Odysseus’ Bow and the tools that reveal our character

Greek bowl showing Odysseus killing the suitors

One of my favorite scenes in the Odyssey occurs in the moments before Odysseus slaughters the suitors who have overrun his palace, consumed his wealth, and bedeviled his wife and son. It is a moment of stillness when the King takes his bow into his hands, a bow that the suitors had tried and failed to string, a bow he and he alone is able to string, to draw, and to shoot.

Over the years, I have often thought of this scene and my own relation to certain possessions: the guitars I have owned for decades, the woodworking tools I inherited from my father, the chef’s knives that were my first purchase when I set up my first kitchen – tools I believe I hold with a relationship as unique, as personal, as intimate as the relationship between Odysseus and his bow.

My “Bow”

Recently, the depth of this attachment was brought to my mind when, at a holiday party, the young son of a family friend, bored with the conversation, asked if he could entertain himself by “looking at” my guitars. He was clearly offended by my refusal, just as I was surprised by the strength of my reaction to the thought of these instruments being casually handled by a bored party guest. Was I simply being selfish? Was I justifiably protective of instruments that are both delicate and costly? Or did my feelings touch on something as noble as Odysseus’ relationship to the bow that bent only to his hands?

As those of you who have read Homer’s masterpiece will recall, Odysseus, the King of Ithaca, had returned home after ten years spent fighting the Trojan War, and another ten struggling to overcome the many obstacles to his return. Unsure of what he would encounter after so long an absence, the cunning Odysseus enters the city disguised as an elderly beggar, and finds over a hundred arrogant young men, sons of Ithaca’s wealthiest families, occupying his palace, and demanding that his wife, Penelope, choose one of them to succeed the King they insist has perished. Although the Queen has stalled them for years with a cunning that matches her husband’s, she was unable to stop them from consuming his wine and cattle in their nightly debaucheries.

Keeping to his disguise in spite of the suitors’ verbal and physical abuse, Odysseus plans his revenge. Prompted by Athena, Penelope proposes a contest: she will marry the man who can successfully string the bow that the King had left behind when he journeyed to Troy, and shoot an arrow through a line of twelve axes. One by one, the suitors fail even to string the King’s bow. Finally, Odysseus, still disguised as a beggar, asks to try. The suitors mock him cruelly, but emboldened by wine and eager to forget their own failures through the humiliation of a stranger, pass him the weapon.

In the lines that follow, Homer describes the loving care with which the King takes the bow into his hands, scanning it from end to end for wear or damage, and stringing it with the ease and care of a musician stringing a familiar instrument. As the stunned suitors watch, he plucks the newly strung bow and listens carefully to the sound it produces, confirming the proper tension on the bowstring through the pitch. Odysseus then looses an arrow cleanly through the aligned axes, before turning the bow on the suitors.

Homer’s imagery and my own introspections lead me to wonder: how is it that certain objects create such an intense a personal relationship their owner, a relationship that I can only describe as intimate? Why does the image of a bow that only one man can string feel like such an appropriate metaphor for my own relationship to the tools I have used for a lifetime? How can we have a relationship to tool or instrument that is so personal as to defy comprehension of even our closest friends? What do the things with which we choose to build such relationships say about our own character?

Odysseus killing the auitors, full view.

The kind of relationship exemplified by Odysseus’ bow is not simply a consequence of an object’s value, or its beauty, or the time one has owned it. It goes beyond notions of ownership and the selfishness it implies. When I was a young man and first found myself with disposable cash, I purchased some quality artwork and furniture that I still own, and from which I still take pleasure. Although these items are more valuable than my old Fender and Martin guitars, they do not carry the same sense of personal intimacy.

I believe that the basis of this relationship exemplified by Odysseus and his bow lies in the ability of certain objects to reveal to us fundamental aspects of our character through their use.

These objects, unlike paintings or jewelry, enable the activities we hold dear, activities that are challenging, and to which we devote our lives: activities like making music, working on a home, preparing meals from simple ingredients. These objects mingle our own touch with the touch of people we admire, such as the luthiers who shape wood and metal into responsive musical instruments, or my father who wore down the handles of hammers, chisels, screwdrivers, and other tools through a lifetime of use. When I hold these tools, I feel the skill he gave me stirring in my own hands in a way that cannot be matched by a tool I have simply purchased. These are objects, like the King’s bow, that cause us to pause and appreciate their design and history before our awareness of the tool vanishes into the deeply habituated patterns of its use. They are tools that cannot be truly owned through an exchange of money; their ownership must be earned across the years of training and practice required for their mastery.

I do not believe the suitors failed to string the King’s bow because of physical weakness. They were young men at the peak of fitness; Odysseus was long past his youth and tried by war and wandering. The suitors failed to string the bow because they could not sense the deeply ingrained patterns of its potential and its use, the deep resonance between wood and string and the touch of a man who was shaped by the instrument just as the instrument was shaped by his use of it. The suitors failed to string the King’s bow because it would not reveal its essence to their dark intentions, just as another guitarist – no matter how superior in skill – would be unable to draw the same music from my instruments as I.

In spite of the depth of this relationship, I sometimes wonder if Odysseus felt a moment of uncertainty as he held his bow, a moment where he wondered if he would still be able to master so difficult an instrument, or if the passage of time and hardship had created a void between the man and the tool that even he might not close. Homer does not mention this, no should he – doubt has no place in heroic epics – but I wonder if some small doubts might have passed through the back of Odysseus’ mind when he was

“ . . . turning it over, tip to tip, testing it, this way, that way . . . fearing worms had bored through the weapon’s horn with the master gone abroad.”

I wonder if Odysseus, who was no longer a young man, might have felt at that moment something like the stiffness I have started to feel in my own wrist and knuckles when I first pick up my guitar to practice, or take a chisel in my hands to shape a piece of hardwood. I wonder if the process of stringing the bow and bending his own muscles to the bow’s demands were inseparable for Odysseus, just as the exercises I do to limber up my fingers when I first pick up the guitar can only be performed on the fingerboard itself.

Like Odysseus, I am no longer a young man. But, whatever valuable qualities may remain in my character, those qualities resonate in these tools and musical instruments I have used for so long. When I take them in my hands I feel my skill and strength unchanged from the experiences that first shaped them.

Like Odysseus, I find myself close to the once distant edge of a long life, a life filled with triumph and defeat, luxury and deprivation, love and loneliness, and it is in the touch of these tools that I experience the disparate events of living as the deeply connected pattern of patterns that we call a life. When I touch them, I am home, I am whole, and I experience the perfect stillness that lies at the center of work, struggle, love, and creativity. It is a stillness that I cannot share, but that is equally accessible to any person who works to master tools that are, by nature and design, unique, cherished, and difficult to master.

About William Stubblefield

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