An ominous sneeze (Od. 17.534–547)

People of all walks of life in Ancient Greek civilization(s) were fond of predicting the future by any means necessary. Sometimes this was a structured, purposeful process where a knowledgeable seer would set up an experiment, as it were, and use animal entrails or the flights of birds or random lines of literature.

But sometimes an omen inserts itself into everyday life and you have no choice but to remark on it. In Book 17 of the Odyssey, when the eponymous wanderer has returned to Ithaca but been disguised by Athena as an old man (called “the stranger” ξεῖνος—ironic, as his connection to Ithaca is more profound than anybody else’s), his wife Penelope is ranting about all the terrible things she wishes would happen to the many men (μνηστῆρες ‘suitors’) who are trying to woo her in her husband’s seemingly interminable absence.

“οἱ δ᾽ εἰς ἡμέτερον πωλεύμενοι ἤματα πάντα,
βοῦς ἱερεύοντες καὶ ὄϊς καὶ πίονας αἶγας, 535
εἰλαπινάζουσιν πίνουσί τε αἴθοπα οἶνον,
μαψιδίως· τὰ δὲ πολλὰ κατάνεται. οὐ γὰρ ἔπ᾽ ἀνήρ,
οἷος Ὀδυσσεὺς ἔσκεν, ἀρὴν ἀπὸ οἴκου ἀμῦναι.
εἰ δ᾽ Ὀδυσεὺς ἔλθοι καὶ ἵκοιτ᾽ ἐς πατρίδα γαῖαν,
αἶψά κε σὺν ᾧ παιδὶ βίας ἀποτίσεται ἀνδρῶν.” 540

Right in the middle of her raving, her son Telemachus lets out a powerful sneeze.

ὣς φάτο, Τηλέμαχος δὲ μέγ᾽ ἔπταρεν, ἀμφὶ δὲ δῶμα
σμερδαλέον κονάβησε· γέλασσε δὲ Πηνελόπεια,
αἶψα δ᾽ ἄρ᾽ Εὔμαιον ἔπεα πτερόεντα προσηύδα·

Penelope sees the aptly timed sneeze as a prophetic confirmation that what she has been saying will come to pass. She asks Eumaeus— the faithful swineherd of the estate—to finally bring the elderly stranger into her presence.

“ἔρχεό μοι, τὸν ξεῖνον ἐναντίον ὧδε κάλεσσον.
οὐχ ὁράᾳς ὅ μοι υἱὸς ἐπέπταρε πᾶσιν ἔπεσσι; 545
τῷ κε καὶ οὐκ ἀτελὴς θάνατος μνηστῆρσι γένοιτο
πᾶσι μάλ᾽, οὐδέ κέ τις θάνατον καὶ κῆρας ἀλύξει.” (Od. 17.534–547)

534   ἡμέτερον sc. οἶκον ‘home’ from a few lines earlier—πωλεύμενοι = πωλεόμενοι ‘coming and going; visiting frequently’

535   ἱερεύοντες ἱερεύω ‘sacrifice’; cf. ἱερεύς ‘priest’—βοῦς … καὶ ὄϊς καὶ πίονας αἶγας ‘bulls … and sheep and fat goats’ exemplifies what is in comparative poetics called an augmented triad, where in a list of three items only the last has an attributive adjective or otherwise resists syntactic parallelism with the first two.

536   εἰλαπινάζουσιν εἰλαπινάζω ‘revel in large company, party’; cf. εἰλαπίνη ‘feast, banquet’—αἴθοπα αἶθ-οψ lit. ‘fiery-looking,’ a common epithet for wine; cf. αἴθω ‘burn, ignite’ (PIE *h2eydh-); note the hiatus τε αἴθοπα, which is sometimes allowed between the fourth and fifth feet, the so-called Bucolic dieresis.

537   μαψιδίως ‘recklessly, thoughtlessly’—κατάνεται κατ-άνομαι ‘be used up, wasted’—οὐ γὰρ ἔπ’ ἀνήρ: ἔπι here is adverbial (note the accentuation), with the semantics of ἔπ-ειμι ‘be left, remain’; thus = ‘for there [is] no man left’

538   ἀρήν ἀρή acc sg ‘ruin, destruction’—ἀμῦναι ἀμύνω aor act inf: to be taken with l. 537 ἀνήρ ‘a man to ward off’ i.e. ‘a man who can/will ward off

539   βίας βίη acc pl ‘act of violence’—ἀποτίσεται ἀπο-τίνομαι ‘exact payment for, avenge’

541   ἔπταρεν πταίρω 3 sg aor ‘sneeze’; a hapax legomenon in Homer (not counting l. 545 ἐπέπταρε); the word, beginning with πτ-, is an obvious onomatopoeia (cf. English ptui, imitative of spitting)

542   σμερδαλέον σμερδαλέος ‘fearful, terrible’; here as an adverb qualifying ἔπταρεν—κονάβησε κοναβέω ‘resound, echo’—γέλασσε γελάω ‘laugh’ 3 sg aor

543   πτερόεντα πτερό-εις ‘winged,’ lit. ‘feather-having’; ἔπεα πτερόεντα προσηύδα ‘spoke winged words to’ is a very frequent collocation in Homer; note also the phonetic similarity between l. 541 ἔπταρεν ‘sneezed’ and πτερόεντα (where respective ἔπταρ– and -[ἔπε]α πτερ– even occupy the same position in the verse)—προσηύδα προσ-αυδάω ‘speak to, address’

544   μοι is the ethical dative, signifying basically “Please do this for me.”—τὸν ξεῖνον = Odysseus, disguised as an old beggar—ἐναντίον ἐν-αντίος ‘opposite’ i.e. ‘into [my] presence’—ὧδε ‘thus, in this way,’ but here = ‘in this direction, hither’—κάλεσσον καλέω 2 sg aor imp

545   ὁράᾳς ὁράω 2 sg pres act ind with assimilation of ε in ὁράεις to the preceding vowel— = ὅτι conj ‘that’—μοι dative of possession with υἱός—ἐπέπταρε ἐπι-πταίρω ‘sneeze at’; cf. l. 541 ἔπταρεν

546   τῷ ‘therefore, for that reason’—ἀτελἠς ‘without completion, unaccomplished’; thus οὐκ ἀτελής = ‘completed, fulfilled’—μνηστῆρσι μνηστήρ ‘suitor, wooer’; cf. μνάομαι ‘woo, court’

547   This line basically rephrases the preceding line.—θάνατον καὶ κῆρας lit. ‘Death and the Kēres (spirits of violent death)’ = ‘death’; a frequent hendiadys in Homer—ἀλύξει ἀλύσκω 3 sg fut ind ‘avoid, escape’

“They—coming and going in our home all of the days,
sacrificing bulls and sheep and fat goats— 535
revel and drink the flashing wine,
thoughtlessly; and everything is used up. For there is no man left,
the likes of how Odysseus was, to ward off ruin from the house.
If Odysseus came and arrived at his homeland,
he’d at once, with his son, take vengeance on the mens’ violent acts.” 540

She spoke thus, and Telemachus sneezed greatly, and around the house
it resounded terribly; Penelope laughed,
and at once addressed winged words to Eumaeus:

“Go now, and call that stranger hither to my presence.
Don’t you see that my son has sneezed at all my words? 545
Therefore death to all the suitors will not go unfulfilled,
nor will any man escape Death and the Kēres.” (Od. 17.534–547)


One thought on “An ominous sneeze (Od. 17.534–547)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s