distant lands, he is gone these ten long years.

Politis 84.14–15 [19]

The woman then says that she will wait for another two years, and then become a nun. The stranger replies that her husband is dead, that he buried the husband with his own hands. The woman, he continues, owes him the funeral expenses, which include a kiss:

Κόρη μου, ὁ ἄντρας σου πέθανε, κόρη μου, ὁ ἄντρας σου χάθη·
τὰ χέρια μου τὸν κράτησαν, τὰ χέρια μου τὸν θάψαν,
ψωμί, κερὶ τοῦ μοίρασα, κ’ εἶπε νὰ τὰ πλερώσῃς,
τὸν ἔδωκα κ’ ἕνα φιλί, κ’ εἶπε νὰ μοῦ τὸ δώσῃς.

Your husband, my good girl, is dead; he is, my good girl, lost;
it is my hands that held him, my hands that buried him;
I distributed for him bread and candles, for which he said you will pay;
I also gave him a kiss, you must give it back to me, he said.

Politis 84.21–24 [20]

The claim about the kiss is a test of the wife, which, of course, she passes with flying colors by promising to pay double for the bread and the candle but absolutely refusing to give the stranger a kiss. Once she states her refusal, the stranger reveals himself: Κόρη μου ἐγώ εἶμαι ὁ ἄντρας σου, ἐγώ εἶμαι κι’ ὁ καλός σου! “My good girl, I am your husband, I am your beloved man!” (27) [21] Now it is the wife’s turn to test. If you are my husband, she says, show me the “signs”—σημάδια—an element very reminiscent, of course, of Penelope’s σήματα (Odyssey 23.110).

In the ballad, unlike the Odyssey, the signs proceed in an orderly progression. First the wife asks for the “signs in the courtyard” and the husband tells her about an apple tree by the door and a vine in the courtyard, describing what kinds of grapes and wine it produces. The wife is not persuaded—he must have passed by and seen it, she responds, asking next for the signs in the house. The husband responds with a much more intimate sign from the house: a golden lamp right in the middle of the bedroom:

καὶ φέγγει σου ποῦ γδύνεσαι καὶ πλέκεις τὰ μαλλιά σου,
φέγγει σου τὶς γλυκὲς αὐγές, ποῦ τὰ καλά σου βάζεις.

it gives you light when you undress and when you plait your tresses,
it gives you light at sweet daybreak, as you dress in your best.

Politis 84.37–38 [22]

This is still not enough since three times is the charm, at least in the Indo-European lands, and so the wife says that a wicked neighbor must have told all this to the stranger. For the third and final round she asks for marks on her body, and the “stranger” responds by saying that she has a dark spot on her chest and a dark spot in her armpit, and that between her breasts she wears her husbands’ amulet (φυλαχτάρι, 42). Ξένε μου, ἐσύ εἶσαι ὁ ἄντρας μου, ἐσύ εἶσαι κι’ ὁ καλός μου! (“Good stranger, you are my husband,” 43) responds the wife.

Arguing against the previous work by Politis and Baud-Bovy, who sought to establish the origins of the ballad in continental Greece or Cappadocia in the Middle Ages, Rhomaios suggested that the Odyssey and the ballad must be connected, thinking that the ballad might be dependent on the Odyssey. [23] He notices that the similarities extend beyond Book 23: the recognition of Odysseus by Laertes in Odyssey 24 involves fruit trees and a mark on the body (although not the wife’s body), while Odyssey 23, involves, of course, what is inside of the house. Rhomaios supposed that the ballad must have brought these disparate elements together.
Building on his work but inverting his conclusion, Kakridis put forth an argument by which I am convinced, namely that it is not the ballad that borrows from the Odyssey, but the Odyssey that borrows from “the folk poetry” as Kakridis puts it, of its time. [24] Kakridis sees the gradation of tests in the ballad as an indication of their organic belonging there, and argues that it is “Homer,” by contrast, that breaks up the tidy progression of tests and spreads them over several scenes, something he explains by the demands of the epic large-scale narrative. Like Kakridis, I think that “there is only one possibility left to explain the similarity of expression between the old epic and the modern ballad: to accept that the recognition of the returning husband was a popular, pre-Homeric motif.” The Odyssey, Kakridis argues further, alters this motif and elaborates on it, while, independently, “the oral popular tradition kept it alive through the ages to the present day.” [25]
Part of the surprise of Book 23 in the Odyssey is based, I suggest, precisely on our unexpected transition between two similar but also significantly different traditional tales—the Homecoming Husband and the Long-Absent Husband (the ballad), a transition that has important ramifications. In both tale types, there is double testing: the husband tests the wife and the wife tests the husband. And yet the combination of the two tales yields paradoxical results, exploited by Penelope in the Odyssey. In the Homecoming Husband, the husband is indeed tested, but only before he dispatches his rivals. Having established his identity, he then confirms his old mettle by winning a contest and overcoming his rivals. That is, of course, exactly what happens in the Odyssey.
There is mutual testing in the ballad as well, but here the husband passes his test after the wife. The husband puts his wife to a test first by suggesting that she kiss him. He makes the test rather devious by claiming that her husband is dead and that the kiss is, in effect, his dying wish. The wife passes the test by not falling for this ploy and instead making triple-sure of the stranger’s actual identity. She is stubborn and hard to persuade, exactly like Penelope in Odyssey 23, where Telemachus accuses his mother of having a heart that is “harder than stone” (Odyssey 23.103). Kakridis compares the kiss motif in the ballad to Odysseus’ efforts to ascertain his wife’s loyalty, but notes that in the Odyssey all of this happens much earlier: “at all events, any doubts that he might have about Penelope’s fidelity are removed when the hero, still an unknown stranger, begins to talk with her in τ.” [26]
This might well be true as far as Odysseus is concerned, but it is to Penelope’s advantage to be in the ballad and by pretending that we are in the ballad rather than in the Homecoming Husband Penelope in effect devises her own test for herself. [27] It happens, I suggest, not earlier, but now, in Odyssey 23: just like the woman in the ballad refuses to kiss the “stranger,” so too does Penelope as she sits in silence across from Odysseus. Paradoxically, her very refusal to recognize her husband, even now, despite all the evidence, becomes a marker of her fidelity—and the more extreme and paradoxical her reluctance is, the more absolute her loyalty to Odysseus. [28] When their long-awaited embrace finally takes place, Penelope uses as her excuse precisely her excessive faithfulness, her fear of making a mistake. It is an effective strategy: how could Odysseus possibly find fault with her for being too faithful and too careful? How could we imagine any other man making headway with this woman, when even the real Odysseus is having such trouble? The test Penelope imposes on herself shares its paradoxical quality with the kissing test in the ballad: in both cases, the wife’s fidelity is proven by refusing what looks like—and in the end actually turns out to be—their own husband’s advance.
Odysseus, of course, did not ask for this. While Penelope devises her own fidelity test and then aces it, Odysseus finds himself in a story he did not sign up for. Instead of resting on his laurels and dispensing punishments and rewards, as the homecoming husband should at this stage, he finds himself instead in the Long-Absent Husband ballad, having to produce still new proofs of his identity, while his wife, rather than being accepted or rejected by him has contrived to do the acceptance herself. [29]
He has his wife to thank for this, and the Odyssey, I suggest, presents its ballad-like motifs as Penelope’s doing. It is Penelope who, going down the stairs, contemplates two ways of action—embrace her husband at once or question him first—and decides on the latter course (Odyssey 23.85–87), adopting the behavior of the woman in the ballad, silent and unresponsive. I even suspect that she pretends to be more like that ballad woman than her behavior strictly supports. In the ballad, the wife truly weeps for her husband and will not lift her eyes. Penelope says that she cannot look at Odysseus (οὐδέ τι προσφάσθαι δύναμαι ἔπος οὐδ’ ἐρέεσθαι / οὐδ’ εἰς ὦπα ἰδέσθαι ἐναντίον, “I cannot say a word to him nor aks a question, nor to look him in the face,” Odyssey 23.106–107), but in fact seems to be stealing glances, adjusting to the strangeness of him in the beggar’s clothes (ὄψει δ’ ἄλλοτε μέν μιν ἐνωπαδίως ἐσίδεσκεν, / ἄλλοτε δ’ ἀγνώσασκε κακὰ χροῒ εἵματ’ ἔχοντα, “At times she would look him full in the face with her eyes, / and at other times she would not recognize him, dressed in bad clothes upon his body” Odyssey 23.94–95). I note, incidentally, that the woman in the ballad never does recognize her husband visually—that is not even a question that is raised, the signs are enough on their own.
The use of the ballad is most clearly attributed to Penelope, however, in the way she slips it in, as if by accident. We are, after all, in the Homecoming Husband story, and so it would be odd for Penelope to openly request that Odysseus pass another test. In fact, she never puts it this way, although Odysseus recognizes what she is doing and tells Telemachus to “let your mother test me” (πειράζειν ἐμέθεν, Odyssey 23.114). Nevertheless, Penelope does not present her action as a test: she merely sits there until Odysseus loses patience and hurries the end of the story. He knows very well how all such stories end, the Long-Absent Husband and the Homecoming Husband alike—namely, in bed. And so he requests that the bed be made for him, giving Penelope the opening to riff on the ballad and slip in her unexpected test. No wonder he is surprised and upset and finds her words distressing (Odyssey 23.182–183).
I doubt, however, that we should imagine that Odysseus here completely loses his cool. [30] Although Penelope implies that the bed is now movable, he does not immediately believe her. Rather, he says that he does not know whether the bed is still in place:

οὕτω τοι τόδε σῆμα πιφαύσκομαι· οὐδέ τι οἶδα,
ἤ μοι ἔτ’ ἔμπεδόν ἐστι, γύναι, λέχος, ἦέ τις ἤδη
ἀνδρῶν ἄλλοσε θῆκε, ταμὼν ὕπο πυθμέν’ ἐλαίης.

This sign I tell you, but I do not know clearly
Whether my bed is still in place, wife, or now
some man put it elsewhere, having cut from beneath the root of the olive.

Odyssey 23.202–204

Odysseus is not sure that Penelope is speaking the truth: he suspects that her words are, in fact, yet another test. Perhaps he too has heard a ballad-like tale about a long-absent husband and his cautious wife.

I have argued elsewhere that in the dream episode of Odyssey 19, Penelope does not describe a real dream about the geese that she has had on some previous occasion, but rather performs for Odysseus a dream-song of traditional and recognizable kind or, to put it another way, enlists a traditional type of song to communicate with her husband. [31] I suggest that here, in Book 23, she does something similar with the ballad-like traditional tale of the long-absent husband. On both occasions, the Odyssey depicts Penelope manipulating traditional songs. We may wonder, of course, whether this is done deliberately or happens as a side-effect of the oral tradition. Did the poets want to create a clever Penelope and used the traditional songs that were to hand? Or did they aim to create a Penelope who manipulates traditional songs? Or did it start as the former and develop into the latter? It seems impossible to know. I think it is a sound methodological principle not to assume that we discern more in the Homeric poetry than its makers and original audiences, and following this principle we should be open to all options. In either case, the result is the same: a Penelope who turns the tables on Odysseus by maneuvering them both into a song where she wants to be.

Part two: Zooming in with Odysseus

So much, then, for zooming out. For the second part of this paper, I would like to zoom in on what Odysseus says in response to Penelope’s ploy. His words are often taken as a sign of his emotion, a moment when Odysseus loses his famed sang-froid. Bruce Louden’s formulation, although somewhat extreme, is not atypical: “Though renowned for his self-control, as Athena emphasizes in her recognition (13.333–334), Odysseus, provoked by Penelope’s testing, angrily blurts out the story of the bed.” [32] No doubt, Odysseus responds with emotion: he speaks ὀχθήσας (23.182) “being greatly vexed” and calls Penelope’s words “painful to the heart” (ἔπος θυμαλγὲς, 23.183). Yet for all the heat of the moment, Odysseus produces a remarkably tightly and elaborately constructed piece of poetry—perhaps we should call it a song—distinguished by complicated ring composition and interlocking lexical structures. In what follows, I attempt to analyze these structures in an effort to add an extra layer to our understanding of Odysseus’ utterance.
As Megan O’Donald has shown, lexical iconicity is a pervasive feature of Homeric poetry and lexical figures are plentiful in both epics—not only rings, but annular or interlaced structures of different types. These figures are iconic in the sense that there is often a correlation between verbal form and the conveyed meaning. The most clear example of this comes in Iliad 16, where soldiers pressing against each other are compared to closely packed stones of a wall and the density of both the stones and the soldiers is enacted by the triply paired repetition (ἀσπὶς ἄρ᾽ ἀσπίδ᾽ ἔρειδε, κόρυς κόρυν, ἀνέρα δ᾽ ἀνήρ “shield presses against shield, helmet against helmet, man against man,” Iliad 16.215), each word pressing against its neighbor, just like the soldiers and the stones. Often such figures have a metapoetic aspect to them. O’Donald has observed that particularly artfully constructed figures occur in descriptions of artfully constructed objects, as if the poets draw attention to their ability to construct objects in words just as well as craftsmen within the similes construct them in wood, metal, ivory, or wool. [33] An example of this is the famous simile in Iliad 4, in which the blood staining Menelaos’ thigh is compared to a cheekpiece for a horse, analyzed as follows by O’Donald:

A        αὐτίκα δ᾽ ἔρρεεν αἷμα κελαινεφὲς ἐξ ὠτειλῆς.
B        Ὡς δ’ ὅτε τίς τ’ ἐλέφαντα γυνὴ φοίνικι μιήνῃ
C        Μῃονὶς ἠὲ Κάειρα παρήϊον ἔμμεναι ἵππων·
D        κεῖται δ’ ἐν θαλάμῳ, πολέες τέ μιν ἠρήσαντο
C, D    ἱππῆες φορέειν· βασιλῆϊ δὲ κεῖται ἄγαλμα,
C        ἀμφότερον κόσμος θ’ ἵππῳ ἐλατῆρί τε κῦδος·
B, A    τοῖοί τοι, Μενέλαε, μιάνθην αἵματι μηροὶ
          εὐφυέες κνῆμαί τε ἰδὲ σφυρὰ κάλ’ ὑπένερθε.

A        Immediately the dark blood (αἷμα) flowed from the wound.
B        As when some woman stains (μιήνῃ) ivory with red dye, a Maeonian or a Carian,
C        to be a cheekpiece for horses (ἵππων):
D        And it lies (κεῖται) in a storeroom,
C        and many pray to bear it, many horsemen (ἱππῆες):
D        but for the king it lies (κεῖται) there as a delight,
C        Both an ornament for a horse (ἵππῳ) and for the driver a source of glory:
B        So, Menelaos, were your well-grown thighs stained (μιάνθην)
A        with blood (αἵματι)… [34]

Iliad 4.140–147

O’Donald observes that the structural orderliness correlates with its content, a correlation signaled by the word κόσμος, which means both ‘order’ and ‘ornament’. [35] Examining the passage that precedes the simile where Pandaros actually shoots the arrow that wounds Menelaos, O’Donald notices that it also contains lexical figures. First, Pandaros’ bow, which is described as round when drawn (αὐτὰρ ἐπεὶ δὴ κυκλοτερὲς μέγα τόξον ἔτεινε “but when he drew the great round bow”), is part of a ring composition. Secondly, the passage that joins the shot and the simile also describes a juncture: Pandaros’ arrow pierces Menelaos’ “well-joined” (ἀρηρότι, 134) armor precisely at the point where the belt’s golden clasps come together in a figura etymologica (ὀχῆες / χρύσειοι σύνεχον 132–133). [36] O’Donald’s immediate conclusion is that we should hear the ring structure of the cheekpiece simile as iconic not only in an abstract sense, but iconic of the ornament, the physical object. Her further conclusion, supported by the reception of the simile in Antiquity, is that it represents a moment of virtuosic poetic self-reference. The simile is an ornament for the narrative the way the cheekpiece is an ornament for a horse, and “if the cheekpiece brings glory to the horse’s driver, then the simile brings glory to the one holding the reins of the narrative, so to speak: to the poet.” [37]

In a similar way, the poets of the Odyssey construct—and make Odysseus construct—the description of the bed to be a sign in its own right, a song as intricate, ornate, and full of meaning as the bed itself. [38] The constructedness of Odysseus’ description has long been recognized, as has the symbolic nature of the bed, its rootedness, its combination of nature and culture, even its cosmic significance. [39] Here is the passage in full:

A        τίς δέ μοι ἄλλοσε θῆκε λέχος; χαλεπὸν δέ κεν εἴη
B        καὶ μάλ’ ἐπισταμένῳ, ὅτε μὴ θεὸς αὐτὸς ἐπελθὼν
A        ηϊδίως ἐθέλων θείη ἄλλῃ ἐνὶ χώρῃ.
A        ἀνδρῶν δ’ οὔ κέν τις ζωὸς βροτός, οὐδὲ μάλ’ ἡβῶν,
C        εῖα μετοχλίσσειεν, ἐπεὶ μέγα σῆμα τέτυκται
B        ἐν λέχει ἀσκητῷ. τὸ δ’ ἐγὼ κάμον οὐδέ τις ἄλλος.
D        θάμνος ἔφυ τανύφυλλος ἐλαίης ἕρκεος ἐντός,
D        ἀκμηνὸς θαλέθων. πάχετος δ’ ἦν ἠΰτε κίων.
          τῷ δ’ ἐγὼ αμφιβαλὼν θάλαμον δέμον, ὄφρ’ ἐτέλεσσα,
E        πυκνῇσιν λιθάδεσσι, καὶ εὖ καθύπερθεν ἔρεψα,
E        κολλητὰς δ’ ἐπέθηκα θύρας, πυκινῶς ἀραρυίας.
D        καὶ τότ’ ἔπειτ’ ἀπέκοψα κόμην τανυφύλλου ἐλαίης,
D        κορμὸν δ’ ἐκ ίζης προταμὼν ἀμφέξεσα χαλκῷ
B        εὖ καὶ ἐπισταμένως, καὶ ἐπὶ στάθμην ἴθυνα,
B        ἑρμῖν’ ἀσκήσας, τέτρηνα δὲ πάντα τερέτρῳ.
          ἐκ δὲ τοῦ ἀρχόμενος λέχος ἔξεον, ὄφρ’ ἐτέλεσσα,
          δαιδάλλων χρυσῷ τε καὶ ἀργύρῳ ἠδ’ ἐλέφαντι·
          ἐκ δ’ ἐτάνυσσα ἱμάντα βοὸς φοίνικι φαεινόν.
C        οὕτω τοι τόδε σῆμα πιφαύσκομαι. οὐδέ τι οἶδα,
A        ἤ μοι ἔτ’ ἔμπεδόν ἐστι, γύναι, λέχος, ἦέ τις ἤδη
A, D    ἀνδρῶν ἄλλοσε θῆκε, ταμὼν ὕπο πυθμέν’ ἐλαίης.
Who put my bed somewhere else? It would be difficult
even for a very skillful man, unless a god himself should come
and, if he so wishes, put it in another place.
But of men, no living mortal, not even one in full strength of youth,
would hoist it out easily, since a great sign is built
into the masterfully-made bed. I made it, and no one else.
There was a long-leaved bush of olive inside the enclosure
in its prime, flourishing; it was like a roof-pillar in thickness.
Working around it, I built the bedroom, until I brought it to completion,
with well-fitted stones, and I roofed it over well,
and put in closely-joined doors, precisely fitting.
And then I cut off the crown of the long-leaved olive,
and, having cut the trunk above the root, I smoothed it all around with bronze,
well and skillfully, and made it level to a carpenter’s line,
crafting the bedpost; and I bored it all with the borer.
Starting from that, I polished the bed until I brought it to completion,
Decorating it with gold, and silver, and ivory,
And from it I stretched a cow-hide strap, bright with murex red.
This sign I tell you: but I don’t know at all
Whether my bed is in place, wife, or whether already some
man has put it elsewhere, having undercut the root of the olive.

Odyssey 23.184–204

Odysseus’ “song of the bed” is marked by a density of repetitions, echoes, and lexical figures, including several overlapping rings and many instances of sound play, such as ἔφυ/τανύφυλλος, κόμην/κορμὸν, ἐπελθὼν/ἐθέλων, θάλαμον/δέμον, φοίνικι/φαεινόν, and τέτρηνα/τερέτρῳ, the latter being also a figura etymologica. There are several elements that are in some sense meta-poetic, among them Odysseus’ declaration “I made it and no one else” (τὸ δ’ ἐγὼ κάμον οὐδέ τις ἄλλος) and the repeated ὄφρ’ ἐτέλεσσα (“until I brought it to completion”). The most salient ring is made up of clusters of words and could be represented as follows:

A        ἄλλοσε / θῆκε / λέχος / ἀνδρῶν … τις
B, C    ἐπισταμένῳ / σῆμα τέτυκται / ἀσκητῷ
D        θάμνος ἔφυ / τανύφυλλος ἐλαίης / ἀκμηνὸς θαλέθων
E        πυκνῇσιν / πυκινῶς
D        απέκοψα κόμην / τανυφύλλου ἐλαίης / ἐκ ίζης προταμὼν
B,C    ἐπισταμένως / ἀσκήσας / σῆμα πιφαύσκομαι
A        τις … ἀνδρῶν/ λέχος / ἄλλοσε / θῆκε

The outer ring is easily visible, with the initial “Who put my bed somewhere else?” (τίς δέ μοι ἄλλοσε θῆκε λέχος, 184) corresponding to the concluding “I don’t know whether my bed is still in place or someone of men put it elsewhere:” ἤ μοι ἔτ’ ἔμπεδόν ἐστι, γύναι, λέχος, ἦέ τις ἤδη / ἀνδρῶν ἄλλοσε θῆκε (203–204). The final “one of men” echoes the initial “of men, no living mortal” (ἀνδρῶν δ’ οὔ κέν τις ζωὸς βροτός, 187) in the assertion that no living man could easily move the bed. This is, of course, the overarching question—and it is overarching in form as well as substance. One of the inner rings brings our attention to the fact that the bed is a sign: σῆμα τέτυκται in 188 is echoed by σῆμα πιφαύσκομαι in 202. This too, I suggest, refers both to the physical bed, which Odysseus constructs in wood, and to the poetic bed, which Odysseus constructs in words. The construction and constructedness is, in fact, lavishly expressed in rings and repetitions of this description: even a very skillful (ἐπισταμένῳ, 185) man would find it difficult to move the bed, so skillfully (εὖ καὶ ἐπισταμένως, 197) was it constructed, line 197 responding to line 185. The ἀσκητός of line 189 is picked up by ἀσκήσας in 198, emphasizing the masterfulness and diligence of Odysseus’ work. He spared no effort to make the bed special, and he does the same now with the song. The intervening lines gives us the details of the process—how the bed was leveled, how it was polished, how the leather straps were stretched, how it was ornamented. The construction of the room, θάλαμον δέμον, ὄφρ’ ἐτέλεσσα “I built the room, until I brought it to completion” in 192 is matched by the shaping of the bed in 199 λέχος ἔξεον, ὄφρ’ ἐτέλεσσα “I polished the bed, until I brought it to completion,” both jobs completed to perfection, a fact emphasized by the repeated ὄφρ’ ἐτέλεσσα. In the very middle there is a repetition of πυκινός, referring both times not to the bed itself but to closely-fitting structures that surround, protect, and hide it, the tightly packed stones of the walls (πυκνῇσιν λιθάδεσσι, 193) and the tightly fitting doors (πυκινῶς ἀραρυίας, 194). Odysseus’ description of the bed is equally tightly constructed. The repetition of the word πυκινός in two consecutive lines signals and marks the central turning point of the structure. It also marks a central notion, the idea of different entities—stones, doors, words, Odysseus and Penelope—fitting together perfectly to produce a firm and unified whole.

The conceit of the Odyssey being that no other mortal is a match for Odysseus, how could what he did so well be undone? The repeated reference to a nearly unimaginable “one of the men” ἀνδρῶν … τις of 187 and τις … ἀνδρῶν in 203–204 insists on this urgent question. Like Penelope, who tells Eurykleia that some god must have killed the suitors (Odyssey 23.63), Odysseus here considers the moving of the bed to be almost beyond any mortal, saying that it would be easy only for a god (185). Odysseus’ assertions of authorship punctuate his utterance:

τὸ δ’ ἐγὼ κάμον οὐδέ τις ἄλλος “I made it and no one else” (189)
θάλαμον δέμον, ὄφρ’ ἐτέλεσσα, “I built the room until I brought it to completion” (192)
λέχος ἔξεον, ὄφρ’ ἐτέλεσσα “I polished the bed until I brought it to completion” (199)

Each assertion fills out the line after the penthemimeral caesura, each line ends with a bucolic diaeresis.

Just as the final stage in constructing the bed is its decoration, so Odysseus comes at the end to its ornamentation (δαιδάλλων, 200). The bed is decorated with gold, silver, ivory, and dark red dye:

δαιδάλλων χρυσῷ τε καὶ ἀργύρῳ ἠδ’ ἐλέφαντι·
ἐκ δ’ ἐτάνυσσ’ ἱμάντα βοὸς φοίνικι φαεινόν.

[I brought the bed to completion] ornamenting it with gold and silver and ivory,
and I stretched on it a strap of cow-leather, red with murex dye.

Odyssey 23.200–201

Setting the rings aside for now—we will circle back to them—I want to zoom in even further for the moment and focus on these colors. This combination of ivory and red, is, I think, itself iconic and it points the purpose of this bed, marriage, and also to its beginning, the wedding. I suspect the gold and silver also have wedding significance, but they are harder to pin down, being generally indicative of splendor. Ivory and the dark red, on the other hand, are more specific. We have seen this color combination in Iliad 4, in the horse cheekpiece simile I have already had the occasion to quote. There, red blood on white skin is compared to a red stain of murex dye spreading on white ivory. Although this is the blood of a warrior, not of a woman, many have seen something peculiarly feminine in that image. [40] This wound is caused by an arrow that pierces a warrior’s belt, ζωστήρ (Iliad 4.132), an image that is especially suggestive considering the use of this word (Iliad 14.73) and of related words, ζώνη, and in Modern Greek, ζώστρα, to designate women’s girdles. [41] Although I do not think we should rush to the conclusion that Menelaos himself is feminized here, I do think that this wound and the simile that follows it have some erotic, feminine, and I suggest, wedding-related undertones.

Red blood on ivory-white skin is compared to a red and white ornament (ἄγαλμα, 4.144), a precious prize desired by many but given only to a king and presumably the winner in a race. [42] Just so, a bride might be kept safe in an inner room, θάλαμος, desired by many though only one winner will have her. The winner of the contest, real or metaphorical, for her hand, might get such an ornament from her wedding chest, along with precious textiles, the work of her own hands. Odysseus used to wear such an ornament, a dog-and-fawn pin, which Penelope describes in Odyssey 19 as an ἄγαλμα and which she gave him, along with the wondrous clothes, produced, no doubt, by Penelope herself (19.225–235).
Whether or not we accept such speculations, it is certain that the ancient reception of the cheekpiece simile, which seems to have been extremely popular with imperial authors, focuses on the white and red color scheme and links it firmly with women and specifically with brides. Imperial authors consistently connect the simile with blushing maidens, from Lavinia’s famous blush (Aeneid 12.64–69) and Ovid’s Corinna (Amores 2.5.39–40), [43] to Leucippe in Achilles Tatius’ Leucippe and Clitophon, where the heroine’s white cheek is described by the same word as the cheekpiece in the Iliad, while her blush is described by the verbal form ἐφοινίσσετο “turned murex-red,” leading to an explicit echo of the Homeric simile, clear in spite of the textual difficulties:

λευκὴ παρειά, τὸ λευκὸν εἰς μέσον ἐφοινίσσετο καὶ ἐμιμεῖτο πορφύραν, οἵαν εἰς τὸν ἐλέφαντα Λυδία βάπτει γυνή. [44]
Her cheeks were white, and the white turned murex-red in the middle, imitating the red dye, with which a Lydian woman stains ivory.
Leucippe and Clitophon 1.4

This description marks the moment when Clitophon first sets eyes on his future beloved. In the Odyssey too there is a woman who is ivory-white, and she is none other than Penelope. Athena makes Penelope “whiter than sawn ivory” (λευκοτέρην δ’ ἄρα μιν θῆκε πριστοῦ ἐλέφαντος, Odyssey 18.196) precisely when she is first seen by Odysseus. In that scene, Penelope emerges to present herself to the suitors, modest yet resplendent in her beauty and allure, like a bride at the anakalypteria, a wedding ceremony in which the bride would be presented, in all her splendor but also in all her modesty, to be seen and admired by the groom and his party: [45]

          ἡ δ’ ὅτε δὴ μνηστῆρας ἀφίκετο δῖα γυναικῶν,
          στῆ α παρὰ σταθμὸν τέγεος πύκα ποιητοῖο,
210    ἄντα παρειάων σχομένη λιπαρὰ κρήδεμνα·
          ἀμφίπολος δ’ ἄρα οἱ κεδνὴ ἑκάτερθε παρέστη.
          τῶν δ’ αὐτοῦ λύτο γούνατ’, ἔρῳ δ’ ἄρα θυμὸν ἔθελχθεν,
          πάντες δ’ ἠρήσαντο παραὶ λεχέεσσι κλιθῆναι.

And she, radiant among women, when she reached the suitors,
She stood by the door-post of the firmly built roof
holding in front of her cheeks her shining veil,
and a loyal servant stood on each side of her.
And their knees were loosed, they were bewitched with passion in their hearts,
And all of them desired to lie beside her in bed.

Odyssey 18.208–213

Like a bride at the anakalypteria, Penelope receives gifts. Many wedding traditions involve gift exchanges, including specifically personal gifts for the bride—items such as jewelry and cosmetics. The anakalypteria in Athens is one such occasion, according to Pollux’s Onomastikon. Pollux tells us the word anakalypteria denotes not only a specific day in the progression of the wedding, but also the gifts given by the groom to the bride (παρὰ τοῦ ἀνδρὸς διδόμενα δῶρα, Onomastikon 3.36). He reports also that the fourth century BCE comedian Amphis calls these gifts διαπαρθένια δῶρα, because they are given in compensation for the bride’s lost maidenhood (ὑπὲρ τοῦ τὴν παρθενίαν ἀφελέσθαι, Onomastikon 3.36). In Odyssey 18, the gifts Penelope receives, I submit, are of the same kind, gifts such as a bride might receive: an ornate peplos, pins, earrings, and two kinds of necklaces (Odyssey 18.292–300). One of the necklaces is described as a “supremely beautiful ornament,” περικαλλὲς ἄγαλμα (18.300).

In fact, the scene in Odyssey 18 initiates a sequence of wedding-related moments which lead towards the bed. Penelope’s anakalypteria-like appearance is followed by the dialogue between Odysseus and Penelope and then by Penelope’s distinctly pre-wedding dream in Book 19, presaging the appearance of her bridegroom. Similar songs about the bride’s dream must have been sung on the eve or the morning of the wedding day, just as they have been sung, until recently, in Eastern Europe. [46] Actual weddings presumably involved no bow contests, but in epic poetry the dream presages the arrival of the groom just in time for the blood-soaked competition of the next day, which, of course, he wins. This is followed in Book 23 by the fake-wedding songs and dances that go on in the background as Odysseus and Penelope speak (Odyssey 23.141151), concealing the murder of the suitors and making the passers-by think that someone has married the queen at last (Odyssey 23.149). These wedding-related moments follow the script of the wedding in the expected sequence until we arrive at the bed: what started in Odyssey 18 with ivory, concludes in Odyssey 23 with ivory and murex red.
I have kept for last, however, one more structure, one more set of mirroring elements in Odysseus’ song of the bed. On both sides of the central, twice-repeated, πυκινός there are references to an olive tree, the very tree that becomes the bedpost for the bed and constitutes its precious secret. Lines 190–191 are echoed by 195–196, with θάμνος τανύφυλλος ἐλαίης “a long-leaved bush of olive” in 190 matching κόμην τανυφύλλου ἐλαίης “crown of long-leaved olive” in 195. This repetition is also a reversal. As we approach the center of the ring, the olive tree is alive and vigorous: it is in its prime (ἀκμηνός) and flourishing (θαλέθων). As we begin to move away from the center, the tree is cut: ἀκμηνὸς θαλέθων in 191 almost rhymes with ἐκ ίζης προταμών “having cut [the trunk] from the root” in 196. As the first step in building his bed, Odysseus cuts off the olive’s crown, kome, a word that is used both of tree crowns and of human hair.
The image of a blossoming tree losing its crown is an evocative one, and I suggest that on this occasion it evokes the wedding songs in which the bride parts with her maidenhood, symbolized by a flower or tree. Maidenhood is associated, on the one hand, with flowers and verdant landscapes—as indicated by plentiful evidence, from the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, where Persephone along with the Oceanids gathers flowers in a meadow (5–10) to Theocritus’ epithalamium to Helen, where Helen’s as yet unmarried friends sing about going, without her, to the meadows to make their wreathes (Theocritus 18.39–40). [47] I have argued elsewhere that Sappho 105c is most likely to be a wedding song, in which the bride’s loss of maidenhood is figured as a trampled flower. [48]
On the other hand, maidenhood is also marked by the young woman’s luxurious hair, a signal of her burgeoning and as yet unspent fertility. In Euripides’ Iphigeneia in Tauris, for example, an escapist chorus recalls the maidenly thiasoi of girls who dance at weddings and mentions shading their cheeks with their locks and entering “the strife of luxuriant hair” (ἁβροπλούτοιο χαίτας εἰς ἔριν (1149). [49] Similarly, in Alcman’s Partheneion, Hegesichora’s golden hair is blossoming like a flower, ἐπανθεῖ (1.53 PMG). The maiden’s hair, of course, is often decorated with flowers, and especially with hyacinth, as in Theocritus’ epithalamium for Helen, when the bride’s maidenly friends, decked with hyacinth, sing under the windows of the bridal chamber (παρθενικαὶ θάλλοντα κόμαις ὑάκινθον ἔχοισαι, Theocritus 18.2). In the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, the unbound hair of the daughters of Keleos, bouncing on their shoulders as they run, is described as “similar to a crocus” (κροκηΐῳ ἄνθει ὁμοῖαι, 178), while the girls themselves are said to have the bloom on maidenhood upon them (κουρήϊον ἄνθος ἔχουσαι, 108). Indeed, the luxurious hair of young people in general is often described as a flower, as for example when Anacreon blames his beloved, an unnamed boy, for cutting off “the blameless flower of your soft hair” (ἁπαλῆς κόμης ἄμωμον ἄνθος, PMG 414). Fusing together the image of maidenhood as flourishing plant and maidenhood as luxuriant hair we get the image of a tree with its flourishing crown, its kome. The loss of it can therefore stand for the loss of maidenhood.
I don’t know of an example from ancient Greece where maidenhood is directly connected with a tree’s crown, but this is hardly indicative, considering how little survives of weddings songs. I think, nevertheless, that such songs must have existed, and are evoked by the mention of the olive in the Odyssey. We have two kinds of evidence for their existence: comparative and circumstantial.
We have evidence, just cited above, that the luxurious and free-flowing hair of young women is associated with flowers. We also know that the hair of older, married women is, by contrast, often bound or covered, as we learn when Andromache loses her headdress at the sight of Hector’s dead body, or from epigrams such as Anthologia Palatina 6.276:

Ἡ πολύθριξ οὔλας ἀνεδήσατο παρθένος Ἵππη
χαίτας, εὐώδη σμηχομένα κρόταφον·
ἤδη γάρ οἱ ἐπῆλθε γάμου τέλος.

The rich-haired maiden Hippe has bound her thick hair,
brushing it from her sweet-smelling brow.
For already her marriage has been accomplished.

This is a pattern that predates the arrival of Indo-Europeans in the Mediterranean, since we can observe it on Theran frescoes: partly shaved heads for children, long and flowing locks for maidens, bound hair for older women. But it is also a pattern that is very persistent in the Mediterranean, as Levine observes. [50]

A different kind of evidence is provided by laments for warriors in the Iliad, who are repeatedly compared to felled trees. [51] As Margaret Alexiou has shown, these similes echo actual laments, and the tradition of such laments comparing the dead to a tree stretches uninterrupted from antiquity to modernity. Alexiou quotes a lament of a mother from Naxos over her dead daughter:

Γιὰ ἰδέστε τη, πῶς κείτεται, σὰ λεμονιὰ κομμένη!

Look at her, how she lies, like a felled lemon tree! [52]

Further, Alexiou observes the similarity between the funerary and wedding laments: “Closest to the laments for the dead in structure and form are those sung for the bride as she leaves her father’s house.” [53] We have evidence to suggest the existence of such wedding laments and lament-like wedding songs in Ancient Greece. [54] In a modern example cited by Alexiou, the mother laments the loss of her daughter in marriage, comparing her to a cotton plant:

—Ἄσπρη κατάσπρη βαμβακιὰ τὴν εἶχα στὴν αὐλή μου,
τη σκάλιζα, τὴν πότιζα, τὴν εἶχα γιὰ δική μου.
Μά ’ρθε ξένος κι ἀπόξενος, ἦρθε καὶ μοῦ τὴν πῆρε.

I had a pure white cotton plant growing in my courtyard;
I weeded it, I watered it, and it was all my own.
But a stranger, yes a stranger came and took it from me. [55]

Along with striking similarities there are telling differences between funeral and wedding laments. In funeral laments, ancient and modern, the young plant is often uprooted, cut down, and thrown on the ground. In wedding laments and songs, the flourishing plant is usually not destroyed, but rather taken away. The mother of the bride does not see her cotton plant destroyed, like the lemon tree in the lament from Naxos, but only loses the enjoyment of it: she nurtured this plant but someone else will reap the benefit of it.

This imagery is much discussed, and I will not belabor it here, except to adduce one particularly pertinent example, the death of Euphorbos in Iliad 17:

50      δούπησεν δὲ πεσών, ἀράβησε δὲ τεύχε’ ἐπ’αὐτῷ.
          αἵματί οἱ δεύοντο κόμαι Χαρίτεσσιν ὁμοῖαι
          πλοχμοί θ’, οἳ χρυσῷ τε καὶ ἀργύρῳ ἐσφήκωντο.
          οἷον δὲ τρέφει ἔρνος ἀνὴρ ἐριθηλὲς ἐλαίης
          χώρῳ ἐν οἰοπόλῳ, ὅθ’ ἅλις ἀναβέβροχεν ὕδωρ,
55      καλὸν τηλεθάον· τὸ δε τε πνοιαὶ δονέουσι
          παντοίων ἀνέμων, και τε βρύει ἄνθεϊ λευκῷ·
          ἐλθὼν δ’ ἐξαπίνης ἄνεμος σὺν λαίλαπι πολλῇ
          βόθρου τ’ ἐξέστρεψε καὶ ἐξετάνυσσ’ ἐπὶ γαίῃ.

And he fell with a thud and his armor rang out upon him,
And his hair, similar to myrtle flowers, was drenched in blood,
and his tresses too, which were bound with gold and silver.
Just as a man rears a flourishing sapling of olive
in a lonely place where there is plentiful water,
a beautiful, luxuriant sapling. Breezes of all the winds
rustle it, and it bursts out with white blossoms.
But suddenly a wind coming with a great storm
rips it out of its trench and stretches it on the ground.

Iliad 17.50–58

Here we have another flowery and luxuriant olive, this one described not by one, but two different forms derived from θάλλω “to flourish”—ἐριθηλές and τηλεθάον. Discussing this example of conventional tree imagery, Dué points out that what is compared to the blossoms is not only the tree but also the hair of Euphorbos. [56] According to the scholia, χάριτες here means not “the Graces” but rather “myrtle blossoms,” as in the Cypriot dialect. Nagy translates the relevant scholion as follows: “Macedonians and Cypriots use the word kharites with reference to myrtle blossoms that are compacted and curled [around a garland]. We call them garland-blossoms.” (Venetus A Scholia on Iliad 17.51). [57] Both this warrior and this tree stand out with their particularly flowery and luxurious heads of hair. Because of his supposedly barbaric hairstyle the Townley scholia on 17.57 compare Euphorbos to Nastes, another Trojan ally, who goes to battle wearing gold “like a girl” (Iliad 2.287). There may be other reasons, however, for Euphorbos to look so blossom-like. In Iliad 16, we learn that he is very young, still learning the art of war, and that he excels among the young in throwing the spear, horsemanship, and running (Iliad 16.808–811). I think that Euphorbos, this strange Trojan double of Achilles, is presented in the Iliad as a bridegroom never to be, and he looks like one as he dies. [58] Since Euphorbos is killed, the olive tree in the simile is violently uprooted by a storm and tossed to the ground, as it would have been in laments. We can imagine that a corresponding wedding lament for a bride would feature a tree that is not uprooted but loses its greenery and blossom.

Such imagery is actually attested in the traditional wedding songs of Eastern Europe, which have a surprising number of features in common with Ancient Greek wedding poetry. [59] One of the central themes in these modern and pre-modern songs is that of the bride’s maidenhood. In Russian songs, the maidenhood is associated with something called krásota, a symbolic object that the bride loses in the course of her wedding. This krásota, in turn, is often associated with hair, and may, in practice, be represented by a wreath, a ribbon, or other hair decoration. It can also be represented by tree branches or by a little tree, which is first decorated and then denuded of its ornaments in the course of the wedding. [60] The bride herself is closely associated with a green tree: in wedding songs, she hides behind such a tree, for example, in the hope that she will not be found; [61] her krásota, her maidenhood, flies away from her and settles on top of a tree; [62] her friends compare her loss from their maidenly circle with a tree which has lost its top branch; [63] and, finally, the loss of maidenhood is compared to the irrevocable drying up of the tree. One Russian wedding song is very reminiscent of Sappho’s song where the bride talks to her maidenhood, partheneia, which refuses to ever come back:

(νύμφη) παρθενία, παρθενία, ποῖ με λίποισα οἴχηι;
(παρθενία) οὐκέτι ἤξω πρὸς σέ, οὐκέτι ἤξω.

(Maiden): Maidenhood, maidenhood, where do you go, forsaking me?
(Maidenhood): I will come to you no more, I will come no more.

Sappho 114 Voigt

The Russian example is also a dialogue, and again, the maidenhood is offended and says that she will never return. The Russian song then continues with two additional lines, referring to the little tree that symbolizes the bride’s maidenhood and that will never be green again:

Пошла девья красота,
На милую Катюшу рассердилася:
Дверями хлопнула, ногой топнула:
—Этому дереву не быть два раза зелёным,
А Катерине Фёдоровне не быть два раза девушкой. [64]

The maidenly krasota has walked away,
Has become angry with darling Katyusha:
She [krasota] slammed the door, she stomped her foot:
—This tree will not be green twice,
And Katerina Fedorovna will not be a maiden twice.

I suggest that a similar tradition is evoked in Odysseus’ description of the bed: in describing not just any olive, but a young and flourishing olive, which loses its luxurious hair, Odysseus is speaking the symbolic language of wedding song, and specifically of weddings songs about the bride’s loss of maidenhood.

In Eastern European weddings there is a progression from parting with the maidenhood (pictured as blossoming but free from any connection to agriculture) to celebrating the fertility of marriage. This later part of the wedding is full of agricultural imagery—red apples and gardens full of ripe berries. [65] We can detect the same opposition in the fragments of Sappho, where the bride is compared, on the one hand, to a beautiful but fragile and fruitless flower (Sappho 105c Voigt), and on the other hand to a sweet red apple, ripe and accessible only to the best (Sappho 105a Voigt). A similar contrast is present in Catullus 62.39–47, where the girls, in their conventional and futile resistance to the wedding, insist on the pure beauty of a flower, while the boys harp on an agricultural picture of a fruitful vine. [66] Association between marriage and agriculture is also, of course, implicit in the wedding formula about the sowing of children. [67]
The olive in Odysseus’ description of the bed follows a somewhat analogous trajectory, not in the sense of fertility, but in transitioning from nature to culture. Being a symbol of maidenhood, it becomes dry forever, but it also becomes, quite literally, the pillar of the marriage, the support of the marriage bed and part of the structure of the household. In Odysseus’ narrative of the bed, the story of the olive brackets the central repetition of the adjective pukinos: the olive is green and bushy on one side of it, while it is cut and shaped into a bedpost on the other, and, in the middle, firmly enclosed within a maximally domestic space, surrounded by stone walls, and protected by tightly closed doors. As in the wedding, there is here an irrevocable loss, but also a gain. The natural beauty of the flourishing tree is replaced by a domestic structure, which has a beauty of a different kind: straightened, leveled, and evened out, it is carefully and firmly fitted into a construction which signals marriage, wealth, and stability. It is for this that the bride’s maidenhood was sacrificed—and the bride in question, is, of course, Penelope, who gave up her maidenhood, once and for all, to Odysseus, and to no one else.
As Odysseus speaks, or perhaps sings, he also looks the part. Directly preceding the test of the bed, we find another element surprisingly reminiscent of Eastern European wedding songs, namely Odysseus’ own flowery hair. Directly before he re-performs his bed, Athena makes Odysseus larger and more robust and makes his hair like hyacinth:

μείζονά τ’ εἰσιδέειν καὶ πάσσονα· κὰδ δὲ κάρητος
οὔλας ἧκε κόμας, ὑακινθίνῳ ἄνθει ὁμοίας.

taller to look at and sturdier: and from his head
she let his hair down in curls, like the hyacinth flower.

Odyssey 23.157–158

Irwin argues convincingly that this refers not the color of Odysseus hair, which is elsewhere described as “blond” (ξανθός, 13.431) but to his abundant “well-groomed curls,” the “long, thick, blond hair” of a “vigorous, handsome warrior.” [68] The most typical feature of the groom in Eastern European wedding songs are his curls. They are usually golden, and the most conventional line describes them as falling to his shoulders and glowing like fire: (По плечам лежат, словно жар горят). [69] Curiously, the groom’s hair is usually described as specifically curly, with multiple round curls, which are sometimes described as blossoming (Расцвели кудри молодецкие “the hero’s curls have blossomed”), [70] and even hyperbolically as decorated, each curl separately, with a flower and a pearl:

На всякой кудринке по цветочку цветет,
По цветочку цветет по лазурьевому,
На всякой кудринке по жемчужинке.

On every curlicue there is a flower blooming,
On each one a sky-blue flower blooming,
On every curlicue there is a pearl. [71]

Euphorbos might have approved of this hair style, imaginary though it is. The hair of the groom with its rows of curls proclaims youth, vigor, and sexual potency, just as Odysseus’ hair does in the Odyssey. Of course, so does the luxurious hair of the maiden. Yet there is an asymmetry between the newlyweds when it comes to their hair: nothing happens, in the course of the Russian wedding, to the groom’s curls. We see them in the initial, pre-wedding songs, we see them in the middle days of the ritual, at exchanges of gifts and various other events, and they are still as golden and flowery as ever at the concluding feast. By contrast, the bride’s maidenly hair is decorated, celebrated, lamented, and then done up in a new way and hidden, by the time of the final feast, under her womanly headdress. I think we see the same asymmetry in Odyssey 23, where Odysseus’s hyacinthine curls are restored by Athena, but Penelope’s hair does not become flowery again and is not mentioned at all, invisible to us and presumably at least partially covered by some sort of snood or another headdress, as it would have been at a real concluding feast of a real wedding. In Iliad 22, Andromache, now a widow rather than a wife, lets fall from her head the head-binding, κρήδεμνον, which golden Aphrodite gave her on the day of her wedding (Iliad 22.470–472). Whatever that looks like, Penelope presumably is wearing something similar. As Odysseus describes the bed, his revived hyacinth is juxtaposed with the flowering kome of olive, which has been cut once and for all, his cyclicity juxtaposed with her linearity.

With these golden curls, then, tumbling down to his shoulders and with the wedding music still playing in the background, Odysseus reprises for Penelope a wedding song, re-enacting their wedding. He pays tribute, through the description of the olive, to her momentous transformation from a maiden into a wife, an irrevocable event at the center of their union, and then, in words, he re-builds their bed. Fitting his words together as neatly as he once fitted the stones around the olive, Odysseus now reconstructs his marriage in song, leaving no other course for Penelope but to embrace him, all doubts dispelled at last.


I hope to have added another small facet to the multi-faceted puzzle that is Penelope’s trick of the bed. This apparently supernumerary recognition is there, in my opinion, not because Penelope is peculiarly bad at recognizing her husband, nor even because she wants to test his emotional response or express her indignation. Although she does recognize him before, Penelope now maneuvers herself into a different traditional story and into the advantageous position of not having recognized him just yet. She manipulates the trajectory of the plot to put herself, for a brief moment, into a position of unexpected power. It may be fair to say that Penelope gets the better of Odysseus here, as many critics have thought. [72] Odysseus seems to see through her device, but has to go along with it, and, of course, rises to Penelope’s challenge. It seems reductive, however, to see Odysseus’ responding performance simply as an expression of his emotion, be that love or anger. Granted, the very ornateness of his bed-song could be heard as an index of the importance his marriage holds for him, the importance of which is initially indexed by the ornateness of the bed itself. The focus of the interaction, however, seems grander than personal affection.
Writing about the “agrarian wedding,” Barber points out that it is short on romance, but “not without poetry.” As she puts it: “Where we emphasize romance, the agrarian culture emphasizes the cosmic attributes of the union of Male and Female: each man becomes momentarily the Cosmic Hero, each girl the Cosmic Bride.” [73] I think Barber’s point applies to a great extent to the marriage between Penelope and Odysseus, a marriage which seems somehow to be necessary for Ithaca to flourish, and the re-consummation of which in Odyssey 23 is a cosmic event. For its sake, Athena delays Dawn on the shores of the Okeanos and does not allow the goddess to yoke her light-bringing horses until Odysseus has had enough talk, sex, and sleep (Odyssey 23.242–246, 344–348). Through its evocation of the wedding, Odysseus’ song of the bed points beyond the psychological interactions of two people and to the grander, cosmic significance of his marriage to Penelope. With the song of the bed the wedding theme comes to its conclusion, the wedding music fades, and while Odysseus and Penelope cry in each other’s arms and then enjoy talk and love in their splendid bed, we linger at a point of coincidence and balance where the moving and the stationary, the cyclical and the linear come together for a moment, as time itself stands still.


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[ back ] 1. Sita speaking to Rama in the Adhyatma Ramayana 2.4.78 (Baij Nath 1913).
[ back ] 2. Christopoulos 2017:5–6.
[ back ] 3. See Beck 2005:113 on the way the passage is constructed so that “the impact of the speech falls belatedly on both the audience and Odysseus.”
[ back ] 4. See Zeitlin 1995:123 with reference to Germain 1954:213, Murnaghan 1987:141 on the illogicalities of the episode as a test of fidelity—Penelope could have been unfaithful to Odysseus without moving the bed, and the bed could have been moved without unfaithfulness.
[ back ] 5. See, in particular, Zeitlin 1995 and Myrsiades 2019:258–266, both with extensive bibliographies. Beck 2005:110–126.
[ back ] 6. Levaniouk 2011, Levaniouk forthcoming.
[ back ] 7. Christensen 2020:185.
[ back ] 8. Roisman 1987.
[ back ] 9. Vlahos 2007:120–128.
[ back ] 10. See Epstein 2020, Felson-Rubin 1994; Reece 2011:110–114; Ready 2014, Levaniouk 2023.
[ back ] 11. Hansen 2002:201–211. See also Ready 2014 for possible allusion to other tales of the ATU 974 type in Odyssey 21.
[ back ] 12. In addition to the Aarne-Thompson’s index, the tale is included in Christiansen’s index of migratory legends as ML 8005.
[ back ] 13. Hansen 2002:201–211.
[ back ] 14. Douris FHG II 47942 (Scholia in Lycophronem 772e), Pseudo-Apollodorus Epitome 7.38–39, Lykophron Alexandra 768–773.
[ back ] 15. Yuddhakanda 103.2–18 (Goldman, Sutherland Goldman, and van Nooten 2009).
[ back ] 16. Rhomaios 1952:334–354.
[ back ] 17. Politis 1914 no.84.
[ back ] 18. Kakridis 1971:152–153.
[ back ] 19. Kakridis 1971:152.
[ back ] 20. Politis 1914 no.84, translated by Kakridis 1971:152–153.
[ back ] 21. Kakridis 1971:153.
[ back ] 22. Kakridis 1971:153.
[ back ] 23. Kakridis 1971:153–156.
[ back ] 24. Kakridis 1971:156.
[ back ] 25. Kakridis 1971:157.
[ back ] 26. Kakridis 1971:160.
[ back ] 27. Felson-Rubin 1994:38 comes to the same conclusion, namely that Penelope “administers the test to herself,” without referring to the Long-Absent Husband ballad.
[ back ] 28. See Zeitlin 1995:142–143 for a very different argument leading to a similar conclusion about Penelope’s excuse.
[ back ] 29. See Ahl and Roisman 1996:269–271 for a discussion of Penelope’s rhetorical strategies in this scene.
[ back ] 30. Louden 2011, Vlahos 2011.
[ back ] 31. Levaniouk 2023.
[ back ] 32. Louden 2011:89.
[ back ] 33. O’Donald 2019:2–26.
[ back ] 34. O’Donald 2019:156–157.
[ back ] 35. O’Donald 2019:161.
[ back ] 36. O’Donald 2019:62–63.
[ back ] 37. O’Donald 2019:165.
[ back ] 38. See Felson-Rubin 1994:38 for the argument that the narrative itself is a sema.
[ back ] 39. See in particular Austin 1975:525, Vidal-Naquet 1986, Bonnafé 1985, Zeitlin 1995:120–121, Nagler 1996:153.
[ back ] 40. Moulton 1977:93n14, Beck 2008:175–176, Stelow 2020:64, Oliensis 2019:36–37, Felton 2016:243–244, Lovatt 2013:275. On the simile as reflecting Menelaos’ beauty and nobility, see Ford 2002:117.
[ back ] 41. On beliefs pertaining to zostra and its possible connection to the string skirt, see Barber 1994:65–66.
[ back ] 42. On the encomiastic implication of this for Menelaos, who participates in the chariot race at the funeral games of Patroclus, see Kirk 1985:345–346, Neal 2006:46–48, Brown 2003:128.
[ back ] 43. See Oliensis 2019 on the Homeric simile and its imperial reception.
[ back ] 44. As Whitmarsh (2020:139 ad 1.4.30) points out, the transmitted text, οἵαν εἰς τὸν ἐλέφαντα seems impossible since elsewhere Achilles Tatius uses dative with βάπτω and since “one does not dip dye into ivory.” He suggests emending εἰς τὸν into πριστόν on the basis of Odyssey 18.196.
[ back ] 45. On the anakalypteria, see Ferrari 2002:186–190.
[ back ] 46. On the dream and its similarity to dream-songs performed in the course of the wedding, see Levaniouk 2023 and Levaniouk forthcoming.
[ back ] 47. On the verdant landscapes inhabited by maidens, see Rosenmeyer 2004:171, Swift 2006:127–129; on hyacinth, see Prauscello 2007, Stehle Stigers 1977:94.
[ back ] 48. Levaniouk 2012: §§143–147.
[ back ] 49. On hair as a signal of vitality see Irwin 1990 and for gendered aspects of hair Levine 1995.
[ back ] 50. On Theran frescoes, see Rehak 2002:46–47. Levine 1995:106 notes that “men with visible hair and married women with invisible hair form the normative landscape of the ancient Mediterranean.”
[ back ] 51. On this motif, see Alexiou 2002:198–201, Dué 2006:78–87.
[ back ] 52. Alexiou 2002:200.
[ back ] 53. Alexiou 2002:120.
[ back ] 54. Seaford 1987:114–115; Lardinois 2001:83–85.
[ back ] 55. Politis 1930:281, Alexiou 2002:122.
[ back ] 56. Dué 2007:237–238.
[ back ] 57. Nagy 2010:296.
[ back ] 58. Dué 2006:78–87. On Achilles as eternal bridegroom, see Nagy 2013:109–145. On some other doomed bridegrooms and newlyweds in the Iliad see Griffin 1980:131–135.
[ back ] 59. These include brides and grooms meeting by a river or fountain, girls dancing in groups in a flowering landscape, the bride’s interrupted weaving, trampled flowers, the motif of the inaccessible bride (like an apple on the tallest branch, for example), the bride’s luxurious hair, special water for the bridal bath, and even humorous songs about the size of the wedding participants, like Sappho’s large-footed door-guard (see Levaniouk 2012 and Levaniouk forthcoming).
[ back ] 60. Potanina, Leonova and Fetisova 2002:109–113, 127, Shapovalova and Lavrentieva 1985:100, Kulagina and Ivanov 2001:1.73–74, 79. Koskina 1997:123–124.
[ back ] 61. Kulagina and Ivanov 2001:310 no.180.
[ back ] 62. Kulagina and Ivanov 2000:143 no.13.
[ back ] 63. Shapovalova and Lavrentieva 1985:194.
[ back ] 64. Potanina, Leonova and Fetisova 2002:127 with reference to Potanina 1979:74.
[ back ] 65. Levaniouk 2012: §§120–121.
[ back ] 66. See Stehle Stigers 1977:49 and 86–89 for a discussion of this opposition.
[ back ] 67. The wedding formula “I give you my daughter for the sowing of legitimate children” occurs five times in Menander’s comedies in several slightly different forms, e.g. in Perikeiromene 1013–1014: ταύτην γνησίων / παίδων ἐπ’ ἀρότωι σοι δίδωμι. The formula is also cited by Lucian Timon 17.2.
[ back ] 68. Irwin 1990:218, 214.
[ back ] 69. Kulagina and Ivanov 2001:2.84, no.356a.
[ back ] 70. Kolpakova 1973:153, no.297.
[ back ] 71. Kolpakova 1973:153, no.297.
[ back ] 72. Ahl and Roisman 1996:267, Christopoulos 2017:5 among others.
[ back ] 73. Barber 2013:152.