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The World’s Last Son: Telegonus and the Space of the Epigone

Benjamin Sammons

Queens College (Cuny)

I seek to re-evaluate the Telegony in light of a tendency of early Greek epics to set heroic generations, especially fathers and sons, into a paradigmatic relation with one another. I argue specifically that the Telegony controverted this tendency and thereby projected a different historical vision of the heroic age and its demise.

In the Theban Cycle the relation between generations was expressed in the very division of poems, with one devoted to the famous Seven (the Thebais) and another devoted to their more successful sons (the Epigoni). The Iliad addresses this macrostructure by repeatedly confronting the epigone Diomedes with the example of his father Tydeus (Sammons 2014). Within the Trojan Cycle, Neoptolemus, son of Achilles, played a role in both the Little Iliad and the Nostoi, where the space of the epigone was defined through doublets and parallels (Sammons 2013: 548-53). The Little Iliad restored Achilles’ arms to Neoptolemus and narrated his duel with Eurypylus, son of Achilles’ own erstwhile adversary Telephus, in an episode that paralleled the story of Philoctetes’ arrival and defeat of Paris. The Nostoi told at length how Neoptolemus returned home by an overland route in an episode that contrasted favorably with the problematic sea voyage of the older Achaeans. Neoptolemus’s nostos was followed immediately by the story of how Orestes, another epigone, avenged his murdered father. It is significant that Neoptolemus and Orestes never actually meet their fathers, aside perhaps from visions of their ghosts. Such “distancing” makes the paradigmatic relation possible (Grethlein 2006: 55-58).  

The Odyssey co-opts and improves upon these traditions. Its first half sets Telemachus and Odysseus on separate journeys whose parallel arrangement implies the same paradigmatic relation between generations as in the Cycle. Yet the second half of the poem joins these narrative strands and unites father and son, who then work together to eliminate the suitors.  The poem ends by showing three generations (Telemachus, Odysseus, Laertes) standing against the suitors’ families in an idealistic portrait of their “agonistic paternal tradition” (Goldhill 2010: 124-27). Cycle and Odyssey alike project an optimistic and open-ended vision of the heroic age: We are in no “twilight of the heroes;” rather the role of epigones shows that the heroic race will remain alive and well, or is at least continuous with our own age (cf. Danek 2015: 378-39).  

I argue that the Telegony contested these themes. It had the large-scale structure of a doublet (Sammons 2013: 549-51): The first part recounted Odysseus’s adventures in Thesprotia and return to Ithaca. The second part brought Telegonus on a journey to find his father, leading him to land upon and ravage the island of Ithaca without realizing where he was. As in the Odyssey, these two narrative strands were joined so as to bring the father and son together, but with disastrous results: A newly arrived Odysseus rushes to defend the land, and son unwittingly kills father. The fact that they have never met is literally turned against them. Here, the structural parallelism is paradigmatically askew: Odysseus is engaged in a nostos, Telegonus in an expedition to unknown lands. The homecoming Odysseus meets a youthful foe laying waste to his property, just as in the second half of the Odyssey. The swashbuckling Telegonus recalls the imprudent Odysseus from the first half of the Odyssey. He acts as his father had in the lands of the Kikones and the Cyclopes, with similar results. The resulting catastrophe signifies a riposte to the optimistic “generationalism” of the Odyssey and of early epics in general, while depicting a heroic age fully in its twilight and about to disappear forever. The poem’s conceit of immortalizing the surviving characters and marrying them off to one another (i.e., Telegonus to Penelope and Telemachus to Circe) reflects this view, for it obscures the generational divide (each son marries a stepmother of sorts), freezes the characters in time, and inserts them into a genealogical dead-end. 

Session/Panel Title

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

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