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Rethinking the Odyssey’s Amnesty: Historical and Modern Perspectives

Joel P. Christensen

Brandeis University

The end of the Odyssey has long presented challenges to interpreters. Zeus’ unexpected declaration of an eklêsis, or ‘amnesty’ (24. 485–486), invites separate and often discrete responses. This sudden ending can seem generically problematic in prizing forgetfulness in a genre of memory and commemoration; and its abruptness has also struck some as artistically lacking. Nevertheless, in a way, it functions like a Platonic aporia, forcing its audiences to reconsider their questions and assumptions anew.

This paper approaches the question of the amnesty from historical perspective and modern perspectives, positing that Homer’s ancient audiences would have heard and felt stasis or civil strife in the epic’s action and (lack of) resolution. In pursuing this comparison, I draw on the work of Nicole Loraux (2006) and Giorgio Agamben (2006) on amnesty and strife in Athens at the end of the Peloponnesian War. In addition, I will offer comparisons from modern studies in political amnesties, which survey theories and approaches to amnesty in recent conflicts (e.g. Aguilar 2012; Freeman and Pensky 2012). I will argue that the Homeric amnesty is not about oblivion and the erasure of the past, but instead about the forging of public memory amid irreconcilable differences (following the work of Steinbock 2013 on social memory).

From these perspectives, the Odyssey’s amnesty is an indication both of the impossibility of ever effecting a resolution acceptable to all parties and a reflection of the type of strategies required to keep a community at peace. The epic thus reflects an anxiety about the instrumentalization of memory and the perpetuation of violence and strife through self-righteous claims to vengeance, as identified by Ahrensdorf 2000 in his exploration of anarchy and civil violence in Thucydides. Focusing on articulations of “shame” and “fame” I recast the final Ithakan assembly—where they debate Odysseus’ murder of the suitors—as the weighing of the claims of paradigmatic vengeance (i.e. the ‘payback’ due according to tradition) against the needs of public stability.

In this move, then, the epic provides summative comment on its own genre and traditions: The point of the Odyssey’s final amnesty might not be for the Ithakans forget the tale, but that they stop telling it, stop recalling it for others, lest they become locked into a series of actions that can only result in violence and death. As a result, the eklêsis is not a destruction of memory but an instruction on how to use it, positing first and foremost that some stories are not useful, or plainly too dangerous, to tell. Zeus’ injunction is thus one to foster a shared memory that makes peace and prosperity a sufficient end, rather than one that makes the generation of kleos paramount, regardless of the cost.

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Whose Homer?

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