18 June 2023

Did Joyce confuse Athos and Argos
when naming the dog in ‘Ulysses’?

Docheiariou Monastery on Mount Athos … but why is Bloom’s dog named Athos? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Over the past few days in Dublin I have been musing about the churches named by James Joyce in Ulysses and wondering which synagogue in Dublin, if any, Leopold Bloom’s father Rudolf Bloom might have felt welcome in wither before he converted to Christianity or in his last days as he thought about returning to the Judaism of his birth.

In Ulysses, Joyce constantly draws comparisons between Jewish and Greek history, language and culture with Irish experiences. It is impossible to read Ulysses without an understanding of both Jewish life and practice and Homer’s Odyssey.

But in these past few days, I have also been wondering why on earth Rudolf Bloom called his dog Athos and not Argos.

It is difficult to imagine that Joyce did not know Mount Argus, the Passionist monastery in Harold’s Cross a ten-minute walk from Brighton Square where he was born and a church where his mother had once sung in the choir – with a Miss Bloom. There is a passing reference in Ulysses to Father Charles of Mount Argus (1821-1893), a Dutch-born Passionist monk with a reputation for healing miracles.

In Greek mythology, Argus or Argos (Ἄργος) is the name of characters, including Argus, King of Argos and son of Zeus and Niobe; Argos, son of Arestor, builder of the ship Argo in the story of the Argonauts; Argos, son of Jason and Medea; Argos Panoptes (Argus ‘All-Eyes), a giant with 100 eyes; and, most relative to my musings this week, Argos, the faithful dog of Odysseus.

In Book 17 of the Odyssey, Odysseus arrives home on Ithaka finally, after 10 years of fighting in Troy, followed by 10 more years struggling to get home to his island. In his absence, reckless suitors have taken over his house in hopes of marrying his wife Penelope.

In order to secretly re-enter his house to spring a surprise attack on the suitors, Odysseus disguises himself as a beggar, and only his son Telemachus is told of his true identity. As Odysseus approaches his home, he finds his dog Argos lying neglected on a pile of cow dung, infested with fleas, old and very tired.

This is a sharp contrast to the dog Odysseus left behind. Argos used to be known for his speed and strength and his superior tracking skills.

Unlike everyone else, including Eumaios, a lifelong friend, Argos recognises Odysseus at once and he has just enough strength to raise his head, prick up his ears and wag his tail. But the dog then loses the strength to hold his ears up, much less to greet his old master. The disguised Odysseus wipes away a tear and asks Eumaeus about the handsome animal. But he is unable to greet his faithful dog for fear that this would betray who he really is.

After telling the beggar about the dog’s glory days, the noble man who raised him from a puppy, and the duties that are forgotten when a lord goes away, Eumaeus goes into the palace to tend to the needs of the insolent suitors. Having finally seen the man he longed for, Argos dies. This is a substantial event in marking the return of Odysseus.

‘Be kind to Athos, Leopold …’ an old man and an old dog in Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

There is an echo of the story of Odysseus and his dog Argos in Ulysses, but Leopold Bloom’s father Rudolf Bloom named his dog Athos and not Argos.

In his suicide note, Rudolf Bloom asks Leopold Bloom to care for the animal. Throughout Ulysses, Bloom is kind to stray dogs. In the episode Circe, he gives one dog the meat he has bought, and in Eumaeus he remembers Molly’s vexation when he tried to bring home a stray dog.

Athos corresponds to Odysseus’s Argos, the faithful dog who waits for his master’s return. Bloom remembers his father’s instructions in his suicide note: ‘Be good to Athos, Leopold, is my last wish.’ He recalls the note again in Ithaca: ‘be kind to Athos, Leopold…,’ remembering Athos as ‘an infirm dog.’ Bloom thinks in Hades that Athos too ‘took it to heart, pined away’ when his master died.

There are suggestions that Rudolph Bloom named his dog Athos after Athos, Count de la Fère, a character in the novels The Three Musketeers (1844), Twenty Years After (1845) and The Vicomte de Bragelonne (1847-1850) by Alexandre Dumas. The other two musketeers, Porthos and Aramis, are friends of the novel’s protagonist, d'Artagnan.

Despite Joyce’s deep love of Greek and classical literature there are no suggestions that Leopold or Rudolf Bloom ever knew of Mount Athos, let alone visited it, and Joyce himself never visited the holy mountain.

Perhaps we just have some simply play on words here by Joyce, conflating the names of two holy mountains with monasteries, both known as all-male bastions and with different levels of formidable severity when it comes to the exclusion of women.

Mount Argos Monastery in Dublin … not to be confused with the monasteries of Mount Athos in Greece (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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