Discussion Series: The Homeric Odyssey and the Cultivation of Justice

Lecture Three

Part 1

This brief segment explores the Odyssey and its “captain” Odysseus as a metaphor for governing the Greek city state. On the surface the Odyssey is a story about a voyage and homecoming, but the subtext has to do with the agenda of the city state. The Greek word for captain, kubernêtes, becomes the Latin word gubernator and our word “gubernatorial.

Part 2

The ainos as Key to Heroic Identity

1. Key word for today: krisis ‘judgment, crisis’, abstract noun derived from krinô ‘judge, distinguish, make distinctions’.


1a. kritêrion = criterion for judging, distinguishing, making distinctions


1b. kritikos ‘critical’ (in both senses: ‘crisis-related’ or ‘criticism-related’)

This lecture aims at an overview of the macro-narrative of the Odyssey in terms of the numerous micro-narratives that we may describe as examples of ainos.

Review definition of ainos : ‘authoritative utterance for and by a social group; praise; fable’; ainigma ‘riddle’


1a. ‘praise’ as in the victory-songs of Pindar


1b. ‘fable’ as in the Fables of Aesop


1c. ‘riddle’ as in the Riddle of the Sphinx, a key symbol in the Oedipus Tyrannos of Sophocles, which we will read later on.

The prerequisites of ainos: The hearer must be


1. sophos (plural sophoi) ‘skilled, skilled in understanding special language’


2. agathos (plural agathoi) ‘good, noble’


3. philos (plural philoi) ‘friend’ (noun); ‘dear, near-and-dear, belonging to self’ (adjective)

= 3 qualifications (1 intellectual, 2 moral, 3 emotional) required for understanding ainos

Reminder: ainos is to audio as sêma is to video. As a code, the ainos (or sêma) can have hidden agenda.   It can be a secret password for initiation into mysteries, for example. The “secret password” can take the form of a song.

2. Aristotle Poetics 1452a29ff, discussing “recognition scenes” in e.g. tragedy (his criteria apply to epic as well): “Recognition [ana-gnô-risis] is … a change from ignorance to knowledge [gnô-sis],   tending either to affection [philia] or to enmity; it determines   in the direction of good or ill fortune the fates of the people involved” (tr.   Margaret Hubbard).

With the help of this most useful definition, let us consider the potential   for “recognition” in focus passage “A”:

A) from Odyssey xix: “Listen, then, to a dream that I have had and interpret it for me if you can. I have twenty geese about the house that eat mash out of a trough, and of which I am exceedingly fond. I dreamed that a great eagle   came swooping down from a mountain, and dug his curved beak into the neck of   each of them till he had killed them all. Presently he soared off into the sky, and left them lying dead about the yard; whereon I wept in my room till all my maids gathered round me, so piteously was I grieving because the eagle had   killed my geese. Then he came back again, and perching on a projecting rafter   spoke to me with human voice, and told me to leave off crying. ‘Be of good courage,’   he said, ‘daughter of Ikarios; this is no dream, but a vision of good omen that   shall surely come to pass. The geese are the suitors, and I am no longer an   eagle, but your own husband, who am come back to you, and who will bring these   suitors to a disgraceful end.’ On this I woke, and when I looked out I saw my   geese at the trough eating their mash as usual.” [554] “This dream,   lady,” replied Odysseus, “can admit but of one interpretation, for had not Odysseus   himself told you how it shall be fulfilled? The death of the suitors is portended,   and not one single one of them will escape.” [559] And Penelope answered,   “Stranger, dreams are very curious and unaccountable things, and they do not   by any means invariably come true. There are two gates through which these unsubstantial   fancies proceed; the one is of horn, and the other ivory. Those that come through   the gate of ivory are fatuous, but those from the gate of horn mean something   to those that see them. I do not think, however, that my own dream came through   the gate of horn, though I and my son should be most thankful if it proves to   have done so.

On the surface this dream seems to be very straightforward and even explains   itself. Below the surface, however, there is a lot of hidden agenda between   Odysseus and Penelope who are constantly testing each other. This dream is an   ainos that only Odysseus should be able to “get.”

The “love story” of Odysseus and Penelope, which preoccupies the second half   of the Odyssey, can only be understood in terms of the process of their   mutual recognition.

After Odysseus achieves a physical nostos by literally coming home to   Ithaca, he still needs to achieve a mental / moral / emotional nostos,   For this to happen, the characters in the second half of the Odyssey   have to connect with him on various levels. The key to this “connection” is   the hero’s ascending scale of affection.

The characters involved in the hero’s ascending scale of affection include:   his dog; his loyal servants, like Eumaios and Eurykleia; his son; his wife;   his father. All these characters have to “read” the disguised Odysseus   in order to recognize him. Correlated with recognition is philia.

A primary form of philia: the relationship between lovers.

The challenge of “reading” Odysseus is the challenge of “reading” the ulterior   motives of his ainoi. The ainoi that Odysseus intends for Penelope   are a kind of “love song.”

3. Review with the help of focus passage “D”:[1] Tell me,   O Muse, of that many-sided hero who traveled far and wide after he had sacked   the famous town of Troy. Many cities did he visit, and many were the people   with whose customs and thinking [noos] he was acquainted; many   things he suffered at sea while seeking to save his own life [psukhê]   and to achieve the safe homecoming [nostos] of his companions;   but do what he might he could not save his men, for they perished through their   own sheer recklessness in eating the cattle of the Sun-god Helios; so the god   prevented them from ever reaching home. Tell me, as you have told those who   came before me, about all these things, O daughter of Zeus, starting from whatsoever   point you choose.”

4a. Emphasis now on Odyssey i 3 Odysseus saw the cities of many   and came to know their/his noos

4b. Emphasis now on Odyssey i 5 Odysseus seeking to win as a prize his   psukhê, plus [his nostos and] the nostos   of his companions

5. Now consider focus passage “B” from Odyssey xi:

B) from Odyssey xi: Then came also the ghost [psukhê]   of Theban Teiresias, with his golden scepter in his hand. He knew me and said,   ‘Odysseus, noble son of Laertes, why, poor man, have you left the light of day   and come down to visit the dead in this sad place? Stand back from the trench   and withdraw your sword that I may drink of the blood and answer your questions   truly.’ [97] So I drew back, and sheathed my sword, whereon when he   had drank of the blood he began with his prophecy [= words of a mantis].   [100] ‘You want to know,’ said he, ‘about your return home [nostos],   but heaven will make this hard for you. I do not think that you will escape   the eye of Poseidon, who still nurses his bitter grudge against you for having   blinded his son. Still, after much suffering you may get home if you can restrain   yourself and your companions when your ship reaches the Thrinacian island, where   you will find the sheep and cattle belonging to the sun, who sees and gives   ear to everything. If you leave these flocks unharmed and think of nothing but   of getting home [nostos], you may yet after much hardship reach   Ithaca; but if you harm them, then I forewarn you of the destruction both of   your ship and of your men. Even though you may yourself escape, you will return   in bad plight after losing all your men, in another man’s ship, and you will   find trouble in your house, which will be overrun by high-handed people, who   are devouring your substance under the pretext of paying court and making presents   to your wife. [118] When you get home you will take your revenge on   these suitors; and after you have killed them by force [biê]   or fraud in your own house, you must take a well-made oar and carry it on and   on, till you come to a country where the people have never heard of the sea   and do not even mix salt with their food, nor do they know anything about ships,   and oars that are as the wings of a ship. I will give you this certain token   [sêma] which cannot escape your notice.   A wayfarer will meet you and will say it must be a winnowing shovel that you   have got upon your shoulder; on this you must fix the oar in the ground and   sacrifice a ram, a bull, and a boar to Poseidon. Then go home and offer hecatombs   to the gods in heaven one after the other. As for yourself, death shall come   to you from the sea, and your life shall ebb away very gently when you are full   of years and peace of mind, and your people shall be prosperous [olbioi].   All that I have said will come true.’


5a. Compare xi 121-137 with the different version in xxiii 267-8: there it     is made explicit that Odysseus is to travel through the cities of humankind.     The “journey of a soul” through many different cultures, with different values,     is key to noos.


5b. Compare Odyssey i 3: Odysseus, by virtue of traveling throughout     the cities of humankind, comes to “know” noos. The question remains:     whose noos?


5c. xi 126 ‘I will give you this certain token [sêma],     and you cannot have lêthê about it’.

6. ‘winnowing-shovel‘ at xi 128; it is a mistake to translate as ‘winnowing-fan’;   a winnowing shovel looks just like an oar, but a winnowing-fan does not.

7. Focus passage “C”… Three variant tales, collected by folklorists in early-20th-century   Greece and analyzed by W. F. Hansen, about St. Elias [known as the Prophet   Elijah in the Hebrew bible]:

C) Two variant tales, collected by folklorists in early-20th-century Greece   and analyzed by William F. Hansen, about St. Elias [known as the Prophet   Elijah in the Hebrew bible]:

Variant 1[A]: Saint Elias was a seaman who lived a dissolute life,   but he repented of what he had done and thereby detested the sea. {Variant 1B:   because he had suffered much at sea and had often nearly drowned, he became   disgusted with voyaging.} He resolved to go to a place where people know neither   what the sea was nor what ships were. Putting his oar on his shoulder he set   out on land, asking everyone he met what he was carrying. So long as they answered   that it was an oar, he proceeded to higher and higher ground. Finally, at the   top of a mountain he asked his question, and the people answered, ‘a stick’.   Understanding then that they had never seen an oar, he remained there with them.

Variant 2: The Prophet Elias was a fisherman who, because of terrible weather   and terrific storms, became afraid of the sea. So he put an oar on his shoulder   and took to the hills. When he met a man, he asked him what it was he was carrying;   the man answered that it was an oar, and Elias went on. The same happened when   he met a second man. But at the top of a mountain, he asked a third man, who   replied, ‘why, that’s a stick’. Saint Elias resolved to stay there. He planted   his oar in the ground, and that is why his chapels are all built on hilltops.

Variant 3: In some versions, the natives’ decisive answer is not ‘a stick’   but ‘a baker’s peel’ [phtyari tou phournou = “winnowing-shovel of   the oven”].

8. Feast Day of St. Elias: July 20. This date coincides, roughly, with harvesting   season. It is around this time when wheat is gathered and winnowed.

9. There is a hero cult of Odysseus in Arcadia, where he is worshipped together   with Athena as goddess of pilots and Poseidon as god of the sea (Pausanias 8.44.4);   note that Arcadia is mountainous and landlocked. Of all locales in mainland   Greece, it is farthest away from the sea.

10. Planting of winnowing-shovel on top of a mound of winnowed grain (Theocritus   7.155ff): a symbolic gesture, meaning “the harvest is accomplished = finished.”

11. Tomb of Elpenor: xi 75-78, xii 13-15. This sêma ‘tomb’ is   also a ‘sign, signal, symbol’ meaning “the sailor is dead.”

12. olbioi ‘prosperous; blessed’ at xi 137 (see again last line of focus   passage “B” as quoted at #5); singular olbios. This word means ‘prosperous’   on the surface and ‘blessed’ (applying to the dead hero) under the surface (in   the language of ainos).

13. When Teiresias says at xi 134 (again #5 above), ‘death from the sea’, the   wording is ambiguous: it can also mean ‘death away from the sea’.

14. “The message of [the sêma of Teiresias] is twofold   neither for the seafarers nor for the inlanders since the former can surely   distinguish oars from winnowing shovels while the latter are presented as knowing   only about winnowing shovels. Rather the message is twofold only for Odysseus   as the traveler since he sees that the same signal has two distinct messages   in two distinct places: what is an oar for the seafarers is a winnowing shovel   for the inlanders.” – Nagy, Pindar’s   Homer at ch. 8, p.232. For further discussion, see Pindar’s   Homer at ch. 8, p.231, “Let us begin by considering the prooemium of   the Odyssey.”

15. In order to understand the sêma, Odysseus   must have noos. In order to have the noos to see more than one   side of reality, Odysseus must travel: he must have a “journey   of a soul.”