The Melanthius Question
BY GEORGE CHOUNDAS
The first thing Odysseus eats upon returning to Ithaca—after a decade of war and a decade of wandering—is a pork souvlaki. You probably did not remember this. You probably remember about the Cyclops, and the whirlpool, and the dog who wags his tail and promptly dies. You don’t read epic poetry for the food. I get it. That’s not an unreasonable position vis-a-vis the classics. But that souvlaki is an important souvlaki. Hear me out on this.
The souvlaki is spitted and roasted by Odysseus’ own swineherd. The swineherd, Eumaeus, does not recognize Odysseus. Odysseus is dressed as a beggar and, between the rags and the aging, Eumaeus hasn’t the merest notion this itchy vagrant is his lord and king. And yet the swineherd happily serves his bedraggled stranger-guest the best meal of his life. Why? Because Eumaeus is a decent man. (Homer does not tell us that Eumaeus’s souvlaki is the best thing Odysseus has ever eaten—better than lotus flower, better than Circe’s enchanted bits—because Homer does not need to.)
Odysseus’s goatherd, Melanthius, is the opposite. Melanthius is a dick. Arguably he is the only dick in Homeric verse. The Iliad, for example, is full of defectives. It has assholes (Agamemnon), and jerks (Achilles), and pieces of shit (Paris). But there are no dicks in the Iliad. There are no characters who antagonize for the sake of antagonism, who abuse and belittle even when the stakes are imperceptible.
Melanthius, make no mistake, is a dick. When he passes Eumaeus and Odysseus on their way to town, he harasses them both, taunting Eumaeus, “You foul/ pig-man, where are you taking this old swine?” He mocks Odysseus’s “stick legs” and derides him in the dismissive third person, even though Odysseus’ fresh arrival means it is all fabricated nonsense:
He likes to traipse
around the town and beg for chow to stuff
his greedy belly.
(tr. Emily Wilson, 17:225-27)
Finally, Melanthius kicks Odysseus in the hip, fumes when Odysseus doesn’t budge, and turns to Eumaeus for compensatory satisfaction, speaking outrage after outrage. He threatens to kidnap Eumaeus and sell him abroad. (Mark this as one of the finest threat-insults in the history of narrative. Today’s athletes and lawyers would do well to work it into their trash talk.) He wishes aloud that Odysseus’ son—Eumaeus’ now lord—would die already.
This contradictory malice, at once unprovoked and unrelenting, at once petty and searingly intense, suggests a kind of derangement. We readers are tempted to cut Melanthius a break. There is no premeditation in compulsion, no malice in a tic.
And then. Odysseus enters his own home and sees with his own eyes the “suitors,” the mob of drunken slobs who have taken over the house and for years have tried to bully his wife into marriage. Melanthius is there when Odysseus casts off his disguise. Melanthius sees when Odysseus—with his son’s help, a few weapons, and the Hollywood-ready line “It is time to feast”—commences a home extermination. But Melanthius does nothing to help. Instead, he sneaks into the storeroom and hands out armor and weapons to those suitors who cower but do not yet bleed. This single betrayal turns the tide of battle—Odysseus and Telemachus nearly lose their lives—but finally they wrest away the advantage and rout the suitors.
Melanthius tries to flee. The swineherd and the cowherd catch him. (One imagines Eumaeus getting his fill of taunting vengeance, sitting on Melanthius’s back before tying him up. Say “Goats are pigs the gods tried to make while drunk.” Say it. Say “Goat flesh eats as tender as a bireme oar.” I can’t hear you. Well, then, say it again.” To the cowherd: “You try it, something with cows. No?” To Melanthius: Say “I love pigs, pigs are my favorite.”)
Odysseus directs the swineherd and the cowherd to string up Melanthius from the roof of the storeroom (an elegant touch: the site of treachery, the height of treachery). “[H]oist him to the rafters,” Odysseus says. “Torture him with hours of agony before he dies.” Melanthius is suspended from the roof and left to dangle in such a way that he suffers—and presumably suffocates—his way toward a slow death.
What happens next is the mystery.
Then the men took Melanthius outside
and with curved bronze cut off his nose and ears
and ripped away his genitals, to feed
raw to the dogs. Still full of rage, they chopped
his hands and feet off. Then they washed their own,
and they went back inside.
(tr. Emily Wilson, at 22:475-480)
Let us set aside questions of proportionality. (These are bound up with infinitely regressive problems of cultural context and moral relativism.) Let us set aside questions of cogency. (The hands dispensed weapons, and a kicking foot offended, and an accomplice foot kept balance. Okay, fine. But why punish the nose and ears and genitals?)
Here is the Melanthius Question:
Is he alive or dead when maimed? Did they take him down from the rafters still breathing and introduce him to serial atrocities? Or are we witnessing the defilement of a corpse?
Homer does not tell us. We have to decide for ourselves.
On the one hand, Homer says “the men took Melanthius outside.” He doesn’t say they took his body. This suggests he’s still alive. So does the execution of twelve other servants who had turned their backs on Penelope over the years and traitorously served the suitors instead. Maiming Melanthius only after he died would mean he paid the same price for distributing murder weapons as these servants did for ladling soup.
Another thing: war-seasoned Odysseus has seen it all—broken bones rebroken into place against a friendly shield, thoraxes popping like overripe grapes, the magic-spell effect of dried blood on soldiers’ faces, transforming them into old men. After carnage, real and wet, a gaudy disfigurement holds little fascination. The blood-soaked warrior is a practical agent. He is impressed only by verifiable pain, by demonstrable suffering. If Odysseus is going to cut off a foot, we suspect, it will be to hear the other end howl.
On the other hand, if Melanthius is still alive, where is the howling? We’re given a detailed inventory of amputations. But Homer says nothing about Melanthius writhing in agony or shrieking in disbelief. The omission is so stark—the Bard knew the people loved a good close count of the wages of villainy—one infers there is no telling because there is nothing to tell. And why the second dismantlement, with hands and feet removed almost as an afterthought? Maybe this is the best proof Melanthius is dead all along: nothing infuriates like the sudden innocence of a corpse.
Or not. There are counterarguments, still other arguments, counterarguments more.
What does it say about Homer, good Homer, if he revels in torture? Or, conversely, in barbarism? What does it say about you and me when we celebrate a sadist? Or, rather, a monster?
Here’s what I think. I’m no expert. Like you, I’m just a reader who treats stories like worlds, which is to say I’m an expert.
Maybe the ambiguity is on purpose, a genius feat by Homer. We hate Melanthius even more for making us choose which travesty we would prefer. It is the ultimate dick move.
We have agreed to float away with Homer into another realm, affording him our time and attention in exchange for the privilege of watching and wondering, of meeting gods and hearing how a spear sings as it looks for a home. Yet so potent is Melanthius’s noxiousness that it overspills his scenes into the narrative experience itself, dragging us back, if only for moments, to what we were promised an escape from. Specifically: life. The unthinkable, the unavoidable, the challenge without solution, the predicament without rescue. We can muster against the dark parts of life, we can heave ourselves against them, but in the end there will always be a second struggle, which is how we find the strength to read ahead in the story.
Homer does not tell us if Melanthius is alive or dead—whether weeping in terror, or well sullen like a stone—because Homer does not need to.