Kleos in a Minor Key: The Homeric Education of a Little Prince

  Petropoulos, J. C. B. 2011. Kleos in a Minor Key: The Homeric Education of a Little Prince. Hellenic Studies Series 45. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies. http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hul.ebook:CHS_Petropoulos.Kleos_in_a_Minor_Key.2011.


[In this on-line version, the page-numbers of the printed version are indicated within braces (“{” and “}”). For example, “{69|70}” indicates where p. 69 of the printed version ends and p. 70 begins. These indications will be useful to readers who need to look up references made elsewhere to the printed version of this book.]


This book by Professor Petropoulos is a veritable tour de force in Homeric scholarship. It combines the best traditions of classical Strengphilologie with the most highly refined methods of social anthropology and linguistics. More broadly, it is literary criticism at its best. Taking as his point of departure the first four rhapsodies of the Odyssey, commonly known as the “Telemachy,” Petropoulos shows how the mentality of “rites of passage,” as firmly grounded in the customs and linguistic usages of Greek-speaking peoples in the last two millennia before our era, pervades the plot- and character-development of not only the Telemachy but also the entire Odyssey. The book illuminates in refreshingly new ways the highly complex social and poetic notion of kleos, demonstrating that the narratives about younger and older generations of heroes interweave from the beginning all the way to the very end of the Odyssey.

This demonstration by Professor Petropoulos is a truly major achievement in the world of Classics. It is a most convincing proof of the artistic unity of the Homeric Odyssey, viewed in the historical context of ‘Homeric poetry in the making’, as Milman Parry and Albert Lord would describe it. The late Albert Lord, who was a teacher of Petropoulos at Harvard, would be so proud of this luminous book by one of his most gifted students. We see here a quantum leap in the proud tradition of Homeric scholarship pioneered by Parry and Lord.

Author’s Prologue

‘ἤδη γὰρ νοέω καὶ οἶδα ἕκαστα,
ἐσθλά τε καὶ τὰ χέρεια· πάρος δ’ ἔτι νήπιος ἦα.’

Odyssey 20.309–310 (cf. Odyssey 18.228–229)

“because now I perceive and know each and every thing,
good and bad alike, whereas before I was still childish.”

‘αἴ κεν ἐᾷ πρόφρων με Διὸς θυγάτηρ ἀγελείη
αὐτόν τε ζώειν καί μοι φίλον υἱὸν ἀέξῃ.’

Odyssey 13.359–360

“if Zeus’ daughter, she who leads the army shall in her graciousness
grant me to live and my dear son to grow to maturity.”

Most likely coined by the German scholar P. D. C. Hennings in 1858, the term Telemacheia refers to the rather minor adventures of Telemachos as recounted in the first four books of Homer’s Odyssey and parts of Books 15, 16, and 17. Like many scholars today, I balk at the suggestion that the Odyssey is the result of the conflation of three disparate poems—the lesser tales of Telemachos, the tales of Odysseus’ travels and sea adventures, and the tale of his vengeance at Ithaka. [1] Nonetheless, I admit that two main narrative currents are discernible in the Odyssey as a whole. There is, on the one side, the overarching story about Odysseus’ marine adventures and nostos and, on the other, a reduplication—in the narratological sense—of the first tale, namely, the story of his son’s journey, or hodos, in search of news (in Homeric Greek, kleos) regarding his father. That these two storylines coalesce makes sense if they are appreciated, as I believe they were in antiquity, as parallel and eventually overlapping quests, the Telemacheia being necessarily (on account of the protagonist’s relative immaturity) a search for masculine identity—ultimately a social concept connoted, {ix|x} as R. Redfield most sensitively has suggested, also by the term kleos. [2] The incipit Ἄνδρα μοι ἔννεπε ‘Of the man tell me’ in the Odyssey’s proem is doubly apposite; besides Odysseus the emphatic first word alludes to the process (I stress the processual aspect) of Prince Telemachos’ ἀνδροποίησις ‘becoming a man’. [3]

In common with other scholars, I assume that qua literary genius Homer frequently strove to portray at least certain of his characters in a psychologically plausible manner. [5] The more I read and reread Telemachos’ words, the more ‘realistic’ or at least credible he sounds in respect of certain crucial psychological details. These details pertain to ancient society synchronically and to non-Greek societies diachronically, reflecting as they do certain universal constants of post-adolescent and male behavior. The hypothesis of synchronic verisimilitude is borne out by the aesthetic principle Odysseus in effect formulates in Odyssey 8.487–491: [6]

‘λίην γὰρ κατὰ κόσμον Ἀχαιῶν οἶτον ἀείδεις,
ὅσσ’ ἔρξαν τ’ ἔπαθόν τε καὶ ὅσσ’ ἐμόγησαν Ἀχαιοί,
ὥς τέ που ἢ αὐτὸς παρεὼν ἢ ἄλλου ἀκούσας.’ {x|xi}
“for you sing of the Achaians’ fate in exceedingly proper order,
both of the many things the Achaians suffered and their many hardships—
as if somehow you were there yourself or had heard of these things from someone else.”

Though he does not cite it explicitly, the ethno-psychiatrist Georges Devereux discerns this principle also in Greek tragedy. In his classic work, Dreams in Greek Tragedy (1976), Devereux likens the realistic depiction of dreams in tragedy to the extreme verisimilitude of Rembrandt’s still lifes. [
7] Yet why should, say, Aischylos have adhered to this aesthetic rule, particularly in portraying the dreams of his characters? Devereux’s answer to this question has to do not only with dreams in tragedy but also with the refined, plausible manner in which Homer shows Telemachos’ coming of age: “he [sc. the poet] tried to write the best drama (and dream) he could devise.” [8] By the same token, the poet Homer tried to compose the best ‘educational drama’ he could conceive. {xi|}


{|xiii} This book was born in the classroom. Starting in 2000, I taught the Telemachy first in translation in the School of Education and then in the original in the Department of Greek Philology in the Democritean University of Thrace. With few research sources to hand I resorted to the standard commentaries on the Odyssey. Commentaries, I found out anew, can be daunting, at times throttling, yet at others times they may deliver piercing perspectives, and when they skirt the Mandarin disease they can be positively beneficial, even if merely as a fillip for disagreement and further thought. This book grew out of my attempts to explain the Odyssey, particularly Books 1–4 and 15, to my students with the help of the relevant commentaries, after having first subjected the modern day scholiasts to close interrogation. My debts to S. West, I. de Jong, R. D. Dawe, and P. V. Jones, among others, will be apparent both in the main text and especially the footnotes. Without too much philological dalliance—and sometimes with arrow-like swiftness—they have guided me and my students as we moved through the Telemachy, trying to make sense of the ways in which the Little Prince expresses and experiences the process of growing up.

As my lecture notes proliferated the outlines of a book emerged. My subsequent phenomenological progress through the Telemachy would literally have been unthinkable had I not had direct access to a number of fine libraries, fine scholars, and academic audiences. Intermittently over the years 2004–2006 I worked in the libraries of the University of London (UCL) and the Center for Hellenic Studies (CHS) in Washington, DC. I am grateful to the staff of these libraries. I would like also to express heartfelt thanks to Lady Marina Marks and her son, Mr. Alex Collins, for friendship and support in difficult days. My stay at the CHS in the summers of 2005 and 2006 was funded by the Center. Earlier versions of Chapters 2, 5, and 6 were presented as lectures and seminar papers {xiii|xiv} at the European Cultural Center of Delphi, the CHS’s facility in Nafplion, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing, and, thanks to the generous support of the University Seminars Program of the Alexander S. Onassis Public Benefit Foundation in 2008, at Harvard, Stanford, and Ohio State Universities and Rhodes College. For their salutary comments and criticism I therefore thank Professors E. Bowie, P. Themelis, Ph. Kakridis, D. N. Maronitis, A. Mayor, K. Morrell, Gregory Nagy, and A. Rengakos as well as the members of my American audiences. I am moved to record my appreciation for the priceless translation of the Odyssey by the late Robert Fitzgerald, who immersed me as an undergraduate in the world of Telemachos and his parents. The Department of Classical Studies at the University of Pennsylvania kindly appointed me Visiting Scholar in the summer of 2009. This enabled me to work, in considerable comfort, on the English version of this book in the University’s Van Pelt-Dietrich Library. Many thanks to Professor Joseph Farrell for his scholarly feedback and to the staff—especially the student staff—of this philoxenous library. I wish to thank the editor-in-chief, Professor Gregory Nagy, the executive editor, Professor Casey Dué, and the entire production team of CHS publications, particularly the production manager Ms. Jill Curry Robbins and Mr. Noel Spencer, for their patience and professionalism. Finally, I wish to thank Ms. Lydia Hadjidakis for her long-suffering technical assistance in preparation of the original version of this text and Fathers Vlasie and Chrysotomos of the St. Gregory Palamas Monastery (Etna, CA) for further technical aid.

This book is dedicated to my sister, Vicki, ἰφθίμῃ κασιγνήτῃ τῇ ὁμοῦ ἐτρεφόμην. I hope that she and her family will derive many hours of pleasure from the Odyssey. As Eumaios tells Odysseus, ‘ἔστι δὲ τερπομένοισιν ἀκούειν’ (“There is ample time to enjoy hearing a story”).


The critical texts of the Iliad are those of D. B. Monro and T. W. Allen, eds., Homeri opera I–II, 3rd ed. (Oxford, 1902, 1920); the texts of the Odyssey are those of T. W. Allen, Homeri opera III–IV, 2nd ed. (Oxford, 1908, 1917–1919); the text of the Homeric Hymns is that of T. W. Allen, Homeri opera V (Oxford, 1912). (All the Greek in the main text has been translated; the rather literal and workmanlike renderings have been provided by me.) {xiv|}


[ back ] 1. See Dawe 1993:8 and Heubeck and Hoekstra 1990:5–6 for the views of Kirchhoff, Wilamowitz, Focke, and Page; see also Μανακίδου 2002:13–68.

[ back ] 2. See Chapter 1 below.

[ back ] 3. Calame 1999:278 uses this term.

[ back ] 4. For Porphyry’s view, see Chapter 1 below; also Scott 1917–1918, esp. 427. Dawe, an opponent of the ‘developmental’ interpretation of the Telemachy, admits that the Prince is indeed roused to manhood despite the fact that “the trouble is that the progression from boy to man does not take place in a straight line: e.g. he is weak and unsure at 2.60–61, but so he is again at 16.71ff.” (Dawe 1993:878, who also cites Porphyry and Scott.)

[ back ] 5. Thus Copley 1993, passim and Devereux 1976, esp. xi: “great art is located at the confluence of culturally imposed artistic means and objectives and of a subjectively psychological realism” (my italics).

[ back ] 6. See also Dawe 1993:341 ad Odyssey 8.488 and Chapter 2 n64.

[ back ] 7. Devereux 1976:xviii. Lloyd-Jones accepts that in a number of cases Greek tragedy depicted madness in a psychologically plausible fashion: Lloyd-Jones 1990, chapter 23.

[ back ] 8. Devereux 1976:xviii. Psychological ‘realism’ can also be detected in other contexts in the Odyssey. See, for instance, Russo, Fernández-Galiano, and Heubeck 1992:9–12 on the exchange between Penelope and the beggar Odysseus in Book 19.