Odysseus Traditions and the τέλος of the Odyssey

Richard Sacks, Columbia University
Deep in the underworld of Odyssey 11, the poem pauses at lines 119-137 to tell its audience of Odysseus telling his Phaiakian audience of Teiresias telling our hero that even after the conclusion of all his efforts, he will still be faced with the post-νόστος necessity of coming to terms with Poseidon, and of doing so in a place defined by “sea-lessness,” a feature of this world with which even the extraordinary range of Odysseus’ odyssey has given him no experience and in the presence of which one is least likely in any case to keep Poseidon clearly in mind. One might ask whether or not we are to take Teiresias’ warning seriously – though I would suggest we have no choice in a poem which repeats it during Odysseus’ culminating reunion with Penelope (it turns out that lines 269-284 of book 23 virtually repeat 11.122-137), and also in a poem in which even those most closely connected with Poseidon have near-disastrous difficulty keeping his demands constantly in mind: for example, the genealogically and topographically Poseidon-related Phaiakians who constitute Odysseus’ audience at this very moment in the narrative; indeed at 13.125ff. we are told that Poseidon is so angry with them for helping Odysseus that even though Zeus convinces Poseidon not to completely annihilate them, he nonetheless puts the Phaiakians permanently out of the return business, not a good sign perhaps for a νόστος-based poem and genre, at least not if we don’t get it right the first time. In any case, if we therefore do take Teiresias’ warning seriously – with its post-book-24 and post-νόστος vision – then we must note that, methodologically speaking, such an act requires us to explore the relevance to this Odyssey of seemingly extra-Odyssean and extra-Homeric traditions about Odysseus, traditions such as that in which he leaves Ithaka again as instructed by Teiresias in book 11, traditions that therefore potentially lie beyond the apparent narrative, mythic and even generic limits of the text.
Iliadic scholarship has of course increasingly seen the critical importance to interpretation of these boundary-crossing dimensions of traditionality. For example, it has long been recognized that the Iliad defies its narrative limits by enveloping elements of the Trojan war which either precede or follow the poem’s concentrated literal time frame (Whitman’s suggestion of the pre-enactment of Achilleus’ death in Patroklos’ fall in Iliad 16 would be an obviously important example). Similarly, Slatkin has demonstrated the way in which the poem dramatically and crucially expands its mythic dimensions by enveloping the world of Thetis and her problematic Zeus-related mythology, and therefore potentially raises concerns about the very foundations of Olympic stability. And of course Nagy has led the way in showing how the Iliad – on the levels of both form and content – paradoxically renders its own genre of κλέος imponderable, if not clearly impossible.
Such interpretations – whether one accepts them or not – demonstrate, by their very connection to such crucial issues in the Iliad as the nature of Achilleus’ mortality, the limits of Olympic stability, and the question of the imperishability of κλέος, what is arguably the most important methodological problem confronting Homeric scholarship: the daunting yet unavoidable circularities and even imponderables – and I use these plurals intentionally if not advisedly – with which we are faced when dealing with questions of what traditions audience and poet shared in the obviously traditionality-based performance contexts and evolutions – again, with plurals fully intended – of these most traditional and long-evolving of poems. For whatever traditions these remarkable texts do in fact utilize are largely and necessarily attested only later than at least what we traditionally assumed to be their so-called “dates” of composition (a problem in and of itself), and matters only get more complex as we come to realize (and again, Nagy’s work has led the way) that the Iliad and Odyssey themselves likely continued to evolve for centuries alongside the simultaneously evolving mythic traditions with which they so powerfully interacted. Indeed, with Nagy’s formulation of the “evolutionary model for the making of Homeric poetry,” perhaps we are finally getting beyond the constraints of what I like to call (as I imagine PDQ Bach would call it) the “Iphigeneia in Homer” problem. Admittedly, however, getting beyond this issue via a largely theoretical model doesn’t necessarily help us get our heads fully around poems that increasingly appear to have no single, concrete contextual grounding in time or space. Then again, it is always worth remembering that so much in these two truly extraordinary poems proves virtually impossible to get our heads around. But, to return to something approaching a more concrete methodological reality, we can note that the way that the Iliad “uses” the details of Achilleus’ death under the walls of Troy – unattested in the Homeric poems – provides a case in point. We see that the narrative constantly points beyond its literal limits, and that so much in the Iliad falls into place when we understand that Achilleus has essentially “died” in book sixteen, and therefore can only fathom whatever impossible truth(s) he does finally fathom in that obviously and emphatically impossible state. It therefore seems unthinkable that the tradition of his death is not in play, and the internal logic and interpretive power that result allow us to live with the unavoidable methodological difficulties.
But as I suggested at the beginning, the Odyssey too – even more overtly than the Iliad, thanks to Teiresias’ prophecy – points beyond its literal limits, insisting on a perspective that will require Odysseus to leave behind, at least for a while, the world of his νόστος. But the tradition in which he does so – attested, like Achilleus’ death, in the Cycle and elsewhere – in Odysseus’ case does not sit well with what is often viewed as the narrative, mythic and generic logic of the Odyssey. For this tradition (transmitted in the Telegony, for example, and even worse, one might be tempted to say, in Pseudo-Apollodorus) has it that Odysseus leaves home and sea, goes inland to Thesprotia, marries the Thesprotian queen Kallidike, fights a war for her, and has a son by her. It is as if following the letter of Teiresias’ (and therefore the poem’s) instructions – and thus having any hope of coming to terms with Poseidon (whose domain we must always live in if we are to live in insular Ithaka) – involves violating the spirit of the Odyssey‘s νόστος-based values of home, wife and peace. It is as if the poem insists on pointing to a paradox inherent in the tension between what it takes to get home and what it takes to stay there, between the Odysseus we see in the Odyssey and the one we see elsewhere in the tradition.
What I would like to suggest is that a fundamental strategy of the Odyssey is to explore this tension by gradually – yet systematically and increasingly – pointing to Odysseus traditions that its surface seems to suppress, then exploring their implications and complications, and finally weaving them into a fabric of unresolvable paradoxes that ultimately reveal themselves as lying at the heart of one of the poem’s central and ruthlessly consistent visions: the tension I just spoke of between what it takes to get home and what it takes to stay there, between (if we bear in mind the narrative-order vs. plot-order issues of books 5-12 especially) where the plot ends and potentially how much further the narrative has taken us by the time we get there.
But before we provide ourselves in the time remaining with an admittedly quickie list of such unresolvable paradoxes in the poem, and also before we get back to an equally brief examination of possible evidence for what the poem does with the “Odysseus in Thesprotia” tradition in particular, let us instead spend a moment on what is perhaps a more manageable example of the Odyssey working with extra-Odyssean Odysseus traditions, and in the process perhaps we can begin to face up to the methodological and interpretive problems we will increasingly face. The tradition I refer to appears already in Hesiod, if “already” is the correct word, given our earlier musings on evolutionary models and the like; still, the fact of a Hesiodic source somehow still seems worth noting, “chronologically” speaking, the seeming lack of methodological purity notwithstanding. In any case, in Theogony 1017-18, Hesiod tells us that Odysseus had sons by Kalypso named Nausithoos and Nausinoos. Now one can well imagine that on one level the Odyssey is none too keen about any potential by-products of Odysseus’ seven years spent with Kalypso, especially given the enormous amount of time the poem has just finished lavishing on Telemachos and even more especially given Odysseus’ moving articulation of why he yearns for Penelope, complete with her imperfections and her ever-aging mortality. At the same time, however, book 5 – our first spent with the poem’s central figure – does at least partially go out of its way to make us worry about whether there might be a residual effect of his time on Ogygia. For as Nagy has noted, the poem confronts us with traditions of the inevitable fatal implications for mortal men when they sleep with goddesses. Indeed, we are reminded of this potentially disastrous obstacle to a successful νόστος when we hear Kalypso’s powerful complaint of Olympian double standards (5.118-128) in her narration of the fatal stories of Orion and Iasion. The narrative itself then further reminds us of this issue as it tells of our hero lying on his raft after leaving Kalypso’s island (5.270-277), staring up at, of all things, the constellation Orion, and this in a book which – as Nagy also pointed out – begins with the Odyssey‘s only instance of a dawn formula involving dawn rising from the bed of Tithonos (5.1-2), a figure whose fate also emphasizes that regardless of any precautions we might take, sleeping with goddesses will catch up with us. Thus, we have a tension created between the tradition of a pending and inevitable fatality resulting from Odysseus’ time with Kalypso and an Odyssean tradition of somehow overcoming or transforming or at least avoiding such a fate.
Having thus established that tension in the course of book 5, note how book 6 then begins. For as Odysseus in his exhaustion lies asleep on the shore upon which he has been washed up, the narration pauses to tell us where he is and just who these people are. The answer, of course, is Phaiakia, and before anything else transpires we are immediately given their bare bones genealogy – I say “bare bones” because we get a fuller one early in book 7 (lines 56-68). But at the beginning of book 6, as we embark upon what the Kalypso episode has begotten, so to speak, the only three Phaiakians we actually hear about are their founder, Poseidon’s son Nausithoos, in line 7, whose name is identical to that of Odysseus’ son by Kalypso in Hesiod, and then one representative each from the next two generations, Alkinoos and Nausikaa in lines 12 and 17 respectively, whose compound names, if you take the 2nd element from one and the 1st element from the other, give you Nausi-noos, Odysseus’ other son by Kalypso according to Theogony 1017-18.
How are we to interpret this seeming transformation on the Odyssey‘s part (assuming of course that we do not attribute it merely to coincidence)? Are we witnessing a transformation of some of the potential obstacles of our journey home into potential solutions (for example, a ride home, which as Frame has argued is what Nestor etymologically and traditionally might have provided for Odysseus if not for their parting of ways that we heard about in Pylos in book 3)? Or are we witnessing a transformation of one set of problems into another, thus leaving us stranded once again with relatives of the very god the poem has insisted we have to come to terms with? Or as with so much in the Odyssey, does this moment resonate in multiple — and potentially contradictory — directions at once?
On this note we may return to Teiresias’ prophecy and the traditional location at which Odysseus fulfills it: Thesprotia, the word for the inhabitants of which (Θεσπρωτοí) is attested nine times in the Odyssey, but never in the Iliad, not even in the seemingly all-inclusive Catalogue of Ships. In particular, its attestations are especially clustered in two of Odysseus’ lies: the one he tells at great length to Eumaios at 14.192-359, where we get three instances in twenty-one lines at 315, 316 and 335; and the one he tells as the last of the series to Penelope at 19.262-307, also with three attestations, this time in twenty-two lines, at 271, 287 and 292; (two others, 16.65 and 17.526 are merely Eumaios telling Telemachos and Penelope respectively what the disguised Odysseus had told him in book 14, while the final instance, 16.427, involves the weird scolding Penelope lays on Antinoos concerning Odysseus’ defense of Antinoos’ father, a discussion of which we don’t have time for now). The feature those lies of books 14 and 19 share with respect to the Phaiakians is that the beggar claims that he heard news of Odysseus from the Thesprotian king Pheidon, and that at the Thesprotians had become Phaiakian-like in their designated role since they would be giving Odysseus a ride home as soon as he put together a sufficient stash and also got back from consulting the oracle at Dodona. Perhaps yet another tradition has transformed itself into a Phaiakia? But if such is the case, we must remember that a Phaiakia will hardly do as a place whose inhabitants have never heard of the sea, though one would think it would be a pretty good place to keep Poseidon clearly in mind, until of course one remembers, as we noted at the beginning, that even the Phaiakians had forgotten what their own ancestor Poseidon had warned them about. To complicate matters even more, it is interesting to note one of the features the lies of 14 and 19 do not share: in 14, the beggar claims that the last stage in his own disaster-filled odyssey home from Troy before he landed on Thesprotia was when his ship was smashed by Zeus, his men all drowned, and he himself was swept along for nine days until being washed up on shore on the tenth day. The circumstances and even some of the language almost exactly replicate those that landed Odysseus on Kalypso’s island. Thus, in book 14 Thesprotia almost becomes, via the traditional resonances deployed, a combination of Kalypso’s world and that of the Phaiakians, precisely the combination potentially “achieved” via Nausithoos in book 6. But if Odysseus’ Thesprotian lie in book 14 looks back from the world of Nausithoos to that which gave birth to it, so to speak, that of 19 looks in the other direction. For what the beggar tells Penelope there is that Odysseus’ visit to Thesprotia is part of a post-Phaiakian journey her husband has been taking, even though – we are told – he could have already come home. Thus, just as in the non-Odyssean traditions, Thesprotia in this lie in book 19 becomes a post-final-adventure destination. Indeed, taken together, it is almost as if Thesprotia looms as a locus of multiple simultaneous resonances, a continuum of transformations without resolution, all of which point to the divine forces – particularly Poseidon – which haunt our past and with which we must come to terms. But to do so, the Odyssey itself increasingly suggests, involves paradox at every stage. Thus, if we want an Odysseus who does not have children by Kalypso, we run into a problem since the audience knows that tradition; but perhaps we can solve that problem by transforming those children into the ride-giving Phaiakians. But the problem then becomes that such will serve only to further alienate Poseidon, with whom we have already been told we must come to terms. And indeed to do so, we must leave home and violate the spirit of the Odyssey, unless of course we transform that tradition also into an aspect of the devices (in this case, the lying) we use to achieve our homecoming. But this transformation too, it turns out, sends us right back to Phaiakia, figuratively speaking, complete with the problems that precede it as well as post-Phaiakia destinations other than Ithaka, hardly the transformation we thought we were after.
But of course so much in the Odyssey turns out to be not quite what we thought we were after, as various critics have noted to varying degrees. Indeed, one could work one’s way backwards from the end of the poem through a list that seems to grow only longer and more haunting.
• For example, why won’t Odysseus listen to Athena’s instructions to cease and desist from being a sacker of cities in the poem’s final scene, and after she herself had initially not acted on Zeus’ cease and desist advice? Of course there is the potentially looming question of whether it is ultimately possible to listen to Athena while hoping to come to terms with Poseidon since, if we cycle the Odyssey through Attic mythology via Nagy’s evolutionary model, those two gods indeed turn out to be irreconcilable, especially if one introduces olive trees into the equation, as the Odyssey most poignantly does.
• Or, even aside from that problem of Odysseus seemingly turning into a sacker of cities again at the end, there is his “achievement” of turning Laertes into one again too – note that his father is the only one given the “privilege” of actually killing someone in that final scene. Is that really what we were looking for as part of the process of the old man’s return to civilization? Yet at the same time there is no denying that we are faced with the kin of the suitors and circumstances therefore demand some kind of action.
• And what of Odysseus’ painfully cruel treatment of Laertes before he reveals himself to his father earlier in 24? It is almost as if those aspects of Odysseus’ character it takes to achieve his homecoming (such as lying about his identity due to potentially dangerous circumstances) have become so basic to him that they remain front and center even when their appropriateness no longer holds.
• And where is Penelope in 24? The poem, having made an exquisite case for her surpassing qualities as crucial and fundamental both to what we want to achieve in this poem and any hope we have of achieving it, in effect “disappears” her from its final scenes in Ithaka, right after Odysseus ends book 23 by essentially telling her to go to her room and shut up.
• Even Odysseus’ morning-after proposal to her earlier in that speech at 23.354ff. – that he will go off raiding while she remains at home – makes us wince with a sense of “we’ve seen that movie before, that’s what the last 20 years were!” And does he even need to go raiding; after all, what about all the material wealth he received from the Phaiakians which Athena helped him safely hide away after he first arrived back in Ithaka?
One could go on and on, even, as I have argued elsewhere, into the “trouble”-laden and ultimately pain-inflicting semantics of Odysseus’ very name. But my point, and I will end here, is that the Odyssey is relentlessly and remorselessly full of impossible choices, tensions, and paradoxes, including – and ultimately perhaps most emphatically — when it comes to the issue of where it all will quite literally end, where — to use Aristarchus’s term though rather differently than he meant it – our τέλος truly lies. But either τέλος we are asked to envision for Odysseus leaves us feeling incomplete. Do we end in book 24 and the Ithaka of our νόστος, or do we follow Teiresias’ instructions and head inland beyond our seeming generic and narrative boundaries? But of course one violates the letter, the other the spirit of the poem’s demands. Either solution also, it seems to turn out, will fail on its own terms as well, as we realize that the Odysseus of the end of the poem has more problems with his achieved homecoming than he did with the process of getting there; and that the Odysseus who never seemed to be able to come terms with Poseidon when looking him squarely in the eye of his storm isn’t likely to fare any better now that he has to propitiate Poseidon not only in a world utterly foreign to his own mortal experience but in a world without the slightest hint of that god. An unresolvable paradox indeed! But such, I would argue, both in terms of its boundary-defying vision and narrative dimensions, is the nature of τέλος in the Odyssey.