Debate persists over the value and significance of the final episode in Odyssey 24 in which Odysseus and the male members of his household dominate the suitors’ male relatives in combat (Taplin, 33; Slatkin, 327). This two-part paper offers a new analysis of the poem’s ending. Part I uses two sources of comparanda to denaturalize the battle’s presence in the poem: from both mythographic and folkloristic perspectives the battle appears exceptional. Part II explains the thematic impact of this break with precedent.
Our first source of comparanda comprises other tales about Odysseus’s return. Many of these accounts apparently lacked a battle with the suitors’ relatives. Proclus’s summary of the Telegony, for instance, suggests that poem did not include such a battle (arg. 3-6 Bernabé): “The suitors are buried by their family members. And after Odysseus sacrifices to the Nymphs, he sails to Elis to inspect his herds and he is entertained by Polyxenos.” The Odyssey points to a version without a battle with the suitors’ relatives when Teiresias declares what awaits Odysseus after he kills the suitors (11.118-23). Accounts of Odysseus’s return that did include a battle with the suitors’ relatives unfold differently. For instance, Aristotle’s Constitution of the Ithakans (fr. 507 Rose) reports a battle, but not like that in the Odyssey wherein Odysseus’s force dominates the suitors’ relatives before Athena mediates between the two sides. Aristotle’s rationalized (presumably Athena-less) version sees both sides call for an arbitrator, a rational move only for those facing an equally strong foe. In short, in contrast to many other tellers of Odysseus’s story, the Homeric poets opted both to have a battle between Odysseus’s household and the suitors’ relatives and to make Odysseus’s household demonstrate its physical superiority in that confrontation.
A folkloristic approach provides a second source of comparanda. The Odyssey belongs to an internationally attested tale type, The Homecoming Husband (ATU 974) (Edmunds 2016, 39), a tale type which would have provided the basis for other stories told to the same audiences who listened to performances about Odysseus’s return (Tolstoi 274; Edmunds 1993, 18). Audiences would have compared the Odyssey’s handling of this storyline with other instances of the type. We lack any such instances from archaic Greece, but, by collating versions of the type from other times and places, we can speculate with some confidence about what they would have looked like. I have yet to find a version in which the husband fights the relatives of his wife’s suitor(s) after he dispatches the suitor(s) (either by reconciling with him or driving him away or killing him). In particular, the Odyssey’s rendition of this tale type has been thought to share affinities with South Slavic versions of the type (Hansen, 206): no known version from the Balkans depicts further combat after the returning hero deals with the suitor (Beissinger, 406-7).
The Odyssey’s finale, then, differs markedly from the way other stories about Odysseus’s return unfolded and from the way other stories about the homecoming husband unfolded. This departure from precedent requires explanation. I argue that the final battle contributes to Odysseus’s successful homecoming (cf. Ready, 147-48). To reclaim his position as paramount basileus, he must show that his oikos remains physically superior to other Ithakan oikoi. Appropriately, Zeus proposes a “forgetting” (eklēsin) of the murder of the suitors but not of the final battle (24.484-85), a fact scholars routinely overlook (e.g., Malkin, 123-24; Marks, 76).
Nostoi/Odyssey/Telegony: New Perspectives on the End of the Epic Cycle