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Odyssey c. Eighth Century B.C.

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Greek poem.

For information on the Iliad, see CMLC, Volume 1.

The Odyssey is considered one of the greatest literary achievements of Western civilization. Composed of twenty-four books totaling over 12,000 lines, it details the wanderings of Odysseus, King of Ithaca, and focuses on his honor, bravery, resourcefulness, and nobility. Although the Odyssey has been deemed inferior to Homer's other epic, the Iliad, by many critics, it has been praised for its structural sophistication, thematic consistency, and complex characterization.

Plot and Major Characters

The story of the Odyssey begins ten years after the fall of Troy, during which interval Odysseus has been trying to return to Ithaca, where his wife, Penelope, is faithfully waiting for his return. The reader is first introduced to the hero, Odysseus, in Book V, near the end of his seven-year captivity by the goddess Calypso. Under Zeus's orders, Calypso releases Odysseus, who, after building an improvised boat, resumes his journey home. Along the way Odysseus stops at the island of Phaeacia, where he meets the young princess Nausicaa and recounts to the Phaeacians his adventures during the first three years after the Trojan War— with the Lotus-Eaters, the Cyclops, Circe, Scylla and Charybdis, and the Sirens. Odysseus sets out to sea again and upon his arrival in his kingdom discovers that Penelope is being courted by suitors who are also plotting to kill his son, Telemachos. Disguised as a beggar, Odysseus mingles with the suitors in his palace, talks with Penelope, and is recognized by his old nurse, Eurycleia. He is also reunited with Telemachos, and together they plan their revenge against the suitors. Penelope, longing for Odysseus's return but realizing that she can no longer delay replying to the suitors' marriage requests, decides to hold a bow-and-arrow contest and offers herself as the prize. The suitors try in vain to string Odysseus's bow, and finally Odysseus (still dressed as a beggar) steps forward to try. He succeeds, revealing his identity, and together he and Telemachos kill the suitors; Odysseus then approaches Penelope, who is still not convinced that he is truly her husband. As a final test to determine if her husband has really returned home, Penelope asks Odysseus a question about their marriage bed, and his correct answer proves his identity. They go to their bed, make love, and exchange stories of what has happened since they were last together. Odysseus then resumes his place as King of Ithaca and restores peace to his kingdom.

Major Themes

The central theme of the Odyssey is that of disguise and recognition. The clearest example of this is Odysseus's concealment of his identity from his friends and family in Ithaca and the subsequent private scenes of recognition that structure the second half of the poem. Odysseus reveals his identity to a number of characters in the poem: his son, Telemachos, who then makes plans to help him kill the suitors; his dog, Argus, who recognizes his scent and dies from the excitement of his master's return home; his nurse, who sees the scar on his thigh by which she recognizes Odysseus as she bathes him; his wife, Penelope, who is cautious to believe he has returned; his father, Laertes, who regains physical and emotional strength upon his son's return home; and the suitors, who are punished for their selfish and underhanded actions during Odysseus's absence. Sheila Murnaghan has noted that, furthermore, "the reunions of these characters with Odysseus involve these characters' own shedding of disguise and recognition as well as his." Laertes, for example, sheds his rags and the weakness of old age upon Odysseus's return, becoming the strong patriarch that Odysseus left behind twenty years earlier. Telemachos also undergoes a change, but, unlike that of Laertes, it is not a recovery of a previous state but growth into a new state of maturity. The complex nature of the two main characters, Odysseus and Penelope, also plays an important part in the Odyssey. W. B. Stanford has praised Odysseus as "one of the fullest and most versatile characters in literature: a symbol of the Ionic-Greek Everyman in his eloquence, cleverness, unscrupulousness, intellectual curiosity, courage, endurance, shrewdness," and Nancy Felson-Rubin has observed that, "the Penelope who emerges by the end of the poem is a forceful figure who operates imaginatively within the constraints of her situation and succeeds in keeping her options open until she reaches safety in her husband's embrace."

Textual History

Authorship of the Odyssey has traditionally been attributed to the blind Greek bard Homer, but his relation to the Iliad and the Odyssey has incited much scholarly inquiry and has brought together the efforts of experts in such fields as archeology, linguistics, art, and comparative literature. As a result of their research, three main theories regarding the composition of the poems have emerged: the analytic, the separatist, and the unitarian. Until the publication of Friedrich Adolph Wolf's Prolegomena ad Homerum in 1795, the notion that Homer was the author of the Iliad and the Odyssey was largely undisputed. However, citing certain inconsistencies and errors in the texts, Wolf asserted that the two works were not the compositions of one poet, but the products of many different authors at work on various traditional poems and stories over time. Wolf's argument convinced many critics—who were subsequently termed the analysts—but also inspired the notorious authorship controversy known as the "Homeric question." Another theory that escalated at this time was that of the separatists, who believed that the Odyssey and the Iliad were written by two different authors who may not have even known about each other's works. While these two views prevailed throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, they were ultimately challenged by an opposing group of critics, the unitarians, whose primary spokesman was Andrew Lang. The unitarians insisted that a single individual of genius composed the Homeric epics, supporting their claim by citing a unified sensibility, original style, and consistent use of themes and imagery in the poems. Another theory, proposed by Samuel Butler in 1897, asserted that the Odyssey was written by Nausicaa, a young woman from Trapani and a member of King Alcinous's household, but this theory has been widely discredited among scholars.

The textual history of the Odyssey is assumed to have begun with an oral version of the poem which was transmitted by local bards and probably recorded on papyri shortly after Homer's death. Although Homeric Greece did not yet have a system of writing appropriate for literary texts, records indicate that a Phoenician alphabet may have been adapted and used for this purpose in the eighth century B.C. Once set down in writing, the poems most likely became the exclusive proprety of the Homeridae, or sons of Homer, a bardic guild whose members performed and preserved the poems. Scholars believe that in the second half of the sixth century B.C. the Athenian dictator Peisistratus, who ruled from 560-27 B.C., established a Commission of Editors of Homer to edit the text of the poems and remove any errors and interpolations that had accumulated in the process of transmission—thereby establishing a Canon of Homer. Fragments of papyrus have been found in Egypt, the earliest dating from the third century B.C., but the oldest complete manuscript is the Laurentianus of the tenth or eleventh century A.D. The first printed edition of Homer's poetry appeared in Europe in 1488 and remained in use until the seventeenth century. Many translations of the Odyssey have subsequently been published; critics agree that the most influential translations have been those by George Chapman, Alexander Pope, Samuel Butler, and Richmond Lattimore.

Critical Reception

The Odyssey has often been unfavorably compared to the Iliad by critics who have condemned it for its excessive repetitiveness, drawn-out narrative, and lack of unity. Yet in spite of its weaknesses, the Odyssey is still considered one of the greatest literary works of all time. G. S. Kirk has stated that, "no one in his senses can deny that the poem is a marvelous accomplishment," and Stephen V. Tracy has asserted that, "the Odyssey has something for everyone; it is a highly entertaining adventure story." One aspect of the poem on which scholars have focused is that of the origin and artistic merit of the first four books of the Odyssey, collectively known as the Telemachia. Cited by some critics as evidence in support of the analytic theory because of its distinctive treatment, the Telemachia, according to other critics, is indeed a part of the original story and figures prominently as a necessary link to establishing Odysseus's importance and stature within Ithaca. Pointing out the centrality of the Telemachia in the Odyssey, J. W. Mackail has commented that, "nothing in the Iliad is such a feat of design as the way in which the first four books of the Odyssey do not bring Odysseus onto the scene at all and yet imply him through every line as the central figure." Differences in style between the Odyssey and the Iliad have also prompted significant debate, particularly the Odyssey's greater emphasis on myth, prominence of women in the poem, and downplaying the lore of warfare. Samuel Eliot Bassett has noted that, "the Iliad is a tale of war, unmarked by trickery: the Odyssey of domestic intrigue," and Andrew Lang has observed that, "the Odyssey is calmer, more reflective, more religious than the Iliad, being a poem of peace." Examining the role of the gods in the Odyssey, Samuel Butler has noted an evolution, contending that "in the Odyssey the gods no longer live in houses and sleep in four-post bedsteads, but the conception of their abode, like that of their existence altogether, is far more spiritual." As early as the eighteenth century, Alexander Pope cautioned, "whoever reads the Odyssey with an eye to the Iliad, expecting to find it of the same character, or of the same sort of spirit, will be grievously deceived." Although critics still debate the relative merits of the Odyssey compared to those of the Iliad, most agree with Stanford's assertion that "few long poems equal it in the variety and charm of its word-music, and few stories surpass it in sustained excitement and human interest."

Principal English Translations

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The Odysseys of Homer (translated by George Chapman) 1614

The Odyssey of Homer (translated by Alexander Pope) 1725

Homer's Iliad and Odyssey (translated by William Cowper) 1791

The Odyssey of Homer (translated by Theodore Alois Buckley) 1855

The Odyssey of Homer (translated by William Cullen Bryant) 1871

The Odyssey of Homer (translated by S. H. Butcher and A. Lang) 1888

The Odyssey (translated by Samuel Butler) 1900

The Odyssey (translated by J. W. Mackail) 1903-10

The Odyssey (translated by A. T. Murray) 1919

The Odyssey of Homer (translated by T. E. Lawrence) 1932

The Odyssey (translated by E. V. Rieu) 1945

The Odyssey of Homer (translated by Ennis Rees) 1960

The Odyssey (translated by Robert Fitzgerald) 1961

The Odyssey of Homer (translated by Richmond Lattimore) 1967

George Chapman (essay date 1614)

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SOURCE: A dedication to the Odyssey, in Chapman's Homer: The "Iliad," the "Odyssey," and the Lesser Homerica, Vol. 2, edited by Allardyce Nicoll, Pantheon Books, 1956, pp. 3-8.

[A successful English dramatist and poet, Chapman is chiefly remembered as a scholar and translator of Homer's works. While his merits as a translator are often debated by scholars, his Iliad and Odyssey remain landmarks in Homer studies. In his 1614 dedication of the Odyssey to Robert Carr, Earl of Somerset, Chapman deems Homer "the most wise and most divine Poet."]

           TO THE
   MOST WORTHILY HONORED,
MY SINGULAR GOOD LORD, ROBERT,
      EARLE OF SOMERSET,
   Lord Chamberlaine, & c

I have adventured, Right Noble Earle, out of my utmost and ever-vowed service to your Vertues, to entitle their Merits to the Patronage of Homer's English life—whose wisht naturall life the great Macedon would have protected as the spirit of his Empire—

That he to his unmeasur'd mightie Acts
Might adde a Fame as vast, and their extracts,
In fires as bright and endlesse as the starres,
His breast might breathe and thunder out his
  warres.
But that great Monark's love of fame and
  praise
Receives an envious Cloud in our foule
  daies—
For, since our Great ones ceasse themselves to
  do
Deeds worth their praise, they hold it folly too
To feed their praise in others. But what can
(Of all the gifts that are) be given to man
More precious than Eternitie and Glorie,
Singing their praises in unsilenc't storie
Which no blacke Day, no Nation, nor no Age,
No change of Time or Fortune, Force nor
 Rage,
Shall ever race? All which the Monarch knew
Where Homer liv'd entitl'd would ensew:
              —Cuius de gurgite vivo
Combibit arcanos vatum omnis turba furores,
  &c.—
From whose deepe Fount of life the thirstie
  rout
Of Thespian Prophets have lien sucking out
Their sacred rages. And as th'influent stone
Of Father Jove's great and laborious Sonne
Lifts high the heavie Iron and farre implies
The wide Orbs that the Needle rectifies
In vertuous guide of every sea-driven course,
To all aspiring his one boundlesse force:

So from one Homer all the holy fire
That ever did the hidden heate inspire
In each true Muse came cleerly sparkling
  downe,
And must for him compose one flaming
 Crowne.
He, at Jove's Table set, fils out to us
Cups that repaire Age sad and ruinous,
And gives it Built of an eternall stand
With his all-sinewie Odyssean hand—
Shifts Time and Fate, puts Death in Life's
  free state
And Life doth into Ages propagate.
He doth in Men the Gods' affects inflame,
His fuell Vertue, blowne by Praise and Fame,
And, with the high soule's first impulsions
 driven,
Breakes through rude Chaos, Earth, the Seas
  and Heaven.
The Nerves of all things hid in Nature lie
Naked before him, all their Harmonie
Tun'd to his Accents, that in Beasts breathe
  Minds.
What Fowles, what Floods, what Earth, what
 Aire, what Winds,
What fires Æthereall, what the Gods conclude
In all their Counsels, his Muse makes indude
With varied voices, that even rockes have
 mov'd.
And yet for all this, naked Vertue lov'd,
Honors without her he as abject prises,
And foolish Fame deriv'd from thence
 despises—
When, from the vulgar taking glorious bound
Up to the Mountaine where the Muse is
  crownd,
He sits and laughs to see the jaded Rabble
Toile to his hard heights, t'all accesse unable,
  &c.

And that your Lordship may in his Face take view of his Mind, the first word of his Iliads is … wrath; the first word of his Odysses, … Man—contracting in either word his each worke's Proposition. In one, Predominant Perturbation; in the other, over-ruling Wisedome; in one, the Bodie's fervour and fashion of outward Fortitude to all possible height of Heroicall Action; in the other, the Mind's inward, constant and unconquerd Empire, unbroken, unalterd with any most insolent and tyrannous infliction. To many most soveraigne praises is this Poeme entitled, but to that Grace in chiefe which sets on the Crowne both of Poets and Orators,… Parva magnè dicere, pervulgata nove, jejuna plenè: To speake things litle, greatly; things commune, rarely; things barren and emptie, fruitfully and fully. The returne of a man into his Countrie is his whole scope and object, which in itselfe, your Lordship may well say, is jejune and fruitlesse enough, affoording nothing feastfull, nothing magnificent. And yet even this doth the divine inspiration render vast, illustrous and of miraculous composure. And for this, my Lord, is this Poeme preferred to his Iliads; for therein much magnificence, both of person and action, gives great aide to his industrie, but in this are these helpes exceeding sparing or nothing; and yet is the Structure so elaborate and pompous that the poore plaine Groundworke (considered together) may seeme the naturally rich wombe to it and produce it needfully. Much wondered at, therefore, is the Censure of Dionysius Longinus (a man otherwise affirmed, grave and of elegant judgement), comparing Homer in his Iliads to the Sunne rising, in his Odysses to his descent or setting, or to the Ocean robd of his aesture, many tributorie flouds and rivers of excellent ornament withheld from their observance—when this his worke so farre exceeds the Ocean, with all his Court and concourse, that all his Sea is onely a serviceable streame to it. Nor can it be compared to any One power to be named in nature, being an entirely wel-sorted and digested Confluence of all—where the most solide and grave is made as nimble and fluent as the most airie and firie, the nimble and fluent as firme and well-bounded as the most grave and solid. And (taking all together) of so tender impression, and of such Command to the voice of the Muse, that they knocke heaven with her breath and discover their foundations as low as hell. Nor is this all-comprising Poesie phantastique, or meere fictive, but the most material and doctrinall illations of Truth, both for all manly information of Manners in the yong, all prescription of Justice, and even Christian pietie, in the most grave and high-governd. To illustrate both which in both kinds, with all height of expression, the Poet creates both a Bodie and a Soule in them—wherein, if the Bodie (being the letter, or historie) seemes fictive and beyond Possibilitie to bring into Act, the sence then and Allegorie (which is the Soule) is to be sought—which intends a more eminent expressure of Vertue, for her lovelinesse, and of Vice, for her uglinesse, in their severall effects, going beyond the life than any Art within life can possibly delineate. Why then is Fiction to this end so hatefull to our true Ignorants? Or why should a poore Chronicler of a Lord Maior's naked Truth (that peradventure will last his yeare) include more worth with our moderne wizerds than Homer for his naked Ulysses, clad in eternall Fiction? But this Prozer Dionysius and the rest of these grave and reputatively learned (that dare undertake for their gravities the headstrong censure of all things, and challenge the understanding of these Toyes in their childhoods, when even these childish vanities retaine deepe and most necessarie learning enough in them to make them children in their ages and teach them while they live) are not in these absolutely divine Infusions allowed either voice or relish—for Qui Poeticas ad fores accedit, &c., sayes the Divine Philosopher, he that knocks at the Gates of the Muses, sine Musarum furore, is neither to be admitted entrie nor a touch at their Thresholds, his opinion of entrie ridiculous and his presumption impious. Nor must Poets themselves (might I a litle insist on these contempts, not tempting too farre your Lordship's Ulyssean patience) presume to these doores without the truly genuine and peculiar induction—there being in Poesie a twofold rapture (or alienation of soule, as the abovesaid Teacher termes it), one Insania, a disease of the mind and a meere madnesse, by which the infected is thrust beneath all the degrees of humanitie, et ex homine Brutum quodammodo redditur (for which poore Poesie in this diseasd and impostorous age is so barbarously vilified); the other is Divinus furor, by which the sound and divinely healthfull supra hominis naturam erigitur, et in Deum transit: one a perfection directly infused from God, the other an infection obliquely and degenerately proceeding from man. Of the divine Furie, my Lord, your Homer hath ever bene both first and last Instance, being pronounced absolutely … the most wise and most divine Poet—against whom whosoever shall open his prophane mouth may worthily receive answer with this of his divine defender (Empedocles, Heraclitus, Protagoras, Epicharmus, &c. being of Homer's part) … &c., who against such an Armie and the Generall Homer dares attempt the assault but he must be reputed ridiculous? And yet against this hoast and this invincible Commander shall we have every Besogne and foole a Leader—the common herd (I assure myself) readie to receive it on their hornes, their infected Leaders

Such men as sideling ride the ambling Muse,
Whose saddle is as frequent as the stuse,
Whose Raptures are in every Pageant seene,
In every Wassall rime and Dancing greene—
When he that writes by any beame of Truth
Must dive as deepe as he past shallow youth.
Truth dwels in Gulphs, whose Deepes hide
  shades so rich
That Night sits muffl'd there in clouds of
 pitch,
More Darke than Nature made her, and
 requires,
To cleare her tough mists, Heaven's great fire
  of fires,
To whom the Sunne it selfe is but a Beame.
For sicke soules then (but rapt in foolish
  Dreame)
To wrestle with these Heav'n-strong mysteries
What madnesse is it—when their light serves
 eies
That are not worldly in their least aspect
But truly pure and aime at Heaven direct.
Yet these none like but what the brazen head
Blatters abroad, no sooner borne but dead.

Holding then in eternal contempt, my Lord, those short-lived Bubbles, eternize your vertue and judgement with the Grecian Monark, esteeming not as the least of your New-yeare's Presents

Homer, three thousand yeares dead, now reviv'd
Even from that dull Death that in life he liv'd,
When none conceited him, none understood,
That so much life in so much death as blood
Conveys about it could mixe. But when Death
Drunke up the bloudie Mist that humane
 breath
Pour'd round about him (Povertie and Spight
Thickning the haplesse vapor), then Truth's
 light
Glimmerd about his Poeme; the pincht soule
(Amidst the Mysteries it did enroule)
Brake powrefully abroad. And as we see
The Sunne, all hid in clouds, at length got
 free,
Through some forc't covert, over all the
 wayes
Neare and beneath him, shootes his vented
 rayes
Farre off and stickes them in some litle Glade,
All woods, fields, rivers left besides in shade:
So your Apollo, from that world of light
Closde in his Poem's bodie, shot to sight
Some few forc't Beames, which neare him
 were not seene
(As in his life or countrie), Fate and Spleene
Clouding their radiance, which, when Death
 had clear'd,
To farre-off Regions his free beames
 appear'd—
In which all stood and wonderd, striving
  which
His Birth and Rapture should in right enrich.
Twelve Labours of your Thespian Hercules
I now present your Lorship. Do but please
To lend Life meanes till th' other Twelve
 receave
Equall atchievement—and let Death then reave
My life now lost in our Patrician Loves
That knocke heads with the herd, in whom
 there moves
One blood, one soule, both drownd in one set
 height
Of stupid Envie and meere popular Spight,
Whose loves with no good did my least veine
 fill,
And from their hates I feare as little ill.
Their Bounties nourish not when most they
  feed,
But where there is no Merit or no Need;
Raine into rivers still; and are such showres
As bubbles spring and overflow the flowres.
Their worse parts and worst men their Best
  subornes,
Like winter Cowes, whose milke runnes to
  their hornes.
And as litigious Clients' bookes of Law
Cost infinitely, taste of all the Awe
Bencht in our kingdome's Policie, Pietie,
  State,

Earne all their deepe explorings, satiate
All sorts there thrust together by the heart
With thirst of wisedome spent on either part,
Horrid examples made of Life and Death
From their fine stuffe woven—yet, when once
  the breath
Of sentence leaves them, all their worth is
  drawne
As drie as dust and weares like Cobweb
 Lawne:
So these men set a price upon their worth
That no man gives but those that trot it forth
Through Need's foule wayes, feed Humors
  with all cost
Though Judgement sterves in them, Rout
  State-engrost
(At all Tabacco benches, solemne Tables,
Where all that crosse their Envies are their
 fables)
In their ranke faction, Shame and Death
  approv'd
Fit Penance for their Opposites, none lov'd
But those that rub them, not a Reason heard
That doth not sooth and glorifie their preferd
Bitter Opinions—when, would Truth resume
The cause to his hands, all would flie in fume
Before his sentence, since the innocent mind
Just God makes good, to whom their worst is
  wind.
For that I freely all my Thoughts expresse
My Conscience is my Thousand witnesses,
And to this stay my constant Comforts vow:
You for the world I have, or God for you.

René Le Bossu (essay date 1675)

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SOURCE: "Selections from Treatise of the Epick Poem (1675) translated by W. J.," in The Continental Model: Selected French Critical Essays of the Seventeenth Century, in English Translation, edited by Scott Elledge and Donald Schier; revised edition, Cornell, 1970, pp. 307-23.

[Le Bossu was a French critic best known for his Treatise on Epic Poetry, written in 1675. Much discussed in England even before it was translated into English, the Treatise was severely criticized by Samuel Johnson and, in France, by Voltaire for its rigid rules concerning epic poetry. In the following excerpt from that work, Le Bossu analyzes Homer's crafting of the hero of the Odyssey, Ulysses.]

The Odyssey was not designed, like the Iliad, for the instruction of all the states of Greece joined in one body, but for each state in particular. As a state is composed of two parts, the head which commands and the members which obey, there are instructions requisite for both, to teach the one to govern and the others to submit to government.

There are two virtues necessary to one in authority: prudence to order, and care to see his orders put in execution. The prudence of a politician is not acquired but by a long experience in all sorts of business, and by an acquaintance with all the different forms of governments and states. The care of the administration suffers not him that has the government to rely upon others, but requires his own presence, and kings who are absent from their states are in danger of losing them, and give occasion to great disorders and confusion.

These two points may be easily united in one and the same man. A king forsakes his kingdom to visit the courts of several princes, where he learns the manners and customs of different nations. From hence there naturally arises a vast number of incidents, of dangers, and of adventures, very useful for a political institution. On the other side, this absence gives way to the disorders which happen in his own kingdom, and which end not till his return, whose presence only can reestablish all things. Thus the absence of a king has the same effects in this fable as the division of the princes had in the former.

The subjects have scarce any need but of one general maxim, which is to suffer themselves to be governed and to obey faithfully, whatever reason they may imagine against the orders they receive. It is easy to join this instruction with the other by bestowing on this wise and industrious prince such subjects as in his absence would rather follow their own judgment than his commands, and by demonstrating the misfortunes which this disobedience draws upon them, the evil consequences which almost infallibly attend these particular notions, which are entirely different from the general idea of him who ought to govern.

But as it was necessary that the princes in the Iliad should be choleric and quarrelsome, so it is necessary in the fable of the Odyssey that the chief person should be sage and prudent. This raises a difficulty in the fiction, because this person ought to be absent for the two reasons aforementioned, which are essential to the fable and which constitute the principal aim of it; but he cannot absent himself without offending against another maxim of equal importance, viz., that a king should upon no account leave his country.

It is true there are sometimes such necessities as sufficiently excuse the prudence of a politician in this point. But such a necessity is a thing important enough of itself to supply matter for another poem, and this multiplication of the action would be vicious. To prevent which, in the first place, this necessity and the departure of the hero must be disjoined from the poem; and in the second place, the hero having been obliged to absent himself for a reason antecedent to the action and placed distinct from the fable, he ought not so far to embrace this opportunity of instructing himself as to absent himself voluntarily from his own government. For at this rate, his absence would be merely voluntary, and one might with reason lay to his charge all the disorders which might arise.

Thus in the constitution of the fable he ought not to take for his action and for the foundation of his poem the departure of a prince from his own country nor his voluntary stay in any other place, but his return, and this return retarded against his will. This is the first idea Homer gives us of it. His hero appears at first in a desolate island, sitting upon the side of the sea, which, with tears in his eyes, he looks upon as the obstacle which had so long opposed his return and detained him from revisiting his own dear country.

And lastly, since this forced delay might more naturally and usually happen to such as make voyages by sea, Homer has judiciously made choice of a prince whose kingdom was in an island.

Let us see then how he has feigned all this action, making his hero a person in years, because years are requisite to instruct a man in prudence and policy.

A prince had been obliged to forsake his native country and to head an army of his subjects in a foreign expedition. Having gloriously performed this enterprise, he was marching home again, and conducting his subjects to his own state. But spite of all the attempts with which his eagerness to return had inspired him, he was stopped by the way by tempests for several years, and cast upon several countries differing from each other in manners and government. In these dangers his companions, not always following his orders, perished through their own fault. The grandees of his country strangely abuse his absence, and raise no small disorders at home. They consume his estate, conspire to destroy his son, would constrain his queen to accept of one of them for her husband, and indulge themselves in all violence, so much the more because they were persuaded he would never return. But at last he returns, and discovering himself only to his son and some others who had continued firm to him, he is an eyewitness of the insolence of his enemies, punishes them according to their deserts, and restores to his island that tranquillity and repose to which they had been strangers during his absence.

As the truth which serves for foundation to this fiction is that the absence of a person from his own home or his neglect of his own affairs is the cause of great disorders, so the principal point of the action, and the most essential one, is the absence of the hero. This fills almost all the poem. For not only this real absence lasted several years, but even when the hero returned he does not discover himself; and this prudent disguise, from whence he reaped so much advantage, has the same effect upon the authors of the disorders, and all others who knew him not, as his real absence had before, so that he is absent as to them till the very moment of their punishment.

After the poet had thus composed his fable and joined the fiction to the truth, he then makes choice of Ulysses, the king of the isle of Ithaca, to maintain the character of his chief personage, and bestowed the rest upon Telemachus, Penelope, Antinous, and others, whom he calls by what names he pleases.

I shall not here insist upon the many excellent advices which are so many parts and natural consequences of the fundamental truth, and which the poet very dexterously lays down in those fictions which are the episodes and members of the entire action. Such for instance are these advices: not to intrude oneself into the mysteries of government which the prince keeps secret; (this is represented to us by the winds shut up in a bullhide, which the miserable companions of Ulysses would needs be so foolish as to pry into); not to suffer oneself to be led away by the seeming charms of an idle and inactive life, to which the Sirens' song invited; not to suffer oneself to be sensualized by pleasures, like those who were changed into brutes by Circe; and a great many other points of morality necessary for all sorts of people.

This poem is more useful to the people than the Iliad, where the subjects suffer rather by the ill conduct of their princes than through their own miscarriages. But in the Odyssey it is not the fault of Ulysses that is the ruin of his subjects. This wise prince leaves untried no method to make them partakers of the benefit of his return. Thus the poet in the Iliad says he sings the anger of Achilles, which had caused the death of so many Grecians, and, on the contrary, in the Odyssey he tells his readers that the subjects perished through their own fault.

Thomas Hobbes (essay date 1675)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2990

SOURCE: "Preface to Homer (1675)," in Critical Essays of the Seventeenth Century, Vol. II: 1650-1685, edited by J.E. Spingarn, Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1908, pp. 67-76.

[Hobbes is best known for such philosophical writings as Human Nature (1650), Elements of Law (1650), Leviathan; or, the Matter, Form, and Power of a Commonwealth, Ecclesiastical and Civil (1651), and Elements of Philosophy (1655). As a young man he knew Francis Bacon and assisted the great Lord Chancellor in translating several of his essays into Latin. Hobbes was greatly influenced by the works of Galileo and his contemporary, Descartes. In his 1675 preface to the Odyssey, Hobbes examines the seven virtues of a heroic poem.]

        1675
       TO THE
      READER,
    concerning
The VERTUES of an
  HEROIQUE POEM

The Vertues required in an Heroick Poem, and indeed in all Writings published, are comprehended all in this one word, Discretion.

And Discretion consisteth in this, That every part of the Poem be conducing, and in good order placed, to the End and Designe of the Poet. And the Designe is not only to profit, but also to delight the Reader.

By Profit, I intend not here any accession of Wealth, either to the Poet, or to the Reader; but accession of Prudence, Justice, Fortitude, by the example of such Great and Noble Persons as he introduceth speaking, or describeth acting. For all men love to behold, though not to practise, Vertue. So that at last the work of an Heroique Poet is no more but to furnish an ingenuous Reader (when his leisure abounds) with the diversion of an honest and delightful Story, whether true or feigned.

But because there be many men called Critiques, and Wits, and Vertuosi, that are accustomed to censure the Poets, and most of them of divers Judgments: How is it possible (you'l say) to please them all? Yes, very well; if the Poem be as it should be. For men can judge what's good, that know not what is best. For he that can judge what is best, must have considered all those things (though they be almost innumerable) that concur to make the reading of an Heroique Poem pleasant. Whereof I'll name as many as shall come into my mind.

And they are contained, first, in the choice of words. Secondly, in the construction. Thirdly, in the contrivance of the Story or Fiction. Fourthly, in the Elevation of the Fancie. Fifthly, in the Justice and Impartiality of the Poet. Sixthly, in the clearness of Descriptions. Seventhly, in the Amplitude of the Subject.

And (to begin with words) the first Indiscretion is, The use of such words as to the Readers of Poesie (which are commonly Persons of the best Quality) are not sufficiently known. For the work of an Heroique Poem is to raise admiration, principally, for three Vertues, Valour, Beauty, and Love; to the reading whereof Women no less than Men have a just pretence, though their skill in Language be not so universal. And therefore forein words, till by long use they become vulgar, are unintelligible to them. Also the names of Instruments and Tools of Artificers, and words of Art, though of use in the Schools, are far from being fit to be spoken by a Heroe. He may delight in the Arts themselves, and have skill in some of them; but his Glory lies not in that, but in Courage, Nobility, and other Vertues of Nature, or in the Command he has over other men. Nor does Homer in any part of his Poem attribute any praise to Achilles, or any blame to Alexander, for that they had both learnt to play upon the Ghittarre. The character of words that become a Heroe are Property and Significancy, but without both the malice and lasciviousness of a Satyr.

Another Vertue of an Heroique Poem is the Perspicuity and the Facility of Construction, and consisteth in a natural contexture of the words, so as not to discover the labour but the natural ability of the Poet; and this is usually called a good Style. For the order of words, when placed as they ought to be, carries a light before it, whereby a man may foresee the length of his period, as a torch in the night shews a man the stops and unevenness in his way. But when plac'd unnaturally, the Reader will often find unexpected checks, and be forced to go back and hunt for the sense, and suffer such unease, as in a Coach a man unexpectedly finds in passing over a furrow. And though the Laws of Verse (which have bound the Greeks and Latines to number of Feet and quantity of Syllables, and the English and other Nations to number of Syllables and Rime) put great constraint upon the natural course of Language, yet the Poet, having the liberty to depart from what is obstinate, and to chuse somewhat else that is more obedient to such Laws, and no less fit for his purpose, shall not be, neither by the measure nor by the necessity of Rime, excused; though a Translation often may.

A third Vertue lies in the Contrivance. For there is difference between a Poem and a History in Prose. For a History is wholly related by the Writer; but in a Heroique Poem the Narration is, a great part of it, put upon some of the persons introduced by the Poet. So Homer begins not his Iliad with the injury done by Paris, but makes it related by Menelaus, and very briefly, as a thing notorious; nor begins he his Odysses with the departure of Ulysses from Troy, but makes Ulysses himself relate the same to Alcinous, in the midst of his Poem; which I think much more pleasant and ingenious than a too precise and close following of the time.

A fourth is in the Elevation of Fancie, which is generally taken for the greatest praise of Heroique Poetry; and is so, when governed by discretion. For men more generally affect and admire Fancie than they do either Judgment, or Reason, or Memory, or any other intellectual Vertue; and for the pleasantness of it, give to it alone the name of Wit, accounting Reason and Judgment but for a dull entertainment. For in Fancie consisteth the Sublimity of a Poet, which is that Poetical Fury which the Readers for the most part call for. It flies abroad swiftly to fetch in both Matter and Words; but if there be not Discretion at home to distinguish which are fit to be used and which not, which decent and which undecent for Persons, Times, and Places, their delight and grace is lost. But if they be discreetly used, they are greater ornaments of a Poem by much than any other. A Metaphor also (which is a Comparison contracted into a word) is not unpleasant; but when they are sharp and extraordinary, they are not fit for an Heroique Poet, nor for a publique consultation, but only for an Accusation or Defence at the Bar.

A fifth lies in the Justice and Impartiality of the Poet, and belongeth as well to History as to Poetry. For both the Poet and the Historian writeth only (or should do) matter of Fact. And as far as the truth of Fact can defame a man, so far they are allowed to blemish the reputation of Persons. But to do the same upon Report, or by inference, is below the dignity not only of a Heroe but of a Man. For neither a Poet nor an Historian ought to make himself an absolute Master of any mans good name. None of the Emperors of Rome whom Tacitus or any other Writer hath condemned, was ever subject to the Judgment of any of them, nor were they ever heard to plead for themselves, which are things that ought to be antecedent to condemnation. Nor was, I think, Epicurus the Philosopher (who is transmitted to us by the Stoicks for a man of evil and voluptuous life) ever called, convented, and lawfully convicted, as all men ought to be before they be defamed. Therefore 'tis a very great fault in a Poet to speak evil of any man in their Writings Historical.

A sixth Vertue consists in the perfection and curiosity of Descriptions, which the ancient writers of Eloquence called Icones, that is, Images. And an Image is always a part, or rather the ground, of a Poetical comparison. As, for example, when Virgil would set before our eyes the fall of Troy, he describes perhaps the whole Labour of many men together in the felling of some great Tree, and with how much ado it fell. This is the Image. To which if you but add these words, So fell Troy, you have the Comparison entire; the grace whereof lieth in the lightsomness, and is but the description of all, even of the minutest, parts of the thing described; that not onely they that stand far off, but also they that stand near, and look upon it with the oldest spectacles of a Critique, may approve it. For a Poet is a Painter, and should paint Actions to the understanding with the most decent words, as Painters do Persons and Bodies with the choicest colours to the eye; which, if not done nicely, will not be worthy to be plac'd in a Cabinet.

The seventh Vertue which lying in the Amplitude of the Subject, is nothing but variety, and a thing without which a whole Poem would be no pleasanter than an Epigram, or one good Verse; nor a Picture of a hundred figures better than any one of them asunder, if drawn with equal art. And these are the Vertues which ought especially to be looked upon by the Critiques, in the comparing of the Poets, Homer with Virgil, or Virgil with Lucan. For these only, for their excellencie, I have read or heard compared.

If the comparison be grounded upon the first and second Vertues, which consist in known words and Style unforc'd, they are all excellent in their own Language, though perhaps the Latin than the Greek is apter to dispose it self into an Hexameter Verse, as having both fewer Monosyllables and fewer Polysyllables. And this may make the Latin Verse appear more grave and equal, which is taken for a kind of Majesty; though in truth there be no Majesty in words, but then when they seem to proceed from an high and weighty imployment of the minde. But neither Homer, nor Virgil, nor Lucan, nor any Poet writing commendably, though not excellently, was ever charged much with unknown words, or great constraint of Style, as being a fault proper to Translators, when they hold themselves too superstitiously to their Authors words.

In the third Vertue, which is Contrivance, there is no doubt but Homer excels them all. For their Poems, except the Introduction of their Gods, are but so many Histories in Verse; whereas Homer has woven so many Histories together as contain the whole Learning of his time (which the Greeks called Cyclopœdia), and furnished both the Greek and Latin Stages with all the Plots and Arguments of their Tragedies.

The fourth Vertue, which is the height of Fancie, is almost proper to Lucan, and so admirable in him, that no Heroique Poem raises such admiration of the Poet as his hath done, though not so great admiration of the persons he introduceth. And though it be the mark of a great Wit, yet it is fitter for a Rhetorician than a Poet, and rebelleth often against Discretion, as when he says,

Victrix causa Diis placuit, sed victa Catoni;

that is,

The Side that Won the Gods approved most,
But
Cato better lik'd the Side that lost.

Than which nothing could be spoken more gloriously to the Exaltation of a man, nor more disgracefully to the Depression of the Gods. Homer indeed maketh some Gods for the Greeks, and some for the Trojans, but always makes Jupiter impartial: And never prefers the judgment of a man before that of Jupiter, much less before the judgment of all the Gods together.

The fifth Vertue, which is the Justice and Impartiality of a Poet, is very eminent in Homer and Virgil, but the contrary in Lucan. Lucan shews himself openly in the Pompeyan Faction, inveighing against Cœsar throughout his Poem, like Cicero against Cataline or Marc Antony, and is therefore justly reckon'd by Quintilian as a Rhetorician rather than a Poet. And a great part of the delight of his Readers proceedeth from the pleasure which too many men take to hear Great persons censured. But Homer and Virgil (especially Homer) do every where what they can to preserve the Reputation of their Heroes.

If we compare Homer and Virgil by the sixth Vertue, which is the clearness of Images, or Descriptions, it is manifest that Homer ought to be preferr'd, though Virgil himself were to be the Judge. For there are very few Images in Virgil besides those which he hath translated out of Homer; so that Virgils Images are Homers Praises. But what if he have added something to it of his own? Though he have, yet it is no addition of praise, because 'tis easie. But he hath some Images which are not in Homer, and better than his. It may be so; and so may other Poets have which never durst compare themselves with Homer. Two or three fine sayings are not enough to make a Wit. But where is that Image of his better done by him than Homer, of those that have been done by them both? Yes, Eustathius, as Mr.Ogilby hath observ'd, where they both describe the falling of a Tree, prefers Virgil's description. But Eustathius is in that, I think, mistaken. The place of Homer is in the fourth of the Iliads, the sense whereof is this:

As when a man hath fell'd a Poplar Tree
Tall, streight, and smooth, with all the fair
  boughs on;
Of which he means a Coach-wheel made shall
  be,
And leaves it on the Bank to dry i' th' Sun:
So lay the comely
Simoisius,
Slain by great Ajax, Son of Telamon.

It is manifest that in this place Homer intended no more than to shew how comely the body of Simoisius appeared as he lay dead upon the Bank of Scamander, streight and tall, with a fair head of hair, and like a streight and high Poplar with the boughs still on; and not at all to describe the manner of his falling, which, when a man is wounded through the breast, as he was with a Spear, is always sudden.

The description of how a great Tree falleth, when many men together hew it down, is in the second of Virgil's Æneads. The sense of it, with the comparison, is in English this;

And Troy, methought, then sunk in fire and
smoke,
And overturned was in every part:
As when upon the mountain an old Oak
Is hewn about with keen steel to the heart,
And pli'd by Swains with many heavy blows,
It nods and every way it threatens round,
Till overcome with many wounds, it bows,
And leisurely at last comes to the ground.

And here again it is evident that Virgil meant to compare the manner how Troy after many Battles, and after the losses of many Cities, conquer'd by the many nations under Agamemnon in a long War, and thereby weaken'd, and at last overthrown, with a great Tree hewn round about, and then falling by little and little leisurely.

So that neither these two Descriptions nor the two Comparisons can be compared together. The Image of a man lying on the ground is one thing; the Image of falling, especially of a Kingdom, is another. This therefore gives no advantage to Virgil over Homer. 'Tis true that this Description of the Felling and Falling of a Tree is exceeding graceful. But is it therefore more than Homer could have done if need had been? Or is there no Description in Homer of somewhat else as good as this? Yes, and in many of our English Poets now alive. If it then be lawful for Julius Scaliger to say, that if Jupiter would have described the fall of a Tree, he could not have mended this of Virgil, it will be lawful for me to repeat an old Epigram of Antipater, to the like purpose, in favour of Homer:

The Writer of the famous Trojan War,
And of
Ulysses Life, O Jove, make known,
Who, whence he was; for thine the Verses are,
And he would have us think they are his own.

The seventh and last commendation of an Heroique Poem consisteth in Amplitude and Variety; and in this Homer exceedeth Virgil very much, and that not by superfluity of words, but by plenty of Heroique matter, and multitude of Descriptions and Comparisons (whereof Virgil hath translated but a small part into his Æneads), such as are the Images of Shipwracks, Battles, Single Combats, Beauty, Passions of the mind, Sacrifices, Entertainments, and other things, whereof Virgil (abating what he borrows of Homer) has scarce the twentieth part. It is no wonder therefore if all the ancient Learned men both of Greece and Rome have given the first place in Poetry to Homer. It is rather strange that two or three, and of late time and but Learners of the Greek tongue, should dare to contradict so many competent Judges both of Language and Discretion. But howsoever I defend Homer, I aim not thereby at any reflection upon the following Translation. Why then did I write it? Because I had nothing else to do. Why publish it? Because I thought it might take off my Adversaries from shewing their folly upon my more serious Writings, and set them upon my Verses to shew their wisdom.…

Alexander Pope (essay date 1725)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4705

SOURCE: A postscript to The "Iliad" and the "Odyssey" of Homer, edited by W. C. Armstrong, translated by Alexander Pope, Leavitt and Allen, 1848, pp. 401-19.

[Pope has been called the greatest English poet of his time and one of the most important in the history of world literature. As a critic and satirical commentator on eighteenth-century England, he was the author of work that represents the epitome of Neoclassicist thought. His greatness lies in his cultivation of style and wit, rather than sublimity and pathos, and this inclination shaped his criticism of other writers. In the following excerpt from the postscript to his 1725 translation of the Odyssey, Pope argues that the Odyssey should be analyzed separately from the Iliad, contending that "the Odyssey is the reverse of the Iliad, in moral, subject, manner and style. "]

I cannot dismiss [the Odyssey] without a few observations on the character and style of it. Whoever reads the Odyssey with an eye to the Iliad, expecting to find it of the same character or of the same sort of spirit, will be grievously deceived, and err against the first principle of criticism, which is, to consider the nature of the piece, and the intent of its author. The Odyssey is a moral and political work, instructive to all degrees of men, and filled with images, examples, and precepts of civil and domestic life. Homer is here a person,

Qui didicit, patriœ quid debeat, et quid
amicis,
Quo sit amore parens, quo frater amandus, et
hospes:
Qui quid sit pulcrum quid turpe, quid utile,
quid non,
Plenius et melius Chrysippo et Crantore dicit.

The Odyssey is the reverse of the Iliad, in moral, subject, manner and style; to which it has no sort of relation, but as the story happens to follow in order of time, and as some of the same persons are actors in it. Yet from this incidental connection, many have been misled to regard it as a continuation or second part, and thence to expect a parity of character inconsistent with its nature.

It is no wonder that the common reader should fall into this mistake, when so great a critic as Longinus seems not wholly free from it; although what he has said, has been generally understood to import a severer censure of the Odyssey than it really does, if we consider the occasion on which it is introduced, and the circumstances to which it is confined.

The Odyssey is an instance how natural it is to a great genius, when it begins to grow old and decline, to delight itself in narrations and fables. For that Homer composed the Odyssey after the Iliad, many proofs may be given.… From hence, in my judgment, it proceeds, that as the Iliad was written while his spirit was in its greatest vigour, the whole structure of that works is dramatic, and full of action; whereas the greater part of theOdyssey is employed in narration, which is the taste of old age: so that in this latter piece we may compare him to the setting sun, which has still the same greatness, but not the same ardour or force. He speaks not in the same strain; we see no more that sublime of the Iliad, which marches on with a constant pace, without ever being stopped or retarded: there appears no more that hurry, and that strong tide of motions and passions, pouring one after another: there is no more the same fury, or the same volubility of diction, so suitable to action, and all along drawing in such innumerable images of nature. But Homer, like the ocean, is always great, even when he ebbs and retires; even when he is lowest, and loses himself most in narrations and incredible fictions: as instances of this, we cannot forget the descriptions of tempests, the adventures of Ulysses with the Cyclops, and many others. But though all this be age, it is the age of Homer.—And it may be said, for the credit of these fictions, that they are beautiful dreams, or, if you will, the dreams of Jupiter himself. I spoke of the Odyssey, only to show that the greatest poets, when their genius wants strength and warmth for the pathetic, for the most part employ themselves in painting the manners. This Homer has done in characterizing the suitors, and describing their way of life; which is properly a branch of comedy, whose peculiar business it is to represent the manners of men.

We must first observe, it is the sublime of which Longinus is writing: that, and not the nature of Homer's poem, is his subject. After having highly extolled the sublimity and fire of the Iliad, he justly observes the Odyssey to have less of those qualities, and to turn more on the side of moral, and reflections on human life. Nor is it his business here to determine, whether the elevated spirit of the one, or the just moral of the other, be the greater excellence in itself.

Secondly, that fire and fury of which he is speaking, cannot well be meant of the general spirit and inspiration which is to run through a whole epic poem, but of that particular warmth and impetuosity necessary in some parts, to image or represent actions or passions, of haste, tumult, and violence. It is on occasions of citing some such particular passages in Homer, that Longinus breaks into this reflection; which seems to determine his meaning chiefly to that sense.

Upon the whole, he affirms the Odyssey to have less sublimity and fire that the Iliad, but he does not say it wants the sublime or wants fire. He affirms it to be narrative, but not that the narration is defective. He affirms it to abound in fictions, not that those fictions are ill invented or ill executed. He affirms it to be nice and particular in painting the manners, but not that those manners are ill painted. If Homer has fully in these points accomplished his own design, and done all that the nature of his poem demanded or allowed, it still remains perfect in its kind, and as much a master-piece as the Iliad.

The amount of the passage is this: that in his own particular taste, and with respect to the sublime, Longinus preferred the Iliad: and because the Odyssey was less active and lofty, he judged it the work of the old age of Homer.

If this opinion be true, it will only prove, that Homer's age might determine him in the choice of his subject, not that it affected him in the execution of it; and that which would be a very wrong instance to prove the decay of his imagination, is a very good one to evince the strength of his judgment. For had he (as Madame Dacier observed) composed the Odyssey in his youth, and the Iliad in his age, both must in reason have been exactly the same as they now stand. To blame Homer for his choice of such a subject, as did not admit the same incidents and the same pomp of style as his former, is to take offence at too much variety, and to imagine that when a man has written one good thing, he must ever after only copy himself.

The 'Battle of Constantine,' and the 'School of Athens,' are both pieces of Raphael: Shall we censure the 'School of Athens' as faulty, because it has not the fury and fire of the other? or shall we say that Raphael was grown grave and old, because he chose to represent the manners of old men and philosophers? There is all the silence, tranquillity, and composure in the one, and all the warmth hurry, and tumult in the other, which the subject of either required: both of them had been imperfect, if they had not been as they are. And let the poet or painter be young or old, who designs or performs in this manner, it proves him to have made the piece at a time of life when he was master not only of his art, but of his discretion.

Aristotle makes no such distinction between the two poems: he constantly cites them with equal praise, and draws the rules and examples of epic writing equally from both. But it is rather to the Odyssey that Horace gives the preference, in the Epistle to Lollius, and in the Art of Poetry. It is remarkable how opposite his opinion is to that of Longinus: and that the particulars he chooses to extol, are those very fictions and pictures of the manners, which the other seems least to approve. Those fables and manners are the very essence of the work: but even without that regard, the fables themselves have both more invention and more instruction, and the manners more moral and example, than those of the Iliad.

In some points (and those the most essential to the epic poem) the Odyssey is confessed to excel the Iliad; and principally in the great end of it, the moral. The conduct, turn, and disposition of the fable is also what the critics allow to be the better model for epic writers to follow; accordingly we find much more of the cast of this poem than of the other in the Æneid, and (what next to that is perhaps the greatest example) in the Telemachus. In the manners, it is no way inferior: Longinus is so far from finding any defect in these, that he rather taxes Homer with painting them too minutely. As to the narrations, although they are more numerous as the occasions are more frequent, yet they carry no more the marks of old age, and are neither more prolix, nor more circumstantial, than the conversations and dialogues of the Iliad. Not to mention the length of those of Phoenix in the ninth book, and of Nestor in the eleventh (which may be thought in compliance to their characters), those of Glaucus in the sixth, of Æneas in the twentieth, and some others, must be allowed to exceed any in the whole Odyssey. And that the propriety of style, and the numbers, in the narrations of each are equal, will appear to any who compare them.

To form a right judgment, whether the genius of Homer had suffered any decay; we must consider, in both his poems, such parts as are of a similar nature, and will bear comparison. And it is certain we shall find in each the same vivacity and fecundity of invention, the same life and strength of imagining and colouring, the particular descriptions as highly painted, the figures as bold, the metaphors as animated, and the numbers as harmonious and as various.

The Odyssey is a perpetual source of poetry: the stream is not the less full for being gentle; though it is true (when we speak only with regard to the sublime) that a river, foaming and thundering in cataracts from rocks and precipices, is what more strike amaze, and fills the mind, than the same body of water, flowing afterwards through peaceful vales and agreeable scenes of pasturage.

The Odyssey, as I have before said, ought to be considered according to its own nature and design, not with an eye to the Iliad. To censure Homer, because it is unlike what it was never meant to resemble, is as if a gardener, who had purposely cultivated two beautiful trees of contrary natures, as a specimen of his skill in the several kinds, should be blamed for not bringing them into pairs; when in root, stem, leaf, and flower, each was so entirely different, that one must have been spoiled, in the endeavour to match the other.

Longinus, who saw this poem was "partly of the nature of comedy," ought not, for that very reason, to have considered it with a view to the Iliad. How little any such resemblance was the intention of Homer, may appear from hence, that, although the character of Ulysses was there already drawn, yet here he purposely turns to another side of it, and shows him not in that full light of glory, but in the shade of common life, with a mixture of such qualities as are requisite to all the lowest accidents of it, struggling with misfortunes, and on a level with the meanest of mankind. As for the other persons, none of them are above what we call the higher comedy: Calypso, though a goddess, is a character of intrigue. The suitors yet more approaching to it; the Phæacians are of the same cast; the Cyclops, Melanthius, and Irus, descend even to droll characters; and the scenes that appear throughout are generally of the comic kind; banquets, revels, sports, loves, and the pursuit of a woman.

From the nature of the poem, we shall form an idea of the style. The diction is to follow the images, and to take its colour from the complexion of the thoughts. Accordingly the Odyssey is not always clothed in the majesty of verse proper to tragedy, but sometimes descends into the plainer narrative, and sometimes even to that familiar dialogue essential to comedy. However, where it cannot support a sublimity, it always preserves a dignity, or at least a propriety.

There is a real beauty in an easy, pure, perspicuous description, even of a low action. There are numerous instances of this both in Homer and Virgil: and perhaps those natural passages are not the least pleasing of their works. It is often the same in history, where the representations of common, or even domestic things, in clear, plain, and natural words, are frequently found to make the liveliest impression on the reader.

The question is, how far a poet, in pursuing the description or image of an action, can attach himself to little circumstances, without vulgarity or trifling? what particulars are proper, and enliven the image; or what are impertinent, and clog it? In this matter painting is to be consulted, and the whole regard had to those circumstances which contribute to form a full, and yet not a confused, idea of a thing.

Epithets are of vast service to this effect, and the right use of these is often the only expedient to render the narration poetical.

The great point of judgment is to distinguish when to speak simply, and when figuratively: but whenever the poet is obliged by the nature of his subject to descend to the lower manner of writing, an elevated style would be affected, and therefore ridiculous; and the more he was forced upon figures and metaphors to avoid that lowness, the more the image would be broken, and consequently obscure.

One may add, that the use of the grand style on little subjects, is not only ludicrous, but a sort of transgression against the rules of proportion and mechanics: it is using a vast force to lift a feather.

I believe, now I am upon this head, it will be found a just observation, that the low actions of life cannot be put into a figurative style, without being ridiculous; but things natural can. Metaphors raise the latter into dignity, as we see in the Georgics; but throw the former into ridicule as in the Lutrin. I think this may very well be accounted for: laughter implies censure; inanimate and irrational beings are not objects of censure, therefore they may be elevated as much as you please, and no ridicule follows: but when rational beings are represented above their real character, it becomes ridiculous in art, because it is vicious in morality. The bees in Virgil, were they rational beings, would be ridiculous by having their actions and manners represented on a level with creatures so superior as men; since it would imply folly or pride, which are the proper objects of ridicule.

The use of pompous expressions for low actions or thoughts, is the true sublime of Don Quixote. How far unfit it is for epic poetry, appears in its being the perfection of the mock epic. It is so far from being the sublime of tragedy, that it is the cause of all bombast, when poets, instead of being (as they imagine) constantly lofty, only preserve throughout a painful equality of fustian; that continued swell of language (which runs indiscriminately even through their lowest characters, and rattles like some mightiness of meaning in the most indifferent subjects) is of a piece with that perpetual elevation of tone which the players have learned from it; and which is not speaking, but vociferating.

There is still more reason for a variation of style in epic poetry than in tragic, to distinguish between that language of the gods proper to the muse who sings, and is inspired; and that of men, who are introduced speaking only according to nature. Farther, there ought to be a difference of style observed in the speeches of human persons, and those of deities; and again, in those which may be called set harangues or orations, and those which are only conversation and dialogue. Homer has more of the latter than any other poet; what Virgil does by two or three words of narration, Homer still performs by speeches: not only replies, but even rejoinders, are frequent in him, a practice almost unknown to Virgil. This renders his poems more animated, but less grave and majestic; and consequently necessitates the frequent use of a lower style. The writers of tragedy lie under the same necessity if they would copy nature; whereas that painted and poetical diction which they perpetually use, would be improper even in orations designed to move with all the arts of rhetoric: this is plain from the practice of Demosthenes and Cicero; and Virgil, in those of Drances and Turnus, gives an eminent example, how far removed the style of them ought to be from such an excess of figures and ornaments: which indeed fits only that language of the gods we have been speaking of, or that of a muse under inspiration.

To read through a whole work in this strain, is like travelling all along the ridge of a hill, which is not half so aggreable as sometimes gradually to rise, and sometimes gently to descend, as the way leads, and as the end of the journey directs.

Indeed, the true reason that so few poets have imitated Homer in these lower parts, has been the extreme difficulty of preserving that mixture of ease and dignity essential to them. For it is as hard for an epic poem to stoop to the narrative with success, as for a prince to descend to be familiar, without diminution to his greatness.

The sublime style is more easily counterfeited than the natural: something that passes for it, or sounds like it, is common in all false writers: but nature, purity, perspicuity, and simplicity, never walk in the clouds; they are obvious to all capacities, and where they are not evident, they do not exist.

The most plain narration not only admits of these, and of harmony (which are all the qualities of style), but it requires every one of them to render it pleasing. On the contrary, whatever pretends to a share of the sublime, may pass, notwithstanding any defects in the rest; nay, sometimes without any of them, and gain the admiration of all ordinary readers.

Homer, in his lowest narrations or speeches, is ever easy, flowing, copious, clear, and harmonious. He shows not less invention, in assembling the humbler, than the greater thoughts and images: nor less judgment in proportioning the style, and the versification to these, than to the other. Let it be remembered, that the same genius that soared the highest, and from whom the greatest models of the sublime are derived, was also he who stooped the lowest, and gave to the simple narrative its utmost perfection. Which of these was the harder task to Homer himself, I cannot pretend to determine; but to his translator I can affirm (however unequal all his imitations must be) that of the latter has been much the more difficult.

Whoever expects here the same pomp of verse, and the same ornaments of diction, as in the Iliad, he will, and he ought to be, disappointed. Were the original otherwise, it had been an offence against nature; and were the translation so, it were an offence against Homer, which is the same thing.

It must be allowed that there is a majesty and harmony in the Greek language, which greatly contribute to elevate and support the narration. But I must also observe, that this is an advantage grown upon the language since Homer's time: for things are removed from vulgarity by being out of use; and if the words we could find in any present language were equally sonorous or musical in themselves, they would still appear less poetical and uncommon than those of a dead one, from this only circumstances, of being in every man's mouth. I may add to this another disadvantage to a translator, from a different cause: Homer seems to have taken upon him the character of an historian, antiquary, divine, and professor of arts and sciences, as well as a poet. In one or other of these characters, he descends into many particularities which, as a poet only, perhaps he would have avoided. All these ought to be preserved by a faithful translator, who in some measure takes the place of Homer; and all that can be expected from him is to make them as poetical as the subject will bear. Many arts, therefore, are requisite to supply these disadvantages, in order to dignify and solemnize these plainer parts, which hardly admit of any poetical ornaments.

Some use has been made to this end of the style of Milton. A just and moderate mixture of old words may have an effect like the working of old abbey stones into a building, which I have sometimes seen to give a kind of venerable air, and yet not destroy the neatness, elegance, and equality, requisite to a new work; I mean, without rendering it too unfamiliar, or remote from the present purity of writing, or from that ease and smoothness which ought always to accompany narration or dialogue. In reading a style judiciously antiquated, one finds a pleasure not unlike that of travelling on an old Roman way: but then the road must be as good as the way is ancient; the style must be such in which we may evenly proceed, without being put to short stops by sudden abruptnesses, or puzzled by frequent turnings and transpositions. No man delights in furrows and stumbling-blocks: and let our love to antiquity be ever so great, a fine ruin is one thing, and a heap of rubbish another. The imitators of Milton, like most other imitators, are not copies, but caricatures of their original; they are a hundred times more obsolete and cramp than he, and equally so in all places: whereas it should have been observed of Milton, that he is not lavish of his exotic words and phrases every where alike, but employs them much more where the subject is marvellous, vast, and strange, as in the scenes of heaven, hell, chaos, &c., than where it is turned to the natural and agreeable, as in the pictures of paradise, the loves of our first parents, entertainments of angels, and the like. In general, this unusual style better serves to awaken our ideas in the descriptions and in the imaging and picturesque parts, than it agrees with the lower sort of narrations, the character of which is simplicity and purity. Milton has several of the latter, where we find not an antiquated, affected, or uncouth word, for some hundred lines together; as in his fifth book, the latter part of the eighth, the former of the tenth and eleventh books, and in the narration of Michael in the twelfth. I wonder indeed that he, who ventured (contrary to the practice of all other epic poets) to imitate Homer's lownesses in the narrative, should not also have copied his plainness and perspicuity in the dramatic parts: since in his speeches (where clearness, above all, is necessary) there is frequently such transposition and forced construction, that the very sense is not to be discovered without a second or third reading, and in this certainly he ought to be no example.

To preserve the true character of Homer's style in the present translation, great pains have been taken to be easy and natural. The chief merit I can pretend to, is, not to have been carried into a more plausible and figurative manner of writing, which would better have pleased all readers, but the judicious ones. My errors had been fewer, had each of those gentlemen who joined with me shown as much of the severity of a friend to me, as I did to them, in a strict animadversion and correction. What assistance I received from them, was made known in general to the public, in the original proposals for this work, and the particulars are specified at the conclusion of it; to which I must add (to be punctually just) some part of the tenth and fifteenth books. The reader will now be too good a judge how much the greater part of it, and consequently of its faults, is chargeable upon me alone. But this I can with integrity affirm, that I have bestowed as much time and pains upon the whole, as were consistent with the indispensable duties and cares of life, and with that wretched state of health which God has been pleased to make my portion. At the least, it is a pleasure to me to reflect, that I have introduced into our language this other work of the greatest and the most ancient of poets, with some dignity; and I hope with as little disadvantage as the Iliad. And if, after the unmerited success of that translation, any one will wonder why I would enterprise the Odyssey, I think it sufficient to say, that Homer himself did the same, or the world would never have seen it.…

Thomas De Quincey (essay date 1841)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3219

SOURCE: "Homer and the Homeridae," in The Collected Writings of Thomas De Quincey, edited by David Masson, A. & C. Black, 1897, pp. 7-95.

[An English critic and essayist, De Quincey used his own life as the subject of his best-known work, Confessions of an English Opium Eater (1822), in which he chronicled his addiction to opium. He contributed reviews to a number of London journals and earned a reputation as an insightful if occasionally long-winded literary critic. At the time of his death, De Quincey's critical expertise was underestimated, though his talent as a prose writer had long been acknowledged. In the following excerpt from an article first published in Blackwood's Magazine in 1841, De Quincey studies the historical background of Homeric texts.]

Up to … (the epoch of transplanting the Iliad from Greece insular and Greece colonial to Greece continental) the Homeric poems had been left to the custo-dy of two schools or professional orders, interested in the text of these poems: how interested, or in what way their duties connected them with Homer, I will not at this point inquire. Suffice it, that these two separate orders of men did confessedly exist—one being elder, perhaps, than Homer himself, or even than Troy: viz. the Aoidoi, or Chanters, and Citharœdi, or Harpers. These, no doubt, had originally no more relation to Homer than to any other narrative poet; their duty of musical recitation had brought them connected with Homer, as it would have done with any other popular poet; and it was only the increasing current of Homer's predominance over all rival poets which gradually gave such a bias and inflection to these men's professional art as at length to suck them within the great Homeric tide. They became, but were not originally, a sort of Homeric choir and orchestra—a chapel of priests having a ministerial duty in the vast Homeric cathedral. Through them exclusively, or, if not, certainly through them chiefly, the two great objects were secured: first, that to each successive generation of men Homer was published with all the advantages of a musical accompaniment; secondly, that for distant generations Homer was preserved. I do not thus beg the question as to the existence of alphabetic writing in the days of Homer; on the contrary, I go along with Nitzsch and others in opposing Wolf upon that point. I believe that a laborious and painful art of writing did exist; but with such disadvantages as to writing materials that Homer (I am satisfied) would have fared ill as regarded his chance of reaching the polished age of Pericles had he relied on written memorials, or upon any mode of publication less impassioned than the orchestral chanting of the Rhapsodoi.

The other order of men dedicated to some Homeric interest, whatever that might be, were those technically known as the Homeridœ. The functions of these men have never been satisfactorily ascertained, or so as to discriminate them broadly and firmly from the Citharœdi and Rhapsodoi. But in two features it is evident that they differed essentially: first, that the Homeridœ constituted a more local and domestic college of Homeric ministers, confined originally to a single island, not diffused (as were the Rhapsodoi) over all Greece; secondly, that by their very name, which refers them back to Homer as a mere radiation from his life-breathing orb, this class of followers is barred from pretending in the Homeric equipage (like the Citharœdi) to any independent existence, still less to any anterior existence. The musical reciters had been originally a general and neutral class of public ministers, gradually sequestered into the particular service of Homer; but the Homeridœ were, in some way or other, possibly by blood, or by fiction of love and veneration, Homer's direct personal representatives,— like the green-turbaned Seyuds of Islamism, who claim a relation of consanguinity to the Prophet himself.

Thus far, however, though there is evidence of two separate colleges or incorporations who charged themselves with the general custody, transmission, and publication of the Homeric poems, we hear of no care applied to the periodical review of the Homeric text; we hear of no man taking pains to qualify himself for that office by collecting copies from all quarters, or by applying the supreme political authority of his own peculiar commonwealth to the conservation and the authentication of the Homeric poems. The text of no book can become an object of anxiety until by numerous corruptions it has become an object of doubt. Lycurgus, it is true, the Spartan lawgiver, did apply his own authority, in a very early age, to the general purpose of importing and naturalising the Iliad. But there his office terminated. Critical skill, applied to the investigation of an author's text, was a function of the human mind as much unknown in the Greece of Lycurgus as in the Germany of Tacitus, or in the Tongataboo of Captain Cook. And, of all places in Greece, such delicate reactions of the intellect upon its own creations were least likely to arise amongst the illiterate Dorian tribes of the Peloponnesus—wretches that hugged their own barbarising institutions as the very jewels of their birthright, and would most certainly have degenerated rapidly into African brutality had they not been held steady, hustled and forcibly shouldered into social progress, by the press of surrounding tribes, fortunately more intellectual than themselves.

Thus continued matters through about four centuries from Homer. And by that time we begin to feel anxious about the probable state of the Homeric text. Not that I suppose any interregnum in Homer's influence— not that I believe in any possible defect of links in that vast series of traditional transmitters; the integrity of that succession was guaranteed by its interwreathing itself with human pleasures, with religious ceremonies, with household and national festivals. It is not that Homer would have become apocryphal or obscure for want of public repetition; on the contrary, he would have suffered by too much repetition—too constant and too fervent a repetition would have been the main source of corruptions in the text. Sympathy in the audience must always have been a primary demand with the Rhapsodoi; and, to a perfect sympathy, it is one antecedent condition to be perfectly understood. Hence, when allusions were no longer intelligible or effectual, what result would be likely to follow? Too often it must happen that they would be dropped from the text; and, when any Homeric family or city had become extinct, the temptation would be powerful for substituting the names of others who could delight the chanter by fervid gratitude for such a vicarious distinction where it had been merited, or could reward him with gifts where it had not. But it is not necessary to go over the many causes in preparation, after a course of four centuries, for gradually sapping the integrity of Homer's text. Everybody will agree that it was at length high time to have some edition "by authority"; and that, had the Iliad and Odyssey received no freezing arrest in their licentious tendency towards a general interfusion of their substance, and an adulterating of their diction, with modern words and ideas, most certainly by the time of Alexander—i.e. about seven centuries from Homer—either poem would have existed only in fractions. The connecting parts between the several books would have dropped out; and all the … episodes dedicated to the honour of a particular hero, might, with regard to names less hallowed in the imagination of Greece, or where no representatives of the house remained, have perished utterly. Considering the great functions of the Greek language subsequently in propagating Christianity, it was a real providential provision which caused the era of state editions to supersede the ad libitum text of the careless or the interested, and just at that precise period when the rapidly rising tide of Athenian refinement would else soon have swept away all the landmarks of primitive Greece, and when the altered character of the public reciters would have co-operated with the other difficulties of the case to make a true Homeric text irrecoverable. For the Rhapsodoi were in a regular course of degradation to the rank of mere mercenary artists, from that of sacred minstrels who connected the past with the present, and who sang—precisely because their burden of truth was too solemn for unimpassioned speech. This was the station they had occupied; but it remains in evidence against them, that they were rapidly sinking under the changes of the times; were open to bribes; and, as one consequence (whilst partly it was one cause) of this degradation, that they had ceased to command the public respect. The very same changes, and through the very same steps, and under the very same agencies, have been since exhibited to Europe in the parallel history of our mediæval minstrels. The pig-headed [Joseph] Ritson, in mad pursuit of that single idea (no matter what) which might vex Bishop [Thomas] Percy, made it his business, in one essay, to prove, out of the statutes at large, and out of local court records, that the minstrel, so far from being that honoured guest in the courts of princes whom the bishop had described, was in fact, by Act of Parliament, a rogue and a vagabond, standing in awe of the parish beadle, and liable to be kicked out of any hundred or tithing where he should be found trespassing. But what nonsense! All that Ritson said was virtually false, though plausibly half-true. The minstrel was, and he was not, all that the bishop and others had affirmed. The contradiction lay in the time: Percy and Ritson were speaking of different periods; the bishop of the twelfth, thirteenth, and fourteenth centuries—the attorney of the sixteenth and seventeenth. Now, the Grecian Rhapsodoi passed through corresponding stages of declension. Having ministered through many centuries to advancing civilisation, finally they themselves fell before a higher civilisation; and the particular aspect of the new civilisation which proved fatal to them was the general diffusion of reading as an art of liberal education. In the age of Pericles every well-educated man could read; and one result from his skill, as no doubt it had also been one amongst its exciting causes, was that he had a fine copy at home, beautifully adorned, of the Iliad and Odyssey. Paper and vellum, for the last six centuries B.C. (that is, from the era of the Egyptian king Psammetichus), were much less scarce in Greece than during the ages immediately consecutive to Homer; and this scarcity it was that had retarded manuscript literature, as subsequently it retarded the art of printing.

How providential, therefore—and, with the recollection of that great part played by Greece in propagating Christianity through the previous propagation of her own literature and language, what is there in such an interference unworthy of Providence?—how providential, that precisely in that interval of one hundred and eleven years between the year 555 B.C., the locus of Pisistratus, and 444 B.C., the locus of Pericles, whilst as yet the traditional text of Homer was retrievable, though rapidly nearing to the time when it would be strangled with weeds, and whilst as yet the arts of reading and writing had not weakened the popular devotion to Homer by dividing it amongst multiplied books, just then, in that critical isthmus of transitional time, did two or three Athenians of rank—first Solon, next Pisistratus, and lastly (if Plato is right) Hipparchus—step forward to make a public, solemn, and legally operative review of the Homeric poems. They drew the old hulk into dock; laid bare its timbers; and stopped the further progress of decay. What more they did than this, and by what characteristic services each connected his name with a separate province in this memorable restoration of the Iliad and Odyssey, I shall inquire further on.

One century after Pisistratus we come to Pericles; or, counting from the locus of each (555 B.C., and 444 B.C.), exactly one hundred and eleven years divide them. One century after Pericles we come to Alexander the Great; or, counting from the locus of each (444 B.C., and 333 B.C., exactly one hundred and eleven years divide them. During this period of two hundred and twenty-two years Homer had rest. Nobody was tempted by any oblique interest to torment his text any more. And it is singular enough that this period of two hundred and twenty-two years, during which Homer reigned in the luxury of repose, having nothing to do but to let himself be read and admired, was precisely that ring-fence of years within which lies true Grecian history; for, if any man wishes to master the Grecian history, he needs not to ascend above Pisistratus, nor to come down below Alexander. Before Pisistratus all is mist and fable; after Alexander all is dependency and servitude. And remarkable it is that, soon after Alexander, and indirectly through changes caused by him, Homer was again drawn out for the pleasure of the tormentors. Among the dynasties founded by Alexander's lieutenants was one memorably devoted to literature. The Macedonian house of the Ptolemies, when seated on the throne of Egypt, had founded the very first public library and the first learned public. Alexander died in the year 320 B.C.; and already in the year 280 B.C., (that is, not more than forty years after) the learned Jews of Alexandria and Palestine had commenced, under the royal patronage, that translation of the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek which, from the supposed number of the translators—(viz. septuaginta, seventy)—has obtained the name of the "Septuagint." This was a service to posterity. But the earliest Grecian service to which this Alexandrian Library ministers was Homeric; and it strikes us as singular when we contrast it with the known idolatry towards Homer of that royal soldier from whom the city itself, with all its novelties, drew its name and foundation. Had Alexander survived forty years longer, as very easily he might if he had insisted upon leaving his heel-taps at Babylon, how angry it would have made him that the very first trial of this new and powerful galvanic battery, involved in the institution of a public library, should be upon the body of the Iliad!

From 280 B.C to 160 B.C there was a constant succession of Homeric critics. The immense material found in the public library towards a direct history of Homer and his fortunes would alone have sufficed to evoke a school of critics. But there was, besides, another invitation to Homeric criticism, more oblique, and eventually more effective. The Alexandrian Library contained vast collections towards the study of the Greek language through all its dialects, and through all its chronological stages. This study led back by many avenues to Homer. A verse or a passage which hitherto had passed for genuine, and which otherwise, perhaps, yielded no internal argument for suspicion, was now found to be veined by some phrase, dialect, terminal form, or mode of using words, that might be too modern for Homer's age, or too far removed in space from Homer's Ionian country. We moderns, from our vast superiority to the Greeks themselves in Greek metrical science, have in this science found an extra resource laid open to us for detecting the spurious in Greek poetry; and many are the condemned passages in our modern editions of Greek books against which no jealousy would ever have arisen amongst unmetrical scholars. Here, however, the Alexandrian critics, with all their slashing insolence, showed themselves sons of the feeble; they groped about in twilight. But, even without that resource, they contrived to riddle Homer through and through with desperate gashes. In fact, after being "treated" and "handled" by three generations of critics, Homer came forth (just as we may suppose one of Lucan's legionary soldiers from the rencounter with the amphisbæna, the dipsas, and the water-snake of the African wilderness) one vast wound, one huge system of confluent ulcers. Often, in reviewing the labours of three particularly amongst these Alexandrian scorpions, I think of the Æsopian fable, in which an old man with two wives, one aged as befitted him, and the other young, submits his head alternately to what may be called the Alexandrian revision of each. The old lady goes to work first; and upon "moral principle" she indignantly extirpates all the black hairs which could ever have inspired him with the absurd fancy of being young and making love to a girl. Next comes the young critic: she is disgusted with age; and upon system eliminates (or, to speak with Aristarchus, "obelises") all the grey hairs. And thus, between the two ladies and their separate editions of the old gentleman, he, poor Homeric creature, comes forth as bald as the back of one's hand. Aristarchus might well boast that he had cured Homer of the dry-rot! he has, and by leaving hardly one whole spar of his ancient framework. Nor can I, with my poor share of penetration, comprehend what sort of abortion it is which Aristarchus would have us to accept and entertain in the room of our old original Iliad and Odyssey. To cure a man radically of the toothache by knocking all his teeth down his throat seems a suspicious recommendation for "dental surgery." And, with respect to the Homer of Aristarchus, it is to be considered that, besides the lines, sentences, and long passages to which that Herod of critics affixed his obelus or stiletto, there were entire books which he found no use in obelising piecemeal; because it was not this line or that line into which he wished to thrust his dagger, but the whole rabble of lines—"tag, rag, and bobtail." Which reminds me of John Paul Richter, who suggests to some author anxiously revising the table of his own errata, that, perhaps, on reflection, he might see cause to put his whole book into the list of errata, requesting of the reader kindly to erase the total work as one entire oversight and continuous blunder, from page one down to the word finis. In such cases, as Martial observes, no plurality of cancellings or erasures will answer the critic's purpose: but "una litura potest." One mighty bucket of ink thrown over the whole will execute the critical sentence; but, as to obelising, that is no better than snapping pocket-pistols in a sea-fight.

With the Alexandrian tormentors we may say that Homer's pre-Christian martyrdom came to an end. His post-Christian sufferings have been due chiefly to the Germans, who have renewed the warfare not only of Alexandrian critics, but of the ancient Chorizontes. These people I have not mentioned separately, because, in fact, nothing remains of their labours, and the general spirit of their warfare may be best understood from that of modern Germany. They acquired their name of Chorizontes (or separators) from their principle of breaking up the Iliad into multiform groups of little tadpole Iliads; as also of splitting the one old hazy but golden Homer, that looms upon us so venerably through a mist of centuries, into a vast reverberation of little silver Homers, that twinkled up and down the world, and lived where they found it convenient.

Samuel Butler (essay date 1897)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3850

SOURCE: "Who Was the Writer?", in The Authoress of the Odyssey: Where and When She Wrote, Who She Was, the Use She Made of the "Iliad, " and How the Poem Grew under Her Hands, 1897. Reprint by University of Chicago Press, 1967, pp. 200-09.

[An English novelist, satirist, essayist, and translator, Butler is best known for his The Way of All Flesh (1903), an autobiographical novel that satirizes Victo-rian church and family life. As a Homeric scholar, Butler achieved notoriety for his The Authoress of the Odyssey, in which he propounded the theory that the Odyssey was written by a woman. In the following excerpt from that work, he contends that the Odyssey was written by Nausicaa, a young woman from Trapani and a member of King Alcinous's household, rather than by Homer.]

I Believe … that the Odyssey was written by one woman, and … that this woman knew no other neighbourhood than that of Trapani, and therefore must be held to have lived and written there.

Who, then, was she?…

We have to find a woman of Trapani, young, fearless, self-willed, and exceedingly jealous of the honour of her sex. She seems to have moved in the best society of her age and country, for we can imagine none more polished on the West coast of Sicily in Odyssean times than the one with which the writer shews herself familiar. She must have had leisure, or she could not have carried through so great a work. She puts up with men when they are necessary or illustrious, but she is never enthusiastic about them, and likes them best when she is laughing at them; but she is cordially interested in fair and famous women.

I think she should be looked for in the household of the person whom she is travestying under the name of King Alcinous. The care with which his pedigree and that of his wife Arēte is explained (vii. 54-77), and the warmth of affectionate admiration with which Arēte is always treated, have the same genuine flavour that has led scholars to see true history and personal interest in the pedigree of Æneas given in Il. xx. 200-241. Moreover, she must be a sufficiently intimate member of the household to be able to laugh at its head as much as she chose. No pedigree of any of the other of the Odyssey is given save that of Theoclymenus, whose presence in the poem at all requires more explanation than I can give. I can only note that he was of august descent, more than sub-clerical, and of a different stamp from any other character to whom we are introduced.

The fact that the writer should be looked for in a member of King Alcinous' household seems further supported by the zest with which this household and garden are described (vii. 81-132), despite the obviously subrisive exaggeration which pervades the telling. There is no such zest in the description of any other household, and the evident pleasure which the writer takes in it is more like that of a person drawing her own home, than either describing some one else's or creating an imaginary scene. See how having begun in the past tense she slides involuntarily into the present as soon as she comes to the women of the house and to the garden. She never does this in any other of her descriptions.

Lastly, she must be looked for in one to whom the girl described as Nausicaa was all in all. No one else is drawn with like livingness and enthusiasm, and no other episode is written with the same, or nearly the same, buoyancy of spirits and resiliency of pulse and movement, or brings the scene before us with anything approaching the same freshness, as that in which Nausicaa takes the family linen to the washing cisterns. The whole of Book vi. can only have been written by one who was throwing herself into it heart and soul.

All the three last paragraphs are based on the supposition that the writer was drawing real people. That she was drawing a real place, lived at that place, and knew no other, does not admit of further question; we can pin the writer down here by reason of the closeness with which she has kept to natural features that remain much as they were when she portrayed them; but no traces of Alcinous's house and garden, nor of the inmates of his household will be even looked for by any sane person; it is open, therefore, to an objector to contend that though the writer does indeed appear to have drawn permanent features from life, we have no evidence that she drew houses and gardens and men and women from anything but her own imagination.

Granted; but surely, in the first place, if we find her keeping to her own neighbourhood as closely as she can whenever the permanency of the feature described enables us to be certain of what she did, there is a presumption that she was doing the same thing in cases where the evidence has been too fleeting to allow of our bringing her to book. And secondly, we have abundant evidence that the writer did not like inventing.

Richly endowed with that highest kind of imagination which consists in wise selection and judicious application of materials derived from life, she fails, as she was sure to do, when cut off from a base of operation in her own surroundings. This appears most plainly in the three books which tell of the adventures of Ulysses after he has left Mt. Eryx and the Cyclopes. There is no local detail in the places described; nothing, in fact, but a general itinerary such as she could easily get from the mariners of her native town. With this she manages to rub along, helping herself out with fragments taken from nearer home, but there is no approach to such plausible invention as we find in Gulliver … s Travels, Robinson Crusoe, or Pilgrim's Progress; and when she puts a description of the land of Hades into the mouth of Circe (x. 508-515)—which she is aware must be something unlike anything she had ever witnessed—she breaks down and gives as a scene which carries no conviction. Fortunately not much detail is necessary here; in Ithaca, however, a great deal is wanted, and feeling invention beyond her strength she does not even attempt it, but has recourse with the utmost frankness to places with which she is familiar.

Not only does she shirk invention as much as possible in respect of natural features, but she does so also as regards incident. She can vilipend her neighbours on Mt. Eryx as the people at Trapani continue doing to this day, for there is no love lost between the men of Trapani and those of Mte. S. Giuliano, as Eryx is now called. She knows Ustica: the wind comes thence, and she can make something out of that; then there is the other great Sican city of Cefalù—a point can be made here; but with the Lipari islands her material is running short. She has ten years to kill, for which, however, eight or eight-and-a-half may be made to pass. She cannot have killed more than three months before she lands her hero on Circe's island; here, then, in pity's name let him stay for at any rate twelve months— which he accordingly does.

She soon runs through her resources for the Sirens' island, and Scylla and Charybdis; she knows that there is nothing to interest her on the East coast of Sicily below Taormina—for Syracuse (to which I will return) was still a small pre-Corinthian settlement, while on the South coast we have no reason to believe that there was any pre-Hellenic city. What, she asked herself, could she do but shut Ulysses up in the most lonely island she could think of—the one from which he would have the least chance of escaping—for the remainder of his term? She chose, therefore, the island which the modern Italian Government has chosen, for exactly the same reasons, as the one in which to confine those who cannot be left at large—the island of Pantellaria; but she was not going to burden Calypso for seven long years with all Ulysses' men, so his ship had better be wrecked.

This way out of the difficulty does not indicate a writer of fecund or mature invention. She knew the existence of Sardinia, for Ulysses smiles a grim Sardinian smile (xx. 302). Why not send him there, and describe it with details taken not from the North side of Trapani but from the South? Or she need not have given details at all—she might have sent him very long journeys extending over ever so many years in half a page. If she had been of an inventive turn there were abundant means of keeping him occupied without having recourse to the cheap and undignified expedient of shutting him up first for a year in one island, and then for seven in another. Having made herself so noble a peg on which to hang more travel and adventure, she would have hung more upon it, had either strength or inclination pointed in that direction. It is one of the commonplaces of Homeric scholars to speak of the voyages of Ulysses as "a story of adventurous travel." So in a way they are, but one can see all through that the writer is trying to reduce the adventurous travel to a minimum.

See how hard put to it she is when she is away from her own actual surroundings. She does not repeat her incidents so long as she is at home, for she has plenty of material to draw from; when she is away from home, do what she may, she cannot realise things so easily, and has a tendency to fall back on something she has already done. Thus, at Pylos, she repeats the miraculous flight of Minerva (iii. 372) which she had used i. 320. On reaching the land of the Læstrygonians Ulysses climbs a high rock to reconnoitre, and sees no sign of inhabitants save only smoke rising from the ground— at the very next place he comes to he again climbs a high rock to reconnoitre, and apparently sees no sign of inhabitants but only the smoke of Circe's house rising from the middle of a wood. He is conducted to the house of Alcinous by a girl who had come out of the town to fetch a pitcher of water (vii. 20); this is repeated (x. 105) when Ulysses' men are conducted to the house of the Læstrygonian Antiphates, by a girl who had come out of the town to fetch a pitcher of water. The writer has invented a sleep to ruin Ulysses just as he was well in sight of Ithaca (x. 31, &c.). This is not good invention, for such a moment is the very last in which Ulysses would be likely to feel sleepy—but the effort of inventing something else to ruin him when his men are hankering after the cattle of the Sun is quite too much for her, and she repeats (xii. 338) the sleep which had proved so effectual already. So, as I have said above, she repeats the darkness on each occasion when Ulysses seems likely to stumble upon Trapani. Calypso, having been invented once, must do duty again as Circe—or vice versâ, for Book x. was probably written before Book v.

Such frequent examples of what I can only call consecutive octaves indicate a writer to whom invention does not come easily, and who is not likely to have recourse to it more than she can help. Having shown this as regards both places and incidents, it only re-mains to point out that the writer's dislike of invention extends to the invention of people as well as places. The principal characters in the Odyssey are all of them Scherian. Nestor, Ulysses, Menelaus and Alcinous are every one of them the same person playing other parts, and the greater zest with which Alcinous is drawn suggests … that the original from whom they are all taken was better known to the writer in the part of Alcinous than in that of any of the other three. Penelope, Helen, and Arēte are only one person, and I always suspect Penelope to be truer to the original than either of the other two. Idothea and Ino are both of them Nausicaa; so also are Circe and Calypso, only made up a little older, and doing as the writer thinks Nausicaa would do if she were a goddess and had an establishment of her own. I am more doubtful about these last two, for they both seem somewhat more free from that man-hatred which Nausicaa hardly attempts to conceal. Still, Nausicaa contemplates marrying as soon as she can find the right person, and, as we have seen, neither Circe nor Calypso had a single man-servant of their own, while Circe was in the habit of turning all men who came near her into pigs or wild beasts. Calypso, moreover, is only made a little angry by being compelled to send Ulysses away. She does not seem to have been broken-hearted about it. Neither of them, therefore, must be held to be more fond of men than the convenience of the poem dictated. Even the common people of Ithaca are Scherians, and make exactly the same fault-finding ill-natured remarks about Penelope (xxiii. 149-151) as the Phæacians did about Nausicaa in Book vi. 273-288.

If, then, we observe that where the writer's invention is more laboured she is describing places foreign to her own neighbourhood, while when she carries conviction she is at or near her own home, the presumption becomes very strong that the more spontaneous scenes are not so much invention as a rendering of the writer's environment, to which it is plain that she is passionately attached, however much she may sometimes gird at it. I, therefore, dismiss the supposition of my supposed objector that the writer was not drawing Alcinous' household and garden from life, and am confirmed in this opinion by remembering that the house of Ulysses corresponds perfectly with that of Alcinous—even to the number of the women servants kept in each establishment.

Being limited to a young woman who was an intimate member of Alcinous' household, we have only to choose between some dependant who idolised Nausicaa and wished to celebrate her with all her surroundings, or Nausicaa (whatever her real name may have been) herself. Or again, it may be urged that the poem was written by some bosom friend of Nausicaa's who was very intimate with the family, as for example Captain Dymas's daughter.

The intimate friend theory may be dismissed at once. High spirited girls, brilliant enough to write the Odyssey are not so self effacing as to keep themselves entirely out of sight. If a friend had written the washing day episode, the friend would have come a washing too—especially after having said she would in Nausicaa's dream.

If, again, a dependent had written it, Nausicaa would neither have had the heart nor the power to suppress her altogether; for if she tried to do so the dependant— so daring and self-willed as the writer proves herself to be—would have been more than a match for her mistress. We may be sure that there were not two such spirits in Trapani, as we must suppose if we make Nausicaa able to bow the will of the authoress of the Odyssey. The fact that in the washing day episode, so far as possible, we find Nausicaa, all Nausicaa, and nothing but Nausicaa, among the female dramatis personæ, indicates that she was herself the young woman of Trapani, a member of the household of King Alcinous, whom we have got to find, and that she was giving herself the little niche in her work which a girl who was writing such a work was sure to give herself.

A dependant would not have dared to laugh at Alcinous with such playful malice as the writer has done. Again she would have made more of Nausicaa herself in the scenes that follow. At present she is left rather as a ragged edge, and says good bye to Ulysses in Book viii. 460, &c., with much less detail, both as regards her own speech and that of Ulysses in reply, than a courtier-like dependant would have permitted. She does not hear Ulysses' account of his adventures— which she might perfectly well have done under her mother's wing. She does not appear to take her meals with the rest of the family at all. When she returns from washing, Eurymedusa brings her supper into her own room. She is not present at any of Alcinous' banquets, nor yet at the games, and her absence from the farewell scene in Book xiii. is too marked to be anything but intentional. It seems as though she wished the reader to understand that she lived apart, and however much she might enjoy an outing with her maids, would have nothing to do with the men who came night after night drinking her father's best wine, and making havoc of his estate. She almost calls these people scoundrels to their faces by saying that they always made the final drink offering of the evening not to Jove but to Mercury, the god of thieves (vii. 137). In passing, I may say that the strangeness of the manner in which Nausicaa says good bye to Ulysses is one of the many things which convince me that the Odyssey has never been recast by a later hand. A person recasting the work would have been tolerably sure to have transferred the leave-taking to Book xiii.

Nausicaa, again, would have been more than human if she had permitted any one but herself to put into her mouth the ill-natured talk about her which she alleges to pass current among the Phæacians. She would not mind saying it herself when her audience, private or public, would know that she was doing so, but a dependant would have been requested to be less pungent.

I admit as I have already done that these arguments are not absolutely demonstrative, but it being, I may say, demonstrated that we must choose between Nausicaa and some other young woman of Trapani who lived in, or was very closely intimate with, the household of King Alicnous, I have no hesitation in saying that I think Nausicaa herself more likely than this other unknown young woman to have been the writer we are seeking.

Let the reader look at [a portrait of Nausicaa] and say whether he would find the smallest difficulty in crediting the original of the portrait with being able to write the Odyssey. Would he refuse so to credit her merely because all he happened to know about her for certain was that she once went out washing clothes with her attendants? Nausicaa enjoyed a jaunt on a fine spring morning and helped her maids at the washing cisterns; therefore it is absurd to suppose that she could have written the Odyssey. I venture to think that this argument will carry little weight outside the rank and file of our Homerists—greatly as I dislike connecting this word however remotely with the Odyssey.

No artist can reach an ideal higher than his own best actual environment. Trying to materially improve upon that with which he or she is fairly familiar invariably ends in failure. It is only adjuncts that may be arranged and varied—the essence may be taken or left, but it must not be bettered. The attempt to take nature and be content with her save in respect of details which after all are unimportant, leads to Donatello, Giovanni Bellini, Holbein, Rembrandt, and De Hooghe—the attempt to improve upon her leads straight to Michael Angelo and the barocco, to Turner and the modern drop scene. … [Women such as Nausicaa], though doubtless comparatively rare, yet existed, as they exist in Italy now, in considerable numbers. Is it a very great stretch of imagination to suppose that one among them may have shown to equal advantage whether as driver, washerwoman, or poetess? At the same time I think it highly probable that the writer of the Odyssey was both short and plain, and was laughing at herself, and intending to make her audience laugh also, by describing herself as tall and beautiful. She may have been either plain or beautiful without its affecting the argument.

I wish I could find some one who would give me any serious reason why Nausicaa should not have written the Odyssey. For the last five years I have pestered every scholar with whom I have been able to scrape acquaintance, by asking him to explain why the Odyssey should not have been written by a young woman. One or two have said that they could see none whatever, but should not like to commit themselves to a definite opinion without looking at the work again. One well-known and very able writer said that when he had first heard of the question as being mooted, he had supposed it to be some paradox of my own, but on taking up the Odyssey he had hardly read a hundred lines before he found himself saying "Why of course it is." The greater number, however, gave me to understand that they should not find it a difficult matter to expose the absurdity of my contention if they were not otherwise employed, but that for the present they must wish me a very good morning. They gave me nothing, but to do them justice before I had talked with them for five minutes I saw that they had nothing to give with which I was not already familiar. The Odyssey is far too easy, simple, and straightforward for the understanding of scholars—as I said in the Life of Dr. Butler of Shrewsbury, if it had been harder to understand, it would have been sooner understood—and yet I do not know; the Iliad is indeed much harder to understand, but scholars seem to have been very sufficiently able to misunderstand it.

Every scholar has read a Book or two of the Odyssey, here and there; some have read the whole; a few have read it through more than once; but none that I have asked have so much as been able to tell me whether Ulysses had a sister or no—much less what her name was. Not one of those whom I have as yet had the good fortune to meet in England—for I have met with such in Sicily—have saturated themselves with the poem, and that, too, unhampered by a single preconceived idea in connection with it. Nothing short of this is of the smallest use.

Andrew Lang (essay date 1906)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4324

SOURCE: "Notes of Change in the Odyssey" in Homer and His Age, 1906. Reprint by AMS Press, 1968, pp. 229-43.

[Lang was one of England's most powerful men of letters during the closing decades of the nineteenth century. A romantic vision of the past imbued Lang's writings, coloring his work as a translator, poet, and revisionist historian. Among the chief proponents of Romanticism in a critical battle that pitted late-nineteenth-century revivalist Romanticists against the defenders of Naturalism and Realism, Lang espoused his strong preference for romantic adventure novels throughout his literary criticism. In this essay, Lang contends that there are few societal differences between the Iliad and the Odyssey,arguing that "all these so-called differences between Iliad and Odyssey do not point to the fact that the Odyssey belongs to a late and changed period of culture, of belief and customs. "]

If the Homeric descriptions of details of life contain anachronisms, points of detail inserted in later progressive ages, these must be peculiarly conspicuous in the Odyssey. Longinus regarded it as the work of Homer's advanced life, the sunset of his genius, and nobody denies that it assumes the existence of the Iliad and is posterior to that epic. In the Odyssey, then, we are to look, if anywhere, for indications of a changed society. That the language of the Odyssey, and of four Books of the Iliad (IX; X., XXIII., XXIV.), exhibits signs of change is a critical commonplace, but the language is matter for a separate discussion; we are here concerned with the ideas, manners, customary laws, weapons, implements, and so forth of the Epics.

Taking as a text Mr. Monro's essay, The Relation of the Odyssey to the Iliad, we examine the notes of difference which he finds between the twin Epics. As to the passages in which he discovers "borrowing or close imitation of passages" in the Iliad by the poet of the Odyssey, we shall not dwell on the matter, because we know so little about the laws regulating the repetition of epic formulæ. It is tempting, indeed, to criticise Mr. Monro's list of twenty-four Odyssean "borrowings," and we might arrive at some curious results.…

We might … urge that "to send a spear through the back of a stag" is not, as Mr. Monro thought, "an improbable feat," and that a man wounded to death as Leiocritus was wounded, would not, as Mr. Monro argued, fall backwards. He supposes that the poet of the Odyssey borrowed the forward fall from a passage in the Iliad, where the fall is in keeping. But, to make good our proof, it might be necessary to spear a human being in the same way as Leiocritus was speared.

The repetitions of the Epic, at all events, are not the result of the weakness of a poet who had to steal his expressions like a schoolboy. They have some other cause than the indolence or inefficiency of a centomaking undergraduate. Indeed, a poet who used the many terms in the Odyssey which do not occur in the Iliad was not constrained to borrow from any predecessor.

It is needless to dwell on the Odyssean novelties in vocabulary, which were naturally employed by a poet who had to sing of peace, not of war, and whose epic, as Aristotle says, is "ethical," not military. The poet's rich vocabulary is appropriate to his novel subject, that is all.

Coming to Religion (I) we find Mr. Leaf assigning to his original Achilleis—"the kernel"—the very same religious ideas as Mr. Monro takes to be marks of "lateness" and of advance when he finds them in the Odyssey!

In the original oldest part of the Iliad, says Mr. Leaf, "the gods show themselves just so much as to let us know what are the powers which control mankind from heaven.… Their interference is such as becomes the rulers of the world, not partisans in the battle." It is the later poets of the Iliad, in Mr. Leaf's view, who introduce the meddlesome, undignified, and extremely unsportsmanlike gods. The original early poet of the Iliad had the nobler religious conceptions.

In that case—the Odyssey being later than the original kernel of the Iliad—the Odyssey ought to give us gods as undignified and unworthy as those exhibited by the later continuators of the Iliad.

But the reverse is the case. The gods behave fairly well in Book XXIV. of the Iliad, which, we are to believe, is the latest, or nearly the latest, portion. They are all wroth with the abominable behaviour of Achilles to dead Hector (XXIV. 134). They console and protect Priam. As for the Odyssey, Mr. Monro finds that in this late Epic the gods are just what Mr. Leaf proclaims them to have been in his old original kernel. "There is now an Olympian concert that carries on something like a moral government of the world. It is very different in the Iliad.…"

But it was not very different; it was just the same, in Mr. Leaf's genuine old original germ of the Iliad. In fact, the gods are "very much like you and me." When their ichor is up, they misbehave as we do when our blood is up, during the fury of war. When Hector is dead and when the war is over, the gods give play to their higher nature, as men do. There is no difference of religious conception to sever the Odyssey from the later but not from the original parts of the Iliad. It is all an affair of the circumstances in each case.

The Odyssey is calmer, more reflective, more religious than the Iliad, being a poem of peace. The Iliad, a poem of war, is more mythological than the Odyssey; the gods in the Iliad are excited, like the men, by the great war and behave accordingly. That neither gods nor men show any real sense of the moral weakness of Agamemnon or Achilles, or of the moral superiority of Hector, is an unacceptable statement. Even Achilles and Agamemnon are judged by men and by the poet according to their own standard of ethics and of customary law. There is really no doubt on this point. Too much (2) is made of the supposed different views of Olympus—a mountain in Thessaly in the Iliad; a snowless, windless, supra-mundane place in Odyssey, V. 41-47. Of the Odyssean passage Mr. Merry justly says, "the actual description is not irreconcilable with the general Homeric picture of Olympus." It is "an idealised mountain," and conceptions of it vary, with the variations which are essential to and inseparable from all mythological ideas.… In Iliad, V. 753, the poet "regarded the summit of Olympus as a half-way stage between heaven and earth," thus "departing from the oldest Homeric tradition, which made the earthly mountain Olympus, and not any aerial region, the dwelling of the gods." But precisely the same confusion of mythical ideas occurs among a people so backward as the Australian south-eastern tribes, whose All Father is now seated on a hill-top and now "above the sky." In Iliad, VIII. 25, 26, the poet is again said to have "en-tirely lost the real Epic conception of Olympus as a mountain in Thessaly," and to "follow the later conception, which removed it from earth to heaven."… The poet of Iliad, XI. 184, says plainly that Zeus descended "from heaven " to Mount Ida. In fact, all that is said of Olympus, of heaven, of the home of the gods, is poetical, is mythical, and so is necessarily subject to the variations of conception inseparable from mythology. This is certain if there be any certainty in mythological science, and here no hard and fast line can be drawn between Odyssey and Iliad.

(3) The next point of difference is that, "we hear no more of Iris as the messenger of Zeus;" in the Odyssey, "the agent of the will of Zeus is now Hermes, as in the Twenty-fourth Book of the Iliad," a late "Odyssean" Book. But what does that matter, seeing that Iliad, Book VIII., is declared to be one of the latest additions; yet in Book VIII. Iris, not Hermes, is the messenger (VIII. 409-425). If in late times Hermes, not Iris, is the messenger, why, in a very "late" Book (VIII.) is Iris the messenger, not Hermes?Iliad, Book XXIII., is also a late "Odyssean" Book, but here Iris goes on her messages (XXIII. 199) moved merely by the prayers of Achilles. In the late Odyssean Book (XXIV.) of the Iliad, Iris runs on messages from Zeus both to Priam and to Achilles. If Iris, in "Odyssean" times, had resigned office and been succeeded by Hermes, why did Achilles pray, not to Hermes, but to Iris? There is nothing in the argument about Hermes and Iris. There is nothing in the facts but the variability of mythical and poetical conceptions. Moreover, the conception of Iris as the messenger certainly existed through the age of the Odyssey, and later. In the Odyssey the beggar man is called "Irus," a male Iris, because he carries messages; and Iris does her usual duty as messenger in the Homeric Hymns, as well as in the so-called late Odyssean Books of the Iliad. The poet of the Odyssey knew all about Iris; there had arisen no change of belief; he merely employed Hermes as messenger, not of the one god, but of the divine Assembly.

(4) Another difference is that in the Iliad the wife of Hephæstus is one of the Graces; in the Odyssey she is Aphrodite. This is one of the inconsistencies which are the essence of mythology. Mr. Leaf points out that when Hephæstus is about exercising his craft, in making arms for Achilles, Charis "is made wife of Hephæstus by a more transparent allegory than we find elsewhere in Homer," whereas, when Aphrodite appears in a comic song by Demodocus(Odyssey, VIII. 266-366), "that passage is later and un-Homeric." Of this we do not accept the doctrine that the lay is un-Homeric. The difference comes to no more than that; the accustomed discrepancy of mythology, of storytelling about the gods. But as to the lay of Demodocus being un-Homeric and late, the poet at least knows the regular Homeric practice of the bride-price, and its return by the bride's father to the husband of an adulterous wife(Odyssey, VIII. 318, 319). The poet of this lay, which Mr. Merry defends as Homeric, was intimately familiar with Homeric customary law. Now, according to Paul Cauer, as we shall see, other "Odyssean" poets were living in an age of changed law, later than that of the author of the lay of Demodocus. All these so-called differences between Iliad and Odyssey do not point to the fact that the Odyssey belongs to a late and changed period of culture, of belief and customs. There is nothing in the evidence to prove that contention.

There (5) are two references to local oracles in the Odyssey, that of Dodona (XIV. 327; XIX. 296) and that of Pytho (VIII. 80). This is the old name of Delphi. Pytho occurs in Iliad, IX. 404, as a very rich temple of Apollo—the oracle is not named, but the oracle brought in the treasures. Achilles (XVI. 233) prays to Pelasgian Zeus of Dodona, whose priests were thickly tabued, but says nothing of the oracle of Dodona. Neither when in leaguer round Troy, nor when wandering in fairy lands forlorn, had the Achæans or Odysseus much to do with the local oracles of Greece; perhaps not, in Homer's time, so important as they were later, and little indeed is said about them in either Epic.

(6) "The geographical knowledge shown in the Odyssey goes beyond that of the Iliad… especially in regard to Egypt and Sicily." But a poet of a widely wandering hero of Western Greece has naturally more occasion than the poet of a fixed army in Asia to show geographical knowledge. Egyptian Thebes is named, in Iliad, IX., as a city very rich, especially in chariots; while in the Odyssey the poet has occasion to show more knowledge of the way to Egypt and of Viking descents from Crete on the coast (Odyssey, HI. 300; IV. 351; XIV. 257; XVII. 426). Archæology shows that the Mycenæan age was in close commercial relation with Egypt, and that the Mycenæan civilisation extended to most Mediterranean lands and islands, and to Italy and Sicily. There is nothing suspicious, as "late," in the mention of Sicily by Odysseus in Ithaca (Odyssey, XX. 383; XXIV. 307). In the same way, if the poet of a western poem does not dilate on the Troad and the people of Asia Minor as the poet of the Iliad does, that is simply because the scene of the Iliad is in Asia and the scene of the Odyssey is in the west, when it is not in No Man's land. From the same cause the poet of sea-faring has more occasion to speak of the Phænicians, great sea-farers, than the poet of the Trojan leaguer.

(7) We know so little about land tenure in Homeric times—and, indeed, early land tenure is a subject so complex and obscure that it is not easy to prove advance towards separate property in the Odyssey—beyond what was the rule in the time of the Iliad. In the Making of the Arms (XVIII. 541-549) we find many men ploughing a field, and this may have been a common field. But in what sense? Many ploughs were at work at once on a Scottish runrig field, and each farmer had his own strip on several common fields, but each farmer held by rent, or by rent and services, from the laird. These common fields were not common property. In XII. 422 we have "a common field," and men measuring a strip and quarrelling about the markingstones, across the "baulk," but it does not follow that they are owners; they may be tenants. Such quarrels were common in Scotland when the runrig system of common fields, each man with his strip, prevailed.

A man had a … lot (Iliad, XV. 448), but what was a "lot"? At first, probably, a share in land periodically shifted—le partage noir of the Russian peasants. Kings and men who deserve public gratitude receive … a piece of public land, as Bellerophon did from the Lycians (VI. 194). In the case of Melager such an estate is offered to him, but by whom? Not by the people at large, but by the γέροντϵς (IX. 574).

Who are the γέροντϵς? They are not ordinary men of the people; they are, in fact, the gentry. In an age so advanced from tribal conditions as is the Homeric time—far advanced beyond ancient tribal Scotland or Ireland—we conceive that, as in these countries during the tribal period, the γέροντϵς (in Celtic, the Flaith)held in possession, if not in accordance with the letter of the law, as property, much more land than a single "lot." The Irish tribal freeman had a right to a "lot," redistributed by rotation. Wealth consisted of cattle; and a bogire, a man of many kine, let them out to tenants. Such a rich man, a flatha, would, in accordance with human nature, use his influence with kineless dependents to acquire in possession several lots, avoid the partition, and keep the lots in possession though not legally in property. Such men were the Irish flaith, gentry under the Ri, or king, his γέροντϵς: each with his ciniod, or near kinsmen, to back his cause.

"Flaith seems clearly to mean land-owners," or squires, says Sir James Ramsay [in his Foundations of England.] If land, contrary to the tribal ideal, came into private hands in early Ireland, we can hardly suppose that, in the more advanced and settled Homeric society, no man but the king held land equivalent in extent to a number of "lots." The … gentry, the chariotowning warriors, of whom there are hundreds not of kingly rank in Homer (as in Ireland there were many flaith to one Ri) probably, in an informal but tight grip, held considerable lands. When we note their position in the Iliad, high above the nameless host, can we imagine that they did not hold more land than the simple, perhaps periodically shifting, "lot"? There were "lotless" men(Odyssey, XL 490), lotless freemen, and what had become of their lots? Had they not fallen into the hands of … the flaith?

Mr. Ridgeway in a very able essay [in Journal of Hellenic Studies, vi] holds different opinions. He points out that among a man's possessions, in the Iliad, we hear only of personal property and live stock. It is in one passage only in the Odyssey (XIV. 211) that we meet with men holding several lots of land; but they, we remark, occur in Crete—an isle, as we know, of very advanced civilisation from of old. Mr. Ridgeway also asks whether the lotless men may not be "outsiders," such as are attached to certain villages of Central and Southern India; or they may answer to the Fuidhir, or "broken men," of early Ireland, fugitives from one to another tribe. They would be "settled on the waste lands of a community." If so, they would not be lotless; they would have new lots.

Laertes, though a king, is supposed to have won his farm by his own labours from the waste(Odyssey, XXIV. 207). Mr. Monro says, "the land having thus been won from the wastes,  was a … separate possession of Laertes." The passage is in the rejected conclusion of the Odyssey; and if any man might go and squat in the waste, any man might have a lot, or better than one lot. In Iliad, XXIII. 832-835, Achilles says that his offered prize of iron will be useful to a man "whose rich fields are very remote from any town." Teucer and Meriones compete for the prize: probably they had such rich remote fields, not each a mere lot in a common field. These remote fields they are supposed to hold in perpetuity, apart from the τέμϵνος which, in Mr. Ridgeway's opinion, reverted, on the death of each holder, to the community, save where kingship was hereditary. Now, if κλήρος had come to mean "a lot of land," as we say "a building lot,"obviously men like Teucer and Meriones had many lots, rich fields, which at death might sometimes pass to their heirs. Thus there was separate landed property in the Iliad; but the passage is denounced, though not by Mr. Ridgeway, as "late."

The absence of enclosures … proves nothing about absence of several property in land. In Scotland the laird's lands were unenclosed till deep in the eighteenth century.

My own case for land in private possession, in Homeric times, rests mainly on human nature in such an advanced society. Such possession as I plead for is in accordance with human nature, in a society so distinguished by degrees of wealth as is the Homeric.

Unless we are able to suppose that all the gentry of the Iliad held no "rich fields remote from towns," each having but one rotatory lot apiece, there is no difference in Iliadic and Odyssean land tenure, though we get clearer lights on it in the Odyssey.

The position of the man of several lots may have been indefensible, if the ideal of tribal law were ever made real, but wealth in growing societies universally tends to override such law. Mr. Keller justly warns us [in his Homeric Society, 1902] against the attempt "to apply universally certain fixed rules of property development. The passages in Homer upon which opinions diverge most are isolated ones, occurring in similes and fragmentary descriptions. Under such conditions the formulation of theories or the attempt rigorously to classify can be little more than an intellectual exercise."

We have not the materials for a scientific knowledge of Homeric real property; and, with all our materials in Irish law books, how hard it is for us to understand the early state of such affairs in Ireland! But does any one seriously suppose that the knightly class of the Iliad, the chariot-driving gentlemen, held no more land— legally or by permitted custom—than the two Homeric swains who vituperate each other across a baulk about the right to a few feet of a strip of a runrig field? Whosoever can believe that may also believe that the practice of adding "lot" to "lot" began in the period between the finished composition of the Iliad (or of the parts of it which allude to land tenure) and the beginning of the Odyssey (or of the parts of it which refer to land tenure). The inference is that, though the fact is not explicitly stated in the Iliad, there were men who held more "lots" than one in Iliadic times as well as in the Odyssean times, when, in a solitary passage of the Odyssey, we do hear of such men in Crete. But whosoever has pored over early European land tenures knows how dim our knowledge is, and will not rush to employ his lore in discriminating between the date of the Iliad and the date of the Odyssey.

Not much proof of change in institutions between Iliadic and Odyssean times can be extracted from two passages about the … bride-price of Penelope. The rule in both Iliad and Odyssey is that the wooer gives a bride-price to the father of the bride.… This was the rule known even to that painfully late and un-Homeric poet who made the Song of Demodocus about the loves of Ares and Aphrodite. In that song the injured husband, Hephæstus, claims back the bride-price which he had paid to the father of his wife, Zeus. This is the accepted custom throughout the Odyssey (VI. 159; XVI. 77; XX. 335; XXI. 162; XV. 17, &c.). So far there is no change of manners, no introduction of the later practice, a dowry given with the bride, in place of a bride-price given to the father by the bridegroom. But Penelope was neither maid, wife, nor widow; her husband's fate, alive or dead, was uncertain, and her son was so anxious to get her out of the house that he says he offered gifts with her (XX. 342). In the same way, to buy back the goodwill of Achilles, Agamemnon offers to give him his daughter without bride-price, and to add great gifts(Iliad, IX. 147).… People, of course, could make their own bargain; take as much for their daughter as they could get, or let the gifts go from husband to bride, and then return to the husband's home with her (as in Germany in the time of Tacitus,Germania, 18), or do that, and throw in more gifts. But in Odyssey, II. 53, Telemachus says that the Wooers shrink from going to the house of Penelope's father, Icarius, who would endow (?) his daughter.… And again(Odyssey, I. 277; II. 196), her father's folk will furnish a bridal feast.… Some critics think that the gifts here are dowry, a later institution than bride-price; others, that the father of the dear daughter merely chose to be generous, and returned the bride-price, or its equivalent, in whole or part. If the former view be correct, these passages in Odyssey, I., II. are later than the exceedingly "late" song of Demodocus. If the latter theory be correct the father is merely showing goodwill, and doing as the Germans did when they were in a stage of culture much earlier than the Homeric.

The position of Penelope is very unstable and legally perplexing. Has her father her marriage? has her son her marriage? is she not perhaps still a married woman with a living husband? Telemachus would give much to have her off his hands, but he refuses to send her to her father's house, where the old man might be ready enough to return the bride-price to her new husband, and get rid of her with honour. For if Telemachus sends his mother away against her will he will have to pay a heavy fine to her father, and to thole his mother's curse, and lose his character among men(Odyssey, II. 130-138). The Icelanders of the saga period gave dowries with their daughters. But when Njal [in Story of Burnt Njal] wanted Hildigunna for his fosterson, Hauskuld, he offered to give Ýäíï. "I will lay down as much money as will seem fitting to thy niece and thyself," he says to Flosi, "if thou wilt think of making this match."

Circumstances alter cases, and we must be hard pressed to discover signs of change of manners in the Odyssey as compared with the Iliad if we have to rely on a solitary mention of "men of many lots" in Crete, and on the perplexed proposals for the second marriage of Penelope. We must not be told that the many other supposed signs of change, Iris, Olympus, and the rest, have "cumulative weight." If we have disposed of each individual supposed note of change in beliefs and manners in its turn, then these proofs have, in each case, no individual weight and, cumulatively, are not more ponderous than a feather.

Franz Kafka (essay date 1924?)

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SOURCE: "The Silence of the Sirens," translated by Willa and Edwin Muir, in Parables in German and English, Schocken Books, 1947, pp. 75-77.

[Regarded as a major figure in twentieth-century liter-ature, Kafka was an original, profoundly moral writer whose central concern was with the essential loneliness of modern man struggling to comprehend an incomprehensible world. His literary reputation rests largely upon the posthumous publication of Der Prozess (1925; The Trial, 1935), Das Schloss (1926; The Castle, 1930), and Amerika (1927; America, 1938), which relate surreal, nightmarish stories of alienation. In the following essay, originally written in German and for which the exact date of composition is unknown, Kafka examines Ulysses's escape from the Sirens.]

Proof that inadequate, even childish measures, may serve to rescue one from peril.

To protect himself from the Sirens Ulysses stopped his ears with wax and had himself bound to the mast of his ship. Naturally any and every traveller before him could have done the same, except those whom the Sirens allured even from a great distance; but it was known to all the world that such things were of no help whatever. The song of the Sirens could pierce through everything, and the longing of those they seduced would have broken far stronger bonds than chains and masts. But Ulysses did not think of that, although he had probably heard of it. He trusted absolutely to his handful of wax and his fathom of chain, and in innocent elation over his little stratagem sailed out to meet the Sirens.

Now the Sirens have a still more fatal weapon than their song, namely their silence. And though admittedly such a thing has never happened, still it is conceivable that someone might possibly have escaped from their singing; but from their silence certainly never. Against the feeling of having triumphed over them by one's own strength, and the consequent exaltation that bears down everything before it, no earthly powers could have remained intact.

And when Ulysses approached them the potent songstresses actually did not sing, whether because they thought that this enemy could be vanquished only by their silence, or because the look of bliss on the face of Ulysses, who was thinking of nothing but his wax and his chains, made them forget their singing.

But Ulysses, if one may so express it, did not hear their silence; he thought they were singing and that he alone did not hear them. For a fleeting moment he saw their throats rising and falling, their breasts lifting, their eyes filled with tears, their lips half-parted, but believed that these were accompaniments to the airs which died unheard around him. Soon, however, all this faded from his sight as he fixed his gaze on the distance, the Sirens literally vanished before his resolution, and at the very moment when they were nearest to him he knew of them no longer.

But they—lovelier than ever—stretched their necks and turned, let their cold hair flutter free in the wind, and forgetting everything clung with their claws to the rocks. They no longer had any desire to allure; all that they wanted was to hold as long as they could the radiance that fell from Ulysses' great eyes.

If the Sirens had possessed consciousness they would have been annihilated at that moment. But they remained as they had been; all that had happened was that Ulysses had escaped them.

A codicil to the foregoing has also been handed down. Ulysses, it is said, was so full of guile, was such a fox, that not even the goddess of fate could pierce his armor. Perhaps he had really noticed, although here the human understanding is beyond its depths, that the Sirens were silent, and opposed the afore-mentioned pretense to them and the gods merely as a sort of shield.

Werner Jaeger (essay date 1934)

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SOURCE: "Nobility and Areté," in Paideia: The Ideals of Greek Culture, Vol. I, second edition, translated by Gilbert Highet, Oxford University Press, Inc., 1945, pp. 3-14.

[Jaeger was a German educator and classics scholar whose works include Aristotle: Fundamentals of the History of His Development(1934) and Paideia: The Ideals of Greek Culture(1939-44). In the following excerpt from the latter work, originally published in German in 1934 under the title Paideia: Die Formung des Griechischen Menschen,Jaeger examines the Iliad and the Odyssey as examples of the early Greek aristocratic culture, noting the embodiment of those ideals in the poems'heroes.]

Education is such a natural and universal function of society that many generations accept and transmit it without question or discussion: thus the first mention of it in literature is relatively late. Its content is roughly the same in every nation—it is both moral and practical. It consists partly of commandments like Honour the gods, Honour thy father and thy mother, Respect the stranger; partly of ancient rules of practical wisdom and prescriptions of external morality; and partly of those professional skills and traditions which (as far as they are communicable from one generation to another) the Greeks named techné. The several Greek states later embodied in their written laws the elementary rules of respect for gods, parents, and strangers: such legislation, of course, drew no fundamental distinction between law and morality. The rich stream of popular wisdom, on the other hand, carrying with it many ancient rules of conduct and many precepts sprung from old superstition, first flowed into daylight in the gnomic poetry of Hesiod. But the arts and handicrafts naturally resisted the exposure of their secrets in writing, as can be seen from the doctors' professional oath in the Hippocratic corpus.

The training of the young, in the above sense, must be distinguished from cultural education, which aims at fulfilling an ideal of man as he ought to be. In such an ideal pattern, utility is neglected, or at least relegated to the background. The vital factor is … the Beautiful as a determinant ideal. The contrast between these two views of education can be seen throughout history, for it is a fundamental part of human nature. It matters little in what words we choose to describe them, but we may, perhaps, use the word Education for the former, and Culture for the latter. It is obvious that culture and education have different origins. Culture is shown in the whole man—both in his external appearance and conduct, and in his inner nature. Both the outer and the inner man are deliberately produced, by a conscious process of selection and discipline which Plato compares to the breeding of good dogs. At first this process is confined to one small class within the state—the nobility. The aristocratic origin of the kalos kagathos in classical Greece is as clear as that of the gentleman of England. Both titles carry us back to the ideal of knightly aristocracy. But as the two types were taken over by the bourgeoisie in its rise to power, the ideals inspiring them became universal and at last affected the whole nation.

It is a fundamental fact in the history of culture that all higher civilisation springs from the differentiation of social classes—a differentiation which is created by natural variations in physical and mental capacity between man and man. Even when such social differentiations lead to the creation of a rigid and privileged class, the hereditary principle which rules it is counterbalanced by the new supplies of strength which pour in from the lower classes. And even if the ruling caste is deprived of all its rights, or destroyed, through some violent change, the new leaders rapidly and inevitably become an aristocracy in their turn. The nobility is the prime mover in forming a nation's culture. The history of Greek culture—that universally important aspect of the formation of the Greek national character—actually begins in the aristocratic world of early Greece, with the creation of a definite ideal of human perfection, an ideal towards which the élite of the race was constantly trained. Since our earliest literary evidence shows us an aristocratic civilization rising above the mass of the common people, we must start our historical survey with a sketch of that civilization. All later culture, however high an intellectual level it may reach, and however greatly its content may change, still bears the imprint of its aristocratic origin. Culture is simply the aristocratic ideal of a nation, increasingly intellectualized.

It would seem obvious for us to use the history of the word paideia as a clue to the origins of Greek culture. But we cannot do so, since the word does not occur before the fifth century. That is of course merely an accident of transmission. If new sources were discovered, we might well find evidence of its occurrence at an earlier date. But even then we should be none the wiser; for the earliest examples of its use show that at the beginning of the fifth century it still had the narrow meaning of 'child-rearing' and practically nothing of its later, higher sense. We can find a more natural clue to the history of Greek culture in the history of the idea of areté, which goes back to the earliest times. There is no complete equivalent for the word areté in modern English: its oldest meaning is a combination of proud and courtly morality with warlike valour. But the idea of areté is the quintessence of early Greek aristocratic education.

The aristocracies of early Greece are first described by Homer—if we may use that name for the two great epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey. In Homer we find both the historical evidence for the life of that epoch and the permanent poetic expression of its ideals. We must study him from both points of view. We shall first use him to build up our picture of the aristocratic world, and then examine the ideals of that world as they are embodied in his heroes. For in the great figures of the epic the ideals of aristocracy attain a cultural significance which is far wider than their first narrow sphere of validity. We cannot, in fact, follow the history of culture unless we fix our attention on the ebb and flow of historical development, and at the same time on the artistic struggle to perpetuate the ideal which is the highest expression of every creative epoch.

In Homer, as elsewhere, the word areté is frequently used in a wide sense, to describe not only human merit but the excellence of non-human things—the power of the gods, the spirit and speed of noble horses. But ordinary men have no areté; and whenever slavery lays hold of the son of a noble race, Zeus takes away half of his areté—he is no longer the same man as he was. Areté is the real attribute of the nobleman. The Greeks always believed that surpassing strength and prowess were the natural basis of leadership; it was impossible to dissociate leadership and areté. The root of the word is the same as that of ριστος the word which shows superlative ability and superiority; and ριστος was constantly used in the plural to denote the nobility. It was natural for the Greeks, who ranked every man according to his ability, to use the same standard for the world in general. That is why they could apply the word areté to things and beings which were not human, and that is why the content of the word grew richer in later times. For a man's ability can be appraised by different standards, varying according to the duties he has to perform. Only now and then, in later books, does Homer use areté for moral or spiritual qualities. Everywhere else (in conformity with the ideas of primitive Greece) it denotes the strength and skill of a warrior or athlete, and above all his heroic valour. But such valour is not considered as a moral quality distinct from strength, in the modern sense; it is always closely bound up with physical power.

It is not probable that in living speech the word areté had only the narrow Homeric sense, at the time when the two poems came into being. The epics themselves recognise standards other than areté. The Odyssey constantly exalts intellectual ability—especially in its hero, whose courage is usually ranked lower than his cleverness and cunning. In Homer's time merits different from valour and strength may well have been contained in the notion of areté: apart from the above exceptions, we find such extensions elsewhere in early poetry. It is clear that the new meaning given to the word by everyday speech was then forcing its way into the language of poetry. But arete as a special description of heroic strength and courage was by then fast rooted in the traditional speech of heroic poetry, and was to remain as such for a long period. It was natural that, in the warlike age of the great migrations, men should be valued chiefly for their prowess in battle: there are analogies for this in other countries. Again, the adjective ἀγᾲὐός which corresponds to the noun arete though it derives from a different root, came to imply the combination of nobility and valour in war. It meant sometimes 'noble' and sometimes 'brave' or 'capable'; but it seldom meant 'good' in the later sense, any more than areté meant 'moral virtue'. This old meaning long survived, in such formalised expressions as 'he died like a brave hero'; and is often found in sepulchral inscriptions and accounts of battles.

Now, although the military connotation of these words predominates in Homer, they have also a more general ethical sense. Both meanings were derived from the same root: both denote the gentlemen who possess (both in war and in private life) standards which are not valid for the common people. Thus the code of the nobility had a twofold influence on Greek education. In the first place, the city-state inherited from it one of the finest elements in its ethical system—the obligation to be brave. (In the city-state courage was called manliness, a clear reminiscence of the Homeric identification of courage with manly areté.) And, secondly, the higher social standards of the polis were derived from aristocratic practice; as is shown not so much in any particular precepts of bourgeois morality as in the general ideals of liberality and a certain magnificence in the conduct of life.

In Homer, the real mark of the nobleman is his sense of duty. He is judged, and is proud to be judged, by a severe standard. And the nobleman educates others by presenting to them an eternal ideal, to which they have a duty to conform. His sense of duty is aidos. Anyone is free to appeal to aidos; and if it is slighted the slight awakes in others the kindred emotion of nemesis. Both aidos and nemesis are essential parts of Homer's ideal of aristocracy. The nobleman's pride in high race and ancient achievement is partnered by his knowledge that his pre-eminence can be guaranteed only by the virtues which won it. The aristoi are distinguished by that name from the mass of the common people: and though there are many aristoi, they are always striving with one another for the prize of areté. The Greek nobles believed that the real test of manly virtue was victory in battle—a victory which was not merely the physical conquest of an enemy, but the proof of hard-won areté. This idea is exactly suited by the word aristeia, which was later used for the single-handed adventures of an epic hero. The hero's whole life and effort are a race for the first prize, an unceasing strife for supremacy over his peers. (Hence the eternal delight in poetic accounts of these aristeiai.) In peace-time too, the warriors match their aretai against one another in wargames: in the Iliad we see them in competition even in a brief pause in the war, at the funeral games of Patroclus. It was that chivalrous rivalry which struck out the motto of knighthood throughout the centuries.…

(This, motto, which teachers of all ages have quoted to their pupils, modern educational 'levellers' have now, for the first time, abandoned.) Into that one sentence the poet has condensed the whole educational outlook of the nobility. When Glaucus meets Diomede on the battlefield, and wishes to prove himself a worthy opponent, he first (in the Homeric manner) names his illustrious ancestors, and then continues: 'Hippolochus begat me, and I claim to be his son. He sent me to Troy, and often gave me this command, to strive always for the highest areté, and to excel all others.' It is the finest possible expression of the inspiration of heroic strife: and it was familiar to the author of the eleventh book of the Iliad, who makes Peleus give the same counsel to his son Achilles.

There is another way in which the Iliad bears witness to the high educational ideals of the early Greek aristocracy. It shows that the old conception of areté as warlike prowess could not satisfy the poets of a new age: their new ideal of human perfection was that character which united nobility of action with nobility of mind. And it is important to notice that the new concept is expressed by Phoenix, who is the old counsellor and teacher of Achilles, the pattern-hero of Greece. At a crisis in the action, he reminds his pupil of the ideal on which he has been moulded: 'to be both a speaker of words and a doer of deeds'. The later Greeks were right in believing this verse to be the earliest formulation of the Greek educational ideal, of its effort to express the whole of human potentialities. It was often quoted in the later ages of rhetoric and sophistication to set off the departed heroic world of action against the wordy and inactive present; but it can be interpreted in another way, for it shows the whole mental outlook of the aristocracy. They believed that mastery of words meant intellectual sovereignty. Phoenix speaks this line to Achilles when he has just received the envoys of the Greek chiefs with sullen anger. The poet presents the eloquent Odysseus and Ajax the laconic man of action as contrasts to Achilles himself. By this contrast he emphasises the highest ideal of developed humanity as personified in the great-est of the heroes—Achilles—who has been trained to it by the third envoy Phoenix. The word areté had originally meant warlike prowess; but it is clear from this passage that a later age found no difficulty in trans-forming the concept of nobility to suit its own higher ideals, and that the word itself was to acquire a broad-er meaning to suit this developing ideal.

An essential concomitant of areté is honour. In a primitive community it is inseparable from merit and ability. Aristotle has well described it as a natural standard for man's half-realised efforts to attain areté. 'Men,' he says, 'seem to pursue honour in order to assure themselves of their own worth—their areté. They strive to be honoured for it, by men who know them and who are judicious. It is therefore clear that they recognise areté as superior.' The philosophy of later times then bade man obey an inner standard: it taught him to regard honour as the external image of his inner value, reflected in the criticism of his fellows. But the Homeric man estimated his own worth exclusively by the standards of the society to which he belonged. He was a creature of his class: he measured his own areté by the opinion which others held of him. Yet the philosophic man of later times could dispense with such external recognition, although (as Aristotle says) he might not be entirely indifferent to it.

Homer and the aristocracy of his time believed that the denial of honour due was the greatest of human tragedies. The heroes treat one another with constant respect, since their whole social system depends on such respect. They have all an insatiable thirst for honour, a thirst which is itself a moral quality of individual heroes. It is natural for the great hero or the powerful prince to demand high and higher honour. When the Homeric man does a great deed, he never hesitates to claim the honour which is its fit reward. It is not chiefly the question of payment for services rendered which occupies him. The sources of honour and dishonour are praise and blame.… But praise and blame were considered by the philosophic morality of later times to be the foundations of social life, the expression of objective social standards. Nowadays we must find it difficult to imagine how entirely public was the conscience of a Greek. (In fact, the early Greeks never conceived anything like the personal conscience of modern times.) Yet we must strive to recognise that fact, before we can comprehend what they meant by honour. Christian sentiment will regard any claim to honour, any self-advancement, as an expression of sinful vanity. The Greeks, however, believed such ambition to be the aspiration of the individual towards that ideal and supra-personal sphere in which alone he can have real value. Thus it is true in some sense to say that the areté of a hero is completed only in his death. Areté exists in mortal man. Areté is mortal man. But it survives the mortal, and lives on in his glory, in that very ideal of his Areté which accompanied and directed him throughout his life. The gods themselves claim their due honour. They jealously avenge any infringement of it, and pride themselves on the praise which their worshippers give to their deeds. Homer's gods are an immortal aristocracy. And the essence of Greek worship and piety lay in giving honour to godhead: to be pious is 'to honour the divinity'. To honour both gods and men for their areté is a primitive instinct.

On this basis, we can comprehend the tragic conflict of Achilles in the Iliad. His indignation at his comrades and his refusal to help them do not spring from an exaggerated individual ambition. A great ambition is, for Greek sentiment, the quality of a great hero. When the hero's honour is offended, the very foundations of the alliance of the Achaean warriors against Troy are shaken. The man who infringes another's honour ends by losing sight of true areté itself. Such a difficulty would now be mitigated by feelings of patriotism; but patriotism is strange to the old aristocratic world. Agamemnon can only make a despotic appeal to his own sovereign power; and such an appeal is equally foreign to aristocratic sentiment, which recog-nises the leader only as primus inter pares. Achilles, when he is refused the honour which he has earned, feels that he is an aristocrat confronted by a despot. But that is not the chief issue. The head and front of the offence is that a pre-eminent areté has been denied its honour. The death of Ajax, the mightiest Greek hero after Achilles, is the second great tragedy of offended honour. The weapons of the dead Achilles are awarded to Odysseus, although Ajax has done more to earn them. The tragedy of Ajax ends in madness and death; the wrath of Achilles brings the Greek army to the edge of the abyss. Homer can scarcely say whether it is possible to repair honour once it has been injured. Phoenix advises Achilles not to bend the bow too far, and to accept Agamemnon's gift as an atonement—for the sake of his comrades in their affliction. But it is not only from obstinacy that Achilles in the original saga refuses the offers of atonement: as is shown once more by the parallel example of Ajax, who returns no answer to the sympathetic words of his former enemy Odysseus when they meet in the underworld, but silently turns away 'to the other souls, into the dark kingdom of the dead'. Thetis entreats Zeus thus: 'Honour my son, who must die sooner than all others. Agamemnon has robbed him of his honour; do you honour him, Olympian!' And the highest of the gods is gracious to Achilles, by allowing the Achaeans, deprived of his help, to be defeated; so that they see how unjustly they have acted in cheating their greatest hero of his honour.

In later ages, love of honour was not considered as a merit by the Greeks: it came to correspond to ambition as we know it. But even in the age of democracy we can see that love of honour was often held to be justifiable in the intercourse of both individuals and states. We can best understand the moral nobility of this idea by considering Aristotle's description of the megalo-psychos, the proud or high-minded man. In many details, the ethical doctrines of Plato and Aristotle were founded on the aristocratic morality of early Greece: in fact, there is much need for a historical investigation (from that point of view) of the origin, development, and transmission of the ideas which we know as Platonic and Aristotelian. The class limitations of the old ideals were removed when they were sublimated and universalised by philosophy: while their permanent truth and their indestructible ideality were confirmed and strengthened by that process. Of course the thought of the fourth century is more highly detailed and elaborated than that of Homeric times. We cannot expect to find its ideas, or even their exact equivalents, in Homer. But in many respects Aristotle, like the Greeks of all ages, has his gaze fixed on Homer's characters, and he develops his ideals after the heroic patterns. That is enough to show that he was far better able to understand early Greek ideas than we are.

It is initially surprising for us to find that pride or high-mindedness is considered as a virtue. And it is also notable that Aristotle does not believe it to be an independent virtue like the others, but one which presupposes them and is 'in a way an ornament to them'. We cannot understand this unless we recognise that Aristotle is here trying to assign the correct place in his analysis of the moral consciousness to the high-minded areté of old aristocratic morality. In another connexion he says that he considers Achilles and Ajax to be the ideal patterns of this quality. High-mindedness is in itself morally worthless, and even ridiculous, unless it is backed by full areté, the highest unity of all excellences, which neither Aristotle nor Plato shrinks from describing as kalokagathia. The great Athenian thinkers bear witness to the aristocratic origin of their philosophy, by holding that areté cannot reach true perfection except in the high-minded man. Both Aristotle and Homer justify their belief that high-mindedness is the finest expression of spiritual and moral personality, by basing it on areté as worthy of honour. 'For honour is the prize of areté; it is the tribute paid to men of ability.' Hence pride is an enhancement of areté. But it is also laid down that to attain true pride, true magnanimity is the most difficult of all human tasks.

Here, then, we can grasp the vital significance of early aristocratic morality for the shaping of the Greek character. It is immediately clear that the Greek conception of man and his areté developed along an unbroken line throughout Greek history. Although it was transformed and enriched in succeeding centuries, it retained the shape which it had taken in the moral code of the nobility. The aristocratic character of the Greek ideal of culture was always based on this conception of areté.

Under the guidance of Aristotle, we may here investigate some of its further implications. He explains that human effort after complete areté is the product of an ennobled self-love.… This doctrine is not a mere caprice of abstract speculation—if it were, it would be misleading to compare it with early conceptions of areté. Aristotle is defending the ideal of fully justified self-love as against the current beliefs of his own enlightened and 'altruistic' age; and in doing so he has laid bare one of the foundations of Greek ethical thought. In fact, he admires self-love, just as he prizes high-mindedness and the desire for honour, because his philosophy is deeply rooted in the old aristocratic code of morality. We must understand that the Self is not the physical self, but the ideal which inspires us, the ideal which every nobleman strives to realise in his own life. If we grasp that, we shall see that it is the highest kind of self-love which makes man reach out towards the highest areté: through which he 'takes possession of the beautiful'. The last phrase is so entirely Greek that it is hard to translate. For the Greeks, beauty meant nobility also. To lay claim to the beautiful, to take possession of it, means to overlook no opportunity of winning the prize of the highest areté.

But what did Aristotle mean by the beautiful? Our thoughts turn at once to the sophisticated views of later ages—the cult of the individual, the humanism of the eighteenth century, with its aspirations towards aesthetic and spiritual self-development. But Aristotle's own words are quite clear. They show that he was thinking chiefly of acts of moral heroism. A man who loves himself will (he thought) always be ready to sacrifice himself for his friends or his country, to abandon possessions and honours in order to 'take possession of the beautiful'. The strange phrase is repeated: and we can now see why Aristotle should think that the utmost sacrifice to an ideal is a proof of a highly developed self-love. 'For,' he says, 'such a man would prefer short intense pleasures to long quiet ones; would choose to live nobly for a year rather than to pass many years of ordinary life; would rather do one great and noble deed than many small ones.'

These sentences reveal the very heart of the Greek view of life—the sense of heroism through which we feel them most closely akin to ourselves. By this clue we can understand the whole of Hellenic history—it is the psychological explanation of the short but glorious aristeia of the Greek spirit. The basic motive of Greek areté is contained in the words 'to take possession of the beautiful'. The courage of a Homeric nobleman is superior to a mad berserk contempt of death in this— that he subordinates his physical self to the demands of a higher aim, the beautiful. And so the man who gives up his life to win the beautiful, will find that his natural instinct for self-assertion finds its highest expression in self-sacrifice. The speech of Diotima in Plato's Symposium draws a parallel between the struggles of law-giver and poet to build their spiritual monuments, and the willingness of the great heroes of antiquity to sacrifice their all and to bear hardship, struggle, and death, in order to win the prize of imperishable fame. Both these efforts are explained in the speech as examples of the powerful instinct which drives mortal man to wish for self-perpetuation. That instinct is described as the metaphysical ground of the paradoxes of human ambition. Aristotle himself wrote a hymn to the immortal areté of his friend Hermias, the prince of Atarneus, who died to keep faith with his philosophical and moral ideals; and in that hymn he expressly connects his own philosophical conception of areté with that found in Homer, and with its Homeric ideals Achilles and Ajax. And it is clear that many features in his description of self-love are drawn from the character of Achilles. The Homeric poems and the great Athenian philosophers are bound together by the continuing life of the old Hellenic ideal of areté.

Samuel Eliot Bassett (lecture date 1936?)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7024

SOURCE: "The Epic Illusion (Continued)" in The Poetry of Homer, University of California Press, 1938, pp. 57-80.

[Bassett was an influential Greek scholar and one of the foremost Homeric specialists of his time. In this excerpt from a posthumously published collection of lectures, he analyzes Homer's use of dialogue to create the "illusion of personality" in the characters of the Odyssey and the Iliad.]

No poetic picture of past human life can produce the illusion of reality if it does no more than convince us with its general likeness to life. The real world that we know is peopled with other human beings no two of whom are identical. The more intimately we enter into the lives of others, the more we feel the uniqueness of their individualities. The universal human interest is never in typical "man"; it is in persons—because individuals, not types, belong to life. The most universally human presentation of life must therefore create above all the illusion of personality. This is the life principle of every great mythos. The biology of literature may abstract the elements of personality and describe them, but the secret of its synthesis has never been discovered. It differs from moral character as the story from its plot. It is not physical appearance or peculiarities of action. Shylock is a real personality, but who knows how he looked or moved? Much less is it revealed by an analysis of the contents of the mind. Personality is a complex intangible. It has been called a "fourth dimension," a term which in the theory of relativity describes ultimate physical reality. Literary art produces the illusion of the ultimate human reality chiefly by means of the form of self-expression which is most characteristic of our race. Man has been articulate ever since he became human. He makes known the uniqueness of his individuality best by his psissima verba.

The power of direct speech to create this illusion is seen in the Apologue, where the theme carries us far from reality. When Polyphemus says to Odysseus that he does not recognize the rights of suppliant and stranger, he tells us little more than we have learned from the poet's description of him: "Respect for the right had no place in his heart." But the Cyclops does not become to us a living personality until we not only see him, but also hear him speak. The speech both in Homer and in Attic drama is again and again used as the final and the supreme way of producing upon us the emotion caused by the illusion of personality. In the Ajax and in the Oedipus Rex of Sophocles the sufferings of the hero are first described, then we see him, and finally we hear from his lips the expression of his agony of mind. In the Alcestis of Euripides the handmaid describes the queen's farewell to her home and her failing strength; then we see her with her husband and children, taking her last look at the light of day, and, finally, she speaks, and becomes for the first time a real person. (The Attic drama uses the recital by the Messenger from within and from offscene to prepare the minds of the audience and so to heighten the impressiveness of a scene of pathos.) Here, as often elsewhere, Homer showed tragedy the way. Homer first describes Cyclops; then after an interval we see him enter the cave and perform his evening tasks; and at last, when these are done and his fire is lighted, we hear his terrible voice and his brutal words. It is the words of Polyphemus to Odysseus, to the other Cyclopes, and to his pet ram, that made him a personality, destined to live throughout classical literature. The king of the Laestrygonians, on the contrary, and his wife and daughter, all silent actors, lack this reality, and do not appear as characters in later literature. The hospitable Axylus and handsome Nireus are like interesting characters who are merely pointed out to us as they pass on the street. But Thersites and Phoenix are real persons, because we hear them speak. Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh; and the heart not only is the center of the physical life but also has become for us the center of personality.

The urge to create the illusion of personality through direct speech is primitive. It falls entirely within the sphere of the sensuous; it accords with the naïve personalization of the external world, and it results directly from the childlike tendency to imitate. Aesop's animals speak. The tales of the Old Testament abound in direct discourse. (In the Book of Ruth the story is told in seventy-five verses, I 6-IV 17; only fourteen verses contain no direct utterance, and of indirect discourse there is not a trace.) But the persistence of direct speech as the most universal characteristic of the imaginative picture of life expressed by means of words we cannot explain without recognizing in direct utterance the chief component in the illusion of personality. The term "dramatic illusion" disregards its origin and its debt to Homer. Plato identified Homer with drama in his use of the speeches. His discovery of this most potent ingredient in the "charm" of Homer—under which Plato himself fell—has been too much overlooked in recent years, especially by scholars in other fields than Greek. Both the Aeneid and the Nibelungenlied have been called more "dramatic" than the Homeric poems. It is true that the adjective is thus used in a derived sense. It describes the effect rather than the manner of drama. But its frequent and ambiguous use has obscured the significance of Aristotle's observation that in the use of the dramatic manner Homer was supreme among epic poets. For this reason, in examining the illusion of personality in Homer we shall discuss at some length the use of speeches, calling in the aid of statistics.

Homer employs direct speech more than any later Western epic poet. Of the three poetic manners in Homer, the objectively narrative, the subjectively explanatory, and the dramatically "imitative," the last is used more than the the first two taken together. If the verses which introduce the speeches and are little more than the stage direction "loquitur" of drama are included, three-fifths of Homer consists of speeches. This is almost exactly the same proportion as that of speech to choral lyrics in the Suppliants of Aeschylus.

Homer not only uses direct speech more than any other epic poet of Western literature; he uses it in a more dramatic way.

The characteristic feature of drama is the dialogue. This is literary mimesis in its truest sense, since conversation is the most common accompaniment of all human intercourse. Because Aeschylus added a second actor and thus made true dialogue possible, he was regarded as the father of tragedy. His debt to Homer has not been sufficiently recognized. His remark that his tragedies were "portions from Homer's great feasts," if taken at its face value, should mean that what he added to the embryonic drama of Thespis and his immediate successors was due to the inspiration and pattern of Homer. The evidence is worth considering here, since it also testifies to the dramatic character of Homer.

(1) The first great renascence of Homer fell during the formative years of Aeschylus. The recitation of the Homeric poems was made an important feature of the Panathenaic festival sometime in the sixth century, most probably by the Pisistratids, and was followed by a deep and widespread enthusiasm for Homer. During the fifth century the Homeric poems were familiar to every Athenian; they are likely to have been still more popular before they had to share with the drama the public interest. During the life of Socrates the rhap-sode wore a festal costume and employed all the histrionic artifices: Plato makes no distinction between rhapsode and tragic actor. These features were most probably introduced in the sixth century. Homer was the only poet to whom Aeschylus in his early years could have turned for suggestions of the way to handle a tragic plot and present it dramatically. (2) Plato identifies Homer's epic with tragedy in its effect: "… the authors of tragic poetry in iambic and in heroic verse"; "When we listen to Homer or any other tragic poet"; "Next, consider tragedy, and its leader and guide, Homer"; "Homer, the first of the tragic poets." Plato, himself a poet, must have had good reason for this identification. (3) Aristotle says that tragedy "has all the elements of the epic." Chancellor [G. R.] Throop has shown [in "Epic and Dramatic, I, II," Washington University Studies, Vols. V, 1917, and XII, 1924] that most of the characteristic features of the tragic plot are found in Homer. Finally, Aristotle frequently illustrates from Homer a principle of the structure of a tragic plot. The recognized similarity between Homer and tragedy in plot, in mimesis, and in effect, the lack of other similar poetry (for the cyclic poems were rich in material, but poor in its use), and the great popularity of Homer at Athens just before Aeschylus began to write, seem sufficient to prove that his remark about the influence of Homer upon tragedy was literally true. We notice also that Athenaeus contrasts Aeschylus with a certain Ulpian: the latter took, not "slices" of meat, as Aeschylus did, but a bone or a thick piece of gristle. The pièces de résistance of Homer are the dialogues, which Aeschylus, by adding a second actor, introduced into the nascent tragedy.

In the use of the dialogue Homer is unequaled in Western epic. After Homer, Greek epic shows a steady decline in this respect, until in Nonnus there is an average of less than one dialogue to a book, and in the whole of the Dionysiaca only three which consist of as many as four speeches. The third book of the Argonautica, which is the most dramatic, falls far short of Homer. Vergil, too, restricts the dialogue within far narrower limits than Homer does.

A comparison of Homer's dialogues with those of Attic tragedy is illuminating. Of course, since stichomythy is barred from the epic, we cannot compare the number of speeches per dialogue. Yet Homer has one dialogue of 26 speeches, a greater number than is found in either of the first two epeisodia of the Prometheus Bound. We can, however, make the comparison with respect to length of dialogue. In the Ajax of Sophocles the six dialogues average about 185 verses each. Homer has seven dialogues, each of which is longer than this. In the Medea of Euripides there are eight dialogues containing from 79 to 196 verses each, averaging 131 verses. Homer has 30 dialogues of more than 79 verses each, and 15 of more than 131 verses. The dialogue which contains the Apologue contains 2298 verses, and is undoubtedly the longest dialogue in verse in Greek literature.

In the number of interlocutors Homer's dramatic manner is more free than that of either the primitive folk tale or Attic tragedy. The former limits the number to two, the latter practically to three—for where three actors participate, the words of the Coryphaeus are for the most part a pure formality. In Homer's dialogues three or four speakers often take part, and nine times there are from five to eight, most frequently without a single new entrance. It is noticeable, however, that where Homer is dramatic in effect as well as in manner, the number of speakers is limited to two or three or, at most, four. Plato observes the same freedom and the same limitations.

The Odyssey makes a more extensive use of the dialogue than does the Iliad. Hirzel [in Der Dialog, I, 1895] virtually denies this. He accepts the view of the Author On the Sublime, that the Odyssey was the work of the poet's old age: the Iliad is "full of action and conflict; the Odyssey is largely narrative"—which is characteristic of old age. Hirzel believes that dialogue belongs to youth, whether of the individual or of nations, because passionate youth delights in the external and make-up, while age withdraws within itself, and relates the external to its own ego. Aside from the preponderance of speaker's narratives in the Odyssey— … Hirzel's chief argument is that the Odyssey has no dialogues which compare in dramatic power with those between Hector and Andromache, between Achilles and the Envoys, and between Achilles and Priam. This view confuses theme and situation with the poet's manner of presenting them. The theme of the Iliad is more tragic. Hence the situations of the three dialogues just mentioned give rise to deeper emotions. In their effect some of the dialogues of the Iliad are more dramatic. But if "dramatic form" is proper to youth and not to old age, as Hirzel thinks, the inference that the Odyssey was composed in Homer's later years is not supported by the facts.…

The advance in the technique of the dramatic epic exhibited by the Odyssey is clear. That it is largely due to the theme and the resulting situations is almost equally so.… [Homer gives considerable] attention to rest, and it is here that the dialogue plays its part. On the battlefield combatants may speak as they approach, but if a dialogue ensues we must assume, and the poet often tells us, that they then stood still. On a journey or voyage there is rarely conversation in Homer, except when a halt is made. Priam and Idaeus pause at the river to let their steeds drink, and the long conversation with Hermes ensues. But as they drive on, no word is spoken until they reach the quarters of Achilles. The exchange of speeches at the assembly and the council, in the quarters of Agamemnon, Achilles, and Nestor, and in the palaces of Priam and Paris points to the conclusion that speech and action, the logos and the ergon, tend to exclude each other. Hence the Odyssey offers greater opportunity for the dialogue. The scenes at Ogygia, Ithaca, Pylus, Sparta, and Phaeacia are better adapted to the dialogue than is the battlefield at Troy.

The alternation between movement in the narrative and rest in the dialogue has its counterpart in the stasima and epeisodia of tragedy. The evolutions of the chorus offered a pleasing diversion after the comparative lack of action and movement of the actors, except in the entrances and exits. Homer, however, introduces action, even off-scene action, into many of his longer dialogues. The dialogue between Achilles and Priam is thrice interrupted thus: Achilles leaves the hall and prepares the body of Hector for its return; the meal is prepared and eaten; and a couch is prepared for Priam. Attic tragedy had no place for eating and sleeping: the Alcestis is "rather like comedy."

This blending of action with dialogue is particularly noticeable in the Odyssey. It is less appropriate in the Iliad because the violent action of the battlefield demands for the listener's relaxation more completely motionless scenes between the accounts of fighting. Yet the manner is the same in both. In Book XV, in Hera's return from Mount Ida, her chief errand is postponed by the angry exit of Ares to avenge the death of his son Ascalaphus, and his recall to his senses by Athena. This adds much to the picture of the unhappy Olympian family, but has nothing to do with the chief purpose of the episode. It would be impossible in Attic tragedy. Nor could Hera give her message to Iris and Apollo off-scene. Yet these off-scene words, and Athena's "big sister" interference with the plan of Ares, undoubtedly deepen the perspective in which we view the Olympians, and also contribute to the realism of the story.

Let us test the closeness with which Homer in his long dialogues approaches drama in both manner and effect. At the same time let us try to see how nearly alike the two poems are in both these respects by taking an episode from each, the Presbeia and the Niptra.

In the Presbeia (186-668), the scene is laid in the quarters of Achilles. Achilles, seated, is singing of exploits of heroes, accompanying himself on the lyre. Opposite to him sits Patroclus, listening to his song. Automedon and perhaps other squires are clearing away the dinner. A knock is heard, one of the squires opens the door, and Odysseus and Ajax enter, followed by Phoenix and the two heralds. Achilles and his friend spring to their feet and warmly greet the two envoys. The latter sit while food is prepared and eaten. Then there is an awkward pause—Odysseus, as always, is "the deliberate." Ajax nods to Phoenix to speak, but Odyseus is now ready and begins. The dialogue continues for more than four hundred verses, with six long speeches, a speech by Odysseus, by Phoenix, and by Ajax, and the reply of Achilles to each. This long dialogue is interrupted only by the "loquiturs" and by six verses of stage directions, describing the silence that followed Achilles' rejection of the plea of Odysseus, the emotion of Phoenix (430 f, 433), and the gesture of Achilles to Patroclus to prepare a bed for Phoenix, thus telling the envoys that the interview is over. With the usual libations the envoys and heralds exeunt.

This episode contains nothing that makes it unsuitable for presentation on the stage. It shows not only Homer's ability to dramatize action, but still more his manner of selecting the essential details of setting, of action, and of speeches. If the effect of a narrative is to be deep it must be distinct. Therefore the attention of the hearer must not be diverted by unessential details nor overburdened by too many. We know that Phoenix and the heralds accompanied the envoys; hence no mention is made of their entrance, just as Automedon's presence is not indicated until he is brought into the action (vs. 209). The exchange of greetings and the conversation during the preparation of the food are reduced to a minimum. As listeners we can follow at one time only the action of a single person, or of a small group acting together. Hence our attention is focused on Achilles. His two short speeches—one expressing his glad surprise and his joy at the coming of his friends, the other bidding Patroclus assist in giving them a hearty welcome—are sufficient to create the emotional atmosphere of the action which follows, and to impart to it reality. Of course, we are not to suppose that the envoys maintained an absolute silence until Odysseus spoke, or that there was no conversation while the meal was being prepared and eaten. But realism here would defeat the poet's aim. His interest, and ours, is in the play of spirit on spirit in the debate.

This episode could be presented in a Greek theater by laying the scene before Achilles' door. The envoys would enter and summon him forth from within—at least, this would be the simplest arrangement. Instead of the meal, there must be a brief dialogue to introduce the Debate. It seems unlikely that even Sophocles could have created a greater emotional tension by this dialogue than Homer does by the meal and the two short speeches which precede it.

In the Niptra (51-601), Odysseus, a ragged beggar, is for the first time in twenty years alone in his own hall (51 f.). He is standing at one side, at some distance from the fire. Penelope enters (from the other side) with her attendants, who place for her, near the fire, a chair with a fleece for a cushion. She sits (53-59). The house servants (including Eurycleia) enter, remove the food, the goblets and the tables, and replenish the braziers. Melantho taunts Odysseus because he lingers. He chides her for failing to remember that ill fortune may come to any mortal, and warns her of her own fate if she persists in her disloyal conduct. Penelope overhears the conversation and sternly rebukes Melantho for her unnecessary insolence to the Beggar. He remains, she says, by her own command. She bids Eurynome bring a cushioned stool for the stranger. The stewardess does so. Odysseus takes his seat by the fire, and the conversation with Penelope begins, and continues through eleven speeches, ending with the Queen's command to the old nurse to bathe the Beggar's feet. Aside from the "loquiturs," the poet interrupts only three times to indicate the emotions of the three chief characters. He describes (I) Penelope's burst of tears, called forth by the fictitious account of Odysseus' visit to the Beggar twenty years before, and the pity of Odysseus for his wife—which he stoutly conceals (203-213), (2) her second burst of tears when the Beggar describes the garment and brooch which she herself had given Odysseus at his departure (249-251), and (3) the gesture and tears of Eurycleia when told by Penelope to wash the feet of the Beggar (361 f.). At verse 385, after a speech by Eurycleia, the poet narrates: "The old slave woman took a shining basin and poured in cold water, then hot, until it was the right temperature. Odysseus, sitting at the hearth, quickly turned away from the bright fire, for suddenly the thought came to him that when she took his foot in her hands she would know him by the scar. She came near her master, and began to bathe his feet, and quickly recognized him by the scar, which—" The narrative pauses at this tense moment while the poet tells how Odysseus came by the scar (393-466). The listener is tense with interest, not so much in the outcome, for he knows this will be "happy," as in how the critical situation will be treated. The poet postpones the solution for seventy-four verses, while he narrates this incident of the past, deliberately, with details, and even with direct speech (404-412). Yet even this part of the Niptra, like all the rest, could be produced on the stage. The water for bathing the feet, we know from verse 503, must be brought in from without. For the stage version, when Penelope bids Eurycleia bathe the stranger's feet, the nurse must leave the hall to get the basin and water (the poet omitted this action as unessential). Odysseus suddenly moves away from the hearth and turns toward the darkened part of the hall, expressing his fears about the scar in a long soliloquy in which he tells the story of the Boar Hunt. Penelope has no interest whatsoever in the act of hospitality to a stranger, and therefore falls into a deep revery—possibly she even nods. Hence she would not hear the soliloquy of Odysseus, nor would she notice the agitation of the old slave when she recognizes her master, nor the look with which Eurycleia tries to draw her attention to her discovery (vss. 476 f.). The poet has a briefer, and altogether sufficient way of indicating the inattention of the Queen: Athena turned her thoughts elsewhere (vss. 478 f.). When Eurycleia has brought fresh water and has bathed and dried the feet of her master, the latter resumes his position by the fire, and the conversation with Penelope is taken up once more and continues until the exeunt of Penelope, the women servants, and, finally, Odysseus (vss. 600 f.).

In external form the two episodes are remarkably alike. They are of the same length. Time (evening) and place (a hall) are the same. There are four speaking actors and mutes or supernumeraries in both. In both the Crowd (the army and the Suitors) are absent. Both begin with the entrance of chief characters and end with "Exeunt omnes." Both lack off-stage action. On the scene the chief movements are due to the proximity of a meal, and minor actions by the chief characters—the lyre song … and the spinning of Penelope— contribute to ethos.

But the themes are contrastingly different, and this difference is sufficient to account for many of the dissimilarities. The Iliad is a tale of war, unmarked by trickery: the Odyssey, of domestic intrigue. Odysseus is the only man in the Niptra, and Eurycleia's rôle is in many ways like that of Phoenix. Achilles is the straightforward, peerless champion. Odysseus excels in δᾳλος. This complicates the situation. The path of the lie is always devious. The Debate in the Presbeia takes the straight course of truth. Its theme is single: Shall Achilles return to the fighting? Hence the speeches of the episode can be limited to seven, and the Debate is not interrupted by action. The Niptra contains twenty-six speeches, all concerned with the intrigue which arises from the return of Odysseus. The main dialogue falls into three parts. Two questions are to be answered: Is it likely that Odysseus will return? and Shall Penelope select a new husband by the ordeal of the Bow?

Between these two "debates" both action and dialogue are inserted which deepen the impression that Penelope's first question has already been answered happily, and that the ordeal will not result as she forebodes.

The themes determine the kind and the degree of emotion aroused by the two episodes. The Presbeia consolidates its effect because the emotion which it arouses is strictly tragic. But the tragedy with a happy ending may also be highly dramatic in its effect. The Niptra does not suffer by comparison with the famous recognition scene in the Iphigenia in Tauris. In both, the situation permits two recognitions. Euripides presents them both, because both situation and plot demand the second, inferior though it is. The Niptra, like the Oedipus Rex, successfully postpones the second and major recognition, and the resulting suspense enhances the effect. Now, as the recognition in the Iphigenia is as "dramatic" but not as "tragic" as that of the Oedipus, so the Niptra is quite as "dramatic" as the Presbeia though not equally "tragic." In the same way the parting between Hector and Andromache, and the scene between Achilles and Prima, are no more "dramatic" than the Argus episode and the recognitions of Odysseus by Penelope and Laertes. The theme of the Iliad is the greater one: the dramatic art of the poet is essentially the same in both Iliad and Odyssey.

The theme of the Odyssey also explains sufficiently its greater use of the narratives contained in the dialogues. We need not resort to the explanation offered by the Author On the Sublime, that the love of tales is a token of the old age of genius. These tales, with very rare exceptions, are told only in the dialogue. Like the dialogue itself, they bulk larger in the Odyssey, but the technique of their use is found in the Iliad.

Corinna's advice to the youthful Pindar to use more myth in his odes contains a universal truth. Poetry, prose, and every speaker, use the tale because it illustrates one's thoughts, from experience real or imagined. Thus Agamemnon tells the tale of the birth of Heracles as an instance of the infatuation to which great kings, whether of Olympus or of Argos, are liable. The modern public speaker's tale or anecdote has a similar use, and often the story is remembered long after its moral has been forgotten. Hephaestus told the story of his fall from Heaven to illustrate the danger of crossing the purpose of Zeus. The tale is firmly embedded in literature; its moral is usually forgotten.

Men must converse about something, and small talk is not "memorable speech." The tale gives body to many of the longer dialogues of Homer. Remove from the only speech that Phoenix makes, the allegory, the story of his own youth, and the tale of Meleager, and the residue is too meager to justify the speech. What else could the Swineherd and the Beggar do during a long day and a long night, except to tell of their own past lives? Without these long conversations the two episodes would lack both extent and content.

In addition to the three uses just described—to give body to the dialogue, to enrich it with matters in themselves interesting, and to illustrate an argument or strengthen a plea—the tale within the tale is employed to give the needful exposition of the past. It is this function which explains its more extensive use in the Odyssey.

The Iliad and the Odyssey contain each about a score of these narratives, but in the Odyssey their average length is much greater (including the Apologue, about six times as great; without the Apologue, at least twice). In the Iliad the account of the past is of comparatively little importance. With a few exceptions, the previous years of the war are for the most part ignored. We are told of incidents in the previous fighting of Achilles, and of the negotiations for the return of Helen. Aulis is mentioned in one episode. But for the reconstruction of a history of the earlier years of the war we must rely on casual references. It is the same with the past lives of the major heroes, except Achilles, Diomede, and a few others. Hence (in the Iliad) the tales which enrich the dialogues are largely taken from, or include, wellknown myths and legends, like those of the Centaurs and Amazons, Heracles, and the Seven Against Thebes.

The Iliad tells of a tragic incident near the close of the war. The Odyssey includes the events of the next ten years. It is a Nostoi as well as a Nostos, for it tells of the death or the safe homecoming of every major Greek hero of the Iliad. Of this part of the theme we are given a hint at the beginning of the poem. Now it is significant that of about twenty tales within a dialogue in the Odyssey fourteen are of events, real or fictitious, in the lives of Odysseus or of some major hero of the Iliad between the end of the Iliad and the beginning of the Odyssey, and five more concern Odysseus or some member of his family. Only the tale of Eumaeus is of matters outside the theme.

The richness of the dialogue … is undoubtedly due to the Ionian Lust zur Fabulierung, but the art with which the tales are inserted is one of the many indications that with Homer the intuitive power to impart to a narrative the reality of life reached an all-time peak. The German term Rahmenerzählung fails to do full justice to this innate power. In Homer the frame and the tale blend into one, so that the tale becomes an organic element in the conversation of living persons.…

In Homer the Apologue grows out of the previous action and blends imperceptibly with what follows. Its setting and its beginning and end are truer to life. Odysseus, always "the deliberate," has avoided telling his name. But he knows he must do so, as Alcinous says, if the Phaeacian ship is to carry him home. The time for this has come. So he asks Demodocus to sing of … the Wooden Horse. This is, as it were, the overture to the recognition. The questions of Alcinous spring naturally from the situation: "Who are you? Where is your home? Where have you wandered? [He knew from the conversation of the previous evening that his guest had suffered much.] Why do you weep when the bard sings of the Trojan War?" The reply of Odysseus contains more than the tale of his wanderings. It is treated as an after-dinner speech. There is first the delicate compliment to host and bard; then the modest hint that the speaker can add nothing to the enjoyment of the feast, and the equally modest and tactful remark that one's own simple home is far dearer than luxury in a foreign land. At the middle of the speech—also at the one point where the narrative threatens to become wearisome—the speaker suggests that he has spoken long enough, and is complimented and urged to go on. At the end the dialogue is continued, with the appreciation of the speech, and the life which the poet is presenting goes on without a break. Homer's Rahmenerzählung is not an artifice; it is the unconscious result of the consummate art of the master of oral narrative, which relies for the illusion of reality chiefly on the ipsissima verba of individuals.

The oral narrative uses the direct utterance of its characters also for other subordinate purposes. A reader with print before his eyes can reread the words if their full import is not clear at first, or if he wishes to enjoy again the emotion which they arouse. But the "winged word" cannot be thus recalled. This is perhaps one reason why Homer uses the single speech, either in or outside of the dialogue, which might easily be omitted in written narrative. Sometimes the single speech does little more than "hold the picture" and give the listener time to enter it emotionally. The speeches of Odysseus to the leaders and the common soldiers in the Diapeira are quite unnecessary for the printed narrative: "Whenever he met a prince or a man of prominence, he would stop and with gentle and courteous words check his flight to the ships [the words of the speech follow]. But if he saw a common soldier and found him joining in the cry [to launch the ships], he would smite him with his scepter and with harsh words rebuke him [the harsh words follow]. Thus with authority he went through the camp, and the army rushed back to the assembly." The ipsissima verba of Odysseus (vss. 190-197, 200-206) bring him more closely before our attention, and present him less as a fact than as a personal character in the story. But they also give us time to picture the turning back of the army from its purpose to sail home.

The words of exultation over a fallen enemy often serve the same purpose. When Othryoneus, suitor for Cassandra's hand, is slain by Idomeneus, or Cebriones by Patroclus, or Iphition by Achilles, the victor's boast tells us almost exactly what we have learned just before from the poet about the importance of the slain warrior or the manner of his fall. But the repetition of the same idea helps the listener to grasp them better. Similes are used for a similar purpose. But rarely do we find both the victor's boast and the simile used together. The fall of Asius, slain by Idomeneus just after Othryoneus, is pictured with the aid of a simile; that of Alcathous, which follows soon after, not by a simile, but by a speech of exultation. The fall of Sarpedon is described by a simile, and Patroclus does not exult over his body; but no simile is used when Hector falls; instead, Achilles exults over him. Both simile and speech of exultation "hold the picture" and, in different ways, present the death of a warrior as the carrier of some emotion, and not merely as a historical fact.

Perhaps the commonest secondary use of single speech is to make clearer the action which is to follow. On these single speeches the poet, or the bards who preceded him, seem to have bestowed special attention. With all their variety they show a far greater tendency to be typical than do the dialogues, especially the longer ones. It is the same technique of specialization which Euripides shows in his speeches of prologist and messenger.… Fully 90 per cent of the 350-odd single speeches of the Iliad, and 80 per cent of the 70-odd in the Odyssey, fall into one or other of the following categories: (1) the prayer; (2) the soliloquy; (3) the "Voice from the crowd"; (4) the Messenger's repetition of a command; (5) the exhortation of a general to his army, or of a warrior to his comrade; (6) the flyting of a foe, or the exultation over his fall; (7) the dirge; (8) the command.

Of the more than 400 single speeches in the two poems, about 40 per cent are commands. Furthermore, the last speech of a dialogue often expresses a command or a purpose. By this means the listener is informed of the action which is to be described. The speeches of Zeus in the Iliad and of Athena in the Odyssey serve this purpose. Helenus thus twice announces the program of the following episode. Nestor often plays the rôle of announcer. In the Odyssey, Nestor's command to his sons is carried out almost to the letter in the account of the sacrifice to Athena.

The repetition of the same command by other single speeches often helps to emphasize action which is of unusual importance in the plot. The thrice repeated description of the proposed journey of Telemachus gives the listener fair warning that this episode is to bulk large in the sequel. We, who find in a novel a table of contents and often chapter headings, are apt to forget that to the simple and unsophisticated listener this kind of information must have been very welcome. The tendency of some readers to turn to the last pages of a novel to see how it ends, shows how this kind of curiosity may interfere with the enjoyment of the immediate action. The latter is always Homer's chief concern. If the narrator had given the information in propria persona and at length, he would have diverted the attention of his hearer to the fact that he was listening to a story. The illusion would have been partly effaced.

Speeches which forecast the action of an episode often add its ethos, which likewise gains by repetition. The "baneful Dream" repeats to Agamemnon, and Agamemnon to the council, the command of Zeus to arm the long-haired Achaeans with all speed, for now Hera has prevailed over the Olympians, and Troy may be captured. Homer has prepared for the "baneful Dream" by the ironical words of Achilles to Agamemnon: "[Consult some seer or priest,] aye, or a reader of dreams, for the dream comes from Zeus." The first Olympian episode has made it clear that Zeus is deceiving Agamemnon when he says that Hera's entreaties have won over all the Olympians to the side of the Greeks. The first speech in Book II therefore not only gives the program of the marshaling of the troops, but also helps to create the atmosphere with which the poet surrounds Agamemnon throughout the poem.

The terms of the truce are recited four times: by Hector, by Iris, by the Trojan herald, and by Agamemnon. They are of extreme importance, because after the Trojans have broken the truce—and not till then,— Greeks, Trojans, and the listeners are sure that Troy is doomed. The truce and its violation add an undertone to the rest of the story.

Whatever their secondary functions may be, the speeches have as their major purpose the presentation of the characters as living personalities. The reality of the characters is shown by the way they live today. Homer gave them, indeed, a kind of immortality. In this respect his only rival in Greek literature is Plato. The Platonic Socrates and his friends and acquaintances still live for us, because we hear them converse as men of that day must have spoken. The illusion of personality is not created best by the analysis of a few characters, possibly because one's nature is best revealed by the varied contact with many other individuals. Dickens, with fifty or more characters in some of his novels, portrays personality quite as well as Thackeray with far fewer. The half-dozen characters of an Attic tragedy cannot compare in this respect with Shakespeare's far more numerous dramatis personae. There are about seventy-five speaking characters in the Iliad, and nearly as many in the Odyssey, if we include the Apologue and the tale of Proteus. No two of these are alike. As Aristotle says, by their words they all reveal different individual traits. We should not mistake Eidothea for Leucothea if we could talk with these two sea nymphs. The more we hear the characters speak, the better we know their personal peculiarities.…

The primitive man personalizes his thoughts of the world. The oral narrative must present a tale dramatically both because it is primitive and because its method of presentation lends itself to pure mimesis. Long generations during which the attention of bards was concentrated on this one genre would, with fortune, produce ever greater attention to the persons of the tale. It is not surprising that in Homer there are more numerous, more varied, and perhaps more living characters than we find in the work of any other poet before Shakespeare.

Erich Auerbach (essay date 1946)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9496

SOURCE: "Odysseus' Scar," in Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, translated by Willard R. Trask, Princeton University Press, 1953, pp. 3-23.

[Auerbach was a German-born American philologist and critic. He is best known for his Mimesis: Dargestellte Wirklichkeit in der Abendländischen Literature (1946; Mimesis, The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, 1953), a landmark study in which the critic explores the interpretation of reality through literary representation. In the following excerpt from that work, Auerbach compares the discourse, perspective, detail, and historical development of the Odyssey with that of several Old Testament stories.]

Readers of the Odyssey will remember the well-prepared and touching scene in book 19, when Odysseus has at last come home, the scene in which the old housekeeper Euryclea, who had been his nurse, recognizes him by a scar on his thigh. The stranger has won Penelope's good will; at his request she tells the housekeeper to wash his feet, which, in all old stories, is the first duty of hospitality toward a tired traveler. Euryclea busies herself fetching water and mixing cold with hot, meanwhile speaking sadly of her absent master, who is probably of the same age as the guest, and who perhaps, like the guest, is even now wandering somewhere, a stranger; and she remarks how astonishingly like him the guest looks. Meanwhile Odysseus, remembering his scar, moves back out of the light; he knows that, despite his efforts to hide his identity, Euryclea will now recognize him, but he wants at least to keep Penelope in ignorance. No sooner has the old woman touched the scar than, in her joyous surprise, she lets Odysseus' foot drop into the basin; the water spills over, she is about to cry out her joy; Odysseus restrains her with whispered threats and endearments; she recovers herself and conceals her emotion. Penelope, whose attention Athena's foresight had diverted from the incident, has observed nothing.

All this is scrupulously externalized and narrated in leisurely fashion. The two women express their feelings in copious direct discourse. Feelings though they are, with only a slight admixture of the most general considerations upon human destiny, the syntactical connection between part and part is perfectly clear, no contour is blurred. There is also room and time for orderly, perfectly well-articulated, uniformly illuminated descriptions of implements, ministrations, and gestures; even in the dramatic moment of recognition, Homer does not omit to tell the reader that it is with his right hand that Odysseus takes the old woman by the throat to keep her from speaking, at the same time that he draws her closer to him with his left. Clearly outlined, brightly and uniformly illuminated, men and things stand out in a realm where everything is visible; and not less clear—wholly expressed, orderly even in their ardor—are the feelings and thoughts of the persons involved.

In my account of the incident I have so far passed over a whole series of verses which interrupt it in the middle. There are more than seventy of these verses— while to the incident itself some forty are devoted before the interruption and some forty after it. The interruption, which comes just at the point when the housekeeper recognizes the scar—that is, at the moment of crisis—describes the origin of the scar, a hunting accident which occurred in Odysseus' boyhood, at a boar hunt, during the time of his visit to his grandfather Autolycus. This first affords an opportunity to inform the reader about Autolycus, his house, the precise degree of the kinship, his character, and, no less exhaustively than touchingly, his behavior after the birth of his grandson; then follows the visit of Odysseus, now grown to be a youth; the exchange of greetings, the banquet with which he is welcomed, sleep and waking, the early start for the hunt, the tracking of the beast, the struggle, Odysseus' being wounded by the boar's tusk, his recovery, his return to Ithaca, his parents' anxious questions—all is narrated, again with such a complete externalization of all the elements of the story and of their interconnections as to leave nothing in obscurity. Not until then does the narrator return to Penelope's chamber, not until then, the digression having run its course, does Euryclea, who had recognized the scar before the digression began, let Odysseus' foot fall back into the basin.

The first thought of a modern reader—that this is a device to increase suspense—is, if not wholly wrong, at least not the essential explanation of this Homeric procedure. For the element of suspense is very slight in the Homeric poems; nothing in their entire style is calculated to keep the reader or hearer breathless. The digressions are not meant to keep the reader in suspense, but rather to relax the tension. And this frequently occurs, as in the passage before us. The broadly narrated, charming, and subtly fashioned story of the hunt, with all its elegance and self-sufficiency, its wealth of idyllic pictures, seeks to win the reader over wholly to itself as long as he is hearing it, to make him forget what had just taken place during the foot-washing. But an episode that will increase suspense by retarding the action must be so constructed that it will not fill the present entirely, will not put the crisis, whose resolution is being awaited, entirely out of the reader's mind, and thereby destroy the mood of suspense; the crisis and the suspense must continue, must remain vibrant in the background. But Homer—and to this we shall have to return later—knows no background. What he narrates is for the time being the only present, and fills both the stage and the reader's mind completely. So it is with the passage before us. When the young Euryclea (vv. 401ff.) sets the infant Odysseus on his grandfather Autolycus' lap after the banquet, the aged Euryclea, who a few lines earlier had touched the wanderer's foot, has entirely vanished from the stage and from the reader's mind.

Goethe and Schiller, who, though not referring to this particular episode, exchanged letters in April 1797 on the subject of "the retarding element" in the Homeric poems in general, put it in direct opposition to the element of suspense—the latter word is not used, but is clearly implied when the "retarding" procedure is opposed, as something proper to epic, to tragic procedure (letters of April 19, 21, and 22). The "retarding element," the "going back and forth" by means of episodes, seems to me, too, in the Homeric poems, to be opposed to any tensional and suspensive striving toward a goal, and doubtless Schiller is right in regard to Homer when he says that what he gives us is "simply the quiet existence and operation of things in accordance with their natures"; Homer's goal is "already present in every point of his progress." But both Schiller and Goethe raise Homer's procedure to the level of a law for epic poetry in general, and Schiller's words quoted above are meant to be universally binding upon the epic poet, in contradistinction from the tragic. Yet in both modern and ancient times, there are important epic works which are composed throughout with no "retarding element" in this sense but, on the contrary, with suspense throughout, and which perpetually "rob us of our emotional freedom"—which power Schiller will grant only to the tragic poet. And besides it seems to me undemonstrable and improbable that this procedure of Homeric poetry was directed by aesthetic considerations or even by an aesthetic feeling of the sort postulated by Goethe and Schiller. The effect, to be sure, is precisely that which they describe, and is, furthermore, the actual source of the conception of epic which they themselves hold, and with them all writers decisively influenced by classical antiquity. But the true cause of the impression of "retardation" appears to me to lie elsewhere—namely, in the need of the Homeric style to leave nothing which it mentions half in darkness and unexternalized.

The excursus upon the origin of Odysseus' scar is not basically different from the many passages in which a newly introduced character, or even a newly appearing object or implement, though it be in the thick of a battle, is described as to its nature and origin; or in which, upon the appearance of a god, we are told where he last was, what he was doing there, and by what road he reached the scene; indeed, even the Homeric epithets seem to me in the final analysis to be traceable to the same need for an externalization of phenomena in terms perceptible to the senses. Here is the scar, which comes up in the course of the narrative; and Homer's feeling simply will not permit him to see it appear out of the darkness of an unilluminated past; it must be set in full light, and with it a portion of the hero's boyhood—just as, in the Iliad, when the first ship is already burning and the Myrmidons finally arm that they may hasten to help, there is still time not only for the wonderful simile of the wolf, not only for the order of the Myrmidon host, but also for a detailed account of the ancestry of several subordinate leaders (vv. 155ff.). To be sure, the aesthetic effect thus produced was soon noticed and thereafter consciously sought; but the more original cause must have lain in the basic impulse of the Homeric style: to represent phenomena in a fully externalized form, visible and palpable in all their parts, and completely fixed in their spatial and temporal relations. Nor do psychological processes receive any other treatment: here too nothing must remain hidden and unexpressed. With the utmost fullness, with an orderliness which even passion does not disturb, Homer's personages vent their inmost hearts in speech; what they do not say to others, they speak in their own minds, so that the reader is informed of it. Much that is terrible takes place in the Homeric poems, but it seldom takes place wordlessly: Polyphemus talks to Odysseus; Odysseus talks to the suitors when he begins to kill them; Hector and Achilles talk at length, before battle and after; and no speech is so filled with anger or scorn that the particles which express logical and grammatical connections are lacking or out of place. This last observation is true, of course, not only of speeches but of the presentation in general. The separate elements of a phenomenon are most clearly placed in relation to one another; a large number of conjunctions, adverbs, particles, and other syntactical tools, all clearly circumscribed and delicately differentiated in meaning, delimit persons, things, and portions of incidents in respect to one another, and at the same time bring them together in a continuous and ever flexible connection; like the separate phenomena themselves, their relationships—their temporal, local, causal, final, consecutive, comparative, concessive, antithetical, and conditional limitations—are brought to light in perfect fullness; so that a continuous rhythmic procession of phenomena passes by, and never is there a form left fragmentary or half-illuminated, never a lacuna, never a gap, never a glimpse of unplumbed depths.

And this procession of phenomena takes place in the foreground—that is, in a local and temporal present which is absolute. One might think that the many interpolations, the frequent moving back and forth, would create a sort of perspective in time and place; but the Homeric style never gives any such impression. The way in which any impression of perspective is avoided can be clearly observed in the procedure for introducing episodes, a syntactical construction with which every reader of Homer is familiar; it is used in the passage we are considering, but can also be found in cases when the episodes are much shorter. To the word scar (v. 393) there is first attached a relative clause ("which once long ago a boar …"), which enlarges into a voluminous syntactical parenthesis; into this an independent sentence unexpectedly intrudes (v. 396: "A god himself gave him …"), which quietly disentangles itself from syntactical subordination, until, with verse 399, an equally free syntactical treatment of the new content begins a new present which continues unchallenged until, with verse 467 ("The old woman now touched it …"), the scene which had been broken off is resumed. To be sure, in the case of such long episodes as the one we are considering, a purely syntactical connection with the principal theme would hardly have been possible; but a connection with it through perspective would have been all the easier had the content been arranged with that end in view; if, that is, the entire story of the scar had been presented as a recollection which awakens in Odysseus' mind at this particular moment. It would have been perfectly easy to do; the story of the scar had only to be inserted two verses earlier, at the first mention of the word scar, where the motifs "Odysseus" and "recollection"were already at hand. But any such subjectivistic-perspectivistic procedure, creating a foreground and background, resulting in the present lying open to the depths of the past, is entirely foreign to the Homeric style; the Homeric style knows only a foreground, only a uniformly illuminated, uniformly objective present. And so the excursus does not begin until two lines later, when Euryclea has discovered the scar—the possibility for a perspectivistic connection no longer exists, and the story of the wound becomes an independent and exclusive present.

The genius of the Homeric style becomes even more apparent when it is compared with an equally ancient and equally epic style from a different world of forms. I shall attempt this comparison with the account of the sacrifice of Isaac, a homogeneous narrative produced by the so-called Elohist. The King James version translates the opening as follows (Genesis 22:1): "And it came to pass after these things, that God did tempt Abraham, and said to him, Abraham! and he said, Behold, here I am." Even this opening startles us when we come to it from Homer. Where are the two speakers? We are not told. The reader, however, knows that they are not normally to be found together in one place on earth, that one of them, God, in order to speak to Abraham, must come from somewhere, must enter the earthly realm from some unknown heights or depths. Whence does he come, whence does he call to Abraham? We are not told. He does not come, like Zeus or Poseidon, from the Aethiopians, where he has been enjoying a sacrificial feast. Nor are we told anything of his reasons for tempting Abraham so terribly. He has not, like Zeus, discussed them in set speeches with other gods gathered in council; nor have the deliberations in his own heart been presented to us; unexpected and mysterious, he enters the scene from some unknown height or depth and calls: Abraham! It will at once be said that this is to be explained by the particular concept of God which the Jews held and which was wholly different from that of the Greeks. True enough—but this constitutes no objection. For how is the Jewish concept of God to be explained? Even their earlier God of the desert was not fixed in form and content, and was alone; his lack of form, his lack of local habitation, his singleness, was in the end not only maintained but developed even further in competition with the comparatively far more manifest gods of the surrounding Near Eastern world. The concept of God held by the Jews is less a cause than a symptom of their manner of comprehending and representing things.

This becomes still clearer if we now turn to the other person in the dialogue, to Abraham. Where is he? We do not know. He says, indeed: Here I am—but the Hebrew word means only something like "behold me," and in any case is not meant to indicate the actual place where Abraham is, but a moral position in respect to God, who has called to him—Here am I awaiting thy command. Where he is actually, whether in Beersheba or elsewhere, whether indoors or in the open air, is not stated; it does not interest the narrator, the reader is not informed; and what Abraham was doing when God called to him is left in the same obscurity. To realize the difference, consider Hermes' visit to Calypso, for example, where command, journey, arrival and reception of the visitor, situation and occupation of the person visited, are set forth in many verses; and even on occasions when gods appear suddenly and briefly, whether to help one of their favorites or to deceive or destroy some mortal whom they hate, their bodily forms, and usually the manner of their coming and going, are given in detail. Here, however, God appears without bodily form (yet he "appears"), coming from some unspecified place—we only hear his voice, and that utters nothing but a name, a name without an adjective, without a descriptive epithet for the person spoken to, such as is the rule in every Homeric address; and of Abraham too nothing is made perceptible except the words in which he answers God: Hinne-ni, Behold me here—with which, to be sure, a most touching gesture expressive of obedience and readiness is suggested, but it is left to the reader to visualize it. Moreover the two speakers are not on the same level: if we conceive of Abraham in the foreground, where it might be possible to picture him as prostrate or kneeling or bowing with outspread arms or gazing upward, God is not there too: Abraham's words and gestures are directed toward the depths of the picture or upward, but in any case the undetermined, dark place from which the voice comes to him is not in the foreground.

After this opening, God gives his command, and the story itself begins: everyone knows it; it unrolls with no episodes in a few independent sentences whose syntactical connection is of the most rudimentary sort. In this atmosphere it is unthinkable that an implement, a landscape through which the travelers passed, the serving-men, or the ass, should be described, that their origin or descent or material or appearance or usefulness should be set forth in terms of praise; they do not even admit an adjective: they are serving-men, ass, wood, and knife, and nothing else, without an epithet; they are there to serve the end which God has commanded; what in other respects they were, are, or will be, remains in darkness. A journey is made, because God has designated the place where the sacrifice is to be performed; but we are told nothing about the journey except that it took three days, and even that we are told in a mysterious way: Abraham and his followers rose "early in the morning" and "went unto" the place of which God had told him; on the third day he lifted up his eyes and saw the place from afar. That gesture is the only gesture, is indeed the only occurrence during the whole journey, of which we are told; and though its motivation lies in the fact that the place is elevated, its uniqueness still heightens the impression that the journey took place through a vacuum; it is as if, while he traveled on, Abraham had looked neither to the right nor to the left, had suppressed any sign of life in his followers and himself save only their footfalls.

Thus the journey is like a silent progress through the indeterminate and the contingent, a holding of the breath, a process which has no present, which is inserted, like a blank duration, between what has passed and what lies ahead, and which yet is measured: three days! Three such days positively demand the symbolic interpretation which they later received. They began "early in the morning." But at what time on the third day did Abraham lift up his eyes and see his goal? The text says nothing on the subject. Obviously not "late in the evening," for it seems that there was still time enough to climb the mountain and make the sacrifice. So "early in the morning" is given, not as an indication of time, but for the sake of its ethical significance; it is intended to express the resolution, the promptness, the punctual obedience of the sorely tried Abraham. Bitter to him is the early morning in which he saddles his ass, calls his serving-men and his son Isaac, and sets out; but he obeys, he walks on until the third day, then lifts up his eyes and sees the place. Whence he comes, we do not know, but the goal is clearly stated: Jeruel in the land of Moriah. What place this is meant to indicate is not clear—"Moriah" especially may be a later correction of some other word. But in any case the goal was given, and in any case it is a matter of some sacred spot which was to receive a particular consecration by being connected with Abraham's sacrifice. Just as little as "early in the morning" serves as a temporal indication does "Jeruel in the land of Moriah" serve as a geographical indication; and in both cases alike, the complementary indication is not given, for we know as little of the hour at which Abraham lifted up his eyes as we do of the place from which he set forth—Jeruel is significant not so much as the goal of an earthly journey, in its geographical relation to other places, as through its special election, through its relation to God, who designated it as the scene of the act, and therefore it must be named.

In the narrative itself, a third chief character appears: Isaac. While God and Abraham, the serving-men, the ass, and the implements are simply named, without mention of any qualities or any other sort of definition, Isaac once receives an appositive; God says, "Take Isaac, thine only son, whom thou lovest." But this is not a characterization of Isaac as a person, apart from his relation to his father and apart from the story; he may be handsome or ugly, intelligent or stupid, tall or short, pleasant or unpleasant—we are not told. Only what we need to know about him as a personage in the action, here and now, is illuminated, so that it may become apparent how terrible Abraham's temptation is, and that God is fully aware of it. By this example of the contrary, we see the significance of the descriptive adjectives and digressions of the Homeric poems; with their indications of the earlier and as it were absolute existence of the persons described, they prevent the reader from concentrating exclusively on a present crisis; even when the most terrible things are occurring, they prevent the establishment of an overwhelming suspense. But here, in the story of Abraham's sacrifice, the overwhelming suspense is present; what Schiller makes the goal of the tragic poet—to rob us of our emotional freedom, to turn our intellectual and spiritual powers (Schiller says "our activity") in one direction, to concentrate them there—is effected in this Biblical narrative, which certainly deserves the epithet epic.

We find the same contrast if we compare the two uses of direct discourse. The personages speak in the Bible story too; but their speech does not serve, as does speech in Homer, to manifest, to externalize thoughts— on the contrary, it serves to indicate thoughts which remain unexpressed. God gives his command in direct discourse, but he leaves his motives and his purpose unexpressed; Abraham, receiving the command, says nothing and does what he has been told to do. The conversation between Abraham and Isaac on the way to the place of sacrifice is only an interruption of the heavy silence and makes it all the more burdensome. The two of them, Isaac carrying the wood and Abraham with fire and a knife, "went together." Hesitantly, Isaac ventures to ask about the ram, and Abraham gives the well-known answer. Then the text repeats: "So they went both of them together." Everything remains unexpressed.

It would be difficult, then, to imagine styles more contrasted than those of these two equally ancient and equally epic texts. On the one hand, externalized, uniformly illuminated phenomena, at a definite time and in a definite place, connected together without lacunae in a perpetual foreground; thoughts and feeling completely expressed; events taking place in leisurely fashion and with very little of suspense. On the other hand, the extemalization of only so much of the phenomena as is necessary for the purpose of the narrative, all else left in obscurity; the decisive points of the narrative alone are emphasized, what lies between is nonexistent; time and place are undefined and call for interpretation; thoughts and feeling remain unexpressed, are only suggested by the silence and the fragmentary speeches; the whole, permeated with the most unrelieved suspense and directed toward a single goal (and to that extent far more of a unity), remains mysterious and "fraught with background."

I will discuss this term in some detail, lest it be misunderstood. I said above that the Homeric style was "of the foreground" because, despite much going back and forth, it yet causes what is momentarily being narrated to give the impression that it is the only present, pure and without perspective. A consideration of the Elohistic text teaches us that our term is capable of a broader and deeper application. It shows that even the separate personages can be represented as possessing "background"; God is always so represented in the Bible, for he is not comprehensible in his presence, as is Zeus; it is always only "something" of him that appears, he always extends into depths. But even the human beings in the Biblical stories have greater depths of time, fate, and consciousness than do the human beings in Homer; although they are nearly always caught up in an event engaging all their faculties, they are not so entirely immersed in its present that they do not remain continually conscious of what has happened to them earlier and elsewhere; their thoughts and feelings have more layers, are more entangled. Abraham's actions are explained not only by what is happening to him at the moment, nor yet only by his character (as Achilles' actions by his courage and his pride, and Odysseus' by his versatility and foresightedness), but by his previous history; he remembers, he is constantly conscious of, what God has promised him and what God has already accomplished for him—his soul is torn between desperate rebellion and hopeful expectation; his silent obedience is multilayered, has background. Such a problematic psychological situation as this is impossible for any of the Homeric heroes, whose destiny is clearly defined and who wake every morning as if it were the first day of their lives: their emotions, though strong, are simple and find expression instantly.

How fraught with background, in comparison, are characters like Saul and David! How entangled and stratified are such human relations as those between David and Absalom, between David and Joab! Any such "background" quality of the psychological situation as that which the story of Absalom's death and its sequel (II Samuel 18 and 19, by the so-called Jahvist) rather suggests than expresses, is unthinkable in Homer. Here we are confronted not merely with the psychological processes of characters whose depth of background is veritably abysmal, but with a purely geographical background too. For David is absent from the battlefield; but the influence of his will and his feelings continues to operate, they affect even Joab in his rebellion and disregard for the consequences of his actions; in the magnificent scene with the two messengers, both the physical and psychological background is fully manifest, though the latter is never expressed. With this, compare, for example, how Achilles, who sends Patroclus first to scout and then into battle, loses almost all "presentness" so long as he is not physically present. But the most important thing is the "multilay-eredness" of the individual character; this is hardly to be met with in Homer, or at most in the form of a conscious hesitation between two possible courses of action; otherwise, in Homer, the complexity of the psychological life is shown only in the succession and alternation of emotions; whereas the Jewish writers are able to express the simultaneous existence of various layers of consciousness and the conflict between them.

The Homeric poems, then, though their intellectual, linguistic, and above all syntactical culture appears to be so much more highly developed, are yet comparatively simple in their picture of human beings; and no less so in their relation to the real life which they describe in general. Delight in physical existence is everything to them, and their highest aim is to make that delight perceptible to us. Between battles and passions, adventures and perils, they show us hunts, banquets, palaces and shepherds' cots, athletic contests and washing days—in order that we may see the heroes in their ordinary life, and seeing them so, may take pleasure in their manner of enjoying their savory present, a present which sends strong roots down into social usages, landscape, and daily life. And thus they bewitch us and ingratiate themselves to us until we live with them in the reality of their lives; so long as we are reading or hearing the poems, it does not matter whether we know that all this is only legend, "make-believe." The oft-repeated reproach that Homer is a liar takes nothing from his effectiveness, he does not need to base his story on historical reality, his reality is powerful enough in itself; it ensnares us, weaving its web around us, and that suffices him. And this "real" world into which we are lured, exists for itself, contains nothing but itself; the Homeric poems conceal nothing, they contain no teaching and no secret second meaning. Homer can be analyzed, as we have essayed to do here, but he cannot be interpreted. Later allegorizing trends have tried their arts of interpretation upon him, but to no avail. He resists any such treatment; the interpretations are forced and foreign, they do not crystallize into a unified doctrine. The general considerations which occasionally occur (in our episode, for example, v. 360: that in misfortune men age quickly) reveal a calm acceptance of the basic facts of human existence, but with no compulsion to brood over them, still less any passionate impulse either to rebel against them or to embrace them in an ecstasy of submission.

It is all very different in the Biblical stories. Their aim is not to bewitch the senses, and if nevertheless they produce lively sensory effects, it is only because the moral, religious, and psychological phenomena which are their sole concern are made concrete in the sensible matter of life. But their religious intent involves an absolute claim to historical truth. The story of Abraham and Isaac is not better established than the story of Odysseus, Penelope, and Euryclea; both are legendary. But the Biblical narrator, the Elohist, had to believe in the objective truth of the story of Abraham's sacrifice—the existence of the sacred ordinances of life rested upon the truth of this and similar stories. He had to believe in it passionately; or else (as many rationalistic interpreters believed and perhaps still believe) he had to be a conscious liar—no harmless liar like Homer, who lied to give pleasure, but a political liar with a definite end in view, lying in the interest of a claim to absolute authority.

To me, the rationalistic interpretation seems psychologically absurd; but even if we take it into consideration, the relation of the Elohist to the truth of his story still remains a far more passionate and definite one than is Homer's relation. The Biblical narrator was obliged to write exactly what his belief in the truth of the tradition (or, from the rationalistic standpoint, his interest in the truth of it) demanded of him—in either case, his freedom in creative or representative imagination was severely limited; his activity was perforce reduced to composing an effective version of the pious tradition. What he produced, then, was not primarily oriented toward "realism" (if he succeeded in being realistic, it was merely a means, not an end); it was oriented toward truth. Woe to the man who did not believe it! One can perfectly well entertain historical doubts on the subject of the Trojan War or of Odysseus' wanderings, and still, when reading Homer, feel precisely the effects he sought to produce; but without believing in Abraham's sacrifice, it is impossible to put the narrative of it to the use for which it was written. Indeed, we must go even further. The Bible's claim to truth is not only far more urgent than Homer's, it is tyrannical—it excludes all other claims. The world of the Scripture stories is not satisfied with claiming to be a historically true reality—it insists that it is the only real world, is destined for autocracy. All other scenes, issues, and ordinances have no right to appear independently of it, and it is promised that all of them, the history of all mankind, will be given their due place within its frame, will be subordinated to it. The Scripture stories do not, like Homer's, court our favor, they do not flatter us that they may please us and enchant us—they seek to subject us, and if we refuse to be subjected we are rebels.

Let no one object that this goes too far, that not the stories, but the religious doctrine, raises the claim to absolute authority; because the stories are not, like Homer's, simply narrated "reality." Doctrine and promise are incarnate in them and inseparable from them; for that very reason they are fraught with "background" and mysterious, containing a second, concealed meaning. In the story of Isaac, it is not only God's intervention at the beginning and the end, but even the factual and psychological elements which come between, that are mysterious, merely touched upon, fraught with background; and therefore they require subtle investigation and interpretation, they demand them. Since so much in the story is dark and incomplete, and since the reader knows that God is a hidden God, his effort to interpret it constantly finds something new to feed upon. Doctrine and the search for enlightenment are inextricably connected with the physical side of the narrative—the latter being more than simple "reality"; indeed they are in constant danger of losing their own reality, as very soon happened when interpretation reached such proportions that the real vanished.

If the text of the Biblical narrative, then, is so greatly in need of interpretation on the basis of its own content, its claim to absolute authority forces it still further in the same direction. Far from seeking, like Homer, merely to make us forget our own reality for a few hours, it seeks to overcome our reality: we are to fit our own life into its world, feel ourselves to be elements in its structure of universal history. This becomes increasingly difficult the further our historical environment is removed from that of the Biblical books; and if these nevertheless maintain their claim to absolute authority, it is inevitable that they themselves be adapted through interpretative transformation. This was for a long time comparatively easy; as late as the European Middle Ages it was possible to represent Biblical events as ordinary phenomena of contemporary life, the methods of interpretation themselves forming the basis for such a treatment. But when, through too great a change in environment and through the awakening of a critical consciousness, this becomes impossible, the Biblical claim to absolute authority is jeopardized; the method of interpretation is scorned and rejected, the Biblical stories become ancient legends, and the doctrine they had contained, now dissevered from them, becomes a disembodied image.

As a result of this claim to absolute authority, the method of interpretation spread to traditions other than the Jewish. The Homeric poems present a definite complex of events whose boundaries in space and time are clearly delimited; before it, beside it, and after it, other complexes of events, which do not depend upon it, can be conceived without conflict and without difficulty. The Old Testament, on the other hand, presents universal history: it begins with the beginning of time, with the creation of the world, and will end with the Last Days, the fulfilling of the Covenant, with which the world will come to an end. Everything else that happens in the world can only be conceived as an element in this sequence; into it everything that is known about the world, or at least everything that touches upon the history of the Jews, must be fitted as an ingredient of the divine plan; and as this too became possible only by interpreting the new material as it poured in, the need for interpretation reaches out beyond the original Jewish-Israelitish realm of reality—for example to Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, and Roman history; interpretation in a determined direction becomes a general method of comprehending reality; the new and strange world which now comes into view and which, in the form in which it presents itself, proves to be wholly unutilizable within the Jewish religious frame, must be so interpreted that it can find a place there. But this process nearly always also reacts upon the frame, which requires enlarging and modifying. The most striking piece of interpretation of this sort occurred in the first century of the Christian era, in consequence of Paul's mission to the Gentiles: Paul and the Church Fathers reinterpreted the entire Jewish tradition as a succession of figures prognosticating the appearance of Christ, and assigned the Roman Empire its proper place in the divine plan of salvation. Thus while, on the one hand, the reality of the Old Testament presents itself as complete truth with a claim to sole authority, on the other hand that very claim forces it to a constant interpretative change in its own content; for millennia it undergoes an incessant and active development with the life of man in Europe.

The claim of the Old Testament stories to represent universal history, their insistent relation—a relation constantly redefined by conflicts—to a single and hidden God, who yet shows himself and who guides universal history by promise and exaction, gives these stories an entirely different perspective from any the Homeric poems can possess. As a composition, the Old Testament is incomparably less unified than the Homeric poems, it is more obviously pieced together—but the various components all belong to one concept of universal history and its interpretation. If certain elements survived which did not immediately fit in, interpretation took care of them; and so the reader is at every moment aware of the universal religio-historical perspective which gives the individual stories their general meaning and purpose. The greater the separateness and horizontal disconnection of the stories and groups of stories in relation to one another, compared with the Iliad and the Odyssey, the stronger is their general vertical connection, which holds them all together and which is entirely lacking in Homer. Each of the great figures of the Old Testament, from Adam to the prophets, embodies a moment of this vertical connection. God chose and formed these men to the end of embodying his essence and will—yet choice and formation do not coincide, for the latter proceeds gradually, historically, during the earthly life of him upon whom the choice has fallen. How the process is accomplished, what terrible trials such a formation inflicts, can be seen from our story of Abraham's sacrifice. Herein lies the reason why the great figures of the Old Testament are so much more fully developed, so much more fraught with their own biographical past, so much more distinct as individuals, than are the Homeric heroes. Achilles and Odysseus are splendidly described in many well-ordered words, epithets cling to them, their emotions are constantly displayed in their words and deeds—but they have no development, and their life-histories are clearly set forth once and for all. So little are the Homeric heroes presented as developing or having developed, that most of them—Nestor, Agamemnon, Achilles—appear to be of an age fixed from the very first. Even Odysseus, in whose case the long lapse of time and the many events which occurred offer so much opportunity for biographical development, shows almost nothing of it. Odysseus on his return is exactly the same as he was when he left Ithaca two decades earlier. But what a road, what a fate, lie between the Jacob who cheated his father out of his blessing and the old man whose favorite son has been torn to pieces by a wild beast!— between David the harp player, persecuted by his lord's jealousy, and the old king, surrounded by violent intrigues, whom Abishag the Shunnamite warmed in his bed, and he knew her not! The old man, of whom we know how he has become what he is, is more of an individual than the young man; for it is only during the course of an eventful life that men are differentiated into full individuality; and it is this history of a personality which the Old Testament presents to us as the formation undergone by those whom God has chosen to be examples. Fraught with their development, sometimes even aged to the verge of dissolution, they show a distinct stamp of individuality entirely foreign to the Homeric heroes. Time can touch the latter only outwardly, and even that change is brought to our observation as little as possible; whereas the stern hand of God is ever upon the Old Testament figures; he has not only made them once and for all and chosen them, but he continues to work upon them, bends them and kneads them, and, without destroying them in essence, produces from them forms which their youth gave no grounds for anticipating. The objection that the biographical element of the Old Testament often springs from the combination of several legendary personages does not apply; for this combination is a part of the development of the text. And how much wider is the pendulum swing of their lives than that of the Homeric heroes! For they are bearers of the divine will, and yet they are fallible, subject to misfortune and humiliation—and in the midst of misfortune and in their humiliation their acts and words reveal the transcendent majesty of God. There is hardly one of them who does not, like Adam, undergo the deepest humiliation—and hardly one who is not deemed worthy of God's personal intervention and personal inspiration. Humiliation and elevation go far deeper and far higher than in Homer, and they belong basically together. The poor beggar Odysseus is only masquerading, but Adam is really cast down, Jacob really a refugee, Joseph really in the pit and then a slave to be bought and sold. But their greatness, rising out of humiliation, is almost superhuman and an image of God's greatness. The reader clearly feels how the extent of the pendulum's swing is connected with the intensity of the personal history—precisely the most extreme circumstances, in which we are immeasurably forsaken and in despair, or immeasurably joyous and exalted, give us, if we survive them, a personal stamp which is recognized as the product of a rich existence, a rich development. And very often, indeed generally, this element of development gives the Old Testament stories a historical character, even when the subject is purely legendary and traditional.

Homer remains within the legendary with all his material, whereas the material of the Old Testament comes closer and closer to history as the narrative proceeds; in the stories of David the historical report predominates. Here too, much that is legendary still remains, as for example the story of David and Goliath; but much—and the most essential—consists in things which the narrators knew from their own experience or from firsthand testimony. Now the difference between legend and history is in most cases easily perceived by a reasonably experienced reader. It is a difficult matter, requiring careful historical and philological training, to distinguish the true from the synthetic or the biased in a historical presentation; but it is easy to separate the historical from the legendary in general. Their structure is different. Even where the legendary does not immediately betray itself by elements of the miraculous, by the repetition of well-known standard motives, typical patterns and themes, through neglect of clear details of time and place, and the like, it is generally quickly recognizable by its composition. It runs far too smoothly. All cross-currents, all friction, all that is casual, secondary to the main events and themes, everything unresolved, truncated, and uncertain, which confuses the clear progress of the action and the simple orientation of the actors, has disappeared. The historical event which we witness, or learn from the testimony of those who witnessed it, runs much more variously, contradictorily, and confusedly; not until it has produced results in a definite domain are we able, with their help, to classify it to a certain extent; and how often the order to which we think we have attained becomes doubtful again, how often we ask ourselves if the data before us have not led us to a far too simple classification of the original events! Legend arranges its material in a simple and straightforward way; it detaches it from its contemporary historical context, so that the latter will not confuse it; it knows only clearly outlined men who act from few and simple motives and the continuity of whose feelings and actions remains uninterrupted. In the legends of martyrs, for example, a stiff-necked and fanatical persecutor stands over against an equally stiff-necked and fanatical victim; and a situation so complicated—that is to say, so real and historical—as that in which the "persecutor" Pliny finds himself in his celebrated letter to Trajan on the subject of the Christians, is unfit for legend. And that is still a comparatively simple case. Let the reader think of the history which we are ourselves witnessing; anyone who, for example, evaluates the behavior of individual men and groups of men at the time of the rise of National Socialism in Germany, or the behavior of individual peoples and states before and during the last war, will feel how difficult it is to represent historical themes in general, and how unfit they are for legend; the historical comprises a great number of contradictory motives in each individual, a hesitation and ambiguous groping on the part of groups; only seldom (as in the last war) does a more or less plain situation, comparatively simple to describe, arise, and even such a situation is subject to division below the surface, is indeed almost constantly in danger of losing its simplicity; and the motives of all the interested parties are so complex that the slogans of propaganda can be composed only through the crudest simplification—with the result that friend and foe alike can often employ the same ones. To write history is so difficult that most historians are forced to make concessions to the technique of legend.

It is clear that a large part of the life of David as given in the Bible contains history and not legend. In Absalom's rebellion, for example, or in the scenes from David's last days, the contradictions and crossing of motives both in individuals and in the general action have become so concrete that it is impossible to doubt the historicity of the information conveyed. Now the men who composed the historical parts are often the same who edited the older legends too; their peculiar religious concept of man in history, which we have attempted to describe above, in no way led them to a legendary simplification of events; and so it is only natural that, in the legendary passages of the Old Testament, historical structure is frequently discernible— of course, not in the sense that the traditions are examined as to their credibility according to the methods of scientific criticism; but simply to the extent that the tendency to a smoothing down and harmonizing of events, to a simplification of motives, to a static definition of characters which avoids conflict, vacillation, and development, such as are natural to legendary structure, does not predominate in the Old Testament world of legend. Abraham, Jacob, or even Moses produces a more concrete, direct, and historical impression than the figures of the Homeric world—not because they are better described in terms of sense (the contrary is the case) but because the confused, contradictory multiplicity of events, the psychological and factual cross-purposes, which true history reveals, have not disappeared in the representation but still remain clearly perceptible. In the stories of David, the legendary, which only later scientific criticism makes recognizable as such, imperceptibly passes into the historical; and even in the legendary, the problem of the classification and interpretation of human history is already passionately apprehended—a problem which later shatters the framework of historical composition and completely overruns it with prophecy; thus the Old Testament, in so far as it is concerned with human events, ranges through all three domains: legend, historical reporting, and interpretative historical theology.

Connected with the matters just discussed is the fact that the Greek text seems more limited and more static in respect to the circle of personages involved in the action and to their political activity. In the recognition scene with which we began, there appears, aside from Odysseus and Penelope, the housekeeper Euryclea, a slave whom Odysseus' father Laertes had bought long before. She, like the swineherd Eumaeus, has spent her life in the service of Laertes' family; like Eumaeus, she is closely connected with their fate, she loves them and shares their interests and feelings. But she has no life of her own, no feelings of her own; she has only the life and feelings of her master. Eumaeus too, though he still remembers that he was born a freeman and indeed of a noble house (he was stolen as a boy), has, not only in fact but also in his own feeling, no longer a life of his own, he is entirely involved in the life of his masters. Yet these two characters are the only ones whom Homer brings to life who do not belong to the ruling class. Thus we become conscious of the fact that in the Homeric poems life is enacted only among the ruling class—others appear only in the role of servants to that class. The ruling class is still so strongly patriarchal, and still itself so involved in the daily activities of domestic life, that one is sometimes likely to forget their rank. But they are unmistakably a sort of feudal aristocracy, whose men divide their lives between war, hunting, marketplace councils, and feasting, while the women supervise the maids in the house. As a social picture, this world is completely stable; wars take place only between different groups of the ruling class; nothing ever pushes up from below. In the early stories of the Old Testament the patriarchal condition is dominant too, but since the people involved are individual nomadic or half-nomadic tribal leaders, the social picture gives a much less stable impression; class distinctions are not felt. As soon as the people completely emerges—that is, after the exodus from Egypt—its activity is always discernible, it is often in ferment, it frequently intervenes in events not only as a whole but also in separate groups and through the medium of separate individuals who come forward; the origins of prophecy seem to lie in the irrepressible politico-religious spontaneity of the people. We receive the impression that the movements emerging from the depths of the people of Israel-Judah must have been of a wholly different nature from those even of the later ancient democracies—of a different nature and far more elemental.

With the more profound historicity and the more profound social activity of the Old Testament text, there is connected yet another important distinction from Homer: namely, that a different conception of the elevated style and of the sublime is to be found here. Homer, of course, is not afraid to let the realism of daily life enter into the sublime and tragic; our episode of the scar is an example, we see how the quietly depicted, domestic scene of the foot-washing is incorporated into the pathetic and sublime action of Odysseus' homecoming. From the rule of the separation of styles which was later almost universally accepted and which specified that the realistic depiction of daily life was incompatible with the sublime and had a place only in comedy or, carefully stylized, in idyl—from any such rule Homer is still far removed. And yet he is closer to it than is the Old Testament. For the great and sublime events in the Homeric poems take place far more exclusively and unmistakably among the members of a ruling class; and these are far more untouched in their heroic elevation than are the Old Testament figures, who can fall much lower in dignity (consider, for example, Adam, Noah, David, Job); and finally, domestic realism, the representation of daily life, remains in Homer in the peaceful relam of the idyllic, whereas, from the very first, in the Old Testament stories, the sublime, tragic, and problematic take shape precisely in the domestic and commonplace: scenes such as those between Cain and Abel, between Noah and his sons, between Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar, between Rebekah, Jacob, and Esau, and so on, are inconceivable in the Homeric style. The entirely different ways of developing conflicts are enough to account for this. In the Old Testament stories the peace of daily life in the house, in the fields, and among the flocks, is undermined by jealousy over election and the promise of a blessing, and complications arise which would be utterly incomprehensible to the Homeric heroes. The latter must have palpable and clearly expressible reasons for their conflicts and enmities, and these work themselves out in free battles; whereas, with the former, the perpetually smouldering jealousy and the connection between the domestic and the spiritual, between the paternal blessing and the divine blessing, lead to daily life being permeated with the stuff of conflict, often with poison. The sublime influence of God here reaches so deeply into the everyday that the two realms of the sublime and the everyday are not only actually unseparated but basically inseparable.

We have compared these two texts, and, with them, the two kinds of style they embody, in order to reach a starting point for an investigation into the literary representation of reality in European culture. The two styles, in their opposition, represent basic types: on the one hand fully externalized description, uniform illumination, uninterrupted connection, free expression, all events in the foreground, displaying unmistakable meanings, few elements of historical development and of psychological perspective; on the other hand, certain parts brought into high relief, others left obscure, abruptness, suggestive influence of the unexpressed, "background" quality, multiplicity of meanings and the need for interpretation, universal-historical claims, development of the concept of the historically becoming, and preoccupation with the problematic.

Homer's realism is, of course, not to be equated with classical-antique realism in general; for the separation of styles, which did not develop until later, permitted no such leisurely and externalized description of everyday happenings; in tragedy especially there was no room for it; furthermore, Greek culture very soon encountered the phenomena of historical becoming and of the "multilayeredness" of the human problem, and dealt with them in its fashion; in Roman realism, finally, new and native concepts are added. We shall go into these later changes in the antique representation of reality when the occasion arises; on the whole, despite them, the basic tendencies of the Homeric style, which we have attempted to work out, remained effective and determinant down into late antiquity.

Since we are using the two styles, the Homeric and the Old Testament, as starting points, we have taken them as finished products, as they appear in the texts; we have disregarded everything that pertains to their origins, and thus have left untouched the question whether their peculiarities were theirs from the beginning or are to be referred wholly or in part to foreign influences. Within the limits of our purpose, a consideration of this question is not necessary; for it is in their full development, which they reached in early times, that the two styles exercised their determining influence upon the representation of reality in European literature.

Mark Van Doren (essay date 1946)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 11976

SOURCE: "The Odyssey," in The Noble Voice: A Study of Ten Great Poems, Henry Holt and Company, 1946, pp. 45-85.

[Van Doren was one of the most prolific men of letters in twentieth-century American writing. He wrote accomplished studies of Shakespeare, John Dryden, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry David Thoreau, and served as the literary editor and film critic for the Nation during the 1920s and 1930s. Van Doren's criticism is aimed at the general reader, rather than the scholar or specialist, and is noted for its lively perception and wide interest. Like his fiction and poetry (for which he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1939), his criticism consistently examines the inner life of the individual. In this essay, Van Doren praises the Odyssey's "relaxed and spacious" spirit, deeming it "still the finest tale in print."]

The first two sentences of the Odyssey are enough to inform us that now we are in another world of poetry. "Tell me, O Muse, of the man of many devices, who wandered full many ways after he had sacked the sacred citadel of Troy. Many were the men whose cities he saw and whose mind he learned, aye, and many the woes he suffered in his heart upon the sea, seeking to win his own life and the return of his comrades." Many devices, many ways, many men, many cities, many minds, many woes, and upon the sea to boot—the view opens and becomes multiple. This world is wide, and there is so much to report about it that Homer cannot decide where to begin. "Of these things, goddess, daughter of Zeus, beginning where thou wilt—at some place or other—tell thou even to us."

Homer does know, of course, where such a tale should start. It is still the finest tale in print, and its author was no fumbler. It concerns itself with the final stage of Odysseus' journey home from Troy, and with his return to Ithaca in a disguise which lasts until all the necessary recognitions are accomplished, including that by the suitors who have infested his house, after which they are promptly dispatched. The beginning is in this very house, where Telemachus, the young son whom Odysseus had left there twenty years before as an infant in arms, is stung by his mother Penelope's postion—and furthermore is inspired by a visit from Pallas Athene, his father's intimate deity—to set forth in his chariot so that he may find out what he can about the missing wanderer from old Nestor in Pylos and from Menelaus in the hollow land of Lacedaemon with its many ravines. Even while he is absent, learning little, Odysseus is enduring the last of his adventures on an island where he is the comfortable prisoner of the nymph Calypso; whom he leaves, only to be wrecked on the shores of Phaeacia, where he remains until for our benefit he has told the king of all his adventures to date. He gets home in advance of his son, midway through the poem; and then romance contracts into drama.

No art is lacking in Homer which is needed to tell this tale and tell it perfectly. But neither is there lacking in him a sense of the difference we must feel, now that we are free in a universe as loose as that of the Iliad was tight. Aristotle put the difference when he said the Iliad was simple and disastrous, the Odyssey complicated and moral. Lawrence of Arabia said the Iliad was huge and terrible, the Odyssey gay, fine, and vivid. If further epithets are in order, the following might do. The Iliad is tense, of great density, with no neutral territory to travel in, no free air to breathe; the Odyssey is relaxed and spacious, occupying as it does a porous world in which the prevailing sanity and serenity will not be disturbed or clogged by any human event.

The spirit of the Odyssey is something like that which breathes in the History of Herodotus. What the subject of Herodotus is can be debated. Is it the big story of Greece and Persia, or is it the little stories—of Gyges and Candaules' queen, of Adrastus, of Croesus and Solon, of Cyrus' youth, of Rhampsinitus, of Sataspes, of Xerxes and the five sons of Pythius, of the Spartans at Thermopylae, combing their long hair—of which the big one is stuck full, interrupting it as cloves do a ham? Or is it a third thing: the customs of distant peoples, Scythian, Ethiopian, which Herodotus pauses so frequently to describe? It is perhaps more, much more, than all that. It is perhaps the whole world as Herodotus in his curiosity now knows it, and as he certainly loves it. This world is more stationary than moving, no matter how many figures dot its foreground. It is a timeless world that keeps its own equilibrium, shining brightly clear out to its extremities; it has a vast life which is more important than the life of any one man or people, it has a fixed truth which even wars between continents may not alter. It is a universe of strangers, an immense field of leisure where time seeks its level and space its calm. It is a universe in which no conceivable thing is missing, just as it is a place where, given enough time, anything can happen. But you will not know its wonders unless you travel. If you do travel, the farther you go the more you will find—"the extreme regions of the earth are blessed"with the most gold and the greatest marvels: races of utterly bald men, people in mountains with feet like goats, countries where a half of every year is spent in sleep and the oxen walk backwards, troglodytes who feed on serpents and lizards and whose language is like the screeching of bats, or the natives of Atlas who eat no living thing and never dream. Not that the extremities are all, or marvels everything. The whole includes home, of which Herodotus is proud. But it is an immense whole, which the historian's constant effort is to keep in focus.

The world of the Odyssey is something like that. It is so immense and free that the reminders we are sometimes given of Agamemnon and Achilles fall strangely on our ears; those were tragic figures, and this is not a tragedy. The parallel of Agamemnon's disastrous return is maintained indeed throughout the poem. Telemachus is told by Athene, by Nestor, and by Menelaus that he may have to avenge his father as Orestes did his; and the two episodes in Hades, in the eleventh and the twenty-fourth books, are eloquent of Agamemnon's murder by his queen. But Agamemnon, for all his shade believes that "no longer is there faith in women," admits in the gloom of the underworld that Penelope is no Clytemnestra; she is the faithful wife in a story that turns out happily. So Helen, as Telemachus beholds her in Lacedaemon, is restored to her former role as the good wife of Menelaus. Eumaeus, the old swineherd of Odysseus back in Ithaca, echoes the Iliad when he wishes she had perished with all her kindred; but the old man of the sea who tells Menelaus that he will spend eternity in the Elysian plain because "thou hast Helen to wife and art the husband of the daughter of Zeus" is talking with surer accent the language of the Odyssey. As for Achilles, we hear him wondering in Hades whether his father ever suffered dishonor as Agamemnon did, or even as Odysseus still does from the absurd suitors; and the rage he feels when he realizes his incapacity in such a case to be Orestes, or even to be Telemachus, only reminds us of furies we shall never feel here. Achilles, true to the character he had at Troy, is the unhappiest man in Hades. Odysseus hails him as the mighty ruler of the dead, but the son of Thetis answers: "Nay, seek not to speak soothingly to me of death, glorious Odysseus. I should choose, so I might live on earth, to serve as the hireling of another, of some portionless man whose livelihood was but small, rather than to be lord over all the dead."

The Odyssey is anything but tragedy. "I am a man of many sorrows," says Odysseus more than once; and at least once, as the raft bearing him away from Calypso is about to break up, he wishes he had died at Troy. He is moved on another occasion to deliver himself as Zeus had to the horses of Achilles: "Nothing feebler does earth nurture than man, of all things that on earth are breathing and moving," he says to Amphinomus the suitor, lifting a cup of honey-sweet wine when he has finished. But we do not forget his many devices, and we do not believe he will be put down, as indeed he never is. Even if we doubted him there is always Athene to foretell the successful outcome of his career. Penelope, praying once to Artemis, speaks of Zeus who "knows all things, both the happiness and the haplessness of mortal men." But there it is—the happiness along with the unhappiness. The two alternate in the Odyssey, and in the right order for our pleasure. The miseries of its people are many, but they have not the dimension of terror.

If the gods write tragedy in this world they write it as men write songs, to soothe the mind with remembered woe, and to make still further poetry possible. "There is time for sleep," says Eumaeus to the old man he does not yet know to be Odysseus, "and there is time to take joy in hearing tales.… We two will drink and feast in the hut, and will take delight each in the other's grievous woes, as we recall them to mind. For in after time a man finds joy even in woes, whosoever has suffered much, and wandered much." King Alcinous of Phaeacia supposes that the gods wrought so much havoc at Troy, and spun such a skein of ruin, "that there might be a song for those yet to be born." He could sit up all night, he insists, listening to the woes of Odysseus, they are so sweet to hear.

The tears of the Odyssey are copious beyond record, but they do not scald like the fewer and fiercer ones of the Iliad. Everybody weeps, and often, but it seems easy to do so; easy, and even sweet, for these are free dispositions, and tears are their native tongue, in which the truth is spoken. Nobody, least of all Odysseus, can resist a minstrel; Telemachus cannot, nor Penelope either; tears flow like rain, wetting the beautiful sad words which accompany the lyre. At the house of Menelaus, when the master has ended his recital of the uncertainties in which Odysseus must be enmeshed, all of the company are seized with a desire to have a good cry. "Argive Helen wept, the daughter of Zeus, Telemachus wept, and Menelaus, son of Atreus, nor could the son of Nestor keep his eyes tearless." In Ithaca Telemachus weeps for his father, Penelope for both her husband and her son, as well as for herself. Our first sight of the hero is of a strong man weeping on Calypso's shore: "and his eyes were never dry of tears, and his sweet life was ebbing away, as he longed mournfully for his return." Twice in the hall of Alcinous, listening with the others to the bard Demodocus as he sings the sufferings of Troy, Odysseus is overcome at the mention of his own name, so that he must grasp his great purple cloak in his stout hands and draw it down over his head to keep secret the tears he cannot prevent. Home in Ithaca, watching the efforts of his old hound Argos to get up and come to him, he must turn his head and wipe his eyes. Near the end, as Eurycleia brings the women of the household in to greet him, a sweet longing seizes him to weep and wail, "for in his heart he knew them all." In the arms of Penelope at last he weeps without restraint, as later in the orchard with his father. Once, when it was still necessary to keep his disguise with Penelope, he had with the most painful difficulty held back the tears which would have blended with hers: "his eyes stood fixed between his lids as though they were horn or iron." But such difficulty is rare in the poem. The most natural thing is what happens to Penelope on the same occasion:

He spoke, and made the many falsehoods of his tale seem like the truth, and as she listened her tears flowed and her face melted as the snow melts on the lofty mountains, the snow which the East Wind thaws when the West Wind has strewn it, and as it melts the streams of the rivers flow full: so her fair cheeks melted as she wept and mourned for her husband, who even then was sitting by her side.

Relief is regularly available to the good people of the Odyssey, as dew comes daily to ferns and grass.

The relief of sleep is likewise constant, bestowing upon the poem a soft atmosphere in which it easily keeps its health. This atmosphere has fairy quality, reminding us of many an ancient tale wherein a princess or an old man, a Beauty or a Rip Van Winkle, slept years away. The promise of Alcinous which Odysseus likes best is that on the morrow the Phaeacians will take him home in one of their magic ships:

Then shalt thou lie down, overcome by sleep, and they shall row thee over the calm sea until thou comest to thy country and thy house, or to whatsoever place thou wilt, aye though it be even far beyond Euboea, which those of our people who saw it, when they carried fair-haired Rhadamanthus to visit Tityus, the son of Gaea, say is the furthest of lands. Thither they went, and without toil accomplished their journey, and on the selfsame day came back home.

And the promise is true.

Then for Odysseus they spread a rug and a linen sheet on the deck of the hollow ship at the stern, that he might sleep soundly; and he too went aboard, and laid him down in silence.… And as soon as they leaned back, and tossed the brine with their oarblades, sweet sleep fell upon his eyelids, an unawakening sleep, most sweet, and most like to death.… Now he slept in peace, forgetful of all he had suffered.… Then they stepped forth from the benched ship upon the land, and first they lifted Odysseus out of the hollow ship, with the linen sheet and bright rug as they were, and laid him down on the sand, still overpowered by sleep.… But Odysseus awoke out of his sleep in his native land.

Meanwhile Penelope's life is passed in alternate weeping and sleeping. "And she sank back and slept, and all her joints relaxed." She too finds sleep a little death. "Ah," she cries when she awakens from one long nap which Athene has blessed her with as an escape from misery, "in my utter wretchedness soft slumber enfolded me. Would that pure Artemis would even now give me so soft a death, that I might no more waste my life away with sorrow at heart, longing for the manifold excellence of my dear husband." Death in the Odyssey is no more stern than that. It is an enveloping cloud, beneficent, without edges.

Penelope, to be sure, has her difficulties with sleep. Sometimes it does not come, and she tosses in her chamber. And sometimes this excellent thing which "makes one forget all things, the good and the evil, when once it envelops the eyelids," does come but brings bad dreams. Increasingly as it comes, however, she loves it, so that it grows to be almost a disease with her, a drug to which she is addicted. Even when Eurycleia runs upstairs to her, laughing and stumbling and saying "Odysseus is here," Penelope tells her to go away. "Why dost thou mock me, who have a heart full of sorrow, to tell me this wild tale, and dost rouse me out of slumber, the sweet slumber that bound me and enfolded my eyelids?" Only at the end, when she knows her husband and lies by his side while he goes over his adventures since he left her twenty years ago, is she cured of her desire to absent herself from life. She listens to the last chapter of his tale.

The hardness of heart which various persons find in one another is not the caked hardness, the bitter bafflement, of Hecuba or Achilles. It is at the worst an excess of caution or suspicion, pardonable in these Ithacans who have been fooled so many times by false rumors of their lord's return, or by pretenders who have come and been exposed. "Verily," says Odysseus to Eumaeus, "thou hast in thy bosom a heart that is slow to believe." But on the whole Odysseus is pleased that this is so, because it argues fidelity in those to whom he is returning. Penelope's hopelessness is his best hope; though to Eurycleia and Telemachus it can be enraging, as when the young man, desperate because she will not believe that this is Odysseus, denounces her thus:

My mother, cruel mother, that hast an unyielding heart, why dost thou thus hold aloof from my father, and dost not sit by his side and ask and question him? No other woman would harden her heart as thou dost, and stand aloof from her husband, who after many grievous toils had come back to her in the twentieth year to his native land; but thy heart is ever harder than stone.

Even Odysseus makes use of the same terms a little later. But that is after Athene has restored his good looks, the good looks which have been Penelope's image of him all the while, and he is sure she knows him. "Be not vexed with me, Odysseus," she says. It is unnecessary, for it has suited him well that she should be so slow to believe a stranger. She has in fact been faithful to the image now restored, the image of the husband she remembers. The old beggar he had seemed to be was of course not her Odysseus. It is touching that her son and nurse have misunderstood her on this score, but it is not tragic.

Eumaeus once regrets that Odysseus had not died at Troy and thus achieved a hero's end instead of the ragged, anonymous state of one who wanders unknown in the world. But the author of the Odyssey prefers now to be occupied with the raveled extremity of a legend, with the tale of a return, and of a recognition. Such savagery as is here—the torture of Melanthius, the hanging of the maids, the madness of the suitors just before they die—is soon over, and it is simple as poetic justice is simple. A number of persons in the Odyssey lay up grief for themselves, and the grief comes; but it comes with an almost amusing promptness, a clean completeness suitable to romance which will forget that evil ever was. When at the Phaeacian games Euryalus sizes Odysseus up and says: "Thou dost not look like an athlete," he is only preparing himself for what we know must happen, namely that Odysseus will throw the discus farther than anybody.

The woes of Odysseus are numerous but serial; they are not interlocked and towered like those of Hector or Achilles. His mind is often divided in counsel, so that he must stand a while and ponder what he should do next. It is never difficult, however, to do so; the decisions of Odysseus are so brisk as almost to be instantaneous. It is as if they were forced by the certainty that the story must go the way of its foretelling. We are regularly informed that Odysseus will return, and once returned that he will execute the suitors; and if in passing we are worried about the ambush that has been prepared for Telemachus upon his arrival from Pylos and Lacedaemon, Athene takes the trouble to assure us that we need not be. A strong tide of success runs in the poem. The main direction is clear, and the decisions of Odysseus therefore cannot be hesitant or wrong. Foretelling here is not foreshortening, as it was in the fatal atmosphere of the Iliad. If anything, it is the opposite—the tendency of the tale is to string itself out, multiplying artificial uncertainties as it goes. Suspense is linear, it takes the form of mere delay. We are teased rather than tormented; told, simply, that we must wait a little longer. Such a function is served by Penelope's reluctance to believe; by the interpolation, just as we stop breathing to watch the recognition by Eurycleia, of the long tale of the boar hunt years ago when Autolycus was host to young Odysseus; by many hitches before the bow is tried. So irony in this narrative is of the elementary sort. It consists at the most in someone's not knowing who Odysseus is, and saying or doing things at which we shall shiver or smile. The identity of Odysseus is everything; we know it from the start, but nobody else does. Hence the complications, the discoveries, which according to Aristotle were the essence of the Odyssey. They are the most primitive complications possible to story.

Hence, nevertheless, their power. The irony latent in Penelope's direction to the swineherd: "Go, goodly Eumaeus, and bid the stranger come hither, that I may give him greeting, and ask him if haply he has heard of Odysseus, or has seen him with his eyes," or in her sitting then and talking with this stranger, and mourning for her husband "who even then was sitting by her side," is as sure as it is unsubtle. And the recognitions of the poem have no rival in their kind.

The Odyssey is a riot of recognition, and not of its hero alone. The poet makes excellent game of the discovery, first by Nestor and then by Menelaus and Helen, that the young man sitting before them with so many questions about Odysseus on his lips is none other than Telemachus, son of that same Odysseus. It is exciting to see Nestor in the amazement that falls on him when Mentor, the friend of Telemachus who has been talking at Pylos, suddenly departs in the likeness of a sea-eagle and so reveals that the boy is distinguished by the guardianship of Athene, "maid most glorious." Athene has a fine time appearing to Odysseus in new forms he must puzzle out. It is not always the hero who shines in the scenes of discovery. But his share of them is the lion's share, even to the point of his having twice the privilege of recognizing his own name and deeds in the songs Demodocus sings.

His first recognition by others occurs at the court of Alcinous, when the simple sentence, "I am Odysseus," perhaps does not surprise Alcinous himself, who has been watching the business of the singing and the purple robe, but certainly floods with light the minds of those in the court who have underestimated their stranger. So the Cyclops groans when he hears the name of the man who has blinded him. "Lo now, verily a prophecy uttered long ago is come upon me. There lived here a soothsayer, and he told me that all these things should be brought to pass in days to come, that by the hands of Odysseus I should lose my sight." Circe also has been waiting for her day in this immortal tale. "Surely thou art Odysseus, the man of ready device, who Argeïphontes of the golden wand ever said to me would come hither on his way home from Troy with his swift, black ship."

The major recognition scenes are saved, however, for the second half, at the beginning of which Odysseus comes home to Ithaca. Then, curiously enough, it is Ithaca that must be identified to him, not he to Ithaca. For when he awakes from his deep Phaeacian sleep he does not know where he is. "The goddess had shed a mist … that she might render him unknown, and tell him all things, so that his wife might not know him, nor his townfolk, nor his friends, until the wooers had paid the full price of all their transgressions. Therefore all things seemed strange to their lord, the long paths, the bays offering safe anchorage, the sheer cliffs, and the luxuriant trees." The arrival of Athene to tell him that this is Ithaca, his pretense that he never heard of such a country, and her smiling delight in his effort to deceive her, make up a charming moment. But before long the serious business of getting himself known to the right persons in the right order is under way.

The first such person is Telemachus, who when his doubts are overcome flings his arms about his father and sheds tears; which start Odysseus weeping too, so that "they wailed aloud more vehemently than birds, sea-eagles, or vultures with crooked talons"; and the sun would have set on their weeping if Telemachus had not suddenly thought of a question to ask. In what manner of ship had his father come to Ithaca?

The next person—if the hound Argos may be passed over as he wags his tail and drops his ears, knowing it is Odysseus who stands there—is one whom the time has not yet come to tell, but who learns anyway. This is Eurycleia, whom in a careless moment Odysseus chooses to wash his feet. Penelope has asked the stranger if he wishes that attention, and he has said that no serving-woman of hers shall touch him "unless there is some old, true-hearted dame who has suffered in her heart as many woes as I." "I have an old dame," answers Penelope, "with a heart of understanding in her breast, who lovingly nursed and cherished my hapless husband, and took him in her arms on the day when his mother bore him. She shall wash thy feet, weak with age though she be. Come now, wise Eurycleia, arise and wash the feet of one of like age with thy master." And Eurycleia proceeds to do so, letting fall hot tears because this stranger is most like Odysseus of all men who have come to Ithaca since its master left. "So say all men," remarks Odysseus, still thinking himself safe; for although there is one sign by which she may know him, he believes he can conceal it.

So he spoke, and the old dame took the shining cauldron with water wherefrom she was about to wash his feet, and poured in cold water in plenty, and then added thereto the warm. But Odysseus sat him down away from the hearth and straightway turned himself toward the darkness, for he at once had a foreboding at heart that, as she touched him, she might note a scar, and the truth be made manifest. So she drew near and began to wash her lord, and straightway knew the scar of the wound which long ago a boar had dealt him with his white tusk, when Odysseus had gone to Parnassus to visit Autolycus and the sons of Autolycus, his mother's noble father, who excelled all men in thievery and in oaths.

Then Homer, as if he knew that one of the high moments in his poem was preparing, as indeed it is, and as of course he knows, tantalizes us with seventy lines of history about the scar, resuming only when every detail of that old day with Autolycus has been exhausted:

This scar the old dame, when she had taken the limb in the flat of her hands, knew by the touch, and she let fall the foot. Into the basin the leg fell, and the brazen vessel rang. Over it tilted, and the water was spilled upon the ground. Then upon her soul came joy and grief in one moment, and both her eyes were filled with tears and the flow of her voice was checked. But she touched the chin of Odysseus, and said:

"Verily thou art Odysseus, dear child, and I knew thee not, till I had handled all the body of my lord."

One sentence, beginning with "dear child" and ending with "my lord," is all she speaks before she turns toward Penelope, hoping she too will see. But Penelope, must not see; so Odysseus has to seize Eurycleia by the throat and draw her to him, whispering: "Mother, why wilt thou destroy me? Since thou hast found me out, and a god has put this in thy heart, be silent lest any other in the halls learn hereof."

No other scene of the series will be more exciting than this, though each one to come will have a beauty proper to its nature. The revelation to Eumaeus and Philoetius is rapid, as the situation requires. The stringing of the bow is long delayed, for we know that it is the sign by which the suitors will know Odysseus. When it does come—

And he held it in his right hand, and tried the string, which sang sweetly beneath his touch, like to a swallow in tone—

it is swift and tremendous. The excitement of that moment in the hall, if in truth it surpasses the excitement of Eurycleia's discovery, does so with the aid of the fact that the scene is central to the poem; this moment is the one toward which time has been hastening since Telemachus first felt shame because his father's honor was abused; and the moment is soon over. The persuasion of Penelope takes longer because the poem can now afford to luxuriate in the spectacle of the long-suffering wife's perplexity, and in the grave comedy of joy postponed. Even after the right appearance of Odysseus has been restored, Penelope must subject him to one more test: she orders Eurycleia to make his bed outside the bridal chamber he once had built with his own hands. His anger at this—for one post of the bed had been a rooted olive tree, and it was therefore immovable—is what she wishes to see. Only then, with a burst of entirely natural tears, does she run straight at him and fling her arms about his neck, kissing his head; and he weeps, "and from his neck she could in no wise let her white arms go." It is the gods, she cries, who have "begrudged that we two should remain with each other and enjoy our youth." But it is a goddess, the bright-eyed Athene, who prolongs the night for them so that they may first have their fill of love and then take delight in the mutual chronicle of twenty years. Hereafter there is but one more necessary scene in the list. Odysseus, finding his father in the vineyard, "digging about a plant," with a patched, foul tunic on his body and greaves of oxhide on his shins to guard against scratches, thinks to begin with playful words, mocking the old man; but the outcome is that Laertes groans and strews dust over his head, whereupon Odysseus, his heart stirred and his nostrils shot through with pain, announces abruptly who he is. It is not enough. Laertes must have a sign. So Odysseus shows his scar; but better yet, he says to his father:

Come, I will tell thee also the trees in the wellordered garden which once thou gavest me, and I, who was but a child, was following thee through the garden, and asking thee for this and that. It was through these very trees that we passed, and thou didst name them, and tell me each one. Pear-trees thirteen thou gavest me, and ten apple-trees, and forty fig-trees. And rows of vines too didst thou promise to give me, even as I say, fifty of them, which ripened severally at different times—and upon them are clusters of all sorts—whensoever the seasons of Zeus weighed them down from above.

After which no major recognition remains to be strung on Homer's well-woven string.

It is a string and not a structure, for the organization of the Odyssey is loose and free, like its refrains: "Now the sun set and all the ways grew dark"; "So the wind filled the body of the sail, and the dark wave sang loudly about the stem of the ship as she went." Its similes are fewer than those of the Iliad, and less powerful, because less required; though the bow that sings like a swallow could not be surpassed for its purpose. But the similes of the Iliad were needed to pack the tight world Homer had decided to confine us in; or else they were breathing spaces in that world, reminding us of the greater one without. Whereas the world of the Odyssey is nothing but the one without. It is among other things a world of old men—Nestor, Eumaeus, Laertes, and the Old Man of the Sea—who have far memories because they have traveled much.

It is above all a bright world, open under space; and itself is full of space. Reality shines in it like mica; objects strike us because they have first been struck by the sun, as the white stones are upon which Nestor likes to go forth and sit in the early morning. The heaven of Olympus, whence Athene speeds with her flashing eyes, is a place without wind or rain, "but the air is outspread clear and cloudless, and over it hovers a radiant whiteness." The house of Menelaus, like the palace of Alcinous, has a gleam over its high roof "as of sun or moon." The epithet for Ithaca is "clear-seen." The epithet for night is "baneful," and the place where Homer's imagination least likes to dwell is the land and city of the Cimmerians, "wrapped in mist and cloud; never does the bright sun look down on them." The most grievous sin of the hero's comrades is the one they commit against Helios. And the most brilliant picture in a poem hung everywhere with pictures—for the Odyssey illustrates itself—is that which shows Pallas Athene preceding Odysseus and Telemachus into the hall where the weapons are, "bearing a golden lamp."

Then Telemachus suddenly spoke to his father, and said: "Father, verily this is a great marvel that my eyes behold; certainly the walls of the house and the fair beams and crossbeams of fir and the pillars that reach on high, glow in my eyes as with the light of blazing fire. Surely some god is within."

Then Odysseus of many wiles answered him, and said: "Hush, check thy thought, and ask no question; this, I tell thee, is the way of the gods that hold Olympus."

Distance and strangeness are the stuff of which narrative in the Odyssey is made. The poem lies under a sun that shines impartially on far and near. Nestor tells Telemachus that Menelaus may know something about his father because he has "but lately come from a strange land, from a folk whence no one would hope in his heart to return, whom the storms had once driven astray into a sea so great, whence the very birds do not fare in the space of a year." Strangers are the population of this world; they come and go, taking with them tales of where they have been. "There is a land called Crete," Odysseus tells Penelope, "in the midst of the wine-dark sea, a fair, rich land, begirt with water, and therein are many men, past counting, and ninety cities." It is a broad world, full of folk and fate, and the strangers who walk it are privileged persons whom it is the morality of the poem to receive with dignity in the halls they enter; though it is also the custom to shower them with questions—"Who art thou among men, and from whence? Where is thy city, and where thy parents? On what manner of ship didst thou come?" In such a world a man may move in anonymity if he pleases, but the custom is for him to reply; if his host has a good heart he loves strangers even as he fears the gods, and he will listen well. Frequently the wanderer spins yarns until he is sure of his host's heart—for safety, and perhaps for the mere fun of it. Nestor had the reputation of being so masterful and insistent a host that many a visitor to Pylos must have done as Telemachus did on his return from Lacedaemon—avoided the old man altogether, in his haste to get elsewhere. Yet certain citizens of the poem would have gone there with relish and regaled the horseman of Gerenia with mythical biographies. The poem is populated with excellent liars, of whom Athene is one, but of whom, naturally, Odysseus is king. Odysseus at a moment's notice can tell whoppers so circumstantial, so thicket-rich with detail, that only a cynic could disbelieve him. He invents families for himself, and remembers lands where he has never been unless he has been everywhere. He has the imagination of a minstrel—the person whom this society honors even more than it honors strangers. "For among all men that are upon the earth," Odysseus remarks at the court of Alcinous, "minstrels win honor and reverence, for that the Muse has taught them the paths of song." It is bad luck to kill a minstrel. Odysseus saves the one he had left at home.

It is a world on which the stars shine: "the Pleiads, and late-setting Boötes, and the Bear, which men also call the Wain, which ever circles where it is and watches Orion, and alone has no part in the baths of Ocean." But the sea which the Bear watches and never enters— that is the element in which the poem chiefly lives, showing its back among tempestuous waves. The sea of the Odyssey is real to its bottom. "When the sun hath reached mid heaven," says Menelaus, "the unerring old man of the sea is wont to come forth from the brine at the breath of the West Wind, hidden by the dark ripple. And when he is come forth, he lies down to sleep in the hollow caves; and around him the seals, the brood of the fair daughter of the sea, sleep in a herd, coming forth from the grey water, and bitter is the smell they breathe of the depths of the sea." No lines could bring more water with them than these do, or more of its smell when it is old and wild.

Over such water Odysseus had come to Phaeacia from faraway Troy, through the many adventures of which he told Alcinous: those of the Cicones, the Lotus-eaters, the Cyclops, Aeolus, the Laestrygonians, Circe, Hades, the Sirens, Scylla and Charybdis, the island of Helios Hyperion, and at last Calypso's isle. Through such water Odysseus swims, wades, sails, and drifts on a raft of his own making. With it under and around him he obeys that curiosity—his ruling passion—which causes as many deaths as were ever caused by the wrath of Achilles, for it pushes him to go where his comrades cannot survive. The sea is both his savior and his foe; and it is something from which the end of the poem releases him, dedicating him henceforth to life on the land he kisses in joy at being safe.

The prophet Teiresias instructed him thus in Hades:

When thou hast slain the wooers in thy halls, then do thou go forth, taking a shapely oar, until thou comest to men that know naught of the sea and eat not of food mingled with salt, aye, and they know naught of ships with purple sails, or of shapely oars that are as wings unto ships. And I will tell thee of a sign right manifest, which will not escape thee. When another wayfarer, on meeting thee, shall say that thou hast a winnowing-fan on thy stout shoulder, then do thou fix in the earth thy shapely oar and make goodly offerings to lord Poseidon—a ram, and a bull, and a boar that mates with sows—and depart for thy home and offer sacred hecatombs to the immortal gods who hold broad heaven, to each one in due order. And death shall come to thee thyself far from the sea, a death so gentle, that shall lay thee low when thou art overcome with sleek old age, and thy people shall dwell in prosperity around thee. In this have I told thee sooth.

And Odysseus does not forget the prophecy. He repeats it to Penelope while their night is prolonged, to let her know that they will not be together always even now. But she is content if it means that his old age will be happy, an escape at last from evil. He will die so far from the sea that nobody whom he meets there will know an oar from a winnowing-fan. So be it, yet then there will be an end to evil.

The sea was foe to Odysseus in the person of Poseidon, its god, because Odysseus in blinding Polyphemus the Cyclops had blinded Poseidon's own son. The sea-god's punishment of the Phaeacians for their hospitality to the hero, and for their help to him in reaching home, springs from the same root: a friend of Odysseus must be an enemy of Polyphemus, and therefore of Poseidon. But more than that lurks in the mysterious Phaeacian background. These fairy people had once been neighbors of the Cyclopes, and like them are still in some measure children of the gods. They are a misty folk, living in a land of incredible beauty which is the last item needed to make the landscape of the Odyssey altogether wonderful.

As Odysseus approached this land of shadowy mountains "it shewed like unto a shield in the misty deep." Its folk were fostered of Zeus, who left them in peace "far off in the surging sea, the furthermost of men, and no other mortals have dealings with us." The Phaeacians are the ultimate strangers; they extend the beautiful world of the Odyssey to its limit. They care for nothing but ships, which for them are magic ships, "swift as a bird on the wing or as a thought." Their harbor is crowned with palisades; the palace of Alcinous has doors of silver and gold, and they are guarded by immortal dogs. The inhabitants of this land are favored by visits from the gods in manifest form. At sacrifices gods sit among them, feasting as they do. "Aye," says Alcinous, "and if one of us a lone wayfarer meets them, they use no concealment, for we are of near kin to them, as are the Cyclopes and the wild tribes of the Giants." The Phaeacians are Cronos-folk, of an earlier generation than mankind. No wonder they are wonderful to behold. And no wonder Poseidon punishes them for dishonoring their divine origin by the assistance they give Odysseus, who is a rank mortal if any man ever was. They are, however, the final stroke of light, and the fairest hue of distance, with which the universe of our hero paints itself.

But houses nearer home have almost an equal splendor. For the author of the Odyssey there is something important about any house, particularly if it is ruled by a member of that superior race, that breed of natural kings, to which Menelaus admits Telemachus and Peisistratus because they are the sons, respectively, of Odysseus and Nestor. The houses of such men, and indeed of any men that fear the gods and love strangers, are entered by the poet with awe and described with a ceremony befitting the rituals which go on there. The forms of courtesy, even the daily forms, are given full attention; there seems to be plenty of time for them in a work devoted as this one is to the task of revealing the charms of human life when it is gloriously provisioned. Such is the case not only at Phaeacia, where the reception of Odysseus is royal in its generosity—golden youths standing on pedestals in the hall, holding torches aloft to light the banqueters by night; a fair handmaiden bringing water in a gold pitcher so that the stranger may wash in a silver basin; delectable fruits brought always to his side from an orchard which never stops bearing "pear upon pear, apple upon apple, cluster upon cluster, and fig upon fig," and where the farewells as he leaves would be grateful to the most exacting god. It is the case as well in any household we are privileged to see, and certainly in that one which Penelope is keeping for Odysseus to see again. Telemachus and Peisistratus depart from the palace of Menelaus with their chariots full of shining gifts which match the exalted compliments ringing in their ears. As they speed homeward over the sand—for houses in the Odyssey are far apart, and the hooves of horses have much flying to do—they have leisure to reflect upon the splendid, spacious world they live in.

Even Calypso in her cave, though doubtless in her divinity she could have lived without effort, keeps excellent house. When Hermes arrived there with the message that she must release Odysseus he found that "a great fire was burning on the hearth, and from afar over the isle there was a fragrance of cleft cedar and juniper, as they burned; but she within was singing with a sweet voice as she went to and fro before the loom, weaving with a golden shuttle." And outside the cave she tends a Homeric garden—rich vines fed by four fountains, and beyond them soft meadows of violet and parsley.

We are so long in Penelope's house, once we arrive, that we grow accustomed to its beauty and begin to take it for granted. But it is the most interesting of all the establishments, as of course it should be. The hall of weapons, the mistress's high chamber, the great hall where the suitors revel, the corridors where mendicants can sit and gnaw the bones thrown at them, the cups, the plates, the tables, the tended fires, and the soft fleeces that line chairs—the poem lives here, as well as in the outlying premises of the swineherd and among the rows of trees Laertes once planted, during eleven of its books, and makes itself at home. When the suitors are killed there is much blood to be cleaned up, and we are told how this is done. "First they bore forth the bodies of the slain and set them down beneath the portico of the well-fenced court, propping them one against the other; and Odysseus himself gave them orders and hastened on the work. Then they cleansed the beautiful high seats and the tables with water and porous sponges. But Telemachus and the neatherd and the swineherd scraped with hoes the floor of the well-built house, and the women bore the scrapings forth and threw them out of doors." No domestic detail is ignored.

The human body in this world is assumed to have great grace, and is treated with utmost affection. It is kissed all over—on the head, the shoulders, the hands, and finally where it is brightest, on "both beautiful eyes." The person of Odysseus must be beautified on numerous occasions, for his rough adventures make him a sorry sight, and as such he is not fit to be seen by the fine folk of the tale. Nausicaa of the white arms, the child princess of Phaeacia who is washing garments at the shore when Odysseus is cast up there, is given courage by Athene to look at the strange man, befouled with brine, who stares at her like a rain-beaten lion. But his attendant goddess soon makes him more presentable:

With water from the river goodly Odysseus washed from his skin the brine which clothed his back and broad shoulders, and from his head he wiped the scurf of the unresting sea. But when he had washed his whole body and anointed himself with oil, and had put on him the raiment which the unwedded maid had given him, then Athene, the daughter of Zeus, made him taller to look upon and mightier, and from his head she made the locks to flow in curls like unto the hyacinth flower. And as when a man overlays silver with gold, a cunning workman whom Hephaestus and Pallas Athene have taught all manner of craft, and full of grace is the work he produces, even so the goddess shed grace upon his head and shoulders.

A similar transformation is worked before he offers himself to the sight of Alcinous and his court; and exactly the same words are used to describe his being made ready for Penelope. In the case of Laertes, however, beautification comes after he has been made happy by the sight of Odysseus, not before. For the old man too receives the attention of Athene, growing in stature and might, so that his son, seeing him come forth from the bath, marvels at him and is glad.

The deities of the poem are seldom formidable like those of the Iliad. Even Poseidon, who causes Odysseus endless trouble, is not the terrible force that waited to level the wall before Troy. He is rather the god of shipwreck, presiding over accidents and preparing further toils. The Cyclopes over whom he watches wish only to be left alone, and indeed Odysseus is not attractive when he disturbs the solitude of Polyphemus, however exciting the hazards of the game played in a smoky cave where sheep and men are eaten with identical relish. Odysseus, describing the adventure to Alcinous, speaks with the condescension of a civilized man concerning this "overweening and lawless folk"

who, trusting in the immortal gods, plant nothing with their hands nor plough; but all these things spring up for them without sowing or ploughing, wheat, and barley, and vines, which bear the rich clusters of wine, and the rain of Zeus gives them increase. Neither assemblies for council have they, nor appointed laws, but they dwell on the peaks of lofty mountains in hollow caves, and each one is lawgiver to his children and his wives, and they reck nothing one of another.

The Cyclopes, that is to say, dwell in primitive peace, innocent of law and war. They are earth-born, and live in simplicity.

The immortals most native to the Odyssey are Hermes and Athene, because they are the most beautiful. The divine messenger whom Zeus sends to Calypso goes as the poem likes all things to go, speedily, with strength and grace.

Straightway he bound beneath his feet his beautiful sandals, immortal, golden, which were wont to bear him over the waters of the sea and over the boundless land swift as the blasts of the wind. And he took the wand wherewith he lulls to sleep the eyes of whom he will, while others again he awakens even out of slumber. With this in his hand the strong Argeïphontes flew. On to Pieria he stepped from the upper air, and swooped down upon the sea, and then sped over the wave like a bird, the cormorant, which in quest of fish over the dread gulfs of the unresting sea wets its thick plumage in the brine. In such wise did Hermes ride upon the multitudinous waves.

But Athene is the divine heroine of the tale. She is its presiding genius, memorable forever.

Athene is never long absent from Odysseus' life, and consequently from our sight. As a young maiden carrying a pitcher, as a young herdsman of sheep, as a woman "comely and tall, and skilled in glorious handiwork," and finally as the swallow that flies up to the roof-beam of the smoky hall in Ithaca where Odysseus is warring with the suitors—as anything that takes her charming fancy she comes when Odysseus needs her; or when, as sometimes it is possible to imagine, she desires to see this mortal for whom she has such deathless affection. "Hard is it, goddess," he tells her once, "for a mortal man to know thee when he meets thee, how wise soever he be, for thou takest what shape thou wilt." But he is only complaining of his supreme good fortune, for she is such a companion as any man might desire. The two of them are almost lovers. "I cannot leave thee in thy sorrow," she says, "for thou art soft of speech, keen of wit, and prudent." These are the reasons she chooses to give for the delight she takes in him—and takes particularly in his lies. When he has told her one of them she smiles and strokes his hand, changing herself to the form of a woman as she says:

Cunning must he be and knavish, who would go beyond thee in all manner of guile, aye, though it were a god that met thee. Bold man, crafty in counsel, insatiate in deceit, not even in thine own land, it seems, wast thou to cease from guile and deceitful tales, which thou lovest to the bottom of thine heart. But come, let us no longer talk of this, being both well versed in craft.… Now am I come hither to weave a plan for thee.

She has loved his pretense that he is a stranger to the Ithaca whither she brought him. There was no good reason for his lie. It was merely his talent at work, and she adores his talent, as he on every occasion adores her. In the likeness of Mentes, and later on of Mentor, she has been of assistance to his son; and once she sent a phantom to his wife, so that Penelope might cease her weeping and recover the warm comfort of sleep. Now that Odysseus is home she is constantly at his side, taking clever care of him as he proceeds with his revenge. The goddess who had guided him to Phaeacia and exposed him to Nausicaa attends to each necessary detail. She assures him of success; she bears a golden lamp before him when he and Telemachus need light; she maddens the wooers and makes them miss their aim; she delays the dawn. And once she appears to him in manifest presence. Telemachus, who is with him in the swineherd's hut, does not notice her there. "But Odysseus saw her, and the hounds, and they barked not, but with whining slunk in fear to the further side of the farmstead."

The mortal she never deserts is due the preeminence his poem gives him. Odysseus is built into the Odyssey as the olive tree was built into his bed. Many another person is of the clearest interest. Eurycleia, the truehearted dame who guards the treasure room and tries to keep the young master from going on his journey to Pylos, but who when he has gone is strict with Penelope lest she grieve foolishly and disturb Laertes with the news; who rejoices over the death of the suitors a little too soon to suit Odysseus, though he is more than ready to let her give him the list of the maids who must be hanged; who hovers always in the house, a servant and yet the mistress of her ancient self—Eurycleia is one of Rembrandt's women, so carved and so lighted. Nausicaa at the other extreme of life, wondering whether such a man as Odysseus—of all men—might be her husband, and when he sets sail reminding him of what he owes her, is a maiden with white arms who flashes at the center of the poem, an image never to be lost from that essential place. Telemachus, who wants so badly to be older and wiser than he is, remains boyish to the end, when he commits the error of leaving the door of the storeroom open, and apologizes for it. Odysseus magnanimously discusses things with him as man to man, but his life is yet to be. The nicest stroke lavished upon his character is that in which Homer has him refuse the gift of horses from Menelaus because there is no room for horses on rocky Ithaca. But he speaks up for his little country, saying it is "pleasanter than one that pastures horses." And Menelaus smiles, stroking the boy's hand.

Penelope is not privileged to be a heroine of tragedy; the hard heart that Telemachus laments in her is something he only thinks is there. What actually is there we discover almost as soon as the poem begins. It is a pure capacity for feeling, and for saying, or singing, what is felt. That she is wrong about the facts— Odysseus is coming, and Telemachus will return from Lacedaemon—does not qualify the force of her grief when she fears that both may be lost; it merely makes her a lyric heroine.

And on her fell a cloud of soul-consuming grief, and she had no more the heart to sit upon one of the many seats that were in the room, but down upon the threshold of her fair-wrought chamber she sank, moaning piteously, and round about her wailed her handmaids.

"Hear me, my friends, for to me the Olympian has given sorrow above all the women who were bred and born with me. For long since I lost my noble husband of the lion heart.… And now again my well-loved son have the storm-winds swept away from our halls without tidings, nor did I hear of his setting forth."

It is madness in the suitors to desire a woman who will never be out of love with Odysseus, or, as she says to them when she proposes the trial of the bow, with this fair house "which methinks I shall ever remember even in my dreams." She may be chargeable with lyric exaggeration when she insists: "All excellence of mine, both of beauty and of form, the immortals destroyed on the day when the Argives embarked for Ilios, and with them went my husband." Yet Athene is sufficiently aware of what twenty years can do in such a case to see that she must make Penelope's face fair with the ambrosial balm of no less a beauty than Cytherea's herself, that she must increase her stature and stateliness, and leave her whiter than new-sawn ivory. The function of Penelope is to intensify our excitement as we see Odysseus approach the climax of his homecoming, and she performs it by providing a series of scenes in which he is so near to her, and yet so unknown, that suspense can scarcely go further. Not the least rich of these is concerned with the dreams they have of each other during the last night before the suitors are slain.

No reader of the Iliad forgets Priam's description of Odysseus when in the third book he discusses with Helen the Greek warriors they can see from the walls:

Come now, tell me also of yonder man, dear child, who he is. Shorter is he by a head than Agamemnon, son of Atreus, but broader of shoulder and of chest to look upon. His battlegear lieth upon the bounteous earth, but himself he rangeth like the bell-wether of a herd through the ranks of warriors. Like a ram he seemeth to me, a ram of thick fleece, that paceth through a great flock of white ewes.

Or the answer which Antenor adds to Helen's; for Antenor had once entertained both Menelaus and Odysseus when they came to Troy on an embassage concerning Helen:

Now when they mingled with the Trojans, as they were gathered together, while men stood up Menelaus overtopped all with his broad shoulders; howbeit when the twain were seated Odysseus was the more royal. When they began to weave the web of speech, Menelaus in truth spake fluently, with few words, but very clearly. But whenever Odysseus of many wiles arose, he would stand and look down with eyes fixed upon the ground, and his staff he would move neither backwards nor forwards, but would hold it stiff, like a man of no understanding; thou wouldst have deemed him a churlish man and a fool. But when he uttered his great voice from his chest, and words like snowflakes on a winter's day, then could no mortal man beside vie with Odysseus.

And in the funeral games for Patroclus this burly fellow, with a torso longer than his legs, had taken many prizes—sometimes trickily, sometimes with Athene's aid. Even then he had not been young. Antilochus had marveled at his swiftness of foot in a race run with men perhaps no more than half his age. "Odysseus is of an earlier generation and of earlier men—a green old age is his, men say." That was how Antilochus explained the success of Odysseus. The immortals show special honor to older men.

But the favors of Athene are bestowed here upon a man who is neither young nor old. A son of Alcinous observes at Phaeacia: "In build, surely, he is no mean man, in thighs and calves, and in his two arms above, his stout neck, and his great might. In no wise does he lack aught of the strength of youth, but he has been broken by many troubles." And Odysseus, replying to the taunts of Euryalus, admits that he may have lost something in his passage through wars of men and the grievous waves. It is hard to see, however, what he has lost. The mortal to whom Athene is so faithful seems to have everything still, and timelessly. It is only to those at Ithaca who cannot see through the disguise she has given him that he manifests the feebleness of age. To be sure, the disguise is good. Athene shrivels his skin, she makes him bald, she clothes him in tatters, she sticks a staff in his hand, and she slings over his back a miserable wallet full of holes. And above all she makes good her final promise: "I will dim thy two eyes that were so beautiful." The brine-crusted, sea-beaten stranger washed naked on the shore of Phaeacia was less transformed than this; he still looked like a lion to the startled Nausicaa, and in her childish fancy he might some day be her husband.

The entrance of Odysseus is not until the fifth book; not, that is to say, until it has been prepared with all the skill available to Homer, which means all the skill there is. We have seen him awaited by everyone at Ithaca; we have heard him praised by Nestor and Menelaus; we have learned that he is "great-hearted," and that as a father—three persons say this, including Athene—he is "gentle." Now on Ogygia, the island of Calypso, we find him longing for home. He admits to the immortal nymph that Penelope is less beautiful than she. "But even so I wish and long day by day to reach my home. And if again some god shall smite me on the wine-dark sea, I will endure it, having in my breast a heart that endures affliction."

The stout heart he has is altogether his, and human, just as his tongue is what a good mind makes it. For the mortal nature of which he boasts at Phaeacia shows itself in both body and mind. He is not Samson. He is spirit, too, and art personified. He is good at anything; "no man can vie with me," he tells Eumaeus, "in piling well a fire, in splitting dry faggots, in carving and roasting meat, and in pouring wine." This is when he is applying to the swineherd for a position as servant to the suitors, but we do not doubt that the real Odysseus has watched every human action and can imitate it. He makes convincing gestures among the wooers in the hall, "beginning on the right, stretching out his hand on every side, as if he had been long a beggar."

To say that he is mind as well as body is not to say that he forgets his body. The man who had urged Achilles to eat before he mourned Patroclus still has an appetite. He curses this "ravening belly" which demands so much attention, but he seems not to be sorry that he is alive there also. Neither is it to say that he denies himself the pleasures of possession. In one of his lying tales about himself he says it is greed that so long delays his return from Troy. "Yea, and Odysseus would long since have been here," he tells Penelope, "only it seemed to his mind more profitable to gather wealth by roaming over the wide earth." Greed is not the word, but it is true that when he awakes at Ithaca he counts the presents Alcinous has given him, thinking the sailors may have slipped something out and gone away with it. Nothing has disappeared, and he is pleased. He is the sort of man who expresses himself in his possessions. He must have everything right—his bed was so and so, and it should still be that way. His bow with its long pedigree, once he has it in his hands, is fingered carefully: turned round and round, and tried this way and that, "lest worms might have eaten the horns." Penelope, taking it from its peg in the storeroom, had suddenly sat down with it on her knees, and wept. A thing that Odysseus owns is Odysseus.

His suspicion of the Phaeacian sailors is in character. He suspects everybody, including the gods. He is slow to believe either that his own luck is turning or that other people mean the good things they say. He has seen too many chances unwisely taken, and been too many times deceived. He moves through the final stages of recognition and revenge with a professional caution. He is no amateur in adventure, even though he is blessed with its essential spirit, the spirit of curiosity. His curiosity is always at war with his caution. There is no need for him to see what the Cyclopes are like, and his men tell him so, protesting. But there across the water, as darkness comes down, he notices smoke and hears the voices of men, sheep, and goats, and the first thing he must do next morning is to set off in that direction, though it will mean the loss of comrades who go with him. The Sirens recognize in Odysseus a victim made to order: a man not only curious, but certain to take delight in songs concerning himself. For that is what they will sing, they say, if he comes close enough to hear. It takes the strongest ropes to keep him bound upright by his mast, safe from the seduction.

Suspicion and curiosity in Odysseus are the signs of a nimble wit that explores the ground before him. A still more famous one is his guile; he is ever ready with devices which his imagination, measuring persons and predicaments, is quick and accurate to supply him with. He is at home in the entire world, for he is never lost from himself. "Thou art a knave," Calypso exclaims to him in admiration when he demands that she swear an oath not to deal doubly with him; for that is what she might indeed have done. As he sees his strategy working against the Cyclops his heart laughs within him, proud of its cunning. Polyphemus had supposed that the Odysseus destined to come and blind him would be a giant like himself, not this puny weakling who first overpowered him with wine. The greatness of Odysseus is where the Cyclops cannot see it, in his wit. It is what makes him so successful in flattery, as when he calls Nausicaa a queen. It is the chief thing that guarantees Athene's continuing love.

The song of the Sirens would have seduced his vanity, if vanity is the name for the delight he takes in himself. "My fame reaches unto heaven," he tells Alcinous; and the old beggar of Ithaca tells Penelope that her husband is "like unto the gods." The mountain-top which Polyphemus hurls after his retreating ship does not discourage him from shouting back: "Cyclops, if any one of mortal men shall ask thee about the shameful blinding of thine eye, say that Odysseus, the sacker of cities, blinded it, even the son of Laertes, whose home is in Ithaca." He cannot hear too much from Eumaeus about the Odysseus who is gone; and his challenge to Eurymachus the suitor, when Eurymachus has insulted his character and strength, loses no glory by being for the moment hypothetical:

Eurymachus, I would that we two might have a match in working, in the season of spring, when the long days come, at mowing the grass, I with a curved scythe in my hands and thou with another like it, and that the grass might be in plenty that so we might test our work, fasting till late evening. Or I would again that there were oxen to drive—best there are, tawny and large, both well fed with grass, of like age and like power to bear the yoke, tireless in strength—and that there were a field of four acres, and the soil should yield before the plough: then shouldest thou see me, whether or no I could cut a straight furrow to the end.

If these are boasts, they are the boasts of one who is praising life. If Odysseus loves himself, he loves the moving world still more. That world, concentrated in him, is what he loves and praises.

Peisistratus touching his horses with the whip so that they speed onward, nothing loath; Demodocus sitting and singing with a cup of wine which he has been shown how to reach with his hand, for he is blind; Telemachus standing by his father's side with sword and spear, armed with gleaming bronze; Achilles in the underworld, departing with long strides over the field of asphodel, joyful because he has been told that his son is preëminent—these, with Nestor on his white stones, Nausicaa with her white arms, Menelaus under his golden roof, Eurycleia with her torches and linen, Penelope in her grave chamber, are precious persons who adorn the tale created to contain them. But Odysseus is priceless, and he is not contained. The tale is of a dark storm that gathered over Ithaca, growing in secret mass until the land could be wholly cleansed by the lightning of its lord. This lord, still free, walks in the world. There has never been another poem to match either his or that of his young comrade-in-arms Achilles.

E. M. W. Tillyard (essay date 1954)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3113

SOURCE: "Homer: The Odyssey," in The English Epic and Its Background, Oxford University Press, 1954, pp. 21-39.

[Tillyard was an English scholar of Renaissance literature who remains highly reputed for his studies of John Milton, William Shakespeare, and the epic form. In the essay below, Tillyard details similarities between the Iliad and the Odyssey, maintaining that they are different but equally brilliant poems.]

Some readers think the Odyssey greatly inferior to the Iliad. T. E. Lawrence's chilly preface to his translation is a modern example of such an opinion, and Longinus's remark on the Odyssey, with its fabulous element, being the work of an old man is an ancient one. To both Pope gives the best answer in his postscript to his translation:

Whoever reads the Odyssey with an eye to the Iliad, expecting to find it of the same character, or of the same sort of spirit, will be grievously deceived, and err against the first principle of Criticism, which is to consider the nature of the piece, and the intent of its author.… The Odyssey is the reverse of the Iliad, in Moral, Subject, Manner and Style; to which it has no sort of relation, but as the story happens to follow in order of time, and as some of the same persons are actors in it. Yet from this incidental connection many have been misled to regard it as a continuation or second part, and thence to expect a parity of character inconsistent with its nature.

But Pope recognises common qualities too, and thinks that by comparing these you can judge whether Homer's powers have declined in the Odyssey. Comparing the common parts, he says we shall find in each the same vivacity and fecundity of invention, the same life and strength of imaging and colouring, the particular descriptions as highly painted, the figures as bold, the metaphors as animated, and the numbers as harmonious and various. And he thinks that in its way the simple narrative perfection of the Odyssey cost Homer as much to achieve as the sublime of the Iliad. Here I need do no more than use Pope's authority for asserting that the parts of the Odyssey are of high quality and that there is no initial bar to its epic character.

The Odyssey embraces the same area of life as the Iliad, but it sets out from a different point of the compass and chooses different portions for prolonged occupation. The Greek political unit of Homer's day was the city-state with its not too autocratic king; and however many towns were sacked, the norm was peaceful life in such a city. Whereas the Iliad dealt with exceptional happenings and their results, though constantly reminding us of the norm, the Odyssey was centred in it. This is clear from the outset. After the opening scene among the gods we are shown Ithaca and how the lawless suitors defy decency and threaten the domestic order. But that order, though threatened, still persists, and it is the moral centre of the poem. Telemachus, Odysseus's heir, is still in occupation of his own house and feels himself responsible for his mother, even if the suitors consume his father's goods. He succeeds in calling a general assembly at Ithaca and in appealing to the people at large against the suitors. And we gather that the people are on the side of order, though the suitors terrorise them. Anyhow Mentor still has the freedom of speech to blame the people for their lethargy.

There is another touch at the beginning which both confirms the domestic theme and links the Odyssey with the Iliad. It occurs in the first book during the conversation between Telemachus and Athena in the guise of Mentes. Athena has complimented Telemachus on his bearing and says he indeed resembles his father. To which Telemachus replies.…

My mother indeed says I am his son. But for myself I am ignorant, for no one ever knew his own father. If only I had been the son of a fortunate man enjoying his possessions when death overtook him! But as it is, he is the most miserable of mortal men, the man, I mean, who they say is my father, now you ask me the question.

Telemachus yearns for the well-ordered state, with the old, legitimate king, dying among his possessions. But he also recalls by contrast Achilles and his problems as set forth in the ninth book of the Iliad. Whereas Peleus had grown old among his possessions and his son had chosen to seek honour in Troy rather than to repeat the pattern set by his father, Odysseus was growing into middle age through all kinds of foreign adventure while his goods were being dissipated and his son, unlike Achilles, was trying to regain the ordered social life. In both poems these elements are the same; they are contrasted not in themselves but in the way they are blended.

When the scene shifts from Ithaca, we witness the quiet routine and the ordered transaction of civilised life in Pylos and Sparta. Even in Phaeacia, where the inhabitants belong to an antique world nearer the gods and where supernatural events are habitual, the prevailing temper is one of domestic order. And the main action consists not only, indeed not principally, in the return of the wandering hero but in re-establishing the domestic and political norm in Ithaca, which though terribly threatened has not quite given way. This great action is completed only in the last book. There we are shown Laertes, now recovered and rejuvenated, joining son and grandson to repel the dead suitors' kinfolk. The proper hereditary norm has been re-established. And in the final heavenly conversation, between Zeus and Athena, it is decreed that Odysseus and the suitors' kin shall be reconciled and he reign in perpetuity. The old mutual goodwill shall be restored.

If the centre of the Odyssey is different from the Iliad's, so too is the style. I noted how in the first book of the Iliad the principal episode, the quarrel between Agamemnon and Achilles, was followed by the subsidiary episode, much quieter but equally intense, of the two heralds fetching away Briseis from Achilles's tent; and I mentioned a slight suggestion of comedy. In the Odyssey this vein of quiet, intense description predominates and it answers the mainly social theme. This uncommon clarity of description, where the details are few but necessary and telling to the utmost, is what constitutes the Odyssey's basic charm. It depends on powers of observation and enjoyment primitively fresh but wielded by a highly sophisticated art. Here are two samples of Homer's economical clarity in the Odyssey. In the last book Odysseus and Telemachus, fearing revenge for having killed the suitors, withdraw from the town and seek out Laertes, now retired from his rule and living a farmer's life in an up-country farm. The context is important: Laertes does not know of his son's return and victory and that there is now no reason for his living in this rough squalor. To Odysseus, now triumphant, the squalor must have appeared doubly pathetic. These things we must bear in mind as we read Homer's description of Laertes on his farm … :

And he found his father alone, in the neat vineyard, breaking up the soil round a vine-stock. He was wearing a dirty tunic, disgracefully patched, his shins bound round with stitched leather gaiters to prevent scratches, with gloves on his hands against the brambles, while on his head, to make matters worse, he had a cap of goatskin.

There is much of the Odyssey here in little: the typically human, pathetic situation; the details clear and separate and not too many; the slight comedy of the old man's very forgivable masochism in dressing just a little more miserably than he need, the goatskin hat being (unlike Robinson Crusoe's) more Spartan than the case required. The other passage describes Odysseus, waiting for sleep in beggar's disguise in his own house, hearing the girls of his household who were the suitors' mistresses stealing away to join their lovers. Again, the context is essential, Odysseus has had a terrible day, suffering insults in his own home from the suitors, on whom he is thinking out revenge. The girls' laughter breaks in on an overwrought man.…

So Odysseus lay there unable to sleep, thinking out mischief for the suitors; when out of the women's quarters came the girls whom the suitors had for mistresses, laughing and chaffing among themselves. And his heart was stirred up within him.

As the final touch to an exhausting day's experience, could anything be more apt?

Of English authors Chaucer comes nearest Homer in this convincing power of description, the power which is so certain of itself that the reader's suspension of disbelief is not merely willing but as instantaneous as the working of the new anaesthetics. This is Canacee retiring from the feast early so as not to spoil her complexion:

She was ful mesurable, as wommen be;
For of hir fader hadde she take leve
To goon to reste soone after it was eve.
Hir liste nat appalled for to be
Ne on the morwe unfeestlich for to se,
And slepte hire firste sleep and thanne awook.

And this is the gigantic stadium Theseus put up for the tournament between Palamon and Arcite:

The circuit a myle was aboute,
Walled of stoon and dyched al withoute.
Round was the shop in manere of compas,
Ful of degrees, the heighte of sixty pas,
That whan a man was set on o degree
He letted not his felowe for to see.

It might be the first grandstand ever to be constructed and Chaucer the first man to see it, but the art has the smoothness of a finished diplomat.

Set against the realism of the domestic norm is the element of the fabulous. And here one must guard against the error of Longinus and of many (if not most) recent readers: that of giving this element a dominant place. Through the way Homer ordered his plot it is obvious that he meant the fabulous element not to dominate but to set off the domestic. The domestic theme is firmly established in the first four books with the troubles of Penelope and Telemachus in Ithaca and Telemachus's journey to the Peloponnese; it remains strong in the scenes on Calypso's island and in Phaeacia, that is for four more books; and the fabulous element dominates only in Books Nine to Twelve, making indeed a wonderful diversity and variety, but remaining strictly subordinate. A section of antiquity was wiser than Longinus in this matter, for the papyrus finds point to the last four books having been the most popular in Egypt between the third century before and the third after Christ. Of course, there is no denying the enchantment of the wanderings of Odysseus. The point is that it is more than self-valuable. The love of home can never be truly perceived in separation from the other love of freedom to wander and from the desire for change; it can never be truly prized in separation from the chaos and barbarism out of which the domestic pieties were painfully won. Homer gives us the whole picture.

There is another contrast: important both in itself and in the connections it makes with the Iliad. Right through the poem the misfortune of Agamemnon and the guilt of Clytaemnestra are compared with the better domestic fortune of Odysseus and with Penelope's virtue; and the action is not complete till Agamemnon in Hades hears from the suitors' ghosts of domestic reunion in Ithaca. That comparison Homer plainly meant to be as important as it is close. We hear of it at the very beginning in the council in heaven, where Aegisthus, Agamemnon, Clytaemnestra, and Orestes all are mentioned. Homer wished us to think of a whole pattern of correspondences: Agamemnon-Odysseus, Clytaemnestra-Penelope, Aegisthus-the suitors, Orestes-Telemachus. Only, in one story the issue is unhappy, the wife is false, and the son has to do an unnatural deed; while in the other the issue is happy, the wife faithful, and the son's deed of violence legitimate. But the two stories are not only parallel, they typify the stories of all the Achaean chiefs who had survived the Trojan War. In fact, the story of Odysseus's return corresponds to the wrath of Achilles in implying a wider context or theme: the combined home-comings of the Homeric heroes.

The Odyssey usually passes for a comedy, and rightly. But tragedy is never far off, and we are constantly reassured that the author had it at his call. Telemachus's helpless plight among the suitors is almost intolerable. His growing manhood was constantly being insulted. Penelope's grief for Odysseus is great and prolonged. It culminates in her refusal to acknowledge him when he declares himself; and the lovely passage when her reluctant self-defence breaks barely escapes from tragedy to pathos, like the recognition scenes in Pericles and the Winter's Tale. Odysseus's longing for home is intense and almost tragic when thwarted for so long. But though intense it is steady and untempestuous: unlike the emotion that corresponds to it in the Iliad the anger of Achilles. Nevertheless, Homer at least twice reassures us that Odysseus too can feel violently as well as obstinately. The first time is when, having bent his bow, he leaps from his rags, pours out his arrows at his feet, tells the suitors that he will now strike a target which no man yet has struck, and shoots the chief of the suitors, Antinous. The rest, though thinking the blow accidental, are about to set upon him and kill him, when he throws at them his tremendous indictment.… :

You dogs, you never thought I should come back from the people of Troy; and so you wasted my household goods, you forced the maid-servants to sleep with you. You wooed my wife behind my back though I was still alive, fearing neither the gods in high heaven nor any retribution that might fall on you from men. And now, for all of you, your fate is sealed.

And terror seized them all. And right at the end of the poem, when the suitors' friends and relatives seek revenge, Odysseus becomes a terrific figure, giving a great shout, swooping on them like an eagle, until restrained by a thunderbolt from Zeus. It is almost as if Homer, having rounded off the domestic theme with the union of the three generations in the resistance to the suitors' avengers, wished as a last touch to establish a momentary union with his other great poem.

The Iliad is not worse plotted than the Odyssey, but the lines of the Odyssey are more immediately clear: with the result that the Odyssey has supplied the classic shape for the formal epic. Both poems begin at a late stage of the total action, but in the Iliad past events are recalled by the unemphatic method of scattered hints. The Odyssey by making one of the characters narrate past history established a great precedent. The Aeneid, the Lusiad, Paradise Lost all follow it. The precedent also of making a journey (or journeys) lead to a narrower stage of action was also set by the Odyssey. Here the resemblance with Paradise Lost is particularly close. In the Odyssey the various travels converge in the narrow stage of the palace hall in Ithaca, after which the scene expands somewhat to include the island. In Paradise Lost the various travels from Hell and Heaven converge in Adam's garden, after which the scene, though never expanding to its old dimensions, includes the earth. But the Odyssean analogy is not confined to the formal epic. The journey is a simple and universal symbol of human life; and the voyager, of man living his normal span. The stock phrase 'soul-Odyssey' unconsciously testifies to the fact of this symbol and to the instinct to see it in Homer. Man's pilgrimage was a great medieval theme: so it is the Odyssey above all epics that stands, by reason of its plot, at the head of a great succession.

As in the Iliad, there is abundant evidence that Homer held the whole content of the Odyssey in his mind during composition. One piece of evidence has been mentioned already in another context: Homer's unrelaxed attention to the parallel theme of Agamemnon and his household and his care to complete the theme by causing the suitors' ghosts to bear to Agamemnon in Hades the news of Odysseus's return and of Penelope's successful resistance and fidelity. Another piece is the careful mention in the first book (189-90) of Laertes living aloof on his farm with an old attendant, nursing his grief; a mention to be taken up in the last book by the wonderful description of Laertes in his orchard, quoted earlier. Again, just as Thetis is introduced in the first and last books of the Iliad, so an assembly is summoned in the first and last books of the Odyssey. The people do the wrong thing in both, but in different ways. In the first, they fail to speak up in support of Telemachus through fear of the suitors; in the second they are frivolously weak in supporting Eupeithes, the father of Antinous, in his demand for vengeance, and, far from remaining silent, they burst into an uproar. Homer had the assembly in the first book in his mind till he was near the end of his poem.

In this matter of will-power and the predetermined plan as revealed in the composition of the Odyssey it is more apt to express astonished admiration than to present more evidence for the obvious.

W. B. Stanford (essay date 1954)

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SOURCE: "The Untypical Hero," in The Ulysses Theme: A Study in the Adaptability of a Traditional Hero, second edition, Basil Blackwell, 1963, pp. 66-80.

[Stanford was a writer on Greek literature, politics, and ecclesiastical affairs. In this essay, first published in 1954, he explores Odysseus's unconventionality as a hero, noting that Homer "skilfully succeeded in distinguishing Odysseus by slight deviations from the norm in almost every heroic feature."]

There is nothing freakish about Odysseus's personality in the Homeric poems. In the Iliad Homer endows him with the normal qualities of an Achaean hero—princely birth, good physique, strength, skill in athletics and battle, courage, energy, and eloquence. But in most of these Odysseus is surpassed or equalled by some of his colleagues at Troy. The Atreidae and Aeacids are of more illustrious lineage. Agamemnon and Menelaus are of more impressive stature. Achilles and Ajax surpass him in strength and force of arms. Diomedes is more gallant and dashing in battle. Even in oratory he is not unrivalled.

The fact is, of course, that Odysseus is not the chief hero of the Iliad. Achilles, and after him Ajax, Hector, Diomedes, and the Atreidae, are more prominent. Not that the Iliad presents Odysseus as a minor hero: he has his triumphs in the council and in the assembly, on the field of battle and in the athletic contests. But his unique personality is not allowed to divert attention from the Iliad's main themes, the wrath of Achilles and the death of Hector. On the other hand, in the Odyssey he, 'the man of many turns', is the main theme, and his personal qualities become specially luminous against the sordidness of his environment, as he makes his way among foolish shipmates, ruthless monsters, and greedy usurpers. Yet here, too, Odysseus meets his equals at times. Eumaeus the swineherd shows a loyalty and gentle courtesy quite as fine as his, and Penelope is wily enough to outwit him in their final recognition scene.

By endowing Odysseus with a share of the normal heroic qualities Homer avoided any suggestion that he was an eccentric figure or a narrowly limited type. But at the same time Homer, especially in the Iliad, skilfully succeeded in distinguishing Odysseus by slight deviations from the norm in almost every heroic feature. In his ancestry there was the unique Autolycan element. In physique he had the unusually short legs and long torso described by Antenor and Helen in Il. 3, 190 ff. He reminded Helen of a sturdy ram, she said, as he marshalled the Achaean ranks. Any hint of the ludicrous in this comparison is removed by Antenor's subsequent description of Odysseus's imposing presence. But there is something a little unaristocratic, or at least non-Achaean, in this portrait, contrasting with the tall, long-limbed stature of the other heroes. Napoleon would have looked like that beside Wellington; or Cuchulain, that 'short, dark man', among the taller champions of the Red Branch Knights. Possibly Homer meant to imply something more than a personal peculiarity here. It may be intended as an indication of some racial difference between Odysseus and the other Achaeans. Perhaps—but it is a pure guess—Homer regarded Odysseus as being partly a survival of the pre-Greek stock in Greece, an 'Aegean' or 'Mediterranean' type. At any rate, the physical difference serves to mark Odysseus out as exceptional, without giving an impression of ugliness, oddity, or deformity.

One finds the same distinction in a quite different kind of trait—in Odysseus's unusually frank and realistic remarks on the importance of food in human life. All the Homeric heroes were hearty eaters and drinkers. But, whether by accident or convention, none of them except Odysseus had anything notable to say about eating. Perhaps it was regarded as a plebeian subject, unfit for high-born Achaeans; or perhaps they simply were not interested in it as a subject for conversation. It was typical of the average Homeric hero that he was prepared on occasion to ignore the need for food, both for himself and for others. The contrast with Odysseus's attitude is well illustrated in a scene between him and Achilles in Iliad Nineteen. Achilles, now equipped with new armour and ready for battle, is impatient to launch a general attack against the Trojans to take vengeance for Patroclus's death. Odysseus objects. The Greek soldiers have been kept awake all night in lamenting Patroclus and in preparing his body for burial. The Trojans, on the contrary, have been able to enjoy a quiet supper and a night's rest. Odysseus, not being blinded by personal feeling like Achilles, knows that unless soldiers get a good meal first they will not be able to fight all day: even if they are eager to continue the battle, 'yet their limbs are treacherously weighed down as hunger and thirst overtake them, and their knees fail them as they go'. There is both compassionate understanding and Napoleonic common sense here: the spirit may be willing, but the flesh is weak; an army marches on its stomach. Odysseus adds some further remarks on the strengthening and cheering effect of food and wine, and ends by demanding that the army should have a full meal before being ordered to attack.

Achilles's reply to Odysseus's reasonable objection is characteristic: 'You go and busy yourselves with food: I shall not touch a morsel until Patroclus is avenged. And, let me tell you, if I were in supreme command, the whole army would have to fight fasting, too, till sunset. Then, with vengeance achieved, we should have a great supper.' What is one to call such arrogant confidence as this—with no thought of fatigue or death, no consideration for himself or for others? Is it heroic, or is it schoolboyish? Is it superb singleness of purpose or callow rashness? Odysseus in his reply deftly and gently suggests that youthful heedlessness is partly, at least, to blame. Addressing Achilles with great deference as 'Much the mightiest of the Achaeans' he admits his own inferiority to him in martial valour. But he claims definite superiority in thinking things out. Then after an appeal to Achilles to listen patiently for a moment (Odysseus clearly wants to avoid provoking Achilles's wrath again in any way: but he insists on making his point about the need for food), he emphasizes the danger of fatigue in war, and mildly ridicules Achilles's notion that fasting is a good way for warriors to mourn those slain in battle. Bury the dead with pitiless heart, bewail them for a day, yes—but those who survive must eat to get energy for punishing the enemy. Odysseus is trying to persuade Achilles to eat with the others. If Achilles fights fasting against a well-fed Hector, even Achilles may be conquered. Odysseus's arguments fail, as in the Embassy scene, to overcome Achilles's passionate resolve. But, significantly, Athene intervenes later, at Zeus's request, and feeds Achilles with nectar and ambrosia 'so that', the poet remarks, 'joyless hunger should not reach his knees'. Thus obliquely Homer, Athene, and Zeus agree with Odysseus's advice.

But the typical Homeric hero would probably have admired Achilles's intransigence more than Odysseus's more practical policy. One does in fact find an indication elsewhere in the Iliad that Odysseus had already got a reputation for being too much interested in the pleasures of eating. In Iliad 4, 343-6, Agamemnon accuses Odysseus and the Athenian Menestheus of being quick to hear invitations to a feast, but slow to answer the call to arms. Odysseus emphatically denies any reluctance to join the fight, but he passes over the accusation of unusual alacrity in coming to feasts. Probably he thought it beneath contempt. Yet, as in Agamemnon's accompanying accusation of evil deceitfulness, it may well be that Homer intends us to catch a glimpse here of a general tendency to regard Odysseus as rather more partial to good fare than a hero should have been.

This is uncertain. But there is no uncertainty about the attitude of post-Homeric writers. Attic comedians, fourth-century philosophers, Alexandrian critics, late classical chroniclers, agree in accusing Odysseus of greed and gluttony. They based their slanders chiefly on some of his actions and remarks in the Odyssey which, considered out of their contexts, certainly do give a bad impression. Thus in Od. 6, 250, Odysseus eats 'greedily'. In Od. 7, 215-18 he asks Alcinous to let him go on with his supper without interruption, remarking that there is no more shameful compulsion than that of 'the abominable belly' which compels even a mourner to eat and forget his grief for a while. In Od. 9, 1 ff., after the Phaeacians have given him a splendid banquet, Odysseus pronounces that he knows of no more beautiful consummation in life than a feast with good food, good wine, good song, and general good cheer. Later, after his arrival in Ithaca, when still in his beggar's disguise, Odysseus returns to the theme of hunger and appetite. He tells Eumaeus that it is for the sake of 'the accursed belly' that vagabonds are compelled to suffer all the hardships of wandering from place to place (Od. 15, 344-5). Later he tells Eumaeus again (Od. 17, 286-9) that in his opinion it is impossible to conceal the 'accursed belly' when it is in its full fury: it brings many evils to men, and for its sake men sail the barren seas to attack their enemies. Soon afterwards (vv. 473-4) he attributes a violent assault by Antinous to the promptings of his 'baneful accursed belly'. In the following book he pretends that he wants to attack the rival beggar, Irus, at the behest of 'the evil-working belly' (18, 53-4), but repudiates a suggestion by a Suitor (18, 362-4) that he was good for nothing but gross eating (18, 376-81).

If one remembers that no other hero in the Iliad, nor any Homeric heroine in either poem, even uses the word for 'belly' and still less discusses its effects, it is clear that Odysseus is an untypical hero in this respect. And it is obvious how easy it was for comic writers to portray him as a glutton, courtly critics as a crudely indelicate eater, and philosophers as confirmed voluptuary, by concentrating on a few passages out of their contexts. Thus Plato was shocked at Odysseus's praise of banquets, as being one of the finest 'consummations' in life. But surely the effusive remarks of an after-dinner speaker at a royal banquet are not to be judged as a solemn philosophical pronouncement. Besides, should not Odysseus's more sober aphorisms on the harmful effects of appetite in human life be weighed against this? And should it not have been remembered to Odysseus's credit how he had rejected the temptation of the Lotus-fruit and had resolutely held out against eating the Cattle of the Sun? When he eats 'greedily' after his reception in Alcinous's palace, should we not bear in mind that (apart from a snack from the remains of Nausicaa's picnic in Book Six) he had not eaten for three days and had suffered terrible physical and mental agonies in Poseidon's long storm? Indeed, he had shown supreme self-control during his first supplication to Nausicaa: he had never mentioned food, but modestly asked only for a scrap of clothing and for information about the city. One almost loses patience with armchair critics who censure the conduct of a ravenous shipwrecked mariner for not conforming with the court etiquette of Alexandria or Versailles, and with moralists who demand the scruples of the confessional in the speeches of the banqueting-hall.

Odysseus's remarks on food in the second half of the Odyssey were less criticized, because he was obviously playing up to his rôle as a beggar in all of them. Further, as the Cynics noticed, he was a philosophical beggar. He showed that he understood the effects of appetite on men in general: how it drives men to war as well as to trade; how it moves the languid fingers of the courtier as well as the clutching fists of the starveling outcast. Yet he never suggested, as the more cynical Cynics did, that the belly was lord of all, and that he and his dog Argos were equally its slaves. He simply accepted it as one of the inescapable elemental forces in human life. Heroes like Agamemnon, Ajax, and Achilles, who had, as far as we know, never been compulsorily deprived of food in their lives, could nonchalantly disregard its demands. But Odysseus, by the time of his return to Ithaca, had become painfully familiar with the effects of involuntary hunger. Homer himself, if he was a bard wandering from audience to audience 'for the sake of accursed belly', may well have made Odysseus his own spokesman here. He, too, if we can deduce his personal feelings from the vivid description of the blind bard Demodocus in Od. 8, 62 ff., appreciated the comfort of having a basket of food and a cup of wine within reach to take 'whenever his spirit prompted him'.

The contrast here between the conventional hero's insouciance, or reticence, on the subject of food and Odysseus's frequent attention to it is one of the best illustrations of Odysseus's unconventionality as a hero. But Homer, perhaps for fear that his less philosophical hearers might fail to appreciate this kind of example, also exemplified Odysseus's uniqueness in a small matter that all warriors would notice. It is frequently emphasized in the Odyssey (and also mentioned in Iliad Ten) that Odysseus had unusual skill as an archer. His triumph over the Suitors at the end of the Odyssey depended on this. But only a few, and those not the most illustrious, of the other heroes at Troy show any interest in the use of the bow. Indeed, there are some indications that archery was despised as plebeian or unmanly, much as a medieval knight of the sword and lance scorned to assail another knight with arrows. Perhaps Odysseus was merely old fashioned in his military technique. Or perhaps it was because the plot of the Odyssey demanded a triumph by means of the bow. But the trait does also serve to distinguish him from the other chief heroes. Another feature is far more peculiar. It is once mentioned in the Odyssey that Odysseus possessed, and so he presumably used, poisoned arrows. This, however, like his Autolycan ancestry, is never referred to in the Iliad.

Though Odysseus's Homeric speeches were the admiration of every age of classical rhetoric, their excellence is not that of an orator among tongue-tied men. Oratory was a recognized part of heroic training. Thus in the Embassy scene Achilles's reply is fully as powerful and eloquent as Odysseus's pleadings. At times, too, Nestor's speeches in council are as wise and as cogent as Odysseus's. The difference is not one of skill. It lies more in the fact that, when the other heroes speak, their minds are obsessed with conventions and prerogatives or weakened by passion and self-concern. Achilles's wrath and Nestor's tendency to garrulous reminiscences tend to make their orations more effective as expressions of prejudices and personal feelings than as instruments of policy. In contrast, Odysseus's speeches are strictly functional, as a rule. When he shows passion or introduces a personal touch it is almost always because it will help to achieve his aim—to quell Thersites and to rebuke the wavering Agamemnon or an insolent prince of Phaeacia. Those who consider passionate self-esteem an essential quality of the genuine heroic type may find this kind of self-possession mean or machiavellian. But, as Sophocles indicates in his Ajax, it is the faculty that maintains justice and humanity among passionate men.

Besides this functional difference between Odysseus's speeches and those of other heroes, Homer signalizes his oratory by a peculiar personal trait. In Antenor's speech, as already mentioned, there is a description of Odysseus's curious habitual pose before beginning an important speech. He would stand with his eyes fixed on the ground, his body and gestures stiff 'like an ignorant fellow's'. His voice, Antenor adds, was of great power. But he seems to have controlled this Gladstonian organ with the deftness of a Disraeli: his words came smoothly, lightly, continuously, flake after flake like falling snow—perhaps in the quiet, level tone characteristic of adepts in the art of plausibility. The general effect, we are told, was overwhelming. Homer corroborates this impression in several scenes in the Odyssey, where he describes how Odysseus could hold an audience spellbound 'like a skilled bard'. Homer could hardly have paid a higher tribute to his oratory. Once again he identifies Odysseus's powers with his own.

In the later tradition Odysseus was often accused of cowardice. The charge was based less on incidents mentioned by Homer than on others first recorded in the post-Homeric tradition, Odysseus's attempt to evade conscription, for example, and in later versions of his conduct with Palamedes and Philoctetes. There is nothing of that kind in the Homeric poems. But one ambiguous incident in Iliad Eight left a shadow on his reputation for courage. The circumstances are these. A general rout of the Achaeans has begun. Agamemnon, the two Ajaxes, and Idomeneus retreat rapidly. Nestor is left behind in grave danger. Hector rushes forward to cut him down. Diomedes sees the danger and calls to Odysseus for help in rescuing the old king. 'But', Homer records, 'Odysseus did not hear (or listen to) his call, and sped on to the Achaean ships'. The crucial verb is capable of two interpretations. It was left open to Odysseus's defenders in post-Homeric controversies to argue that Odysseus had simply not heard Diomedes's cry in the confusion of the general retreat. But his detractors could take it as a deliberate ignoring of a comrade's cry for help. Homer's own intention is hidden in the ambiguity. However, no matter what he meant here, he soon makes it clear that none of his heroes attached any blame to Odysseus for his conduct. On the contrary, Odysseus's prestige is at its highest in the next three books.

If one considers the whole of Odysseus's career, a general accusation of cowardice is plainly absurd. In Iliad11, 395 ff., he stands valorously alone against the whole Trojan host. His bravery in the Doloneia is incontestable. Similarly it took the highest courage to vanquish the Cyclops, to resist Scylla, to overthrow the horde of Suitors. Yet Homer does seem to hint occasionally, not at cowardice, but at a kind of tension between prudence and boldness. Thus in Odysseus's brief spell as supreme champion of the Greeks in Iliad Eleven, he pauses for a moment to wonder whether it would not be wiser to retreat with the rest. He immediately reminds himself of his heroic duty, and, with a touch of fatalism, unusual in him, fights on. There is obviously no cowardice in this. On the contrary, the man who fully foresees danger and then goes on to meet it is more truly courageous than a stubborn Ajax or a furious Achilles. The best illustration of this tension between prudence and heroic valour is found in Odysseus's attempt to avoid conscription by feigning madness.… Unfortunately it is not certain that Homer knew the legend.

A commentator on Euripides's version of the Cyclops incident has seen something of a Hamletesque figure in Odysseus as portrayed there. This was possible in the atmosphere of the late fifth century. But Homer's Odysseus is obviously no indecisive princeling sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought. His decisive boldness is made clear both at the beginning of the Iliad in his handling of the Thersites affair, and at the outset of his Odyssean adventures when he sacks Ismarus like any Elizabethan buccaneer or Spanish conquistador. He is 'the great-hearted', 'the sacker of cities', as well as the prudent and resourceful Odysseus. Yet in both these bold deeds his prudence is not entirely in abeyance. While he faces Thersites uncompromisingly, he coaxes, amuses, and flatters the other Greeks. Again in the sack of Ismarus he orders a withdrawal as soon as a counter-attack seems likely. His comrades refuse, with disastrous results. Odysseus calls them 'great fools' for not obeying his prudent command. But when he first gave it, they, for their part, may well have thought his prudence was mere timidity.

The fact is that, even though no real cowardice was involved, Odysseus's gift for anticipating dangers and his readiness to avoid them when it best served his purpose, did separate him from the normal hero of his time. Whether one admires it or not, a certain mulish stubbornness in the manner of Ajax, a reckless élan like that of Diomedes, a readiness to let everything be turned upside down for the sake of some point of honour in the manner of Achilles, was more characteristic of the early heroic temperament than a prudent resourcefulness. When the typical hero found his path to fame and glory blocked, his instinct was to batter his own or someone else's head against the obstacle until something broke. The gentle Hector and the tough Ajax were alike in this intransigence. Odysseus was no less determined to gain his purpose; but he was far less intransigent. He was prepared to undermine an obstacle or to look for another path, to imitate the mole or the fox rather than the rhinoceros.

In the later tradition, admirers of the simpler, prouder kind of hero will despise this quality, calling it cowardly or opportunistic. Homer suggests no such disapproval. On the contrary the Odyssey implies that some such resourcefulness is necessary to overcome the trials of human life in general. Almost all Homer's more intransigent heroes die unhappily, Agamemnon murdered by his wife, Ajax killed by his own hand, Achilles slain by a cowardly arrow. Odysseus, like Nestor and Menelaus, returns home at last to live in peace and prosperity.

Odysseus was also the 'much-enduring' man. Among the other Homeric heroes only Nestor, whose life had extended over three normal generations, shared this epithet with him. Why? After all, many of the rest showed great endurance in battle. The answer seems to lie in a special implication in Homer's use of epithets in poly- meaning 'much'.… [It] seems to imply variety rather than degree, especially in its active compounds. The other heroes were 'much-enduring' in their own special forte, namely, fighting. But Odysseus and Nestor were men who had shown their endurance in an unusual variety of circumstances: Nestor because of his abnormally long life, Odysseus because of his enterprising nature. Here once again a clash between Odysseus's qualities and the typical heroic temperament emerges. Ajax or Achilles would never have been willing to undergo some of Odysseus's experiences—his three adventures in beggar's disguise, for instance, and his ignominious escape from the Cyclops's cave by hanging under a ram's belly (which was a kind of Trojan Horse stratagem in reverse). In the later tradition Odysseus is accused of ignobleness, even cowardice, for his readiness to employ disguise or stealth when necessary to achieve his purpose. Undoubtedly one can detect an element of Autolycanism here. But what was often forgotten was that these various examples of combined resourcefulness and endurance were generally used pro bono publico.

We shall see all this argued out in the later tradition. Here it need only be emphasized that without this quality Odysseus could never have been so serviceable to the Greek cause. This serviceability varied from such an ordinary task as that of pacifying the indignant Chryses in Iliad One to the final triumph of Ulyssean cleverness in the ruse of the Wooden Horse. But it is the common fate of serviceable men to be despised by their more self-centred associates.

All these deviations from the heroic norm are exemplified in the Iliad as well as in the Odyssey. The next quality to be considered has little or no scope in the restricted Iliadic milieu. It needs the more expansive background of the Odyssey. It is a quality that points away from the older Heroic Age with its code of static conventions and prerogatives, and on to a coming era, the era of Ionian exploration and speculation. This is Odysseus's desire for fresh knowledge. Homer does not emphasize it. But it can be seen plainly at work in two of the most famous of Odysseus's Odyssean exploits. It becomes the master passion of his whole personality in the post-classical tradition, notably in Dante, Tennyson, Arturo Graf, and Kazantzakis.

This eagerness to learn more about God, man, and nature is the most characteristic feature of the whole Greek tradition. To quote a recent commentator on Dante's conception of Ulysses:

To be a Greek was to seek to know; to know the primordial substance of matter, to know the meaning of number, to know the world as a rational whole. In no spirit of paradox one may say that Euclid is the most typical Greek: he would fain know to the bottom, and know as a rational system, the laws of the measurement of the earth.… No doubt the Greek genius means many things. To one school … it means an aesthetic ideal.… To others, however, it means an austere thing, which delights in logic and mathematics; which continually wondering and always inquisitive, is driven by its wonder into philosophy, and into inquiry about the why and wherefore, the whence and whither, of tragedy, of the State, indeed, of all things.

This eagerness to learn is not, of course, entirely a Greek quality. Every child, scholar, and scientist, shares it. But it can hardly be denied that the Greeks were endowed more richly with intellectual curiosity than any other ancient people. More conservative cultures like the Egyptian and the Roman judged the Greek spirit of experiment and inquiry either childlike or dangerous. But, for good and ill, it has been the strongest force in the development of modern European civilization and science.

Odysseus is alone among Homer's heroes in displaying this intellectual curiosity strongly. There is an obvious reason for this. A spirit of inquiry would naturally get more stimulus from the unexplored territories of Odysseus's fabulous wanderings than from the conventional environment of the Iliad. But it was hardly accidental that Odysseus should have had these special opportunities for acquiring fresh knowledge. To him that hath shall be given: adventures are to the adventurous. One may well doubt whether an Ajax or a Nestor would have shown as much alert curiosity even in the cave of the Cyclops or near the island of the Sirens if they had been there instead of Odysseus. Odysseus's personality and exploits are indivisible: he has curious adventures because he is Odysseus, and he is Odysseus because he has curious adventures. Set another hero in Circe's palace or in Phaeacia and you may have some story like Innocents Abroad, or a Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, or an Aeneid, but not an Odyssey.

Odysseus's desire to know is most clearly illustrated in the episodes with the Cyclops and the Sirens. He himself asserts that his original motive for landing on the Cyclops's island was to see whether its unknown inhabitants were 'violent, savage and lawless, or else hospitable men with god-fearing mind'—almost as if, in modern terms, he wanted to do some anthropological research. It is more the motive of a Malinowski approaching the Trobriand Islands, than of a pirate or a conquistador. But his crew did not share this zeal for knowledge. When they entered the Cyclops's cave, the Companions felt a presentiment of danger and begged him to withdraw. Odysseus refused, still eager to see what the giant was like. In describing the consequences Odysseus admits his folly here in the strongest words of self-denunciation that he ever uses (Od. 9, 228-30). As a result of his imprudence six of his companions were devoured. It becomes clear later, in the Sirens incident, when Odysseus meets a similar temptation to dangerous knowledge, that he had learned a lesson from his rash curiosity, for he takes great care to prevent any danger to his companions from hearing their deadly song.

But Odysseus's motives in the Cyclops episode were not unmixed. He admits that his second reason for wanting to meet the ogre was a hope of extracting some guest-gifts from him—acquisitiveness as well as inquisitiveness. The post-Homeric tradition was inclined to censure Odysseus for unheroic cupidity here and elsewhere. But other Homeric heroes were quite as eager to receive gifts as he. It was a normal part of heroic etiquette; and in general the Greeks always had a flair for trade as well as for science. Odysseus's fault lay not in his hope of getting gifts but in his allowing that hope (combined with curiosity) to endanger the lives of his companions. Homer left it to others to draw a moral.

But there is a deeper difficulty in this incident. To anyone who has followed Odysseus's career from the beginning of the Iliad up to his encounter with the Cyclops, Odysseus's general lack of prudence and self-control in it must seem quite uncharacteristic of his usual conduct, especially his foolhardy boastfulness after his escape from the Cyclops's clutches (Od. 9, 490 ff.). By this last imprudence, despite his companions' entreaties, he nearly brought disaster on them all from the Monster's missiles. Perhaps the explanation is that this particular episode retains much of its pre-Homeric shape and ethos. It may have been fairly fully worked out before Homer incorporated it into his poem. Its outline is almost pure folklore. Homer's additions seem to consist mainly of vivid descriptions of scenery and the motivation of Odysseus's conduct. In order to fit Odysseus into the traditional plot, and also in order to make him incur the wrath of Poseidon, Homer may have had to strain his own conception of Odysseus's character more than elsewhere. So while in one way the victory over the Cyclops was Odysseus's greatest Autolycan triumph—especially in the typically Autolycan equivocation of his No-man formula—it was also his greatest failure as the favourite of Athene. And, significantly, by provoking Poseidon's enmity it was the main cause of his losing Athene's personal protection for nine years. In other words, in this episode Odysseus relapses for a while nearer to his original character as the Wily Lad than anywhere else in the Homeric poems.

To return to Odysseus's intellectual curiosity: it is presented in a much purer light in his encounter with the Sirens. Here no greed for gain, or indifference to his companions' safety, intrudes. Circe (who in Athene's absence takes her place for a while in advising Odysseus) has warned Odysseus of the Sirens' fatal attractions, telling him of 'the great heap of men rotting on their bones' which lies in the flowery meadow beside them. Better not to hear their seductive song at all; but if he, Odysseus cannot resist a desire to hear it—and Circe knows Odysseus well enough to expect that he cannot resist it—he must fill his comrades' ears with wax and have himself bound tightly to the mast.

What happens in the actual encounter became one of the most famous stories in European literature and a rich source of allegorical and symbolical interpretations. Its significance for the present study lies in the nature of the Sirens' temptation. This was not based on any amorous enticements. Instead the Sirens offered information about the Trojan war and knowledge of 'whatever has happened on the wide, fertile earth'. To put it in modern jargon, the Sirens guaranteed to supply a global news-service to their clients, an almost irresistible attraction to the typical Greek whose chief delight, as observed in the Acts of the Apostles (xvii. 21) was 'to tell or to hear some new thing'.

As Homer describes the incident, the attractions of the Sirens were primarily intellectual. Merely sensual pleasures would not, Homer implies (and Cicero [in De finibus] later insists), have allured him so strongly. He had resisted the temptation to taste of the fruit of the Lotus. But one must not overlook, with Cicero, the effect of their melodious song and their unrivalled voices. Music for the Greeks was the most moving of the arts. Besides, as Montaigne observes in his essay on Glory, there was a subtle touch of flattery in their first words:

Deca vers nous, deca, O treslouable Ulysse,
Et le plus grand honneur dont la Grece
  fleurisse.

And perhaps their subtlest flattery was in recognizing Odysseus's calibre at once and in appealing only to his intellect. If an Agamemnon or a Menelaus had been in his place, they might have changed their tune.

For some reason Odysseus's intellectual curiosity, as displayed in his encounter with the Sirens, was not much emphasized in the earlier classical tradition. Presumably so typical a quality of the early Greeks (as distinct from the Achaean heroes) was taken for granted. But the later allegorists, both pagan and Christian, made it a favourite theme for imaginative moralization.…

It might rashly be concluded from the preceding analysis that Homer's Odysseus was a man distracted by psychological conflicts and distressed by social tensions. The general impression derived from the Homeric poems suggests nothing of the kind. The inner and outer tensions are skilfully implied, but the total portrait is that of a man well integrated both in his own temperament and with his environment. As Athene emphasized, he was essentially 'self-possessed', fully able to control conflicting passions and motives. His psychological tensions never reach a breaking-point. They serve rather to give him his dynamic force. As a result his purposefulness is like an arrow shot from a well-strung bow, and his energy has the tirelessness of coiled springs. Resilience, elasticity, concentration, these are the qualities that maintain his temperamental balance. In contrast the Ajax-like hero was superficially firm and strong. His code of conduct and his heroic pride encased his heart like archaic armour. Once this psychological carapace was pierced by some violent shock the inner parts were as soft as any crustacean's. Odysseus's strength and self-possession did not depend on any outer armour. He could be as firm and enduring in the role of a beggar or in the cave of a Cyclops as in full battle-dress at Troy. This was the quality that the Cynic and Stoic philosophers were most to admire later.

Such was his inner harmony and strength. His conduct in matters of major importance shows a similar purposeful integrity. He had a remarkable power of taking the long view, of seeing actions in their widest context, of disciplining himself to the main purpose in hand. Thus while other heroes at Troy are squabbling like children over questions of honour and precedence, Odysseus presses on steadily towards victory. And why? Not, Homer implies, for the sake of triumph and plunder, but in order to return to his beloved Ithaca as soon as possible. Here Odysseus's efforts for the Greek cause are integrated with his fundamental love of home; pro bono publico is ultimately pro domo sua. Similarly his loyalty to the Companions during the fabulous voyages, and his patience with their infuriating alternations of rashness and timidity, were part of the same enlightened egotism: he needed a crew to sail his ship home. His love for Penelope, too, was, as has been suggested already, not based entirely on eros or agape, but also contained that philia, that attachment to one's normal and natural social environment which underlies so much of Greek happiness. And his piety is the piety of one who wishes to keep on good terms with the gods.

Such mixed motives may seem impure or ignoble to those who take their ideals from self-sacrificing patriotism, or from self-effacing saintliness, or from self-forgetting romanticism. But these are post-Homeric concepts. Within the context of the Heroic Age and perhaps of the Homeric Age, too, this identification of one's own best interests with the general welfare of one's kith, kin, and comrades, with one's philoi in fact, was a saving grace for both the individual and society. All the Homeric heroes are egotists; but Odysseus's egotism has sent its roots out more widely into his personal environment than that of Agamemnon, Achilles, or Ajax.

One other aspect of Odysseus's Homeric character needs to be kept in mind at the last. In a way it is the most important of all for the development of the tradition. This is the fundamental ambiguity of his essential qualities. We have seen how prudence may decline towards timidity, tactfulness towards a blameworthy suppressio veri, serviceability towards servility, and so on. The ambiguity lies both in the qualities themselves and in the attitudes of others towards them. Throughout the later tradition this ambiguity in Odysseus's nature and in his reputation will vacillate between good and bad, between credit and infamy. Odysseus's personality and reputation at best are poised, as it were, on a narrow edge between Aristotelian faults of excess and deficiency. Poised between rashness and timorousness, he is prudently brave; poised between rudeness and obsequiousness he is 'civilized'; poised between stupidity and overcleverness he, at his best, is wise.

Homer was large-minded enough to comprehend a unity in apparent diversity, a structural consistency within an external changefulness, in the character of Ulysses. But few later authors were as comprehending. Instead, in the post-Homeric tradition Odysseus's complex personality becomes broken up into various simple types—the politique, the romantic amorist, the sophisticated villain, the sensualist, the philosophic traveller, and others. Not till James Joyce wrote his Ulysses was a successful effort made to recreate Homer's polytropic hero in full. Similarly after Homer judgments on Odysseus's ethical status became narrower and sharper. Moralists grew angry in disputing whether he was a 'good' man or not—good, that is to say, according to the varying principles of Athens, or Alexandria, or Rome, or Florence, or Versailles, or Madrid, or Weimar. Here is another long Odyssey for Odysseus to endure. But Homer, the unmoved mover in this chaotic cosmos of tradition, does not vex his own or his hero's mind with any such problems in split personality or ambivalent ethics. He is content to portray a man of many turns.

Cedric H. Whitman (essay date 1958)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5677

SOURCE: "The Odyssey and Change," in Homer and the Heroic Tradition, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1958, pp. 285-309.

[An American classics scholar specializing in Greek literature, Whitman is highly esteemed as a Homer critic. In the following essay, he explores some societal and artistic changes that took place between the time of the Iliad and that of the Odyssey, and notes how these changes are reflected in the latter work.]

A study of Homer oriented … through the Iliad is bound to differ widely from one whose focus is primarily the Odyssey. For all their identity of style, the contrast between the two poems is vast and obvious, and it is unnecessary to recall the numerous statements of their difference, from Aristotle's "passionate" versus "ethical," to more recent formulations such as "tragic" versus "comic," or "Aeolic" versus "Ionic." As to the last, there is certainly nothing Aeolic about the Iliad except perhaps, in origin, Achilles himself, and the numerous Aeolic dialectal forms, which occur equally in the Odyssey. In a more real sense the latter may be Ionic, in that the spirit of sea adventuring may have been stimulated anew as an epic subject by the colonization of Ionia. On the other hand, the character of Odysseus cannot in any sense be connected with the intellectualism and versatility which characterized the rise of Ionia later. In the time when the Odyssey must have been composed, the Ionians could have created as yet little of the civilization which is so admired in the sixth century. The character of Odysseus, as Homer received it, must have been of complex origin, a conflation of quasi-historical saga elements with the familiar folk-tale figure of the picaresque wanderer. What Homer made of it is again something else, for the Odyssey is no mere retelling of a traditional story. It is, like the Iliad, a profoundly original creation, a vast expansion of a controlling poetic idea. It is the work of a master, though perhaps of a master whose zenith, as Longinus suggests, has gone by.

Whether or not it was the same master who wrote the Iliad is a question which must probably remain unanswered, except in the personal convictions of individuals. Suffice it to say here that, for all the real and even extreme contrast between the two poems, there has yet to be produced a single cogent argument to the effect that they must belong to different hands, or different eras. Arguments drawn from minor points of subject matter, such as Phoenicians, the knowledge of riding astride of horses, familiarity with Egypt, and all such, provide intolerable examples of argument from silence, at best, and at worst betray convictions about Homer more positivistic than well-informed. Attempts on linguistic grounds to prove the Odyssey later fail utterly; the epic language, save for what differences must exist because of the differences in the setting and the story, is the same for both poems, and in the Odyssey no neologisms exist of such a convincing sort that we must put the poem very much later than the Iliad. Also, on the grounds of oral theory, the Odyssey cannot be pushed very far into the period when literacy and a changing society were popularizing the various forms of lyric poetry, and relegating oral composition to the obscure corners of the Greek world. If the Odyssey belonged in any real sense to the seventh century, it must have been composed in some such obscure corner by a poet with old-fashioned tastes, bent on following in the wake of the Iliad, and essentially unmoved by the world around him. If such a poet existed—and many may have—it is hard to see how his work ever became known as Homer's. In the seventh century, the least of poets signed his work, and even the poems of the Cycle have names other than Homer's (and sometimes several) attached to them. To say the least, it is an uneconomical hypothesis to put the Odyssey so late. Both great epics belong to the most mature period of oral composition; both reflect the synthetic and formalized vision of the heroic Bronze Age in essentially the same way; both have ecumenical breadth, and tend to draw into their schemes large sections of the myth of Troy not immediately involved in the plot; both are complex, monumental, and retrospective; and both show much in common with the Athenian artistic approach, at once vivid, lucid, and subtle.

Such basic similarities point to similar poetic concerns and a similar period of composition. But if one looks at certain differences of compositional approach, one may be able to guess the relation between the two poems a little more accurately. That the Odyssey is later than the Iliad most will agree, albeit the agreement is often based on the groundless assumption that the Odyssey is more "civilized," because more concerned with civilization as such, and the Iliad more primitive. The reverse could be asserted with equal truth, and, in any event, the Iliad penetrates further into the frontier mysteries of human psychology. But the relative outlooks upon character and experience cannot be decisive in such a matter. More significant is the relative structure of the two poems. The Iliad, as already shown, follows a strict Geometric design comparable to nothing except the sepulchral vases of the Dipylon. Very little of the sort occurs in the Odyssey, and where it does occur, asymmetrical elements are more frequent, the responsions less careful and less significant. The antithetical polarities of the hysteron-proteron technique enhance meaning in the Iliad; insofar as they exist in the Odyssey, they are somewhat perfunctory, and the sense of form which one derives from the poem comes far less from repeated or inverted themes and episodes than from the substance of the narrative itself, its progress through time, and its achievement of a long-awaited end. The Iliad is tightly designed in every instant; the Odyssey sings itself, proceeding with a natural, leisurely pace, entirely suited to the prevailing mood of a large landscape with figures. For this reason, perhaps, the Odyssey has far fewer similes than the Iliad: the latter concentrates on one mise en scène, one major action, one monolithic idea of the heroic; visions of the rest of the world therefore knot themselves into hard images which cluster luminously around the rush of action. The Odyssey has a wider lens; it peers less deeply, but takes time to describe. Its object, like that of its hero, is often simply to see:

Standing there, divine long-suffering Odysseus gazed.

And there is very little which Odysseus will not take time to look at. The same objective scrutiny falls on Cyclops, Circe, the suitors, Eumaeus' steading, the gardens of Alcinous, the faithless maidservants, and weeping Penelope—"eyes like horn or iron." The Odyssey keeps building scenic episodes, typical and often static, and in these lie its chief symbols, not, as in the Iliad, in continuous and ever-shifting motifs.

This is not to say, however, that no evidences of Geometric design are to be found in the Odyssey. Certain parts, especially the Adventures and the Phaeacian episode, show conscious scenic antithesis and framing patterns. The Adventures are particularly elegant, grouped as they are around the supreme adventure, the Journey to the Dead. This central episode, with its retrospect upon the whole heroic tradition in the ghosts of Ajax, Achilles, Agamemnon, and Heracles, and its mysterious prospect of peace at last and "death from the sea" in the prophecy of Teiresias, is carefully framed, first by the two Elpenor episodes, and then by the two scenes with Circe. For the rest, the poet summarizes two out of every three adventures rather briefly, and dramatizes one at greater length.… Calypso, of course, is dramatized in her own right in Book 5, but not in the narrative of the hero. Book 8 offers, perhaps, a more interesting Geometric structure. Here Odysseus is deliberately contrasted with his Phaeacian hosts, who grow more and more impressed and mystified by him until finally nothing will satisfy save the full narrative of his adventures. The whole book turns on the two principles of music and gymnastic, key-notes of civilization to the Greek mind, and both highly developed by the peace-loving and somewhat soft Phaeacians. Odysseus proves the supremacy in bodily arts of the lonely and experienced hero over those who dwell in the ivory tower on the edge of the world. As for music, he is not a singer, but he emerges as the living substance of the heroic lays of Demodocus, which are mere amusement to the Phaeacians. Of Demodocus' three songs, the middle one of Ares and Aphrodite, with its ring of Olympian laughter, is a lighthearted romance appropriate to the people who love warm baths and bed; the first and the last are Trojan songs appropriate to Odysseus, deeply involved with his identity, and prompting those tears which in turn lead to the full revelation of his experience. Few episodes in Homer are more skillfully handled than the Eighth Odyssey; form and purpose are truly one.…

Other parts of the Odyssey might be shown to have comparable, though less perfect, symmetry of design, but wherever such is to be found, it is confined to sections and does not spread over the whole. Total design is no longer a matter of inner strains and balances; instead, it is achieved through scenes marking stages of the advancement of the story, and the effect is not annular, but linear. Antithesis is certainly omnipresent, but it centers around the primary moral concern of the poem, the goodness and evil of men, especially in the category of hospitality and in images of righteous and unrighteous feasting. Antithesis is, therefore, more concerned with explicit meaning in the Odyssey than with total external form, and hence the poem does not lead back into itself to enclose a single experience with finality, but proceeds to the point at which it wishes to stop. And even as the circular pattern was appropriate to the Iliad, as a poem of heroic being, the linear movement of the Odyssey is wholly inevitable for a poem of becoming. The line may be produced to infinity, and in some sense, the Odyssey, overshadowed by the prophecy of Tiresias, never really ends. The Iliad ends with a funeral, the symbol of utter finality, and the image of Niobe in stone, weeping forever. The Odyssey closes with Odysseus at home, but fated to wander still and at last to meet death from the sea, that shifting and chaotic substratum of boundless possibility which gives the whole poem its atmosphere of haunting and unfathomable romance.

The breakdown of pure geometricity as a formal principle in favor of scene for its own sake, immediacy and even homeliness of description, and in general a wider horizon of possibility, if these traits are in fact characteristic of the Odyssey, imply some comparable change in the poet's audience and his world in general. About the turn of the century, and even somewhat before, such a change is indeed visible in the work of the Attic vase-painters. By rapid degrees the controlled, contained manner of the Dipylon gives way to a freer and more experimental style, the so-called proto-Attic, in which the governing concern is pictorial, while the close rhythms and muted formalism of the Geometric dwindle and eventually disappear. The vases of this period are less admired than most Attic ware, partly because they are eclipsed by the fine proto-Corinthian development, and partly because proto-Attic is essentially transitional, and leads to the triumphant Black Figure style. But the proto-Attic is not without its accomplishments. The manner is breezy, open, and slightly orientalizing. A new awareness of life in its immediacy, and not without humor appears in contrast to the somber reserve of Geometric painting. Human and animal figures appear with new and sometimes realistic details; outline drawing is born, incision begins, and monochrome yields to the use of various new colors. It is clearly a somewhat undisciplined phase, where careless workmanship, especially in the traditional motifs maintained from the Geometric, often goes hand in hand with bold naturalism and realistic representation in the principal picture. The new techniques with color and incision are by no means mastered, and the glaze is far below the quality of proto-Corinthian or the better Geometric ware. Each pot seems a little more like a sketch than a finished painting. There is something also distinctly romantic about it, in contrast to the heroic austerity of the former period. There is no longer much concern, at least in most vases, to adjust the decoration to the shape of the vase. Subject matter wins the day more and more decisively, as the style progresses, until it is all refined into the new formalism of Black Figure. But in the earlier stages of proto-Attic, one feels the strong sudden impact of nature disintegrating the rigid rationale of the Geometric method, and especially in the human figure, which is no longer an anonymous bundle of sticks and triangles, but begins to swell with a kind of personality. The scene itself is all-engrossing; total design retreats. The old, sure-handed sophistication is gone, and if the new product is often naive, there is nevertheless tremendous spirit in it. The horizon is suddenly vast; almost anything can appear on a proto-Attic pot, and the subjects vary all the way from scenes of myth to the prosaic details of everyday life.

It can hardly be entirely fanciful to see in the change from the Geometric to the proto-Attic approach an analogy to the shift of outlook from the Iliad to the Odyssey. This is no mere matter of subject. It involves the whole instinct about the inner relationship of part to whole, of decoration to structure, as well as the basic conception of humanity and its context. The triumph of scenic episode over totality of design is perhaps the most striking parallel between the Odyssey and proto-Attic art. Yet the parallel extends also to many details of the creative approach. In the Iliad, battle scenes contain many summaries of unknown men slain by unknown men, androktasiae; these anonymities are, however, always named, and their little entries, as in the Catalogue, pass by with formulaic rigidity, like the rows of identical warriors on Geometric ware. Individuals become visible only through the shape of a norm. But in the Odyssey, the companions of Odysseus are treated differently. They fall into no formalized pattern of the whole, and only one or two are named at all. For the most part, they disappear until they have to do something, and are treated, in contrast to the brief tragic histories of the Iliad, as simple expendabilities. Proto-Attic art is not concerned to represent generalities of men, but particularities of event; and hence, instead of the typical scene, formulaic yet possibly individualized to a faint degree, there is either full individualization or nothing. Two of the companions emerge as people, the young, heedless and ill-fated Elpenor, and the presumptuous, sane, and slightly insubordinate Eurylochus. The rest are vapor. It is often said that the characters in the Odyssey are types, and some are. But they are regularly types of something in human experience, and never, with the exception of Odysseus himself, typical simply of humanity, as are the rows of names in the Iliad. No such generality runs through the Odyssey: its pictures seize the foreground and thrust out the binding continuous friezes.

Moreover, in the matter of characterization the methods of the Iliad and Odyssey differ. As described elsewhere, the secondary characters of the Iliad find their individuality through a series of subtle contrasts, either with the heroic norm, or with another character, usually Achilles. Personal details, especially of a trivial sort, play little or no part. But the Odyssey is directly descriptive, as a rule through illustrative action, sometimes even in minor detail. We learn the character of Eumaeus from his defense of the stranger from the dogs, from his manner of putting food before a guest, from his tears at the sight of Telemachus, from his strict obedience to orders, from his sedulous care of the swine, and a hundred other touches. Here is no characterization by reference to a single formulaic social norm. The poet is interested both in Eumaeus and in his total context; he wants to fill him out. He is interested in the behavior of dogs, too. In the Iliad they only tear dead bodies, a purely formulaic function. In Odyssey 16 they keep interrupting the progress of the plot with actions which the poet includes, presumably, out of a concern with naturalistic representation: they assail Odysseus, fawn on Telemachus, and whimper with fear at the apparition of Athena. These are real dogs, not symbols of death with disgrace, and they resemble in their vividness a fine proto-Attic sherd in the Agora Museum at Athens, showing a donkey's head, painted and incised, with mouth open in a most convincing and hilarious asinine grin. So too of the details of personal appearance, one hears little or nothing in the Iliad, but in the Odyssey the hero's dark hair and stout limbs are often mentioned, especially in connection with his transformation by Athena. In particular, skin quality has newly impressed itself on the poet's imagination: Odysseus is darkly tanned, Penelope's skin is like cut ivory. Such minutiae are unknown to the Geometric Iliad, though women in general are "white-armed"; but in the proto-Attic period, the vase-painters were beginning to represent flesh tones with different colors, white as a rule, but sometimes black for men, and it is perhaps no wonder that this new pictorial element has crept into the epic consciousness. Finally, in the matter of landscape and milieu, it is hard to find any descriptive passages in the Iliad comparable to that of the island of Calypso or the gardens of Alcinous. Here simple delight in the setting has tempted the poet to sing on and on, regardless of symmetry or waiting issues. New fields of content have revealed themselves, and the older concept of form has become attenuated amid the new preoccupation with the immediacy of life.

The change in epic, however, must not be looked upon as either sudden or radical. The traditional nature of oral verse precludes radical changes. It must be assumed that the bardic repertoire comprised in advance the formulae and other typological materials necessary to produce the Odyssey as well as the Iliad. The language of the Odyssey offers no foothold to the assertion that it is younger. But its motivating artistic concern is younger, and so is its idea of form. Hence it arises, once more, that the creativity of the poet in such a traditional medium consists in the deployment of his given material, which includes not only plot, but also the whole gamut of visionary, formalized detail which was the singers' thesaurus. It is a matter of selectivity and degree, operating in the service of a sharply focused artistic purpose. In the broadest sense, the Iliad draws upon the formulae of heroic warfare, the Odyssey upon those of peace, the norms of social existence, and of the adventures of long-existent popular folk tales. It is truistic to point out that the polarities involved exist side by side in the Shield of Achilles. The tradition embraced it all, and the poet needed to invent little or nothing in order to create either poem. But the principle governing his selection and emphasis must in some sense follow the artistic spirit of the age, and in the Odyssey one may observe the new suppleness, the naturalism, and even occasionally the carefree blunders of the proto-Attic times.

If one attempts to fix the date of the poem more accurately, there is evident risk of pressing the argument too far. Yet there is some reason to feel that the Odyssey corresponds to the early stages of the proto-Attic period, and not to that phase, well on in the seventh century, when the style was already approaching Black Figure. Startling as some proto-Attic painting may be, it does not represent an instantaneous revolution. Some later Geometric vases show far less rigidity than the earlier ones; lines become sketchy, poses more supple, knees bend a little, the figures gain a little flesh on their bones; the contiguous warriors in a row may not be all in the same position. [In his Greek Sculpture and Painting, 1932, J. D. Beazley] says eloquently: "… a strong wind seems to be blowing against the neat fabric and making it bend, totter and reel." The change is rapid but the steps are observable. Moreover, the new animal motifs seem to be only partly the product of Oriental influence; partly they recall Mycenaean tradition. Later, Orientalism triumphed, breeding sphinxes, griffins, and gorgons everywhere, and thrusting out the last traces of Geometric order. But at the end of the eighth century and beginning of the seventh century, the proto-Attic style clearly had its roots in tradition, and had by no means freed itself utterly from the Geometric. The Odyssey seems equally transitional. Geometric design, as seen above, has not totally vanished, but it does "totter and reel." The wind is blowing vigorously, but it has not yet blown away the epic form. If one were to choose a single vase as an illustration of the creative temper underlying the Odyssey the best choice might be the famous Attic Analatos vase, dated about 700. Geometric motifs are still present, notably the frieze of traditional waterfowl. But on the neck, the dance of long-haired girls and men, one with a lyre, responds with pristine freshness to the pictorial urge, the pressure of a new awareness in visual experience. It is descriptive, not symbolic. Reserved space allows the picture to breathe, as in the Odyssey Homer gives his descriptions as much time as they want. The atmosphere is spring-like and unprejudiced by previous conceptions, and suggests a feeling of direct delight in life which is essentially foreign to Geometric painting. One cannot yet quite see, but one can foresee, the lyricism of the seventh century, the choirs of Alcman and Stesichorus, or the bright vignettes of Archilochus. The Odyssey and the Analatos vase both seem to stand exquisitely poised between two ages, not quite belonging to either, but drawing breath from both.

To arrive by such means at a date of about 700 B.C. for the Odyssey may seem both rash and impressionistic. Yet the phenomena involved are specific enough: the decay of Geometric design, the arrival at self-existent pictures for their own sake, greater variety and suppleness of individuation, a freer naturalism, and what might be called the opening of surfaces, whether by space in painting or by a more luxuriant expenditure of time in verse—all these are traceable facts and tendencies. What is more, they are tokens of attitude and motivation, the semiconscious theorizing of the artist as he sets to work, and as such they are hallmarks of a time, never quite to be imitated at any other time. When all the necessary allowances therefore have been made for the difficulty both of dating exactly the early pottery of Greece, and of comparing poetry and painting, the period around the turn of the eighth century still seems more reasonable for the Odyssey than any date which, by reason of tenuous and superficially more factual-seeming points of subject matter, would push the poem down to a time when it could only have been archaistic. The inner side of artistic creation is what must be decisive, for it alone is characteristic of its time.

One final comparison with the situation in vase-painting leads to broader considerations. The masterpieces of the Geometric Age were funerary, and their memorial purpose is revealed in the death-like quietude of their formality. They have the heroic death-consciousness which pervades the Iliad. The focus of the Odyssey, on the other hand, is life in all its variety and directness, and again recalls the more lyrical responses of proto-Attic art, where life as daily lived and observed, unmediated by anything but the senses, finds its first expression since the fall of the Bronze Age, and thereby lays the foundation of the so-called "Greek renaissance." Such a shift reflects a shift in the psychology of a people. Ordinarily it is said that the Greek renaissance was a period of rising individualism and the discovery of the self as such. Yet the Iliad is a poem of self-knowledge in every sense as much as the Odyssey, but whereas the latter exhibits a hero whose will is proverbial for its unity and tenacity, the Iliad's hero is the first in our history to be divided by the metaphysical paradox of human nature. Achilles allies himself with equal intensity, both to his own human nature, with all its concern and commitments, and to that intuition of the absolute in being and value which is the besetting demon of the spiritual hero. These opposites can be joined only in the mysterious flame of a love at once detached and entire, self-discovery in self-destruction. Achilles stands representative in and of an architectonic world in which everything is known and in its place, except himself; his learning of himself is a creating of himself. Death is always imminently upon him, a formative limitation which reveals itself at last as the inevitable framework of his tragic being. By contrast, the life-consciousness of the Odyssey involves a vastly different view of the individual soul. In and of himself, the hero is a fixed personality, confronted by no hopeless division in himself; he is equipped, as if by magic, with every skill which any situation might require, so that he needs only to deliberate ways and means; in the whole course of the poem, his celebrated intellect deals with no problem which can even remotely be called intellectual, and least of all does he deal with that deepest of all intellectual problems, the self. He is himself—at least if viewed from one point of view. Yet from another point of view, the matter is more mysterious. Life's paradox now appears not in the man but in his external experience, and the adventures of Odysseus, both on the sea and in Ithaca, cast upon him a constantly shifting cloud of disguise, from which he never fully emerges until he has revealed himself to the last person to whom he must—Laertes. And it is by no means tactless of the poet to have saved Laertes till last, incidentally, for recognition by one's father is, in a way, the final legitimation which establishes a man in his world. And it is the world which is the overt concern of Odysseus. Achilles created himself; Odysseus creates his world, by risk, choice, tenacity, and action, and the world thus created reveals the selfhood of its creator. By contact with the "limits of the earth," Odysseus defines, rather than discovers, himself, each experience involving, and at last dissipating, a particular shade of that anonymity which overhangs a man until his context is complete. Hence in the first part of the poem Odysseus is regularly an unknown man to those who receive him, until by some word or action he makes his identity known.

In the second part, his disguise conceals him, except at such times when the truth peeps out a little, for the astute to read. Mephistopheles promised to show Faust "first the small world, then the great," and through such experience Faust expands beyond the limits of his earlier self to a transcendent knowledge. The Odyssey exactly reverses this process. Odysseus begins, equipped with knowledge so various as to be in a sense transcendental, in the great world of magic and mysterious, absolute existences, and slowly by determination narrows it all down to the small circle of his own family household. And by contrast with the Iliad, where the world was architectonic and the hero the measure of the infinite, the Odyssey presents an infinite and rather amorphous world, under the image of the sea, out of whose mists any monstrosity or beguiling vision may arise, while the hero is the measure of fixity and definition. Perhaps for this reason the Odyssey has always seemed the more closely allied, of the two epics, to the classical period, for then too the prevailing outlook centered the legislating mind of the individual as the measure amid unpredictable experience, and infinite possibility. Indeed, it was precisely this view of the individual self, not the Iliad's view, which began to take conscious shape in the seventh century, and to create the new lyrical forms. The Iliad's view returns only in Sophoclean tragedy.

It is an unanswerable question how much of this view existed already in the tale which Homer found, and how much is his own emphasis. The nature of myth, or folk tale, is to reflect in external form the psyche's subconscious exploration of itself and its experience. Myths contain from the moment of their inception all the meanings which can be extracted from them. If Homer therefore created a poem in which the hero reveals himself, not so much directly as through the steady battery of experiences which rub against him, the reasons perhaps are, first that the tale he chose included the possibility of such, and second that such an approach would be welcomed and understood by his audience. The oral poet did not compose in solitude and publish at his own expense; he sang for gatherings of friends and strangers. And if one looks for the time when the stream of direct experience becomes of primary concern to the Greek artistic spirit and fills the foreground with the ideated shapes which to the archaic mind are knowledge, it is to be found precisely in this early proto-Attic period, when fragments of Geometric form, a few Orientalized motifs, and above all direct observations of life itself, merged, sometimes chaotically, sometimes into tapestries of vigor and finesse. All these elements merge also in the Odyssey..…

[If] the Odyssey marks the end of the great oral period of Greek literature, it is an end implied by the material, and a few symptoms of slackened technique do not prevent the poem from presenting a final apotheosis of the whole tradition. It is less intense than the Iliad and more external in its view of everything, not from disinterest in the profound, but from the distancing and detachment which comes of retrospect from new vantage points. Already by 700, the Greek world was showing a new face, and quicker changes were in progress than any which had taken place for centuries. Colonization, expansion of trade, contact with foreign parts, and hence wider geographical cognizance, the strong growth of oligarchy, a rising ethnic consciousness, and experimentation in all the arts—all these were forces energetically at work from the beginning of the seventh century, and all are, in one way or another, reflected in the Odyssey. The subject of epic was the past, but the approach, insofar as the traditional medium allowed, took on colors from the present. Some of these have been described, but the perspective which they create upon the heroic past, the real matter of the poem, is in itself one of the chief notes of difference between this poem and the Iliad. Here one is no longer in the midst of the heroic Achaean world; one follows instead a wanderer from that world, a wanderer who becomes more and more generalized through the first books, into an image of Everyman in his experience, and in the last books, reparticularized into a commanding but somewhat altered personality in a world which is also changed. The old Achaean world reappears in Pylos and Sparta, in order to acquaint Telemachus with his heritage. One hears high tales of it from Demodocus, but the people to whom he sings are not of it, except for Odysseus himself. We see its representative string the great bow where the new men fail. But it is a thing of the past. Menelaus, Helen, and Nestor, active once, are now only receptacles of memory, glorious or sorrowful, of the deeds at Troy:

There lies Ajax, scion of Ares, there lies
       Achilles,
There also Patroclus, a councillor like the
  gods,
There too my own dear son, both mighty and
  stainless,
Antilochus, exceeding in swiftness of foot,
  and a spearman.

If one seeks the Achaean world in the Odyssey, it is to be found far in the west, in the Islands of the Dead. The men of bronze slew each other, as Hesiod says, and Odysseus, nearly the last of them, is undergoing changes. The superb and panoramic dream of the Nekyia revisits and summarizes it all for the last time, fixing once more in deathly eternity the great persons of the tradition. Sad, but detached, it is an elegy for heroes who had lived in songs for future men; and now, the songs are changing. In the new world of Hellas, one sees them differently; they are still the verities of the culture, but the immediacy of life itself is already setting them further apart, while a new kind of man, and a new sense of artistic and intellectual form takes the foreground. The fierce purity of Achilles' spirit, disdainful of phenomena, yields place to a heroic conception more available to a time of widening horizons, the man who wades eagerly through the phenomena of experience, to define himself by the limits of action, perception and understanding. The tale of Menelaus and Proteus in Book 4 presents the paradigm: hold fast to the changing, chaotic shapes, and the truth will come in the end.

In the long run, both Iliad and Odyssey contributed their share to the perfecting of what we call the classical spirit. Embodying as they do the polarities of that spirit, they remain for us the archetypes of the Classical, the Hellenic, and like all Hellenic things, they stand by a structural tension of passion and form, at once mysterious and profoundly clear.

Albert B. Lord (essay date 1960)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 13049

SOURCE: "The Odyssey," in The Singer of Tales, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1960, pp. 158-85.

[A specialist in Slavic studies and contemporary literature, Lord has written extensively on folklore and folk epics. In this essay, he analyzes the structure of the Odyssey as oral epic, emphasizing its place within the context of other narrative oral poetry.]

In reading the Odyssey or the Iliad we are at a distinct disadvantage because we are reading isolated texts in a tradition. The comparison with other traditions shows us very clearly that songs are not isolated entities, but that they must be understood in terms of other songs that are current. Had we an adequate collection of ancient Greek epic songs, we could view the Homeric poems from a truer perspective. Much of the difficulty in interpretation in the past has arisen from this lack. Yet the situation would be even worse had only one song survived, and that a short one; at least there are two poems adding up to some 27,000 lines, and the two poems are on different subjects. Hesiod and especially the Cyclic fragments may be of some help in supplying a hint of other thematic material current in Homer's day. And the poems themselves may point to still more such themes. We can even, with some caution, appeal to the Greek dramatists for versions of epic stories.… Our task is not then entirely hopeless. Other traditions can assist us particularly in indicating what we should look for.

Of great interest and value for Homeric study are the texts on clay tablets that have been unearthed in Mesopotamia and the nearer Near East. Their deciphering and interpretation are marvels of scholarship, imaginative scholarship at its best. Homer is no longer the earliest epic singer whose songs we know. Rather he stands perhaps a little before the midpoint, chronologically, of our knowledge. For we now have epic tales going back to the third millennium B.C. from peoples and cultures contiguous to Greek and with which the Greeks had contact. In other words, we have access to thematic material of Homer's neighbors before his day; we know the story climate of the Near East which taught Greece so much. If we find parallel tales and themes among these peoples they may be of service in interpreting Homer; they may verify or even help us to discover story patterns in the Homeric songs.

We should be daring enough, as well, to make use of later epic stories which follow the same or similar patterns, provided that they are traditional and oral. Medieval and modern songs, if our theory of composition and transmission is correct, are extremely conservative in regard to essential story pattern.… Our best material will be in the Homeric songs themselves and in what we know of Greek Cyclic poets and Greek drama. Next in importance is the Near Eastern corpus. And last, but by no means least, the medieval and modern parallels can be useful. For it is the essential pattern and the significant detail that concern us, not the accidental and incidental.

The Odyssey was one of many return songs told in the time of Homer. Some of them were surely in Homer's own repertory. It is clear that he had the tale of the return of Agamemnon in his mind while composing the Odyssey, and also the return of Menelaus. A son played no vital role in this story, but it contained wanderings and strange adventures, shipwreck and storm, and a visit to the "other" world in the many shapes of Proteus. The romance of the journey of the Argonauts was known to Homer. These songs were all, and many more, in the repertory of epic singers in his day. They surround the Odyssey. Together with it they make up a body of related thematic material.

Yet the Odyssey does not draw from the tradition; it is a part of it. I do not wish to imply that Homer used these other songs as sources, borrowing here and there, modeling this or that incident on one in another song. We should not forget … that songs are fluid in content. The question as to whether an incident "belongs" in a song, the question of proprietary rights, as it were, is relative in oral tradition. It is vastly important for us to understand the place of the Odyssey in the repertory of Homer and in the repertory of other singers. It is the place of one song among many others with related themes in an oral epic tradition.

After an invocation which stresses the wanderings of Odysseus and the loss of his men (but has no mention of Telemachus), the Odyssey opens with a council of the gods in which we find Zeus meditating on the story of the return of Agamemnon. Such a reference to another tale is highly sophisticated and unusual for oral epic.…

Such a device of reference is, of course, far from inconsistent with the analogical thinking or associative thinking of oral poets everywhere. But I do not believe that this explains the presence of these references in the Odyssey. They make sense, however, if they are taken as part of a song telling the story of the return of the heroes of Troy, a song, in other words, that would include both the events of the Cyclic epic, the Nostoi, and the Odyssey, and possibly also the Telegony. They are not an anomaly in such a setting. Indeed, they presuppose it. This larger song with which we are dealing is the song of the returns of the Greek heroes from the Trojan War, including Agamemnon, Menelaus, Nestor, Odysseus, and, to a lesser extent, others. Perhaps the returns of the Atridae and the return of Odysseus were sometimes sung as a single song, and without the extensive ornamentation of Homer this would not have to be an inordinately long song. We know that Odysseus, Telemachus, and Telegonus all appeared in the Greek return stories in some way. We can therefore postulate that we could have (a) a song including all the heroes, not emphasizing one above another, (b) a song including all, but emphasizing the return of the Atridae, and (c) a song including all, but emphasizing Odysseus. This is thoroughly consistent with oral technique. Homer probably sang the return of the Atridae as a separate song as well as the Odyssey, and it is very likely that he may sometimes have sung them together. The opening of the Odyssey, I believe, indicates just that.

The allusion to the return of Agamemnon points, then, to the scope of tales in the tradition of ancient Greece. It also provides later generations of readers, who are no longer listeners to the old songs, with an indication of another pattern of return story from that of the tale of Odysseus. Moreover, we know not only of the existence of this different pattern, but also that Homer started his Odyssey with an awareness of that pattern. The divergences in the two stories are clear: Agamemnon returns home openly and is murdered by his wife's lover, whereas Odysseus returns in disguise and murders his wife's suitors; Clytemnestra is unfaithful to her husband, but Penelope is a model of fidelity. Later in the Odyssey Homer emphasizes these differences between the two stories. But in the opening of the song Homer is thinking of the parallels, of Aegisthus and Orestes, of the violator and the avenger, of suitor and son. And as soon as the plan is laid for the release of Odysseus from Ogygia, the singer turns to the suitors of Odysseus' wife and to the actions of Odysseus'son. The pattern of release and return is scarcely begun before Homer has shifted emphasis to enclose within that pattern a multiform of the related suitor and son them.…

It may be that Telemachus enters the Odyssey because of the parallel between the story of Agamemnon and the story of Odysseus, the two return stories par excellence involving return to wife and family. The plan of Athena to send Telemachus away from Ithaca so that he will not be present when Odysseus lands on the island has a certain parallel in the exiling of Orestes, which results in his absence at the time of Agamemnon's return and murder. It is noteworthy too that when Telemachus returns, like Orestes, he brings a friend. Theoclymenus has been thought of as being a vestige of many people, but I am not sure that anyone has suggested him as a Pylades. Theoclymenus thus considered is an extension of Peisistratus, son of Nestor, who makes a better Pylades to Telemachus' Orestes. Moreover, the attitude of the suitors to Telemachus as they plot to kill him is like that of Aegisthus. Since Homer opens his song with reference of the Agamemnon pattern we may not be far wrong in suggesting that this pattern was at some time influential in introducing Telemachus as the son plotted against and absented first by the suitors and then, in a later interpretation, sent by Athena to seek news of his father.

Yet as soon as Telemachus becomes an "exile," he also falls into the pattern of the young hero who sets forth to win his own spurs in the world with borrowed equipment. Like Beowulf, Telemachus is thought a weakling, and like the Sirotan Alija of Yugoslav Moslem tradition he must borrow the means of his transportation. … Invariably the young man who sets out on adventures is fatherless and aided by mother, uncle, or friend. The usual pattern is that the equipment and the assistance are denied by one group and granted, often through intervention, by another group.…

Athena has said that she will go to Ithaca in order to arouse Telemachus to more vigorous action and that she will send him on his journey "to win a good report among mankind." She has thus emphasized the journey as a maturing—should we say initiatory—adventure for the young man. The pattern of the tale of the youthful hero setting out on his first adventure sometimes contains the rescue of someone from the hands of an enemy, often by killing the enemy, who is possibly a supernatural monster. Sometimes the journey takes the hero into the other world, and as such entails experience with the guardians, entrances, and exits of that world. Sometimes, too, the purpose of the journey is to obtain power-bestowing knowledge or information, to be used on the return by the hero, or perhaps, if not used in a specific situation, to make a powerful magician or simply "a man" of the hero. This last is actually Athena's avowed purpose in sending Telemachus to the mainland:

Near him came Athene, likened to Mentor in her form and voice, and speaking in winged words she said:

"Telemachus, henceforth you shall not be a base man nor a foolish, if in you stirs the brave soul of your father, and you like him can give effect to deed and word. Then shall this voyage not be vain and ineffective. But if you are no son of him and of Penelope, then am I hopeless of your gaining what you seek. Few sons are like their fathers; most are worse, few better than the father. Yet because you henceforth will not be base nor foolish, nor has the wisdom of Odysseus wholly failed you, therefore there is a hope you will one day accomplish all.…" (2.267-280)

It makes extraordinarily good sense that the son of Odysseus of many wiles should seek knowledge in his first journey from home. His visit to Nestor and to Menelaus is, therefore, not a vain one in the deeper meanings of such journeys.

On the most obvious level Telemachus discovers from Menelaus where his father is, namely, on an island with Calypso. This was the information he was seeking; he knows now that his father is not dead. From Nestor and Menelaus Telemachus has also heard the full story of the return of the other Greeks and especially of Agamemnon. The parallel between Telemachus and Orestes has been almost painfully pointed out to Telemachus; likewise emphasized is the correspondence between affairs in Ithaca and affairs in Argos before Agamemnon's return. Orestes has proved his worth, and Homer's audience can be optimistic about Telemachus' future once Nestor's doubts of Telemachus' promise are cleared away with the knowledge that Athena is at the boy's side.

It is at Book 4, line 624, in the Odyssey that we are faced, I believe, for the first time, with a really serious problem. As long as we were following the Telemachus portion of Athena's plan, we were forgetful not of Odysseus, who is actually always in our minds, but of Athena's intention of releasing him from Calypso's island and of bringing him home. Even though it was never promised that Telemachus would find Odysseus and return with him—in fact we knew very well that this would not be so and we had been told that Telemachus' journey even overtly was merely for news—the realization that we were in a tale of the young man's first adventure, the exploit that would make a man of him, led us subconsciously to expect a rescue. There were, it would seem, versions in which Telemachus did meet his father and return to Ithaca with him. In the tale of Dictys the Cretan [Ephemeris de Historia Belli Trojani, edited by F. Meister, 1872], Telemachus hears of his father's presence as a guest of Antenor and goes to meet Odysseus there. In this tale Telemachus is married to Nausicaa, daughter of Antenor, after he and Odysseus have slain the suitors. With Telemachus feasting in Sparta and ready to return home we are now prepared for the release of Odysseus, which might well be followed eventually by the meeting of father and son. In reality this is what happens, but so much intervenes that we tend to lose sight of the fact that Telemachus' meeting with Odysseus at Eumaeus' hut (Book 16) is in essence a meeting of the two before either of them returns to the palace of Odysseus in Ithaca. Meeting there is, but postponed almost to the last moment. Yet the traditional bard has too deep a feeling for the meanings and forces in the story patterns to allow himself to violate them altogether.

When we analyze the recognitions … we shall note Homer postponing actions because other material, chiefly that related to Telemachus, interrupts. In the second half of Book 4 there is such an interruption, which postpones briefly the expected release of Odysseus from Ogygia. The scene shifts from Sparta back to Ithaca and to the discovery by the suitors and by Penelope of Telemachus' absence. Antinous now lays the plot to ambush Telemachus on his return voyage from Pylos, and Penelope's fears are allayed by a dream in which her sister assures her that the gods will protect her son. The plot against Telemachus comes, I believe, from the Agamemnon-Orestes story pattern, which is ever on Homer's mind in these early books, and it is that pattern which interrupts the action at this point.

And here a question comes to mind, consideration of which may add further depth to our understanding of the first four books of the Odyssey. Telemachus is a parallel to Orestes, but he is also in part a parallel to his own father Odysseus, especially insofar as the Odysseus pattern coincides with the Agamemnon pattern. It is not mere chance that in Greek tragedy Orestes returns to Argos in disguise and tells a deceptive tale about his identity. Here Orestes and Odysseus both share the same thematic complex, that is, that of return of the hero in disguise. It is a thematic complex fraught with latent mythic meanings, the disguise being the weeds of the other world which still cling to the hero; this complex is not merely narrative framework. Orestes' return is like Odysseus' return. There is trouble awaiting both. Telemachus as he returns circumspectly to Ithaca shares with Orestes and his father Odysseus the dangers of encounter with the forces of evil at home. At the other end of Telemachus' journey he has been given instructions in regard to Penelope, and he himself repeats them, instructions that mimic the counsel given by a departing husband on his way to war. "If I do not return, then go back to your father or marry again." On the journey Telemachus is honored as his father, and first Nestor, then Helen, and then Menelaus point out how strikingly like his father he is. The patterns of Odysseus, Telemachus, Agamemnon, and Orestes merge and separate and then merge again.

Homer begins the Odyssey again in Book 5. He has let Telemachus and Orestes get a little out of hand; he has enjoyed the story and the weaving of its telling. But he is aware that it has gone a little far. Facetiously we might say that he tricked himself by that initial speech of Zeus with its introduction of the Agamemnon parallel. So Homer takes up the story of the release of Odysseus by a return to the gods in council with Athena starting off as if she had never mentioned Odysseus to Zeus before. Zeus' reply is Homer chiding Homer:

"My child," replied the Gatherer of the Clouds, "I never thought to hear such words from you. Did you not plan the whole affair yourself? Was it not your idea that Odysseus should return and settle accounts with these men? As for Telemachus, you are well able to look after him: use your own skill to bring him back to Ithaca safe and sound, and let the Suitors sail home again in their ship with nothing accomplished."

(5.21-27)

At any rate we leave Agamemnon, Orestes, and Telemachus until Book 11, where Odysseus meets Agamemnon in the lower world, and inquires from his mother Anticlea about his son.

If the return of Agamemnon has been a potent influence in shaping the part of the Odyssey that concerns Telemachus, the return of Menelaus, narrated in Nostoi and also in Book 4 of the Odyssey, has been effective in fashioning the Circe and Underworld episodes. Menelaus, it will be recalled, was detained on an island off the coast of Egypt waiting for favorable winds. He meets the daughter of Proteus, Eidothea, who advises him to question her father as to why he is kept from proceeding further with his ships. She tells him how to capture the old man of the sea. Proteus, when finally subdued, first answers Menelaus' questions as to who of the gods is keeping him in Egypt and what his homeward way is. After this Menelaus asks Proteus about the returns of the other heroes from Troy, and Proteus prophesies Menelaus' own future.

The points of coincidence of pattern with the story of Odysseus are clear: (1) Menelaus and Odysseus are both being detained on an island; (2) they are both advised by a supernatural female to seek information from an aged second-sighter; (3) there is a certain ritual to be gone through in order to get the seer to talk; (4) the seer tells them both why they are having difficulty with the immortals, how they can overcome these difficulties, and he prophesies the nature of the death of each.

Menelaus first asks Eidothea: "Rather tell me—for gods know all—which of the immortals chains me here and bars my progress; and tell me of my homeward way, how I may pass along the swarming sea" (4.379-381). In her advice about her father she says: "He would tell you of your course, the stages of your journey, and of your homeward way, how you may pass along the swarming sea. And he would tell you, heaven-descended man, if you desire, all that has happened at your home, of good or ill, while you have wandered on your long and toilsome way" (4.389-393). This last has more relevance to Odysseus, it will be noted, than it does to Menelaus. At the close of her instructions to Menelaus as to how to capture Proteus, Eidothea tells him: "Then, hero, cease from violence and set the old man free, but ask what god afflicts you, and ask about your homeward way, how you may pass along the swarming sea" (4.422-424). Menelaus' actual question to the captive Proteus is word-for-word the same as his original question to Eidothea, given above.

Odysseus on his part in Book 10 is told by Circe, when he asks her permission to return home, that he "must first perform a different journey, and go to the halls of Hades and of dread Persephone, there to consult the spirit of Teiresias of Thebes, the prophet blind, whose mind is steadfast still" (10.490-493). Odysseus objects and asks who will pilot them, and Circe gives full instructions which end: "Thither the seer will quickly come, O chief of men, and he will tell your course, the stages of your journey, and of your homeward way, how you may pass along the swarming sea" (10.538-540). Odysseus then tells his men that they are to leave, saying: "For potent Circe has at last made known to me the way" (10.549)—and later when they were mustered: "But Circe has marked out for us a different journey, even to the halls of Hades and of dread Persephone, there to consult the spirit of Teiresias of Thebes" (10.563-565). In the land of the dead, after the ritual, after talking with Elpenor, Teiresias comes up and speaks to Odysseus, without the latter asking him any questions (11.99).

It will be noted that the reason for the journey to the lower world to consult Teiresias is given only once, at the end of Circe's instructions about the ritual to be performed. Odysseus himself, incidentally, does not ask why he must go. The journey is imposed by Circe, not suggested as the consultation with Proteus is suggested by Eidothea. Hence one has the impression of a labor, like that of Heracles. In the case of Menelaus there is a plethora of questions and reasons for the journey. The closest version in the Menelaus passage (Book 4) to the words of Circe in Book 10 about inquiring concerning the journey home occurs at the close of Eidothea's first advice (not the ritual instructions) to Menelaus, in which she uses exactly the same words: "He would tell you of your course, the stages of your journey, and of your homeward way, how you may pass along the swarming sea" (4.389-390). And it is here that she adds … "and he would tell you, heaven-descended man, if you desire, all that has happened at your home, of good or ill, while you have wandered on your long and toilsome way" (4.391-393). This would have made sense in reference to Odysseus. Of the three questions which Odysseus might have been sent to ask, the three, indeed, that the seer answers without being asked, namely, (1) who of the gods is angry, (2) how can I get home, and (3) what is going on at home, only one is made explicit in the instructions. We know the others partly from the answers given by Teiresias and partly from the parallel with another multiform of the theme, the questioning of Proteus by Menelaus. Actually it would have been better on the part of the bard to let us infer from the answers what the questions to be asked were. The first question would not make much sense under the circumstances, because the only immortal holding Odysseus and his men back at this point seems to be Circe herself, and she will release them (if they go to Hades?). The second question would make sense if Teiresias really answered it, but he doesn't, and Odysseus gets the answer when he returns from Circe herself. In other words, the question which is really listed is not answered. And even if the third question had been asked, no one could have been less interested than Odysseus in the answer, to judge from his reaction to what Teiresias tells him of affairs at home. Odysseus says: "Teiresias, these are the threads of destiny the gods themselves have spun (referring to the prophecy of his own death). Nevertheless, declare me this, and plainly tell: I see the spirit of my dead mother here …" (11.139-141). He completely ignores the information given him. This is in contrast to the weeping of Menelaus in the earlier passage.

From the parallel of the Menelaus-Proteus passage we understand why Teiresias gives the "replies" he does— to questions that are not asked. But we are still left with several difficult questions ourselves: (1) Why did Circe send him to consult Teiresias, if not to find out how to get home? (2) What is the role of Elpenor? (3) Why does Odysseus ignore the information about affairs at home? and (4) Why does his mother's account of things at home differ from that of Teiresias?

The parallel with Menelaus-Proteus may suggest an answer to the question of why Odysseus ignores Teiresias' information about things at home. The earlier passage has influenced the inclusion of this account in the speech of the seer, but it does not belong as things stand because it duplicates the questions and answers of Odysseus and his mother. (It contradicts them, too, of course.) In regard to this question and answer, in other words, Teiresias is a duplication of Odysseus' mother (or vice versa?). And note, please, that the account of affairs at Ithaca in that it describes an evil situation at home parallels the Agamemnon tale. Once again the Agamemnon pattern, with its Telemachus-Orestes correspondence, interrupts the story of Odysseus. Now, from the account of Ithacan affairs given by Anticleia, one would judge that Odysseus was not supposed to learn about the suitors from anyone in Hades. This part of the scene indicates either that there was no trouble at home, or else that Odysseus was to find out about it elsewhere. In the Dictys version, it is worth mentioning, he finds out about it from Telemachus, who meets him at Antenor's home! We have several patterns conflicting at this point, each one contributing something to the story. Just as there were forms of the story in which Odysseus did not find out about the suitors from anyone in Hades, so there may well have been versions of the Return in which all was well at home and the wife was not besieged by suitors, as Anticleia's tale would seem to indicate.…

The story of Menelaus may help us in other parts of our puzzle also. Elpenor has at least a partial counterpart in Nestor's tale of Menelaus' journey as related to Telemachus in Book 3. Thus: "Now as we came from Troy, the son of Atreus and myself set sail together full of loving thoughts; but when we were approaching sacred Sunion, a cape of Athens, Phoebus Apollo smote the helmsman of Menelaus and slew him with his gentle arrows while he held the rudder of the running ship within his hands. Phrontis it was, Onetor's son, one who surpassed all humankind in piloting a ship when winds were wild. So Menelaus tarried, though eager for his journey, to bury his companion and to pay the funeral rites" (3.276-285). This incident is like the death of another helmsman, even Tiphys in the Argonauts; and all together are the ancestors of Palinurus in the Aeneid and a host of others. True, Elpenor is not a helmsman, and he is not buried until later. But the loss of a man who must be given burial rites, occurring in a story in which there are other more striking parallels, tends to confirm what we have said about the force of thematic correspondences.

Corroborative also is another detail from Menelaus' journey ings, this time as told by the hero himself in Book 4. After the prophecy of Proteus: "So back again to Egypt's waters, to its heaven-descended stream, I brought my ships and made the offerings due. And after appeasing the anger of the gods that live forever, I raised a mound to Agamemnon, that his fame might never die" (4.581-584). Thus also Odysseus and his men returned to Circe's island and there buried Elpenor with due ceremony and piled a mound for him, topped by the oar he pulled when alive.

Professor [Cedric H.] Whitman's analysis [Homer and the Heroic Tradition; 1958] of Odysseus' Adventures exhibits the kind of geometric scheme that he has found elsewhere in Homer, particularly in the Iliad. In it Elpenor frames the all-important central episode of the Journey to the Dead. The picture that emerges is neat, but a question arises when we consider the connections between the several parts. The implication of Whitman's scheme is that Homer had the pattern, CIRCE, Elpenor, NEKYIA, Elpenor, CIRCE in his mind and was fitting the events to this configuration. Are we to infer that Elpenor remains unburied so that Homer can fulfill his program of returning to Aeaea, to the Elpenor theme, and hence to Circe, purely for the aesthetic effect of geometric regularity? It does not seem likely that the force of the artistic pattern, qua artistic pattern, in a traditional oral song would be great enough in itself to cause either the placing or displacing of incidents. I doubt if the artistic pattern is dynamic to this degree and in this way. This is not to deny that such balances of pattern are felt by the singers—we have seen them operative on the level of interlinear connections, where they play a part in determining the position of words in a line and perhaps even thereby the choice of words. But to suppose that such patterns would be the cause of changes of essential idea and meaning may be carrying their influence too far.

There is real difficulty, I think, with understanding the role of Elpenor, unless we try to analyze his part in the story on the basis of the dynamic mythic patterns involved. Only these have the power needed. The difficulty begins when Elpenor is left unburied. The Menelaus pattern to which we referred above supplies room for the loss of a companion, but time is taken for burial. It may well be that the death of a companion in this configuration is sacrificial and a necessary element for the successful journey to the land of the dead. I think that in a sacrificial death, due burial would be expected, and thus it happens in the Menelaus pattern.

The Menelaus pattern, however, does not provide for the return of the hero to the woman who sends him into the other world to consult with a seer. We are left with one question for which no answer has been suggested: why did Circe send Odysseus to the Underworld? There are two parts to that question: why Circe? and why the Underworld?

The parallel with the Menelaus episode suggests that the excursion to the world of mystery belongs to the story pattern wherein the journey is planned or ordered by the daughter of a sage or sorcerer, herself a sorceress. Any hero who has been away a long period from home and returns is fit subject for the lower world journey, because he has already followed the pattern of the myth by reason of a long absence in the other world and a return to this. The journey to the Underworld is but a microcosm of the macrocosm. Nostoi, we are told, also contained a visit to Hades—we do not know just where in Nostoi —a Hades that probably included Tantalus, hence of the old-fashioned kind similar to the end of the Underworld narrative in the Odyssey. Odysseus visited there a seer, one, indeed, whose death and burial are narrated in Nostoi. There is no journey to the Underworld in Dictys, but it is related that Odysseus went to an island on which was a certain oracle and that the oracle answered his questions about everything except what happens to the souls of men in the hereafter. It is not recorded what the questions and answers were, nor where the oracle was. But the event occurred after his visit to Circe and Calypso, sisters who lived in Aulis, whose realms he visited in the order given, Circe's and then Calypso's. It is not said that Calypso sent him to the oracle; it is said rather "and then I came to an island."

In these two sections we have seen how a knowledge of other traditional multiforms in the charged atmosphere of oral literature helps to explain the structure and even the "inconsistencies" of any given multiform. Just as any single return tale … must be understood in terms of the others which surround it, and, in a real sense, are contained in it themselves, so the Odyssey must be read with an awareness of the multiforms operative in its own structure.

From the time that Odysseus leaves the farm with Eumaeus for his own house until the recognition of the wanderer by his wife, the singer of the Odyssey is elaborating the central and most vital portion of the return story. We shall shortly be concerned with the recognitions before the hero enters the town of Ithaca and after he has left it for his father's farm. Now let us examine the central core, which is to say, the recognition of Odysseus by his wife. At his home Odysseus is recognized by or revealed to a dog, a nurse, two farm hands, and his wife, in addition, of course, to the suitors. The dog recognizes him instinctively; the nurse knows him by the scar; the suitors find out about his identity by the trial of the bow; he tells the farm hands who he is. His wife recognizes him by three different methods: (a) by the trial of the bow, (b) by the bath, and (c) by the token of the bed. Any one of these means would have been sufficient, but Homer, or the tradition before him, has woven them all together, making only the last final. The singer renders many lines of story before he finally reaches this recognition. Odysseus departs from the swineherd's hut and arrives at his own palace in the middle of Book 17, but recognition is consummated near the close of Book 23. It is, I believe, legitimate to ask why the narration takes so long, why the recognition is postponed several times, including a last minute delay while Odysseus bathes and his wife waits.

It should first be noted that there are two returns to the palace recorded here: that of Telemachus and that of Odysseus. The two returns are kept separate. That of Telemachus deserves special scrutiny. The opening scene of Book 17 (Telemachus asks Eumaeus to take the stranger, Odysseus, to the city to beg his living, while he, Telemachus goes ahead to tell his mother of his return) parallels in part the scene in Book 15 when Telemachus arrives on the shores of Ithaca and sends Peiraeus with Theoclymenus on to the city while he goes to Eumaeus' hut. In both passages Telemachus is sending to the city someone whom he has met before his own return to Ithaca, and this stranger is accompanied by a friend. These two scenes look like multiforms of the same theme, and it is not surprising that scholars have sometimes thought that Theoclymenus is a duplication of Odysseus. The impression that this is so is strengthened when we see that Telemachus goes home and awaits the coming first of Theoclymenus and then of Odysseus. In fact, Book 17 begins with a twofold plan, the first part of which is concerned with Telemachus and the second with Odysseus. As at the beginning of the Odyssey, the first plan is followed, Telemachus goes home and the narrative continues with his return with Theoclymenus, and then the second plan, the return from the farm of Odysseus and Eumaeus, is fulfilled.

The parallel between these two plans in Book 17 and those set forth in Book 1 is made even more compelling by the similarity in the technique of moving from plan one to plan two in both parts of the song. In Book 4 Menelaus has concluded his account of his meeting with Proteus and has invited Telemachus to stay for a while with him, then he will send him forth with goodly gifts. Telemachus has requested him to let him go, and asks for some small gift rather than horses and chariot, and Menelaus has said he will give him a bowl of silver with a rim of gold. At this moment the singer says: "So they conversed together. But banqueters were coming to the palace of the noble king. Men drove up sheep, and brought the cheering wine, and their veiled wives sent bread. Thus they were busied with their dinner in the hall. Meanwhile before the palace of Odysseus the suitors were making merry, throwing the discus and the hunting spear upon the level pavement, holding riot as of old" (4.620-627).

Compare with this passage that in Book 17 which is the transition from Telemachus at home with Penelope and Theoclymenus to the suitors. Telemachus has reported to Penelope (and Theoclymenus) his conversation with Menelaus in Sparta; Theoclymenus has prophesied that Odysseus is already in Ithaca, when Penelope says with a sigh that she wishes this were so; if it were she would give him, Theoclymenus, many a gift. "So they conversed together. Meanwhile before the palace of Odysseus the suitors were making merry, throwing the discus and the hunting spear upon the level pavement, holding riot as of old" (17.166-169).

The two passages given above are like watersheds between the plot of Telemachus' journey to the mainland and the suitors at home. On the other hand the subsequent passages about the suitors lead to, or are at the least themselves followed by, the narrative which directly concerns Odysseus. It is true that there is great difference in length between the passage about the suitors in Book 4 and that in Book 17; the former is over two hundred lines long and the latter less than twenty. Nevertheless, they have the same plot material before them, and the same after them.

The scene in Book 17 ending with the passage given above begins with the arrival of Telemachus at the palace of his father. Because this entire theme has affinities with the final recognition theme between Odysseus and Penelope in Book 23, we may learn something of importance by analyzing the theme in Book 17 and its earlier relatives. Let us first, however, note the points of similarity between the scene in Book 17 and that in Book 23, the goal of our present investigation. Telemachus returns to the palace and is greeted first by Eurycleia, then by the other maids, and after this his mother enters, greets him, and asks what he saw on his journey. At the end of Book 22, after the slaughter of the suitors, Odysseus talks with Eurycleia, has a fire lighted and the house fumigated, and next is greeted by the faithful maids; then Eurycleia, at the beginning of Book 23, goes and finally brings Penelope to meet Odysseus. Although the conversation between Eurycleia and Penelope is of some length and, therefore, has no parallel itself in the earlier passage, nevertheless, there is a similarity of pattern in the order of persons greeted. Father and son follow the same pattern, in the beginning of the two scenes.

In both these passages something strange happens after the entrance of Penelope. In Book 17 she asks, as we have seen, for a report from Telemachus. Instead of giving her a report, he tells her to take a bath, change, and pray to Zeus while her son goes to the market place to pick up a stranger to bring home for supper! Penelope does as he orders, he fetches Theoclymenus, they bathe and eat with Penelope nearby spinning. Finally she says that she is going to bed and she asks him for the report, stating that he had not dared to give it before because of the suitors—yet the suitors were not present at the time of his return. At any rate, now at last Telemachus tells his mother what he learned from Nestor and Menelaus. So much at the moment for Book 17. In Book 23 at this point Penelope and Odysseus sit staring at one another until Telemachus upbraids his mother for not speaking to his father after so many years. Penelope says that she and Odysseus have ways of knowing one another; then he suggests that he and Telemachus carry out a ruse to protect them against the suitors' relatives. He takes a bath and then comes back to where Penelope is sitting patiently. There is clearly hugger-mugger of some sort at both these points! Penelope is kept waiting first for the report of her husband from her son and then for a report from her husband. In both passages the report is delayed by one or more baths, by the departure and return of the person who is to give the report.

Conversations between Telemachus and his mother (and it is a conversation of mother and son that is the focal point of the difficulty in both these passages) have had special significance since the very beginning of the song. It could also be said that the arrival of a stranger at the palace of Odysseus, or elsewhere, for that matter, has also been of significance from the opening of the Odyssey. Moreover, both a conversation between Telemachus and Penelope and the arrival of a stranger are frequently combined in the same scene. We are concerned with two of these scenes. Can other similar combinations give us any clues to the strange puzzles of this pair? What can other multiforms show us about the two in question?

Once again in connection with the beginning of Book 17 are we referred back to Book 1. In the first scene in Ithaca, the arrival of a stranger precedes rather than follows the conversation between Telemachus and Penelope, but both these elements are present. We are reminded by Telemachus' words to his mother when she complains about the bard's song that the son's role now is to give orders to his mother; for Athena has visited him, and the days of his maturity are at hand. In Book 1 as in Book 17 he orders Penelope to go upstairs; in both cases she obeys without a word. There is no meeting of mother and son between that in Book 1 and that in Book 17, but in Book 4 we note that when the news of Telemachus' absence is reported to Penelope, she is comforted by Eurycleia and then bathes, changes, goes to her upper chamber, and prays, this time to Athena. Although she does not talk with Telemachus between Book 1 and Book 17, she does enter the great hall once in Book 16 to rebuke Antinous for the plot to kill her son. Eurymachus swears falsely that no harm will come to Telemachus from the suitors; thereupon Penelope, without further word, returns to her chamber to weep for Odysseus—the same words being used here as in the passage in Book 1.

A pattern emerges, then, in which we see Penelope enter the scene to rebuke someone and to be herself in turn rebuked or ignored and, especially by her son, sent back to her room. For this reason we do not question Telemachus' sending her back to bathe and pray in Book 17; the sense of Penelope's theme is thus being carried out. This is what happened to her both times when she has appeared before. And it is in part what happens when we see her again in Book 18 after the match between Irus and Odysseus, when she comes into the hall and rebukes Telemachus for allowing a stranger to be badly treated. Telemachus corrects her; matters have turned out well for the stranger in this match. When Penelope enters again in Book 19, Telemachus has gone to bed, but by a sort of attraction there is rebuking in the scene that follows; the maid Melantho rebukes Odysseus and is rebuked in her turn by both Odysseus and Penelope. The pattern is kept with different actors. Whatever the logic of the situation, the sense of the patterns prepares us to accept Telemachus' rebuke of his mother's silence in Book 23. This has ever been the general tenor of their exchanges of words and, indeed, of most of the entrances of Penelope.

Such comparison with other appearances of a theme may show us in this case why we accept without much question the postponing of Telemachus' report to Penelope, and it is possible that the habit of a pattern may have caused such an illogical situation in the narrative. But it is not enough here, because Homer has himself given a reason, although late, for the postponement, namely that the suitors were present and their presence deterred Telemachus. Perhaps Homer thought that it was clear that hostile people were on the scene when Telemachus was greeted by Penelope. It is more likely that Telemachus' story had to be saved until Theoclymenus was present. The preserving of smaller habitual patterns has helped to gloss over or to make palatable to the hearer a breaking, or at least mingling of larger patterns. Theoclymenus is a nuisance, a disturbing influence, yet Homer insists on him.

When Athena at the beginning of Book 15 appears to Telemachus in Sparta, urging him to return home, she makes no mention of this hitchhiker, but she advises Telemachus to leave his ship before it reaches the city and to spend a night at Eumaeus' hut, sending the swineherd ahead to tell Penelope that he has returned safe and sound. This is not what happens. It is clear by now, I believe, that we are dealing with a song that is a conflation, an oral conflation, I maintain, of a number of versions of the return song. Formula analysis of a passage is useful in establishing the orality of a text, in textual criticism, and in poetic evaluation. The study of thematic repetitions, as we have just seen, also helps to establish orality; to confirm textual readings; in limited ways to explain structural patterns; to provide the aura around the theme which corresponds to that around a formula. As units of composition, formula and theme are as indispensable to the scholar as they are to the singer. Yet we have, I think, demonstrated that there is a class of problems that can be answered only by reference to a multiple-text study like that in the appendix—in other words, by awareness of the multiplicity of versions in and around songs belonging to an oral tradition.

The singer begins in Book 17 to follow a pattern of the return of Telemachus that is correct for a Telemachus (or anyone else) returning home with a report, provided there is no Theoclymenus who should be either with him or at someone else's house. Similarly, in Book 23 the singer is following a pattern that is perfectly all right if there were no Telemachus in the hall with Odysseus when Penelope entered. Other factors are involved in both these cases, but part of the difficulty is that the patterns are suitable for simple not for complex situations; for straight-line versions rather than for mixed versions.

But, if I am not mistaken, it is not merely that two themes have been juxtaposed, or that one was started and then interrupted by another. It seems that themes have been telescoped together in a distinctive way. Telemachus' report is postponed; what takes its place is a different thematic complex beginning with the arrival of the stranger and his entertainment. The stranger has news of Odysseus also, and this fact links the two themes, the theme of Telemachus' report and that of Theoclymenus. The two reports are juxtaposed, that of Telemachus which is the tale of Menelaus; that of Theoclymenus, which is the prophecy of a seer. This is one way of looking at the telescoping, but it does not provide a motive strong enough for such radical countering of logic as Telemachus' lack of response to his mother's first question. Suppose, however, that the Theoclymenus episode were really the arrival of Odysseus disguised as Theoclymenus, with Penelope wishing to ask him about Odysseus. We have a hint of something of this sort with Mentes in Book 1, when it is suggested that if he had only stayed he might have given information about Odysseus.… But this version simply cannot stand with one in which an Odysseus is already on his way to town or about to leave for town with Eumaeus. What are telescoped together, then, are not a report of Telemachus and a prophecy, but a report of Telemachus and a deceptive story by Odysseus. There seems to be evidence, in other words, of a version in which Telemachus met his father at Pylos and returned with him, and another version in which he met Odysseus at Eumaeus' hut. They have been put together in oral tradition as we have it in this song of Homer's. The result is duplication often with one element in the duplication being vestigial or partial, and hence an apparent postponement and suspense, or an inconsistency.

Duplication or repetition is a characteristic of the portion of the song we are now analyzing. For example, there are repeated buffetings and insulting of Odysseus. Blows begin when he is on the road to the palace with Eumaeus and they are joined by the goatherd Melanthius, who abuses Odysseus with words and then kicks him on the hip, after he has prophesied that "many a footstool from men's hands flying around his head his ribs shall rub, as he is knocked about the house" (17.231-232). This pattern is indeed found again in Book 17 when Antinous insults Odysseus as he begs food from him and the suitor hurls a footstool at him. Near the close of Book 18 the same theme occurs again. Eurymachus abuses Odysseus and hurls a footstool at him, missing him, but striking the right hand of the winepourer. And at line 284 of Book 20 the theme is introduced with the same words as the quarrel with Eurymachus: "Yet Athena allowed the haughty suitors not altogether yet to cease from biting scorn. She wished more pain to pierce the heart of Laertes' son, Odysseus." Ctesippus now taunts the hero and throws an oxhoof at him. It misses him and strikes the wall. These actions all incur rebuke: Melanthius is rebuked by the swineherd, Antinous by the suitors, Eurymachus by Telemachus, and Ctesippus also by Telemachus. These incidents are multiforms of a single theme four times repeated, whose meaning, deeply bedded in the myth underlying the story, is that the resurrected god in disguise is rejected by the unworthy, who cannot recognize him. These episodes are actually testings.

The boxing match with Irus in Book 18 is a different kind of incident. It is a set contest between the representative or champion of the suitors and Odysseus, and its parallel is to be found in the trial of the bow! Odysseus in reality abandons his disguise in both scenes. For the boxing match Athena fills out his limbs and men wonder; Irus quakes and wants to run away. Here is a frustrated, a vestigial recognition scene brought about by accomplishing a feat of strength possible only to the returned hero. The match follows after the scene in which Penelope summons Eumaeus, asking him to bring the beggar to her so that she may question him about Odysseus; she has heard of his being struck by Antinous. Proceeding in the reverse order, we begin with (a) the abuse of Odysseus by Antinous, (b) rebuke by the suitors, (c) Penelope tries to meet Odysseus but is put off, and (d) vestigial recognition scene in the match with Irus. We can begin the pattern again with (a) the abuse by Eurymachus, (b) the rebuke by Telemachus, (c) Odysseus and Telemachus remove the armor from the hall, and (d) the recognition scene with Eurycleia. If we begin a third time, we have (a) the abuse by Ctesippus, (b) the rebuke by Telemachus, (c) Theoclymenus' prophecy of doom, the abuse of him, and his departure, and (d) the trial of the bow and recognition. This thrice-repeated general pattern is strengthened even more by the realization that in Book 17 (a) the abuse of Odysseus by Melanthius is followed by (b) the rebuke by Eumaeus, and (d) the recognition by the dog Argus! The third element in this pattern is variable but the other three elements are clear: abuse, rebuke, "x," recognition.

Now the trial of the bow brings about the revelation of Odysseus to the farm hands and then to all else. The tale proceeds untroubled until line 58 of Book 23, when to our amazement (and that of Eurycleia as well) Penelope still has doubts. Thus what might have been the first recognition by Penelope, that of the trial of the bow, ceases to be a recognition and becomes only one link in a chain of evidence. When she descends to see her son, the suitors who are dead, and him who slew them—as she herself says—it is her first appearance since the setting of the trial by the bow. As she descends she even debates within her heart whether she should question Odysseus apart or whether she should rush to him as to her husband. We may wonder whether Homer is himself debating this question. At any rate, we find that a scene that begins to lead toward recognition is side-tracked into plans for safety following the slaying of the suitors, plans concocted by Odysseus and Telemachus while Penelope, as it were, "stands by."

Loosely associated with these plans is a bath taken by Odysseus. This bath has caused Homerists much trouble; for Penelope simply, it seems, waits for Odysseus' return, their recognition scene being suddenly postponed again in a most brutal way. It is the second time at least (the first being the refusal of Odysseus to go to Penelope's chamber) that poorly motivated postponement has occurred. The bath belongs in the tale of the return—it surely has ritual significance. Even on the most realistic grounds it should be required after the grime and blood of the slaughter. Eurycleia urged a change of clothes on Odysseus earlier, right after the slaughter, at the end of Book 22, which Odysseus refused, thus putting off the doffing of his disguise until the scene with Penelope. This earlier reference makes one suspect that the placing here by Homer may be deliberate. He indicated that he had a choice—as he does fairly frequently. The bath cannot be delayed any longer; it must come before Odysseus and Penelope begin to speak in earnest about the signs which they alone understand.

It seems to me that the singer was about to embark on the final recognition scene between husband and wife— Penelope will know him when he emerges from the bath without disguise, whether the bath was taken before she came on the stage or while she waited—when he was once again turned from it by Telemachus material. Yet the ingredients of the "second" recognition by Penelope (the trial by the bow being the first) stay in place, namely, there is conversation about the state of his clothes, he bathes, he emerges in bright glory. This recognition also then has become another link in the chain of evidence, and the final recognition now follows immediately. Although it would seem that Penelope has not moved from her chair in the hall, one might argue that she now "appears" again on the stage of the singer's and hearer's attention. And this will be her final appearance in the song.

Just as the accumulating of disguises emphasizes by duplication the force of the testing of recognition, so the threefold recognition by Penelope, the last following the ritual cleansing and loss of the traces of death, leaves no doubt of the importance of this element in the story. Logical inconsistency there may be, but there is no mythic ambiguity. The conflation in oral tradition has resulted in increased power of the myth.

In terms of mythic meanings the coming of age of Telemachus is emphasized by his journey and its success, by the presence of a god on his side, ultimately by his ability to draw the bow of Odysseus, if it were not that he was restrained by his father. We tend to forget that Penelope tells us that Odysseus had instructed her to wait until Telemachus' beard grew before she remarried. The dramatic piling up of evidence of Telemachus' change to manhood stresses the fact that the time for remarriage has come. It is the last moment for Odysseus' return. In the myth of death and resurrection the darkest hour of devastation is at hand, and the return of the dying god, still in the weeds of the other world of deformity but potent with new life, is imminent.

The inner logic of the tale of Odysseus makes it impossible that the story could be stopped at line 296 of Book 23. I do not believe in interpolators any more than I believe in ghosts, even less, but had Homer not continued beyond that point, someone would have had to or the narrative would have remained unfinished.

The first section of this "continuation" really contains no difficulty, and [in his The Homeric Odyssey, 1955, Denys] Page seems to me to be entirely correct when he says that were it not for the Alexandrains this passage would not have come under question. Such résumés are perfectly normal in oral poetry, and numerous examples can be found.

The second scene of the continuation (23.344-the end; 24.205-411), the recognition of the returned hero by his parent, in the case of the Odyssey, his father, is a well-established element in the general story of return.… For some reason the return of the hero is associated with the death of one of the characters in his immediate circle upon recognition. (In the case of the Odyssey it is the dog Argus who dies when he recognizes his master.…) Recognition by a parent is a necessary element in the story and a regularly recurring part of the theme of recognitions.

It is not the recognition itself, then, which causes trouble in the Odyssey, but its position in the poem. That its place after the recognition by Penelope is not governed by rational or sentimental reasons is clear. Eumaeus told Odysseus straightway about his father's situation. They are already outside of town, and nothing would seem easier than for Odysseus to relieve his father's distress by going at once to him. This might have involved an earlier recognition by Eumaeus, but there seems to be no earthly reason why this would have done any harm, since Eumaeus has been proved loyal. Obviously the oral poet is not motivated by such considerations of reasoning. This approach is clearly not productive.…

There seems then to be reason to believe that the singer of the Odyssey was following a common practice in the order of recognitions in respect to that of wife, parent.… In the Odyssey, once Odysseus has gone to town, the recognition with Laertes can take place only after affairs have been settled in the city.

The objection that the structure of the scene of recognition itself is faulty because it is so long drawn out has no basis in the logic of oral epic. The lengthy deceptive story may seem merciless to us, but it is so integral a part of the recognition scene, particularly of one so elaborately told as this, that it would have been illogical to omit it. Anyone versed in recognition scenes would scarcely think to question it.… Whatever the reason may be for the deceptive story in return songs, it is so much part of the thematic complex, that we should not label as faulty any recognition scene in which it occurs. It is natural and right in that context.

In spite of all this, there is something wrong with this scene from the point of view of oral epic. Equally as important as the deceptive story is the element of disguise. Indeed the deceptive story makes no sense without the disguise.… When Odysseus left his palace he put on his own splendid armor! The only kind of recognition scene which could have been used after this (unless Laertes was blind, which he was not) was the variety in which the hero comes up and says, "Here I am, your son is back." But the elaborate recognition by scar and trees depends on disguise and is associated with deceptive story.

That the recognition by Laertes belongs earlier, before Odysseus has changed his disguise, even before he went into town, is indicated in the beginning of the scene. When he accosts his father, Odysseus pretends that he has just arrived in the island and inquires if he is really in Ithaca and if the old man knows anything about a friend of his named Odysseus. Although there is logically no objection to these questions as they are and where they stand, they would certainly be as well situated earlier in the song, soon after Odysseus' arrival in Ithaca, even better placed indeed. It seems most likely, therefore, that a multiform of the recognition theme designed for one place has been transferred to a position normally taken by another multiform of the theme. Thus an inconsistency has arisen.…

Homer does his best as always to gloss this over. Odysseus tells Telemachus, "But I will put my father to the proof, and try if he will recognize and know me by the sight, or if he will fail to know me who have been absent long" (24.216-218). He also disposes of his weapons (but not his armor) before he goes to meet his father. He is hesitant whether to go straight to his father and tell him directly of his return to Ithaca. These bits make me strongly suspect that Homer was aware of the difficulty, but that the traditional recognition scene with Laertes could not be eschewed.

We have seen that Homer probably had authority for the position of the recognition by the parent following that of recognition by the wife. This undoubtedly facilitated the shift. But there was also authority for meeting and even recognition by parent and son earlier in the song.… Recognition comes only after an interval. There is, then, good authority for the earlier position of this theme, at least for the encounter and the deceptive story; but also for the recognition itself.

If we have information to show us that the scene is really out of place (provided one can use this term in discussing oral epic), we ought to have some basis also for hazarding an opinion as to where the scene would have been "in place." There are, I think, three points at which it might well have occurred, in two of which at least Homer himself indicates that he was about to embark upon a scene with Laertes but gave it up. We can learn much about the structure of the Odyssey as oral epic by examining these three passages.

The first is toward the end of Book 15, after line 389. In Book 14 Odysseus was received by Eumaeus; he told his deceptive tale, tested Eumaeus, and found him both good and loyal. As Book 14 closes, we could expect either a recognition of Odysseus by Eumaeus or the meeting of Odysseus with another person whom he tests with the deceptive story.… Instead of either of these, however, we are directed to Sparta with Athena and Telemachus. The pattern is interrupted by the return to the Telemachus thread in the poem. The return to this thread here may have been made easier by the fact that one of our expectations is of another meeting and deceptive story. In Book 15, line 301, while Telemachus is on his voyage home, we are back with Odysseus in Eumaeus' hut. Odysseus turns the conversation to affairs in the palace in town and asks about his father and mother. Eumaeus tells him about them. Here, at line 389, I think, we are ready for the expedition with Eumaeus to Laertes' farm for the recognition with the father. But the flow is interrupted again by Eumaeus' tale of his own life, which lasts late into the night. This tale, if I read the signs correctly, should be part of a recognition scene between Eumaeus and Odysseus. We saw that the stage had already been set for this recognition before the interlude with Telemachus in Sparta.… Eumaeus' tale, then, may be a fragment of a recognition scene that is never completed, but is attracted to this position because such a scene is expected here. Moreover, it is also the kind of tale that Odysseus might tell as a deceptive story, another part, as we know, of the recognition complex. From this point of view it might be said to take the place of the deceptive story to Laertes, which could have come at this point. Surely at the end of Eumaeus' story (line 495) we might have gone on to the Laertes recognition scene on the following day.

But once again the Telemachus thread interrupts, and instead of the recognition scene with Laertes we have one with Telemachus. The pattern is kept, but Telemachus has taken Laertes' place and the singer has again postponed the recognition with the parent! In other words, by this point, Eumaeus' recognition has been twice postponed and so has the recognition with Laertes. In each case the interruption has been caused by the Telemachus part of the story: at the end of Book 14 and at 15.495 for Eumaeus; at 15.389 and 495 for Laertes. The first interruption may contain a vestigial recognition scene (or at least the deceptive story part of it, including disguise) between Telemachus and Theoclymenus-Odysseus; the second interruption is a full-fledged recognition. By these maneuvers the first recognition remains that between Odysseus and his son.

What an amazing feat of construction. How cleverly indeed have the two threads been woven together! Telemachus and Odysseus have met and recognition has taken place. Homer and the singers of ancient Greece (for we have no proof that Homer did this himself, but must realize the probability that this was the way he heard the story) have accomplished the masterly interweaving of plots by following the lead of the elementary forces in the story itself!

The last opportunity for the recognition by Eumaeus and by Laertes before the whole party goes to town comes in Book 16 at line 298, after the recognition by Telemachus. At this point the singer shows his awareness of the possibility and excludes it once and for all. Odysseus instructs Telemachus not to tell Laertes, nor the swineherd, nor anyone else until they have sounded them out, although he suggests that they might make trial of some of the men. Telemachus objects even to this. At line 456, just before Eumaeus' return from town, Athena transforms Odysseus into a beggar again, and the singer comments: "for fear the swineherd looking in his face might know, and go and tell the tale to steadfast Penelope, not holding fast the secret in his heart" (16.457-459). At this point Homer is clearly and consciously following a pattern that will have the recognitions by the swineherd and the father later in the song.

There are two matters worthy of notice in connection with this final opportunity for Laertes' recognition of his son. At the time when Telemachus arrives and sends Eumaeus to town to tell his mother that he is safely back (thus, incidentally, duplicating the messenger sent from the ship to tell Penelope the news), Eumaeus suggests that he stop by the farm on his way and inform Laertes of his grandson's safety. Telemachus hinders him from this and states that the best news to tell the old man and anyone else would be that his father has returned. Laertes is certainly on the singer's mind.

The second valuable clue is in Odysseus' suggestion that they sound out some of the men, the suggestion voted down by Telemachus. By rejecting the recognition of Laertes the singer has also rejected the possible assistance of certain minor characters scarcely noticed in reading the poem, namely the old man Dolius and his sons, who are actually the last people to recognize Odysseus. It may be pure speculation, but it is possible that Eumaeus is a duplication of the group of Laertes, Dolius, et al., or that in some songs of the tradition we would find him either completely absent or a member of that group. By having him as a separate figure, the singer is forced later to associate the neatherd with him. There are real signs of the traditional, oral combining and recombining of configurations in this part of the Odyssey as elsewhere. Certainly if any scene in the poem is a part of it, that scene is the recognition of Laertes. We have no less an authority than Homer himself, as well as Greek tradition, and the whole tradition of the Return since Homer's day.

Having investigated the question of where the scene might have been, there being doubt that as constituted it is in its "proper" place, we must now consider why it is where it is. Actually, it has been put at one of the most significant places in the story. After the recognition by the wife and the essential remarriage and the settlement of affairs with the suitors, as represented at least by their slaying, Odysseus, or the returned hero, must depart from home. Teiresias has told Odysseus this in the Underworld, and Odysseus has just told Penelope that this is his fate. The Telegony takes Odysseus, after the burial of the suitors by their kinsmen, first to inspect his herds in Elis, then to Thesprotis, and after each of these journeys back again to Ithaca, where he is finally killed by Telegonus. We are told that when Odysseus returned from Elis he performed the "sacrifices ordered by Teiresias," action which does not gibe very well with what we know of Teiresias' instructions from the Odyssey (although all we learn about what happened in Elis is that he was entertained by Polyxenus and received a mixing bowl as a gift, and that the story of Trophonius and Agamedes and Augeas followed). But that is in the Telegony. It helps to show that Greek epic tradition relates that Odysseus did continue his travels.…

In the Telegony the journey to Thesprotis, at least, seems … to be a return. The deceptive story told to Eumaeus (Book 14) and to Penelope (Book 19) tells of Odysseus in that land. Visiting the herds in Elis may be parallel to the visit to Laertes' farm.

But the references to herds in Elis, to Proxenus, and to the story of Trophonius seem to be of special interest.… [All] these elements are in some way connected with the lower world and with chthonic cult. Thesprotis too in Epirus is distinguished by the river Acheron, a well-known entrance to the Underworld, and the gateway to Dodona. The Telegony provides evidence, therefore, that Odysseus not only went on further travels but that those further travels were somehow connected with the other world from which he had just come. Everything in oral tradition points to the conclusion that at this moment in the story of Odysseus' return there should be departure from Penelope and another visit to that strange world from which the hero had been rescued or released. The journey out to the country to Laertes' farm for the recognition with the hero's parent suits the requirement of departure from Penelope and, perhaps, a mild idea of return in the fact that he had come into town from the country.

The singer is, to be sure, not satisfied with this substitute. As soon as Odysseus and Telemachus have set out from town, the singer lets them go their way, and the story continues without them in that strange puzzle that is the Second Nekyia (Book 24.1-204). In some form or other a journey to the other world belongs, and is in fact required, here, as we have seen above. The pull of the significant pattern is strong. Whatever problems the present form of the Underworld journey in the last book of the Odyssey poses for us (and they are many and not to be ignored), however abrupt its introduction here, and the return to the Laertes scene when this passage is completed, the forces that hold together a song in oral tradition demand that some such journey occur at this moment in the tale. If there is any passage that could be termed "out of place" in the ending of the Odyssey it is not the Second Nekyia.

The first difficulty brought forth in the passage itself is that Hermes Psychopompos is not found elsewhere in Homer and is hence unhomeric, in fact not at home in Greek epic. We cannot take this too seriously, I think. Actually we have two songs. Anyone acquainted with traditional material can realize how infinitesimal a part of any tradition are two texts, no matter how long and how rich. True, souls go to the Underworld fairly frequently in the Homeric poems and Hermes might have been introduced to conduct them, but he is not. It seems to me that there is something special about this particular departure of souls on their journey to Hades that requires someone as companion if not guide for them, something special that does not occur elsewhere in Homeric song.

The journeyer in this case should have been Odysseus; for there is some reason to think that he was supposed to bring these suitors back as ransom or sacrifice or for purification.… Yet Odysseus.… cannot make this journey. For one thing, he is busy elsewhere. But the feeling is strong that there must be someone at their head, and Hermes is a good choice. Was it not he who brought the message from Zeus to Calypso releasing him from the other world? Was not Hermes involved in some way with his coming back into the world of reality?

It is also objected that the geography of the journey is peculiar and unlike that of other Homeric journeys, or references to such, to the lower world, with the exception, at least, of Ocean Stream. I submit that the geography here is especially fitting for Odysseus. At least it takes the suitors off in the direction of Thesprotis, whence Odysseus pretended he had come and whither the Telegony says he later went. For Hermes guides the suitors from Ithaca across the Ocean, past Leucas to the Gates of the Sun, which is to say to the entrance to the lower world. With all that has been written about Leucas, I cannot understand Page's rhetorical question: "Who ever heard, before or since, of a Rock Leucas, or White Rock, near the entrance of Hades across the river Oceanus?" The river Oceanus is where you want it to be, it seems to me, and if you are in Ithaca, or anywhere else in Greece, it is not far away, unless you want it to be, of course. The Island or promontory of Leucas, noted for its white rock from which human sacrifice was made for purification or to appease Apollo, as any traveler knows, is across a narrow strait from Corcyra, not far north of Ithaca. The White Rock is a clue not merely geographically but also ideologically to this journey; it indicates, I believe, the nature of the slaughter of the suitors, as sacrifice or purification for Odysseus. As for its being near the entrance to Hades, one needs only to look again at the map to see that it is not far south of Thesprotis and the river Acheron; indeed, for anyone going there from Ithaca, it is right on the road. This is, in short, another version of the journey of Odysseus to Thesprotis, exactly what one might expect to find just at this point.

It would be wrong to leave any discussion of the Second Nekyia without referring to the likelihood that both its position and its content—and perhaps its very existence—are due to the parallel with the Agamemnon type of return story, which we have noted as being often on Homer's mind in the dictating of the Odyssey. We know from the Nostoi that there was a descent to the land of Hades and we have assumed that it was made by one of the heroes in his wanderings before returning home. Is it possible that the journey to the Underworld in the Nostoi occurred at the end and that the traveler was Agamemnon after his murder, or since we do not know whether Orestes' vengeance was included in the Nostoi, might the traveler have been Aegisthus himself? If the parallel is still operating here, then not only the Second Nekyia but also the final reconciliation at the close of the Odyssey is not merely the tying together of loose threads but as necessary a conclusion of the feud as either the murder of Aegisthus by Orestes or the final placating of the Furies. Viewed from this light these final sections of the Odyssey are inevitable because of the influence of the related pattern of the Orestes story.

On the level of myth the existence of these two parallel Returns, both in the same song, but also in the same tradition, must give us pause. They are contradictory. One of them would seem to be the return from the other world to set aright devastation at home, to bring new life, to be ever repeated, the myth of death and resurrection, the other a myth of return to death, of tragedy and annihilation, demanding righteous vengeance, the inexorability of original sin, as exemplified in the curse on the House of Atreus. Yet the coupling of two such contradictory patterns, the one concerned with life and the other with death, should not amaze us. They are complementary, not contradictory.

G. S. Kirk (essay date 1962)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6109

SOURCE: "The Odyssey," in The Songs of Homer, Cambridge University Press, 1962, pp. 355-71.

[An English professor of Greek, Kirk is the author of numerous critical works on classical authors, including several books on Homer. In this essay, Kirk assesses the flaws of the Odyssey, contending that while "the poem is a marvellous accomplishment" it "fails to achieve the profound monumental effect of the Iliad."]

The Odyssey is a poem of greater structural sophistication than the Iliad. This is seen particularly in the division of the action between Ithaca, the Peloponnese, Calypso's island, Scherie and, by reminiscence, the scenes of Odysseus's preceding adventures. The coalescence of these parts was in no way beyond the powers of a great oral poet working with the example of the Iliad in his mind and with the help of a highly developed system of formulas and minor themes. Moreover the composer of the monumental Odyssey seems to have had the advantage of using certain quite extensive poems on important elements of his subjectmatter: certainly on the courting of Penelope and her treatment of the suitors, on the recognition of Odysseus and the concerting of a plan for killing the intruders. It may be that some of this material had been worked up previously by the monumental singer himself, into a song of say four or five thousand lines; we cannot tell. Yet there were also other pre-existing versions, as can be seen from signs of inconsistency and conflation in the matter of when and how Odysseus made himself known to his wife. The adventures of Odysseus, too, were certainly founded on earlier poems of wanderings in far-off lands; and the journey of Telemachus to the Peloponnese, though it bears every sign of having been put together by the main composer, probably makes use of much existing material on the … Returns of the Achaean heroes from Troy, and perhaps on life in the great Mycenaean palaces. It seems probable, then, that the poet of the Odyssey worked with larger prepared units than the poet of the Iliad, and that made the interweaving of major themes correspondingly easier.

The main plan of the poem is not difficult: the decision of the gods to release Odysseus, the crisis in Ithaca between Telemachus and the suitors, Telemachus's journey, Odysseus's stay among the Phaeacians and the retrospective recital of his adventures, his arrival in Ithaca and at Eumaeus's hut, Telemachus's return and meeting with his father, Odysseus in disguise at the palace, the plan for vengeance and its successful accomplishment, his recognition by Penelope. This narrative falls into well-defined and substantial episodes: for example the journey of Telemachus (first Pylos, then Sparta, with reminiscences of Achaean fortunes), the adventures of Odysseus, the scenes with Eumaeus, Odysseus in disguise among the suitors. The main difficulty lay in passing from one field of action to another and in adjusting and relating the temporal sequence. Here the Iliad, which is much more strictly annalistic, provided little help. In fact the solution of these problems was often made very simple: …

Thus they [sc. Odysseus and Eumaeus in Eumaeus's hut] spoke such words to each other; and they slept for no long time, but a little while, for fair-throned Dawn quickly came. But they, by the shore, Telemachus's companions, loosed the sails … (15.493-6)

Sometimes there is a slight chronological deception, but nothing that is detectable in recitation or indeed in ordinary reading; the regular epic convention is observed that events, wherever they take place, follow each other successively and leave no gaps. The inconsistencies and harsh transitions in the Odyssey do not in general arise out of this complex structure, but rather from the conflation of variant accounts on the one hand and from rhapsodic expansions on the other— whether by the later insertion of summaries designed to introduce an episode chosen for special recitation, or by the expansion of the main underworld scene and the supplementation of the ending.

The narrative of the Odyssey stands out in retrospect as tense, varied and compelling. Taken as a whole this story of return and vengeance is satisfying and successful: no one in his senses can deny that the poem is a marvellous accomplishment. Nevertheless it contains weaknesses, especially when judged by some of the standards that we apply to the Iliad; and it is essential to recognize and understand those weaknesses, even at the risk—which anyone runs who treats either poem with less than open-mouthed and uncritical adulation— of being accused of boorish impercipience. I shall consider these first and at much greater length than the positive qualities of felicity and genius, which in this poem are unusually self-evident where they exist and which tend to wilt under the blast of exposition.

The main fault of the Odyssey is that at many points the narrative content is drawn out to excessive length. At these points one feels that the monumental singer is consciously and almost painfully elaborating his material so as to make a great poem which will match the scale of the Iliad. He is doing the kind of thing that Avdo Meðedovi did when encouraged by Parry to expand a theme to monumental length; though with the difference that the singer of the Odyssey did not simply drag in every kind of thematic accretion and accessory of detail from the oral singer's repertoire, but rather expanded his scenes either by free composition of an excessively leisurely kind or by sheer repetition. This does not happen, or rather it does not become noticeable as a fault, in scenes where the action is rapid and enthralling and the plot-content relatively high. On the contrary there are many points, for example in some of the adventures (like the Lotus-eaters, the Laestrygonians, the Sirens) or in Telemachus's evading of the ambush set by the suitors, at which the narrative is all too brief and elliptical. At these points expansion and elaboration would have been well justified; though admittedly the main singer was right not to make the recital of Odysseus's adventures too long in total. There it might have been better to omit one or two of the lesser episodes and to have expanded certain of the others; though it seems profane to suggest a course by which the world might never have known of the Lotus-Eaters, and one cannot wish it on absolute grounds. It is not at points like these, then, that expansion becomes vicious: rather it is in conversations between some of the main characters—between the suitors and Telemachus, or the disguised Odysseus and Eumaeus or later Penelope herself—that a certain lack of tension, an excessive leisureliness, becomes obtrusive. These conversations are perhaps largely the work of the main composer himself; he sought to gain length not so much in the expansion of pre-existing narrative elements as by an increase in scale in the preparatory and transitional passages that he had to supply in order to make a unified poem. Some reservation is necessary, since the same excessive leisureliness shows itself in books 3 and 4—in Telemachus's visit to the palaces of Nestor and Menelaus and in the long conversations and reminiscences that take place there. Here the poet was probably expanding well-known epic themes of the Returns of the heroes from Troy and the fate which met them at home. His method and technique differ, then, from those of book 14 or 19. Yet the effect of slowness and monotony and the excessive use of repetition remain the same. It is no use arguing that a deliberate slowing of the pace was necessary at these points. I doubt whether such compositional subtleties occurred to the oral poet, even to the monumental poets themselves; and though their experience and good taste might instinctively achieve variations of tempo where necessary, it is doubtful if extreme leisureliness was necessary either so early in the poem as 3 and 4 or between 13 and 19, in which there is comparatively little action anyway and many plans and minor movements have to be described. In short, then, if such long-drawn-out sections of the poem exist, they exist because of a fault of method on the part of the main composer; or perhaps a fault of intention, to produce a poem to match the Iliad in length and scale.

That longueurs do exist can be confirmed, though admittedly with some risk of error, by reading the poem through, fairly rapidly and preferably in Greek, and at least with an open mind. It will be observed that in 3 and 4 genre passages of the preparation of food, sacrifices, and arrival and departure are very frequent, as is perhaps inevitable, and that such repeated passages are commoner throughout the Odyssey as a whole than in the Iliad. Similes are almost wholly absent from these books, partly because much digressionary material was being offered in the form of reminiscences by Nestor, Menelaus and Helen, and partly because sim-iles are almost entirely restricted to narrative and do not come easily in speeches. Indeed one might almost say that these reminiscences, and the information they supply about what happened between the end of the Iliad and the beginning of the Odyssey over ten years later, are the main point of the third and fourth book. Certainly Telemachus discovers little about his father, and apart from the subsidiary theme of his education and development the so-called Telemachy contributes little to the main plot of the poem. This is no reason for suspecting its authenticity or supposing that it must have existed as an independent poem before the formation of the Odyssey. It seems to me to be a potentially entertaining episode which has the advantage of giving a certain interest to the character of the boy Telemachus, and showing how up to this moment he has been too young and too weak to prevent the suitors from establishing themselves in his mother's house. It also summarizes events from the end of the Trojan war, which had to be referred to somehow—even though the audience of the Odyssey may be presumed to have known many of them from short poems like those that seem to have been used as source by the monumental composer; and it gives them additional point by the contrast between Agamemnon's wife and Odysseus's and by the exemplar of the heroic son Orestes which is constantly stressed by Athene-Mentes and others. The leisureliness of narrative in these books, the rambling and repetitious reminiscences and the wordy conversations, the emphasis on food and drink, sunrise and sunset, going to bed and getting up, and on the small details of life in a peacetime palace, the flatness of the particular formular style and the absence of similes (to all of which Menelaus's story of his encounter with Proteus, 4. 351ff., is an exception)—all this reminds one strongly of the methods of books 14 to 19, the preparations for action in Ithaca, and persuades one that the Telemachy, though it uses earlier material, is essentially the work of the main composer of the Odyssey.

It is tenable that this main composer elaborated the conversations between Odysseus and Eumaeus, or Odysseus and Penelope, in order to deepen the characterization and explain the motives of the main figures of the poem. If so he was not particularly successful. One cannot feel that Odysseus's false tales, or his claim to have seen the real Odysseus in Thesprotia and his assertions that this Odysseus is or soon will be in Ithaca, met as they are by obstinate and despondent disbelief on the part of the swineherd or Penelope, really do much to illustrate character in depth; nor indeed is this a common epic intention. They substantiate Odysseus's craftiness, but that is already wellestablished— his false tale to the disguised Athene in 13, at which she is so delighted that she smiles and fondles and praises him, has already made this point in the same kind of way but infinitely better. They also substantiate Penelope's habit of despair, her repeated disappointment caused by visitors who tried to please her by claiming to have news of her husband—but in fact this theme is over-emphasized, and eventually leads to the highly improbable picture of Penelope maintaining complete disbelief even in the face of a perspicuous dream plainly interpreted and other information that clearly portends her husband's return. The flagging tempo after Odysseus has reached Eumaeus's hut is emphasized by one of the poorest digressions in the whole poem (14. 457ff.), the story which the hero tells Eumaeus in order to secure the loan of a cloak or other warm clothes for the night. No such elaborate trick was necessary, since Eumaeus had already shown himself the soul of hospitality; and the story that Odysseus concocts, of how he had once won the use of a cloak in an ambush on a cold night, is weak and rather pointless. This complicated wrangle about cloaks is unfortunately a not completely inappropriate conclusion to the fourteenth book, which is surely the least satisfactory, poetically and dramatically, of any in either poem. The preoccupation with trivialities reminds one of the tiresome arguments about whether Achilles will or will not take any food in book XIX of the Iliad—a theme repeated, with little more success but at least more briefly, at 7. 215ff.

This occasional weakness in the narrative is sometimes aggravated by the language. In general it is true that the language of the Odyssey is smoother and flatter than that of the earlier poem. It is more polished, less stark and angular, yet more diffuse and much less lively. It is not particularly that its formular vocabulary is slightly different from that of the Iliad, for though there are significant differences there are far more similarities; and the harshness of some of its untraditional neologisms is balanced by the occasional linguistic crudity of the Iliad. Nor is a tired or second-hand formular style … , in which in certain passages the high proportion of repeated lines and half-lines and the overworking of certain common formulas begin to obtrude themselves, particularly to blame. Indeed the formular phrases of the Odyssey give the impression of being less mechanically used, more variegated by minor adjustments and alterations, than those of the Iliad. The language is in a way less stereotyped, and I conjecture that the proportion of more or less free composition to strictly formular composition is higher in the Odyssey than in the Iliad; in certain respects the main poet of the later poem is technically superior to the singer of the monumental Iliad. The main trouble with this smoother and less angular language is precisely parallel to that of the narrative structure, that it is plethoric, redundant and over-digested. It is typical that the formular stock of the Odyssey contains far more tautologous phrases than the Iliad, phrases like … 'have accomplished and done',… 'knows and has learned',… 'word and tale',… 'utters and declares', … Admittedly the repeated use of functional halflines tends to encourage the unnecessary expansion of an idea to fi11 the other half of the verse, and the language of Homer in general is often rather full and imprecise—so that one finds sentences like … 'and he perceiving it with his mind marvelled in his spirit', 1. 322-3. Yet the Odyssey goes further in this way than the Iliad—taken as a whole, that is; obviously there are parts of the earlier poem that are 'Odyssean' in style and vocabulary, like much of XXIV, and parts of the Odyssey, like book 22, which possess the greater sharpness and force of most of the Iliad.

The impression of redundancy in language is heightened not only by the Odyssey's greater use of repeated genre passages, of food and sacrifice and ships, but also by its tendency to reuse a preceding passage in a shortened form—so that one has an impression not of archaic simplicity, directness and economy but of anticlimax and repletion. The repetition of the prophecy of Odysseus's last journey at different points throughout the poem is dramatically effective, and the repetition of Penelope's ruse with the web is acceptable for the same reason; but Odysseus's false tales are too similar to each other, and the recital to Antinous at 17. 427-41 of part of a longer story told to Eumaeus in 14 makes a frigid effect. One has no right to complain of the magnificent scenes of shipwreck in the Odyssey, but the brilliant description of the destruction of Odysseus's ship at 12. 403-25 is sadly and unnecessarily attenuated by being dragged into one of the false tales at 14. 301 ff. A large part of the nineteenth book consists of repetitions. Finally the epic convention by which a messenger's speech is repeated more or less verbatim, when the messenger receives it and when he delivers it, is seriously overworked at certain points in the Odyssey, where it is applied to prophecies, instructions, and the actual performance of those instructions: thus Circe tells Odysseus how to pass the Sirens, then Odysseus tells his crew, and finally the actual journey is narrated in much the same language, by now all too familiar. The same feeling of extensive repetition is produced by Circe's instructions to Odysseus at the end of 10 about his visit to Hades, and the description of the actual visit that follows early in 11; though it is possible that constructional difficulties played some part in this instance.

The main events of the Odyssey are more varied in themselves and allow a more varied and therefore potentially more lively treatment than those of the Iliad, which is so heavily concerned with the progress of battle and the martial reactions of its chief participants. In fact, however, the vitality and tension that fill even some of the slightest episodes of the Iliad are often absent from the Odyssey. And yet, of course, the later poem still contains many brilliant evocations and descriptive tours deforce: the landing in Scherie and the encounter with Nausicaa in 6, the semi-lyrical picture of the islet facing the island of the Cyclopes at 9. 116ff., Polyphemus's tender speech to his ram and his furious prayer against Odysseus later in the same book, the famous episode of the dog Argos in 17, the description of the early morning bustle of the palace servants at 20. 147-65, the strange but powerful episode of the suitors' mad laughter and Theoclymenus's vision and departure—the one and only time when his appearance has any dramatic force—at the end of that book, the rout of the suitors and the blood-thirsty vengeance on the treacherous servants in 22—these and more reach the heights of inspiration and virtuosity. Apart from such set-pieces the singer of this poem, and presumably some of his immediate predecessors, were capable of extraordinary touches of irony, subtlety, tenderness and fantasy—indeed in these gentler qualities they exceeded the normal range of heroic poetry and at least equalled the powers of the singer of the Iliad. The description of the Phaeacians, though it contains some odd anomalies, shows all these qualities, and particularly the gift for fantasy and lyrical other-worldliness which is one of the special splendours of the main composer of this poem. This is seen as the Phaeacian ship carries Odysseus homeward:

Then they leaned back and threw up the salt sea with the oar, and for Odysseus delightful sleep fell upon his eyelids, unbroken and very sweet, most like to death. And the ship—as in a plain stallions four-yoked all leap forward together at the lashes of the whip, and rising high swiftly achieve their course, so did the ship's stern rise, and behind, dark and huge, the wave of the boisterous sea rushed along. Safely the ship ran all the time, nor would a falcon have kept pace with it, the fastest of birds: so swiftly running along did it cut the waves of the sea, bearing a man who possessed counsel like the gods, who before did suffer very many griefs in his heart, wars of men and cleaving the grievous waves, yet then slept motionless, in forgetfulness of all that he had undergone. When the star rose that is brightest, which most of all comes announcing the light of early-born Dawn, then it was that to the island approached the sea-travelling ship. There is a certain harbour of Phorkys, the old man of the sea, in the community of Ithaca … (13. 78-97)

To the shore of this harbour Odysseus is carried, still sleeping, by his magical escorts, who are destined to be turned to stone by Poseidon on their return to Scherie: Athene disguises the landscape by shrouding everything in mist, and when Odysseus wakes he does not recognize it but everything remains fantastic, menacing and strange.

Despite such marvellous scenes the Odyssey as a whole fails to achieve the profound monumental effect of the Iliad. This is partly because the main theme is less universal and less tragic; but to a large extent it is caused by the actual character of Odysseus. The man of many trials and many devices, the canny, suspicious, boastful and ruseful victim of fortune and his own qualities, is obviously less magnificent than the god-like Achilles, the swift and insanely proud warrior; he is also less real, strangely enough, and less credible. Achilles is often petty and unimaginative, in many ways like a destructive and acquisitive child, but there is something sympathetic in him: he represents some of the commonest aspirations and failings of human nature, though on a superhuman scale. Odysseus is a more specialized being, a curious mixture of heroic and intellectual qualities that can never have been frequent in any society. Moreover he is not drawn in much depth: partly the difficulty lies in reconciling the Iliadic Odysseus, who is clever and persuasive but still a great warrior in the classic mould, with the ingenious braggart, poisoned arrows and all, that he has become in some parts of the Odyssey. For even within the Odyssey itself his character is inconsistent in—for the unitarian audience—a rather unfathomable way. The faithful husband who rejects a life of divinity with Circe and Calypso is estimable enough; he makes a nice symbol of the conservative and social demands of man and the power of his affections, even at the cost of survival; yet he does not accord with the dangerously conceited victor over the Cyclops. In fact this Odysseus of the sea-adventures makes too strong an impression for the good of the whole poem, in the rest of which the hero's character is more consistently sound and gentle—though always suspicious. Admittedly the hero of the false tales is not usually an appealing figure, and one suspects that the real Odysseus quite admired his creations; but otherwise the generous master of servants, the patient victim of insults, the determined and ultimately affectionate husband, is admirable enough. The trouble is that he does not turn out to be very interesting. Largely this is because of the role the main poet has seen fit to assign to Athene, and to the altered conception, different from that of the Iliad, of the way in which the gods rule the life of mortals. During the sea-adventures, at least, Athene is absent from Odysseus's side—because she could not risk offending Poseidon, as she explains later, but also perhaps because some of the earlier sea-tales did not have this kind of divine participant; and, though the audience still knows that the hero will survive, his ordeals seem more terrifying as a consequence. Once he is accompanied at almost every step by the goddess, either heavily disguised or in her plainest anthropomorphic form of a tall, beautiful and accomplished woman, the tension of Odysseus's actions and dangers is surely reduced. This may not seriously affect his moral stature, but it diminishes his interest as a hero developing with his circumstances. The growth of Telemachus's character under the goddess's guidance is heavily emphasized; but his father is too mature and too cunning for this kind of unfolding, and the only quirks and anomalies of his character, as we have seen, are probably the rather worrying product of the conflation of different themes and different kinds of epic material. The Achilles of the Iliad stands in contrast: he is fascinating because he occasionally rebels against the traditions of the hero. In IX he sublimates his personal affront into a temporary inquietude with the whole concept of heroic warfare and heroic guest-friend obligations, and shows a touch of schizophrenia (or at least hysteria) in the process; while at the poem's end his frenetic mutilation of Hector is followed by a mercurial and heroic acceptance of Zeus's rebuke, and his treatment of Priam reveals a touchy and evanescent humanity that was neither impossible nor entirely expected of him.

A similar difference affects the drawing of other figures in the two poems. Although they are placed in fewer situations that might be expected to reveal the finer points of character, Agamemnon, Nestor, Hector and Paris stand out more solidly from the Iliad than do Eumaeus, Telemachus of Antinous from the Odyssey. Even Ajax, whose main role is martial, is better defined than most of the second-rank personalities of the later poem, of which there are many. Helen in the Iliad enters the action at only a few points, yet she still seems more a creature of flesh and blood than Penelope, who is described and talked about throughout the Odyssey. Perhaps it is partly because flesh and blood are Helen's speciality, and there is little moral complexity about her; while there is all too much complexity in Penelope, in fact a great deal of doubt about what precisely she is up to—some of which doubt, it is fair to say, probably arises from structural anomalies and the conflation of two variant accounts. Nevertheless Penelope never becomes much more than a paradigm of wifely constancy or of feminine illogicality, uncertainty and despair: an adult figure, but lacking the spark of life that touches the lesser female characters, Nausicaa and Circe and Calypso. It is a commonplace that Homer's most felicitous descriptions are often brief, allusive, and almost accidental: 'No cause for reproach that Trojans and well-greaved Achaeans for such a woman so long a time should suffer griefs; marvellously like the immortal goddesses is she to look upon' (III. 156-8)—that is how Helen's signal beauty was described in the Iliad. The same unemphatic allusiveness distinguishes Nausicaa, and even more the two demi-goddesses, and makes them more remarkable in retrospect than Penelope herself. It is admittedly harder for the poet to vivify a middle-aged wife than a divine mistress; but one senses the same flatness in many of the lesser characters of the Odyssey, too, in comparison with their counterparts in the Iliad. Admittedly the martial poem almost completely neglects the humble people below heroic rank; steersmen, stewards and the common ruck of soldiers are occasionally referred to in the mass, and so are a favourite captive-woman or two; the upstart Thersites is beaten up by Odysseus; but the Odyssey has the ad-vantage in social universality, and in places—as in the description of the anonymous corn-grinding woman who, weaker than the others, was kept working even at dawn and prayed aloud for the destruction of the suitors (20. 105ff.)—it achieves great pathos. Yet scores of Iliadic fighters both on the Achaean and on the Trojan side come alive, if only for a line or two; the poet imagines them as people, with a home and a living background, and this turns their death or their moment of triumph into something more than a mere statistic of warfare. This simply does not happen in the Odyssey; Odysseus's crew in the adventures, even the demoralized Eurylochus, hardly exist except as a necessary group, labouring or complaining, weeping or expiring as events demand.

The same reproach can be made to a lesser degree about the suitors. In terms of sheer bulk of description they play a large part in the poem. Yet my own feeling is that most of them are uninteresting—Antinous and Eurymachus mere bully-boys and cheats, Amphinomus a bit better because unusual, with signs of decency, Ctesippus a mere replica of Antinous, and most of the rest anonymous until the moment when, as the victims of Odysseus, they gain a name and a patronymic and a brief semblance of actual existence. None of these men makes a dangerous suitor for Penelope, someone really likely to turn her head. In a way the treatment of the suitors as an indistinct, sinister and almost anonymous bloc might be dramatic; but this effect is spoiled by the poet's plain efforts to give individuality to some of them. An even more serious criticism concerns Eumaeus. The story in 15 of his kidnapping as a child is a brilliant digression, but otherwise comparatively little about him is subtle, memorable or deeply interesting: he is shown at length as the faithful swineherd, conscientiously guarding his master's property, wish-ing for his return, cursing the suitors, and acting as a loyal friend and retainer of Telemachus and (in spite of her neglect) of Penelope. Country life and servitude have sapped the heroic qualities that his noble birth promised; Odysseus does not take him into his confidence before he has to, and then his role in the plan against the suitors is relatively minor. Eurycleia, the faithful elderly nurse, again has an important part in the narrative, especially in her recognition of Odysseus by his scar, but only comes powerfully alive in her rather gruesome approval of the horrors perpetrated later.

The Odyssey shares with the Iliad the great virtue of a well-defined central theme which is worked out at length but inexorably. By its nature, though, the Odyssean theme is less profound and less pathetic. The restoration of Odysseus to his home and fortune and family, the reward of Penelope's constancy and the removal of the manifold dangers to Telemachus, are not rendered trivial simply because they are not tragic, but nevertheless these things lack the depth and severity of the wrath of Achilles and its dire consequences. At times the complicated narrative of Odysseus's return, his intricate plan, his disguise, his methodical and cool-headed progress to the goal that Athene has guaranteed him, entail stretches of narration in which major events are lacking. That is particularly so of books 13 to 19 or 20; and the same leisureliness of action is apparent in many parts of the journey of Telemachus. In these places the possibility of tedium, a slight wilting of attention in the audience, might be excluded by spirited composition and by flashes of digression. A similar danger existed with much of the battle-poetry in the Iliad, but the earlier poet was more successful in meeting it. One of his devices for doing so is the extended simile. Now while it is true that an image can be used almost anywhere for its own sake, it is rightly accepted that frequent similes are more necessary in the battle-poetry of the Iliad than in much of the Odyssey; yet there are many places in the latter poem where the greater use of imagery would have been a welcome improvement. The Odyssey contains far fewer similes than the Iliad, and they are not a very conspicuous element in the Odyssean style. They are almost entirely absent from the Telemachy and the preparatory period in Ithaca; they become more frequent, indeed, in places where the action itself quickens up and where they are consequently less necessary. One disadvantage, already remarked, was that convention evidently excluded their use in speeches. Book 22, which describes the slaughter of the suitors, has many good similes to add to the Iliadic effect of the poetry of battle. Doubtless this is intentional: the model of the Iliad showed that similes were commonest in poetry of action and warfare. Yet there they were commonest in such contexts because the contexts themselves were so numerous that there was danger of monotony. In the Odyssey, though, martial contexts are rare and the danger of monotony exists elsewhere; could the main composer with advantage have used more similes in the quieter passages and fewer in the violent ones? Some of those he does use, at least, are fresh and lively and come up to the highest standard of the Iliad.

In other digressionary devices, too, the Odyssey lags behind the Iliad. The abolition of scenes among the gods, once the poem is under way, removes one glorious and effective kind of diversion. The singer may have felt that to introduce a fourth major scene of action into an already complicated plot would be too much, but the chief reason for the change is the new and less dramatic conception of a daimon-like personal protector. The lack of life and detail in the minor characters, in comparison with the Iliad, has already been noticed; Nestor's reminiscences have no real parallel in the Odyssey, and Theoclymenus is a less successful diversionary figure; portents come thick and fast in the second part of the poem, but many of them are obscure in significance and casual in description. One new device, which belongs to a poem about noble courts and not to one about expeditionary war, is the description of singers in action and the report at less or greater length of some of their songs: the illicit love of Ares and Aphrodite, sung by Demodocus for a Phaeacian dance and lasting a hundred lines, is a brilliant and unusual episode. Most of the Odyssean references to happenings outside the action of the poem are to the Trojan war and the returns of the heroes; the first four books are full of these—for example Helen's tale of Odysseus's entry into Troy in disguise, at 4. 240ff., in which the emphasis on his disguise may be a deliberate echo of what is to happen later in the action; and Menelaus's subsequent account of the Trojan Horse. There is less relief and less contrast in these references to recent events, though no less intrinsic interest, than in the Iliadic type of historical digression on the vanished world of earlier generations. The boar-hunt on Parnassus is one example of an Odyssean digression which succeeds in evoking a fresh atmosphere, and so do certain parts of Odysseus's fabrications. The exchange of gifts and the description of rich and unusual objects, as at 15. 99ff., excited the Homeric audience more than a modern reader, and had something of the effect of an extended simile. One common Iliadic diversion arose from a request to be told a hero's parent-age—such a request stimulated, for example, the whole Bellerophon story in VI. This device is used only rarely in the Odyssey, though Theoclymenus's genealogy is given at length, and in a confused and abbreviated style, at 15. 225-56; a more successful example, again in a convoluted style suggesting a more extensive poetical model, is seen in the description of Iphitus, the previous owner of Odysseus's great bow, who was treacherously murdered by Heracles (21. 13-41).

Sometimes a lack of realism, permissible in the more impressionistic narrative of the Iliad, damages the tension of the Odyssey, which relies more heavily on the careful, logical and progressive narration of events. Occasionally this is due to the difficulties of binding together the complex elements of the poem and is a hardly avoidable consequence of large-scale oral poetry. Often this reason does not apply, as when Odysseus's manifest distress at hearing songs about the return from Troy is only very belatedly and hesitantly recognized by Alcinous (who is, however, a bit of a fool); or in the failure of either Telemachus or Leodes to demand another attempt at stringing the bow once Antinous had had the new idea of softening it with grease. Yet this is a small complaint, less important than those that preceded it. They, I believe, have real substance. Different people will have different opinions here, but I think the conclusion will stand that the Odyssey is stylistically flatter and less continuously moving than the Iliad; also that there are long sections where the interest is allowed to flag, partly because of an abandonment of some of the technical resources of the earlier poem but also because the main composer was trying to draw out the pure narrative thread to an excessive length, with little more than brute magnitude in view. The plain fact is, though, that if there had been no Iliad many of these criticisms would not, and perhaps could not, have been made. By any but quite exceptional standards the Odyssey is a superb narrative epic. The technical analysis of its relative strengths and weaknesses neither disguises this truth nor rivals it in importance.

Howard W. Clarke (essay date 1963)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7123

SOURCE: "Telemachus and the Telemacheia," in The Art of the Odyssey, Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1967, pp. 30-44.

[In the following essay, first published in the American Journal of Philology in 1963, Clarke discusses the first four books of the Odyssey, known collectively as the Telemacheia, which deal with Telemachus' journey and his gradual coming of age.]

The criticism of Homeric epic has become so formalized over the centuries that it has developed denominations to accommodate scholars of various persuasions. There are, first, the "Separatists," who believe that the Iliad and the Odyssey are by two different poets, who may not have even known of each other's work. Then there are the "Analysts," who believe that different poets worked on different parts of the two poems at different stages in their evolution, with "Homer" being credited with whatever was most meritorious in this process. Opposed to the analytical critics are the "Unitarians," who maintain, with varying degrees of persistence, that one poet—whom they agree on calling Homer—composed both poems. Complicating this division is the fact that few of the adherents to any of these sects have ever held the faith pure, and the quarrels within and between them have long provided the scholarly world with controversies that were sometimes diverting but more often dispiriting. Recent research into the ways of composing oral poetry has weakened the meaningfulness of these labels, and the angry and abusive essays once written in defense of one or another of these views have now acquired a quaintness never intended by their authors.

When the Analysts dealt with the Odyssey (and they always dealt very harshly with the Odyssey), it was one of their standard truths that if Books I-IV of the poem were not by another hand, then they were certainly distinct enough in treatment and integration to deserve a special name—the Telemacheia. The books of the Telemacheia—along with Book XV, which tells of Telemachus' return—are separate from the poem in that they are generally concerned with Telemachus, Odysseus' son. Telemachus is an important character in the Odyssey [as noted by S. Bassett, "The Proems of the Iliad and the Odyssey" American Journal of Philology, XLIV, 1923].

Telemachus appears in sixteen books of the Odyssey in all except V-XIII … and he speaks more often than any other of the characters in either poem, except their respective heroes … Telemachus also furnishes the incentive for the plot of the Suitors, which both emphasizes their hybris and increases the interest as we approach the climax of the story. In fact, the Suitors, without Telemachus, lose half of their importance, just as there would be no tragic outcome of the Wrath if there were no Hector. And, finally, a lonely, tearful, vacillating, and altogether human Penelope would be impossible if there were no Telemachus or his equivalent; she would have to be more decisive and energetic—more the queen, and less the woman.

Certainly the Telemachus we meet in Book I has his problems in Ithaca, but his position in the Odyssey raises problems for the poem too. Either the political structure of Ithaca is highly irregular or else Homer has left much unsaid about the conditions of kingship there. First of all, why is not Odysseus' father Laertes king of Ithaca? He is still alive, and we meet him in the last books of the poem out in the country where he has withdrawn in sorrow over the loss of his son, but even before his retirement he does not seem to have ruled as king.

The dilemma in which this situation involves the Ithacans is obvious. On the one hand, old Laertes has been made unfit for kingship, presumably through infirmity; on the other hand, Telemachus is unqualified because of youth and inexperience. Since strength and vigor seem the qualifications for rule in Ithaca, the people are victimized by the weakness of their leaders—the weakness of old age and of youth, the senility of Laertes and the adolescence of Telemachus. Odysseus alone combines exuberance and experience, and he is desperately needed. It is noteworthy, too, that when he returns not only does he save his family and his land, but the vitality of his presence extends to his father and his son. For Laertes there is a sudden and miraculous transformation. "Athena herself intervened to increase his royal stature. As he stepped out of the bath she made him seem taller and sturdier than before, so that his own son was amazed when he saw him looking like an immortal god" (XXIV, 368-71). Athena's powers here show symbolically how the presence of his beloved son has revitalized the aged Laertes. In the same way, the Telemachus whom Odysseus meets in Book XVI and fights beside in XXII is not the young man whom Athena found in Book I; but if his transformation is gradual, it is because not even a goddess can immediately infuse into a young man the wisdom accumulated in a lifetime's experience as hero and king. Where Laertes had, like Odysseus, already known the meaning of the heroic life and needed only to be rejuvenated, Telemachus must be introduced, or initiated, into it. The process of this introduction, this initiation, is one of the purposes of the four books (and part of Book XV) commonly referred to as the Telemacheia. In a society, like Ithaca, where kingship depends not so much on inheritance as on merit, it is not enough for Telemachus to have the title of prince; he must be prepared to prove his worth, as he will in Book XXII, but before the crucial test comes he must know what it is he is fighting for. Pylos and Sparta, the two cities he visits in Books III and IV, can offer him the examples he will need of heroic civilization. Hence we should understand these opening four books of the poem as educative—as Telemachus' preparation for heroism.

The Telemacheia properly begins after the Council of the Gods when Athena visits Ithaca to hearten Odysseus' son and urge him to call an assembly of Ithacans and then set off to Sparta and Pylos in search of news about his father. Here she finds a despairing Telemachus lost in the dreamworld that has become his since the Suitors made the real world intolerable. He is hoping that somehow Odysseus will appear "from somewhere" (115). It will be Athena's purpose in the next few books to rid Telemachus of his melancholy, to show him how in the heroic world dreams can be translated into realities. Although the goddess is at once impressed by Telemachus' physical resemblance to his famous father, his insecurity is such that he is even unsure of his own identity and never refers to his father by name. "My mother certainly says I am his son; but for myself I cannot tell" (I, 215-16). It will be the burden of the next few books to harmonize Telemachus' inner and outer selves, to make him be his fa-ther's son not merely in name but in deed. The example Athena offers him is of another famous son, from the Agamemnon myth. "You are no longer a child: you must put childish thoughts away. Have you not heard what a name Prince Orestes made for himself in the world when he killed the traitor Aegisthus for murdering his noble father? You, my friend—and what a tall and splendid fellow you have grown!—must be as brave as Orestes. Then future generations will sing your praises" (I, 297-302). This encouragement by Athena—to be repeated by Nestor in Book III—is not without its effect, but Telemachus' adolescent attempts to take charge are a fiasco. He shocks Penelope quite unnecessarily, even cruelly, and then turns on the Suitors in a tone of voice that must have been totally unexpected by them, for at first they are taken aback. "This is sheer insolence" (368), he says, using the Greek word hybris, and they bite their lips in astonishment at his boldness. But the new Telemachus lapses back into the old Telemachus as soon as Antinous, one of the Suitors' ringleaders, has a chance to distract him. Poor Telemachus discourses vaguely on the nature of kingship, then is so uncertain of his own position (if, indeed, he is to succeed Odysseus) that he concedes the claims of the other princes. He then concludes lamely that he intends at least to control his own house. This has not been a very convincing display of newly found authority or spirit, but in his confusion Telemachus has at least raised the great question which Odysseus will answer: Who is to be king of Ithaca? He has also asked what kingship means; and his tentative answer— an enrichment of one's house and an increase of honor (392-93)—will soon be confirmed in the glory and wealth of the courts of Nestor and Menelaus. Thus, in this book, Telemachus has been awakened by Athena to an awareness of royalty and its prerogatives. This is important, for it is his initial preparation for the coming struggle to preserve the same prerogatives of rightful kingship in Ithaca. When the first book ends with the quiet and touching scene of Eurycleia tending Telemachus as he prepares for bed, Homer has completed the picture of Telemachus' surroundings. He is in some way subject to Penelope, although he has now dared to bridle at her authority; he is attended by an aged nursemaid; and he is bedeviled and oppressed by insolent Suitors. Father Odysseus is away, grandfather Laertes is off on his farm, and Telemachus has only two women to support him against the menace of a hundred and eight young men determined to marry his mother and take over his father's throne.

In Book II we read little that particularly convinces us that Telemachus has profited by Athena's encouragement. He denounces the Suitors at a public assembly and appeals, without much hope, to their nonexistent sense of justice. When he then goes on to invoke Zeus and Themis, we feel that this is clearly not the kind of speech his father would deliver, and whatever faint effect it might have had on the hard hearts of the Suitors is dissipated when he concludes his words with a sudden burst of tears. The crowd pities Telemachus, but the Suitors do not, particularly the cynical Antinous, who goes on to shift the blame to Penelope for her funeral-shroud ruse. Once again Telemachus' attempt at oratory has been abortive and ineffective, but once again he has raised a central theme of the Odyssey: the justice of Odysseus, the injustice of the Suitors. As spokesman for his family, and speaking in an assembly of the citizens of Ithaca, Telemachus has publicly arraigned the Suitors for their crimes against his father's household, an indictment that will still obtain when Odysseus seeks a terrible swift vengeance in Book XXII. Furthermore, the terms of his speech, just as in Book I, foreshadow elements of experience in Books III and IV. He describes Odysseus' kingship as father-ly in its gentleness (47), and he will see gentle and exemplary fathers in Nestor and Menelaus; the food squandered by the Suitors in their incessant parties in Ithaca (55-56) will be consumed in order and harmony at the feasts in Pylos and Sparta; the wine that intoxicates the Suitors in Ithaca (57) will become a tranquilizer in Sparta; and the weakness Telemachus protests here (60-61) will be overcome by confidence and resolve before he sees Ithaca again.

After his speech Telemachus commences his preparations for his journey, but runs into the astonished protests of his nurse Eurycleia: "But there's no need at all for you to endure the hardships of wandering over the barren sea" (369-70). This feminine attraction to place is partly what Telemachus must overcome by becoming acquainted with the ways of the heroes who did suffer hardships at Troy and then had to return over the seas to the great centers of the Mycenaean Age. But for all Telemachus' determination, Eurycleia's objection still stands, and to assert that Telemachus must rid himself of inhibitions induced by the women who have brought him up is not a very convincing justification for his trip. Indeed, the fact that Telemachus intends to go off on a junket at this crucial time, with the Suitors growing impatient and poor Penelope at her wit's end, was duly noted by Analyst critics and made one of their reasons for believing in the original separateness of the Telemacheia. In this objection they were anticipated here by Homer himself, by Odysseus at XIII, 417 ("Do you want him too to scour the barren seas in misery while strangers eat him out of house and home?"), and by Eumaeus in XIV, 178 ("Suddenly some god deprived him of his wits—or perhaps it was a man who fooled him—and off he went to holy Pylos on his father's trail").

They are right—this does seem like the worst conceivable time to leave Ithaca. To them the answer is provided by Athena in XIII, 422. Yes, she could have told Telemachus the truth about his father, but she sent him off to win what the Greeks called kleos, reputation, a hero's highest reward: "I myself arranged the journey for him, in order that he might win a noble kleos." The fact is that nothing Athena told Telemachus would have had any lasting effect; what he needed before meeting his father was experience in heroic society, the kind of experience he had never known in Ithaca, and this journey to two of the great centers of heroic civilization, Pylos and Sparta, was the only way he could gain it. To put it in religious terms, Telemachus had to be baptized into the heroic life, to commune with its leaders, and to be confirmed in its values, or he would never be a trusted ally to his father or a fit successor to the kingship. Kleos ranks with aretê, excellence, as an honorific word in the heroic vocabulary, and it is only in places like Pylos and Sparta that Telemachus can absorb their meanings and prepare himself to merit them. It is true that this is a critical juncture in the affairs of Ithaca, but far from impeding Telemachus, it makes his journey all the more necessary. For it is at the truly critical periods of man's life—when he is most exposed—that he must appeal to an extra source of strength, an access of grace. Hence Telemachus' journey is neither unnecessary nor unmotivated, for the necessity is Telemachus himself—his youthfulness, his inexperience—and the motive transcends the averred search for information.

The beginning of Telemachus' journey is particularly significant. It is traditional in primitive societies for the young candidate to be taken at night from the care of the women, either forcibly or without their knowledge, and given over to the elders of the tribe who will conduct the tests and trials by which the novice must prove his worth and fitness as a member of his tribe. In the same way, Telemachus leaves in the dark of night, his mother Penelope unaware of his departure and his nurse Eurycleia bound by an oath not to reveal the reason for his absence. He is accompanied by Athena who is disguised as Mentor—a name that has come into English as the word for teacher or coach. The first stage of their journey is Nestor's citadel at Pylos. Here we are in the heroic world and we notice that Telemachus does not know how to act, what to do, how to approach the great man. "Remember that I have had no practice in making speeches; and a young man may well hesitate to cross-examine one so much his senior" (III, 23-24). Athena encourages him, tells him not to be so shy, to rely on his native wit, and to have faith in the assistance of the gods. It is she who passes the cup to Telemachus as the libation is being offered and it is she who offers a prayer that Telema-chus can repeat after her. Telemachus manages nicely in his first bout with the social forms of a kingly court, though not as deftly as Nestor's son Peisistratus, who had, after all, the benefit of growing up within this mannered society. (And how polite they are, as Homer here as elsewhere emphasizes manners and ceremony.) Nestor then delivers a long speech—he rarely delivered a short one—luxuriating in the recollected sorrows of the Trojan War and remarking Telemachus' resemblance to his famous father. (We notice here the continuing reference to faithful sons—Antilochus, Peisistratus, Orestes.) In reminiscing about Troy, Nestor passes from Achilles to Ajax to Patroclus and finally to his own son Antilochus. He praises Odysseus for his good sense, tells how, out of allegiance and piety, Odysseus stayed behind at Troy with Agamemnon, and does not forget to remind Telemachus approvingly of the sterling example of Agamemnon's son Orestes. Telemachus picks up the hint, but then awkwardly blurts out his despair of ever seeing his father again "even if it proves to be god's will" (228), for which he is promptly chided by Athena, who gives him a onesentence lesson in the power of the gods. In the fully integrated society piety and manners are identical and Telemachus must learn to trim his private doubts accordingly. That evening Athena leaves and Telemachus is received into Nestor's palace where he sleeps beside Nestor's son Peisistratus. The next day Nestor arranges an elaborate banquet for Telemachus' crew and even has his youngest daughter, Polycaste, give Telemachus a bath. This might seem an odd way to honor a guest, but in the intimate and domestic setting of this book it is both appropriate and charming. At any rate, to continue with religious terminology, it acts almost as a kind of baptism, for out of it Telemachus emerges, "looking like a god" (468). Nestor then gives him horses and a chariot and sends Peisistratus to accompany him on his way to Sparta. Athena is no longer with Telemachus, but he has been accepted into Nestor's household, bathed by his daughter, and is now being escorted by his son. For Telemachus this breif visit to Pylos has been a tonic experience after the noisy desperation of his life at Ithaca, and at last he is ready to break out of the shell of his depression and uncertainty and to make his way in broad heroic society.

Book IV opens with a scene of feasting and family cheer in the splendid palace of Menelaus, where King Menelaus is celebrating the marriages of his son and daughter. Here in Sparta there is a prosperity, a security, and a family intimacy that Telemachus had never known in Ithaca and had only lately met in Pylos. Again we are aware how subtly and exactly Homer chooses details to contrast Menelaus and Sparta with Odysseus and Ithaca. The primary complication of the Odyssey is the disunion of a family, whereas here we have an immediate awareness of union (the double marriage) and reunion (Helen). And compare the joy and harmony of Menelaus' banquet with the pointless carousing of the Suitors. Nor has anything in Telemachus' limited experience prepared him for the magnificance of Menelaus' palace, before which even Peisistratus is impressed. Nevertheless, Telemachus is making progress; at the beginning of Book III the mere sight of a hero panicked him; here he seems quite sure of himself before Menelaus, and he can be forgiven his awe before the royal palace—after all his father, who has seen everything, is no less impressed by Alcinous' palace in Book VII. Manners are once again stressed: Menelaus' anger when a servant suggests the possibility of sending Telemachus and Peisistratus "on for someone else to entertain" (29), and his embarrassment when Telemachus weeps as he reminisces of Odysseus. And in the stories Menelaus tells there are little morals which can also be of use to Telemachus. Proteus, for example, tells Menelaus that he should have sacrificed to Zeus before embarking; Ajax's fate is an example to those who would blaspheme; and when Proteus tells Menelaus of what happened to Agamemnon and then urges him to hurry back to his land as quickly as he can, Homer shows us that the point is not lost on Telemachus. He refuses to protract his stay in Sparta, and when Menelaus offers him three horses he has the wit and the temerity to ask for a gift he can carry, not horses which are so impractical on Ithaca. Menelaus is impressed.

Book IV (along with Book XIV) has generally found little favor with critics of the Odyssey. Admittedly, Menelaus, the cuckolded warrior of the Iliad, is not much more interesting in the Odyssey as a slightly blowsy rich man, and some of Helen's radiance has diminished in her translation from the walls of Troy. But the Homer of the Odyssey rarely likes to compete with the Homer of the Iliad, a fact which has led some Separatist critics to posit two Homers. The Nestor of Book III does not quite sound like the Nestor of the Iliad, who so often compared the debased present with the glorious past of his own young manhood, and the domestic calm of Menelaus' menage in Book IV should not be troubled by memories of old loves and old hates. Only Helen still feels the rankling memory of that old infatuation, "shameless creature that I was" (145), but she shows a proper remorse and has equipped herself with a drug that has "the power of robbing grief and anger of their sting and banishing all painful memories" (220). But it is all to Homer's purpose to deflect the attention from these commanding figures of the Iliad, because the center of these books is Telemachus. For him and for the whole poem Book IV is effective and meaningful; it not only extends the Telemacheia, but it also prepares the reader for Book V, easing him, as it were, into the Odyssey proper. For Menelaus' fate closely approaches Odysseus', since his return was recently as uncertain as is Odysseus' now. Menelaus is also proof to Telemachus and to us that even after the weariest of journeys one can return home safely and enjoy a happy and prosperous future. Further, Menelaus' range of experience is considerably broader than Nestor's, extending beyond the known Greek sea routes into the areas of the fabulous where creatures like Proteus live. It is only from this strange Old Man of the Sea that fairly specific information about Odysseus is available, and this information is, after all, the purpose of Telemachus' trip. Also, the Proteus episode is just the sort of adventure Odysseus might have had, and thus the Nestor-Menelaus-Proteus progression prepares us for the fantastic adventures of Books V to XII and gives us a richer view of Odysseus than if we had first seen him when Hermes was sent to Calypso. Proteus' advice to Menelaus to return home as quickly as possible is also a warning that Odysseus and Telemachus have no time to lose either. The accounts given in Books III and IV of the returns of the various heroes are also deftly arranged by Homer to isolate Odysseus' situation. Nestor was one of the first to return, Menelaus one of the last; Ajax, son of Oileus, was killed off the coast of Asia Minor, Agamemnon after his return home. In this milieu of rescue and death, all possibilities are exhausted except one, which transcends them all—Odysseus' fate—of travels compared with which Menelaus' were child's play, of the multiple threats of death in the distance still to be covered, of a home and family near ruin, as was Agamemnon's, and of the loss of ship and company. Odysseus still belongs neither to the saved nor to the lost, and he can perish like Agamemnon or he can come safely home to peace and quiet like Menelaus and Nestor. With the latter he is connected by his wisdom, with the former by his wanderings, with both by the divine favor he enjoys. But yet Odysseus surpasses them all in ways that the Odyssey will describe and for which the Telemacheia, and particularly Book IV, has prepared us.

Before the Odyssey proper begins with Odysseus on Calypso's island in Book V, the scene changes to Ithaca where the Suitors hatch their plot to ambush and slay Telemachus and where Penelope hears from the herald Medon about Telemachus' trip and also about the Suitors' designs on her son. The transition from Sparta is abrupt, but again we notice how everything in the poem returns to Ithaca—Odysseus from his wanderings, Telemachus from his trip; and now, just before Odysseus appears, Homer returns us to Ithaca for a final glimpse of what Odysseus is returning to— homicidal Suitors and a suffering Penelope. It is this impression of home and wife—and not of Helen and Menelaus—that we have when we first see Odysseus in the next book.

The last scene of what we can still call the Telemacheia—that is, before Telemachus meets his father and they both challenge the Suitors—takes place in Book XV, when Athena again visits Telemachus, this time in Sparta, and urges him to hasten back to Ithaca. His reaction is almost as precipitate as it was in Book I, but Peisistratus checks him; after all, there are proper ways to do these things, and "a guest never forgets a host who has shown him kindness' (54-55). Telemachus is impatient, and he frets through Menelaus' moralizating and the rituals of gift-giving, but by now he is aware of his responsibilities and feels himself a man of action; now it is more than he can stand to have to return to Pylos to brave Nestor's oppressive hospitality. Telemachus has been schooled in the forms of the heroic life in Books III and IV; in XV he has earned the right to transcend them. He can now dispense with social obligations, for his own obligations are infinitely more demanding. He must be about his father's business.

The last scene of the Telemacheia, the Theoclymenus episode, is puzzling. Why is Theoclymenus brought in? Perhaps to palliate murder in the face of Odysseus' subsequent treatment of the Suitors? Certainly Theoclymenus, like Odysseus, can say, "It is my fate to wander about the world" (XV, 276), for he is being pursued by the kinsmen of the man he has slain. And for the rest of the poem this relic of the feuds of the heroic world will hover uneasily in the background like Conrad's Leggat, the secret sharer in Odysseus' revenge and a disturbing reminder of the random violence and blood guilt of the heroic age. But for Telemachus the decision to accept Theoclymenus demonstrates his newly won authority: he has the right to give asylum, even hospitality, if he wants, to a murderer. Through Theoclymenus Homer can underscore the identity of Telemachus, show that he is now coming into his own and can afford his father the assistance Odysseus might have received from another Achaean hero on the fields before Troy. In this sense it is appropriate that the Telemacheia end with Theoclymenus interpreting an omen, a hawk appearing on the right with a dove in its talons, which he sees as signifying that, "No family in Ithaca is kinglier than yours; you will have power forever" (533-34). As a professional performance this is indeed shabby, and as a prophecy it is so vague as to be meaningless. But it is not a prophecy; it is an accolade, a ceremony to complete the Telemacheia by marking Telemachus' attainment to true manhood. His doubts about his right to his royal patrimony are allayed, and he is rewarded with an assurance of future success. Theoclymenus' words signal an access of power that Telemachus will need in the days ahead.

Telemachus now returns to Ithaca.

On the voyage from Ithaca to Pylos, Telemachus was as he himself said only a passenger.… He had little to do either with the preparation of the cargo or the sailing of the ship; everything was under the immediate control of Athena; but on the return trip he was the sole commander and cared for all matters which concerned both ship and crew with the assurance of a veteran seaman. [J.A. Scott, in "The Journey Made by Telemachus and Its Influence on the Action of the Odyssey" The Classical Journal, XIII, 1918]

After Telemachus is back in Ithaca his fortunes merge with those of his father and his role is clearly subordinated to Odysseus'. This somewhat diminishes the impact of Telemachus' personality, and Homer is not always successful in giving him something to do. Although he is potentially his father's most powerful ally against the Suitors, even Odysseus seems to ignore him when he tells Athena, "I am alone" (XX, 40). Of course, Telemachus shows his mettle: only a nod from Odysseus in Book XXI keeps him from stringing the bow, and he seems to do his share in the fight with the Suitors. He is exceptional in his mercy, checking Odysseus from slaying Phemius the minstrel and Medon the herald, and relentless in his revenge, personally stringing up the unfaithful serving women. (Perhaps his savagery toward the servant girls, like his occasional harshness with his mother, is part of a deepseated reaction against an adolescence spent among women.) But if Telemachus does acquire some of his father's heroism, it is at the price of his own individuality. Homer seems conscious of this and goes to great lengths to let us know that Telemachus is still around. But the glimpses he gives us are often of the "old" Telemachus, laughing (XXI, 105), sneezing (XVII, 541), and absentmindedly botching his father's plans (XXII, 154); Telemachus speaks out of turn (XXIII, 97-103), parades in borrowed feathers.

One answer to the problem presented by Telemachus' role seems to be that the second half of the Odyssey belongs to its hero alone.… Odysseus, so long absent and so often disguised, must dominate the action of the final books, both by the vitality of his own presence and by the revivifying effect he has on his family. Penelope subjects Odysseus to one more trial, devising a test—the bedpost ploy—her husband could be proud of. Later on, this transformation also affects Laertes, who, as we have noted, is rejuvenated by Athena. Telemachus, for his part, becomes so like Odysseus that he is indistinguishable from him, being so much a replica of his father as his own name (Far-fighter?) is—or sounds like—a title for Odysseus. The problem Homer faced was technical: how to show the maturity, individuality, and heroism of Telemachus without detracting from the dominance of Odysseus. If his compromises were not always successful, it is largely because the pre-logical situations of myth will not readily conform to the logic of literature.

Yet even though Telemachus yields place to Odysseus in the final books of the poem, in his own "epic" he can stand a thorough comparison with his more famous father; and at the same time we can see how skillfully Homer uses the Telemacheia as a kind of "little epic" to balance and contrast with the rest of the Odyssey. First, both Telemachus and his father make journeys, from which both must return home indirectly and in constant danger. Odysseus has to survive the world's perils and disorders while preserving his identity and his purpose. For Telemachus the world is precisely the opposite, centering in the well-ordered kingdoms of Nestor and Menelaus. Telemachus' progress is from the chaos of Ithaca to the cosmos of Pylos and Sparta; Odysseus seeks the stability of his home across the ragged edges of the world—he must go, literally, through hell and back. Furthermore, in their separate worlds there is an important difference between the two: Odysseus acts, Telemachus reacts. Although Odysseus, in his struggles with giants and monsters and witches, more than once comes within an inch of his life, Telemachus' experiences, apart from the social, are vicarious—he listens, observes, absorbs. He learns about his father—not his whereabouts, but rather the full story of the Odyssean exploits at Troy. He can now better appreciate his father (particularly when it comes to infiltrating a hostile city), because he has learned of his derring-do from the greatest living authorities on heroic arete.

It is important, therefore, that in this atmosphere of wartime heroism recollected in the tranquility of peace Telemachus do nothing, just as it is for Odysseus in the Underworld of Book XI. And yet, through his own faltering efforts to make this trip and share the memories of Nestor and Menelaus, Telemachus is able to rehearse privately many of the great crises of the Odyssey. The stories of the heroes fighting at Troy and returning to Greece prepare him for the coming struggle by expanding his knowledge, if not his experience, of the world. He sees two families, those of Nestor and Menelaus, that are as happy as his own is unhappy; and when he visits with Helen he sees a woman who suffered for love as bitterly as his own mother Penelope is suffering. He hears of a prophet Proteus who is much like the prophet Tiresias whom Odysseus meets in the Underworld (Book XI), and yet this Proteus is at the same time a sea monster like those who threaten his father; and, finally, he too must hurry home at the warning of Athena to save Penelope from the Suitors. Homer has succeeded in packing a version of the Odyssey into a little more than two books, all in the passive voice.

In the Telemacheia Telemachus frees himself from the women who have reared him, the Suitors who harass him, and the island that inhibits him, and visits a world that is rich and new. Within the scope of the whole poem the adventure of Odysseus that most nearly corresponds to his son's journey is in Book XI, where Odysseus visits the Underworld. This adventure, called the Nekyia in Greek, may not be one of Homer's best efforts, but it does define the special quality of the Telemacheia and it is interesting to compare them. Both of these episodes, for example, presume to show us the hero learning something vital to his future welfare, yet in each the information is either not forthcoming as supposed or else could have been acquired elsewhere. Further, it is only in the Nekyia that Odysseus assumes the stance of Telemachus in Books III and IV—that of the passive observer of an unfamiliar ceremony. However, there are significant differences. Whereas Telemachus is introduced to the heroic tradition in the front parlors of the returned chieftains where manners saturate conduct, where worldly prudence and social maturity have a climactic importance, and where the storms and struggles of life seem comfortably remote, Odysseus on the other hand has to break through the world's surfaces, has to pass, indeed, from life to death. Telemachus hears about Agamemnon and Achilles; Odysseus goes to see them. Odysseus' fate is cosmic; hence he must penetrate to the mist-bound areas beyond this life. His living presence in Hades prefigures the life that he will restore to the stricken land of Ithaca. Odysseus must go beneath the levels of the world, the very levels which Telemachus must come to know with tact and nicety. Ordinarily Odysseus is satisfied with his knack for survival in a hostile and perplexing world, but in the Nekyia he is in touch with powers beyond his techniques and he is immo-bilized by them. He comes for specific information from Tiresias, but he stays to meet the ghostly representatives of the heroic Establishment. Odysseus needs no education in the ways of this world; now his experience has been deepened by exposure to the ways of the next world. But if the Odyssey in Book XI breaks through the forms of life, the Telemacheia is content to slide along their surface, initiating its young hero into the rites of a faith in which he was born but never reared. Its high priest is Nestor, its catechism the legends of Troy.

The escorts of the two heroes are another point of contrast. For much of his return Odysseus is saddled with the burden of his company, the responsibility for their safety and the accountability for their lesser talents. Within his larger fate are subsumed the fates of his companions. With Telemachus, however, the situation is reversed—Odysseus has men under him; Telemachus has men over him, for he is under the divine protection of Athena and the fraternal guidance of Peisistratus. Since Odysseus either overshadows the men who accompany him or else travels alone, his personality everywhere dominates the action even when the forces opposing him are most critical or catastrophic. Telemachus does not dominate the action; instead he is usually at its mercy. He finds himself in social impasses, situations where he fears that his training and experience are not adequate. He is never alone; Athena and Peisistratus are ever with him, and his final character is shaped by their initial tutoring and example. Their salutary presence, their promptings, assurances, and commendations are the background of his development.

From the time of Porphyrio, who called it a paideusis, or "education," the Telemacheia has sometimes been taken as a kind of Bildungsroman, or "novel of education"; and it is true that all the elements are there. Telemachus at the beginning is the callow youth; Pylos and Sparta are the open world; Athena is the guide, the mentor. And the result is Telemachus beside his father fighting with skill and courage against the Suitors. It is not simply an education, though. What Telemachus experiences is not something taught, but something imparted—one young man's initiation into a world he has inherited and whose values he will soon have to defend by force. (One notices that what one would most expect to happen fails to materialize—namely, that either Nestor or Menelaus would volunteer to send off a detachment of their palace guard to Ithaca to restrain the Suitors, protect Penelope, and confirm Telemachus in his patrimony. Instead they seem to assume that this is exclusively the problem of Telemachus and Odysseus.) And yet it is not a rite of initiation in the anthropological sense of a set of artificial dangers contrived to test a candidate's reactions. Growing up fatherless in a house recently occupied by scheming Suitors has given Telemachus a taste of danger; now, in the Telemacheia, Pylos and Sparta demonstrate to him the possibilities of peace, and the examples of Nestor and Menelaus expose him to the precedents of heroism. In a sense, then, the Telemacheia is a kind of reverse Bildungsroman, because it exposes the young hero not so much to danger as to safety. Telemachus' life was already perilous enough back in Ithaca; now in Pylos and Sparta he has a vision of peace, security, happiness, and family reunion, all the values he has never known but will soon have to win back in a bloody and desperate battle. Goethe named the hero of his Bildungsroman Wilhelm Meister to foreshadow the master he would become; likewise there is something appropriate in the sound of Telemachus' name, "Far-fighter," so apt for this young Ithacan who in the not so far future will be the kind of fighter his father can trust and admire. For in the final books of the Odyssey Telemachus will meet his greatest trial, the challenge to prove his worth by successful deeds, to demonstrate before his elders and his peers that he is truly the son of his father. For Telemachus the meetings with Nestor and Menelaus are sacraments, the visible means to the graces of heroism. Hence the search he makes is for more than news of his father: he seeks the social and family assurance of the heroic age, where sons are like their fathers because they have grown up in their shadows, as Antilochus was like Nestor, or where sons inherit their father's bravery and defend their memories, as Orestes avenged the death of Agamemnon. Telemachus has never had a father to provide the scenes and cues for his glory, and so this journey is not only for information but, as Athena admits (XIII, 422), to win him his first kleos. Since Homer's time the fatherless child has been a major figure in Western literature—Oedipus, Hamlet, Stephen Dedalus, Dickens' waifs—because the quest for the father reflects the profounder theme of the spiritual condition of children deprived of faith and security. Telemachus leaves the menace of the Suitors behind in Ithaca, experiences the harmony and stability of Pylos and Sparta, and then returns to help his father purge the contaminated land and restore justice and the social conventions. The heroic society Telemachus traverses is an enclosed world with its own laws and conventions and ceremonies, its own mystique of wisdom and virtue, its own concept of honor. Out of it emerges a new Telemachus. For the meaning of these five books, the final purpose of the Telemacheia is to delineate the birth of a hero. As such it parallels in its way the Odyssey proper—which presents the return of the hero and, with Laertes, the rebirth of a hero—and thereby completes the picture of heroic life which the Odyssey celebrates.

H. D. F. Kitto (essay date 1966)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5271

SOURCE: "The Odyssey" in Poiesis: Structure and Thought, University of California Press, 1966, pp. 116-52.

[A British critic, translator, and specialist on Hellenic drama, Kitto has written extensively on ancient Greek literature, theater, and history. In this excerpt, he defends the structure and theme of the Odyssey.]

There are two Homeric questions. There is the one first asked by Lachmann and eagerly debated ever since: one Homer, or two, or a multitude? The other is: What are the poems about? How did Homer think? We can consider the poems either as historic monuments (which they are), or as poems (which they are). I admit that the two questions are not entirely separable. It is indeed possible to examine some purely archaeological, philological, or historical aspects of the poems without considering their poetic qualities at all, but, ideally, one cannot do the converse. If this [study] takes very little notice of the more famous Homeric Question, the reason is that it is concerned with the Odyssey, as a poem, from a particular point of view: we shall be using it as a means of testing Aristotle's assertion that structure, "the disposition of the material", is all-important.… I choose the Odyssey rather than the Iliad because its structure is more taut, and it is more taut because the Iliad— notably in the Catalogue of the Ships—incorporates much more quasi-historical material. If the same poet wrote both poems, on which question I need express no opinion here, he was much more conscious in the Iliad of having a function additional to that of being a profoundly tragic epic poet.…

I shall assume what is in any case obvious, that some major poet gave to the Odyssey what is substantially its present shape. Book XI may be a later addition; I can afford to express no opinion, because the present argument would not be affected; still less would minor interpolations affect it. Other suspected passages will be considered as they turn up.

It is traditional to say that the structure of the poem is one of the surest signs of the poet's genius. The raw material of which it is composed is abundant and diverse, far flung both in time and space, yet it is organised by Homer into a plot of the utmost clarity and simplicity, so that the action occupies only thirty-seven days. Is this not a masterstroke? Certainly—but let us not suppose that when we say this we are saying anything of great importance. The plot is an example of poiesis on the grand scale, and poiesis has to do with more than literary skill: it has something to do with mind and thought.…

Let us first review some … criticisms, beginning, as is right and proper, with that excellent early-modern critic Longinus—for Longinus, after all, was separated from Homer by about a thousand years, and in social structure and habits of thought the Roman Empire was as alien from the Homeric age as our own is. In his impressive comparison of the Odyssey with the Iliad Longinus writes like this:

The Odyssey shows that when a great genius is in decline, a special mark of old age is the love of telling stories. The Odyssey is Homer's later poem, an epilogue to the Iliad. The Iliad, written when Homer's inspiration was at its height, is full of action and conflict; the Odyssey for the most part consists of narrative, the characteristic of old age. It is the sunset of Homer: the grandeur remains, but not the intensity. You seem to see the ebb and flow of greatness, a fancy that roams through the fabulous and the incredible; it is as if the Ocean were withdrawing into itself, leaving its bed here and there high and dry. I have not forgotten the tempests of the Odyssey, the story of the Cyclops, and the like; if I speak of old age, it is nevertheless the old age of Homer. Yet throughout the poem as a whole, the fabulous prevails over the real. Genius, when it has passed its prime, can sink into absurdity—for example, the incident of the wine-skin, of a hero on a wreck for ten days without food, of the incredible slaying of the Suitors. Another sign of old age is fondness for the delineation of manners; for such are the details that Homer gives, with an eye for description, of life in the house of Odysseus; they form, as it were, a Comedy of Manners.…

Longinus, then, found that the Odyssey lacks the grandeur and intensity of the Iliad—and few will quarrel with him for that—but his criticism fails; it illuminates Longinus, but not Homer. It fails because he comes to the poem with a specific demand, namely that it should display epic sublimity, and when he finds that it does not do this, instead of asking whether it meets different demands he finds a less laborious explanation: Homer, when he came to write the Odyssey, was quite an old gentleman, past his best, a bit garrulous, … interested now in quiet things like the delineation of character and manners. It is of course an impressive passage, but the criticism is of that unconstructive kind that is content with negatives: "Aeschylus was not so clever as Sophocles in constructing plots"; "Thucydides had no idea of the importance of economic affairs"; "the slaying of the Suitors is incredible".

From this springboard I jump to a modern critic of the poem—a scientist, once a colleague of my own, therefore an intelligent and civilised man. He read the Odyssey, in E. V. Rieu's translation, and told me how much he had enjoyed it: so vivid and entrancing a story. But he, like Longinus, boggled at the slaying of the Suitors, though not for the same reason. What was merely incredible—the wine-skin and suchlike, he, being a scientist, could take in his stride; what worried him was the gods, especially Athena, popping up from time to time to make things easier for Odysseus, particularly in the fight with the Suitors, stealing the hero's thunder, "making him look half a fool".

This critic, like Longinus, was looking at the poem, naturally, from his own point of view, and that was something like this: "In the poem I find things familiar to me. There is a hero in distress. He has one ambition, to get home. He meets difficulties of all kinds, but being bold, resourceful, and courageous he surmounts them. Some of the incidents are marvellous, but that does not upset me. He does get back home, is confronted with a final test, passes it triumphantly, and all is well. It is that familiar thing, an adventure story, and it is supremely well told. Incidents like those of Circe or the Cyclops confirm my diagnosis. But in a tale of this kind, gods are a nuisance—at least, gods who pull the strings for the hero at a crisis."

And what do we say in reply? Useless to talk to a scientist about "the epic tradition of divine machinery". He would be quick to point out that this only says again, in different words, that Homer used gods even when they are a nuisance to his story; and he might well ask if the Greeks were such that the greatest of their poets lacked the courage or the originality to throw overboard a tradition when it was cramping and cumbrous.

Then there is Telemachus' journey to Sparta. It is an attractive episode, and, as Aristotle wisely said, the epic form is hospitable to such—but does it do anything for us, and for the poem, other than decorate it, at rather undue length? Because when at last Telemachus does return, the little news that he has been able to pick up is already out of date, since Homer contrives that Odysseus should get home first. Naturally, it has been suggested that this part of the Odyssey was originally a separate lay, having Telemachus for its hero. Very well; but whose idea was it to bring it into the Odyssey? It may indeed be a law of nature that an interpolator is a fool as well as a nuisance, but if the interpolation is so obviously useless, why ever did it remain in the poem? In fact, as Delabecque has shown, in his Télémaque et la structure de l'Odyssée, the episode is so carefully worked into the main fabric, with so many deft links, that if Homer did not himself compose it (which he may well have done), he at least adopted it, quite deliberately, and therefore with some idea in mind. What was it?

One part of the episode is even more challenging, namely the long description in Book II of the Assembly held in Ithaca, for it accomplishes practically nothing. Telemachus calls the meeting, makes a protest against the Suitors, and receives very little support; then he demands a ship, gets consent of a kind—and immediately acquires a ship by other means: through the agency of Athena. What is the point of it all? It is easy to make it sound inept; what is not so easy is to make such a degree of ineptitude sound plausible, even by invoking an interpolator.

One might also ask, about the whole theme of the Suitors, if it is not a little bourgeois. That young gallants should riot in the house of an absent man, waste his substance and persecute his wife (or widow), is deplorable conduct indeed, but is it of epic dignity, worthy of being set alongside the tragic theme of Achilles' wrath? Longinus evidently thought not; to him it was only Comedy of Manners.

Then, naturally, there is the ending of the poem. (I say "naturally" because the Greeks were notoriously bad at endings: the Iliad, Odyssey, Antigone, Ajax, Trachiniae, Medea: an impressive list.) There is some consensus of opinion that Homer ended his poem at XXIII 296, where Odysseus and Penelope are reunited and Athena prolongs the night for their comfort and joy. The poem we have goes past this point to what Myres called "a poor, drivelling, misbegotten end": the friends of the slain Suitors (as Myres put it) prepare to take vengeance on Odysseus and his party; these in turn arm themselves with zest, so that old Laertes cries out in delight: "Dear gods! What a day is this to warm my heart! My son and grandson are competing in valour". But Athena intervenes with a great cry to make them all drop their weapons and conclude a peace—and Myres, himself the gallant commander of a gunboat in the First World War, is bitterly disappointed, and refuses to debit an ending like this to Homer.…

To my scientific friend, as to many others, including perhaps Longinus, the help given by Athena to Odysseus and Telemachus in the fight was matter for regret: Odysseus is the hero, and he would have been more of a hero without the divine aid that caused the Suitors' weapons to fly askew. From an unhellenic point of view, yes; from Homer's, no. From his, an Odysseus who should conquer without divine aid would be nearly meaningless; he would lack a certain seriousness, a certain public stature. What is at stake, for Homer, is rather more than the heroic triumph of his Odysseus; behind this, or rather in this, there is the triumph of Order over Disorder. That is something to which the gods are not indifferent; something that concerns any member of human society— which is the reason why I have just spoken of the "public" stature of the hero. Athena's help is essential to the poem. But if so, why is the heroism of Odysseus necessary? Why both? Briefly, because the maxim Do it yourself never commended itself to Olympus. "The god" did not stop Xerxes with a thunderbolt; in Aeschylus' recreation of the war, the Persians are already ruined by the courage and intelligence of the Greeks, and by certain natural causes before the god openly declares his interest by freezing the Strymon. Orestes, in the Choephori, is not only directly commanded by Apollo; he also has his own commanding private reasons. It is the standard conception. We should not fail to notice that at XIII 375 f., although Athena promises her help to Odysseus, she leaves it to him to devise the means. The world of these poets is not really a world of magic, even though Athena can become a bird, or appear to Telemachus as Mentes or Mentor: indeed, when she does choose to appear as one of these wise and intelligent men, it is noticeable that oftener than not what she says is no more than what he might have said; but the fact that it is Athena, not Mentes or Mentor, who says it gives to the advice a certain resonance: it matters nothing to the mechanics of the plot, but it does make the incident somewhat more than a detail in a purely personal story. Athena may have her "special means of transport", namely golden and imperishable sandals, and a "special weapon", accurately described: a great, heavy spear with a blade of sharp bronze, but not on this account does she cease to embody a perfectly clear moral idea. In the Iliad a god will show his, or her, power through a Diomedes or Hector— but these had power to start with; a god never magically transforms and uses a nonentity. A god could "help" such a man as Thersites only by making him, as we too might say, supernaturally ugly and vulgar. It is a poetic and vividly imagined world, but not an irrational one. The really irrational world, in which men cowered in bewilderment before discordant demons, did not arrive (as we have seen) until the fifth century—and in Athens. In Homer, men and gods are in a real sense partners, … as Aeschylus remarked, in a forgetful moment. Odysseus' victory without Athena would have been romantic and unhellenic because not significant of anything in particular, but no more unhellenic than would be Athena's without Odysseus.

We will move on to Longinus' Comedy of Manners, and to the idea that the whole theme of the Suitors falls below epic standards of dignity.

To be fair to Homer, we might first remind ourselves of a subsidiary point. In a rich country, the United States for instance, food and drink do not have the same status as in a poor country like Greece, where the gods are more grudging. Wastefulness was moral obliquity, not an economic virtue. But apart from this, in his handling of the Suitors Homer works two ideas for all he is worth, and Longinus appears to have taken neither into account. One is their moral violence, on which Homer insists more and more as the poem goes on: they are ill-mannered, wasteful, plunderers of another man's wealth, loose-living, and finally plotters of murder, and, in the case of Antinous, of usurpation. All this is brought to a climax that is by no means undramatic when Athena, taking the form of Mentor, comes to Odysseus' help in the fight. Agelaus threatens him (her): "Mentor, keep out of the way. We are going to kill these two men, the father and the son. Then we shall kill you as well; we shall confiscate your estate too, and reduce your family to beggary and shame". The fool does not know, of course, that he is talking to a goddess; even so, it is hardly Comedy of Manners.

The second idea is one that would not perhaps naturally impose itself on a critic living under the Roman Empire. As we have seen, Homer's plot, unlike mine, has a political reference, provided that we use the word "political" in its wide Greek sense. Homer of course does not make much fuss about this; as he was a Greek, composing for Greeks, there was no reason why he should; but there are several passages that do not make the degree of sense that we expect of a great poet until we realise that the political framework is present to Homer's mind, whether consciously or quite unconsciously. It does something, perhaps quite a lot, to explain his structure.

First of all, it goes without saying that Odysseus is always the good, wise, and just king, and this is more than a simple characterising of the hero. A picture of such a king is given (as it happens) by Odysseus himself, in a speech that he makes to Penelope (XIX 106 ff.), in which he represents her as the queenly counterpart. He says, in E. V. Rieu's translation:

Your fame has reached to Heaven itself, like that of some perfect king, who rules over a populous and mighty state with the fear of the gods in his heart, and he upholds the right. Therefore the dark soil yields its wheat and barley, and the trees are laden with ripe fruit, the sheep never fail to bring forth their lambs nor the sea to provide its fish, all because of his wise government; and his people prosper under him.

We notice the same assumption—unless indeed we should say, the same imagery—as in Aeschylus: Dike, Order, is indivisible; the moral, physical and (here) economic worlds are one. So in the Eumenides (930 f.) Athena says of the Erinyes, as the ministers of Dike, that it is their function to order everything for mortals.… Accordingly they invoke upon Attica fruitfulness and wealth, the implied condition being (vv. 1018 ff.) that the Athenians revere the Erinyes, the defenders of Dike. The same feeling underlies the long prayer in the Supplices (625 ff.): because Argos has chosen to reverence Zeus Hikesios the chorus prays that the city may be free of war and pestilence, that its crops may be abundant and its cattle fertile. It pervades too Homer's description of Scheria: the people are just, generous, and god-fearing, and (or therefore?) everything is orderly and beautiful; the fruit trees bear at every time of the year. Under the government of a just king "the sheep never fail to bring forth their lambs nor the sea to provide its fish"; and such a king was Odysseus.… [Lawlessness] is not a moral phenomenon only.

But in Ithaca, order and government are in abeyance: this is implied throughout. For nineteen years the king has been absent; his son, at the beginning of the poem, is a mere lad, quite helpless; Laertes has given up and gone to his vineyard on the hillside (I 188 ff.); even Penelope laments that her troubles have caused her to neglect her duties toward guests, beggars, and messengers who have come on public business (XIX 133 ff.). The royal line is in danger of extinction. Antinous admits (I 386 f.) that Telemachus is the natural successor, though Eurymachus at once hints that another might be chosen; but in any case the Suitors are planning to murder him. In the end, when Eurymachus turns king's evidence, hoping to save his own life, he asserts what we can well believe, that Antinous was the ringleader, anxious not so much to marry Penelope as to make himself king (XXII 48 ff.). All this intelligibly connects itself with several notable features of the poem, and they in turn with each other.

We saw that much of the first four books can be accused of having little organic connexion with the rest of the poem, however delightful it may be in itself. But, as many have pointed out, the episode of Telemachus' journey, instigated by Athena, had an ulterior purpose, and one that Athena declares more than once, namely that Telemachus should win renown. It is the poet's way of making the helpless lad grow up; so that at the end of the poem, although it is only thirty-seven days distant counting by the calendar, he is a mere lad no longer, but a young hero, one who can stand valiantly by his father's side, his destined and worthy successor. The real point, of course, is not what happens to Telemachus as if he were a real person, but what happens to our conception of Telemachus as the poem goes on. At his first meeting with Athena, when she is Mentes, he is simply a charming, well-mannered boy. Mentes-Athena tells him that his own qualities and parentage are such that surely his house will continue to be glorious; he can say in answer only that his father is dead, his property being wasted, and he him-self likely to be killed. It is Athena-Mentes who urges him to do something: to call an Assembly, and to undertake the journey.

During the journey, two things happen to Telemachus—that is, to our conception of Telemachus: he gains in poise, and he gains in stature. At III 21 ff., he contemplates with alarm the prospect of accosting the great Nestor, but Athena, who is now Mentor, reassures him: he has his native wit, and if that fails, the gods will inspire him. From that moment he speaks to the great with confidence and dignity. Equally important is that the great accept him instantly, both as the son of the renowned Odysseus, and on his own obvious merits. Even before the journey, but after his talk with Athena-Mentes, he spoke to Penelope with a new authority that took her aback (I 356 ff.); then he firmly told the Suitors, to their surprise, that he intended to be master in his own house, and would be willing to succeed Odysseus as king. Towards the end of IV, Penelope laments that he, a mere boy, should have gone into such danger; when we see him home again, he is much more than a boy: at XX 266 ff. and 304 ff. he speaks with great authority to the Suitors, and at XVII 45 very firmly to his mother. On each occasion, Homer tells us, his behaviour caused astonishment. We moderns know that a young gentleman should not speak like this to his mother, but how did Homer's audiences respond? With the reflection, I suspect, that under Athena's guidance Telemachus is becoming quite kingly. It is perhaps no accident that in this part of the poem Homer twice makes him improve on a course of action proposed, the one by Eumaeus and the other by Odysseus himself (XVI 146 ff. and 308 ff.).

The whole episode then, leisurely and delightful though it is, has its close relationship with the rest of the poem; but what about the abortive meeting of the Assembly? It is easy to say that it does nothing to advance the action; one can say the same of the Herald scene in the Agamemnon, if one has not understood the play; but in each case the episode does a great deal for the composition and the idea that is shaping it.

Anyone who is disposed to regard this part of II as an interpolation should consider two facts. It is already foreshadowed by Athena at I 272 ff., so that the two passages stand or fall together; and there is a significant repetition of the same theme at XVI 376 ff., when Antinous has just returned from his unsuccessful ambush. He is now taking Telemachus very seriously indeed, and openly warns the others that the time has come to dispose of him. He is dangerous, says Antinous; he may summon an Assembly and denounce us; we may find ourselves banished, for the people now are regarding us with disfavour—a fact for which we must, and easily can, take the speaker's own word. Here, the point is clear enough: what happens to the Suitors is so much more decisive than what Antinous feared: they are not banished, but put to death; and not by order of any Assembly, but by Odysseus himself. If Homer found some use in one passage for the idea of an Assembly, he may have found it in two. Perhaps the first is worth looking at in detail.

It is on Athena's prompting that Telemachus summons the meeting. Old Aegyptius opens the discussion: "This is the first time that we have been called together since Odysseus left for Troy. What is the reason? Is the army returning? Is an enemy approaching? Is it something that concerns the public welfare?" Such indeed it is, as we soon learn, even though at first it may seem to be only a private matter.

In response to Aegyptius Telemachus comes forward: in the names of Zeus and Themis (Right) he challenges Ithaca to protect his house from unlawful spoliation. Antinous, in answer, makes an impossible demand. Again Telemachus invokes Zeus—and at once two eagles appear in the sky and hover above the meeting. Haliserthes can read the omen: unless the Suitors give way at once, vengeance will come upon them. The next speaker, contemptuous and defiant, is Eurymachus. He does not believe in birds, nor in justice or moderation either. Finally, Telemachus demands that a ship be given him at least, in order that he may find out, if he can, whether his father is alive or dead; if dead, he will give his mother to a new husband.

Then Mentor rises; he makes a speech that may explain to us why it was his form that Athena chose to assume. He denounces, not so much the Suitors, who are indulging their wickedness (he says) at the risk of their own lives, as the rest of Ithaca, which is doing nothing to stop them. The last speaker, Leiocritus, is another of the Suitors. He defies Mentor, the rest of Ithaca, and Odysseus himself, should he return. He does however suggest that Telemachus should have a ship, though with the sneer that it will be a long time before he sails from Ithaca.

So the Assembly breaks up; and since in the event it is Athena who provides the ship, despite the Suitors, it is understandable if one or two literally-minded critics have found the whole episode a waste of their time. But we should remember that all this was written in Greek, for Greeks. There was a period in English literature too when the connexion between religion, morality, and politics was both close and obvious; it did not long survive Shakespeare, and when we today meet it in Shakespeare, as often as not we fail to see it. The fact that this Assembly accomplishes nothing is the whole point. In the first book we saw the lawless behaviour of the Suitors within the palace, with Telemachus unable to check it. What Book II does for the poem is to bring the lawlessness out of the seclusion of the palace and put it upon the public stage: it is not a Greek idea that … lawlessness is a matter only of private conduct and consequence. Telemachus challenges the polis to deal with it, and the polis either cannot or will not. Aegyptius asked: "Or is it something that concerns the public welfare?" But of course it is: what was the polis for, if not to see justice done between man and man? But in the absence of Odysseus the King, public order has broken down; the Assembly has not even met. Zeus sends two warning eagles to signify his displeasure.

It all coheres intelligibly. In Homer's Odyssey, … more is at stake than the return and triumph of the hero. There is the question, expressly raised by Athena, if the gods are content that disorder should prevail unchecked; there is the constant picture of Odysseus as the good king, and for that matter of Penelope as the virtuous queen, contrasted so often with Clytemnestra; there is the moral disorder in the palace; there is its counterpart, the breakdown of public justice in Ithaca, both crying out for the return of the King and the reassertion of authority. It was this wide frame of reference that made the ternary form inevitable: at the outset Homer needed to show us what is at stake.

All this, as it seems to me, makes quite impossible the idea, accepted by several scholars, that Homer's poem ended at XXIII 296, with the reunion of Odysseus and Penelope.… Certainly, before we can feel sure that the whole of Book XXIV is Homer's work there is much philological and other evidence to consider, but if Homer did not compose it as it stands, the composer was surely working on Homer's own foundations. It is not merely that the idea of counter-vengeance has been raised twice already, once by Odysseus to Athena (XX 36 f.) and once by Odysseus to Telemachus (XXIII 117 ff.): obviously, an interpolator of XXIV could be clever enough to interpolate these passages too, by way of preparation. One could indeed maintain, rightly, that a counter-vengeance, or something like it, is implied in what Antinous said in his remark … about a possible meeting of the Assembly; but the major point is that the existence and the well-being of the body politic is implied throughout the poem—implied rather than insisted on, for why should Homer insist upon something that any Greek audience would take for granted? As Telemachus brought his private wrongs upon the public stage, to be recognised by Mentor, not to mention Zeus, as a grave public matter, so it is natural, even inevitable, that Odysseus' personal reassertion of justice, within his own house, should have its public counterpart. The palace may have been purified by sulphur, but Ithaca too needs something of a purification—at least, a reassertion of authority and order. In any case, no Greek audience could think that the tale had reached its conclusion in a bedroom, when over a hundred young men of Ithaca were lying dead just outside the house. The old Laertes is, surely, using words that Homer wrote for him, when he cries: "Dear gods! What a day to warm my heart! My son and grandson are competing in valour." The King, so long absent, has had his just vengeance, and is ready, with his son, to quell counter-vengeance. But the end is to be conciliation and peace, and it will be strange if Athena is not there to bring it about.…

C. M. Bowra (essay date 1971?)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8358

SOURCE: "The Odyssey: Its Shape and Character," in Homer, Gerald Duckworth & Company Limited, 1972, pp. 117-40.

[Bowra, an English critic and literary historian, was considered among the foremost classical scholars of the first half of the twentieth century. He also wrote extensively on modern literature, particularly modern European poetry, in studies noted for their erudition, lucidity, and straightforward style. In this post-humously published essay, Bowra examines the characters, structure, and sources of the Odyssey. Textual references to the Iliad have been rendered in roman numerals, while references to the Odyssey are in arabic numerals.]

The Odyssey, like the Iliad, begins with an invocation to the Muse:

Tell, Muse, of the man of many devices, who wandered far indeed, when he had sacked the holy citadel of Troy. He saw the cities of many men and knew their minds, and many were the sorrows which he suffered in his spirit on the sea, when he tried to win his own life and the return of his companions. But not even so, for all his desire, did he save his companions; for they were destroyed by their own insolence, when they ate the cattle of the Sun Hyperion; and he robbed them of the day of their return. From what point you will, goddess, daughter of Zeus, speak to us also. (1.1-10)

This presents several surprises. Unlike Achilles at the start of the Iliad, the hero of the Odyssey is not named but called 'the man of many devices', which indicates that his story is familiar, and this is confirmed by the last words when the muse is asked to 'speak to us also'. But the familiar story is outlined in a peculiar way. The fantastic adventures of Odysseus are inadequately, almost deceptively, suggested in the reference to cities and minds; almost the only city seen by him is the capital of Phaeacia, and minds are not what he marks in the Cyclops and other monsters. Next, the emphasis on his struggle to save his own life is fair enough and anticipates some of his bravest efforts, but he hardly does so much to secure the return of his comrades. He looks after them, but he takes risks with their lives, and more than once he is the cause of their loss. Finally, not a word is said about the Suitors and the vengeance on them. They occupy more than half the poem and provide its central theme. The opening lines of the Odyssey are much less apt and less relevant than those of Iliad.

Odysseus must have been the subject of many different stories, some of which survive outside the Odyssey, and even of the more constant stories there were variations, as we can see from the Homeric text. When Homer announces his theme at the start, he assumes that much will be known about Odysseus, and the special surprises which he has in store are not of the kind to be publicised now. It is enough that he should refer vaguely to the wanderings and the sufferings of Odysseus and that he should hint at his ultimate return home. It is more striking that he makes such a point of the comrades and their untoward doom, and this is more than a passing whim. One of the chief features of the Odyssey is that at the crisis of his fortunes Odysseus has to act alone. Calypso can do little to help him, and on Ithaca he has to find what support he can, first from Eumaeus and then from Telemachus. Therefore his comrades must be disposed of, and their eating of the cattle of the sun meets a real need in the story. Because of this Odysseus' last ship is wrecked, and he himself is cast up on Calypso's island. Homer does not actually give false clues, but his clues are a little delusive. His aim is to keep his audience guessing about how he will treat a familiar mass of stories, which none the less have to be selected and remodelled to suit his own taste.

The material of the Odyssey differs greatly from that of the Iliad and gives it a different character. While the Iliad tells of the 'glorious doings of men' and is heroic in the sense that heroes struggle against other heroes, the Odyssey uses a less specific and less exalted material. Its stories are ultimately fairy-tales or folktales, and are unheroic in the sense that the unquestionable hero Odysseus is faced not by his equals but by his inferiors or by monsters. In its own compass it displays two kinds of narrative. Books 1-4 and 13-24 tell the age-old tale of the Wanderer's Return and his vengeance on the Suitors who devour his substance and try to marry his wife. In this there is not much fantasy or marvel. Instead we find what 'Longinus' calls ' a comedy of manners' (On the Sublime). By this he means that it is concerned with the behaviour of human beings at a familiar and not very exalted level, as he himself knew it in the comedies of Menander. So far as it goes, this is fair enough, as is also his judgment on Books v-xii, in which he speaks of 'a fancy roving in the fabulous and incredible'. The two parts differ greatly in matter, scale, temper and outlook. The second consists of stories so ancient that they seem to have been polished and perfected by constant telling, while the first class, which deals with stories hardly less ancient but of a different kind, has a less confident and less accomplished, even more experimental and more tentative, air.

The Odyssey serves in some sense as a sequel to the Iliad. No doubt there were many such sequels, especially in the creative heyday of oral song. The tale of Troy had many consequences, and among these were the adventures of Odysseus. In time he became the chief of the surviving heroes, and his return the most famous of many. Once a figure becomes known for certain qualities, appropriate adventures, with which he may originally have had no connexion, are attached to him and marked with his personal imprint. Odysseus seems from the start to have been 'wily' and 'much-enduring', and stories which turned on wiliness or endurance were annexed to him. The relation of the Odyssey to the Iliad is obvious throughout. The past in retrospect is seen to have been disastrous, the story of 'evil Ilium not to be named' (19.260,597; 23.19), words which do not occur in the Iliad and suggest a shift of attitude towards the Trojan War. At the start of the Odyssey, when the gods discuss the fate of Odysseus as he languishes on Calypso's island, they turn at once to the fate of his old comrade, Agamemnon, who has been murdered by his wife and her lover (1.35 ff.), and this broaches the topic of what happens to the heroes of Troy. The audience knows all about the Trojan War and can take any reference to it. So now it lies in the background as they hear about Odysseus and Ithaca.

In the Odyssey certain characters appear who have played a substantial part in the Iliad but need not necessarily play any part in the return of Odysseus. When Telemachus sails off to find news of his father, he visits first Nestor at Pylos and then Menelaus and Helen at Sparta. Nestor is just the same as in the Iliad, garrulous, generous, helpful, even wise. Actually he contributes very little to Telemachus' knowledge of his father, and Homer shows a flicker of playful malice when Telemachus, eager to embark on his ship at Pylos and get home, decides to do so without seeing Nestor, since this would waste a lot of time (15.199-201), and sends the young Peisistratus to fix things with him. Menelaus is a less marked personality than Nestor, but he shows the kingly qualities which we expect from him, and especially loyalty to the son of his old friend Odysseus. More striking is Helen, who makes only a few appearances in the Iliad but in all of them reveals the pathos of her doom and her desire to escape from it. Her capacity for affection is clear from what she says to Priam (iii 172), to Hector in his lifetime (vi 344 ff.) and about him after his death (xxiv 762 ff.). The whole adventure with Paris has been a sorrow and a disaster for her, but she has not been able to avoid it (iii 399 ff.). Now she is back with Menelaus at Sparta, happy and at peace. She recalls without distress episodes from the war, but the scope of her character is revealed when she sees that Menelaus and his guests are distressing themselves with reminiscences, and mixes a drug which she has brought from Egypt and which deadens pain and sorrow (4.219 ff.). She has learned from her sufferings, and the tenderness which is already hers in the Iliad is turned to new purposes.

Odysseus himself in the Odyssey is an enlarged and elaborated version of what he is in the Iliad. His main qualities there are cunning and endurance. He keeps his head when others lose theirs, notably after Agamemnon's ill-judged test of the army's morale (ii 166 ff.). He is throughout a notable leader, resourceful and brave. In the Odyssey, where he is far longer on the stage, some of his qualities are turned in new directions. First, his cunning is tested in unfamiliar conditions, as in the cave of the Cyclops, where he takes on some qualities of a folk-hero and sustains them quite convincingly. Secondly, his need for cunning is enforced by his own recklessness. It is his fault that he is trapped in the cave of the Cyclops, since he has insisted on entering it, and equally it is his fault that he seeks out Circe's dwelling by himself. Thirdly, his abundant appetites, known from his taste for food and drink in the Iliad, are extended in the Odyssey to living with Circe and with Calypso, not perhaps in entire satisfaction but still competently. Lastly, the warrior of the Iliad becomes the returned wanderer of the Odyssey and needs all his powers of decision, command and improvisation. These he amply displays. The man who strikes Thersites and kills Dolon is not likely to spare the Suitors or the servants, male and female, who have worked for them. Odysseus in the Odyssey is a magnified version of Odysseus in the Iliad, but he remains substantially the same man and recognizable in his main being.

Finally, there are in the Odyssey two passages where Homer presents ghosts of the dead, and each includes some chief figures of the Iliad. At 11.385-567 Odysseus, at the end of the world, summons ghosts with an offering of blood, and among those who appear are Agamemnon, Achilles and Aias. All three have died since the end of the Iliad. Agamemnon has been murdered by his wife, in marked contrast with Odysseus, whose faithful Penelope holds out bravely against the Suitors. His story emphasizes the dangers that await those who return from Troy, but sheds no new light on his personality. Aias, in a brief appearance, adds a new dimension to his simple character in the Iliad, for in the interval he has killed himself because his honour has been wounded by Odysseus. Odysseus does his best to appease him, but Aias takes no notice and makes no answer. The most striking figure is Achilles, for his words complement by contrast what he says in Book ix when momentarily he rejects the heroic life. Now he knows what he has lost, for he would rather 'work on the land as the serf of a man with no property, with no great means of life, than reign over all the perished dead' (11.489-91). His only consolation is to know that his son Neoptolemus is already a stout warrior (11.540). These three ghosts form a link with the Iliad, and when Odysseus speaks to them he speaks to his peers, as he does nowhere else in the Odyssey.

More mysterious is 24.1-204, where the ghosts of the Suitors are escorted by Hermes to the land of the dead and met by some heroes of the Iliad, notably Achilles and Agamemnon. Though the passage is thought to be a later addition, at least it has a part in the whole plan of the Odyssey. Achilles hears of his own death and funeral from Agamemnon (24.36 ff.); at it the Muses sang and the ceremony is a fitting climax to a heroic life. To this the Suitors present a complete antithesis. Their ignominious deaths are the proper end to their squalid careers. In this passage the poet seems to have aimed at more than one effect. First, when he makes Agamemnon say that Odysseus is indeed fortunate to have a wife like Penelope (24.192 ff.) and very unlike Clytaemnestra, he emphasizes a subsidiary theme of the Odyssey, but does not gain much by it. Secondly, the parade of the ghosts of Troy, in which Patroclus, Aias and Antilochus are named as well as Achilles and Agamemnon (24.16-17), provides a final curtain for great figures of the Iliad and of the heroic age. Their place here recalls them at the end of a long story, and the renewed attention paid to them brings various themes together in a last bow. Thirdly, there is a real contrast between the death and glory of Achilles, immortalized in song, and the miserable careers of the Suitors, who are at the other extreme from the true nobility of the heroic ideal. Whoever composed this passage, must have felt that the Odyssey must be brought into contact with the Iliad, and this he did by stressing what real heroes are.

When we look at the structure of the Odyssey, Books 1-4 look as if they could be omitted by bards who were pressed for time and wished to plunge in medias res with the more thrilling adventures of Odysseus, but this does not mean that these books do not serve a dramatic purpose. In fact they serve more than one. First, they show the general plight of Ithaca and the particular plight of Penelope in the absence of Odys-seus. This is indispensable to any understanding of his difficulties on his return and of the character of the Suitors, from whom he is to exact vengeance. It is bad enough that they should harry his wife and devour his substance and corrupt his servants, but they soon put themselves brutally in the wrong by plotting the death of Telemachus. In this situation everything turns on the possible return of Odysseus. The poet shows how little is known of him, how anticipations of his return vary between irrational hope and not impossible despair. This creates the suspense at which the poet excels. It is to some extent lessened when Telemachus gets news of Odysseus from Menelaus, but it remains vague and unsubstantiated, though omens and portents suggest that something is going to happen. These books build up a growing assurance in the return of Odysseus, and incidentally introduce the other characters with whom he will be associated. The Odyssey can be imagined without them, but they add to its range and richness and do much to set its plot to work.

Books 1-4 do more than this. They prepare the way for much that comes later. For instance, Telemachus is cast for a large part, and is not yet ready for it. But he begins to face his responsibilities and to test his powers. His access of courage takes the Suitors by surprise (1.381-2; 2.85-6), and before long they are sufficiently afraid of him to plot his death. By this means he becomes an important participant in the action, and he gives sturdy help in the vengeance. Again, these books anticipate in their manner the dual nature of the Odyssey, its element of domestic comedy and its element of fable and fancy. The first is to the fore here, and has a special charm. This manner is unadventurous and unexciting, but its human normality presents a fine contrast with the gluttonous revels and gross manners of the Suitors. Against this are set the stories told by Telemachus' hosts at Sparta, which take us either back to the heroic world of Troy, as when Helen tells how she recognized Odysseus when he came disguised as a beggar to spy in Troy (4.240-64), or forward to the world of marvels, as when Menelaus tells how he tricked Proteus, the old man of the sea, into revealing the fate of Odysseus (4.351 ff.). The main notes of the Odyssey are struck at the start, and in due course each is taken up to make its contribution to the whole design.

The middle section of the Odyssey, Books 5-12, has a notably distinctive character. Though its more extravagant actions are told by Odysseus himself, the first part, his departure from Calypso and his arrival and welcome in Phaeacia, are told in the third person with an outstanding objectivity, in which Odysseus emerges in all his gifts and dominates the scene. These books provide a skilful transition to the wonders that follow. The events are not yet marvellous, nor are there any monsters. Odysseus shows his physical powers by swimming in a rough sea for two days and two nights, and his resourcefulness by winning the help of the Phaecian royal family. Yet Phaeacia is not real in the same sense as Ithaca. The seasons allow crops all the year round; the servants in the palace are made of metal by Hephaestus; the Phaeacians hardly mingle with other peoples and are consciously proud of their singularity; unlike authentic heroes they live not for war but for dance and song. Once Odysseus has arrived and been handsomely welcomed, we are ready to hear of the wilder wonders which he is about to tell. In Phaeacia these seem less improbable than in Ithaca, and the lively entertainment in Phaeacia prepares us for what lies outside the known world. At the start we have even left the sea, but it is soon present again when Odysseus tells his tale.

Even at this stage, and still more in the narrative of Odysseus, it is clear that the poet is familiar with different versions of a tale and has to make his choice between them. This is easy enough when Odysseus meets Nausicaa. The theme of Wanderer meeting the king's daughter is old and widely spread. A less human version is known from Egypt. A man is shipwrecked on an island. He finds it rich in fruit and trees, and is royally entertained, loaded with gifts and given a safe passage home to Egypt. But his hostess is a snake, thirty ells long, and her family is like her. She treats the castaway with much kindness and courtesy; this is a primitive version of the Nausicaa story, which has not yet assumed its fully human character. The episode in the Odyssey shows no misfits or oddities, and looks like a complete tale, but it may well have grown from humble origins. What is remarkable is that while Homer hints at a story in which the Wanderer marries the Princess, the Egyptian tale suggests nothing of the kind. So the treatment of Nausicaa by Odysseus has an ancient precedent. In this case variants have been absorbed into a final version, and Homer's choice was forced upon him by Odysseus' destiny to be joined again to Penelope.

In their long and widely scattered careers such tales develop variations, and the poet has to choose between alternatives. This is very much the case with the Cyclops. As the Odyssey tells it, the substantial, unchanged element is that the hero and his companion are caught in the cave of a one-eyed cannibal giant, and after suffering losses in their own number blind him and escape. This story occurs in many countries and is clearly primordial. Homer knew more than one version and made his own choice. First, there is the trick by which Odysseus says that his name is 'No-man', and so when the Cyclops calls for help and says 'No-man is hurting me' (9.408), his friends go away. The trick throve happily in other contexts, but is well in place here. To set the Cyclops among other monsters of his kind makes him more formidable and increases the danger to Odysseus; the trick saves him at a critical point. Second, the Cyclops is blinded with a stake lying in the cave which is not yet ready for use. That is why the Cyclops will not take it with him when he goes out, and Odysseus can use it to blind him. The Cyclops eats his visitors raw after breaking their heads on the floor like puppies (9.289-90). This is perhaps more bestial than to cook them first, and since there is no need for a spit, the stake takes its place. Thirdly, in the escape from the cave there is one version in which Odysseus and his companions kill the ram and the sheep, clothe themselves in their skins, and behave like them as they walk out on all fours. But the Homeric version brings advantages, notably when the ram goes out, with Odysseus under its belly, and we are simultaneously afraid that the Cyclops will catch the escapers and touched by his affectionate words to the ram. Choices between competing versions had to be made, and were, usually with good results.

The episode of Circe, which reads very easily, contains traces of competing versions. She is a witch, daughter of the sun, who lives in a stone palace among woods on an otherwise uninhabited island. This is common form, and suggests her dangerous character. In such stories the adventurer is guided to her by some chance, and behind the story in the Odyssey we may discern a stag who did the guiding. Odysseus meets such a stag but kills it and with some effort carries it to his companions for their supper (10.156 ff.). Then having seen the palace, he decides to send a party to investigate. He does not go himself or take the lead, but divides his crew into two companies, one of which is chosen by lot to go. This procedure creates suspense and leaves Odysseus free to take action later and remedy the evils that have befallen the first party. This party finds wolves and lions which greet it in a friendly way, and are in fact men transformed by Circe. But this is their only appearance. When the companions are turned back into men from swine, nothing is said about these earlier victims. Their function is to reveal something sinister in Circe's dwelling, and when they have done that, they are forgotten. When Odysseus' companions are turned into swine, we are expressly told that they keep their wits as before (10.240), and this is not usual in this kind of theme, where the witch tends to instil forgetfulness of former lives. We may guess why Homer does what he does. He has already dealt with the theme of forgetfulness in telling of the Lotus-eaters, who forget all about their return home (9.94-7), and the theme is not suitable for repetition. Finally, on his way to Circe Odysseus meets Hermes, who tells him of the danger ahead and gives him a plant, moly, to protect him from Circe's spells. The plant is carefully described, and then we hear no more. We do not know how Odysseus uses it, or how it works; what we do know is that Circe's spells have no effect on him. In these ways Homer keeps the episode of Circe simple and circumvents obstacles in the tradition.

In the passage of years a traditional theme may assume new shapes, which are so different that they are really new tales. The Odyssey deals twice with the ancient theme of the witch who detains the hero on his return by making him live with her. She need not be malevolent but she hinders his desire to go home. In the Odyssey she appears in two quite different forms, as Circe and Calypso. If Circe, who has a ruthless, cruel side, is the Hawk, Calypso is the Concealer, who keeps Odysseus hidden on Ogygia for eight years. Both live alone on remote islands, in circumstances of some beauty. Yet, allowing for this degree of likeness, the differences are great. Circe is subdued by the superior cunning and courage of Odysseus, and after admitting her defeat, welcomes him as her lover; Calypso saves him from the sea after shipwreck and her devotion to him is complete. Circe keeps Odysseus for a year and then releases him without complaint; Calypso keeps him for eight years, hoping to make him immortal but is told by the gods to give him up, which she does unhappily but graciously. Circe at the start has a sinister glamour; there is nothing sinister in Calypso. The two are distinct and distinguishable, but we can see why both are needed. The adventure with Circe is exciting for its own sake and entirely appropriate to the hero on his wanderings; the sojourn with Calypso has much charm and beauty but lacks dramatic variety. It is needed to fill a gap in the story. After his ten years of war at Troy Odysseus is away from home for another ten years before he returns to Ithaca. By the time of his shipwreck and the loss of all his companions only ten years have passed, and the remaining eight have to be accounted for. Homer does this by confining him to Calypso's island, where nothing can be heard of him and his fate remains a mystery to his family and his friends, and is almost forgotten by the gods.

Circe begins as a malevolent witch, but once Odysseus has subdued her, she becomes his helper and shows no signs of her sinister past. She then takes up another part which may belong to her original character—she foretells the future and gives advice about it. That heroes should have this happen is common enough, but Homer seems to have been faced by two traditional characters who prophesy. Circe is one, but she insists that Odysseus should consult the other—the ghost of the seer Tiresias. This is a very ancient theme and bears some resemblance to Gilgamesh, where the hero crosses the waters of death to consult Uta-Napishtim. Odysseus sails to the edge of the world and calls up the ghost of Tiresias, who says very little about the immediate future, except in warning him not to eat the cattle of the Sun in Thrinacia (11.104 ff.), but gives him a precise forecast of his last days and quiet ending (11.121 ff.), with advice on the ritual that will appease Poseidon. We may perhaps assume that in earlier versions Tiresias said more than this, and that his warning about the cattle is only part of a set of warnings and forecasts. But Homer transfers these to Circe. When Odysseus comes back to her, she gives him a careful forecast of the dangers that lie before him (12.37-141). This device keeps Circe still powerful, even if she has reformed her habits, but at the cost of a lengthy prevision of what will come soon afterwards. It all happens according to plan, but lacks the element of surprise.

In Books 13-24 we are back in Ithaca and a familiar world. Yet here too the main actions are derived largely from folk-tale, and old themes exploited with novelty. At some point the Wanderer must be recognized. No doubt there were many versions of this, and the recognition need not all come at once. Homer moves through a series of recognitions, each separate and distinct, and each marking a step forward. The first is when Odysseus, transformed into a shrunken old beggar is for a short time given back his old shape and reveals himself to Telemachus (16.166 ff.). Athene makes it possible, and to that degree it is supernatural. What matters is that Odysseus must not start on his vengeance entirely alone, and his obvious companion is his son, who stays with him for the rest of the poem. The second recognition is a stroke of genius. When Odysseus arrives at his palace, he sees lying in his midden outside the gates his dog Argos, whom he trained twenty years before. The dog is neglected and full of ticks, but he wags his tail and drops his ears and struggles towards his old master (17.291-304). Odysseus knows him at once and says a few words about him, and then the dog dies 'having seen Odysseus again in the twentieth year' (17.327). This recognition is based on affection and loyalty and conveys swiftly and surely how Odysseus belongs to Ithaca and how deep his roots there are. The third comes when Odysseus has his feet washed by his old nurse, Euryclea. It is dark, and Penelope is sitting in the shadow not far away. The nurse recognizes a scar which Odysseus got long ago on a boar-hunt, and is on the point of crying out, when the basin of water is upset and Odysseus puts his hand on her throat and enjoins her silence (19.386 ff.). This is the most dramatic of the recognitions, and the one in which the scar, used twice elsewhere, really creates a situation. Through it the recognition by Penelope is postponed until it can be most effective. In the fourth recognition, during the fight in the hall, Odysseus reveals himself to Eumaeus, who accepts his word and, like the nurse, recognizes the scar, but without any exciting reaction (21.207 ff.). Fifth is the recognition by Penelope, and this is the most unexpected. The signs that have satisfied others do not satisfy her, and she tries to test the stranger by telling Euryclea to make a bed, but the stranger knows that Penelope and he have their own special, secret bed made out of an olive-trunk in the heart of the palace. This is highly appropriate, as Odysseus and Penelope are man and wife and the bed is an intimate sign of it. Finally, Odysseus goes off to see his old father Laertes in the country and identifies himself first by the scar (24.331 ff.) and then by knowing the details of Laertes' orchard which he helped to plant. All these recognitions have a certain simplicity. If the scar does the most work, that is perhaps because it comes from the oldest tradition, while the dog Argos, who needs no sign, looks as if he were Homer's own invention. The accumulation of six recognitions suggests that there were many variants in the tradition, and that Homer gave a subordinate purpose to some which might have been of primary importance in earlier versions.

Somewhat different from the recognitions are two events which do not reveal the identity of the Wanderer but show that he is someone remarkable. These are the stringing of the great bow which Odysseus left behind when he went to Troy (21.39), and the exhibition-shot with it through a line of axes planted in the ground. It is conceivable that in earlier versions the two events were alternative and that either of them would suffice to prove who Odysseus is. Nor must we assume that, once the bow had been strung, the slaughter of the Suitors followed immediately. The Odyssey finds its climax in the combination of these events, but it is possible that originally neither event served just this purpose. The stringing of the bow may have been no more than a test of the Wanderer's identity, proposed by his wife, who is still not sure of him. So the exhibition-shot may have come from some other context, as when the Suitors compete for marriage with Penelope, and even then Odysseus need not take a part. In its present place it establishes his preeminence, and leaves him with the bow in his hands as an instrument for vengeance.

When a story belongs to a cycle centred on some main point, it may not fit in easily with others in a like position. Tradition is aware of its place, and the poet may feel that he owes it some attention, but it may lead to difficulties and to some awkwardness in his main scheme. This is the case, in the Odyssey, with the shroud which Penelope claims to be weaving for Laertes when he dies. She tells the Suitors that when it is finished, she will make her choice among them, but every night she undoes the work of the day, until a point comes when the Suitors catch her at it and know that she is deceiving them (2.85-110). We can see the story behind this. The shroud is a device to put off a decision as long as possible, and as such Penelope reports it to the unrecognized Odysseus (19.136 ff.). The theme is not in itself very conclusive, and the discovery of Penelope's trickery by the Suitors does not force the issue of her marriage as we might expect. There was moreover a different version, which appears when the ghost of Amphimedon says that when Penelope finished the shroud, 'in that hour an evil spirit brought Odysseus from somewhere to the border of the land' (24.146-50). This comes from the suspicious conclusion of the Odyssey, but its author uses good and independent material; for this is just what the trick of the shroud should have done. Homer must have known it and rejected it for his own less emphatic version because he did not wish Penelope's marriage to be confused with the return of Odysseus, and because he wished this return to be both prolonged and secret.

Another slightly inconclusive theme is that of the seer Theoclymenus. When Telemachus is about to sail from Pylos, Theoclymenus suddenly appears and asks for protection, since he is guilty of murder. Telemachus takes him on board (15.256-81). On arriving in Ithaca Theoclymenus asks where he is to stay, and Telemachus, rather strangely, says with Eurymachus, who is one of the Suitors and a prominent enemy. This conveys the depressed and defeated mood of Telemachus. At this point a hawk flies overhead carrying a dove, and Theoclymenus interprets this as an omen of success, with the result that Telemachus changes his mind and gives other orders for the reception of Theoclymenus (15.525 ff.). Later, at the palace, Theoclymenus meets Penelope and tells her with full assurance that Odysseus is already in his own country and plotting evil for the Suitors (17.152-61). As a seer he knows this from the omen of the hawk and the dove. Finally, when the doom of the Suitors is near and one of them has just thrown an ox's foot at Odysseus, they are seized with a frenzy of madness, and Theoclymenus in ringing tones foresees their doom (20.345-57). It is an apocalyptic moment, but it is the last for Theoclymenus. He has done his task, which is to forecast events by augury and vision, but we suspect that in some other version he must have done more, that he may have played a more prominent part in letting Penelope know of her husband's presence or in driving the Suitors to their destruction. The element of the supernatural which he represents adds something to the story but is not fully exploited.

In these loose ends and imperfectly exploited themes we can see traces of the different variants which Homer must have known and from which he had to make his selection. But this is not the problem with the end of the Odyssey from 23.297 to 24.548. Here there are indeed unexpected contradictions, and there is perhaps an explanation of them. The two great Alexandrian scholars, Aristarchus and Aristophanes, regarded 23.296, 'Then they came gladly to the place of their old bed', as the 'end' or the 'limit' of the Odyssey. We do not know why they thought this. They may conceivably have had external evidence that some good manuscripts ended at this point, or they may have made their decision on the strength of anomalies of language and narrative after this point. We cannot dismiss their view, nor can we deny that in some ways the 'continuation' differs in some ways from the rest of the poem, not merely in linguistic solecisms but in actual episodes, like Penelope's web. It is unlikely that the main poet of the Odyssey composed this part, but that does not deprive it of all significance. At least it shows how the Homeric manner persisted with adaptations, and how someone felt that the end of the Odyssey called for some sort of epilogue.

The Odyssey might, in our view, have had a perfectly satisfactory end when Odysseus and Penelope go to bed at 23.296. But someone must have felt that more should be said, and we may ask what advantages, if any, were gained by adding the last passages. Odysseus gives Penelope an account of his adventures, tactfully omitting his infidelities. The audience hardly needs this, and we could assume that Penelope will get the story sooner or later. The appearance of the Suitors in Hades indicates their inferiority to the men of Troy, but not much is made of this, and what is stressed is the comparison between Clytaemnestra and Penelope, which the audience might make for itself. On the other hand the recognition of Odysseus by Laertes has a quiet charm and shows Odysseus in a playful, teasing mood. It is family poetry, and there is something to be said for making Odysseus meet his father after he has met his son and his wife. Moreover the fight between the supporters of Odysseus and the kinsmen of the Suitors indicates that the slaying was not as final as it seemed, and it may have provided a start for new adventures in which Odysseus leaves Ithaca, as he seems to have done in the Telegony. The continuation serves no clear single purpose, but suggests a poet who would like to prolong the story in various ways for different reasons. He may have used old material, at least in Penelope's web, and he has a gift for quiet narrative in the scene with Laertes. Otherwise we miss the swing and the strength of the main poem.

The sources of the Odyssey are different from those of the Iliad and the difference explains some of its character. If it deals with marvels and monsters, so to a smaller extent does the Iliad. In both poems gods interfere with the course of nature. When Aphrodite spirits Paris away from the battlefield (iii 380) or protects Aeneas (v. 315-17), it is not very different from when Athene covers Odysseus with a mist in Phaeacia (7.15) or changes his appearance to prevent him being recognized (13.430-3). Though the Iliad contains the remarkable scene when the horse of Achilles speaks to him, it is because Hera has for this one occasion given it a human voice (xix 407 ff.), and this is well within the power of the gods. The Odyssey differs when its marvels are not caused by the gods but belong to the world of legend. The wind-bag of Aeolus, the transformations of Circe, the summoning of ghosts at the end of the world, the monstrosity of Scylla, are outside human experience and do not belong to the strictly heroic world of the Iliad. In face of them Odysseus conducts himself heroically, as when he insists on hearing the Sirens' song but forestalls disaster by getting himself lashed to the mast (12.178-9). But the monsters which he has to face are outside both human and heroic experience.

Homer evidently saw this and tried to bring his monsters as near as possible to humanity, to relate them to it, and even in some degree to humanize them. This is certainly the case with the Cyclops, who despite his single eye, his bulk 'like a wooded peak of tall mountains' (9.190-2), and his cannibalistic gluttony, is made real by his pastoral life, by his care for his flocks, by his affection for his ram. He is hideous and horrible, but not outside comprehension. Comparable in some respects to him is the queen of the Laestrygonians. She lives in a rocky fjord, and all looks easy until the scouts of Odysseus entering her palace, 'saw a woman as big as a mountain-peak, and they hated her' (10.113). She grabs one of them and plans to make her supper of him. She is of the same loathsome breed as the Cyclops, but since he has recently received full treatment, she is deftly conveyed in a short sketch. The Sirens, despite their gift of song which lures men to death and the bones of decaying bodies round them (12.45-6), are careful to do no more than invite Odysseus to listen to them on the latest subjects of song (12.184-92). The exception to this realism is Scylla, who is a monster among monsters, aptly and fully described, with her twelve feet, her six necks, each with a head and three rows of teeth (12.89-91); she seizes six men from the ship of Odysseus and eats them while they are still crying for help and stretching out their hands, so that Odysseus comments:

That was the most piteous thing that I saw with my eyes of all that I suffered searching out the ways of the sea. (12.258-9)

Scylla must be descended from tales of sea-monsters, of giant krakens and man-slaying cuttle-fish, and perhaps because she has some basis in fact Homer feels that he must describe her exactly. She is far from ordinary, and yet one small touch brings her into the compass of living things—her voice is like that of a puppy (12.86). It is quite unexpected and almost absurd, and it is just this that brings it home. The monsters of the Odyssey are clearly visualized. Their horror comes not from vagueness but from clearly imagined actions and the menace of a horrible death which they offer. The only approximation to them in the Iliad is the Chimaera:

It was a divine creature, not of human race, in front a lion, in the rear a snake, and in the middle a goat, and it breathed the terrible strength of flaming fire. (vi 180-2)

Description is reduced to the barest essentials, but the Chimaera emerges clearly. This is the Homeric way of looking at monsters, and it is fully developed in the Odyssey. It is quite different from the shapeless horrors which the long northern night gives to its dragons.

This controlling realism informs most parts of the Odyssey and gives much of its special flavour. It accounts for a certain quiet poetry which is not very noticeable in the Iliad, but makes the Odyssey friendly and familiar. It finds poetry in quite unassuming and humble subjects, as when Telemachus goes to bed and Euryclea folds his clothes and hangs them on a peg (1.439-40), or his ship sets out in the evening and the wind fills the sail and the dark waves resound about the stern (2.427-9). Life in the palace, despite the disruption caused by the Suitors, follows a routine, and there is a quiet dignity in the reception of guests, the laying out of tables, the scrubbing of them with sponges. In making his raft Odysseus shows a high technical accomplishment, and the mere making has its own interest. It was this that Racine admired so greatly [in Oeuvres complètes, ed. pléiade, II], when he compared its language with Latin:

Calypso lui donne encore un vilebrequin et des clous, tant Homère est exact à décrire les moindres particularités, ce qui a bonne grace dans le grec, au lieu que le latin est beaucoup plus réservé, et ne s'amuse pas à de si petites choses.

Yet, though the Homeric language can say anything that it likes and not lose its force, that is because the poetical vision for which it works is so direct and straightforward. It finds interest and charm everywhere, and is happy to say so.

The same kind of realism can be seen in the characters. We have marked how Odysseus is developed from his old self in the Iliad, but he is the only character of any complexity, and that is because legend insisted upon a more than common personality. The others go their own way, and make their individual mark. At the start Telemachus is only a boy, and conscious of it. But he wishes to assert himself, even though he lacks the authority and the experience to do so. His voyage to Pylos makes a man of him. On it he settles his own decisions, and, when he comes back to Ithaca, he is ready for action, and follows and helps his father. Penelope presents rather a special problem. Legend marked her as prudent, and she has kept the Suitors off for ten years, not merely by the stratagem of the web but by other postponements and evasions. Despite long hours of tearful lamentation for her lost husband she keeps her courage, and her sudden appearances among the Suitors reduce them to momentary acquiescence, which cannot all be ascribed to good manners. Her prudence makes her suspicious, and that is why she is so slow to recognize Odysseus as her husband. She and Telemachus are supported by the swineherd Eumaeus and the old nurse Euryclea, and though the first claim of these is their unswerving loyalty to their master, they display an innate nobility in their response to the demands made of them. The party of Odysseus on Ithaca is homogeneous in that it is held together by loyalty to him and hatred of the Suitors. It contains no very powerful personality except the great man himself, but its members are sufficiently distinctive to set him in a full perspective.

The Suitors are beyond dispute deplorable, not in the plebeian way of Thersites but as a degenerate corruption of heroes. They have a high opinion of themselves and no scruples about getting what they want. Antinous differs from Eurymachus only in being more outspokenly brutal. The others conform to type, except perhaps Amphinomus, who has some relics of decency but does not escape death because of them (22.89-94). Their deaths are deserved, as are those of the household of Odysseus who follow them. The beggar Irus, the goatherd Melanthius, the serving-woman Melantho, begin by insulting the unrecognized Odysseus and come to suitable ends. In the Suitors it is hard not to see an embodiment of a heroic society in decay. This is the generation that did not fight at Troy, and their lack of heroic qualities fits the relatively unheroic temper of the Odyssey. It makes little attempt to maintain the lofty level of the Iliad, and the hero who holds it together is never matched by anyone of his own calibre. Even Alcinous, despite his wealth and kingly condescension, is not heroic, and some of his court, notably Laodamas and Euryalus, lack proper courtesy (8.132 ff.). This lower tone comes partly from the material of the Odyssey, which is concerned not with heroic prowess in war but with wild adventures and a cunning vengeance. It is significant that, when Odysseus kills the Suitors, he has every advantage over them, and though this is due to his foresight, it is not the way in which Achilles would take on an enemy.

In the Iliad the intermittent interventions of the gods and the frivolity of some of their actions provide a contrast to the dangers and destructiveness of heroic life; in the Odyssey such a contrast is not needed, and the gods are treated with a different intention. The nearest approximation to the spirit of the Deception of Zeus is the song of Demodocus about Ares and Aphrodite (8.266-366), but its purpose is to provide relief before Odysseus starts on the tale of his adventures, and incidentally to throw light on the Phaeacians, who, having no heroic obligations or challenges, are well served by this kind of song. Otherwise the Odyssey treats the gods less freely than the Iliad and in a more calculated way. They are concerned with human actions, and the council on Olympus, which decides to do something about Odysseus, keeps an eye on such wrongdoing as the behaviour of Aegisthus (1.32-41). Poseidon is entirely justified in maintaining his wrath against Odysseus for blinding Polyphemus (1.20-1), which leads to his being wrecked on his raft, and incidentally to the ship of the Phaeacians, which takes him to Ithaca, being turned to stone (13.163-4). But apart from these special cases, the dominating part played by the gods in the Odyssey is the friendship between Athene and Odysseus. This recalls such occasions in the Iliad as when, in the panic after Agamemnon's false proposal to withdraw from Troy, Athene sets Odysseus to restore order (ii 173-82) or on night-operations keeps an eye on him (x 245, 277, 482, 497). In the Odyssey she is seldom far away. Both on Phaeacia and in Ithaca she is a constant helper and gives Odysseus advice and practical assistance, while in the intervals she instils confidence into his son. She even takes part in the slaughter of the Suitors by deflecting weapons aimed at Odysseus (22.256, 273) and frightening the Suitors by flashing her aegis from the roof (22.297-8). Her character as a virgin-goddess makes it impossible for her to be in love with Odysseus but she holds him in great affection and admiration. They treat each other on equal terms, as when she praises him for his cunning (13.291 ff.), or he recalls her kindness to him at Troy (13.314). The Homeric poems have no parallel to so close a companionship between a goddess and a mortal, and though later Greek literature occasionally allows such friendships, it makes much less of them than Homer does of this. It enhances the position of Odysseus as a heroic survivor in an unheroic world. A man of this quality deserves the affection and the support of the gods ….

Denys Page (lecture date 1972)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3595

SOURCE: "The Lotus-Eaters," in Folktales in Homer's "Odyssey, " Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1973, pp. 3-21.

[Page is a classics scholar and the author of the highly regarded Sappho and Alcaeus (1955). In the following excerpt from a lecture delivered in 1972, he speculates on the historical basis of the tale of the Lotus-Eaters.]

Odyssey 9.80-104: Odysseus and his companions set sail from the coast of Thrace. Their course lay down the east coast of the Peloponnese, round its southern promontories, and up the west coast to Ithaca:

But as I was doubling Cape Malea, the waves and current and northwind drove me off course and drifted me away from Cythera. From there, for nine days I was swept over the fishy sea by ruinous winds; and on the tenth we landed in the country of the Lotus-Eaters, who live on a food of flowers. There we set foot on the mainland and drew water, and my companions quickly took their dinner beside the swift ships. When we had tasted of food and drink, I sent some of my company to inquire what sort of men ate their bread in the country. I chose two men, and gave them a third for company as spokesman. So they went and very soon were in the midst of men who were Lotus-Eaters. Now the Lotus-Eaters did not plan to kill my companions, but gave them lotus to taste. And when anyone of them ate the honeysweet fruit of the lotus, he no longer wished to bring a message back, or to return, but wanted to stay there and feed on lotus among the Lotus-Eaters, and to forget about going home. I myself brought them weeping to the ships by force, and dragged them under the rowing-benches and tied them up in the hollow ships. And I commanded my other trusty companions to make haste and embark in the swift ships, fearing that someone else might eat of the lotus and forget about going home. They quickly embarked and sat on the benches, and sitting in order smote the gray water with their oars.

Here is very little said about the Lotus-Eaters. They ate lotus; they meant you no harm; they gave you lotus to eat, and you wanted to stay with them for ever. That is all: and for the rest of time nobody has ever known anything more about the Lotus-Eaters. For hundreds of years geographers argued about their location, botanists debated what sort of lotus they ate. But if we look for other facts about them, we must wait almost a thousand years from the time of Herodotus, when Stephanus of Byzantium will publish his great geographical dictionary. There … we read a cryptic notice: the Germara are 'a Celtic people, who do not see the sunlight; as Aristotle says in his book On Wonderful Things, "the Lotus-Eaters sleep for six months'". This is the only new thing ever said about the Lotus-Eaters; it is plainly fiction, and the alleged authority is bogus. Aristotle was not the author of the book On Wonderful Things to Hear …, nor in fact does that collection of improbabilities say anything about Lotus-Eaters, asleep or waking.

There is nothing particularly surprising in the fact that the Odyssey contains the only information about the Lotus-Eaters that was ever known to any post-Homeric Greek. What I find surprising is the fact that this episode, which has a certain charm, made no impact on the imagination of the poetical and romantic writers of Greece and Rome. Nor is it represented in Greek or Roman art. There is nothing but brief allusion, and even that is rare. Not counting geographers and botanists, I reckon about a dozen brief allusions in Greek from Xenophon to Palladas, not so many in Latin from Cicero to Ammianus. Only from the dismal soul of the mythographer Hyginus, in the second century A.D., was wrung a rare cry. Dullest of mortals, he has the unique distinction, among the ancients, of being emotionally aroused when he contemplates the Lotus-Eaters: Lotophagos, he cries, homines minime malos; 'they were really very good people'. This is not much, but it is something; it is an ember aglow in the ash-heap. Warm your hands while you may, for it will be long enough before you find another.

From the eighth century B.C. up to the year A.D. 1832 the Lotus-Eaters lived only in the Odyssey. Then the heart of Lord Tennyson was moved by these lines of Homer, and he published The Lotos-Eaters, a poem which has the atmosphere of a steamy hot-house over-filled with exotic odorous blooms; some very beautiful, some drooping and faded, but altogether heavy-scented and enervating.

Odysseus and his companions reach the land of the Lotus-Eaters:

In the afternoon they came unto a land
In which it seemed always afternoon ….
A land where all things always seemed the same;
And round about the keel with faces pale,
Dark faces pale against that rosy flame,
The mild-eyed melancholy Lotos-Eaters came.
Branches they bore of that enchanted stem,
Laden with flower and fruit, whereof they
gave
To each, but those who did receive of them,
And taste, to him the gushing of the wave
Far, far away did seem to mourn and rave
On alien shores; and if his fellow spake,
His voice was thin, as voices from the grave;
And deep-asleep he seemed, yet all awake,
And music in his ears his beating heart did
make.
They sat them down upon the yellow sand
Between the sun and moon upon the shore;
And sweet it was to dream of Fatherland,
Of child, and wife, and slave; but evermore
Most weary seem'd the sea, weary the oar,
Weary the wandering fields of barren foam.
Then some one said, 'We will return no
more';
And all at once they sang, 'Our island home
Is far beyond the wave; we will no longer
roam'.

No such romantic note is struck by the ancients. They have no interest in the Lotus-Eaters, except to inquire just where they lived and what they ate.

Locating the Lotus-Eaters has been for many the pastime of idle hours, from Herodotus to the present day. Herodotus placed them in Tripolitania, as western neighbours of the Gindánes, whose women (he says) wear many ankle-bracelets of leather, one for each lover; and the woman with the greatest number of anklets is thought to be the best woman, as being the most loved. Now (he continues) 'there is a headland jutting out to sea from the land of these Gindanes. It is inhabited by Lotus-Eaters, who live by eating nothing but the fruit of the lotus. The fruit of the lotus is the size of the mastichberry, similar in sweetness to the fruit of the date-palm. The Lotus-Eaters make wine of it too'.

The geographical position is clear enough, because the eastern neighbours of the Lotus-Eaters, the Machlyes, are bounded on the west by an identifiable feature, Lake Tritonis. So the Lotus-Eaters lived (roughly speaking) on the North African coast facing Syrtis Minor.

I shall not repeat the variations on this theme composed by later geographers. There is a choice between various points on, and islands off, the coast of North Africa from Morocco to Cyrene. Or you might find Lotus-Eaters in Sicily, at Acragas or Camarina. Nor were they wanting in Illyria or Scythia or somewhere beyond the Straits of Gibraltar. Nothing in all this has anything to do with the Homeric Lotus-Eaters. Nobody ever knew anything about them not already known to Herodotus; and he knew nothing.

His process of thought is transparent: the Lotus-Eaters of Homer are assumed to be a living nation; Homer says that Odysseus could not weather the southeastern cape of the Peloponnese and was driven by storm-winds for nine days over the sea; where will he land, if not in North Africa? Now by happy chance we have a tale about a tribe on the coast of Tripolitania living on the fruit of a shrub or tree; let us call the shrub 'lotus', and our work is done. True, a wind which prevents you from rounding Cape Malea is not the one to carry you west of Tripoli; true also that the shrub or tree—Jujúba, Zizyphus—of which the tribe eats the fruit has nothing whatsoever to do with any of the plants called lotus; true, finally, that the result of our researches is disenchanting, for it is not more remarkable that an African tribe should eat these berries than that Greeks should eat olives. There is not, however, time to raise objections. We are quickly diverted to new and much greater marvels—the tale of the Atlantes, who have no dreams; of the land where donkeys never drink; of men whose eyes are in their chests, for they have no heads.

Herodotus is not always to be believed, but he is enchanting; wearisome are most of his followers. Nor are modern speculations more rewarding, though occasionally more risible: have not the Lotus-Eaters lately been made real and relevant, a colony of drop-outs living on drugs, bhang possibly, or hashish?

Enough of all this pseudo-geography. The Lotus-Eaters of Homer have no home in the real world. They are as fanciful as the Cyclops or Circe. We might say simply, they are figures of folktale; but it is not quite so easy. We have first to ask a question or two.

From Homer's brief story we learnt very little, and were left wondering. What sort of creatures were the Lotus-Eaters? Why did they eat lotus, of all flowers? Did they know what effect their diet would have upon the stranger? Were they perhaps waiting for a victim? They had not in mind (says Odysseus) the killing of his companions; what then did they have in mind? In a folktale, it is very unlikely that the hosts will allow their guests to be taken away, as Odysseus takes them, after they have eaten the magical food. We suspect that these Lotus-Eaters are not ordinary men: creatures of fairyland, perhaps; but whether kindly or malignant? Surely they have a story of their own.

We shall have to look in universal folklore to see if we can identify the tale which Homer has in mind. But, first, there is a curious matter to be perpended. Lotophagos means 'eater of lotus'; and it is a fair question to ask, why lotus*? Of all plants in the world, why has the Homeric story chosen the lotus for the diet of our mild-eyed melancholy friends? Now it happens that there were regions of the world where a flower called 'lotus' was in fact the common food of people; and it is worthwhile to consider what those regions were, and what is meant by 'lotus' in this context.

The name 'lotus' was applied by the ancients indifferently to a number of quite different families of plants, notably (1) the true lotus, of which more in a moment; (2) the shrub or tree Zizyphus, Jujúba, whose berries were eaten by tribes in North Africa; (3) trefoils, clovers, and melilots. Of these, I leave Jujúba and the clovers out of account. The Jujúba, which belongs to the family Rhamnaceae, owes its inclusion in the list of lotuses solely to the determination of ancient geographers and botanists to find a living tribe which they might identify with the Homeric Lotus-Eaters. The trefoils, clovers, and melilots, which belong to the family Leguminosae, have always and rightly been regarded as irrelevant: the spellbinding delicacy of the Lotus-Eaters was certainly not to be identified with this common cattle-fodder.

The lotus which men really ate was what I have called the true lotus, of which there are two varieties to be considered: (1) Nelumbo, the Indian lotus, and (2) Nymphaea, the Egyptian lotus, both of the family Nymphaeaceae.

Begin, O Muse, the tale of Nelumbo and Nymphaea, from the point where the Sanskrit poems of ancient India leave off. It is necessary to say enough to establish two facts: First, that there were (and are) two kinds of edible lotus, one Indian and one Egyptian; for India and Egypt are places from which the knowledge of the edible lotus could have been transmitted to Homer through poetry or folklore. Secondly, that the Indian lotus could not have been known to Homer except through continuous tradition from the remote period when the Indo-European peoples had not yet divided into Indians and Europeans.

So first, Nelumbo. This is the Indian lotus, a beautiful flower, both holy and useful. [W. H. Goodyear, in The Grammar of the Lotus, says,] 'When Buddha was born, a lotus bloomed where he first touched the ground; he stepped seven steps northward, and a lotus marked each footfall'. Its seeds, which are 'the size of filberts', were, as they still are, a common food. Nymphaea is the Egyptian lotus, associated in cult with Isis, Osiris, and Horus. Its seeds are edible; they are small grains, like poppy-seeds. The two plants are alike in being aquatic, with edible seeds; in other respects there is very little resemblance between them. Nelumbo is rosy; its leaves are raised high above the water by cylindrical petioles. Nymphaea is white or blue; its leaves lie more or less flat on the water. There are differences in the number, shape, and arrangement of the sepals, in the shape and appearance of the petals, in the shape of the leaves, and in the size and structure of the seedpods and their fruits.

Herodotus describes both flowers quite accurately, first Nymphaea as follows: 'When the river is full and inundates the plains, many lilies, which the Egyptians call "lotus", grow in the water. They pluck these and dry them in the sun, then they crush the poppy-like centre of the lotus and make loaves of it baked over the fire. The root of this lotus is edible too, and fairly sweet; it is round, about the size of an apple'. So much for Nymphaea; now he describes Nelumbo: 'There are other lilies, which look like roses, growing in the river too. The fruit of these grows in a separate calyx growing at the side from the root, shaped very like a wasp's nest. Within this are numerous edible seeds, as big as olivestones. They are eaten both soft and dried'. The account in Theophrastus is similar, but with much additional detail, keenly observed and accurately described. Modern descriptions of Nelumbo and Nymphaea correct the ancient in a few details only; they add that Nelumbo has been a common food in our own times.

Now it is as certain as such things can be that the Indian lotus, Nelumbo, well-known to Herodotus, was in his day a recent immigrant from the East. It was not familiar to the Egyptians till the later years of the sixth century B.C. The eating of Nelumbo could not have been known to Homer, unless the knowledge had been transmitted through saga or folklore from the remote 'Indo-European' period, a couple of thousand years before the Odyssey.

There is much more that might be said about Nelumbo and Nymphaea; but we already have what we need. We asked, why eaters of lotus, of all flowers in the world? And we have found that the lotus is a flower of which the seeds were in fact a common food, in India and in Egypt. Homer's tale is plainly fiction; but it is fiction blended with dimly remembered fact.

I call it dimly remembered, because the lotus would not have been chosen by Homer if its true nature had not been forgotten. What Homer needed was a mysterious flower with fruits of magical quality; but the flower of which he tells was one' of the commonest, in India and in Egypt, and its fruits were the normal food of the masses. This truth must have been long forgotten by Homer's time. In the Dark Age of Greece, from the fall of the Mycenaean kings down to the eighth century B.C, nothing whatsoever was known about India except the little that had survived in saga and folklore from the very remote past. Nor was anything known about Egypt, except scraps of information (and not many of them) preserved from the Mycenaean period mainly in the tradition of epic verse. But there will have been, at some early period, a traveller's tale of remote regions of the world full of great wonders, such as a tribe of men who lived on flowers which they called 'lotus'. After the lapse of hundreds of years, all contact with reality is lost. Nothing is remembered except that there was an old story about people called 'lotus-eaters'. They were once a traveller's tale, and a true one. Now they no longer have a home in the real world; and we no longer know (or care) what sort of flower this 'lotus' is. If it be asked whether India or Egypt is likelier to be the source of the tale about eaters of lotus, the best evidence may be the fact (if it is one) that 'lotus' is a word of Semitic origin. If the Homeric lotus reflects the Indian Nelumbo—a plant unknown to the Western world until long after Homer's time—I do not understand how the flower could be known to Homer by a Semitic name. So I suppose that Egyptian Nymphaea was the diet of the real and remote ancestors of the fictitious Lotus-Eaters of the Odyssey. The Mycenaeans traded with Egypt for two or three hundred years; their products are found as far up the Nile as Assouan. Traders returned home with much to tell; and among their tales was this, that people in Egypt lived on a flower which they called 'lotus'.

By Homer's time the Lotus-Eaters have degenerated into figures of folktale. At least that is what they seem to be, in the Odyssey. But have they any history as such? The essence of the episode is this: that creatures, whether human or not, living in a remote place, offer food to the traveller; who, if he eats it, loses the desire or the power to return home, and will stay with his hosts forever. Is this a common folktale, like the stories of the Cyclops and Circe?

The answer is that, in one special connexion, it is as common a story as you may find. The special connexion is with the underworld, the abode of the dead. The traveller who visits the underworld may be sure of his return, provided that he refuses food or drink offered by his ghostly entertainers; if he partakes, he must stay there forever.

Thus in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, Persephone has good hope of returning from the underworld to the earth above; but Hades, with a sinister smile and furtive glances round, gave her honeysweet seeds of pomegranate to eat before she left him. She ate them; and not even Zeus could then do more than compromise, granting her eight months of the year on earth and four in the underworld ….

The essence of this very widespread story is that a person, whether living or dead, cannot enter the world of the dead unless he first eats their food, and cannot return from that world if he does eat it. Now there is not the faintest indication in the Odyssey that Odysseus has arrived at the threshold of the underworld, or that the Lotus-Eaters are ghosts or demons beyond the grave. Let us therefore briefly consider something else which they might be; for this motif, though specially common in connexion with visits to the world of the dead, is not wholly restricted to that connexion. It is applied (in various forms) also to the world of fairies, goblins, gnomes, giants, and other such daydream and nightmare figures of folklore ….

So the Lotus-Eaters might be either ghosts in the underworld or goblins in fairyland; and it is characteristic of our poet that he should portray them as neither the one thing nor the other. Homer takes the motif from folktale and transplants it into a quite different soil. He is, as usual, at pains to suppress, or at least to minimize, the unreal elements in the folktales from which he freely borrows. He makes the scene lifelike and credible. His travellers are ordinary persons on their way home, driven by storm-winds to a distant but not supernatural place; they are not visitors to the underworld or adventurers on the border of fairyland. And the Lotus-Eaters seem quite normal people, except for their peculiar diet. They seem unaware of the effect which their food will have on the strangers. They mean no great harm (we are told); and certainly no great harm is done. Odysseus can take his companions away, none the worse; and the Lotus-Eaters offer no resistance. This characteristic of Homeric art, the adaptation of common folktale motifs to realistic settings, is to be observed throughout the Odyssey; especially in the story of the return from Troy to Ithaca, but also elsewhere.

So much for this episode. We have lived an hour with the Lotus-Eaters and learnt a little of their history. They have their origin in a true but dimly remembered tale about men in Egypt who lived on lotus. Now to their lotus the poet ascribes a certain magical effect which he takes from common folklore. But the magic is hardly done before it is undone. We—the audience of Homer—are in a real world, and we believe every word we are told ….

Jasper Griffin (essay date 1980)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5934

SOURCE: "Characterization," in Homer on Life and Death, Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1980, pp. 50-80.

[In the following essay, Griffin addresses the issue of inconsistent characterization in the Odyssey, contending that the complexity of the characters gives them "depth and significance."]

Some people have inclined to deny the possibility of there being in the Homeric poems any consistent characterization at all. Old-fashioned analysts and modern oralists agree on this point. For the former, separate authorship of the different parts into which they resolved the poems made it hopeless to look for psychological consistency; for the latter, the rigorous constraints of the formulaic system must, it seems, prevent the singer from allowing his characters to speak or think differently from each other. Another question of principle arises: How far is it legitimate to read psychology into what happens in the poems, when this is not made explicit by the poet? The analyst Von der Mühll states [in Kritisches Hypomnema Zur Ilias] as an axiom that 'to depict characters, beyond the objective wording of the text, did not lie within the intentions or the powers of Homer', while the neo-analyst Kakridis insists [in Festschrift W. Schade-waldt, 1 1970], against those who supply psychological motivations for the actions of the poet's characters, that 'in poetry only what is recorded exists: nothing else.' From the point of view of oral composition, [G. S.] Kirk warns [The Songs of Homer] that 'the depiction of the heroic character is limited both by the technique and aims of oral poetry and by the simplicity of heroic virtues and vices', and when, despite these limitations, genuine characterization is still found, he thinks it right to express this in an extraordinarily guarded fashion: 'These characters achieve a complexity which has the appearance [sic] of being consistently developed as each poem progresses. Even so we must take care not to deduce too much about the methods and the scope of operation of the main poets ….' It almost seems as though we become so scrupulous that in the end it seems fair to question not only what is not on the surface of the poems, but even what is.

… I hope to make three points, of a fairly general character, which together will prove helpful in considering this tangled question, and which also will show the poet at work conferring depth and significance upon his creation. First, characters in the poems can be different from each other; second, they can be seen to intend things which they do not explicitly reveal as their intention; third, they can be complex, in ways which are rather different in the two poems ….

[In the Odyssey,] Odysseus is entertained and loved by two goddesses, Calypso and Circe, and he has to detach himself from each of them and also to say farewell to Nausicaa. With the glamorous Circe Odysseus happily spends a year in pleasure, 'feasting on meat inexhaustible and sweet wine'. Eventually his crew urge on him that it is time to go, and he embraces her knees in supplication, begging her to let him depart: his men are melting his heart with their lamentations, when she is not there to see. At once she answers: 'Son of Laertes, sprung from Zeus, Odysseus of the many wiles, do not remain longer in my house against your will ….' Forthwith she plans their departure.

Very different is the loving Calypso. For seven years Odysseus has been kept prisoner on her island, without means of escape; she wishes to marry him and make him immortal, but he will have none of it. Day after day he sits gazing out to sea and weeping. At last the gods intervene and send Hermes to tell Calypso that she must let him go home. She pours out her feelings to Hermes in bitterness against the gods; then she finds Odysseus and tells him that he can go, if he will, 'for I shall send you off with all my heart.' The hero is naturally astonished, and she reassures him with a smile, saying 'My mind is righteous and my heart within me is not of iron; no, it is kindly.' The pair have a last interview, recorded with great delicacy and charm. She asks if he is really so anxious to see his wife, 'for whom you yearn every day', and suggests that she, as a goddess, must be far better-looking. The tactful Odysseus at once admits that Penelope is inferior in beauty but says, 'Yet even so I wish and long every day to come home ….' Calypso never tells him why she lets him go, and Odysseus never knows; she claims the credit for her own soft heart, and in his presence only hints at her bitterness and the real reason when she says 'I shall send a favourable wind for you, so that you may reach your homeland in safety—if that is the will of the gods in heaven, who are stronger than I to devise and to carry out.' We see through these words her expression of the fact that, were it not for the gods, she would not be letting him go; but for Odysseus that meaning is lost.

Lastly, there is Nausicaa. The night before she meets Odysseus, she dreamt of getting married. When he appears, at first she does not find him impressive; but when he is bathed and glorified by Athena, she says to her maids, 'I wish that such a man might be called my husband, living here, and that he might be pleased to stay here!' She goes on to give a broad hint to Odyseus: 'If you come into town with me, malicious people will talk, saying "Who is this tall and handsome stranger with Nausicaa? Where did she find him? He will be her husband next.'" And even her father seems to think the match an attractive one. But of course Odysseus is off home to his wife, and there is no place for Nausicaa. She does, however, manage to be in his way as he goes in to dinner and to have a last word with him. 'Farewell, stranger, and when you are in your homeland think sometimes of me and remember that to me first you owe the saving of your life.' Odysseus replies that if he returns home safely, 'There I shall honour you like a god all my days, for your rescued me, princess.' Three scenes of parting, each of them coloured by love, and all very different.

The situation of parting with a woman in love is an emotional and difficult one, which is calculated to bring out the real nature of both parties. It was to have a great future in literature. Virgil's Dido and the Heroides of Ovid are among its forms. The variants on the theme in the Odyssey show us three very different women: the hard-boiled Circe, to whom the affair has been one of pleasure which there is no point in trying to prolong; the young Nausicaa, with whom nothing is put into words and yet everything is there, in essence rather than in actuality; and the suffering Calypso, retaining her dignity as she loses her love. Each represents a type and offers a different relationship, to which the wandering hero might have abandoned himself, forgetting his wife and home. That he resists them all brings out his unconquerable resolution, the central fact of the Odyssey. But we observe also two other things: these women are inscrutable, and they are complex.

Before Odysseus met Circe, Hermes gave him a marvellous herb which would defend him against her magic. When her spell failed to work, Odysseus should attack her with drawn sword, as if intending to kill her; 'and she in fear will bid you come to her bed.' This duly happens. Circe tries and fails to turn the hero into a pig, recognizes him as Odysseus, whose coming had been often foretold, and says, 'Come now, sheathe your sword, and then let us go to our bed, so that we may have union in love and sleep together, and trust each other.' This is not the behaviour of a fully human person. The immediate transition from hostile magic to the act of love—and after it Circe really is trustworthy—is dreamlike, recalling the transitions in fairy stories. The transformation of a frankly magical tale into one of complex and real humanity is clear when Circe says to the hero, not that the magic herb has protected him, but 'your mind is proof against enchantment.' Odysseus and his men never understand the formidable Circe. 'Now my heart longs to be gone, and that of my comrades, who melt my heart as they wail around me, when you are not present', he says to her, when he begs her to allow him to depart; but she has not the least reluctance in the world. She tells them that they must go to the land of the dead, and the news breaks their hearts. As they make their way to the ship, she 'passes them by easily', taking the animals they need to sacrifice to the dead. They do not see her go; as Odysseus puts it, 'who could see a god against his will, passing hither or thither?' From first to last she is mysterious, and they are all aware of it.

When we turn to Calypso, we find that she is inscrutable in a very different way. There is not, as there was with Circe, any doubt or mystery about her basic motive: she regards Odysseus as belonging to her, she saved him from the sea, and she intends to keep him for ever and make him immortal. She conceals her motive for letting him go … —a neat contrast with the behaviour of Achilles in the last book of the Iliad. Achilles, who told Odysseus that he hated like the gates of Hell the man who thought one thing in his heart and said another, does not try to claim the credit for releasing Hector's body to Priam, saying, 'I am minded to give you Hector, and a messenger has come to me from Zeus, my own mother … ' She conceals her motive; and Hermes avoids directly threatening her, in case she is minded to disobey the order of Zeus. When she asks, 'Why have you come?' he replies, 'Zeus sent me here, much against my will. Who would choose to cross so vast an expanse of salt water, without a single city where men offer sacrifices and hecatombs to the gods? But it is impossible for another god to cross or frustrate the will of aegis-bearing Zeus. They say there is a man with you … ' On this passage the scholiast comments: 'While seeming to defend himself on the ground that it was unavoidable that he obey Zeus, he is really preparing her, too, to accept the facts. For disobedience to Zeus is impossible.' He also is too gallant to make any allusion to Calypso's love for Odysseus, saying only that 'The wind and wave brought him here, and now Zeus orders you to send him away.' It is only the unhappy goddess who talks of her love and her hopes—to Hermes, but not to the hero himself.

Their last conversation is distinguished for what is not said but hinted at.

Are you so very anxious to sail for home at once? Then farewell; but if you only knew what sufferings are in store for you before you reach your home, you would stay here, and live with me, and be immortal—however you long to see your wife, for whom you yearn every day.—But in truth I think I am not inferior to her in beauty or stature, since it is not right that mortal women should rival immortals in form and beauty.

Such a speech invites and rewards treatment as being psychologically sophisticated. The goddess is saying: 'You can go if you want to, but you would do better to stay with me; I can do so much for you! I suspect you only want to go because of that wife of yours, whom you refuse to forget: but I don't see why you prefer her to me, when I am so much better looking.' Such a speech is not easy to answer. Odysseus' reply could serve as a model for embarrassed males. He begins by granting and underlining her final point. 'Mighty goddess, be not angry with me; I know full well that prudent Penelope is inferior to you in beauty and in stature, for she is mortal, while you are immortal and for ever young.' She is a mighty goddess, he insists, separated by a great gulf from a mere mortal man; and as for his wife, of course she is far less attractive than Calypso. 'Yet still I wish and long every day to go home and see the day of my return … ' The ancients read psychology into this speech, pointing out that Odysseus cleverly began by clearing himself on the charge of love for his wife, 'since nothing wounded Calypso as much as being slighted in comparison with her', and that he was careful to reassure Calypso that it was not for his wife's sake that he was so anxious to leave, but simply to 'go home'. Avoiding any question of invidious comparison between the two ladies, making no explicit refusal of the appeal she makes to him in such delicately indirect form, he allows her to keep her dignity, as Hermes tried to do. The question of principle, whether such psychological refinements, not explicitly underlined by the poet, are really to be read into the poem, will be considered after we have glanced at the scene of parting from Nausicaa.

We have seen that Nausicaa had marriage in her mind the day she met Odysseus, that her father was also thinking about it, and that both of them had thoughts of Odysseus in the role of her husband. When events take their different course, and he is about to leave, she contrives to be where he passes and to have a last exchange with him. 'Remember me when you are far away'—'I will remember you and feel grateful to you for saving my life.' The exchange is inconclusive, on the surface, and yet the audience feels it to be satisfying and perfect. This is so because we naturally supply what is not said, what might have been; Nausicaa was ready to fall in love with Odysseus, and hopes at least to live in his memory. She has secured a last word from the glamorous stranger, and she can be confident that it will be something sweet to hear. We have in fact the equivalent, in terms of the softer ethos of the Odyssey, of the tragic wish of Andromache after Hector's death, that he had at least 'in dying stretched out his arms to me and spoken some memorable word, which I might remember ever after as I weep night and day' (24.743). In the Iliad, tragedy; in the Odyssey, a touching but gentle pathos.

It is time to confront the question of principle. As we have seen, some people deny that any psychology is to be read into or behind the bare words of the text. This view was heroically supported by Adolf Kirchhoff, at a passage which can serve as a test case. In the sixth book of the Odyssey, Nausicaa told Odysseus not to accompany her into town, as their appearance together would cause talk, and even rumours of marriage. Odysseus complies with these instructions and makes his own way to her father's palace. But when her father says to him, 'I find fault with my daughter for one thing, that she did not bring you to our house with her maidservants', he replies 'Do not blame your innocent daughter. She did tell me to follow with her servants, but I refused, from fear and respect, lest your heart be angered by the sight; we men on earth are prompt to resentment.' What are we to make of this? Most scholars, from antiquity onwards, have seen in the passage a white lie to protect Nausicaa from her father's displeasure. Even Kakridis, in the same article in which he asserts the axiom that 'in poetry only what is recorded exists', says of this passage, 'The epic poet trusts his audience to detect the intention of the lie: the girl was to be protected from her father's anger', and only Kirchhoff insisted [in Die homerische Odyssee] that 'If Homer meant to make Odysseus act chivalrously, he should have said so; this is not psychologically subtle, it is merely slapdash.'

Now, there are passages in the Odyssey in which the poet does explicitly tell us of a character's hidden motive. At the simplest level there is the hypocrisy of a character like Eurymachus, who swears to Penelope that no man will lay hands on Telemachus while he is alive, or his blood will spurt round Eurymachus' spear; he has not forgotten the kindness of Odysseus towards him when he was a child. 'So he spoke to cheer her, but he himself was planning Telemachus' destruction.' Odysseus is famous for his power to conceal his feelings, and one of the constant pleasures of the poem is observing him as he does things which have a secret meaning for him, unknown to the other characters; from asking, when incognito, for the song of the Wooden Horse, 'which Odysseus brought into Troy', to serving as a beggarly hanger-on in his own home and saying, 'I too once was wealthy and had a fine house.' Achilles, who himself always speaks from the heart, is aware that others do not.

More specifically, the poems contain examples of tact and delicacy, marked as such. Athena comes to Nausicaa in a dream and tells her that she should take a party of maids and friends on a day's laundry by the river: 'Your wedding day is near at hand, when you must have clean clothes to wear … the cream of the young men of Phaeacia are seeking your hand … ' The real motive of the goddess is of course to get Nausicaa and her company to the isolated spot where Odysseus is in urgent need of her help, but she prefers to go about it indirectly. Nausicaa is delighted with the idea of the excursion, and asks her father for a waggon for the day. She does not mention her own marriage, but instead says that her brothers are constantly going to dances, her father needs to be well dressed, and she herself has many dirty things. 'So she spoke, for she felt shame about mentioning lusty marriage to her father; but he understood it all … ' Here we have a whole net of unspoken feelings and reticences. Athena acts indirectly, Nausicaa says something other than what she means, her father sees through the screen but makes no comment upon it.

Slightly less explicit is the following passage: the first song which the Muse inspires Demodocus to sing among the Phaeacians is the story of a great quarrel at Troy between Odysseus and Achilles. The rest of the audience is delighted with the song, but Odysseus himself, for whom it has an unsuspected and personal meaning, hides his face in his garment and weeps. 'Then the other Phaeacians did not observe that he was shedding tears, but Alcinous alone observed it, sitting beside him, and heard his deep sighs. At once he spoke out among the Phaeacian oarsmen, "Listen, leaders and counsellors of Phaeacia: we have had our fill now of the feast and the music which goes with it. Now let us go out and turn to sport" … ' If we press here the principle that only what is made explicit is to be accepted as present, then the poet has not told us that Alcinous acts as he does because he wishes to spare Odysseus, and to do it tactfully. He has not given us, expressly, any motive at all for Alcinous' action. But it is perfectly clear what is meant, and the reader who insisted on more would try our patience. The 'white lie' of Odysseus about Nausicaa belongs in the same box, and so does, for instance, a delicate touch in the first book.

Athena has come to Ithaca to rouse Telemachus into action. Odysseus is still alive, she says, on an island in the sea, 'and fierce men have him, cruel men who hold him there against his will.' Now in fact Odysseus is of course on the island of Calypso, detained by a loving nymph who wants to make him immortal. Who are these 'fierce men'? Even in the palmy days of analytic scholarship this contradiction was not seized on as evidence for a separate origin and a different version of the story, because it is so obvious that the goddess is avoiding a truth which, if revealed, would reduce poor Telemachus to despair. These passages help us to understand a more vexed one in the nineteenth book. Disguised as a beggar, the hero has a confidential conversation with Penelope, and tells her that her husband will very soon be home. He gives her a summary account of his adventures, which he claims to have heard from the king of Thesprotia; and this account entirely omits Calypso, taking Odysseus straight from the shipwreck to the land of the Phaeacians. Analysts failed to resist the temptation here, and 'earlier versions' and the like were freely invented. In the light of our discussion we see that the hero spares Penelope's feelings. She would not like to hear from an anonymous beggar that the talk of Thesprotia was her husband's intrigue with a goddess.

This brief survey has shown that the Odyssey contains passages in which the poet explicitly tells us of the psychology which we are to see underlying the words and acts of characters, and also that other passages, where this is not made explicit, come so close to them in nature that we can have no reasonable doubt that there, too, the instinctive response of the audience, to interpret the passages in the light of the psychology of human beings, is sound. We need not fear that there is an objection in principle to doing this in the Homeric poems. This does not of course mean that every possible nuance which can be read into the text by perverse ingenuity is really there, nor that we are helpless to choose between plausible and implausible interpretations. The standard must continue to be that of taste and sense, here as elsewhere in the study of literature; we cannot banish them and replace them with a rule, which will give us with objective certainty the answers to aesthetic questions ….

The idea that Homeric men are simple, without depths, and with everything on the surface, has often led scholars to find contradictory features in the characters depicted in the poems. For J. A. Scott [The Unity of Homer'], 'the character of Paris in the Iliad involves constant contradictions.' In Achilles, [E.] Bethe found [in Homer] 'two fundamentally different creations by two great but fundamentally different poets', which it is 'an absolute psychological impossibility' that one poet can have entertained, while Wilamowitz argued [in Die Ilias and Homer] that in Book 9 he is 'altogether a quite different character' from what he is in Book 1. Of Agamemnon, [Karl] Reinhardt thought [in Der Dichter der Ilias] that 'The anxious brother of Menelaus, the admirer of the wise Nestor, is a different man from the excitable and overbearing one who wrongs Achilles', the two sides being irreconcilable and deriving from separate stories. When Diomede, after fighting and wounding two gods in the fifth book, says at the beginning of the sixth that 'If you are a god, I will not fight with heavenly gods', Von der Mühll finds it 'undeniably unsatisfactory and unworthy'. [In his "Die Schreckliche Calypso," Festschrift R. Sühnel, F.] Dirlmeier finds two separate conceptions in the figure of Calypso, which he refuses to try to reconcile, on the ground that we do not know that the poet wanted to create consistent characters ….

We have seen that in the Odyssey characters are remarkable for their opaqueness. The greater prominence in the poem of women, who even in the Iliad are more inscrutable and evasive than the male, goes with this. But so do other considerations. For instance, the inhuman and superhuman figures whom Odysseus meets on his wanderings behave in an utterly unpredictable way, not only Circe but also the queen of the Laestrygons. Odysseus' scouts met her daughter, apparently an ordinary girl drawing water at a well; they asked her the name of the king of the country, and she directed them to her father's palace. There they found the queen 'as huge as a mountain peak, and they loathed her at sight. She called her husband … and at once he seized one of my men and made ready his meal …' The appalling sudden-ness and unexpectedness of this event and its aftermath, the destruction of all but one of Odysseus' ships by creatures 'not like men but like giants', is fresh in the memory of the survivors when they come to the deceitful hospitality of Circe. Again we see the dream-like and inexplicable logic of the events of a fairy story, all the more striking when it is juxtaposed with a more fully realized and human character like Odysseus. The psychology of Aeolus, on his floating island with his six sons married to his six daughters, who gives Odysseus the winds in a leather bag but, when he returns despairing, drives him away with insults, is also clearly not to be analysed like that of a human person. And this sort of inscrutability goes deeper and is more puzzling than mere deception, which also abounds in the adventures; even the Sirens know how to sound friendly and benevolent.

Such persons shade off into the more fully human people of the poem. Over dinner in Sparta, Menelaus, reconciled with Helen and an affectionate husband, listens with apparent complacency to her story of the time when she alone, in Troy, recognized Odysseus, who had entered the city in disguise; he slew many men, 'and the other women of Troy wept aloud, but my soul rejoiced, for my heart was turned and I longed to go back home, and I lamented the madness which Aphrodite gave me, when she took me away from my own country, forsaking my marriage bed and my husband, who lacked nothing, either in mind or in beauty.' To this edifying recital by a contrite wife Menelaus replies by saying that indeed Odysseus was remarkable for intelligence and strength of will. For instance, when we were all hidden in the Trojan Horse, 'you came to the spot; doubtless a god who planned victory for the Trojans must have brought you. Deiphobus, handsome as a god, followed you. Three times you went round the horse, touching it, and calling to us each by his name, imitating the voice of the wife of each man.' Odysseus prevented any of us from replying, and put his hand forcibly over the mouth of Anticlus to keep him silent. 'So Odysseus saved all the Argives; and he held Anticlus until Pallas Athena led you away.' From antiquity onwards readers have been preplexed to know what to make of this. Did Helen try to betray her husband and the other Achaeans to death? With what purpose and to what effect does Menelaus now tell this story? The characters make no comment upon it, and sixteen lines later Menelaus is in bed, 'and beside him lay Helen of the long robe, that divine lady.' Helen, in fact, is inscrutable. We cannot reconcile her story and that of her husband, and we have no way of analysing the situation in terms of their particular characters. Helen has a glamorous if shady past; she is quicker than her husband, whether to recognize a guest, or to interpret an omen; he gives Telemachus a foolish present which has to be changed, she gives him a suggestive one, a wedding-dress for his bride, 'a keepsake of the hands of Helen'. She has acquired in Egypt drugs to cheer people up. The archetype of deceitful wives, she is also the daughter of Zeus. We cannot read her mind.

That is less surprising when we reflect that Queen Arete of the Phaeacians also remains enigmatic. Odysseus is told by Nausicaa and also by Athena to make his supplication to her; she is honoured by her husband as no other mortal woman is honoured, and her favour will mean success. Yet when he does this the result is an embarrassed silence, broken at last by an aged counsellor. Queen Arete does not speak at all for eighty lines, and when she does it is to say something quite unexpected. The temptation to add to the number of psychological explanations of her behaviour will be resisted. The point, for us, is that we find another character, and another woman, who is inscrutable, and whose character is not elucidated by the poet. Odysseus finds the goddess Athena no less opaque, as he complains bitterly to her when she has appeared to him in disguise on his first return to Ithaca. Penelope herself is not less mysterious. Her behaviour towards the disguised Odysseus is so ambiguous that some have been led to suppose that really she recognized him all the time; and the scene in which she appears before the Suitors in all her beauty and induces them to give her gifts, while Odysseus is delighted with her conduct, has also perplexed many readers. And she gives us a last surprise by not recognizing the victorious Odysseus, after his triumph, as her husband.

Deception is one of the poem's great subjects. Odysseus is famous for his tricks and guile; Penelope has more tricks than any heroine known to mythology, as the frustrated Suitors complain; Telemachus learns how to conceal his feelings and fool his enemies. Odysseus tells mighty lies in Ithaca and evidently delights in them. But not all deception is of this ultimately cheery and successful sort. Every vagrant who appeared in Ithaca while Odysseus was away told lies about him and his imminent return, breaking the heart of Penelope and Eumaeus, so that now the lonely wife cannot believe in his return even when he has come home and slain his enemies. Eumaeus' own life was blighted when cheating Phoenicians seduced his nurse and carried him away as a little child, selling him into slavery. The Suitors lie to Penelope and plan the murder of Telemachus. Agamemnon's ghost tells Odysseus how he was tricked and murdered by his wife and her lover: 'Indeed I thought I should come home most welcome to my children and my household', he says bitterly, and he urges the hero to keep his return a secret, 'for there is no more trusting in women'. Trust is the hardest thing in such a world. Athena tells Telemachus, when he lingers in Sparta, to hurry home, or his mother will marry again and carry off some of his goods for her new husband: 'You know what the heart of woman is like; she wants to increase the household of the man who marries her, and she forgets her former children and her husband once he is dead; she asks no more about him …' And Telemachus himself, in his lethargy of despair in the first book, answers Athena's question whether he is Odysseus' son with the cynical reply that 'My mother says I am his son, but I do not know; no man ever knew his own parentage …' From the Suitors' point of view, their destruction too, was a treacherous trick.

For the Iliad the world, though terrible, remains a place in which heroism is possible. The situations round which the poem is built are scenes which embody attitudes to the fundamental questions of acceptance of death, patriotism, heroic anger, heroic shame. The characters, too, are defined by their relation to these questions. Agamemnon mistakes his position with Zeus, thinking that he is the man whom the god delights to honour; he loses his contest with Achilles for supremacy and as a hero is not of the highest quality. Hector, brave and loyal, is deceived by the temporary help of Zeus and his own short-sightedness; he too mistakes the intentions of the god for him, and he discovers, when he cannot face Achilles and turns to run from his onset, that he had also mistaken his own prowess as a hero. Paris and Helen are characterized by their attitudes to fate and duty, he as frivolous, she as more deeply tragic. In the Odyssey the world is menacing, not with the sharp clarity of heroic death, but with the mysteriousness of undeclared motives, inscrutable people, liars and cheats. Disloyalty and deception, not heroic rage and strife for honour, are the causes of disaster, and Odysseus must struggle not against the clear and passionate will of Achilles, as he does in the ninth and the nineteenth books of the Iliad, nor with the heroes of Troy in battle, but with mutinous sailors, offensive servants, disloyal subjects, and with monsters and goddesses against whom heroic prowess is useless. The Odyssey is intensely interested in individuals, and it is not an accident that the people whom the hero meets, even his patron goddess and his wife, are represented almost without exception as mysterious; while Odysseus himself moves unrecognized and enigmatic among the Phaeacians, as he moves disguised about his own house. That was what interested the poet about his characters. That was what made them fit into his world.

Sheila Murnaghan (essay date 1987)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10184

SOURCE: "Recognition and the Return of Odysseus," in Disguise and Recognition in the "Odyssey," Princeton University Press, 1987, pp. 20-55.

[Here, Murnaghan explores the theme of disclosure and recognition as it relates to Odysseus and Laertes, Telemachos, Eumaeus, and Penelope, as well as discussing Odysseus's need to re-establish his past relationships with these characters.]

During their meeting in Book 13, Athena and Odysseus sit down together at the base of an olive tree and concoct the plot through which, imitating the story of a disguised god, he will defeat his enemies. This then becomes the plot, in a literary sense, of the second half of the poem, a plot shaped by the deployment of a divine strategy to make possible a story of mortal revenge. Its climactic moment is Odysseus' imitation of a divine epiphany when, having strung the bow, he reveals himself to the suitors with bewildering suddenness and proceeds to punish them for their transgresions against him.

But while Odysseus' moment of triumph over the suitors resembles a divine epiphany, it also differs from one in that it is only possible with the aid of certain human accomplices, whose help is secured in a series of private scenes of recognition that structure the second half of the poem. As he advances geographically towards the center of his house, where he will confront and defeat the suitors, Odysseus also advances strategically. He accumulates a group of supporters who will make his success possible in a series of reunions that take the form of recognition scenes: with Athena when he arrives on the shore of Ithaca; with Telemachus when he has arrived at the hut of the swineherd Eumaeus at the edge of his own holdings; with the dog Argus when he arrives at the threshold of his house; with his nurse Eurycleia at the hearth; with Eumaeus and Philoetius in the courtyard outside the megaron as he embarks on his action against the suitors.

When the decisive moment of the contest of the bow is at hand, Odysseus is able to rely on the aid of all those to whom his true identity is known, and they act as a kind of team to bring about his success. Penelope—who, uniquely, acts as his accomplice without knowing who he is—proposes the contest and insists that Odysseus be allowed to take part. Telemachus orders that the bow be placed in Odysseus' hands and urges Eumaeus on when he falters. Eumaeus hands Odysseus the bow and tells Eurycleia, in Telemachus' name, to close the doors. Similarly, when Odysseus has moved from his recovery of the house to his recovery of the estate as a whole and has been recognized by Laertes and by Dolius and his sons, he forms from them, and Telemachus, a band of followers with whom to face the attack of the suitors' relatives. These encounters diminish the success of the suitors' challenge, both in the sense that they reduce the number of people from whom Odysseus' return is concealed, of whose recognition he is deprived as a result of the suitors' presence, and in the sense that they give him the allies he will need to remove the suitors from his house.

Odysseus' time-defying defeat of the suitors requires this acquisition of accomplices and thus depends on the conquest of time in another, more ordinary way as well: it depends on the reanimation of past relationships. The permanence of Odyseus' claim to his position may mimic the timeless power of the gods, but it actually rests on the durability of his domestic relationships, his capacity to recover a series of roles defined by his relations with others: father, son, husband, and master. The success of his return is dependent on the qualities that make such relationships last, the close identification of interests that makes the association beneficial to both participants. The successive scenes of recognization in which Odysseus' base of support in Ithaca is reconstructed articulate the Odyssey's account of his return in two senses: through their sequence, these scenes provide the structure of the plot; and through their internal form, they express the interdependence of the relationships that make it possible for Odysseus to come back.

In their typical form, the Odyssey's recognition scenes act out the essential mutuality of the relationships that are being revived. They involve a process of identification and testing leading to emotionally-charged reunions, which are experienced in gestures of physical union such as embracing, kissing, or in the case of Odysseus and Penelope, making love. Within these episodes there is often a progression from expressions of solitary, one-sided emotion, which often evoke the pain of the separation that is now to be cured, to the shared emotion of reunion. These reunions are achieved through a two-sided process consisting of disclosure of identity on one side and recognition of identity on the other, gestures which are not neutral but have the broader connotations of mutual acknowledgment or praise, implying a willing concession of honor or service on both sides.

When, under the dangerous, necessarily clandestine conditions of Odysseus' return, he identifies himself to one of his loyal supporters, that gesture of self-disclosure is also a gesture of acknowledgment; it acknowledges, sometimes after a considerable period of testing, the demonstrated reliability and loyalty that make him willing to risk disclosing himself. At the same time, when Odysseus identifies himself, he stakes a claim to a certain status, and those who recognize him acquiesce in that claim. Their recognition of his identity is not unlike the modern idea of political recognition, acknowledgment of legitimacy in a position of power. Penelope's suitors, who withhold this acknowledgment from Odysseus, prove to be incapable of recognizing his identity, while each of his loyal supporters acts out his acquiescence to Odysseus' claims by recognizing him. The importance of mutual loyalty to the meaning of recognition scenes is underscored by the way these scenes regularly end with the two figures who have been reunited plotting together against their shared enemies.

The account of Odysseus' self-disclosure to Eumaeus and Philoetius illustrates well how these episodes of recognition of identity also act out an identification of interests that is based on mutual recognition in a broader sense and outweighs in importance the immediate occasion of the removal of one figure's disguise. First, Odysseus asks for a hypothetical show of loyalty by asking what Eumaeus and Philoetius would do if Odysseus were to return. When Eumaeus responds by praying to all the gods for Odysseus' return, then Odysseus discloses himself.…

But, when he had recognized their unswerving
      mind,
he spoke to them again, answering them with
  words,
"Here I am, myself, within the house, having
        struggled much;
I have returned in the twentieth year to the
  land of my fathers.
I recognize that I come wished for by you
alone of my servants …"
(Od. 21.205-210)

Here the language of recognition … is applied to Odysseus' apprehension of Eumaeus and Philoetius' loyalty, their willingness to recognize him, which he acknowledges through his self-disclosure. The words with which Odysseus discloses himself are at once the announcement of a prayed-for benefit and a boast containing a bid for acknowledgment of his achievement in returning home and for aid in his further struggle. An action consisting of the revelation and recognition of identity becomes the occasion for a dialogue articulating a series of mutual claims and obligations, a dialogue involving expressions of praise that are verbal tokens of a mutual commitment to material aid.

The mutuality and interdependence of Odysseus' relationships with members of his household is, then, represented formally in the structure of the scenes of recognition in which, as his identity becomes more and more widely known, his disguise is gradually dispelled. But the mutuality of experience between Odysseus and the loyal members of his household is more complex and pervasive. As his dependents, these characters derive their identities and capacities from their place in the oikos, "household," of which he is the head. In his absence, Laertes, Telemachus, Eumaeus, and Penelope cling to their literal identities as father, son, loyal servant, and wife of Odysseus. But Odysseus' absence and the presence of the suitors make it difficult for them to enjoy the status, to exercise the power, that ought to be inextricable from those roles. Like Odysseus when he lands on the shore of Ithaca, they experience a disjunction between their nominal identities and the places they ought to occupy in the social world. And that disjunction is similarly represented in their cases as a kind of disguise. Theirs is not the deliberately contrived and willfully assumed disguise that Odysseus takes on, but rather genuine experience of the unimpressive appearance, powerlessness, subjugation to time, foreignness to the house of Odysseus, and lowered social status that are elements in his disguise. But these experiences nonetheless take on the character of disguises because they prove reversible, and like Odysseus' more literal disguise, are removed with the revelation of his return.

Thus the reunions of these characters with Odysseus involve these characters' own shedding of disguise and recognition as well as his. And Odysseus, in the course of repossessing his house, imitates Athena not only by revealing himself but also by bringing out of disguise those on whom his recovery of Ithaca depends, much as she uncovers Ithaca from its obscuring mist. In different ways, depending on the nature of their relationships to Odysseus, the members of Odysseus' household rehearse their own versions of return and recognition. The way in which each recognition scene functions as a climactic moment in both of two intersecting stories of recovery and recognition conditions, in each case, its particular timing and construction; in responding to these factors, these episodes become precise depictions of how the distinct but interdependent characters involved are related to one another.

That the effects of Odysseus' absence create a kind of disguise is most apparent in the case of the last of the figures by whom Odysseus is recognized, his father Laertes. The condition into which Laertes has fallen is described to Odysseus by his mother Anticleia when he meets her in the underworld.…

             Your father stays there
on the farm, and does not go to town. He has
  no bed
or bed clothes or blankets or shining
  coverings,
but in the winter he sleeps in the house where
  the servants do
in the dust near the fire, and wears vile
  clothing;
but when summer comes and the fruitful
  harvest-time,
everywhere along the slope of his vineyard,
he throws together his bed of fallen leaves.
And there he lies grieving, and a great sorrow
 grows in his mind
as he longs for your homecoming. And harsh
  old age comes over him.
(Od. 11.187-196)

In response to Odysseus' absence, Laertes himself has withdrawn from both home and society. He has fallen into a state of grief that combines elements of Odysseus' anonymous persona on Phaeacia and his deliberate disguise on Ithaca. Like Odysseus when he arrives on the Phaeacian shore, Laertes is barely alive and barely participating in civilized life. In both cases this virtually uncivilized state is represented through sleeping, not indoors in a bed or at least in a fixed place, but outdoors on the ground in a random pile of leaves. In fact, Laertes is dressed in an anomalous costume that seems to suggest a kind of animal suit, as if he were no longer fully human (Od. 24.229-231). Like Odysseus when he disguises himself both on his return to Ithaca and during the spying mission to Troy (as is recounted to Telemachus by Helen in Odyssey 4), Laertes has taken on the rags and activities of a poor servant and the outward signs of old age.

When Odysseus meets Laertes in Odyssey 24, Laertes is much more conspicuously disguised than Odysseus is. When Odysseus first addresses his father, he comments on his appearance, saying to him, in essence, "You seem to be in disguise." …

Old man, you show no lack of skill in tending
the orchard. It is well cared for, and there is
  no
tree, no fig, no vine, nor any olive,
no pear, and no bed of greens uncared for in
  your garden.
But I will tell you something else, and you
 must not be angry:
you yourself are not well cared for. For you
  are wretchedly old
and miserably dirty and you wear shabby
  clothes.
It is not on account of laziness that your lord
  neglects you,
and nothing about you suggests a slave,
neither your form nor your size, for you seem
  like a king.
You seem like the kind who, when he has
 bathed and eaten,
sleeps comfortably. That is the way of the
  elders.
(Od. 24.244-255)

In this speech Odysseus contrasts Laertes' current appearance with what appears to be his proper role, and he does so in a way that associates Laertes' proper role with qualities and gestures that are, in the Odyssey, specifically associated with the removal of disguise or the establishment of identity. He contrasts Laertes' shabby appearance to his careful tending of the orchard; when he proves his own identity to Laertes, it is by recalling how he learned to tend that very orchard. Then he goes on to say that Laertes looks as if he could be altered by a bath and that he might end up by sleeping more comfortably, presumably in a bed. In the Odyssey a bath is often the occasion of the removal of disguise, and sleeping in a bed is often its result—most notably, of course, in the recognition scene between Odysseus and Penelope in which Odysseus proves his identity and regains his marriage bed all at once.

Odysseus counters this disguise by bringing himself to his father's attention; first he evokes an absent, fictitious version of himself in the false tale that he tells, and then he identifies himself openly and announces that he has defeated the suitors. The sequel to this revelation is the removal of Laertes' disguise. When Laertes returns to his house, he has a bath, through which both his rags and his old age are cast aside, and he emerges looking like the gods (Od.24.365-370). When Odysseu comments on this change, he is, in a sense, recognizing his father. Laertes answers with a wish: that he could have been as he was during one of the great victories of his youth and could have joined in the previous day's battle against the suitors (Od. 24.376-382). This wish is reminiscent of the wishes of Odysseus' friends that Odysseus would return as he was on some past occasion. Odysseus' success in fulfilling those wishes is here transferred to Laertes, who, by recognizing Odysseus, also puts aside the effects of time and then goes on to play a leading role in the battle with the suitors' relatives, which reenacts the battle with the suitors themselves.

The reunion of Odysseus and Laertes, then, combines a graphic reversal of the effects of time with a demonstration of reciprocity: Odysseus brings Laertes out of the state of weakness and grief that oppresses him and obscures his identity, and Laertes helps Odysseus ward off the final threat to his own recovery of his proper position and identity. This reciprocity is reinforced by the effective leveling of their ages that occurs as Laertes is restored to his prime. The reversal of the effects of time involved in Laertes' reanimation not only signals the return of the past but also removes the imbalance inherent in the chronologically unequal relationship of father and son, an imbalance which, at this time in their lives, makes the son more powerful than his aged father. This imbalance is also countered by the proof that Odyssecus is obliged to offer his father. Odysseus may be a more powerful figure in this encounter, confronting a father who is his dependent and controlling his own self-disclosure, but he cannot win Laertes' recognition without satisfying his demand for proof. In meeting this demand he recalls times in their lives when the balance of their relationship was different. He shows him the scar, which evokes the time when he was only just entering manhood and underwent a kind of initiation; and he recalls an even earlier time when Laertes showed him the orchard, taught him the names of the trees, and gave him some of them—a time when he was Laertes' dependent and received only a token portion of his inheritance (Od. 24.330-344).

But at the same time that this episode, in one way, plays down the imbalance in their relationship (by making it clear that the imbalance stems only from this particular point in their history), it also, in other ways, draws attention to that imbalance. It does so especially through two related features: the extremity of Laertes' destitution, which is expressed in the transfer of the motifs of disguise to him, and the placement of the episode late in the narrative, which gives it a belated or tacked-on quality. Laertes' condition of extreme dependency means that Odysseus can only appear to him late in the story when his return is virtually complete. Only then is Odysseus' presence sufficiently powerful to bring Laertes out of the decline that has been his response to the suitors' presence. Simply the prospect or likelihood of Odysseus' return is insufficient to revive Laertes, as is clear when he responds to Odysseus' false tale by nearly dying. Thus Odysseus appears to Laertes virtually undisguised himself and couples the revelation of his identity with the announcement that he has destroyed the suitors. The confrontation with the suitors' relatives, which still remains and with which Laertes does help, is not as essential to Odysseus' recovery as the defeat of the suitors themselves. That this confrontation lies before him is not as great a challenge to his identity as the presence of the suitors has been, and the help that Laertes gives him is not as decisive as the help he has received from other supporters within the house.

This depiction of the imbalance between father and son, even in an encounter which also does away with it, is partly a reflection of the Odyssey's partiality for its hero, which causes him to be portrayed to best advantage, and thus at that time in his life when his glory cannot be rightly challenged, even by his own father. It also expresses a constant feature of the relationships between fathers and sons as they are affected by the passage of time. It is always the case that, while the father is the chief source of the son's identity, his continued presence is not necessary for the continuation of that identity. The father is likely to die while the son is still alive, but the son must be able to continue on without him and thus must not depend on him to retain the position he inherits. Odysseus can, and must, remain the son of Laertes with all that that means, even after Laertes is no longer alive. On the other hand, it is only through his son's possession of this heritage that the father's identity can, in any sense, continue after his death, as the loss of selfhood with which Laertes responds to Odysseus' absence attests. The sense of many readers from antiquity on that the recognition between Odysseus and Laertes is an inessential appendage is appropriate, but that does not mean that our Odyssey has been added to; rather it gives in this way an accurate account of the relationship of father and son. The Odyssey would be presenting a less true picture if it made it seem indispensable that Odysseus be reunited with his father in order to resume his place in his home. At the same time, the poem recognizes that Odysseus' place derives above all from his relationship to his father and acknowledges this in its final episode.

The same features of the relationship of father and son that cause Odysseus' reunion with his father to be the last in the series that makes up the account of his return cause his reunion with his son Telemachus to be the first (or first with an actual member of his household). Odysseus encounters Laertes only after his victory over the suitors is complete because Laertes' recovery is so thoroughly dependent on his return and because he does not need Laertes' help very much. He encounters Telemachus when he has still made very little progress towards the achievement of his return and because Telemachus needs the assurance of his presence relatively little and is more in a position to help his father than to be helped by him.

Like Laertes, Telemachus is not fully himself when the story opens but becomes so by the end; the way in which, by the poem's conclusion, events have brought both of them into a similar state of paramount vigor is expressed in the final tableau in which they both fight at Odysseus' side in his battle against the suitors' relatives. But while Telemachus' distance from his proper state also manifests itself in powerlessness in the face of the suitors' presence and mournful longing for Odysseus' return, what keeps him from asserting himself is not his father's absence but his own immaturity. The change in him that comes to be recognized in his encounter with his father is not the recovery of a previous state but growth into a new state of maturity, and the role played in this change by Odysseus is consequently different.

Laertes has become Odysseus' permanent dependent whose survival depends absolutely on his return. But it is Telemachus' role to stop being Odysseus' dependent eventually and to become his successor. When that happens, Telemachus must be able to survive even if Odysseus is not present, even if, as will sooner or later be the case, Odysseus is dead. Further-more, he must be capable of succeeding his father on the basis of his own comparable merits. It is essential to the poem's celebration of inherited excellence that Telemachus be able to take his father's place even if his father does not return to hand it to him personally. Therefore Telemachus must be seen not to need his father's direct influence in order to attain to a state in which he can take hold of what is rightfully his.

When the poem opens, Telemachus is in a state of unreadiness to assert himself that is reminiscent of Odysseus' reticence on Phaeacia. This is a less extreme version of disguise than that displayed by Laertes, which depends on Odysseus' miraculous presence for its reversal; Telemachus' state is not a debilitating decline but an indication of still-unfulfilled potential. Much as Odysseus holds back his identity unnecessarily on Phaeacia, Telemachus refuses the recognition spontaneously offered him by "Mentes." When "Mentes" suggests to Telemachus that he must be the son of Odysseus, Telemachus gives a noncommittal answer: his mother says that he is, but he is not sure; no one knows for sure who his father is, and he would rather have been the son of someone more fortunate, someone who died at home among his possessions (Od. 1.214-220).

While Telemachus believes that his father's absence is his problem and dreams of his father's return as the solution (Od. 1.113-117), his discernable resemblance to Odysseus suggests that the capacity to heal the Ithacan situation is also present in him. As it turns out, he does not overcome this uncertainty about himself by being exposed to Odysseus and recognizing him. At the prompting of Athena, he adopts another, more satisfactory and realistic solution: rather than simply waiting for his father to return, he grows up independently. He asserts himself against the suitors and takes a voyage to Pylos and Sparta, where he comes to know his father from others' memories of him. He undertakes an independent voyage that is in its structure and import parallel to the return of Odysseus. Like Laertes, he responds to Odysseus' absence with an absence of his own, but his absence takes the form of an autonomous voyage from which he can make a more forceful return.

Telemachus' voyage, like Odysseus' return, takes the form of a series of encounters; in each of these encounters Telemachus is recognized as his father's son and heir: by "Mentes," by Nestor, by Helen and Menelaus—an episode in which the discovery of his identity is a central element—by Theoclymenus, and finally by Odysseus himself in a reunion that marks simultaneously the return of Odysseus and the return of Telemachus. In these encounters Telemachus meets people who both recognize him as Odysseus' son and tell him stories that reveal Odysseus' greatness. As a result, he learns both that he actually resembles Odysseus—that his connection to Odysseus is inherent and apparent and not simply something his mother asserts—and that Odysseus is someone whose son he would want to be, a great hero whether he succeeds in returning to Ithaca or not. By the last of these encounters, the meeting with the stranger in Eumaeus' hut, Telemachus identifies himself unhesitatingly not only as the son of Odysseus but also as part of a line that includes Arcesius and Laertes (Od. 16.117-120).

The story of Telemachus' journey is an adaptation of the disguise-and-recognition plot structure that shapes the story of Odysseus' return to the particular dimensions of Telemachus' situation. Although elements in Telemachus' story—most notably his recognition by Menelaus and Helen because of his secret weeping at the mention of Odysseus—are reminiscent of Odysseus' visit to Phaeacia, Telemachus has a much easier time establishing his identity than Odysseus does in that episode. Telemachus is able to benefit from some of the privileges of his position as Odysseus' son; his discovery of his identity is paralleled by his learning to take advantage of that legacy. While he arrives at Pylos and Sparta in the anonymous condition of all strangers, Telemachus is also traveling with the proper trappings of his station, especially a ship full of companions. He goes among people who have a connection to his father, and who are prepared to recognize him and welcome him because of that connection. Telemachus also inherits the help of his father's supporters, in particular his father's divine patron Athena, who helps him in the guise of old friends of his father. Because of his father's connection with Nestor, Telemachus gains his own companion, Peisistratus, whose capacity to help him be recognized is seen when he speaks up to confirm Menelaus' and Helen's spontaneous identification (Od. 4.155-167).

The way Telemachus discovers his identity reflects the degree of dependence that a son has on his father at Telemachus' stage of life. His father must be in his background—the son must inherit some advantages from him and must have access to memories of him— but he no longer needs to be an actual presence in his life. Telemachus' journey is not at all an attempt to bring Odysseus back: it is an attempt to bring about his own emergence as the son of Odysseus so that he can take control of his household in his father's absence. When "Mentes" tells Telemachus to go on the journey, he does not tell him to look for Odysseus but to look for information about him (Od. 1.279-283).

Telemachus' reunion with Odysseus is the culminating moment of Telemachus' growth to a point where he no longer needs Odysseus' return. Thus, the scene is placed at the beginning of Odysseus' homecoming, when Odysseus can offer little support and needs a good deal of help. At the same time, Telemachus' attainment of this condition is made premature by Odysseus' return, and his new prominence must be suspended as long as Odysseus is still alive. This suspension is dramatized during the contest of the bow, when Telemachus nearly succeeds in stringing the bow himself but steps aside at a signal from Odysseus (Od. 21.101-135). Thus, although the placement of their recognition acknowledges Telemachus' newfound maturity, other aspects of the subsequent scene are designed to play down this maturity or to counter it in the light of Odysseus' return.

While still disguised, Odysseus as the stranger suggests that the situation on Ithaca could be remedied either by a son of Odysseus or by Odysseus himself (Od. 16.100-101). But he does not recognize at first that Telemachus is ready for recognition; he has to be told by Athena not to wait any longer before disclosing himself to him. The words Odysseus uses to impress his identity on Telemachus also emphasize Telemachus' dependence on him.…

I am no god. Why do you compare me to the
       immortals?
But I am your father, the one for whom you
 have been grieving
as you suffer many hardships, receiving the
  insults of men.
(Od. 16.187-189)

As they make his own presence known, Odysseus' words return Telemachus to the helpless condition he was in when the poem opened, when Athena came upon him, grieving and dreaming of his father's return (Od. 1.113-117). They serve to deny the effects of his intervening voyage on Telemachus, effects that must, for the time being, be suspended.

These two recognition scenes, the one between Odysseus and Telemachus and the one between Odysseus and Laertes, frame the story of Odysseus' return, but are segregated from the central action and central arena of the narrative, Odysseus' defeat of the suitors in his own house. The recognition scenes that cluster around the defeat of the suitors involve the recreation of more difficult relationships with people to whom Odysseus is not related by blood: his loyal servants, Eurycleia, Eumaeus, and Philoetius, and his wife Penelope. Because these relationships are not based on any natural tie but are artificial social constructs, their continuity over time is genuinely subject to question as the continuity of the indissoluble kinship of father and son is not. Thus the aspects of Odysseus' identity affirmed by his relations with these figures are more seriously threatened by his absence than is his identity as son of Laertes or father of Telemachus. This great threat is registered in the narrative by the way in which reunions with those figures take place close to the center of his home and of the story of his recovery and, especially in the cases of Eumaeus and Penelope, only after a long period of testing and renegotiation.

Odysseus' ties to his servants are even more vulnerable to the effects of his absence than is his tie to his wife. While a marriage begins without any kinship between husband and wife, it creates kinship between them through their children. But the relationship of master and servant is permanently unequal in status and, on the part of the servants, or more properly slaves, originally involuntary. Although the poem refers to the acts of generosity with which masters win the loyalty of their servants, it also acknowledges that slaves are won by force (for example, Od. 1.398). And it shows, especially in its portrayal of the majority of Odysseus' servants who have not remained loyal to him, that such gracious acts are not sufficient to create ties that automatically endure when the master is not present.

The Odyssey registers the inherent difficulty of such relationships by making their revival important and far from routine prerequisites to the hero's triumphant self-revelation. It has often seemed to interpreters of the poem that the placement of the recognitions involving Eumaeus and Eurycleia is determined by considerations having to do with the treatment of other, more important characters. A recognition with Eumaeus in his hut seems to have been postponed to make way for the reunion with Telemachus; the recognition by Eurycleia seems to have been inserted to avert a premature recognition with Penelope. In other words, these characters' subordinate, servile status has seemed to be recapitulated in the way in which their allotment of narrative attention is designed to serve the presentation of other, more socially elevated characters. But it is possible to read the distribution of Odysseus' recognitions in another way, to see it as a means of highlighting his dependence on the loyalty of his social subordinates, a loyalty that is far from automatic. The tense moment of real danger to Odysseus' whole project created by Eurycleia's recognition of him dramatizes how much he needs to be able to rely on her and on others like her. The recognition by Eumaeus comes as a crucial prelude to Odysseus' participation in the contest of the bow and is given weight both by the long account of Odysseus' preceding encounter with Eumaeus and by the way Eumaeus' role is duplicated in the figure of Philoetius.

In addition, the Odyssey makes sense of the continued voluntary submission of unrelated subordinates by assimilating these relationships to the socially equal and involuntary relationships of kinship. As they recognize Odysseus and are recognized by him, the poem suggests that Eurycleia and Eumaeus are more like relatives than like servants. The capacity of mutual recognition to bring to light kinship where none has been apparent is here used to imply a metaphorical kinship where none actually exists. Odysseus' retainers lose their social inferiority as if it were, like his, a disguise.

As their similar names suggest, Eurycleia is, in many ways, a doublet for Odysseus' mother, Anticleia. Her role of nurse is naturally very close to that of mother. The account of her history given at Odyssey 1.429-433 makes it clear that she is Anticleia's equal in social status and nearly her equal in position in the household of Laertes. Although she is now a slave, she was originally an aristocrat, as the provision of her father's and grandfather's names at 1.429 attests, and has received as much honor as his wife from Laertes, who has only refrained from sharing his bed with her out of fear of his wife's anger (Od. 1.432-433). In the account of how Odysseus got his scar that evokes their past relationship, Eurycleia is virtually identified with Odysseus' mother.…

Autolycus came to the rich land of Ithaca
and there found a child newly born to his
  daughter;
this child Eurycleia laid on his knees
as he finished his dinner, and called him by
  name and said to
    him,
"Autolycus, you yourself find a name to be
         given
to this child of your child. You have prayed
  much for him."
Then Autolycus spoke and gave her an
  answer,
"My son-in-law and daughter, give him the
        name I tell you …"
(Od. 19.399-406)

The child of his daughter whom Autolycus has come to see is presented to him by Eurycleia, and she poses a question to which the answer is addressed to Odysseus' father and mother. Any reader of these lines who did not know otherwise would assume that Eurycleia was Odysseus' mother.

Eumaeus has a history similar both to the history that goes with Odysseus' disguise and to Eurycleia's history. He, too, is originally of noble birth and has occupied a place in the house of Laertes comparable to that of a member of the family. He has been raised almost as if he were Odysseus' brother, only a little less honored than Odysseus' sister Ctimene (Od. 15.363-365). Only on reaching adulthood has he been relegated to a farm on the periphery of the estate and to the status of a servant (Od. 15.370). And only with the advent of the suitors has he been truly confined to that place and role.

Odysseus' recognition of Eumaeus repairs Eumaeus' social subordination. As they are recognized by Odysseus, Eumaeus and Philoetius are absorbed into Odysseus' family as brothers to Telemachus. Between his declaration and his show of proof, Odysseus promises, …

If by my hand a god destroys the arrogant
        suitors,
then I will get you both wives, and allot you
  possessions
and houses built next to mine. And then
you both will be companions and brothers of
  Telemachus.
(Od. 21.213-216)

The assimilation that is implicit in the recognition scene with Eurycleia is here made explicit.

Eumaeus' recognition comes not at a hut at the edge of the estate but in the courtyard of the house, only a small distance from the center of Odysseus' power. Similarly, Eumaeus' relationship to Odysseus is revealed to be not that of a distant inferior but one that involves only a relatively minor degree of subordination. Eumaeus' subordination is that of a son to his father (which is, after all, only temporary) or that of a great hero's companion, neither of which involves social inferiority. Eumaeus' servile status, like Laertes' old age and peasant's rags, is not an inescapable condition but a form of disguise that Odysseus' return, rather than reaffirming their unequal relationship, removes.

Like his reunion with Eumaeus, Odysseus' reunion with Penelope comes only after a long period of testing and negotiation and involves a more complex interrelation of two separate stories of recovery and recognition than do his reunions with Laertes and Telemachus. The recognition of Penelope and Odysseus occurs only after a series of meetings that are difficult to interpret and that are interwined with Odysseus' other interactions with his household. This greater complexity is a reflection of the nature of Odysseus and Penelope's relationship, which is more definitive, more nearly balanced, and less intrinsically secure than Odysseus' relationships with his father and with his son. As husband and wife Odysseus and Penelope are closer in age and are involved in a more nearly equal relationship than fathers and sons usually are. While Laertes may have been the source of Odysseus' identity in the past, and Telemachus may represent the greatest prospect of its continuation into the future, Penelope is the figure on whom the recovery of his power to assert it in the present most depends. In the middle of his life, Odysseus is most decisively defined by his role as her husband. At the same time, that role, because it is created through an artificial and reversible social tie rather than through an unalterable bond of blood kinship, is vulnerable in a way that his identity as Laertes' son and Telemachus' father is not. Odysseus is not naturally Penelope's husband, as he is naturally Laertes' son; that role could have been played by any of a number of men and now that he is absent could be taken over by someone else. Consequently, the most serious challenge to Odysseus' identity comes from Penelope's suitors, rivals who would like to replace him in that role.

The inherent instability of the roles of husband and wife as expressions of identity can only be countered by the willingness of the partners to see it as inviolable, as having the irreversible quality of a tie of blood. A successful marriage comes to resemble kinship both because husband and wife come to be related through their children and because they invest their relationship with the particularity and permanence of kinship. But this kinship always remains metaphorical, the product not of biology but of an attitude of mind. This notion of mental kinship is expressed in the idea of homophrosyn , "likeness of mind," which is identified by Odysseus in his speech to Nausicaa as the central quality of a successful marriage (Od. 6.180-185). Because the form of kinship represented by marriage is in this way entirely voluntary, its recognition—expressed in this poem by Penelope's recognition of Odysseus as her husband and by Odysseus' recognition of Penelope as his wife—signals not the effects of heredity but the virtue of marital fidelity.

Odysseus' definitive yet inherently difficult relationship to Penelope is expressed in the plot of the Odyssey in Penelope's decisive role in the suitor's defeat through her setting of the contest of the bow, and in the placement of their recognition scene. Because the status of this relationship is so profoundly affected by the suitors' presence, the relationship is reinstated immediately after, but only after, the suitors have been eliminated. Thus, Odysseus can neither wait to be reunited with Penelope, as he can with Laertes, nor reveal himself at once and plot openly with her, as he does with Telemachus. And because Penelope's continued identity as Odysseus' wife is dependent on his actual return in a way that Telemachus' identity as his son is not, that identity can appropriately be resumed only when Odysseus' homecoming is truly secure.

Penelope's dependence on Odysseus' presence for her identity is reflected in her response to his absence, which, like Laertes', combines elements of mourning and disguise. It involves partly physical withdrawal to the inner portion of the house, from which she emerges only rarely, but primarily emotional withdrawal into grief, despair, and inactivity. Furthermore, she is in a state of physical decline that resembles a disguise. She describes this condition to the stranger during their meeting in Book 19. When he compliments her by saying that she has been able to take Odysseus' place in his absence, she quite correctly denies it.—

Stranger, all my excellence, my form and
       appearance,
were destroyed by the immortals, when the
  Argives
embarked for Ilium and my husband Odysseus
  went with them.
If he were to come back and take care of my
   life,
my glory would be greater and so more
 beautiful.
(Od. 19.124-128)

As in the case of Laertes, the outward effects of time and unhappy experience are here given the obscuring and reversible qualities of a disguise, but a disguise that can only be lifted with Odysseus' return.

Penelope's recognition of Odysseus, then, represents for her, as it does for him, emergence from a debilitating state of eclipse. Like the reunion of Odysseus and Telemachus, the reunion of Odysseus and Penelope marks a double return. But Penelope's return is emotional rather than physical, and so resembles Odysseus' only metaphorically. This metaphorical resemblance is delineated in the simile describing the embrace which marks their reunion.…

He wept holding his beloved wife, whose
      thoughts were sound.
And as the land appears welcome to men who
 are swimming,
whose well-built ship Poseidon has smashed
on the sea, driven on with winds and big
 swells.
A few escape from the gray sea to dry land
swimming, with sea-salt coating their skin,
and rejoicing they step on shore, escaping
  evil,
so welcome was her husband to her as she
  saw him before her,
and she clung to his neck with her white
  arms.
(Od. 23.232-240)

The way this simile identifies Odysseus and Penelope's experiences is enhanced by its construction: a reader or listener first assumes that the simile applies to Odysseus and realizes only at line 239 that it applies to Penelope. This poetic relocation of experiences like Odysseus' in Penelope's emotional life not only suggests an internalized version of the withdrawal and return plot that is basic to heroic narrative but also evokes the necessarily imaginary or notional kinship on which their marriage is based: Penelope's ability to experience Odysseus' trials in her imagination is a sign of their homophrosynē, their "likeness of mind."

Not only does the recognition scene of Odysseus and Penelope mark Penelope's return as well as Odysseus', but there is also a notable similarity between her experiences in the second half of the poem and his. Just as Odysseus undergoes a series of preliminary, clandestine recognitions that lead up to his open self-disclosure and general acknowledgment, so Penelope undergoes a series of experiences that in important ways resemble recognition scenes, in which she somehow acknowledges Odysseus' presence and is recognized by him and through which important steps are taken towards securing Odysseus' reinstatement: her appearance in the hall in Book 18, her meeting with the stranger in Book 19, and her institution of the contest of the bow in Book 21. But while Odysseus' recognitions remain generally unacknowledged, in the sense that they are kept secret by the participants, Penelope's recognitions remain unacknowledged in a further sense. They are not perceived as recognition scenes by the characters involved; they are recognition scenes only at the level of their thematic and structural affinities.

The ambiguous status of these episodes as both recognition scenes and not recognition scenes can be understood as the narrative accommodation of a certain necessary paradox. On the one hand, Penelope must not know that Odysseus is back until the end of her gradual recovery because her recognition of him actually signals its completion; on the other hand, she must know that Odysseus is back from the beginning because she cannot begin to recover until she does know. Only as she recovers does she become capable of helping Odysseus in his operations against the suitors, and thereby of bringing about the circumstances under which her actual recognition of Odysseus can take place. This means that, for most of the narrative, she must somehow know and acknowledge that Odysseus is back but still not recognize him.

These paradoxical conditions are met through a narrative characterized by ambiguity and indirection. Odysseus remains disguised from Penelope but makes his presence known to her in indirect ways. He impresses himself upon her in two distinct forms—as her absent, remembered husband and as the present stranger—while refraining from the crucial revelation that would collapse these two figures into one. He evokes his absent self by making predictions of his own return, by introducing himself as a character into his own false tales, and by encouraging the hopes that still linger in Penelope's dreams and private thoughts. As the stranger, he stirs up the household, reenacts their courtship, and … reawakens her interest in performing the duties of a host. In response to these gestures, Penelope acts out a kind of recognition of Odysseus but does not actually recognize him. Thus, like Odysseus after each episode of recognition, she, after each of these encounters, firmly disavows what has just occurred. But while Odysseus denies his own return by reassuming his beggar's disguise, she denies it by asserting her certainty that Odysseus will never return (for example,Od. 19.568-569).

Perhaps the best illustration of the kind of scene of self-revelation that Odysseus' presence causes Penelope to stage is her appearance before the suitors in Book 18. While this scene does not involve actual revelation of identity, it is very much an episode of recognition in the broader sense. Athena implants in Penelope a desire to appear before the suitors, …

… so that she might open as much as
           possible
the hearts of the suitors and become even
  more honored
in the eyes of her husband and son than she
   was before.
(Od. 18.160-162)

Penelope's appearance is an opportunity for her to display before a gathering of those best suited to acknowledge them her most glorious attributes, the combination of sexual attractiveness and chastity that makes her at once desired by the suitors and valued by her husband and son. In the course of her appearance, she wins praise from the suitors (Od. 18.244-249) and then insists that that be followed with material recognition in the form of gifts. In addition, she earns Odysseus' admiration for the way she uses trickery to elicit the suitors' gifts (Od. 18.281-283).

The timing of this episode is like that of Odysseus' self-disclosures, for it marks a significant moment in Penelope's psychological return. It is her first response to a cluster of events that have brought Odvsseus to her notice: Telemachus' report of what he has learned on his journey, Theoclymenus' "prophecy" that Odysseus has already returned, Odysseus' actual entrance into the house in disguise, and Eumaeus' praise of his guest of the night before.

While Penelope's behavior in this episode is inspired by Odysseus' presence, the workings of this inspiration are obscured in the narrative both by what she doesn't know and by what she won't admit. No indication is given of precisely how the impulse to descend to the hall, which Athena sends her, presents itself to Penelope's mind. As she expresses it to her nurse, she seems to be openly puzzled by her wish to show herself to the suitors, but to have already formulated a justification for acting on it based on her maternal duty to Telemachus.…

She laughed in an idle way and called her by
       name and addressed her.
"Eurynome, my heart desires, although before
        it did not,
to appear to the suitors, although they are still
  hateful to me.
I would speak a word to my son, for it would
  be more to his advantage
not always to go among the arrogant suitors,
who speak nicely, but have evil intentions."
(Od. 18.164-168)

Penelope's own words point to the way in which this desire represents a change in her and thus reveal that, however unaware of it she may be, her action is a response to the changes that have occured in the household, of which the most important is Odysseus' entrance into it as the stranger.

During her appearance, Penelope effectively acknowledges that Odysseus is somehow behind her actions, although she does not know that that is literally the case and she does so in statements whose sincerity is impossible to assess. When she confronts Telemachus, she does not warn him against the suitors as she has suggested she would; rather, she scolds him for the mistreatment that the disguised Odysseus has suffered (Od. 18.215-225). When she turns to her other purpose of extracting gifts from the suitors, she says she has finally reached the point when she must marry again and claims that this decision is in accord with instructions given her by Odysseus when he left for the Trojan War (Od. 18.251-280). Her gesture of acting more like a potential bride so that the suitors will act more like proper suitors is, in this way, tied to an evocation of Odysseus as he was when she last saw him, the point at which his image was left in her memory and from which she herself dates her decline. Odysseus' role in motivating Penelope's behavior is thus expressed, but indirectly and in a sense inaccurately in speeches that are far from straightforward. She alludes to him as he presents himself, in disguised or distanced forms, as either the present beggar or the long-absent Odysseus of the past.

Penelope's self-revelation in this scene is further allied to more narrowly defined scenes of recognition by the element of physical transformation. As Odysseus' disguise often is, Penelope's careworn appearance is suspended temporarily for a preliminary scene of recognition. With Athena's aid, she is suddenly transformed so that she looks more beautiful and resembles the gods (Od. 18.190-196). In this case, though, she is herself unaware of her transformation and denies that it has taken place, responding to Eurymachus' praise in the same words with which she denies the stranger's praise in the passage quoted above (Od. 18.251-255). In fact, when this transformation occurs, she actively resists it. When she tells Eurynome that she would like to show herself to the suitors, Eurynome suggests that she should wash and anoint herself, that is, that she should willfully change her appearance, and links the cessation of mourning that this would signal to Telemachus' maturity (Od. 18.171-176). Penelope responds by saying, in effect, that Telemachus' maturity is not sufficient to rouse her from her present condition; she must remain disguised as long as Odysseus is absent.…

Eurynome, don't suggest such things, much as
      you care for me,
as washing my body and anointing myself
  with oil.
For the gods who live on Olympus destroyed
  my beauty
since the day when that man embarked in the
  hollow ships.
(Od. 18.178-181)

From her perspective, the event that is necessary for her deliverance has not occurred. Not knowing that Odysseus has returned (however much she may be acknowledging Odysseus' return in her behavior) Penelope cannot cooperate with Athena in bringing about the transformation that precedes her descent into the hall. Instead, Athena must first make her unconscious by putting her to sleep in order to accomplish it.

The way in which, throughout this episode, Penelope persistently denies and resists those aspects of her own behavior that make it most like the combination of revelation of oneself and recognition of another of which episodes of recognition consist, highlights the paradoxical or ambiguous character of her preliminary encounters with Odysseus. In many of their formal characteristics, these encounters are episodes of recognition, but they are not acknowledged as such by any of the participants. This is particularly apparent during their meeting in Book 19 where the growing psychological sympathy that precedes recognition is achieved through a series of displaced gestures of recognition. In the early part of the episode Penelope recognizes, not the stranger, but the absent figure of Odysseus whom the stranger claims to have met, in a process that shares the formal features of actual recognition scenes: the expression of solitary emotion (Od. 19.209-212); a demand for proof (Od. 19.215-219); the presentation of tokens (Od. 19.220-248); even the formula describing recognition, … "as she recognized the sure signs that Odysseus had pointed out" (Od. 19.250, cf. (Od. 23.206, (Od. 24.346). Later, Odysseus' recognition is evoked obliquely through Penelope's account of her dream and the stranger's response to it. But again the recognition does not actually occur. Yet, this interchange leads directly to the typical conclusion of a recognition scene, the construction of a plot (Od. 19.570-587), a plot that so strongly suggests the sequel to recognition that it is interpreted as a sure sign that a recognition has taken place by at least one of the suitors Od. 24.167-169) and by many readers of the poem.

At the surface level of the plot, Odysseus does not reveal himself to Penelope and she does not recognize him until after the suitors have been dealt with. But in terms of the patterns their actions fulfill, Odysseus and Penelope participate in a series of encounters in which they go through the motions of recognition, each acknowledging the other, which anticipate and lead up to their openly-avowed reunion in Book 23. These encounters are, in a sense, recognition scenes that have gone underground: they resemble the moment of open recognition that they anticipate, but do not share its openness; they are recognitions on the level of the underlying import of the actions that make them up but not in the consciousness of the characters. In the case of Penelope, the meaning that her actions derive from their formal and thematic associations assumes special importance as a guide for interpreting them, because the poem is silent about her thoughts and feelings at crucial junctures in the narrative.…

The plot of Odysseus' return to Ithaca is thus complicated by the interwined stories of the loyal supporters who recognize him, stories that, in various ways, resemble his own. The differences between these stories and the ways in which they intersect delineate the important distinction that always remains between Odysseus, as the dominant heroic figure on whom the poem centers, and his followers. Just as Odysseus' extraordinary voyage remains different from Telemachus' tame trip to the mainland and from Penelope's difficulties at home, so there is finally a significant difference between the literal disguises that Odysseus assumes and discards at will and the metaphorical disguises of Laertes, Telemachus, Penelope, and Eumaeus. These characters' oppressive conditions take on the reversible quality of disguise only because of Odysseus' return against all odds and against all expectations. In various ways, the encounters discussed above all delineate relationships that, while reciprocal, also involve dependence on Odysseus. Odysseus' single-handed self-restoration in Phaeacia and his resort to literal disguise on Ithaca set him apart as a hero who is not subject to these limitations, a hero who is so thoroughly in control of his situation that he can adopt and abandon these limitations at will, and who can serve as the agent of their transcendence by others. With these characters Odysseus is able to play the role of a god, to act towards them as Athena acts towards him.

Odysseus' disguise is an artificial device that allows him to structure the plot of his return by controlling the timing of his self-revelations so that he can, at the proper moment, disclose himself like a disguised god instead of running headlong into destruction like that ordinary mortal Agamemnon. Similarly, the Odyssey's plot of the hero's return in disguise and recognition is an artificial device through which the poem organizes and controls the celebration of its hero Odysseus. And just as the success of Odysseus' strategies and of the divine scheme into which they are subsumed depends on proper timing, so the poem's success in presenting Odysseus playing this godlike role with the various dependent members of his household also depends on timing, on the story being set at a particular point in Odysseus' life.

The importance of the story's timing is suggested most urgently by the mounting pressures on Penelope to marry again, to cast someone else in the role of her husband. It is also seen in relation to the two members of Odysseus' own family who recognize him: his father, who was once a more powerful figure than he, and his son, who someday will be. The challenge to Odysseus' preeminence that these figures represent is implicit in the poem's nearly final image of Odysseus fighting the suitors' relatives with Laertes and Telemachus, both in a state of paramount vigor, at his side. Only because the poem is set at the time when Telemachus is still too young and Laertes is already too old to assert himself effectively can Odysseus remain the dominant figure in this tableau.

The significance of timing is further reflected in the way Odysseus times the self-revelations that animate the heroism of his father and son. Telemachus is encountered soon after Odysseus' arrival and is consigned to the role of his father's lieutenant. Laertes does not realize his wish of recovering his youth in time to fight against the suitors. Odysseus' delay in revealing himself to Laertes assures that his father is not able to share the limelight when Odysseus performs his most glorious feat. Only in the context of what is represented as a secondary challenge, the battle with the suitors' relatives, does the poem directly represent the competition between the generations. And then this generational competition is depicted as a welcome rivalry: Odysseus reminds Telemachus of the tradition of heroism he must live up to (Od. 24.506-509); Telemachus responds that he will do his best (Od. 24.511-512); and Laertes rejoices that his son and his grandson are vying in aret,"excellence" (Od. 24.514-515). This final vision, which stresses the family's figurative conquest of time through the continuity of the line, cannot outweigh the singularity of Odysseus' achievements as revealed in the actions that lead up to it.

Finally, the poem's success in depicting Odysseus as extraordinary is aided by its geographical as well as its temporal setting. For it is only at home in Ithaca that Odysseus can find people with whom he has relations of mutual support capable of being revived after many years in which he plays this dominant role. Only there can he defeat his enemies by putting together a band of followers consisting solely of family members and personal retainers. Outside his own home he must cooperate with others who are not naturally subordinated to him by virtue of their age, gender, or social status. Only at home can he count on being able to play the central part in a godlike scenario. The setting and the action that occurs in it are entirely interdependent, and what is in one sense the goal of the story is in another its precondition. The apparent conquest of limitation implied in the hero's achievements is inextricable from an acceptance of limitation, the limitation of his sphere of action to his own home. What appears to be a story of godlike transcendence is in fact bounded by the restricted conditions of ordinary human life.

Nancy Felson-Rubin (essay date 1994)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8964

SOURCE: "Wife," in Regarding Penelope: From Character to Poetics, Princeton University Press, 1994, pp. 43-65.

[In the essay below, Felson-Rubin examines the husband-wife relationship of Odysseus and Penelope and details "the formal pattern of their second courtship."]

Odysseus's image of Penelope once he is home differs radically from the image that drew him there. While he journeyed, he envisioned Penelope as a fixed point, a stable goal, a telos or "fulfillment." So long as he remembered her and Ithaka, he never strayed too far nor roamed too recklessly. Once he is on Ithaka, however, Penelope becomes an enigma for him (as she is for other characters). In a sense, she is his human condition. Face-to-face, the two engage in a courtship dance in which now one, now the other takes the lead. They reverse roles, take risks, dominate, and outwit each other, until finally they reunite on their implanted marriage-bed. There they mingle in lovemaking and exchange stories of their adventures.

Evident in the dance Homer choreographs for Odysseus and Penelope on Ithaka is the homophrosunê or "like-mindedness" that Odysseus wishes for Nausikäa as the foundation of a good marriage (6.181-85). This principle, as we shall see, describes both the marriage reenacted between Odysseus and Penelope and the architecture of the Odyssey.

To probe Odysseus's understanding of Penelope requires that we concoct Odysseus's character (as we did Penelope's), to see whether elements dispersed in the text allow us to capture him as he gazes upon her. Does he understand the complex, intricate, polytropic, "periphronic" Penelope? Or does Homer weave gaps in Odysseus's vision which create [as stated by Teresa de Lauretis in Alice Doesn't. Feminism Semiotics Cinema, 1984] "an effect of distance, like a discordant echo, which ruptures the coherence of address and dislocates meaning"?

According to the descriptions other characters give of Odysseus before and during the Trojan War, he was a generous, gentle, and pious king. He ruled like a gentle father (êpios patêr), even seating upon his knees and feeding the young Eurymakhos (16.442-44). He accepted refugees, such as the father of Antinoös (16.424-30), and regularly transported strangers, exchanged hospitality, and sacrificed to the gods (cf. 1.66-67). He was master of an orderly and prosperous household, in which servants and livestock and even Argos the hunting dog flourished. The loyal swineherd ruefully reminisces to the beggar about the relaxed and prosperous days of old, when Odysseus was in the palace and the help were treated well. Under Odysseus, the Ithakans prospered like the subjects of the ideal king to whom the stranger compares Penelope at 19.109-14.

Odysseus and Penelope once shared responsibilities, such as the care of his parents, as Odysseus's departing words reveal. These are the words that Penelope repeats to Antinoös in the presence of the disguised Odysseus, when she tells how her husband took her by the wrist and said:

here let everything be in your charge.
You must take thought for my father and
 mother here in our palace,
as you do now, or even more, since I shall be
  absent.
But when you see our son grown up and
  bearded, then you may
marry whatever man you might please,
 forsaking your household.
18.266-70

Whereas Agamemnon enjoined a bard to watch over Klytaimestra, and thus virtually to command his kingdom, Odysseus left everything in Penelope's care, a sign in itself of his confidence in their like-mindedness.

Some of Odysseus's traits as a warrior would also grace an egalitarian husband. When Telemakhos, yearning for news of his father, hears Nestor, Menelaos, and Helen recount exploits of the heroic Odysseus in Troy, he learns of his father's cunning (mêtis), daring, and capacity to endure. Nestor tells of Odysseus's stratagem of the Trojan Horse, which ended the War (3.118-22), but also of his thoughtfulness as a leader and of their accord (3.127-29), in contrast to the discord between Menelaos and Agamemnon (3.141-50). Helen's tale of Odysseus the beggar reconnoitering in Troy reveals, again, his cunning and daring. Menelaos depicts Odysseus inside the Trojan horse, hearing Helen impersonate each Akhaian's wife (4.271-89), restraining his comrades, and holding himself back. Though he does not use epithets, these actions correspond to what is meant by ekhephrôn ("temperate; prudent; discreet") and polutlas ("much-enduring"). Such traits, as we shall see, also distinguish Odysseus as he courts Penelope anew.

Several critical choices toward the end of his journey empower Odysseus to engage in a courtship dance with Penelope. On Ogygia, the penultimate stop before Ithaka, he picks a life of endurance with Penelope over an unchanging and inglorious life with Kalypso the Concealer. Kalypso tries her best to undermine his decision to return to the land of his fathers and to Penelope:

but if you only knew …
you would stay here with me and be the lord
  of this household
and be an immortal, for all your longing once
  more to look on
that wife for whom you are pining all your
  days here. And yet
I think that I can claim that I am not her
  inferior

either in build or stature, since it is not likely
       that mortal
women can challenge the goddesses for build
 and beauty.
5.206-13

The goddess derides Penelope as a mere mortal woman, calling her keinês, "that one." Odysseus concedes Kalypso's superiority, as one who is immortal and ageless (218), but refuses her attractive offer, tactfully shifting the terms of the comparison by substituting "house" and "homecoming" for "wife." Accepting his own mortality, with a mortal partner, Odysseus declines to stay: "I will endure (tlêsomai)," he tells Kalypso, "keeping a stubborn spirit (talapenthea thumon) inside me" (5.222). To endure means, in the context of the Odyssey, to embrace human contingency and uncertainty; this involves accepting a Penelope who is neither static nor predictable but who requires of her partner a willingness to take risks. Seen thus, marriage with Penelope epitomizes the human condition.

Odysseus's yearning for Penelope and for Ithaka is graphically portrayed in the here-and-now, whereas his relationship (philotês) with Kalypso is told only in retrospect. What we experience directly is the captive lover, whose eyes are "never / wiped dry of tears, and the sweet lifetime was draining out of him / as he wept for a way home, since the nymph was no longer pleasing / to him" (5.151-53). Despite a surrounding so lush and idyllic that Hermes marvels seeing it (5.59-75), Odysseus yearns to rejoin Penelope at home. Homer adds (perhaps playing to male auditors) that once Odysseus obtains a promise of release, he and Kalypso "enjoyed themselves in love and stayed all night by each other." (5.227)

As he tells his Kalypso adventure to the Phaiakians, in order to dramatize their ongoing battle of wills Odysseus counterbalances one iterative against another. That is, he matches his own dueskon (7.259-60: "I … forever was drenching with tears / that clothing, immortal stuff, Kalypso had given") against Kalypso's ephaske (7.256-57: "she promised [lit., "kept saying"] / to make me an immortal and all my days to be ageless").

On Skheria Odysseus resists the enticement of princess Nausikäa. From the start he understands the implications of their differences in age and experience. Their first meeting at the shore opens with a simile that underscores his self-restraint. The naked hero, awakened by Nausikäa and her age-mates, strides confidently, "trusting in his might" (alki pepoithôs),

like some hill-kept lion,
who advances, though he is rained on and
 blown by the wind, and both eyes
kindle; he goes out after cattle or sheep, or it
  may be
deer in the wilderness, and his belly is urgent
  upon him
to get inside of a close steading and go for

the sheepflocks.
So Odysseus was ready to face (lit., "mingle
 with") young girls with well-ordered
hair, naked though he was, for the need
  (khreiô) was on him; and yet
he appeared terrifying to them, all crusted
  with dry spray,
and they scattered one way and another down
  the jutting beaches.
6.130-38

The simile casts an immediate shadow on the encounter to follow. The hungry lion clearly intends to devour his prey once he goes after them; likewise, Odysseus could victimize the young maidens by "mingling" in their midst. [In Similes in the Homeric Poems, Hypomnemata, Vol. 49, 1977, Carroll] Moulton rightly interprets the violence as seen from the maidens' perspective; i.e., it is their focalization that Homer captures in the simile. This does not in itself eliminate violence as a possibility; i.e., for Homer's audience, the maidens' fear of a ravenous, overconfident lion raises the possibility that Odysseus will behave that way in the present circumstances.

On the violence inherent in the simile, [William T.] Magrath comments [in "Progression of the Lion Similes in the Odyssey," ClassicalJournal, Vol. 77, 1982], "This lion is obviously prone to violence, driven by maddening hunger, desperately in search of fleshmeat." But after what does the leonine Odysseus hunger? Clearly he has a need (khreiô) for food and hospitality; perhaps he "needs" to conquer innocent maidens as well.

The verb miksesthai, "to mingle," commonly used in Homer for "have sexual intercourse with," suggests that this is a scene of potential rape. Nausikäa soon uses this verb to express her disapproval of a girl who would "mingle with men" (6.288:andrasi misgetai) before she comes openly to marriage. Two explicitly sexual uses of the verb occur. First, at 1.73, Thoösa, daughter of Phorkys, bore Polyphemos after mingling (migeisa) with Poseidon. Then, at 23.219, Penelope explains that, if Helen had known she would be brought back home again, she would not "have lain in love (emigê philotêti kai eunêi, lit., "have mingled in love-making and the bed") with an outlander from another country."

The lion simile bolsters this interpretation. Its inclusion of deer (133, elaphous) as the lion's potential victims recalls the Artemis simile, some lines earlier (102-4): Nausikäa leads in the dancing like Artemis "delighting in boars and deer [elaphoisi] in their running." Homer's comparison of Nausikäa, the "virgin unwedded" (109: admês, lit., "untamed"), to Artemis underscores the maiden's simultaneous vulnerability and inviolability, because Artemis and her attendants are frequent victims of sexual assault, but at a high risk to the attacker.

Thus the lion simile evokes Odysseus's latent power to victimize Nausikäa and her maidens as a predator his prey; yet no victimization, no rape takes place. Instead, Odysseus supplicates Nausikäa as if she were a goddess, anticipating the suppliant role he will assume in Ithaka. Comparing Nausikäa to Artemis, he begs for her protection and prays that the gods grant what her heart desires, "a husband and a house and sweet agreement / in all things (homophrosunên esthlên, lit., "noble like-mindedness"), for nothing is better than this, more steadfast, / than when two people, a man and his wife, keep a harmonious / household (homophroneonte noêmasin, lit., "being like-minded in their thoughts")." (6.181-84) By wishing Nausikäa a like-minded marriage, Odysseus gently communicates to her, early on, that he is not her match.

Nausikäa's role as savior restores the balance between them and permits a measure of reciprocity. This is heightened, for the audience (and presumably for Nausikäa), when Odysseus names the very thing her heart desires. Later, their parting also attests to a reciprocity between them (8.457-68).

Odysseus's speech to Nausikäa, designed to win her over by verbal seduction, is labeled "soothing" (meilikhion) and "profit-turning" (kerdaleon) (6.148). This suggests that Odysseus might take advantage of her youth and innocence, yet compared to what the lion simile suggests could have happened, his motives are benign. He merely charms Nausikäa into granting his request for refuge. This combination of expediency and restraint prefigures Odysseus's manner during his prolonged second courtship of Penelope.

When Odysseus meets Alkinoös and Arete, his first task is to deflect any Skherian notion that he might wed Nausikäa. What he most wants is safe transport home and gifts, not pressure to stay and marry. He tells his Adventures for these purposes, and we are asked to consider their content in light of his intent. Odysseus uses his legendary status to influence the royal couple, cleverly enhancing his self-image as he enchants them individually with his tales. Even his fib to deflect blame from Nausikäa for her apparent inhospitality is self-enhancing. He deliberately and cunningly weaves an image of himself as an adventurer who erred at times but paid dearly and now knows better. His ultimate enticement is a place for the Phaiakians, as rescuers, in his song: the better he sings, the more likely they are to help him.

Odysseus narrates his encounters in the Underworld so as to characterize himself sympathetically for his Phaiakian audience and to catalyze them to act on his behalf. First, he describes with feeling his meeting with his mother and then catalogues the heroines of old in detail—tales that would enchant the queen. He has the murdered king Agamemnon raise the spectre of a Klytaimestran Penelope to prod the Phaiakians to convey him to Ithaka with caution, just in case. By manipulating the stories about heroines and treacherous wives, Odysseus subtly and tactfully builds up to his climactic point, voicing (as he leaves Skheria) the hope that he will find a blameless wife (amumona akoitin) in his halls (13.42-43).

In his Adventures Odysseus exercises power through kindliness and example, as in his kingly role in Ithaka in the recollections of his people. He depicts himself, to the Phaiakians, as leading his men not so much by intimidation as by eliciting unanimity and consensus. The function of debate in their deliberations foreshadows Periclean Athens, as does the fact that no one, not even Odysseus, has a monopoly on right thinking. Hence, when the outcome is calamitous, blame falls on everyone, not just on a misguided leader. That Odysseus uses persuasion, not force, is evident from incidents where someone challenges his leadership, usually Eurylokhos. On Kirke's island, instead of eliminating his challenger or struggling with him for power, Odysseus restrains his rage (e.g., at 10.438-41), goes along with his men, and leaves Eurylokhos behind. He and his men eventually triumph over the situation, though they need to remind him not to dally. That is, they take the leadership role, and he follows along. In a second example, on the island of Helios, the crew is misled by Eurylokhos to consume the sun god's cattle, breaking their oath to Odysseus. All perish through their own recklessness (cf. 1.7-9 and 12.415-19); that is, they are to blame along with Eurylokhos, who led them astray. Odysseus, however, as a leader who fell asleep, cannot entirely be absolved.

Because, of all the Adventures, Homer authenticates only the episodes with Kalypso, the Kyklops, and Helios, listeners are entitled to be skeptical about the rest. Indeed the ironic wording of Alkinoös's compliment to Odysseus, when he likens him to a bard (11.367-69), invites us to question the latter's veracity (and, incidentally and by extension, that of Homer himself); some episodes may be fabricated, others exaggerated, to help the singer-narrator Odysseus achieve his ends.

Odysseus's varied relations to Kalypso, Kirke, the Sirens, and Arete and Nausikäa, in his Adventures and in Homer's narrations, all foreshadow his eventual courtship of Penelope. Each female offers him something, and at little cost. Willing to embrace the first three, he gains what he needs without irrevocably endangering himself by becoming stuck, trapped, eclipsed, or frozen. Something in Penelope's relationship to him offers him the freedom to explore this female world without jeopardizing their ultimate reunion. Odysseus's adventures with Kalypso, Kirke, and the Sirens seem to satisfy his desire and need to rove. By the time he meets Arete and Nausikäa, he has exhausted his need for exotic adventures and an exotic lover or spouse.

His choice to leave Ogygia and to reject Kalypso's offer enables Odysseus to coalesce as a self. It is this self that Athena recognizes and affirms at their reunion in Book 13. Indeed, Athena's ackonwledgement of his "polytropy" as a distinctive feature of his personality facilitates our task of "making sense" of Odusseus polutropos "Odysseus of the many turns."

Other characters have already contributed to our growing impression of Odysseus's coherence. For example, Nestor described him as poikilomêtis ("full of various wiles") at 3.163, Helen as possessing kerdosunê ("cunning; craft; an eye to profit") at 4.251, and Helen and Menelaos as talasiphrôn ("patient of mind; stout-hearted; of enduring spirit") at 4.241 and 4.270, respectively. In addition, Kirke repeatedly recognized him as polumêkhanos ("resourceful; inventive; of many devices") at 10.456, 488, and 504. Odysseus himself expands our growing image of him by the way he portrays himself in the Adventures that he narrates in Skheria.

The reunion of Odysseus and Athena on Ithaka rehearses the reunion between husband and wife. With Athena, Odysseus is alternately dominant and submissive, active and passive; and this flexibility prepares him to court Penelope. To the goddess disguised first as a shepherd, then as a stately girl, he fibs, "forever using to advantage the mind that is within him" (13.255), delighting his "partner." His ingenuity at lying leads her to portray him as polukerdeos, poikilomêtis, polutlas, epetês, angkhinoos, ekhephrôn, polumêkhanos—epithets that epitomize his distinctive heroic qualities.

Odysseus's continued skepticism about whether he is really on Ithaka elicits not only more delight from Athena but more precise characterization:

Always you are the same, and such is the
      mind within you,
and so I cannot abandon you when you are
  unhappy,
because you are fluent, and reason closely,
  and keep your head always.
13.330-32

Emphasizing his paternal line just as he is returning to his oikos, the goddess addresses him as "son of Laertes and seed of Zeus, resourceful Odysseus" (13.375). Together, they plan the slaughter of the suitors. Athena neither affirms Odysseus's marital bond with Penelope nor challenges it. On the one hand, she applies a common epithet, ekhephrôn, to Penelope (at 13.406) and Odysseus (at 13.332) and emphasizes that both are temperate and discreet. On the other, she focuses more on survival traits in Odysseus than on those traits that enable him to reunite with Penelope.

The traits Athena assigns Odysseus confirm those already manifest in his first boar hunt and in the Odysseus of legend: he is much-enduring, of much cunning, of dappled cunning, of many strategies, with a mind to much profit, restrained in his mind, close-thinking. These traits overlap and are mutually compatible. Missing from Athena's characterization and epithetization of Odysseus are certain domestic traits evident in his roles as father-husband-king-friend and manifest in reminiscences of characters from before and during the Trojan War. Two refrains describe Odysseus of old: "he ruled gently like a father" and "if he were to come back and take care of my life (emon bion amphipoleuoi), then / my reputation (kleos) would be great and splendid" (18.254-55 = 19.127-28). Except for polutlas and ekhephrôn, the traits enumerated by Athena would not especially enhance Odysseus's capacity for a relationship with Penelope based on homophrosunê, except insofar as the "poly-tropy" of each partner contributes to like-mindedness and mutual admiration.

While Odysseus's affinity with Athena is based on a common ability to maneuver words and thoughts, his affinity with Penelope seems to exceed this. Versatility, or "polytropy," indeed contributes to the quality of their second courtship as a combat, a hunt, a pursuit and chase by predator of prey, even as a playful dance; but "polytropy" could just as easily undermine the stability of their marriage.

Odysseus focuses on the issue of Penelope's fidelity. "Is Penelope still waiting for me, after twenty years?" is his recurrent question. Each piece of news of Penelope, from his mother Antikleia, from the seer Teiresias, and from Athena, adds nuances to his understanding. Odysseus bids the shade of Antikleia to tell him about the wife he married, "what she wants (her boulê), what she is thinking (her noos),/ and whether she stays fast by my son, and guards everything, / or if she has married the best man among the Akhaians" (11.177-79). Antikleia responds:

All too much with enduring heart she does
       wait for you
there in your own palace, and always with her
  the wretched
nights and the days also waste her away with
  weeping.
11.181-83

With this empathic portrait of Penelope, Antikleia reassures Odysseus.

The prophet Teiresias describes Odysseus's domestic situation with more reserve and in greater detail:

but if you yourself get clear,
you will come home in bad case, with the loss
  of all your companions,
in someone else's ship, and find troubles in
  your household,
insolent men, who are eating away your
  livelihood,
and courting your godlike wife and offering
  gifts to win her.
You may punish the violences of these men,
 when you come home.
But after you have killed these suitors in your
 own palace,
either by treachery, or openly with the sharp
  bronze,
then you must …
11.113-21

Teiresias does not mention Penelope's reaction to the suitors but his statement, "offering gifts to win her," does leave the possibility open that one of them will indeed persuade her.

Both Antikleia's depiction of Penelope weeping and Teiresias's of her being courted lead into Odysseus's encounter with the shade of Agamemnon, whose tale of his own slaughter by a treacherous wife and her lover raises questions implicitly and explicitly about the future action of Penelope.

Once in Ithaka, Odysseus again hears of the courtship of Penelope, this time from Athena:

Son of Laertes and seed of Zeus, resourceful
       Odysseus,
consider how you can lay your hands on these
  shameless suitors,
who for three years now have been as lords in
 your palace,
and courting your godlike wife, and offering
  gifts to win her.
And she, though her heart forever grieves over
 your homecoming,
holds out some hope for all, and makes
  promises to each man,
sending them messages, but her mind has
  other intentions.
13.375-81

He exclaims in response:

Surely I was on the point of perishing by an
       evil
fate in my palace, like Atreus's son
   Agamemnon, unless
you had told me, goddess, the very truth of

all that has happened.
Come then, weave the design …
13.383-86

O pôpoi … indicates Odysseus's surprise at Penelope's extension of hope to her suitors. This exclamation, which some take as sheer flattery of Athena, reveals his awareness of the deep ambiguity in Penelope's outward gestures of encouragement to the suitors. He understands that she is living dangerously; the question is, How will he respond?

Odysseus's disguise gives him an immediate edge on Penelope. It affords him an opportunity, as with Nausikäa, to exploit, dominate, and overpower her. Always lurking as a possible plot is brutality toward a wayward wife, brutality that in our text is played out against the twelve wayward maidservants (metonyms of Penelope).

When the swineherd Eumaios speaks of Penelope, he never mentions her words of encouragement to the suitors. To Telemakhos he says only:

All too much with enduring heart she does
       wait for him
there in your own palace, and always with her
  the wretched
nights and the days also waste her away with
  weeping.
16.37-39

These are almost the exact words of Antikleia in the Underworld quoted earlier, with appropriate changes in the formula for person (from "for you" to "for him").

Upon returning from his journey Telemakhos underscores Penelope's ambivalence when he tells Eumaios, in Odysseus's presence:

it was for your sake I came here,
to look upon you with my eyes, and to hear a
  word from you,
whether my mother endures still in the halls,
 or whether
some other man has married her, and the bed
  of Odysseus
lies forlorn of sleepers with spider webs
   grown upon it.
16.31-35

A bit later, he reminds Eumaios of the problem of entertaining a guest in the palace and complains about his mother:

I myself am young and have no faith in my
       hand's strength
to defend a man, if anyone else picks a quarrel
  with him;
and my mother's heart is divided in her, and
  ponders two ways,
whether to remain here with me, and look
 after the household,
keep faith with her husband's bed, and regard
  the voice of the people,
or go away at last with the best man of the
   Akhaians
who pays her court in her palace, and brings
 her the most presents.
16.71-77

Telemakhos's concerns reinforce what Odysseus already knows from Athena of the courtship of Penelope.

Reports of Penelope's activities have a cumulative effect on Odysseus, causing sometimes faint concern, sometimes sharp anxiety about whether she will wait or act precipitously. Odysseus takes control of the time and place of their interview. He achieves this indirectly, through an intermediary, Eumaios the swineherd. The swineherd himself does not know the role he is playing as he transmits messages back and forth. In this way, Odysseus and Penelope "converse" via Eumaios.

First, on his own, Eumaios tells Penelope that the stranger "would charm out (thelgoito) the dear heart within you … so he enchanted me" (17.514 and 521). This verb "enchant, or charm" appears elsewhere in erotic contexts, as when Penelope charms the suitors' hearts with erôs (18.212) and with soft words (18.283). So here thelgoito has meaning beyond Eumaios's in-tention, which listeners pick up but which may also stimulate Penelope. In her energetic reply, she emphatically summons Odysseus (via the intermediary) to her side: the swineherd should "tell the stranger to come" (17.508-9), "call him here, so he can tell me directly" (529), and "go, please, and summon the stranger into my presence" (544). Eumaios carries the message, translating the three requests: "Penelope … / summons you, for her heart is urgent to find out / from you about her husband, though she is suffering troubles" (553-55). In response, and on the grounds of avoiding rough treatment from the suitors, Odysseus asks the swineherd:

Tell Penelope, therefore for all her eagerness
      (epeigomenên per,) to wait
for me in the palace until the sun has set. Let
  her
then question me about her husband's day of
  homecoming,
giving me a seat close to the fire.
17.569-72

Trimming the beggar's message, the swineherd omits epeigomenên per (582, "for all her eagerness," lit. "although being eager" or "howevermuch eager"). This participle appears in Penelope's pronouncement to the suitors in her ruse of the shroud, recounted first by Antinoös to Telemakhos, next by Penelope to the stranger, and finally by Amphimedon in the Underworld:

Young men, my suitors now that the great
      Odysseus has perished,
Wait, though you are eager (epeigomenoi) to
 marry me until I finish
this web, so that my weaving will not be
   useless and wasted.
2.96-98 = 19.141-43 = 24.131-33

The participial phrase formulaically describes the impatience of a lover. Thus Odysseus's inclusion of it in his message to Penelope and Eumaios's deletion of it when he delivers the message suggest that Odysseus alone recognizes Penelope's state of mind.

In their interchange, Eumaios refers to Penelope as "mother of Telemakhos" (17.554). Odysseus substitutes "daughter of Ikarios," which may suggest that, as he requests his first rendezvous through an unwitting intermediary, he thinks of Penelope as her father's daughter, as if he were once again asking her father for her hand in marriage.

Before they meet for their private interview at the hearth, Penelope appears before her suitors, motivated by Athena and by her own unexamined intentions. Athena adorns her, decking her out like a maiden to be married. She charms and arouses the suitors (18.212-13), and she stirs Odysseus (and Telemakhos) besides.

Penelope's display before the suitors might have offended Odysseus and incurred his blame. Indeed, later, after the recognition, Penelope exonerates herself from blame (23.209-30). But here, as she wheedles gifts out of her suitors, Odysseus is happy "because she beguiled gifts out of them and enchanted their spirits / with blandishing words, though her own mind had other intentions" (18.282-83). He values the economic gains that will replenish the household, and he recognizes both their like-mindedness in esteeming household wealth and her wiliness, which matches his. Her act, as he interprets it, reveals a wife still taking thought for their common possessions and a wife still shrewd in promoting their common goals.

Most importantly, Odysseus is now among Penelope's many suitors. She is "much wooed," like Pero in Odysseus's Catalogue of Heroines (11.287-90), Nausikäa on Skheria, and Helen. Because Odysseus hopes to win Penelope, competition for her hand, far from intimidating or discouraging him, enhances her value and stimulates his desire. He is now confident of Penelope's intentions. In fact, Homer's formulaic "though her mind had other intentions" may represent Odysseus's focalization, as a character who intuits his wife's attitudes from within. Compare, however, the impact of Athena's "reassurance" to Odysseus about Penelope's steadfastness at 13.381, where, after informing him that Penelope sends secret promises to each suitor, she employs the same formula: "but her mind has other intentions." Odysseus responds by emphasizing his narrow escape from an evil death. To the external audience the reassuring words on both occasions may even raise suspicions about Penelope's intentions; in neither case is the evaluation of her intentions authoritative.

Because he expects to survive even if Penelope betrays him, he watches, with equanimity, as she charms the suitors. His confident reaction would baffle an audience still skeptical about Penelope's motives. Moreover, by inviting the live audience to watch Odysseus watch Penelope flirt, Homer heightens suspense.

Several parallels between Penelope and Odysseus become clear. As she enjoys enchanting her suitors, so he once took pleasure with Kalypso and presumably with Kirke. As her behavior toward the suitors is incautious, in that it overlooks the possible costs of pleasure, especially the endangerment of her son, so Odysseus was incautious with Polyphemos and only retrospectively acknowledged his own poor judgment.

During Penelope's "flirtation" Odysseus overhears her tell Eurymakhos what Odysseus said to her when he left for Troy:

Dear wife, since I do not think the strong-
      greaved Akhaians
will all come safely home from Troy without
  hurt …
here let everything be in your charge.…
But when you see our son grown up and
 bearded, then you may
marry whatever man you might please,
 forsaking your household.
18.259-70

Penelope's reminiscence should remind Odysseus that his wife deserves no blame for doing precisely what he had long ago prescribed.

The appointed interview is preceded by an exchange between Odysseus and Melantho. Odysseus warns her:

Beware of your mistress, who may grow angry
      with you and hate you.
Or Odysseus may come back. There is still
 time for hope there.
And even if he has perished and will no
 longer come back,
here is Telemakhos, his son, by grace of
  Apollo

grown such a man, and in his palace none of
       the women
will be sinful and escape, since he is a child
  no longer.
19.83-88

In these lines Odysseus shows how harshly he can react to an affront, for the maid has rebuked him twice (18.321ff and 19.65-69). Earlier, however, we learned that she regularly sleeps with Eurymakhos (18.325). Though the scolding ostensibly answers her harsh words to the beggar, it also obliquely refers to her reckless dalliance with a suitor—a form of infidelity and betrayal of the household and its master and mistress.

Melantho is both a metonym for Penelope and her mistress's foil. As her servant, linked to Penelope by contiguity, she actualizes what in her mistress remains potential. Thus we can see, via this vignette, how Odysseus would react were Penelope to betray his bed: if she acted recklessly and treacherously, she would not escape his notice. Penelope calls Melantho a bold and shameless bitch (19.92), dissociating herself from the maidservant's wanton behavior. Penelope's remark suggests that she sees through Melantho—recognizing (as [John J.] Winkler suggests [in The Constraints of Desire. The Anthropology of Sex and Gender in Ancient Greece, 1990]) her betrayal of Penelope's ruse of the loom and perhaps even her affair with Eurymakhos. The pair, husband and wife, react toward Melantho with like minds.

To Penelope's uncustomarily direct query as to his identity, "What man are you and whence? Where is your city? Your parents?" (19.105) Odysseus responds with an ornate compliment to her that recalls his earlier compliment to Nausikäa as he sought her protection. Once again, he is a suppliant and a wayfarer. This time his advantage is his disguise and superior knowledge; then it was Nausikäa's age and innocence. His compliment, as a ploy, deflects the focus onto Penelope, to whom, in a "reverse-gender simile," he attributes the qualities of a good king:

Lady, no mortal man on the endless earth
       could have cause
to find fault with you; your fame goes up into
  the wide heaven,
as of some king who, as a blameless man and
  god-fearing,
and ruling as lord over many powerful people,
upholds the way of good government, and the
  black earth yields him
barley and wheat, his trees are heavy with
  fruit, his sheepflocks
continue to bear young, the sea gives him
  fish, because of
his good leadership, and his people prosper
  (aretôsi) under him.
19.108-14

Penelope reclaims authority when she herself deflects the compliment by claiming that Odysseus's departure brought the ruin of her excellence and that, if he were to return and tend to (amphipoleuei) her, then her glory (>kleos) would be greater and more splendid (19.124-63). As it is, she grieves and her suitors wear out her house.

Penelope does not mention to the stranger the messages and words of encouragement of which others (Telemakhos and Athena) have informed Odysseus. Instead she says:

I waste away at the inward heart, longing for
       Odysseus.
These men try to hasten the marriage. I weave
 my own wiles (dolous tolupeuô.)
19.136-37

A daimôn, she says, put the idea of the web in her mind, and she announced the plan to the suitors. (Penelope quotes her words, as Amphimedon's shade does later to Agamemnon's shade). Her maidservants betrayed her, and the suitors compelled her, against her will, to complete the shroud. She ends by confessing aporia:

Now I cannot escape from this marriage; I can
      no longer
think of another plan; my parents are urgent
  with me
to marry; my son is vexed as they eat away
  our livelihood.
19.157-59

After revealing her dilemma, Penelope insists that the stranger tell her who he is: "You were not born from any fabulous oak or a boulder" (163). Odysseus tells a lie, that he knew and entertained Odysseus on his way to Troy and for twelve days gave him proper hospitality. This lie immediately affects Penelope, and her body is melted,

as the snow melts …
so that her beautiful cheeks were streaming
  tears, as Penelope
wept for her man, who was sitting there by
 her side.
19.204-9

But Odysseus himself, instead of enjoying inflicting trouble and pain on his wife, "in his heart had pity for his wife as she mourned him." (210) Still, he hides his tears and continues to deceive her.

As Odysseus hears Penelope describe her wiliness in her ruse of the loom, he edges toward reunion with her. Her admission of helplessness (155-56: "I cannot escape from this marriage; I can no longer / think of another plan" [mêtis]) both recalls Odysseus's helplessness (amêkhania) in the cave of the Kyklops and anticipates his quandry at 20.18-21 when he witnesses his maidservants mingling with the suitors. Those in the audience, making this connection, sense the couple's homophrosunê as each moves from powerlessness to triumph.

To prove that he indeed entertained Odysseus, the beggar describes the mantle his guest was wearing, with a pin double-sheathed and intricately carved, made of gold:

the front part of it was artfully
done: a hound held in his forepaws a dappled
fawn, preying on it as it struggled; and all
  admired it,
how, though they were golden, it preyed on
  the fawn and strangled it
and the fawn struggled with his feet as he
  tried to escape him.
19.227-31

Knowing that this very clasp was his wife's own gift to him, Odysseus teases Penelope by alluding to it and using it as a recognition sign or sêma. The description itself causes not only acceptance of his lie as truth (he did entertain her husband) but a weakening of her defenses. Odysseus manipulates Penelope's emotions and awakens erôs by evoking in her a memory of a gift that, in multiple semiosis, conveys the erôs in their relationship. His casual allusion to the clasp-gift, when he is pretending to have trouble remembering what Odysseus wore, heightens the erotic tension of the interview.

The clasp is a complicated symbol, signifying both as an object and through its decorations. As a departure gift from wife to husband, it binds Odysseus, reminding him of Penelope's claims. The scene depicted on it suggests an erotic conquest: the capture of a fawn by a hound who "preyed on the fawn and strangled it and the fawn struggled with his feet as it tried to escape him." In archaic and later Greek poetry, fawn imagery occurs in erotic contexts, as in Arkhilokhos's erotic fragment and the Homeric Hymn to Demeter. The scene on the clasp suggests an erotic chase, perhaps even the first capture of Penelope by Odysseus. Odysseus is the hound pursuing Penelope, and her flirtations with others (a resistance of sorts) intensify his pursuit. The chase itself is not unambiguously "male captures female." Rather, it playfully suggests capture and entrapment, but because the gender of both animals is masculine, and because of Homer's propensity for reverse-gender similes, Penelope could as well be the hound catching with her clasp an escaping Odysseus as he departs from home. Thus the reciprocity that is key to the homophroneonte noêmasin of Odysseus and Penelope is a feature as well of Penelope's gift, long ago, to Odysseus.

Odysseus continues his half-truth with a story that Odysseus will return soon, within the year, "either at the waning of the moon or at its onset" (306), and that he is now accumulating wealth. This detail suggests to Penelope that her husband will return with an ample bridal gift, in no way inferior to the gifts she had to elicit from her suitors. With the detail that Odysseus will stop at Dodona, to find out whether to arrive openly or in secret, the beggar gives Penelope reason for hope but also accents the theme of secrecy and disclosure so prominent in their interview.

Lest his audience relax too much in anticipation of mutual recognition, Homer offers them a close call. The recognition by Eurykleia as she bathes the stranger's feet and the diverting of Penelope's attention tease the audience. So too does Homer's long digression, perhaps representing Eurykleia's remembrances, about Odysseus's coming of age at the boar hunt.

Odysseus's sudden threat to Eurykleia, when she is about to divulge his identity, that he will not spare her life if she does so, shows how intent he is to hide his identity from Penelope. Those who argue for a communication in code between husband and wife need to explain this urgent desire for secrecy. What appears as covert or subtle communication occurs on the global, not local level, between text and listeners, not among characters. We see their compatibility and like-mind-edness; Penelope feels only erotic vibrations between them and her own attraction to this stranger, who may even supplant Odysseus in her affections. Athena, as the guiding hand of the poet, turns aside Penelope's perception, so that the stranger and Odysseus will not collapse, too soon, into a single identity.

As Penelope's attention returns, she resumes her conversation. It is time to close the interview, because she has the information she set out to acquire; yet, convinced that the stranger once hosted Odysseus and inexplicably drawn to him, she stays and talks with her new guest-friend "just for a little" (19.509). In their new intimacy, she divulges her sharpest anxieties to him. Like Pandareos's daughter (518-24), the greenwood nightingale, who once killed her child with the bronze when the madness was on her, she is anxious, especially over the recent abortive ambush of Telemakhos, for which she feels responsible.

Penelope explains her dilemma, whether or not to re-marry, and then tells the guest-stranger her dream (535-53), which is fraught with ambiguities about her feelings toward the suitors. To the generous-spirited Odysseus, a complex Penelope lamenting over her geese / suitors is a challenge, not a candidate for blame. Odysseus ignores (or doesn't "hear") her triple mention of lamenting over the death of her geese and focuses instead on the opportunity that her narration affords him to encourage her with a strong prophecy:

Lady, it is impossible to read this dream and
       avoid it
by turning another way, since Odysseus
  himself has told you
its meaning, how it will end. The suitors'
   doom is evident
for one and all. Not one will avoid his death
   and destruction.
19.555-58

Odysseus-in-the-dream consoled Penelope (she reports) and interpreted the dream symbols to her:

The geese are the suitors and I, the eagle,
      have been
a bird of portent, but now I am your own
  husband, come home,
and shall inflict shameless destruction on all
  the suitors.
19.548-50

Odysseus-at-the-hearth, hearing the dream, validates the clear interpretation in the dream by dream-Odysseus, who has affirmed his own polymorphism and polytropy. But Odysseus-at-the-hearth still insists on remaining the stranger. Not yet ready to reveal himself, he offers Penelope only limited consolation. Though he sympathizes with the sorrowing and perplexed Penelope, he holds onto his disguise.

Professing skepticism, and denying that the dream can be taken as prophetic, Penelope proposes to set a bow-contest for her hand. Odysseus, in response, while endorsing this move and thus in a sense co-sponsoring it, maintains the secrecy of his disguise:

O respected wife of Odysseus, son of Laertes,
do not put off this contest in your house any
  longer.
Before these people can handle the well-
  wrought bow, and manage
to hook the string and bend it, and send a
  shaft through the iron,
Odysseus of the many designs will be back
 here with you.
19.583-87

At this juncture, the husband who had enjoyed watching his wife charm the suitors and wrest gifts from them welcomes the bride-contest. It both helps shape his master plan for revenge and enables him to compete for Penelope's hand. Having to reclaim Penelope enhances her value for him; he is confident of victory yet uncertain what that victory will mean to her. (For the audience, witnessing all this, the bow-contest becomes a bride-contest, wherein the husband is the leading suitor and the wife the bride-prize.)

Penelope's behavior shortly after the interview, in the privacy of her chambers, underscores the difference in their situations. She weeps profusely as she gathers Odysseus's weapons for the contest (19.603) and prays fervently to Artemis for sudden death, begging to be snatched away like the daughters of Pandareos rather than to have to remarry (20.61-83). Odysseus neither witnesses her weeping nor hears her prayer for death. Despite the dissonance in their lives at this point, global homophrosunê is established to an extent: just as Penelope dreamt that "there was one who lay by me, like him / as he was when he went with the army, so that my own heart / was happy" (20.88-90), so too, when Odysseus awoke from a deep sleep induced by Athena, "it seemed to him in his mind that now / she was standing by his head, and had recognized him already" (20.93-94). In both cases, the "as if quality of the recognition assures us that neither has yet firmly recognized the other and so neither one is secure. Odysseus, as he gazes on Penelope, struggles to fathom what she knows.

During the actual contest Penelope insists on handing her husband's bow to her guest, despite vociferous objections by the suitors (21.285-310). To one protester, Antinoös, she replies:

Do you imagine that if this stranger, in the
      confidence
of hands and strength, should string the great
  bow of Odysseus,
that he would take me home with him and
  make me his wife? No,
he himself has no such thought in the heart
  within him.
Let none of you be sorrowful at heart in his
  feasting
here, for such a reason. There is no likelihood
  of it.
21.314-19

Penelope professes that the beggar is no match for a queen, yet she insists he be given a try at the bow. Why? Is this a gesture of politeness, or does the stranger intrigue her, or does she suspect he is Odysseus come home? Does she know it is Odysseus yet pretend before the suitors? We cannot be sure. Her reply, with its denial, introduces a hypothetical plot-type, MARRIAGE TO A STRANGER, which was latent in the intimate conversation before the hearth.

Odysseus's recognition by Penelope is near at hand. During the slaughter, Penelope remains in her chamber, sent there by Telemakhos. Afterward, Odysseus's emissary, Eurykleia, summons her and tells her of the SLAUGHTER OF THE SUITORS. Claiming to remain skeptical (not about the slaughter but about her husband's return), Penelope descends "to see my son, so that I can look on / these men who courted me lying dead, and the man who killed them" (23.83-84). She sits opposite her husband at the heart