δαιμονίη, τί μοι ὧδ’ ἐπέχεις κεκοτηότι θυμῷ;
ἦ ὅτι δὴ ῥυπόω, κακὰ δὲ χροῒ εἵματα εἷμαι,
πτωχεύω δ’ ἀνὰ δῆμον; ἀναγκαίη γὰρ ἐπείγει.
τοιοῦτοι πτωχοὶ καὶ ἀλήμονες ἄνδρες ἔασι.
καὶ γὰρ ἐγώ ποτε οἶκον ἐν ἀνθρώποισιν ἔναιον
ὄλβιος ἀφνειὸν καὶ πολλάκι δόσκον ἀλήτῃ
τοίῳ, ὁποῖος ἔοι καὶ ὅτευ κεχρημένος ἔλθοι·
ἦσαν δὲ δμῶες μάλα μυρίοι ἄλλα τε πολλά,
οἷσίν τ’ εὖ ζώουσι καὶ ἀφνειοὶ καλέονται.
ἀλλὰ Ζεὺς ἀλάπαξε Κρονίων· ἤθελε γάρ που.
“You crazy woman! Why do you keep at me like that,
all resentment? Is it because I’m filthy and I clothe myself
in ugly clothes while begging up and down the com-
munity? Well, necessity drives me! That’s the way
beggars and vagrants are. In fact, I once used to live
among men, rich and in a wealthy household, and I
would often give to any kind of beggar who’d come
along in need of something. I had thousands of
slaves and a lot of other stuff that makes living lovely
and makes for a name for wealth. But Zeus the son
of Kronos ruined things — he probably wanted it that way.
Homer Odyssey 19.71-80
The first time I saw beggars in sustained numbers in this country was the spring of 1982 at the University of Texas in Austin. On the street just outside the campus gate, facing the large university book store, it was impossible to walk a block without being accosted by the out-thrust hands of aggressive panhandlers. I was taken aback.
In America these days they hardly blend invisibly into the urban landscape. Whether begging or looking through garbage bins for empties or other cash-generators, they surely shame the nation. This is not supposed to be – in other places, yes, but here? At other times, yes, but in 2011?
Odysseus left Ithaka as a powerful ruler and 20 years later returned as a beggar. In his own palace he is treated with greater ignominy than the basest slave, and indeed by the basest of slaves. His retort above is directed against a female servant. In his absence, she has been consorting in a variety of unseemly and slutty ways with the suitors who have been eating Odysseus out of house, home, and (they foolishly hope) wife. The pride of place the servant has come to occupy in her own mind as a result of her systematic accommodation of the domestic enemy has led her to defy Penelope, her mistress and the hero’s wife, and now impels her to an intemperate and vicious exchange with the “beggar” skulking about the palace. She exemplifies the hubris that will, in the fifth century B.C., become so pivotal a mechanism for tragedy’s exploration of defective motivations; Odysseus in turn here gives poignant voice to a central feature of the Greek archaic sensibility – the utterly unpredictable mutability of personal and communal fates.
This of course is a preëminent concern of ancient Greek literature in general, and it helps to explain in no minor manner the often overwhelming pessimism and sense of indeterminacy that permeate so many of the texts from both the archaic (roughly, late eighth through mid-fifth centuries B.C.E.) and classical (mid-fifth through fourth centuries B.C.E.) periods, as well as in the subsequent centuries of the Hellenistic Age with its ‘deification’ of Τύχη Tyche (Fate, Chance).
Among the manifold thematic obsessions of Homer’s Odyssey is that of the inadequacy if not outright deceptiveness of external appearances as reliable indices to interior realities: one thinks immediately of disguises – gods as mortals, enemies as friends, killers as saviors, thieves as suitors, kings as beggars – not to mention a wondrous gift horse into whose mouth (or certainly belly) the Trojans might well have looked rather more carefully than they bothered to. In this world of Odysseus, a pragmatic percipience (or lack thereof) of the protean nature of the shape-shifting externals encountered in one’s daily existence can spell the difference between life and death – as the insolent servant who insulted Odysseus was later to learn, her neck in a noose and her feet twitching with those of the others at the end of a rope “for a little while, not very long at all” (22.473).
Which reader is thinking, “None of this could ever happen to me!”?
The conviction to which Odysseus here gives such forceful expression may perhaps strike a modern audience as ingenuous, but, just as I for one take affirmatively to heart many other notions about divine and human kind explored endlessly in ancient Greek literature, this one too is in my view not peremptorily dismissible: at any time in any place anything can happen to any person no matter who she or he is, and, unhappily, there may well be no more satisfactory explanation for such devastating transformations than the impoverished but unsentimental one that Odysseus offers: “But Zeus the son of Kronos ruined things – he probably wanted it that way!