- Mourning Lions and Penelope’s Revenge1
This paper focuses on the simile comparing Penelope to a lion encircled by men in Odyssey 4.791–94. Lion similes in Homeric poetry typically depict warriors in combat situations and so the description of Penelope as a trapped predator facing battle is surprising. The encircled beast of the simile is in a dangerous situation, but the lion’s plight is left unresolved as Penelope falls asleep. Many critics note the connection between Penelope the lion and Odysseus, who is compared to the same animal on five occasions in the poem, most notably in Books 22 and 23 after he slaughters the suitors. Yet most dismiss the simile concerning Penelope as atypical or, as Stephanie West summarizes its scholarly reception in her commentary on Odyssey 1–4, “inept.”2 While the lion simile plays an important part in connecting Penelope with both Odysseus and the theme of revenge, its significance extends beyond this basic function. Looking backward to the epic of Gilgamesh and glancing sideways to Iliadic lions, I argue that the lion simile of Odyssey 4 evokes war and its consequences by suggesting a kind of mourning that gives rise to the wrathfulness and thirst for revenge that, within the context of the Odyssey, creates the impetus for Odysseus’s return.
Penelope is compared to a lion just after she learns of the suitors’ plot to ambush and kill Telemachos. Overcome by fear for her son’s [End Page 1] life, she stops eating and drinking, “pondering” alternative outcomes (Od. 4.787–94):3
But she in the upper chamber, circumspect Penelope,
lay there fasting, she had tasted no food nor drink, only pondering whether her stately son would escape from dying
or have to go down under the hands of the insolent suitors;
and as much as a lion caught in a crowd of men turns about
in fear, when they have made a treacherous circle about him,
so she was pondering, when the painless sleep came upon her
and all her joints were relaxed so that she slept there reclining.
Many aspects of the simile are striking, including the incongruity of a sleepy Penelope likened to a trapped predator, which may partly explain why it has generally been passed over even by scholars writing on lion similes in Homeric poetry. What scholarly attention the Odyssean lion similes have received tends to disparage them through invidious comparison with those of the Iliad. Annie Schnapp-Gourbeillon, for instance, claims that the lion comparisons in the Odyssey are “abnormal in comparison to the Iliadic paradigm,” and represent “the final dying [End Page 2] off of a once flourishing theme, accompanied by a substantial decline of its ideological significance” (1981.59 and 62).4 In this assessment, she agrees with Hermann Fränkel (1921.69–70), who already saw the difference between the lion similes in the two Homeric poems as a reflection of the decline of the theme from the epic lion of the Iliad to the degenerate lions of the Odyssey.
Where Fränkel and Schnapp-Gourbeillon see the withering of a once flourishing literary motif, others, myself included, observe the workings of an oral tradition that deliberately uses similes in different ways in the two poems. W. C. Scott (1974.122–23) and Carroll Moulton (1977.140–41), for example, emphasize the Odyssey’s tendency to use similes as a way of punctuating the narrative, and they both understand the lion similes describing Odysseus as a thematic sequence that foreshadows and leads to the hero’s vengeance on the suitors. W. T. Magrath sees another progression in the lion imagery that portrays Odysseus as “the hero both of harmony and of violence,” “the complete Greek hero because he represents in his character simultaneously beauty (kosmos) and the beast” (1982.212). In another essay focusing on the intertextual connections between the lion similes of the Iliad and the Odyssey, Donna Wilson (2002) beautifully analyzes the ways in which lion similes portray the two poems’ respective heroes as mirror images of one another.
Yet even in close analyses of the role of the seven lion similes of the Odyssey, Penelope the...