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Eumaeus, The Odyssey’s Ideal Man

In The Odyssey, Homer conveys themes of loyalty, authority, and reverence to the gods as he tells the story of Odysseus’ journey back to his home in Ithaca. All of these themes are exemplified in the disguised Odysseus’ encounter with Eumaeus, the servant who tends pigs. Eumaeus, though he only appears in the last third of the tale, contains all the attributes that Odysseus values himself and wants to elicit in a follower. Because the swineherd reveres the gods, respects authority, and shows a sense of loyalty, he is not only spared from Odysseus’ wrath but is also distinguished by Homer for his actions. The attention that Homer places on Eumaeus and his story conveys the importance of his character, providing the audience with an example of the ideal ancient Greek citizen.

At first glance, Eumaeus appears to simply be one of the many servants at the mercy of the suitors who have infested Odysseus’ estate; however, Eumaeus stands out even among these subordinates. Athena herself suggests that Odysseus go see Eumaeus, saying, “…You make your way to the swineherd first…true to you as always, loyal friend to your son, to Penelope…” (XIII, 461-463). As demonstrated in Greek myths, when a god sends a man to meet with someone, that direction serves to teach that man, and subsequently the audience, something important. Eidothea sends Menelaus to Proteus to hear news of his comrades, Athena inspires Telemachus to visit Nestor and Menelaus in order to mature in confidence and tact, and Circe tells Odysseus to find Tiresias to learn how to return home. In the same way, the fact that Athena wants Odysseus to see Eumaeus indicates that Eumaeus is of significance.

Homer also distinguishes Eumaeus by allowing him to tell of his origins. When speaking with Odysseus, who he believes to be a beggar, Eumaeus recounts how he became Odysseus’ servant, a story that further develops Eumaeus as a character. Because he speaks so candidly to the disguised Odysseus, the audience learns Eumaeus’ true perception of the suitors and his feelings towards Odysseus’ family. The expression of these thoughts helps to convey Eumaeus’ beliefs and motives, giving the audience a better understanding of Eumaeus as a person and enabling Homer to use him as an example of the ideal man.

In ancient Greece, the degree to which a person fulfilled his role in society determined if that person was in fact good. A good man gave due respect to the gods (particularly by offering worship to the gods at the appropriate times and following their wishes), submitted to the authorities that ruled above him, and showed loyalty to his household. If a man succeeded in all these things, no matter his motives or other aspects of his life, he was considered good by the Greeks. It is by this standard that all the characters in The Odyssey are judged, and this is one of the reasons that the suitors appear so evil: they drain Odysseus’ estate of its resources instead of providing for their own households. Eumaeus, however, surpasses the expectations of a good man by fulfilling all his roles while remaining humble and warm-hearted, though doing so is not required of him. Thus, Eumaeus represents the ideal man.

Revering the gods, giving the gods due sacrifice and prayer, and abiding by divine laws both gained a man the gods’ favor and kept him from their wrath. Eumaeus proves that he fears the gods by welcoming a stranger into his home, for hospitality was an expectation of the Greeks. Zeus would often test mortals’ hospitality by appearing as a beggar needing a place to stay, and would curse the inhospitable. Eumaeus does not begrudgingly allow the disguised Odysseus to stay the night; instead, he slaughters the fattest hog for Odysseus, giving him “the cut of honor” at mealtime (XIV, 497). When nightfall comes, Eumaeus also “laid out a bed by the fire, throwing over it skins of sheep and goats and… the heavy flaring cloak he kept in reserve…” for Odysseus to sleep on, giving a beggar the best of what he had (XIV, 586-590). In addition to the generous hospitality he shows, “the swineherd, soul of virtue, did not forget the gods,” and sacrifices the best meat to the gods during meals (XIV, 476). His continual reverence to the gods does not go unnoticed, and Odysseus praises Eumaeus, wishing that the gods would bless him for the things he has done. For Odysseus, a man who—from his own experience—knows a great deal about reverence to the gods, to compliment Eumaeus in this matter indicates the exceptionality of Eumaeus’ devotion to and respect for the gods.

Despite the unfairness of his situation, Eumaeus still expresses respect for Odysseus’ authority by working for him, remaining content, and not attempting to rise in social rank. In Book XV, it is revealed that Eumaeus was born a prince and was sold as a slave to Laertes. The inclusion of this story hints at Eumaeus’ inherent goodness. Homer crafts this history for the swineherd in order for the audience to accept Eumaeus as the representation of the ideal man in society more easily. Princes were courageous, magnanimous, and commonly depicted as paragons of goodness. Although he is slave, Eumaeus still retains his princely qualities, making the parallels between the swineherd and the ideal man more feasible. Eumaeus’ story also shows his humility and good nature. Though he is of noble blood, forced into a life of servitude, Eumaeus does not resent Odysseus’ family; rather, he finds himself indebted to them. Odysseus’ mother raised Eumaeus alongside her own daughter, “tending [him] almost like her child” (XV, 409). Whereas Melantho, who Penelope similarly raised as her own child, has no respect for her mistress’ authority and mocks Penelope’s guest—who happens to be Odysseus—Eumaeus instead completely submits to his master’s authority and works for the success of Odysseus’ household.

Loyalty is a quality that Odysseus values deeply, as he goes to great lengths to rid his household of betrayers. Odysseus, and the Greeks as a whole, considered loyalty to be the constant devotion to a certain cause. Eumaeus’ cause is undoubtedly the promotion of Odysseus and his family. Though Odysseus has been gone for over two decades, Eumaeus still completely commits himself to his master, and “alone, apart from his queen or old Laertes, he’d built [the walls] up of quarried blocks of stone and coped them well with a fence of wild pear” (XIV, 11-13). Without any orders, Eumaeus builds a wall to enclose Odysseus’ pigs and sleeps outside to guard his swine, both of which show the extent of his loyalty. Odysseus notices these things, and “it warmed Odysseus’ heart, Eumaeus cared so much for his absent master’s goods” (XIV, 594-595). Eumaeus loves his master and, in a sense, takes it upon himself to honor Odysseus not only with the pigs, but also with his son as well. Eumaeus treats Telemachus as his own, and when Telemachus returns to Ithaca, Eumaeus welcomes him “as a father, brimming with love, welcomes home his darling only son…” (XVI, 19-20). While other servants abandon their responsibilities after Odysseus’ return becomes unlikely, Eumaeus, the loyal swineherd, increases his responsibilities in order to maintain Odysseus’ household.

Because Eumaeus completely fulfills his role in society by revering the gods, respecting authority, and showing loyalty to Odysseus’ household, he is considered good by ancient Greek standards. The swineherd does not just represent a good man, though, but the ideal man in his humility, genuine love for Odysseus’ family, and his total commitment to the success of the household. Homer uses Eumaeus to depict the ideal man in society because Eumaeus does not simply do the bare minimum. He takes ancient Greek virtue a step further by fulfilling his role with a true heart and honest motives. In this way, Eumaeus serves as an example to the audience that even a servant can have the attributes of a noble man, becoming not only good but genuine and warm-hearted as well. Eumaeus is no longer simply the loyal swineherd, but now deserves the new epithet of “the ideal man.”

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