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Athena hetairos: the replacement of warrior-companionship in the Odyssey

John Esposito

At Odyssey 8.200, Odysseus ‘rejoices to see his gentle hetairos in the agon’ (χαίρων οὕνεχ' ἑταῖρον ἐνηέα λεῦσσ' ἐν ἀγῶνι). This use of hetairos is peculiar in two ways. First, the referent is Athena; and gods are not elsewhere called hetairoi. Second, the speaker is completely unknown to Odysseus; and it seems odd to use the term that captures the intimacy of Achilles’ relationship with Patroclus to describe a complete stranger. This paper takes these two peculiarities as a starting-point for a deeper exploration of the link between the role of Athena and the diachronic semantics of heta(i)r- in the two Homeric poems.

Two major conclusions are drawn. The first concerns the source of a hero’s strength. In the Iliad, heroes draw both moral and physical strength from their companions and from the gods. In the Odyssey, precisely the opposite happens: the hero suffers from his companions’ foolishness and earns their distrust by repeatedly endangering their lives to satisfy his own curiosity. Moreover, their disappearance is permanent: Odysseus defeats the suitors without any warrior-companions. Athena gives Odysseus tremendous moral support, magnifying his confidence and magnificence to others’ eyes; but she does not give him the direct physical support that she gives her favorites in the Iliad (e.g. Iliad 4.132, 5.290, 22.276). Odysseus receives physical support only from family (Telemachus, Laertes) and slaves (Eumaios, Philoitios), none of whom are called Odysseus’ hetairos. Thus the chief bond among warriors in the Iliad not only disappears from the Odyssey but also is functionally replaced by a combination of household members and a physically non-interventionist goddess.

The second conclusion concerns the changing semantics of heta(i)r-. In the Iliad, the etymology (from the PIE reflexive *swe-) retains some force: the hetairos is the most intimate friend, closely tied to the warrior’s self. In the Odyssey, this etymological force eventually vanishes. The proem places the self-destruction of Odysseus’ hetairoi at the climax of the list of sufferings (Odyssey 1.5-9); but when Odysseus lands on Ithaca, a new list of his sufferings (13.89-93) does not mention hetairoi. Moreover, on Ithaca, ‘hetairoi’ no longer refers to royal warrior-companions. The only hetairoi on Ithaca are Eumaios’ fellow herdsmen (14.407, 460; 15.307, 336) and the suitors at their most villainous (4.669; 16.354; 21.100). Henceforth the only two warriors named hetairos are Odysseus himself, who asks Athena-Mentor to remember the dear hetairos (μνῆσαι δ' ἐτάροιο φίλοιο: 22.208) and Laertes, whom Athena-Mentor calls ‘dearest by far of all hetairoi’ (πάντων πολὺ φίλταθ' ἑταίρων: 24.517). Thus the only combat-related bond on Ithaca, apart from membership in the oikos, obtains only between Athena and the Ithacan royal line.

Keeping one eye on archaic realia and another on post-Homeric literature, this paper weaves together the epic presentation of combat psychology, the relation between gods and humans, the tension between royal and military ideology in the archaic period, and the special role of Athena into a complex picture unified by the changing action and meaning of heta(i)r- in the Odyssey. The argument builds on to earlier work in Homeric studies and archaic social and military history. Previous treatments of Homeric hetairoi (Nilsson 1933; Jeanmaire 1939; Palmer 1961; Stagakis 1962; Kakridis 1963; Nagy 1979; van Wees 1992; Singor 1995; Montes Miralles 2006) have focused on social, cultural, and military aspects of archaic warrior-companionship. None have observed either the changing semantics of heta(i)r- from the Iliad to the Odyssey nor Athena’s special and developing link to heta(i)r-. Fifth-century hetairoi have been treated in great depth (Buttner 1840; Calhoun 1913; Sartori 1957; Connor 1971; Ulf 1990; Welwei 1992; Jones 1999); but unlike Iliadic hetairoi, these hetairoi are not warriors. This paper suggests that Athena’s actions in the Odyssey fill a void left by the failure of Odysseus’ hetairos-group in a way that encodes the disappearance of heroic culture and prefigures specific post-martial features of late archaic and early classical Greek society.

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Homer: Poetics and Exegesis

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