You are here


At the center of the Odyssey is a narrative and thematic organization articulated by the Greek notion of τίσις (roughly, “vengeance”), which deals with the relationship between the crucial issues of revenge, suffering, and justice. τίσις is the subject of the first direct speech of the poem: Zeus addresses mortal complaints about divine injustice with reference to the paradigm of Orestes’ τίσις (1.32–43). This speech opens a divine council scene between Zeus and Athena that corresponds to a final divine council at the close of the poem in which the gods settle the suitors’ kin’s claims to τίσις (24.472–88). Taken together, these scenes form a programmatic frame and present the poem’s audience with an interpretative model for the action of the poem (Jaeger 1966, 75–99; Dodds 1951, 32; Rüter 1969, 64–82; Lloyd-Jones 1971, 29).

This paper uses the tools of narratology and type-scene analysis to examine how τίσις works. Previous work on τίσις has tended to focus on its economic sense as a transaction of goods or τιμή, while neglecting its narrative aspects (e.g., Adkins 1960; Wilson 2002). The present analysis begins with the assumption that vengeance is a narrative: it is a sequence of events experience by actors organized in a logical pattern. This connects revenge with similar narrative patterns that proponents of narrative theory have used to analyze the poem—namely, type-scenes (e.g., Arend 1933; Lord 1960, 68–98; Edwards 1992). It is not my contention that τίσις is a type-scene per se; but it does exhibit many of the important features of such stereotyped patterns of action. It is closest to what Albert Lord calls a “story-pattern” (1960, 158–97). The basic method of analysis in any case remains the same: the identification of a typical set of elements that together constitute a single action (such as “bathing”) and make the parts (such as “undressing” and “drawing bath water”) intelligible as a unit. The methods of structuralist narratology are also amenable to such an analysis. In this case, I describe τίσις in terms of a sequential stage format (a method pioneered by Propp 1958) and in terms of its “actantial” system (a way of describing the structure of a narrative according to the roles different agents play in it, pioneered by Greimas 1966). By means of these tools, I describe the structure of revenge in the Odyssey.

The results of this analysis are interesting. For example, according to the model, the true avenging agent in destruction of the companions after their eating the cattle of Helios is Zeus, not Helios. Zeus’ role as a god of wrath is generally overlooked (and the Odyssey tends to downplay it), but there are a few allusions to it in the so-called “lying tales” (e.g., 19.275). The most interesting result of this kind of analysis comes in its application to Odysseus’ vengeance against the suitors. The crucial insight I offer here is that two normally discrete stages of a τίσις narrative have coalesced; or, to use Greimas’s model, a single actor fills two actantial positions normally kept apart. The suitors’ preparations for their crime (i.e., their plotting against Odysseus and wooing Penelope in order to take over his household) have become the crime for which they are executed; likewise, the normally distinct roles of avenged and avenger have merged in the actor of Odysseus. The paper closes with a few, brief suggestions for why the poet of the Odyssey might have chosen to have Odysseus’ vengeance depart from this pattern.


  • Adkins, A. W. 1960. "'Honour' and 'Punishment' in the Homeric Poems." BICS 7: 23–32.
  • Arend, Walter. 1933. Die typischen Scenen bei Homer. Berlin: Weidmann.
  • Dodds, E. R. 1951. The Greeks and the Irrational. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Edwards, Mark W. -----. 1992. “Homer and Oral Tradition: The Type-Scene.” Oral Tradition 7: 284–330.
  • Greimas, Algirdas Julien. 1966. Sémantique structurale. Paris: Seuil.
  • Jaeger, W. 1966. Five Essays. Translated by Adele M. Fiske. Montreal: M. Casalini.
  • Lloyd-Jones, Hugh. 1971. The Justice of Zeus. 2nd ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983.
  • Lord, Albert B. 1960. The Singer of Tales. 2nd ed. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000.
  • Propp, Vladimir. 1958. The Morphology of the Folktale. Translated by Lauerence Scott. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Research Center in Anthropoly, Folklore and Linguistics.
  • Rüter, Klaus. 1969. Odysseeinterpretationen: Untersuchungen zum ersten Buch und zur Phaiakis. Hypomnemata 19. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht.
  • Wilson, Donna F. 2002. Ransom, Revenge, and Heroic Identity in the Iliad. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

© 2020, Society for Classical Studies Privacy Policy