It is often the case that, in literature, the characters that may seem the most insignificant deliver some of the most important messages in that work. Such is the case in Homer’s epic poem, the Odyssey. Several lower-class characters play small roles, but teach listeners of the poem the role of the poor in Ancient Greek society, as well as the flaws found in both lower and upper-class segments of this society.
Lower class voices in the Odyssey have very little in-text weight – that is to say, their voices have very little value to more prominent and wealthy characters. Their voices are often disregarded by the powerful, their advice is not taken, and they are punished (severely) when out of line.
Outside of the text, however, these characters work to drive home underlying themes in the Odyssey, such as the extent of upper-class cruelty towards the poorer citizens, as well as the lack of justice for the lower class in Ancient Greek society.
This can best be viewed in the individual plots (or lack thereof) of Eumaeus the swineherd, Eurycleia the nurse, Odysseus’ handmaidens, and Melanthius the goatherd. These characters bring light to societal problems not directly evident in the narrative of the Odyssey.
Few lower-class characters in the Odyssey are given true voices; Eumaeus the swineherd is an anomaly in that he plays a major role in Odysseus’ return home and his safety during his time as a beggar. He is also a strong example of the famed Greek hospitality – xenia – which was expected of all Greek citizens.
When Eumaeus first meets Odysseus, dressed as a beggar, Eumaeus saves him from his vicious dogs and tells him,
Come, follow me into my place, old man, so you,
at least, can eat your fill of bread and wine.
Then you can tell me where you’re from
and all the pains you’ve weathered. (Od. 14.50-53)
In fact, Eumaeus indirectly shows Odysseus kindness by speaking about his devotion to his “master,” who just so happens to be the beggar he unwittingly invited into his home. Eumaeus is so devoted to Odysseus, he speaks about his personal loss at the absence of the king before he even invites Odysseus into his home, saying, “Here I sit, my heart aching, broken for him, / my master, my great king” (Od. 14.44-45).
Upon news of Odysseus’ arrival, Eumaeus and his fellow cowherd Philoetius cry so much that “the sun would have set upon their tears / if Odysseus had not called a halt himself” (Od. 21.253-254).
Eumaeus even goes so far in his kindness that, prior to knowing Odysseus’ true identity, he defends him to the suitors when they mock Odysseus (Od. 17.418-431). Eumaeus points out that most people are not good enough to invite beggars into their homes; they only show kindness to those with valuable skills.
In these examples, Eumaeus is faithful to his king, polite to strangers, and a model of a good person. How could a character like Eumaeus, who is kind and loyal, not have a voice? He plays a much larger role in the narrative of the Odyssey than most other lower-class characters, and he shows that he is worthy of mutual respect. Odysseus does, in some ways, respect Eumaeus.
He knows that the swineherd is devoted to his kingdom, and as the plot progresses, Eumaeus proves his loyalty by defending Odysseus and supporting him during the slaughter and purification of his house. At one point, however, Eumaeus’ loyalty wavers, if only for a moment. When he brings Odysseus his bow, the suitors begin yelling at him, reprimanding him for his actions which Odysseus instructed him to follow only a few hours prior.
Clearly, the suitors don’t think much of bullying the old swineherd, and neither does Telemachus, who shouts, “If you serve too many masters, you’ll soon suffer. / Look sharp, or I’ll pelt you back to your farm / with flying rocks. I may be younger than you / but I’m much stronger” (Od. 21.412-415).
One could argue that Telemachus is merely trying to save face and look powerful in front of his father and the suitors. Still, such harsh words and threats were surely unwarranted after Eumaeus had just been mocked by more than a few prominent and nasty men. Telemachus’ tone of voice is not alone in belittling Eumaeus and other characters like him, either. The other suitors take great pleasure in harassing the animal herders and the beggars (Od. 18.87-101).
Eumaeus is often viewed as unimportant in the eyes of characters like Melanthius, who disliked Eumaeus’ relentless kindness, as heard when Melanthius said, “One scum nosing another scum along, / dirt finds dirt by the will of god – it never fails! / Wretched pig-boy, where do you take your filthy swine, / this sickening beggar who licks the pots at feasts?” (Od. 17. 236-239).
This proves that though Eumaeus was allowed to speak freely in front of those with more power than him, he was often viewed as unimportant – loyal, but his words were worthless in the upper class’ eyes and more powerful characters found it easy to treat him poorly.
Such is not the case with Eurycleia, Odysseus’ and Telemachus’ childhood nurse and handmaiden. Eurycleia is viewed with different respect than Eumaeus is. She is a mother figure to both Telemachus and Odysseus as she raised them. She cares deeply about them both, and cried when Telemachus left home to sail to Pylos and Sparta (Od. 2.400).
Despite their love for each other, though, she is not immune to punishment, as shown during the aftermath of the slaughter, when she was pleased with Odysseus’ victory. Odysseus did not like that she was happy in the face of death, and thus, “the soldier held her back and checked her zeal with warnings winging home: ‘Rejoice in your heart, old woman’” (Od. 22.434-435).
It seems to be, though, that she is often the voice of reason – Eurycleia pleads with Telemachus not to leave, she patiently explains to Penelope that Odysseus has returned, and she acts out of devotion and love to Odysseus and his family.
Her importance thus lies in her unbiased and unwavering care for them. Her voice, however, is limited. This can be seen when she recounts the tale of how she found Odysseus to Penelope. She tells her, “He, the crafty rascal, / clamped his hand on my mouth – I couldn’t say a word” (Od. 23.85-86).
Though in this scene she is silenced to protect Odysseus’ secret, this can also be interpreted as a representation of the silencing of the voices of the lower class, in particular lower-class women, which occurs several times in the Odyssey.
Thus, Eurycleia shows that despite the fact that she loves and is loved by Odysseus and his family, she may only speak sometimes. Furthermore, when she does speak to make suggestions, they are often dismissed. This makes the quality of her voice within the text very weak, as her words could be easy to ignore or claim are unimportant.
Externally, however, the Odyssey’s audience could interpret her voice as key to understanding the limitations of voice that exist for characters like her in such work or in such a society.
This idea can be examined more closely with a scene like the hanging of the handmaidens, which took place after the slaughter of the suitors. Eurycleia informed Odysseus that, of the fifty handmaidens currently employed, a dozen were unfaithful to Odysseus by sleeping with the suitors.
Odysseus is outraged at this knowledge and immediately has her send the handmaidens in for him to deal with. Odysseus gives Telemachus some instructions on how to deal with them – “hack them with your swords, slash out all their lives – / blot out of their minds the joys of love they relished / under the suitors’ bodies, rutting on the sly!” (Od. 23.468-470).
Odysseus’ immediate inclination for violence speaks volumes about the consequences women, particularly lower-class women working as servants or maids, faced when caught having sex. This is a societal double standard, as the men they sleep with do not get punished.
In the Odyssey, these men are only killed because they showed such disrespect to Odysseus and Odysseus’ family and property. Odysseus feels he must punish the women, without even having the kindness to allow them to defend themselves, and Telemachus agrees with this harsh sentence.
Though Telemachus’ instructions were clear to kill them with their swords, he must believe he can do better, because after cleaning the mess from the battle, the women are lined up and hanged one by one –
Then, as doves or thrushes beating their spread wings
against some snare rigged up in thickets […]
so the women’s head were trapped in a line,
nooses yanking their necks up, one by one
so all might die a pitiful, ghastly death. (Od. 22.494-499)
The fact that none of the traitorous women were allowed to speak for themselves shows the quality of their voice. It may even be that none of the other, more powerful characters would hear them even if they were allowed to speak. Their death is a gruesome silencing and is far more brutal than is necessary. Telemachus knows this – he knows that the violent death his father suggested is far kinder, but, “‘No clean death for the likes of them, by god!’” (Od. 22.488).
The hanging of the handmaidens is important because it shows how widespread corruption was in Ithaca after Odysseus’ departure. In a society where women are held up to this double standard of having sex, these women showed a lot of disrespect to Odysseus and his kingdom. In addition, it shows the justice allowed for the cases pertaining to the lower classes – they are largely treated as though they do not have a voice at all, and are often served harsh punishments.
The characters within the Odyssey cannot see this because it is part of the corrupt system that they live in, but as a reader or listener, their death is unnecessarily brutal.
The concept of harsh punishments can also be seen in the mutilation of Melanthius the goatherd. Melanthius is a character that straddles the line of the lower and middle class – he is a goatherd, which leaves him in the lower half of the class structure, but he is also a suitor, which gives him more permission to speak and act as he chooses.
Unfortunately, he often acts quite cruelly towards other characters, as seen when he yells at Eumaeus and in his interactions with Odysseus during their mealtime. Odysseus is well aware of why Melanthius is such a foul person, however, when he finds that Melanthius has been bringing armor to the suitors from the storeroom, he takes his anger out on Melanthius to an extreme.
Wrench Melanthius’ arms and legs behind him,
fling him down in the storeroom – lash his back to a plank
and strap a twisted cable fast to the scoundrel’s body,
hoist him up a column until he hits the rafters –
let him dangle in agony, still alive,
for a good long time! (Od. 22.181-186)
This must have been a horribly painful experience for Melanthius. Unfortunately, this was not the end to his punishment. After the other suitors have been killed, Telemachus and the herdsmen “lopped his nose and ears with a ruthless knife, / tore his genitals out for the dogs to eat raw / and in manic fury hacked off hands and feet” (Od. 22.502-504).
This is not just a painful punishment, this is cruel and barbaric. Though Melanthius acted poorly and even betrayed Odysseus by taking armor, did he deserve this? Where was his voice when these actions were being carried out? In Ancient Greece, there was obviously no justice system as sophisticated as the ones found today, but as king, Odysseus has a duty to treat his citizens fairly, as his words are final.
Melanthius’ brutal treatment serves to show the severity of punishment in Ancient Greece, and shows that his freedom of speech does not grant him immunity from said punishments. His voice may be heard by those around him, but it does nothing to protect him in his final moments. His gruesome sentence thus serves as his “voice” – the audience of the Odyssey hears the severity of his punishment, even if the characters in the Odyssey do not.
Lower-class characters in the Odyssey are subjected to poor treatment, as seen in the punishments of Melanthius and the handmaidens. They also have a poor quality of voice. This can be seen in the cases of Eurycleia and Eumaeus; they are often disregarded or dismissed and their suggestions are not heard.
Both Eurycleia and Eumaeus are known for their loyalty, and both Melanthius and the handmaidens are known for their disloyalty, so why do all four receive poor treatment? It may be the case that all characters in lower positions are punished or dismissed in such a way at some point simply because there is such a divide between classes, but it may also be that Homer is pointing to a different issue – the lower class in the Odyssey are systematically ignored, even when they deserve to be heard.
This idea sets the ground for a different concept: that there exists, within the Odyssey, a condition where the lower class, perceived as weak, are juxtaposed with cruelty, punishment, and silence. These lower-class characters deliver the hardest impact and the strongest messages, as a result of their mistreatment and silence. Thus, they are only given a voice through their existence in the narrative, and their ability to be heard by the audience of this poem.