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Odysseus’ Success and Demise: Recognition in the Odyssey and Telegony

Justin Arft

University of Tennessee at Knoxville

This paper reevaluates the Odyssey’s pervasive theme of recognition vis-à-vis the Telegony and its portrayal of the death of Odysseus. The impetus for this inquiry is a simple contrast in the skeletal plots of the Odyssey and Telegony: the former is driven by recognition scenes resulting in the hero’s success, while the latter predicates the hero’s doom on failed recognition. Rather than accounting for this contrast by presuming one epic’s dependence on the other, I consider the possibility of an inter-traditional relationship between the Telegony and Odyssey. Methodologically, I apply Bakker’s new view of Homeric formularity (Bakker; Tsagalis 2014a) to the Odyssey’s recognition scenes and build on recent scholarship treating Homer’s nuanced, referential relationship to the traditions of the Epic Cycle (Montanari et al.; Fantuzzi and Tsagalis; Burgess 2014; Tsagalis 2014b). I ultimately suggest that the Odyssey offers an innovative construction of its traditional hero by reacting to a shared mythic tradition concerning the consequences of heroic recognition.

Scholars have shown how the Odyssey’s recognition scenes are both traditional in source and executed with sophistication (Murnaghan; Foley), and formal analysis of these scenes confirms the poet is doing something novel with their arrangement as well (Gainsford). The Odyssey’s special presentation of recognition is further confirmed by application of Bakker’s recent notion of  “interformularity”—an “attempt to account for the significance of repetition in Homer” that considers how traditional units take idiomatic shape within the bounds of a single performance. In particular, I examine a formulaic interrogation, τίς πόθεν εἰς ἀνδρῶν … (“who, and from where, are you among men … ”) that recurs seven times in the Odyssey at key junctures in the formation of Odysseus’ heroic identity. While this formula is conventionally used to interrogate a stranger (Reece), the Odyssey deploys it as a consistent trigger for recognition scenes, and it becomes an encoded signal for the poet’s construction of Odysseus’ identity (Arft). This formula’s patterning and “scale of interformularity,” in Bakker’s terms, is a telling indicator that the Odyssey is making recognition its special business. While Odysseus remains a traditional hero, the Odyssey is carefully constructing his heroic identity.

If the Odyssey emphasizes recognition as a special mode for expressing the traditional Odysseus tale, the Cyclic Telegony may offer an intertraditional explanation as to why. Proclus’ summary of the Telegony indicates that after Odysseus’ return to Ithaca, he is later killed by his son Telegonus out of ignorance” (κατ᾽ἄγνοιαν). This particular plot point is underplayed in recent Telegony scholarship (Tsagalis 2015; Burgess 2014), and few note the prominence of the missed recognition in multiple accounts of the Telegony’s plot (West Tel. Arg. 4, Τηλέγονος δ᾽ ἐπιγνούς τὴν ἁμαρτίαν [“Telegonus recognized his mistake”]; Ps.-Apollod. Epit. 7.37, ἀναγνωρισάμενος δὲ αὐτον [“After recognizing him’]; Hyg. fab. 127, quem postquam cognovit qui esset [“after he recognized who he was”]). While this failed recognition could be explained partly by traditional parricidal motifs, it takes on new significance alongside the Odyssey’s prominent reliance on recognition. Although Telegonus and Telemachus bear a functionally similar ignorance of their father, the Odyssey goes to great length to reconcile father and son while the Telegony does not. The failed and late recognition that is characteristic of the Telegony, then, seems to represent a traditional sine qua non for the hero’s post-Odyssey demise, the tragic elements of which might even anticipate failed recognition in later Greek tragedy. Moreover, if audiences traditionally associated Odysseus’s death with failed recognition, the Odyssey’s recognition sequences take on a new, meta-cyclic, even optimistic dimension that lend a great deal of authority to Telemachus’ recognition of his father. The Odyssey’s resonance results in great part from shared traditions (Danek), and the evidence here reinforces that traditions utilized in the Telegony were known by the Homeric audience as well.

Session/Panel Title

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

Session/Paper Number


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