Eve of the Festival: Making Myth in Odyssey 19

  Levaniouk, Olga. 2011. Eve of the Festival: Making Myth in Odyssey 19. Hellenic Studies Series 46. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies. http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hul.ebook:CHS_Levaniouk.Eve_of_the_Festival.2011.


My goal has been to contribute to the understanding of the dialogue between Penelope and Odysseus in Book 19 by looking at its mythic aspects. In Homeric poetry, evocation of myth is a diachronic phenomenon: it can accumulate in a poem, or rather, evolve with the poem, so that there are layers of evocation in the dialogue that are likely to represent a span of its development but that nevertheless constitute an organic whole. Homeric references to myth are also, synchronically, a poetic instrument of great range, flexibility, and precision. Mythological variation, selection between versions, genre appropriation, and evocation of myth and ritual are only some of the ways in which myths are used in Homer, both by the narrative voice and by the characters who speak in myths to each other. It seems most likely that the poets who performed epic poetry lived in a world of divergent, conflicting, competing, and evolving local mythologies, and that their experience with this world, which they helped create, is reflected in the way myth behaves in Homer. Some stylized reflection of this world may be seen in the way Odysseus and Penelope converse through myth in Odyssey 19.

I have argued that in the dialogue the myths can evoke not only other poetic but also other ritual contexts to which they are related. By becoming part of panhellenic poetry, these myths need not lose all ties to ritual, but rather can transform these ties into a register of poetic language. Indeed, a complex relationship between myth and ritual may even be enacted in the Odyssey, with Apollo’s festival becoming a focal point that notionally brings together various myths told and alluded to in the poem. The festival of Apollo in the Odyssey is the only festival of a god mentioned in Homer, and while its importance has long been recognized, its far-reaching effects are still not fully explored. [1] The festival places Apollo in a role quite unlike that of Athena, Hermes, Zeus, or Poseidon, the gods who appear as characters in the poem. Apollo himself is conspicuously absent, and this physical absence {319|320} paradoxically makes him into a particularly powerful divine presence in the Odyssey. Odysseus relates to Athena in a way that presumably no member of the audience could recognize from personal experience: Athena ordinarily does not come down to sit and talk with mortals under olive trees. Apollo, on the other hand, is present in the poem in a way much more recognizable as an actual religious experience, through manifestations of his power and through being worshipped at a festival.

The festival has loomed large in my discussion of the dialogue, but one could go much further. In these concluding remarks I touch on a few of these possibilities. It may be possible to establish more correspondences between the festival in the Odyssey and such information as we have about the actual festivals of Apollo, though this would be a task of great complexity, since there is epigraphic, archaeological, prosaic, and poetic evidence for such festivals, early and late, and its different pieces come from such diverse times and places as to make any generalization hazardous, if not pointless.

We have seen that the dialogue between Penelope and Odysseus is deeply connected with the timing of the festival, since it is here that Odysseus predicts his own return at the end of the current lukabas, which coincides with the festival, and here that Penelope makes her decision to announce the bow contest. There is also a larger rhythm than the transition from one month to the next, though less directly indicated. Signs of spring accumulate in the poem as the festival of Apollo approaches, and one of the signs is Penelope’s mention of the nightingale, who sings ‘when the spring has just begun’ (Odyssey 19.519).

In the Odyssey too, the relations between sexes are altered as the festival approaches. In the Argonautica the jeers exchanged by the Argonauts and the women are accompanied with laughter and described as sweet by Apollonius (γλυκερὴ . . . κερτομίη, 4.1725–26). There is little sweet in the abuse exchanged between Odysseus and the maids on Ithaca, and yet this may be a difference between more or less mythic versus more or less ritual perspectives. Certainly, an abusive exchange between Odysseus and the women precedes his victory at Apollo’s festival and his reunion with Penelope.

On Lemnos the proceedings end in sex between the Argonauts and the women, and it seems safe to assume that on Anaphe the sexes also reconcile in the end. In the Odyssey, Penelope and the maids seem to represent two different manifestations of the feminine, two separate sides that elsewhere can be combined. This notion would fit well here: Odysseus exchanges abuse with the maids, but makes love to Penelope. On the other hand, though it is a far cry from merry festival banter, the very dialogue between Odysseus and Penelope fits, in its own way, into the same structure. The dialogue is antagonistic, but also results in growing proximity between Penelope and Odysseus and constitutes a large first step on the way to their marital bed. As I have argued, the dialogue may even contain echoes of wedding songs and pre-wedding themes.

The dialogue between Penelope and Odysseus is thus a prelude to the resumption of their marriage, and this too is consonant with the festival of {321|322} Apollo. Apollo’s best-known aspect is his concern with the transition of male youths to full adulthood, and marriage is a consequence of this transition. There are some indications that prospects of weddings are in the air at various festivals of Apollo. A Hellenistic epigram by Phaidimos urges Apollo not to aim his bow at giants or wolves, but to shoot a shaft of love at the young unmarried men of Skhoinos, so that they may defend their fatherland emboldened by their love. [5] It has been suggested that a festival of Apollo is presupposed by the epigram, and may be even a local custom of arranging marriages at this festival. [6] This connection between love and Apollo can be viewed in conjunction with a recurrent mythic story-pattern, in which boy meets girl and falls in love at a festival of the god. The most famous example is the story of Acontius and Cydippe as told by Callimachus: Acontius falls in love with Cydippe when both attend a festival of Apollo and Artemis on Delos, and Acontius in the end gains her hand in marriage by a trick. [7] Antoninus Liberalis preserves a similar story about Ctesylla and Hermochares, who meet at a festival of Apollo on Ceos, and here again the boy falls in love with the girl and finds a way to compel her father to arrange their marriage. [8] Hermochares sees Ctesylla as she dances by the altar of Apollo in Karthaia, while Acontius and Cydippe meet at Delos. In both cases Artemis is also involved: the girl is tricked into an oath to marry the boy and swears by the goddess or in her sanctuary.

The conjunction of themes here is reminiscent of the Odyssey, where Odysseus meets Nausikaa in a scene resonant with premonitions of wedding, and compares her both to Artemis and to a young palm he saw by the altar of Apollo at Delos. The Apollo who appears in Demodokos’ song of Ares and Aphrodite is certainly an Apollo with love on his mind, since he asks Hermes what he would give to lie next to Aphrodite. No wedding happens on Skheria, but there are suitors vying for Nausikaa’s hand and her father offers her to Odysseus. Much of what happens between Odysseus and Nausikaa is echoed on Ithaca, so that the Phaeacian princess acquires a surprising connection to Penelope, as if she is playing a role that vitally concerns Penelope, but which Odysseus’ wedded wife cannot play. And there are hints of Nausikaa in Penelope, for example, when the latter is compared to Artemis and Aphrodite as she impresses the suitors and Odysseus on the eve of Apollo’s festival {322|323} (Odyssey 17.37). The comparison seems to put her in the role of a parthenos, transitioning from the realm of Artemis to that of Aphrodite, and it is repeated exactly when Penelope comes out in Book 19 to talk to Odysseus (19.54). The two episodes involving Nausikaa and Penelope respectively are linked by a striking transformation of Odysseus into a youthful man with hyacinth-like hair tumbling down his shoulders (6.231, 23.158), a sign, it has been argued, of sexual attractiveness, and also perhaps a detail evocative of Apollo. [9] In this setting, the dialogue in Book 19 emerges as an interaction that is, along with everything else it is, a clandestine courtship, an agon between sexes, a meeting that leads to marriage. The eve of Apollo’s festival is not only a superbly fitting, but also most likely a traditional setting for such a meeting.

Two beasts play a dominant role in several myths of these hunts, the boar and the lion, and there are examples that suggest a connection between the hunt, marriage, and festival of Apollo. Statius (Thebaid 1.557–668) may preserve just such a myth: Tydeus and Polyneices arrive at Argos during a celebration of Apollo’s festival, compete in wrestling, and are recognized by Adrastus by the emblems on their shields as the lion and the boar who are supposed to {323|324} marry his two daughters according to Apollo’s prophecy. It has been suggested that the arrival of two de facto suitors makes Statius’ Apollo festival into a “betrothal banquet,” and that such banquets regularly take place at Apollo’s festivals, the suitors’ feasting included. [11] The setting, in Statius at least, is a festival in early spring, since everyone is wearing crowns of laurel, and, as in the Odyssey, the weather is bad. [12] Inclement weather is also part of Manses’ telling of the story, where the two heroes fight for the hides of boar and lion that are dedicated at Apollo’s temple, a detail that emphasizes their identification with the animals. [13] A spring festival of Apollo, stormy weather, and marriage is a nexus of themes certainly reminiscent of the Odyssey, and it may not be a coincidence that there too both the lion and the boar make appearances. As he approaches Nausikaa on Skheria, Odysseus is compared to the lion (6.130–134), uniquely in the Odyssey, while on Ithaca the dialogue between him and Penelope is split in two by recollection of his identity-forming boar-hunt. In all accounts, the identity of the hero and the beast is strongly felt, and so is Apollo’s presence. The place where Odysseus hunts is none other than the setting to Apollo’s Delphic shrine, Mount Parnassus, and the place where he received his wound was shown at Delphi in Pausanias’ time. [14]

I have kept closer to the dialogue itself while trying to trace its mythology in some detail. It is a truism to say that the conversation in Book 19 is only comprehensible in its context. The question is rather what constitutes the context. My contention is that along with the immediate dramatic context of the Odyssey the dialogue is also taking place in a complex mythic context, in a landscape of tradition, or rather, of many cooperating and competing traditions that contribute to the formation of the Homeric epic. These include not {324|325} only strictly speaking the traditions of epic poetry, but more generally those of myth and cult, because myths can bring into Homeric poetry their ritual associations and their power as special speech, which is more evident in local contexts.

There is no gap between the two contexts: it is not that the sophisticated verbal exchange of the poem’s protagonists only happens on one level, while the diachronic dimension of the Odyssean myths are confined to another. Instead, I argue that there is a complete interpenetration of these layers, if indeed they are layers at all. There is consequently no gap between studying the Odyssey in its relations to myth and cult and the kind of analysis that centers on the poem itself, the actions and characters, their manner of speaking, and the verbal subtleties of their conversations. It is not the case that the dialogue between Odysseus and Penelope is simply highly artful poetry superimposed on the bare bones of mythological background. On the contrary, there is no way to dissociate the dialogue from its mythological resonances: part of its artfulness in fact consists of the poetic treatment of the myths, most clearly manifested by choosing between different versions, but also by evocative detail that brings certain myths to mind. Penelope and Odysseus talk in a mythic setting and they talk in myths; these myths resonate in turn with their present context, evoking still others, and the meaning of the dialogue is inseparable from this process. {325|}


[ back ] 1. For a recent overall analysis of the festival see Detienne 1998:41–61. The festival is commented upon by Wilamowitz 1884:53–55, 1927:91–92, and Otto 1981 [1929]:93. See also Austin 1975:238–253.

[ back ] 2. E.g. Apellaios in Delphi, Apellonios in Elis, Apellaion on Tenos etc. See Versnel 1993:297 with references. On Delos, the beginning of the local calendar was marked by a new-moon festival of the month Lenaion, (roughly, last half of January and the first half of February), a festival in honor of Leto, Apollo, and Artemis: Bruneau 1970:91–93. On ritual activity associated with the Leto and the birth of Apollo and Artemis at Ortygia near Ephesos see Versnel 1993:298 and n31.

[ back ] 3. See Bremmer 2005.

[ back ] 4. Erginos: Pindar Olympian 4.18-21 and Scholia on 4.19 (scholion 32c), Callimachus fr. 669 Pf. See Burkert 1970 and Bremmer 2005:30 for interpretation. Odysseus: Odyssey 8.158–164, 18.321–336, 19.65–69, and 369–375. On ridicule in the Odyssey, and especially on ridicule as an aspect of blame poetry, see Nagy 1979:256–264.

[ back ] 5. Anthologia Palatina 13.22. See Robertson 1991:33, with references. Although I do not agree with all of the conclusions, I am much indebted to this work for its discussion of parallels to the Odyssean Apollo festival, which Robertson regards as an instance of the “betrothal symposium.”

[ back ] 6. Robertson 1991:33.

[ back ] 7. Callimachus Aetia 3 frs. 66–75.

[ back ] 8. Antoninus Liberalis 41, with reference to the third book of Nicander’s Heteroeumena.

[ back ] 9. See above pp67-68.

[ back ] 10. For example, in a myth recorded by Pausanias (1.41.3–4, Dieukhidas FGrH 485 F 10) a Megarian king gives his daughter’s hand to the man who can kill a lion, which has previously killed the king’s son. The successful suitor, Alcathous, then dedicates a shrine to Artemis Agrotera and Apollo Agraios, two deities of the hunt. The hunter/suitor Alcathous, is in fact strongly connected to Apollo: cf. Pausanias’ report of a local story in which Apollo helped Alcathous build the wall of Megara’s citadel. Megarian Apollo may have something to do with transition from one generation to the next, and continuity or lack thereof in such transitions. Alcathous becomes the king of Megara by marriage, because the previous kings’ two sons are killed, one by the lion and another by Theseus. Alcathous hunts down the lion and becomes king, but then goes on to repeat the fate of his father-in-law. His elder son is slain by the Calydonian boar. The younger one runs to tell the father the grim news just as Alcathous prepares to sacrifice to Apollo, and the son flings the logs from the sacrificial fire before speaking. Not knowing the reason for this son’s action, the angry father kills him on the spot by striking him with one of the logs. Cf. the prospect of failed generational transition from Odysseus to Telemachus (though it is not Odysseus who endangers Telemachus’ life) and its prominence in the dialogue in Book 19.

[ back ] 11. Robertson 1991:29–30.

[ back ] 12. Statius, Thebaid 1.554–555, 342–389, 403–407, 454–456. See Robertson 1991:29–30 for discussion and comparison with the Odyssean festival.

[ back ] 13. Mnases fr. 48 Müller, Scholia to Euripides Phoenician Women 409.

[ back ] 14. Pausanias 10.8.8.

[ back ] 15. Odysseus’ bow comes from Eurytos, who is said to have challenged Apollo in archery with dire results for himself (8.226–228). On the bow, see Griffin 1989, Detienne 1998:60–61, Russo 2004.