Zeus in the Odyssey

  Marks, J. 2008. Zeus in the Odyssey. Hellenic Studies Series 31. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies. http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hul.ebook:CHS_Marks.Zeus_in_the_Odyssey.2008.


Western literature begins with the Iliad and Odyssey, the monumental epics that already in antiquity had given rise to an extensive body of analysis and interpretation, from word studies and line-by-line commentaries to textual and literary criticism. Byzantine scholars preserved the texts and a portion of the ancient critical tradition through the Middle Ages, and reintroduced them to Renaissance Europe; Enlightenment- and Romantic-era scholars transformed the study of Homeric poetry into a profession. This profession today employs dozens, perhaps hundreds of scholars worldwide, who every year teach the epics to thousands of students, and publish hundreds of articles and dozens of books on matters Homeric in numerous modern languages.

This being the case, a new reading of the Homeric Odyssey requires some justification. To begin with, it is worth observing that, while the tradition of Homeric scholarship stretches back for millennia, less than a century has elapsed since Milman Parry and Albert Lord demonstrated that early Greek epic poetry is a phenomenon inseparable from oral performance, and in the process obviated much of previous scholarship. The Parry-Lord paradigm both remains a fertile field of inquiry and holds out the hope of further qualitative advances in our understanding of the epics.

Work within the Parry-Lord paradigm has convinced most scholars that orally-derived epics are conceived in performance as unified and carefully structured narratives. Attempts to understand how ancient Greek oral poets maintained this underlying unity, and how their audiences perceived it, however, have become entangled in complex and contested issues regarding the identity of the poet Homer and the origins of the Homeric manuscript tradition. As a consequence, analysis of the overall structure of the Iliad and Odyssey tends to proceed from the impulse either to deny or to defend the authenticity of specific sections of the poems, or to demonstrate that an individual composer could or could not have created the epics within a given historical context.

Yet the simple fact is that the precise circumstances under which the Homeric epics took shape are, and are likely to remain, irrecoverable. The aim of this book is to account for the unity of the overall narrative of the Odyssey in a way that is consistent with the Parry-Lord paradigm, and that remains agnostic as to the identity of Homer – or “Homer.” To be sure, the argumentation is informed by current theories about the genesis of the epic, and is indeed more sympathetic to some than others. Nevertheless, the power of my model to explain the unity of the Homeric Odyssey does not depend on the answers to such questions as whether the text represents the effort of one person or many, or whether it took shape in Attica, Ionia, or some other locale.

Specifically, I argue that the plot of the Odyssey is represented within the narrative as a plan of Zeus, a Dios boulê, that serves as a guide for the performing poet and as a hermeneutic for the audience. Zeus’ plan unfolds as the Odyssey negotiates its relationship with other accounts of Odysseus’ story that would have been familiar to those for whom the poem was performed. Put another way, the character of Zeus maintains thematic unity as the narrative moves through a mass of potential narrative paths for Odysseus that was already dense and conflicting when the Odyssey was taking shape.

This book, then, offers a new perspective on the overall unity of the Odyssey, the tenor of interactions among the main characters, and the relationships among Homeric and other contemporary accounts of Odysseus’ return. The commanding role that I hope to demonstrate for the Odyssean Zeus is functionally equivalent to that of his Iliadic counterpart, so that the two Homeric epics can be seen as more closely akin on a structural level than is generally appreciated. At the same time, I hope to show that a Zeus-centered reading of the Ody ssey can help to explicate long-standing problems of interpretation, and to explain the literary success of the Homeric Odysseus.