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A Theban Odyssey: Family, Identity, and Finitude in the Epic Cycle

Ella Haselswerdt

Proclus’ epitome of the lost Telegoneia (West 2003) and some scanty fragments of Sophocles’s tragic adaptation Odysseus Acanthoplex (Lloyd-Jones 1996) have left us with the traces of a strikingly Oedipal sequel to Homer’s Odyssey. Telegonus, son of Odysseus and Circe, travels to Ithaka to find his father. While razing the countryside he comes into conflict with Odysseus and murders him before discovering his identity, wielding a stingray-barbed spear to fulfill Tiresias’ prophecy that the hero’s death will come ἐξ ἁλὸς (Odyssey XI.134). The story ends with a double marriage – Telegonus to Penelope and Telemachus to Circe – and the entire Epic Cycle ends along with it. This myth has seldom received much sustained scholarly attention beyond the occasional bemused footnote, though it has at times been addressed only to be dismissed as “intensely unHomeric” or “frivolous” (Davies 1989, Griffin 1977; for an exception, see Ahl and Roisman 1996). But taking this Theban twist seriously reveals that it resolves tensions that are latent in the Odyssey itself. This paper examines how the figure of Odysseus converges and diverges with two important elements of the conceptual topos of Thebes: the “unstable arithmetic of the self” and “the eternal return” (Zeitlin 1992). It argues that the Telegoneia responds to the narrative problems raised by these elements by adopting and inverting the endogamous family structure of the house of Laius, thereby finally putting to rest the relentlessly centrifugal story of the Odyssey.

Both Oedipus and Odysseus labor under a superfluity of identities. Oedipus’ identities are multiplied by his incestuous family relations, and their revelation turns him into an overdetermined subject, unable to escape from the dreadful reality of who he is: father and brother of his children, husband and son to his wife. There is no room for further generation or outward movement. Odysseus’ identities, on the other hand, proliferate as a result of his incessant story-telling, which refracts his subjectivity around the Mediterranean world: he is an aristocrat and a vagabond, an anonymous man from Crete and an adventurer among fantastical monsters, or a long-lost hero on the brink of returning home from a layover with the Thesprotians. Odysseus, unlike Oedipus, has no difficulty escaping who he is. What he suffers from is an inability to effectively perform the one task the narrative demands of him: to fully return, and by returning to assert his singular identity as son, husband, and father.

The Odyssey, the last of the nostoi, is meant to be the end of the long epilogue to the Trojan War. Indeed, the poem has a strong sense of its own belatedness and finitude (Burgess 2012). It also has, somewhat paradoxically, a great deal of difficulty actually ending. Nearly half of the poem is taken up with the hero’s repeated and layered disguises and revelations after he has made it back to Ithaka. Even after his slaughter of the suitors and reunion with Penelope, the achievement of which would appear to mark Odysseus’ return once and for all and to reinscribe him firmly into the domestic bliss of the restored oikos, the poem continues to generate new episodes (a second katabasis, another final battle with the families of the suitors) and rehash issues of the hero’s identity (the inexplicable testing of Laertes).

The Telegoneia (whether as a function of tradition or reception) responds to this lack of finitude by taking up the Theban model of family. Introducing new family members strengthens the grip that prevents the protean Odysseus from further shifting, and the unwitting fulfillment of an oracle transforms the wily hero, like Oedipus, into an instrument of his own destruction. But by hastening Odysseus’ Oedipal recognition scene, providing wives and immortality to both of his heirs, and importing genetic material from outside of Ithaka, this Odyssean adaptation of Theban narrative logic allows the epic to end while still preserving it as a horizon-expanding colonialist adventure tale.

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The Matter of Thebes

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