Zeus in the Odyssey

  Marks, J. 2008. Zeus in the Odyssey. Hellenic Studies Series 31. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies. http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hul.ebook:CHS_Marks.Zeus_in_the_Odyssey.2008.

Ogygie to Ithake

When Odysseus himself enters the main narrative of the Odyssey in Book 5, he is, as at the beginning, trapped on Kalypso’s island in the middle of the sea. This is the world of the hero’s divine antagonist Poseidon, from which he will escape in accordance with the plan that Athene puts forward in the first divine council scene in Book 1. As discussed in Chapter 1, her plan calls for Hermes to instruct Kalypso to release the hero (1.85-87). In Book 5, it is Zeus who actually charges Hermes with this mission, and his orders elaborate a detailed plan that coordinates the efforts of a number of divine and mortal characters so as to program the main narrative through Book 13. It is Zeus who declares that Odysseus will land back on Ithake unharmed and fabulously wealthy, and who specifies the time and place for the Apologoi, the hero’s retrospective account of his journey from Troy to Kalypso’s island of Ogygie that occupies Books 8 through 12.

Although Poseidon is absent from Olympos in Book 5 as he is in Book 1, he plays a crucial role in fulfilling the plan that Zeus puts forth in his instructions to Hermes. Poseidon’s actions in Book 5, despite their consequences, are intended to frustrate the gods’ plan for Odysseus, and in a second and final appearance, in Book 13 near the end of the Ogygie-to-Ithake sequence, the sea god confronts Zeus face-to-face. Contrary to expectations raised by both Zeus and Poseidon, the Odyssean Olympos remains untouched by the kind of strife that often characterizes such scenes in the Iliad. Poseidon has then one more task to perform, and as the main narrative leaves his world, he is in the process of tying up one of the Odyssey’s loose ends, namely the fate of the Phaiakes, the audience for Odysseus’ Apologoi who are at the same time the subject of a politically charged body of non-Homeric traditions.

The interactions between Zeus and the subordinate gods Athene and Poseidon in Books 5 and 13 clarify and expand the picture of the divine apparatus that emerges in Book 1. The concerns of the subordinate gods are limited to engagement with one facet of the central character Odysseus: he is the object of Athene’s care and Poseidon’s hatred. The perspective of Zeus, on the other hand, transcends the aims of either god, and his plan for Odysseus harnesses both. In like manner, the Odyssey itself seeks to transcend, through selective inclusion, de-authorization and programmed ambiguity, the mass of epichoric and proto-Panhellenic myths that were connected with the returning Odysseus.

The “second” Odyssean divine council (Odyssey 5.3-43)

Audiences seem to have been cued to the operation of this convention by the repetition of a paradigmatic scene at the points where the narrative strands diverge. Thus at the beginning of Book 5 as at the beginning of Book 1, the Olympian gods, again excepting Poseidon, sit in assembly (5.3; 1.27); again, Zeus and Athene are the only speakers; and again, the topic of discussion is Odysseus and his son. This discussion assumes, and completes, Athene’s proposal in Book 1: as she has sent Telemachos on his journey to Pylos and Sparta, so Hermes will send Odysseus from Ogygie to his home on Ithake.

The exchange between Zeus and Athene in Book 5, then, seems to rewind the narrative clock so that Telemachos’ and Odysseus’ adventures proceed simultaneously. But it does so in a self-conscious way, in comparison with scenes such as the dispatch of Iris and Apollo in Iliad 15, where the divergence and rejoining of the parallel narrative strands go unremarked. Athene initiates the “second” discussion of Odysseus by expressing despair that the hero remains on Ogygie, and that the suitors are preparing to ambush Telemachos (5.11-19). The self-consciousness becomes apparent when Zeus responds with surprise to Athene’s words:

τέκνον ἐμόν, ποῖόν σε ἔπος φύγεν ἕρκος ὀδόντων.
οὐ γὰρ δὴ τοῦτον μὲν ἐβούλευσας νόον αὐτή,
ὡς ἤτοι κείνους Ὀδυσεὺς ἀποτίσεται ἐλθών;
Τηλέμαχον δὲ σὺ πέμψον ἐπισταμένως, δύνασαι γάρ,
ὥς κε μάλ᾿ ἀσκηθὴς ἣν πατρίδα γαῖαν ἵκηται,
μνηστῆρες δ᾿ ἐν νηὶ παλιμπετὲς ἀπονέωνται.
My child, what a word has escaped the barrier of your teeth.
For did not you yourself plan this idea,
so that indeed Odysseus will come and exact payback from those men?
As for Telemachos, send him on with care, for you have the power,
so that he may fully unscathed reach his paternal land,
and the suitors in their ship return back home.

Odyssey 5.22-27

Athene’s forgetfulness – conspicuous for the goddess of mētis – and Zeus’ response to it seem to acknowledge, perhaps ironically, the temporal distortion caused by the operation of the convention that Zielinski’s law describes. Zeus then bids Athene to see to the completion of Telemachos’ journey (she actually does so at 13.440, as the Telemachia and Nostos sequences feed into the Mnesterophonia), and himself instructs Hermes to see to Odysseus’ return.

Ironical or not, the exchange between Athene and Zeus in Book 5 invites the external audience to reflect on the conventions by which the narrative operates. Attention is directed, not just to the management of narrative time, but also to the mechanics of the divine apparatus. For Athene’s claim of aporia calls into question her competence to transform her plan into a coherent course of events. If the “idea” (νόος, 5.23) is hers, as Zeus claims, she has not made it practicable.

It will be useful to anticipate the next chapter here briefly in order to adduce a comparable scene in Book 24, where Zeus poses the same possibly wry question (5.21-24=24.477-480) under similar circumstances, when Athene finds herself unable to resolve the Mnesterophonia sequence. In that scene, Zeus himself steps in to dictate the terms by which Odysseus’ power over his household and Ithake will be made secure. In both scenes, Zeus downplays his own role in the formulation of a workable plan by declaring Athene to be the guiding force, even as he takes control of the situation. Yet there is no indication that the goddess considers Zeus’ contributions in Books 5 and 24 a usurpation of her plans. Thus Zeus enacts his own plan as it were under the aegis of Athene.

That plan in Book 5 maps out Odysseus’ path from Ogygie to Ithake in detail, specifying when, where, and how the voyage will take place, and whom the hero will encounter en route. According to Zeus’ instructions, Hermes is to tell Kalypso of the gods’

νημερτέα βουλήν,
νόστον Ὀδυσσῆος ταλασίφρονος, ὥς κε νέηται,
οὔτε θεῶν πομπῆι οὔτε θνητῶν ἀνθρώπων·
ἀλλ’ ὅ γ’ ἐπὶ σχεδίης πολυδέσμου πήματα πάσχων
ἤματι εἰκοστῶι Σχερίην ἐρίβωλον ἵκοιτο,
Φαιήκων ἐς γαῖαν, οἳ ἀγχίθεοι γεγάασιν·35
οἵ κέν μιν περὶ κῆρι θεὸν ὣς τιμήσουσι,
πέμψουσιν δ’ ἐν νηὶ φίλην ἐς πατρίδα γαῖαν,
χαλκόν τε χρυσόν τε ἅλις ἐσθῆτά τε δόντες,
πόλλ’, ὅσ’ ἂν οὐδέ ποτε Τροίης ἐξήρατ’ Ὀδυσσεύς,
εἴ περ ἀπήμων ἦλθε, λαχὼν ἀπὸ ληίδος αἶσαν.40
ὣς γάρ οἱ μοῖρ’ ἐστὶ φίλους τ’ ἰδέειν καὶ ἱκέσθαι
οἶκον ἐς ὑψόροφον καὶ ἑὴν ἐς πατρίδα γαῖαν.
. . . unwavering plan,
the homecoming of firm-minded Odysseus, so that he may return,
neither under gods’ escort nor that of mortal men,
but on a raft of many fastenings, suffering woes,
on the twentieth day he may reach fertile Scherie,
the land of the Phaiakes, who are close to the gods.35
These people will honor him like a god greatly in their hearts,
and will send him on a ship to his own paternal land,
after giving him bronze and gold in abundance and clothing,
so many things as Odysseus would never have taken out of Troy,
had he come unmolested with his portion of plunder.40
For thus his fate is to see his own people and to reach
his high-roofed house and his paternal land.

Odyssey 5.30-42

To repeat, Zeus has asserted that the plan for Odysseus and Telemachos is Athene’s (5.23); and she herself later refers to the plan for Odysseus’ return specifically as “mine” (ἐμῆι βουλῆι τε νόωι τε, 13.305). Whether or not the audience is to imagine that Athene is aware of the fact, Zeus has in effect taken control of the narrative: this time, in contrast with the parallel scene in Book 1, the “table of contents” speech is his. His instructions to Hermes, then, translate Athene’s general desire for Odysseus’ return into a workable plan, which is enacted over the course of Books 5 to 13. And, whereas Athene is apparently unable to manage other characters’ responses to her vague ideas for Telemachos and Odysseus, Zeus by contrast brings together with his specific plan the actions of a series of characters, many of whom act in ignorance of the chief god’s broader goals.

As mentioned in the Introduction, Hermes, in carrying out Zeus’s instructions, tells Kalypso that she must send Odysseus on his way lest she incite Zeus’ wrath, because “it is in no way possible that another god get alongside or frustrate the Dios noos (mind of Zeus)” (5.103-104~137-138). The expression Dios noos seems to echo Dios boulē (cf. ἐβούλευσας νόον, e.g. 5.23=24.479). Kalypso for her part recognizes the operation of a plan that, if unfair, must nonetheless be followed by herself and the other gods (5.118-140). Her predictable compliance unleashes the hero, allowing his role in the narrative at last to unfold.

Zeus’ instructions to Hermes in Book 5 are also crucial for the shape of the Odyssean narrative in that they create the opening for Odysseus’ performance of his Apologoi (Books 9-12) by placing him among the Phaiakes. The choice to begin the narrative in medias res – which again is linked to Zeus’ decision to ruminate on the Oresteia when he does – demands that the Apologoi adventures, which are promised in the proem (1.3-4), take the form of flashbacks. I note that the Odyssey suggests other points at which the Apologoi could attach to the main narrative, for instance during Odysseus’ stay with Aiolos (10.14-16) and his reunification with Penelope (23.310-342).

In contrast with the main narrative, the events in the Apologoi are not made to depend on the gods. Rather, Books 8-12 are structured according to a different set of organizing principles, in particular self-contained chiastic patterns that take the Phaiakes’ promise to Odysseus of gifts and return (11.333-384) as the central point, around which are arranged thematically related episodes. [3] The diminished role of the gods in the Apologoi is in part a consequence of the fact that the story is told by a mortal narrator, Odysseus. This narrative situation has a subtle and far-reaching effect on the flow of information, since mortal narrators become aware of divine activity only by direct witness or report, a phenomenon commonly referred to as “Jørgensen’s law.” That is, the Homeric narrator and divine characters are as a rule aware of the divine agent responsible for any given act or circumstance in the narrative. Human characters, by contrast, remain ignorant of the actions of specific gods unless they are informed by a divine character or, in the case of seers and singers, possess special powers. Thus mortals employ the generic terms θεός, δαίμων, or “Zeus” in a generalizing sense to describe divine activity. Odysseus, for example, attributes his exceptional knowledge of an exchange between Zeus and Helios in Book 12 (389-390) to the goddess Kalypso, who was herself informed by Hermes, who in turn is an assumed participant at divine councils, as can be seen in Book 5. [4]

The scene in Book 12, Zeus’ one speaking appearance outside the main narrative in the Odyssey, is the exception to the chief god’s disengagement from the Apologoi that proves the rule. Helios complains to the gods about the slaughter of his cattle by Odysseus’ men and threatens to shine among the dead in Hades if he does not receive satisfaction (12.374-390; cf. 19.275-276). Zeus ignores the threat and defuses the situation with mollifying words, including a declaration that he will himself destroy the offenders (385-388). Here the underlying themes of divine justice and Olympian comity can be seen to obtain in inset narratives as they do in the main narrative. Likewise, the actions of Zeus at both narrative levels always have significance for the overall course of events. Thus it is with the fulfillment of the promise to Helios that the Apologoi sequence merges with the main narrative: Zeus’ destruction of Odysseus’ last ship and crew lands the hero alone on Ogygie (12.415-425 with 7.244-297). [5] Zeus’ absence from the remainder of the Apologoi, then, is motivated by Odysseus’ limitations as a narrator, which reflect the Odyssey’s decision to frame these adventures in a manner that insulates them from epichoric tradition, and from significant consequences for the main narrative. The “facts” dictate that Odysseus will survive his return from Troy; Zeus’ only concern, from the Odyssey’s perspective, is to ensure that his return be consistent with Odyssean themes.

At precisely this moment, Poseidon catches sight of Odysseus and raises a storm in order to destroy his raft. The goddess Ino/Leukothea (333-353), an unnamed river god (441-453), and Athene (427, 436-437) all help Odysseus to remain alive through two days afloat and at last to escape the sea (280 with 453-457). The hero thus comes ashore on Scherie exactly twenty days after setting out from Ogygie.

Zeus’ chronology, then, takes into account that a day will pass before Odysseus begins work on his raft; that he will, with the aid of technology that Kalypso will provide (234-235, 246-247), require four days to build it; that he will be shipwrecked after eighteen days’ smooth sailing; and that finally, with the aid of various divine agents, he will after two days come ashore. The instructions to Hermes in this respect amount to a transparent exposition of the Dios boulē as a narrative plan:

Zeus’ instructions to Hermes (5.30-42) Realization in the main narrative
(1)Odysseus is to travel without escort 5.269-281
(2)on a “stoutly built raft” 5.247-257
(3)under difficult conditions 5.291-493
(4) for 20 days 5.278, 388
(5)to Scherie 5.453-457
(6)where the Phaiakes will honor him Books 6-13; cf. 23.338-339
(7)and send him to Ithake on a ship 13.70-125
(8)more enriched than when he left Troy 13.10-15, 137-138

Any composer of a narrative has the power to generate coincidences and fulfill prophecies. Thus an interpretive question similar to the one faced in assessing the emphasis on Hermes in Zeus’ Oresteia arises here regarding the extent to which apparently gratuitous details should be understood as functional, rather than as by-products of the repetitive and formulaic style of Homeric narrative. It is therefore significant that the care taken to fulfill in detail Zeus’ predictive instructions in Books 5 to 13 is exceptional. Thus for example Telemachos’ voyage in Books 2 to 4 at first proceeds through a series of nights and days, but the passage of time becomes less clear once he reaches Sparta. Similarly, the internal chronology of the Iliad, though not particularly complex, requires some effort to deduce even from a written text. The novelty, then, of the precise temporal details of Books 5-13 thus appears designed to attract attention.

Poseidon’s attack on Odysseus in Odyssey 5

Yet though the plan for Odysseus’ return is elaborated in Poseidon’s absence, it is made to depend on his active participation. Specifically, were it not for a storm that Poseidon unleashes against him, Odysseus would not make landfall on Scherie, as Zeus specifies in his instructions to Hermes (5.34-35). For Odysseus when he approaches the island after eighteen days’ sailing from Ogygie (278-280) shows no sign of weariness, and he has been provisioned amply by Kalypso (265-267). Moreover, had Odysseus decided to land on Scherie without the impetus of the storm, his voyage from Ogygie would have taken eighteen days, not the twenty specified by Zeus. Poseidon contributes to the fulfillment of Zeus’ plan without renouncing his hostility to Odysseus, and without being asked to act or to refrain from action by Zeus or any other. In other words, Poseidon is allowed to pursue his own agenda, but, rather like a tragic hero, in doing so he furthers a larger design that conflicts with his own interests.

Poseidon perceives the effect of the divine council scenes in Books 1 and 5 when, returning from the Aithiopes, he sees Odysseus approaching Scherie (282-284). The god reacts with surprise and indignation:

ὢ πόποι, ἦ μάλα δὴ μετεβούλευσαν θεοὶ ἄλλως
ἀμφ᾿ Ὀδυσῆι ἐμεῖο μετ᾿ Αἰθιόπεσσιν ἐόντος·
καὶ δὴ Φαιήκων γαίης σχεδόν, ἔνθα οἱ αἶσα
ἐκφυγέειν μέγα πεῖραρ ὀιζύος ἥ μιν ἱκάνει.
ἀλλ᾿ ἔτι μέν μιν φημὶ ἄδην ἐλάαν κακότητος.
Well now, certainly indeed the gods altered their plan
about Odysseus while I was with the Aithiopes;
and now there he is near the land of the Phaiakes, where it is his fate
to escape the great cord of misery that has come upon him.
But still I think I shall give him his fill of wretchedness.

Odyssey 5.286-290

Poseidon’s anger in Odyssey 5 results from his perception that a plan has been reformulated by the gods (μετεβούλευσαν ἄλλως, 286) so as to grant Odysseus his return, which is fated (αἶσα) to proceed without incident once he reaches the Phaiakes (288-289). It is in order to reverse the effects of this ostensible reformulation of the divine plan that Poseidon sends the storm that wrecks Odysseus’ ship and precipitates his landing on Scherie, twenty days after leaving Ogygie.

Thus it turns out that Zeus’ plan, though it will benefit Odysseus in the long run, does not disregard Poseidon’s desire that the hero suffer. Rather, the plan “budgets” two days for Poseidon’s attack. Again, Zeus’ engagement with Poseidon can be traced to the opening divine council scene, where he observes that Poseidon is angry with Odysseus for blinding his son, the Kyklops (1.68-70). The blinding is in turn central to the Odyssey’s explanation for Odysseus’ protracted return. Near the end of the Kyklopeia portion of the Apologoi, set during the first year of Odysseus’ wanderings, long before the main narrative begins, the Kyklops prays to Poseidon that, if Odysseus cannot be destroyed (9.532),

ὀψὲ κακῶς ἔλθοι ὀλέσας ἄπο πάντας ἑταίρους
νηὸς ἐπ᾿ ἀλλοτρίης, εὕροι δ᾿ ἐν πήματα οἴκωι
May he return late and miserably, having lost all companions,
on the ship of another, and find troubles at home

Odyssey 9.534-535

When the Odyssey opens, Odysseus is already “late,” has already endured much misery, has already lost his companions, and his “troubles at home” are already a matter for discussion on Olympos (1.91-92; 5.11-12). By stipulating in his instructions to Hermes that Odysseus reach Ithake in a Phaiakian ship (5.37), Zeus fulfills the final element in the Kyklops’ prayer, that Odysseus travel “on the ship of another.”

But while Zeus can thus be seen to bring to fulfillment the letter of the Kyklops’ prayer, he is less concerned with its intent. When the Kyklops asks that Odysseus return “on the ship of another,” his desire is presumably that the hero arrive home in a state of humiliating penury. In accordance with Zeus’ plan, however, Odysseus returns in comfort and in possession of fabulous wealth. And this state of affairs is a direct result of his shipwreck by Poseidon. For were Odysseus to reach Scherie as he left Ogygie, on a sturdy raft amply stocked with provisions, he would have no need for “the ship of another,” nor room for fabulous gifts.

Nevertheless, while Zeus exploits Poseidon as an unwitting tool for the return and enrichment of Athene’s favorite, he at the same time grants the concession that Poseidon be allowed to inflict two days of misery upon him, and thereby to exact some measure of vengeance for the blinding of the Kyklops. Indeed, since Odysseus will “escape misery” once he lands on Scherie (5.288-289), and since Teiresias provides him with instructions for lifting the Kyklops’ curse (11.121-131), the voyage in Book 5 represents Poseidon’s last chance to torment the hero. Poseidon then can take pleasure in the suffering he visits on Odysseus; but the fact that his storm ends up enriching the hero he wishes to make suffer, and rendering anticlimactic the complete fulfillment of the Kyklops’ prayer, threatens to rekindle his hostility.

The relationship between Zeus and Poseidon is then in important respects analogous to that between Zeus and Athene. In each case, the subordinate god acts, without opposition, to further a limited agenda, Athene as Odysseus’ patron, Poseidon as his antagonist. And in each case the limited agenda is tempered, coordinated, and, I suggest, motivated by Zeus. Athene guides Odysseus to his fated return to home and throne in terms that Zeus dictates. It is representative of Zeus’ transcendent perspective, over and above both Athene and Poseidon, that these terms include elements, most obviously Odysseus’ shipwreck and two days of suffering at sea, that the goddess would not have incorporated into a plan that was truly her own. Poseidon, by comparison, helps his favorite the Kyklops to exact retribution that is intended to make Odysseus’ fated return as wretched as possible. But in the event, though Poseidon’s storm pushes the hero to the limits of his endurance, it brings about a homecoming for the hero in comfort and in possession of wealth for a lifetime, terms most agreeable to Athene.

The overall pattern of divine interactions in the Odyssey, then, applies to Poseidon as well as to Athene, and for that matter to Helios: Zeus orchestrates the progress of the story through the medium of subordinates, who pursue their own relatively narrow aims, even as they bring about fulfillment of Zeus’ all-embracing plan. Significantly, however, Zeus confers with Athene before a course of events is initiated, while he incorporates Poseidon and Helios into his plan after events are already in motion. Poseidon thus behaves as a partially informed, over-literal, and reactionary “reader” of Zeus’ intent. His lack of subtlety allows, or causes, him to function more as a pawn of Zeus than does Athene, an informed, if still also to a significant degree unwitting, “reader.”

Anticlimax: Zeus and Poseidon in Odyssey 13

The anticlimactic encounter between Poseidon and Zeus is on the one hand explicable in dramatic terms. Here, at the midpoint of the epic, focus is about to shift to the growing tension on Ithake, which will, unlike the conflict of interests on Olympos, issue in violence. Olympian comity is maintained when Poseidon takes the opportunity to direct his anger away from the gods toward the mortal world in which it originated. The brunt of this violence is to fall on the Phaiakes, who are no longer of use to the plot. The Nostos sequence thus resolved, a new source of dramatic tension will emerge, namely anticipation of the violence that Odysseus will unleash in Ithake.

Poseidon’s complaint takes the form of an a fortiori argument framed, like Zeus’ Oresteia, in terms of the relationship between gods and men. If mere mortals dare to defy him, the god asserts, the other immortals will surely scorn him:

Ζεῦ πάτερ, οὐκέτ᾿ ἔγωγε μετ᾿ ἀθανάτοισι θεοῖσι
τιμήεις ἔσομαι, ὅτε με βροτοὶ οὔ τι τίουσι,
Φαίηκες, τοί πέρ τε ἐμῆς ἔξεισι γενέθλης.130
καὶ γὰρ νῦν· Ὀδυσῆα φάμην κακὰ πολλὰ παθόντα
οἴκαδ᾿ ἐλεύσεσθαι – νόστον δὲ οἱ οὔ ποτ᾿ ἀπηύρων
πάγχυ ἐπεὶ σὺ πρῶτον ὑπέσχεο καὶ κατένευσας –
οἳ δ᾿ εὕδοντ᾿ ἐν νηὶ θοῆι ἐπὶ πόντον ἄγοντες
κάτθεσαν εἰν Ἰθάκηι, ἔδοσαν δέ οἱ ἄσπετα δῶρα,135
χαλκόν τε χρυσόν τε ἅλις ἐσθῆτά θ᾿ ὑφαντήν,
πόλλ᾿, ὅσ᾿ ἂν οὐδέ ποτε Τροίης ἐξήρατ᾿ Ὀδυσσεύς,
εἴ περ ἀπήμων ἦλθε, λαχὼν ἀπὸ ληίδος αἶσαν.
Father Zeus, no longer will I myself among the immortal gods
be held in honor, since mortals in no way honor me,
the Phaiakes, who are of my very own kin.130
And so now: I thought that Odysseus, after suffering many evils,
would come home, and I never took away his homecoming
entirely, after you first promised and gave your nod – 
but they led him asleep over the sea in their swift ship
and deposited him on Ithake, and gave him innumerable gifts,135
bronze and gold in plenty and woven clothing,
lots of it, such things as Odysseus would never have taken from Troy
even if he had come unscathed having drawn his portion from the plunder.

Odyssey 13.128-138

Apparently, the Phaiakes should have recognized that the storm that landed Odysseus on their island was sent by Poseidon, and therefore should not have treated the hero quite so well. And indeed the effects of Poseidon’s storm in Book 5 have been reversed in almost every detail: Odysseus arrives on Scherie after twenty days awake, [
12] but he reaches Ithake asleep, “having forgotten such things as he had suffered” (λελασμένος ὅσσ᾿ ἐπεπόνθει, 13.92). Shipwreck is not even a possibility on the voyage to Ithake, since the Phaiakes’ ships are guaranteed calm seas (7.317-320). During the storm Odysseus loses the splendid garments Kalypso had provided (5.264, 343, 372), but he arrives on Ithake in possession of “fine woven clothing” (13.136; cf. 218).

Zeus’ assertion of authority based on primogeniture in Iliad 15 is part of his strategy to enforce his own plan by taking charge of the battlefield. By contrast, Zeus is more disinterested in Odyssey 13, where Poseidon no longer can oppose the gods’ plan for Odysseus, and Iliad 7, where Zeus has no overt interest in the destruction of the Greek wall. Thus Zeus can be seen to advance alternative perspectives on his kin relationship to Poseidon that correspond to different narrative situations. When he is confronting Poseidon’s attempt to wrest control of the narrative in Iliad 15, Zeus himself is older; when he is co-opting an already neutralized Poseidon in Odyssey 13, the latter is the elder. A general trend thus emerges. Decisions that require engagement with the boundaries of Homeric narrative – the extent of the Phaiakes’ story in Odyssey 13, the relative future in the case of Iliad 7 – invoke as if by reflex the authority of Zeus. Open hostility, however, is reserved for instances in which the progress of the narrative itself is threatened, as in Iliad 15.

In Odyssey 13, Poseidon no longer represents a threat to Odysseus. The irony generated by Poseidon’s ignorance of the larger context of his own actions in the Odyssey is made conspicuous by the inclusion in his complaint in Book 13 of three versus iterati from Zeus’ instructions to Hermes in Book 5 (13.136~5.38; 13.137-138=5.39-40), which describe the gifts the Phaiakes bestow on Odysseus as exceeding in value the plunder the hero obtained at Troy. Thus Zeus’ prescription for Odysseus’ enrichment, which he in Book 5 makes a by-product of Poseidon’s storm, recurs verbatim in Poseidon’s own complaint about that enrichment. To be sure, verse repetition is common in orally-derived texts; and here eight books separate Poseidon’s unwitting “quotation” from Zeus’ “original.” However, the encounter with Poseidon is Zeus’ first appearance in the main narrative since instructing Hermes and Poseidon’s first since sending the storm. Thus, Poseidon’s “quotation” can be seen as a part of a structural ring that embraces the Nostos (and embedded Apologoi), the termini of which are marked by the coordinate actions of the two gods. In other words, the versus iterati are part of a self-conscious link between Books 5 and 13 that a Homeric audience could reasonably be expected to perceive. [17] In the economy of the Odyssean narrative, this structural feature is exploited in order to characterize, seemingly with some humor, the relationship between Zeus and lesser Olympians.

Poseidon and the Phaiakes

The irony generated by Poseidon’s unwitting participation in Zeus’ plan is also tragic, or at least threatens to be so, for the Phaiakes, despite, indeed because of, their kind treatment of the hero. An attack on them by the Poseidon is not unforeseen, since Odysseus’ arrival on Scherie is linked to a prophecy long known to the Phaiakes concerning their own destruction. Alkinoos tells how:

τόδ᾿ ὥς ποτε πατρὸς ἐγὼν εἰπόντος ἄκουσα
Ναυσιθόου, ὃς ἔφασκε Ποσειδάων᾿ ἀγάσασθαι
ἡμῖν οὕνεκα πομποὶ ἀπήμονές εἰμεν ἁπάντων·
φῆ ποτε Φαιήκων ἀνδρῶν εὐεργέα νῆα
ἐκπομπῆς ἀνιοῦσαν ἐν ἠεροειδέι πόντωι
ῥαίσεσθαι, μέγα δ᾿ ἡμῖν ὄρος πόλει ἀμφικαλύψειν.
This once I thus myself heard my father saying,
Nausithoos, who used to say that Poseidon was offended
at us because we are effortless escorts of all men.
He said that one day a well-wrought ship of Phaiakian men
returning from an escort on the misty sea
would be struck, and a great mountain would cover our city.

Odyssey 8.564-569

This prophecy in Book 8, which Alkinoos repeats nearly verbatim after Poseidon does strike the ship (13.173-177), foreshadows the proposal that Zeus solicits from Poseidon in Book 13 when he offers him free rein to “do as you wish and your heart desires” (145). As in Book 5, where Poseidon’s storm fulfills conditions that are specified in Zeus’ instructions to Hermes (5.34) as well as foretold to the sea goddess Ino/Leukothea (345), what is “dear to Poseidon’s heart” in Book 13 is consistent with what is “fated,” though Poseidon is apparently unaware of the fact. In any case, Poseidon tells Zeus: [

νῦν αὖ Φαιήκων ἐθέλω περικαλλέα νῆα
ἐκ πομπῆς ἀνιοῦσαν ἐν ἠεροειδέϊ πόντωι
ῥαῖσαι, ἵν’ ἤδη σχῶνται, ἀπολλήξωσι δὲ πομπῆς
ἀνθρώπων, μέγα δέ σφιν ὄρος πόλει ἀμφικαλύψαι.
Now then I want to strike the Phaiakes’ very beautiful ship
as it returns from the escort [of Odysseus] on the misty sea,
so that they are then held back, and cease from the escort
of people, and I want a great mountain to cover their city.

Odyssey 13.149-152

What happens next is one of the enduring cruxes of Odyssean scholarship. Zeus approves Poseidon’s plan:

ὣς μὲν ἐμῶι θυμῶι δοκεῖ εἶναι ἄριστα·
ὁππότε κεν δὴ πάντες ἐλαυνομένην προίδωνται
λαοὶ ἀπὸ πτόλιος, θεῖναι λίθον ἐγγύθι γαίης
νηὶ θοῆι ἴκελον, ἵνα θαυμάζωσιν ἅπαντες
ἄνθρωποι, μέγα/μετὰ/μὴ δέ σφιν ὄρος πόλει ἀμφικαλύψαι.

158μέγα Ω; μετά B; μή Σ H to Odyssey 13.152

This is how it seems best to me in my heart:
whenever all catch sight of the ship as it is driven
all the people from the city, make [the ship into] a stone near the land
like a swift ship, so that all may wonder
all people, and with a great mountain cover their city. (reading μέγα)
and afterward with a mountain cover their city. (reading μετά)
but not with a mountain cover their city. (reading μή)

Odyssey 13.154-158

The fate of the Phaiakes, then, hinges on Zeus’ words at 13.158. The manuscripts read μέγα ‘great’ or μετά ‘later’. By either of these readings, Zeus tells Poseidon to carry out his plan to destroy the Phaiakes’ city. The departure of Poseidon at 164 is not necessarily inconsistent with these readings, for he could return later to complete his punishment, perhaps once he has fetched a mountain. An interpretation of destruction deferred rather than averted is perhaps responsible for the reading μετά, which can account for an interval between the petrifaction of the ship, which occurs within the narrative, and the covering of the city with a mountain, which is projected outside it.

On the other hand, however, the Odyssey could simply depart from the conventional role of prophecy to the extent of proving Nausithoos’ prophecy partially incorrect: the ship is turned to stone, but the city is not engulfed by a mountain. From a theological perspective, sparing the Phaiakes would be consistent with Zeus’ tempering of angry subordinate deities to the benefit of mortals. In like manner as Zeus will put a stop to the Ithakans’ civil war by quelling the bloodlust of Athene in Book 24 (539-540; see Chapter 3), he could reduce the severity of the penalty Poseidon exacts from the Phaiakes.

The play of μή, μέγα and μετά at Odyssey 13.158 is not, then, the deconstructionist’s inherent linguistic ambiguity, or not that only. Rather, the crux is, I suggest, exemplary of the narrative choices over which Zeus presides in Homeric epic. In this case, the final decision remained contingent on performance circumstances. In other words, the crux is no crux at all, but rather the textual artifact of a kind of narrative “switch” that regulated, during each performance of Odyssey 13, both the tenor of interactions between mortals and immortals and the interface between Homeric and epichoric tradition.

Since historical Greeks often traced their families back to mythical forebears, obliteration of Scherie would problematize any claim to Phaiakian heritage by the citizens of historical Corcyra. And because the island was powerful and strategically significant throughout the Archaic and Classical periods, there is reason to suspect that its epichoric traditions might exert an influence on a Panhellenic text like the Odyssey.

As a consequence, the fate of the Phaiakes, even if they were based “originally” on a wholly different people, for instance the Phoenicians, represents a significant choice in performances before people with connections to the powerful and influential Greek communities of Corcyra and Corinth. The narrative decision to have Zeus spare the Phaiakes may have played well before audiences favorably disposed to Corcyra, and/or to factions within Corcyra seeking to exploit family claims to Phaiakian descent. The choice for destruction, on the other hand, may have appealed to Corinthians and their allies. Indeed identification of Corcyra with Homeric Scherie is doubly unflattering for Corinthians, since it not only allows their daughter-city to downplay its debt to them, but also implicitly relates the Corinthians themselves to the “arrogant Kyklopes” who compel the Phaiakes to abandon their original home for Scherie (Odyssey 6.4-10).

At the same time, the Corcyrans’ care not to claim direct inheritance from the Phaiakes may reflect awareness of the tradition represented by the vulgate manuscript reading at Odyssey 13.158. By articulating their claims to Phaiakian heritage without alleging direct descent, the Corcyrans were in a position to exploit Homeric authority, as well as the recurrent topos in Greek historical and ethnographic thought that a land shapes its inhabitants (e.g. Herodotos 9.122.3).

My purpose here is not to suggest that the Odyssey is a political manifesto of Athens or any other Greek state. Rather, I offer this interpretation of Zeus and Poseidon in Odyssey 13 as an example of how dramatic narrative moments could have become associated with highly-charged issues in contemporary Greek society. These issues transcend the narrowly political arena, for the overriding aim of a Panhellenic synthesis is to direct audiences away from local observances and beliefs and toward those common to a significant proportion of Homeric audiences. In this respect, Zeus’ covert assignment of responsibility for the Phaiakes’ fate to Poseidon can be seen as a metaphor for the relationship between the Odyssey and epichoric traditions. The figure of Zeus is deployed to articulate the extent of Homeric authority, that is, to establish the bounds of the narrative plan. The Odyssey then leaves only a slender thread to which the potentially thorny epichoric issues surrounding the Phaiakes’ fate can be attached.

Again, Poseidon’s perspective can be seen as analogous to an epichoric perspective within the Odyssey: he is not ignored, but is rather subordinated to the plan of Zeus. The Dios boulē theme, by emerging at pivotal points in the narrative, provides a matrix for controlled variation in the progress of the plot, ensuring that, whatever the outcome, Zeus’ authority is the decisive factor. In the case of the connection between Homeric Scherie and historical Corcyra, singers could negotiate the controversial intersection between Odyssean and “Scherian” tradition at a single position in a single line, with the thematic and structural coherence of the song guaranteed for each of the available choices.

Chapter conclusions

Odysseus’ voyage from Ogygie to Ithake offers a valuable window into the structure of the Odyssey as whole, for in this sequence the relationship between divine plan and narrative plan is revealed more clearly than anywhere else in the poem. Themes introduced in the opening divine council scene in Book 1 are developed further in the complementary council in Book 5, as Athene’s plan for Odysseus is revealed to be dependent on Zeus. Under the guise of merely fleshing out her plan, Zeus implements a plan of his own that goes far beyond Athene’s in detail and scope, in particular because it incorporates the actions of the hero’s divine antagonist, Poseidon. Yet this plan does grant Poseidon the opportunity to attack Odysseus, and in a further council in Book 13, Zeus displays the same ostensibly conciliatory and disinterested attitude toward Poseidon that he does toward Athene.

Zeus’ strategies in his dealings with Athene and Poseidon in the Odyssey are paralleled in the Iliad, though only under certain circumstances. In both poems, Zeus shows deference to subordinate deities when his control over the narrative is not threatened, as is the case with Poseidon’s complaints in Iliad 7 and Odyssey 13. It is when Zeus’ control over the narrative is challenged, as in Iliad 15, that he threatens violence, though such situations do not arise in the Odyssey. Thus the Odyssean divine apparatus can be seen as analogous to that of the Iliad, and distinct only in its more complete suppression of divine conflict.

Because the Odyssey sets most of the return-adventures described in Books 5-13 in a region separate from “real” Greek geography, the narrative is able to avoid engagement with many non-Homeric Odysseus-traditions. Where the Odyssey does confront such a tradition, in the case of the Phaiakes, it deploys Zeus to mediate the relationship between Homeric and non-Homeric accounts. Zeus’ strategy here is to co-opt Poseidon again, granting the subordinate god apparent freedom to follow his own desires but covertly guiding his actions. In Zeus’ crucial speech on the subject, a narrative “switch” seems to have allowed the manipulation of Poseidon to play out in different ways in response to different constituencies in the Homeric audience. When Odysseus does return to the “real world,” however, the Odyssey is forced into overt and comprehensive engagement with parallel traditions, as will be explored in the next chapter.


[ back ] 1. Zielinski 1899-1901; the phenomenon was noted earlier by Kirchoff 1879:196. Among those who favor the application of this “law” to Odyssey 1 and 5 are Scodel 1999a:42-43; Hainsworth CHO 1:251-252; S. Richardson 1990:90-92 and, by implication, Olson 1995:116-118; critical of its application here are Latacz 1996:142 and, by implication, de Jong 2001:124 and Louden 1999:104-122. See Rüter 1969:74 for discussion of Analytic arguments that attribute the two councils to different poets.

[ back ] 2. N. Richardson IC 6:284 ad 24.77-119.

[ back ] 3. The arrangement of themes in the Apologoi and their continuity with the main narrative is explored by Burgess 1999:183-202 (citing analogous themes in Gilgamesh); Louden 1999:27-29; Tracy 1997; Cook 1995:65-92, especially 74-76; Vidal-Naquet 1986:20-24; Whitman 1958:288-289; Heubeck 1954:44-46; Merkelbach 1951:175-198.

[ back ] 4. Jørgensen 1904; cf. Danek 1998:81-83; Cook 1995:179; Clay 1983:21; Erbse 1972:12-13; Dodds 1951:11; Calhoun 1940:268-274; de Jong 2001:310 ad 12.374-90 on the scene with Zeus and Helios. For Nestor as a significant exception, see Chapter 5.

[ back ] 5. I note that the scene with Helios, though not part of the main narrative, represents another point at which Zeus is attracted to a boundary between the Odyssey and non-Homeric Odysseus-traditions: “Thrinikia” was identified in antiquity as “Trinakria,” i.e. Sicily (e.g. Aeneid 3.440; Strabo 6.2.1; Eustathios 1717.25 ad Odyssey 12.127), a fact that could underly Helios’ reference to Hades, to which Sicily was a supposed portal; cf. Ovid Metamorphoses 5.347.

[ back ] 6. Interestingly, Gilgamesh’s journey to the Underworld also takes 18 days (Tablet X iii 49); cf. M. West 1997:406 and 411, who notes the same “time-formula” in reference to a journey on land (IV i 4-5), and attributes its cross-cultural occurrence to coincidence; the formula also describes another interval in the Odyssey (5.278-279~24.63-65).

[ back ] 7. Note that at 13.121 the Homeric narrator attributes the Phaiakes’ return of Odysseus διὰ μεγάθυμον Ἀθήνην, despite the fact that this part of the return plan is specified by Zeus at 5.34-42.

[ back ] 8. On the programmatic nature of this speech, see Hainsworth CHO 1:256 ad 5.22-7 and Rüter 1969:108; on its relationship to the divine council in Book 1, see M. Clark 1997:206-209.

[ back ] 9. Odysseus is similarly remote, in the middle of nowhere on Kalypso’s island (ὀμφαλὸς θαλάσσης, Odyssey 1.50), as are the Phaiakes (ἔσχατοι, 6.205).

[ back ] 10. All the gods have palaces on Olympos (Iliad 1.606-608), though it is not clear where Poseidon is at the beginning of Odyssey 13. After sending the storm against Odysseus in Book 5, he departs for Aigai (5.38), his frequent residence when away from Olympos (Iliad 8.203, 13.21; Homeric Hymn 22.3). For the passage of narrative time here, see de Jong 2001:xii and 321 ad 13.125-38.

[ back ] 11. Thus Danek 1998:266: “Poseidon also distinguishes a possible from an ‘impossible’ alternative: the nostos itself was guaranteed by Zeus, which tallies with the fact that the tradition allowed no version in which Odysseus does not come home” [Poseidon unterscheidet also eine mögliche von einer ,unmöglichen’ Alternative: Der νόστος selbst war durch Zeus gesichert, was damit übereinstimmt, daß die Erzältradition keine Version zuließ, in der Odysseus nicht heimkehrte].

[ back ] 12. Odysseus apparently cannot sleep while he sails (Odyssey 5.271), and of course cannot while he swims.

[ back ] 13. Whether or not Poseidon is understood as referring at Odyssey 13.133 to an “actual” nod given by Zeus, the theme itself suggests the same level of narrative organization implied by Poseidon’s surmise that the gods have “altered their plan” (5.286). Cf. the significance of Zeus’ nod in the Iliad (e.g. 1.514, 524).

[ back ] 14. Maitland 1999:3 and van Wees 1992:111-112 see irritation in Zeus’ words in Iliad 7, though the absence of such animus from the Odyssean passage may argue against this interpretation.

[ back ] 15. For the terms of this exchange see Muellner 1996:28-31; Lowenstam 1993:75-76, 77n45; Janko IC 4:245 ad 15.165-7. The B scholiast to Odyssey 13.142 proposes that the superlative πρεσβύτατον refers not to age but to honor (οὐ καθ᾿ ἡλικίαν ἀλλὰ τιμιώτατον), citing in support Iliad 4.59 (see next note).

[ back ] 16. For the birth story, see Hesiod Theogony 453-497; cf. “Apollodoros” Bibliotheke 1.1.5-2.1. The other Olympians’ double status is exploited in a similar manner in the Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite, which describes Hestia as both eldest and youngest of gods “on account of the plan of Zeus” (Ἱστίηι ἣν πρώτην τέκετο Κρόνος ἀγκυλομήτης/αὖτις δ᾿ ὁπλοτάτην βουλῆι Διὸς αἰγιόχοιο, 22-23; cf. Theogony 454). Here’s claim in the Iliad to be eldest of Kronos’ daughters (με πρεσβυτάτην τέκετο Κρόνος, 4.59) can be validated on similar grounds.

[ back ] 17. M. Clark 1997:206-211 analyzes the repeated elements in Zeus’ instructions to Hermes. The 5.38-40/13.136-138 repetition is partly formulaic (cf. Odyssey 16.231, 23.341), but at three lines is one of the longer groupings of exact versus iterati outside the context of messages that are dictated and then delivered. My approach here is informed by that of Lowenstam 1993:9, who argues that “a significant detail, a pattern of events, or a series of narrative details might be repeated within a work to present a comparison or contrast with the preceding material or to foreshadow an upcoming event;” cf. Nagler 1974:200-201. On the significance of Homeric ring-structure see Louden 1999:1-3, 43-45; Lohmann 1970, esp. 12-40.

[ back ] 18. Peradotto 1990:78 observes apropos of the Book 13 passage that “Poseidon’s pleasure is precisely to fulfill the terms of Nausithous’s prophecy”; similarly Cook 1995:123-127; Friedrich 1989:396. The blinding of the Kyklops also fulfills a prophecy revealed by a seer (9.507-512), and Odysseus is himself unaware that he is the instrument of its fulfillment.

[ back ] 19. Cunliffe ἀμφικαλύπτω s.v. (3), citing only passages relating to Poseidon’s attack on the Phaiakes (Odyssey 8.569, 13.152, 158, 177, 183), deduces the meaning “to put around (something) so as to isolate (it),” in which case the Phaiakes could be said to survive, even reading μετά or μέγα. However, the closest parallel for this meaning in other contexts is “cover to protect” in descriptions of Ajax’ shield (Iliad 8.331=13.420); and the mountain is not protection. Other Homeric uses of this verb, on the other hand, involve destruction: death “covers” warriors (e.g. Iliad 5.68); the Trojan polis “covers,” i.e. accepts within its walls, the Trojan horse (Odyssey 8.511).

[ back ] 20. The lemma for the scholion is 13.152, the nearly identical line from Poseidon’s proposal; but since it would be out of place for Poseidon to propose not to do something, the emendation to 158 adopted by Nauck and von der Mühll is certain.

[ back ] 21. Representative modern arguments in support of the received text in Peradotto 1990:78-80 and Erbse 1972:145-148; in support of Aristophanes’ reading, Dougherty 2001:155; Cook 1995:124n36; Louden 1999:144n103; Friedrich 1989; Hoekstra CHO 2:173 ad 13.125-87 is agnostic. For an earlier perspective, see Eustathios 1737.20-30. M. West 1997:424, following Gordon 1962:110-111, 232, notes a striking parallel with a Middle Egyptian (ca. 2000 BCE) folktale in which the sole survivor of a seastorm is marooned on an island, from which he escapes with the help a friendly serpent; afterward, the island is prophesied to turn into water.

[ back ] 22. A point emphasized by e.g. Louden 1999:20-25; Cook 1995:123-127; Clay 1983:230; Erbse 1972:24.

[ back ] 23. Eustathios (1796.40-42) cites Aristotle and Hellanikos as sources for a version of “post-Odyssean” events in which Telemachos marries Nausikaa. If Telemachos relocates to Scherie, this tradition may be connected with “Apollodoros’” Thesprotian version, since it can explain why Odysseus returns to Ithake to find Poliporthes in charge; see Chapter 4 n12.

[ back ] 24. This argument is made by Erbse 1972:145-148 and criticized by Friedrich 1989:396n6. To be weighed against the latter’s privileging of the fact that the prophecy is not actually fulfilled within the narrative are instances where the fulfillment of plans discussed but not narrated is assured, such as the aforementioned destruction of Troy and the pacification of Ithake at the end of the Odyssey.

[ back ] 25. Aristophanes’ methodology is discussed by Nagy 2004:110-128. Among Alexandrine scholars, Aristophanes may have been rather conservative; Pfeiffer 1968:173-174 and n8, for instance, contrasts Aristophanes’ concern with παλαιὰ γραφή with Zenodotos’ penchant for διόρθωσις.

[ back ] 26. Nagy 1979:43: “Any theme is but a multiform, and not one of the multiforms can be considered a functional ‘Ur-form’.”

[ back ] 27. E.g. Thucydides 1.25.4, 3.70.4; among later authors, cf. Kallimachos Aitia fr. 12; Aeneid 3.289-293 (in which it is not made clear whether the aerias Phaeacum arces are inhabited); Strabo 7.3.6. The link between the Phaiakes and Corcyra is discussed by Malkin 1998:111-112, 190, 195; Hoekstra in CHO 2:174 ad 13.157-8; Peradotto 1990:79-81. Some ancient writers located Scherie nearer Italy; see Wolf and Wolf 1968:82-89.

[ back ] 28. The double harbor on Scherie is not unique in the Odyssey: the suitors lay their ambush for Telemachos at a place called Asteris, which is described as having λιμένες δ᾿ ἔνι ναύλοχοι αὐτῆι/ἀμφίδυμοι (4.846-847).

[ back ] 29. Note Thucydides’ use of the term κλέος, which suggests a medium through which such traditions were likely preserved, namely, epic poetry (cf. Iliad 9.189).

[ back ] 30. The historical and mythical strands are interwoven in Strabo 6.2.4; see also Pausanias 2.5.2. For a historical perspective on myths about Corinth’s foundation of Corcyra, see Salmon 1984:65-70.

[ back ] 31. Thucydides 3.70.4, describing a Corcyran accused of cutting stakes ἐκ τοῦ τε Διὸς τοῦ τεμένους καὶ τοῦ Ἀλκίνου. As Malkin 1998:102n47 observes, Thucydides seems to view the cult as well-established.

[ back ] 32. Salmon 1984:270-280.

[ back ] 33. Corinth is mentioned only twice in Homeric epic (Iliad 2.570, 13.664); see Malkin 1998:133-134 for Odysseus in Corinthian tradition.

[ back ] 34. Note also that the outcome of Odysseus’ interaction with the Phaiakes in the Odyssey is positioned to supersede or at least to complicate traditions that make them hosts to the Argonauts and coinhabitants with Colchians (e.g. Naupaktia 145-149 Davies; Apollonios 4.1176-1222).