'10.349 Meanwhile, four slaves, her house girls, were at work around the palace. They were nymphs, the daughters of fountains and of groves and holy rivers'

Nymphs were semi-divine, usually immortal, female beings associated with water or woods. Are there any other instances in Greek Mythology of what we would call supernatural beings like nymphs becoming slaves? How would they become so? Or is Professor Wilson's translation misleading here?

I ask as one of the ways Emily Wilson set out to be different from other translators of the Odyssey was that where Homer's original Greek text uses words implying slavery she made this clear, where previous translators often softened this to words less shocking to a modern audience like 'servant', 'attendant' or 'maid'.

However, I wonder if she sometimes overdoes this. Other translations I have checked merely refer to Circe having nymphs serving her (rather as the goddess Artemis has nymph attendants), and does not say they are slaves.

I raised this on another internet forum and the one opinion I received was that semi-divine creatures like nymphs could not be 'owned' as property as a slave, and the translation must be making a false assumption, automatically equating 'service' with slavery.

I also have doubts about 2 other references to slaves earlier in Book 10, when Odysseus sends a party of three men to make contact with the inhabitants, first on returning unexpectedly to Aeolus' island and again on landing on the island of the Laestragonians.

10.59 '...I took one slave with me And one crew member, back to see Aeolus'

10.100 'I picked two men, and one slave as the third, And sent them to find out what people lived And ate bread in this land'

If these translations are correct they are the only explicit references to Odysseus having slaves on board his ships. However, again, no other translation I have checked refers to slaves at these points, most saying 'herald' or 'messenger'. I assume this is the Greek word 'kerux', often translated, as the nearest equivalent 'herald', meaning men trusted to convey important messages on behalf of important people in this illiterate culture, where it was not possible just to send a letter or note.

As far as I know, 'heralds / kerykes' were moderately important people in that society and not normally slaves. Also, while the loyalty and commitment of slaves varies considerably in the Odyssey, it is at least surprising that a slave, who might be more likely than a free man to be tempted to escape, desert or switch sides, would be trusted as part of such a small group on such a delicate mission.

So, are these instances all examples of Prof. Wilson getting carried away and being too ready to assume relationships of subordination in Homer's epics are actually slavery?

Having said all that I find Emily Wilson's Odyssey translation overall the best there is in English, but that does not mean that I agree with her on everything.

1 Answer 1


In 10.349 the word is δρήστειραι “labourers, working-women” (Liddell and Scott); “servants; maids” (Beekes); “workers, servants” (Oxford Classical Dictionary). I guess that Wilson’s rationale for using “slaves” in this line is that for the ancient Greek aristocratic audience reading or listening to the Odyssey, the relationship between Circe and her working-women would most resemble their own relationship with their household slaves. But for a modern audience, the word “servants” or “maids” would not be strong enough to convey this: when reading these words, we are likely to imagine something more like twentieth-century domestic service, in which the servants were paid a wage and were free to give notice and seek work elsewhere. Wilson uses “slave” to alert the modern reader to the likely nature of the relationship.

In 10.59 the word is κήρυκα “herald, pursuivant, public messenger, envoy” (Liddell and Scott); “herald, messenger” (Beekes); “herald, town crier, ambassador, preacher” (Oxford). However, the whole phrase is ἐγὼ κήρυκά τ᾽ ὀπασσάμενος καὶ ἑταῖρον “I took with me a messenger and a comrade”. Wilson has deduced, from the way this is phrased, that the messenger had a lower status than the comrade, otherwise Odysseus would have said “I took with me two comrades”. We can’t be sure that Homer meant the messenger to be a slave rather than, say, a junior but free sailor, but again the word alerts the modern reader to the possibility.

At 10.102 the line is ἄνδρε δύω κρίνας, τρίτατον κήρυχ᾽ ἅμ᾽ ὀπάσσας “I selected two men, and sent a third with them as a messenger”. In this case it is not so clear that there is any distinction of status between the first two men and the third. I guess Wilson used “slave” here for consistency with 10.59.

The question says that “κήρῡκες were moderately important” and this is no doubt the case for diplomatic and military heralds and town criers. But ordinary message-carriers could be slaves, and by the time of Plautus (3rd–2nd century BCE) the “running slave” (servus currens) whose attempts to deliver his message are foiled by his own breathlessness, was a stock comic character, for example in Amphitruo.

  • Thanks for your informative answer.
    – Timothy
    Commented Aug 25, 2023 at 15:25
  • I suggest that the 'herald' / kerux of Homer's illiterate Dark Age World was likely to be a higher status person than a messenger who simply had to deliver a letter someone else had written in later Classical times like 2nd Century BC. In the absence of writing, a messenger necessarily had to memorise and convey the message orally. This would tend to require understanding it and therefore its background, and being able to explain it clearly and persuasively, calling for eloquence, tact and understanding social norms.
    – Timothy
    Commented Aug 26, 2023 at 4:10
  • To clarify my comment above, stories of the Trojan War (and therefore of Odysseus, if he really existed) derived from events in Mycenaean times, when there were scribes and a syllabic script. However, I am assuming that Homer, composing poems about them hundreds of years later, mostly imagined them according to what he knew in his own time, when the art of writing had been lost, along with the Mycenaean palaces where it had been practiced, centuries before.
    – Timothy
    Commented Aug 26, 2023 at 4:19
  • 1
    Many messages continued to be delivered verbally after the resumption of writing. That's the point of the servus currens comic trope—the messenger was supposed to recite his message, but failed to do so for various humorous reasons. Commented Aug 27, 2023 at 19:40
  • Thanks Gareth. I confess that while I have read some Ancient Greek plays in translation I have never read or seen any Roman drama. Clearly, I need to in case it gives me some insights into Roman society and attitudes.
    – Timothy
    Commented Sep 13, 2023 at 12:20

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