Chapter 3. Zeus and the King

Odysseus appears before Penelope as a long-suffering wanderer, and his rhetoric, including his assumed name, underscores his displacement from the aristocratic position in life that he once occupied. And yet Aithon’s biography also serves to emphasize just how aristocratic, or, more precisely, how king-like that position actually was. The conceit of the Odyssey is that its hero is intrinsically a king, and recognizable as such. When he is reduced to having nothing, not even clothes, he could theoretically become any kind of a person – a beggar, a pirate, a wandering bard – but although he plays some of these roles, that is not what happens in the end. Instead, Odysseus shows himself to be a king already on Skheria, where he is offered the hand of a king’s daughter. On Ithaca too, it is not a matter of simply regaining his position, but of proving this position to be truly his.
The qualities of a perfect king are also a preoccupation of Hesiod, and this is an important point of contact between the Hesiodic and the Odyssean traditions. Some of these core qualities are, I submit, evoked in the Odyssey by Aithon’s descent.
In Hesiod, as in Homer, a true king is sanctioned by Zeus:
ἐκ γάρ τοι Μουσέων καὶ ἑκηβόλου Ἀπόλλωνος
ἄνδρες ἀοιδοὶ ἔασιν ἐπὶ χθόνα καὶ κιθαρισταί,
ἐκ δὲ Διὸς βασιλῆες·
(Theogony 94–96).
For epic singers and cithara players on the earth
come from Muses and far-shooting Apollo,
and from Zeus come kings.
The kings appear here somewhat mysteriously along with the poets in the midst of praise for the Muses. But there is a connection, since one of the gifts of a true king is the true and well-spoken word, and related to it is another {50|51} gift from Zeus, namely his dike, the ability to pronounce judgment. [1] In the Theogony a good king is both nourished by Zeus and favored by the Muses with the result that he can render ‘straight judgment’ and speak unfailingly:
ὅντινα τιμήσουσι Διὸς κοῦραι μεγάλοιο
γεινόμενόν τε ἴδωσι διοτρεφέων βασιλήων,
τῷ μὲν ἐπὶ γλώσσῃ γλυκερὴν χείουσιν ἐέρσην,
τοῦ δ’ ἔπε’ ἐκ στόματος ῥεῖ μείλιχα· οἱ δέ νυ λαοὶ
πάντες ἐς αὐτὸν ὁρῶσι διακρίνοντα θέμιστας
ἰθείῃσι δίκῃσιν· ὁ δ’ ἀσφαλέως ἀγορεύων
αἶψά τι καὶ μέγα νεῖκος ἐπισταμένως κατέπαυσε.
(Theogony 81–87)
Whomever of the Zeus-nourished kings the daughters of the great Zeus
honor and look upon as he is born,
for him they pour sweet dew on his tongue,
and honey-sweet voice flows from his lips; and all the people
look at him as he determines the established custom
with his straight judgments. And he, speaking unfailingly,
expertly and quickly stops a quarrel, even if it is a big one.
Both the proximity of Zeus and the power of dike are characteristics of the royal line of Idomeneus, Aithon’s supposed brother. When Idomeneus boasts in the Iliad, he describes himself as the ‘offspring of Zeus’ and claims direct descent from the king of the gods:
ὄφρα ἴδῃ οἷος Ζηνὸς γόνος ἐνθάδ’ ἱκάνω,
ὃς πρῶτον Μίνωα τέκε Κρήτῃ ἐπίουρον·
Μίνως δ’ αὖ τέκεθ’ υἱὸν ἀμύμονα Δευκαλίωνα,
Δευκαλίων δ’ ἐμὲ τίκτε πολέσσ’ ἄνδρεσσιν ἄνακτα.
(Iliad 13.449–452)
So that you may see what kind of man I am as I come here, a descendant of Zeus,
who first begat Minos, the overseer of Crete. {51|52}
And Minos in his turn had a perfect son, Deukalion,
and Deukalion had me, a ruler over many men.
The special position of Minos seems to be marked here by an unusual and archaic title – epiouros of Crete. [2] In his talk with Penelope, Odysseus also claims a special relationship to Zeus for his supposed grandfather Minos and emphasizes it by a curious description of Minos as oaristes of the god. [3] Thus both in the Iliad and in the Odyssey Minos’ connection to Zeus is singled out as his preeminent quality. It is in all likelihood as a result of this connection that Minos has a Zeus-granted gift of dike, shown by the role of judge over the dead that he assumes in the afterlife:
ἔνθ’ ἦ τοι Μίνωα ἴδον, Διὸς ἀγλαὸν υἱόν,
χρύσεον σκῆπτρον ἔχοντα θεμιστεύοντα νέκυσσιν,
ἥμενον· οἱ δέ μιν ἀμφὶ δίκας εἴροντο ἄνακτα,
ἥμενοι ἑσταότες τε, κατ’ εὐρυπυλὲς Ἄϊδος δῶ.
(Odyssey 11.568–571)
There I saw Minos, the splendid son of Zeus,
sitting and holding a golden scepter, uttering judgments to the dead,
and they consulted the lord about their cases,
sitting and standing, all over the wide-gated house of Hades.
This role of an arbiter is precisely the role attributed by Hesiod to his ideal king (διακρίνοντα θέμιστας, Theogony 85).
It is worth emphasizing the loftiness of the lineage Aithon claims for himself, since it makes for such an astonishing statement in the mouth of a beggar. As we have seen, he begins his conversation with Penelope with a performance of the “ruler’s truth,” showing that he knows what a real king is and has mastered the discourse characteristic of such a king. [4] He then expands on this veiled demonstration of his identity by making a direct claim to belong not simply to a royal lineage, but to an exalted royal lineage with a {52|53} special claim to Zeus’s support. The genealogy is thus one step in a purposeful process of establishing himself as a “real” king during this dialogue, and of reminding Penelope what such a king is like. The theme of Zeus’ sanction, moreover, resonates strongly in this part of the Odyssey, because it is after his return to Ithaca that Odysseus’ own relation to Zeus becomes especially prominent. For example, beggar-Odysseus twice swears by Zeus that Odysseus will return soon (14.158 = 19.303), and on the morning of the bow contest prays for, and receives, an omen from Zeus, a thunderclap from the clear sky (20.105, 114). [5] Furthermore, Odysseus-the-beggar claims in his tales that Odysseus is in Dodona, consulting the oracle of Zeus (14.327–328 = 19.296–297).
The name Aithon fits this theme of Zeus’ support and justice perfectly. As an adjective, aithon is applied to lightning, which is both the weapon Zeus uses to punish hybristic transgressors and a sign of victory, as thunder is for Odysseus. Such is the thunderbolt in Pindar’s Olympian 10:
καί νυν ἐπωνυμίαν χάριν
νίκας ἀγερώχου κελαδησόμεθα βροντάν
καὶ πυρπάλαμον βέλος
ὀρσικτύπου Διός,
ἐν ἅπαντι κράτει
αἴθωνα κεραυνὸν ἀραρότα·
(Olympian 10.78–83)
And now we shall sing the song of proud victory,
celebrating thunder and lightning made of fire,
weapon of thunder-rousing Zeus,
a blazing thunder-bolt
fitted to every supremacy.
Transgressors can be blazing in their turn, but nothing is a match for the fire of Zeus. An example illustrating these connections is the description of Kapaneus and his opponent, Polyphontes, in Aeschylus’ Seven against Thebes. Kapaneus is a hybristic attacker, who cares nothing for Zeus and chooses fire as his weapon, in effect making himself out to be a human Zeus. Not only does Kapaneus have a torch-bearer and an inscription ‘I will burn the city’ on his shield, but he also claims that he will do so even against the will of Zeus, whose lightning he disparagingly compares to the warmth of noon (427–431). In response to a messenger’s description of Kapaneus, Eteokles expresses his {53|54} hope that Zeus will strike the braggart with a lightning ‘not at all similar to the midday warmth of the sun’ (445–446). In the meanwhile, the opponent of Kapaneus, Polyphontes, is described as a man of ‘burning purpose’ (αἴθων . . . λῆμα, 448). [6] The appearance of the adjective aithon is hardly surprising in this context, full as it is of words relating to fire and lightning, but it has a connotation that goes deeper. Associations of aithon with Zeus, lightning, and the punishment of offenders all combine to make Polyphontes into a veritable human lighting bolt, a weapon of Zeus. In Euripides Phoenissae, Kapaneus is indeed eventually struck by lightning as he tries to scale the walls of Thebes (1181).
Such associations, made plain by Aeschylus, are present in a more compressed form in Homer, as may be seen in Iliad 15, where the battle has reached the Achaean ships and the Trojans, led by Hektor, are trying to set them on fire (15.702). In this episode Hektor enjoys the support of Zeus, and it is no accident that he is compared to a burning eagle (αἰετὸς αἴθων, 15.690) as he leads the attack and that the simile concludes with a vision of Zeus literally pushing Hektor ahead:
. . . τὸν δὲ Ζεὺς ὦσεν ὄπισθε
χειρὶ μάλα μεγάλῃ, ὤτρυνε δὲ λαὸν ἅμ᾿ αὐτῷ.
(Iliad 15.694–695)
And Zeus pushed him onward from behind
with his great hand, and roused his people along with him.
In the ensuing scene Hektor jumps on the ship of Protesilaos and demands fire (οἴσετε πῦρ, 15.718).
If the adjective aithon is a fitting epithet for lightning and thus evocative of the will of Zeus, so too is the very mention of Idomeneus, Aithon-Odysseus’ supposed older brother. In the Iliad, Idomeneus is the only character to be actually compared to lightning, and moreover to lightning as brandished by Zeus:
βῆ δ’ ἴμεν ἀστεροπῇ ἐναλίγκιος, ἥν τε Κρονίων
χειρὶ λαβὼν ἐτίναξεν ἀπ’ αἰγλήεντος Ὀλύμπου
δεικνὺς σῆμα βροτοῖσιν· ἀρίζηλοι δέ οἱ αὐγαί·
(Iliad 13.242–244) {54|55}
And he moved on, looking like lightning when the son of Cronos
grasps and shakes it from shining Olympus,
showing mortals a sign, and its rays are seen from afar.
The simile occurs during his aristeia in Book 13, and it is in the same scene that Idomeneus boasts of his descent from Zeus. In the same book, Idomeneus is compared to fire, a simile otherwise peculiar to Hektor: οἳ δ’ ὡς Ἰδομενῆα ἴδον φλογὶ εἴκελον ἀλκὴν (13.330), ‘and when they saw Idomeneus, like a fire in his courage’. For Idomeneus, being Zeus’ great grandson and being like lightning are two features that seem to go together.
To return to the Odyssey, Odysseus assumes the name Aithon as Idomeneus’ brother, along with a Cretan descent from Zeus, and the special proximity to Zeus enjoyed by his ancestor Minos, a king par excellence. In this context, the name Aithon resonates with multiple connotations and sends multiple signals to Penelope. Not only is her guest “hungry” and burning for revenge, but, like Polyphontes in Aeschylus, he too is a human lightning bolt, a king sanctioned by Zeus who has the power and will of the god on his side. {55|}


[ back ] 1. On the connection between poets and kings and the traditional diction associating kingship with the ability to speak well, see discussion and references above, pp27–28. Etymologically, δίκη is derived from the verbal root *deik, the root of Greek δείκνυμι and Latin dicere (Chantraine 1968 s.v. δίκη, δείκνυμι).
[ back ] 2. It is interesting that the only other person to be called epiouros in Homer is Eumaeus, who is twice so named. When Athena tells Odysseus to visit him she describes the swineherd as follows: αὐτὸς δὲ πρώτιστα συβώτην εἰσαφικέσθαι, | ὅς τοι ὑῶν ἐπίουρος, ὁμῶς δέ τοι ἤπια οἶδε, | παῖδά τε σὸν φιλέει καὶ ἐχέφρονα Πηνελόπειαν (13.404–406). Lines 13.404–405 are the same as 15.38–39, where these instructions are given to Telemachus. Mycenaean has opi . . . (h)oromenos (PY AE 134), cf. ἐπὶ . . . ὄρονται (Odyssey 14.104). οὖρος Ἀχαιῶν is of the same origin (Janko1994:104 ad loc., Chantraine 1968 s.v. ὁράω).
[ back ] 3. See below for further discussion of this word.
[ back ] 4. See above, pp27-28.
[ back ] 5. See Nagy 1999 on the omen and the apparently contradictory diction of 20.105 and 114.
[ back ] 6. Cf. the way Antigone curses Kapaneus in Euripides’ Phoenissae: ἰώ, Νέμεσι καὶ Διὸς βαρύβρομοι βρονταὶ | κεραύνιόν τε φῶς αἰθαλόεν, σύ τοι | μεγαλαγορίαν ὑπεράνορα κοιμίζεις (182–184).