As enticing as Odysseus’ adventures are, questions remain: what of Penelope, Telemachus, Laertes, and indeed Ithaca left behind? What about their twenty years without a King, a father, a husband, and a son? Odysseus’ brief encounter with his faithful dog Argos demonstrates the price paid by those left behind.
When Odysseus, the man of wily schemes and masterful plots, finally returns to Ithaca, he has an encounter with Argos, the dog he left behind as a pup, that provokes an unexpected response. It is striking both in its intensity and its rich metaphorical meaning. Why does this old dog on a pile of dung, infested with fleas, bring forth a tear from this great warrior? Is it regret for his absence from his wife – and likewise, his absence from the life of Telemachus, left behind as a “pup” twenty years ago? This scene is treated differently by the eleven translations of Homer’s Odyssey referenced in this essay, and the shading each gives yields fascinating insights. The contours describe the neglect of not only a dog, but a household, a city, and a kingdom, as order has crumbled in the absence of King Odysseus. Together, these glimpses produce a picture of loyalty, yearning, and love.
It is intriguing that so brief a scene, packed with symbolism pregnant with broader meaning, may help us to “know” both Odysseus and Argos. In this essay I seek a better understanding of the Odyssey and also to draw nearer to an important, and perhaps underappreciated piece of the Odyssean puzzle. What was the pain of separation, the cost of abandonment, and the difficulty of returning home? Can one find answers in thirty-five to sixty lines of a poem with over 12,000 lines (depending on translation)? I’ll have to use a bit of creative imagination and a large dose of poetic license. But aren’t they what make the Odyssey possible?
Odysseus is charming, clever, tricky and deceitful. His adventures, and his ability to stay alive during them, provide a thrilling opportunity to dwell in his world and leave the mundane behind. He provides joy and hope. Still, there is the sadness. For twenty years Odysseus is a warrior, a leader, an adventurer, a corsair, a lover, and a sailor. He confronts a one-eyed giant and a six-headed sea monster. He has complex relationships with a goddess and an enchantress. Odysseus enjoys the generosity of strangers and is let down by his shipmates’ weaknesses. As enticing as Odysseus’ adventures are, questions remain: what of Penelope, Telemachus, Laertes, and indeed Ithaca left behind? What about their twenty years without a King, a father, a husband, and a son? A single scene, Odysseus’s brief encounter with Argos (Fitzgerald, Bk. 17, 375-422) demonstrates the price paid by those left behind and the pain of abandoning the ones we love.
The adventure begins, and ends, in Ithaka. In this scene, we find Eumaeus and Odysseus approaching the courtyard gates of the Great Hall of Odysseus. The master of trickery is disguised by the goddess Athena with shriveled flesh and rags, and Odysseus has not revealed his true identity to Eumaeus. Since his return, no mortal has recognized Odysseus, nor seen through Athena’s magic. He is a master of disguise and deception, but that is about to be tested:
Thus, near the gates conferring as they drew,
Argus, the dog, his ancient master knew:
He not unconscious of the voice and tread,
Lifts to the sound his ear, and rears his head (Pope).
Pope’s translation raises the possibility that Argos knew his master and was not only “not unconscious of the voice.” Later Pope says once again of Argos “He knew his lord.” Why did Eumaeus not recognize Odysseus’ voice and know his lord? Fagles (Bk. 17, 330) describes the encounter this way: “the moment he sensed Odysseus standing by/ he thumped his tail, nuzzling low, and his ears dropped,/ though he had no strength to drag himself an inch/ toward his master.” This recognition appears to be more than a perception of sound. There is a “knowing” that is more penetrating, even beyond the five senses.
To “know” Odysseus when the master of deception does not want to be recognized is no easy feat. But Helen seems to have had this gift of “knowing” Odysseus, even when he is disguised, as she demonstrated by picking him out in the crowd in Troy when he was there on a secret reconnaissance mission:
So changed, he looked
as never before upon the Akhaian beachhead,
but like a beggar, merged in the townspeople;
and no one there remarked him. But I knew him—
even as he was, I knew him (Fitzgerald, Bk. 4, 251-275).
Helen had the perception to see Odysseus for who he was, even in disguise, just as Argos did. Their recognition of Odysseus seems to transcend merely “seeing” him. Apparently, Odysseus’ many disguises fool everyone but Athena, Helen, and Argos. Other translators used the terms “perceived” (Lattimore) and indicate Argos may have “seen” Odysseus (Palmer). These lines are artfully phrased in Chapman’s Odyssey: “But by this Dog no sooner seene but knowne/ Was wise Ulysses.” I prefer to think that Argos “knew” him. Why? Because Argos was a very old dog, seeing and hearing were no longer his strengths. How would Argos “know” Odysseus when Eumaeus, Telemachus, and Penelope do not? Even Eurykleia, who nursed and raised Odysseus, only recognized Odysseus’ scar before she “saw” him. There is a special connection between Argos and Odysseus that is even deeper than that of Penelope, Laertes, and Eumaeus.
We read that Argos was “bred by Ulysses” (Chapman) and “before the dog was grown, Odysseus went to sacred Ilios.” Isn’t this also Telemachus’ story? Telemachus seems to have experienced less of Odysseus as father than Argos did as a master. At least for Argos, Odysseus “had trained him and brought him up as a puppy” (Mitchell). Telemachus was much like Argos in that Odysseus left for Troy and “had no joy of him” (Murray). Both would grow up without his guidance, although Argos received more training than Telemachus could. Argos was given some opportunities to hunt in the early years of Odysseus’ absence: “The master gone, boys took the puppy out to hunt wild goats/and deer and hares./But now he lay neglected, without an owner” (Wilson). Argos grew up to be a magnificent dog and a formidable hunter, Eumaeus tells Odysseus. You would marvel “at the sight of his speed and strength.” (Sachs) “Oh had you seen him, vigorous, bold, and young/Swift as a stag, and as a lion strong” (Pope).
…[Y]our rapt eyes
Would then admire to see him use his Thyes
In strength and swiftness. He would nothing flye
Nor any thing let scape. If once his eye
Seiz’d any wilde beast, he knew his scent:
Go where he would, away with him he went.
…He was a passing wise and well-nos’d Hound (Chapman).
Argos was bred for excellence and trained by the best, by Odysseus, but he never got to develop to his full capacity because his master went away. And perhaps there was a moment of realization for Odysseus that his absence had affected his son in much the same way as this noble beast.
Once neglect begins, dung and flies are not far behind. Poor Argos is “treated as rubbish now” (Fitzgerald), “a castaway” (Fagles), “neglected” (Palmer), “ignored” (Sachs), “abandoned” (Mitchell), and “put aside” (Lattimore). How many ways can there be to tell the reader that Argos, without his master, is not living the full life he would have led if Odysseus had stayed home? If only Odysseus had returned to Ithaka nine years sooner, foregoing his adventures after Troy! That, of course, is speculation which would lead to the Odyssey being reduced from an epic to mini-series. For the sake of Argos, Telemachus, Penelope, Laertes, and Anticlea, one might have wished for a different story. But no, they are all to suffer because of the adventures of Odysseus. Homer takes us to the pitiable figure of an old dog lying on a dung pile:
…[H]e lay despised
on heaps of dung outside the courtyard gates,
the dung of mules and oxen piled up high
to fertilize Odysseus’ broad domains (Jordan).
Why is Argos reduced to sitting atop a pile of dung? He is outside the courtyard gates and perhaps he is keeping watch with a sense of duty. At least he can still bark, if threats appear.
But consider for a moment more this pile of dung. Is it not also an apt metaphor for Penelope and Telemachus, who sleep above the dung pile of impudent suitors who have taken over the great hall? For three years, the suitors have been feasting and plundering the estate in the absence of Odysseus. Because Penelope is wily, she has managed to put them off by unraveling her weaving, but they are growing insistent that she choose one of them. Telemachus is “half destroyed with flies” (Fitzgerald) just as Argos is on his dung pile. For years, the obnoxious suitors had buzzed about Telemachus, taunting and stinging him. Then they became deadly, planning to kill him on his return from the reconnaissance venture Athena urged him to undertake. Their evil intentions were only thwarted with the guidance of Athena. And there is a clear resemblance between Argos’ weakness on the dung pile and the condition of Ithaca. The behavior of the suitors shows that Ithaca has suffered during its leader’s twenty-year absence. The failure of the community, and the elders, to rein in the young men who plague the house of Odysseus makes obvious the kingdom’s disorder.
When Argos first catches a glance of Odysseus, in spite of the dung, the flies, and the ticks, he still manages to “wag his tail, nose down, with flattened ears” (Fitzgerald). This is more of a friendly greeting than any others in the household manage, as they do not “know” Odysseus when they first “see” him. Eurykleia is nearly strangled by Odysseus when she recognizes his scar and thus, he believes, threatens his plans. Unlike Eurykleia, Argos “knows” his beloved master, and he does not need to touch Odysseus or see his scar to validate his identity. But strive as he might, Argos still cannot manage to stand up to come to Odysseus. This is a heart-wrenching moment in the poem. For anyone who has watched an aged, beloved dog lose his capacity to get up, it is impossible to read these lines without being moved:
He knew his lord; he knew, and strove to meet;
In vain he strove to crawl and kiss his feet;
Yet (all he could) his tail, his tears, his eyes,
Salute his master, and confess his joys (Pope).
Argos does all he can to draw near Odysseus. It is not enough. He has grown old and weak. Has Argos suffered a broken heart, like Anticlea? Her life ended early in her grief over losing her beloved son, Odysseus. Argos had his lost usefulness. But at this moment, upon seeing Odysseus, Argos did not give up, even though “he had no strength to drag himself an inch toward his master” (Fagles).
Telemachus and Penelope are both weakened by the absence of Odysseus. Penelope has held out valiantly for two decades, without any communication from Odysseus, and without support from people around her. She seems to be beaten down and losing hope. She has had to hide her true heart from the world around her because she must appear strong, in the absence of the king, and she must make decisions with consequences. She was undoubtedly a strong woman before Odysseus left, but in the interim, she has had to rise to the occasion to handle whatever has arisen in the land, while trying to raise her son. She has had to mask her weak moments, push charlatans away, and demand proof from people she did not trust. She proves to be a worthy partner for Odysseus in every way. And before she is willing to surrender her disbelief, which she has wrestled with for twenty years, she demands absolute proof beyond any doubt of his identity. Only then can her skepticism (although admittedly understandable) be lifted and can she “recognize” him. But let’s not get ahead of the story here. We would miss the delicious unfolding of recognition in Odysseus as he truly “sees” Argos.
Homer reaches a turning point in the story of Argos, as Odysseus “watching him from a distance, without Eumaios noticing, secretly wiped a tear away” (Lattimore). Odysseus spills a hidden tear for Argos, and it is worth noting that this is more than he does for Telemachus, Penelope, or Laertes, upon his first meetings with them. A tear comes unbidden, welling up from twenty years of separation from all those who loved him, as Odysseus yearned to come home. Argos had kept watch, waiting for his master’s footstep. When Odysseus and Argos see each other, that glance of recognition, the fulfillment of waiting, washes over both of them. The greeting of this dog who can no longer stand but who “knows” his master immediately shoots a pang of emotion beneath his disguise and clever plan, straight to his heart. He is loved – and that undoes Odysseus for a moment. When Odysseus sees Argos struggle to move,
Soft pity touch’d the mighty master’s soul;
Adown his cheek a tear unbidden stole,
Stole unperceived: he turn’d his head and dried
The drop humane… (Pope).
As Fitzgerald puts it, “The man looked away, wiping a salt tear from his cheek.” Does Argos see his master’s tear? Does he sense that Odysseus returns his affection? Odysseus does not want to let Eumaeus see his tear, for that might give away his identity. After all, this is the Odysseus we know, and expect, as a man of action. He has a plan which he is committed to and it does not include even a pat on the head for poor Argos. He deflects attention by drawing Eumaeus into a conversation rich with symbolic meaning:
I marvel that they leave this hound to lie here on the dung pile;
he would have been a fine dog, from the look of him,
though I can’t say as to his power and speed when he was young.
You find the same good build in house dogs, table dogs landowners
keep all for style (Fitzgerald).
In this statement I hear a confident and offended king throwing down the gauntlet. Odysseus marvels that “they” dare leave Argos on the dung pile. I hear Odysseus asking: What has become of Ithaka while I’ve been away? Good hunting dogs have a purpose and this dog, the dog I bred and trained, has been ill served, and so has my kingdom. This “fine dog,” like my kingdom and my son, are not “table dogs” for show. They are meant to have purpose, power, and speed. Odysseus sheds a tear for Argos’ lost years, his capacity never utilized, and his strength sapping away. And for a moment, the acute awareness of that loss sears the soul of Odysseus.
Now it is time for Eumaeus to give us the benefit of his knowledge of Argos and Odysseus. Eumaeus appears to be shedding light on Ithaca’s past, present, and its possible future. All this as he replies to Odysseus, seemingly about Argos:
A hunter owned him—but the man is dead in some far place.
If this old hound could show the form he had when Lord Odysseus
going to Troy, you’d see him swift and strong.
He never shrank from any savage thing he’d brought to bay
in the deep woods;
on the scent no other dog kept up with him (Fitzgerald).
This has the scent of an accusation: Odysseus, the reason this dog (as well as your kingdom) is on the dung pile is because the hunter (the King) is “dead in some far place.” If only this hound (Ithaka) could show the form it had before you left (died to us) and you were gone for so long that what was once “swift and strong” is now on a dung pile. When we had a leader (master, hunter, king) like Odysseus we “never shrank from any savage,” and order reigned. Once in Ithaka fine hunting dogs were trained and taken on the hunt. Eumaeus might add that families and servants were well looked after and loved. We (Ithaca, your family) once were beyond compare, but now look what we’ve come to. Eumaeus continues (Fitzgerald): “Now misery has him in leash. His owner died abroad, and here the women slaves will take no care of him.” Isn’t this a description of Ithaca, Penelope, and Telemachus? Misery has had them “in leash” because Odysseus has been abroad so long that even the women slaves are out of control. They have not fed Argos and they are betraying Odysseus’ house, and Penelope, by fooling around with the suitors. Odysseus may not be dead– but to those at his home he might have well been.
The master gone, the servants what restrains?
Or dwells humanity where riot reigns?
Jove fix’d it certain, that whatever day
Makes man a slave, takes half his worth away (Pope).
The servants most certainly have thrown off restraints with Odysseus gone. The citizens of the kingdom have not met in assembly since Odysseus left twenty years past. It seems good manners and order have gone too, as the suitors abuse Odysseus’ house and his servants.
As to Ithaca, did Odysseus train the kingdom to be strong and wise before he left for Troy? Mentor, in the assembly called by Telemachus, tells us:
Hear me, Ithakans! Hear what I have to say.
Let no man holding scepter as a king
be thoughtful, mild, kindly, or virtuous;
let him be cruel, and practice evil ways;
it is so clear that no one here remembers
how like a gentle father Odysseus ruled you. (Fitzgerald, Bk. 2, 240)
Mentor’s complaint is that Ithaka has forgotten its King, at least in the behavior of the suitors. For Argos, Telemachus, Penelope, and Ithaka it has been nearly two decades of neglect. Is Argos the only one that still “knows” Odysseus? Riot reigns here! The suitors plan the murder of Telemachus while they discuss who will take Penelope. The suitors are now slaves to their appetites and the kingdom has become enslaved to disorder and doubt. It is past time for Odysseus to return strength and order to his household and to his kingdom.
It is time to close the door on the past and to right the wrongs done to Odysseus’ kingdom and to his family. The strength of Ithaka must be restored by the return of the King. The threats to his family may be rebuked by the return of the longed-for husband and father. Sadly, Argos’ strength is beyond restoration:
The dog, whom Fate had granted to behold
His lord, when twenty tedious years had roll’d,
Takes a last look, and having seen him, dies;
So closed for ever faithful Argus’ eyes! (Pope)
Twenty years of waiting are over for Argos. And though very late, he still receives a gift from Fate: a glimpse of his beloved master, whose touch and smell he had waited for, hoping to go hunt. The same Fate that allowed Argos to suffer for “twenty tedious years” now allows him “a last look” at Odysseus. Then “ever faithful” Argos dies (Pope). This is certainly not the ending I desired for Argos. He deserved better.
Odysseus was once like the young Argos. He was a noble boy who was trained to hunt and expected by his family to be strong and swift. We know this from the story told of Odysseus’ naming by his grandfather Autólykos and the boar hunt, where Odysseus wins the famous scar used to identify him when he returns home (Fitzgerald, Bk. 19, 460-550). This story shows that Odysseus, like the dog he bred and trained, was a hunter from his early days.
With hounds questing ahead, in open order,
the sons of Autólykos went down a glen,
Odysseus in the lead, behind the dogs,
pointing his long-shadowing spear (Fitzgerald, Bk. 19, 508-510).
Of course, Odysseus was in the lead. This is his “pup” training analogous to the training he gave Argos. But he is also “behind the dogs.” This is the life he and Argos would have enjoyed if his allies had not called Odysseus to Troy. Even as a boy Odysseus is strong and resilient:
“Odysseus…had the first shot…but the boar had already charged under the long spear…he hooked aslant with one white tusk and ripped out flesh above the knee…Odysseus’s second thrust went home…and the beast fell” (Fitzgerald, Bk. 19, 520). This character began early his telling of tales, for when he returned home his parents wanted to know how “he got his wound; so he spun out his tale, recalling how the boar’s white tusk caught him when he was hunting on Parnassos” (Fitzgerald, Bk. 19). Odysseus was always full of skill and luck, taking impossible risks and doing remarkable things. This is the Odysseus who was lost to Argos, to Telemachus, and to Ithaka for twenty years.
In the absence of computer data bases and DNA testing, the people of Ithaca relied on other incontrovertible means of identification. Eurykleia recognized the scar, before she “saw” her master. Odysseus could not dispute it, but to guarantee success of his mission, he demanded her silence with threats of death (Fitzgerald, Bk. 19, 550). Eurykleia also uses the scar as proof of Odysseus’ identity in her conversation with Penelope, saying, “But there is one sure mark that I can tell you: that scar left by the boar’s tusk long ago” (Fitzgerald, Bk. 23, 80). Odysseus proves his identity to Eumaeus with “a sign that you can trust me, look: this old scar from the tusk wound that I got boar hunting….” (Fitzgerald, Bk. 21, 240) Finally, Laertes is shown the scar by Odysseus:
“Oh, Father, I am he! Twenty years gone, and here I’ve come again to
my own land!”…. “If you are Odysseus, my son, come back, give me some
proof, a sign to make me sure.” His son replied: “The scar then, first of
all” (Fitzgerald, Bk. 24, 350)
Here the tears may flow, finally, after all the disguises and lies are put aside. These tears need not be hidden, as they had been for Argos. Odysseus’ adventure with the boar hunt as a boy shows us the true identity of Odysseus– born to be Odysseus the adventurer, the master strategist, taker of risks, and man of courage beyond all measure. He was brave, skillful, and perhaps reckless enough to need luck, or the help of Athena. This scar will prove to be the only certain way to identify Odysseus, even for those who know him best.
How remarkable, then is the single glance of “knowing” that is all Argos will need to recognize his master, despite all the years that separated them. But Argos ran out of luck when Odysseus left for Troy, and Athena apparently did not come to him on her visits to the household. And yet, twenty years is a long time for dogs to live. Athena’s blessings had been showering down on Penelope and Telemachus, and perhaps a few sprinkles reached Argos to extend his life until Odysseus returned. Argos’ story is linked to the story of Odysseus, for Argos owes his very existence to Odysseus. After all, Odysseus bred Argos. Odysseus wanted Argos to join him on the great hunts to come so he bred a dog that would be strong and swift. Argos would never lose the scent of the prey because he was a fine dog who had been trained by a skillful and wise master. Surely Argos was meant to be at Odysseus’ side.
For Ithaka, Penelope, Telemachus, and Laertes, Odysseus did finally return. We are left with hope that Ithaka will be reunited and once again have its King. A loyal wife will once again be with her beloved husband. Our young prince is now guided by Athena and his father. A father is reunited with his long-lost son and may now rest in true peace. But Argos has no future with Odysseus, only a “last look, and having seen him, dies; So closed for ever faithful Argus’ eyes!” (Pope) I wish that Odysseus had let his guard down long enough for this to happen:
My master takes my head in his hands and looks deep into my eyes.
“Can it be that you still live? Truly the gods are good….
Now you may let go of your duty to me and hunt the wild stag and the
fearsome boar on Mount Olympus. They wait for you on the other side,
most loyal of all creatures.”
This passage is not from any of the translations of Homer’s Odyssey I consulted. It is from a novel I recently discovered (Argos, Ralph Hardy, Harper Collins, 2016). This is the ending moment Argos deserved. Why wouldn’t Homer write this ending? I think for the same reason Odysseus doesn’t throw his arms around Telemachus, Penelope, Laertes, or Eurykleia. It does not fit Odysseus’ plan to be recognized before he is ready. Is this selfish or merely hardheaded realism? With Odysseus it is a mixture of both.
In a way, Argos is like Simeon, who had waited many years for a glimpse of the baby who would be the savior of the world, which he had been promised. When the promise is fulfilled, he can die in peace. When the child was brought to the temple for a blessing, overjoyed, Simeon uttered these words, which were his last:
Lord now lettest thy servant
Depart in peace, according to thy word
For my eyes have seen your salvation
That you have prepared
in the presence of all peoples. (Luke 29:31)
This man waited for years, longing for the arrival of the promised one who would put right in the world all the things that are crooked. Finally, justice and goodness would arrive and reign with equity. Is it too much to say that in a secular sense, Odysseus was to be the “salvation” for his beleaguered wife, his endangered son, and lawless Ithaka? In this beautiful moment, in the last breath of Argos, he finally sees the promised one, who will put right all that is not so in Ithaka. And having finally seen him, Argos dies.
Odysseus, although a mortal, had godlike characteristics that were given to him when Athena cloaked him in golden splendor, making him taller and younger, with hair like hyacinth blossoms. In crucial moments in battles, Athena deflected spears that would have killed Odysseus. At critical junctures she appeared in the guise of Mentor, to guide him with divine wisdom. Although Odysseus was a mortal, he had encounters with the divine often enough to reliably seek and find divine solutions. And Odysseus definitely had people who “believed in” him, in the sense of relying on him and trusting his capabilities. Penelope was one, robust enough in her faith to hold on for twenty years without a single letter or message, without news from people who had seen him or his men. Nothing. That is extraordinary faith. And Telemachus, although he remembered nothing of his father, and wasn’t even sure of his parentage, wanted to believe. When he finally talked with the war heroes who knew his father and recognized Odysseus’ characteristics in him, Telemachus became a true believer. And of course, there was Argos, who needed no proof whatsoever to “know” Odysseus, who believed that his master would finally come home.
Homer’s Odyssey is a marvelous story offering exciting tales of goddesses, giants, six headed monsters, grand victories, and deadly defeats. In the midst of the epic adventures of the wily Odysseus, Homer artfully paints the doubt, despair, and disorder, which plagues a leaderless land. Those who are left behind for two decades pay a heavy price. Argos’ story is a delicately painted miniature offering the reader of the Odyssey a vibrant portrait of life in Ithaca without a master, a king, a father, a son, and a husband. Athena always aided Odysseus when he needed her most. Penelope never failed her husband. Telemachus, empowered and encouraged by Athena, grew to be a prince. Eumaeus remained steadfast. Argos? He was touched by greatness in his youth as he was bred and trained by the transformative spirt of his master. When Odysseus was gone, Argos was forgotten, abandoned, and cast away in disordered Ithaca. But Odysseus never left his heart. In the end, Argos was reunited with Odysseus and a salt tear from his beloved master quenched his parched spirit, as Argos sailed off on his final journey. May we, like Argos, always keep Odysseus in our hearts.
- George Chapman. (Princeton University Press; 2000)
- Robert Fagles. (Penguin Classics; 1999)
- Robert Fitzgerald. (Farrar Straus and Giroux; 1998)
- Herbert Jordan. (University of Oklahoma Press; 2014)
- Richmond Lattimore. (University of Chicago Press; 2011)
- Stephen Mitchell (Atria Books; 2013)
- T. Murray. (Loeb Classical Library; 1919)
- George Herbert Palmer. (Dover Thrift Editions; 1999)
- Alexander Pope. (https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Odyssey_(Pope), 1725)
- Joe Sachs. (Paul Dry Books; 2015)
- Emily Wilson. ( W. Norton & Company; 2017)
Additional Work Referenced
Argos: The Story of Odysseus as Told by His Loyal Dog (HarperCollins; 2018)
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The featured image is “Argos reconnait son maitre Ulysse et meurt de joie. Illustration de John Flaxman pour l’Odyssée, 1835,” and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.