In book 22nd of Odyssey Ulysses massacres one hundred and eight of his wife’s suitors, dreadfully hangs to death twelve of his unfaithful maid-servants and sentences to an horrible death his goatherd who had been a traitor. Unquestionably a carnage and an unmerciful sequence of actions where revenge and justice, though barbaric to our modern view and custom, duly follow – as I have tried to clarify in my latest articles – a code of honour deep-rooted in those societies and in those days. However, as it has brightly noted and pointed out by one of my readers, Odysseus spares Medon and Phemius’ lives even though both of them, regardless being members of his oikos, had proved to be disloyal to their king and master during the interminable suers’ siege.
The former, Phemius, is one of those minstrels who used to sing in order to entertain with their stories. It is worth mentioning that normally those bards were nomadic artists who used to perform anywhere there was any audience available, thus typically squares, marketplaces, harbours and inns. Some of them were highly successful and some were also punished when fame, as well as it most commonly happens also nowadays to stars, overtook their wits..
“the Muses met Thamyris the Thracian [a very famous bard] and made an end of his singing, even as he was journeying from Oechalia, from the house of Eurytus the Oechalian: for he vaunted with boasting that he would conquer, were the Muses themselves to sing against him, the daughters of Zeus that beareth the aegis; but they in their wrath maimed him, and took from him his wondrous song, and made him forget his minstrelsy”
Sometimes, if lucky enough and truly deserving, minstrels stopped and were almost permanently hosted in royal palaces – which is our case. In fact what makes Phemius guilty is the circumstance that he is one of those few non-itinerant minstrels who permanently resided and lived within a king’s court, thus becoming an active part of his oikos and subject to its rules like any other member. As member of the oikos Phemius benefited of several advantages; first of all in terms of protection, which was quite a priceless commodity in those days of brigands, unwritten laws and brutally – and rather inconsistently – administered justice; moreover Phemius had a granted roof and enough food to support himself. Clearly this safe and unwavering status corresponded to a total acquiescence to his patron…
Regrettably during his king’s long absence Phemius chanted and told stories to entertain the suers throughout their banquets within his master’s very palace. Sometimes he also sang tales about the war of Troy and the nostoi of its heroes (the adventures of their way back) to amuse the bold usurpers and yet, just because of the sadness of the subject, of course unbearably unpleasant to his Queen Penelope.
“For them the famous minstrel was singing, and they sat in silence listening; and he sang of the return of the Achaeans—the woeful return from Troy which Pallas Athena laid upon them. And from her upper chamber the daughter of Icarius, wise Penelope, heard his wondrous song, and she went down the high stairway from her chamber, not alone, for two handmaids attended her. Now when the fair lady had come to the wooers, she stood by the door-post of the well-built hall, holding before her face her shining veil; and a faithful handmaid stood on either side of her. Then she burst into tears, and spoke to the divine minstrel: “Phemius, many other things thou knowest to charm mortals, deeds of men and gods which minstrels make famous. Sing them one of these, as thou sittest here, and let them drink their wine in silence. But cease from this woeful song which ever harrows the heart in my breast, for upon me above all women has come a sorrow not to be forgotten. So dear a head do I ever remember with longing, even my husband, whose fame is wide through Hellas and mid-Argos.”
Certainly Phemius never took part to any of the outrageous actions of the suitors, albeit he passively kept performing his duties at request and to the delight of illegitimately arrogating people different from his master. Thus, having seen the unfortunate punishment of his fellows the poor bard tries to beg for mercy representing that somehow he was restrained by the circumstances, and unwillingly he could not but comply:
“the minstrel, was still seeking to escape black fate, even Phemius, who sang perforce among the wooers. He stood with the clear-toned lyre in his hands near the postern door, and he was divided in mind whether he should slip out from the hall and sit down by the well-built altar of great Zeus, the God of the court, whereon Laertes and Odysseus had burned many things of oxen, or whether he should rush forward and clasp the knees of Odysseus in prayer. And as he pondered this seemed to him the better course, to clasp the knees of Odysseus, son of Laertes. So he laid the hollow lyre on the ground between the mixing-bowl and the silver-studded chair, and himself rushed forward and clasped Odysseus by the knees, and made entreaty to him, and spoke winged words: “By thy knees I beseech thee, Odysseus, and do thou respect me and have pity; on thine own self shall sorrow come hereafter, if thou slayest the minstrel, even me, who sing to gods and men. Self-taught am I, and the god has planted in my heart all manner of lays, and worthy am I to sing to thee as to a god; wherefore be not eager to cut my throat. Aye, and Telemachus too will bear witness to this, thy dear son, how that through no will or desire of mine I was wont to resort to thy house to sing to the wooers at their feasts, but they, being far more and stronger, led me hither perforce.”
Telemachus, who had witnessed the minstrel’s conduct takes the stand and intercedes in his favour, joining his plead; furthermore he includes in the begging for mercy also for the poor Medon, the herald:
“Stay thy hand, and do not wound this guiltless man with the sword. Aye, and let us save also the herald, Medon, who ever cared for me in our house, when I was a child, unless perchance Philoetius has already slain him, or the swineherd, or he met thee as thou didst rage through the house.”
In fact Medon, although not really guilty of any disloyal behaviour, was in any case hiding from his master’s rage and castigation; can finally come out from his hiding place:
“Medon, wise of heart, heard him, for he lay crouching beneath a chair, and had clothed himself in the skin of an ox, newly flayed, seeking to avoid black fate. Straightway he rose from beneath the chair and stripped off the ox-hide, and then rushed forward and clasped Telemachus by the knees, and made entreaty to him, and spoke winged words: “Friend, here I am; stay thou thy hand and bid thy father stay his, lest in the greatness of his might he harm me with the sharp bronze in his wrath against the wooers, who wasted his possessions in the halls, and in their folly honoured thee not at all”.
To this appeals Ulysses, benevolently, surrenders and spares both servants’ lives:
“Odysseus of many wiles smiled, and said to him: “Be of good cheer, for he has delivered thee and saved thee, that thou mayest know in thy heart and tell also to another, how far better is the doing of good deeds than of evil. But go forth from the halls and sit down outside in the court away from the slaughter, thou and the minstrel of many songs, till I shall have finished all that I must needs do in the house.”
It is significant that both servants plead their innocence and blame any of their ambiguous actions on the conflicting conditions within the under siege oikos and their obvious fear for the suers’ reactions. Thus their reluctant involvement to any possible wrongdoing was induced only by the psychological and physical pressure exerted by the suitors. Consequently it may be argued that Odysseus had a different behaviour towards Phemius and Medon compared to his unmerciful decision after Leiodes’ (the suitors’ soothsayer) practically identical appeal:
“Leiodes rushed forward and clasped the knees of Odysseus, and made entreaty to him, and spoke winged words: “By thy knees I beseech thee, Odysseus, and do thou respect me and have pity. For I declare to thee that never yet have I wronged one of the women in thy halls by wanton word or deed; nay, I sought to check the other wooers, when any would do such deeds. But they would not hearken to me to withhold their hands from evil, wherefore through their wanton folly they have met a cruel doom. Yet I, the soothsayer among them, that have done no wrong, shall be laid low even as they; so true is it that there is no gratitude in aftertime for good deeds done.”
Yet, to a more attentive analysis, the two decisions are only apparently contradictory. The circumstances, the scenario and the personal position of each single pleader (and under which his actions were performed) play a significant role solely within the framework of the administration of justice within Odysseus’ oikos – but are irrelevant to Odysseus’ vendetta. Ulysses administers his domestic justice to restore the order within his oikos. He analyses different levels of guilt and consequent nuances of punishments and forgiveness, by this setting also precedents:
“and that thou mayest know in thy heart and tell also to another, how far better is the doing of good deeds than of evil.”
When instead it comes to revenge, as I have already described, it’s the act itself that essentially wounds the honour – regardless the circumstances and the willingness of the wrongdoer. Intentions and motives pertain to the sphere of justice, which by definition cannot be applied to Leiodes who is not a member of the oikos, and unfortunately for him the vengeance paradigm admits no gradations between slaughter and financial compensation