Homer’s Thebes: Epic Rivalries and the Appropriation of Mythical Pasts

  Barker, Elton T. E., and Joel P. Christensen. 2019. Homer's Thebes: Epic Rivalries and the Appropriation of Mythical Pasts. Hellenic Studies Series 84. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies. http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hul.ebook:CHS_BarkerE_ChristensenJ.Homers_Thebes.2019.

Conclusion: Endgame

We close by offering a viewpoint through an alternative Theban lens, which we believe best helps us to rethink the continually renewed “afterlives” of the Iliad and Odyssey and their epic rivals. Our interest lies not so much in the intrinsic value of this alternative account as in how it potentially sheds light on the processes of change undergone and endured by Homer’s poems.

The Orchard

To address this specific question, the metaphor of the tree may still hold a value for thinking about Homer’s poems. [4] In the Iliad, trees are often used in a metaphorical sense by the poet to denote the death of a warrior, an association underlined by Glaukos, who uses the image of trees shedding their leaves to describe the passage and passing of generations of man. [5] The emphasis in the Odyssey lies, in contrast, on trees that are still standing and their use as material for human goods of survival and identity. Trees indicate Odysseus’ location and represent his progress towards home, describing in turn the topography of Kalypso’s island (1.51), where he is to be found languishing at the beginning of the epic, and the view he spies when finally landing back on Ithaca, whose trees he initially fails to recognize (13.196). [6] When Odysseus first makes the steps necessary to embark upon his nostos—understood as both the passage home and the narrative told about it [7] —he must cut down the trees on Ogygia and carve out his own vessel (5.228–262). His skill in fashioning his means of return from wood is also highlighted in the gloom of Cyclops’ cave, where he makes the stake from an olive tree with which he and his men will blind the monster and enable their great escape (9.375–388). In Book 23, the bed that was a tree is both a token of Odysseus’ skill—he crafted his marriage bed from an olive tree—and a symbol (σῆμα, 23.202) of the rootedness of his relationship with his wife; indeed, Penelope’s trick to reveal her husband’s identity is the claim to have moved their bed, which in fact has remained throughout everything “in place” (or “in the ground”: ἔμπεδον, 23.203). [8] The pattern culminates in the reunion of father and son in their walk through their family’s orchard, where Laertes “reads the sure-grounded symbols Odysseus had pointed out ” (σήματ᾽ ἀναγνόντος τά οἱ ἔμπεδα πέφραδ᾽, 24.346) to prove who he is. [9]

How to read these sure signs shared between father and son is a challenge of semantics and semiotics. To gain his father’s recogition, Odysseus immediately shows his scar. We have already witnessed the sigificance of this sign for indicating Odysseus’ heroic credentials, when. accidentally exposed by his nurse, it threatens to expose the beggar as the returning hero. What worked before (inadvertently) seems insufficient now, as Odysseus quickly changes tack and instead provides details of the trees in the orchard that his father has been tending (ἕκαστα…ἕκαστα… ἕκαστος, 24.337, 339, 343). In the cataloguing of each species, it is difficult to see the wood for the trees. What is clear is that this secondary supplementary sign plots out Laertes’ inheritance for his son. [10] John Henderson draws attention to the specialized vocabulary of διατρύγιος (‘bearing grapes in succession’ 24.342), a hapax which appears to signify “expertise in tending the vintage through to its ultimate garnering” (1997: 105); and to the game of number crunching the orchard; and indeed to the act of naming (ὠνόμασας…ὀνόμηνας, 339, 341) the trees, which in itself needs to be glossed (as in to “name the species”: 1997:108n78). Alex Purves (2010:228) retraces these steps as Odysseus “taking an imaginary walk through the orchard in his mind just as [Elizabeth] Minchin has suggested that Homer takes a cognitive walk through the Peloponnese in order to recount the Catalogue of Ships (2001: 84–7).” In this recounting of the catalogue, the trees were “‘planted’ in Odysseus’ mind when he was just a boy before the frame of the Iliad had begun,” which in turn suggests that the Odyssey’s catalogue of trees is somehow some kind of response to the Iliad’s great Catalogue of Ships, by which means Homeric epic encapsulates the launch of the Achaean expedition against Troy. Trees are also present in (and responsible for) that launch, in the form of the ships—trees that have been felled—that carry the soon-to-be-felled Achaean heroes to Troy. [11]

Whether or not Laertes’ list of trees bookends the world of Homeric epic by bringing to mind the Iliad’s Catalogue of Ships, the orchard evocatively resounds within an epic cosmos, where trees are suggestive of the stories that are or could be told. [12] In announcing his intention to test his father, Odysseus hands over his “warlike arms” (ἀρήϊα τεύχε᾽, 24.219) to his slaves, as if Laertes’ farmstead represented a “temporary retreat and seclusion from epic struggle” (Henderson 1997:99). The toil showcased here is Laertes’ (epic) work on the land (ἐπεὶ μάλα πόλλ᾽ ἐμόγησεν, [13] 24.207)—Odysseus finds his father “digging about a plant” (λιστρεύοντα [14] φυτόν, 24.227)—and the care (κομιδή, [15] 24.245) he has shown his orchard. Not only does this picture suggest an adjournment to the “anti-heroic margins” (Henderson 1997:112) of the poem; it resonates with the everyday humdrum world of Hesiod’s Works and Days, towards which the narrative arc of the Odyssey has been building. The vines “named-and-promised by Laertes are dwelt on…in lyrical rapture on the promise of a seasonal abundance” (Henderson 1997:104, our italics), with “the seasons [ὧραι] of Zeus’ sky weighing them down to the ground from on high” (24.344, our italics), as if the hard labor countenanced in Hesiod’s Works and Days finds its instantiation and ultimate reward in the gods’ favor here in Laertes’ “Works and Seasons.” When, therefore, hostilities are renewed (which only ever remains an indefinitely deferred promise at the end of the Iliad [16] ), the scene is all the more shocking after this walk through the orchard, as if Hesiod’s discontentment with his brother had transmogrified into full-blown civil strife, or additionally the ever-present threat of a Theban tale interrupts the bucolic setting. No wonder it takes renewed plotting by Zeus and Athena to (literally) put an end to the conflict and bring this poem to a shuddering halt.

In this way, the trees may stand metonymically for epic poems, but not in the way that the arboreal metaphor is usually imagined. Instead, these trees/poems represent the combined product of nature and nurture which have been shaped by the judgment (aesthetic and political) of countless constant gardeners. To point to one instance in this process and claim any one to be the most formative for the creation of these specific trees is to underplay the contribution of others and to overlook and appeal to and significance for generations of people who experience them right now, each time.

The challenge of the way we invite people to think about Homer is part of the point. As readers and thinkers we are attracted to and distracted by the object we can see so powerfully that it is hard for us to think about what had to be before what is there developed. In this way, the Iliad and the Odyssey are but two outcroppings—or trees—tended and grown in an unknown number of wild groves and family orchards. The work we have done in this book, we believe, functions in part both to trace the impression of what might have been on the poems we have and to help us think and talk about them better. It seems only fitting, therefore, that before we close this book, to speculate on what might have happened following the epics’ textualization.

A Theban Revenge?

Among these many tales of claim and counterclaim on the body of heroes, there is one that directly informs and impinges on our investigation into the ongoing struggle between Troy and Thebes. This is the strange tale recorded in the scholia to Lykophron which implies that competition between Troy and Thebes may have persisted outside the Homeric poems for some time:

Isaac and John Tzetzes on Lykophron Alexandra 1194

This evidence is interesting, for it not only represents a literal Theban appropriation of a Homeric hero, as the bones of Hektor are dug up and reburied in Thebes; it also relies on a detailed understanding of the Iliad in which Boiotian Thebes is conspicuous by its absence—and all the more so when, as we saw in the previous chapter, the Catalogue of Ships circles around Thebes but studiously avoids naming the city. The familiar trope of an oracular proclamation as a response to some crisis also invites the reader to ponder the cause and effect: here, the implication seems to be that the Greeks are suffering from famine because of their assault on Troy, as if it hadn’t enjoyed the full support of the gods after all. Again such an explanation both corrects the Iliad (where Zeus oversees the fall of Troy) and draws on it for its legitimacy (where Apollo, indeed, favors the Trojans and is represented largely acting against the Achaeans). Using the Iliad against itself, then, this account finds in favor of Thebes, the one (mainland) Greek city not to have joined in the (now) discredited expedition against Troy.

The tradition of the transfer of Hektor’s bones reappears in other sources. The historian Aristodemos of Thebes, whose work only survives in fragments, is recorded in a scholion to the Iliad providing an account largely similar to the one just cited. On this occasion, however, the (unspecified) crisis is restricted to the Thebans alone, whose oracular injunction to move the bones to “a place in their land” suggests an (overdue) anxiety to be involved in the Trojan War. [26] Pausanias too identifies a grave of Hektor near Thebes, along with the oracle that had supported it. Significantly, he combines the tale of Hektor’s bones with the tale of Oedipus (IX 18.5):

Ἔστι δὲ καὶ Ἕκτορος Θηβαίοις τάφος τοῦ Πριάμου πρὸς Οἰδιποδίᾳ καλουμένῃ κρήνῃ, κομίσαι δὲ αὐτοῦ τὰ ὀστᾶ ἐξ Ἰλίου φασὶν ἐπὶ τοιῷδε μαντεύματι·

Θηβαῖοι Κάδμοιο πόλιν καταναιετάοντες,
αἴ κ᾿ ἐθέλητε πάτραν οἰκεῖν σὺν ἀμύμονι πλούτῳ,
Ἕκτορος ὀστέα Πριαμίδου κομίσαντες ἐς οἴκους
ἐξ Ἀσίης Διὸς ἐννεσίῃσ’ ἥρωα σέβεσθαι.

τῇ δὲ Οἰδιποδίᾳ κρήνῃ τὸ ὄνομα ἐγένετο ὅτι ἐς αὐτὴν τὸ αἷμα ἐνίψατο Οἰδίπους τοῦ πατρῴου φόνου.

At Thebes there is also the grave of Hektor, Priam’s son. It is next to a spring called the Oedipus Spring. The Thebans say that they brought the bones from Troy to this place because of the following oracle:

Thebans living in the in the city of Cadmus,
If you want to live in a country with blameless wealth
Bring the bones of Hektor, Priam’s son, home
From Asia to be honored as a hero at Zeus’ urging.

The spring was named after Oedipus because Oedipus washed off the blood from his father’s murder into it.

There is some debate about whether or not there was an actual cult practice centered around Hektor’s bones in Thebes and, if there was, when it actually began. [
27] For our purposes what it represents is a continuation of some of the same real-world struggles and tensions that helped to shape the Homeric poems. However secure (or not) these texts are as witnesses to an ancient tradition, they reflects an ongoing understanding of the absence of Thebes in the Trojan War narrative, a reflection of the importance of Thebes right up to and beyond the composition and institutionalization of the Homeric poems, and, despite the city’s absence in the extant heroic epic corpus, an indelible connection between the two chief cities of ancient Greek myth.

In Homeric epic, the destruction of Troy is built upon the destruction of Thebes, both by coming after it and by subordinating the role of that other city in its own narrative. In these later accounts of Hektor’s bones, we see the future of the Greek world being determined by the continued rivalry between the two cities, based now on the possession of the material remains of the past. In this putative victory of the “real-world” Thebes over the imagined Troy, we find a metaphor for our relationship with the past and a demonstration of the results of Homer’s competitive practice. The Iliad may end with the interment of Hektor, but later traditions would not let these bones lie in peace. In Aristodemos’ fragment, the Trojan War narrative is reified as a material object that can relieve the suffering of the physical inheritors of the world of Thebes. While this could be viewed as a victory of the power of the story of Troy over the Theban tale (since the former functions as a magic talisman in the very homeland of the latter), Pausanias offers a somewhat different take. Here, the tales of Hektor and Oedipus are materialized and collocated together, two sets of relics of a past with various shades of relevance. The relics are metonyms for their narrative traditions, nestled together in a way similar to the collocation of Thebes and Troy in Hesiod’s myth of the ages in the Works and Days. From our distant perspective, the continued cultural relevance of Theban myth seems less powerful, thanks largely to the long history of the reception of Homer’s poems.


Even in the way we read these objects and their relationships to the narratives that might have been, we too are engaging in a weighing of their meaning that has no universal measure. They shift depending upon our knowledge of the traditions for which they are metonyms and, by being placed alongside each other in our vision of Homer’s Thebes, create other levels of meaning anew. This dynamic process wherein meaning shifts from viewer to viewer recalls the emphasis that we have previously placed on traditional referentiality as an interpretive approach that facilitates multiple axes of time, authority, and audience engagement. While this book has certainly been about the use of Theban myths in the Homeric epics, its subtext—how to “read” Homer and situate that meaning in larger hermeneutic traditions—has been our endgame all along.

To address such a weighty task has meant approaching the topic obliquely rather than head on, precisely because of the absence of evidence and the gravity exerted on the missing bodies of Theban myth by the overwhelming presence of Homer’s two poems, at once both so paradigmatic of the genre of heroic epic and so exceptional within it. In this sideways wander through Homeric epic, we have moved back and forth through different themes to force ourselves to think in terms of the subjects presented by the poems as both content and form.

The first chapter considered the question of how Homer’s epics orient themselves toward the past, specifically in the creation of a Theban past that (re)defined that city’s epic scope and relevance. This chapter’s emphasis on the Iliad’s creation of a Thebes it needs for its own themes fluidly transitions to questions of what different heroic traditions mean and how their identities, affinities, and affiliations are negotiated, not with reference to another city or place, but almost exclusively with reference to the story being told. In these terms, the Iliad’s Herakles is recognizably Theban primarily to deny him a Panhellenic currency that the Iliad claims for itself (Chapter 2). Such a process of selection and suppression is evident too from Odysseus’ mercurial use of other narrative traditions in his epic, as he bends and remakes them for his own ends (Chapter 3).

If these first three chapters focused on Theban heroes and the themes of politics, time, and form, one critical element of epic poetry more generally—strife—has helped us think about Homeric composition and structure on a bigger canvas. Chapters 4 and 5 explored how the emergence and containment of strife is a signal topic of Greek epic poetry; in our final chapter, we observed its importance in the very process of Panhellenization and the formation of cultural continuities. This contemplation of strife has suggested that such continuities almost always must contain within themselves discontinuities and elisions that make their existence possible. The story of how the Iliad and Odyssey came to be will also always be a type of cenotaph, a eulogy or a lament for the stories that came to be, those that were lost, and for all the stories that never were fully realized.

In our reading of the epics and our attempt to approach the problematic hermeneutics of Homer askance, we have been engaging in a different type of domesticated strife, of the kind that Timon the Philiasian calls “The paper-pushers behind their palisade waging endless contest / in the bird-cage of the Muses” (βιβλιακοὶ χαρακῖται ἀπείριτα δηριόωντες Μουσέων ἐν ταλάρῳ, fr. 60W = Athenaeus Deipnosophistae I 22). As collaborators, we have constantly challenged each other to consider new angles and to force ourselves to consider and reconsider what kind of stories Homer’s epic presents. Just as Odysseus tries to articulate what he had learned from his father in their walk through the orchards, so we too retrace the steps of our predecessors, recounting how these powerful poems, whose fruits we continually enjoy, have been lovingly tended and passed down to us. And, every so often, a trace of some other presence in the shadows or soil detains us.


[ back ] 1. Σιμωνίδης τὸν Ἡσίοδον κηπουρὸν ἔλεγε, τὸν δὲ Ὃμηρον στεφανηπλόκον, τὸν μὲν ὡς φυτεύσαντα τὰς περὶ θεῶν καὶ ἡρώων μυθολογίας, τὸν δὲ ὡς ἐξ αὐτῶν συμπλέξαντα τὸν᾿Ιλιάδος καὶ Οδυσσείας στέφανον (T91b Poltera [Vatican Appendix, p. 217 Sternbach] ).

[ back ] 2. On this dynamic, see Malkin 2011: a central concern of his book is to explain (through network theory) the observation that “the more the Greeks dispersed, somehow the more ‘Greek’ they became” (5). In Malkin 1998 he devotes much of his network analysis to tracing the ways in which Odysseus is reinvented as a hero for communities across the Mediterranean, and not only Greek ones.

[ back ] 3. Seen from the perspective of Homeric reception, the metaphor of the tree remains useful for suggesting how the trunk of the poems’ knowledge sprouted innumerable branches of cultural flowering.

[ back ] 4. Purves 2010: 225–226; cf. Pucci 1996: 5–24.

[ back ] 5. Iliad 11.155–159; 13.178–181, 389–393; 14.414–415; 16.482–486; 17.53–60. On Glaukos: 6.146–149.

[ back ] 6. “Trees have been playing their part all along in constructing the Odyssey’s many-layered ledger of human identity,” Henderson 1997:98.

[ back ] 7. On this double meaning of nostos, see Barker and Christensen 2016.

[ back ] 8. On the paradox of the trickster’s identity being revealed by a trick: Goldhill 1991:18.

[ back ] 9. On the economic energizing of the “faded etymological image” of ἔμπεδα to mean “in the ground,” see Henderson 1997:89, with n9 on ἔμπεδον as indicating the rootedness of the marriage bed.

[ back ] 10. Goldhill 1991:19. Henderson 1997, also noting (95) the significant change in signs (from scar to orchard), writes about challenge of reading this additional proof: “the meaning is not in the sign, but in the ‘bodily practices’ that bring the sign’s signification to fruition” (107).

[ back ] 11. Purves 2010: 225–226.

[ back ] 12. Cf. Henderson 1997:87 for the trees as “epic wood.”

[ back ] 13. πόλλ᾽ ἐμόγησεν is used in the Iliad to denote the labors of Achilles in war (Iliad 1.162; 2.690; 9.492), an echo of which is found in Menelaos’ praise of Antilochus (23.607). In the Odyssey all instances relate to Odysseus’ long time suffering in trying to make it home (Odyssey 2.343; 4.170; 5.223, 449; 6.175; 7.147; 8.155; 15.489; 19.483; 21.207; 23.101, 169, 338), along with two other examples that resonate with this theme (3.232, where the disguised Athena advises Telemachus that it’s better to suffer hardships than to return home quickly and be killed, like Agamemnon; and 16.19, where a simile relates Eumaios’ fatherly welcome of Telemachus with a barely disguised nod towards Odysseus). The only exception is here, in the description of Laertes’ (heroic) agricultural work. The one other example in archaic Greek hexameter epic, in Hesiod’s Theogony, describes Jason’s long toil in capturing Medea.

[ back ] 14. Like διατρύγιος a hapax, as if revealing the strain of incorporating non-martial scenes of everyday life into heroic epic.

[ back ] 15. Cf. Henderson 1997:97 with n40.

[ back ] 16. Iliad 24.799–800; cf. Lynn-George 1988:230–276.

[ back ] 17. Purves 2010 suggests that the Odyssey’s expansion into a world beyond its border charts a path “from heroic to agricultural poetics” (88), and represents a meditation “upon the idea of the end of epic” (89), if not its actual end. For the ambiguity of this sign of the oar and the prophecy, see Peradotto 1990:75–77. For the oar as a symbol of Odysseus’ passage from the world of the living to the world of the dead, see Segal 1994:44.

[ back ] 18. Henderson 1997:89 sees a connection between the soil that gives rise to the trees and that into which the oar will be planted.

[ back ] 19. For a recent discussion of the political use of relics, see Salapata 2014:23–27. She draws attention especially to evidence in Pausanias of communities doing battle over claims to host the same hero cults. See Pausanias I 22.1 (Athens and Troizen over Hippolytos’ tomb); Pausanias III 12.7 (grave of Talthybios in Sparta and Aigion); cf. Plutarch On the Sign of Socrates 5 and Pausanias I 41.1, 9.2.1 (Alkmênê at Haliartos, Athens, and Megara). On the multilocality of heroes and hero cults, see Hall 1999:52, who notes that “the Seven had nonexclusive cult worship at both Argos and Athens.”

[ back ] 20. See Salapata 2014:96–100 for an overview of the thirteen historical and fictional examples of bone transfer in the ancient Greek world.

[ back ] 21. Cf. Herodotus I 67–68; Pausanias III 3.6. For the political implications of the manipulation of the bones of Orestes, see Phillips 2003. For an overview of the transfer of bones from Tegea to Sparta (Orestes) and from Skyros to Athens (Theseus) as well as eleven other recorded instances and their political ramifications, see McCauley 1999.

[ back ] 22. On heroic bones as a motif in the Greek use of the past, see Higbie 1997:299–302.

[ back ] 23. Plutarch Life of Cimon 8.57; Life of Theseus 36.1–4; Pausanias I 17.6, III 3.7. See Pausanias II 29.6-8; Higbie 1997:296; Kearns 1989:47.

[ back ] 24. See Salapata 2014:88–91.

[ back ] 25. φασὶν ὅτι λοιμοῦ κατασχόντος τὴν Ἑλλάδα ἔχρησεν ὁ Ἀπόλλων τὰ τοῦ Ἕκτορος ὀστᾶ κείμενα ἐν Ὀφρυνῷ τόπῳ Τροίας μετενεγκεῖν ἐπί τινα πόλιν Ἑλληνίδα ἐν τιμῇ <οὖσαν> μὴ μετασχοῦσαν τῆς ἐπὶ Ἴλιον στρατείας. οἱ δὲ Ἕλληνες εὑρόντες τὰς ἐν Βοιωτίᾳ Θήβας μὴ στρατευσαμένας ἐπὶ Ἴλιον ἐνεγκόντες τὰ τοῦ ἥρωος λείψανα ἔθηκαν αὐτὰ ἐκεῖσε.

[ back ] 26. FGrHist 383 F 7 [=Schol. AB to Iliad 13.1]: “‘the Trojans and Hektor’: He has separated Hektor especially from the rest of the Trojans. After the sack of Troy, Hektor the son of Priam obtained honor from the gods even after death. For the Thebans in Boiotia were beset by evils and solicited a prophecy about their deliverance. The oracle told them that they would stop their troubles if they would transfer the bones of Hektor from Ophrynion in the Troad to a place in their land called the ‘birthplace of Zeus.’ They, once they did this and were freed from the evils, maintained the honors for Hektor and during hard times they used to call for his manifestation. This is the account in Aristodemos.” Τρῶάς τε καὶ Ἕκτορα] κεχώρικε τῶν λοιπῶν Τρώων τὸν Ἕκτορα κατ᾽ ἐξοχήν. μετὰ δὲ τὴν Ἰλίου πόρθησιν Ἕκτωρ ὁ Πριάμου καὶ μετὰ τὸν θάνατον τὴν ἀπὸ θεῶν εὐτύχησε τιμήν· οἱ γὰρ ἐν Βοιωτίαι Θηβαῖοι πιεζόμενοι κακοῖς ἐμαντεύοντο περὶ ἀπαλλαγῆς· χρησμὸς δὲ αὐτοῖς ἐδόθη παύσεσθαι τὰ δεινά, ἐὰν ἐξ Ὀφρυνίου τῆς Τρωάδος τὰ Ἕκτορος ὀστᾶ διακομισθῶσιν εἰς τὸν παρ’ αὐτοῖς καλούμενον τόπον Διὸς γονάς. οἱ δὲ τοῦτο ποιήσαντες καὶ τῶν κακῶν ἀπαλλαγέντες διὰ τιμῆς ἔσχον Ἕκτορα, κατά τε τοὺς ἐπείγοντας καιροὺς ἐπικαλοῦνται τὴν ἐπιφάνειαν αὐτοῦ. ἡ ἱστορία παρὰ Ἀριστοδήμωι. Other sources include Strabo XIII 1.29; Aristotle fr. 640 R3.

[ back ] 27. Hornblower agrees with Jacoby (FGrHist 383 F 7 Kommentar, 177–8) that the story of the transfer of Hektor’s bones to Thebes circulated from the fourth century BCE onwards and accepts that the cult was historical (2013:422–424). Hornblower (427) also posits the tale as an instance of rivalry between Thebes and Athens as part of Thebes establishing a connection in the Hellespont to challenge Athenian commercial interests in the region. The first suggestion places the bone transfer tale after 316 BCE; the second dates it back to 365. Hornblower suggests that there were two stages: an oracle c. 465 BCE (428) followed by the retrieval of the bones near the end of the century. Cf. Schachter 1981; Ziehen 1934.