Penelope and the Two Dream-Gates (Odyssey 19.560–569)

Penelope is lamenting the continued absence of her husband to an elderly beggar (who happens to be her husband in disguise). She has just related to him a bizarre dream she had, in which an eagle violently destroys a gaggle of geese to which she is attending. The eagle, telling her she has nothing to fear, says

“οὐκ ὄναρ, ἀλλ᾽ ὕπαρ ἐσθλόν, ὅ τοι τετελεσμένον ἔσται”
“It was not a dream, but true reality, which will come true for you” (Od. 19.547)

and discloses that the geese represent her many suitors, whom her husband—who is yet alive, represented by the eagle himself—will brutally slay, after his homecoming. Penelope then expresses her worry to the beggar that this dream, like so many others, is not prophetic at all, but a mere delusion.

“ξεῖν᾽, ἦ τοι μὲν ὄνειροι ἀμήχανοι ἀκριτόμυθοι 560
γίγνοντ᾽, οὐδέ τι πάντα τελείεται ἀνθρώποισι.
δοιαὶ γάρ τε πύλαι ἀμενηνῶν εἰσὶν ὀνείρων·
αἱ μὲν γὰρ κεράεσσι τετεύχαται, αἱ δ᾽ ἐλέφαντι·
τῶν οἳ μέν κ᾽ ἔλθωσι διὰ πριστοῦ ἐλέφαντος,
οἵ ῥ᾽ ἐλεφαίρονται, ἔπε᾽ ἀκράαντα φέροντες· 565
οἱ δὲ διὰ ξεστῶν κεράων ἔλθωσι θύραζε,
οἵ ῥ᾽ ἔτυμα κραίνουσι, βροτῶν ὅτε κέν τις ἴδηται.
ἀλλ᾽ ἐμοὶ οὐκ ἐντεῦθεν ὀΐομαι αἰνὸν ὄνειρον
ἐλθέμεν· ἦ κ᾽ ἀσπαστὸν ἐμοὶ καὶ παιδὶ γένοιτο.” (Od. 19.560–569)

560   ἀμήχανοι ‘inscrutable, having no (ἀ-) means (μηχανή) of being understood’—ἀκριτόμυθοι ‘with indiscriminate (ἄ-κριτος) babbling (μῦθος)’

562   δοιαί fem nom pl adj ‘twofold, two’—ἀμενηνῶν ἀ-μενηνός ‘unsubstantial, fleeting,’ lit. ‘powerless’ < *ἀ-μενεσ-νός (cf. τὸ μένος ‘might, power’)

563   κεράεσσι κέρας dat pl ‘horns’—τετεύχαται τεύχω perf pass 3 pl ‘are wrought’—ἐλέφαντι ἐλέφᾱς dat sg ‘ivory’; cf., of course, the eponymous animal

564   πριστοῦ πριστός ‘sawn,’ cf. πρίω ‘grind, bite, cut’

565   ἐλεφαίρονται ἐλεφαίρομαι ‘play a trick on, deceive’ (only other occurrence in Homer is Il. 23.388); I will talk about the contextual significance of this word below—ἔπε[α] neut ἔπος acc pl ‘words’—ἀκράαντα ἀ-κράαντος ‘unfulfilled, unaccomplished,’ from κραιαίνω

566   ξεστῶν ξεστός ‘hewn’ (cf. ξέω ‘cut, shave’), parallel to l. 564 πριστοῦ ‘sawn’—θύραζε adv ‘out, to the outside,’ but historically an allative form θύρᾱσ-δε ‘to the doors,’ built with the same suffix (still somewhat productive in Homer) as οἴκαδε/οἶκόνδε ‘homewards,’ Ἀθήναζε (Ἀθήνᾱσ-δε) ‘to Athens,’ and doubly in ὅνδε δόμονδε ‘to his home,’ lit. ‘his-wards home-wards’ (e.g. Od. 1.83); for this kind of semantic broadening from ‘door’ to ‘out,’ cf. Latin foras ‘outside, out through the doors’ (Spanish fuera) from the same root (PIE *dʰwer- ‘door’), and English outdoors

567   ἔτυμα ἔτυμον neut pl ‘true [things]’; etymology (ἐτυμο-λογία) is, perhaps overreachingly, ‘the study of the true meaning [of words]’—κραίνουσι κραίνω = κραιαίνω ‘accomplish, bring to pass’—ἴδηται ὁράω aor mid subj 3 sg ‘may see’

568   ἐντεῦθεν ‘from there, thence,’ i.e. from the gate made of horns—αἰνόν αἰνός ‘dreadful, dire’

569   ἀσπαστόν adj ἀσπαστός neut sg ‘welcome,’ the predicate of γένοιτο

Mortals have long wondered why some dreams come true and some do not. Penelope’s puzzlement over this question is resumed by Chaucer in the proem to his House of Fame. The theory put forth here relies on an impressive bit of wordplay usually reserved—in Homeric verse, anyway—for the origin of a character’s name, such as when the young Odysseus is named by his maternal grandfather, Autolycus (Od. 19.407–409), who claims to be ὀδυσσάμενος ‘wroth, hateful’; or when Aphrodite tells Anchises, father of Aeneas, that it was a shameful (αἰνόν) distress to have slept with a mortal man (HH 5.198–199)). But in the present passage, it is the material of the gates’ construction that is given explanation:

τῶν οἳ μέν κ᾽ ἔλθωσι διὰ πριστοῦ ἐλέφαντος,
οἵ ῥ᾽ ἐλεφαίρονται, ἔπε᾽ ἀκράαντα φέροντες 565

The ivory (ἐλέφας) gates are the ones that deceive (ἐλεφαίρομαι) mortals and render images that never come to pass. This pun is made more obvious by the fact that ἐλεφαίρομαι is a rather rare verb, and would certainly have struck the Greek listener’s ear. (An interesting side note: Vergil uses the ivory gate as the portal through which Aeneas returns from the underworld—A. 6.893–898.)

οἱ δὲ διὰ ξεστῶν κεράων ἔλθωσι θύραζε,
οἵ ῥ᾽ ἔτυμα κραίνουσι, βροτῶν ὅτε κέν τις ἴδηται.

But the gate of horns (κέρᾱ) produces those dreams that do come true and ultimately effect (κραίνω) what they promise.

This pair of dream-doors is odd, not in the least because ivory and horn are such similar materials. How did this wordplay originate? Were these verbs (ἐλεφαίρομαι and κραίνω) selected to pun on a pair of mythological dream-gates whose respective compositions were well-established canonically, or were the materials (ἐλέφας and κέρα) chosen secondarily as a mnemonic for what sort of dream each gate allowed through? What do you get if you cross the two animals that produce these unusual building materials?

‘Ell if I know!

“Stranger, dreams are certainly inscrutable, with indiscriminate 560
babbling, and not everything comes true for humans.
For there exist two gates of fleeting dreams;
One is wrought of horns, the other of ivory;
those dreams that go through hewn ivory
are deceitful, bringing words that have no fulfillment 565
but the ones that go out by way of the sawn horns
bring true things to pass, whenever some mortal sees them.
But I don’t reckon that this dire dream came to me
from the latter way, though it would be quite welcome to my child and me.”

(Featured image credit: Amanda Kiefer)


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