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How to Get Away with Murder: A Reinterpretation of the Mnesterophonia

Eunice Kim

University of Washington

In the Homeric world, murderers go on the run. Such is the case for many fugitives that appear in the Iliad and Odyssey, e.g. Tlepolemus (Il. 2.661-70), Patroclus (Il. 23.83-90), and Theoclymenus (Od. 15.222-55). The recurring murder-and-flight motif, however, does more than reference a common and recognized practice of the late Bronze and Archaic age (Gagarin 1981); it also provides context for the unfolding drama of the Iliad (Schlunk 1976 and Heiden 1998) and Odyssey. For the Odyssey specifically, the motif anticipates, in significant ways, Odysseus’ permanent reinstatement as king in Ithaca.

This paper reinterprets the conclusion of the Odyssey through the prism of the fugitive-murderer story pattern, wherein a man guilty of manslaughter flees avenging relatives of his victim and joins or founds a new community. I argue that this pattern is habitually associated with Odysseus in a way that sets him up to be an exiled killer, but ultimately renders him the exact inverse: a killer reintegrated into his original domicile.

I begin the paper by reviewing the general pattern of the fugitive homicide within Homeric epic, and proceed to compare it to Odysseus’ own situation. Contrary to the typical homicide, who breaks ties with his home community and flees to a new one, Odysseus starts out as a fugitive. His arrival and activities on Ithaca resemble the kind of colonial (re-)settlement that other killers in exile, e.g. Tlepolemus, undertake (Dougherty 2001: 161-76), but his murder of the suitors then serves as the means by which he ultimately reestablishes himself at home. This narrative reversal of the fugitive-murderer motif validates Odysseus by recasting manslaughter – a kind of violence that typically severs ties between individual and community – as an important mechanism for political reconciliation.

After demonstrating how the fugitive-murderer motif interacts with the narrative logic of Odysseus’ homecoming, I conclude by considering the “external framing of the issue” (Burgess 2014: 339); that is, the non-Homeric narratives with which the Odyssey seems to compete. Odysseus’ exile as the default consequence of the suitors’ deaths is repeatedly foreshadowed throughout the Odyssey (20.41-3; 23.118-22; 24.426-37), and is in fact the outcome in many variant traditions (e.g. Apollod. Epit. 7.40; Plut. Quaest. Graec. 14). The potential for Odysseus to become an exiled killer thus appears to acknowledge alternative versions of Odysseus’ story (Danek 1998: 497-504; Malkin 1998: 120-55; Tsagalis 2008: 75-90; Marks 2008: 62-111). Building upon previous scholarship that has shown how the Odyssey preempts (Cook 1995) or responds to (Marks 2003) other Odyssean traditions, I demonstrate how the Odyssey’s superimposition and reversal of the fugitive-murderer pattern simultaneously appropriates and trumps these alternative, non-Homeric narratives.

By situating Odysseus in the role of the exiled killer but ultimately foiling that expectation, the Odyssey makes it clear that its end is not just about private vengeance; at issue are both the restoration of civic unity and negotiation of mythological complexity. Just as the motif facilitates, on a conceptual level, Odysseus’ reclaiming of Ithaca, it also embraces much of the rivaling traditions surrounding his eventual fate.

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Risk and Responsibility

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