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  • Recognition and the Forgotten Senses in the Odyssey
  • Melissa Mueller (bio)


Recognition in the Odyssey typically hinges on a visual or visualizable sign of some sort. There are, however, three recognition scenes—between Odysseus and his dog, his Nurse, and his bow—which turn instead on nonvisual triggers. Touch occasions Eurycleia’s recognition of her master, as it does Odysseus’s reunion with his bow, while there are strong hints that his sharp sense of smell is what enables Argus to detect his master behind the ragged appearance of a beggar. These three scenes, based as they are on senses other than sight, expose the fissures in Odysseus’s otherwise flawless disguise, and reveal his surprising vulnerability.

As David Howes (2005, 10) observes in Empire of the Senses, how the senses are valued in any given society is not only culturally determined but also hierarchical:

The senses are typically ordered in hierarchies. In one society or social context sight will head the list of the senses, in another it may be hearing or touch. Such sensory rankings are always allied with social rankings and employed to order society. The dominant group in society will be linked to esteemed senses and sensations while subordinate groups will be associated with less-valued or denigrated senses. In the West, the dominant group—whether it be conceptualized in terms of gender, class, or race—has conventionally been associated with the supposedly ‘higher’ senses of sight and hearing, while subordinate groups (women, workers, non-Westerners) have been associated with the so-called lower senses of smell, taste, and touch.

The gendered social valuation of the senses in the Odyssey is in line with what Howes describes as typical for Western societies: sight and sound are allied with social prestige, while touch and smell are more prevalent among subordinate groups, particularly women and animals. Argus and Eurycleia mobilize these ‘lower’ senses during their interactions [End Page 1] with Odysseus. Women, moreover, are often the first to notice bodily sêmata, perhaps because of their involvement in rituals of hospitality which brings them into close contact with the physical self.1 And as weavers, women are practitioners of a supremely tactile art.2 This may mark them as closer to ‘nature’ and supposedly less suited for positions of political power, but their tactile expertise is also what allows female characters in Homer to ‘see through’ the superficially altered appearances that confound their male counterparts.3

Even Odysseus, a hero of mêtis (cunning) rather than bia (force), resorts to uncharacteristic aggression when he is confronted with Eurycleia’s discerning touch. The forgotten senses of touch and smell thus reinforce, at the same time that they call into question, the Odyssey’s gendered and political status quo. By pointing up the dangers of discovery that Odysseus barely escapes, such seemingly loose ends in the ‘disguise’ strand of the epic hint at alternative outcomes to the hero’s nostos. Odysseus’s is a homecoming whose precarious reliance on the dynamics of vision-centered reintegration could easily have been overwritten by a single sleight of hand or nose.

Recognition and the Senses

There are two main types of recognition in the Odyssey, each of which performs a distinctive narrative function. I refer to these as anagnôrisis and noêsis, even though those particular nouns do not occur in Homer.4 Recognition scenes involving anagnôrisis tend to be framed by a social relationship that requires reactivation. Through the agency of a visualizable sign (e.g., a particular bodily form [demas]; the shape of the head, hands, or feet; a scar; a special token; or the smooth surface of a weapon), a connection is re-established between Odysseus and some member of his domestic inner circle.5 The scar on his thigh is the sign (sêma) that is most often summoned to confirm recognition (anagnôrisis) of Odysseus; as such, it is an externalization of a durative social identity. The scar contains a twofold story—the history of Odysseus’s naming by his grandfather, Autolycus, and his wounding by a boar on Parnassus as part of a coming-of-age hunting expedition. But the scar itself cannot speak...


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