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 4. Genre and Generation in the Odyssey

We may take as a starting point a statement by Louis Gernet: “What is of particular interest in an anthropological study is the question about the barrier between human and divine reality: what separates the human from the divine and, conversely, what brings them together?” [2] I would like to suggest that this barrier is reflected in different types of poetry, or more precisely that the separation between types of poetry exists to express aspects of that fundamental separation of which Gernet speaks. It may be appropriate for classicists to follow suggestions implicit in the work of an ethnographer like Pierre Smith in “Des genres et des hommes” [3] on the one hand, and a literary theorist like Tzvetan Todorov in Les genres du discours on the other [4] —that is, to treat genre itself as an institution, an aspect of society, and the distinct relations among genres and sub-genres as charged with ideological content, wherein the way that they are demarcated makes it possible to read the clas- {157|158} sification of cultural phenomena, to see represented ways of organizing the world through distinct spheres of concern and distinct realms of reality. In this way literary studies and anthropological—especially structuralist-symbolic—studies can be mutually illuminating if we look at the meaning of genre distinctions or genre boundaries, when we recognize that genres can be viewed, like other cultural institutions, as existing in a relationship of interdependence, in which they have complementary functions in conveying different aspects of a coherent ideology or system of beliefs about the world. The crucial point about these distinctions or differentiations is their complementarity: they exist within, and serve to complete, a conception about the way the world is ordered.

Herodotus, at 2.53, speaks of Homer and Hesiod as being jointly responsible for having systematized the gods for the Greeks: he ascribes to them the authority for producing theogonies, naming the gods, identifying their attributes and functions, in sum for having explained in a certain sense how and why to worship the gods. What we know of Greek religious history and practice, of course, tells us that Homer and Hesiod are very far from constituting religious instruction in terms of practice. They do explain relations between men and gods, but from our modern critical standpoint it is curious that Herodotus should conjoin them as he does, in that the two traditions appear to do it in such different ways. What I would like to consider briefly is how we can see those differences as significant and also locate the differences themselves as part of a coherent cultural strategy within a larger integral system of viewing the social and cosmic order.

In order to bring this question into focus, we might consider one divergent feature that needs to be reconciled with Herodotus’ statement, namely that the Iliad and the Odyssey do not present theogonic or cosmogonic material, except by way of allusion. It is clear that the Iliad and Odyssey, when they {158|159} speak of Zeus, son of Kronos, assume and refer to the same basis of cosmic order that is spelled out in Hesiod; that is, they presuppose material that is elaborated in Hesiodic poetry, but do not themselves make that material overt. For example, in the Iliad we find allusions to divine struggles on Olympus that, as Mabel Lang has shown, are linked together to form a kind of narrative beneath the surface level of the poem. [6] These would not be comprehensible without an understanding of the theogonic scheme as we are presented with it in Hesiod. Moreover, the Iliad takes as its central hero the son of Thetis, who, we know from any survey of her mythology, is a vehicle for divine succession. As is told elsewhere, [7] when Zeus was courting Thetis, intending to marry her, Themis, the guardian of order, intervened to prohibit the union because Thetis was destined to bear a son greater than his father. Themis urged the gods, therefore, to marry Thetis to a mortal, and to let her see her son die in battle. Hence Thetis’ marriage to Peleus, and Achilles as the issue of an arrangement whereby he has to die, but Olympian stability is maintained. By looking at the diction and motifs associated with Thetis in the Iliad [8] —her connection with a divine conflict on Olympus in which Zeus is victorious and binds the losers; [9] her association there with Briareos the hundred-handed, to whom Hesiod assigns a prominent role in the Titanomachy; [10] the reference in Iliad I to ὁ γὰρ αὖτε βίῃ οὗ πατρὸς ἄμεινον; [11] her complaints about being forced to marry a mortal, and her lament about seeing her son die and being unable to help him [12] —from a constellation of allusions of this kind, we are able to perceive an underlying dimension to the Iliadic situation that, again, only makes sense in the light of the Hesiodic schema. From Hesiod we gain knowledge about divine intergenerational conflict and its massive consequences and implications; we learn what successive violent usurpation of the divine regime entails. Only through an account like that given by Hesiodic poetry are we enabled to understand that the Iliad is offering an explanation for human mortality in the paradigm of Achilles: in order to prevent perpetual violent overthrow, endless disorder, and for the sake of preserving Zeus’ hegemony and cosmic stability, which as the Theogony shows us has been achieved—human beings must not {159|160} threaten to be stronger than their divine parents; that is, human beings must die. Embedded in the Homeric poems is the presumption of an evolved set of cosmic relations dependent on the myth of divine succession; yet if we look for such explicit material in the Iliad and Odyssey, we find that it is excluded, adverted to only in allusions. The question then becomes whether variant treatments of a given myth are developed in order to suit different genres, or whether, in the first place, alternative genres develop with exclusive parameters in order to suit the content of the myths?

Pierre Vidal-Naquet has pointed out that the places Odysseus visits in the course of his travels are distinguished by the absence of agriculture (and by the absence of sacrifice to the gods). [16] It is emphasized in Book IX that the Cyclops has nothing to do with agriculture: it is said that the Cyclopes “neither plow with their hands nor plant anything, / but all grows for them without seed planting, without cultivation, / wheat and barley and also the grapevines, which yield for them / wine of strength, and it is Zeus’ rain that waters it for them.” [17] Now, this description has special meaning when we consider that it is remarkably reminiscent of Hesiod’s description of life in the Golden Age, under Kronos, before the separation of men and gods, [18] because men and gods (as Martin West puts it in his Commentary [19] ) began {161|162} on the same terms. For those in the Golden Age, under Kronos, “all good things were theirs; ungrudgingly, the fertile land gave up her fruits unasked (αὐτομάτη).” [20] But as we know from Hesiod, the age of Kronos was the age of cannibalism as well, as Vidal-Naquet has pointed out [21] —after all, Kronos is the god who ate his own children! But thanks to the succession struggle by which Kronos was overthrown, Zeus is established in power on Olympus. Now gods and men are radically remote from each other; men have to labor and till the fields. But the Works and Days tells us that “Zeus the son of Kronos established this law for men, that it is for fishes and wild beasts and winged birds to eat each other, since δίκη is not in them; but to men he gave δίκη, which is much the best.” [22] So we are again given a picture of an evolved set of relations between men and gods—costly for men, but beneficial as well. Man is no longer on a par with the gods, but neither is he to be identified with the beasts, and what determines this is δίκη.

If the suitors, like Polyphemos, behave as the absence of δίκη implies, they threaten to invert all the procedures by which men recognize each other as beings of the same species, and treat each other with respect as men. This means that on Ithaca no identity is secure. In shorthand, it means that Telemachus does not know who he is; so that when Athena says, “You certainly look like Odysseus! Are you his son?” he replies, “I don’t know; no one ever knows his own father.” [26] As for Laertes, he is less like a valued elder of the family than a superannuated retainer or discarded beast of burden. In Book II, the first assembly since Odysseus’ departure is called. Mentor regrets the current state of affairs, which, he says, has come about because no one remembers the just king—the σκηπτοῦχος βασιλεύς—who was like a father. [27] When the disguised Odysseus later compares Penelope to a king who rules with δίκη, [28] the passage is, as Gregory Nagy has pointed out, particularly close in diction and purport to the Hesiodic description in the Works and Days of orderly right relations in the community where δίκη is upheld. [29] But at Odysseus’ praise evoking such a community Penelope demurs—rightly, because in a Hesiodic sense δίκη cannot be said to exist on Ithaca. As Penelope replies, only Odysseus can make this happen, because only his return will restore δίκη; only his return will put all the pieces in place and restore the categories that δίκη exists to govern. In the Works and Days, Hesiod says that under δίκη women bear children who resemble their fathers, [30] so that it is the return of Odysseus that will allow Telemachus to know what he looks like, and will allow Laertes to be a father again—a father who recognizes his son.

Here I want to emphasize the importance of understanding recognition on Ithaca as a function of δίκη, which, as Hesiod shows us, allows us to identify members of our own species in general, and to know how we are related to them in particular—and to treat them appropriately. “It is for fishes and wild beasts and winged birds to eat each other, since δίκη is not in them; but to men [Zeus] gave δίκη, which is much the best.” [31] If δίκη enables human beings to observe the distinction between their kind and other kinds, it makes those fundamental defining features explicit in the first place through {163|164} the family. This is the entity that allows you to identify others as members of your own species, because in order to do that you must first know what you look like yourself. (We remember here that Penelope rejects the beggar Odysseus’ characterization of her as a king upholding δίκη in telling terms: she responds by saying that in the present conditions on Ithaca she no longer looks the way she used to—she has become unrecognizable—but that were Odysseus to return, she would look like herself again.) Thus δίκη allows human beings, by recognizing species and family, to determine a distinction—with which the Odyssey is concerned throughout—between licit and illicit appetites, both for what one consumes and for sexual relations. Fishes, wild beasts, and birds do not make those distinctions, either within species or within family; they avoid neither ἀλληλοφαγία nor incest.

Given conditions on Ithaca, in the absence of Hesiodic δίκη resemblance between the generations of a family may indeed cease to be reliable, as in the case of the faithful Dolios and his treacherous offspring Melanthios and Melantho—so that we see a son who partakes of the wrong food (with the suitors), and a daughter who sleeps in the wrong bed (also with the suitors). To put it another way, in such conditions, how to avoid the threat realized in the Telegony, where Telegonos, Odysseus’ son by Circe, kills his father without knowing who he is, and then proceeds to marry Penelope?

In this sense, the extended meeting scene between Odysseus and Laertes in Book XXIV is anything but gratuitous, despite objections to it by a number of scholars, famously, for example, Denys Page. For this scene asserts the coherence and continuity of generations guaranteed by and reinforcing δίκη; the token of their relationship, the orchard of Odysseus and Laertes, bears fruit unfailingly, as in the Hesiodic community where δίκη prevails, and women bear children who look like their fathers.

These illustrations of some ways in which Homeric and Hesiodic poetry exhibit a complementary distribution of subject matter within a relationship of interdependence could of course be reciprocally matched by illustrations from Hesiod vis-à-vis Homer: the Hesiodic poems assume heroic events and situations—at Troy and at Thebes—but do not elaborate or recreate them. The level at which we need to see Homeric and Hesiodic poetry as participating jointly in the systematization of the gods for the Greeks, as Herodotus claims, must precisely identify the differentiation between the two traditions—their very distinctions—as a crucial part of the system. The separation between them reinforces and institutionalizes the proposition inherent in the mythological totality: namely that the order of things is organized, based on a prior evolution, according to a separation between human and divine, a breach that {164|165} is complete, and must continually be recapitulated, as with the institution of sacrifice. But if we can see both a symbolic and an effective function for genre boundaries in this way, we can understand as well why Homeric poetry and Hesiodic poetry occasionally, if only tangentially, extend into each other’s territories: to incorporate another genre, as the Odyssey has been shown to do with “instruction poetry,” [32] is not just to be more sophisticated as poetry, but to be more encompassing as a representation of social and cosmic order; in this sense Homeric epic seeks to preempt other genres, to be the “genre of genres.” But this must be done with great tact and subtlety: otherwise, as with the strategy of the succession myth, the attempt to devour the alternatives may be indigestible and self-defeating, not only for the poem but for the audience. The anthropologist Mary Douglas in her essay on “Deciphering a Meal” quotes Allan Tate saying, “Formal versification is the primary structure of poetic order, the assurance to the reader and to the poet himself that the poet is in control of the disorder both outside him and within his own mind.” [33] Perhaps the same can be said of the function of genre, if for poet we substitute society. [34] {165|}

Works Cited

Burkert, W. 1970. “Jason, Hypsipyle, and New Fire at Lemnos: A Study in Myth and Ritual.” Classical Quarterly 20:1–16.

Detienne, M. 1967. Les maîtres de vérité dans la Grèce ancienne. Paris.

———. 1972a. “Entre bêtes et dieux.” Nouvelle revue de psychanalyse 6:231–246. Reprinted as Chapter 3 in Detienne 1977.

———. 1972b. Les jardins d’Adonis: la mythologie des aromates en Grèce. Paris.

———. 1977. Dionysos mis à mort. Les essais (Gallimard) 195. Paris.

Detienne, M. and J.-P. Vernant. 1974. Les ruses de l’intelligence: la métis des grecs. Paris.

Douglas, M. 1975. Implicit Meanings: Essays in Anthropology. London.

Gernet, L. 1981. The Anthropology of Ancient Greece. Trans. J. Hamilton and B. Nagy. Baltimore.

Jaeger, W. 1926. “Solons Eunomie.” Sitzungsberichte der Preussischen Akademie der Wissenschaften. Philosophisch-historische Klasse 11:69–85.

Lang, M. L. 1983. “Reverberation and Mythology in the Iliad.” In Approaches to Homer, ed. C. A. Rubino and C. W. Shelmerdine, 140–164. Austin.

Lattimore, R., trans. 1967. The Odyssey of Homer. New York.

Martin, R. 1984. “Hesiod, Odysseus, and the Instruction of Princes.” Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association 114:29–48.

Nagy, G. 1982. “Hesiod.” In Ancient Writers: Greece and Rome, ed. T. J. Luce, 1:43-73. New York.

Reinhardt, K. 1960. Tradition und Geist: Gesammelte Essays zur Dichtung. Ed. C. Becker. Göttingen.

Slatkin, L. M. 1986. “The Wrath of Thetis.” Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association 116:1–24.

Smith, P. 1974. “Des genres et des hommes.” Poétique 19:294–312.

Todorov, T. 1978. Les genres du discours. Paris.

Vernant, J.-P. 1960. “Le mythe hésiodique des races: Essai d’analyse structurale.” Revue de l’histoire des religions 157:21–54. Reprinted as Chapter 1 in Vernant 1971.

———. 1971. Mythe et pensée chez les Grecs. 3rd ed. Paris.

———. 1974. Mythe et société en Grèce ancienne. Paris. See especially “Le mythe prométhéen chez Hésiode,” 177–194.

Vidal-Naquet, P. 1970. “Valeurs religieuses et mythiques de la terre et du sacrifice dans l’Odyssée.” Annales. Économies, Sociétés, Civilisations 25:1278–1297. Reprinted 1981 in Le chasseur noir. Paris.

West, M. L., ed. 1978. Hesiod: Works and Days. Oxford.

Wilamowitz-Moellendorf, U. von. 1884. Homerische Untersuchungen. Philologische Untersuchungen 7. Berlin.


[ back ] 1. Among their writings, see, for example (to cite only complete volumes): Vernant 1971, 1974; Detienne 1967, 1972b, 1977; and Detienne and Vernant 1974.

[ back ] 2. Gernet 1981:3.

[ back ] 3. Smith 1974.

[ back ] 4. Todorov 1978; especially p. 44–60.

[ back ] 5. See the discussion in Burkert 1970.

[ back ] 6. Lang 1983.

[ back ] 7. Pindar, Isthmian 8.28-50.

[ back ] 8. See, for example, Slatkin 1986.

[ back ] 9. Iliad 1.396–406.

[ back ] 10. Theogony 617ff.

[ back ] 11. Iliad 1.404.

[ back ] 12. Iliad 18.429–443.

[ back ] 13. For seminal discussions and applications of the gods-men-beasts model in the structural analysis of Greek myth and religion, see Vidal-Naquet 1970, Detienne 1972a, and Vernant 1974.

[ back ] 14. See Vidal-Naquet 1970:1281.

[ back ] 15. See, for example, Reinhardt 1960:5ff.; Wilamowitz-Moellendorf 1884; Jaeger 1926.

[ back ] 16. Vidal-Naquet 1970:1282–1283.

[ back ] 17. Odyssey 9.108–111, trans. Lattimore 1967.

[ back ] 18. This point is made by Vidal-Naquet 1970:1284.

[ back ] 19. West 1978, repr. 1980, p. 49.

[ back ] 20. Works and Days 116–118.

[ back ] 21. Vidal-Naquet 1970:1280, citing Theogony 459–467.

[ back ] 22. Works and Days 276–279.

[ back ] 23. Odyssey 1.160, 2.123, 11.116, 13.396 = 13.428, 15.32, etc.

[ back ] 24. Vernant 1960.

[ back ] 25. Odyssey 6.120 = 9.175 = 13.201.

[ back ] 26. Odyssey 1.206–209, 214–216.

[ back ] 27. Odyssey 2.230–234.

[ back ] 28. Odyssey 19.107–114.

[ back ] 29. Nagy 1982.

[ back ] 30. Works and Days 235.

[ back ] 31. Works and Days 276–279.

[ back ] 32. See the convincing argument of Martin 1984.

[ back ] 33. Douglas 1975:273.

[ back ] 34. An early version of this paper was delivered at a symposium in honor of George E. Dimock, Jr. at Smith College in November 1985. My ongoing thinking about the subject owes much to stimulating discussions with M.D. Carroll, A.E. Johnson, N. Loraux, and L. Muellner, and to valuable suggestions from P.E. Easterling, P.-Y. Jacopin, and S.L. Schein.