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Eagle and Geese

Dreamed c.1190 BC by Penelope of Ithaca.

The Trojan War is long over. Ulysses has come home to find he's presumed dead. His palace crawls with suitors for his wife Penelope's hand, running riot. She's stalling but losing hope. Here Penelope tells Ulysses (disguised; she doesn't know him) a dream about... Ulysses!

'But I have dreamed. Hear and expound my dream!
My geese are twenty; which within my walls
I feed with sodden wheat;--they serve to amuse
Sometimes my sorrow. From the mountains came
An eagle, hook-beaked---brake all their necks
And slew them: scattered on the palace floor
They lay, and he soared swift into the skies.

'Dream only as it was, I wept aloud;
Till all my maidens, gathered by my voice,
Arriving, found me weeping still, and still
Complaining, that an eagle had at once
Slain all my geese. But to the palace-roof
Stooping again, he sat, and with a voice
Of human sound, my tears forbidding, said--

'"Take courage, daughter of the glorious chief
Icarius; no vain dream hast thou beheld,
But, in thy sleep, a truth. The slaughtered geese
Denote thy suitors; and myself, who seem
An eagle in thy sight, am yet indeed
Thy husband, who have now, at last, returned,
Death--horrid death--designing for them all."

'He said: then, waking at the voice, I cast
An anxious look around, and saw my geese
Beside their tray, all feeding as before.

'Her then Ulysses answered, ever-wise--
"O Queen, interpretations cannot err
Unless perversely, since Ulysses' self
So plainly spake the event. Since death impends
O'er every suitor; he shall slay them all." '

From Homer's Odyssey as translated by William Cowper.


A wonderfully nuanced dream! Here's a woman being held captive in her own house, being quarreled over, with only the thinnest of pretences that she's a host not a prisoner. Yet she dreams of them as a gaggle of geese! Loud, quarrelsome, but in the end tame and silly. She even feels a maternal affection for them. They're that ineffectual, compared to her memory of her brilliant husband. He's no tame bird. Not at all--her dream-portrait of him is quite unsparing too--a dreamer with her eyes open. That hooked beak isn't just a physical description, but hints at his cruel predatory streak. His words only confirm it.

Penelope tells the dream to her "servant", who she hasn't yet recognized is Ulysses. So the dream becomes a way to tell her husband that she knows him (and what he plans) even though she doesn't yet--not consciously.

So is this real? Did Penelope dream this? Was there even a Penelope, or is she pure fiction? Two points:

  1. Many surviving ancient dreams did so because they seemed oracular or prophetic. Not this one! Penelope needs no gods or oracles to sense her husband is near--she's talking to him. The dream expresses a (perfectly modern) subliminal insight. And Penelope knows him well; if Ulysses comes home, he'll kill the suitors. Even they know it. The only point a confirmed skeptic can grab hold of is the implausibility of a self-interpreting dream. Sorry! They're rare, but do exist. Here's a list of examples.
  2. So it all could have happened. The question is... did it? Maybe Homer invented it all. Could he really know the details of lives centuries earlier? Well, Homer's situation was not that of, say, Shakespeare, who based his plays on written histories of foreign cultures and of varying accuracy. The tales of the Trojan War were recited publicly, in a cohesive, argumentative culture--they had to pass the taverna test. That tends to inhibit the drift that a much-copied text can suffer. And Homer's definitive version faced that too.
    Doubt the accuracy of such oral transmission? We have a more recent example: the Icelandic sagas. But instead of two great epics we have many shorter sagas, with solid dates for both the historic events and the sagas' eventual transcription. This is ideal! If these orally transmitted poems do tend to drift over generations, they should diverge like Darwin's finches. In fact, though, their genealogies and chronologies interlock quite well; they're more reliable than most written histories on the European mainland at the time.
So I'm trusting that centuries of argumentative Greeks kept their oral history in line. After all, European scholars who'd lost the oral tradition called Troy itself a mere myth, til it was found.

Penelope's house, and her dream, lack stone foundations--so far. But I'm betting she, and her impossible predicament, and fierce cunning husband, and inept squawking suitors, and even her dream of them all... were real.

--Chris Wayan

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