An enigma in the Odyssee

Disguised as a beggar, Odysseus finally arrived at his homeland of Ithaca. The swineherd Eumaeus takes Odysseus in as a guest, not recognizing his long lost master. Odysseus gives Eumaios a false biography, before launching into a story about a raid he participated in during the Trojan War. Odysseus does this to test the bounds of Eumaeus’ hospitality, to see if the swineherd will offer him a cloak, whether one of his own or a companion’s. The request for a cloak is the secret message of this ainos, and Eumaeus’ ability to understand it will decide Odysseus’ willingness to trust him.
Odysseus takes on the role of an unnamed Greek soldier at Troy. He refers to this self in the first person, while speaking of 'Odysseus' in the third person, projecting his true identity into a separate character. In the story, the 'beggar' is out on a scouting mission led by 'Odysseus' and Menelaus, who have named him their third in command. When night falls, the 'beggar' realises he has forgotten a cloak and will freeze, so he asks 'Odysseus' for help. Pretending to wake up from a divinely sent (θεῖός) bad dream, 'Odysseus' tells a warrior named Thoas to fetch backup from King Agamemnon, lest his foreboding dream come true and the group be ambushed by Trojans. The dream itself is not explained, leaving us to imagine that it featured a warning about a Trojan ambush. Thoas runs off to get unneeded backup, leaving his cloak behind for the 'beggar'.

Eumaeus, the swineherd, responds to the story with approval. He calls it a good 'ainos', revealing that he understands that this story has a hidden meaning. He then provides Odysseus with one of his own spare cloaks for the night, thus understanding its hidden meaning and proving his hospitality.

The question of exactly what an αἶνος (ainos) was has puzzled historians for ages. The word itself is related to the verb αἰνέω (aineō) ‘to praise’, the word means, 'praising speech', or more basically, 'speech act'. But not all ainoi appear as praise. They can also appear instructions, warnings, or fables.

The word αἶνος (ainos) appears as a sort of doublet in Latin as aenigma ('enigma'), borrowed from Greek αἴνιγμα, itself derived from αἶνος.

So, αἶνος (ainos) is akin to enigma. Perhaps, the telling of an ainos was simply an important part of the ritual of hospitality of the Ancient Greeks. Even today you could tell a 'good yarn' if you repose after a perfect dinner.

Additional reporting by Miriam Kamil.

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