1178 B.C.E.: Penelope’s suitors, by Odysseus

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.

The date was asserted in 2008 based on astronomical clues in the text of Homer’s Odyssey.

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. But the explorer’s son has no use at all for twelve corrupt handmaids who have abetted the suitors’ predations. I like this version in the chilling verse form quoted by Dr. Samuel Haughton in an 1866 paper on hanging that weirdly goes on to produce the physics necessary to demonstrate the intuitively obvious point that this must have required the main rope to anchor to pillars between each suspended noose, rather than all twelve on a single line.

…leading forth
The women next, they shut them close between
The lofty wall and scullery, narrow, straight,
And dreadful, whence no prisoner might escape.
Then, prudent, thus Telemachus advised:
 The death of honour would I never grant
To criminals like these, who poured contempt
On mine and on my mother’s head, and lay
By night enfolded in the suitors’ arms.
 He said, and noosing a strong galley rope
To a huge column, led the cord around
The spacious dome, suspended so aloft,
That none with quivering feet might reach the floor.
As when a flight of doves entering the copse,
Or broad-winged thrushes, strike against the net
Within; ill rest, entangled, there they find;
So they, suspended by the neck, expired
All in one line together. Death abhorred!
With restless feet awhile they beat the air,
Then ceased.

On whatever date imagined, or strictly as fiction, this whole bloodbath fixes the climax of one of seminal works of the western literary canon.

The excerpts quoted here are from the Internet Classics Archive; multiple versions of both The Odyssey and The Iliad are available on Gutenberg.org … they’ve even done The Odyssey as a TV miniseries.

* This site claims that there’s at least one alternate tradition in which the famously virtuous Penelope — wasn’t.

On this day..