[In this on-line version, the page-numbers of the printed version are indicated within braces (“{” and “}”). For example, “{69|70}” indicates where p. 69 of the printed version ends and p. 70 begins. These indications will be useful to readers who need to look up references made elsewhere to the printed version of this book.]

This book is about the poetics of myth in a single Homeric conversation, the dialogue between Penelope and Odysseus in Odyssey 19, their first, longest, and most enigmatic exchange of words. My interest in the way myth functions in oral poetry precedes my interest in the dialogue and goes beyond it, but making general theoretical claims on the subject is not the primary goal of the current work. Rather, this is an applied endeavor, an attempt not only to illustrate the workings of myth in Homer, but also to study a particular episode through a mythological lens and to gain interpretive ground in this way.
The scene I have chosen for my test case has received its share of scholarly attention and has been viewed as everything from a compositional low point to a masterpiece of indeterminacy. [1] Interpretations have changed dramatically over the last hundred years, and in my opinion much for the better, so that at the moment the treatment of dialogue constitutes a good example of advances in Homeric scholarship. The study of Homeric genres of discourse, voices, conversational patterns, and properties of spoken word has been something of a growth industry in recent decades, with the result that the old subject of “speeches” in Homer has emerged in a completely new light. [2] Questions of {1|2} disguise, identity, recognition, coded speech, knowledge, and ignorance have also been at the center of Odyssean studies. [3] As one of the longest sustained conversations in Homer, especially interesting for its interlocutors of different genders, the dialogue has become a battleground and a test case for these scholarly trends. More than that, the scene in Book 19 is also arguably the moment of Penelope’s most crucial decision in the poem, and accordingly has attracted the attention of scholars interested in questions of agency in general and female agency in particular. [4] Important work on gender and gendered poetics in the Odyssey has also focused on the dialogue, not surprisingly, since this is the scene where Penelope says more about herself than anywhere else. [5] In short, there is no shortage of excellent and compelling scholarship on the very scene I propose to discuss, and I can make no pretences here about correcting past wrongs or restoring an overlooked subject to its proper place under the sun. The dialogue has not, to my knowledge, been analyzed from the particular angle I adopt, but this only partly justifies my decision to focus on this well-studied scene. Primarily I venture to write about it because, for all the unquestionable scholarly advances, the episode remains among the most mysterious in the Odyssey, its mysteries perhaps deepened rather than resolved by recent scholarship.
Several factors make the interpretation of the dialogue so complicated. For one thing, Penelope and Odysseus do not speak plainly, but in hints, coded messages, and multi-layered statements, Odysseus’ physical disguise as a beggar being only one of many levels of concealment and revelation that come into play as the couple talk. Introducing the stranger, Eumaeus prepares Penelope for someone who speaks like a poet, a master of words, a person whose power of speech is enchanting (Odyssey 17.518–521). For his part, Odysseus observes Penelope with the suitors and concludes that she says one thing but hides another meaning underneath, and that she too has the power to charm with words (Odyssey 18.281–283). When the two meet, they put their impressive powers of verbal art to full use, engaging in an exchange of performances, in fact a dialogue in performances, where each interlocutor is fully able to appreciate the other’s skills. Indirect, allusive, enigmatic, powerful, and manipulative discourse is omnipresent in the scene. In my opinion, the dialogue in Odyssey 19 can even be seen as a performative agon, and one of {2|3} the most sophisticated examples of such agonistic exchanges that have come down to us from antiquity. All of this is what makes the dialogue so interesting but it also makes for a difficult task for a modern, or for that matter ancient, interpreter. No doubt the scene, full of hints and riddles as it is, was meant to entertain by exercising the detective faculties even of the ancient audiences, but modern scholars are at a particular disadvantage, being outsiders who do not speak the language, literally and metaphorically.
In the case of Odyssey 19, our plight is aggravated by what has been called “the Penelope question,” the question whether or not Penelope recognizes Odysseus at this stage. [6] This has been one of the most debated problems in Odyssean studies, with battle lines firmly drawn and copious argumentation presented on both sides. [7] I attempt to keep this question somewhat in the background, in the hopes of preventing it from overshadowing the rest of the argument, though I do, of course, make my answer to it clear. My reluctance to engage with the “Penelope question” more fully is motivated by the realization that no argument on this subject is likely to change many minds, a conclusion that can be safely drawn from recent scholarship. There is an inevitable element of subjectivity in each scholar’s answer to the question, as all such answers involve some reasoning based on what Penelope is or is not likely to do or say, and on what does and does not make sense.
And yet there is in the end no avoiding of the troublesome Penelope question, at least not entirely, since Penelope’s utterances and her actions may be taken in widely different ways depending on whether she speaks to a complete stranger or to someone whom she at least suspects of being her husband. When I suggest my own interpretation of the dialogue, therefore, and argue as part of it that in Book 19 Penelope does indeed think that the beggar is Odysseus, I am far from imagining that I have found the “right” way to understand the episode. Rather, my secondary claim is that such an interpretation is indeed possible (contrary to the prevalent scholarly opinion), is not contradicted by anything in the poem, and is internally logical. In my opinion, the opposite assumption, that Penelope has no inkling about the identity of her guest, is, on the contrary, less logical and less internally consistent (though it may still be more appealing to some audiences of the poem, for reasons of their own). My main claim, however, and the one that I find more {3|4} interesting, is that there are layers and levels of meaning in the Odyssey that are fully activated only if Penelope is granted insight into the beggar’s identity, and, further, that these layers of meaning are present not only in Penelope’s own words but also in those of Odysseus. The last point raises the stakes of the Penelope question since it becomes also an Odysseus question, and at the same time leads me to shun the notion of recognition, even if I find it hard to avoid using this term completely.
The problem I see with the word “recognition” is that it invites the notion that Penelope is the only actor involved, that the question of recognition is a matter of her doing or failing to do something. The dialogue and the recognition can then be seen as separate matters: in the course of their conversation Penelope either does or does not recognize Odysseus, but that has little to do, at least initially, with the conversation itself. My view, in contrast, is that what is at stake is the question not of recognition but of communication, with both parties equally involved in the process. Odysseus makes a veiled claim to his identity, which Penelope understands and acknowledges, whether or not she actually recognizes (or believes) him, and her understanding is, in turn, conveyed to Odysseus, who, for his part, understands the message and lets Penelope know that he does so.
At all stages of the conversation, myth is involved in communication, through use as an exemplum, allusion, evocation, or appeal to myth-making patterns. As Martin has demonstrated, the word muthos in its Homeric usage actually applies to speech acts such as boasts, prophecies, prayers, etc., and its later extension to “imaginative traditional narratives” may in fact be traced to an earlier stage in which the authoritative speech acts it designated would often be enhanced by the traditional narratives. As Martin explains, “The best muthoi in the original sense would naturally involve the most powerful images, often resorting to genealogical recitation and claims about past status. It is only when such rhetoric is cut loose from its context of political antagonism that it takes on the appearance of harmless and pleasant fiction.” [8] Neither the myths nor even the mythological allusions in the dialogue between Penelope and Odysseus fall into the category of “harmless and pleasant fiction,” for they are at least in part agonistic and constitute part of vitally important negotiations between the two parties. Both Odysseus and Penelope are masters of muthoi and consequently of myth and mythological allusion, the virtuoso use of which is as much a part of their dialogue as are various linguistic codes and conventions. {4|5}
In trying to understand both the mechanics and meaning of their myth-making, I take my inspiration from the work of Slatkin, who observes that by oblique reference to myth the poet “incorporates into this narrative another discourse, one that makes its appearance on the surface of the poem though oblique references, ellipses, or digressions, evoking for his audience themes that orient or supplement the events of the poem in particular ways.” [9] All poetry, and indeed all speech, has a connotative as well as denotative level, and all speech is to some extent elliptical and allusive. I follow Slatkin, however, in asserting that oral traditional poetry, such as the Odyssey, is elliptical and allusive in a special way and to an extraordinarily high degree. As Lord observed, phrases in Homeric poetry “resound with overtones from the dim past whence they came,” a feature that distinguishes it from most kinds of written composition. [10] Complex interconnections, intricate correlations, and most of all the resonant power of themes and phraseology are a mark of a long and developed tradition of oral poetry such as the Homeric one. [11] Mythological evocation is only one of many kinds of allusion, digression, and ellipsis that are present in the Odyssey, but it is a very pervasive one, and excluding it from analysis of the scene would amount to a flattening of the dialogue. I see my attempts to analyze this register of Odyssey 19 as a contribution to the study of specifically oral poetics. [12]
I take this position in full awareness of the fact that oral poetics is not a clear-cut category and that it may not be possible to define it in a simple way. For example, listing features that are only found in oral poetry and never in written or vice versa may be a doomed undertaking. Each individual feature, such as formulaic nature or tendency towards ring composition, may be present in both written and oral poetry, but it will not be present to the same extent. When many such quantitative differences are combined the result is a noticeable difference between oral and written poetics, even in the absence of {5|6} a clear boundary line. It is perhaps this impossibility of an easy definition that leads some scholars to question oral poetics as a legitimate object of study. Cairns, for example, states plainly that “no such thing is necessary” and that “the onus is now on oralists to demonstrate that there is any significant way in which the status of the Iliad as an oral-derived text precludes the application of familiar interpretive strategies.” [13] My answer to this is that we should expect to find some overlap between oral and written poetry, and that it is, of course, manifestly possible to analyze Homeric poetry as if it were a written text, but that this is not a good criterion for rejecting the notion of oral poetics. The point is not that the “application of familiar interpretive strategies” is precluded, but rather that it is insufficient: it misses something because such interpretive strategies tend to be blind to certain essential aspects of Homeric poetry.
Oral poetry is referential and self-referential in a distinct way, as formulated by Nagy, following Lord: “From the standpoint of oral poetics, each occurrence of a theme (on the level of content) or of a formula (on the level of form) in a given composition-in-performance refers not only to its immediate context but also to all other analogous contexts remembered by the performer or by any member of the audience.” [14] This, I think, applies to evocation of myths as much as it does to formulas: each occurrence of a particular mythic pattern or element has the potential to activate a larger set of contexts associated with this pattern or element in the totality of tradition. Oral tradition is not a text or a collection of texts, but a system of human behavior, and the properties of mythological evocation in the Odyssey stem in part from this factor. [15] Nagy adduces as an analogy the linguistic distinction between langue and parole as formulated by Ferdinand de Saussure. [16] There is a two-way relationship between the system and its instantiations, tradition and performance, and langue and parole. Elements can become metonymically connected because of co-occurrence and the connection itself then becomes part of the langue, available for its speakers to use. The phenomenon of traditional referentiality, or meaning through reference, is therefore by its nature diachronic, {6|7} dependent on the evolution of the tradition in the process of continuous re-performance. [17]
Just as certain words are synonymous in a language, so certain myths and mythological patterns are synonymous in the system that is the mythological corpus. The synonyms can be combined to reinforce meaning: one may bring others to mind. Yet equally essential are the distinctions between them, the choice of one over the other. This results, in effect, in an additional register of discourse achieved through myth, a register that is both very nuanced and very frequently engaged in Homer, but that is not always obvious. As Slatkin puts it, talking about the mythological corpus: “The poet inherits as his repertory a system, extensive and flexible, whose components are familiar, in their manifold variant form, to his listeners. For an audience that knows the mythological range of each character, divine or human – not only through this epic song, but through other songs, epic or non-epic – the poet does not spell out the myth in its entirety but locates a character within through allusion or oblique reference.” [18] As Foley points out, this principle “enables a highly economical discourse among insiders” while often leaving the outsiders in the dark, or at least sensitive only to the more overt parts of the performance. [19]
Though I do not eschew the word completely (in the absence of a ready substitute), I have reservations regarding the term “allusion.” Among other things, it invites the assumption that some particular text is being alluded to, which is not the case in an oral tradition. For the purposes of this study “allusion” should be understood to refer to a specifically oral phenomenon, which has as its target not a text but rather, to come back to Nagy’s formulation, “contexts remembered by the performer or by any member of the audience.” This does, of course, mean that the same allusion in the same performance could point to different targets for different listeners, and yet that would not, in my opinion, impede communication between the poet and his audience. My working assumption is that when Homeric poetry alludes to a myth it alludes in effect to something in the system, in the langue, of the tradition that is familiar to most of the audience. Each particular member might know this part of the langue through different experiences on the level of parole, primarily different poetic performances, but also any other ways of learning {7|8} myths. As long as the langue of tradition persists, however, the communication can continue, even if, as with any language, the language of myth could never be exactly the same in two different heads.
In trying to reflect the variable nature of the target of allusions in oral poetry I also use a synonymous term, “evocation.” This word conveys the sense of activating notions and associations, of bringing to mind stories, characters, words, and actions that are not explicitly identified in the poem, but without necessarily presupposing any particular textual point of reference. Essentially the same phenomenon has been also called “resonance,” a term Graziosi and Haubold define as a Homeric “ability to evoke a web of associations and implications by referring to the wider epic tradition.” [20]
The difference between evocation and resonance, in turn, points to another thorny question in oral poetics, namely whether we are dealing with conscious artistic choices or with effects of the system that are independent of the poet. “Evocation” seems to presuppose a poetic design, while “resonance” leaves the question open. In oral poetry, where there is no single poet to reckon with, the strict distinction between design and its absence is neither possible nor desirable. We have no reason to doubt that the practitioners of this poetry were aware of the evocative powers of their words, and therefore there is no reason to deny them artistic intent in harnessing this power. It is the factor of tradition, however, that allows the poet to make such choices and to create the kind of resonant poetry that can be found in the Iliad and the Odyssey. [21]
Another thorny question in oral poetics that pertains especially to the study of associative meaning is the question of the audience and its ability or desire to notice it. Any work on allusion and resonance is open to questioning on the grounds that the poets and their audiences would not have been familiar with some specific myth involved. To this my reply is that I do not claim that all were familiar with a given myth, but that some may have been, and that is sufficient for the validity of the allusion. Moreover, since the allusions in question are not to particular texts but to multiform elements of a living oral tradition, it is not necessary to assume that the audiences knew precisely the versions of the myth familiar to us. The “analogous contexts” available to any given audience or any giver performer were in all likelihood different from the analogous context available to us. As long as all these contexts are still analogous, however, they are part of the same metonymical {8|9} system that is operative in the Odyssey and are essential for it. The resonances are there, in other words, to be felt, and no doubt some of them were felt most of the time, while others might have been accessible only to particular audiences. [22]
By the same token, my claim that Homeric poetry is aware of mythological variation and uses it creatively does not depend on the assumption that all Homeric audiences knew all the relevant versions of a given myth. The poets may select one version over another and gain additional meaning by doing so, but in most cases the audience familiar with any version of the myth will still be able to understand the reference on some level, and even an audience completely unfamiliar with the myth would not be entirely lost. Those in possession of the better-fitting version, however, or those more attuned to the mythological variation, will be in a position to appreciate the fuller effect of the utterance. There is no reason to endow any hypothetical ancient audience with an encyclopedic knowledge of myth, but there is every reason to think that ancient Greek audiences, for whom the differences, clashes, and modifications of multitudinous local myths were a lived reality, were much more attuned to the very phenomenon of mythological variation than modern scholars for whom panhellenic mythology as reflected in poetry is the main frame of reference.
With regard to the evocation of myth in Odyssey 19, I suggest not only that it is there, but also that the connotative level of discourse has a direct impact on its denotative level. In other words, if we miss the associative meanings activated by the use of myth, direct and indirect, and of mythological variation, then we miss not just some subtlety, some additional but non-essential flavor, but rather the actual meaning of the conversation. If that claim can be sustained, it in itself would constitute evidence for the existence of audiences who were well enough versed in poetry and myth to follow this mode of communication. A position very similar to mine has been recently articulated by Kelly, whose work, not coincidentally, is also centered on referentiality and based on the premise that the oral and traditional origins of our Homeric texts are deeply significant for the understanding of them. As Kelly puts it, the abilities of any particular listener do not constitute an “objection to be directed against the author’s intention to generate that hypothetically maximum level {9|10} of meaning.” Further, Homeric epic may be especially prone to generating this “maximum level” of meaning since it is a panhellenic and universalizing genre aimed at the widest possible audience. [23]
We may not be able to get in touch with the reality of Homeric performances in antiquity, but we can try to get somewhat better in touch with those performances, explicitly or implicitly poetic, which are depicted within the Odyssey itself. Just as an oral poet uses myth in complex ways to achieve both immediate and far-reaching effects, so too do Penelope and Odysseus, and for them the factor of tradition is just as important. Like expert poets themselves, they use myths both directly and allusively, as main narratives and as exempla, in a way sensitive both to the moment and to the myth. As I examine these myths I observe that the way in which they fit into their context is so strikingly complex that virtually nothing appears to be ad hoc. I conclude that the myths in question are traditional not only in their content but even in their interactions with the context in which they are deployed, and that the fit between the myths and their context is itself a matter of tradition. By this I do not mean to say that Book 19 was re-performed for a long time with all its current elements in place and is free of innovations. Rather I suggest that expertly chosen elements, whenever they are introduced, instantly become deeply integrated into their Odyssean context because they bring with them sets of associations, of metonymies, which are congruent with those already activated in the poem. It may be, for example, that some myths alluded to in the Odyssey are innovations within the Odyssey, but drawn from traditional settings related or parallel to the poetic settings where they feature in Homer. [24] In keeping with my views regarding the oral character of Homeric poetry, I resist the notion of the uniqueness of our texts, and also the notion that there is only one way of achieving the remarkable degree of resonance, cohesion, and complexity that is observable in the Odyssey. I have little doubt that other elements could be substituted for some of our familiar text, including some of the mythological allusions, in such a way that the altered Odyssey would appear as equally well orchestrated as the one we know. The choices that are made in the Odyssey, however, have presumably withstood the test of time, and in that sense they {10|11} constitute excellent test cases for studying the intricacy of interactions between the myths and contexts in which they are told or alluded to.
My subject is not every kind of metonymy and resonance in Odyssey 19, but only evocation of myth. There is, however, no firm boundary between mythological and non-mythological evocation and consequently I have to admit to using the term “myth” in a rather vague and broad way and making arbitrary decisions regarding the inclusion or exclusion of particular parts of the dialogue. In my defense, I can only appeal to Aristotle, who advises, “to seek only so much precision in any subject as the nature of that subject affords.” [25] Myth, of course, is notoriously impossible to define, or at least to define comprehensively, and perhaps a single definition is not necessary for my purposes. [26] It is, however, important to attempt to formulate what is at stake. Myth lends its power to many utterances of the dialogue, while mythic patterns contextualize it, and I suggest that some of the resulting effect depends not only on the content of myths but also on the very fact that they are myths rather than simply stories.
One way of defining a myth is to say that it is a narrative that is in some way authoritative and traditional for the group that perpetuates it, as distinct from a purely personal story, which does not have the same social value, be it true or fictitious. [27] Some of the myths I consider would easily fit this definition: these are narratives of the past that have become part of the canon, a common reference point for the society to whom they belonged. Other utterances look at first sight very much like personal stories. A case in point is Odysseus’ Third Cretan Lie, in which he creates a fictitious identity for himself and tells Penelope an apparently equally fictitious story about Odysseus’ visit to Crete. The story of Odysseus’ visit to Crete on the way to Troy is not commonly regarded as a myth, yet by evoking myths and mythic patterns, it and other apparently personal and ad hoc stories can tap into the power, authority, and significance of myth sensu stricto. More importantly for my argument, this story is a myth from the internal standpoint of the Odyssey, a myth that is made by Odysseus, and whose making we can observe ‘live’ as Odysseus performs it.
Indeed, I would argue that the whole dialogue between Penelope and Odysseus may be seen as consisting of muthoi both in the Homeric sense of speech acts and in what seems to be the etymological meaning of the word {11|12} muthos, namely ‘special speech’. [28] I refer here to Nagy’s comments regarding the distinction between unmarked everyday speech and the language of myth and ritual, which is marked: “In small-scale societies – rather than complex ones – we can observe most clearly the symbiosis of ritual and myth, how neither is to be derived from the other, and how the language of ritual and myth is marked, let us call it SONG, while everyday language, speech, is unmarked.” [29] The dialogue between Penelope and Odysseus in Book 19 is non-everyday language in interesting and complex ways. There is an overlap between the language of ritual and myth as described by Nagy and the speech act, since both types of speech are indeed marked and both types depend on their occasion. This last factor is essential: the same words may constitute everyday speech in one setting but a myth in another setting. The details of Odysseus’ costume, for example, may be every day speech in some context, but they are marked and special speech in the dialogue in Book 19.
Martin argues that Homeric poetry as a whole is a muthos, a grand speech-act, because it is inherently antagonistic, striving to overpower competing versions and probably created for poetic contest, thus being an act of powerful self-presentation on the part of its tradition and poets who perform it. [30] The totality of Homeric epic certainly fits Martin’s definition of muthos within epic: “a speech-act indicating authority, performed at length, usually in public, with a focus on full attention to every detail.” [31] But even more fundamentally, Homeric poetry is both myth and ritual, as Nagy has argued: “to perform this epic is to activate myth, and such activation is fundamentally a matter of ritual.” [32] In the oral poetics of epic, composition interacts with performance in a way that parallels the interaction of myth and ritual, so that “the making of Homeric poetry is a matter of ritually performing the epic.” [33] Its competitive nature is not the only reason to regard Homeric poetry as a whole as muthos, because composing such poetry in performance is always not only saying something but also doing something ritually.
Externally, then, all of Homer is marked speech, a speech-act, muthos. Internally, on the other hand, there are different degrees of markedness, and different ways of achieving it. Most obviously, Homeric poetry dramatizes the performance of muthoi, as, for example, when Phoenix performs the story {12|13} of Meleager or Odysseus performs his tales for the Phaeacians. Such overt dramatization of an actual performance is not, however, the only way of activating myth within the epic. I argue that a myth can be activated without being actually narrated: an evocation of a myth may trigger associations that ultimately depend on its meaning in local settings, where it is indeed special speech in Nagy’s sense. Such associations may not be overt in Homer, but they can nevertheless be felt and used by poets and their audiences to create and understand poetry. In other words, Homeric poetry can evoke not only myths but also their various occasions, and such evocation taps into the power of myths as ‘special speech’.
The ritual occasion for myth-making can also be created within the poem itself. [34] A case in point is the festival of Apollo in the Odyssey which occurs on the day on which Odysseus kills the suitors and fully returns to Ithaca and his position as king. The festival begins to exert its influence on the narrative long before it actually takes place: there are several mentions of its approach and Odysseus strikingly predicts that his own return will coincide with the festival. The day itself is marked by an assembly and a sacrifice in Apollo’s sacred grove, followed by what seems to be a special meal in Odysseus’s house, a feast that turns into a bow contest under Apollo’s auspices and then into the slaughter of the suitors. The night of the same day sees the first performance of the Odyssey on Ithaca: Penelope tells her part of the story to Odysseus and Odysseus tells his adventures to Penelope all through the night (magically extended by Athena) until he is overcome with sleep. The Odyssey is famously self-conscious about its own poetics and the sliding, overlapping identities of its hero and the poetic voice. The mutual telling of the stories that concludes the festival day is a striking example of this self-referentiality, since in it the Odyssey dramatizes its own first performance and creates a very distinct occasion for it: the simultaneous completion of Apollo’s festival and Odysseus’ return. The stories, which on this occasion give pleasure to Odysseus and Penelope, are designated as muthoi (Odyssey 23.300), and arguably these stories are indeed not only ‘authoritative statements’ but also myths in the sense of ‘special speech’ uttered in a ritual setting, because on the poetic Ithaca created within the Odyssey, at the conclusion of its equally poetic festival of Apollo, the story of Odysseus’ return is both a personal story and a central, reality-defining myth, and its performance a ritual act. To come back to Nagy’s {13|14} formulation, Odysseus’ composition-in-performance of his own tale for Penelope is a ritual act of activating a myth. [35]
I suggest that the same can be said about the dialogue between Penelope and Odysseus in Book 19, which takes place on the eve of the festival and which is also designated as muthoi (Odyssey 19.103). The eve of the festival is an occasion for preparation, both for the festival itself and for the concomitant return of Odysseus, which is on the verge of being accomplished. This is a special time much like the festival itself, a setting of heightened emotional state permeated by the anticipation of both the festival and of Odysseus’ self-revelation. In this context the words exchanged by Odysseus and Penelope become “marked speech-acts associated with the special occasions of ritual and myth,” to quote Nagy’s words. [36]
The mythological allusions in the dialogue serve their purpose in the conversation, but I argue that they also interact with their setting, namely the eve of the festival and Odysseus’ return. The dialogue between Penelope and Odysseus takes place in a special time and place, in the sphere of influence of Apollo’s festival, and it both derives meaning from this circumstance and helps create the circumstance itself, its own poetic occasion. In the context of their setting, the apparently personal tales exchanged by Odysseus and Penelope are indeed ‘special speech’, and their performance within the poem is a ritual act. It is indeed this ritual act of performance that activates the myth of Apollo’s festival in the Odyssey and makes the festival possible.
This is not to say, of course, that the dialogue constitutes, or includes, the myth of any actual festival of Apollo beyond the Odyssey, or that there is direct correspondence and complete inter-dependence between the festival and any myth narrated or evoked in the poem. It is entirely possible to imagine an Odyssey without any festival of Apollo at all, and in the Odyssey as we have it the nature of the festival remains relatively vague. Still, the festival of Apollo is a pivotal detail and in the Odyssey as we have it functions both as a poetic occasion and as a focal point for myth-making. To return again to Nagy’s formulation, it is a question not of dependence, but of “symbiosis” of myth and ritual, in this case myth and ritual within the Odyssey.
Finding a correlation between Apollo’s festival and the myths evoked in its proximity touches upon the question of connections between myth and ritual, a subject with a complicated scholarly history lasting now more than a century, so that the very phrase “myth and ritual” has become associated with {14|15} theories and theorists no longer credible and with long decades of virulent polemics. [37] The older stages of the debate form a fascinating subject, which is, however, of little relevance to my work and accordingly needs no further mention here. For parts of my argument, however, I do rely heavily on the work of Burkert, which can be seen as a new way of tackling the old questions. Burkert rejects the notion that all myth originates in ritual or is associated with it, freely admitting that there are rites without myths and myths without rites and that the origins of either go too far back in time even to entertain the question of what came first. But at the same time, he does show, in my opinion, convincingly, that some myths and rituals do form a unity, a complex, that there are cases where myth is more or less explicitly associated with cultic activity, (most often, a festival), and where there is an observable correlation and parallelism between the myth and the ritual action. [38] I find this approach enlightening, and the notion that some myths and some rituals can be connected is important for my purposes. If myth can parallel ritual, then perhaps it can evoke ritual too (and ritual, in turn, can evoke myth), and in that case some of the Odyssey’s mythological allusions may acquire additional meaning through such evocation. If myth can, however complexly and loosely, be integrated into a festival, and if this connection between the myth and the festival is a part of the actual experience of Homeric poets and audiences, then the Odyssey can harness such experiences and evoke them in creating its allusive discourse under the aegis of Apollo’s festival.
This is, of course, not achieved by directly reflecting any myth-ritual complex. Rather, precisely because the Odyssey is panhellenic, universalizing, and polyparadeigmatic it can mix and match myths in a way that transcends their local ritual connections, should there be any such, and perhaps even mix and match ritual echoes in the same way. The nature of Apollo’s festival in the Odyssey is hinted at but not elaborated, and this may be a poetic strategy for ensuring the widest appeal and resonance for the festival without overburdening it with specifics. It seems to be a festival associated with seasonal change, certainly a beginning of a new period, and it also seems to be connected, in part, with the coming of age of a new generation. These two {15|16} aspects might have been combined in some actual festivals of Apollo, but it is unlikely that we are meant to think of any particular one. Some myths evoked in the Odyssey on this occasion may indeed have been associated with Apollo outside of Homer, or even correlate to a festival of the god, but such origins are not required for the myths to resonate with the festivals. The Odyssean choice of myths to allude to is neither simplistic nor random, and I come back here to Nagy’s notion of “analogous context,” which allows different myths from different places to form, within the Odyssey, a complex of their own.
Although my focus is on the working of mythological allusion in Odyssey 19 and not throughout the poem as a whole, it is, of course, impossible to isolate this crucial episode from its larger contexts, and consequently to isolate interpretation of myth within it from the interpretation of myth in the Odyssey as a whole. It so happens that the Odyssey has been something of a central text in the myth-and-ritual battles, with practically every school of thought seeing in it a perfect example of its own theories. As a result, the poem has been seen as reflecting multiple myth-ritual complexes, including first and foremost the two most prevalent ones: that of the dying and rising god, or king, at the New Year Festival, popular in the first half of the twentieth century and now discredited, and that of initiation, which, though arising earlier, enjoyed renewed popularity in the second half of the same century and still does today, in spite of some recent criticism. [39] This latter point is relevant to the current work, as I do appeal to the notion of “coming of age” and “transition” as part of my analysis. It is readily apparent that Van Gennep’s tripartite initiation scheme, which is still the foundation for modern scholarship on the subject, mirrors in its basic outline the linear structure of countless quest narratives, including, for example, Russian fairy tales as analyzed by Propp. [40] The hero departs, undergoes trials, and returns. This is also, of course, the basic structure of Odysseus’ adventures. In his extremely useful analysis of myth and ritual theories and their application to the Odyssey, Versnel sees the key to the Odyssey’s popularity in myth and ritual studies precisely in the fundamental and universal nature of its basic plot. The problem, as Versnel formulates it, is this: “How are we to explain that an ‘Odyssey pattern’ shows itself in so many myths, fairy tales and stories, if we are not prepared {16|17} to trace this pattern invariably back either to the ‘New Year complex’ or to the ‘initiation complex’ or even to any ritual whatsoever?” [41] For an answer, Versnel turns to Burkert’s theory that this tale’s structure reflects a basic and ultimately biological “program of action.” [42] The same explanation certainly cannot be applied to all myth, but Burkert makes a strong case for applying it to some, and also to some rites. The biology-derived program that, according to Versnel, underlies the Odyssey, is summarized by him in one verb: “to get,” a program so basic that it is not even exclusively human. As Versnel puts it, “What the hero does in Propp’s schema is essentially similar to what the rat does when – driven by hunger – it goes in search of prey and returns with the spoils, having escaped the street urchin’s stones, the cat’s jaws and envious fellow-rats.” [43]
The next logical step is to suggest that both the New Year complex and the initiation complex go back to the same “most elementary and primordial scheme of (originally bio-sociological) functions,” which is rehearsed in ritual and myth at points of crisis, such as the turning of the year, or a period of social transition. [44] Such a common origin would then explain both the fact that the proponents of the New Year and initiation theories often cite precisely the same evidence in support of their respective views, and also the fact that the Odyssey can be equally easily analyzed in terms of either scheme (or indeed of a number of other schemes, for example that of the shamanistic journey, which also involves the familiar sequence of separation, a period of marginality, and return).
Some of what I say may seem reminiscent of the “New Year complex” or the “initiatory complex” but this does not imply the application of any simplistic myth-and-ritual theory on my part. Although I do not see any connection between the Odyssey and Near Eastern New Year festivals, I do think that seasonal rhythm is present in the poem, and that Odysseus’ return coincides with the end of one period and the beginning of another. By the same token, although there is nothing in the Odyssey that would fit a strict definition of an “initiation,” there is much that undeniably has to do with transition from childhood to adulthood. The Odyssey is unlikely to derive from any single ritual or myth-and-ritual complex, but fundamental and pervasive patterns present in some rituals and some myth-ritual complexes are also present in the Odyssey, including those associated with coming of age, dissolution and {17|18} restoration, perpetuation of family, and legitimation of (mythical) kingship. I think, further, that the Odyssey does not simply share some socio-biological origins with various mythic complexes, but also enters into contact with them. One of the things I hope my analysis illustrates is the way the Odyssey evokes different but mutually reinforcing mythological patterns to create what might be called a symphonic effect, with different themes creating a harmonious but complex whole and never converging into monotonous sound.
It is within this framework that I offer my observations regarding the solar themes in the Odyssey, observations that I feel require a special explanation in view of persistent scholarly aversion to solar mythology in the wake of Müller’s excesses. [45] To make explicit what I hope will be obvious, I do not suggest that the Odyssey should be interpreted as a solar myth. But I do think the Odyssey evokes solar myths, and that this evocation is, within the Odyssey, a matter not only of poetic technique but also of ritual speech. The notion of the sun’s disappearance and return parallels, of course, the basic initiatory scheme of separation and reintegration, as it does the “New Year” scheme of dissolution and restoration, and the basic pattern of departure and return that is undeniable in the Odyssey. And so it may come as no surprise that all these mythic complexes are alluded to in the poem. That this is done at all, however, is only a starting point. My interests lie in how it is done, and to what effect.
There is a great conceptual distance between observing the details of myth-making in a particular dialogue and seeking elemental foundations of myth and ritual that stretch back to the very origins of the human species. My aim here is the former rather than the latter, but at the same time I see this work as an attempt to combine two fields, poetics and mythology, to see myth not as something that underlies, but as something that constitutes the Odyssey, so that even the intricacies of the dialogue, or the ethics of Penelope’s decision, cannot be analyzed without it. My goal, then, is to look at the dialogue in Book 19 through the lens of mythological evocation. Since Odysseus dominates the first part of the dialogue, I begin with the muthoi of Odysseus, focusing in particular on what is known as the Third Cretan Lie, and then move on to the second part of the dialogue, which is dominated by Penelope. {18|}


[ back ] 1. Dissatisfaction with the composition of Book 19 was prevalent at the end of nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries. The dialogue scene was criticized by Wilamowitz (1884:61–63), von Mühl (RE Supplement VII col. 750 lines 23–38), and Schwartz (1924:110). Woodhouse expresses a typical opinion when he writes,“the poet’s construction hereabouts resembles some ramshackle engine” (1930:88), (further references and discussion in Harsh 1950). Harsh attempted to resolve the difficulties and uncover the coherence of the scene by arguing that Penelope recognizes Odysseus during the dialogue. His argument has not enjoyed much scholarly acceptance, though it is followed, up to a point, by Winkler (1990:155, 160), who, however, rejects the term “recognition” and labels Harsh’s suggestion as “certainly untenable” in its “literal form.” Other attempts to resolve the compositional difficulties of Book 19 include, e.g., Whitman 1958:303–304, Amory 1963, Austin 1975, Russo 1982. The focus in recent years has shifted from attempts to impart consistency to this part of the Odyssey toward an appreciation of inconsistency in its own right. See especially Murnaghan 1987, Katz 1991, Felson 1994, Doherty 1995, Peradotto 2002.
[ back ] 2. The fundamental works are Martin 1989 and Bakker 1997; recent studies include Beck 2005 and Minchin 2007, both with abundant bibliographies.
[ back ] 3. Murnaghan 1987, Peradotto 1990, Felson 1994, Papadopoulou-Belmehdi 1994, Doherty 1995, Ahl and Roisman 1996, to name just a few book-length studies.
[ back ] 4. Most notably Foley 1995 and 2001, Marquardt 1985.
[ back ] 5. Works cited in the two previous notes fit into this category as well; important recent contributions include Clayton 2004 and Minchin 2007.
[ back ] 6. See Doherty 1995 for a useful survey of critical literature on the “Penelope question” (her term).
[ back ] 7. See note 1; recent studies that argue against recognition include Foley 2001 and Heitman 2005. To my mind, the most profitable recent reconsideration and reformulation of the question (in terms that remove the question of Penelope’s psychology) is Scodel 2001.
[ back ] 8. Martin 1989:54–55.
[ back ] 9. Slatkin 1991:xv–xvi.
[ back ] 10. Lord 1960:65
[ back ] 11. See, e.g., Foley 1999:23–34 for a discussion of this quality of Homeric poetry, and see further below.
[ back ] 12. Notopoulos (1949) introduced the notion that an “oral aesthetic” was a subject to be pursued by the Homeric scholarship. I prefer to think of oral poetics, however, rather than aesthetics, though there is presumably an overlap. The connotative aspect of oral Homeric poetry emerges clearly in studies such as Nagy 1979, Muellner 1976 and 1996, Slatkin 1986 and 1991, Lowenstam 1981 and 1993, and Nagler 1974. Foley has coined the term “traditional referentiality,” and has consistently championed this aspect of Homeric poetry in his work (see especially Foley 1991 and 1999). The term has entered into common usage as the phenomenon has gained recognition (see, e.g. Danek 2002).
[ back ] 13. Cairns 2001:53. The opinion that the Iliad and the Odyssey were composed with the aid of writing and should be analyzed exclusively as written text is expressed in strong terms by West 2001a, 2001b, and 2003.
[ back ] 14. Nagy 1996a:50.
[ back ] 15. See Nagy 1979:xiv–xv on Homeric poetry as a system.
[ back ] 16. Nagy 1996a:1.
[ back ] 17. I refer here to Nagy’s evolutionary model for the creation of Homeric poetry, according to which the poems we know as the Iliad and the Odyssey underwent a period of progressive fixation and achieved a relatively stable form well before written texts came to play any role in their perpetuation. See Nagy 1979:xiv–xvii and Nagy1996b.29–63.
[ back ] 18. Slatkin 1991:xv.
[ back ] 19. Foley 1999:27
[ back ] 20. Graziosi and Haubold 2005:9.
[ back ] 21. See Kelly 2007:5–6 for a discussion of this question.
[ back ] 22. See Kelly 2007:11–13 on the audience’s familiarity with the poems and for the suggestion that the universalizing tendency of the Homeric poetry and its panhellenic status would lead to the expression of “the widest possible experience of epic language and world.” See Scodel 2002, esp. 1–41 for extended discussion of these and other questions relating to the audiences of Homeric poetry.
[ back ] 23. Kelly 2007:12–13.
[ back ] 24. See Nagy 1996b:113–146 on the traditional nature of Homeric mythological exempla and cf. the views exemplified by Wilcock 1964 and 1977, to which Nagy reacts. Lang (1983, esp. 149) offers a convincing argument against the notion of invention and drastic innovation in Homeric myths, showing that such invention would in fact deprive paradeigmata of their effectiveness. See also Scodel 2002:5–6 on the importance of context-bound remembering for the definition of tradition.
[ back ] 25. Nicomachean Ethics 1094b.
[ back ] 26. For some definitions and discussion of the question see Graf 1993.1–8, Edmunds 1990:1–20, Nagy 1990b:8 (discussed below), Burkert 1983:31–34, Pozzi and Wickersham 1991:1–10.
[ back ] 27. Nagy 1990b:8.
[ back ] 28. Nagy 1990a:32.
[ back ] 29. Nagy 1990a:31.
[ back ] 30. Martin 1989:238–239.
[ back ] 31. Martin 1989:12, Nagy 2007a:54.
[ back ] 32. Nagy 2007a:53.
[ back ] 33. Nagy 2007a:53, 54.
[ back ] 34. Cf. Bierl 2009, esp. 11–47 on the specifically ritual nature of comic choruses, not only as part of the festival of Dionysus, but also within the play, so that dramatic and ritual functions of the chorus are not easily separable.
[ back ] 35. Nagy 2007a:54
[ back ] 36. Nagy 1990a:31.
[ back ] 37. See Burkert 1983:29–34, and especially Versnel 1993:16–88.
[ back ] 38. Burkert 1970, esp.1–2, Burkert 1983:29–34, Burkert 1966. Two of Burkert’s many test cases have enjoyed particular success, convincing even some of the inveterate critics of any variety of myth-and-ritual approach (Kirk 1974:246): the Cecropides myth (Burkert 1966) and the myth of the Lemnian women in connection with the festival of Pyrphoria (Burkert 1970). The latter argument is important for my own, and remains in essence convincing (for a dissenting opinion, see Forsyth 1984).
[ back ] 39. The bibliography on the divine kingship and New Year complex in various religions is massive, beginning with the first two volumes of Fraser’s The Golden Bough (1890) and Harrison’s Themis (1912). For a historical survey and bibliography, see Versnel 1993:20–48. On initiation, see Versnel 1993:48–88, Padilla 1999, Dodd and Faraone 2003, and especially Graf 2003.
[ back ] 40. Van Gennep 1977 (second edition of The Rites of Passage, originally published in French as Les rites de passage in 1909), Propp 1958 (translation of Propp 1928).
[ back ] 41. Versnel 1993:73–74.
[ back ] 42. See especially Burkert 1979, 1980, 1983.
[ back ] 43. Versnel 1993:77.
[ back ] 44. Versnel 1993:83.
[ back ] 45. Müller 1897. For a comprehensive recent discussion of Indo-European solar mythology, see West 2007:194–237. West (2007:237) concludes: “Müller’s critics were right to castigate his excesses and those of the nature-myth school generally. But the reaction against that approach sometimes went too far. We have seen in this chapter that there was such a thing as solar mythology in Indo-European tradition, and a body of festive ritual associated with it.”