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  #1  
Old 04-14-2012, 11:54 AM
constanze constanze is offline
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Odysseus bow

In the Odyssee, after the adventures on sea, there's the final part when Odysseus comes home and finds that his wife is besieged by suitors. Athena did disguise him as old man, and after revealing himself to Penelope, they hatch a plan on how to defeat the suitors: they all try to string Odysseus bow (and shoot through the ears of a dozen axes lined up in a row) but nobody can. Until Odysseus, who's at least 20 years older than the rest (Illiad plus his travels so far) and disguised as old man, steps up and strings the bow (with the wonderfully poetic description that when he plucks the string, it twitters like a bird. Never heard a string make that sound, but it's beautiful image!)

Then he shoots the arrow through the axes (fulfilling the literal part of the test) and starts shooting the suitors and taking revenge.

Back when I read this, I already wondered why nobody else could draw this bow. I assumed it was part of making the hero of the story stronger than anybody else - and the first-rate heroes had gone to Troja with him, so the suitors left behind would have been second-class and softened up from easy living having feasts - but it still sounded overdone.

Then I read an article (on TV tropes?) that mentioned that some people claim that Odysseus bow was a Skythian bow - that is, recurve type - which would require knowledge on how to string it, because it works different from the normal long-bow.

1) Is this the current major scholar opinion, that Odysseus had a Skythian/ recurve bow? Or an outsider interpretation?

2) What does the text say to support or contradict it?

3) What other interpretations among main scholars are there? (E.g. it's just a story-telling device, not meant literally)?

4) Did Greeks of that period or of the Homer period when it was written down not know about Skythian bows? Wouldn't they have seen them during their battles with other people, or learned about them by trade?
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  #2  
Old 04-14-2012, 12:59 PM
Simplicio Simplicio is offline
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Originally Posted by constanze View Post
Back when I read this, I already wondered why nobody else could draw this bow. I assumed it was part of making the hero of the story stronger than anybody else - and the first-rate heroes had gone to Troja with him, so the suitors left behind would have been second-class and softened up from easy living having feasts - but it still sounded overdone.
Its a myth, its supposed to be overdone.

But anyways, its explicit in the text that the suitors can't string the bow because they don't have the strength.
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  #3  
Old 04-14-2012, 01:00 PM
Shodan Shodan is online now
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I think the idea is that only Odysseus is strong enough to string the bow, not that it is any special kind.

Telemachus, his son, tries first, and "has it all but strung" until his father gives him the high sign not to string it and mess up the plan. The idea is that Telemachus is almost, but not quite, grown up and ready to be the man of the family. (He does other things to show this, like order his mother around, proving he is no longer a boy.)

But the literary idea is that Odysseus is proving his worthiness to come back and take over again, because he is stronger than all the other suitors.

Then comes that wonderfully touching scene when Penelope tries him with the story about their marriage bed made out of an olive tree that is still in the ground. And Odysseus spots this, and proves it is really him.

And he and Penelope go to bed in their special bed, and spend the night making love again and telling of their adventures.

Regards,
Shodan
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  #4  
Old 04-14-2012, 02:09 PM
drastic_quench drastic_quench is offline
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Ever strung a recurve bow? It's a skill, not a brute force thing. It's all in the wrist.

All of the Odyssey is about how crafty and cunning Odysseus is, not how strong he is. The point with the bow was not a measure of strength, but yet another demonstration of wits.
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Old 04-14-2012, 02:13 PM
Chronos Chronos is offline
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And he and Penelope go to bed in their special bed, and spend the night making love again and telling of their adventures.
Presumably skipping over the part about how most of the time on his "voyage home" was spent as Circe's boy-toy.
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  #6  
Old 04-14-2012, 02:21 PM
The Other Waldo Pepper The Other Waldo Pepper is online now
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Originally Posted by drastic_quench View Post
All of the Odyssey is about how crafty and cunning Odysseus is, not how strong he is. The point with the bow was not a measure of strength, but yet another demonstration of wits.
I thought he won that hurl-a-heavy-discus competition early on in the story using sheer damn strength and little else besides.
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  #7  
Old 04-14-2012, 02:41 PM
Chipacabra Chipacabra is offline
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The whole schtick of Odysseus is that he's better than you at everything, mental and physical. He's like an oiled up Batman.
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  #8  
Old 04-14-2012, 02:48 PM
Simplicio Simplicio is offline
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Originally Posted by drastic_quench View Post
Ever strung a recurve bow? It's a skill, not a brute force thing. It's all in the wrist.

All of the Odyssey is about how crafty and cunning Odysseus is, not how strong he is. The point with the bow was not a measure of strength, but yet another demonstration of wits.
Again, in the text, its explicitly a test of strength. For example, when Telemachus tries:

Quote:
As he spoke he sprang from his seat, threw his crimson cloak from him, and took his sword from his shoulder. First he set the axes in a row, in a long groove which he had dug for them, and had made straight by line. Then he stamped the earth tight round them, and everyone was surprised when they saw him set up so orderly, though he had never seen anything of the kind before. This done, he went on to the pavement to make trial of the bow; thrice did he tug at it, trying with all his might to draw the string, and thrice he had to rest his strength [biê], though he had hoped to string the bow and shoot through the iron. He was trying forcefully [biê] for the fourth time, and would have strung it had not Odysseus made a sign to check him in spite of all his eagerness. So he said:

"Alas! I shall either be always feeble and of no prowess, or I am too young, and have not yet reached my full strength so as to be able to hold my own if any one attacks me. You others, therefore, who are stronger [biê] than I, make trial of the bow and get this contest [athlos] settled
The passages for when the suitors try are equally explicit. Its strength they lack, not intelligence.
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  #9  
Old 04-14-2012, 03:46 PM
Chronos Chronos is offline
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All that shows, though, is that they think it's strength they lack. And surely, even without the proper technique, you could string a recurve bow with enough brute strength-- It's just that that amount of brute strength is beyond any of the suitors. To the clever competitor, though, it's not primarily a test of strength, and the brute force required is a much more attainable level.
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  #10  
Old 04-14-2012, 04:44 PM
CalMeacham CalMeacham is offline
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As with so many things in ancient literature, the story of the Odyssey seems to be a work of accretion by many hands. As the wording of the epic makes clear, it seems to have been a question mainly of strength. But one suspects that there might be vmorebehind this, and it's entirely possible that in its earliest form it really was a question of skill that the suitors did not have. I have a commentary on the Odyssey that illustrates the point with a period depiction of an archer stringing a recurve bow, bending the bow backwards with both hands and his feet. But it's undeniable that the language of the poem doesn't support the idea that this was a question of method rather than strength. I suspect it starte out as the one, then developed to the other, because it resonated better with audiences.
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  #11  
Old 04-14-2012, 04:50 PM
drastic_quench drastic_quench is offline
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Originally Posted by The Other Waldo Pepper View Post
I thought he won that hurl-a-heavy-discus competition early on in the story using sheer damn strength and little else besides.
Discus is a skill too. Much more so than shot put. The best discus throwers have the best form, not the biggest muscles.
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  #12  
Old 04-14-2012, 04:50 PM
Simplicio Simplicio is offline
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I would think "stringing a bow" would be a pretty normal part of the skill set of any Archaic Age warlord. I don't really see any reason to believe it was other then what its presented as in the Odyssey, as a feat of strength.

Also note that there is already a skill component to the test, once the bow is strung the suitors are supposed to shoot an arrow between a bunch of axes.
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  #13  
Old 04-14-2012, 05:03 PM
Shodan Shodan is online now
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Originally Posted by Chronos View Post
Presumably skipping over the part about how most of the time on his "voyage home" was spent as Circe's boy-toy.
Well, yes, if Odysseus considered that something to which a loyal wife would object.

Even when I first read The Odyssey, I was struck by the cruelty with which they treated women. Even the part I mentioned above, where Telemachus is becoming a man, the sign is that he orders his mother around.

And embedded in the whole homecoming part, after Odysseus has killed all the suitors, he calls out all the servant women who have been sexually involved with the suitors, and hangs them. As if they had a lot of choice about whether or not they were going to sleep with the suitors. They were slaves, for heaven's sake. But it is presented as part of the "purification" of the house after Odysseus kills the suitors. They have had sex with the suitors, and so they are sort of "spoiled" - not fit to remain as slaves in the newly restored household. And no one thinks twice about it.

And of course the whole Iliad is about who gets the princess, who has been captured in battle and is treated like another of the spoils, like good armor and bars of bronze and all that. Just another trophy to be passed around. Helen doesn't get that treatment, even though her leaving her husband starts the whole mess. She goes back to Menelaus and her excuse that she was enchanted by Aphrodite.

"Sing in me, o Muse, of the wrath of Achilles". They might have added "and what an asshole he, and everyone else, even the heroes, is towards anyone who isn't aristocracy".

Regards,
Shodan
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  #14  
Old 04-14-2012, 05:15 PM
Attack from the 3rd dimension Attack from the 3rd dimension is offline
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Oh Muse, sing of the rarity with which I am moved by the Gods to agree with Shodan, most regardful of the Dopers, yet like unto a blind squirrel, right twice a day.
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  #15  
Old 04-14-2012, 05:38 PM
Dan Norder Dan Norder is offline
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There is absolutely nothing in the story to suggest stringing the bow was considered an act of skill, and it explicitly says the suitors lacked the strength. Anyone trying to come up with an alternate version where it was skill and not strength is distorting the facts to have it make more sense in their own heads despite the evidence. Myths already have their own logic.Most of the people trying to interpret them don't understand that logic, because they are trying to think up some clever (or what passes as clever to modern audiences who don't know any better) explanation for something that doesn't need an explanation.
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  #16  
Old 04-14-2012, 08:23 PM
Odesio Odesio is offline
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Originally Posted by Shodan View Post
"Sing in me, o Muse, of the wrath of Achilles". They might have added "and what an asshole he, and everyone else, even the heroes, is towards anyone who isn't aristocracy".
Well, yeah. These aristocrats were the favored of the Gods. After Agamemnon insults Apollo by taking his priest's daughter, who does the son of Zeus and Leto punish? The common soldiers are felled by Apollo's arrows while Agamemnon remains unscathed. There's no concept of equality as we understand it. At least not when it comes to the God's favored and the rest of the people.

As for the strength of the bow. Well, heroes were generally stronger than the rest of the people. When Patroklos picks up a rock and hurls it at Hector's driver, knocking his eyes out, the text describes the missile as being so heavy as to require three "modern" men to even lift the thing.
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  #17  
Old 04-15-2012, 05:24 AM
constanze constanze is offline
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Originally Posted by Simplicio View Post
Its a myth, its supposed to be overdone.
Well yes, that's how I used to read it.

But apparently, scholars also spend their time discussing the Iliad seriously - not only Schlieman, who did discover Troy (not the mythical city - wrong period, but the real ancient one) because he believed it had a kernel of truth.

Apparently, scholars say that the method of fighting and the weapons described in the Iliad were wrong period for the time described, because the Iliad was written much later, so Homer was giving what the audience thought appropriate for that time - kind of like how Hollywood portrays the Middle Ages or Robin Hood with nice costumes and not historically correct things.
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  #18  
Old 04-15-2012, 05:35 AM
constanze constanze is offline
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Originally Posted by Chipacabra View Post
The whole schtick of Odysseus is that he's better than you at everything, mental and physical. He's like an oiled up Batman.
Actually, no. That is, if we take the Odysseus of the Iliad together with the Odyssee - which not all scholars do because of the 1000 year gap between them, and because in the Iliad Odysseus is one hero among many, but in the Odyssee, he's an individual, a modern man. (Despite values dissonance and old-fashioned values).

In the Iliad, he's shown as cunning - but not the smartest of all, because another guy (Polydoros?) is at least as smart as him, revealing Odysseus' attempt to get out of the draft with a section 8 as fake. Which gets Odysseus so jealous that he starts a plot to discredit that guy, leading to his death! So not a moral ideal, but a real person with emotions.

Among the heros of the Iliad, he's strong, but not the strongest. In both epics, his by-name is "the Cunning", to show that his strength is not his muscles, but his brain. (And he is obviously amoral about lying or deceiving to get his ends - but obviously in the Greek culture, that was not bad. When Athene appears to him when he arrives in Ithaka, he starts telling a tall tale about who he is, and she just pats him on the cheek and says "Well you are the smartest among mortals, but I'm the smartest among the Gods, so don't try to con me." She doesn't rebuke him for lying per se, just for trying it on her.

That's why the pure strength competition is so odd compared to all the other troubles so far he solved with smarts. Assuming therefore that there is a trick to stringing the bow that the suitors didn't know, but Odysseus did, (and that Homer's listeners would pick up on) would make more sense to me in context than just saying "Well he's stronger than the others because he's a hero".
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  #19  
Old 04-15-2012, 05:35 AM
aldiboronti aldiboronti is offline
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Criticizing the heroes of the ancient Greek epics because of their attitudes to women and the lower classes is a little like bemoaning the fact that they don't wear suits and ties. It happened a while ago, that's how things were.
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Old 04-15-2012, 05:38 AM
constanze constanze is offline
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Originally Posted by CalMeacham View Post
But one suspects that there might be more behind this, and it's entirely possible that in its earliest form it really was a question of skill that the suitors did not have. I have a commentary on the Odyssey that illustrates the point with a period depiction of an archer stringing a recurve bow, bending the bow backwards with both hands and his feet. But it's undeniable that the language of the poem doesn't support the idea that this was a question of method rather than strength. I suspect it started out as the one, then developed to the other, because it resonated better with audiences.
Was the recurve bow a "modern" invention/ introduction to Homer's audience? Would they think of Odysseus having a "modern" bow because he was smarter than his contemporaries, and knowing how to string it?

Are there different words for (long)bow and (recurve) bow in Homerian Greek?
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Old 04-15-2012, 09:32 AM
Odesio Odesio is offline
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Originally Posted by constanze View Post
Actually, no. That is, if we take the Odysseus of the Iliad together with the Odyssee - which not all scholars do because of the 1000 year gap between them
This is the first I've heard that the Iliad and the Odyssey were created 1,000 years apart from one another. No mention of this gap was made was made the multiple times I had to read the two in high school and college. Do you happen to have a cite to support your claim?
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Old 04-15-2012, 06:48 PM
Gil-Martin Gil-Martin is offline
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Originally Posted by Odesio View Post
This is the first I've heard that the Iliad and the Odyssey were created 1,000 years apart from one another. No mention of this gap was made was made the multiple times I had to read the two in high school and college. Do you happen to have a cite to support your claim?
I too am curious about this. I thought scholars generally put the writing of both these works as we now know them in the eighth or seventh century BCE. I know there have been debates about this, and different sources will move the composition of the Iliad and Odyssey forward or back some, but I've never heard or read anything suggesting a thousand year gap between creation of these two texts. Perhaps there was a typo, or I misread something?

Quote:
Originally Posted by constanze
That is, if we take the Odysseus of the Iliad together with the Odyssee - which not all scholars do because of the 1000 year gap between them . . .
Sorry. I'm not trying to stir things up, but the quoted words above just struck me pretty hard.

Anyway, I agree with Simplicio and Shodan about Odysseus being big and strong with regard to his bow-stringing ability.

Have a good day.
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Old 04-15-2012, 07:48 PM
dangermom dangermom is offline
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Originally Posted by Shodan View Post
Well, yes, if Odysseus considered that something to which a loyal wife would object.
Yeah, which he wouldn't. From what I can tell, everyone would consider it a matter of course that the hero would not be bound to be faithful to his wife.
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  #24  
Old 04-15-2012, 09:50 PM
Autolycus Autolycus is offline
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He was always my favorite grandson.
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  #25  
Old 04-16-2012, 04:42 AM
Attack from the 3rd dimension Attack from the 3rd dimension is offline
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Another thought - Odysseus may not be the strongest hero of the Trojan war, and he may have made his reputation for his cunning, but the least powerful hero of the Trojan war is going to be mightier than an normal man, and godlike in comparison to the collection of leeches in human form that the suitors represent.
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Old 04-16-2012, 08:12 AM
Telperion Telperion is offline
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Originally Posted by constanze View Post
Was the recurve bow a "modern" invention/ introduction to Homer's audience? Would they think of Odysseus having a "modern" bow because he was smarter than his contemporaries, and knowing how to string it?
Recurve bows should certainly have been familiar to any archer, since there are numerous depictions of them in art from around that time. Here's a painting from the 6th century BC of Herakles using one: http://www.theoi.com/Gallery/L3.6.html
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  #27  
Old 04-16-2012, 01:16 PM
mlees mlees is offline
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For some reason, I always thought that the bow was "blessed" (or fashioned) by Athena, and no one could use it unless they had her favor. Odysseus was her favorite throughout the Odyssey.

But now I can't find any evidence of such a theory.
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  #28  
Old 04-17-2012, 08:41 AM
constanze constanze is offline
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Originally Posted by Odesio View Post
This is the first I've heard that the Iliad and the Odyssey were created 1,000 years apart from one another. No mention of this gap was made was made the multiple times I had to read the two in high school and college. Do you happen to have a cite to support your claim?
Sorry, I made a mistake. It's a hundred years (about) that the major opinion dates them, though it's not absolutley sure.
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  #29  
Old 04-17-2012, 10:26 AM
astorian astorian is offline
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Originally Posted by Shodan View Post
Even when I first read The Odyssey, I was struck by the cruelty with which they treated women. Even the part I mentioned above, where Telemachus is becoming a man, the sign is that he orders his mother around.

And embedded in the whole homecoming part, after Odysseus has killed all the suitors, he calls out all the servant women who have been sexually involved with the suitors, and hangs them. As if they had a lot of choice about whether or not they were going to sleep with the suitors. They were slaves, for heaven's sake. But it is presented as part of the "purification" of the house after Odysseus kills the suitors. They have had sex with the suitors, and so they are sort of "spoiled" - not fit to remain as slaves in the newly restored household. And no one thinks twice about it.

And of course the whole Iliad is about who gets the princess, who has been captured in battle and is treated like another of the spoils, like good armor and bars of bronze and all that. Just another trophy to be passed around. Helen doesn't get that treatment, even though her leaving her husband starts the whole mess. She goes back to Menelaus and her excuse that she was enchanted by Aphrodite.

"Sing in me, o Muse, of the wrath of Achilles". They might have added "and what an asshole he, and everyone else, even the heroes, is towards anyone who isn't aristocracy".

Regards,
Shodan

With one notable exception: Hector, the Trojan enemy, is an affectionate husband, as well as a doting father, and he shows respect for women- even for Helen, whom he might (reasonably) blame for causing the whole bloody war.
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  #30  
Old 04-17-2012, 12:55 PM
Chronos Chronos is offline
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Wouldn't it be a lot more reasonable for him to blame Paris?
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  #31  
Old 04-17-2012, 01:07 PM
Son of a Rich Son of a Rich is offline
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Seems like the extreme age of Odysseus's dog would have been one of the more remarkable aspects of the story.
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