Odyssey 24

By Gregory Nagy | 2022.12.30

This essay, posted 2022.12.30 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.

Figure 48a. “Mercury Conducting the Souls of the Suitors to the Infernal Regions” (1805). After John Flaxman (English, 1755–1826). Purchased as part of the Oppé Collection with assistance from the National Lottery through the Heritage Lottery Fund 1996. Image via the Tate.


Odyssey 24 is the final “book” of the Odyssey as we know it, but it is also the final book of a complete set of 48 books including the 24 books of the Iliad as well as the 24 books of  the Odyssey.[1] A historically more accurate word for these 48 “books,” in terms of epic song as performance, would be “rhapsodies.”[2] In Odyssey 24, the last of the 48 Homeric rhapsodies, the master-singer of tales[3] turns to a retelling of three major scenes that will bring closure not only to the Odyssey but also to the entire Homeric master-tale of the Trojan War and its aftermath, all to be retold in our Iliad and Odyssey combined. Without this closure, the preceding 47 Homeric rhapsodies would be incomplete—even though the Odyssey all by itself, with its 24 rhapsodies, may at first seem to be complete before Rhapsody 24 even begins, that is, already at line 296 of Rhapsody 23, at which point Odysseus has already eliminated the suitors of his wife Penelope and is now happily reunited with his faithful queen, now that he is once again king of Ithaca. The Homeric scholia report that this verse, 296 in Odyssey 23, was the very last verse of the Odyssey as supposedly composed by Homer—in the opinion of both Aristarchus and his predecessor, Aristophanes of Byzantium, who were the foremost editors of the Homeric text at the Library of Alexandria in the second century BCE. Whatever the full opinion of Aristarchus and Aristophanes may have been, there is evidence to show that both these editors of Homeric poetry retained in their editions of the base text the remaining lines of Odyssey 23 and the lines of Odyssey 24 as we have them.[4] And the fact remains that the closure of our Homeric Odyssey in Rhapsody 24 is also a closure for our Homeric Iliad. More than that, this final rhapsody for the Odyssey as well as for the Iliad and Odyssey combined marks the notional end of the heroic age.[5]

Plot Summary

There are three major scenes in Rhapsody 24 of our Odyssey.

  1. The first of these three scenes in Odyssey 24 takes place in the underworld. The scene here is more compressed than a comparable scene that takes place earlier, in Odyssey 11. In the earlier scene, Odysseus visits the underworld while he is still alive—and he manages, after his visit, to leave the underworld while staying alive. In Odyssey 24, as in Odyssey 11, the heroes who are pictured in the underworld are already dead, but, unlike what we see in Odyssey 11, their spirits in Odyssey 24 manage to engage in a dialogue with each other about their past lives as if they were somehow still alive. The speakers in this ghostly dialogue are the dead Agamemnon and the dead Achilles. In the course of their dialogue, we see at work a comparison of three tales defining three Homeric heroes: not only Achilles and Agamemnon, both already dead, but also Odysseus, who is still alive. Unlike what we see in Odyssey 11, however, where Odysseus is visiting Hādēs and then gets to leave this underworld while still alive, the living Odysseus here in Odyssey 24 is quite absent from Hādēs. Whereas this living Odysseus had been engaged in dialogues with spirits of the dead when he had visited Hādēs in Odyssey 11, the dialogues of Odyssey 24 involve only the dead in the underworld, not the living Odysseus, who is now king again in his kingdom of Ithaca.


  1. The second scene takes place in the garden of Laertes, father of Odysseus. This garden is the setting for the recognition of the son by the father. To be recognized by Laertes is for Odysseus a reconnection with his heroic ancestry.


  1. The third of the three scenes is a narration of conflict as imagined in a pre-civic society, where the relatives of the suitors who had been killed by Odysseus and his followers now initiate a feud, a vendetta, against the killers. But the conflict between the two feuding sides is arrested by divine intervention. The interveners here are the divinities Zeus and Athena.


The Poetics of the First Scene

Before the Odyssey comes to an end, the Singer of Tales reaches back to what seems to be the beginning of the Iliad. It is as if the Odyssey, as a second epic, could now restart before it ends by reaching back into the first epic, the Iliad. Still, there will be no restart here. The plot of that first epic had started with a grand feud between Achilles and Agamemnon, but the plot of the second epic will now come to an end with a resolution of that feud. The feuding between the two heroes is over, so that these two main characters of the Iliad can now take time to review not only what happened in the Iliad but also, beyond the Iliad, how the two of them died, each his own way. Since they are now dead, they have to speak ghost to ghost, but that is not enough for Agamemnon. He must also speak with the new ghosts, the Suitors of Penelope, who have been freshly killed by Odysseus. These new ghosts will now give him a retrospective on the Odyssey. This way, Agamemnon can compare the story of his own life with the stories of both Odysseus and Achilles. And the comparison will be most sad for him.[6]

Major Elements in the First Scene

Relevant words and names

Hermes; Hādēs; psūkhē, psūkhai (plural) ‘spirit(s)’; Suitors; Ōkeanos, White Rock, Gates of the Sun, District of Dreams, Meadow of Asphodel; Achilles; Patroklos, Antilokhos, Ajax; Agamemnon; death of Achilles; hero cult; funeral “games” as athletic contests; the golden jar; Dionysus; Thetis; lament; tomb or tumulus of Achilles; Hellespont; olbios ‘blessed’ with reference to hero cult; death of Agamemnon; Clytemnestra; Penelope; kleos ‘glory by way of song’; nostos ‘homecoming, song about homecoming’; poetics of praise and blame

The god Hermes conducts the psūkhai ‘spirits’ of the dead suitors through the underworld, which is generally imagined as a frightening realm known as Hādēs. A simile comparing these spirits to gibbering bats in a cave, at verses 6–9, is censured by Plato’s Socrates in Republic 3.387a5 as unfit for the phulakes ‘Guardians’ of an ideal State to hear, on the grounds that the very image of spirits as bats in a cave instills a general fear of death.[7] Even more generally, the spirits are imagined here as passing from the world of light and life into a world of darkness and death. Another way to think of these two distinct worlds is to picture consciousness on one side and unconsciousness on the other side. Situated between these two worlds here are five mythological landmarks, verses 11–12: the cosmic river Ōkeanos; the White Rock (leukas petrā), the Gates (pulai) of Hēlios the Sun; the District (dēmos) of Dreams, and, finally, the Meadow (leimōn) of Asphodel (the flower asphodelos). In other Homeric contexts, it would be sufficient for only one of these five landmarks, the Ōkeanos, to figure as a separator of light and life from darkness and death, of consciousness from unconsciousness—as in Odyssey 10.508–512, 11.12–22, 12.1–4. In the present context, four other separators are listed, each one of which can be considered a multiform that has the same kind of built-in function of referring to a separator or a meeting-point between two opposite worlds. In Homeric poetry, there is no other attestation of the White Rock or of the District of Dreams, although other poetry shows traces of such landmarks (as in Alcman PMG 1.45–49).[8] But Homeric poetry does refer elsewhere to the Gates of the Sun (as in Iliad 5.395–404, 646; 11.671–761; 23.71–76; Odyssey 4.809.[9]

As the psūkhai ‘spirits’ of the dead suitors are being conducted by the god Hermes toward their otherworldly destination, which is unspecified, they come to a place called the Meadow of Asphodel, verse 13, which is an abode for psūkhai ‘spirits’ described here as eidōla ‘images’ of the dead, verse 4. Elsewhere in Homeric diction, in Iliad 23.72 and in Odyssey 11.476, this same description applies to disembodied spirits of the dead who are linked with the space that is generally known in other contexts as Hādēs. But the Meadow of Asphodel is not exactly Hādēs. Elsewhere in Homeric diction, this Meadow is where the spirit of Achilles himself abides, as in Odyssey 11.539. Also, in Odyssey 11.573, the Meadow of Asphodel is pictured as a “happy hunting ground”—to borrow an image from the Great Plains tribes of native Americans—where the great hunter Orion can hunt for all time to his heart’s content, as we read in Odyssey 11.572–575. In the Homeric Hymn to Hermes, verses 221 and 344, the same Meadow of Asphodel becomes a pathway for the Cattle of the Sun after Hermes steals this solar herd from Apollo. And now, as we see here in Odyssey 24.13, just as we saw earlier in Odyssey 11.539, the Meadow of Asphodel is once again featured as the place where the psūkhē ‘spirit’ of Achilles is to be found: here he is, in the company of other psūkhai ‘spirits’, who are listed in the following order: Patroklos, Antilokhos, Ajax, at verses 15–18.

There are Iliadic resonances linked with all three of these heroes. In the case of Antilokhos, at verse 16, he is second only to Patroklos as the dearest companion of Achilles.[10] In the case of Ajax, he is described here at verses 17–18 as the second-best of all the Achaeans, after Achilles—a description parallel to what we read in Iliad 2.760–770.[11]

Next, at verses 21–22, the company of psūkhai ‘spirits’ listed so far is now joined by the psūkhē of Agamemnon, who is coming from some other direction, at the head of another company of psūkhai ‘spirits’—those who had been killed together with Agamemnon when Aigisthos with the help of Clytemnestra ambushed the king after he had made his way back home from Troy. At this point, we might have expected the psūkhē of Agamemnon to address the psūkhai ‘spirits’ of the dead suitors, asking them directly: how did you all die? And then I will tell you how we died. But such a dialogue is postponed till verses 99–105. Instead, here at verse 23, it is Achilles himself—or, let us say, it is his psūkhē ‘spirit’—who initiates a dialogue with the psūkhē ‘spirit’ of Agamemnon. You would think that the psūkhē ‘spirit’ of Achilles had only now for the first time encountered the psūkhē ‘spirit’ of Agamemnon since he died. But, as we see at verses 24–34, Achilles already knows what happened to Agamemnon and to his followers after they had made their way back home from Troy: they died an inglorious death, murdered by Aigisthos, lover of the estranged wife of Agamemnon, Clytemnestra. Conversely, as we see at verses 36–97, Agamemnon already knows what happened to Achilles, who never went home because he died at Troy, but whose glorious death there earned him the greatest honors.[12]

Although the gender of psūkhē ‘spirit’ in referring here to the spirits of Achilles and Agamemnon in the course of their dialogue is feminine, as we see at verses 23 and 35, the pronouns referring to the two dead heroes in the narrative that frames their dialogue continue to show the masculine gender, and the use of the feminine gender is discontinued altogether in the wording of the actual I-you dialogue between the two ghosts: instead, as Achilles and Agamemnon proceed to speak to each other at verses 24–34 and at verses 36–97 respectively, they revert in their I-you dialogue to the masculine gender that they once had owned as speakers in Homeric narrative.

The dialogue between the psūkhē ‘spirit’ of Achilles and the psūkhē ‘spirit’ of Agamemnon frames a retrospective retelling of stories, taken separately, about what the two heroes had achieved at Troy—after all is said and done. In the case of Agamemnon, the retelling centers on his ultimate failure as a character in his own story. In the case of Achilles, on the other hand, the retelling centers on his ultimate success—despite his death. The verses at 24–34 are spoken by the psūkhē ‘spirit’ of Achilles, as noted at verse 23. Achilles is addressing the psūkhē ‘spirit’ of Agamemnon: too bad, Achilles says without gloating, that things did not work out well for you.

Then the verses at 36–97 of Odyssey 24 are spoken by the psūkhē ‘spirit’ of Agamemnon, as noted at verse 35, who in turn addresses the psūkhē ‘spirit’ of Achilles: without attempting to detract from the glory in store for Achilles, Agamemnon retells, in second-person narrative, the death and funeral and entombment of Achilles. You were killed; we arranged for your funeral; we made a tomb for you; we held funeral games in your honor.

In these verses 36–97, the narrative embedded in the words of Agamemnon is pervaded by references to the hero cult of Achilles. In what follows, I offer a brief inventory of some of these references.[13]

I start with the invocation of Achilles at verse 36:

ὄλβιε Πηλέος υἱέ, θεοῖσ’ ἐπιείκελ’ Ἀχιλλεῦ

‘O you olbios son of Peleus, godlike Achilles !’

Agamemnon here addresses Achilles as olbios, which would mean ‘fortunate’ on the surface. Beneath the surface, however, olbios here can be interpreted as ‘blessed’, referring to the sacred status of a cult hero.[14]

Then, there is a followup narrative at verses 37–39:

ἀμφὶ δέ σ’ ἄλλοι | κτείνοντο Τρώων καὶ Ἀχαιῶν υἷες ἄριστοι | μαρνάμενοι περὶ σεῖο

‘On all sides of you [= your corpse], the rest of them | were being slaughtered, sons of both Trojans and Achaeans, the best, | as they were fighting over you [= your corpse]’.

The Achaeans and the Trojans are battling here over the possession of the corpse of Achilles. The mentality of needing to possess the body of the dead hero, whether he was a friend or an enemy in life, is typical of hero cults, in that the corpse of the cult hero was viewed as a talisman of fertility and prosperity for the community that gained possession of the hero’s body.[15]

The narrative reaches a climax with a viewing of the corpse of Achilles at the very moment when he is slain in battle, at verses 39–40:

σὺ δ’ ἐν στροφάλιγγι κονίης | κεῖσο μέγας μεγαλωστί

‘There you were, lying in a swirl of dust. | You lay there so huge in all your hugeness.’

The corpse of Achilles is described here as larger than life. This wording applies to Achilles also in Iliad 18.26–27, where he stages himself as a corpse while mourning the death of Patroklos—and where he is lamented by his divine mother Thetis as if he were already a corpse himself.[16] Elsewhere, in the Alexandra of Lycophron (860), the corpse of Achilles is described as nine cubits long. As we see from lore preserved in the historical period about cult heroes, they were conventionally pictured as far larger in death than they had been in life. Among the most striking examples is the corpse of Orestes as cult hero, described as seven cubits long in Herodotus 1.68; there is a pointed reference, without naming him, to Orestes as son of Agamemnon in Odyssey 24.23. The status of Orestes as cult hero can be connected with myths concerning the involvement of Agamemnon’s descendants in the region of Troy: for example, the island of Lesbos was reportedly settled by a hero named Penthilos, son of Orestes, as we read in Pausanias 2.18.5–6, Aristotle Politics 5.1311b27.[17]

Relevant to the status of Achilles himself as a cult hero is this further picturing of his corpse at a later point, where it is lying in state on the occasion of his funeral, at verse 59:

περὶ δ’ ἄμβροτα εἵματα ἕσσαν

‘They [= the Nereids] dressed you [= your corpse] in immortalizing clothes’.

At the funeral of Achilles, his divine mother Thetis and her sister Nereids dress the hero’s corpse in clothes that are ambrota ‘immortalizing’. The adjective ambrotos here means ‘immortalizing’, not simply ‘immortal’, as we can see also in related contexts as at verses 670 and 680 of Iliad 16.[18]

We see another sign of future immortalization for Achilles in what we read at verses 73–77: after the cremation of the corpse of Achilles, his bones and those of the already cremated corpse of Patroklos are placed into a golden jar that had been given by the god Dionysus to the goddess Thetis. And the tomb of the hero is where the golden jar will be deposited. This jar, as we know from the comparative evidence of other poetic references (especially Stesichorus PMG 234), is a distinctive sign of the hero’s future immortalization after death.[19]

The tumbos ‘tomb’ of Achilles is ‘heaped up’ by his fellow-warriors to entomb his bones and the bones of Patroklos, as we read at verse 81: so the tomb is a heaped-up tumulus. And this tumulus is situated on top of a high promontory that looks out over the sea of the Hellespont, as we read at verse 82, so that it may shine from afar as a beacon light of salvation for all those who sail through the troubled waters of that dangerous sea—not only ‘now’ in the heroic past but also in the post-heroic future, verses 83–84. The time frame indicated as ‘now’ here is the era of the heroes who fought in the Trojan War, but the future is of course the ever movable here-and-now of Homeric reception.[20] Already in Iliad 23.248, Achilles makes a pointed reference to the Greeks of the future who will be sailing past the promontory on top of which his tomb is located and marveling at the sight of the structure, which is called a sēma ‘tomb’ at Iliad 23.257.[21]

After the making of the tumulus that will become the tomb shared by Achilles and Patroklos, described at verses 80–84 of Odyssey 24, the following verses 85–86 describe the funeral games held in honor of Achilles. The details of this description match closely the details we can gather from historical evidence about athletic contests held in honor of cult heroes.[22]

The athletic contests at the funeral games of Achilles and the prizes to be won in these contests are instituted for the purpose of compensating for his death, and, at verse 91, such an act of compensation is expressed by way of the prepositional phrase epi soi (ἐπὶ σοί), which can be translated roughly as ‘in your honor’. As we can see clearly from a variety of external sources, the syntactical construct combining the preposition epi with the dative case of a given hero’s name refers to the cult of that hero.[23]

Besides the references to the hero cult of Achilles in the overall narrative about the funeral of Achilles as retold by the spirit of Agamemnon, we find in this narrative also another important set of references about Achilles. At verses 58–61, the narration focuses on laments sung for this hero, and the references to such laments have a bearing on traditions of singing laments for Achilles in the post-heroic age.[24] The goddess Thetis and her sister Nereids, as the family of Achilles, set the precedent for actually singing laments for Achilles: presumably, their singing can be described as góos ‘lament’, as we may infer by comparing the use of this same word in referring to the laments performed by Hector’s family in three distinct performances: Iliad 24.723 / 24.747 (also at 24.760) / 24.761. In the case of Hector’s funeral, there are also laments sung by non-family professionals, at verses 720–722: these professionals are aoidoi ‘singers’ who are men, as we see at verse 720 of Iliad 24, and they perform thrēnoi ‘laments’, as we see at verse 721; as they perform, the word that refers to their performance is thrēneîn ‘make lament’, verse 722, which is a verb derived from the noun thrēnos ‘lament’. Similarly here in Odyssey 24.61, we see the same verb thrēneîn ‘make lament’ applied to the singing of laments by the Muses themselves, who are in this context “professionals” by contrast with the Nereids, who are “family.”[25] The lamenting of Achilles by the Muses, divine patronesses of professional singing, is also described in the lyric poetry of Pindar, Isthmian 8.56–60.[26] These traditions about the singing of laments for Achilles show that the fame of Achilles in ancient Greek song culture—the hero’s kleos ‘glory’—is mediated not only by epic traditions, especially by the Homeric Iliad, but also by lyric traditions as exemplified by the poetics of Pindar.[27]

Here I return to what was said earlier in Odyssey 24, at verses 24–34, by the psūkhē ‘spirit’ of Achilles to the psūkhē ‘spirit’ of Agamemnon. What was said there about the outcome of the tale about Agamemnon is a foil for the outcome of the subsequent tale about Achilles. Whereas ancient Greek song culture gives Achilles supreme poetic glory for dying on the battlefield at Troy, away from home, Agamemnon gets no such glory for his inglorious death when he comes back home.

What gives the tale about Achilles a “happy ending” is the glory that he gets not only from his death on the battlefield but also from his funeral and his entombment in the environs of Troy, which inspire lamentations that extend into the post-heroic age. For a most striking example, we may consider an inherited custom connected with a premier social event for all Greeks, the festival of the Olympics in the historical era. As we learn from the testimony of Pausanias, a traveler who lived in the second century CE, there was a ritual event, marking this seasonally recurring Panhellenic festival, that centered on laments for Achilles: on an appointed day before the athletic events were to begin, the local women of Elis, the state that hosted the Olympics, would fix their gaze on the sun as it sets into the western horizon—and begin ceremonially to weep for the hero (Pausanias 6.23.3).[28]

In the light of such evidence for the glory of song reserved for Achilles in the post-heroic age—a glory that was thought to be his due in compensation for his death and funeral at Troy in the heroic age—we can more fully appreciate the force of the verses attributed to the spirit of Achilles speaking to the spirit of Agamemnon at verses 23–34 of Odyssey 24, where it is said that Agamemnon would have been better off if he too, like Achilles, had been killed at Troy: then the Achaeans would have made a tomb for him there, just as they had earlier made a tomb for Achilles. This way, as we read at verse 33, Agamemnon too, like Achilles, would have achieved a comparable kleos ‘glory’ of song for himself—and also for his son, Orestes, whose status as a cult hero in his own right has already been noted earlier.

Then, after this retelling of the fate of Agamemnon by the spirit of Achilles, the subsequent retelling of the fate of Achilles by the spirit of Agamemnon actively demonstrates a stark contrast in the kind of poetic glory achieved by these rival heroes. In the words of Agamemnon himself, his own kleos pales in comparison with the kleos achieved by his rival Achilles. As the spirit of Agamemnon himself declares at verse 94, the kleos of Achilles will be eternal and universal. This way, the words of Agamemnon himself as quoted in the Homeric Odyssey actually validate the kleos of Achilles in the Homeric Iliad.

But the ultimate validation, in Agamemnon’s own words, will be reserved for the kleos of Odysseus in the Odyssey. The kleos of Agamemnon pales not only in comparison with the kleos of Achilles but also in comparison with the kleos of Odysseus—and to speak of this kleos is the same thing as speaking of the Homeric Odyssey itself.

But how is this kleos of Odysseus, which outshines the kleos of Agamemnon, actually formulated in the Odyssey? For an answer, we need first to consider the kleos of Achilles in the Odyssey. By contrast with the kleos of this hero in the Iliad, the kleos of Achilles in the Odyssey is rivaled by the kleos of Odysseus—at least in terms of this one question: who is ‘the best of the Achaeans’?[29] At verse 478 of Odyssey 11, when the living Odysseus meets the spirit of the dead Achilles in Hādēs, he addresses Achilles as ‘best of the Achaeans’ (φέρτατ᾽ Ἀχαιῶν). But the Odyssey then has Achilles saying at verses 489–491 that he would rather be alive and the lowliest of serfs than to be dead and the kingliest of shades. Achilles here seems ready to trade places with Odysseus, who, unlike Achilles, succeeds in achieving a safe nostos or ‘homecoming’ from Troy.[30] What Achilles ruefully says here in Odyssey 11 is ironically conjuring up the glorious days of the Iliad when he had declared, in Iliad 9, that he will have an eternal kleos in compensation for a loss of nostos if he is killed at Troy. The significance of this declaration is that Achilles here faces a poetic fact: he will not get kleos, the glory of song, which is the Iliad in the making, if he chooses a nostos, a safe homecoming; by contrast, Odysseus will get his own kleos, his own glory of song, precisely by way of achieving a nostos, which for him is not only a safe homecoming but also a song about a safe homecoming—and which is the Odyssey in the making.[31]

If Achilles has no nostos in the Iliad, does it follow that Odysseus has no kleos in the Odyssey? How can Odysseus have supreme kleos in his own Odyssey if he gives to someone else the title ‘best of the Achaeans’? Odysseus seems to be taking himself out of contention when he gives that title to Achilles in the course of his visit to the underworld, as we saw at verse 478 of Odyssey 11; similarly, at verses 550–551, Odysseus calls Ajax the most heroic Achaean ‘next to Achilles’ (μετ᾽ ἀμύμονα Πηλείωνα) at verse 551. But Odysseus can afford to be generous in spirit to the two most heroic Achaeans of the Iliad tradition; the Odyssey will make him the most heroic Achaean in the Odyssey.[32]

In the underworld scene of Odyssey 24, the narrative again looks back to an Iliad tradition and beyond. As we already saw, the spirits of Achilles, Patroklos, Antilokhos, Ajax, and Agamemnon are all evocative of an Iliadic perspective on the kleos of the Trojan War. And, as we also saw, Achilles himself concedes at verse 33 that Agamemnon too has left behind an Iliadic kleos to be celebrated in the post-heroic age. Then Agamemnon in turn concedes at verses 93–94 that Achilles will have kleos for all time; but he adds at verses 95–97 that his own nostos was sinister, that it resulted in an inglorious death.

At this point, the retrospective preoccupation switches from Iliad to Odyssey, and here is where we come to grips with the kleos of Odysseus in the Odyssey. The psūkhai ‘spirits’ of Amphimedon and the other dead suitors of Penelope arrive in the underworld and, meeting the spirits of Agamemnon and company, Amphimedon now retells the tale of the Revenge of Odysseus at verses 121–190. Preceding the tale, at verses 107–108, there is an ironic reference to the dead suitors as aristoi ‘the best’: the irony is obvious, since all these men have been already bested by Odysseus in his role as the best of the Achaeans in the Odyssey. The story covers the epic deeds of Odysseus in the Odyssey, which amounts to his kleos in the epic, climaxing in his killing of the suitors. When the retrospective tale is done, the Agamemnon figure speaks again, and his effusive words function as a song of praise not only for Odysseus, to whom they are addressed by way apostrophe, but also for Penelope.

As we will now see from the words of Agamemnon, Odysseus ultimately owes his kleos—and his own Odyssey—to his wife Penelope, whereas Agamemnon owes the blighting of his own kleos to his own wife, Clytemnestra. My interpretation, as I have just formulated it here, depends in part on the my reading of verses 192–202 in Odyssey 24, which I will now quote and translate, with annotations added:

|192 ὄλβιε Λαέρταο πάϊ, πολυμήχαν’ Ὀδυσσεῦ, |193 ἦ ἄρα σὺν μεγάλῃ ἀρετῇ ἐκτήσω ἄκοιτιν· |194 ὡς ἀγαθαὶ φρένες ἦσαν ἀμύμονι Πηνελοπείῃ, |195 κούρῃ Ἰκαρίου, ὡς εὖ μέμνητ’ Ὀδυσῆος, |196 ἀνδρὸς κουριδίου. τῶ οἱ κλέος οὔ ποτ’ ὀλεῖται |197 ἧς ἀρετῆς, τεύξουσι δ’ ἐπιχθονίοισιν ἀοιδὴν |198 ἀθάνατοι χαρίεσσαν ἐχέφρονι Πηνελοπείῃ, |199 οὐχ ὡς Τυνδαρέου κούρη κακὰ μήσατο ἔργα, |200 κουρίδιον κτείνασα πόσιν, στυγερὴ δέ τ’ ἀοιδὴ |201 ἔσσετ’ ἐπ’ ἀνθρώπους, χαλεπὴν δέ τε φῆμιν ὀπάσσει |202 θηλυτέρῃσι γυναιξί, καὶ ἥ κ’ εὐεργὸς ἔῃσιν.

|192 O blessed [olbios] son of Laertes, Odysseus of many wiles, |193 it is truly with great merit [aretē] that you got to have your wife. |194 For the thinking [phrenes] of faultless Penelope was sound: |195 in a good way did she, daughter of Ikarios, have-in-mind [mnē-] Odysseus, |196 that properly-wedded [kouridios] husband of hers. Thus the glory [kleos] will never perish for him, |197 the glory that comes from his merit [aretē], and a song [aoidē] will be created for earthbound humans |198 by the immortals—a song that-brings-beautiful-and-pleasurable-recompense for sensible Penelope |199 —unlike the daughter of Tyndareos [= Clytemnestra], who masterminded [mēd-] evil deeds, |200 killing her properly-wedded [kouridios] husband. A hateful subject-of-song [aoidē] |201 she will be throughout all humankind, and she will make a harsh reputation [phēmis] |202 for women, female [thēluterai] that they are—even for the kind of woman who does noble things.

Annotations on the translation. In the original Greek wording, the prepositional phrase meaning ‘with great merit’ at verse 193 cannot “modify” a noun, and so we cannot translate this wording as ‘you got to have a wife with great merit’, in the sense of ‘you got to have a wife who has great merit’; rather, the phrase modifies the verb ‘you got’. Consequently, I translate aretē at verse 197 as ‘his merit’, not as ‘her merit’, interpreting this instance of aretē ‘merit’ at verse 197 as referring to the previous instance of aretē ‘merit’ at verse 193. In line with this interpretation, the kleos ‘glory’ of song that is signaled at line 196 as the compensation for the aretē ‘merit’ at verse 197 refers to ‘his’ kleos, not to ‘her’ kleos. This is not to say, however, that Penelope does not share with Odysseus his poetic glory. She does in fact share in her husband’s glory of song, and, much more than that, she is the cause of that glory. The kleos ‘glory’ that is signaled for Odysseus at verse 196 will become, as we read further at verse 197, an aoidē ‘song’ that compensates Penelope. This song will be a glory that Penelope will share with Odysseus. Contrasted to this positive sharing of glory in song is a negative sharing of inglorious song, ‘hateful’ song, about Clytemnestra, wife of Agamemnon. At verse 200, the stugerēaoidē ‘hateful song’ that will be sung about Clytemnestra—a song that will be ‘her’ song—is linked with a syntactically extraordinary expression ep’ anthrōpous, which I translate as ‘throughout humankind’. This expression is conventionally associated with the word kleos, as in Iliad 10.213, with reference to the spreading of fame far and wide by way of epic song.[33] But here at verse 200 of Odyssey 24, the song is negative: it is the song of Clytemnestra, and it is a song that blights kleos. To be contrasted is the song of Penelope, which brings kleos for her as well as for Odysseus. At verse 198, the epithet for this aoidē ‘song’ is khariessa ‘having kharis’, and I interpret kharis in this context as ‘beautiful and pleasurable recompense’.[34] The kharis or ‘beauty and pleasure’ of the ‘recompense’ here is the reciprocity of shared ownership, where Odysseus and Penelope share the kleos of the Odyssey writ large. But the negativity of the song of Clytemnestra will endanger even the positivity of the song of Penelope and of all women who are worthy of praise. There is a distinction being drawn here between Agamemnon, who is still left with a modicum of kleos, and Clytemnestra, the song about whom seems entirely negative. Such a distinction between men and women motivates, I think, the comparative form thēluterai at verse 202, which means not ‘more female’ but rather ‘female—as opposed to male’.[35]

The formal features of the praise directed at Penelope as well as at Odysseus are characteristic of praise poetry, to be contrasted with blame poetry as directed at Clytemnestra though not at Agamemnon himself.[36] These themes are relevant to the actual name of Clytemnestra, which is a nomen loquens or ‘speaking name’: the form Klutai-mḗstrē indicates that the wife of Agamemnon is ‘famed’, Klutai-, from the same root *kleu̯- as in kléos, on account of what she ‘devised’, conveyed by the element ‑mḗstrē, derived from the root mēd– of the verb mḗdomai ‘devise’. This element ‑mḗstrē, derived from mḗdomai ‘devise’, corresponds to the theme of κακὰ μήσατο ἔργα ‘she devised [mḗdomai] evil deeds’ at verse 199. As for the element Klutai– ‘famed’, it corresponds to the theme of stugerēaoidē ‘hateful song’ at verse 200. This hateful song will be not simply about the wife of Agamemnon. Rather, the song is being presented as the very essence of Klutai-mḗstrē, meaning ‘she who is famed for what she devised’. But there is a formal variant Klutai-mnḗstrē, where the element ‑mnḗstrē is derived from the root mnē-, meaning ‘have in mind’. In this case, the “speaking name” Klutai-mnḗstrē, also preserved in the latinized form Clytemnestra, means ‘she who is famed for what she had-in-mind [mnē-]’.[37] By contrast with Penelope, who ‘had-in-mind [mnē-] Odysseus in a good way’ at verse 195 (εὖ μέμνητ’ Ὀδυσῆος), Clytemnestra had-in-mind Agamemnon in a bad way. And, reciprocally, Agamemnon had-in-mind Clytemnestra in a bad way, since his original wooing of this woman he married has now come to a bad end: it is relevant here that the same verb-root mnē-, when the subject of this verb is masculine, can mean ‘woo’, as we can see most clearly in case of the masculine agent noun mnēstḗr ‘suitor [of a woman], he who woos [a woman]’.[38]

In this analysis of verses 192–202 in Odyssey 24, I have left for last a most important word, the first in the whole passage: it is the word olbios at verse 192, describing Odysseus, who is being addressed in absentia by the spirit of Agamemnon. The question is, does olbios mean ‘fortunate’ or ‘blessed’ here?  In the case of Odysseus, the Odyssey shows that this Homeric hero is ultimately not only fortunate but also blessed, and so the epithet olbios will in fact ultimately apply to him if he is to be venerated in the post-heroic age as a cult hero.[39]

As we have seen in verses 192–202 of Odyssey 24, Odysseus owes his successful homecoming to the mindfulness of his wife Penelope, who deserves only praise, as we read at 193–198. And it is in this context of success that Agamemnon addresses Odysseus as olbios, ‘blessed’, at verse 192. By contrast, Agamemnon blames his own wife Clytemnestra for sabotaging his own ‘homecoming’ or nostos, as we read at verse 96. Agamemnon at verse 94 contrasts his loss of ‘homecoming’ or nostos with the poetic ‘glory’ or kleos that Achilles will keep forever. But now, in verses 192–202, we see that Agamemnon makes another basic contrast—between himself and Odysseus. What caused Agamemnon to blight his own kleos—and his own nostos—was the fact that his wife was Clytemnestra, who had bad things in mind about him and who contrived bad things for him, as we read at verses 199-202. By contrast, the mindfulness of Penelope about Odysseus helped that hero secure his own kleos, highlighted at verse 196 in the context of verses 196–198. To add to the irony, Agamemnon’s words describe his violent death as lugros, ‘disastrous’, verse 96, and his wife Clytemnestra as oulomenē, ‘disastrous’, verse 97. Both of these epithets are words that evoke the poetry of epic: lugros, ‘disastrous’, is the epithet of the nostos or ‘song about homecoming’ that the singer Phemios sings in Odyssey 1.327, also the epithet of the nostos that Nestor narrates in Odyssey 3.132; further, oulomenē, ‘disastrous’, is the epithet of the anger of Achilles in Iliad 1.2.[40]

In the complex poetics of the First Scene, we have by now seen that the feuding of Achilles and Agamemnon in Rhapsody 1 of the Iliad is finally over in Rhapsody 24 of the Odyssey, so that the two main characters of the Iliad could now take time to review not only what happened in the Iliad but also, beyond the Iliad, how the two of them died, each his own way. Since they were now dead, they had to speak ghost to ghost, but that was not enough for Agamemnon. He also had to speak with the new ghosts, the suitors, who could now give him a retrospective on the Odyssey. This way, Agamemnon could compare the story of his own life with the stories of both Odysseus and Achilles. And the comparison must be most sad for him.

Despite the sadness of Agamemnon, the dialogue between him and Achilles in Rhapsody 24 of the Odyssey is marked by an eerie serenity in comparison to that tempestuous dialogue, a full-blown quarrel, that had taken place between these same two heroes in Rhapsody 1 of the Iliad. The dialogue of Achilles and Agamemnon in Hādēs begins, as we have seen, with retrospective retellings of their identities, shaped by the outcomes of their life stories. But then, as we have also seen, the focus shifts. The spirit of the dead Agamemnon compares his own sad tale of failure with the tale of Odysseus, who is still alive and who has so far achieved success in his story, now that this main hero of the Odyssey has regained his kingdom by eliminating the suitors of his wife Penelope, who has remained mindful of him—unlike the wife of Agamemnon, Clytemnestra, who was negatively mindful about her comparably unmindful husband and who caused his inglorious death. Meanwhile Odysseus, fortunate in his marriage, is highlighted in stark contrast to Achilles, that man of constant sorrow who never got married—and who remained an eternal bridegroom to be forever lamented by lovelorn brides-to-be in the song culture of ancient Greece.[41]

The Poetics of the Second Scene

The Odyssey does not end with the sad thoughts of Agamemnon. Odysseus still has to reconnect with his own ancestors, and so there needs to be a final recognition scene between the son and his father Laertes. This recognition scene is a testing of (a) perception, (b) morality, and (c) emotion.

Major Elements in the Second Scene

Relevant words and names

Recognition scene; Odysseus and Laertes recognize each other; gignōskein ‘recognize’; sophos ‘perceptive’, agathos ‘[morally] noble’, philos ‘near and dear’; ainos as ‘coded message’; sēma ‘sign, signal’; scar of Odysseus; garden of Laertes

In the recognition scene where Laertes the father of Odysseus recognizes his son, there is a ritualized testing not only of Laertes but also of Odysseus. The three criteria needed for such a testing of characters inside the plot of epic can be expressed in terms of three Greek adjectives with reference to what is needed for a listener to understand an ainos or ‘coded message’: you have to be (a) sophos ‘perceptive’, (b) agathos ‘[morally] good’, and (c) philos ‘near-and-dear’.[42] Odysseus is represented as most adept at speaking such coded messages or ainoi. Most relevant is an epithet spoken by the Sirens as they call out to this hero in Odyssey 12.184: Odysseus is addressed here as a man who is polu-ainos, a man ‘of many ainoi’, and this epithet, it can be argued, signals the challenge of recognizing the true Odysseus.[43] In general, the ainos is deployed in Homeric poetry in situations where the understanding of the listener is being challenged or tested, as in Iliad 9.524–525.[44] In the case of the recognition scene in Odyssey 24, the coded messages spoken by the son testing the father and then by the father testing the son are most validating for Odysseus as well as for Laertes. By extension, it can be argued that those who get to hear Homeric poetry will truly understand, in terms of criteria built into this poetry, only if they too pass the test: are they perceptive enough, moral enough, and capable of enough emotion to understand?[45] Such a question is relevant to the recognition scene in Odyssey 24. If listeners of the Homeric narration react negatively to the testing of Laertes by Odysseus, such negative feelings must surely stem from a sense that it is excessively cruel for a real Odysseus to be telling his father a story that implies not only the death of a pseudo-Odysseus but also, as Brian Breed (1999) has shown, the anger felt by this supposedly dead hero’s ghost over not having received from his family a ritually proper funeral and entombment that should have been his due. But perhaps that is precisely the point of the story: perhaps the perception of excessiveness is induced by Homeric poetry as a way of testing the emotional response of the listener in hearing the emotional response of Laertes, who reacts grievingly to the story as an indirect confirmation of his morbid fear that Odysseus has in fact died—and died away from home, so that he will never receive from his loved ones the honors due to the dead.

As for the testing of Odysseus by Laertes, he must prove to his father that he is really the native son who has returned. To pass the test, Odysseus shows Laertes visual proof, which is the scar from an old wound marking a youthful trauma: he had been gored by the tusk of a wild boar during a hunt at Parnassus, sacred mountain of Apollo. As the god of luminous intellect, Apollo can perhaps be viewed in this context as the ultimate enabler of the mental process of recognition as expressed by way of the verb gignōskein ‘recognize’, deployed at verse 346.

Laertes, the one who had originally sent young Odysseus away to Parnassus on that boar-hunt, recognizes the tell-tale scar at verse 331 of Odyssey 24, after the father asks his son at verse 329 for a sēma ‘sign, signal’ as proof of identity. But then the recognition is intensified. Odysseus now also proves that he knows everything about the Garden of Laertes. He had learned every detail from Laertes when Odysseus was a boy. As we read at verse 346, these details too are viewed as sēmata ‘signs, signals’ of the true identity of Odysseus, now recognized by Laertes, and, as already noted, the verb that signals such recognition at this verse 346 is gignōskein ‘recognize’.[46]

The young hero’s lessons in the garden and the hunting grounds of Mount Parnassus both exemplify rituals of initiation, bearing out what Olga Levaniouk (2011:62) has observed about the role of Odysseus “as a hero concerned with male maturation and one who emblematizes this process in epic”; such a role, as Levaniouk explains, is “a crucial ingredient of Odysseus’ return and reinstatement as a king and Penelope’s husband.”[47]

The poetics of the Third Scene

Now that Odysseus has reconnected with his own ancestors, with the successful final recognition scene between him and his father Laertes, there is one last challenge that confronts the hero before the Homeric Odyssey can finally come to an end. The story is not yet done, since Odysseus has killed the suitors of his wife Penelope, and now the male relatives of these suitors—at least, some of them—are ready to undertake a blood feud against Odysseus. But the feuding that has been triggered by the killing of the suitors must end; otherwise, the story cannot end.

Major Elements in the Third Scene

Relevant words and names

Athena; blood feud; vendetta; festival of Apollo; meaning of lukabas

The goddess Athena, with the support of her divine father Zeus, intervenes in the incipient fight between the relatives of the suitors on one side and the followers of Odysseus on the other side. She commands the people of Ithaca to stop the blood feud. She prevents further vendetta, much as Athena, as goddess of Athens, discontinues the very idea of feuding in the Eumenides of Aeschylus (première in Athens, 458 BCE).[48] I quote the elegant summary of Douglas Frame (2022) in his essay “The End of the Odyssey” (§1):

The battle with the relatives of the slain suitors ends as soon as it begins when Laertes, restored to youthful vigor by Athena, kills a single victim, and Athena calls a halt to further bloodshed. Awestruck by the goddess’s presence the suitors’ relatives quit the field and peace is established. The problem of a blood feud threatening to engulf Odysseus and his household has been raised and as quickly dismissed. A divinity with a commanding voice is the answer to the problem of reciprocal violence.

In his essay, Frame (2022) shows that this third and last part of Rhapsody 24, the scene of an incipient blood feud, reveals a distinctly Athenian phase in the evolution of Homeric poetry. By contrast, in terms of Frame’s reconstruction, there had existed an earlier Ionic phase, dating back to the heyday of the Ionian Dodecapolis in the late eighth and early seventh century, where the tale about the stopping of a blood feud was linked with the celebration of a new moon festival in honor of the god Apollo presiding over the yearly coming of spring. Such an earlier version of the tale was replaced in a later Athenian phase, where the focus shifted from Apollo to Athena in her own role as patroness of the city of Athens.

Traces of the earlier Ionic version of the Odyssey are evident throughout the epic, as in the use of the opaque word lukabas in Odyssey 14.161–162 and 19.306–307. Frame observes (§21) that this word “is clearly connected here with the interlunium, the dark of the moon”; and he adds that “the hidden Odysseus will reappear like the moon after its three days in hiding.”[49] Frame also observes (at §37) a correlation of details in the Odyssey that point to a yearly springtime festival held in the Ionian city of Miletus in honor of Apollo and celebrating the new year, when new magistrates began their year in office. Although, as Frame says (again at §37), “the time of year in the Odyssey is not definitely marked,” he is surely on the mark in insisting that Odysseus begins to regain control of his kingdom at precisely the same time when birds “begin to populate the narrative” by returning to Ithaca from their wintry absence and thus signaling the happy news that springtime is here. By the time Laertes recognizes Odysseus as his own son, even the wintry setting that marked the prolonged absence of the father from the royal palace has turned into a garden in full bloom.[50]

Toward a Homeric Conclusion 

But what about the post-Ionian phase of Odyssey 24, as posited by Frame, where a seemingly Athenocentric conclusion focusing on the goddess Athena replaces an earlier conclusion focusing on the god Apollo? In the “Third Scene,” as I have called it, there are traces of variant epic traditions that have been recombined in such a way as to fit more closely the reception of Homeric poetry at the festival of the Panathenaia in Athens, as distinct from earlier phases of reception at the festival of the Panionia in the Ionian Dodecapolis.

This is not to say, however, that such Panathenaic variant traditions, different as they are from the Panionian traditions, are explicitly Athenian in detail. Here I need to recall a central point I once made in two interconnected books about the evolution of the Homeric Iliad and Odyssey (Nagy 2009|2008 and 2010|2009). As I argued in both books, a distinct feature of what I am calling here a Panathenaic phase in the evolution of this poetry—and I could even call it simply an Athenian phase—was the studied avoidance of localized details that would point explicitly to the city-state of Athens, to the polis of Athens, as the locus of diffusion. As we see in Homeric poetry—but also well beyond—even the goddess Athena herself is not so much Our Lady of Athens—of the polis of Athens—as she is a notionally Panhellenic divinity who is acceptable to the widest possible variety of Greek-speaking polities that worship a goddess by that name (Nagy 2020.04.17). I stress here the relativity of Panhellenism, where divergent traditions are shaded over and convergent traditions are highlighted as much as possible—even though the absolutizing pan– ‘all’ in the term Panhellenism implies an absolute standard (Nagy 1990b:37), as we see in the use of the compound noun pan-Hellēnes ‘all Greeks’ in the Hesiodic Works and Days (528: πανελλήνεσσι) with reference to ‘all Greeks under the sun’ (526–528: ἠέλιος . . . πανελλήνεσσι φαείνει). Thus it is safe to say that Homeric poetry in the Athenian phase of its evolution is panhellenized and thus depoliticized to an extreme degree—though not absolutely.

To cite just one example: the Odyssey as we have it takes no stand about the location of ancient Ithaca: it is left undecided whether Homeric Ithaca had once been what is now the peninsula of Paliki, the northwest part of the island Kephallonia, Modern Greek Kefalonia, as argued by Robert Bittlestone (2005), or whether it was always the island of Ithaca, Modern Greek Ithaki. As the geologist John Underhill indicates, in his appendix to the book of Bittlestone, today’s “peninsula” of Paliki had once been an “insula,” an island in and of itself, which could be figured as Ithaca in the prehistoric second millennium BCE, but the later geological evolution of Paliki into a peninsula could easily have led to a re-identification of Homeric Ithaca with what was eventually known universally as the Ithaca of historical times. But the fact remains, Homeric poetry takes no stand: at verse 378 of Odyssey 24, for example, where old Laertes is reminiscing about the time when he was still the youthful king of Ithaca, he refers to his old self as king of the people of Kephallonia, while at verses 353–355 the wording of the same Laertes makes a distinction between the population of Ithaca and the polies ‘cities’ of the Kephallonians.

That said, I can now proceed to formulate my own conclusions about the conclusion of Odyssey 24, which in its own right is also the conclusion of all forty-eight rhapsodies of Homeric poetry at a terminal phase in the evolution of this poetry, that is, in its panhellenizing Athenian phase.

The blood-feud in Odyssey 24 that we see being motivated by the killing of the suitors is advocated by Eupeithes, aging father of Antinoos, the young man who had been the leader of the suitors. The nomen loquens or ‘speaking name’ of the father, Eupeíthēs, conveys the idea that he is ‘good [eu-] at persuading [peíthein]’—and that is what he was, good at persuading those of the men of Ithaca who would ultimately join him in the feud that he was advocating. As we read at verses 465–466 of Odyssey 24, Εὐπείθει | πείθοντ’, and I translate the wording this way: ‘by the one who-was-good-at-persuading [name Eupeíthēs] | were they persuaded [verb peíthestai]’. In the context of the assembly, 420-421, where the men of Ithaca are deliberating whether or not they should take up a feud with Odysseus, Eupeithes speaks first, 422–438, and he accuses Odysseus of being the cause of the deaths of not only those men of Ithaca who courted Penelope while occupying the royal palace. Odysseus had also caused, as Eupeithes says it, the deaths of all those other men of Ithaca who had sailed to Troy twenty years earlier with Odysseus—not one of whom has come back alive. Although all the assembled men are moved to pity by the tearful words of Eupeithes, as noted at 438, the words of the next speaker, who is the herald Medon and whose life had been spared by Odysseus after the slaughter of the suitors, speaks words that move the assembled men to fear, as we read at 439–450, since the herald tells how he had witnessed the agency of the goddess Athena herself in helping Odysseus slaughter the suitors. So, pity is now counterbalanced by fear. And then this speech of Medon is followed by the speech of the seer Halitherses, at 451–463, whose words highlight, as does the overall poetry of our Odyssey, the immorality of the suitors in their treatment of royalty. In response to the three speeches, however, more than half of the assembled men of Ithaca are persuaded by the extreme speech of Eupeithes, not by the moderating speeches of the herald and the seer; so, as we read further at 463–466, a majority of the men of Ithaca now jump to their feet and hastily break up the assembly, shouting war-cries and arming themselves for immediate battle against Odysseus as the king who has regained control of Ithaca—a king who might still abandon control, however, as Eupeithes says earlier at verses 430–432, if Odysseus were to escape attack from the would-be avengers of the suitors and find refuge in some kingdom outside of Ithaca.

Waiting for a battle with the would-be avengers of the suitors are the defenders of royalty. Listed at verses 496–499, they are: Odysseus himself, also Laertes his father and Telemachus his son; also Philoitios the herdsman of the royal herds of cattle and Eumaios the herdsman of the royal herds of swine; also Dolios, official gardener of the royal household in Ithaca, who had been transferred as a youth from the royal household of Penelope’s father, as we learn earlier, in Odyssey 4.735–737; and also, finally, there are the six sons of Dolios.

But Dolios in the Odyssey had seven sons, not six, as we see already in Odyssey 17.210, where we learn that Dolios had a seventh soon, Melantheus the goatherd, also called Melanthios, as at 21.175. This herdsman had collaborated with the suitors and was then punished for it, in an unspeakably cruel way, by the two other herdsmen, Philoitios and Eumaios, as we read in Odyssey 22.474–479;[51] comparable is the grim fate of the handmaids who had slept with the suitors, since these women too were also punished by the followers of Odysseus, again in an unspeakably cruel way, as we read in Odyssey 22.437–473.[52] Thus the goatherd Melantheus is already out of the picture by the time when the feud that is initiated by the would-be avengers of the suitors is taking shape in Odyssey 24, but I draw attention to the relevance of an “in-house” breakup here in loyalties between this herdsman and his six brothers, all six of whom were gardeners like their father Dolios—as we read further about those six men at verses 386–388 of Odyssey 24, and already at an earlier point, at verses 220–225.

The “in-house” breakup, as I have just described it, between Melantheus as herdsman and his six brothers as gardeners is a most telling point of contrast with the “political” breakup between anti-royal and pro-royal speakers participating in the assembly of Ithaca. In the case of what I have just called the political breakup, there is a majority of presumably aristocratic men being persuaded by Eupeithes, who as we have seen is the Persuader par excellence. By contrast, in the case of the “in-house” breakup, only a minority of supposedly non-aristocratic men reject their role as servants of royalty, and the only herdsman who betrays the royal house is Melantheus the goatherd, while the two other herdsmen—of swine and of cattle—stay loyal throughout, along with the six brothers of Melantheus, who are gardeners all.

The six sons of Dolios and their father, gardeners as they all are, may be servants, but their role as gardeners defines them as non-aristocratic servants only on the surface. Appearances here are most deceiving. Underneath the surface, even the role of Laertes himself, king that he once had been, should be the role of Chief Gardener, since the Garden of Laertes, as we will now see, is symbolic of the kingship that must be won back, first from the suitors and then from the would-be avengers of the suitors.

When Odysseus first encounters his father after twenty years of absence from Ithaca, he sees the kingly Laertes tending his royal garden—and the old man is at this point all by himself in the garden, since, as we read further at verses 220–225, the gardener Dolios and his gardener sons are at the moment performing their rustic tasks elsewhere in the countryside. The encounter of Laertes with his son Odysseus in the Royal Garden, as described in “Scene 2” of Odyssey 24, is then linked in “Scene 3” with the battle threatened by the would-be avengers of the dead suitors, since the actual confrontation for Odysseus and Laertes and the rest of their small group with the larger group of would-be avengers takes place right outside the oikos ‘household’ of Laertes. And the contexts of the word oikos, as we see it deployed at verses 208 and 358, show clearly that this ‘household’ is in turn located right next to the garden where Odysseus had reunited with Laertes in “Scene 2.” As for the context of the same word oikos at verse 365, we learn, in addition, that it was inside this ‘household’ where Laertes had been miraculously restored to youth by the agency of Athena after a ritual bath, described in full at verses 367–371. Then, as a rejuvenated king, Laertes himself can resume the royal role of Chief Gardener when he proceeds to engage in one-on-one combat with Eupeithes—and now he single-handedly kills this opponent of royalty with a throw of his spear, guided by Athena.

Just as Laertes, in his rejuvenated form as king, is the Chief Gardener, he is also the Chief Herdsman—and that is why he can be honored by way of the epithet ‘Shepherd of the People’ at verse 368 (ποιμένι λαῶν). In the Odyssey, there are no shepherds in the service of royalty who are mentioned by name, by contrast with the herdsman of swine who is named Eumaios and the herdsman of cattle who is named Philoitios—and there is no need in the Odyssey for such a named shepherd, since Laertes himself will now become a model of the Chief Shepherd once again— once he is restored to youth by the agency of Athena after his ritual bath at verses 367–371. Then, as a rejuvenated king, Laertes himself can resume the royal role of Chief Shepherd after he single-handedly kills Eupeithes, that opponent of royalty. Correspondingly, the goddess Athena, as the enabler of Laertes as king, can indirectly assume the role of Chief Shepherd herself, since the hero Mentor as the human realization of Athena in the Odyssey is honored at verse 456 by the same royal epithet ‘Shepherd of the People’ (Μέντορι ποιμένι λαῶν). In sum, the rejuvenated Laertes is figured as an intergenerational model for Odysseus himself as king of Ithaca.

Just as Athena, visualized as Mentor, is herself the royal Chief Shepherd in enabling the kingliness of Laertes as a model for Odysseus, so also the goddess can qualify, as we see elsewhere, as the Chief Gardener. Athena actually describes herself in the Eumenides of Aeschylus, verse 911, as the Gardener of the polis of Athens.[53]

In recalling one last time here the symbolic world of the Eumenides of Aeschylus, I now conclude by comparing what I have described as two different kinds of social breakup that are narrated in Odyssey 24. I noted first a “political” kind of breakup, as when a faction of the people of Ithaca decides to undertake a vendetta against Odysseus, and then I noted an “in-house” kind of breakup, as when some servants of Odysseus show disloyalty to their king while others remain loyal. In using these terms “political” and “in-house,” I follow at least partially a conceptual framework outlined by Richard Seaford (1994) with reference to the Greek words polis as ‘city-state’ and oikos as ‘house’ in the sense of a dynastic ‘House’. Comparable in the Eumenides of Aeschylus are the “in-house” dysfunctionalities of breakup in the House of Atreus, which are symbolic of a polis or city-state that is afflicted by civil strife that threatens to continue in an endless cycle of vengeance, of vendetta. What stops the vendetta, in the case of the polis or city-state, is an amnesty imposed by the intervening goddess Athena. So also in Odyssey 24, Athena intervenes by imposing an amnesty, literally a complete ‘forgetting’, an ek-lēsis, as we read at verse 485—which can happen only after the leader of the would-be avengers, Eupeithes, is killed by Laertes with the active help of Athena.

But there is a difference between the intervention of Athena in the Eumenides of Aeschylus and her earlier intervention in Odyssey 24. In the Eumenides, the old dysfunctionalities of royalty in the heroic age are swept away by the functionality of trial-by-jury in the post-heroic age, where the meaning of polis as a city-state, highlighted by an acropolis on top of which is located the temple of Athena, has replaced the earlier meaning of polis as a citadel of royal power, on top of which is located the fortified palace of the king. Unlike the polis as a city-state, the polis of Odysseus in the Odyssey could be pictured as a fortified palace perched on a citadel. And, in Odyssey 24, royalty remains hermetically sealed off in its own heroic past, so that the politics of the post-heroic future will have to be negotiated by Athena in the guise of Mentor, who is now viewed at the end of the Odyssey, at verses 546–548 of Odyssey 24, as a post-heroic citizen who can still keep in mind the thinking of the goddess Athena, guardian of his city-state.


Austin, N. 1975. Archery at the Dark of the Moon: Poetic Problems in Homer’s Odyssey. Berkeley.

BA. See Nagy 1979/1999.

Bittlestone, R. 2005. With J. Diggle and J. Underwood. Odysseus Unbound: The Search for Homer’s Ithaca. Cambridge.

Breed, B. W. 1999. “Odysseus Back Home and Back from the Dead.” Nine Essays on Homer (ed. M. Carlisle and O. Levaniouk) 137–161.

Christensen, J. P. 2020. The Many-Minded Man: The Odyssey, Psychology, and the Therapy of Epic. Ithaca, NY.

Dova, S. 2012. Greek Heroes in and out of Hades. Lanham, MD.

Dué, C. 2001. “Achilles’ Golden Amphora in Aeschines’ Against Timarchus and the Afterlife of Oral Tradition.” Classical Philology 96:33–47.

Elmer, D. F. 2013. The Poetics of Consent: Collective Decision-Making and the Iliad. Baltimore.

Frame, D. 2009. Hippota Nestor. Hellenic Studies 34. Cambridge, MA and Washington, DC. http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hul.ebook:CHS_Frame.Hippota_Nestor.2009.

Frame, D. 2022. “The End of the Odyssey.” Classics@22: Poetic (Mis)quotations in Plato, ed. G. Grewal. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies. http://nrs.harvard.edu/URN-3:HLNC.ESSAY:102302566.

Frame, D., L. Muellner, and G. Nagy, eds. 2017-. A Homer Commentary in Progress. http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hul.eresource:Frame_Muellner_Nagy.A_Homer_Commentary_in_Progress.2017.

GN_Commentary. See Nagy 2022.

Gazis, G. Homer and the Poetics of Hades. Oxford.

Herda, A. 2006. Der Apollon-Delphinios-Kult in Milet und die Neujahrsprozession nach Didyma: Ein neuer Kommentar der sog. Molpoi-Satzung. Mainz am Rhein.

Lentini, G. 2006. Il ‘padre di Telemaco.’ Odisseo tra Iliade e Odissea. Pisa.

Levaniouk, O. 2011. Eve of the Festival: Making Myth in Odyssey 19. Hellenic Studies 46. Cambridge, MA, and Washington, DC. http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hul.ebook:CHS_Levaniouk.Eve_of_the_Festival.2011.

Lord, A. B. 1960. The Singer of Tales. 2nd ed. 2000, with introduction by S. Mitchell and G. Nagy [vii–xxix]. http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hul.ebook:CHS_LordA.The_Singer_of_Tales.2000. Harvard Studies in Comparative Literature 24. Cambridge, MA. 3rd ed. by D. F. Elmer, 2019. Hellenic Studies 77, Publications of the Milman Parry Collection of Oral Literature 4.

Martin, R. P. 1993. “Telemachus and the Last Hero Song.” Colby Quarterly 29:222–240. Recast in Martin  2020:359–382.

Martin, R. P. 2020. Mythologizing performance. Ithaca, N.Y.

Muellner, L. 2022. “On Plato Not Misquoting Homer and What’s ‘New’ at Republic 424b–c.” Classics@22: Poetic (Mis)quotations in Plato. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies. http://nrs.harvard.edu/URN-3:HLNC.ESSAY:102302561.

Nagy, G. 1974. Comparative Studies in Greek and Indic Meter. Harvard Studies in Comparative Literature 33. Cambridge, MA. http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hul.ebook:CHS_Nagy.Comparative_Studies_in_Greek_and_Indic_Meter.1974.

Nagy, G. 1979/1999. The Best of the Achaeans: Concepts of the Hero in Archaic Greek Poetry. Baltimore. Revised ed. with new introduction 1999. https://chs.harvard.edu/book/nagy-gregory-the-best-of-the-achaeans-concepts-of-the-hero-in-archaic-greek-poetry/.

Nagy, G. 1990a. Pindar’s Homer: The Lyric Possession of an Epic Past. Baltimore. http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hul.ebook:CHS_Nagy.Pindars_Homer.1990.

Nagy, G. 1990b. Greek Mythology and Poetics. Ithaca, NY. Revised paperback edition 1992. http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hul.ebook:CHS_Nagy.Greek_Mythology_and_Poetics.1990.

Nagy, G. 2002. Plato’s Rhapsody and Homer’s Music: The Poetics of the Panathenaic Festival in Classical Athens. Cambridge, MA, and Athens. http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hul.ebook:CHS_Nagy.Platos_Rhapsody_and_Homers_Music.2002. For the third edition, see Nagy 2021.10.01.

Nagy, G. 2004. Homer’s Text and Language. Chicago and Urbana, IL. http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hul.ebook:CHS_Nagy.Homers_Text_and_Language.2004.

Nagy, G. 2005. “The Epic Hero.” A Companion to Ancient Epic (ed. J. M. Foley) 71–89. Malden and Oxford. For an expanded version, see Nagy 2006.

Nagy, G. 2006. “The Epic Hero.” Expanded version of Nagy 2005. http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hlnc.essay:Nagy.The_Epic_Hero.2005.

Nagy, G. 2009|2008. Homer the Classic. Printed | Online version. Hellenic Studies 36. Cambridge, MA and Washington, DC. http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hul.ebook:CHS_Nagy.Homer_the_Classic.2008.

Nagy, G. 2010|2009. Homer the Preclassic. Printed | Online version. Berkeley and Los Angeles. http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hul.ebook:CHS_Nagy.Homer_the_Preclassic.2009.

Nagy, G. 2012. “Signs of Hero Cult in Homeric Poetry.” Homeric Contexts: Neoanalysis and the Interpretation of Homeric Poetry (ed. F. Montanari, A. Rengakos, and Ch. Tsagalis) 27–71. Trends in Classics Supplementary Volume 12. Berlin and Boston. http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hlnc.essay:Nagy.Signs_of_Hero_Cult_in_Homeric_Poetry.2012.

Nagy, G. 2013. The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours. Cambridge, MA. Belknap Press edition / Harvard University Press; abridged paperback edition, 2020; unabridged online edition, http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hul.ebook:CHS_NagyG.The_Ancient_Greek_Hero_in_24_Hours.2013.

Nagy, G. 2017.11.12. “Draft of a declaration by the founding authors of A Homer commentary in progress.” Classical Inquiries. https://classical-inquiries.chs.harvard.edu/draft-of-a-declaration-by-the-founding-authors-of-a-homer-commentary-in-progress/.

Nagy, G. 2021.10.01. Plato’s Rhapsody and Homer Music: The Poetics of the Panathenaic Festival in Classical Athens, ed. 3. Classical Continuum. https://continuum.fas.harvard.edu/platos-rhapsody-and-homers-music-the-poetics-of-the-panathenaic-festival-in-classical-athens/.

Nagy, G. 2021.11.22. “Two essays about the Epic Cycle.” Classical Continuum. https://continuum.fas.harvard.edu/two-essays-about-the-epic-cycle/.

Nagy, G. 2022. “Comments on the Homeric Iliad and Odyssey, restarted 2022.” Classical Continuum. https://continuum.fas.harvard.edu/a-sampling-of-comments-on-the-homeric-iliad-and-odyssey-restarted-2022/.

Parry, A., ed. 1971. The Making of Homeric Verse: The Collected Papers of Milman Parry. Oxford.

Parry, M. 1928a. L’épithète traditionnelle dans Homère: Essai sur un problème de style homérique. Paris. Translation in Parry 1971:1–190. http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hul.ebook:CHS_Parry.LEpithete_Traditionnelle_dans_Homere.1928.

Parry, M. 1928b. Les formules et la métrique d’Homère. Paris. Translation in Parry 1971:191–234. http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hul.ebook:CHS_ParryM.Les_Formules_et_la_Metrique_d_Homere.1928.

Parry, M. 1930. “Studies in the Epic Technique of Oral Verse-Making: I. Homer and Homeric Style.” Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 41:73–148. http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hlnc.essay:ParryM.Studies_in_the_Epic_Technique_of_Oral_Verse-Making1.1930.

Parry, M. 1932. “Studies in the epic technique of oral verse-making. II: The Homeric language as the language of an oral poetry.” Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 43:1–50. http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hlnc.essay:ParryM.Studies_in_the_Epic_Technique_of_Oral_Verse-Making2.1932.

Slatkin, L. 2011. The Power of Thetis and Selected Essays. Hellenic Studies 16. Cambridge, MA, and Washington, DC. http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hul.ebook:CHS_Slatkin.The_Power_of_Thetis_and_Selected_Essays.2011.

[1] On the idea that the Homeric Iliad and Odyssey are “a complete set,” I recommend the works of Giuseppe Lentini 2006 and Douglas Frame 2009 (especially his Part 4, pp. 515–647); further references by Frame 2022 (especially at §§8–9).

[2] On the evolution of the 48 rhapsōdiai ‘rhapsodies’ of the Homeric Iliad and Odyssey, as performed by rhapsōdoi ‘rhapsodes’ in the early historical context of the Ionian Dodecapolis in the late eighth and early seventh centuries BCE: Frame 2009 Part 4. For more on the Homeric rhapsōidiai, see also my introductory comments on Iliad 10 in Nagy 2022, “Comments on the Homeric Iliad and Odyssey.” In further references to Nagy 2022, I will abbreviate this online work simply as “GN_Commentary,” the contents of which are incorporated into a more expansive ongoing project, A Homer Commentary in Progress (ed. Frame, Muellner, and Nagy, started in 2017), on which see Nagy 2017.11.12.

[3] I describe “Homer” this way, as “the master-singer of tales,” in line with the title of Albert Lord’s The Singer of Tales (1960; 2nd ed. 2000; 3rd ed. 2019). Lord’s work needs to considered together with the earlier work of Milman Parry, whose collected papers were published by his son, Adam Parry, 1971; for a critique of the son’s introduction to this collection at pp. ix–lxii: Nagy 2010|2009:234–235. The most important of Milman Parry’s essays are available online, as listed in the Bibliography: Parry 1928a, 1928b, 1930, 1932.

[4] On the term “base text,” see GN_Commentary, on Odyssey 23.310–343. Also Nagy 2004:33–34 at 2§§22–23. Alexandrian editors of the Homeric text would comment on verses preserved in the Homeric textual traditions—even if they were deemed to be un-Homeric by these same editors.

[5] A pathfinding essay on the very idea of an ending for the heroic age in the Odyssey is an essay by Richard Martin, 1993, “Telemachus and the Last Hero Song,” recast in his Mythologizing Performance, Martin 2020 Ch.15. See also Christensen 2020 Ch.9, with further bibliography.

[6] Epitomized from GN_Commentary, Introduction to Odyssey 24.

[7] See Frame 2022 §0, who compares this kind of censure of Rhapsody 24 of the Odyssey to a negative opinion, voiced by editors of the Homeric text in the Hellenistic era, about all of Odyssey 24. This negative opinion will be considered further below. On “Plato’s Homer” as a mode of educating the Guardians: Muellner 2022 §§11–13, 16–17.

[8] Nagy 1990b:224.

[9] See the anchor comment in GN_Commentary, on Iliad 8.367, with reference to the Gates of Hādēs; also anchor comment on Iliad 23.71–76 with reference to what the psūkhē ‘spirit’ of Patroklos really wants for itself—and for Achilles (“Points” 5 and 6 and 9).

[10] GN_Commentary, on Iliad 23.326–343.

[11] GN_Commentary, on Iliad 2.760–770.

[12] Epitomized from GN_Commentary, on Odyssey 24.14–23.

[13] For a fuller inventory: Nagy 2012:49–51.

[14] Further analysis in GN_Commentary, on Odyssey 19.107–114, with special reference to uses of olbios in the sense of ‘blessed’, as at verse 172 of the Hesiodic Works and Days.

[15] Details in Nagy 1990a:32 at 1§29n81, 178 at 6§59; also Nagy 2006 §97.

[16] GN_Commentary, on Iliad 18.70–71; also Nagy 1979/1999:113 at 6§24, especially with reference to Iliad 18.71. Hereafter, “Nagy 1979/1999” will be abbreviated BA, listed as such in the Bibliography. On Thetis: Slatkin 2011.

[17] Nagy 1990a:155 at 6§19.

[18] Details in Nagy 1990b:141.

[19] BA p. 209 at 10§§49–50; also Dué 2001.

[20] Nagy 2012:48. An essential work on Homeric reception is the book of Elmer 2013; relevant comment by Muellner 2022 n29. On Telemachus in the Odyssey as a “channel” for Homeric reception: Martin 1993.

[21] GN_Commentary, anchor-comment on the tomb of Achilles, part 2, with reference to Iliad 23.245–248…256–257; also anchor-comment on the tomb of Achilles, part 3, with reference to Odyssey 24.76–84. See also anchor-comment on the tomb of Achilles, part 1, with reference to Iliad 23.125–126

[22] Details in BA pp. 116–117 at 6§30.

[23] Details in Nagy 1990a:120–121 at 4§7.

[24] What follows here is epitomized from GN_Commentary, on Odyssey 24.58–61 and from my detailed analysis in the anchor comment on laments at Hector’s funeral in GN_Commentary, on Iliad 24.720–776.

[25] BA p. 113 at 6§24, p. 172 at 9§32, pp. 175–177 at 10§§2-5, pp. 183–184 at 10§12.

[26] BA pp. 175–177 at 10§§2–5; also Nagy 1990a:204–206 at 7§6.

[27] Nagy 2013 Hour 3: “Achilles and the poetics of lament”; see also in general Nagy 1990a:36 at 1§36.

[28] BA p. 9 at Introduction §16; p. 114 at 6§26.

[29] The rest of this paragraph is epitomized from BA p. 35 at 2§11.

[30] BA p. 35 at 2§11. See also Dova 2012:18–23; further, Gazis 2018.

[31] BA p. 97 at 6§6n2.

[32] This paragraph has been epitomized from BA p. 36 at 2§12.

[33] GN_Commentary, on Iliad 10.213; further comments in BA 36–38 at 2§13.

[34] On kharis as a word that conveys both beauty and pleasure: Nagy 2009|2008 2§33.

[35] Further commentary: BA pp. 36–41 at 2§§12–18.

[36] BA p. 256 at 14§5n3.

[37] BA p. 37 at 2§13n3; also Nagy 1974:260.

[38] Again, BA p. 37 at 2§13n3. In my interpretation of a reciprocity, conveyed by the verb-root mnē-, between a man who is wooing and a woman who is being wooed, I have benefited from a conversation with Richard P. Martin, 2022.12.27.

[39] Nagy 2013 Hour 11§23, §§26–27.

[40] GN_Commentary, on Odyssey 1.340–341, 3.130, 24.192–202; on the poetics of the singer Phemios, see also Muellner 2022 §§40–45.

[41] On Achilles as an “eternal bridegroom”: Nagy 2013 Hour 5§28.

[42] Nagy 1990a:148–149 at 6§§5–6, with primary reference to Pindar’s poetics.

[43] GN_Commentary, on Odyssey 12.184, again with reference to Pindar’s poetics, self-defined as ainos.

[44] Nagy 2013 Hour 2§§59–76.

[45] GN_Commentary, on Odyssey 12.184

[46] Nagy 1990b:203.

[47] See also Frame 2022 §29.

[48] Nagy 2013 Hour 17§§12–24; also Frame 2022 §16. Further comments by Christensen 2020 Ch.9, with additional bibliography.

[49] Extensive commentary by Frame 2022 §§43–47. Relevant is the title of a book by Austin 1975: Archery at the Dark of the Moon.

[50] Frame 2022 §37, with notes 96 and 97. On the poetics of springtime, see also Austin 1975:246–247. On the new year festival of Apollo Delphinios at Miletus: Herda 2006.

[51] GN_Commentary, on Odyssey 22.474–479.

[52] GN_Commentary, on Odyssey 22.437–473; see also on Odyssey 18.085–087 anchor comment on extreme cruelty in Homeric narrative.

[53] H24H 17§§22–24.

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