Birds of Prey in the Odyssey
The eagle’s eyes roam the landscape from its perch, searching for its quarry from above. Suddenly a rustle of movement captures its full attention: a dove, perching lightly on the branch of an olive tree. Immediately, the eagle rises from its own branch and dives below, wings folded back as it soars toward the oblivious little bird. Flaring its feathers as it braces for impact, the eagle snatches the dove in its talons and flaps off, victorious.
Such scenes appeared frequently in Homer’s Odyssey, and without fail a character witnessing the event would declare it to be a foreboding sign from the gods. The bird of prey omens in the Odyssey represent the relationship between gods and men. The delicate balance of predator and prey symbolize the essence of the power held by gods over mortals.
Birds of prey possess unimaginable might over their victims: the power over life and death. With natural ease they take the lives of their prey, pitiless and unsympathetic. Similarly, the gods arbitrarily play favorites: whom they reward and whom they punish, whose lives they destroy and whom they raise to higher status– all depends solely on innate whim. Like predators, the gods have the power to radically change the quality of life for their victims. Mortals are the helpless, struggling prey the gods notice only when they figuratively make some significant movement in the human world.
Thus, it is hardly a surprise that nearly all of the omens in the Odyssey consist of birds of prey carrying fresh kills. A prime example is the omen spotted by Telemachus when he is preparing to leave Lacedaimon. “As he uttered these words, a good omen came: a bird flew over to the right, an eagle carrying in his claws a huge white goose which he had caught up from a farmyard. . .’What do you think, King Menelaus? Was that omen intended for us two, or just you?’ Our champion Menelaus did not know quite what to say, or how he should interpret this omen properly…” (172) As an eagle wings its way above him and his companions, carrying a dead goose, Telemachus’s companion Peisistratos asks Menelaus what he believes this omen could mean. Although they are unsure of how to interpret this sign, they are immediately reminded of their mortality and their subordinance to the gods. The gods seem to enjoy refreshing their subjects’ memories that if they happen to displease the gods in any way, their lives could be ended just as swiftly and ruthlessly as a hunter slaughters its quarry.
These threatening implications have a special meaning in the case of the ill-fated suitors. The ominous connotation of impending destiny is epitomized in the incident where they, plotting to murder Telemachus, witness another eagle soaring by, bearing a freshly slaughtered dove. This so frightened the would-be kings that they immediately gave up on the plot altogether. “Meanwhile the suitors were hatching a plot to murder Telemachus: but a bird flew near them on their left hand – an eagle with a dove in its talons. On this Amphinomus said, ‘My friends, this plot of ours to murder Telemachus will not succeed; let us go to dinner instead’” (234). Also, it hardly seems a coincidence that the dream Penelope describes to the beggar involves a similar omen concerning the suitors: “‘A great eagle from the mountains swooped down and broke their necks with his curving claws and killed [the geese]’” (224). In her dream, the suitors are represented as a flock of geese, with Odysseus the eagle wreaking his vengeance upon them. The gods are displeased by the suitors’ theft and lack of hospitality, and accordingly they are allowing Odysseus to satisfy his wrath by butchering the entire lot of them.
However, just as not all men suffer divine punishment, not all omens are intended to convey imminent demise. Several omens, namely those directed toward the heroes Odysseus and Telemachus, are merely marks of the gods’ favor. In just the second chapter, Zeus encourages Telemachus with a benign omen. “So spoke Telemachus: and Zeus, whose eye can see what is far off, sent him a pair of eagles, flying from a lofty mountains peak” (25). While the gods punish villains without remorse, they also supply their favorites with life-altering advantages that are certainly as extreme as death. Despite the devastating events that befall Odysseus and his family, the gods (with the exception of Poseidon) carefully assist him to the end, ensuring that he regains his throne and his life. In addition, they continually aid Telemachus on his quest and reassure him of success through various signs, such as the one he sees upon leaving Pylos.
As he was speaking a bird flew by upon his right hand – a hawk, Apollo’s messenger. It held a dove in its talons, and the feathers, as it tore them off, fell to the ground midway between Telemachus and the ship. On this Theoclymenus called him apart and caught him by the hand. “Telemachus,” said he, “that bird did not fly on your right hand without having been sent there by some god. As soon as I saw it I knew it was an omen; it means that you will remain powerful and that there will be no house in Ithaca more royal than your own.”
Thus, the omens have symbolic meanings of power as well as being personal messages of the gods, either to warn the doomed or enthuse the fortunate. As the gods so dearly love to remind the characters of the Odyssey, mortals are nothing without the approval of the deities. The omens, always a triumph of predator over prey, are the metaphorical means of communication the Olympians choose to utilize when informing humankind of their collective will. The supremacy of the gods’ strength over mankind’s paltry capabilities are well represented in the suggestive violence of the bird of prey signs. In the natural world, predator and prey are in a fragile equilibrium of coexistence; the relationship between gods and men is a figurative presentation of the same concept. There is nothing like watching a bloodied raptor devouring its most recent catch to remind one of who is really superior.
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