Nestor’s Nostoi

Like Odysseus, the mortal character Nestor focalizes a significant portion of the Odyssey. His narrative helps to establish further the poem’s relationship to the Nostos-tradition, which, as discussed in previous chapters, forms the part of the Odyssey’s backstory that extends from the fall of Troy to the death of Agamemnon. In a speech that extends over more than a quarter of Odyssey 3 (130-200, 262-312), which I shall refer to as “Nestor’s Nostoi,” the old hero expands on themes introduced in Zeus’ Oresteia – the Odyssey’s first step toward orienting itself with respect to Nostoi-tradition – and extends these themes to other Trojan War heroes, including Neoptolemos, Diomedes, Idomeneus and Odysseus himself. Menelaos’ extended narratives in Odyssey 4 also draw on Nostoi-tradition, but the focus there remains on the internal narrator, as is the case with Odysseus’ Apologoi. Nestor’s perspective in Odyssey 3, by contrast, extends well beyond himself, so that his narratives provide a valuable supplement to the understanding of Homeric narrative offered by the other storytellers in the poem.
In fact, Nestor’s perspective, along with his narrative techniques, reveal him to be a special kind of storyteller, one more like the Homeric narrator or an ἀοιδός ‘singer of epics’, such as Phemios or Demodokos. [1] Like these figures, Nestor tells a tale that embraces multiple perspectives on a sizeable portion of the epic tradition. Most significantly for my overall argument, one of the features that distinguishes Nestor’s Nostoi from narratives such as Odysseus’ and Menelaos’ first-person accounts is the conspicuous and pervasive role Nestor gives to Zeus.
I argued in the previous chapter that the Odyssey attempts to suppress “post-Odyssey” traditions, or, more precisely, that it attempts to create a relatively uneventful vision of the latter phase of Odysseus’ life, in order to deny Homeric authority to stories that complicate the justice and plan of the Homeric Zeus. “Pre-Odyssey” events pose analogous problems, in that they frequently recur in conflicting versions with ties to various epichoric traditions. Naturally, since these stories prefigure the tale itself, they cannot be attenuated in so sweeping a manner as events that fall after the main narrative. Indeed, as discussed in Chapter 1, the Odyssey, far from attempting to divert attention from such events, references them from the beginning. Here I shall be arguing that it is in part in order to create a uniformly Odyssean vision of “pre-Odyssey” Nostoi-tradition that the Odyssey in effect stages a performance of an idealized nostoi-narrative, with Nestor serving as an idealized narrator who recreates in miniature a plan of Zeus.
Indeed, Nestor’s status as the voice of return transcends the Odyssey. An illustrative example occurs in Iliad 15, when, as the Trojans threaten to annihilate the Greek forces, Nestor raises his hands to the sky and prays:
Ζεῦ πάτερ, εἴ ποτέ τίς τοι ἐν Ἄργεί περ πολυπύρωι
ἢ βοὸς ἢ ὄιος κατὰ πίονα μηρία καίων
ηὔχετο νοστῆσαι, σὺ δ᾿ ὑπέσχεο καὶ κατένευσας,
τῶν μνῆσαι καὶ ἄμυνον, Ὀλύμπιε, νηλεὲς ἦμαρ.
Father Zeus, if ever for you someone in much-grained Argos
used to burn rich thigh-pieces of ox or sheep
and prayed to return home (nostēsai), and you yourself promised and nodded,
these things remember, and ward off, Olympian, the pitiless day.
Iliad 15.372-375
As in most Homeric prayers, a god is invoked, a past act of piety recalled, and a request made; but the rhetoric here is more complex than the usual do ut des. If Zeus allows the Greeks to perish, Nestor says, the god will be breaking his own promise that at least some of them achieve a return from the Trojan War. Zeus hears the prayer and thunders in response (377-378); and, since such omens in Homeric epic indicate that a prayer will be fulfilled, Zeus apparently accepts Nestor’s premise. [2]
In the larger context of the Trojan War, Zeus’ guarantee of return here is not simply Nestor’s supposition or wishful thinking, but is rather an established part of the Iliadic perspective, along with other “post-Iliadic” events such as the sack of Troy (e.g. Iliad 15.71). In this respect the Iliad acknowledges a “fact” of ancient Greek myth: some of the Greeks, in particular Nestor, return home from Troy in every known version of the story. Thus, while Nestor’s prayer is motivated by its immediate context – reference to Zeus’ promise dramatizes the peril to the Greek camp, and reassures Hellenophilic audiences that the tide of battle will turn [3] – it is particularly effective in these respects because it engages with the larger mythological and poetical tradition to which the Iliad belongs.
Nestor is a fitting character to make this intertextual gesture. His very name, which means something like “he who returns [his people] home” (*nes + agent suffix -tor), [4] identifies him with the final stage of the Trojan War story. Because the linguistic connection between “Nestor” and “nostos” is transparent, the “speaking name,” in any context, alludes to the stretch of the Trojan War story that falls between the main narratives of the two Homeric epics. So natural is the Nestor-nostos connection, so firmly embedded in the larger tradition, that it surfaces even proleptically in Iliad 15.
The Odyssey, on the other hand, defines itself at the outset as the ultimate nostos-narrative: “then all the others [except Odysseus] who escaped sheer death [at Troy] were at home” (ἔνθ᾿ ἄλλοι μὲν πάντες, ὅσοι φύγον αἰπὺν ὄλεθρον/οἴκοι ἔσαν, 1.11-12). These themes have the potential to invoke Nestor’s nominal identity, since they allude to the backstory, which it will be his main Odyssean function to supply. Significantly, Nestor receives responsibility for the Odyssey’s account of the Greeks’ departure from Troy, in which Odysseus features prominently, in preference to Odysseus himself, whose account of his own story condenses this part of it into a single word, Ἰλιόθεν ‘from Troy [we went]’ (9.39).
I shall first be arguing that Nestor locates his Nostoi within the broader context of an at least loosely-defined system of mutually referential Trojan War stories that bear a more than passing resemblance to the narrative territories of the Homeric and Cyclic epics as we know them. Second, I make the case that roles played by Zeus and Athene in Nestor’s Nostoi illustrate the centrality of the Dios boulē theme to Homeric composition in general.

Nestor’s perspective on the Trojan War

The immediate motivation for Nestor’s Nostoi in Odyssey 3 is Telemachos’ request for news of Odysseus. However, the young man already knows that his father survived most of the events Nestor goes on to describe (cf. 1.237-241), and has told him as much (3.86-89). Thus Telemachos’ request is revealed as a dramatic device: Odysseus has been out of contact with the “real world,” and therefore beyond Nestor’s ken, for years, and even this fact is communicated to Telemachos not by Nestor but by Menelaos (4.556-560). Nestor’s Nostoi in this respect responds to poetical problems – or, to anticipate my argument, opportunities – created by the in medias res narrative structure that characterizes the Odyssey, and for that matter any Trojan War narrative that does not begin at the beginning of the conflict. So for example the Iliad, which commences nine years into the war, fills in the background with scenes such as the Teichoskopia, positioned similarly in the third Book, in which Agamemnon, Odysseus, Telamonian Aias, and Idomeneus are introduced, and events preceding the main narrative discussed (Iliad 3.155-244).
In performance, these scenes would not be motivated by the need to supply information to Homeric audiences, who again were presumably acquainted with the Trojan War story through a variety of contexts. Indeed, a simple expository function is ruled out by the fact that Nestor’s Nostoi and the Teichoskopia alike, though positioned near the beginnings of their respective narratives, nevertheless occur well after the characters they introduce have entered the action. In diachronic terms, it may be that formal structures – such as a traditional “observers on the walls” theme, or “old man tells young man about his father” theme – that developed in the performance tradition as a means to provide essential background have come to serve other functions in Homeric epic. [5]
The significance of this background for Homeric audiences, then, resides not in its value as information, but rather in the capacity of events previous to the narrative to explicate and reify its major themes. [6] Thus Nestor’s Nostoi can from one perspective be seen as a particularly developed example of a series of speeches, like Athene’s reference to Orestes in Book 1 (298-302), that draw on the Odyssey’s backstory in order to motivate Telemachos. Similarly, in the case of the Teichoskopia, the belated introduction of Odysseus with reference to his skillfully conducted but unsuccessful mission to negotiate a settlement with the Trojans in the early years of the conflict (Iliad 3.206-207) foreshadows the failure of the truce brokered between the Greeks and Trojans later in Book 3 and Odysseus’ own failure in the embassy to Achilleus in Book 9.
Nestor’s Nostoi, being longer and more elaborate than the Teichoskopia, engages in a correspondingly more complex manner with events that fall before the main narrative in which it appears. To begin with, Nestor, unlike Helen and the Trojan elders at the walls of Troy, prefaces his tale with an overview of the Trojan war. This survey takes up the story before the Greeks besiege Troy and carries it to the city’s fall:
ὦ φίλ᾿, ἐπεί μ᾿ ἔμνησας ὀιζύος, ἣν ἐν ἐκείνωι
δήμωι ἀνέτλημεν μένος ἄσχετοι υἷες Ἀχαιῶν,
ἠμὲν ὅσα ξὺν νηυσὶν ἐπ᾿ ἠεροειδέα πόντον105
πλαζόμενοι κατὰ ληίδ᾿ ὅπηι ἄρξειεν Ἀχιλλεύς,
ἠδ᾿ ὅσα καὶ περὶ ἄστυ μέγα Πριάμοιο ἄνακτος
μαρνάμεθ᾿ - ἔνθα δ᾿ ἔπειτα κατέκταθεν ὅσσοι ἄριστοι·
ἔνθα μὲν Αἴας κεῖται ἀρήιος, ἔνθα δ᾿ Ἀχιλλεύς,
ἔνθα δὲ Πάτροκλος, θεόφιν μήστωρ ἀτάλαντος,110
ἔνθα δ᾿ ἐμὸς φίλὸς υἱός, ἅμα κρατερὸς καὶ ἀταρβής,
Ἀντίλοχος, περὶ μὲν θεῖειν ταχὺς ἠδὲ μαχητής· -
ἄλλα τε πόλλ᾿ ἐπὶ τοῖς πάθομεν κακά· τίς κεν ἐκεῖνα
πάντα γε μυθήσαιτο καταθνητῶν ἀνθρώπων;
οὐδ᾿ εἰ πεντάετές γε καὶ ἑξάετες παραμίμνων115
ἐξερέοις, ὅσα κεῖθι πάθον κακὰ δῖοι Ἀχαιοί·
πρίν κεν ἀνιηθεὶς σὴν πατρίδα γαῖαν ἵκοιο.
εἰνάετες γάρ σφιν κακὰ ῥάπτομεν ἀμφιέποντες
παντοίοισι δόλοισι, μόγις δ᾿ ἐτέλεσσε Κρονίων.
ἔνθ᾿ οὔ τίς ποτε μῆτιν ὁμοιωθήμεναι ἄντην120
ἤθελ᾿, ἐπεὶ μάλα πολλὸν ἐνίκα δῖος Ὀδυσσεὺς
παντοῖσι δόλοισι.
Ah, friend, since you have reminded me of pain, which in that
country [Troy] we endured, unbowed in might, we sons of Achaians,
as many wanderings with ships on misty sea105
as we wandered for the sake of plunder, wherever Achilleus would lead,
and as many struggles as around the great city of lord Priam
we struggled – there then did they perish, such as were best:
there lies warlike Aias, and there Achilleus,
and there Patroklos, like the gods in counsel,110
and there my own son, both powerful and fearless,
Antilochos, excelling in speed and battle –
and many other evils we suffered in addition to these. Who could
tell all those things, who of mortal men?
Not if five or even six years you remained115
would you enquire about such evils as godly Achaians suffered there;
sooner would you leave and reach your homeland.
For nine years we stitched together for them [the Trojans] evils, working
all sorts of tricks; but at last Kronos’ son brought it to an end.
There no-one was willing to contend in mental power,120
since by far godly Odysseus triumphed
in all sorts of tricks.
Odyssey 3.103-122
As noted above, Nestor’s speech here is unresponsive to Telemachos’ question, a fact that has often been explained in terms of Nestor’s proverbial garrulousness. Among its other shortcomings, [7] this interpretation fails to appreciate that Nestor’s path toward the story Telemachos wants to hear is carefully structured, and that he takes care to explain how the information sought by Telemachos is embedded the larger story of the Trojan War.
In surveying this material, Nestor identifies the Trojan War story as a whole by an overarching theme, “pain” (ὀιζύς, 103), for which Zeus is ultimately responsible (μόγις δ᾿ ἐτέλεσσε Κρονίων, 119; cf. Iliad 1.5 and discussion of Odyssey 14.235-236 below). This pain-narrative Nestor then resolves into smaller units, specifically two ὅσα-clauses (“as many as”). [8] The first covers a series of plundering raids, “as many as” the Greeks make under the leadership of Achilleus (105-106). Second, after the raids, come conflicts, “as many as” the Greeks endure once they besiege Troy (106-107). No single figure dominates the latter events as Achilleus does the raids; rather, Nestor further resolves the siege into a series of deaths of major heroes, Aias, Achilleus, Patroklos, and Antilochos, each named in an ἔνθα-clause (“there [lies]”).
The sequences of events covered in the ὅσα-clauses, the raids and the deaths, follow in chronological order. Nestor’s sequence of deaths in the second clause, Aias-Achilleus-Patroklos-Antilochos, on the other hand, does not: the “facts” are that Achilleus’ vengeance on the killers of Patroklos and Antilochos precipitates his own demise, and that Aias then dies as a result of a dispute over the dead Achilleus’ armor. The non-chronological presentation of the series is not, however, attributable to Nestor, since other narrators use the same core sequence, Achilleus-Patroklos-Antilochos, with Aias last, elsewhere in the Odyssey (11.467-469, 24.15-17). It therefore appears that metrical and/or formulaic factors are responsible for the order in which Nestor lists the deaths. Significant as well could be themes relating to the burial of Achilleus, whose remains were interred in the same amphora as those of Patroklos, with Antilochos’ nearby in the second place of honor (Odyssey 24.76-79). In any case, the two ὅσα-clauses together cover the war to the point at which Troy falls (118). Then, at last, Nestor locates the hero whose fate he has been asked to tell (121-122).
At least three criteria can be discerned in this schematization of the Trojan War. On the broadest level, Nestor proceeds in part in chronological order, from Greek raids on the Troad to the siege of Troy and its fall. Second, he associates each sequence of events with a main theme, pain, which he then resolves into raids and conflicts, with the conflicts in turn resolving into a series of heroes’ deaths, and with the fall of Troy capping the pain-theme. Third, each sequence is associated with a main hero or heroes: Achilleus with the raids; Telamonian Aias, Patroklos, and Antilochos with the deaths; and Odysseus, by association, with the Greeks’ final triumph.
In this respect, Nestor can be seen to handle his narrative in the manner of a poet. [9] As discussed in the Introduction, the association of main hero, main theme, and chronology is a conventional way to identify or define an ancient Greek epic. So for example the Odyssey’s proem brings together “the man” (Odysseus), “return,” and a call to the Muse to begin from some point (ἄνδρα . . . νόστον . . . τῶν ἁμόθεν, 1.1-10), that of the Iliad ‘wrath’, Achilleus, and a specific temporal reference (μῆνιν . . . Ἀχιλῆος . . . ἐξ οὗ δὴ τὰ πρῶτα, 1.1-6). Thus, keeping in mind that titles emerged only in the process of textualization, Nestor seems to use this bundle of themes to refer to discrete sections of the Trojan War story; that is, he conceptualizes his material as if he were a composer of epics. [10]
Nestor’s explanation for dividing up the pain-narrative points to a similar conclusion. He asserts that this material, in its undigested form, threatens to overwhelm both himself, the mortal storyteller, and any audience unprepared to spend years listening to it (115-117). [11] Nestor in other words approaches the story of the Trojan War in terms of its performability, and his reflection on the limits of both storyteller and audience may have had a meta-theatrical effect during performances of the Odyssey. Roughly an eighth of the way through a long narrative, with the main hero nowhere in sight, a famously prolix character reflects on the difficulty of handling the enormous mass of Trojan War material. I suggest that the allusive thematic bundles consisting of hero or heroes, main theme, and temporal frame that occur in the opening section of Nestor’s speech in effect refer the audience to an at least loosely-defined set of epic narratives.
The relationship between Nestor’s thematic bundles and the Trojan War epics that have come down to us strengthens this impression. Specifically, Nestor’s categorization scheme appears to reproduce the divisions among the Iliad and the poems of the Epic Cycle. To begin with, the raids under Achilleus’ leadership in the first ὅσα-clause can be mapped onto the Kypria, which covers the opening phase of the Trojan War story up to around the point at which the Iliad begins (Proklos 43.66-68, 67.1-2 Bernabé, 105.16-20 Allen). In the Kypria, raiding is a recurrent theme, and Achilleus is as prominent as he is in the Iliad. [12]
Turning now to the heroes’ deaths introduced by Nestor’s second ὅσα-clause, that of Patroklos is a peak dramatic moment in the Iliad and a natural way for Nestor to refer to the Iliadic portion of the war, since Achilleus has already been identified with the raiding sequence. The other deaths Nestor mentions, those of Antilochos, Achilleus and Aias, are narrated in the Aithiopis; the latter is in addition the first event in the Ilias Parva (Proklos. 74.3-5 Bernabé, 106.20-23 Allen). The absence of a single dominating presence in Nestor’s second ὅσα-clause, observed above, is consistent with our evidence for these epics, which appear to have been built episodically around the sequential losses of Greek and Trojan heroes. [13] Nestor also includes a catch-all category, the “many other evils we suffered in addition to these” (113), that can account for any ancillary story, which is perhaps to say any epichoric myth.
The death of Aias brings Nestor’s narrative to a point in the overall story of Troy that corresponds to the junction between the Aithiopis and the Ilias Parva. This death also raises the specter of the hero toward whom Nestor has been working, since it is after losing to Odysseus in the contest for the dead Achilleus’ armor that Aias perishes by his own hand (74.3-5 Bernabé, 106.21-23 Allen; cf. Odyssey 11.543-548; “Apollodoros” Epitome 5.6). After his remark on the magnitude of the pain-narrative, Nestor resumes his survey at the end of the war, a sequence covered in the Ilias Parva and another Cyclic epic, the Iliou Persis. By way of transition, Nestor reflects for a moment on the theme of trickery and cleverness (δόλοι, μῆτις, 119-122; cf. 163). This theme is of course central to Odysseus’ heroic identity; in the Odyssey, for example, he introduces himself to the Phaiakes as “Odysseus son of Laertes, a concern to men for all sorts of tricks,” or, more grandly, “to all men for my tricks” (Ὀδυσεὺς Λαερτιάδης, ὃς πᾶσι δόλοισιν/ἀνθρώποισι μέλω, 9.19-20).
After the ὅσα-clauses, then, Nestor has arrived at a major inflection point in the overall story of the Trojan War, and in the story of Odysseus. For it is after the deaths of Patroklos, Antilochos, Achilleus, and Telamonian Aias that the gods are prepared to let Troy fall and that the tricks and stratagems at which Odysseus excels become decisive in the struggle between the Greeks and Trojans. Odysseus is to be sure a significant, and occasionally tricky, character in earlier events. Other figures, however, in particular Achilleus, dominate the first nine years of the Trojan War story. Moreover, it is at this point that Nestor asserts a special affinity between himself and Odysseus (Odyssey 3.126-129), which claim both appeals to the internal audience, Telemachos, and reinforces the significance of Odysseus in nostos-traditions. Nestor’s nominal identity can explain the fact that the old hero too only at this point becomes an actor in his own narrative: with the fall of Troy, themes associated with “Mr. Nostos” naturally come to the fore.
Nestor’s characterization of this final stage of the Trojan War agrees with what is known of the two Cyclic epics that covered these events. For in the Ilias Parva and the Iliou Persis, Odysseus is responsible for nearly every step the Greeks make toward taking the city. He gathers intelligence by capturing Helenos and entering Troy in disguise, brings Philoktetes and Neoptolemos to Troy, helps to steal the Trojan Palladion, and plays a role in the construction of the wooden horse (74-75, 88-89 Bernabé, 106.23-107.8 Allen; cf. Odyssey 8.500-520). Considering the entire Trojan War story, then, the fall of Troy is Odysseus’ main moment in the spotlight apart from the Odyssey itself.
To sum up the argument thus far, I am proposing that Nestor’s conception of the Trojan War corresponds to the Trojan War epics that have come down to us as follows. The pain-theme embraces the entire Trojan War story; Nestor’s first ὅσα-clause covers the narrative territory of one epic, the Kypria; the second ὅσα-clause is distributed into ἔνθα-clauses that cover the narrative territories of the Iliad, Aithiopis, Ilias Parva, and Iliou Persis. The final stage of this overall narrative, the returns of the surviving heroes, is covered in the Cyclic Nostoi and Telegony and the Homeric Odyssey. Thus, in tabular form:
portion of Trojan War narrative tradition
Trojan War as a whole “pain-narrative”(unperformable)
raiding expeditions Kypria
death of Patroklos Iliad
deaths of Antilochos and Achilleus Aithiopis
death of Aias Aithiopis, Ilias Parva
sack of Troy Ilias Parva, Iliou Persis
returns of surviving Greeks Nostoi, Odyssey, Telegony
My proposal that Nestor references a kind of epic cycle is made in full awareness of the uncertainties about the narrative bounds of various Trojan War traditions and of the probability that the episodes associated with each narrative tradition varied over time. The model advanced in the Introduction accounts for such variation, for in its terms the Odyssey documents a time in the evolution of the epic tradition when standardization was occurring but was not complete. Again, I am not arguing, as have Analyst and Neo-Analyst critics, that the Odyssey derives material from an already fixed set of Cyclic poems, but rather that Homeric and Cyclic traditions were mutually referential throughout their development.
Thus Nestor can be seen to acknowledge, and in a sense to take part in, this process of engagement. His schematization could even be interpreted as a diachronic recapitulation of the larger tradition. Viewed this way, the two ὅσα-clauses document a time when narratives corresponding to the Kypria and Aithiopis covered the war up to the nostoi-narratives, while the division of the second ὅσα-clause into smaller units documents the subsequent encroachment, on the one hand, of Iliadic tradition on the narrative territory of the Kypria, and, on the other, of the Ilias Parva and Iliou Persis on the territory of the Aithiopis. [14]
This evolutionary scheme is of course speculative; nor is it possible to know with any certainty how distinct an idea Homeric audiences had of the narratives that came to be associated with the Cyclic and other epics. I do hope to have demonstrated at least that Nestor conceives of the Trojan War in terms of performable sections. The same can be said, I shall now argue, of Nestor’s Nostoi proper, which is again neither random nor ad hoc, but rather embeds the perspective and conventions of established narrative traditions.

The gods of return

In contrast with the elliptical references that make up the opening section of Nestor’s narrative, his Nostoi proper provides a considerable amount of detail, including chronological and geographical settings and a measure of character development. Most importantly for my larger argument, Nestor traces causation back to the gods, among whom Zeus is the decisive figure.
Nestor’s claim to describe the actions of the gods raises a key interpretive issue. For, as discussed in Chapter 2 in the context of Odysseus’ narration of his Apologoi, mortal characters remain only vaguely aware of divine activity unless they witness an undisguised god in action or receive information from a divine source. This phenomenon, commonly referred as “Jørgensen’s law,” admits of two general exceptions: seers, such as Halitherses in Odyssey 2 and 24, and divinely-inspired singers of epic, such as Demodokos in Odyssey 8, have steady and reliable information about the gods. Nestor’s knowledge of divine activity assimilates him to these latter characters, singers such as the Homeric narrator and the professionals to whom the Muse (Odyssey 1.1, 8.62-64, 479-481, 22.347; Iliad 1.1, 2.484-487) provides access to the gods’ involvement in events on earth and those that take place on Olympos (Odyssey 8.266-366).
The Iliad also attributes exceptional knowledge of divine activity to Nestor. In another extended account of things past, the so-called “Pylian Epic” in Iliad 11 (670-761), he tells how, in the final phase of a conflict in which he himself took part, Zeus (753) and Athene (758) combine forces to orchestrate a Pylian victory. The gods’ actions, which, coordinated as they are, suggest a divine council scene analogous to the one at the beginning of the Odyssey, should be beyond Nestor’s ken. [15] And since Nestor alone of mortal characters that are neither seers nor singers fails to conform to Jørgensen’s law, it is difficult to dismiss the divine apparatus in both his Pylian Epic and his Nostoi as lapses. [16] Nestor’s compositional tendencies are however consistent with the interpretation advanced here, that he is in both Homeric epics assimilated to the character of a “singer of tales.” Thus I note that the Pylian Epic identifies at the outset a main hero (Nestor himself), a temporal frame, and main theme, “when there was a conflict between the Epeioi and us”(ὁπότ᾿ Ἠλείοισι καὶ ἡμῖν νεῖκος, 671).
While Nestor’s initial mention of Zeus as responsible for the Trojan War (Odyssey 3.119) might thus be explicable in terms of Jørgensen’s law, his Nostoi proper marks the debut of what can fairly be called a divine apparatus: [17]
αὐτὰρ ἐπεὶ Πριάμοιο πόλιν διεπέρσαμεν αἰπήν,
βῆμεν δ᾿ ἐν νήεσσι, θεὸς δ᾿ ἐκέδασσεν Ἀχαιούς,
καὶ τότε δὴ Ζεὺς λυγρὸν ἐνὶ φρεσὶ μήδετο νόστον
Ἀργείοις, ἐπεὶ οὔ τι νοήμονες οὐδὲ δίκαιοι
πάντες ἔσαν· τῶ σφεων πολέες κακὸν οἶτον ἐπέσπον
μήνιος ἐξ ὀλοῆς γλαυκώπιδος ὀβριμοπάτρης, 135
ἥ τ᾿ ἔριν Ἀτρείδηισι μετ᾿ ἀμφοτέροισιν ἔθηκε.
But after we sacked Priam’s high city,
we boarded the ships, but a god scattered the Achaians,
and right then Zeus was devising in his thoughts a lamentable homecoming
for the Argives, since in no way right-thinking nor just
were they all; therefore many of them fell upon an evil fate
on account of the destructive wrath of the grey-eyed daughter of a powerful father [i.e. Athene]
who made strife between the sons of Atreus.
Odyssey 3.130-136
After a summary statement that “a god” scattered the Greek ships (θεός, 131), Nestor explains that it was Zeus who devised the nostos generally (132), and Athene who, on account of her wrath, brought the power of Olympos to bear on the returning heroes (135; cf. 145-147). More specifically, Zeus intended a “lamentable” return for the Greeks (λυγρός, 132), and Athene made it so by inciting strife between their leaders (135-136).
The coordinate action of Zeus and Athene mirrors that which, I have been arguing, motivates the main narrative. In both cases, the lesser Olympian plays an active, and partisan, role in human affairs, while Zeus deliberates. Nestor’s reference here to the wrath of Athene has parallels in songs performed by the Odyssey’s professional singers. Thus Demodokos conceives of the Trojan War as an overall pain narrative that is motivated by Zeus (πήματος ἀρχὴ/Τρωσί τε καὶ Δαναοῖσι Διὸς μεγάλου διὰ βουλάς, 8.81-82), while he assigns specific responsibility for the wooden horse episode to Athene (διὰ μεγάθυμον Ἀθήνην, 8.520); Phemios also associates his own Nostoi with Athene (Ἀχαιῶν νόστον ἄειδε/λυγρόν, ὃν ἐκ Τροίης ἐπετείλατο Παλλὰς Ἀθήνη, 1.326-327). [18]
Nestor explains Zeus’ involvement with the Greeks’ sufferings after Troy in terms of their unlawful behavior (ἐπεὶ οὔ τι νοήμονες οὐδὲ δίκαιοι πάντες ἔσαν, 133-134). Here again, Nestor’s themes resonate with the main narrative, for divine justice and human culpability are central to Zeus’ Oresteia, as well as to the sufferings that Odysseus’ crew, the Phaiakes, and the suitors endure – in all of which Zeus is implicated. [19] In terms of my overall model for the Odyssey, Zeus here in Nestor’s Nostoi can be seen to incorporate Athene’s narrow concern for her own divine prerogatives into a plan that involves all of the returning Greeks. In other words Nestor, by defining Athene’s motivation narrowly, subordinates the goddess to Zeus in the chain of causality that undergirds his Nostoi, thus recreating the relationship between the two gods that runs through the main narrative.
This interpretation is consistent with the fact that, as Nestor proceeds with his tale, Zeus continues to direct the overall progress of the Greeks’ returns. Athene, by contrast, ceases to play a role once she has caused the strife between the Greek leaders (134-158), and even in this case Nestor comments that “Zeus was fashioning misery of evil” (ἐπὶ γὰρ Ζεὺς ἤρτυε πῆμα κακοῖο, 152). [20] Zeus then again harries the returning Greeks by causing a further round of strife among them (Ζεὺς δ’ οὔ πω μήδετο νόστον/σχέτλιος ὅς ῥ’ ἔριν ὦρσε κακὴν ἔπι δεύτερον αὖτις, 160-161), as a consequence of which Nestor’s narrative passes a crucial inflection point. He himself parts company with Odysseus (162-163) and afterward has no more to say about him. Likewise, in the main narrative, Athene, after active participation in the opening phase of the story, plays a small role in Odysseus’ nostos in Books 5-13.
Nestor’s special qualities as a narrator become particularly clear when his Nostoi is compared with Odysseus’ Apologoi. Odysseus offers neither a synoptic view of the Greeks’ wanderings nor a coherent account of the gods’ role in them (again, cf. 9.39). Further, Zeus is absent from Odysseus’ Apologoi, except for the divine council in Book 12 cited above to illustrate Jørgensen’s law, and for unmistakable ex eventu supposition that conforms to this law (e.g. 9.553-555). Likewise the absence of Athene, the other pillar of the Odyssey’s, and Nestor’s, divine apparatus, during the return portion of Odysseus’ story is so palpable that the goddess herself is called on to explain it away (13.341-343).
There is however one circumstance in which Odysseus does take on powers as a narrator comparable to Nestor’s: when he tells his false tales. Thus, after returning to Ithake in disguise, Odysseus refers to Zeus or makes him responsible for a number of events in his false past. It has been argued that the knowledge of Zeus’ actions that Odysseus’ persona claims, because it is only of a general sort, conforms to Jørgensen’s law, and this is true in most instances (e.g. 14.268, 17.424). [21] However, the role that the disguised Odysseus assigns to Zeus on occasion parallels closely that in the “real” story, as when he claims that Zeus and Helios destroyed his ship and crew (19.276; cf. 12.374-387); and his declaration that Zeus was responsible for the Trojan War (14.235-236), though perhaps a commonplace, nevertheless echoes similarly programmatic statements by Nestor and the Homeric narrator discussed above. Building on the perspective developed in the previous chapter, the lying Odysseus, through his claims about his own fate and Zeus’ role in it, is constructed as a false singer performing a counterfeit tradition. His avowed knowledge of Zeus’ activities represents one more preposterous claim, like that of being a peer of Menelaos during the Trojan War (14.470-471).
Nestor’s divine apparatus, then, reproduces the conventions that inform the representation of the gods in the main narrative. His Nostoi overlays the sufficient dramatic motivation of a lesser god responding to immediate, localized circumstances – Athene’s anger at the Greeks – with the more comprehensive and impersonal motivating force of the supreme god Zeus. Given the compressed nature of his account, it is remarkable that Nestor mentions the gods at all, let alone in such detail, and by means of powers normally unavailable to mortal characters.

Variations on the nostos-theme

Odysseus exits Nestor’s Nostoi when the two part ways at Tenedos (Odyssey 3.159-164), but the story continues, like the Cyclic Nostoi, through to the Oresteia. Having seen Diomedes safely home, Nestor completes his own return without difficulty, thereby fulfilling his nominal destiny as “Mr. Nostos.” Back in Pylos, he receives news about other distinguished Trojan War veterans, namely Neoptolemos (“the glorious son of great-hearted Achilleus”), Philoktetes and Idomeneus, who return home uneventfully and safely (188-192), and Agamemnon, who does not (193-200). After a brief interlude, Nestor concludes his Nostoi with an expanded version of Agamemnon’s story (262-312). Nestor’s Pylos can thus be seen as a kind of Panhellenic clearing-house for the larger Trojan War tradition (cf. 94-95); so Nestor also mediates Telemachos’ pursuit of further news from Menelaos (317-328). Stories arrive and are organized into a coherent narrative at a site from the heroic past, Pylos, whose location was a mystery to ancient Greeks (cf. Strabo 8.3.24), and therefore removed from epichoric tradition. Thus, while local epic singers such as Phemios on Ithake and Demodokos on Scherie receive and transmit Trojan War stories, the quality of their information is perceived to be inferior to that of Nestor, since Telemachos would not be motivated to travel to Pylos unless he could expect to learn more there than he could from Phemios.
Like those of other characters in the Odyssey, Nestor’s account of the returning heroes proves to be polemical. It is for one thing selective: Nestor mentions neither the death of Oileian Aias at the hands of Athene and Poseidon (related by Menelaos at 4.499-511), for instance, nor Kalchas, who has a prominent role in other accounts (e.g. Nostoi p. 94.7-9 Bernabé, 108.22-24 Allen; “Apollodoros” Epitome 5.23-6.4). Most significant for the present discussion, Nestor’s shaping of the stories he does tell mirrors the Odyssey’s shaping of Odysseus’ story. For the safe returns of Diomedes, Neoptolemos, Philoktetes, and Idomeneus contrast starkly with non-Homeric accounts, in which these heroes are driven from home to find new adventures in the west. [22]
Such traditions grew up particularly thick around the returning Diomedes. While his return is uneventful in the Cyclic Nostoi as it is in the Odyssey (94.5 Bernabé, 108.19 Allen; cf. “Apollodoros” Epitome 6.1), other non-Homeric accounts give Diomedes a story like that of the non-Homeric Odysseus, including a dangerous, Klytaimnestre-like wife, post-Trojan War wanderings, and death in an adopted home, in this case, Apulia. [23] The non-Homeric Neoptolemos, as discussed in the previous chapter, leaves Troy either to rule the Molossians or the Epirotes. The non-Homeric Philoktetes is also driven to the west, where he was connected with a settlement and a cult of Apollo near Croton. [24] The non-Homeric Idomeneus likewise is cuckolded while at Troy; his wife’s seducer then takes control of Crete and repels the hero when he returns, so that Idomeneus ends up settling in Calabria. [25]
Again, such foundation myths are the stuff of epichoric tradition. Nestor does not, however, take care to pare away potential connections to epichoric traditions until he comes to name these heroes as safely returned. Before this point in his narrative, he describes, for instance, stops on Tenedos (159-164), the historical inhabitants of which claimed descent from Trojan captives released by the Greek army (Pausanias 2.5.4), as well as at Geraistos in Euboia (173-179), where a temple to Poseidon was said to commemorate sacrifices by Nestor and Diomedes to thank the god for their safe return to Greece (Strabo 10.1.7). Perhaps because none of these events conflicts with its view of Odysseus, the Odyssey allows Nestor to set this part of his tale in the “real world” of ancient Greek geography.
The uneventful homecomings that Nestor describes for Diomedes, Neoptolemos, and Idomeneus may be motivated in addition by a desire to de-authorize stories in which Odysseus is indirectly responsible for the aforementioned seduction of their wives. According to these non-Homeric accounts, Odysseus, in some versions with the aid of Diomedes, falsely accuses the Greek hero Palamedes of theft and engineers his execution; in revenge, Palamedes’ father Nauplios travels to the absent heroes’ homes – though not to Ithake, where there is apparently sufficient temptation for Penelope already – and arranges matches between their wives and various usurpers (Kypria 43.66 Bernabé, 105.15-16 Allen; cf. “Apollodoros” Epitome 6.8-9). Nestor’s Nostoi at least reinforces the exclusion of Palamedes from both Homeric epics, presumably on the grounds that his story is irreconcilable with the Homeric Odysseus. Similarly, the safe returns of Neoptolemos and Diomedes in effect place a seal of divine approval on questionable acts in which they assist the non-Homeric Odysseus: the theft of Athene’s sacred image from Troy and the luring of Philoktetes to Troy, respectively.
Suggestive in any case is Odysseus’ close relationship with each of these heroes in both Homeric and non-Homeric contexts. Odysseus and Diomedes work together in battle (e.g. Iliad 10) and during the taking of Troy (Ilias Parva 75.15-18 Bernabé, 107.7-8 Allen). Neoptolemos is alternatively Odysseus’ ally (Odyssey 11.506-537; Ilias Parva 74.10-11 Bernabé, 106.29 Allen), and, as discussed in Chapter 4, his foe. Philoktetes is mistreated and tricked by Odysseus in non-Homeric tradition (e.g. “Apollodoros” Epitome 5.8; Sophokles Philoktetes); it is perhaps in part for this reason that the Odyssey has Odysseus voice regard for Philoktetes’ skill as an archer (8.219). Lastly, Idomeneus is, like Diomedes, a frequent companion of Odysseus at Troy (the two are together in scenes in Iliad 4, 5, 7, 13, and 1), and he is associated with the Cretan persona and Odysseus in the Cretan tales (13.259, 14.237, 19.181, 190) and in the story that the lying Aitolian tells Eumaios (14.382). [26]
Lastly, Nestor shapes his account of Agamemnon (3.193-200, 262-312) in a manner that recalls Zeus’ Oresteia. Thus Nestor omits Klytaimnestre from his initial account, and then casts her as a victim of Aigisthos, and perhaps of the gods, in an expanded version (264-269). This version, which Nestor produces at Telemachos’ specific request (248-252), is also of interest for the reappearance of the gods, who have been absent from Nestor’s narrative since Zeus contrived the strife among the Greeks at Tenedos (160). Nestor’s statements that Aigisthos’ initial success was due to the “fate of the gods” (μοῖρα θεῶν, 269), and that Menelaos’ wanderings were the result of an attack by Apollo (279-283), [27] suggest a familiar constellation of themes. The “fate of the gods,” an expression that is, as discussed in the Introduction, related to the Dios boulē theme, implies coordinated divine action, which is dramatized conventionally in a divine council scene over which Zeus presides. Apollo’s attack again reveals Nestor’s unique knowledge of divine activity and recalls the theme of the angry subordinate god who instigates the action among mortal characters, as Apollo does at the beginning of the Iliad (1.9).
Nestor’s Nostoi, then, alternately emphasizes and suppresses themes in a manner that mirrors the handling of analogous themes in the main narrative. Space prevents a detailed consideration of the epichoric roots of the non-Homeric traditions discussed here. I have however tried to suggest places where an approach like that applied to west Greek Odysseus-traditions in the previous chapter could yield plausible contexts for the performance of epichoric and proto-Panhellenic narratives that were early and influential enough to invite the Odyssey’s engagement. By way of further illustration, stories about Palamedes appear to have been associated with the Argolid (Strabo 8.6.2); and citizens of Lokris, for whom Oileian Aias was a local hero, may have entertained very different accounts of Athene’s anger at the returning Greeks than those in the Odyssey and Cyclic Nostoi, where he is a prime offender against the goddess.

Chapter conclusions

Nestor, I have argued, is a unique narrator in the Odyssey, in that his compositional strategies are assimilated to those of epic singers and the Homeric narrator. Thus “Mr. Nostos” has access to information about the gods that is normally unavailable to mortal characters, and he locates his Nostoi within the broader context of a loosely-defined system of mutually referential Trojan War stories that, by my interpretation, recall some the narratives we know as the Iliad and Cyclic epics. Also like a traditional singer, Nestor identifies the narratives that make up this system in terms their performability and by a characteristic bundle of themes.
Conspicuous among these themes is a divine apparatus that provides the overall motivation for Nestor’s Nostoi. This divine apparatus, consisting of the main god Zeus acting in concert with one or more subordinate gods, parallels that of the Odyssey itself and of other epics. From this perspective, the Zeus of Nestor’s Nostoi is thematically equivalent to the Zeus of the Odyssey’s main narrative and to the Zeus Nestor invokes in Iliad 15, where the fated, inevitable return of “Mr. Nostos” is represented as the dispensation of the supreme god.
More specific to the Odyssey’s perspective on the Trojan War is Nestor’s shaping of nostos-stories that parallel Odysseus’ return. The stories of heroes who are associated with Odysseus in other contexts, and whose return-stories parallel his, are subjected to the kind of selective treatment that Zeus gives the Oresteia and that Odysseus receives in the main narrative. Thus Nestor’s Diomedes, Neoptolemos, and Idomeneus journey home uneventfully, without adventures to which epichoric traditions attach, and they return apparently to untroubled marriages and contented subjects. The return of Agamemnon, on the other hand, becomes for Nestor what it was for Zeus at the beginning of the narrative, a negative paradigm for Odysseus.
Nestor’s uniqueness as a character, I suggest, arose as epic tradition became invested in constructing him as a voice of authority over the portion of the Trojan War story that is conjured up by his very name. In the Odyssey, this authority serves to complete the task, assigned initially to Zeus, of situating its hero’s story within the context of the many and conflicting accounts of the Greeks’ returns from Troy. As a consequence, Nestor’s Nostoi recreates in miniature the Odyssey’s own compositional tendencies, in particular the fundamental equation of divine plan and narrative plan.


[ back ] 1. Thus for instance Dickson 1995:37 observes that “to a significant extent Nestor’s characterization draws on traits that identify him as an aoidos in his own right.”
[ back ] 2. The relationship between such omens and plot in Homeric epic is well explicated by de Jong 2001:51-53 ad 2.143-207 and Nagy 2003:55-59.
[ back ] 3. As observed by e.g. Janko IC 4:268-269 ad 15.377-80.
[ back ] 4. The etymology is discussed in detail by Frame 1978:82-86, 96-99, 112; cf. Dickson 1995:202.
[ back ] 5. Cf. Kirk IC 1:286-287 ad 3.161-246.
[ back ] 6. See for instance S. Richardson’s (1990:38-39, 143-144) arguments that background generally is provided to deepen the understanding of the immediate context, and Atchity’s (1978:260-264) discussion of the hortatory function of Nestor’s speeches in the Iliad.
[ back ] 7. An interpretation refuted effectively by Falkner 1989:31 (quoted in Dickson 1995:36).
[ back ] 8. Compare for instance Iliad 12.10-17, where the Homeric narrator uses a series of temporal clauses in order to divide the Trojan War into four thematic groupings: events before the death of Hektor, the deaths of major Trojan and Greek heroes, the sack of Troy, and the return ofthe Greeks.
[ back ] 9. Thus Dickson 1995:79-80 describes Odyssey 3.130-200 and 253-316 as a distinct narrative, “The Akhaian Nostoi,” and observes therein “authorial structures, tropes and techniques familiar from the enframing tale” as well as from the Iliad.
[ back ] 10. Dickson 1995:76-77 refers to what I have termed the chronological theme as the “point of departure,” and defines the main theme as a “noun, generally specified by a short qualifier” that “identifies the theme and so functions as a title,” which as he notes is akin to Ford’s 1992:20 notion of “titling syntax.” On the absence of titles in oral traditions generally, see Finnegan 1977:107.
[ back ] 11. Declarations of aporia are conventional in Greek epic; cf. the beginning of the Catalog of Ships (Iliad 2.488-492). As Dickson 1995:77-78 observes, such declarations are “central to oral poetry,” in that performance demands careful selection. For the pain-theme cf. Demodokos’ use of πήματος in reference to an inflection point in the Trojan War (Odyssey 8.81).
[ back ] 12. Raids in the Kypria: (40.36, 42.58-62 Bernabé, 104.4-8, 105.6-15 Allen). Achilleus in the Kypria: parents wed (Proklos 38.5-39.8 Bernabé, 102.14-18 Allen); he himself weds (41.39-40, 104.8-9); quarrels with Agamemnon (41.49-50, 104.23-24); kills the first Trojan (42.1-2, 105.2-3); prevents the Greek army from dissolving (42.61, 105.9-10); the object of Zeus’ planning (43.66-67, 105.16-17). For the temporal scope of the Kypria and its junction with the Iliad, see Marks 2002; for an alternative reconstruction, Burgess 2001:136-140.
[ back ] 13. See Burgess 2001:144-145.
[ back ] 14. For arguments that the Kypria and Aithiopis were more comprehensive than the extant evidence implies, see Burgess 2001:26-27, 141-143; Kullmann 1960:224, 358.
[ back ] 15. Cf. Iliad 11.721, 750-752. Thus Hainsworth IC 3:298 ad 11.670-762 observes that Nestor “tells his tale generally in the same manner as the narrator of the Iliad . . . like the poet he knows what the gods did.” Nestor even seems to evince knowledge of divine activity in the main narrative, for he implicates Thetis and Zeus in Achilleus’ refusal to fight (Iliad 11.795). Similarly, Atchity 1978:261 observes that “Nestor resembles the poet inasmuch as he shares the poet’s transcendence of time.”
[ back ] 16. de Jong 2001:76-77 ad 3.130-85 observes that “Nestor partly has an exact understanding of the gods . . . [and] partly expresses himself . . . according to Jørgensen’s law,” and explains away the former ability as “ex eventu commentary;” left unexplained, however, is how Nestor comes by this information even after the fact, and the novelty of his exceptional status. Attempts like Calhoun’s (1940:269-275) to explain such exceptions to the law in terms of ad hoc decision-making by the poet demand the acceptance of his overall conclusion, opposite the one advanced here, that the Homeric gods are “purely ornamental” (276).
[ back ] 17. Thus Dickson 1995:80-81 argues that the gods Nestor names in Odyssey 3 serve “as the deep mechanism that steers the homebound Akhaians and a fortiori the tale itself . . . [along] nodes from which different trajectories for the tale can veer off towards different destinations, and upon whose ‘grid’ the singer maps his story out. Nestor demonstrates precisely the same ‘navigational’ control over these paths as does the narrator of the larger tale in which his is embedded.”
[ back ] 18. Nestor’s reference to the wrath of Athene alludes to acts of sacrilege committed by the Greeks during the sack of Troy, in particular desecration of the goddess’s sacred image by Oileian Aias (Iliou Persis 89.15-20 Bernabé, 108.2-6, 11-13 Allen; cf. Odyssey 4.502). So also in “Apollodoros” Epitome 6.5 Athene asks Zeus to send a storm against the returning Greeks. Phemios’ elision of Zeus’ role and emphasis on Athene in his account of the nostoi is paralleled by Hermes (Odyssey 5.108-111).
[ back ] 19. Cf. de Jong 2001:77 ad 3.130-66; Clay 1983:47-49.
[ back ] 20. Agamemnon’s awareness of Athene’s wrath in this passage (Odyssey 3.143-145) is explicable in the context of scenes, such as in Iliad 1, in which he and the assembled army are informed of the gods’ displeasure by the seer Kalchas, who indeed survives the war and appears in the Cyclic Nostoi.
[ back ] 21. Thus de Jong 2001:355 ad 3.192-359. Contrast for instance Odyssey 11.558-560: in narrating a “real” event, Odysseus’ surmise about Zeus’ responsibility for the strife between himself and Telamonian Aias is expressed in terms consistent with Jørgensen’s law; cf. the similar terms in which Agamemnon blames Zeus for his conflict with Achilleus (cf. Iliad 19.86-87).
[ back ] 22. Strabo (6.1.15; cf. 5.2.5), associates only “those accompanying Nestor from Ilion” (τῶν ἐξ Ἰλίου πλευσάντων μετὰ Νέστορος) with the foundation of Metapontion, and Nestor’s stay in Italy need not be permanent, since “Mr. Nostos” is unlikely to have had an unsuccessful return in any traditional version, though see Malkin 1998:213 for a contrary view.
[ back ] 23. According to Mimnermos fr. 22 W, Aphrodite corrupts Diomedes’ wife in revenge for his wounding of her (cf. Iliad 5.412-415); for possible Iliadic suppression of this faithless wife, see Chapter 1 n27. For Diomedes’ wanderings, see Servius ad Aeneid 8.9; for his colonization of Apulia and death there, Strabo 6.3.9.
[ back ] 24. For Philoktetes’ Italian wanderings see “Apollodoros” Epitome 6.15b; [Aristotle] De Mirabilis Auscultationibus 107 (115), cited in Frazer 1921:261n3 ad loc.; Strabo 6.1.3; Aeneid 3.402. He is not mentioned in the extant evidence for the Cyclic Nostoi.
[ back ] 25. For Idomeneus’ return see “Apollodoros” Epitome 6.9-10 with Appendix XII in Frazer 1921 v. 2. His exile was known to Virgil (Aeneid 3.121-122; 11.264-265; cf. Servius ad Aeneid 3.121 and 11.264). Like Philoktetes, Idomeneus is not mentioned in the extant evidence for the Cyclic Nostoi.
[ back ] 26. Idomeneus also appears on Telemachos’ itinerary in variant readings at Odyssey 1.93 and 285; see Reece 1994:166-169. On the lying Aitolian see Chapter 4.
[ back ] 27. The site of Apollo’s attack, Cape Sounion off Athens (Odyssey 3.278), also figured in epichoric tradition; see Burgess 2001:37-38.