3. Homer’s Oedipus Complex: Form [1]

In the last chapter we saw how Herakles, while rarely mentioned explicitly in the Iliad, nevertheless casts a long shadow over the events of the epic. Haunting Achilles’ every move, Herakles stands as the hero from a bygone age. His singular actions had not only brought Zeus’ order to the world of men, but also had brought about Troy’s first downfall for the slight against the gods who had built its sacred walls. At key points in the poem, when Achilles asserts his singularity over his comrades, his actions take on a Heraklean hue. Yet the poem never allows him to act alone or without consequence for those dearest to him; correspondingly it also never allows those Heraklean elements to become normalized. Instead, in the world of the Iliad, the kind of heroic deeds that resemble those of Herakles appear outdated and excessive. This is not to say that Heraklean tales did not also probe the anxieties of, or the fault lines within, the hero’s make-up; from the surviving evidence it seems clear that Herakles was popularly conceived of as also a hero who both suffered greatly and brought suffering to his people. But in the Iliad and Odyssey the problems are both intensified and magnified, owing to the poems’ interest and concern to explore the hero’s relations to his fellow men. Positioning themselves at, and to a certain extent participating in the construction of, the transition from the heroic age to the world of men, the Homeric poems relegate Herakles to a period prior to the foundation of institutions of the kind that Achilles establishes in the Iliad, and that Odysseus polices in the Odyssey.
Our first two chapters have explored the ways in which the nexus of politics and time as it is configured through two Theban figures, Tydeus and Herakles, marginalizes the Theban tradition and promotes the Iliad as the epic that, through the story of a siege, heralds the coming of a new age, after the demise of the race of heroes. In this third chapter we take a closer look at another broad theme—this time poetic form itself—through a third Theban hero, Oedipus. In Book 11 of the Odyssey, Odysseus entertains his Phaiakian hosts by narrating his experiences in the underworld. After conversing with his mother’s soul—and before interviewing those of his fallen comrades from Troy—he sees a parade of women, which he goes on to catalogue for his audience. It includes the mother of Oedipus, Epikastê (Odyssey 11.271–280):
“μητέρα τ’ Οἰδιπόδοα ἴδον, καλὴν Ἐπικάστην,
ἣ μέγα ἔργον ἔρεξεν ἀϊδρείῃσι νόοιο
γημαμένη ᾧ υἷϊ· ὁ δ’ ὃν πατέρ’ ἐξεναρίξας
γῆμεν· ἄφαρ δ’ ἀνάπυστα θεοὶ θέσαν ἀνθρώποισιν.
ἀλλ’ ὁ μὲν ἐν Θήβῃ πολυηράτῳ ἄλγεα πάσχων
Καδμέιων ἤνασσε θεῶν ὀλοὰς διὰ βουλὰς·
ἡ δ’ ἔβη εἰς Ἀΐδαο πυλάρταο κρατεροῖο,
ἁψαμένη βρόχον αἰπὺν ἀφ᾿ ὑψηλοῖο μελάθρου
ᾧ ἄχει σχομένη· τῶ δ’ ἄλγεα κάλλιπ’ ὀπίσσω
πολλὰ μάλ’, ὅσσα τε μητρὸς ἐρινύες ἐκτελέου.”

“And I saw the mother of Oedipus, fair Epikastê,
who in the ignorance of her mind did a great deed
by marrying her own son; he, after killing his own father,
married her. The gods soon made it known among men.
But though he suffered pains in much-loved Thebes
he continued to rule the Cadmeans through the god’s baleful plans.
She descended to the house of the powerful gate-fastener Hades,
lashing a noose to a steep rafter,
subdued by all her anguish. And she left her son pains,
as many as a mother’s Furies bring to fulfillment.”
Here Odysseus offers such a strikingly compressed and oblique account of Oedipus’ “many pains” (ἄλγεα…πολλά) that an ancient scholion commenting on this passage glosses it by turning to Sophocles’ canonical version of Oedipus Tyrannos to fill in the background to the story. [2] It is a trend that continues to the present day. The absence of characteristic details, such as Oedipus’ blinding, children, or exile, has led some critics to suppose that Homer did not know of these events. [3] Alternatively, others have regarded the Homeric account as the original version of the myth, from which later representations departed. [4]
Neither approach, however, focuses on how this story functions in its context or plays a role within the wider narrative. As we have been exploring in this book, stories from the mythical past can have very different functions in the Homeric poems. When the content of these stories run counter to versions of the same myth which as we glimpse it elsewhere, interpretations tend to focus overmuch on whether Homer’s account innovates on, deviates from, or represents some primordial original. We have tried instead to refocus attention to what stories are told, how those should be understood, and why they are told where they are. In this chapter we continue our interrogation of Homer’s use of Theban myth by examining the description of Oedipus and the catalogue form in which he appears. Following the structure of our previous chapters, we will first sketch out and discuss Oedipus’ heroic career outside of Homeric epic, such as it can be reconstructed. Then we identify and explore examples of traditional formularity in the passage cited above—the only time Oedipus’ story is narrated in the entire Homeric corpus, save for a passing reference in the Iliad. Focusing on the thematics of the hero “of many pains,” which aligns Oedipus with the master-sufferer Odysseus, we show how—again—Homer’s poem both radically limits the history of the figure from Thebes and, within those strict parameters, makes Oedipus’ story serve the interests of this narrative.
In our final section we dwell on the broader context in which this passage occurs—Odysseus’ catalogue of women (presented to his Phaiakian audience). Where Homer draws on stories of the Seven against Thebes to emphasize Iliadic themes of politics, and on Herakles myths to redefine and complicate conceptions of the hero, his treatment of Oedipus brings into relief rivalry with other poetic forms. The Oedipus passage, while only fleeting, is significant for providing an insight into how the Odyssey integrates and redeploys the catalogue form, chiefly used elsewhere in epic for communicating genealogy. Here, not only does the Odyssey relegate rival heroic narratives to the status of catalogue entries within its own master tale—and, more severely, as part of an embedded narrative (Odysseus’); it also instrumentalizes them to his own purpose. By virtue of integrating them into his own tale, Odysseus transforms them from potential narratives in their own right into mere indices that mark the turning point of his story and enable his return home.

Oedipus in Epic Fragments

Of all the myths from classical Greece, the story of Oedipus and his family is arguably among the most famous. [5] On the basis of the plays that have survived, the Oedipus family drama appears to have been one of the most popular sources for tragic performances, complementing the broader vision of Thebes that looms large over the Athenian stage as the “other” city where bad stuff happens. [6] Given the long cast list, the varied themes (both political and familial), and the complexity of these tragic representations, we can assume with some confidence that stories of Oedipus were also once prominent in epic poetry as well, perhaps even rivaling those of the Trojan War heroes, Achilles and Odysseus, as part of a Theban epic cycle.
Nevertheless, Oedipus’ story is mentioned in only one place in Homeric poetry, in Homer’s Odyssey 11.271–280 (the passage quoted above), while the hero is passingly name-checked during the funeral games held in honor of Patroklos, which take place near the end of the Iliad (Iliad 23.679). [7] Furthermore, evidence for an epic poem dedicated to Oedipus is rather limited. [8] By way of contrast, the episode for which Oedipus was later most renowned and which is assumed to have played a major role in his epic—his defeat of the Sphinx—is widely evidenced in extant visual representations. [9]
Frustrated by the lack of comparable literary material from the period, scholars turn to later sources to reconstruct an Oedipus epic. One of the most extensive is the scholion to Euripides Phoenician Women 1760 (= FGrHist 16 F 10), itself based on an account by the mythographer Peisander, which Alberto Bernabé uses to provide the basic outline of the poem’s plot. [10] The details are as follows: because of Laius’ rape of Chrysippos, [11] Hera sends the Sphinx to punish the Thebans; Laius himself is killed by Oedipus, who in turn solves the riddle and marries his mother; upon discovering the truth, she kills herself while he blinds himself; afterwards he remarries and has four children with Euryganeia. [12] The fact that this summary appears to tell the whole story from the curse through the birth of Oedipus’ children makes it highly suspect as the outline of any nominal poem. It is more probable that Peisander’s account, as reported by the scholia, represents an attempt to record a general outline of the story surrounding Oedipus rather than the specific contents of an epic poem. Indeed, it seems equally likely that many of these details have in themselves been imported from later traditions, notably the tragic versions by Sophocles. [13] Suspicion falls on those motifs that emphasize Oedipus’ incest, his intellectual ability, or his later exile to Athens, if only because of their prominence in Sophocles’ material. In any case, the speedy ascension of his plays to canonical status makes disentangling later innovation from earlier epic representation highly problematic.
What we are left with are remains even more fragmentary than for the other Theban stories discussed in Chapters 1 and 2. The one fragment that is generally accepted as coming from an Oedipus epic seems to refer to the death of Haimon. [14] Another fragment purports to provide the Sphinx’s riddle, appearing in two near identical versions, one in the scholia to Euripides’ Phoenician Women 46, the other in Athenaeus’ Deipnosophists X 83 (attributed to the Greek historian Asclepiades). [15] This fragment, however, is almost universally considered not to be part of an original Oedipodea. From our perspective, while these fragments and the motifs identified above are suggestive of what ancient Oedipus epics might have contained, the evidence remains entirely inconclusive. Altogether, the remnants of an epic Oedipus give us relatively little to go on, unless we follow the lead of many scholars and assume that the stories dramatized in tragedy were also known to the poets weaving epic song. While this is hypothetically interesting—and may in fact be crucial in imagining a fifth-century BCE Athenian reception of an epic Oedipus—it does not provide us with a firm basis for interpreting Homer’s selection of detail. For that we need to turn to what is happening in the Odyssey and explore what Oedipus appears in the first place, how he is represented, and what potential ramifications there are for thinking about his story.

Oedipus of Many Pains

Nestor digresses and tells Menelaos how Epopeus was destroyed after debauching Lykourgos’ daughter along with the stories of Oedipus, the insanity of Herakles, and the tales concerning Theseus and Ariadne.
Proclus, Chrestomathia [16]
In his book on the Epic Cycle, Martin West considers this summary from Proclus’ Chrestomathia to be a likely scene from the lost Cypria (West 2013:99–100.). In making this point, he notes that Wilamowitz (1884:149) first recognized that the women alluded to in this passage were also those who appear in Odysseus’ description of the women in the underworld. West strains to find a connection between Oedipus’ story and that of Menelaos, but the general sense is clear: both accounts deliver warning of the dangers that can come from women, especially when journeys are involved. [17]
Nestor’s use of a list of women from myth to make a persuasive case to his addressee is interesting for a number of reasons. In general terms it offers a glimpse into how myth can be adapted to fit the aims of the speaker. It also features a list of relationships between women and men. More specifically pertinent to our inquiry, the example both illustrates a poetic strategy of appropriating and instrumentalizing prior tales for the purpose of the present, and features an attempt to make a connection between the stories of the Trojan War and those of Thebes. Oedipus, admittedly, does not seem an obvious or desirable comparandum for Odysseus if we take the former’s primary dramatic role on the Athenian tragic stage in isolation. His status as a hero of Thebes, however—perhaps, even, as a returning hero—along with his various relationships with women, actually make him an important counterpoint to the Odyssey’s Odysseus.
The story of Oedipus represents, as we mentioned above, a story within a story, in that it appears in the account that one character is delivering to another. As such, it provides for a particularly useful, albeit complex, exploration of the redeployment of mythical material within a poem especially interested in the power of storytelling. [18] Its interpretation is all the more challenging given the fact that the character narrating the tale is Odysseus, the man “of many wiles” (polumêtis, Odyssey 2.173; cf. 9.1), whose trickery and intelligence has already been headlined when he first takes the reins of his story (Odyssey 9.19). The reference to Oedipus, then, must be read with Odysseus’ broader rhetorical strategy in mind, [19] a strategy that has a very specific and immediate aim—to accomplish his homecoming. [20]
In fact, this Theban tale has the specific function of appealing to his Phaiakian hosts, as he takes a break from recounting how he arrived on Phaiakia having lost all of his men. This intermission takes the form of a tour of the dead, a scenario that already seems to have been an epic staple, if visual evidence is anything to go by. Indeed, the hero most famously associated with descending into, and successfully returning from, Hades is no other than Herakles, the one hero who, as we have seen, lives on after death. As we saw in the previous chapter, Odysseus is even recognized by Herakles (or, rather, by his eidolon), who not only “pities” Odysseus (ὀλυφυρόμενος), but expressly empathizes with him on the basis that their toils are similar (Odyssey 11.618–619). Coming from the hero whose underworld exploits represent the model for trips to Hades, this is praise indeed. [21]
If the recollection of Herakles’ arguably most famous labor, along with the sly nod towards the other hero, is suggestive of interpoetic agonistics, the Odyssey’s interview with the dead raises the stakes by being put in the mouth of its wily hero. By allowing his protagonist to take over the telling of the tale, Homer offers us a glimpse into the construction of poetic narrative. This becomes all the more charged when Odysseus responds to audience requests, as when the Phaiakian king, Alkinoos asks him to recount his meeting with the dead Trojan War heroes (Odyssey 11.370–376), and he duly obliges. [22] With the audience thus primed by the trailer to catch up on his former comrades-in-arms, Odysseus provides an account that reflects in various ways on his continuing epic endeavor and the story still under construction. Agamemnon’s appearance, for example, allows Odysseus to present an archetypical bad homecoming as a counter-model for his as yet unaccomplished nostos (Odyssey 11.406–464), and invites the audience to ask how he will avoid Agamemnon’s fate. [23] Meanwhile, his erstwhile epic rival, Achilles, turns out in the end to reject undying fame in favor of still being alive, his thoughts turned towards his father and son (Odyssey 11.474–538)—all concerns that very much match Odysseus’, all in stark opposition to the glorious Achilles of the Iliad. [24] Even the picture of a silent Ajax bearing his grudge to the grave serves to magnify Odysseus’ achievement, by demonstrating the magnanimity of the hero to let bygones be bygones (Odyssey 11.541–567). Odysseus’ choice of characters to catalogue and the way he represents them intimately reflects the concerns of his narrative.
Returning now to Odysseus’ Oedipus story (Odyssey 11.271–280, quoted and translated at the beginning of this chapter), we can observe the ways in which it engages in interpoetic agonistics through its manipulation of referential formulae, notably homing in on the idea of the suffering hero.
As we discussed in Chapter 2 on Herakles, pain and destruction are commonly associated with heroes in early Greek poetry and myth, who have the capacity to experience and dole out both in like measure. Where Achilles may be considered to be a hero who causes pain more than he suffers it, and Odysseus the reverse, both heroes are marked out for and to a certain extent defined by suffering. It should come as no surprise, then, that Oedipus should be related to Odysseus through this theme. But it is the traditional referentiality of the resonant phrases describing Oedipus as “suffering many pains” (ἄλγεα πάσχων, 11.275; ἄλγεα…πολλά, 11.279–280) that is noteworthy.
The motif of “suffering pains” is anticipated in the very opening lines of the poem (Odyssey 1.1–5):
ἄνδρα μοι ἔννεπε, Μοῦσα, πολύτροπον, ὃς μάλα πολλὰ
πλάγχθη, ἐπεὶ Τροίης ἱέρον πτολίεθρον ἕπερσε·
πολλῶν δ’ ἀνθρώπων ἴδεν ἄστεα καὶ νόον ἔγνω,
πολλὰ δ’ ὅ γ᾿ ἐν πόντῳ πάθεν ἄλγεα ὃν κατὰ θυμόν,
ἀρνύμενος ἥν τε ψυχὴν καὶ νόστον ἑταίρων.

Tell me, Muse, of the man of many ways, who many times
was driven back, after he had sacked the holy citadel of Troy.
He saw cities and knew the mind of many men,
and suffered many pains on the sea in his heart,
struggling for his life and the nostos of his companions.
This programmatic statement immediately establishes a matrix of associations between algea, the hero and the story to be told in the announcement (but not full disclosure) of this epic’s subject matter. [25] The narrator advertises Odysseus’ suffering of many pains in terms of the hero’s struggle for his life and for the homecoming of his companions. Significantly, the Iliad’s proem also puts a similar stress on “many pains,” centering this particular theme as a feature of epic narrative. [26] But important differences remain between the two epics. In the Iliad it is the hero’s destructive wrath that causes “countless pains” for the Achaeans (μυρί’ Ἀχαιοῖς ἄλγε’ ἔθηκε, Iliad 1.2), and sends many strong souls of heroes to their death (πολλὰς δ᾽ ἰφθίμους ψυχὰς Ἄϊδι προΐαψεν / ἡρώων, Iliad 1.3–4). [27] In this other poem, algea belong not to the hero as in the Odyssey, but to other men, and to death, not, as in the example of Odysseus, to surviving. [28]
The attribution of these “pains,” via Achilles’ wrath, to the will of Zeus (Iliad 1.5) provides an interpretative framework for thinking about the theme in the Iliad, which in turn helps to inform Odysseus’ decision to attribute algea to Oedipus. In the Iliad’s opening movement, Apollo sends a plague on the Achaean host, for the disrespect that Agamemnon showed his priest, a plague the narrator identifies as algea (Iliad 1.96 and 110). At the beginning of Book 2, as Zeus ponders how best to put his plan to honor Achilles into action, the false dream that he sends Agamemnon (which will have the ultimate effect of propelling the Achaeans into battle) is described as providing algea (Iliad 2.39). Later on in that battle Zeus, together with Poseidon, wreaks “bitter pains” on the fighting warriors, since he (Zeus) willed victory for the Trojans in honor of Achilles (Iliad 13.346). From these divine perspectives algea relate to destruction of the race of heroes who fought and died at Troy. [29] Relatedly, while both Achilles and Agamemnon recognize the pains that their striving has brought them, [30] underlying their quarrel are algea that go to the heart of the conflict itself. As we are introduced to Helen for the first time, the Trojan elders comment: “There’s no nemesis for suffering pains for such a length of time over someone so beautiful” (οὐ νέμεσις Τρῶας καὶ ἐϋκνήμιδας Ἀχαιοὺς / τοιῇδ’ ἀμφὶ γυναικὶ πολὺν χρόνον ἄλγεα πάσχειν, Iliad 3.156–157). The judgment by the Trojan elders of the pain brought to both sides has echoes of the Iliad’s proem. By relating this telling of the Troy story—with its focus on Achilles’ wrath—to the broader tradition, which presents Helen as a heaven-sent bane, they gesture towards the overarching cosmic framework, where the Trojan War serves to rid the earth of the race of heroes. [31]
The algea that issue from Achilles’ wrath, then, express an ever-shifting and ever-expanding web of connections, to which the characters themselves seem to be alert. [32] Menelaos, for example describes how grief comes to him since both sides have suffered on account of the quarrel between him and Paris (μάλιστα γὰρ ἄλγος ἱκάνει θυμὸν ἐμὸν, Iliad 3.97–98). More strikingly, in his rejection of the embassy in Book 9, Achilles returns to the theme of many pains introduced in the proem, but with an important gloss: he too has suffered many pains, by always risking his life in battle (ἐπεὶ πάθον ἄλγεα θυμῷ / αἰεὶ ἐμὴν ψυχὴν παραβαλλόμενος πολεμίζειν, Iliad 9.318–322). In providing this additional scope for “many pains” in the Iliad, Achilles is making a rhetorical claim of outstanding performance on the battlefield: he stresses the effort that he has made in order to magnify the insult Agamemnon showed him by taking his prize. [33] Nevertheless, the recurrence of algea here marks a striking reversal, even correction, of the proem, in which pains were identified as the object of his wrath: now, Achilles insists, it is he who suffers. [34] This is more in keeping with the suffering hero of the Odyssey’s proem than the Iliad’s depiction of a people suffering at the hands of Achilles [35] and, along with the comments by the other heroes, shows the increasing human focus of the Iliad’s narrative in contrast to the cosmic scope of its beginning. [36]
A final word on the subject belongs to the wife of the man whom Achilles slays. In her lament over Hektor’s body, Andromache makes it clear that her husband’s death “leaves behind grievous pains” (λελείψεται ἄλγεα λυγρά, 24.742) not only for her, but also for her family and city. [37] With these words Andromache extends the concept of algea from the painful striving of the hero to the suffering fate of those who are left behind and dependent on their men—the family unit and the wider political community more broadly. [38] This extension to include the family unit is, as we shall see, critical for the Odyssey’s repurposing of “many pains.” Furthermore, the idea of leaving behind pains to a loved one is explicitly picked up in our passage, but inverted: it is the wife, Epikastê, who leaves behind pains for the hero, Oedipus.
From this survey of the evidence for the phrase “many pains” in the Iliad, two broad conclusions may be reached. First, it appears that the phrase advertises epic subject matter par excellence: “suffering many pains” may be considered a defining feature of epic narrative insofar as it relates to Zeus’ plan to rid the world of the race of heroes and the human responses to that. [39] In its instrumentalized form, grief plays a critical role in that plan and is interwoven into the fabric of the story from beginning to end; but it also becomes a dominant theme of the characters’ reflections on the conduct of the war. Our second point follows from this last observation: the Iliad reveals an ever-broadening range of associations related to an ever-increasing human focus. Its narrative conceives of algea not only as pains for the heroes in war, as Zeus’ plan determines, and as many heroes, notably Achilles, articulate; it also presents algea as a disruption to both family and civic life. All three associations come together over the course of the Odyssey with a particular emphasis on those left behind and the survival of the hero.
Suffering pains is central to Odysseus’ characterization throughout his poem. In the mouth of the gods, it demonstrates once more the close association between the narrative’s subject matter and its structure. After the narrative’s opening salvo (Odyssey 1.4), Zeus puts pains on the agenda, associating them explicitly with men’s responsibility: by their own recklessness men win grief beyond what is fated (1.34). Athena, however, immediately qualifies Zeus’ complaints against men, by pointing out that Odysseus suffers grief unjustifiably (Odyssey 1.49–50). Five books later, Athena again raises the issue of Odysseus’ pains, using an exact replica of the line used of Philoctetes in the Iliad (2.721)—another rival suffering hero left behind (and forgotten) on a desert island (5.13). Its occurrence in the Odyssey, however, marks the end of Odysseus’ isolation and the start of his reintegration into the society of men. It marks too the start of the poem’s incorporation of his suffering into its narrative. [40]
Algea feature prominently at another crucial juncture later. When Odysseus first arrives back on Ithaca and meets with his guardian goddess, her words to him contain the following advice (Odyssey 13.307–310):
“…σὺ δὲ τετλάμεναι καὶ ἀνάγκῃ,
μηδέ τῳ ἐκφάσθαι μήτ᾿ ἀνδρῶν μήτε γυναικῶν,
πάντων, οὗνεκ᾿ ἄρ ᾿ ἦλθες ἀλώμενος, ἀλλὰ σιωπῇ
πάσχειν ἄλγεα πολλά βίας ὑποδέγμενος ἀνδρῶν.”

“You must by necessity endure,
and tell no one of all men and women
that you have come back wandering, but in silence
suffer many pains, accept the violence of men.”
Here, Athena instructs Odysseus not to let it be known that he has returned after his wanderings, but rather to suffer his pain in silence. By intimately, yet quite explicitly, connecting Odysseus’ many pains to his wandering, Athena recalls the opening lines, which had drawn the same association. In case we had thought that, because his wandering was at an end, so too was his suffering, this restatement of the Odyssey’s narrative purpose, roughly midway through the epic, draws attention to the importance of the one remaining obstacle facing Odysseus: that is, to the retaking of his home and household. Only then will our hero truly have achieved his nostos. Moreover, it indicates the manner in which the hero will make his nostos successful—by suffering in silence and biding his time. The same association is made when husband and wife first meet each other again, as Odysseus relates to Penelope the story of how he has wandered the cities of men suffering pains (19.170). [41] The fact that he tells this story in disguise demonstrates his willing implementation of Athena’s plan, even as his account of the stranger’s suffering ironically matches the narrator’s description of his many pains. Even (especially) in disguise Odysseus remains the suffering hero par excellence. In fact Odysseus is a master of testifying to his own suffering, both real and fabricated. In one of his first speeches he predicts that he will suffer greatly before his return home will be complete (5.302), [42] while his story to the Phaiakians, the very frame for his Oedipus story, is dominated by references to his suffering. [43] In many ways Odysseus’ story is defined by his willingness and capacity to endure pain.
Yet algea do not belong exclusively to Odysseus, and their growing inclusiveness becomes an important part of the story. When he finds out that Athena has let Telemachus go abroad, Odysseus asks whether she did so in order that his son too “would suffer pains while wandering over the barren sea” (ἦ ἵνα που καὶ κεῖνος ἀλώμενος ἄλγεα πάσχῃ / πόντον ἐπ’᾿ ἀτρύγετον, 13.418–419). In the imagination of his father, Telemachus will return to Ithaca as a comparable example of the suffering hero. [44] Just as going out in search of his father’s kleos plays an essential part of Telemachus’ epic maturation, so his experience of grief ensures his status as his father’s son. It is not only Telemachus who shares Odysseus’ pain. Earlier, when Odysseus first arrives back in human society and encounters a model, and rival, oikos, he has words of advice for its marriageable maiden, Nausikaa. He wishes not only that the gods may grant her a man and a house, but also that she may enjoy homophrosunê with her husband. [45] (The oikos itself is not sufficient.) He continues (Odyssey 6.182–185):
“οὐ μὲν γὰρ τοῦ γε κρεῖσσον καὶ ἄρειον,
ἢ ὅθ’ ὁμοφρονέοντε νοήμασιν οἶκον ἔχητον
ἀνὴρ ἠδὲ γυνή· πόλλ’ ἄλγεα δυσμενέεσσι,
χάρματα δ’ εὐμενέτῃσι· μάλιστα δέ τ᾿ ἔκλυον αὐτοί.”

“For nothing is better or stronger than this:
when two people who are likeminded in ideas keep a house,
a man and woman; many pains for their enemies,
a delight for their friends; but they are especially famous.”
Again, in Odysseus’ terms of reference, the proper “like-thinking” (homophrosunê) that a man and wife share means that in tandem they can give algea to others, rather than merely experience it themselves: critically, too, their fame derives from this ability. [46] The sentiment expressed here strikingly foreshadows the end of the Odyssey, where the like-mindedness of husband and wife allows Odysseus to be the agent of pains rather than just a victim.
Thus far we have seen not only that algea feature prominently in the Odyssey’s opening frame and narrative structure; they also has special resonance with Odysseus and his homecoming, particularly in Odysseus’ narrative about himself. One consequence of the depth and scope of Odysseus’ suffering is the possibility that the poem is positioning itself against the Iliad, or, at least, an Iliadic tradition focused on the fight for Troy. In this way, the Odyssey appropriates the language of suffering in war and particularizes it within the single example of Odysseus’ successful homecoming. In addition, by virtue of this move, the Odyssey presents a network of relations that appears to run deeper than that in the Iliad, where algea are largely connected with the Trojan War and the Achaeans’ suffering (especially Achilles’). By way of contrast, in the Odyssey the thematization of suffering is extended to the family beyond the individual hero. [47]
An additional point has particular significance for thinking about Odysseus’ Theban story. Suffering in the Odyssey also relates to rival families and broken homes. On this issue the interplay of algea resonates with the Odyssey’s focus on generational continuity, in which Odysseus’ family excels—a single male inheritance line extends from Laertes through Odysseus to Telemachus. [48] Over the course of its narrative, the Odyssey juxtaposes the success of Odysseus’ line with that of his fellow warriors at Troy, whether Agamemnon, Achilles or even Nestor. [49] The brief comparison to the House of Laius serves a similar purpose. In contrast to the perfect House of Laertes (grandfather-father-son) is the twisted House of Laius, where generational continuity and patrilineal inheritance have become all confused. [50]
By attributing many pains to Oedipus, therefore, Odysseus draws upon the same type of thematic rivalry through the manipulation and (re)deployment of traditional referentiality that his narrator uses to define the Odyssey’s world against the Iliad’s. By granting Oedipus “many pains,” Odysseus marks him out as a potential rival in suffering to his own claim for epic greatness. Of course it comes as no surprise to say that Oedipus’ claim hardly stands up to scrutiny; even the structure of the passage, which separates of the adjective πολλά from its noun, ἄλγεα—a separation emphasized by enjambment (τῶ δ’ ἄλγεα κάλλιπ’ ὀπίσσω / πολλὰ μάλ’)—suggests that the attribution of “many” to “pains” comes almost as an afterthought. More telling is the implicit thematic comparison. In the Odyssey algea resonates with a network of associations with Odysseus and his family, where the comparison to Oedipus could be felt to be particularly charged: Oedipus, the hero who notably does not enjoy sound relations with his nearest and dearest, experiences pains because of his wife/mother and not during an attempt to reunite his family. In this way Odysseus comes off best in their match-up: both figures suffer, but it is Odysseus who suffers (more) for all the right reasons. In addition, by mobilizing his suffering in song and inserting himself for comparison into the canon of heroes, Odysseus will secure passage home and thereby complete his besting of Oedipus. Hence, it is paramount that Oedipus is introduced through his wife and mother, Epikastê, whose “great deed” begins the tale. To better understand her role in the passage, we must first take a more detailed look at Odysseus’ catalogue of women and reflect on the importance of form.

A Theban Catalogue of Women

The Odyssey’s underworld scene, which depicts the shadowy afterlife of a long cast list and includes cameo appearances by the other Achaean heroes from Troy, is already enough to suggest the poem’s rumination on fame and fortune, as well as its capacity to immortalize through epic song. In these terms, Odysseus’ narration of the underworld furnishes him with the opportunity to confer his own fame and determine the place of his story in relation to other poetic traditions. Through his interview of former comrades, Odysseus positions his epic tale in and against the Iliadic tradition (if not our Iliad); his reference to the Oedipus story has a similar aim with regard to the traditions surrounding Thebes. But his assault on Thebes is more sustained and more deep-seated than a fleeting mention of a single hero. Odysseus also provides a list of women famous for being the wives or mothers of a range of heroes. Odysseus’ continued marginalization of Thebes is not only configured to diminish the content of the Theban traditions; it also represents that content in a form particularly associated with Homer’s epic rival Hesiod, the poet from Theban Boeotia: the catalogue.
In our introduction we discussed the essential complementarity of Homer and Hesiod. [51] There we explained how these two poets and their poems were enshrined as part of a Panhellenic tradition that was reinforced through performance at public festivals and private symposia, as well as more explicit pedagogic instruction of various kinds. [52] One likely reason for their widespread dissemination, we suggested, relates to how together they chart the history of the cosmos from its origins (a world of gods) to the present day (a world of men), a history in which the Iliad and Odyssey tell the story (however allusively) of the death of the race of heroes. Another aspect of this movement, which is of critical importance here, is the foundation of a political structure embedded within and reliant upon institutions where previously genealogy had held sway. For example, where Zeus achieves cosmic order in the Theogony by using his seed to populate the world with heroes, in the Homeric poems order becomes associated with the foundation and realization of institutional practices, which are not only manifest in public forms like the assembly and council or in social bonds like philia, xenia, and supplication, but also, importantly, are not dependent on individual heroes. [53] Indeed, one key idea of the Homeric poems is the foundation of institutions and practices that will survive long after the race of heroes has been annihilated from the earth, which will provide the people with the security that the heroes promise (in epic formulae like “shepherd of the people”) but consistently fail to deliver. [54] In the Works and Days, Hesiod reproduces one of those institutional practices—the pursuit of justice—in the very structure of his poem, by representing a case to an addressee (his brother Perses) with an audience of kings as judges.
On the subject of poetic form: despite the extent to which the Hesiodic and Homeric traditions appear to form a constructive symbiotic relationship in mapping out the history of the cosmos, there are also critical distinctions between them, most clearly in respect to this idea of structure. Where Hesiodic narrative is macrocosmic in scale, Homeric epic operates on the microcosmic; similarly, where Hesiodic narrative is diegetic, Homeric tends more to the mimetic. [55] There are also differences in performative persona: the Hesiodic voice is often more personal and uses biography as part of its authoritative stance. [56] Significantly, this difference in poetic form is intimately bound up with the evolution in political form that we sketched out above. As the heroic epic poem that marks the decisive destruction of the race of heroes (in that it depicts a “world war”), the Iliad is intensely interested in the foundation of institutions—institutions like the assembly (agora) and council (boulê), which will be left behind in their wake. Of particular significance, here, is the Iliad’s mimetic representation of these institutions. The assembly (especially) and (to a lesser extent) the council are constructed in an agonistic form that structures debate and emphasizes dissent from authority. Responding to these scenes—trying to interpret and understand them, to find a position between the positions articulated—is similarly open-ended. [57] To put it directly: representations of the assembly reproduce debate; or: poetic form is critical for the realization of the political structure. In contrast a cosmogonic poem like the Theogony uses a different poetic form to capture the political structures so important to its organization of action (and of the cosmos). This is the genealogical catalogue.
Just as Homer’s representation of the assembly is agonistic, so the catalogue is at once both poetic and political in form. In the emerging Greek polities, genealogical catalogues were important vehicles for aristocratic groups to communicate and (re)assert their dominance, while also establishing relationships between individual regions and their Panhellenic identities. [58] At the same time, the use of such poetic forms to express and enforce power runs contrary to the growing importance of the city in helping to shape political participation among the population at large. [59] The interplay between local authoritative genealogies and larger Panhellenic identities was complex and moved in multiple directions (as we will discuss in Chapter 6), but one eventual outcome was the limitation of individual claims to preeminence in favor of city-ethnic and larger Greek identities. [60] Even in a local context, then, genealogies were essentially conceived of as backward looking, deriving their force and authority in the present precisely by evoking and reproducing associations with (and in) the past.
A good example of an early Greek poem that occupies a somewhat ambiguous middle ground between these two kinds of poetic traditions and political structures is the Catalogue of Women. From what we can tell from its fragmentary remains this Hesiodic poem functioned alongside (and along with) Homeric epic to represent the end of the race of heroes. [61] It also exhibits elements and themes that are familiar from the Iliad, in particular the idea of strife (which we will discuss in the following two chapters below). [62] Yet in both orientation and form this poem is very different from the Iliad. It interweaves the grand Panhellenic Trojan War narrative with more local, epichoric features, structured along lines of familial and ethnic descent. Moreover, it does so through a complex form that uses a regular formula—ehoiai “or such as”—to introduce a new heroine (and the next story) within a broader genealogical superstructure, which brings a degree of order to these individual stories. [63]
The most famous of these women is Helen, whose entry within the broader genealogical frame introduces another (kind of) catalogue: this additional catalogue within her catalogue entry lists the Achaean heroes who vied with each other to win her hand in marriage. [64] One of these heroes is no other than Odysseus. Even though Odysseus is most famous to us—because of Homer—as the father who returns home to his son and the husband who resists the charms of various women for his wife, the Hesiodic Catalogue nevertheless identifies him as one of Helen’s suitors (fr. 198 MW = 154C Most, 2–9):
ἐκ δ’ ᾿Ιθάκης ἐμνᾶτο Ὀδυσσῆος ἱερὴ ἴς,
υἱὸς Λαέρταο πολύκροτα μήδεα εἰδώς.
δῶρα μὲν οὔ ποτ’ ἔπεμπε τανισφύρου εἵνεκα κούρης·
ἤιδεε γὰρ κατὰ θυμὸν ὅτι ξανθὸς Μενέλαος
νικήσει, κτήνωι γὰρ Ἀχαιῶν φέρτατος ἦεν·
ἀγγελίην δ’ αἰεὶ Λακεδαίμονάδε προΐαλλεν
Κάστορί θ̣’ ἱπποδάμ̣ω̣ι̣ καὶ ἀεθλοφόρωι Πολυδεύκει.

From Ithaca the sacred force of Odysseus came to woo,
The son of Laertes who knows manifold-made plans.
He did not ever send any gifts for the thin-ankled girl,
For he knew in his heart that fair Menelaos would conquer,
For he was the mightiest of Achaeans in wealth.
But he sent messages to Sparta, always,
To horse-taming Kastor and prize-winning Polydeukes.
There are features of these lines consistent with what we might consider a Homeric Odysseus: this is a clever man, described with a poly-compound (πολύκροτα μήδεα), who understands that the nature of the competition for Helen is rigged in another’s favor (Menelaos’ wealth), and so contrives another way to appeal to the girl (by corresponding with her brothers). The periphrasis used to describe him (“sacred force of Odysseus”, Ὀδυσσῆος ἱερὴ ἴς) may also recall the repeated formula for his son Telemachus (e.g “sacred force of Telemachus,” ἱερὴ ἲς Τηλεμάχοιο, Odyssey 16.476), just as the formula for Menalaos, the “mightiest of the Achaeans” (Ἀχαιῶν φέρτατος) echoes the description of his brother in the Iliad (7.289). But this is a wholly Hesiodic setting in which Odysseus, the son of Laertes, is immediately marked out as being a suitor of Helen, whereas in the Homeric tradition Odysseus is famed for being Telemachus’ father and the hero who returns home to slaughter the suitors of his wife. [65] The periphrasis “sacred force of Odysseus” (Ὀδυσσῆος ἱερὴ ἴς) may even hint at the special fecundity of his loins, on which, of course, the Odyssey is silent (if knowing, in its depiction of Odysseus’ extra-marital affairs) though other narratives were apparently less circumspect. The rest of the Catalogue of Helen’s suitors serves as a roll call for the Achaeans who went to fight at Troy, and provides the reason for that war: they swore oaths of fealty to whosoever would win Helen’s hand. [66]
The story of this catalogued Odysseus, then, is severely limited, an entry within a larger narrative frame and one looking back to his genealogy. As Benjamin Sammons has argued, the catalogue is a device well suited to developing a “historical background to the epic world in which the narrative plays out.” [67] Returning to the Odyssey’s catalogue of women, we can observe Odysseus participating in this process, doing the work of a poet in selecting, organizing, and presenting the souls of all the women he saw. [68] These women, moreover, are all mentioned in relation to a celebrated hero known to us from tradition, a legendary father, husband, or son. If, as Sammons puts it, the Hesiodic Catalogue of Women attempts to create a “comprehensive vision of mythological history,” [69] Homer’s Odysseus edits that history down and updates it to include himself. But—and this is not a point that should be lost—his self is not yet in the underworld where the other metonyms for these traditions reside. He is very much still in the land of the living, in the guise of the poet telling the tale.
While Odysseus’ narrative is a showpiece of the very malleability of myth and narrative, [70] it also engages in intertraditional rivalry not only through its content, which we will explore shortly, but also in its catalogue structure. We have just seen the extent to which Hesiod is associated with catalogue poetry: indeed, one reason why the Ehoiai has traditionally been assigned to Hesiod is precisely because of the long series of women who form the basis of the poem. Furthermore, as we noted, the Ehoiai uses a genealogical superstructure, which provides the poem with its teleological drive for explaining, and justifying, the current social organization, even if the use of the “or such as” formula at the same time suggests an uncomfortable multiplicity of directions that the story or genealogy might take. [71] In these terms Odysseus’ use of the catalogue form represents something of a Hesiodic poetic stance. [72] That appropriation can be felt more strongly if one considers the fact that nearly all the women he catalogues are of Theban or Minyan ancestry. [73] At the same time, while this catalogue is, again, essentially genealogical—in the sense that Odysseus identifies the heroes born to these women—the lemmata themselves are not genealogically linked: only Tyro and Chloris are related, and even then only indirectly. That is to say, where genealogy provides the Ehoiai with a teleological structure (even if it is disrupted by the “or such as” formula), Odysseus’ catalogue lacks a genealogical structure of any kind. With genealogy not providing a structure to the catalogue, it leaves open the question what is the principle of selection at stake. Why these women, why this order, remains something of a conundrum. [74]
Arguably, it is Odysseus himself who provides one answer, in the sense that it is through his eyewitness testimony (“I saw,” ἴδον) that he orders the women. While not really resolving the issue—it does not explain the order in which Odysseus sees the women; that remains seemingly arbitrary or, at least, Odysseus’ audience is not privy to it—this answer does have the virtue of drawing attention to the importance of Odysseus as a poet in the role of a Hesiod or, even better, an anti-Hesiod. As the poet-hero, he inserts himself into the catalogue, indeed in the two prime positions: he recounts his heartfelt meeting with his mother (or rather her shade) before we even know that he will be recounting a catalogue; directly after the catalogue, Herakles, renowned for his survival after death, compares Odysseus’ suffering to his own (as we saw above). Thus Odysseus starts this genealogical history and brings it to a conclusion. His second move is to relegate the catalogue to the world of the dead. As we noted above, catalogues function by drawing a link between present and past. Indeed, they derive their present power precisely from their past associations. [75] In this case, however, there are no such associations: the figures whom Odysseus cites are all (long since) dead and buried; their influence on even the present day of the Odyssey is crucially limited and marginal. There is only one hero whose past still links to the present: that is Odysseus himself, the hero currently singing about his past to help shape and prepare for his future (on Ithaca). Odysseus stands alone as the hero with a genealogy to be sung. [76] Odysseus: first and last and always.
The direct appeal of Odysseus’ genealogical catalogue relates to the immediate performance context of the Phaiakian court, in which he is singing for his nostos. While his interpoetic agonistics are perhaps most evident in his staged bonhomie with his fellow Trojan War veterans, through the use of the catalogue of women Odysseus seems to have his sights firmly on the queen, Arete. [77] Indeed, we can imagine that Alkinoos’ insistence on hearing about Odysseus’ Trojan War colleagues is a result of his frustration at having to sit through a list of women whose relevance seems only tangential to the present story [78] —a judgment that in itself continues the Odyssey’s marginalization of these other mythical figures and stories. The reason for targeting Arete relates to the instructions with which both Nausikaa and Athena have coached the hero: both identify the queen as being critical to his success in expediting a homecoming (Odyssey 6.304–315). Odysseus’ choice of a genealogical narrative may even relate specifically to Arete, who herself was introduced by means of a genealogical catalogue. Either way, Odysseus’ tactic works and the payoff is immediate. After delivering his catalogue of women, Arete calls for the leading Phaiakian men to give him gifts (Odyssey 11.335–341). The Phaiakian queen, at any rate, has been entirely won over by Odysseus’ account of famous women. [79]
There remains the question: why does Odysseus list these women in these ways? [80] If his goal is solely to win the support of the Phaiakians, we might expect his stories to privilege Poseidon, or at the very least not to conclude with the story of Eriphyle, who was responsible for the death of her husband, Amphiaraus. [81] Instead, the significance of the women seems to relate to their role as mothers, daughters, wives and mistresses. That is to say, the catalogue has an explicit genealogical focus, where what matters is to draw clear lines of filiation by which a male audience would have asserted its traditions, heritage, and even territorial claims. Yet there may be more to it than that. Given the immanent agonistic poetics of a dialogue with the dead and of the catalogue form itself, it is perhaps no surprise that Odysseus’ catalogue of women is the episode most densely populated with Theban references in the entire Homeric corpus, [82] as Odysseus appropriates both form and content from the genealogical traditions early audiences would likely have associated with Hesiod. In addition to the high percentage of Theban women (Antiope, Alkmênê, Megare, Epikastê, Eriphyle), the catalogue also incorporates women and material from other major areas of the early Greek world—Thessaly, Pylos, Sparta, Crete, and Athens. [83] In this way Odysseus sets about creating an authorized Panhellenic narrative, [84] exerting control over local content in the manner of a Hesiodic poet to establish the hero as the necessary conclusion of the historical past expressed within the catalogue.
The Theban material, moreover, seems to have an additional charge. Among the heroines of the past Odysseus meets in Hades is Antiope, the mother of Amphion and Zethus, the founders of Thebes (Odyssey 11.260–265):
τὴν δὲ μέτ’ Ἀντιόπην ἴδον, Ἀσωποῖο θύγατρα,
ἣ δὴ καὶ Διὸς εὔχετ’ ἐν ἀγκοίνῃσιν ἰαῦσαι,
καί ῥ’ ἔτεκεν δύο παῖδ’, Ἀμφίονά τε Ζῆθόν τε,
οἳ πρῶτοι Θήβης ἕδος ἔκτισαν ἑπταπύλοιο
πύργωσάν τ’, ἐπεὶ οὐ μὲν ἀπύργωτόν γ’ ἐδύναντο
ναιέμεν εὐρύχορον Θήβην, κρατερώ περ ἐόντε.

After her I saw Antiope, who was the daughter
of Asopos, who claimed she had also lain in the embraces
of Zeus, and borne two sons to him, Amphion and Zethus.
These first established the foundations of seven-gated
Thebes, and built the towers, since without towers they could not have lived,
for all their strength, in Thebes of the wide spaces. (trans. after Lattimore)
The foundation of Thebes was a particularly vexed issue for ancient mythographers. [85] As well as Amphion and Zethus, who are here presented as the first figures to found (ἔκτισαν) Thebes, there is Cadmus, who apparently founded the city on the basis of an oracle from Delphi. While Homeric epic acknowledges the importance of Cadmus in the Iliad’s naming of the Thebans as Cadmeans (Καδμεῖοι) and in the presentation of his daughter Ino-Leucothea in the Odyssey as a goddess, Odysseus here privileges the Amphion-Zethus narrative as the foundation story, implicitly placing the story of Cadmus later. The reason comes down to walls (again) and the implicit comparison between Thebes and Troy (again). Odysseus presents Amphion and Zethus as the founders of Thebes on the basis that they encircled the city with walls and towers (πύργωσαν), [86] where city foundation is equated with wall building. [87] The same correspondence between wall building and city founding is also found in the Iliad, where Poseidon describes how he and Apollo built the Trojan wall and thus made Troy into a polis (πολίσσαμεν, Iliad 7.453). The differences between these walls are powerful, as we discussed in the Introduction: those of Amphion and Zethus are replaced, while Troy’s walls become a vehicle for the generation of kleos for the gods who founded them, the men who died around them, and the hero who found a way to get through them—no other, of course, than Odysseus the “city-sacker.”
Clearly, then, the Odyssey interacts with the Theban material in a different way than the Iliad. [88] In the Iliad the references to the story of Tydeus were intricately linked to the immediate context. Agamemnon and Athena used a Theban story as a way to chide Diomedes on to performing greater (individual) deeds in battle. Diomedes himself later refers to his father in a prayer to Athena (using her past with Tydeus to win her support), and recalled his father’s life when arguing that he too can give good advice in the assembly. In the Odyssey, on the other hand, the Theban tales are one tradition among the many that make up Odysseus’ Apologoi. That is to say, the Theban material does not hold a special position in the broad spectrum of traditions that have been embedded in this epic. Unlike Tydeus’ story in the Iliad it is neither repeated nor does it have the same (explicit) rhetorical, paradigmatic function. By weaving this colorful tapestry of epic stories Odysseus shows to his audience that he is in command of the entire oeuvre of oral epic. His knowledge is not limited to one kind of story but ranges over, and rummages through, traditions of varying geographic provenance and scope.
Odysseus stands as a performer on his own, appropriating stories from rival traditions and instrumentalizing them to serve his own ends. The hero-cum-poet is not just challenging Hesiodic and Theban themes in order to achieve his nostos; he is also reworking those themes to construct the world of home. The geographical references to Thebes and other epic centers of the past (including Athens) create a Hellenic fulcrum around which Homer uses Odysseus to create a new master narrative that places his hero and his universe at its epicenter. Specifically, he uses both Hesiodic form and Theban content to create a catalogue that helps pave the way for the one journey that is still ongoing and not yet complete, his own nostos (story). In doing so, he establishes a personal poetic voice that places itself as the necessary conclusion of the historical past expressed within the catalogue. Consigned to the past are heroes like Oedipus, introduced and framed via his Epikastê; how her role as both mother and wife of Oedipus functions within a genealogical catalogue is the subject of our penultimate section.

A Great Deed

In our analysis of the traditional referentiality of Oedipus’ “many pains,” we highlighted a meaningful connection between Homeric poetry’s conceptualization of the kind of story that is worthy of epic song and the theme of suffering which the protagonist both inflicts and experiences in equal measure. The scope and meaning of the formula subtly changes according to the story-at-large. In Achilles’ tale, algea are at once the motivation behind his behavior and the consequence of his rage: as his story unwinds, he cannot escape the pains that he has inflicted on his people and he comes to acknowledge his responsibility even for the suffering of an enemy. In the Odyssey, algea relate to the obstacles to a homecoming (suffering, wandering etc.), on the one hand, and yet, on the other, these are also the very means by which homecoming will be achieved and be worthy of epic song.
There is, then, a changing emphasis in the traditional referentiality of the phrase “many pains” depending upon the interests of the story-frame. Another formulaic unit from Odysseus’ Oedipus tale that exhibits a similar pattern of slippage and transformation in early Greek poetry is Epikastê’s “great deed” (11.271–274):
“μητέρα τ’ Οἰδιπόδοα ἴδον, καλὴν Ἐπικάστην,
ἣ μέγα ἔργον ἔρεξεν ἀϊδρείῃσι νόοιο
γημαμένη ᾧ υἷϊ· ὁ δ’ ὃν πατέρ’ ἐξεναρίξας
γῆμεν·”

“And I saw the mother of Oedipus, fair Epikastê,
who unwittingly did a great deed
by marrying her own son; he, after killing his own father, married her.”
In this section we explore how Odysseus’ deployment of the phrase “a great deed” markedly differs from its usage elsewhere in Homeric poetry, which in turn sheds light on what Odysseus is doing with his Oedipus tale.
The first and most obvious usage of mega ergon in Homeric poetry is to denote some kind of exceptional deed. This meaning accounts for the vast majority of cases in the Iliad, though only once is it used in this positive sense in the Odyssey—and then in the Iliadic battle narrative of Odyssey Book 22. [89] A survey of the Iliad supplies three further categories, all of which relate to the idea of exceptionality. At Iliad 7.444 the phrase explains why the gods are watching the war, because men are performing deeds worthy of note. [90] Twice mega ergon describes a deed that can no longer be performed by anyone nowadays (Iliad 5.303 and 20.286), as if denoting its specific province as the generation of the past, the race of heroes. Examples in character-speech preserve this sense: combatants use mega ergon to denote martial accomplishments of an outstanding nature, which are viewed by the characters themselves in positive light. [91] Hektor, for example, ultimately stands to face Achilles in the hope that he might accomplish “some great deed” (mega ti) and achieve eternal fame (Iliad 22.304–305.). In the Iliad’s world the exceptional deed is almost unambiguously positive as the subject and guarantor of eternal fame, and worthy of epic song.
In the Odyssey, with the exception of its occurrence in that Iliadic battle-scene which we have already noted, a less positive meaning accrues to the phrase. Its first instance sets the tone for the “big deed” in the Odyssey. Nestor, relating Agamemnon’s disastrous homecoming to Telemachus, twice uses the phrase to characterize Aegisthus’ plot against Agamemnon, and in particular his seduction of Clytemnestra (Odyssey 3.261 and 275). From this point on it becomes a description not only from which the characters distance themselves, but also over which the supporters and enemies of Odysseus do battle. Most conspicuous is Odysseus’ use of the phrase to describe his companions’ slaughter of the cattle of the Sun (Odyssey 12.373), or when he sees the suitors arming with the help of Melanthius (Odyssey 22.149); Penelope also uses it of the suitors, because of their behavior towards the beggar (Odysseus: Odyssey 18.221). In turn the suitors deploy the phrase when bemoaning Telemachus’ odyssey (Odyssey 4.663; 16.346). The battle-lines are clearly drawn over the “big deed” in the last pairing in the epic. Eupeithes straight-out accuses Odysseus of having devised a μέγα ἔργον (here: “a monstrous act,” 24.426) against the Achaeans, whom Odysseus either led to Troy and destroyed (ἀπὸ δ᾽ ὤλεσε λαούς, 428) or else killed on his return. In response Halitherses condemns the suitors of having wrought a μέγα ἔργον by acting with “evil recklessness” (ἀτασθαλίῃσι κακῇσι, 24.458). Halitherses’ condemnation of the suitors in these terms resonates with the poem’s opening statement, which frames Odysseus’ companions as having lost their homecoming “by their own recklessness” (σφετέρῃσιν ἀτασθαλίῃσιν, 1.7). A “big deed” is nothing to celebrate in this poem. [92]
Acting as an index for a change of values in heroic poetry, μέγα ἔργον marks the transition as the Iliad’s world of heroes gives way to the Odyssey’s world of mortals. In the Iliad it performs the role of commemorating extraordinary deeds in battle (however much those deeds may themselves be tinged with loss and regret). In the Odyssey, whose narrative eschews uncomplicated confrontations in war, it becomes clear that the mega ergon has the potential to threaten homecoming, if not deny it altogether. For the Odyssey, mega ergon means big trouble: it implies that such striving after doing a “big thing,” rather than helping men to achieve fame, amounts to overreaching, what early Greek poetry elsewhere would call hubris. [93] Such big acts were for a time before; they should now be viewed with suspicion. [94]
Therefore, when Odysseus attributes a mega ergon to Epikastê, this is no cause for praise. In fact he goes on to gloss it as having been committed “in the ignorance of her mind” (ἀϊδρείῃσι νόοιο). The phrase is a hapax in Homer, which makes us pause to reflect on how we are to understand Epikastê’s “big deed.” Elsewhere the root aïdr- indicates an ethical judgment, specifically the idea that an action has been foolish. Significantly, forms of ἀϊδρείη occur on three further occasions in Odysseus’ song to the Phaiakians. Odysseus has his most alert companion, Eurylochus, twice use it to describe how all the other men follow Circe “in their ignorance.” [95] Odysseus also uses it to reflect on the consequences of unwittingly falling into the clutches of the Sirens: he who in ignorance sails his ship too close to them and hears their song does not get home to his wife and child. [96] Again, in the context of post-martial epic poetry, such foolishness may have a direct link to overreaching. In the Works and Days Hesiod criticizes men who go to sea in the spring as foolish: their love of money leads directly to evil and death. [97]
Implicit in the ascription of ignorance to Epikastê, the companions, and the man who sails too close to the Sirens, is the contrast to the teller of the tales, Odysseus. This man is wily, clever, and pointedly not unknowing: he is the “man who knew the minds of men” (πολλῶν δ’ ἀνθρώπων ἴδεν ἄστεα καὶ νόον ἔγνω, Odyssey 1.3). In the Iliad Odysseus is described as a man who seemed to know nothing (ἀΐδρεϊ φωτὶ ἐοικώς, Iliad 3.219), until he spoke, that is. [98] The criterion of knowledge is, in fact, one element that distinguishes Odysseus absolutely from Oedipus, at least in Homer. On the one hand, the ignorance is not even Oedipus’ to own (and correct): he remains secondary in this curtailed account, a far cry from the tragic hero who rigorously prosecutes the investigation into his ignorance to its bitter end. [99] On the other, this concern about knowledge—specifically knowing one’s parents—points to an immanent theme of the Odyssey, headlined from the start and a constant source of anxiety throughout. At the beginning of the Odyssey Telemachus famously declares that “no one ever knows his own father” (οὐ γὰρ πώ τις ἑὸν γόνον αὐτὸς ἀνέγνω, Odyssey 1.216). A major symbol of his maturation is to be recognized as his father’s son, which is what happens in his interviews with Nestor, Menelaos, and Helen (Odyssey Books 3 and 4). At the critical moment when he comes face to face with his father, he fails to recognize him and receives a stern paternal rebuke—no other father will return for him, Odysseus announces (Odyssey 16.204). Finally, at the point when he—of all the pretenders to his father’s throne—is about to string the bow, he desists at the behest of his father’s nod (Odyssey 21.124–129). In Chapter 2 we suggested that in the Iliad the shadow of Herakles haunts Achilles at every turn; in the Odyssey it is Telemachus who is stalked by the figure of Oedipus, the single son who didn’t know his father and ends up killing him. It is perhaps no coincidence that evidence from one of the fragmentary alternative Odysseus nostos stories duly presents a Telemachus who kills his returning father in ignorance of who he was, in the fulfillment of the Odyssean Oedipal nightmare. [100]
It is not only Odysseus who is wily and clever: his wife, Penelope, is too, and she also figures significantly in this Oedipus complex. We have already discussed in the previous section the importance of Odysseus’ focus on women in this part of his storytelling endeavor, as he directs his appeal specifically to the Phaiakian queen, Arete. At the same time, the emphasis on female characters also has resonance for the external audience, who at various times are subject to Agamemnon’s misogynistic rants against his wife, Clytemnestra, Helen’s strange (and dangerously seductive) stories about her role in the fall of Troy, and, during the Apologoi, the strong presence of the Phaiakian queen and various other powerful females (from the witch Circe to the monstrous pair, Scylla and Charybdis). In a curious way the Odyssey presents its own catalogue of women as part of its narrative arc, starting with the goddess Kalypso, who promises Odysseus immortality, and ending with his wife, Penelope, for whom Odysseus rejects Kalypso’s offer and to whom he returns home. Each entry in this list along the way contributes to the epic’s depiction of women, concerns about familial relationships between the genders, the proper organization of home and household, and, above all, genealogical continuity. [101]
In the brief description of Epikastê, several themes are deployed that resonate with the characterization of Penelope. Both are ignorant of their husbands’ whereabouts; both have a maturing, and suffering, son; both perform a “great deed.” Penelope’s is her weaving and unweaving of the death shroud for Laertes, narrated for the first time by Antinoos (2.93–106):
ἡ δὲ δόλον τόνδ’ ἄλλον ἐνὶ φρεσὶ μερμήριξε·
στησαμένη μέγαν ἱστὸν ἐνὶ μεγάροισιν ὕφαινε,
λεπτὸν καὶ περίμετρον· ἄφαρ δ’ ἡμῖν μετέειπε·
κοῦροι, ἐμοὶ μνηστῆρες, ἐπεὶ θάνε δῖος Ὀδυσσεύς,
μίμνετ’ ἐπειγόμενοι τὸν ἐμὸν γάμον, εἰς ὅ κε φᾶρος
ἐκτελέσω, μή μοι μεταμώνια νήματ’ ὄληται,
Λαέρτῃ ἥρωϊ ταφήϊον, εἰς ὅτε κέν μιν
μοῖρ’ ὀλοὴ καθέλῃσι τανηλεγέος θανάτοιο,
μή τίς μοι κατὰ δῆμον Ἀχαιϊάδων νεμεσήσῃ,
αἴ κεν ἄτερ σπείρου κεῖται πολλὰ κτεατίσσας.
ὣς ἔφαθ’, ἡμῖν δ’ αὖτ’ ἐπεπείθετο θυμὸς ἀγήνωρ.
ἔνθα καὶ ἠματίη μὲν ὑφαίνεσκεν μέγαν ἱστόν,
νύκτας δ’ ἀλλύεσκεν, ἐπὴν δαΐδας παραθεῖτο.
ὣς τρίετες μὲν ἔληθε δόλῳ καὶ ἔπειθεν Ἀχαιούς·
ἀλλ’ ὅτε τέτρατον ἦλθεν ἔτος καὶ ἐπήλυθον ὧραι,
καὶ τότε δή τις ἔειπε γυναικῶν, ἣ σάφα ᾔδη,
καὶ τήν γ’ ἀλλύουσαν ἐφεύρομεν ἀγλαὸν ἱστόν.
ὣς τὸ μὲν ἐξετέλεσσε καὶ οὐκ ἐθέλουσ’, ὑπ’ ἀνάγκης·

“And she was devising this different trick in her thoughts:
She was weaving on the great loom she set up in her home,
A work of fine and very long threads. Then she announced to us:
“Young men, my suitors, since shining Odysseus has died
Wait here pursuing my hand in marriage until I complete
This garment, that my weaving might not be pointless,
A shroud for the hero Laertes, for when the ruinous fate
Of dreadful death comes over him,
And then no one of the Achaean women among the people
May criticize me if this man of great wealth lies without covering.”
So she spoke and each of our proud hearts was persuaded.
And thereafter she was weaving on the great loom each day
But by night she set out torches and took it apart.
She tricked us this way for three years—she persuaded the Achaeans!
But when the fourth year came and the seasons were passing by,
One of the women who knew the matter clearly, informed us.
Then we discovered her unweaving the shining cloth by night.
So we made her, even though she was unwilling, finish it, under force.”
The importance of this moment is underlined by the fact that it is recounted a further two times, each time from a different perspective. [102] We have already noted that Homer avoids calling Penelope’s great deed by its name; yet there remains a tantalizing thread that ties Penelope’s weaving to the deed of Oedipus’ mother/wife. When Odysseus describes Epikastê’s “great deed” (μέγα ἔργον), he first correlates it with her ignorance (ἀϊδρείῃσι νόοιο) and then hints darkly at the deed itself using the chiastic repetition of two verbal forms for the term “to marry”: she did a great deed in the ignorance of her mind “by marrying her son; for, after slaying his father, he married her” (γημαμένη ᾧ υἷϊ· ὁ δ’ ὃν πατέρ’ ἐξεναρίξας / γῆμεν). In this earlier episode, while Antinoos does not use the phrase “great deed” (μέγα ἔργον), he does use the metrically equivalent (and similar sounding) μέγαν ἱστόν, meaning the “great work” of the web the means by which Penelope accomplishes her great deed. Given their familiarity with the widespread use and traditional referentiality of the phrase “great deed” in the Homeric corpus, an audience might hear a distant echo of Penelope’s μέγαν ἱστόν in Epikastê’s μέγα ἔργον. In addition, while Epikastê (precipitously) entered into marriage with her son (her μέγα ἔργον) in ignorance, by means of her μέγαν ἱστόν Penelope has been successfully deferring her own marriage to a suitor for years. The fact that she has achieved this deferral by means of her intelligence—an intelligence that, moreover, mirrors her “like-minded” husband’s—also shows her difference from the unknowing Epikastê. Effectively cast as a figure far surpassing Epikastê, Penelope knows who her son is; commits a great deed through intelligence rather than without it; and acts, even if briefly, as an agent winning positive fame of her own.
Thus Odysseus’ description of Oedipus and Epikastê has resonance in the poem far beyond his own self-aggrandizement, and importantly so. For Odysseus to achieve a proper homecoming, not only does he need to get home to his family; they—his wife and son—need to be part of it. Telemachus and Penelope have critical roles to play. In his fleeting representation of an Oedipus story, Odysseus provides a glimpse of the counter-model from the tradition, where the roles of father, son, and mother are hopelessly, and horrendously, mixed up.

Much-loved Thebes

We learn very little about Oedipus and his pains in the Odyssey, and what we do learn contrasts negatively with the example provided by Odysseus. Unlike Odysseus, whose wandering is implicit in the narrative and explicit in his own statements, [103] Oedipus’ suffering comes not from wandering but from his overdetermined familial relations with his mother/wife. Such a relationship represents an inversion of what happens in Odysseus’ tales, where suffering precedes nostos and punishment is for those who prevent it. In spite of the resonant phrase “he suffered many pains,” Oedipus does not turn out to be that much of a suffering hero—at least not in comparison to Odysseus (or, for that matter, the suffering Achaeans of the Iliadic tradition). From the perspective of Epikastê’s “big deed,” too, Oedipus does not display the same exceptionality in action that other heroes achieve elsewhere in the Homeric corpus. Instead his heroic career is framed indefinitely by the actions of his wife/mother. Upon learning of her “big deed”—taking her son as her husband—Epikastê takes her own life and descends into Hades, leaving Oedipus to live out his suffering alone and yet also to continue to rule over Thebes (Odyssey 11.276).
Being left to rule on in Thebes is indicative of Oedipus’ passivity in this episode and again suggests a careful delineation of his suffering, as if the death of Epikastê had no impact on his subsequent life or leadership of the city. Interestingly, the basis for Oedipus ruling on is ascribed to the “the baleful plans of the gods” (θεῶν ὀλοὰς διὰ βουλάς, Odyssey 11.276). Elsewhere in early Greek hexameter poetry the planning of the gods is connected to the generation of epic narrative. This process is most transparent when the poet invokes the muse at the beginning of the Iliad and Odyssey; but Zeus’ planning—or, better, plotting—is also prominent at the beginning of both Homeric epics, implicit in the phrase “and the will/plan of Zeus was being accomplished” (which fr. 1 of the Cypria also headlines) and explicit in the Odyssey where Zeus himself sets the agenda for the epic (with Athena’s help). [104] In response to the actions of another rival figure, the hero Aegisthus, Zeus straightaway pronounces that mortals are always blaming the gods for their ills “when in fact they themselves suffer pain beyond their lot because of their own recklessness!” (Odyssey 1.32–34). [105] Athena, however, immediately contests the extent to which this opening declaration applies to Odysseus, and Zeus readily demurs. With this divine support, and in particular through the planning of Athena, Odysseus will bring destruction to his enemies. Thus it comes to pass that Odysseus is presently recounting a narrative of his suffering—a clear indication if there ever was one that he now enjoys the gods’ full, if not unanimous, support. Here Odysseus’ ascription of plans to unnamed gods may reflect his status as a human narrator (without privileged access to Olympus), or else a plurality that suggests no single narrative line. Either way, the description of their plans as baleful, destructive, critically defines Oedipus’ rule in Thebes: whatever we might think about the detail that he continues to lead the city, in spite of everything, it is not to be considered a good thing. Where Odysseus suffers for his epic, there is no positive gloss to be put on the (vastly inferior) suffering of Oedipus.
While Oedipus rules on indefinitely, Epikastê’s “great deed” of marrying her son is made known to men immediately (ἄφαρ δ; ἀνάπυστα θεοὶ θέσαν ἀνθρώποισιν, 11.274). Again, we are invited to draw a comparison with Odysseus’ own situation and narrative. The adverb “immediately” (ἄφαρ) contrasts with the gradual unwinding of (this) epic narrative, a process that is exemplified by the Odyssey’s concealment of the “man” of the story for a full five books and by Odysseus’ deferred disclosure of his name in the Phaiakian narrative. [106] The use of the adjective “notorious” (ἀνάπυστα) with the unspecified divine agency further underlines the disjunction between the two scenarios. Odysseus is not only the subject of epic fame, in these books he is actively performing it. Even as he refers to Oedipus’ story, by describing Epikastê’s deed as notorious, he deprives his rival of the kind of vocabulary that would endow him with the fame worthy of a hero. [107] Still more striking is the identity of the group to whom the gods make known Oedipus’ calamity. Where one may have expected a name for Oedipus’ immediate group, such as his “people” (laos) or “townspeople” (astoi), both of whom, one might think, the gods ought to have told about Oedipus, Odysseus uses the word “humankind” (anthrōpoi). As this translation suggests, the nomenclature of anthrōpoi frequently occurs in generalized expressions: for our purposes two instances are particularly telling. In the Iliad Helen uses this label as she comments on her place within the poetic tradition (Iliad 6.388). Odysseus himself uses the term at the beginning of his tale to the Phaiakians to assert that he is the subject of song among all folk because of his trickery (ὃς πᾶσι δόλοισιν / ἀνθρώποισι μέλω, Odyssey 9.19–20). Odysseus’ identification of this group as the recipients of the gods’ revelation, then, slyly gestures towards the broadcast of his rival’s narrative tradition, even as the Odyssey silences it.
Throughout this chapter we have been tracing the traditional referentiality of the language that Odysseus uses to describe Oedipus’ suffering and Epikastê’s infamous deed, with the aim of teasing out the implications for thinking about Odysseus’ self-representation as the hero whose song is in performance. In this last section we turned to consider Odysseus’ broader description of Oedipus’ story in the framework of divine plotting and revelation. We close by reflecting on Odysseus’ description of Thebes itself as πολυήρατος (“much-loved”).
Elsewhere in the Odyssey (it has no occurrences in the Iliad) πολυήρατος is best translated as “much-loved” or “very lovely.” Helen gives Telemachus a gift for his “much-loved” wedding (Odyssey 15.126); Eumaios talks about arriving at “much-loved” youth (Odyssey 15.366); Odysseus looks forward with Penelope to going to their “much-loved” bed (Odyssey 23.354). [108] In the present context, however, the epithet “much-loved” or “very lovely” hardly seems appropriate to denote the Thebes of Oedipus and Epikastê. [109] In describing Thebes as πολυήρατος Odysseus is, at face value, possibly toying with what is conventionally known of Thebes as the place where bad stuff happens.
Odysseus’ choice of words caused a scholiast to the Odyssey so much anxiety that he sought to clarify the sense of the word and find an alternative etymology (Σ Odyssey 11.275 Dindorf):
πολυηράτῳ] πολλὰς ἀρὰς καὶ βλάβας ὑπομεινάσῃ παρὰ θεῶν. B. Q. V. οὐ γὰρ ἐρασμίῳ· ὅπως ἂν ᾖ τῷ ὑποκειμένῳ ἀκόλουθον. V.
much-cursed] in that Thebes experienced many injuries and curses from the gods. In whatever way it is consistent with its subject [Thebes], it does not mean “lovely.”
According to the scholiast, πολυήρατος is better understood to mean “much cursed.” [110] While the scholiast would appear to be importing knowledge of the Theban tradition into his explanation, the adjective is, as Justin Arft has explained, “morphologically ambiguous enough to suggest forms of ἀράομαι and ἐράω.” [111] Moreover, the apparent contradiction potentially “alerts us to a clever, layered association exploited by Odysseus,” where the hero utilizes precisely the ambiguity in the epithet. [112] Given Epikastê’s “great deed” of sleeping with her son, Thebes may indeed deserve an epithet that indicates its loveliness: its ruling family is much loved, excessively so, as the son marries his mother and begets his own brothers and sisters. [113] The “associations of both eros-heavy and cursed” [114] within the epithet πολυηράτος points to a family that could not be further removed from the perfect single male-line genealogy of the Odyssey. Moreover, as Odysseus puts it, while Oedipus ruled on in “much-loved Thebes,” his mother/wife descended into Hades (ἀλλ᾿ ὁ μὲν ἐν Θήβῃ πολυηράτῳ... / ἡ δ’ ἔβη εἰς Ἀΐδαο πυλάρταο, 11.227–228). [115] The metrical and syntactical correspondence between the two lines and two epithets πολυηράτῳ and πυλάρταο creates a jingling effect that underlines the relations between the two events. Epikastê has to die because her son-husband rules on. (Or does Oedipus have to continue to rule Thebes because his mother-wife is dead?) In contrast, Penelope and Telemachus wait in Ithaca for their husband and father (respectively) to return from his meeting with the souls of the dead.
The explosive charge of πολυήρατος as vacillating between much-loved and much-cursed creates aftershocks through the entire catalogue. [116] As Justin Arft has shown, the adjective πολυήρατος also aligns with an intratextual network of curse-associations. Odysseus himself occupies this ambiguous space as the one who is πολυάρητος, “much prayed for.” Nausikaa introduces Odysseus in these terms at the beginning of the episode on Phaiakia (Odyssey 6.280). Later, in the famous digression on Odysseus’ scar, he is described in the exact same terms by Autolykos (Odyssey 19.404). Yet, as the name given to him by his maternal grandfather suggests—Odysseus as the one who both suffers and causes suffering—he is also “much cursed” (Odyssey 19.407–409). The same suggestion is borne by the name Arete, which is not only associated with beseeching, praying, or even silence, but also implies being “accursed.” [117]
With this in mind it is worthwhile reconsidering Odysseus’ special appeal to Arete, for whose benefit the catalogue of women, and this Oedipal story, is being narrated. Take, for example, the final woman in the catalogue, who also comes from Thebes: “hateful Eriphyle” (στυγερήν τ’ Ἐριφύλην, Odyssey 11.326). [118] As the heroine with the only negative epithet in the catalogue, [119] the appearance of Eriphyle both contrasts to the previous entries (e.g. καλήν τ’ Ἀριάδνην, Odyssey 11.321), and prompts scrutiny of what it is that she has done which might warrant such a description. This appears to be her betrayal of Amphiaraus and her matricide at the hands of Alcmaon. While the theme of the treacherous wife resonates broadly with the actions of Clytemnestra, the adjective στυγερήν phraseologically aligns the heroine more specifically with Clytemnestra’s “baneful song” (στυγερὴ δέ τ’ ἀοιδή, Odyssey 24.200) and recalls that woman’s description as a “baneful mother” (μητρός τε στυγερῆς, Odyssey 3.310), even if the poem remains silent on the matricide itself. [120] In fact, the suppression of Clytemnestra’s matricide represents an important recalibration of the specific nostos theme of the threat of the deceitful wife at home waiting for the returning hero. The omission not only, of course, renders Orestes a more suitable model for Telemachus, as a dutiful son who resists his father’s usurper(s) (and not the son who kills his mother); it limits Clytemnestra’s role to that of husband-destroyer, a destroyer of nostos, and not as a victim of matricide. [121] Heard against this background, Odysseus’ parting shot at the “hateful Eriphyle,” the matricide, threatens to expose the logic of his catalogue—which has been precisely about ordering women—and (re)open up the fissures within this nostos narrative, where there is an uncertainty, even anxiety, about what kind of a woman Arete (and Penelope?) will turn out to be.
The critical moment is marked by the silence that greets Odysseus’ account, that very special kind of audience response that signifies the withholding of consent, familiar from scenes in the Iliad. [122] But, where in the Iliad stunned silence represents a breakdown in communication, here it signifies its inverse, a kind of excess of communication where the audience are held in awe of—or spellbound by—what they have heard. Or, at least, this is how Arete interprets it, as she describes how Odysseus’ song has held them in thrall. [123] Regarding this woman, then, Odysseus need have no concerns: addressing the assembly Arete quashes any lingering doubts that the hero will not make it back home and urges her fellow Phaiakians to shower him with the guest-gifts appropriate for a returning Trojan War hero.
And yet, at the same time, precisely by playing the role of Odysseus’ “hoped-for prayer” she brings down a great curse on her city and people. It will be as a direct result of the help that the Phaiakians give Odysseus that Poseidon will hide them away forevermore and after. Odysseus himself is entangled in the very language of this curse. Upon his arrival on Skheria, he is likened to a firebrand (δαλόν, Odyssey 5.488), as he buries himself (καλύψατο, Odyssey 5.491) in the ground, and covers his head (ἀμφικαλύψας, Odyssey 5.493). This passage resonates strongly not only with the prophesied destruction of the city (μέγα δ’ ἡμῖν ὄρος πόλει ἀ̓μφικαλύψειν, Odyssey 8.571), but also with Demodokos’ song about the Trojan horse—wherein the city was fated to be destroyed “whenever it concealed” the horse (αἶσα γὰρ ἦν ἀπολέσθαι, ἐπὴν πόλις ἀ̓μφικαλύψῃ δουράτεον μέγαν ἵππον..., Odyssey 8.510–511)—a story not only requested by and featuring Odysseus, but one that serves to introduce him to his Phaiakian guests. Arete’s connection to the destruction of the city and her eventual gift-giving aligns her with elements of Eriphyle’s tale. These associations reinforce the danger both Odysseus and Arete represent for the Phaiakians.

Conclusion

Thus far in this book we have been working with the hypothesis that Thebes and Troy may have been equally important mythscapes for archaic Greek poetry. While we have lost much of the Theban tradition, a multitude of instances where Homer appears to be including details from Theban tales in his poems remains. Rather than viewing such moments as faithful representations out of which one can reconstruct a Theban epic, we have tried to show the value of examining such intersections through the prism of poetic rivalry to shed light on the narrative strategies of the Homeric poems. This work has been grounded in oral-formulaic theory, which, we have suggested, is better attuned to listening out for the deployment of resonant themes and issues than our more familiar literary paradigms.
In this chapter we have used such an approach to explore the ways in which Odysseus constructs a version of Oedipus as a comparandum for his own epic deeds. By focusing on the poetics of suffering, we have shown that not only is the accumulation of pain a significant feature of a hero’s story, but that suffering acquires context-specific value. In the Iliad it is connected to martial achievement and the tragedy of Achilles’ fame. In the Odyssey it becomes the very thing that makes Odysseus’ nostos possible (as well as worth remembering). An analysis of Epikastê’s mega ergon confirms the extent to which Odysseus manipulates both the details of the Oedipal tale and the diction of epic poetry itself to magnify his own status. In Odysseus’ tale his suffering becomes the very standard against which all songs should be measured: suffering takes on moral meaning and functions as part of the ethical thrust of the Odyssey as a whole. This final analysis, we believe, is valuable because it points to Odysseus’ attempts to suppress, edit, or otherwise manipulate other poetic traditions in the service of his tale. Such a strategy, we believe, is akin to that which heroic epic poets would have taken when struggling in their effort to make their song of many pains the most bewitching and orderly.
At the level of narrative structure, the Odyssey tradition seems to be trivializing the Oedipus tale by subordinating it within the account of Odysseus’ greater sufferings. At the microcosmic level of narrative dynamics, we see Odysseus manipulating the tale to match his: he appropriates a traditional tale (and narrative device—the catalogue form) and tells it in a persuasive way to convince Arete and Alkinoos to help bring an end to his algea. At this point Odysseus is also suffering many pains, but, by getting home, he will ultimately endure and inflict suffering on others—namely the suitors currently eating him out of house and home. Indeed, this very story will help him achieve that end. [124] Furthermore, the Oedipus story carries with it the implicit counter-model of an imperfect homecoming, as Odysseus articulates the fear that Penelope will sleep with a stranger—as she does, apparently, in alternative traditions. In the Odyssey’s very carefully delineated storyworld the lesson is clear: look what happens when you do. Yes, Odysseus will come back as a stranger; but beneath the disguise lies the legitimate king and—more importantly—the legitimate husband who will reclaim both his throne and his wife and be reunited with his son.
Singers in traditional situations do not slavishly repeat the songs they have heard; they manipulate the tensions inherent in a system of repetition and iteration to perform new songs that sound old. From the use of a single word to the abridgment or alteration of other tales, the oral poet challenges himself and his audience by reinterpreting their collective inheritance. We are reasonably confident that this is what Odysseus is doing when he sings of Oedipus’ pains. What the passage of time and the poetic strategies themselves have obscured for us, however, is how deeply Homer has done the same.
The rest of this book turns to ponder this question more fully. Whereas these first three chapters of our book have concentrated on episodes in the two Homeric epics where Theban heroes are referenced, and explored how they are represented to serve the needs of the poem in performance, the next two chapters turn the analysis back to what seem to have been the dominant themes of a Theban tradition—the idea of strife and the unequal distribution of spoils. Using a close reading of both the Hesiodic poems and the Theban epic fragments, we show how the Homeric poems appropriate major thematic ideas from their rival traditions and redeploy them in the telling of their Troy stories—the anger of godlike Achilles and the return home of the man Odysseus.

Footnotes

[ back ] 1. Many sections of this chapter draw on work originally published in Barker and Christensen 2008.
[ back ] 2. See Scholia V to Odyssey 11.271 ex. 1–20. For brief comments on Homer’s use of this scene, see Fowler 2013:404–405.
[ back ] 3. See Eustathius Commentary on Homer’s Odyssey I 413.12–414.29. Wyatt 1996 too suggests that Oedipus’ blinding was unknown to Homer and originated in a misreading of the account in the Odyssey. See also Davies 2014.
[ back ] 4. E.g. Heubeck and Hoekstra 1989:93–94: “The description of Epikastê, wife of Laius, and mother of Oedipus, is the oldest identifiable version of the Oedipus legend, and contains all the central elements of the story…” Then they discuss the self-blinding, children between the two, and voluntary exile—all famous from myth but absent from this version.
[ back ] 5. For overviews of the Oedipus myth, see Apollodorus III 49–56; cf. Hyginus 66–67. For how most mythographers follow Sophocles and Euripides, and the other variants: Gantz 1993:491–500. On the early mythographers: Fowler 2013:402–408.
[ back ] 6. For Oedipus myth on the Athenian stage: Zeitlin 1986.
[ back ] 7. See Cingano 1992 for an attempt to harmonize the accounts of Hesiod (Works and Days 161–165), Homer (Iliad 23.677–680), and Pherecydes regarding the death of Oedipus. Whereas Cingano is concerned with differences in accounts, our methodology points to the relevance, as a feature of poetic rivalry, of the Homeric narrative’s reference to Oedipus’ games. The imagery could not be clearer, as if the past represented by Oedipus’ games is not up to the task of being compared to Patroklos’.
[ back ] 8. See Bernabé 1996:19–20 and Davies 1988:20–21 for the single testimonium and fragment.
[ back ] 9. The encounter between Oedipus and the Sphinx becomes a popular motif in art in the mid-fifth century BCE: LIMC s.v. Oidipous IV.10–88. An earlier version (c. 530 BCE) may show the confrontation: Gantz 1993:495. Oedipus’ struggle with the Sphinx does not definitively appear prior to Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes and the lost satyr-play Sphinx associated with it, although Hesiod lists the Sphinx as a danger to Thebes (Theogony 326–327): Gantz 1993:494–495.
[ back ] 10. For a discussion of the inadequacy of doing so: Davies 2014:4–7. For the contents of this epic: Cingano 2014.
[ back ] 11. For the Chrysippos tradition, see Gantz 1993:488–489: the earliest sure appearance was in Euripides’ Chrysippos (which Gantz is willing to entertain as a Euripidean invention); cf. the alternate tradition of Atreus and Thyestes killing their half-brother. For the two different tales: Fowler 2013:432–433.
[ back ] 12. For Oedipus’ four wives (Epikastê, Iokasta, Asymedousa, and Euryganeia) see Fowler 2013:403–404.
[ back ] 13. See Davies 2014:7–17 for this summary and an extensive discussion of the scholarship.
[ back ] 14. “But still, the most noble and loveliest of all / The dear child of blameless Kreion, shining Haimon” (ἀλλ’ ἔτι κάλλιστόν τε καὶ ἱμεροέστατον ἄλλων / παῖδα φίλον Κρείοντος ἀμύμονος, Αἵμονα δῖον, fr. 1).
[ back ] 15. See Davies 2014:10–12; Edmunds 1981:32. For a discussion of the riddle: Gantz 1993:496.
[ back ] 16. Νέστωρ δὲ ἐν παρεκβάσει διηγεῖται αὐτῷ ὡς ᾿Επωπεὺς φθείρας τὴν Λυκούργου θυγατέρα ἐξεπορθήθη, καὶ τὰ περὶ Οἰδίπουν καὶ τὴν ῾Ηρακλέους μανίαν καὶ τὰ περὶ Θησέα καὶ ᾿Αριάδνην.
[ back ] 17. Proclus Chrestomathia 114–117 and Commentary on Plato’s Alcibiades 214.3–6. See also Hainsworth 1993:285 and Lardinois 2000:649. For these tales, see Chapter 2, n19, above.
[ back ] 18. See Stewart 1976:146–195 for an extensive treatment of the epic’s interest in poetic creation. Cf. Pucci 1987:209–213; Segal 1994:113–141; Saïd 2011:125–132.
[ back ] 19. On Odysseus’ “apologia”, see: Frame 1978:34–73; Most 1989; Parry 1994; Olson 1995:43–64; Richardson 1996; de Jong 2001:149–51.
[ back ] 20. Odysseus’ ability as a storyteller is especially prodigious. The fact that he can interrupt his own tales implies a command over his audience: Rabel 2002. For differences between storytelling in the Iliad and the Odyssey: Minchin 2001:205–206.
[ back ] 21. Currie 2006:22n102 reads this interaction in terms of allusion between texts: “The Odyssey confronts an earlier lost *Herakleïs at Odyssey 11.601–26, and an earlier lost *Catalogue of Women at Odyssey 11.225–332.” See also Danek 1998:231: “Odysseus shows himself...as a hero who could potentially be brought into contact with every heroic story known to the listener, and our Odyssey presents itself as an epic which could potentially take up the material of all known epics and thus ultimately replace all other epics” (Currie’s translation).
[ back ] 22. We should not overlook Alkinoos’ praise in this section. Alkinoos notes that, while there are many men on the earth who fashion lies (ψεύδεά τ᾿ ἀρτύνοντας, 11.366), Odysseus is graced by the “shape of epea”: themselves (σοὶ δ’ ἔπι μὲν μορφὴ ἐπέων, 367) and records a tale as skillfully as a bard (μῦθον δ’ ὡς ὅτ᾿ ἀοιδὸς ἐπισταμένως κατέλεξας, 368). The narrator of the Odyssey, however, provides a caveat for such compliments: not only does Odysseus lie elsewhere in the epic; after he has told one of his Cretan lies to Penelope, the narrator declares that “he knew many lies similar to the truth” (ἴσκε ψεύδεα πολλὰ λέγων ἐτύμοισιν ὁμοῖα, 19.203). Odysseus as aoidos walks the same line as Hesiod’s Muses from the Theogony who “know how to speak many things that are similar to the truth, and know how to utter true things when [they] want to: (ἴδμεν ψεύδεα πολλὰ λέγειν ἐτύμοισιν ὁμοῖα / ἴδμεν δ’ εὖτ᾿ ἐθέλωμεν ἀληθέα γηρύσασθαι, 27–8). For Odysseus’ lies: Haft 1984; Emlyn-Jones 1986; Minchin 2007:269–270; and most recently Newton 2015. For the accord between Hesiod and Odysseus: Nagy 1992:36–82.
[ back ] 23. On Agamemnon’s nostos as a counter-model, see Olson 1990; Katz 1991:29–53; Felson-Rubin 1994:95–107.
[ back ] 24. To a point. When contemplating his fateful choice—whether to live a long life without glory or else a short one with it—he opts for the former, only first to remain at Troy, compelled by his comrades’ appeals, and then to fight, because of his best friend’s death. Once resigned to death, Achilles thinks of his father in his own old age: Iliad 34.507, 534–542. On the Iliadic Achilles being ambushed by the Odyssey: A. Edwards 1985.
[ back ] 25. The historical semantics of algea indicates suffering inflicted on others: Meissner 2006:117–118.
[ back ] 26. In examining wounds in the Iliad, Holmes 2007 comments upon the thematic importance of algea: a “complex, multi-layered engagement with suffering also inaugurates a tradition of questioning whether those twin pleasantries, undying kleos and Helen, justified their costs” (81).
[ back ] 27. For the theme of Achilles’ wrath in the Iliad and in archaic Greek poetry in general: Muellner 1996.
[ back ] 28. Who suffers and how they suffer is not as we might have imagined: Achaeans, not Trojans, suffer many pains as the result of Achilles’ rage; they do not receive glory in recompense for their suffering, rather their souls are sent to Hades. This dynamic is part of the double-edged nature of the hero who suffers and causes suffering: Cook 1999.
[ back ] 29. Similarly, when Agamemnon attempts a binding oath, he begs algea from the gods if he breaks it (19.264). For the gods assigning pains, cf. Hesiod Works and Days 741 and Theognis 1187–90. Rijksbaron 1992 notes that didômi is used frequently for gods bestowing algea on mortals whereas the verb tithêmi is used when humans impose them. Cf. Holmes 2007:50.
[ back ] 30. Forced to reconsider his position by the turbulent events of the second assembly, Agamemnon acknowledges that Zeus “has given him pains” (ἀλλά μοι αἰγίοχος Κρονίδης Ζεὺς ἄλγε ᾿ ἔδωκεν, Iliad 2.375) by making him fight with Achilles. Achilles himself, when later describing the conflict from his perspective, uses the same language of pain: his loss of Briseis causes him algea (Iliad 16.55).
[ back ] 31. The proem of the Cypria explicitly connects its narrative to the annihilation of heroes through the resonant phrase “and the will of Zeus was being accomplished.” See n39 below. On Helen and the dios boulê: Mayer 1996.
[ back ] 32. Gods suffer algea too: Hera suffers thanks to Herakles (Iliad 5.394); Zeus intervenes to put a stop to Ares’ pains (5.895). Achilles’ horses feel algea at Iliad 18.224. Hephaestus suffered because of Hera but was rescued by Athena (18.395–397); Thetis claims her share of suffering on account of her mortal son (18.429–430).
[ back ] 33. For other correlations between algea, martial toil and death, see Iliad 13.670, 17.375, and 21.585.
[ back ] 34. The Iliad’s narrative also dismisses rival claimants for the title of most suffering hero. In the Catalogue of Ships the phrase “suffering pains” (ἄλγεα πάσχων) occurs twice in the same end-line position as in our example of Oedipus’ pains—the only two examples of this formula in the Iliad, where it serves to mark out two rival heroes, Tlepolemus (Iliad 2.667) and Philoctetes (2.721). The formula occurs a further six times in the Odyssey (including its use in relation to Oedipus): on each occasion it occurs in character-text (Odyssey 4.372; 5.13, 362; 15.232; 19.170), with the exception of a metaphor at Odyssey 5.295.
[ back ] 35. The names of both Achilles and Odysseus may have thematic connection with grief. Achilles, whose name has been etymologized as “woe for the host” may have an essential connection to causing pain: Nagy 1999 [1979]:69–71. Odysseus, whose name has been related to odusasthai may be “hated” because of his tricks or he may be hated by the gods and thus suffer, depending on the interpretation of his name: Stanford 1952; Kanavou 2015: 90–101. For wordplay on Odysseus’ name, including grief and dus-compounds: Louden 1995: 34–37. For etymology and inscriptional evidence: Wachter 2001:265–268.
[ back ] 36. Cf. Graziosi and Haubold 2005.
[ back ] 37. Andromache’s lament is similar to a partial line from Hesiod’s Works and Days (τὰ δὲ λείψεται ἄλγεα λυγρὰ / θνητοῖς ἀνθρώποισι, 200–201), where it is Shame and Nemesis (Αἰδὼς καὶ Νέμεσις, 200) who bring pains to the Race of Iron for their misdemeanours. Penelope also notes that pains have been left behind for her (Odyssey 19.330).
[ back ] 38. Cf. Priam’s plea for Hektor to avoid Achilles (Iliad 22.53–54). Also of importance is the exchange on algea between Achilles and Priam in Book 24. Before he arrives at Achilles’ dwelling, Priam ascribes his pains to Zeus (Iliad 24.241); Achilles asks Priam to set his grief aside (24.522) and warns him not to cause him more pains (24.568).
[ back ] 39. In the Iliad Zeus’ plan is explicitly connected to causing pain for the Achaeans (and Trojans) in the wake of Achilles’ absence from battle, through the god’s lying dream to Agamemnon, which has the result of intensifying the conflict (Iliad 2.39). Even so, the presence in line 1.7 of the formulaic line “and the will of Zeus was being accomplished” means that Zeus’ plan also potentially encompasses the entire narrative of the Iliad, including the initial quarrel that provokes Achilles’ wrath in the first place. For an analysis of the polysemy of Zeus’ will, see Clay 1999. For the imperfect tense as emphasizing the incompletion of the plan, see Lynn-George 1988:38. On the dios boulê in the wider tradition, in particular the proem of the Cypria and the annihilation of the race of Heroes: Mayer 1996 (esp. for Helen); Murnaghan 1997; Marks 2002; Barker 2008.
[ back ] 40. Odyssey 17.142. For other narrative assessments of Odysseus’ suffering, see Odyssey 2.343, 5.83, 5.157. 5.336, 5.395, 13.90, 14.32, and 16.19. On the Odyssey’s re-start: Segal 1994:124.
[ back ] 41. The arrival home after suffering grief becomes a dominant trope throughout the epic: Athena figures herself in such a fashion (Odyssey 3.232); Peisistratus gnomically reflects on the suffering a son of an absent father experiences (Odyssey 4.164). Suffering remains paramount in descriptions of tales that precede the story-time of the Odyssey: Nestor describes the continued suffering of the Achaeans (3.220); cf. Achilles’ comments at 24.27, or Menelaos’ description of his own (4.373).
[ back ] 42. Cf. Odyssey 5.362, 7.212, 8.182, and 19.483.
[ back ] 43. See Odyssey 9.75, 9.121, 10.142, 10.458, 12.427. Odysseus headlines suffering as the dominant theme of his lying tales (see 13.263, 14.310, 15.345, 15.487, and 19.170). Figures whom Odysseus sees in the underworld are ordered by their suffering: both Tantalus and Sisyphus are defined by their eternal torment (11.582 and 593).
[ back ] 44. The same line is used later when Odysseus finally meets his son (16.189 = 13.310). These are truly the father and son who have both suffered many pains.
[ back ] 45. Bolmarcich 2001 suggests that Odysseus’ words here point to a Penelope who closely resembles him.
[ back ] 46. Odysseus also shares his algea with his family. His continued absence and suffering yields grief that becomes definitive for his wife Penelope (see Odyssey 4.722) and his son Telemachus (see 2.41, 2.193, 17.13). When he meets Telemachus for the first time and announces his identity, Odysseus triangulates his identity with his son’s suffering: he is the father on whose account Telemachus has suffered greatly (16.189). This shared trait extends to members of his household: Eumaios requests that both of them take a break from their sorrows (15.400–401); at 19.471 Odysseus’ nurse experiences grief; the cowherd Philoitios describes his grief at 20.203 and 221. Not surprisingly, it is in part the refusal to accept grief as important that sets the suitors apart from Odysseus and his family: Antinoos trivializes the grief of the cowherd (21.88).
[ back ] 47. It should be noted, however, that Andromache’s pain, articulated at the end of the Iliad, goes some way to anticipating this association, and arguably marks the Iliad’s response to its rival tradition.
[ back ] 48. See Goldhill 2010, who discusses the fragility of Odysseus’ genealogical line through the use of mounos in the speech of Telemachus in Odyssey 16. Cf. Chapter 1 n59 above.
[ back ] 49. Nestor also provides a counter-example to the success of Odysseus’ line: his thoughts are still fixed on the son he lost at Troy, Antilochus (Odyssey 3.111–112).
[ back ] 50. Slatkin 2005:323 suggests that the other poetic traditions (e.g. “Telegony”) showed Odysseus pursuing his other options and, crucially, having offspring. While Odysseus’ only rival in stringing the bow emerges as his own son, the Odyssey “does not pursue the implications of such a rivalry” (326).
[ back ] 51. See Koning 2010 for the association between Homer and Hesiod in modern scholarship (35–39) and in antiquity (41–55). On the complementarity of the pairing in the Contest of Homer and Hesiod: Koning 2010:42, 256; cf. Graziosi and Haubold 2005:31. There are frequent attempts to date the two. Janko 2012 argues that cases of archaism diminish from Homer to Hesiod: from the Iliad and Odyssey to the Catalogue of Women, Theogony, and Works and Days. West 2012:240 has the following order: Hesiod (Theogony, Works and Days) c. 670; Iliad, c. 650; Hymn to Aphrodite, c. 625; Odyssey, c. 610; Hymn to Demeter, c. 580; Catalogue, c. 540. On the dating of the catalogue to the mid-sixth century: Ormand 2014:3–4. West 1985:130–137 argues for between 580 and 520; Janko 1982:87 suggests sometime as early as the ninth or eighth centuries BCE.
[ back ] 52. See Graziosi 2010:111–113; Koning 2010 passim. Cf. Plato, Republic 377c.
[ back ] 53. Slatkin 2011:161: “Much as the idea of succession linked with cosmic order is not spelled out in the Iliad but fundamentally underlies it, similarly, I suggest, the answer to the question of Odyssean δίκη is to be found in reading the Odyssey in light of the concept of δίκη as presented in the Works and Days.”
[ back ] 54. See Chapter 5 below. Cf. Haubold 2000, Chapter 1.
[ back ] 55. See the Introduction (“Why Thebes?”) for Hesiod as macrocosmic and Homer as microcosmic; cf. Slatkin 2011. Koning 2010:116–117 discusses ancient distinctions between: Homer as dramatic and mimetic, Hesiod as diegetic; Homer as tragic, Hesiod as not; and so on.
[ back ] 56. Specificity of biography is part of the Hesiodic tradition: Koning 2010:130–132. See Edwards 2004:1–7 for a bibliographical survey and discussion of the historical circumstances reflected in Hesiod’s Works and Days, and pp. 19–25 for a discussion of the relationship between the poet, the poetic persona, literary verisimilitude, and the historicity (or “familiar reality,” 25) of the Works and Days.
[ back ] 57. Barker 2004; Barker 2009, Chapter 1. See also Chapter 5 below. On the intimate, and productive, dynamic between poetic form (in a text) and political structures (outside it), see now Levine 2005.
[ back ] 58. Fowler 1998:1–5 argues that genealogies are used by those in power to communicate and assert their dominance. According to Ormand 2014:36–37, Hesiod resides on both sides of the ideological divide. Rose 2012:180–186 considers the Works and Days to be anti-aristocratic. Clay 2003 prefers to see the two Hesiodic poems as providing complementary perspectives on the world from the Olympian and mortal vantage points.
[ back ] 59. Ormand 2014:15: early political-poetic discourse shows a progression towards the authority of the polis over individual wealthy men.
[ back ] 60. For political aims of the Catalogue see the lengthy discussion by Irwin 2005; more uncertain is D’Alessio 2005:217.
[ back ] 61. On the Catalogue and the destruction of the race of heroes: Koenen 1994. Mayer 1996:2 discusses similarities between the destruction of the Trojan War in the Cypria and Catalogue fr. 204. Cf. Nagy 1999 [1979]:220; Koenen 1994:27–29. For the Catalogue as presenting Helen as a “next-generation Pandora”: Ormand 2014:205–210 (quotation from p. 214).
[ back ] 62. Ormand 2014:79: Competition in bride-gifts (hedna) is not about how much a woman is worth but how much a man is capable of paying. On women as a trope in social discourse for instability: Ormand 2014:85; cf. Bergren 1983.
[ back ] 63. On the tension between the ehoiai formula and the genealogical catalogue form: Rutherford 2001. For the term “genealogical superstructure”: Irwin 2005:36.
[ back ] 64. On this catalogue within a catalogue: Cingano 2005.
[ back ] 65. For a discussion of Odysseus’ importance in this passage, see Cingano 2005:127–135, who notes the tradition that Odysseus came up with the plan of the oath. Cf. Ormand 2014:188–192.
[ back ] 66. See Tsagalis 2009:174; cf. Ormand 2014:191–192.
[ back ] 67. Sammons 2010:76.
[ back ] 68. Sammons 2010:76–78.
[ back ] 69. Sammons 2010:79.
[ back ] 70. Slatkin 1996:230; cf. Sammons 2010:85.
[ back ] 71. Cf. Rutherford 2000:93.
[ back ] 72. On the Odyssey’s catalogue of women: Northrup 1980; Pade 1983; Doherty 1995:66–68; de Jong 2001:281–284. For a recent examination of the Nekyia see Sammons 2006:113–142, who argues that Odysseus’ use of the catalogue differs from the narrator’s. Our argument here has benefitted greatly from discussion with Irini Kyriakou.
[ back ] 73. The exceptions are Leda (11.298) and Phaedra, Procris and Ariadne (11.321). The Minyans are presented as Boiotian rivals for the ruling family of Thebes, so this usage here may be part of a larger Odyssean approach; see further in Chapter 6 below.
[ back ] 74. For suggestions, see Doherty 1995 and Larson 2014. Sammons 2010: 83 is less optimistic: “It remains unclear what kind of selection Odysseus offers (…) if the women of the catalogue do represent a selection, it is unclear what the principle of selection is.”
[ back ] 75. Cf. the introduction by Hunter 2005:3 to the Ehoiai: “this poem is one more illustration of the banal truth that social groups explain the present through stories about the past. In this case, the key fact about the present is identity: ‘ethnic genealogies were the instrument by which whole social collectives could situate themselves in space and time’ ” (citing Hall 1997:41).
[ back ] 76. On the Hesiodic Catalogue’s relationship to the Odyssey’s catalogue of women: West 1985:32n7; Barker and Christensen 2008:10n42; Doherty 1995:66n4; Osborne 2005:17; Irwin 2005:49; Tsagarakis 2000:11–12. See Tsagalis 2010:326–328 on the structures.
[ back ] 77. Before Odysseus arrives at the palace, Athena states quite clearly that if he pleases Arete then he will get to go home (Odyssey 7.75–77). Following this, Doherty 1992:168 makes the catalogue’s explicit goal the pleasing of Arete. Cf. Wyatt 1989; Doherty 1991. Arft 2014:402 contrasts the catalogue with the martial, androcentric elements of the Nekyia’s latter half directed toward Alkinoos. On Arete as audience to the catalogue: Doherty 1995:65–86, 90, 96–99; Slatkin 1996:228–230; Wyatt 1989:239; Tsagarakis 2000:83; Sammons 2010:83–84; Skempis and Ziogas 2009:239; Barker and Christensen 2008:10n43.
[ back ] 78. Slatkin 1996:230 suggests that Alkinoos requests a different song because he objects to the material; according to Slatkin, Alkinoos expects a “kleos-song” which would include different subject matter, and which would be narrative rather than catalogic. Cf. Sammons 2006:125–126.
[ back ] 79. On similarities between Arete and Penelope as ideal female members of Odysseus’ internal audience: Doherty 1995:22, 65–69, 82–83, 92–121, and 76–86 (cf. Doherty 1991 and 1992). Cf. Minchin 2007:20–21; Larson 2014:414.
[ back ] 80. Vergados 2014:447.
[ back ] 81. A story that is reported at Odyssey 15.247.
[ back ] 82. See Larson 2007 for an outline of Theban-Boiotian associations with the women of the catalogue, especially for an external audience. We are especially indebted to the discussion of Arft 2014.
[ back ] 83. The catalogue includes thirteen heroines tied to: south-central Thessaly and the Aeolids (Tyro, Iphimedeia); Sparta, the Aeolids, and Athens (Leda); southern Thessaly, Boeotia, and the Aeolids (Chloris); Thebes and Boeotia (Antiope, Alkmênê, Megara, Epikastê, Eriphyle); Boeotia, Thessaly, and Athens (Klymênê); and Athens (Phaedra, Procris, Ariadne). See Vergados 2014:446, cf. 419–420, 426; Larson 2014. The full catalogue (Odyssey 11.225–327) reads: Tyro, the daughter of Salmoneus and wife of Kretheus (11.235–259); Antiope, daughter of Asopos, who bore Amphion and Zethus to Zeus (11.260–265); Alkmênê, wife of Amphitryon, and mother of Herakles from Zeus (11.266–268); Megare, daughter of Kreon, wife of Herakles (11.269–270); Epikastê, mother of Oedipus (11.271–280); Chloris, daughter of Amphion and wife of Neleus, mother of Nestor, Chromius, Periclymenus, and Pero who is linked to the Melampus narrative (11.281–297); Leda, wife of Tyndareus, mother of Castor and Pollux (11.298–304); Iphimedeia, mother of Otus and Ephialtes, the two Aloades (11.305–319); Phaedra and Procris (11.320); Ariadne, daughter of Minus (11.320–325); Maera and Klymênê (11.326); Eriphyle, the wife of Amphiaraus for whose death she was responsible (11.326–327).
[ back ] 84. These regions emphasize areas around Attica and Boeotia specifically, perhaps communicating a positive relationship among these regions and reflecting the historical context of the Odyssey’s formation in Athens. On the other hand, it seems just as likely that Homer has Odysseus narrowing down a Panhellenic focus, restricting the range of the genealogy, as he creates more pointed contrasts.
[ back ] 85. The focus of the episode is on building walls as an act of foundation (11.262–265). To mythographers and scholars, Thebes was notorious for its double foundation myth and the chronological puzzle it creates. Cadmus is responsible for the other act of foundation, having obeyed the Delphic oracle to follow a cow to the site of his future city. The scholia to Iliad 13.302 refer to Pherecydes, who states that Amphion and Zethus first built the walls of the city, which was subsequently deserted and refounded by Cadmus (Gantz 1993, no. 41a); cf. the scholia to Odyssey 11.262. On the other hand Apollodorus III 5.5, Pausanias IX 5.6, and Diodorus Siculus XIX 53.4–5 all have Cadmus establishing the city first, while the latter two also draw a distinction between Cadmus founding the old city and Amphion and Zethus fortifying the lower city.
[ back ] 86. Cf. “Hesiod” Catalogue of Women fr. 182 M-W. Pindar characterizes his Thebes as the city of Zethus (fr. 52k.44 S-M).
[ back ] 87. Pache 2014:279–280.
[ back ] 88. Vergados 2014:448.
[ back ] 89. See Iliad 11.734 (Nestor as narrator), 12.416, 13.366; Odyssey 22.408. This pattern seems to continue at Hesiod Theogony 954 and Shield 22 and 38. Cf. Hesiod frr. 195.22 and 38. On the Iliadic resonances of Odyssey Book 22, see Pucci 1987.
[ back ] 90. Cf. Hesiod fr. 195.20, where the gods are sitting as witnesses to Amphitryon’s “big deed.”
[ back ] 91. Iliad 10.282, 16.208, and 19.150.
[ back ] 92. Cf. Theogony 209. Additionally relevant may be the “wondrous deeds” (theskela erga) contemplated by Zeus in Herakles’ conception, discussed above in Chapter 2, “The Epic Herakles.” Although Herakles certainly achieved great deeds, in the Odyssey’s narrative these great deeds are subordinated to his unexplained and explicitly unjustified murder of Iphitus.
[ back ] 93. Solon fr. 4.5–8 draws a similar connection between foolishness, hubristic behavior, and algea. He criticizes the community’s leaders for their foolishness (ἀφραδίῃσιν, 5) and arrogance (ὕβριος, 8): this lack of just thinking (ἄδικος νόος, 7) results in great suffering (ἄλγεα πολλά, 8). For a discussion of this passage see Irwin 2005:94–95, and 166–169 for its resonance with Hesiod.
[ back ] 94. The phrase μέγα ἔργον does not occur anywhere else in early Greek poetry, apart from in Pindar Nemean 10.64. Its absence from Hesiod’s Works and Days is most telling: in this poem which makes work a central theme, erga describe actions that are not worthy of fame but are everyday, tough, and boring, the necessary hard work that separates the good man from the bad (Works and Days 311, 316, 382, 554, 779). Here erga simply represent the daily toil that every man must face and suffer, but the performance of which can help men better themselves and achieve a higher ethical standing.
[ back ] 95. οἱ δ’ ἄμα πάντες ἀϊδρείῃσιν ἕποντο (Odyssey 10.231, 257).
[ back ] 96. ὅς τις ἀϊδρείῃ πελάσῃ καὶ φθόγγον ἀκούσῃ / Σειρῆνας, τῷ δ’ οὔ τι γυνὴ καὶ νήπια τέκνα / οἴκαδε νοστήσαντι παρίσταται οὐδὲ γάνυνται, Odyssey 12.41–43.
[ back ] 97. Hesiod Works and Days 685.
[ back ] 98. Antenor’s description. It is through speech that Odysseus sets himself apart and wherein “no other man could rival him” (οὐκ ἂν ἔπειτ᾿ Ὀδυσῆΐ γ᾿ ἐρίσσειε βροτὸς ἄλλος, Iliad 3.223).
[ back ] 99. The vibrancy of Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannos comes from playing on the fact that he is one and the same man, a man with great knowledge who is also ignorant of the most basic facts: his origins.
[ back ] 100. See n50 above.
[ back ] 101. The Odyssey is intimately concerned with generational continuity, specifically the triple-generation of grandfather, father, and son: Goldhill 1991, Chapter 1; Felson 2002. The dissonance between Odysseus’ claim that the gods made Oedipus’ tale known among men and his own reluctance to elaborate on it may be a feature of the Odyssey’s general privileging of Odysseus’ unbroken family line above all others.
[ back ] 102. Penelope narrates the tale to a disguised Odysseus (19.137–161); the suitor Amphimedon retells the story to the assembled souls in Hades (24.125–155). For a discussion of the scenes and their differences: Lowenstam 2000. For the suggestion that the shroud actually becomes the robe Penelope gives to Odysseus’ in disguise: Whallon 2000. On weaving and female fame: Mueller 2010. For Penelope as a weaver of plots: Murnaghan 1987:95–96. On weaving in the Odyssey and mêtis: Slatkin 1996:234–237; Clayton 2004 passim. For the possibility that in other traditions of Odysseus’ return home Laertes and Penelope were colluding: Haller 2013.
[ back ] 103. E.g. Odyssey 19.168–170.
[ back ] 104. Iliad 1.5-6; Cypria fr. 1. Both epics too are sporadically punctuated with the further plotting of the action by certain gods. At Iliad 15.71, when Zeus delivers his most detailed articulation of his plan yet, he ascribes it to “the plans of Athena” (Ἀθηναίης δὶα βουλάς). At Odyssey 8.82 Demodokos’ song about the Trojan War has the similar phrase Διὸς μεγάλου διὰ βουλάς, where the plotting is again assigned to Zeus. Cf. Hesiod Theogony 465 and 572. In what appears to be an arresting modification of the formula, Odysseus commiserates with Agamemnon over his fate by blaming “feminine plans” (γυναικείας διὰ βουλάς, 11.437).
[ back ] 105. As Olson 1995:214 puts it, “The Odyssey is thus above all else a story of the troubles human beings bring upon themselves.” For Zeus’ view as more advanced moral thought: Finkelberg 1995; cf. Russo 1968: 288–295; Gill 1996:46n59.
[ back ] 106. Slatkin 2005:315–316. On Odysseus’ disguise and gradual self-disclosure: Murnaghan 1987.
[ back ] 107. Other uses of anapusta may support this assertion. The scholion (B 11.274.1) glosses it as meaning “spoken of and learned about through the mouths of everyone; or, manifest.” Herodotus uses it where facts become known without any specifically noted agent (with some negative connotation): in Book 6 anapusta refers to the Spartan king Demaratus’ suspect paternity (VI 64.3) and to the debasement of the Delphic oracle through Cleomenes’ bribery (VI 66.10–12). In Book 9 of the Histories it describes Xerxes’ domestic strife: his lust for the daughter of his own brother, Masistes, leads him to kill his brother, while his wife takes revenge on Masistes’ wife. In all three of these cases, Herodotus uses the adjective to describe the revelation of unseemly information. Pausanias (IX 5.11) takes issue with Homer’s account that Oedipus’ marriage to his mother was anapusta: he does not see how Epikastê could have then given birth to four children with Oedipus. His own version assigns these four children to Oedipus’ second wife Euryganeia. Cf. Pherecydes fr. 48 (= scholion to Euripides Phoenician Women 53).
[ back ] 108. Cf. Hesiod Theogony 404.
[ back ] 109. There is only one “lovely” city in the Iliad, and this is the city depicted on Achilles’ shield as being under siege (Iliad 18.509–512). As Pache 2014:286-287 notes, the epithet ἐπήρατος is unusual and echoes the Odyssean passage about πολυήρατος Thebes. Along with this epithet, the themes of a city under siege and a division of spoils resonates with the Theban tradition. See Chapter 5 below.
[ back ] 110. Cf. ἠρᾶτο, Thebais fr. 2.8.
[ back ] 111. Arft 2014:404.
[ back ] 112. Arft 2014:404–405.
[ back ] 113. Cf. the theme of Telemachus not becoming his father. The briefly unburied status of the suitors and the split judgment of their families over how to respond to their deaths in Book 24 recall themes from Theban myth. See Chapter 5 below.
[ back ] 114. Arft 2014:404
[ back ] 115. This expression, εἰς Ἀΐδαο πυλάρταο, resonates exactly with two episodes in the Iliad. According to Athena, when Herakles was sent into Hades, she had to come to his aid (Iliad 8.367). Deiphobus boasts that he will send his opponent to accompany their dead comrade to Hades (Iliad 13.415). More broadly, the image of going to Hades recalls the Iliad’s proem (Iliad 1.3–4).
[ back ] 116. Within this performance arena, the individual words are “explosively connotative” (cf. Foley 1999:xii, 305) with traditional associations, retaining aspects of their history, but shaped anew in each recurrence.
[ back ] 117. For the most detailed etymology of the name Arete, see Skempis and Ziogas 200:215–228 with attendant bibliography. For an objection to a derivation from araomai, see Peradotto 1990:108. Other etymologies include “unspoken” (ar(r)êton) and a derivation from arariskô: see Kanavou 2015:124–125. Special thanks to Justin Arft for this note.
[ back ] 118. Arft 2014: 406–409
[ back ] 119. A feature that differentiates this catalogue from the more universally positive Hesiodic Catalogue. Consistent with ehoie-poetry, Epikastê is introduced as καλήν: Arft 2014:403.
[ back ] 120. Commenting on this striking omission, the scholia to Odyssey 3.309–310 and 3.310 draw an even more direct, extratextual connection between Eriphyle and Clytemnestra. These heroines seem to be something of a multiform pairing, at least by the time of the scholiast. Cf. Aristotle (Poetics 1453b22–25): “[The poet] should not break up traditional tales; for example, the story where Clytemnestra is killed by Orestes and Eriphyle by Alcmaon.” Aristotle not only pairs Eriphyle and Clytemnestra, but also suggests that each mother-son unit represents a similar, coherent story pattern consisting of “traditional” elements (παρειλημμένους) that deserved preservation and were subject to artistic variation.
[ back ] 121. Arft 2014:409.
[ back ] 122. For example, the silence that greets Achilles’ rejection of Odysseus’ offer of recompense: “so he spoke, and all were in silence for a long time” (ὣς ἔφαθ’, οἱ δ’ ἄρα πάντες ἀκὴν ἐγένοντο σιωπῇ, Iliad 9.430).
[ back ] 123. As well as the “enchanted” reaction of the Phaiakians (Odyssey 11.333–334=13.1–2), see also Alkinoos’ positive evaluations of Odysseus’ tales (Odyssey 11.363–376 and 13.4–15). The diction of Odysseus’ “enchantment” is intriguing: κηληθμός occurs only in these two passages in the Odyssey. The BV scholion to Odyssey 11.334 glosses the noun as granting pleasure (hêdonê) and delight (terpsis). Cf. Eusthathius Commentary on Homer’s Odyssey I 422.28-34 for etymological speculations. The lexical item itself is rare in Archaic and Classical Greek, appearing in Plato’s Republic to describe snake-charming (358b3) and the type of pleasure that misleads men to change their opinions (413c2). On varieties of enchantment in the Odyssey: Walsh 1984. On the assessment that Homeric poetry enchants, see the result of the Contest of Homer and Hesiod (205), with Graziosi 2002:172–182.
[ back ] 124. Not that Odysseus’ pains are to end even with the end of the Odyssey: Teiresias foretells of still more wandering (and suffering) to come (Odyssey 11.121-37). See Chapter 5, “Enduring Strife, Surviving Epic.”
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