Appendix 2: Typology of Divine Councils in the Odyssey

I have throughout this study referred to the five scenes in which Zeus has a speaking role in the Odyssey, in Books 1, 5, 12, 13 and 24, as “divine councils.” From the standpoint of the oral tradition in which the Homeric epics originated, these narrative settings can be described as “type-scenes.” This level of organization in Homeric narrative was first described systematically in the 1930s by Walter Arend, working in ignorance of Milman Parry’s pioneering and then relatively unknown work on orality in Homeric composition. Arend explained repeated narrative sequences in Homeric epic such as arrivals, messages, and dreams, which he defined as typischen Scenen, in terms of the workings of Homer’s mind. [1] Reviewing the study, Parry was appreciative of Arend’s achievement in identifying the phenomenon, but rejected his “philosophic and almost mystic” explanation for it. These “fixed action patterns,” he theorized, were analogous to the noun-epithet formulas he had himself shown to be characteristic of oral composition-in-performance. [2] Parry’s student Albert Lord went on to document type-scenes in South Slavic epic, and subsequent analysis has shown this structural feature to be ubiquitous in oral communication. [3]
Repetition among instantiations of a given type-scene in a narrative is not verbatim, but rather represents a pattern for connecting related ideas. In the Iliad, for example, arming scenes, stock descriptions of warriors preparing for battle, take the form of nine or ten similar hexameters that describe Agamemnon, Achilles, and others donning greaves, corselet, sword, shield, helmet, spear, and so on, generally in the same order, but with some omissions or additions. [4] In the case of a more complex action pattern such as an assembly, scenes share such themes as summoning by heralds, seating of the attendants, set speeches, and dismissal, while the purpose of the assembly, the speakers, and subjects discussed, vary according to context.
Homerists classify assemblies generally, whether of gods or men, as a kind of type-scene. [5] Here I explore the formal features shared by Odyssean divine councils in order to demonstrate that they can indeed be described as variations on a theme. In terms of my larger argument, the divine council represents a thematic reflex of the narrative plan as a Dios boulē. Formalization of Odyssean divine councils thus reflects the unity of divine action across the narrative; and Zeus is the only god present at all of them. [6] The setting is Olympos, with other gods in attendance. Each council can be described schematically as some combination of seven themes: assembly, complaint, surprise, invitation, proposal, modification, and implementation. [7] In what follows, I survey the occurrence of these themes in each Odyssean divine council scene and consider narrative instances that may have prompted Homeric audiences to infer a council where one is not expressly described. [8]

Zeus and Athene I (Odyssey 1.26-102)

Most of the constituent themes of Odyssean divine councils can be deduced from the opening scene in Book 1. As the action of the Odyssey begins, the gods are assembled, “massed together in the halls of Olympian Zeus” (Ζηνὸς ἐνὶ μεγάροισιν Ὀλυμπίου ἀθρόοι, 1.27), and Zeus addresses them; in the remaining Odyssean councils, on the other hand, Zeus always responds to another god. The speech Athene delivers (45-62) in response to Zeus’ Oresteia introduces the next theme, another god’s complaint to Zeus concerning Odysseus. [9] Zeus reacts to her complaint with surprise, here the mildly admonitory formula, “what word has escaped the barrier of your teeth?” (64), and invites help from all the gods in contriving Odysseus’ homecoming (76-77). Athene responds with the proposal for her own and Hermes’ departure from Olympos (81-95), and proceeds to implement it (96-103).
These individual thematic elements can be described, following Lord, as “minor” or “basic,” in that each by itself lacks comprehensiveness. [10] Woven together, however, these minor themes comprise the larger, “essential” divine council theme. The divine council theme also interweaves “ornamental” themes, such as Athene’s arming scene (96-101) and the genealogy of the Kyklops given by Zeus (71-74), which neither convey necessary information nor have a fixed place in the typology. Nevertheless, minor themes can communicate significant information: thus for example the genealogy Zeus gives the Kyklops demonstrates awareness of Odysseus’ situation and at the same time distinguishes the Odyssean Kyklops from the similarly-named sons of Gaia and Ouranos who forge thunderbolts for Zeus in the Hesiodic Theogony (139).

Zeus, Athene and Hermes (Odyssey 5.3-54)

The first meeting of the gods on Olympos, and the typology of the divine council theme, is not, however, complete. As discussed in Chapter 2, the divine councils at the beginnings of Books 1 and 5 seem to narrate a single event depicted sequentially, as described by “Zielinski’s law” (discussed in Chapter 2). At the beginning of Book 5, the gods are assembled in council at their “seating place,” “and among them Zeus” (οἱ δ᾿ θεοὶ θῶκόνδε καθίζανον, ἐν δ᾿ ἄρα τοῖσι/Ζεύς, 3-4). Athene again complains to Zeus about Odysseus, stuck on Kalypso’s island, and about the ambush that awaits his son (11-20). Zeus evinces surprise at the complaint (22=1.64), and invites Athene to carry on with “her plan” and see Telemachos home (25-27). He then instructs Hermes to set in motion Odysseus’ homecoming (29-42). Zeus’ instructions go beyond Athene’s original proposal, and as such can be described as a modification of Athene’s vague proposal in the form of a detailed narrative signpost. Hermes then departs to implement the plan (43-54). [11]
The divine council at the beginning of Book 5 adds a crucial theme to Homeric divine council typology, namely, modification of the complaining god’s proposal. In each Odyssean divine council, the impression that Zeus merely responds to other divinities is undercut by the fact that the plan that emerges from their deliberation has undergone significant modification at the hands of Zeus.
The two “halves” of the council scene that unfolds in Books 1 and 5, when taken together, provide a complete picture of the themes that structure all Odyssean divine councils. All of these themes are not assembled again in the Odyssey. However, because the audience has now been provided with a complete paradigm for divine interactions in the Odyssey, fewer themes are needed to set the scene for these interactions. [12]

Zeus and Helios (Odyssey 12.374-388)

While telling his adventures to the Phaiakes, Odysseus claims to have learned about an exchange between Zeus and Helios from Kalypso, who in turn heard it from Hermes (12.398-390). Thus embedded in three narrative layers, this council unsurprisingly does not receive full treatment. Helios complains (378-381) to the assembled (Ζεῦ πάτερ ἠδ᾿ ἄλλοι μάκαρες θεοί, 377) Olympians about the slaughter of his cattle by Odysseus’ crew. If the crewmembers are not made to pay for their act, the sun god threatens to go down to Hades and shine among the dead (382-383). This threat resembles a proposal, since it induces Zeus to act. Zeus’ conciliatory response, an offer to destroy the offenders himself with a thunderbolt (385-388), serves the modification function, in that Zeus responds to the other god’s complaint in a manner consistent with his own larger goals. Odysseus presently describes the implementation of Zeus’ plan from his own perspective (415-425).

Zeus and Poseidon (13.125-160)

Near the beginning of Book 13, Poseidon complains to Zeus that the Phaiakes’ return of Odysseus will cause the gods to dishonor himself (13.128-138). Although Poseidon was last seen departing for his residence at Aigai (5.381), the setting seems to be Olympos, as there is no precedent in the Odyssey (or in the main narrative of the Iliad) for Zeus visiting another god. Zeus shows surprise with a mildly admonitory formula (ὢ πόποι ... οἷον ἔειπες, 140), and invites Poseidon to do as he wishes (ἔρξον ὅπως ἐθέλεις καί τοι φίλον ἔπλετο θυμῶι, 145); the latter in turn proposes striking the Phaiakes’ ship as it returns from Ithake and covering their city with a mountain (149-152). Zeus responds that he should do what “seems best” to him (ὣς μὲν ἐμῶι θυμῶι δοκεῖ εἶναι ἄριστα, 154), but submits a modified proposal that the Phaiakes’ ship be turned to stone (155-158). Poseidon then departs to implement the modified proposal (160). This council exhibits most of the major themes adduced above, with one exception. Presumably because the three preceding council scenes have established that Zeus is regularly seated among the gods, the assembly element does not recur in Odyssean divine councils. [13]

Zeus and Athene II (Odyssey 24.472-88)

Following Odysseus’ slaughter of the suitors, Athene again complains about Odysseus’ situation (24.473-474), being concerned whether Zeus will bring to pass war or peace among the Ithakans (475-476). Athene’s two options amount to a proposal, to which Zeus responds with surprise (τέκνον ἐμόν, τί με ταῦτα διείρεαι ἠδὲ μεταλλᾶις, (478; 24.477-480=5.21-24), and invites her to “do as she wishes” (ἔρξον ὅπως ἐθέλεις, 24.481a=13.145a). Again, however, Zeus offers as a modification of her proposal what “seems best” to him (ἐρέω δέ τοι, ὡς ἐπέοικεν, 481; cf. 13.154), namely the program for quelling the incipient civil war on Ithake (481-486). Athene then departs to implement the proposal (487-488). As with the previous council, absence of the assembly theme is explained by the fact that the first three councils have established that the gods are usually seated together.

Odyssean divine council typology summarized

I hope to have demonstrated that all Odyssean divine councils can be described as the kind of complex of themes that scholars define as a “type-scene.” In such scenes, the gods are assembled; a lesser Olympian makes a complaint to Zeus concerning Odysseus; Zeus expresses surprise; Zeus issues an invitation to address the complaint; the other god makes a proposal; Zeus offers a modification; and a lesser god sees to the implementation of the modified proposal. Although not every theme is expressed in every council, the mechanics of composition by theme justifies the classification of all the scenes in which the gods meet in the Odyssey as multiforms of a “typical” narrative sequence. In the following tabulation of these findings, the columns represent the god who interacts with Zeus at each council, and each row represents one of the seven themes:
Zeus' interlocutor Book 1: Athene Book 5: Athene Book 12: Helios Book 13: Poseidon Book 24: Athene
assembly 26-27 3-4 377    
complaint 45-62 11-20 378-381 128-138 473-474
surprise 64 22   145 481
invitation 76-77 25-27   145 481
proposal 81-95   382-383 149-152 475-476
modification   29-42 387-388 154-158 481-486
implementation 96-103 43-54 415-425 160 487-488
No other divine councils as I have defined them – on Olympos, with Zeus as one of the participants – are linked chronologically or causally with the main narrative of the Odyssey. There are however other analogous scenes that merit brief consideration.

Demodokos’ song of Ares and Aphrodite (Odyssey 8.266-366)

As accompaniment to a dance, the Phaiakian bard Demodokos sings a song about how Hephaistos, having been cuckolded by Ares, calls from the porch of his house on Olympos (303-304) to the assembled gods (πᾶσι θεοῖσι, 305). [14] Like Athene and Helios, Hephaistos complains to “Zeus father and other powerful gods who always are” (Ζεῦ πάτερ ἠδ᾿ ἄλλοι μάκαρες θεοὶ αἰὲν ἐόντες, 306=5.7=12.377; the same line appears in prayers, e.g. 12.371). Zeus, however, has no further role, speaking or otherwise, in Demodokos’ song, and the rest of the typology is truncated. Nevertheless, it appears that Demodokos, like the Homeric composer-performers who created and recreated him, composes by type-scene.


Divine actions in the Odyssey do occur without mention of previous discussion on Olympos. With the exception of Poseidon’s attack on Odysseus in Book 5, which is carried out in express opposition to the god’s perception of Olympian policy, these actions explicitly further the Olympian agenda. Within the main narrative, Athene for instance travels to Sparta to prompt Telemachos’ return to Ithake (15.1-43); outside the main narrative, Hermes visits Aiaia in order to provide Odysseus with the drug that allows him to overcome Kirke (10.277-307). In both cases, the god then departs for Olympos (15.43, 10.307), which implies that their missions originated there. [15] By contrast, after his “independent” attack on Odysseus in Book 5, Poseidon departs not to Olympos, but to his home in Aigai (381).
The Homeric audience may have been conditioned to assume that divine deliberation precedes divine action, so that action by a subordinate god presumes a divine council over which Zeus presides, unless conditions are expressly said to be otherwise (as in the case with Poseidon’s attack). [16] In other words, the mere mention of what I have described as the “implementation” theme may have been sufficient to conjure up in the minds of the audience a divine council in which Zeus has approved a given course of action in discussion before the assembled gods on Olympos. Similar “crypto-councils” may perhaps also be inferred at Odyssey 5.382-387, 6.13-16 and 13.189-191; examples from the Iliad include 1.194-195 with 1.221, 3.121-138 and 17.544-546.


[ back ] 1. Arend 1933.
[ back ] 2. Parry 1971:404-407.
[ back ] 3. Lord 1960:88-94; cf. the informative overview by M. Edwards 1987:71-77; recent perspectives and bibliography in Rubin 1995:210-220. Fenik 1974 surveys and analyzes type-scenes in the Odyssey.
[ back ] 4. On Homeric arming scenes see Rubin 1995: 201-220 with bibliography.
[ back ] 5. Cf. M. Edwards 1980:26, who notes some general differences between assemblies of gods and those of men.
[ back ] 6. Finnegan 1977:58, citing Nichols 1961, draws attention to a parallel phenomenon in the Chanson de Roland, where “the poet uses as a vehicle for his composition … the many councils in Roland and the recurrent stages within the council episodes.”
[ back ] 7. In keeping with the reservations of Hainsworth CHO 1:250, I note that my aim is not to describe strict units of composition, but rather general concepts in Homeric composition.
[ back ] 8. While Iliadic divine councils are beyond the scope of this book, I note in anticipation of further study that these themes occur there as well, though with the addition of some themes that do not occur in the Odyssey, such as hostility. Gunn 1971 demonstrates that Iliadic and Odyssean type-scenes are in general often indistinguishable. Likewise, mortal councils in both Homeric epics share some of the themes I discuss here, but differ significantly from divine councils in featuring more speakers, a less formalized leadership structure, and settings of various inclusivity, from the council of leaders who meet to discuss Agamemnon’s dream in Iliad 2 to the assemblies of the Ithakans in Odyssey 2 and 24 analyzed in Chapters 1 and 3.
[ back ] 9. Cf. the ‘Klage eines Gottes’ Motivbereich described by Usener 1990:71-72.
[ back ] 10. Lord 1960:146-147; see Chapter 6 for further discussion of Lord’s concept of “theme” in oral performance.
[ back ] 11. The non-Olympian goddess Ino/Leukothea, who helps Odysseus reach Scherie (Odyssey 5.333-353), knows the outcome of the “second” divine council, specifically, that the Phaiakes will aid Odysseus (cf. 344-345 with 34-37). Thus “pity” (ἥ ῥ᾿ Ὀδυσῆ᾿ ἐλέησεν, 336) does not seem to be the sole motivation for Ino’s aid to Odysseus, a situation with which we may compare Hera’s concern for the Greeks dying from Apollo’s plague (Iliad 1.I 55-56): in both cases the possibility remains that unexpressed divine councils were understood by Homeric audiences to precede the divine intervention.
[ back ] 12. S. Richardson 1990:99-100 applies Genette’s term, “paralipsis,” to the omission of individual themes from larger thematic complexes in Homeric narrative. Cf. discussion of “filling in” by Lord 1960:68-98.
[ back ] 13. Lord 1960:146 observes that the Homeric Olympian family “is usually always together except for individuals away on a mission.”
[ back ] 14. According to the Iliad, each Olympian has his or her own dwelling (δῶμα) on Olympos (Iliad 1.606-608; cf. Odyssey 8.324-325); that Hephaistos is able to address them all at once implies that they are gathered together.
[ back ] 15. Thus Cook 1995:122n28 on Hermes. S. West CHO 1:79 ad 1.37ff, by contrast, concludes that the god acts on his own initiative; however, the only Homeric parallel for independent action by Hermes is an Iliadic digression on his seduction of a mortal woman (16.179-186). The Odyssey is not entirely consistent in this respect; Athene departs to Athens after facilitating Odysseus’ approach to Alkinoos’ home on Scherie (7.80), which act furthers the plan specified in Zeus’ instructions to Hermes in Book 5 (34-37).
[ back ] 16. Thus M. Edwards IC 5:115 ad 17.545-546 notes, apropos of Athene’s mission to rally the Greeks protecting Patroklos’ corpse, that “it can well be argued that 545-6 provide a condensed version of the conversation with Zeus which is the usual preliminary of Athene’s missions to inspire a hero.”