The Power of Thetis and Selected Essays

  Slatkin, Laura. 2011. The Power of Thetis and Selected Essays. Hellenic Studies Series 16. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies.

Part II. Chapter 3. Composition by Theme and the Mêtis of the Odyssey

Why is the narrative structure of the Odyssey so complicated? Although the plot of the poem is perfectly straightforward—Aristotle observed that it was the imitation of a single action—nevertheless the ordering of its narrative is elaborately nonlinear. The Iliad gets under way with a question from which ensues a linear, chronological account of the events the poem presents: so much so that, for example, even material that one might have expected to be presented in a flashback—the identification and history of the Greek leaders and their relationship to Helen—is told by her in the Teichoskopia, in a present continuous with that of the ongoing narration of events. The Iliad demarcates its subject—the wrath of Achilles—at the outset and organizes its story from the onset of the wrath to Achilles’ renunciation of it in Book 19 and the consequent episodes of the death and ransoming of Hector, according to the literal order in which those events take place.

The Odyssey, by contrast—to summarize what is familiar—begins in the proem with a proleptic reference to Odysseus’ loss of his companions and to the specific episode of the eating of the cattle of Helios, then appeals to the Muse to begin hamothen ge—”from somewhere”; [1] and the response is to locate Odysseus on Kalypso’s island, where we will not actually meet him until Book 5. The action then proceeds with Poseidon going off to the Aethiopians, while the rest of the gods hold a council on Olympus in which Odysseus is not the first order of business: Agamemnon, Orestes, and Aegisthus are. Once Athena enjoins the Olympians to turn their attention to Odysseus, Zeus is immediately willing, asserting that he hasn’t forgotten Odysseus. But the latter’s way home, explains Zeus, has been barred by Poseidon, who maintains his grievance over the blinding of his son the Cyclops—another of a number of allusions to an {139|140} episode that the poem treats as past history although it is in the future from the narrative’s standpoint. The narrative then takes up events in the human sphere on Ithaca, and the Telemachia takes the hero’s son to Pylos and as far as Sparta in search of information about his father. In Book 5 the poem at last introduces us to its hero—with, in effect, another beginning, another discussion on Olympus—but not in fact at his last stop, as we might have assumed from the council of the gods in Book 1. Rather, Odysseus is only at the penultimate stage of his return home, so that the narrative will then move forward chronologically for a while—Books 5–8—before turning backward in Book 9. Thus we discover eventually, for example, that by the time Odysseus rejects the immortality Kalypso offers, he has already been to the underworld, has seen death, and has heard Achilles’ evaluation of it.

Telemachus’ journey, moreover, frames Books 5–15. The narrative, leaving Odysseus’ son after his first day in Sparta in Book 4, proceeds from Kalypso on Ogygia to the Phaeacians on Scheria, where we hear the whole retrospective account of Odysseus’ travels, covering the past ten years. The Phaeacians then return Odysseus to Ithaca, where he makes his way to Eumaios’ hut and converses with him—at which point, at the opening of Book 15, we return to Telemachus, just waking up on Sparta: for him, only one night has passed. And the vacuum created by Odysseus’ absence in Books 1–4 is filled by stories about him in which the past—a past extended for us by the memories of those in Ithaca, Pylos, and Sparta to include at least a second decade: that of the Trojan War with its antecedent events and immediate aftermath—is recalled against and vividly contrasted with a shadowy and enigmatic present.

It is a fundamental perception that any narrative is relational: that it both represents, and itself constitutes, a set of flexible, nonstatic interrelations, involving narrator (actual or fictive), audience (actual or fictive), process of communication, and substance of communication. To the configurations fruitfully identified by Genette, however, any discussion of the Odyssey {141|142} must contribute an additional component, if its aim is not simply to view Homeric epic as illustrative background material but to bring the Odyssey itself into focus. This element is the relationship of an oral poem to the poetic tradition—the tradition of discourse, in Genette’s terms—in which it participates: the tradition in which it was shaped and which it transmits.

Since the pioneering studies of Milman Parry, the traditional basis of oral poetry has received much meticulous scrutiny. Beyond the level of inherited meter, diction, and phraseology, however, a facet of the relationship between the epic and its tradition that bears particularly on the question of narrative complexity is that of “theme,” elucidated by the work of Parry and especially by that of Albert Lord, where considerations of theory and practice intersect.

Lord uses the term theme to designate “a recurrent element of narration or description.” [6] Based on his and Parry’s fieldwork, Lord demonstrates that the theme serves as crucial a function as the formula in developing the oral poet’s technique of composition in performance:

As the accomplished oral poet regenerates the tradition in which he sings, his use of recognizable themes allows him—indeed, requires him—to situate his song in the context of other narratives on the same subject, within the same genre:

The oral poem, therefore, continuously repositions itself with respect to a tradition made up of alternative narrative possibilities: “The substitution of one multiform of a theme for another, one kind of recognition scene for another kind, for example, one kind of disguise for another, is not uncommon…as songs pass from one singer to another.” [
9] This means that there will inevitably be diverse “versions” and “variants” of a single song that exist, as it were, in an implicit dialogue with each other. [10]

The juxtaposition of different narrative models is identified as such by the Odyssey itself, which even alludes to other representations, other versions and treatments, of its own subject matter. We can go a step further, to emphasize that the Odyssey’s overt acknowledgment of alternative story-patterns is part of a larger strategy by means of which the poem insists on the complexity of its own narrative structure and thereby draws attention to the very process of singing tales, of generating and regenerating epic song. The Odyssey may be said to treat narrative, or narrative discourse, as a subject in itself.

My point is that the Odyssey incorporates an explicit awareness of the creative tension of composition, an awareness of the existence of possibilities that could become other songs; and this implies a claim that alternative treatments have been rejected and that the path taken to create this song, the one being sung—our Odyssey—is the ultimate and preemptive path.

The Odyssey underscores these issues as a poem of audiences in a post-Iliadic world, audiences for whom the preeminent narrative is the narrative of Troy. Telemachus attests to this when, lamenting his father’s disappearance, he asserts that if Odysseus had been celebrated for his exploits like the heroes who perished fighting at Troy, the grief of his survivors would have been lessened. It is in part the Odyssey’s relationship to the epic about Troy, as the Odyssey represents it, that returns the poem continually to the issue of narrative. For in the Odyssean world of audiences, every new song must presuppose the existence of songs about Troy—of an Iliad—whose prestige is the narrative ideal.

In this context the Odyssey poses the question, “What kind of song can be sung about Odysseus?” by creating an internal audience for whom the answer is a matter of urgent suspense. In Odyssey 1, the bard Phemius entertains the Suitors with a return-song of the Achaean heroes. Penelope interrupts him, objecting that this song is always too painful for her to listen to. Telemachus, even as he argues with her, specifies Penelope’s objection: that there is no place for Odysseus in a nostos-song. The unvoiced corollary remains: Might there be a kleos-epic about Odysseus? Athena complicates the answer: in the guise of Mentes, she first assures Telemachus that his father is still alive, casts doubt on this information shortly thereafter, and ends by sending Telemachus in search of either the kleos or the nostos of his father. Will the song about him be correspondingly complicated? {145|146}

The Odyssey’s own audience knows things that Telemachus does not—his father’s whereabouts and Athena’s plan, for example. Yet the multiple audiences within the Odyssey allow its listeners to reflect on what it means to be in the position of audience. There are many narrators; from the opening of the poem, in the absence of Odysseus, and before the poem has even introduced him directly, he is variously represented by narratives from a range of sources. Different Odysseus stories are delivered by Nestor, by Menelaos, by Helen, by Athena as Mentes and Mentor; the Suitors have their recollections, and Telemachus his secondhand version. Menelaos and Helen, who claim to be telling the same story but offer diametrically conflicting ones, make it clear that it is not easy for an audience to get a straight story, to discriminate among stories, or even to know what a straight story is.

By putting the story of Odysseus’ return finally into the mouth of the hero, the Odyssey highlights the audience’s role as active participants in the creation of the narrative, collaborators in the opening of alternative narrative paths and the pressures of tradition, which are the conditions of poetic composition. The demands that are subtly integrated in the production of narrative emerge as Odysseus recites his return-story to the Phaeacian connoisseurs of the epic of Troy, temporarily disrupting and displacing the epic perspective before rejoining and being reincorporated into it; so that the Odyssey’s assertion of superiority is expressed in part by allowing us to see the transitions it absorbs—that is, its use of the traditional operations of selection and combination of themes—but also by contrast to Odysseus’ own recitation, or, to put it another way, in answer to Odysseus’ challenge to the epic viewpoint.

Alkinoos’ reminder to Odysseus of the topoi of the Trojan heroes both acknowledges a conventional hierarchy of subjects within epic and reverts to it as a touchstone of poetic truth. Demodokos, responding to Odysseus’ challenge to sing kata moiran about the episode of the Trojan horse, will prove whether he sings the truth; similarly, recounting stories of the heroes at Troy will authenticate, for Alkinoos and the Phaeacians, Odysseus’ claims about himself—and, by extension, his unprecedented adventures outside the Trojan sphere (that is, outside the realm of common human history). But the premise that assigns value to verifiable authenticity based on conventional expectations of canonical, recognizable topoi, or familiar representations, is called into question by the implications of the interruption itself: by Odysseus’ ending and resuming his recitation, taking up his tale again with precisely what Alkinoos has asked for, incorporating the transition into the narrative without a break, as though it were a feature of the story; by his elision and abridgment of the recitation, the Odyssey alerts its audience to question the idea of a “fixed or authentic version” of a story, reminds listeners of the multiformity of themes, and invites them to think about the role of ambiguity, multiplicity of tradition, revision, and point of view in telling (and hearing) stories. Alkinoos’ invoking of the poetic process in the context of what turns out to be an interruption, an artificial ending and re-beginning, draws the audience’s attention to the actual ending of Odysseus’ tales and possibly to the actual beginning as well. When Odysseus brings his recitation to a close at the end of Book 12, is this the real ending or is it another pause? Could there be more to tell? These questions are brought to the fore by the {147|148} way Odysseus breaks off at that point, after a mere two and a half lines on his adventure with Kalypso. The half line is suggestive, because Odysseus seems to stop in midsentence, where more might have followed, in order to ask why he should mûthologeuein a story he has told the previous day?

His reference here is to the remarks addressed to Arete at 7.244–266 in which he summarized his stay on Ogygia—an abbreviated enough passage; but even more fleeting is the two-line, passing allusion to Kalypso at the outset of Book 9 that occurs in the course of Odysseus’ reflection on the preciousness of one’s own homeland. This initiates a kind of inverted ring-structure around Books 9–12, ending with the two and a half “broken” lines on Kalypso noted above. It is an inverted one in that both passages, rather than enclosing Odysseus’ “bardic” recitation of the adventures, have their backs to it, as it were—opening outward to a frame of reference external to Odysseus’ own account of this episode.

These versions of the Kalypso story constitute a unique instance of the inner narrative of Odysseus’ first-person recitation referring to the outer narrative of the epic. When Odysseus reminds the Phaeacians that they have heard this episode before, he links together for the poem’s audience its two disparate experiences of his adventure on Ogygia. With the version of the Kalypso episode as Odysseus tells it, we are aware of a story that is not only attenuated but actually fails in some of its information, although its literal {148|149} audience, the Phaeacians, cannot realize this. Odysseus, at 7.262–263, says that Kalypso let him go but that he doesn’t know why. The outer epic narrative, however, has put us, as its listeners, in a position to know the entire sequence of events from Olympus on down.

The effect of presenting this disparity is to accord to the outer Homeric narrative the authority of absolute reality. The Odyssey becomes the intrinsic standard of validity by which we perceive the fictive potential of Odysseus’ tales. To put it another way, Homeric poetics urges the paradoxical unreliability of the first-person eyewitness, the need for interpretation—and also the shifting perspectives that inhere in the relation between singer and audience and stand to be exploited by narrative virtuosity.

Alkinoos’ request expresses an audience’s assumption that what will authenticate a story is what the audience can recognize: that is, the piece of the puzzle they already possess. But the Odyssey compels us to acknowledge the limitations of this point of view, although we are led to understand it from the inside and to sympathize with it. The Odyssey encourages us to see that one’s involvement inherently precludes one’s seeing the whole picture—that, in a sense, you are the last person who can tell your own story. Far closer to Alkinoos than the heroes of Troy is the prophecy from Nausithoos, which he quotes at the end of Book 7: that Poseidon will someday be angry with the Phaeacians and end their seafaring. Odysseus then proceeds to describe, over the course of three books, how and why he is Poseidon’s bitterest enemy; at the end of which Alkinoos, with considerable naïveté, wishes the Phaeacians conveying Odysseus back to Ithaca smooth sailing. Correspondingly, Odysseus fails to recognize and hence cannot communicate Athena’s agency behind his return home; moreover, the same Odysseus who has told Alkinoos that one’s homeland is the sweetest thing in life to see (and that he has spent years on Kalypso’s island picturing Ithaca to himself) wakes up on Ithaca with no idea where he is or what he is looking at. The view that can reorient the audience and establish appropriate bearings for determining the poem’s proper sphere is not one that reverts to the Trojan war—as Alkinoos does, or as Odysseus describes Aiolos doing at 10.14–15. It is rather the view that the poem assigns to Athena in Book 13 when she answers the mystified Odysseus’ inquiry about his surroundings by saying:

You are naïve, stranger, or you have come from far away,
if you really are asking about this country. It is not
so very nameless after all. A great many people know it,
whether all who live eastward toward the dawn {149|150}
or those who dwell toward the shadowy west.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
[S]o the name of Ithaca has reached even to Troy,
which they say is far from Achaean land.

(13.237–241, 248–249)

“You must be very ignorant if you ask about Ithaca. It is hardly obscure…. In fact, Ithaca is such a distinguished place that its fame has reached to Troy—which they say is very far away.” [
22] Decisively, the focus has shifted.

I observed above that the interruption of Odysseus’ recitation and the invitation by Alkinoos to resume draws the audience’s attention to the actual ending of the tales and perhaps to their actual beginning as well. Odysseus begins his story in the first place in answer to Alkinoos’ request that he identify himself. In the course of the Odyssey, we remember, many people ask Odysseus who he is and where he is from; but the question that initiates the telling of the tales is a special one, with special diction. Alkinoos inquires at the end of Book 8:

Come then, tell me this and recount accurately,
in what direction you were driven off course and what places you came to belonging to
humans, both them and their well-inhabited cities—
as many as were savage and violent, and without justice,
and those who were hospitable to strangers with a god-fearing mind.

(8.572–576) {150|151}

“Tell me, where were you driven off course, and which men and cities did you come to, and what were their minds?”

Here we are emphatically recalled not only to the beginning of the recitation but to the beginning of the Odyssey:

Tell me, Muse, of the man of many turns, who was driven
far and wide, after he sacked Troy’s sacred citadel;
many were those whose cities he saw, whose minds he learned of.


For the synthesis of perspectives and traditions that these questions demand can be answered only by the Muse—which is to say, only by the epic as a whole.

With this passage we also double back to recognize the echoed diction of Telemachus’ speech about Orestes—“the gods haven’t spun such fortune for me as to have kleos and aoidê like that of Orestes”—in that Alkinoos’ speech at the end of Book 8 not only returns us to the beginning of the poem overall but, a little further on, makes a statement about the imperative of epic song as the motivator of human events. The king here asks Odysseus why he weeps and laments to hear the fate of the Greeks and of Troy. “Don’t you know,” says Alkinoos, “that the gods have spun this so that it might be a subject of song for mortals to come?” If the Odyssey chooses epic narrative as a subject, it is for no lesser reason than the view voiced by Alkinoos: epic is itself the justification for human endeavor and suffering.

These interpenetrating associations are particularly resonant in the Odyssey, however, because the Odyssey gives weaving special prominence. Penelope’s weaving and unweaving of the shroud for Laertes—the account of which is given, remarkably, three times in the poem—is the intricate device, or device of intricacy, by which Penelope manipulates the Suitors’ attention and keeps them under control; it is the ruse by which time can be turned back and brought forward again. This ploy, proclaimed by the Suitors themselves (after the fact) as assuring Penelope’s kleos, is the stratagem that Penelope refers to as her mêtis (19.158).

Polumêtis is Odysseus’ most frequently occurring distinctive epithet and mêtis his preeminent attribute, which Athena, the daughter of Mêtis, enthusiastically endorses and claims as the source both of their unity and of their kleos. She declares:

For you are far the best of all mortals
in planning and speaking, and I among all the gods
am famous for cleverness and schemes.


Odysseus the dissembler, the man who assumes many identities, is called superior in mêtis to all mortals—and is the only mortal bearer of the epithet polumêtis in the Homeric corpus, the others being the crafty Hermes (once) and the craftsman Hephaistos (once). Odysseus succeeds through mêtis amumon, as he himself calls it, in outwitting the Cyclops—and this of course is underscored by the pun through which that mêtis consists of mê tis.

Works Cited

Clay, J. S. 1976. “The Beginning of the Odyssey.” American Journal of Philology 97:313–326.

Detienne, M., and J.-P. Vernant. 1978. Cunning Intelligence in Greek Culture and Society. Trans. J. Lloyd. Sussex and Atlantic Highlands, NJ. Originally published 1974, as Les Ruses de l’intelligence: La Métis des grecs. Paris.

Fenik, B. 1974. Studies in the Odyssey. Hermes Einzelschriften 30. Wiesbaden.

Finley, J. H., Jr. 1978. Homer’s Odyssey. Cambridge, MA.

Frontisi-Ducroux, F. 1975. Dédale: Mythologie de l’artisane en Grece ancienne. Paris.

Genette, G. 1980. Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method. Trans. J. Lewin. Ithaca, NY.

Kullman, W. 1960. Die Quellen der Ilias (Troischer Sagenkreis). Hermes Einzelschriften 14. Wiesbaden.

Lord, A. B. 1951. “Composition by Theme in Homer and Southslavic Epos.” Transactions of the American Philological Association 82:71–80.

———. 1960. The Singer of Tales. Repr. New York, 1965.

Murnaghan, S. 1987. Disguise and Recognition in the Odyssey. Princeton, NJ.

Nagy, G. 1979. The Best of the Achaeans: Concepts of the Hero in Archaic Greek Poetry. Baltimore.

Sacks, R. 1982. Ending the Odyssey: Odysseus Traditions and the Homeric Odyssey. Unpublished paper presented at the Columbia University Seminar in Classical Civilization.

Schmitt, R. 1967. Dichtung und Dichtersprache in indogermanischer Zeit. Wiesbaden.

Slatkin, L. 2005. “Homer’s Odyssey.” In A Companion to Ancient Epic, ed. J. M. Foley, 315-329. Oxford.

Snyder, J. M. 1981. “The Web of Song: Weaving Imagery in Homer and the Lyric Poets.” Classical Journal 76:193–196.

Todorov, T. 1977. The Poetics of Prose. Ithaca, NY.

West, S. R. 1981. “An Alternative Nostos for Odysseus.” Liverpool Classical Monthly 6-7:169-75.


[ back ] 1. See Clay 1976.

[ back ] 2. Odyssey 23.210–211.

[ back ] 3. See Finley 1978, especially chapter 7.

[ back ] 4. Todorov 1977:53.

[ back ] 5. Genette 1980:25–27.

[ back ] 6. See, for example, Lord 1951:73 as well as Lord 1960:68. Lord’s terminology follows Parry, who used “theme” to refer to “repeated incidents or descriptive passages .

[ back ] 7. Lord 1960:94.

[ back ] 8. Lord 1960:94.

[ back ] 9. Lord 1960:119.

[ back ] 10. “In some respects the larger themes and the song are alike. Their outward form and their specific content are ever changing. Yet there is a basic idea or combination of ideas that is fairly stable. We can say, then, that a song is the story about a given hero, but its expressed forms are multiple, and each of these expressed forms or tellings of the story is itself a separate song, in its own right, authentic and valid as a song unto itself.” Lord 1960:100.

[ back ] 11. Theogony 1011–1018.

[ back ] 12. For a general argument on the archaic provenance of the epic cycle, see Kullmann 1960. Sacks 1982 has convincingly demonstrated the presence of traditional material in the Telegony . On the indications within the Odyssey of other return possibilities for Odysseus, see West 1981.

[ back ] 13. Lord 1960:159ff.

[ back ] 14. Lord 1960:121.

[ back ] 15. I am paraphrasing here to refer in summary to Odyssey 1.32–41.

[ back ] 16. To paraphrase 1.45–47.

[ back ] 17. 1.298ff.

[ back ] 18. Lord 1960:123. He continues, “Even though the pattern of the song he intends to sing is set early in the performance, forces moving in other directions will still be felt at critical junctures, simply because the theme involved can lead in more than one path.”

[ back ] 19. See Nagy 1979:18–20.

[ back ] 20. Nagy 1979:100ff.

[ back ] 21. Fenik 1974:16–17.

[ back ] 22. 13.237–239, 248–249.

[ back ] 23. On these subjects see especially Murnaghan 1987, and also Slatkin 2005.

[ back ] 24. Spinning and weaving are treated interchangeably by the two Homeric poems; in the Odyssey the klôthes, the spinsters themselves, are said to weave with thread.

[ back ] 25. This image may represent the craft of learning performance-composition. Lord 1960:13–29 has described the conditions and the stages of developing singing techniques among modern-day singers that may not have been very different for those of an earlier era.

[ back ] 26. See Frontisi-Ducroux 1975 on Olympian craftsmen.

[ back ] 27. Alcman fr. 5 (Page).

[ back ] 28. For a valuable discussion of the association of weaving and singing in archaic poetry, see Snyder 1981.

[ back ] 29. See Schmitt 1967:298–301.

[ back ] 30. Frontisi-Ducroux 1975, chapter 3, p. 52ff.

[ back ] 31. References below are to the English translation, Detienne and Vernant 1978.

[ back ] 32. Detienne and Vernant 1978:20 write: “Why does mêtis appear as multiple (pantoiê), many-colored (poikilê), shifting (aiolê)? Because its field of application is the world of movement, of multiplicity, and of ambiguity. It bears on fluid situations which are constantly changing and which at every moment combine contrary features and forces that are opposed to each other. In order to seize upon the fleeting kairos, mêtis had to make itself even swifter than the latter. In order to dominate a changing situation, full of contrasts, it must become even more supple, even more shifting, more polymorphic than the flow of time: it must adapt itself constantly to events as they succeed each other and be pliable enough to accommodate the unexpected so as to implement the plan in mind more successfully.”

[ back ] 33. Detienne and Vernant 1978:21.

[ back ] 34. Detienne and Vernant 1978:36 quote Aelian, On the Nature of Animals 6.24.

[ back ] 35. Detienne and Vernant 1978:36.

[ back ] 36. On the Cleverness of Animals 977b, as quoted at Detienne and Vernant 1978:37.

[ back ] 37. Detienne and Vernant 1978:37, quoting Aelian, On the Nature of Animals 9.12.

[ back ] 38. Homeric Hymn to Hermes 77–78.

[ back ] 39. Eustathius 1381.36ff., cited by Detienne and Vernant 1978:39, 52n91.

[ back ] 40. See above, 26–28.

[ back ] 41. Detienne and Vernant 1978:30.

[ back ] 42. A version of this paper was given at the Annual Meeting of the American Philological Association in December 1981, and the present version at a Homer symposium organized by Peter Bing at the University of Pennsylvania in March 1984. In the intervening years, numerous innovative directions in the study of Homeric narrative have been discovered. Although text and notes here have not been updated to include work published since this paper was originally delivered (with the exception of Sheila Murnaghan’s study [above, n.23], which I had seen at an earlier stage), I hope that at least the questions offered here will be found compatible with those so illuminatingly posed by Homerist colleagues and others over the subsequent decade. [ back ] This paper was intended initially—and still is—as a tribute to the work of the late Albert B. Lord. As always, I benefited from the insights of Richard Sacks, Seth Schein, Amy Johnson, Gregory Nagy, and in particular Nelly Oliensis and the late Steele Commager.