Penelope: “If really he is Odysseus, truly home, beyond all doubt we two shall know each other …. There are secret signs we know, we two.” …
Odysseus: “There is our pact and pledge, our secret sign, built into that bed—my handiwork and no one else’s! An old trunk of olive grew like a pillar on the building plot… I shaped that stump from the roots up into a bedpost, drilled it, let it serve as model for the rest.”
Their secret! as she heard it told, her knees grew tremulous and weak, her heart failed her. With eyes brimming tears she ran to him…
Now from his breast into his eyes the ache of longing mounted, and he wept at last, his dear wife, clear and faithful, in his arms, longed for…
Homer, Odyssey, Bk XXIII
It is one of the greatest scenes in all of literature: Odysseus returns home to his beloved wife. What transpires here touches the very roots of the most amazing of human relationships: marriage.
One by one the servants, faithful and unfaithful, have learned the identity of the returned master. Aided by Eumaeus (the swineherd) and Philoitios, and his son Telemachus, Odysseus has slain the suitors in his own home. There is yet one more who knows not of his return. For twenty years faithful Penelope has waited and watched, enduring press of suitors and false reports of a returning husband. She still guards her heart, even as she has guarded her honor. Telemachus says this beggar turned killer of suitors is his father, her husband, the lord of the house. But she devises her own test of the visitor: in his presence she instructs her servant to remove the lord’s bed from the bedchamber. Odysseus himself had shaped the corner post of that bed from the trunk of a living olive tree, around which they built their home. Only he would know that the bed cannot be moved—unless a tree be severed.
Reacting with dismay to Penelope’s command to move the bed, Odysseus passes the test, showing his identity. In her joy of recognition Penelope exclaims: “But here and now, what sign could be so clear as this of our own bed? No other man has ever laid eyes on it. You make my stiff heart know that I am yours.”
Some things a husband and wife share between themselves alone. The greatest of these is the very reality of their belonging to each other. This mutual gift has an utterly unique sign, one that literally embodies that gift. The mutual gift of spouses should be publicly known, and it has public signs such as the wedding band. But the reality of that gift also has a deeper sign, the one that embodies the gift itself. And that is their secret alone.
This deeper sign is at times a mystery, and can also be a challenge. It is a gift spouses must learn to receive, and to give.
When a spouse goes forth from the home—whether it be for twenty years, or the length of a work day—he takes with him a secret, the secret of the marriage bed. The power of that secret is the reality of what has been said, enacted, given. To betray that secret is to betray one’s very self, the truth of who I am and have become.
To honor and live that secret is the shared, daily labor of a husband and wife.
Homer (8th century B.C.) is the great epic poet, author of the Iliad and the Odyssey.
Join us in the Valley. We have some open spots in our August 4-5 Bethany Weekend on the topic Virtue and the Moral Life. We’d love to host you.
Note: This is a reworking of a post I posted here at Bacon on November 13, 2013, as part of a series on the Odyssey. You can search ‘Odyssey’ to see the others.
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I love that scene from the “Odyssey”! Would you mind sharing the source for the image of Odysseus and Penelope?
It’s a closeup detail of an image from a Greek urn. If you search images of Odysseus and Penelope on an urn you will find it. Thanks for asking.
So beautiful! Thank you!