The Return of Ulysses, Painted By Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg (c. 1783 – 1853)

In this curious painting, the Danish artist Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg (c. 1783 – 1853) re-creates a tale from the epic poem, The Odyssey, written by the ancient Greek poet, Homer (c. 8th century BCE). Homer’s Odyssey follows the adventures of the poem’s namesake, Odysseus (or Ulysses), as he struggles on his much-troubled journey home to Ithaca in the years following the Trojan War. After surviving encounters with sea monsters, witnessing the deaths of his entire crew of shipmates to various disasters, and being constantly caught up in an ongoing conflict between two camps of deities that contrastingly want him dead or alive, Odysseus finally was able to reach home. Nevertheless, he was not able to immediately celebrate his return.

Odysseus had spent ten years battling the Trojans, and it took another ten years for him to weave his way through the peoples, monsters and gods that blocked his path home. Therefore, when Odysseus finally did reach Ithaca, his wife, Penelope, and their son, Telemachus, had not seen the long-lost hero for twenty years. During his multi-decade absence, the Greeks had begun to fear that Odysseus was dead, and, as a result, opportunistic suitors began to accumulate around Penelope in Ithaca, vying for her hand in marriage (and also for the wealth and power that would come from the union). When Odysseus, upon his return, became aware of the situation, he decided to take things slowly. First, Odysseus met with a loyal swineherd named Eumaeus; then, Odysseus has a reunion with his son, Telemachus; and, finally, Odysseus disguised himself as a beggar and began slowly working his way towards Penelope’s position, making sure to gather information about the individual suitors that he found along the way. At last, the disguised Odysseus came face to face with Penelope, but with his costume, twenty years of aging, and some concealing magic from the goddess Athena, Penelope did not recognize him. Nevertheless, Penelope was hospitable towards the supposed beggar, and she even called over an old servant named Eurycleia to give his feet a much-needed cleaning.

When Eurycleia began working on Odysseus’ feet, she noticed something familiar about the stranger’s leg. Odysseus, it was said, had a nasty wound above one of his knees, which he had obtained while hunting a vicious boar. He was quite proud of the scar and he frequently told and retold the story to family and guests—therefore, servants had heard the tale and seen the scar many times. As a result, Eurycleia immediately recognized that the beggar was Odysseus as soon as she saw the unique scar. Homer described the scene:

“Eurycleia then came up to her master and began to wash him. At once she recognized the scar, the one Odysseus had received years before from the white tusk of a boar…It was this scar that the old woman felt and recognized as her hand passed over it. Abruptly she let go of her master’s foot, which made the metal ring as it dropped against the basin, upsetting it and spilling all the water on the floor…In the meantime Odysseus’ right hand sought and gripped the old woman’s throat, while with the other he pulled her closer to him” (Homer, The Odyssey, Book 19, approximately lines 390 and 465-480).

Although Odysseus was aggressive in his actions, Eurycleia was fine. Odysseus only wanted to stop Eurycleia from alerting Penelope and other nearby people of his true identity. It is this scene that is playing out in Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg’s painting, showing Odysseus using his foot to stop the metal bowl from ringing, and using his hand to keep Eurycleia from exclaiming her shock. Eurycleia, for her part, did agree to keep Odysseus’s identity a secret. Nevertheless, the secrecy would not need to go on for too much longer, because Odysseus would eventually massacre all of the suitors in Ithaca and reclaim his family and home.

Written by C. Keith Hansley



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