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The End(s) of the Odyssey

Egbert Bakker

Yale University

The existence of cyclical poems next to the Iliad and Odyssey can lead to gemination: the cyclical poem can be seen either as a (lost) source on which the Homeric tradition draws or as a form of “fan fiction,” providing the sequel or prequel to the plot of the Homeric poem, filling in its gaps, or detailing events outside of the plot that are referred to in the poem.

The events at Ithaca after Odysseus’ killing of the Suitors and his reunion with Penelope are caught precisely in this tension. The later mythographical tradition provides various versions of “what happened” based at least in part on a post-Odyssean Telegony, but the Odyssey itself as well offers intriguing clues as to the biography of its hero after the completion of his nostos.

This paper argues that the pull between pre-Odyssean and post-Odyssean material affects the very interpretation of the poem itself. The end of the Odyssey has been disputed since antiquity and has in the modern era become fuel for analytic scholarship. But to cut off the poem at 23.296, as Aristarchus did, is to impose a reductive Aristotelian conception of plot unity on the poem. But it is an interpretative choice that the poem encourages in a sense. The “early” ending of the poem fits well with a conception of Zeus-sanctioned justice as well-deserved fate for the Suitors (articulated by Odysseus himself at 22.413–16, where he casts himself as instrument of divine punishment). The poem places an emphasis on justice, while downplaying the element of personal revenge. But it cannot completely ignore revenge as a separate strand that pervades the poem.

The paper considers Odysseus’ post-Odyssean biography against the backdrop of an unresolved conflict in the poem between Zeus and Poseidon, the former being the god of justice, the latter of revenge.  A significant detail appears in the final conversation between Zeus and his brother (long before the ending of the poem), when the former assures the latter that “there will always be revenge (τίσις) for you even later on (καὶ ἐξοπίσω),” 13.144. This is an allusion to a role for Poseidon beyond the poem’s plot, possibly related to the ἀμέτρητος πόνος (23.249) that Odysseus tells Penelope is in store for them, a reference to the inland journey Odysseus had been foretold by Teiresias.

The death of the Suitors as just punishment is in line with the poem’s attempts at presenting its hero in a favorable light. But such attempts cannot completely obscure the alternative, in which Odysseus is driven by a desire for revenge and incurs the hatred of the local population. The hero’s ambiguous status as a man who both sustains and inflicts suffering (23.306–7) is translated into the poem’s uncertain ending. But neither the Aristotelian telos at 23.296 nor the un-Aristotelian deus ex machina solution at the end of 24 addresses the hero’s post-nostos travels, of which stories may have been in existence at the time of the Odyssey’s composition and early transmission and distribution.

This paper, then, argues that the Odyssey’s references to the hero’s post-Odyssean biography reflect (and play down) a tradition in which the wrath of Poseidon is more pronounced and extended than in our extant Odyssey. Since Poseidon’s importance seems to be limited in the Telegony, from what we can tell from Proclus’ paraphrase and Apollodorus, it is likely that the cyclical poem missed or undervalued the way in which the Odyssey positioned itself against preexisting tradition.

Session/Panel Title

Nostoi/Odyssey/Telegony: New Perspectives on the End of the Epic Cycle

Session/Paper Number


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