Monday 29 January 2024

Silences in the Homeric Odyssey

In the Odyssey, the following kind of thing is absolutely normal. For a regular novelist this scene would be a triumph. For Homer, it was Tuesday.

Silent silence

We’re in Odyssey book 16. Odysseus has been separated from his family for twenty years. He’s back, disguised as a beggar, doing some reconnaissance. At the moment he’s visiting with Eumaios, an enslaved herdsman. Suddenly, with no warning, his son Telemachos appears at the door. Odysseus hasn’t seen Telemachos since he was a baby.

[Odysseus] hadn’t finished speaking when his own son
stood at the front door. Surprised, the herdsman got up.
Out of his hands fell the bowls he was working with,
mixing glistening wine. Eumaios went straight to his lord,
kissed his head and his two bright eyes,
and both hands; and he burst into tears.

As when a father who loves his son greets him
returning home from a far-off land after ten years
separated from his only son, and he endured many labours for him,
so it was with the good swineherd and godlike Telemachos.

He poured kisses all over him, as if he had escaped death,
and weeping he spoke winged words to him:
‘You’ve come! Telemachos! Sweet light! I thought I’d never
see you again, after you sailed away to Pylos.
Come, come inside, dear son, so that I can
enjoy looking at you, you new arrival!’ . . .

To him thoughtful Telemachos spoke in turn:
‘Let’s do that, papa. It was for you that I came here,
so I could see you with my eyes and hear your words ...’

Odyssey 16.11–32

This is third-person narrative, not theatre. You can’t see where the characters are standing, their movements, their faces. They aren’t present in the way that an actor is.

So imagine, if you will, Odysseus’ face as he watches these things in silence.

As when a father who loves his son greets him ...

‘Come, come inside, dear son ...’

‘Let’s do that, papa. It was for you that I came here ...’

How’s he going to feel, hearing his long-lost son treating a slave as his father? We aren’t told. Presumably, if he has a reaction at all, he’s keeping it well hidden because he’s still in disguise.

Odysseus loses an awful lot of points for being a slave owner, but you can’t say he isn’t stoic.

Telemachus (Alan Stenson) refuses to believe Eumaeus (Tony Vogel) that Odysseus (Armand Assante) has returned. In this version there’s no silence at all, Telemachus and Eumaeus don’t address each other as ‘son’ and ‘father’, Eumaeus knows Odysseus’ true identity already and tells it to Telemachus straightaway. (The Odyssey, dir. Andrei Konchalovsky, 1997)

The question is, is he actually being stoic? Or is his reaction just glossed over, because it’s third-person narrative? Do we ignore Odysseus’ feelings because they aren’t mentioned, or do we imagine him staring fixedly at the others in agony, holding back tears?

Basically, what kind of silence is it?

Explicit silence

Here’s another scene where Odysseus maintains a stoic silence, concealing his emotion. But this time, it’s something we’re explicitly told. The storyteller directly mentions Odysseus’ reaction, and his silence. It’s the scene where Odysseus is recognised by his old dog, Argos.

And a dog lifted up his head and ears as he lay:
Argos, dog of enduring Odysseus, whom he himself
raised; but he didn’t get the benefit, for first he went away
to holy Ilion. Formerly young men used to lead him
after wild goats and deer and rabbits,
but by this time he lay unwanted, his lord absent,
on a pile of dung heaped in front of the gates
from asses and oxen, for slaves to take
to manure Odysseus’ great estate.
There the dog lay, Argos, covered in dog-ticks.
But then, when he recognised Odysseus was near,
he wagged his tail and pricked up his ears,
no longer able to come closer to his lord.

He looked at Argos from a distance, and wiped away a tear,
easily concealing it from Eumaios, then asked him out loud:
‘Eumaios, what an amazing sight, this dog lying on the dung. ...’

So he spoke, and went into the well built house
and walked straight to the hall with the noble suitors.
As for Argos, the fate of dark death took him,
as soon as he had seen Odysseus in the twentieth year.

Odyssey 17.291–305
Argos recognises Ulisse (Kirk Douglas). Again there’s no silence in this version: Ulisse speaks directly to Argos, and the two openly greet each other, thereby accidentally revealing Ulisse’s identity to his son Telemaco (Franco Interlenghi). (Ulisse, dir. Mario Camerini, 1954)

The focus is still firmly on what Odysseus is seeing, not on Odysseus himself. But we do get one line where he conceals a tear, and he makes a speech to conceal his emotion. This is one of the most memorable and moving scenes in Homer. And that’s partly because Argos’ and Odysseus’ reactions are so muted.

Muted, but not nearly as muted as in our first example. Here, the emotion is boiling under the surface. We’re shown glimpses.

There’s a similar effect in Odysseus’ late-night conversation with Penelope, his wife, in book 19. There too he hides his feelings, keeping up the pretence of being a beggar. It isn’t nearly as vivid as in the Argos scene, or as sudden as the Telemachos scene: Penelope and Odysseus have been communicating, or in each other’s presence, for some time. Still, we watch him hide his emotions as he watches her express hers.

None of this happens in the first scene we looked at, with Telemachos. There, if there’s an emotional scene at all, the emotion is purely in our imagination.

Concretised silence

The Polish philosopher Roman Ingarden coined a term for when a reader forms a firm mental picture of what’s going on in the world of a story: ‘concretisation’.

No author gives complete information about their world — not even Tolkien. As a result, concretisation comes partly from information that the story gives, partly from the reader’s inferences and imagination about things that the story doesn’t say.

If, for instance, the color of Consul Buddenbrook’s eyes were not mentioned in Buddenbrooks ..., then he would be completely undetermined in this respect. We know implicitly, through context and by the fact that he is a human being and has not lost his eyes, that his eyes are of some color; but we do not know which.
Ingarden 1973 [1937]: 50

The reader doesn’t need to pin everything down. No one cares about this character’s eye colour: it can stay indeterminate. That’s something the reader will just gloss over, elided as though it were filled in, but without actually filling it in.

Then there are will be areas where a reader will use their imagination a bit more. Some scholars love trying to reconstruct the layout of Odysseus’ hall, and where the doors are. Many readers of The Lord of the Rings will visualise an Aragorn that looks like Viggo Mortensen, even though the description of him in the book is fairly general.

Note. Sometimes the reader’s imagination may even contradict things that the book says — like imagining Frodo as a twenty-year-old, or imagining Sparrowhawk in Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea stories as white — but there’s a sense in which that kind of concretisation is a mistake. Not bad reading, necessarily, because there are reasons for those concretisations, but still a mistake. Let’s not distract ourselves, though.

Odysseus’ and Argos’ emotion, in the book 17 scene, will be firmly concretised. It’s a vivid, memorable moment.

But in the Telemachos scene, in book 16, Odysseus’ silence may or may not be concretised. Some readers may simply not notice that it’s Odysseus’ first time seeing his son. Others may read between the lines and realise that Odysseus is going to have a strong reaction.

Delayed-effect silence

Here’s one more example, where a ‘silent silence’ — a silence where we aren’t even paying attention to Odysseus — suddenly turns into an explicit silence. It’s unconcretised at first, then the camera suddenly cuts to Odysseus, and his silence becomes concretised retroactively.

In book 18, the goddess Athena puts it into Penelope’s mind

to appear to the suitors, so as to open wide
the suitors’ minds, and so that she’d be honoured
all the more by her husband and son than she was before.
Odyssey 18.160–162

Athena makes her even more beautiful while she sleeps, then Penelope comes downstairs to the hall. The sight of her drives the suitors crazy. After some talking, she tells a story: when Odysseus departed twenty years ago, he told her

‘ “... But when you see that our son has grown a beard,
you must marry, whoever you wish, and leave your house.”
That’s what he told me: that’s what’s going to happen now. . . .
But a terrible pain comes over my heart and soul:
this wasn’t the custom for suitors in the old days
when they wanted to court, and compete with each other
for a noble woman and daughter of a rich man.
No, they’d bring oxen and rich sheep
as a feast for the girl’s family. They’d give precious gifts.
They didn’t eat someone else’s property unfairly.’
Odyssey 18.269–280

So she wants marriage-gifts, then she’ll obey her husband’s command and marry one of the suitors. For all a first-time reader knows, her plan may be to do exactly what she says.

How would Odysseus feel if he were to hear this? Would he feel disappointed? Betrayed? Would he sadly agree that she’s doing exactly what he asked?

Oh, wait, he does hear it. He’s right there. Keeping silent.

So she spoke. And long-suffering Odysseus laughed,
because she tricked gifts out of them. She flattered their hearts
with smooth words, but her mind intended something else.
Odyssey 18.281–283

Up to this point, his silent presence was very similar to the first scene we looked at. It was a ‘silent silence’. But now the scene is transformed, in a few words. The omniscient narrator had given no clues that Penelope was planning something other than what she said: it’s only Odysseus’ laugh that tells us how we’re supposed to interpret her words.

At this moment, where we suddenly concretise Odysseus’ reaction, we also concretise the entire episode and context — Penelope as trickster, the suitors as patsies, Odysseus’ and Penelope’s likemindedness.

Penelope (Greta Scacchi) comes face-to-face with a disguised Odysseus (Armand Assante). (The Odyssey, dir. Andrei Konchalovsky, 1997)

Silence isn’t just a tool for emotional effect, in other words. In Homer’s hands, it’s a storytelling tool.

And it’s a terribly sneaky tool. Consider this: when is the first time that Odysseus and Penelope interact in the Odyssey? It’s an interesting question because there’s a whole series of interactions before they ever have a conversation. Their interactions begin late in book 17, when Penelope three times asks people to invite the disguised stranger to come and speak to her (Odyssey 17.505–550); they don’t actually speak to one another until over 600 lines later (19.103 onwards).

That is, they never really meet for the first time. They’re insinuated into each other’s presence. It’s a quiet, subtle process.

Scholarship on Homeric silences

Siegfried Besslich (1966) has written an entire book on silences in the Odyssey. His focus is on dialogues: where one character ignores or omits to respond to something the other character says, or where a character stays silent while deciding what to say.

Egbert Bakker (1997: 86–122) looks at characters’ activity or inactivity in a scene in narratological terms, expanding on the work of Wallace Chafe. Characters who are directly participating in a scene are ‘active’, those who are not present are ‘inactive’, and there are intermediate ‘near-active’ and ‘semiactive’ states. Bakker’s focus is on how the narrator refers to characters in these states, and the wording associated with each state. A ‘silent silence’ of the kind we looked at here has no associated wording, though. The whole point is that it’s about a character not being mentioned..

A book chapter by myself (Gainsford 2001) looks at the way that Odysseus and Penelope are gradually inveigled into one another’s presence, and Homer’s use of elisions and backtracking to disguise the process.


  • Bakker, E. 1997. Poetry in speech. Orality and Homeric discourse. Ithaca (NY), London.
  • Besslich, S. 1966. Schweigen – verschweigen – übergehen. Die Darstellung des Unausgesprochenen in der Odyssee. Heidelberg.
  • Gainsford, P. 2001. ‘Cognition and type-scenes: the aoidos at work.’ In: Budelmann, F.; Michelakis, P. (eds.) Homer, tragedy, and beyond: studies in honour of P. E. Easterling. London. 3–21. [DOI]
  • Ingarden, R. 1973 [1937]. The cognition of the literary work of art. Tr. R.A. Crowley and K.R. Olson. Evanston (originally published as O poznawaniu dzieła literackiego, Lvov, 1937).