The war that Menelaus waged against Troy was a long and bitter ordeal. It took ten years to win the battle, and the return was no easier; in the case of Odysseus, the voyage home took another ten years.
A lot can change in twenty days, let alone twenty years. In his absence, his palace had been over run with potential suitors, all hoping to woo his apparent widow, Penelope. His son had grown up to be a young adult. And then there is his dog, Argos…
At this point in the story (Chapter 17), Odysseus has returned to his city of Ithaca. However, to rid his palace of his unwanted ‘guests’, he comes disguised as a beggar. With the exception of his son, Telemachus, no one sees through his disguise, even his life long friend Eumaios – no one, that is, except his faithful dog:
As they were speaking, a dog that had been lying asleep raised his head and pricked up his ears. This was Argos, whom Odysseus had bred before setting out for Troy, but he had never had any enjoyment from him.
In the old days he used to be taken out by the young men when they went hunting wild goats, or deer, or hares, but now that his master was gone he was lying neglected on the heaps of mule and cow dung that lay in front of the stable doors till the men should come and draw it away to manure the great close; and he was full of fleas.
As soon as he saw Odysseus standing there, he dropped his ears and wagged his tail, but he could not get close up to his master. When Odysseus saw the dog on the other side of the yard, [he] dashed a tear from his eyes without Eumaios seeing it, and said:
‘Eumaios, what a noble hound is that is over yonder on the manure heap: his build is splendid; is he as fine a fellow as he looks, or is he only one of those dogs that come begging about a table, and are kept merely for show?’
‘This dog,’ answered Eumaios, ‘belonged to him who has died in a far country. If he were what he was when Odysseus left for Troy, he would soon show you what he could do.
There was not a wild beast in the forest that could get away from him when he was once on its tracks. But now he has fallen on evil times, for his master is dead and gone, and the women take no care of him.
Servants never do their work when their master’s hand is no longer over them, for Zeus takes half the goodness out of a man when he makes a slave of him.’
So saying he entered the well-built mansion and made straight for the riotous pretenders in the hall. But Argos passed into the darkness of death, now that he had fulfilled his destiny of faith and seen his master once more after twenty years.
—Homer, Odyssey, Book 17, lines 290-327, translated by Stanley Lombardo
As we’ve seen in other mythologies, the relationship between humans and canines is complicated. Yudishtira, hero king of the Indian Epic the Mahabharata, gave up the apparent bliss of the heavens out of fidelity to a dog that had followed him in the last phase of his journey; on the other hand, the Norse God Tyr, who helped raise the ravenous wolf Fenris, lost his arm when his fellow deities attempted to chain the beast.
But Odysseus’ relationship with Argos points to a different form of loss; time yields for no one, not even one as clever as Odysseus. Sweet Penelope had aged; the young son he left behind was now an adult in his own right. And Argos, his faithful companion from twenty years before, had fulfilled his destiny.
Seeing Odysseus one last time, the moment had come for Argos to go gently into the night…
There are so many versions of the Odyssey that it’s hard to pick one. Two that are currently in our infinite reading list are Emily Wilson’s progressive translation (2017, W.W. Norton), as well as Stanley Lombardo’s Odyssey, quoted above (Hackett Publishing, 2000).
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