In a previous post http://cunninghomer.blogspot.com/2016/08/the-cunning-homer.html , we saw how the whole story of the Odyssey becomes extremely logical and realistic once you drastically changed the perspective of the Homeric narrative. Ulysses was not ... Ulysses, but the one whom Ulysses himself presents as the best of the Achaean archers, that is, Philoctetes: a mercenary hired by Telemachus to interpret the King of Ithaca and get rid of all the suitors. Let's now examine one of the most important scenes of the Odyssey in this light: that of the challenge with the bow. As will be remembered, the suitors have tried in vain to extend the weapon, but now the task falls to Ulysses, or whoever works for him. But now let's get back to our story; we were left at the dramatic moment of the challenge with the bow: evidently, Ithaca was not a land of archers, in fact no one seems to know what to do. Telemachus and one of the suitors try first, but they can't even pull the rope. Only Antinous, who has a little more experience, realizes that the bow must first be heated and greased to function, so he orders the fire to be lit. Nevertheless, all the suitors, except Eurimachus and Antinous, the strongest of all, try in vain to stretch him. At this point the beggar nods to Eumeus and Philetius and goes out with them from the hall. And here he "reveals" to the two men that he is Ulysses, asking for their help in carrying out his revenge and promising a notable reward: To both I will give a bride, wealth I will give; and a house built next to mine; for the future companions and brothers you will be, for me, of Telemachus (XXI, 214-216). Pay attention: he does not say "you will be my companions and brothers" or "you will be like my sons", but "for me you will be companions and brothers of Telemachus". It is evident that who is speaking is not the king of Ithaca Ulysses, but another one. And to be recognized, he removes the rags and shows the scar on his knee: we have already seen how this "proof" had very little value. They then return to the hall, while Eurimachus complains of not being able to draw the bow. So Antinous, to avoid bad impressions, proposes to postpone the race to the next day, with the excuse that, evidently, the god Apollo does not want him to show off his skills on his feast day. And then Philoctetes, with the most innocent air in the world, asks to try him too, to see if a little of his ancient strength remains in his tired limbs. Of course the suitors feel offended to be challenged by such a beggar, but Penelope intervenes by replying that even if the foreigner manages to draw the bow, she will not marry him, but that honors and rich gifts will still be bestowed upon him. Even Telemachus, amid the screams of the suitors, approves. And then he orders his mother to retire to her rooms, an order that Penelope immediately executes without discussion, while the cowherd and the swineherd block the doors to prevent any escape during the slaughter. Then "Ulysses" takes the bow in his hand, beginning to examine it and carefully palpate it, so much so that two young people comment: Of course he was an expert, a practical man of bows. And perhaps he too has similar arches in his house (XXI, 397-398). Clearly, no one in Ithaca had ever seen a bow of that type: it is therefore likely that Philoctetes had brought it with him from home. Perhaps it had been hidden among the so-called gifts that Menelaus had given to Telemachus: in fact, when Penelope takes it to carry it into the room, she takes it out of his case, who was in turn among the arks containing his robes. So it is plausible that no one had seen him while he was being introduced into the palace. But is it possible that a group of bold young men in full force were so wimpy that they could not draw a bowstring? Are we struggling with another divine intervention? Here we are probably faced with an interpretative misunderstanding of a technical nature, which can only be resolved by knowing some fundamental construction details of ancient bows. Those who are not familiar with the subject are led to think that a bow is just a curved piece of wood with a string stretched at the ends. In fact, since ancient times, there were much more complex bows, made of wood and animal horn, as described by Homer. But not only that: the string was stretched between the two ends through a complicated movement, which consisted in extending the bow with force, using the knee to leverage, in the REVERSE direction with respect to its natural curvature in the rest position. At that point the archer slipped the rope, already prepared with two loops at the ends, into two grooves at the ends of the bow itself. In this way, was obtained a weapon of considerable tension and range. Of course, such this operation could only be carried out correctly by a well-trained individual, and not by boys without experience. Moreover, this type of bow could not be kept permanently in tension, since within a few days it would lose most of its elasticity and power. And if it really had been the bow of Ulysses, which had remained there to mold for twenty years, it could have broken after a few pitches: a risk, obviously, that could not be run; Homer knows this well, and in fact he says that his protagonist carefully observes the weapon, to check that it is not damaged by woodworms. Of course, if it had really been worm-eaten, all of Ulysses' terrible "revenge" would have sunk into ridicule. So we must think that the bow was a tool in full efficiency, and had been introduced by stealth. Therefore, even this scene, examined with due attention, loses its miraculous character to become extremely realistic.
As you can see in the photo, the notches where the string should be inserted are now on the INTERNAL side of the bow in the rest position, but would be correctly located on the outside once the overturning operation has been completed. These in the image are in the medieval museum of Bologna, they are Turkish weapons of the seventeenth century, but in any case the technology has remained unchanged for millennia, as we see in an amphora of the fourth century BC, found in the kurgan of Kul'Oba, now in the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, showing a Scythian warrior crouched in the act of stringing his bow. Behind the back you can see the gorito, the typical case for the bow and arrows. Below, Scythian archer, from Vulci, 510 BC, and operating scheme of the compound arch (from Le Scienze, August 1991). These are the so-called Scythian-type arches, which were widespread everywhere, but which take their name from the Scythians, a population of nomadic horsemen who roamed a vast territory of the steppes from Siberia to the Black Sea. A legend, collected by Herodotus, tells that Hercules had conceived three children with a mysterious serpent woman, and had left her one of his two bows so that he would give it as an inheritance to that of his children who were able to hold it. The winner was called Scythian (or Scite) and would have been the progenitor of the people of the Scythians. The analogies with the events we have told so far are evident. As is often the case, myths tend to repeat themselves in a similar way in different places and times. We had seen that the wound in Philoctetes' foot was caused by a snake (according to Homer) or by one of his own arrows (according to other versions): but perhaps one thing does not exclude the other! The Scythians were in fact famous for the poisons they used to make their arrows more lethal, which were prepared with a deadly mixture of dung, rotten human blood and viper venom; moreover, the arrows could be equipped with hooks that broke in the victim's body when an attempt was made to extract them: therefore the description of Philoctetes' infected wound, painful, putrid and stinking, which can only be healed with a complicated surgical operation, agrees perfectly with the damage done by a Scythian arrow. Chemical and biological wars are not an invention of modernity! Furthermore, as Professor Giuseppe Girgenti points out, the Greek adjective "toxic" (τοξικός) derives from the Greek term τόξον, which means "bow" (but also "rainbow"), and was an attribute of the bow and arrow deities, namely Apollo, Artemis and Eros. Heraclitus attributes to Apollo the harmony of the bow and the lyre, and Plato, in "Cratylus" (405a) argues that there were four typical arts of Apollo, namely "music" (μουσική), "prophecy" (μαντική), the "medicine" (ἰατρική) and the "toxic art" (τοξική), which is precisely the art of the archer. Now, it was customary in the Greek world to smear the arrowheads with a poison, the so-called "toxic drug" (τοξικόν φάρμακον), which was to be lethal in war, or only serve to stun large animals during hunting, such as horses and elephants (as Aristotle, Strabo and Aelian tell us). But from here the adjective "toxic" has come to mean something poisonous or in any case something pharmacological that has the effect of stuning and numbing, that is, all kinds of drugs. And now Philoctetes stretches the bowstring, takes aim, shoots the arrow and inserts the rings of the twelve axes on the first shot, to general amazement. And Telemachus stands next to him fully armed: it's time to change targets