Odyssey 15

By Leonard Muellner | 2023.05.01

This essay, posted 2023.05.01 in Classical Continuum, is a “preprint” and pre-edited version of a text submitted to the Oxford Critical Guide to Homer’s Odyssey, edited by Joel P. Christensen, forthcoming.

Telemachus with Athena as Mentor (1810). Drawing by John Flaxman. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Plot Summary

The Odyssey as a whole is structured into six performance units, each consisting of four rhapsodies, and Odyssey 15 is the third element in the fourth group of four.[1] The overall purpose of this fourth ‘quartet’ of rhapsodies is to bring together the three narrative threads of the Odyssey, namely the homecoming (nostos) of Odysseus after 20 years abroad, the mini-homecoming of Telemakhos after a few weeks away, and the wooing of Penelope by her suitors at Odysseus’ palace in Ithaka. The purpose of Rhapsody 15 in particular is to bring together, or almost together, the first two of these three narrative threads. Telemakhos and his father will actually be reunited at the beginning of the next rhapsody (16), at the farm of the swineherd Eumaios. From there, the two of them and Eumaios will set off in stages for Odysseus’ palace, where the third narrative thread, the activities of the suitors and their wooing of Penelope, will coalesce with theirs, in Rhapsody 17, at the beginning of the fifth quartet. The main events of Rhapsody 15 can be summarized in one sentence: the ritual send-off of Telemakhos from the palace of Menelaos in Sparta, his return to and unconventional departure from Pylos, and his arrival, at dawn, on a beach in Ithaka. Essentially, Rhapsody 15 marks the achievement of Telemakhos’ nostos, his ‘return to life and light,’ which is portrayed as the completion of an initiatory ordeal, including a peer to guide him (at first Athena/Mentor, then Pesisistratos, then a seer, Theoklymenos), signs and portents to interpret, an escape from mortal danger, and subtle signs that Telemakhos, a young prince, is really coming of age. Especially touching are the young prince’s developing skills in the reciprocal rules of hospitality, the way that he receives spectacular guest gifts from Menelaos and Helen but cannily avoids getting them from Nestor. The basic plot line of the rhapsody, however, appears to veer off course twice: at Pylos, with the sudden appearance of a seer named Theoklumenos, who tells Telemakhos his life story and interprets two bird omens; and towards the end, with a new storytelling episode by Odysseus and Eumaios at the hog farm. This one mirrors the longer one that takes up much of the previous rhapsody (14). The reprise in Rhapsody 15 is especially remarkable as it begins with another ainos ‘encoded speech’, like the one Eumaios actually calls an ainos in 14.508, by the disguised Odysseus. It is followed by Eumaios’ lengthy tale about how, at a tender age, he came to become a slave in Ithaka instead of a prince in the golden paradise where he was born.

Themes and Resonances

These are the major themes that occur in Odyssey 15: Rules of sequence in mythological narrative and ring composition. Epiphanies of Athena by night and by day. The rules of reciprocal exchange for a host and a guest, and the poetic expression of the initiatory self-realization of Telemakhos. Failure to reciprocate and the ironic nature of Nestor. The roles of Theoklumenos. Odysseus’ testing of Eumaios and encoded speech (ainos). Enslavement, childhood, adulthood, and the internalization of disempowerment.

Problem No. 1: The Starting Point of Odyssey 15 and Parallel/Sequential Narratives

To begin with the first episode and its first line: Rhapsody 15 picks up the narrative with Athena’s arrival in Sparta, exactly where it left off at Rhapsody 13, in other words, jumping back a whole rhapsody, not resuming where Rhapsody 14 had concluded, as one might expect. In the last lines of Odyssey 13 (439-440), Athena was said to split from the newly-arrived Odysseus on a beach of Ithaka — he had arrived at dawn — and went off after Telemakhos, his son, in Sparta, as she had told Odysseus she would a bit earlier in the narrative (412-415). In terms of the chronological sequence of events, though, Rhapsody 15 begins exactly at the point in time where the previous rhapsody (14 and not 13!) left off, late at night, when Odysseus in disguise and his host, Eumaios, the swineherd, go to bed after a long day that turns into a long evening of storytelling. From the point of view of our expectations about narrative sequencing, both of these features are strange.

The conventions of the Homeric epic tradition for this strange way of sequencing two parallel narratives were described by a 19th Century Polish researcher named Tadeusz S. Zieliński, as follows: “if the poet [of Homeric poetry] did not wish to leave out anything…in two [parallel] accounts, he reported them both not as parallel but as sequential accounts.”[2] In other words, the story of Telemakhos’ homecoming, which is chronologically parallel to Odysseus’ homecoming, is actually being described as taking place after the narrative of Odysseus’ return has begun, and that is consistent with the sequential way that parallel narratives are told throughout the Homeric poems.

To some skeptical critics, it may even strain credulity that an audience could be counted on even to recall what happened at the end of a whole rhapsody earlier when a new one begins, quite simply, “And she to Lakedaimōn (=Sparta) Pallas Athena / went off” (no way to flip pages in a live performance!). But this is not our tradition, and the poet is assuming exactly that kind of recall. We must learn the aesthetics of sequential + parallel narratives: for one thing, they signal that we must ‘read’ (in the sense ‘understand’) Rhapsody 15 in parallel to Rhapsodies 13 and 14 — for more on that, see just below. The above-cited Zieliński’s ‘law’ is descriptive and succinctly so, but it does not account for the phenomenon it describes: why not interrupt and resume, why not tell parallel narratives the way that we do, inserting one in the middle of the other with a word like “Meanwhile…” and then resuming with, “As I was saying before about XX…”? If we think about the consequences of the sequential treatment of parallel narratives, it allows the story to unfold in the linear, goal-oriented way that mythical narratives in many cultures do. In cultures that still tell them as part of daily life, a myth is like a train that takes on passengers and never leaves any off, nor can it go backwards to pick up some that were left behind.[3] It is all about hurtling relentlessly toward the end of the tale, though there are moments when the narrator inserts a digression to tighten the tension of the tale’s progress toward the goal.

Another formal feature related to this structure is the trope known as “ring composition,” in which a speaker explicitly returns to the starting point of a given narrative before proceeding to a new, parallel one. This much-studied structure is even nowadays typical of spoken discourse (“as I was saying about…”), but it is a constant feature for both large and small compositional elements in Homeric poetry. A striking example: Odyssey 5 repeats the council of the gods and the discussion of Odysseus’ current plight by Athena and Zeus with which the Odyssey opens. Why? The goal is to start, after four rhapsodies, the other, parallel narrative that had been announced in Odyssey 1 (lines 82-95), in which it was decided (a) to send Hermes to Odysseus at Kalypso’s island and (b) to send Athena to Telemakhos in Ithaka. The first ‘quartet’ of rhapsodies takes the first fork, Athena’s incitement of Telemakhos and his voyage to Pylos and Sparta, up to its penultimate moment, when Telemakhos is ready to depart from Menelaos’ halls and begin his return to Ithaka. The next ‘quartet’ of rhapsodies, Odyssey 5-8, is meant to take up the second fork, with Hermes’ arrival at Kalypso’s cave, but in order to do so, it literally returns to the original starting point, to the beginning of the ring, and from that point it takes off in the second direction, with Hermes’ trip to Kalypso’s island. Once again, the two parallel narratives are being told as sequential, but the narrative actually reprises the original starting point and begins the second one from there. This is what the term ‘ring composition’ refers to, the return to the starting point before taking off on a second narrative. Since the resumption of a parallel narrative is also happening here, at the beginning of Odyssey 15, it is legitimate to ask why there no such ring here, then?

In Odyssey 15, there is no reprise of the end of Odyssey 13, just a simple, “And she…” It seems to be a question of scale: apparently the narrative distance from the starting point, just one rhapsody, is not enough to warrant even a reminder for the alert and tuned-in audience. In Odyssey 15, there are two further examples of such seamless interruption of a parallel tale: at line 296, the sun sets, and Athena gives Telemakhos’s ship a tail wind in its northward voyage towards Elis; from there, Telemakhos sets sail for the ‘islands’ by way of which Athena has told him to sail in order to avoid the ambush of the suitors. Suddenly, at line 301, the narrative shifts back to the end of the previous book, Rhapsody 14, to Odysseus and Eumaios at the hog farm, with the same kind of abrupt shift and resumption as the one with which Rhapsody 15 begins, “And the two of them in turn in the shelter, Odysseus and Eumaios, / were dining,” and the narrative about them continues with storytelling until the middle (literally) of verse 495. After a very long night, the two men have finished telling stories and “went to sleep, / but only for a little while,” a standard narrative closure for a narrative thread, except for “but only for a little while” – usually the heroes don’t stay up so late, and they sleep the night through, but more on that in a moment. Then, to conclude that same line, we read: “and suddenly Dawn came, and they towards the dry land / Telemakhos’ companions, were letting down the sails and took down the mast.”  We see once again that parallel stories are being told consecutively, but here a triggering detail comes to the fore: Telemakhos comes back home to Ithaka at dawn, and the “only for a little while” mentioned above implies that Odysseus and Eumaios are waking up right then as well. We are surely being reminded of the spectacular way that Odysseus himself had also arrived at Ithaka, sound asleep, at dawn, Rhapsody 13.93-95, when he wakes up. The narrator is exploiting this conventional and abrupt transition to highlight the parallelism between waking up and homecoming, the nostoi of both father and son — for more on the profound link between homecoming and awaking (nostos as ‘returning to life and light’), see below. Perhaps now we are beginning to understand why the digressive storytelling at the hog farm needs to be interwoven with the story of Telemakhos’ homecoming in the first place: it serves to reinforce in the listener’s mind their functional parallelism, the fact that the two narrative threads concerning father and son are coming closer and closer together, until we come to the climactic moment when father and son are reunited and the two threads coalesce, at the beginning of Odyssey 16.

Problem No. 2: The Epiphany of Athena to Telemakhos

The epiphany of Athena in lines 8-43 serves to outline and set in motion the main action of Rhapsody 15, Telemakhos’ return to Ithaka. The narrator tells us in line 3 that her goal is to “remind him (hypomnēsousa)[4] of his nostos ‘homecoming’” and then “urge him to neesthai ‘return home’” — the verb neesthai being the verbal root of the word nostos. In the Odyssey people ‘forget’ (root lēthomai) their homecoming, as in the land of the Lotus Eaters (9.97, 102), or ‘remember’ their homecoming (for example, 3.142), as here. These are formulaic expressions with a long history that may be only partly sensible to poet and audience. As Douglas Frame has explained,[5] there is a historical and etymological link of the words neomai ‘I return home’ and nostos ‘homecoming’ with another word, noos ‘intelligence,’ that is visible on the thematic level and, precisely, in the intellectual activity of remembering or forgetting one’s nostos. The link lies on the surface in these expressions, but it is also especially clear in the case of Odysseus and Telemakhos, whose clever intelligence is essential to the success of their homecoming. That kind of intelligence — there is no other kind in the Odyssey — is also the sphere of the goddess Athena, the daughter of Zeus and Mētis ‘cunning’, who protects both Odysseus and his son. That is why she is the goddess who intervenes in this narrative to set Telemakhos in motion here as she had set him on his voyage away from home in the beginning of the poem. At that point, she took on the disguise of an old friend of Odysseus named Mentēs in Rhapsody 1 and Mentōr in Rhapsody 2. Both names are a newer (Mentēs and an older form (Mentōr) of a so-called agent noun, of the type ‘baker’, derived from the verb ‘bake’. These names are derivatives of an ancient (going back to the 3rd millennium BCE) Indo-European verbal root *men– ‘arouse the mind’, as in Greek menos ‘mental energy’ or Latin mens, mentis ‘mind’, so they can be glossed ‘he who rouses the mind/mental energy,’ a name that is precisely consistent with what she does to the young prince. We see again that there is linkage between homecoming and intelligence, as she rouses Telemakhos from his passive torpor about his identity (1.215-220) and about his ability to act (1.234-251). She actually is said to ‘put mental energy (menos)’ into him (1.321) and sends him to Nestor and Menelaos to learn from them about his father,[6] a journey from which he must dangerously return. Note that a hero’s identity is based on his father’s name: when asked “Who are you?” in Homeric poetry, you give not your own name but your father’s (“I am the son of Odysseus”), and Telemakhos’ own name itself is transparent and means ‘he who fights far away’, a plain reference to his father’s role fighting for the capture of Helen away at Troy.

In this instance, in Odyssey 15 lines 4-8, Telemakhos is first said to be asleep in the forecourt of Menelaos’ palace, but the narrator corrects himself and says that the son of Nestor really was asleep, but meledēmata patros ‘anxieties connected with his father’ were keeping the young prince awake. Conventionally sleep resolves ‘anxieties’ meledēmata (Iliad 23.62, Odyssey 20.56, 23.343), but not this time. And that fact produces a change in the conventional theme of Athena’s nocturnal visits to those whom she protects and to whom she delivers a message. Except here, she appears to such persons in disguise as they sleep, standing over their head, and she gives them detailed instructions about what to do, as we see with Nausikaa in Rhapsody 6 (lines 21-23) or with Penelope in Rhapsody 4 (lines 796-803). In Odyssey 15, though, nothing is said about Athena being in disguise. This may be because it is said to be the dead of night, so disguise is unnecessary, as the ancient commentator says (Scholia Q on 15.9, Dindorf’s ed.). Instead of standing over Telemakhos’ head she “stands beside him” (angkhou histamenē, 15.9) and addresses him, with the implication that he is not lying down: the formulaic line about her standing next to someone and addressing a person recurs four times in the Iliad of Athena appearing in disguise as a man during the day and once, each, also during the day, undisguised, to Odysseus and Achilles;[7] five other times it is used of Iris, the divine messenger, delivering messages from Zeus to immortals and mortals with a disguised appearance or voice in the case of mortals.[8] It also occurs twelve times with a male subject, always during the daytime, of gods standing beside gods or mortals beside mortals to deliver a message in an intimate way. Once only it is used of Apollo speaking with Hector who has just been clobbered by a big stone and is waking up. Apollo is not disguised, and Hector recognizes him as a god, and then Apollo reveals it is he (Iliad 15.236-270).

These details are significant: gods and goddesses do not casually appear to mortals as themselves. As a divine messenger, she reveals herself to Achilles and Odysseus, but no one else, and not always so to Odysseus. It would be surprising here if she were to appear undisguised.[9] Even though nothing is actually said about her disguise, in fact it is clear from Athena’s own words that she actually is in disguise. At lines 15.34-35 she tells Telemakhos that “he will send a tail wind behind you / whichever god protects and preserves you,” where the verbs “protects and preserves” are in the third person singular, a clear indication that the speaker does not have that role (which belongs to Athena or Hermes).[10] It is also easy to guess whom we and Telemakhos are simply and tacitly understood to think of her being, namely Mentēs/Mentōr. Such a supposition is also consistent with the things that Athena says to Telemakhos: so-called “lies”[11] that are unsupported elsewhere in the Odyssey about Penelope’s father and brothers (!) urging her to marry Eurumakhos, and the misogynist implication that, like all women would, Penelope has forgotten her husband and child (15.16-23).[12] Not a word is said about Odysseus. Instead, these nuggets are intended to rouse Telemakhos to act, to engage with the business of his return, and they are reminiscent of the kinds of things that she said to him as Mentēs in Rhapsody 1, where she lied about the mooring of her ship and its crew and told him that his father was being held back on an island, where “cruel men are keeping him against his will” (1.197-199). At that moment, the person whom “cruel men are keeping” was Telemakhos, not Odysseus, so the intent of such telling tales, to get the young prince to identify with his father, was clear and justified there as here. In this case, Athena’s purpose is to make him focus not on his father (15.8), but on his own agency and his own property, to get him to think like an adult in charge of his destiny, even to begin to plan his own wedding (15.24-26). There is also one crucial piece of information that she transmits and that Telemakhos could not know of otherwise: she tells him about the ambush laid for him by the suitors patrolling by ship the strait between Samē and Ithaka, and he learns from her how he can avoid it and that he should then proceed to Eumaios’ shelter (15.27-42), where, as we know, he will finally meet his father.

There is a similar Athena epiphany later on in the Odyssey, when Odysseus is disguised as a beggar and is tossing and turning, unable to sleep. By no coincidence, like Telemakhos, he is also in the forecourt of the palace, a mnemonic token of the poetic value of space. Athena suddenly comes ‘in the build of a woman’ (20.31), a minimal disguise, and stands over his head (20.32), so she is indeed visible. She asks him why he is awake at his own household when he has a wife and the kind of son people long for. He explains that he is worrying over how, all alone, he can take on the suitors, who are always in a group, and also, even if he succeeds in killing them with her help and that of Zeus, how he could ever ‘escape’ (presumably he means, ‘escape death,’ an epic formula, at the hands of their relatives) thereafter (20.42-43). In response, she tells him that other men trust their mortal companions more than he trusts her, a goddess, and that even if fifty companies of men surrounded him with the intent to kill him, he would still be able to rustle their cattle (20.34-52).[13] He should just stop worrying and go to sleep, and she herself then helps him fall asleep.

It is clear, then, in this instance, despite the phrase about “having the build of a woman”(20.31), that Athena is not concealing her identity – on the contrary, she is insisting on it, and Odysseus knows who she is. But she does take her stance over the head of Odysseus, as though he was asleep, because he is lying down and at least trying to sleep. Telemakhos was not sleeping at all, and when she leaves, his first gesture is to kick his buddy Peisistratos to wake him up, as though he had been standing all along. As to Athena’s intent, it is eerily similar, but from the opposite end of the spectrum: she wants to stop Odysseus’ realistic worrying that his own powers will be insufficient to defeat the suitors and reestablish his political power as king afterwards, to tell him that she and Zeus will assure the outcome no matter how poor the odds. The overtness, then, of her epiphany and the insistence on her substantive power to assist Odysseus are of a piece with her intent; on the other hand, her disguise and her encouragement of Telemakhos’ own abilities, with only the minimal intervention of some encouraging higher power (to provide a tail wind on his journey, also a natural event), are similarly coherent.

Problem No. 3: Telemakhos’ departures from Sparta (15.43-188) and Pylos (189-300)

Receiving guests is superficially optional but in fact obligatory in archaic societies like the one portrayed in the Homeric poems. In accepting such treatment, the guest is henceforth obliged to reciprocate in kind to his host whenever he appears as a guest, and relations between guests and hosts are said to be like those between brothers (8.546), between members of the same kinship group.[14] This system of obligatory reciprocal exchange in the Homeric poems is ubiquitous, and to state the obvious, its manifestations in the domain of hospitality is a central moral concern of the Odyssey, which features wild variations on its unspoken but, as Odysseus learns, not so axiomatic norms. If you eat the flowers that the Lotus-eaters offer you — flower-food, as it is called (9.84), is not part of the heroes’ diet — you never want to leave, you “forget” your homecoming (9.97, 102); or there is the Cyclops, Poluphēmos, who is described as ‘knowing what is against the rules’ (athemistia eidōs 9.428; also said of the suitor Ktēsippos, 20.287), and who out and out eats his guests. The Odyssey is as a whole concerned with matters of hubris and dikē, opposed terms easily and often misread as ‘pride’ and ‘justice’, though they have more to do with natural regularity (plants can have hubris)[15] and social correctness, respectively: synonyms of the adjective dikaios derived from dikē are noēmones ‘intelligent’ (2.282, 3,133, 13.209) and pepnumenos ‘awakened’ (3.52), and its antonym is agrios ‘uncivilized, wild’ (6.120, 8.575, 9.175, 13.201).

There is also the fact that Odysseus as a heroic traveler is under the protection of the trickster god Hermes as well as Athena. Hermes’ domain as a god is reciprocity writ large: reciprocating movement (in and out, back and forth, up and down, between gods and mortals as well as mortals and the lower world) and reciprocal exchange of stuff — he traffics in words, cattle, and precious objects made by artisans.[16] In fact, the two tutelary gods each preside over their fork in the narrative Odyssey 1.82-89, though they both put on Hermes’ winged sandals (1.96-101, 5.44-47) to get to their initial destinations, the implication being that in some way Hermes is ultimately responsible for the whole process. Odysseus is indeed a worthy incarnation of that deity, a hero who can traverse different worlds, including even the lower world, and return unscathed; a trickster with words and stratagems, and an aggregator of precious goods that are worthy of exchange despite the fact that he lost all the loot that he had won at Troy.

Telemakhos, a young prince who is growing up and learning how to be an adult, needs to learn how to emulate his father and succeed in the domain of reciprocating exchange, both by voyaging back and forth, but also in learning how to be a good host and guest, to succeed at giving and receiving goods. His story begins, after all, with him receiving a guest who had been overlooked by the suitors, his father’s old friend, Mentēs, whom we know is Athena and whom he receives and entertains graciously despite the straightened circumstances in his household. But when it comes time for his guest to leave, Telemakhos wants to detain Mentēs by the offer of a bath and a gift that is ‘esteemed’ (timēen) and ‘really beautiful’ (mala kālon) ‘that will be a keepsake for you from me, the kind of thing that beloved hosts bestow upon their guests’ (Odyssey 1.309-313). Mentēs, however, refuses, saying that he yearns for the road, that he can give him the gift when he returns to visit the next time, the assumption being that hosts and guests are continually circulating and exchanging roles. As we know, however, there is no truth to this haste on his part, and Mentēs’ “lies” have agenda.[17] Why, then, does he not accept Telemakhos’ gift and cement their relationship? Before one can even contemplate the question, though, she disappears like a bird (1.319-320) and while doing so “pumps up” Telemakhos; he perceives the change in himself, is stunned, and he figures out, finally, that his guest was a god (1.320-324). That also explains her refusal, at least partly: the only ‘gifts’ that mortals can provide to divinities are ritual and sacrificial, not the kind of valued objects that mortals exchange, though gifts in the other direction, from gods to mortals, are both common coin and even objects that humans themselves exchange. So Mentēs’ telling the young prince he will accept his gift the next time he comes is a way to deflect the possible hurt, or even dishonor, that a refusal to receive might generate. But it still leaves the youth unfulfilled as a host, and it suggests that he is not yet a fully functional adult, which is certainly true at that point in the epic.

The second episode of Odyssey 15, which begins once Telemakhos kicks Peisistratos awake, sheds more light on Mentēs’ postponement of Telemakhos’ gift in Odyssey 1. Clearly galvanized by Athena’s nocturnal advice, Telemakhos tells Peisistratos to wake up and yoke the horses so that they can take off (15.46-47). Somewhat comically, Peisistratos tells him that they can’t drive chariots in the dark and must wait until the dawn comes, but he also demands that Telemakhos wait for Menelaos to offer them gifts and a send-off, “for a guest remembers all his days a host who receives him and provides affection/friendship” (15.54-55), a remark that is reminiscent of Telemakhos’ own statement to Athena in Rhapsody 1 (309-323) about the ungiven gift.  Immediately after those words, the dawn comes, and Telemakhos sees Menelaos coming to the forecourt, so he hurriedly dresses himself in tunic and cloak and goes to the front gate of the palace in order to address Menelaos first. At just this moment, and for the first time in the Odyssey as a whole, but only in three of the medieval manuscripts of the Odyssey, the narrator gives Telemakhos a whole verse consisting of his name, patronymic, and epithets (15.63), “Telemakhos, the beloved son of divine Odysseus.” Naming a character in this extended form is an unusual thing it itself, but it functions elsewhere as the traditional poet’s way of setting off and spotlighting a character rather than just referencing one. Even more strikingly, after an introductory speech formula like the one in the previous line to this one (“and standing next to him he addressed him,” l. 62), normally the quoted words of the speech follow, not a naming of the speaker. A speaker is always identified, if the context is unclear, in the half-line or lines before the introductory speech formula. In fact, with this particular verb for ‘he/she addressed’ (Greek prosēudã), which occurs over 160 times in the two Homeric poems, this is the only time that a speaker is identified after it, although there are two (very, very few, but at least some) other times when something other than direct speech follows in the next verse.[18] Even if it is not attested in all of the manuscripts, it is reasonable to ask if this is a legitimate variant, if there are expressive reasons for the young prince to have a whole line of epithets for the first time, right at the moment when the words of his speech are expected rather than his name, and when there is no contextual need for him to be named in the first place.[19]

In fact, yes, there is a reason for Telemakhos to be highly spotlighted at the start of this scene. He is about to receive, first of all, hospitality gifts, a silver chalice chased with gold made by Hephaistos himself (= nothing in this world is better made), plus the finest robe in Helen’s chest, at its very bottom, one that she wove herself and of which she says, significantly, this is ‘for your wife to wear’ (15.127) and for his mother to keep as a treasure in the meantime.[20] Along with them, he gets a dinner and a ritual send-off from Menelaos. The whole episode marks him as coming into his own as an adult in epic society. After all, he is concretizing a reciprocal friendship to the major actors of the Trojan War, and he makes a point of doing so on his own terms. Furthermore, by anticipating rather than awaiting Menelaos, he activates the send-off rituals in a short speech (15.64-66) that expresses his desire to return, a desire that Menelaos immediately acknowledges and accepts (15.70-73), though he subsequently seems to forget and asks Telemakhos if he wants to take a tour with him and get more hospitality gifts from others in the neighborhood (15.80-85). That forces Telemakhos into confidently reiterating and further explaining the urgency of his need to return (15.87-91). By contrast, the Telemakhos of Rhapsody 1 was unsure of his own identity but sure that the man supposed to be his father would never return, and he didn’t even get the chance to give Athena/Mentēs a parting gift. This time he receives spectacular gifts and, in the end, he even expresses the hope that he will find his father upon his return to Ithaka (15.156-159), a hope that is then heightened and confirmed by a bird omen and its interpretation as favorable to the return of Odysseus by the prescient Helen herself.

A final point on line 63: Telemakhos gets this same whole-line name and epithet treatment once more in Rhapsody 15, at its very end, at the moment when, having disembarked as dawn comes at a remote beach, he orders his crew to leave him and set sail for the main harbor (15.554), and as he is about to take off for Eumaios’ shelter.[21] If we accept 15.63 as a legitimate variant, as I believe it is, one can think of these two occurrences of whole-line naming in Odyssey 15 as a framing device for its entirety, marking its episodes as the conclusion of the young hero’s nostos, his rite of passage, the acquisition of his identity as the son of Odysseus, just before he will finally lay eyes on his father in the next rhapsody. A version of Odyssey 15 lacking 15.63 is also plausible, given its anomalous placement (as explained above) and its absence from many of the MSS. In such a multiform, the goal of marking the end of his ordeal is met by a single homecoming-concluding whole-line naming at 15.554. Such a version is then more narrowly focused on the moment that he completes his micro-nostos rather than expressing the inclusion of the other episodes in this rhapsody under the same rubric. The transmission of Homeric epic, like the transmission of other kinds of verbal art from oral traditional societies, is not univocal, so it is important to demonstrate how multiforms can be acceptable, not just to reject one and thereby suppress the different turns that an oral traditional poem can take.

No matter what, this parting gift episode is a significant step in the education of the young prince, and we note that in their one-night stopover at Pherai on the way back to Pylos (15.186-188), where his ship is anchored, the narrator goes out of his way to tell us that Telemakhos and Peisistratos got ‘guest gifts (xeinia, = food, drink, possibly more)’. Why then, one might ask, does the next episode offer us the blossoming young prince devising a way to skirt the obligation to receive a parting gift from Nestor, his host in Pylos? That would seem to contradict his new status as an adult guest reciprocally engaged with members of his father’s generation. Commentators are sympathetic with the hurrying Telemakhos’ desire to avoid the long goodbye that the garrulous Nestor would force upon him — as he tactfully puts it to Peisistratos, “so that the old gentleman will not hold me down in his household against my will, / out of the wish to be friendly; I really have to go pretty quickly” (15.200-201). He refers to Nestor in a sympathetic and respectful way, with the conventional honorific ho gerōn ‘that old gentleman’, and he describes him as acting on the basis of friendship. Earlier in his speech, 15.196-198, he bases his request — he uses a strong word for it, emon mūthon, ‘my authoritave speech, my demand’ — on the friendship that he and Peisistratos have acquired both from their ancestors (‘fathers,’ 15.197, but the plural normally implies generations of them) and from the journey that they as peers have undertaken together, and with the like-mindedness it has inspired in them.[22] In short, Telemakhos has made a difficult request of Peisistratos that he cannot refuse, even though he knows that Telemakhos’ premature departure will rile up the ‘overbearing spirit’ of his father into anger, even if Peisistratos tries to explain to his father his friend’s haste (15.211-214). In fact, Telemakhos will be breaking the rules of hospitality as far as Nestor is concerned, but he is doing so graciously, not unwisely, and on the basis of the reciprocal understanding and friendship between two members of the younger generation, as peers, so that their relationship will endure. Put in a bind, Telemakhos has found a clever way out not unworthy of his father, and ironically, its success proves his skill as a reciprocator perhaps more impressively than the tactful but accelerated acceptance of gifts in Sparta. Even more ironically, but in a way not untypical of this complex character who overarches both Homeric epics, Nestor is here pegged as a person who would actually obstruct the swift return of Telemakhos, but his name (Nestōr, meaning ‘he who brings about the return to life and light’, is a derivative of the root of the word nostos) and his reputation are the opposite: he was the first of the Achaeans to return from Troy, even as Odysseus was the last. Douglas Frame accounts for these ironies, and he also suggests that there is an underlying dimension to the anger of Nestor invoked here, that it reflects an inveterate quarrel between Odysseus and Nestor that accounts for the way they split up, despite their ‘having one mind’, as Nestor himself puts it (3.128), once Troy had been captured, at which point they should have returned home together. Frame also points out that their quarrel is healed in this next generation, whose ‘like-mindedness’ Telemakhos invoked.[23]

Problem No. 4: Theoklumenos: Where does he come from? Who needs him?

This character, a seer who appears suddenly at 15.222 and is not actually named until 15.256, once his lengthy genealogy is complete, was felt by some earlier generations of researchers (and is still by some contemporaries) to be spurious, intrusive, and even useless, and the genealogy that introduces him is said to be pointlessly digressive.[24]

Just before Theoklumenos appears, Peisistratros had left for ‘the central city of the Pylians’ (15.216), Telemakhos had ordered his crew to prepare the rigging and board the ship (15.217-221), and before embarking himself, he started praying and sacrificing to Athena beside the prow of the ship, a conventional procedure. Theoklumenos appears just then, with a formula (“and near him came…”) that is otherwise reserved for epiphanies of Athena herself, either to Telemakhos in response to a prayer (2.267), as perhaps here, or to Odysseus himself when in crisis (13.221, 20.30). In other words, Theoklumenos is being slotted in for two persons who disappear from the poem until he leaves it at the end of Rhapsody 20: on the one hand, Mentēs/Mentōr, who helped out Telemakhos in the earlier stages of his journey (Rhapsodies 1, 2, and 3) and at the beginning of Rhapsody 15, and Peisistratos, a young man of his age grade who has just departed. The name /Theo-klu-menos/ transparently consists of the first two elements of a formula attested twice (Iliad 15.270, Odyssey 2.297), theou ekluen audēn “and he heard the voice of the god” along with –menos, a participial suffix that puns on the base noun from the root *men– “arouse the mind” that is the basis of the name of Mentēs/Mentōr.[25] In its attestation in the Odyssey, the theou ekluen audēn formula actually takes note of Telemakhos’ response to Mentōr’s advice after his appearance in 2.267. And in fact, the narrative functions of Theoklumenos reflect the need of the young prince to have a companion or guide who is his peer but also in communication with the higher powers. Theoklumenos’ immediate story, that of an exile who is fleeing his homeland because ‘he killed a man’, puts him in the position of a suppliant, a stranger in need of hospitality and friendship, and that is what Telemakhos provides him (15.281 ‘you will be treated as a friend, whatever we have [to share]’, etc.). His long-form genealogy, on the other hand, which features several seers famous in myths other than the Homeric poems, situates him in the same generation as Telemakhos, and configures him as a friend as well as an intermediary like Mentēs/Mentōr, between Telemakhos and the divine. His role is to interpret bird omens and other signs in ways that are intended to boost the young man’s morale but that reflect an ability to communicate the divine word to mortals. In sum, this new character is finely tuned to the current narrative context, just as he continues in altered form those that have come before. For a simple example, one can observe what happens when Theoklumenos asks Telemakhos who he is (15.264): for the first and only time in the whole Odyssey he responds in the conventional way, stating that he comes from Ithaka and that Odysseus was his father (15.267), though he cannot keep from adding, “if he ever was, but he has already died a grisly death” (15.268-269).[26] Previous to that moment, the last time Telemakhos was asked to identify himself was when he arrived in Pylos with Athena/Mentōr (4.71-74). At that point in his tale, before he responds to the question of his identity, the narrator tells us that Athena (who is present) gave him the mental strength (menos is again the Greek word, the root of her disguised name, Mentōr) to answer (4.75-78), and though he admits that he is from Ithaka, he does not say directly that Odysseus is his father, only that he has come to Pylos to get word of his father, Odysseus (4.79-85), which is not quite the conventional response.[27] So Theoklumenos acts as a catalyst for Telemakhos’ progress in the same context as Athena had, but with the emotional nearness of peer friendship mixed in.

Problem No. 5: Odysseus’ Second ‘Test’ of Eumaios, 15.301-350

At 15.282-300, as Telemakhos and Theoklumenos board the ship, sit together in its stern, and set sail for Ithaka, with a breeze blowing in the right direction sent by Athena herself (15.293), and the sun begins to set. Suddenly at line 301, with the words, “And the two of them in turn…,” the scene shifts back to Eumaios and Odysseus dining in the swineherd’s shelter, as they should be at that hour: the parallel narratives of the two men in the ship and the two men in the shelter are being told, as we should expect, sequentially. But before their story-telling begins, which this time is focused on Eumaios while in Rhapsody 14 it had concerned the disguised Odysseus, Odysseus makes a speech introduced in the same way as the very last speech he had made in Rhapsody 14, which the narrator describes as “testing the swineherd” (14.459=15.304). The “testing” in both instances seems to mean forcing Eumaios to express his affection for his master-in-disguise by choosing between two alternatives: in Rhapsody 15, the goal of Odysseus’ speech is either that Eumaios sustain his ‘unabating affection’ (15.305, endukeōs phileoi)[28] for Odysseus and ask him to remain on the hog farm, or instead that he urge Odysseus to take off for the city (15.305-306). In the earlier scene, in Rhapsody 14, it is a dark, rainy, and windy night, and Odysseus wants to see if Eumaios, as a sign of his affection for him (see 14.461 ‘since he cherished him to excess’), can provide him with a tunic and cloak, so that he can sleep warm and tight. For a beggar clothed in rags to wangle a cloak and a tunic (Greek khlaina and khitōn) from someone higher up on the social scale is really asking for a lot. The usual request of a beggar is for a cup of wine and a piece of bread[29]; rather than, “Buddy, can you spare a dime?” it’s, “Buddy, can you spare a fur coat?” In fact, Eumaios had earlier predicted (14.131-132) that the disguised Odysseus would gin up any tale he could to get those items of clothing.  Odysseus’s attempt at it has an elaborate prologue, using language that suggests self-assertion and even self-identification, along with apologizing, for the brazen story he is about to tell, but he goes ahead with it anyway.[30]

Now in Rhapsody 15, Odysseus makes no apology, but perhaps he should have. To force Eumaios to invite him to stay longer, he reports his decision to leave the hog farm and go into the city, to beg some food and drink, to give Penelope a message, and to interact with the suitors, in the hope that they might give him dinner from the limitless quantities of food they are consuming. The next eight lines (15.317-324) conclude his speech, as follows:

I would immediately perform (root dra– ‘do, work’) well among them, whatever they want.

I will speak out to you, so do understand and listen to me:

Because of Hermes diaktoros,[31] who awards favor

And renown to the deeds of all human beings,

When it comes to ‘ability to perform’ (= abstract noun derived from root dra-) no other mortal could compete with me

In heaping up the fire the good way and splitting dry logs,

In divvying up the meat and roasting it and pouring wine,

The kinds of things that lesser men work at alongside (compound verb with root dra-) the nobles.

So the beggar is touting exceptional, to say the least, skills bestowed upon him by the god Hermes. But why the ones listed, and why with three forms of the verb dra– ‘do’? The words that I have highlighted in bold are all translations of derivatives of that same verbal root. In Classical (post-Homeric) Greek, it is a common verb that means “perform a ritual act,” such as a sacrifice or the secret acts performed in the Eleusinian mysteries that were called drōmena “rituals being performed.” The verb occurs often in Greek drama where it appears to mean simply “do/act” (as opposed to “suffer, have something done to you”). However, Greek drama was itself a ritual performance attached to a religious festival, so any act within it qualifies as ritual: that is why it was called drāma, the noun derived from the root dra-, which has come down to us as the generic term “drama”.[32]  Forms of the verb dra– are rare in Homeric poetry. In fact, these are the only occurrences of the verb itself in all of Homeric epic, and something similar to what happens in Greek drama is also happening here. The ancient commentators on Homeric poetry say that all three forms in Odysseus’ speech refer to slave labor, translating the verb “serve as a slave.” The reason for this translation is that the only frequent form of this root in Homeric Greek, the agent noun drēst-ēr/-eira, which should mean “he/she who performs ritual acts,” actually occurs five times in the Odyssey, always in the plural, apparently to designate women or men who are in fact enslaved persons or acting like them (Circe’s handmaidens, 10.349). It is also used once of male drēstēres attached to the household of Odysseus who carry out the splitting of word alongside the female drēsteirai preparing for the ritual treatment of guests (20.160). In other words, the people in the Odyssey who are mistakenly understood to be “acting as slaves” are actually “performers of ritual acts.” Furthermore, though the feminine and masculine plural forms of this noun designate men and women whose activities can certainly be performed by slaves, they can also be performed by free people, as we shall now see.

When it comes to the actions that Odysseus the beggar describes himself as the ultimate master of, thanks to the patronage of Hermes, they are also ritual acts, and he specifies that they are things done by ‘lesser’ men ‘alongside’ the nobility — how much ‘lesser’ is not clear. All are activities related to the ritual sacrifice of animals, the centerpiece of almost every meal described in Homeric poetry: the preparation of a fire, the cooking of meat, its division into fair shares, and the pouring of wine to consume with it (I note again the brief mention of splitting wood for the male drēstēres in Odysseus’ palace at 20.160, which must be preparatory to lighting a fire and cooking meat). In the poem in epic style called the Homeric Hymn to Hermes, which tells the myth of Hermes’ birthday and the things he accomplished on it, the second thing that he does (Homeric Hymn to Hermes 108-133), after inventing the lyre and composing songs to it, is to steal the cattle of his brother, Apollo. Then, after gathering wood and starting a fire with sticks, he butchers two of the cattle, skewers their meat and roasts it. Finally, he divides it all into 12 portions, one for each of the Olympian gods, of which he is about to become the twelfth. In short, all the activities that the disguised Odysseus describes himself as expert in, with the exception of pouring wine, are ascribed to Hermes himself.

Though Hermes is the god of beggars and even of thieves, he is not a slave, and there is nothing inherently servile about these activities, which are performed often in the Iliad and sometimes in the Odyssey by the aristocratic heroes when they are away from home. For instance, earlier in Rhapsody 15, we witnessed the preparation of the last meal that Telemakhos and Peisistratos had in Sparta. At lines 15.93-98, Menelaos orders ‘his wife (=Helen) and the women’ to prepare the meal, and as though on cue, a man named Eteōneus the son of Boethos appears, “since he dwelt not far from there,” and Menelaos orders him to light the fire and roast the meat, a ritual activity that women are not allowed to perform in the world of the heroes. This Eteōneus had appeared in the earlier scenes in Sparta, in Rhapsody 4, where he was described as ‘an agile attendant (therapōn) of Menelaos’ (4.23), and the fact that he did not live in the palace is remarked upon by an ancient commentator, who says ‘it is not proven that attendants dwell in the household of the king,’ in other words, that they are household slaves.[33] The word therapōn designates a person who works in the palace of Odysseus with kērukes ‘heralds’ to do the same list of tasks as the male and female drēstēres, for example, in Odyssey 1.109-113 – mixing the wine, cleaning the tables, divvying up the meat.

In fact, as the Hellenistic Homeric scholar Aristarchus understood,[34] the traditional function of the herald (kērux) clarifies Odysseus’s whole speech. Hermes is the god of heralds. In the Iliad, heralds are high-status, sacrosanct persons who convey messages across social and, in the god’s case, cosmic boundaries. In the Homeric poems that status and function includes ritual activities around the preparation of the sacrificial meal, presumably because it crosses the boundaries between gods and humans that features fire, a boundary-crossing element in itself. In fact Penelope describes heralds in 19.135 not as slaves but as dēmioergoi ‘men who work in the district’, skilled, itinerant workmen of various kinds. The upshot is that the beggar Odysseus is describing himself as having just such skills, and to an exceptional degree, and there is no need to translate the forms of the verb dra- in his speech as anything other than ‘perform a ritual act,’ not ‘do a slave’s work.’

Eumaios, however, is taken aback, even horrified, by Odysseus’s speech touting the useful skills he could perform for the suitors. He asks Odysseus (15.327-334) if he just wants to die by going there, since the violence and the hubris of the suitors is world famous. “They don’t have sub-performers (root dra– again) like you,” he says, “they have young people wearing tunics and cloaks, with glistening heads and beautiful faces, who perform under (root dra-) them, their tables brimming with bread, meat, and wine.” So don’t go into the town, stay with me, he says, and when Telemakhos comes, “he will give you a cloak and a tunic and send you off wherever you wish to go.” In this response, Eumaios uses a new dra– compound, hupo-dra– ‘perform a ritual act under (the suitors)’ to describe the position that Odysseus is aiming to have, whereas Odysseus had used the form para-dra– ‘perform a ritual act alongside,’ since he clearly is thinking of himself and the ritual tasks as higher-ranking than Eumaios does.

The difference between ‘under’ and ‘alongside’ may be small, but all the exceptional language betrays a coded message, an ainos in epic terms, and the difference in wording between Odysseus and Eumaios points up the actual status of Odysseus, who is in fact a peer to the suitors.[35] That is the kind of detail that, Easter-egg like, the Odyssey can playfully insert in a story for the amusement of a tuned-in external audience. Such tricks are also typical of Odysseus’ ‘lies,’ in that they tell a deeper truth but only to those in the know, like the name he gives himself in the Cyclops episode, or the story in the speech parallel to this one in Rhapsody 14 about the night raid he went on with Odysseus, when he (not Odysseus) forgot to wear a cloak.[36] In the end, Odysseus gets the proof of affection from Eumaios that he was looking for, along with an open invitation to stay at the hog farm, and in addition, the promise of a tunic and a cloak from Telemakhos when he arrives, which Eumaios had promised him after the first ‘test’ – and which in fact he will not get!

Problem No. 6: The Narrative of Eumaios, Odyssey 15.390-492

Ancient Greek slavery was chattel slavery, like American slavery before the Emancipation Proclamation: humans were bought and sold and were the property of their master and part of his household. They had the social status of children of their masters, never becoming full adults with the unfettered right to own property or move where they wished, rights that characterized ‘free’ persons. The portrayal of slavery in the Odyssey, however, is on the order of representation, not the product of an attempt to reproduce an external reality. Its purpose lies in the tale of the self-development of the hero, his son, and the other members of his household. Others will have developed the portrayal of this sympathetic character in Rhapsody 14, his scrupulous, heartfelt loyalty to the family of his master, his qualified acceptance of his own lack of agency (including his ability to construct his farm, 14.7-8, and to buy a slave for his absent master with his own property, 14.449-451), and the way that his master’s absence has deprived him of the ability to achieve full adulthood, 14.61-71.[37]

Significantly, the long narrative that Odysseus elicits from Eumaios about his life only depicts it up to the moment when, as a young boy, he landed on Ithaca and was purchased by Laertes. It is in a way a ‘slave narrative,’ but it only tells how he became enslaved, and as a very young boy. It describes how he grew up on an island named Suriē far to the west, with the features of the mythical golden age, rich in flocks and grapes and wheat, free from disease; when people grew old there, Apollo and Artemis ended their lives without pain.[38] The island had two cities, and Eumaios’ father was king of both of them, so by birth he was a prince from a flourishing land. But then Phoenician traders showed up, selling their wares, and one of them seduced Eumaios’ tall and beautiful nursemaid, a slave who was also Phoenician. She plotted with her seducer her escape and return to her homeland, to take place once they had sold off the goods they had brought and filled the ship with new ones, which took a year. Then a Phoenician man came to the palace and distracted the womenfolk with a golden necklace while the nursemaid made off for the port with Eumaios, her guileless charge, in tow, along with three golden goblets she grabbed to pay her voyage home: the boy is described, however, as the major prize to pay for her passage. Off they sailed to the east for six days, and on the seventh day, Artemis shot the nursemaid, who plunged to her death like a tern hunting fish in the sea, and the sailors threw her body overboard to be eaten by fish and seals, leaving Eumaios “grieved at heart.” When they reached Ithaca, the boy was sold to Laertes.

Eumaios in this tale is a hapless child, deprived in a week’s time first of his parents, then of his nursemaid, his joy, and finally his freedom. What could have and should have been the golden life of a prince became instead that of a man who has still not grown up. In psychological terms, such a sequence of events would be a primordial trauma for a real child, with lifelong consequences. Here, however, it puts the mother of Odysseus in the position of ersatz parent to this child, and it is clear elsewhere that he was brought up with deep affection as a sibling to Ktimenē, Odysseus’ sister (14.364-370). Eumaios also tells us that he addresses Odysseus not as “master” (Greek despotēn) but as “elder” (Greek ētheion), a term of respect and endearment that a younger brother uses for his older sibling (Odyssey 14.147).[39] Just how and if this genial, scrupulous, and long-suffering man will acquire the adulthood that he deserves is another intense question to be resolved in the rhapsodies to come.


  1. Brennan, “An Ethnic Joke in Homer,” Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 91.1987, pp. 1-3.
  2. Brock, “Clothing Makes the Man: A Pattern in the Odyssey,” Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association, 115.1985, pp. 1-11.
  3. Christensen, The Many-Minded Man: The Odyssey, Psychology, and the Therapy of Epic, Ithaca, 2020
  4. Dué and M. Ebbott, Iliad 10 and the Poetics of Ambush: A Multitext Edition with Essays and Commentary, Cambridge 2010=http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hul.ebook:CHS_Due_Ebbott.Iliad_10_and_the_Poetics_of_Ambush.2010
  5. Dickey, Ancient Greek Scholarship, New York, 2007
  6. Erbse, Beiträge zum Verständnis der Odyssee, Berlin/New York, 1972
  7. Frame, Hippota Nestor, Cambridge and London, 2009=http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hul.ebook:CHS_Frame.Hippota_Nestor.2009
  8. Frame, “From Scheria to Ithaca,” in The Upper and the Under World in Homeric and Archaic Epic, ed. M. Christopoulos and M.Païzi-Apostolopoulou, Ithaca, 2020, pp. 369-382
  9. Frame, The Myth of Return in Early Greek Epic, New Haven and London, 1978= http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hul.ebook:CHS_Frame.The_Myth_of_Return_in_Early_Greek_Epic.1978
  10. Jakobson, “Linguistics and Poetics,” in Style in Language, ed. T. Sebeok, Cambridge, 1960, 350-377.
  11. Kraus, Half-truths and One-and-a-half Truths: Selected Aphorisms, Chicago, 1990.
  12. B. Lord, The Singer of Tales, 1st ed. Cambridge, 1960; 2nd ed., Cambridge, 2000; 3rd ed., Washington DC, 2013 = http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hul.ebook:CHS_LordA.The_Singer_of_Tales.2000
  13. Lincoln, “The Indo-European Cattle-Raiding Myth,” History of Religions 16.1, 1976, 42-65.
  14. P. Martin, The Language of Heroes: Speech and Performance in the Iliad, Ithaca 1989=http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hul.ebook:CHS_Martin.The_Language_of_Heroes.1989
  15. Massetti, L., “HermesἈργεϊφόντηςand Agni bhā́r̥jīka‑.” Indogermanische Forschungen 127/1, 2022, 131–50.
  16. Mauss, “Essai sur le don: Formes et raison de l’échange dans les sociétés archaïques,” L’année sociologique, nouvelle série, tome 1, 1923-1924, 149-279. Translated by W. D. Halls, with a foreword by Mary Douglas as The Gift: The form and reason for exchange in archaic societies, New York and London, 1990.
  17. Michelini, “Hybris and Plants,” Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 82.1978, 35-44
  18. Muellner, The Meaning of Homeric ΕΥΧΟΜΑΙ Through its Formulas, Innsbruck, 1976 = https://chs.harvard.edu/book/muellner-leonard-the-meaning-of-homeric-eyxomai-through-its-formulas/
  19. Muellner, The Anger of Achilles: Mēnis in Greek Epic, Ithaca, 1996= http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hul.ebook:CHS_MuellnerL.The_Anger_of_Achilles.1996
  20. Nagy, The Best of the Achaeans: Concepts of the Hero in Archaic Greek Poetry, 2nd edition, Baltimore, 1999 = http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hul.ebook:CHS_NagyG.The_Best_of_the_Achaeans.1999
  21. Nagy, Homer’s Text and Language, Urbana and Chicago, 2004 = http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hul.ebook:CHS_Nagy.Homers_Text_and_Language.2004
  22. Nagy, “Comments on the Homeric Iliad and Odyssey, restarted 2022,” Classical Continuum, 2022. https://continuum.fas.harvard.edu/a-sampling-of-comments-on-the-homeric-iliad-and-odyssey-restarted-2022/.
  23. Roisman. 1990. “Eumaeus and Odysseus—Covert Recognition and Self-Revelation?” Illinois Classical Studies 15: 215–23
  24. J. Verdenius, “AINOΣ,” Mnemosyne 15.1962, 389
  25. Zieliński, “Die Behandlung gleichzeitiger Ereignisse im antiken Epos,” Philologus Supplementband, 8: 405-449


Further reading:

  1. Frame, Myth of Return and
  2. Frame, Hippota Nestor.
  3. Nagy, Best of the Achaeans.

[1] For a historical and performative explanation of the parallel structure of both Homeric epics, see Frame 2009: §§4.20-4.71, esp. §§4.27-4.36. I prefer not to use the term ‘book’ for the Iliad and Odyssey, since it is an anachronism. In the medieval manuscripts that have transmitted the poems to us, the ‘books’ of Homer are called rhapsō(i)diai ‘rhapsodies,’ in other words, performance units for professional performers of the epic, who were called rhaspsōidoi ‘rhapsodes.’ This is the term even though the medieval manuscripts themselves, properly codices (plural of codex) are pages of vellum (animal skins) bound like our books rather than the scrolls of papyrus that were in use in antiquity. The term ‘book’ is inapposite even for our world, in which they would be called ‘chapters’.

[2] Zieliński 1899-1901: 405: “Wenn der Dichter von den beiden Handlungen…keine missen wöllte, so berichtete er sie beide, aber nicht als parallele, sondern als einanderfolgende Handlungen.” Zieliński was a mentor of Mikhail Bakhtin.

[3] On this point see Muellner 1996: 77-78 and n.59. The Greek word that means “meanwhile” (metaxu) is never, to my knowledge, used in Homer or even in the Classical period of Ancient Greece (5th and 4th Centuries BCE) to insert one parallel narrative inside another the way that we do. I note that Odysseus’ tales in the third ‘quartet’, Rhapsodies 9-12, are told sequentially by him in flashback, not by the master narrator of the Odyssey.

[4] On this particular word, which he translates ‘mentally reconnect’, see the comments on 15.1-3 in G. Nagy, “Comments on the Homeric Iliad and Odyssey, restarted 2022,” Classical Continuum, 2022, https://continuum.fas.harvard.edu/a-sampling-of-comments-on-the-homeric-iliad-and-odyssey-restarted-2022/ on Odyssey 1.88-89, 1.320-322, and 15.1-2.

[5] Frame 1978 6-33: 153-162.

[6] Athena has the same function for Diomedes in the Iliad, whose father Tydeus she also protected: see Iliad 10.482 where she empneuse menos ‘blew mental energy’ into him.

[7] Other examples of disguised gods standing next to someone during the day: Iliad 4.92, 5.123, 22.228, 22.115 Iliad 2.172 to Odysseus and only him, and Iliad 22.215 to Achilles and only him. Note that these examples are all strikingly different from her epiphany to Achilles in Iliad 1.194-198, where she grabs his hair from behind (a gesture of restraint) to stop him from killing Agamemnon, and he turns around and alone sees her, or rather her eyes. All these distinctive details can be accounted for, though not here.

[8] Iliad 2.790, 3.129, 11.199, 15.173, 24.87.

[9] A. Hoekstra 1989: II 232 on 15.9, states incorrectly that she “appears undisguised.”

[10] Compare Iliad 15.256-257, where Apollo, after standing beside him, reveals himself to Hector using first person verbs in just such a relative clause “Phoibos Apollo of the golden sword, I who as before / protect you.” At Odyssey 15.292-293, the narrator tells us that it is Athena who sends the tail wind for Telemakhos, lest there be any doubt that it might be Hermes.

[11] My use of the word “lies” for Homeric Epic could be misleading, so I clarify it here for the rest of my presentation. What seem to be “lies” (like Odysseus’ so-called “Cretan lies,” or Athena’s information about Penelope here at the beginning of Rhapsody 15) must be understood in terms of the poetics of oral traditions. They are often identifiable as multiforms (to use the terminology of A. Lord 1960, 2000: 100), other versions of traditional tales that can be genuine and true either on another level or in another telling of the poem. It is best to assume that the tuned-in audience apprehends them as such. Consequently, we need to understand them neither as half-truths nor whole truths but as “one and a half-truths,” to use the expression of K. Kraus 1990, and for a proof of concept essay on the “Cretan lies” as multiforms of Odysseus’ homecoming, see D. Frame 2020.

[12] For another skewing by Athena with regard to the maidservant protecting Telemakhos’ possessions, see note 19, below.

[13] This is an exaggeration; the Homeric gods do not have such powers, though Athena does help Odysseus with the necessary trickery to give him and his son, the swineherd, and the cowherd the upper hand. The mention of cattle rustling may surprise, but it is a primordial heroic activity; what is behind cattle rustling and the importance of the herders in Odysseus’ small team is a long tradition of pastoral nomadism that goes back to Indo-European society. Compare Iliad 1.154, where cattle rustling is, as here, imagined as the default activity between hostile parties in the epic world; for comparable poetic themes in other Indo-European traditions, such as the Irish Táin Bó Cúalinge, see B. Lincoln 1976.

[14] The classic anthropological work on this topic is worth reading: Mauss 1923-1924, translated into English as Mauss 1990, with a foreword by Mary Douglas.

[15] On the hubris of plants, see Michelini 1978.

[16] For instance, the lyre that Hermes creates on his first day in the world by boring holes (note: moving in and out) in a tortoise shell, Homeric Hymn to Hermes lines 39-64, and that he ends up exchanging, along with Apollo’s own cows, which he had cleverly stolen, for a place on Olympus. Hermes also has important connections to fire and the sacrificial ritual, which is boundary-crossing; see below.

[17] See n.11 above for the qualified use of the word “lies.”

[18] Odyssey 17.591-592, where the extra line specifies that Telemakhos is holding his head near his interlocutor so that no one else can hear him speaking; and Iliad 17.553-555 (two extra lines follow), where Athena is elaborately sent down in disguise by Zeus (17.545-552, esp. 17.546 ‘you see, his minds was changing’, which Zeus signals with a teras, a rainbow) to tell Menelaos that he’d better rescue the body of Patroklos. There are no reasons, paleographic or otherwise, to suspect the legitimacy of these unusual lines as expressive deviations from convention.

[19] W.B. Stanford on 15.62 (Stanford 1962: ii, 242) dismisses 15.63 as superfluous, without observing its unconventionality within the formulaic system for speech introduction. Van Thiel 1991:203 brackets the line, while Allen 1919 does not; Hoekstra 1989 takes no notice of 15.63, see below, n.21.

[20] Athena (1.24-25) earlier told Telemakhos to assign the protection of his goods before marriage to the best of his maidservants. I suggest that Helen’s comment reflects the norm, namely, that the task of protecting/accumulating a groom’s gifts for his bride before marriage properly belongs to his mother, not a servant. Athena suggested entrusting the task to a special maidservant instead because she has just been urging Telemakhos to mistrust Penelope (1.16-23). See also 19.525, where Penelope describes herself as ‘keeping everything [in the household] secure.’ E. Brock 1985: 10 n.19 says that in this suggestion Helen is “condescending” towards Telemakhos, whom “she considers a mere boy…too young to bother seducing herself,” yet her treatment of him throughout Rhapsody 4 and also in 15.171-178 is benign confidence-building, so why would she undercut him here?

[21] Hoekstra 1989: 264 says that the occurrence of his whole-line naming at 15.554 “contributes to conferring a heroic status on the young squire.”

[22] For the meaning of mūthos as ‘authoritative speech,’ see R. Martin 1989.

[23] Frame 2009: §2.90; on Nestor’s irony, see especially Frame 2009, §2.39-2.44.

[24] See the note on lines 223-281 in the Oxford commentary (Hoekstra 1989: 245-246), who cites German and British scholarship; Hartmut Erbse (1972: 53-54), however, defended the genealogy as legitimizing the prophetic skills of the seer by asserting his relationship to a famous family of seers.

[25] For a similarly playful and suggestive use of the –menos suffix, see the participle pe-pnu-menos ‘having been blown/inspired’ that Telemakhos begins to receive after interacting with Mentēs in Rhapsody 1; there is also a formula with the same words, empneuse menos ‘blew menos into’ Iliad 10.482 (Athena is the subject), 15.60, 15.262, 20.110, Odyssey 24.520 (Athena is the subject). I note that the Greek verb klu– only exists in the active voice, so that the middle participle ending –menos in the character’s name might be perspicuous.

[26] To be fair, Eumaios says the same thing of (and to) Odysseus in his shelter (14.130, 135-136), not an unrealistic view after the length of his absence. Penelope’s suitors would certainly concur.

[27] On the question of Telemakhos’ identity, see also remarks above on the whole-line naming of Telemakhos in this rhapsody.

[28] For the meaning of endukeōs, see the comment on 7.256, G. Nagy, A Sampling of Comments on Odyssey Rhapsody 7, https://classical-inquiries.chs.harvard.edu/a-sampling-of-comments-on-odyssey-rhapsody-7/ This formula is used to express the strong affection between hosts and guests, including that between Odysseus and the goddess Kalypso, 7.256, which is erotic as well as emotional.

[29] See for example, for the purnon kai kotulēn in 15.312, 17.12 and compare Iliad 22.494-495, where Andromache imagines her orphaned son, Astuanax, pulling at the tunic or the cloak of his father’s friends, begging for a drink (again, kotulēn) that will not even moisten the roof of his mouth.

[30] Muellner 1976: 96-97 =  http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hul.ebook:CHS_MuellnerL.The_Meaning_of_Homeric_eukhomai.1976.

[31] The meaning of this epithet of Hermes, conventionally translated either ‘attendant’ or ‘messenger’, has been unknown. A forthcoming article by Laura Massetti, who has published a new interpretation of another epithet of Hermes often associated with it, Argeiphontēs, in Massettti 2022, has a contribution forthcoming on diaktoros, where she interprets it as meaning ‘whose brightness shines through the night,’ with parallels in Sanskrit to epithets of the fire god, Agni, for both epithets. The symbolic importance of mastery of fire seems as relevant to this context as that of ‘attendant’, which may be the word’s surface meaning.

[32] On the meaning of the verb dra– in Greek drama, see Nagy 1990: 13§13.

[33] Dindorf 1885: II 697 on 15.95.

[34] Dindorf 1885: II 614 on 15.319: the comment is on the words ‘because of Hermes’, and it says ‘because [he is a] herald (kērux).’

[35] On the concept of ainos, see Verdenius 1962: 389 and Nagy 1999: 237-242, 12§17-12§21, citing Jakobson 1960.

[36] In the Doloneia (Rhapsody 10 of the Iliad), a multiform of this tale, it is Odysseus who fails to wear a cloak. The story in Odyssey 14 is in fact qualified as an ainos; for more on its relationship to the Doloneia, see Muellner 1976 p. 97 n.43, https://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hul.ebook:CHS_MuellnerL.The_Meaning_of_Homeric_eukhomai.1976 and Dué and Ebbott 2010: commentary on Iliad 10.149, https://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hul.ebook:CHS_Due_Ebbott.Iliad_10_and_the_Poetics_of_Ambush.2010; see also H. Roisman 1990, who argues that Eumaios and Odysseus recognize each other but without admitting it overtly to each other until the right time.

[37] For an eloquent description of Eumaios’ portrayal, see J. Christensen 2020: 186-189.

[38] For a typical description of the golden age in Epic style, see Hesiod, Works and Days, lines 109-126.

[39] As argued by Christensen 2020: 162 and n. 30, on the basis of ancient commentators.

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