That was the scar
the old woman was then holding in her hands.
She traced it out and recognized it. She dropped his foot.
His leg fell in the basin, and the bronze rang out.
It tipped onto its side. Water spilled out on the ground.
All at once, joy and sorrow gripped her heart. Her eyes
filled up with tears, and her full voice was speechless.
(Od. 19.467 ff., Johnston, trans.)
Here in Homer’s Odyssey, the hero has finally reached home after two decades of war and wandering. He’s altered beyond recognition, however.
The plot has it that the alteration is artificial. Athena disguises Odysseus as a down-on-his luck vagabond, the better for him to spy on Penelope’s wicked suitors and plot against them.
Or you, Homer’s readers, may choose to think otherwise — to acknowledge the plot device, while nonetheless understanding Odysseus’s physical transformation as the natural, even inevitable consequence of his harsh experiences at Troy and during his return voyage.
In the present scene, Penelope has invited the beggar to speak with her. She wants news of her husband. In the course of their interview, the queen instructs Odysseus’s childhood nurse to wash her guest’s feet. But he fears (rightly, as it happens) that Eurycleia will see and recognize a telltale scar on his knee. He supposes (wrongly) that she will give him away.
What’s this all about?
In our world — this world outside the poem, I mean — we don’t lose contact with our partners for two decades. Not in the way that Penelope and Odysseus are separated. And we don’t have faintly familiar-looking strangers turn up on our doorsteps, either, with tales of once having encountered a loved one in a far-off place.
What we do have is something like the converse. Namely, spouses and partners and even intimate friends from whom we’ve never been separated for long, not physically, but who have nonetheless become strangers to us.
You know what I mean. Time passes. That familiar face is there in front of us, day after day. And while we weren’t paying attention, while we went about the mundane business of our lives, while we thoughtlessly took so much for granted, that familiar face gradually took on the character of a mask, behind which so much became altered.
So. On the one hand, Homer’s vagabond is indeed Penelope’s one true Odysseus. On the other hand, your supposed Odysseus may now be, figuratively speaking, a vagabond, a homeless beggar, a man or woman with a yet untold tale of misadventure and woe:
I was wealthy and lived in my own home,
in a rich house, too, among my people.
I often gave gifts to a wanderer like me,
no matter who he was or what his needs
when he arrived. I had countless servants
and many other things that people have
when they live well and are considered rich.
But then Zeus, son of Cronos, ruined me.
That’s what he wanted, I suppose.
(Od. 19.75 ff., Johnston, trans.)
“Once I was young,” he or she might say, if asked. “I had my life still ahead of me. And I was beautiful, you know? I had that beauty that so many young people have. That vitality, that eagerness, that openness to life. I … I … I don’t know what happened. I’m not sure how I got here.”
And the scar?
For Odysseus and his old nurse Eurycleia, the scar on the knee is not a disfigurement. It’s a token of identity, isn’t it? It’s autobiography. It’s a strange sort of language that this particular man and woman speak.
I ask you, therefore, why it should be different for us. Yes, our scars, yours and mine, are remnants of past injuries. Our pain and suffering, that is. Wounds do leave marks. They do pucker and discolor the skin, and no one should be blamed for wanting to hide them.
But maybe what was true for Eurycleia can be true for us, too. Maybe it’s by their scars that we can recognize our long-lost husbands, wives, partners, parents, children, siblings, and friends. Maybe, if we want to welcome them home, we start with the scars?
“Ah, there you are. I see you now. You’re still carrying that scar from when your mother wounded you so deeply. And the one from when your fiancé broke off your engagement. From when you ran out of money and had to drop out of college. From when you got passed over for promotion. From when you became estranged from your child. And, look, there are new scars here.
“Tell me. Tell me about the old ones again, and tell me about these new ones. Tell me, because these scars are part of you, the life you’ve lived. Tell me about them, and then let’s celebrate these patches of unblemished skin. Let’s rejoice in all of it, the wounds that have healed, the blows we’ve avoided, and what we’ve managed by luck or skill to preserve from harm.