Merciful Odysseus absolves his loyal servants

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

Justice in Hesiod’s poetry

In very ancient Greece, such as the one narrated by Homer in his poems justice was based on themistes i.e. sort of sacred decrees that somehow the Gods inspired to the βασιλευς through dreams or oracles. These both supernaturally originated and religiously enforced laws then actually ruled those communities and being harvested and transmitted from generation to generation became a rather complex and sacrosanct system of duties, rights and even jurisprudence. Consequently, in that age the word Θέμις (Themis) was considered the translation for Justice, being, besides, Θέμις the God of Justice. Nonetheless, Greeks also had used another term to convey the sense of justice i.e. Δκη. (Dike) These two terms (Themis and Dike) that seem to have been sort of synonyms during what is called by modern scholars the Greek Dark Age (until circa 700 B.C.) became as the political structure of πολις began to develop and then evolved, diverse and to a certain extent identified justice in two different stages of ancient Greek socio-political framework.


In the first stage of this said evolution Θέμις was a Justice administered within a community by a narrow aristocratic circle where rules were conceived, interpreted and respected because they are considered being the direct will of the Gods. A rather brutal and mainly predatory aristocratic society – as the ones described by Homer is the principal actor within this social framework where agriculture is still undeveloped and sheep farming and neighbourhood ransacking constitute its main economy. Later on these communities started to convert their war-structures into more pacific and agricultural societies, and later on even mercantile and naval ones. Concomitantly the Greek world developed also the concept of law, which was still in the first stage difficult to distinguish from justice itself. Thus human laws replaced supernatural and divine laws. This process obviously was not immediate, but surely the need to legalise the economic and non-economic relations among people within the community and the necessity to give exact and reliable rules to increasingly complex transactions, most certainly accelerated the birth and growth of Δκη. Finally after a period of interregnum during which the two sets of laws somehow coexisted, Dike – together with nomos (written law) as its operational longa manus – took definitively the place of Θέμις in meaning justice, and at the same time certainty of rights and duties. The main achievement of Greek society – democracy – therefore has also fundaments in Dike combined with nomos whose resultant was equal rights.

Nevertheless, at the dawn of Greek re-birth and yet long before democracy was reached, Hesiod (circa 700 B.C.) was already living, feeling and describing this transition. In his poem The works and the days Hesiod basically deals with the pains originating from working as a farmer and yet he recommends a simple – though hard – life based on manual labour and reproaches inactivity and laziness. Hesiod’s verses are quite dry and samey, nonetheless he suddenly somehow bursts against unjust judges. Actually Hesiod is incited by a personal case he had lost against his own brother Perses:

But you, Perses, listen to right and do not foster
violence; for violence is bad for a poor man. Even the
prosperous cannot easily bear its burden, but is weighed down
under it when he has fallen into delusion

He describes the judges as δωροφγοι – referring to bribing and corruptibility which were likely to happen also in those days:

But only when he has suffered does the fool learn this. For Oath
keeps pace with wrong judgements. There is a noise when Justice
is being dragged in the way where those who devour bribes and
give sentence with crooked judgements, take her.

Thus Hesiodos hopes are placed in Dike as a superior justice:

The better path is to go by on the other side towards justice; for Justice beats
Outrage when she comes at length to the end of the race
And she,wrapped in mist, follows to the city and haunts of the people,
weeping, and bringing mischief to men, even to such as have
driven her forth in that they did not deal straightly with her

And this Justice should be applied to everyone: aristocratic and not, even including the βασιλευς:

You princes, mark well this punishment you also;
for the deathless gods are near among men and mark all those who
oppress their fellows with crooked judgements, and reck not the
anger of the gods.

According to Hesiod such a Dike is a necessity, because without it a community cannot prosper:

they who give straight judgements to strangers
and to the men of the land, and go not aside from what is just,
their city flourishes, and the people prosper in it: Peace, the
nurse of children, is abroad in their land, and all-seeing Zeus
never decrees cruel war against them. Neither famine nor
disaster ever haunt men who do true justice; but light-heartedly
they tend the fields which are all their care. The earth bears
them victual in plenty, and on the mountains the oak bears acorns
upon the top and bees in the midst. Their woolly sheep are laden
with fleeces; their women bear children like their parents. They
flourish continually with good things, and do not travel on
ships, for the grain-giving earth bears them fruit.

However it must be underlined that Hesiodos portrays Gods and other supernatural agents that keep spying on humanity in order to verify the application of justice and punish injustice:

But for those who practise violence and cruel deeds
far-seeing Zeus, the son of Cronos, ordains a punishment. Often
even a whole city suffers for a bad man who sins and devises
presumptuous deeds, and the son of Cronos lays great trouble upon
the people, famine and plague together, so that the men perish
away, and their women do not bear children, and their houses
become few, through the contriving of Olympian Zeus. And again,
at another time, the son of Cronos either destroys their wide
army, or their walls, or else makes an end of their ships on the
(…omissis…)For upon the bounteous earth Zeus has thrice
ten thousand spirits, watchers of mortal men, and these keep
watch on judgements and deeds of wrong as they roam, clothed in
mist, all over the earth. And there is virgin Justice, the
daughter of Zeus, who is honoured and reverenced among the gods
who dwell on Olympus, and whenever anyone hurts her with lying
slander, she sits beside her father, Zeus the son of Cronos, and
tells him of men’s wicked heart, until the people pay for the mad
folly of their princes who, evilly minded, pervert judgement and
give sentence crookedly. Keep watch against this, you princes,
and make straight your judgements, you who devour bribes; put
crooked judgements altogether from your thoughts.

Therefore Hesiod’s Dike, albeit containing many forthcoming features of democratic justice and nomos, is still intensely linked to a remarkable mythological interpretation which was typical of Hesiod’s age.

Nevertheless Hesiod is more distant from the Homeric Θέμις approach and much closer to the isonomic sense of justice, a logic which will be paramount for the actual birth of democracy – and even modern and applicable to our own days:

ο γατ κακ τεχει νρ λλ κακ τεχων,
δ κακ βουλ τ βουλεσαντι κακστη

[He does mischief to himself who does mischief to
another, and evil planned harms the plotter most.]

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