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.

Divine plan and narrative plan

Thus far I have argued that the Dios boulē theme serves two interconnected functions in the Odyssey: it lends shape and coherence to the narrative, and it mediates the Odyssey’s relationship to other Odysseus-traditions. The attraction of Zeus to the interface between the Homeric and non-Homeric accounts I have explained in terms of the Panhellenic orientation of the former: the Odyssey was crafted to appeal to heterogeneous audiences familiar with, and patriotically attached to, differing epichoric accounts of the Trojan War. To sum up my argument in a single, if unwieldy, sentence: the Dios boulē theme is a Panhellenic and proto-Panhellenic realization of a traditional way of conceptualizing ancient Greek epic narratives.

Such interpretations are naturally incapable of proof due to the dearth of ancient Greek testimony on the practical aspects of poetics. Yet in order for my, or any, model of the Odyssey’s narrative structure to be plausible, it is necessary to consider how concepts that have been deduced from textual evidence could have arisen and functioned in the oral tradition from which the texts derive. Some of these issues were raised in the Introduction, when I considered the potential for subtext in a medium without texts. As a kind of summary of my findings in general, I return in this chapter to the significance of the plan, and of Zeus, for composition-in-performance of epics like the Odyssey.

An at least partial reason why a composer, or a narrative tradition, might bother to elaborate so formalized a conception of a song can, I propose, be found in the mechanics of oral poetry. Specifically, comparison with living (or recently deceased) epic traditions, for which first-person accounts of the practical aspects of poetics are available, suggests that the overarching perspective that I have identified in the Homeric Dios boulē theme is a broader phenomenon, and is indeed essential to the composition-in-performance of extended oral narratives. Thus, even if my model overestimates the significance of Zeus in the Odyssey, I maintain that the operation of some other character or principle must be inferred that carries out the functions I assign to the Dios boulē.

The Dios boulēin performance

The deployment of an overarching theme is a core concept in Albert Lord’s model of oral composition-in performance, for it is in this theme that he located the identity of a song. Employing the comparative methodology pioneered by his teacher Milman Parry, Lord deduced from then flourishing South Slavic epic traditions some general principles concerning this level of narrative structure that he then applied to the Homeric epics. A traditional singer’s perspective on the subject is documented in one of Lord’s earlier publications:

A Yugoslav singer told me last year that when he learned a new song he made no attempt at word-for-word memorization but learned only the “plan” of the song, which he explained as “the arrangement of the events.” This plan he then proceeded to fill in with the themes which he already knew. [1]

As this singer explained it, the identity and stability of an orally composed and transmitted narrative is founded, not on verbatim adherence to an archetypal composition, but on a different unit of content, the “plan.” Here we may wonder whether Lord’s translation of the Slavic singer’s category with this particular English word is not in part conditioned by his own familiarity with Homeric epic, specifically the Διὸς δ’ ἐτελείετο βουλή of the Iliad proem. [

Subsequent research has corroborated Lord’s findings and established a broader comparative perspective for his model of composition-in-performance. Relevant here is the work of David Rubin, a cognitive psychologist who has applied models and methods developed in his own field to the study of memory in oral traditions, including ballads and nursery rhymes as well as epics. His understanding of large-scale structure in orally composed and transmitted narratives is that

By way of translation, Rubin’s “systems” as I understand them are functionally equivalent to Lord’s “themes,” which are defined as “basic units of content” that manifest varying capacities to organize a song. [
6] Likewise, what Lord described as a song’s “plan” can be rendered in Rubin’s terms an overarching system, which interacts with the song’s sub-systems, its “spatial and object systems,” and with the broader systems of communication in the context of which the song arises.

In this latter respect, Rubin’s concept of the “boundary” is especially useful, for it describes one of the two functions that, according to my own model, Zeus performs in the Odyssey. The boundary in the first place separates the narrative from what precedes and follows it; as we have seen, the distinction of the Odyssey from previous and succeeding events is effected by Zeus in the divine council scenes in Books 1 and 24. And again, the boundary also distinguishes the Odyssey from parallel Odysseus-traditions; it is in this capacity that I have analyzed Zeus’ role in the fate of the Phaiakes and in the cycle of reciprocal violence on Ithake. Lastly, the boundary can also be assimilated to the concept of the “facts” of the larger tradition, in that its operation implies the systematization of narrative possibilities at a level that transcends any one performer, performance, or narrative.

Plan and boundary, then, can be understood as different aspects of what is, from a functional perspective, the same theme. The special nature of this theme is apparent in its scope when compared with an epic’s other themes or systems, that is, its formulas, type-scenes, and larger patterns such as withdrawal-and-return. The plan alone embraces the entire narrative and therefore has the unique potential to impinge on all other themes.

Zeus Panhellenikos

Its centrality to the Odyssey aside, the Dios boulē was not, according to my model, the only, or even the most common, form that the essential plan theme assumed in the ancient Greek epic tradition. Rather, I have suggested that equation of Zeus’ divine plan with the epic narrative plan was a specifically Panhellenic phenomenon. Panhellenism is often understood as a synthetic process, whereby epichoric traditions were blended into narratives and practices that emphasized similarities and downplayed differences. Many aspects of the Olympian system can indeed be explained in this way. Thus the gods who appear in the epics are those who were worshipped in one form or another in most or all Greek communities, to the exclusion of more localized deities, such as the Cretan-Aiginetan Britomartis or Boiotian-Thessalian Kabeiroi. Likewise, the Homeric (and Hesiodic) gods are departicularized: Poseidon, for instance, appears in his widely recognized role as sea-god, while his less common association with horse cult is largely unobserved. The Panhellenic synthesis can in these respects be understood as an abstraction from the prevailing beliefs about the gods in Greece at the time when the epics were taking shape.

Among the elements of continuity in religion from the Late Bronze Age to the Classical period, if we except the evidence of the epics themselves, is Zeus’ lack of prominence as suggested by the Linear B documents, which obtains throughout the Archaic and Classical periods. For again, deities that are represented as subordinate to Zeus in the epics played a more prominent role than him in Greek religious life. This conclusion emerges clearly from an analysis of the most complete tabulation of the post-Bronze Age religious archaeology of ancient Greece to date, Alexander Mazarakis Ainian’s massive survey of 304 Early Iron Age to archaic sites in mainland Greece, Ionia, and Magna Graecia:

Survey Early Iron Age to Archaic period sanctuaries and cult sites [15]

divine dedicatee number of sites associated with dedicatee
Apollo 44
Athene 33
Artemis 32
Demeter 18
Zeus 17
Here 12
Aphrodite 9
Poseidon 7
Dionysos 6
Hermes 3
Ares 1
Hephaistos 1
subtotal: 186
other deities or heroes 86
unidentified 87
total attributions: 359

In a synthetic, Panhellenic narrative, then, Zeus’ plans either gratify or frustrate other gods’ “local” aims, aligning the narrative with, or distancing it from, various epichoric traditions. More figuratively, as the plan of Zeus sanctions a series of negotiations among the local and competing aims of lesser divinities, the Homeric epics themselves represent by analogy Panhellenic syntheses of conflicting epichoric traditions. That is, conflicts among epichoric traditions are dramatized in the Panhellenic epics as conflicts among poliad deities and of these deities with Zeus. Zeus himself, on the other hand, being relatively free of epichoric attachments, subsumes competing aims and authorizes a coherent path through the tangle of parallel narrative possibilities. By presenting a song as a “plan of Zeus,” then, an epic singer could draw attention away from the variety of beliefs and practices with which the members of individual Greek poleis identified, in order to create for the emerging Panhellenic elite a synthetic vision of Hellenicity.


I have tried in this chapter to frame my interpretation of Zeus’ role in the Odyssey in terms of the epic’s status as a traditional orally-derived text that was intended to appeal to a Panhellenic audience. I note that my approach here combines synchronic and diachronic perspectives. As a tool or strategy of performance, the Dios boulē theme in the Odyssey can be seen as one aspect of a synchronic “snapshot” of the Homeric performance tradition. On the other hand, as a specifically Panhellenic construct, the Dios boulē can be seen as a mechanism that evolved diachronically in response to historical developments in Greek religion and in performance contexts for epic narratives.

The overarching Dios boulē theme in the Odyssey, then, is both an essential feature of epic composition-in-performance and a manifestation of a specifically Panhellenic (and proto-Panhellenic) perspective on the defining event of ancient Greek mythical history, the Trojan War. Thus the main story is tied to Zeus, first with his programmatic Oresteia, from which an outline of the Telemachia and Mnesterophonia can be deduced, again in Book 5, where the god himself defines the terms of the hero’s return, including an opening for the Apologoi sequence, which in turn reifies the themes that inform the main narrative, and lastly at the end of the story, where Zeus is deployed in order to achieve closure in a manner consistent with the themes that he has been identified with throughout the narrative. Thus the Dios boulē theme offers to performers and to audiences a unifying perspective on the action, and a convenient way to conceptualize, and to keep track of, themes that are essential to the Homeric version of Odysseus’ story.

The manner in which Zeus exerts this control over the Odyssean narrative is notable for its subtlety. Rather than issuing decrees, as he regularly does in the Iliad, Zeus in the Odyssey relies on Athene to pick up on verbal cues, so that her interests are organically subsumed under his own. Zeus employs the same delicacy with which he handles the goddess of mētis when he deals with the other major divine character in the Odyssey, Poseidon, the bluff god of biē. Zeus’ plan for Odysseus’ return incorporates Poseidon’s wishes, and even relies on him as an agent. The angry god Helios is treated with similar finesse in Book 12. In each of these cases, the subordinate deities’ narrow perspectives and parochial interests can be compared to “epichoric viewpoints.” That is, the Dios boulē theme in the Odyssey embraces and imposes order on Odysseus-tradition in a manner analogous to Zeus’ coordination of Athene’s, Poseidon’s, and Helios’ competing concerns.

I have suggested that the relationship between divine plan and narrative plan in the Odyssey is obscured for those outside the tradition by the economy and strategy of Zeus’ interactions with other gods. For those within the tradition, however, ancient Greeks who were familiar with narratives like the Iliad and the Kypria, there may have been the expectation that a Panhellenic narrative would have as its “internal” architect the supreme god Zeus. By Panhellenic convention, in other words, gods that are in other contexts poliads come into conflict over the fate of a hero, while the relatively less partisan Zeus decides the issue.

To return to an earlier formulation, Zeus’ harmonization of the conflicting aims of Athene and Poseidon in the Odyssey can be seen as a staged metaphor for the process of the Odyssey’s own composition and for the evolution of its Panhellenic perspective. As the epic Zeus manipulates and cajoles other deities into furthering his plan within the narrative, the Odyssey finesses, as far as possible, the competing claims of non-Homeric traditions, according to each as much recognition and authority as Homeric thematics allow.


[ back ] 1. Lord 1951:74.

[ back ] 2. See for instance Lord 1960:188-189.

[ back ] 3. Lord 1960:99.

[ back ] 4. Lord 1960:113, 123; cf. Finnegan 1977:134-169.

[ back ] 5. Rubin 1995:96-97; for his debt to Lord see 4-9, 137-141.

[ back ] 6. See Lord 1960:68-69 for this definition of “theme.”

[ back ] 7. Rubin 1995:95-96.

[ back ] 8. In cognitive-psychological terms, basic themes or systems, e.g. meter, reside in “implicit memory;” the plan, by contrast, resides in “explicit memory;” see Rubin 1995:191.

[ back ] 9. On the functional nature of a divine apparatus in an oral medium cf. M. Edwards 1987:131-134, Havelock 1961:169-171. Admittedly, Lord himself considered Zeus’ speech at the beginning of the Odyssey to be “ornamental” (1951:76; see Chapter 3 n8), but I respectfully submit that, on this particular occasion, my interpretation of the Odyssey is closer to the spirit of Lord’s model than is his own.

[ back ] 10. Thus for instance Sourvinou-Inwood 1988:259 argues that “the polis provided the fundamental, basic framework in which Greek religion operated, [and it] anchored and legitimated, and mediated, all religious activity.”

[ back ] 11. Thus Hall 1997:101 argues that “on the ritual level at which Greek religion ultimately operated, there is little evidence that the Homeric vision of the society of gods, headed by the patriarchal Zeus, found much of an early material realisation in the cultic geography of the various Greek poleis.”

[ back ] 12. Zeus’ shrine at Pylos: Mb1366, An42; Tn316; month named for Zeus at Knossos: Fp5; personal names: Thebes, Ug11, Of26, Of33; Knossos, Vc293; Mykene Oe103; Zeus and Here: Tn316 (Here appears to have been worshipped in Thebes also, Of28, and perhaps Knossos, Da 1323, Fh 357); Zeus-derived goddess: Pylos, An607, Tn316, Cn1287; Knossos, Xd97 (this deity may resurface as Dione, the mother by Zeus of Aphrodite at Iliad 5.370-417 (cf. Hesiod Theogony 17), and as Zeus’ consort at the oracle of Dodona); “son of Zeus”: PY172 = Tn316 (Burkert 1985 43, 46; contrast Palmer 1963 264 with Ventris and Chadwick 1973 s.v. i-je–we); sacrifice to “all gods”: e.g. Fp1+, Gg705; “mother of gods”: Fr1202; divine triad at Thebes: Fq121. Discussion in Schachter 2000; Ventris and Chadwick 1973:125-126, 286-289; Mylonas 1966:158-161; Palmer 1963:235-268 passim.

[ back ] 13. Cf. Palmer 1963:103; Schachter 2000:15.

[ back ] 14. My understanding of the post-Bronze Age “collapse” has been informed in particular by Morris 2000:195-198; Shelmerdine 1997:580-584; Snodgrass 1980:20-23.

[ back ] 15. Mazarakis Ainian 1997:420-424; cf. Coldstream 1977:327-328. My tabulation includes every possible attribution to a deity at a given site; thus some sites are counted more than once, which is why the 359 total attributions exceed the 304 sites actually considered. My category “other deities and heroes” includes Mazarakis Ainian’s attributions to hero, chthonic, household, and ancestor cults, as well as to (relatively rare) non-Olympians such as Pan; under “unidentified” I include cases where cult activity cannot be established with certainty. Omitted are sites for which Mazarakis Ainian cites only Homeric authority.

[ back ] 16. For Poseidon’s association with Ionia see Herodotos 1.148; Burkert 1985:136.

[ back ] 17. Morgan 1990:26-29, who suggests that Zeus may have been worshipped more as an agriculture deity in the period before the relatively late appearance of his cult in civic contexts.

[ back ] 18. 8th-century stone temples: Snodgrass 1980:33-34, 58-62, 141-149; Mazarakis Ainian 1997:425.

[ back ] 19. Zeus’ lack of poliad status is observed by e.g. Burkert 1985:130; de Polignac 1995; Graf OCD3 s.v. “Zeus.” Note that Zeus’ post-Classical role as poliad occurs at colonies, such as Baktria, whose settlers were drawn from many poleis – that is, the populations of these later colonies were Panhellenic.

[ back ] 20. Zeus Herkeios: Odyssey 22.334-335; Athenaion Politeia 55.3 (on qualification for archonship). Xenios: Odyssey 14.389; cf. Burkert 1985:248. Ktesios: Isaios 8.15-16. Soter: Xenophon Anabasis 3.2.9. Hiketesios: Odyssey 16.422-423. Polis-sanctioned worship of Zeus Olympios and Polios, at least in Athens, dates to the sixth-century; cf. Simon 1983:15-16 and Parke 1967:144-145 (contra: Robertson 1992:139-140). Cults of Zeus Agoraios (“of the market”), attested in Sparta, Elis, and Thebes (Pausanias 3.11.9, 5.15.4, and 11.24.1, respectively), presumably date to a similar period.

[ back ] 21. Contra: Morris 1998:55, who suggests that Dodona was a regional center already in the tenth century, despite the lack of evidence he acknowledges earlier in his article (42).

[ back ] 22. For Olympia and Dodona see Chapter 4; for the cult of Here at Olympia, see Mazarakis Ainian 1997:323 and Morgan 1990:42.

[ back ] 23. The emergence of Olympia, Dodona, and Nemea as fully Panhellenic only in the late Archaic period corresponds chronologically with the emergence of Panhellenic sites dedicated to other deities, such as Apollo at Delos (Morgan 1990:205-208) and Delphi (Fontenrose 1988:121, 125), Isthmia (Morgan 1994, esp. 121-125), and Poseidon at the Panionion.

[ back ] 24. Morgan 1993:130 urges that “it would be wrong to assume that a pan-Hellenic system of values had early origins, or that pan-Hellenic sanctuaries were pre-state institutions.”

[ back ] 25. Cf. Burkert 1985:130: “Zeus is…uniquely qualified to be the god of all Greeks.”

[ back ] 26. Thus for example the cognate ancient Indic god Dyaus is a minor character in the Vedas, while in the Germanic pantheon the thunder god Thor is subordinate to the war god Odin, and the earliest account of the their pantheon ranks the Gauls’ equivalent of Iuppiter below that of Mercury (Caesar Gallic Wars 6.16-17). On the obsolesence of sky gods, see Nagy 1990b:94-95n53.

[ back ] 27. Not to be confused with the Roman-period cult of Zeus Panhellenios, on which see Price 1999:157.

[ back ] 28. Marks 2002 explores Zeus’ role in the Kypria.

[ back ] 29. An argument made forcefully by Griffin 1977.

[ back ] 30. Cook 1995:121-127 draws attention to the importance for the Odyssey’s theodicy of the fact that Zeus (rather than Helios) destroys the last of Odysseus’ crew.