Most people who’ve read the Odyssey remember the good servant vs. bad servant theme. Eumaeus, the lowly swineherd, is the one who helps Odysseus claim his house and home again; by contrast, Melanthius and Melantho (evil twins?) are some of a number of bad servants who help the suitors and make life difficult for Odysseus upon his return.

Melantho mouths off to her erstwhile master; not only that, but she’s openly ungrateful towards Penelope, and she’s been having an affair with one of the suitors. In fact, she’s not the only one—quite a few of Penelope’s girls have been a little too cozy with the suitors, and all of them end unpleasantly. Melanthius himself isn’t too far different; he’s every bit as rude, as is shown by the vicious kick he deals Odysseus, and he too sides openly with the suitors.

Melantho especially has a peculiar position. Penelope practically raised her; she took care of her pretty much since she was a child, and she reminds Melantho of this. Melantho doesn’t seem to care; she thinks she’s pretty much protected, maybe because of her position as mistress to one of the suitors. Her past relationship with Penelope doesn’t prevent her from being nasty to Odysseus.

It'’s not just the belief that Odysseus is dead that makes them bad servants. It'’s the total absence of all the values that they held (or at least paid lip service to) while he was at home. They’re faithless and rude, and they not only side with the sui tors but also encourage them. Of course, this doesn’t reflect well on the household as a whole: honor was a big deal to the Bronze Age and Dark Age Greeks, and if one person in the household acted up, it could cause problems for everyone else. I don’t thi nk that would have applied to servants or slaves as much as to the members of a noble family, but it’s something to keep in mind. To have slaves like these would have been embarrassing to the family: who wants an impudent, loud-mouthed, deceitful servant? And what kind of person would put up with someone like that?

The Execution of the
Maidservants
(The bodies of executed maidservants. Justice is served. Telemachos Executes the Maidservants, Dame Elisabeth Frink. Image source: Illustrated Guide to the Trojan War)

At the end, Melanthios’ torture is similar to the one the suitors threatened Iros the beggar with when he didn’t want to fight Odysseus: they cut pieces of him off and feed them to the dogs. Melantho gets off fairly easy, when you look at it that way; she’s just hanged, along with the other maidservants who slept with Penelope’s suitors.

I wonder if it’s significant that their names are similar. Is Homer trying to make the point that neither sex has a monopoly on bad behavior? Is Melantho some vague (or not-so-vague) message directed to Odysseus: Be glad Penelope wasn’t like that? Or are they just cardboard characters, without real names or personalities, whose only role is to be bad servants?

(This site discusses loyalty in the Odyssey, providing a counterexample in the person of Eumaeus, the loyal swineherd. It's worth your time.)

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