Oresteia and Odyssey

Throughout the Odyssey, the story of Agamemnon, Klytaimnestre, and Orestes is paradigmatic for that of Odysseus, Penelope, and Telemachos. The Odyssean “Oresteia,” as the story will be referred to here, provides examples of the kinds of perils that could await Odysseus, and of the resources on which he can rely. A number of characters describe or refer to the death of Agamemnon, the treachery of Klytaimnestre and her consort Aigisthos, and the heroism of Orestes, the first being Zeus, whose speech on the subject opens the main narrative.
Much critical attention has been paid to the manner in which Zeus’ Oresteia frames the theological, philosophical, and moral implications of Odysseus’ return. [1] Less attention, however, has been paid to the narrative implications of Zeus’ opening speech. Comparison with other versions in the Odyssey, and with non-Homeric versions, makes clear that his Oresteia is no bland recitation of the “facts,” but a polemical casting of the tale in Homeric terms. [2] One facet of this polemic, I suggest, is a programmatic assertion of the god’s own role in the Odyssey. Just as Orestes, who acts with Zeus’ approval, suffers no retribution for killing Aigisthos, so Zeus will intervene at the end of the Odyssey to ensure that Odysseus will not suffer for killing the suitors.
Zeus’ Oresteia begins a divine council scene that is functionally equivalent to the scenes with Zeus and Thetis, then Zeus and Here, in Book 1 of the Iliad (493-611). In both cases, Zeus and a subordinate goddess forge, or reestablish, a connection with the hero of the epic that foreshadows the special favor the hero will receive in the course of the story. In the Iliad, Zeus begins at once to enact the plan that emerges from the initial Olympian scenes (2.3-5), and eventually describes it in some detail (e.g. 15.59-77).
I shall be arguing that the Odyssey shares this structural conceit, but that Zeus enacts his plan by transmitting it as it were subliminally to Athene. For although the plan for the hero’s return that the gods enact at the beginning of the narrative will be called Athene’s, its basic outline derives from Zeus’ Oresteia. Further, the very distinctiveness of Zeus’ account raises the specter of other versions of the well-known and ancient story, in which themes such as remorse and retribution complicate the hero’s revenge. I begin by exploring character-equivalencies that link Zeus’ Oresteia and Athene’s plan for Odysseus and Telemachos.

Zeus, Athene and the opening of the Odyssey

It is in response to Zeus’ speech that Athene first raises the subject of Odysseus (1.48-62). She proposes that he be sent home from Kalypso’s island, and that his son Telemachos be sent in search of news about him:
Ἑρμείαν μὲν ἔπειτα, διάκτορον Ἀργειφόντην,
νῆσον ἐς Ὠγυγίην ὀτρύνομεν, ὄφρα τάχιστα85
νύμφηι ἐυπλοκάμωι εἴπηι νημερτέα βουλήν,
νόστον Ὀδυσσῆος ταλασίφρονος, ὥς κε νέηται.
αύτὰρ ἐγὼν Ἰθάκηνδ᾿ ἐσελεύσομαι, ὄφρα οἱ υἱὸν
μᾶλλον ἐποτρύνω καί οἱ μένος ἐν φρεσὶ θείω,
εἰς ἀγορὴν καλέσαντα κάρη κομόωντας Ἀχαιοὺς90
πᾶσι μνηστήρεσσιν ἀπειπέμεν, οἵ τέ οἱ αἰεὶ
μῆλ᾿ ἀδινὰ σφάζουσι καὶ εἰλίποδας ἕλικας βοῦς.
πέμψω δ᾿ ἐς Σπάρτην τε καὶ ἐς Πύλον ἠμαθόεντα
νόστον πευσόμενον πατρὸς φίλου, ἤν που ἀκούσηι,
ἠδ᾿ ἵνα μιν κλέος ἐσθλὸν ἐν ἀνθρώποισιν ἔχηισιν.
Then let us send Hermes the runner, Argeiphontes,
to the island of Ogygie, in order that quick as possible85
he may tell to the fair-tressed nymph our unerring plan,
the homecoming of firm-minded Odysseus, so that he may return.
But I myself will go to Ithake, so that his son
I may the more urge on and put might in his heart,
to call to assembly the long-haired Achaians90
and denounce all the suitors, who always
slaughter his rich flocks and shambling crook-horned cattle.
And I will send him to Sparta and to sandy Pylos
to learn of his own father’s return, if he may somehow hear,
and in order that he may have good repute among people.
Odyssey 1.84-95
And so it happens. Athene departs for Ithake at once, and Books 2 through 4 narrate Telemachos’ public denunciation of the suitors and his quest for word of his father. Odysseus’ story is taken up in Book 5, when the gods dispatch Hermes to Ogygie.
Athene’s speech here in Book 1 serves a number of practical functions. It provides a table of contents, informing or reminding the audience of the overall outlines of the tale, and perhaps helps the performer to organize his subject matter. [3] At the same time, the speech supplies what is, by the conventions of ancient Greek epic, the requisite motivation for the events to follow, since it is the gods who explain and make coherent the series of coincidences and fantastic occurrences that attend Odysseus’ return. Further, Athene’s mention of Telemachos and the suitors foreshadows the conflict that is the main theme of the second half of the narrative, so that her initial speech helps to establish the dramatic unity of the three main sequences of the Odyssey, the Telemachia, Nostos, and Mnesterophonia.
The motivation behind the narrative of the Odyssey has generally been understood as a fairly straightforward process: the chain of causality in the Odyssean narrative begins with Athene. [4] And as the above quote shows, the plan for Books 1 through 13 is indeed articulated by the goddess. Yet Athene speaks up only in response to Zeus’ account of the Oresteia, which I now quote in full:
ὢ πόποι, οἷον δή νυ θεοὺς βροτοὶ αἰτιόωνται.
ἐξ ἡμέων γάρ φασὶ κάκ᾿ ἔμμεναι· οἰ δὲ καὶ αὐτοὶ
σφῆισιν ἀτασθαλίηισιν ὑπὲρ μόρον ἄλγε᾿ ἔχουσιν,
ὡς καὶ νῦν Αἴγισθος ὑπὲρ μόρον Ἀτρείδαο35
γῆμ᾿ ἄλοχον μνηστήν, τὸν δ᾿ ἔκτανε νοστήσαντα,
εἰδὼς αἰπὺν ὄλεθρον, ἐπεὶ πρὸ οἱ εἴπομεν ἡμεῖς
Ἑμρείαν πέμψαντες ἐύσκοπον Ἀργειφόντην,
μήτ᾿ αὐτὸν κτείνειν μήτε μνάασθαι ἄκοιτιν·
ἐκ γὰρ Ὀρέσταο τίσις ἔσσεται Ἀτρείδαο40
ὁππότ᾿ ἂν ἡβήσηι τε καὶ ἧς ἱμείρεται αἴης.
ὣς ἔφαθ᾿ Ἑρμείας, ἀλλ᾿ οὐ φρένας Αἰγίσθοιο
πεῖθ᾿ ἀγαθὰ φρονέων· νῦν δ᾿ ἀθρόα πάντ᾿ἀπέτισε.
Alas, how indeed now men find fault with the gods.
For evils are from us they say; but they themselves
by their own reckless acts have sufferings beyond their portion.
So even now Aigisthos beyond his portion35
courted the wedded wife of Atreus’ son, and killed him when he returned,
although he knew it was sheer destruction, since we ourselves told him,
having sent Hermes, keen-sighted Argeiphontes,
to tell him neither to kill the man nor court his wife;
for from Orestes there would be payback for Atreus’ son40
whenever he came of age and longed for his land.
Thus spoke Hermes; but he did not persuade the mind of Aigisthos
for all his good intent; and now he has paid back all at once.
Odyssey 1.32-43
The broad thematic correspondences between this story and the main narrative of the Odyssey are well documented. Zeus’ Aigisthos, for example, is comparable to the Kyklops, Odysseus’ crew, the Phaiakes, and the suitors, all of whom suffer after failing to heed divine admonition. The heedless Aigisthos picks up the theme of the heedless crew in the proem, which theme Athene will transfer to the heedless suitors. The thematic opposition between Aigisthos and Orestes will be recreated in that between the suitors and Telemachos when the setting moves to Ithake (cf. 1.114-117). Thus the view of divine justice with which Zeus frames his Oresteia can be seen to inform the narrative as a whole.
Here I should make clear that by “justice” I refer to the Odyssean conception of proper and improper behavior, and not to some enlightened universal conception toward which the Greeks were ostensibly groping. [5] Zeus does not defend the institution of marriage (nor would he be the most logical figure to do so), nor does he even decry murder. Stripped of its Olympian solemnity, Zeus is merely observing that those who offend a determined party are likely to suffer. As theology or ethics, such sentiments can hardly have seemed any more profound or revolutionary in Bronze or Iron Age Greece than they do today; and this very fact suggests that the Odyssean theme of justice may disguise the operation of a more utilitarian theme. In other words, though Zeus frames his story as a theodicy, the overt theme of justice may be subordinate to a less apparent but more essential theme.
Again, I draw attention to the fact that Zeus’ speech does not simply prefigure the narrative, but is the first event within it. As such, it occurs at a critical juncture in the Odyssey’s chronology. First, Zeus’ speech prompts Athene to raise the subject of Odysseus at a time when Poseidon, his divine antagonist, is absent from the assembly of the gods. As a result, the divine plan for Odysseus’ return can be elaborated without the kind of rancor that often occurs when the gods disagree on the fate of a mortal, as for example when Here and Apollo clash over the treatment of Hektor in Iliad 24. [6] Second, Zeus’ timing is equally significant on the terrestrial plane, in that he initiates the discussion that will issue in a plan for Odysseus’ return at what the narrative constructs as the last possible moment. For Odysseus leaves Ogygie at the very end of the sailing season, and returns to Ithake as the suitors are about to devour completely his resources; most importantly, his wife is ready to remarry, according to his own instructions (18.269-270). [7] Postponement of his voyage to the next sailing season would result in a hollow and pointless return.
Nevertheless, as noted, previous scholarship has tended to view the relationship between Zeus’ Oresteia and the main narrative of the Odyssey as rather prefatory than essential to the plot. [8] In these terms, it would represent one of any number of possible devices that could motivate Athene. However, even allowing for the artificiality of epic conventions, this interpretation renders the scene almost comic upon examination. Athene sits around the Olympian agora, waiting until Zeus offers her a pretext to announce a plan for Odysseus and Telemachos. As the clock ticks toward the last possible moment any such plan could be successful, Zeus happens launch into a story that happens to contain a sweeping generalization about divine justice to which Odysseus is a glaring exception, and that, to anticipate my analysis below, happens to contain the seeds of the narrative itself.
Of course, epic always borders on melodrama, and such a scenario may have been conjured up in the minds of Homeric audiences. But the question of dramatic tone aside, the broader implications of an Athene-centric Odyssey are profound. Not only does the Odyssey thus conceived commence with a series of labored coincidences, but its divine apparatus also suffers from a kind of power vacuum compared to the hierarchical Olympos of the Iliad. Most critics conclude that Athene fills this vacuum, but over the course of her further interactions with Zeus the goddess will prove unequal to the task.
A minority of scholars has advanced a different interpretation of Zeus’ speech. Alfred Heubeck suggested in passing that Zeus intends to provoke Athene to react as she does; [9] and Marilyn Katz has argued that references to the Oresteia generally represent “a dynamic force that gives direction to [the Odyssey’s] plot.” [10] Pressing such insights further, I suggest that the Odyssey subtly but purposefully traces causation for the events in the main narrative to the machinations of Zeus, in the first instance by having him prompt Athene to propose the plan that she does for Odysseus’ return, and to do so at a specific dramatic moment. This interaction between the two gods is then paradigmatic for their further conferences in the Odyssey.
I note that no canonical account of the Oresteia attained the kind of authority that the Odyssey did over Odysseus’ story. Through the Archaic and Classical periods, poets from Stesichoros to Pindar and the Athenian tragedians produced Oresteias that differed not only in regard to the motivation and valorization of the characters, but even in dramatic setting. [11] The Odyssey, then, likely took shape and circulated against the backdrop of a divergent body of stories about Agamemnon and his son, any number of which may have been familiar to Homeric audiences.
In any case, the reciprocal relationship between the sets of characters in Zeus’ Oresteia and Athene’s proposal for Odysseus and Telemachos is unmistakable. Zeus mentions Aigisthos (by name, 1.35, 42), Agamemnon (by patronymic, 35, 40), Klytaimnestre (as Agamemnon’s wife, 36, 39), “we gods” (37), Hermes (by name, 38, 42), and Orestes (by name and patronymic, 40). Athene’s proposal specifies Odysseus (by name, 83), Hermes (by name, 84), “we gods” (82 with 85), Kalypso (the “fair-haired nymph,” 86), Telemachos (as Odysseus’ son, 88), and the suitors (91), who by their very designation as “suitors” imply the object of their suit, Penelope. [12] Two of the characters named by Athene, Hermes and “we gods,” are explicit in Zeus’ Oresteia; the rest have close parallels with it. Agamemnon corresponds to Odysseus as the threatened Trojan War hero, and Aigisthos to the suitors (and to Kalypso as a threat to the hero’s marriage); Klytaimnestre corresponds to the implied Penelope as the hero’s wife, and Orestes to Telemachos as the hero’s son (and to Odysseus as suitor-slayer).
The generative logic that links Zeus’ Oresteia and Athene’s proposal can thus be described as a series of equivalencies between similar character-types, for each of which Zeus supplies the predicate: [13]
Character-type Zeus' Oresteia Athene's proposal
returning Trojan war hero Agamemnon Odysseus
hero's wife Klytaimnestre [Penelope]
hero's faithful son Orestes Telemachos
seducer of hero's wife Aigisthos (of Klytaimnestre) suitors (of Penelope)Kalypso (of Odysseus)
power opposing seducer “we gods" “we gods”
voice of opposing power Hermes Hermes
Athene thus responds to Zeus’ cues in order to formulate a plan for Odysseus that embodies her own desires for her favorite. [14]
These character-equivalencies can be direct – as Aigisthos dies, so the suitors die – or antithetical – Agamemnon dies, Odysseus lives. Indeed, uncertainty about the polarity of the equivalencies injects a measure of suspense into the narrative. Such possible storylines as defeat for Odysseus at the hands of the suitors or Telemachos committing matricide can be exploited for dramatic effect even as they are revealed as impossibilities. [15]
Character-equivalency also results from gemination: the single figure of Orestes parallels both Odysseus and his son. The functional identity of Orestes and Odysseus as avengers is reinforced at a formulaic level when Athene applies the theme of “longing” to Odysseus (ἧς γαίης ὡ ἱμείρεται, 59), echoing Zeus’ application of it to Orestes (ἧς ἱμείρεται αἴης, 1.41). The Orestes-Odysseus connection resonates further as the narrative progresses. Once Odysseus supplants Telemachos in the role of avenger, the two will be able to experience the shared father-son revenge-fantasy for which Agamemnon and Achilleus seem to yearn (Odyssey 11.454-461, 492-503). Lastly, as discussed in Chapter 3, the connection helps the Odyssey to justify Odysseus’ extreme revenge.
I will now focus in greater detail on three of these character-equivalencies – those between Klytaimnestre and Penelope, Hermes and, so to speak, himself, and Orestes and Telemachos – in order to illustrate the polemical nature of Zeus’ Oresteia and the significance of this polemic for the details of Athene’s plan. In each case, Zeus’ presentation of characters from the Oresteia either aligns the Odyssey with, or distances it from, non-Homeric accounts of Odysseus.

Klytaimnestre and Penelope

Recent scholarship has drawn attention to the suppression of Klytaimnestre in Zeus’ Oresteia: Zeus refers to her only as “wife” (36, 39), while he names the other actors at least by patronymic. [16] And though Klytaimnestre’s complicity in Agamemnon’s murder, and her subsequent death, would reinforce the justice theme, Zeus represents her as almost a passive victim, in marked contrast with the active agency attributed to her by other Odyssean characters.
The downplaying of Klytaimnestre distracts attention from the fundamental difference between Agamemnon’s situation and that of Odysseus as it will emerge in the Odyssey, namely, the extent to which the heroes can depend on their wives. Penelope’s loyalty, however, was not the “fact” of Odysseus-tradition that the Odyssey would make it seem.
For in other accounts, Penelope’s relationship with the suitors is analogous to Klytaimnestre’s with Aigisthos. Thus, for example, some time in the second century CE the Greek travel-writer Pausanias was shown a landmark in Mantineia:
ἐν δεξιᾶι τῆς ὁδοῦ γῆς χῶμα ὑψηλόν· Πηνελόπης δὲ εἶναι τάφον φασίν, οὐχ ὁμολογοῦντες τὰ ἐς αὐτὴν ποιήσει <τῆι> Θεσπρωτίδι ὀνομαζομένηι. ἐν ταύτηι μέν γ᾿ ἐστ᾿ τῆι ποιήσει ἐπανήκοντι ἐκ Τροίας Ὀδυσσεῖ τεκεῖν τὴν Πηνελόπην Πτολιπόρθην παῖδα· Μαντινέων δὲ ὁ ἐς αὐτὴν λόγος Πηνελόπην φησὶν ὑπ᾿ Ὀδυσσέως καταγνωσθεῖσαν ὡς ἐπισπαστοὺς ἐσαγάγοιτ᾿ ἐς τὸν οἶκον, καὶ ἀποπεμφθεῖσαν ὑπ᾿ αὐτοῦ, τὸ μὲν παραυτίκα ἐς Λακεδαίμονα ἀπελθεῖν, χρόνωι δὲ ὕστερον ἐκ τῆς Σπάρτης ἐς Μαντίνειαν μετοικῆσαι, καὶ οἱ τοῦ βίου τὴν τελευτὴν ἐνταῦθα συμβῆναι. τοῦ τάφου δὲ ἔχεται τούτου πεδίον οὐ μέγα, καὶ ὄρος ἐστὶν ἐν τῶι πεδίωι τὰ ἐρείπια ἔτι Μαντινείας ἔχον τῆς ἀρχαίας.
On the right of the road is a high mound of earth; and they [the Mantineians] say that it is the tomb of Penelope, not agreeing with the poem called the Thesprotis. In the poem, Penelope bears to Odysseus after he returns a child, Ptoliporthes; but the Mantineans’ story says that Penelope was charged by Odysseus with having enticed men and brought them into their home, and was sent away by him, and that she went first to Lakedaimon, but later moved from Sparta to Mantineia, and there came to the end of her life. By the tomb is a plain of no great size, and there is a mountain on the plain where lie the ruins of old Mantineia.
Pausanias 8.12.5-7
As in many of Pausanias’ reports, and Greek myths in general, a natural feature is connected to the story of a god, hero, or, in this case, heroine. Pausanias never makes clear precisely how he learns such stories; “the Mantineians say” (φασίν) could imply that he has interviewed an informant, read an inscription, or witnessed the performance of a poem or play in connection with the cult site. [17] In any case, a likely reservoir for such accounts would be epichoric traditions of oral narrative poetry. That is, the story could well have taken shape and been propagated in the context of performances commemorating the sacred space of Old Mantineia.
Epichoric accounts, as discussed, often disagree with each other and with Panhellenic and proto-Panhellenic versions. Thus Pausanias observes here that the story of Penelope’s tomb told in Mantineia conflicts with a non-Homeric epic, the Thesprotis. [18] Pausanias does not contrast the faithless Mantineian Penelope with the Homeric Penelope; but since he cites the Odyssey frequently in other contexts, he was certainly aware of the difference, and presumably considered it obvious to his readers.
From the perspective established in the Introduction, Penelope’s Mantineian tomb is representative of the kinds of traditions out of and in the face of which the Odyssey’s Panhellenic account emerged. For though Pausanias’ report is itself relatively late, similar accounts can be traced back to the Classical period, and these in turn, as will be discussed momentarily, likely depend on still older traditions. Again, these are not stories one would expect to derive from the Homeric account. Such a source-and-recipient relationship would require a complete reorientation of a major Odyssean character proverbial for just the sort of behavior that the reorientation denies her. Such revalorization is precedented in iambic or parodic contexts; but the unfaithful Mantineian Penelope is an august figure, an apparent recipient of cult honors.
I accordingly propose that the Odyssey targets stories about an unfaithful Penelope for “de-authorization” – that is, targeted rejection from the canonical narrative. Suppression of Klytaimnestre in Zeus’ speech signposts this program, which continues almost until the end of the Odyssey as various characters, human and divine, remark on Penelope’s fidelity. [19] At the same time, the Odyssey, by the very act of de-authorization, acknowledges the existence of these stories. Indeed, the frequency with which characters refer to Penelope’s unwavering resistance to the suitors suggests that they “protest too much,” and thereby betrays awareness of versions in which the heroine’s resistance weakens. The Odyssey has also a further motivation for alluding to the alternative version, since an unfaithful Penelope is one of the possibilities that, as mentioned above, can create dramatic tension in a well-known story. Thus for instance Athene disingenuously impresses on Telemachos the need for his immediate return to Ithake from Sparta with the warning that his mother’s impending remarriage may deprive him of his standing and possessions (15.16-26). [20]
The potentially unfaithful Penelope is then an analog of Klytaimnestre, so that the story proceeds in part as if Odysseus and Telemachos are preparing to confront a conniving and homicidal wife and mother. Zeus’ suppression of Klytaimnestre in his Oresteia is in this respect analogous to the suppression of this “other Penelope” by the Odyssey itself. In each case the narrative is streamlined and simplified by focus on the male characters; yet the question of the wife’s fidelity is inherent in the paradigm, and Penelope’s character is revisited whenever Klytaimnestre is mentioned.


In contrast with the downplaying of Klytaimnestre in his Oresteia, Zeus places seemingly disproportionate emphasis on Hermes, whom he names twice in the nine lines of his account, once with a full array of epithets (Odyssey 1.38, 42). Hermes’ function here, which can be classified as an instantiation of the common folktale motif of the “warner,” is crucial for Zeus’ assertion about human suffering. For Zeus’ point is that what mortals perceive as suffering “beyond one’s portion” (ὑπὲρ μόρον, 34) is in fact the result of proceeding with a course of action after having been warned of its dire consequences. [21]
Since this rhetorical point could be made with the simple statement that “we gods warned him,” repetition of Hermes’ name and function in Zeus’ concise Oresteia seems conspicuous, even in a poetic tradition characterized by repetition. I suggest that Zeus’ emphasis here is motivated by the analogous roles that Hermes, and Athene, will play in the plan that the goddess proposes for Odysseus and Telemachos. Specifically, Hermes’ admonition of Aigisthos parallels the warning that the suitors receive in Book 2, and Hermes’ own message to Kalypso in Book 5.
In the first case, Athene delivers the warning to the suitors through the medium of Telemachos, who at her prompting summons an assembly and calls on Zeus to visit the suitors with unrequited destruction if they do not cease to consume his family’s goods (2.144-145; cf. 1.91-92). [22] Zeus lends his authority to Telemachos’ threat by sending an omen (146-152), in which the seer Halitherses perceives the imminent return of Odysseus and the destruction of the suitors (161-176). As a consequence the suitors are, like Aigisthos, duly warned; their destruction is, like his, a matter of personal responsibility. [23]
Hermes’ mission to dissuade Aigisthos from wooing Klytaimnestre (μήτε μνάασθαι ἄκοιτιν, 1.39) also recalls the role that he will play in Athene’s plan, that of dissuading Kalypso from trying to make Odysseus her husband (cf. 1.15, λιλαιομένη πόσιν εἶναι). Significantly, though Hermes is by implication included among the assembly of “all the gods but Poseidon” during which his embassy to Kalypso is discussed, he says nothing to Kalypso about Athene. Rather he attributes his mission to “Zeus’ idea” (Διὸς νόον, 5.103; cf. 99), and warns her that failure to release Odysseus will invoke the μῆνις, ‘wrath,’ of Zeus (5.146-147).
Inclusion of Hermes in Zeus’ Oresteia may also be significant in terms of the messenger god’s connection with Odysseus and his family through kinship and cult. In the Odyssey itself, Hermes helps Odysseus to overcome Kirke (10.277-307), and is said to have bestowed skill in the criminal arts upon Autolykos, the hero’s maternal grandfather, as a reward for practicing his cult (19.396-399). [24] The relationship is natural in that Hermes and Autolykos, like Odysseus, share the character-type of trickster. And, as often in Greek myth, formal similarity is expressed through kinship and broader thematic links. Thus, according to non-Homeric tradition, Hermes is himself the father of Autolykos (e.g. Hesiod Catalog of Women fr. 64 MW).
Hermes also plays a more sinister role in non-Homeric accounts of Odysseus’ story. Specifically, he is among the alleged seducers of Penelope, with whom he fathers the god Pan. [25] One of the earliest references occurs in Herodotos:
Πηνελόπης, ἐκ ταύτης γὰρ καὶ Ἑρμέω λέγεται γενέσθαι ὑπὸ Ἑλλήνων ὁ Πᾶν . . .
. . . Penelope, from whom, along with Hermes, it is said by the Hellenes that Pan was born . . .
Herodotos 2.145.4
Another, more full account connects the story with the same region in which Pausanias found Penelope’s tomb:
τινὲς δὲ Πηνελόπην ὑπὸ Ἀντινόου φθαρεῖσαν λέγουσιν ὑπὸ Ὀδυσσέως πρὸς τὸν πατέρα Ἰκάριον ἀποσταλῆναι, γενομένην δὲ τῆς Ἀρκαδίας κατὰ Μαντίνειαν ἐξ Ἑρμοῦ τεκεῖν Πᾶνα.
And some say that Penelope was seduced by Antinoos and was sent away by Odysseus to her father Ikarios, and that when she came to Mantineia in Arkadia, she bore Pan by Hermes.
“Apollodoros” Epitome 7.38
Zeus’ Oresteia constructs at the outset a “good Hermes,” one who aids the gods in pointing out the negative consequences of seduction. As in the case of the competing versions of Penelope, Zeus’ positive valorization can be seen as a programmatic act, as well as a tacit acknowledgment that stories of the “bad Hermes” had achieved a level of diffusion that would provoke de-authorization. [26] Members of the Homeric audience who were familiar with such traditions, perhaps Arkadians or worshippers of the god Pan generally, could have found Hermes’ prominence at the beginning of the Odyssey, and the choice of him to dissuade Kalypso from “cuckolding” Penelope, ironical or even humorous. At the same time, Zeus’ casting of Hermes as an opponent of seduction in the Oresteia paradigm could also foreshadow the fact that the Odyssean Penelope will not be seduced by the god. [27]

Orestes and Telemachos

The warning issued to the suitors in Book 2 completes the first stage of Athene’s proposal for Telemachos (1.90-91). The second stage, his journey to Pylos and Sparta (93), has little overt connection with the basic plot-line of Zeus’ Oresteia. Again, however, apparently superfluous details in Zeus’ account seem to anticipate Telemachos’ journey. Thus Zeus states that Orestes is entering manhood, as is Telemachos, when he kills Aigisthos, and that he returns home from elsewhere, as Telemachos will do from the Peloponnesus, in order to do so (again, ὁππότ᾿ ἂν ἡβήσηι τε καὶ ἧς ἱμείρεται αἴης, 1.41). [28] Predictably, as the narrative proceeds Orestes is in turn set up as a role model for Telemachos; thus Athene, and later Nestor, exhort him to action with the example of the universal acclaim that Orestes secured by avenging his father (1.298-300, 3.203-204).
The details that Zeus provides about Orestes, then, have specific relevance to Orestes’ role as a counterpart to Telemachos, for they reveal the two as age-mates on the threshold of manhood. From an anthropological perspective, Zeus’ Oresteia presents Orestes in the context of an initiatory pattern that applies to Telemachos as well, and is in fact widespread in Greek myth and ritual. This “withdrawal and return” pattern is broad – the youth leaves home and returns after an ordeal to claim full membership in his family and community – and only broadly does it fit both Telemachos and Orestes: one is away for days, the other for years; one obtains information about his father from Trojan War heroes, the other from an oracle; and so on. [29] Nevertheless, when the Oresteia is mapped onto the Odyssey, the figure of Orestes points to a significant role for Telemachos in the story of his father’s return, a role that could include even assertion of his hereditary rights through matricide. And, since Telemachos must withdraw in order to return, the gods can in this respect be said to plan the Telemachia. Orestes represents for Telemachos one possible path to immortalization in song (e.g. 3.204); only later will the Odyssey reveal the possibility that he can share the revenge-fantasy with a living father. [30]
By my interpretation, then, Athene in responding to Zeus’ speech constructs Telemachos’ journey as a kind of substitute initiation into the heroic world, a process undergone by Orestes as well in his quest for vengeance. And while the itinerary that Athene proposes for Telemachos – Pylos and Sparta – cannot be derived from Zeus’ speech, it is nevertheless the case that Nestor and Menelaos, as Odysseus’ closest living peers, are natural figures to take his place in performing Telemachos’ initiation. [31] The Pylians and Spartans among whom Telemachos acquires the confidence to take control of his household are thus thematically analogous to the Athenians who prepare Orestes for his return home to kill Aigisthos (Odyssey 3.307). [32]
As noted above, Zeus’ concise telling omits a theme that is central to most non-Homeric accounts of the Oresteia, and that will be central to the Odyssey itself, namely the further cycle of vengeance that the avenger brings upon himself. For all that the Odyssey says about Orestes’ life after killing Aigisthos is that he enjoyed wide fame. Any sense of guilt, as personified by the Erinyes in archaic vase-paintings as well as dramatic representations of the Oresteia, is absent from the Homeric version of the story. Nor, as noted at the beginning of the chapter, is there any mention of the prosecution of Orestes by the kin of his victims that features in other accounts. [33] This simplification of the Oresteia, I shall argue in Chapter 4, has a significant parallel in the Odyssey’s account of the aftermath of Odysseus’ revenge.

Nostoi and Odyssey

The focus on Aigisthos in Zeus’ Oresteia is also explicable in terms of the overall chronology of the ancient Greek epics that describe the Trojan War. [34] For the Nostoi, a Cyclic epic that told the story from the sack of Troy up to the main narrative Odyssey, concluded with an account of the Oresteia:
ἔπειτα Ἀγαμέμνονος ὑπὸ ᾈγίσθου καὶ Κλυταιμνήστρας ἀναιρεθέντος ὑπ᾿ Ὀρέστου καὶ Πυλάδου τιμωρία καὶ Μενελάου εἰς τὴν οἰκείαν ἀνακομιδή. Μετὰ ταῦτά ἐστιν Ὀμήρου Ὀδύσσεια.
Then Agamemnon is killed by Aigisthos and Klytaimnestre, and [there is] the vengeance of Orestes and Menelaos’ return to his household. After these things is the Odyssey of Homer.
Proklos Chrestomathy 95.17-19, 100 Bernabé, 109.1-6 Allen
The amount of time that is imagined to separate the killing of Aigisthos from the main narrative of the Odyssey is unclear. [35] Zeus frames his Oresteia, “so even now” (ὡς καὶ νῦν, 1.35), and Nestor says that Menelaos’ recent (νέον, 3.318) return to Greece occurred on the day Orestes performed Aigisthos’ funeral feast (αὐτῆμαρ, 3.311); but this information is insufficient to establish the timeline. Nestor provides a terminus post quem when he states that Orestes’ revenge took place in the eighth year after Aigisthos seized power ([Aigisthos] κτείνας Ἀτρείδην . . . ἑπτάετες δ᾿ ἤνασσε . . . τῶι δέ οἱ ὀγδοάτωι κακὸν ἤλυθε δῖος Ὀρέστης . . . κατὰ δ᾿ ἔκτανε πατροφονῆα, 3.304-307). Troy falls ten years before the Odyssey begins, and Agamemnon requires an indeterminate amount of time to return. His route takes him near Cape Maleia on Crete, where he is blown off course in a storm to “the end of the land,” where dwells, oddly enough, Aigisthos (4.517-518). [36] At any rate, Agamemnon proceeds home from this place under a favorable wind (4.520), and it is difficult to see how his entire voyage from Troy to Mykene can have lasted the three years that would be required to make Aigisthos’ seven years of rule end as the Odyssey begins. As a consequence, it appears that events Zeus refers to as having occurred “even just now” and Nestor as “recent” transpired some two or three years previously. [37]
It is of course unlikely that traditional singers of the Odyssey intended to convey, or that their audiences expected to hear, a precise chronology of these events. Nevertheless, there is an important point to be made concerning the relationship between Zeus’ Oresteia and the opening of the Odyssey. Zeus’ choice to speak of the death of Aigisthos cannot be understood as a commentary on events that he and the other gods have observed recently. From the perspective of the character Zeus, then, his Oresteia either represents an arbitrary rumination on events now several years past, or is motivated by some other factor. One such factor, I suggest, is the boundary that emerged through a process of negotiation between Nostoi- and Odyssey-traditions; another is the desire on the part of the latter to juxtapose the stories of Odysseus and Agamemnon in a significant way.

Chapter conclusions

Proceeding from the well-documented parallels between the story of Agamemnon, Klytaimnestre, and Orestes on the one hand, and the Odyssey’s account of Odysseus, Penelope and Telemachos on the other, I have argued that the Oresteia as Zeus presents it foreshadows the relationships among the Odyssey’s characters and the path that the narrative will take. Working from the assumption that Homeric composition was in part a synthetic process, a goal of which was to elaborate a Panhellenic narrative that drew on, harmonized, and transcended parallel traditions, I have proposed that the Odyssey exploits such traditions in order to deepen its own characterizations and to heighten dramatic tension. Thus the polyvalent figures of Penelope and Hermes are constructed in implicit contrast with their very different roles in non-Homeric contexts. Moreover, the very boundaries of the Odyssean narrative suggest a process of negotiation with the larger epic tradition, so that Zeus’ Oresteia recalls the Odyssey’s junction with the Cyclic Nostoi.
The polemical presentation of Zeus’ Oresteia, I conclude, involves manipulation of virtually every character and theme. Thus the very arbitrariness of the Oresteia-Odyssey relationship points to the significance of Zeus’ role in the plan that Athene formulates for Odysseus. Zeus defines the thematic parameters of both stories, so that all Athene must (or can) do in order to come up with a plan for Odysseus is to make obvious connections between his story and Agamemnon’s. As discussed in subsequent chapters, the kinds of interactions to which I have drawn attention in the first divine council remain prominent in further planning sessions among the gods. In Chapter 2, I find particular significance in the fact that, the next time Athene and Zeus take up the subject of Odysseus, what is called “Athene’s plan” is dictated explicitly by Zeus.


[ back ] 1. Such concerns dominate, for example, Olson’s detailed analysis (1995) of Zeus’ presentation of the Oresteia in the Odyssey, e.g. 26-28, 44-45, 69, 205-209, 217-218; representative of similar arguments are S. West CHO I:16-17 and Clay 1983:215-228. Lord 1960:159-160, on the other hand, proceeds from the perspective that the alignment of these tales in the Odyssey is “far from inconsistent with analogical thinking or associative thinking of oral poets everywhere.” The reading advanced here draws particularly on, and occasionally reacts to, the arguments of Louden 1999:90-94; Cook 1995:21-37; Katz 1991:18, 27-37, 48-53 and Erbse 1986:237-241, in addition to those of Olson, West, Clay, and Lord.
[ back ] 2. On the polemical nature of the story see e.g. de Jong 2001:12-13 and Olson 1995:26-27. Other references to the Oresteia in the Odyssey occur at 1.298-300, 3.253-275, 303-310; 4.512-537; 11.409-434; 24.24-34, 96-97, 199-200; for non-Homeric accounts see below and Chapter 5.
[ back ] 3. The “table of contents” speech is a Homeric topos; see de Jong 2001:15 ad 1.81-95
[ back ] 4. See in particular Clay 1983, whose book is dedicated to the proposition that Athene’s wrath is “a key to the structure of the entire Odyssey” that “demanded a radical restructuring of the story” (quotes from 51 and 53). Similarly, Murnaghan 1995:61: “Athene quickly emerges as the source and sponsor of the plot that follows;” Peradotto 1990:170, “[Athene is the] embodiment of the narrative impulse itself … the prime mover of the action, the impetus who keeps it going . . . and the force that brings it to its counterfeit conclusion;” S. West CHO 1:61, “She [Athene] controls the complex action almost as if the characters were marionettes and she the puppet master.” Similar arguments by Lowe 2000:139-140; Maitland 1999:10n25; Pucci 1987:20; Erbse 1986:237; Burkert 1985:122; Austin 1975:240.
[ back ] 5. See Chapter 3 n32.
[ back ] 6. On Poseidon’s absence at the beginning of the Odyssey, see e.g. Scodel 1999a:40; Cook 1995:20-21.
[ back ] 7. Discussion of the lateness of the hour at which the Odyssey begins in Latacz 1996:138; Murnaghan 1995:69; Pedrick 1992:49; S. West CHO 1:15; Erbse 1972:122. In addition, Odysseus must return within the year if prophecies of his twenty-year absence are to be fulfilled (i.e. 2.175, discussed below).
[ back ] 8. Thus Lord 1951:76 argues that “We do not care to think of the [Odyssey] without [Zeus’ opening] speech, which is so highly significant in our interpretation of Homeric thought and religion, but it is not essential to the story;” see Chapter 6 n9. (Neo-)Analytically-informed critics tend to fault Zeus’ speech as ill-conceived in relation to the Odyssey as a whole; cf. S. West CHO 1:77 ad 1.32ff; Kullmann 1985:5-6; Fenik 1974:209-211; Schadewaldt 1958:17-20.
[ back ] 9. Heubeck 1954:51; cf. Rüter’s criticism (1969:83n52) of him for “wanting to attribute to the intention of characters what is in actuality the intention of the poet” [Heubeck … scheint der Absicht der handelnden Personen zuschreiben zu wollen, was in Wahrheit Absicht des Dichters ist]. This is precisely my point: the character of Zeus serves as a projection into the narrative of the singer’s intent.
[ back ] 10. Katz 1991:29-48, quote from 18, though I view Zeus’ opening speech as a generative paradigm, rather than “an alternative plot that threatens to attract the Odyssey into its orbit” (30). Olson’s overview (1995:24-27) of the relationship includes a particularly full bibliography, to which may now be added Lowe 2000:140-141 and Thalmann 1984:163-165.
[ back ] 11. Surveyed by Prag 1985.
[ back ] 12. For the extrapolation of Penelope, see de Jong 2001:13.
[ back ] 13. Odysseus equates his own situation with that of Agamemnon at Odyssey 13.383-385. Representative arguments about the correspondences among the characters in Louden 1999:19; Doherty 1995:183-186; Lowenstam 1993:3-4; S. West CHO 1:16-17; Slatkin 1991:117; Clay 1983:217-219; Fenik 1974:160-161. I note the general observation of Bakker 1997:91 that “often the mentioning of a name, the verbalization of the theme of a hero, activates concepts and facts associated with this hero.”
[ back ] 14. The test of the troops in Iliad 2 offers an analogy: as Agamemnon attempts to elicit protest against his own call for the Greeks to abandon the war, so Zeus elicits from Athene a protest against his assertions about divine justice; cf. Wilson 2002:72-73.
[ back ] 15. Lord 1960:160 argues that the Odyssey initially exploits the possibility of an Oresteia-style “return story” pattern, while “later in the Odyssey Homer emphasizes [the] differences between the two stories. But in the opening of the song Homer is thinking of the parallels” (emphasis in original).
[ back ] 16. Zeus’ polemical presentation of Klytaimnestre is stressed by Olson 1995:26; Felson 1994:95; Zeitlin 1995:143; Rüter 1969:75. Agamemnon naturally emphasizes Klytaimnestre’s role in his own death (cf. 24.200-202), but his account is largely confirmed by Nestor and Menelaos, the latter having obtained his information from a divine source (Proteus). Klytaimnestre’s name is however suppressed in Nestor’s first telling of the story; cf. de Jong 2001:82 ad 3.254-316, and discussion of 3.193-198 in Chapter 5.
[ back ] 17. The site itself has not been securely identified, though see Mazarakis-Ainian 1997:167-169. Malkin 1998:125 argues plausibly for the transmission of Odysseus-tradition in Arkadia (for which also cf. Pausanias 8.44.4) through “an independent, perhaps not even epic route with more emphasis on Penelope than elsewhere.”
[ back ] 18. Thesprotis may have been another name for the Telegony; see Chapter 4 n44.
[ back ] 19. Penelope’s fidelity is discussed by, for example, Antikleia (Odyssey 11.181-183), Agamemnon (11.443-446, 24.194-198), Athene (13.336-338, 379-381) and Telemachos (16.33-34, 73-77).
[ back ] 20. See Felson 1994:82-83 on Athene’s warning, and 128 for the conclusion that “Homer uses Penelope to keep his text fluid and changeable as long as possible. She, as a character, is pivotal to the opening up of the text.” Similarly Murnaghan 1995:69-70.
[ back ] 21. On the theme of the divine “warner” see Louden 1999:4-6, 109; Hölscher 1988:25-34; Fenik 1974:208-218.
[ back ] 22. Telemachos’ wish that the suitors perish without atonement (νήποινοι, 2.145) is realized in Zeus’ settlement in Book 24; see Chapter 3.
[ back ] 23. A point emphasized by Cook 1995:35 and G. Rose 1967:392-394.
[ back ] 24. On Hermes and Odysseus see S. West CHO I:78-79 ad 1.37ff. Thus Hermes’ gift of moly to Odysseus in the Kirke episode (Odyssey 10.290, 304) could allude to compensation for seducing the hero’s wife and/or to the family connection between them.
[ back ] 25. In other versions, Pan derives from Penelope’s copulation with “all” of the suitors; see Frazer 1921 v. 2:305n1, who catalogs, with “Apollodoros” Epitome 7.38-39, Cicero De Natura Deorum 3.22.56, Servius ad Aeneid 2.44, and Tzetzes ad Lykophron 772, but not the Herodotos passage. In other accounts, a daughter of Dryops is Pan’s mother (e.g. Homeric Hymn 19.34).
[ back ] 26. Note that elsewhere in the Odyssey Hermes declares (in an inset narrative) his willingness to bed another’s wife (8.339-342).
[ back ] 27. That is, Penelope will not be seduced by a god either openly, or in disguise—she will not play Alkmene to Hermes’ Zeus. Hence, in part, her frequent epithet περίφρων, which is used exclusively of positively valorized female characters: in the Odyssey, Penelope, Eurykleia (e.g. 19.357) and Arete (11.345); in the Iliad Diomedes’ wife Aigialeia (5.412); see discussion of the epithet by Felson 1994:6, 16-19, 41-42. Likewise, the Iliad’s description of Aigialeia as περίφρων could similarly be intended to de-authorize non-Homeric traditions in which she is seduced by Kometes, the son of her husband’s charioteer Sthenelos (Mimnermos fr. 22 W), or is among the spouses of Trojan War heroes whom Nauplios, father of Palamedes, convinces to commit adultery (“Apollodoros” Epitome 6.9); see Chapter 5 for Diomedes’ nostos.
[ back ] 28. So also Hesiod fr. 23(a) 29 MW: ὅς [Orestes] ῥα καὶ ἡβήσας ἀπε[τείσατο π]ατροφο[ν]ῆα.
[ back ] 29. On withdrawal and return generally, see Sowa 1984:95-121, 212-235 with bibliography; for initiation, Burkert 1985:260-264. For Telemachos specifically, see G. Rose 1967.
[ back ] 30. Lord 1960:160-161 supports his case for multiple possible realizations of Telemachos in the ancient Greek epic tradition with comparative evidence: “In the South Slavic tradition the role of the son is highly variable,” while “only in the Agamemnon type [of return song] is the son a necessary element.”
[ back ] 31. Diokles of Pherai (Odyssey 3.488-489=15.186-187; cf. Iliad 5.542-549) may also be counted among the peers of Odysseus contacted by Telemachos on his quest.
[ back ] 32. In other accounts Orestes returns from Phokis; see S. West CHO I:180 ad 3.307. Agamemnon’s shade asks Odysseus if he has seen Orestes in Orchomenos, Pylos, or Sparta (Odyssey 11.459-460), which could suggest that a version of Orestes’ story included visits to these sites, and thus an even closer relationship between the main narrative of the Odyssey and its version of the Oresteia.
[ back ] 33. The Odyssey’s silence on this point was noted in antiquity; cf. scholia to Euripdes Orestes 1643-1647. According to one account, Orestes is prosecuted by his maternal grandfather Tyndareus (“Apollodoros” Epitome 6.25), whose role would in Telemachos’ case be assumed by Ikarios (cf. Odyssey 2.133). On the prosecution of Odysseus, see Chapter 4.
[ back ] 34. Thus Lord 1960:160: “allusion to the return of Agamemnon [at the beginning of the Odyssey] points…to the scope of tales in the tradition of ancient Greece.” cf. Schadewaldt 1958:19. Similarly, the death of Aigisthos is the last event in Nestor’s account of the nostoi (cf. 3.193-200, 303-312); further discussion in Chapter 5.
[ back ] 35. For the Odyssey’s opening chronology, see Lowe 2000:130-134; Olson 1995:91-119; Pedrick 1992:50-54; Austin 1975:85-89; Stanford 1965:ix-xii; Schadewaldt 1958:28-29.
[ back ] 36. In some accounts, Aigisthos’ father Thyestes is banished to the island Kythera off Cape Maleia from Mykene after mistakenly dining on his son Pelops (e.g. “Apollodoros” Epitome 2.15), and it was perhaps with this myth in mind that ancient scholars (e.g. Andron FGrH 10 F 11 and HP scholia to Odyssey 4.517) identified Kythera as “the end of land where Thyestes lived” (ἀγροῦ ἐπ᾿ ἐσχατίην ὅθι δώματα ναῖε Θυέστης//τὸ πρὶν ἀτὰρ τότ᾿ ἔναιε Θυεστιάδης Αἴγισθος, 4.517-518). S. West CHO 1:224-225 ad 4.514-20 and Merkelbach 1951:47-48 resort to interpolation to explain perceived difficulties with the Odyssey’s account of Agamemnon’s return. It is however possible that the Odyssey references a parallel tradition; other returning Greek heroes, including Odysseus, experience storms off Maleia.
[ back ] 37. The chronological issues are well explored by de Jong 2001:11 ad 1.29-31 with Appendix A; cf. S. West CHO 1:181 ad 3.318. Cunliffe s.v. νῦν (3) translates the particle at Odyssey 1.35 as “looking back to an occurrence in the past, now,” citing e.g. Iliad 1.445 and 506.