The Myth of Return in Early Greek Epic


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Since much of the following study will have to do with the Odyssey, it is fitting to begin with an observation on the first line of this poem. When at the very outset Homer calls his hero polútropos,one cannot tell whether he intends this to mean “very wily” or “much-wandering,” for both of these meanings are possible and both suit Odysseus equally well. One strongly suspects, however, that the ambiguity itself is what Homer intended—that he chose the word polútropos precisely because it captures two such basic features of his hero: what he is (“wily”) and what he does (“wander”).

The main argument of this book is that the connection suggested by Homer between the “wiles” and the “wanderings” of Odysseus in fact rested upon an earlier tradition both significant and deep. The origin of this tradition has to do with the etymology of the Greek word nóos, “mind,” which I propose to connect with the Greek verb néomai, “return home.” Such an effort requires that nóos be reconstructed as *nos-os, a derivative from the verbal root *nes-.

The significance of this proposal for the tradition underlying the Odyssey is clear. It implies that the connection still felt by Homer between the “wiliness” and the “wandering” of Odysseus goes back to a fundamental connection between “mind” and “returning home,” and that the relation between what Odysseus “is” and what he “does” has a solid basis in the history of the Greek language.

It will not be denied that the words nóos and néomai come readily to mind in connection with Odysseus. By way of illustration, one may again consider the opening of the {ix|x} Odyssey. The poem’s first scene is a council of the gods. Athena intercedes here for Odysseus, accusing Zeus of having forgotten her protégé. But Zeus denies this charge, asking how he could forget godlike Odysseus, hòs perì mèn nóon estì brotō̂n, “who surpasses other mortals in his nóos” (i 66). [1] To judge by this passage, it is his nóos which chiefly characterizes what Odysseus “is.”

The council of the gods also defines what Odysseus is to “do.” Persuaded by Athena to end the long exile of Odysseus and to take thought for his future, Zeus bids the other gods as well to take thought for the hero’s nóston, hópōs élthēisi, his “return, that he may come home” (i 77). What Odysseus is to “do,” his destiny, is to “return home,” and this is expressed by the word nóstos, a nominal derivative of néomai.

The crucial problem to be handled in this study concerns the original meaning of the verbal root nes-. This meaning must be carefully reconstructed in order to show how terms as semantically distinct in English as “mind” and “return home” were once closely related in the Greek language. Before tackling this problem, however, it will be useful to add a few remarks on methodology.

The major source of evidence in this investigation will be Homer, one reason for which is the very premise of the Odyssey: the “return” of the “intelligent” hero. But Homer’s value also derives from the traditionality of his poetry; for traditional poetry, by its very nature, conserves much that is old. Given this, it is not rash to look to Homeric epic for traces of a derivation which Homer himself no longer perceived. His conservative tradition “remembered” more than he himself understood. {x|xi}

However, problems of reconstruction require caution. It is true that Homer conserves much that is old, but this cannot always be easily isolated and evaluated. One must expect from the start that ancient patrimony in Homer will have survived in a fragmentary and disjointed form. Such a situation would, according to the thesis of this study, be graphically represented by the words nóos and nóstos in the first scene of the Odyssey. Although both words occur in the same significant passage, they of course remain separate and distinct lexical items. Homer could never fully reintegrate what had long since been split. He could only preserve such fragments as were embedded in a traditional context.

Only with the word polútropos does Homer seem to recapture something of a once coherent relation. In this word he does in fact combine notions of both nóos and nóstos. But it is important to notice how polútropos reinterprets both of these words. In contrast to the neutral terms “mind” and “return home,” the meanings “very wily” and “much-wandering” (or “much-tossed about”) are shaded toward “personality” and “suffering,” respectively, and would seem to reflect Homer’s own humanized view of his hero. An old combination of ideas has thus survived only in a reinterpreted form. Such survival through reinterpretation is an important phenomenon in Homer and will be met with again in this book.

It remains to indicate the order in which the various problems raised in this introduction will be considered. Chapter 1 presents the formal evidence for the derivation of nóos from the root nes-. Chapter 2 then investigates the root itself in order to determine its earliest meaning in Greek. Chapters 3–5 show how a latent connection between “mind” and “returning home” has been preserved by Homer. Chapter 6 then considers non-Greek evidence for the root nes– in order to determine its meaning in Indo-European. Chapter 7 returns to Greek to suggest further instances, in various traditions, where a connection between nóos and néomai has been preserved. {xii|1}


[ back ] 1. Lower case Roman numerals refer to books of the Odyssey, small capitals to books of the Iliad.

[ back ] 2. The terms synchronic (“with time,” “at a given time”) and diachronic (“through time”) were coined by Ferdinand de Saussure to describe two distinct approaches to the study of language; the value of this distinction to the study of a traditional medium like Greek epic is well illustrated by Deborah Dickmann Boedeker, Aphrodite’s Entry into Greek Epic (Leiden, 1974), and Leonard Muellner, The Meaning of Homeric EYXOMAI through its Formulas (Innsbruck, 1976).