April 16th, 2009 Headsman
On this date in 1178 B.C.E., according to some enterprising astronomers, the Greek hero Odysseus returned home to Ithaca from a 20-year absence and slaughtered the suitors who had taken up lodgings in his palace.
This sort of putative historical specificity extracted from what could as well be read as literary devices — e.g., an eclipse — for a literary episode might gratify an advocate of “the higher naivete”, but the reader is well entitled to doubt.
Similarly, and more specifically for this venue, is the problem of whether the summary justice exacted by a Bronze Age chieftain meets the definition of an “execution”. This dubious case is resolved here by the unique subject matter.
Crafty quasi- (or altogether) mythical hero Odysseus (aka Ulysses), having left a generation before for the decade-long Trojan War which he finally resolved with the famous Trojan Horse strategem, then spent the next decade wandering about the sea en route to his home island.
When he gets there, he finds that 108 ill-mannered suitors have moved in, dissipated his fortune in merrymaking, and have ceaselessly dogged his faithful wife (and presumed widow) Penelope to remarry one of them.*
Together with his now-grown son Telemachus, Odysseus punishes them terribly .
“Dogs, did you think that I should not come back from Troy? You have wasted my substance, have forced my women servants to lie with you, and have wooed my wife while I was still living. You have feared neither God nor man, and now you shall die.”
They turned pale with fear as he spoke, and every man looked round about to see whither he might fly for safety, but Eurymachus alone spoke.
“If you are Ulysses,” said he, “then what you have said is just. We have done much wrong on your lands and in your house. But Antinous who was the head and front of the offending lies low already. It was all his doing. It was not that he wanted to marry Penelope; he did not so much care about that; what he wanted was something quite different, and Jove has not vouchsafed it to him; he wanted to kill your son and to be chief man in Ithaca. Now, therefore, that he has met the death which was his due, spare the lives of your people. We will make everything good among ourselves, and pay you in full for all that we have eaten and drunk. Each one of us shall pay you a fine worth twenty oxen, and we will keep on giving you gold and bronze till your heart is softened. Until we have done this no one can complain of your being enraged against us.”
Ulysses again glared at him and said, “Though you should give me all that you have in the world both now and all that you ever shall have, I will not stay my hand till I have paid all of you in full. You must fight, or fly for your lives; and fly, not a man of you shall.”
The suitors fight back, and most of the resulting deaths occur in the fray. But it’s about as one-sided as the contest on any proper scaffold.
As eagle-beaked, crook-taloned vultures from the mountains swoop down on the smaller birds that cower in flocks upon the ground, and kill them, for they cannot either fight or fly, and lookers on enjoy the sport — even so did Ulysses and his men fall upon the suitors and smite them on every side. They made a horrible groaning as their brains were being battered in, and the ground seethed with their blood.
And if many of the doomed die with their boots on, there are at least a couple of specific instances that clearly have a summary-execution character.
Leiodes then caught the knees of Ulysses and said, “Ulysses I beseech you have mercy upon me and spare me. I never wronged any of the women in your house either in word or deed, and I tried to stop the others. I saw them, but they would not listen, and now they are paying for their folly. I was their sacrificing priest; if you kill me, I shall die without having done anything to deserve it, and shall have got no thanks for all the good that I did.”
Ulysses looked sternly at him and answered, “If you were their sacrificing priest, you must have prayed many a time that it might be long before I got home again, and that you might marry my wife and have children by her. Therefore you shall die.”
With these words he picked up the sword that Agelaus had dropped when he was being killed, and which was lying upon the ground. Then he struck Leiodes on the back of his neck, so that his head fell rolling in the dust while he was yet speaking.
The minstrel Phemius, whose services had been procured by force, has better luck pleading for clemency when Telemachus intervenes before Odysseus can give him the chop.
On whatever date imagined, or strictly as fiction, it’s the climax of one of seminal works of the western literary canon.
* This site claims that there’s at least one alternate tradition in which the famously virtuous Penelope — wasn’t.
Also on this date
- 1942: Vasily Klubkov, Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya's betrayer
- 2011: Three in Shiraz
- 1783: Philip, a negro slave of Henry Garrett
- 1525: Count Ludwig von Helfenstein
- 2004: Jerry McWee, a former policeman
Entry Filed under: Ancient,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Borderline "Executions",Execution,Fictional,Greece,Known But To God,Mass Executions,Myths,No Formal Charge,Nobility,Not Executed,Pelf,Power,Put to the Sword,Scandal,Sex,Shot with Arrows,Summary Executions,The Worm Turns,Uncertain Dates