Home » The Ancient Greek Hero » The Ancient Greek Hero – Hour 9 -The return of Odysseus

The Ancient Greek Hero – Hour 9 -The return of Odysseus


In my course ‘The Ancient Greek Hero’ we spent 8 weeks discussing the Iliad and we are now moving on to look at the Odyssey. I will be very interested to see the different approaches of Gregory Nagy and Peter Struck. Although I have already read the Odyssey I will need to review the passages because of the different translations that each professor uses. Gregory Nagy uses his own whereas Peter Struck uses that of Fagles.

I am not going to repeat all the course notes here, only any new (for me) observations. Although I have previously detailed a lot of Mr Nagy’s explanations of words and details of the stories I am not continuing this. Firstly because it takes me a long time to write up and secondly I don’t find the minutia of the story very interesting. What I find interesting are links to Greek culture and what these stories can tell us. I also love the stories themselves and find that dissecting them rather spoils the magic for me.

The meaning of nostos

The key word for this hour is nostos ‘return, homecoming; song about homecoming; return to light and life’. The last of these meanings is mystical, having to do with ideas about immortalization after death, nostos, can express the idea of immortalization after death idea is embedded in the plot of the Odyssey, but only indirectly, as a metaphor.

Hādēs is transitional rather than eschatological: only paradisiacal places like Elysium (Ēlusion), the Islands of the Blessed (Nēsoi Makarōn), the White Island (Leukē), and, exceptionally, even Mount Olympus in the case of Hēraklēs are eschatological

Text A

|1 That man, tell me O Muse the song of that man, that versatile [polu-tropos] man, who in very many ways |2 veered from his path and wandered off far and wide, after he had destroyed the sacred citadel of Troy. |3 Many different cities of many different people did he see, getting to know different ways of thinking [noos]. |4 Many were the pains [algea] he suffered in his heart [thūmos] while crossing the sea |5struggling to merit [arnusthai] the saving of his own life [psūkhē] and his own homecoming [nostos] as well as the homecoming of his comrades [hetairoi]. |6 But do what he might he could not save his comrades [hetairoi], even though he very much wanted to. |7 For they perished through their own deeds of sheer recklessness, |8disconnected [nēpioi] [1] as they were, because of what they did to the cattle of the sun-god Hēlios. |9 They ate them. So the god [Hēlios] deprived them of their day of homecoming [nostimon]. |10 Starting from any single point of departure, O goddess, daughter of Zeus, tell me, as you have told those who came before me. |11 So now all those who escaped precipitous death |12 were safely home, having survived the war and the sea voyage. |13 But he [= Odysseus], apart from the others, though he was longing for his homecoming [nostos] and for his wife, |14 was detained by the queenly nymph [numphē] Calypso, who has her own luminous place among all the goddesses …(Odyssey i 1-14)

We see from the start of the story, the nostos ‘return’ of the epic hero from Troy to his home in Ithaca is still in progress, and the return is stalled. There is only one Odysseus in the macro-Narrative of the Homeric Odyssey, but there are many different kinds of Odysseus and many different kinds of odysseys in the micro-narratives that add up to the macro-Narrative. These different kinds of character and plot fit perfectly the hero who is called polu-tropos in the first verse of the Odyssey.

Comparison of translations

Here is the Fagles version of the first few lines of same passage as above.

“Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns …driven time and again off course, once he had plundered the hallowed heights of Troy. Many cities of men he saw and learned their minds, many pains he suffered, heartsick on the open sea, fighting to save his life and bring his comrades home. But he could not save them from disaster, hard as he strove—the recklessness of their own ways destroyed them all, the blind fools, they devoured the cattle of the Sun and the Sun god blotted out the day of their return. Launch out on his story, Muse, daughter of Zeus, start from where you will—sing for our time too. By now, all the survivors, all who avoided headlong death were safe at home, escaped the wars and waves. But one man alone …his heart set on his wife and his return—Calypso, the bewitching nymph, the lustrous goddess, held him back…”

The 9 first verses of Homer's Odyssey. Español...

Homer’s Odyssey. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I do not speak Greek, let alone Ancient Greek so I am not able to comment on the quality of the translation. I do, however, translate texts from French to English. What I try to do is to express the intended meaning of the original text. I have the advantage of being able to discuss anything I am not sure of with the writer of the original text. Translation is not an easy thing to do sometimes the essence of meaning is lost.

Both the Fagles translation and that of Mr Nagy are modern day translations. Neither of them is written as everyday modern speech. I assume they attempt to keep some of the poetic nature of the original text.

Personally I found the Fagles translation easier to read. I like the first line asking the muse to sing of the man whereas Mr Nagy’s translations ask them to tell the song of the man. I also find opening with ‘that man’ rather abrupt, maybe that is a cultural thing. I would only say ‘that man’ if I was cross or disgusted with him.

Mr Nagy translated polu-tropos as ‘that versatile man’, but, as he explains in the course book its more literal meaning is: ‘one who could change in many different ways who he was’. Fagles has translated it as ‘the man of twists and turns’. They both explain the same thing but I think the ‘twists and turns’ is more visual it explains the man better, a cunning, skilled and intelligent.

As an example of why I prefer the Fagles text I will compare just a couple of lines.

Nagy – “Many different cities of many different people did he see, getting to know different ways of thinking.”

Fagles – “Many cities of men he saw and learned their minds.”

Nagy’s translation is probably a lot closer to the original and expresses the ideas of different cultures particularly with the repetition of the word ‘many’. Fagles translation is less clunky, a smoother sentence and for me loses nothing of the idea of the phrase.

Calypso and Odysseus in Ogygia (Credit : greekmyths-greekmythology.com)

Nagy – “[He].. was detained by the queenly nymph Calypso, who has her own luminous place among all the goddesses…”

Fagles – “Calypso, the bewitching nymph, the lustrous goddess, held him back.”

The description ‘queenly nymph’ sounds regal. ‘She has her place among the goddesses,’ she is to be worshiped. The ‘bewitching nymph, the lustrous goddess’ she is not only to be worshiped but desired. For me being ‘detained’ and being ‘held back’ are also different. The word ‘detained’ is more formal, it sounds like he has committed a crime. Being ‘held back’ is less formal but more forceful, I have only ever heard it used as held back at school for punishment. Neither of them quite describe for me what happened. He stayed for a year having a relationship with Calypso, this is more than detained or held up. There must be a better word – bewitched, bridled or shanghaied  maybe? I don’t know, luckily that is not my job.

The roles of Odysseus

There are many different roles that fit the versatile character of Odysseus in the Odyssey.

(Credit : hermetic.com)

1. The soldier of fortune comes back home to Ithaca after the adventures he experiences both during the Trojan War and afterwards during his many travels, and then he reclaims his wife, whose faithfulness in his absence determines his true identity.

2. The returning king reclaims his kingdom by becoming reintegrated with his society. The king, as king, is the embodiment of this society, of this body politic; thus the society, as re-embodied by the king, is correspondingly reintegrated.

3. The pilot lost at sea finally finds his bearings and reaches home. The pilot orkubernētēs, a Greek word that was eventually borrowed into Latin as gubernātor, is the helmsman who directs the metaphorical ‘ship of state’. The metaphor is latent in English words derived from Latin gubernātor, such as ‘govern’, ‘governor’ and ‘government’.

4. The seer or shaman returns home from his vision quest.

5. The trickster retraces his misleading steps, returning all the way back home, back where he had started, and thus showing the correct steps that need to be taken in order to live one’s own life successfully.

The five roles of Odysseus listed above are extrapolated from Albert Lord’s survey of world-wide parallels to the theme of the epic hero’s return in the Homeric Odyssey. The idea of nostos is deeply ritualistic, the word means not only a ‘return’ or a ‘song about a return’ but even a ‘return to light and life’.

The complementary of the Iliad and Odyssey

Odysseus and Achilles, Villa Giulia (Credit :mlahanas.de)

The polytropic character of Odysseus stands in sharp contrast to the monolithic character of Achilles. Whereas Achilles achieves his epic centrality by way of his role as a warrior, Odysseus achieves his own kind of epic centrality in an alternative way – as a master of crafty stratagems and cunning intelligence.

There are of course many other heroes in Homeric poetry, but Achilles and Odysseus have become the two central ones. Just as the central heroes of the Iliad and Odyssey are complementary, so too are the epics that centralize them. These two epics give the impression of incorporating most of whatever was worth retelling about the world of heroes.

The Iliad tells the story that it says it will tell, about Achilles’ anger. The Odyssey tells the story it says it will tell of the hero’s nostos ‘. In the process the narrative of the Odyssey achieves a sense of closure in the retelling of all feats stemming from the heroic age it provides a retrospective even on those epic moments that are missing in the Iliad, such as the story of the Wooden Horse.

There is a final irony, developed in the narrative of the Odyssey, Achilles in Hādēs seems tempted to trade epics with Odysseus.

The heroic mentality of achieving nostos

Athena and Telemachus (Credit :dmaidman.wordpress.com)

The nostos of Odysseus is defined by the quest of the hero’s son Telemachus to learn the identity of his father – and thus to learn his own identity. Telemachus’ quest is initiated by the goddess Athena, who specializes in mental power. She is the goddess of intelligence, daughter of the god Zeus and of a goddess named Mētis. The name Mētis comes from the noun mētis, which means ‘intelligence’, and Athena herself declares that her kleos‘ glory’ is due to her own mētis ‘intelligence’

Text B

|88 As for me, I will go travel to Ithaca, going to his [= Odysseus’] son |89 in order to give him [= Telemachus] more encouragement and to put power [menos] into his heart [phrenes]. 90 He is to summon the long-haired Achaeans for a meeting in assembly, |91 and he is to speak out to all the suitors [of his mother Penelope], who persist in |92 slaughtering again and again any number of his sheep and oxen. |93And I will conduct him to Sparta and to sandy Pylos, |94 and thus he will learn the return [nostos] of his dear [philos] father, if by chance he [= Telemachus] hears it, |95and thus may genuine glory [kleos] possess him throughout humankind.  (Odyssey i 88-95)

The idea of heroic mentality is elegantly recapitulated when Athena has just finished the first phase of her role as mentor to Telemachus. Having finished with the role of Mentēs, the goddess now transforms herself into a bird and flies out of the palace through a lightwell on the roof, and here is the wording that describes what she had accomplished so far in connecting the mind of Telemachus with the mind of his father:

Text C

|320 … Into his heart [thūmos] |321 she [= Athena] had placed power [menos] and daring, and she had mentally connected [hupo-mnē] him with his father |322 even more than before.  (Odyssey i 320-322)

In her role as Mentēs, which means literally ‘he who mentally connects’, the goddess has given Telemachus the menos or mental ‘power’ of connecting with the heroic identity of his father.

‘and thus he will learn [punthanesthai] the return [nostos] of his dear [philos] father, if by chance he [= Telemachus] hears it’.

Telemachus will learn the song of the homecoming, the song of nostos  from Nestor in Odyssey iii and from Menelaos along with his divine consort Helen in Odyssey iv.

A nostos in the making

The following is a description of an epic performance where the performer, Phemios, is said to be performing a nostos:

Text D

(Credit : mediterranees.net)

|325 The famed singer was singing for them [= the suitors], and they in silence |326sat and listened. He [= Phemios the singer] was singing the homecoming [nostos] of the Achaeans, |327 a disastrous [lugros]  homecoming from Troy, and Pallas Athena was the one who brought it all to fulfillment [epi-tellesthai]. |328 From her room upstairs, this divinely inspired song of his was understood in her mind by |329the daughter of Ikarios, the exceptionally intelligent Penelope, |330 and she came down the lofty staircase of her palace. |331 She came not alone, but attended by two of her handmaidens. |332 When she reached the suitors, this most radiant of women, |333 she stood by one of the posts that supported the roof of the halls, |334holding in front of her cheeks a luxuriant veil, |335 and a trusted handmaiden stood on either side of her. |336 Then, shedding tears, she addressed the godlike singer: |337 “Phemios, you know many another thing that charms mortals, |338 all about the deeds of men and gods, to which singers give glory [kleeîn]. |339 Sing for them [= the suitors] some one of those songs of glory, and let them in silence |340 drink their wine. But you stop this sad song, |341 this disastrous [lugrē]  song, which again and again affects my very own [philon] heart in my breast, |342 wearing it down, since an unforgettable grief [penthos alaston] comes over me, more than ever. |343 I feel this way because that is the kind of person I long for, recalling his memory again and again, |344 the memory of a man whose glory [kleos] extends far and wide throughout Hellas and midmost Argos. (Odyssey i 325-344 )

The word nostos as a ‘song about homecoming’ is connected to the kleos of Odysseus, which is the ‘glory’ of his epic. But in this case we see also that kleos can make the listener feel penthos or ‘grief’ – such as the penthos alaston ‘unforgettable grief’ felt by Penelope in hearing the epic performed by Phemios.

Echoes of lament in a song about homecoming

From the retrospective standpoint of the Odyssey, the suffering of the Achaeans in the course of their homecoming from Troy was caused by Athena because she was angry at them for their immoral behaviour in the course of their destroying the city of Troy. The story of Athena’s disastrous anger, in its most basic form, is told by Nestor to Telemachus:

Text E

|130 But after we [= the Achaeans] had destroyed the lofty city of Priam |131 and we went into our ships, the god dispersed us. |132 And then it was that Zeus devised in his thinking a plan to make a disastrous [lugros] homecoming [nostos]  |133 for the Argives [= Achaeans]; for they had not at all been either mindful [= having noos] or just [dikaioi], |134 not all of them, and so many of them met up with a bad destiny|135 because of the disastrous [oloē] anger [mēnis] of the daughter of the mighty father – of the goddess with the looks of an owl. (Odyssey iii 130-135 )

In this micro-narrative, we see the outlines of the whole story, but no details about the Achaean heroes involved. A detailed narrative about the immoral behaviour of the Achaeans at the end of the Trojan War can be found elsewhere in epic. The most telling example comes from the epic Cycle – in this case, from the Iliou Persisor ‘Destruction of Troy’, attributed to Arctinus of Miletus.

Text F

|16 After the preceding [= four scrolls of the Little Iliad, by Lesches of Lesbos], there follow two scrolls of the Iliou Persis, by Arctinus |17 of Miletus, containing the following. With regard to the things concerning the Horse, the |18 Trojans, suspicious about the horse, stand around wondering what they should |19 do. Some think it should be pushed off a cliff, while others |20 think it should be burned down, and still others say that it should be dedicated as sacred [hieros] to Athena. |21 In the end, the opinion of the third group wins out. They turn |22 to merriment, feasting as if they had been freed from the war. |23 At this point two serpents appear and |24destroy Laocoön and one of his sons. At the sight of |25 this marvel, Aeneas and his followers get upset and withdraw |26 to Mount Ida. Sinon lights signal fires for the Achaeans. |27 He had previously entered the city, using a pretext. And they [= the Achaeans], some of them sailing from Tenedos |28 [toward Troy] and others of them emerging from the Wooden Horse, fall upon |29 their enemies. They kill many, and the city |30 is taken by force. Neoptolemos kills |31 Priam, who has taken refuge at the altar of Zeus Herkeios. [p. 108] |1 Menelaos finds Helen and takes her back down to the ships, after |2 slaughtering Deiphobos. Ajax son of Oileus takes Kassandra by |3 force, dragging her away from the wooden statue [xoanon] of Athena. At the sight |4 of this, the Achaeans get angry and decide to stone |5 Ajax to death, but he takes refuge at the altar of Athena, and so |6 is preserved from his impending destruction. Then |7 the Achaeans put the city to the torch. They slaughter Polyxena on the |8tomb [taphos] of Achilles. Odysseus kills Astyanax, |9 and Neoptolemos takes Andromache as his prize. The rest |10 of the spoils are distributed. Demophon and Akamas find Aithra |11 and take her with them. Then the Greeks sail off [from Troy], |12 and Athena begins to plan destruction for them at sea.

(plot-summary by Proclus of the Iliou Persis of Arctinus of Miletus pp. 107-108 )

This narrative corresponds closely to a narrative we see in Odyssey viii. The performer of that narrative is the blind singer Demodokos, who is performing an epic in the court of Alkinoos, king of the Phaeacians. In fact, that epic is the third of three songs that he performs in Odyssey viii. The audience attending the performance of Demodokos includes Odysseus, who has not yet revealed his identity to the Phaeacians:

Text G

|499 … And he [= Demodokos], setting his point of departure [hormētheis], started [arkhesthai] from the god. And he made visible [phainein] the song, |500 taking it from the point where they [= the Achaeans], boarding their ships with the strong benches, |501 sailed away, setting their tents on fire. |502 That is what some of the Argives [= Achaeans] were doing. But others of them were in the company of Odysseus most famed, and they were already |503 sitting hidden inside the Horse, which was now in the meeting place of the Trojans. |504 The Trojans themselves had pulled the Horse into the acropolis. |505 So there it was, standing there, and they talked a great deal about it, in doubt about what to do, |506 sitting around it. There were three different plans: |507 to split the hollow wood with pitiless bronze, |508 or to drag it to the heights and push it down from the rocks, |509 or to leave it, great artifact that it was, a charm [thelktērion] of the gods |510 – which, I now see it, was exactly the way it was going to end [teleutân], |511 because it was fate [aisa] that the place would be destroyed, once the city had enfolded in itself |512 the great Wooden Horse, when all the best men were sitting inside it, |513 the Argives [= Achaeans], that is, bringing slaughter and destruction upon the Trojans. |514 He sang how the sons of the Achaeans destroyed the city, |515 pouring out of the Horse, leaving behind the hollow place of ambush. |516 He sang how the steep citadel was destroyed by different men in different places. |517 – how Odysseus went to the palace of Deiphobos, |518 how he was looking like Arēs, and godlike Menelaos went with him, |519 and how in that place, I now see it, he [= Demodokos] said that he [= Odysseus] dared to go through the worst part of the war, |520 and how he emerged victorious after that, with the help of Athena, the one with the mighty heart [thūmos]. |521 So these were the things that the singer [aoidos] most famed was singing. As for Odysseus, |522 he dissolved [ tēkesthai ] into tears. He made wet his cheeks with the tears flowing from his eyelids, |523 just as a woman cries, falling down and embracing her dear husband, |524 who fell in front of the city and people he was defending, |525 trying to ward off the pitiless day of doom that is hanging over the city and its children. |526 She sees him dying, gasping for his last breath, |527 and she pours herself all over him as she wails with a piercing cry. But there are men behind her, |528 prodding her with their spears, hurting her back and shoulders, |529 and they bring for her a life of bondage, which will give her pain and sorrow. |530Her cheeks are wasting away with a sorrow [akhos] that is most pitiful [eleeinon]. |531So also did Odysseus pour out a piteous tear [dakruon] from beneath his brows; |532there he was, escaping the notice of all while he kept pouring out his tears [ dakrua ]. |533 But Alkinoos was the only one of all of them who was aware, and he took note [noeîn].

(Odyssey viii 499-533)

As Odysseus weeps, he is compared here to an unnamed captive woman who is weeping over the dead body of her warrior husband. This woman, within the framework of the plot outline of the Iliou Persis, would be Andromache. Within the overall framework of the Odyssey, however, this woman is not identified. The unidentified captive woman dissolves into tears which is comparable is the primary listener in the audience, Odysseus, who reacts by ‘dissolving’ into tears.

The sorrowful scene of Andromache’s capture, which is highlighted in the Iliou Persis but screened out in the Odyssey, is actually foreshadowed in the Iliad. Here Hector reveals to Andromache his forebodings about his own violent death and about its dire consequences for his wife and child:

Text H

|447 For I know well in my thinking, in my heart, that |448 there will come a day when, once it comes, the sacred city of Ilios [= Ilion = Troy] will be destroyed |449 – and Priam, too, and along with him [will be destroyed] the people of that man wielding the good ash spear, that Priam. |450 But the pain I have on my mind is not as great for the Trojans and for what will happen to them in the future, |451 or for Hecuba or for Priam the king, |452 or for my brothers if, many in number and noble as they are, |453 they will fall in the dust at the hands of men who are their enemies |454 – no, [the pain I have on my mind is not as great for them] as it is for you when I think of the moment when some Achaean man, one of those men who wear khitons of bronze, |455 takes hold of you as you weep and leads you away as his prize, depriving you of your days of freedom from slavery. |456 And you would be going to Argos, where you would be weaving [huphainein] at the loom of some other woman [and no longer at your own loom at home] |457 – and you would be carrying water for her, drawing from the spring called Messēís or the one called Hypereia. |458 Again and again you will be forced to do things against your will, and the bondage holding you down will be overpowering. |459 And someone some day will look at you as you pour out your tears and will say: |460 “Hector is the man whose wife this woman used to be. He used to be the best in battle |461 – the best of all the Trojans, those tamers of horses, back in those days when they fought to defend Ilion [= Troy].” |462 That is what someone some day will say. And just hearing it will give you a new sorrow |463as the widow of this kind of man, the kind that is able to prevent those days of slavery. |464 But, once I am dead, may earth be scattered over me and cover me.

(Iliad VI 447-464)

In his perceptiveness, Alkinoos infers that his weeping guest, who is at this point still unidentified, must have participated in the Trojan War; and he infers also that the guest must have been on the winning side, not the losing side. So why is Odysseus weeping, then? Alkinoos thinks that it must be because Odysseus had lost someone near and dear who had been fighting on the Achaean side:

Text I

|577 Tell us why you are weeping and lamenting in your heart [thūmos] |578 when you hear the fate of the Argive Danaans [= Achaeans] or the fate of Troy. |579 The gods arranged all this, and they wove the fate of doom |580 for mortals, so that future generations might have something to sing about. |581 Did you lose some kinsman of your wife’s when you were at Troy? |582 Some such noble person? Or a son-in-law or father-in-law? Such people are most certainly |583 the nearest relations a man has outside his own flesh and blood. |584 Or was it perhaps a comrade [hetairos] who was well aware of the things that were most pleasing to you? |585 Some such noble person? For not any less prized than your own brother |586 is a comrade [hetairos] who is well aware of things you think about.

(Odyssey viii 577-586)

None of the sorrows described by Alkinoos fits the experiences of Odysseus himself. The sorrow of Odysseus is for the sufferings endured by the other side in the war. Penelope was right: the kleos of the epic nostos sung by Phemios,, conveys a message of sorrow for anyone who feels any personal involvement in the actions that took place in the Trojan War

The epic narrated by Helen is made false by the fact that any sorrow that could possibly be felt by her listeners is being counteracted by artificial means. Before she narrates her epic, Helen puts into the drinks of her listeners a drug that counteracts all sorrow, all anger, all sense of personal involvement. This drug that goes into the wine of her listeners is described as nēpenthes, that is, a substance that negates penthos:

Text J

|220 She [= Helen] put a drug into the wine from which they drank. |221 It [= the drug] was against penthos [nē-penthes] and against anger [a-kholon]. It made one forget all bad things. |222 Whoever swallowed it, once it was mixed with the wine into the mixing bowl, |223 could not shed a tear from his cheeks for that day, |224 even if his mother and father died |225 or if he had earlier lost a brother or his own dear son, |226 killed by bronze weapons – even if he saw it all happen with his own eyes.

(Odyssey iv 220-226)

The only way that a listener like Telemachus could hear the narrative of Helen about the Trojan War without weeping is to be anesthetized to the sorrows that he too can now understand. Telemachus has started to hear the story of Odysseus. When Menelaos says that he experiences akhos … alaston ‘unforgettable grief’ every time he thinks about the uncertain fate of Odysseus, Telemachus breaks down and weeps in the same way as Penelope over the uncertain fate of Odysseus as she hears the song. But, Helen says her story, focusing on the adventures of Odysseus at Troy, will bring pleasure to her listeners.

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