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Return of the dead
Where the dead live
Magic of Odyssey

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Lesson 7

Meanwhile, back on the farm, Homer invents the monster movie!

We read about the thing that came up from the sea, Odyssey 13.185-19.604.

Return of the dead

Odysseus comes home to Ithaca after many years away. Is he all washed up? What does he find?

If you were a Hellenic ghost returning from the dead, what would you want to find? A hero cult that remembers you--and feeds you, too, of course.

Odysseus is not entirely disappointed. Here's the general situation:

  • The dead man's wife and a few old servants still grieve for him and preserve his memory. They are faithful to him in acting as if he will return someday, even though they have a hard time believing it because so many years have passed unaccountably since he went "away." They are a little weak in their beliefs, but they are his loyal cult.

  • The dead man's son and heir actively searches for him. Although he has reached adulthood in his old man's absence, the son thinks of himself as dependent on the father's protection. Like a little boy, he feels completely inadequate to replace the greatest of the great who fought at Troy. He will secure his birthright, he thinks, only by finding this super-dad and performing with him some incredibly great exploit. In this giant paternal shadow, the young man is the chief priest of the dead man's cult.

  • The dead man's story is being fictionalized. Because people want to know what happened to Odysseus, there's a market for stories about him. Itinerant priests and other vagabonds who know nothing about Odysseus travel to Ithaca to exchange their hearsay and falsehoods for food and shelter at Penelope's palace. Skepticism results. There are so many damn lies being told about Odysseus' return that it's almost impossible for an honest reporter to be taken seriously!

  • The city is full of new people who have no care for the old days, or the dead man, or his cult. They are suitors to the dead man's wife, devourers of his possessions, enemies of his son, abusers of his most loyal servants. These newcomers seem to hold political dominance, because there are so many of them, but their control is not as strong as it appears to be. They anger the gods and infuriate the dead man's spirit to take righteous revenge. With the gods and their hero on its side, the little cult may yet prevail over the multitude of evil doers, regardless of all apparent probabilities.

Odysseus meets Athena, scene on a classical vase from Vulci..But is this place really Ithaca ten years after the Trojan War? Or is it only a dead man's dream?  Odysseus isn't sure. He knows only that Athena is in control of him, and that she can be a deceiver. Remember the favorite brother "Deiphobos" who stood with Hektor against Achilles (Iliad 22.224)?

Odysseus is disoriented. It doesn't seem true that he's in Ithaca. Or even if the place is Ithaca, is it Odysseus who's there? He simply is not himself any more. Athena disguises him as an old beggar, a stranger, and she warns him against telling the Ithacans that he's Odysseus. When questioned about who he is or where he has been, he can't give straight answers.

And when Athena later reveals him to his son Telemakhos, what's revealed isn't the old Odysseus. What Telemakhos sees, at least at first, isn't his father, and isn't even any sort of mortal at all, but "some daemon." This father-spirit then begins to assume different appearances, like some god, changing instantly from an old beggar to a well-to-do, golden-haired young man in his prime! Once, he even glows in the dark! As he explains to his startled son, Athena now alters his physical shape in any way that she pleases (Odyssey 16.201).

So Odysseus may not be dead and gone, after all. He may be only dead!

The homecoming
relationships between the Iliad and the Odyssey

Homer from a classical statue. After the Iliad, the Odyssey reverses point of view. It's the perspective that could have been presented in the story of Achilles' revenge against Hektor and the Trojans, if Homer had told that story from the point of view of the hero-spirit of dead Patroklos: how the spirit with the help of gods made its mysterious way back to the realm of the living, how it visited Achilles and Briseis and others who were grieving in sympathy, and then how it led Achilles (with Athena's help) in performing superhuman deeds of revenge, slaughtering its enemies. . . 

Spiritual activity of this kind exists behind the scenes in the Iliad, but the hero-spirit is glimpsed only briefly, as in the cameo appearance of Patroklos' ghost at night to Achilles. In the foreground of the Iliad, spiritual possession is seen from a secular point of view or perspective of the living. Superficially, we see Achilles acting strangely, in a state of inhuman madness, butchering Trojans with some kind of weird superhuman or subhuman fury. Although he has lucid intervals, Achilles periodically seems to be having hallucinations, "visiting the land of the dead," as it were . . . but we don't see the whole picture of what's wrong with him.

The Iliad is a story of the living going to their deaths, and it is generally told from a mortal point of view. Achilles and Priam go in search of the dead, and they imitate death through ritual mourning, but of course they are still alive, in fear of their deaths soon to follow. In the Odyssey, however, the story continues beyond the grave. The dead man confronts his living survivors and successors. (Does he really return to life? Or do the living merely imagine it?) On this more mysterious, dreamlike plane of spiritual reality, in which the separations between the living and the dead are broken down so that the dead appear to be present with the living, events are revealed from an after-life perspective. 

Telemakhos and Penelope, image from a classical vase painting.This Homeric after-life is not heaven or Hades. It's an altogether earthly place where there are problems of survival after death (as if death's problems weren't extensive enough!). The dead man wants to return to life. At least, he hopes to be remembered by his family, household and city, but he has deadly enemies--suitors--who don't want to remember and don't want others to remember, either.

A suitor (an "Anti-noos," or mindless person) looks at people and possessions only as physical objects, existing entirely in the present, without any past, background, tradition, or spiritual association. That is, suitors have no perception of the dead, no culture or spiritual insight. They have an undeveloped sense of time, for they are only fun-loving young people in a daily routine of party pleasures. They can't imagine a future in which the past returns. To them, time simply moves forward--Odysseus isn't coming back. Because they are deceived by the surface appearance of things, they can't see behind the mask of the old beggar to recognize the powerful spirit within him.

Odysseus' young son and heir, Telemakhos, is of a suitor's age, and like the suitors he at first can't detect the presence of Odysseus, but Athena helps him to break away from the idle companionship of the suitors and make a quest journey to learn what has happened to his father. The Odyssey opens appropriately with this story of Telemakhos' search for knowledge of Odysseus (see scrolls 1-4).

Since Telemakhos is looking for the past, his quest must transform time into space, like Homer's shield of Achilles or the descent of Odysseus into the underworld to visit the dead. (Recall the discussion of Achilles' shield in Lesson 5; recall also the general discussion of quest literature in Lesson 2.) In this case time will be changed into space through imitation; Telemakhos will learn of his father by repeating his father's adventure across the sea. 

Telemakhos' voyage retraces the voyage of Odysseus, not as it actually was (Telemakhos does not know how it actually was.) but in a symbolic way. The trip is a search for stories from people who might be able to reveal the past, like Menelaos and Helen back at Argos. It is also Telemakhos' symbolic descent to the dead: after he is away for so long that the Ithacans think that he must be dead, Telemakhos miraculously returns home with Athena's help. The symbolic return from the dead is an act of sympathetic magic [recall Lesson 2] that induces recognition of the dead father's similarly miraculous return. In effect, Telemakhos has died as a wimpy boy, ignorant of his father, and he is ready to be "born again" in a mature state of spiritual awareness.

As soon as he returns to Ithaca, Telemakhos meets the daemon. The appearance of the god-like spirit of the father completes Telemakhos'  personal transformation. As soon as he knows that the father-spirit is with him, he no longer fears the suitors. He carries out his father's desires for revenge. He is possessed by angry "Odysseus" much as Achilles is possessed by dead Patroklos (Patroklos="fame of the fathers"), with similarly bloody results.

Telemakhos, however, never dominates the foreground action of the Odyssey as Achilles dominates the war in the Iliad. The daemon itself appears to be the chief subject of interest in the Odyssey. The spirit's punishments and sufferings in bizarre, other-worldly adventures receive most of the attention in scrolls 5-12. [We have taken some of these travels back in Lesson 2.] Its manifestations upon return to Ithaca then occupy nearly all of the second half of the story, scrolls 13-24. The character of Telemakhos seems to recede more and more into the background of the Odyssey as Odysseus becomes more and more dominant in him. (More and more on this point about Telemakhos and Odysseus in the next lesson.)

"Odysseus" in Ithaca is a miraculous presence. He appears in tangible, embodied form to all of the mortals, though at first only Telemakhos recognizes his identity. No bloodless ghost from Hades, the Odysseus' spirit can be embraced, kicked, hit with a footstool, fed and bathed. The daemon seems to feel cold, pain, hunger and anger--especially anger. The emotion is contagious. The spirit of revenge inspires anger in Telemakhos and in the servants of Odysseus who remain faithful to him. [Compare Agamemnon, Chryses and Apollo transferring their anger to Achilles in scroll 1 of the Iliad; Lesson 3.]

All of this is strange. Homer invites skepticism and wonder by framing questions: is this Odysseus-like figure really Odysseus? How can it be? A body scar seems to identify one leg as belonging to Odysseus. A recollection of a personal bedroom secret identifies one perhaps private memory as belonging to Odysseus. A great feat of archery matches the reputedly incomparable skill level of Odysseus. Various tests seem to prove that the one who has come back from the sea is Odysseus, and yet continuous testing is necessary because doubt is overpowering.

Story summary
Link to Odyssey 13.185 - 19.604

The second half of the Odyssey describes the return to Ithaca. Scrolls 13-19 present Ithaca through the eyes of Odysseus, disguised as an old beggar who is a stranger to the Ithacans. Here's a summary:

Odyssey 13.185. Odysseus seems to awaken from a mysterious deep sleep. In the night he has been deposited by the Phaecians on the shore of an island. He is disoriented. Athena appears to him out of the fog and tells him that he is in Ithaca, his home. Odysseus wonders if she is telling the truth. She also describes to Odysseus how his wife Penelope and son Telemakhos are beset with rude suitors who are devouring Odysseus' livestock, courting Penelope, and trying to murder Telemakhos or to deprive him of his inheritance. She warns him that the suitors are dangerous. So that nobody will know that Odysseus has returned, she disguises him as an old beggar and advises him to hide outside of town in the cottage of his faithful servant, Eumaios the swineherd.

Odyssey 14.1. Old Eumaios, who remains loyal to absent Odysseus and despises the suitors, welcomes the old beggar to his cottage and feeds him. Eumaios does not recognize Odysseus, but he is hospitable because he believes that strangers and beggars come from Zeus, and that perhaps they may be gods. (He's not so crazy after all, is he?) After sacrifice and dinner, the beggar tells Eumaios a story that he is a native of Crete who has had many hard adventures as a captive in Egypt and elsewhere, and that he has lately escaped from a group of pirates who were about to sell him into slavery. He also claims that he met Odysseus on his travels, and he promises Eumaios that Odysseus soon will return to Ithaca. Eumaios accepts most of the stranger's story as true or likely, but he doesn't believe the part about Odysseus' return. Lots of beggars have been telling similar lies in order to get an audience with Penelope, to win gifts from her and to enjoy a free dinner at her palace!

Odyssey 15.1. Telemakhos returns to Ithaca from visiting Pylos and Argos where he has been seeking news about his father from old (now senile) Nestor and from Menelaos and Helen.

The trip has not uncovered much news. Nestor has had no knowledge of Odysseus' whereabouts since the Trojan War. Menelaos, shortly after the war, heard from the Old Man of the Sea that Odysseus was imprisoned against his will in the cave of the nymph Calypso. [See Odyssey 17.106.] (Odysseus' sorrowful stay with the goddess Calypso in her cave of paradise is presented earlier in the Odyssey, in scroll 5. Calypso's name means "buried"; in burial she has tried to make Odysseus forget his wife and home, and to live with her forever, but he has not forgotten his old life among the mortals. Athena finally has answered Odysseus' prayer and persuaded Zeus to release him from Calypso. Hence Odysseus has escaped from his burial paradise, though Telemakhos does not appear to know it.)

Athena guides Telemakhos miraculously past the suitors who are lying in wait to murder him, and she directs him to go to Eumaios' cottage where she will arrange for Telemakhos to meet Odysseus.  

Odyssey 16.1. Telemakhos arrives at Eumaios' cottage and is introduced to the old beggar. After Eumaios leaves for town, Odysseus reveals himself to Telemakhos. Miraculously he is transformed from an old beggar to a handsome, well dressed young man. Telemakhos is terrified that he is in the company of some god, but Odysseus assures Telemakhos that he is not a god but "the only Odysseus who ever will return" to him. He explains that Athena is responsible for changing his appearances, as and when and however she pleases. Reunited, father and son begin plotting to destroy the suitors.

Meanwhile, back at the palace, the suitors recognize that some god has protected Telemakhos from their ambush, and they decide that they will not pursue the murder of Telemakhos until they can consult an oracle about what to do.

Odyssey 17.1 Odysseus appears in his beggar disguise at a banquet of the suitors at the palace. The food that Odysseus begs is from his own herds, but the banqueters perceive Odysseus only as a beggar who has no right to eat because he is a stranger and because he does no work. Antinoos ("anti-mind"), the leader of the suitors, insults the stranger and strikes him with a footstool.

Odyssey 18.1 Another beggar in the hall, Iros, also insults the stranger and provokes his anger. For amusement the suitors set the two beggars on to fight one another. Athena strengthens Odysseus with supernatural muscles, and he easily crushes Iros. Odysseus then collects food offerings from the suitors, because they now recognize him as the champion beggar who can keep other beggars away from their banquets. (This scene contrasts with the banqueting and story-telling at the court of King Alkinoos "good mind" in Phaeacia.) What the suitors see in this gladiatorial scene is not Odysseus, not a hero, but only a paid entertainer who performs at their command in order to get food. 

Hunting with the sons of Autolycus, image from a classical vase painting.Odyssey 19.1. Late that night Penelope questions the disguised old beggar as to Odysseus' whereabouts. The beggar does not reveal himself to her as Odysseus. Odysseus' old nurse Eurykleia  washes the stranger's feet, and she recognizes that he must be Odysseus. She sees that the beggar carries the same kind of leg scar that Odysseus received in his youth while on a boar hunt with his grandfather Autolykos, "the most accomplished thief and perjurer in the world." (Odysseus had received his name at birth from Autolykos; the name Odysseus means "child of anger.") Odysseus threatens to kill Eurykleia if she reveals his identity to Penelope or others.

Penelope tells the beggar of a dream in which Odysseus returned to her. She believes that her dream is false, however, and so she decides to hold an archery tournament on the following day to determine the best man for her to marry. The winner must be able to string Odysseus' bow and to shoot an arrow through twelve axe handles, as only Odysseus could do in the days before the Trojan War.

Image colorized Roman style, taken from Arnold Bocklin (Swiss 1927-1901), Isle of the Dead, cir. 1886.

Where the dead live
Trophonius' time machine 

Trying to imagine what has happened to them, we sometimes say that the dead have departed or gone home to a place that is separate and apart from the land of the living--up in the heavens or down under the earth or perhaps out on a remote island that doesn't appear on any navigational maps. The geography always places them somewhere that is inaccessible in ordinary, everyday experience. They are guarded by monsters and dark labyrinthine passageways of cunning architecture.

When the dead are placed anywhere, however, they are "immortalized" into permanent or at least more durable space. If they remain in this timeless or extended condition, some possibility exists that the living can visit them or they can visit the living. If they can communicate their experience, a consultation with them could open their wisdom to the living. The dead could tell their knowledge of what will happen to the living at death.

Ancient hero cults were devoted to this kind of time travel, or spatializing of the past, to learn about death. Through the magic promoted by these cults, the living met the dead in fantasy, story-telling, role play, and dreams that were believed to be true. Illusions of resurrections, and ghosts, and underworld experiences were enacted at tombs, caves, lakes, dark woods and battle grounds where Heracles, Theseus, Orpheus or other famed explorers of old were believed to have opened a passageway to the hidden realm of the dead.

Take the ancient cult of the hero Trophonius, for example. For hundreds of years, from the sixth century BC or earlier, this cult ran an oracle or "place of descent" at Lebadeia in Boeotia, between Athens and (Greek) Thebes. The cult's time machine stood on a hill at the center of the wooded grounds. It was a circular well only large enough for an individual to descend with the use of a small ladder. At the bottom of the pit on one side wall was a small hole for the descendant's legs. Once in position with legs in the hole, this initiate suddenly was dragged by the boots Renaissance illustration of the Boeotian hero Cadmus and wife Harmonia as snakes. "as if caught in the current of a swift river" into an inner shrine. The highlight in the underground shrine was a meeting with the dead hero Trophonius who often seems to have appeared in the form of a snake. (A honey cake was brought along as a gift for the snake!) Afterwards, on return to the surface, the initiate was revived and seated on a "Throne of Memory" to tell the cult members about the underground experience.

The simulation of death at Trophonius' hole seems to have been harrowing. It was said that anyone who made the journey to Trophonius lost the ability to laugh (though not necessarily the power to be laughed at). The initiate fasted and perhaps took hallucinogenic preparations prior to the descent. Natural gas in the chamber also may have contributed to the inebriation. Some encounter with a disguised guide or other attendants would have been needed to move the initiate in and out of the inner rooms in the pit. The visit must have lasted for at least one night (the descent began in the dark), for a dream experience was the object of the adventure. The dream was to be recounted on the Throne of Memory because the cult regarded it as prophetic.

If all of this sounds a lot like college life, the fact is that the hero cults promoted themselves as institutions of learning. They claimed that their initiation programs were responsible for the wisdom of the wise men of Greece. For example, the Trophonius cult asserted that the great sage Pythagoras of Samos (active cir. 530's-520's BC) had slept there. Similar claims about Pythagoras were made by other cults in Egypt, Crete, Italy and elsewhere.

It seems doubtful that Pythagoras really had spent 207 years in the underworld, as ancient legends claimed. But some later-day Pythagoreans apparently bought these stories about their master's intensive subterranean studies, and as a result they cultivated the physical appearance of the dead. It's reported that they fasted extensively, avoided tanning by sunlight, seldom bathed, wore dirty clothes, and gave considerable thought to who they had been in former lives. Prototypes of the friars and monks of the middle ages, Pythagoreans became wandering preachers who taught the secrets of the afterlife and begged for a living. Their destitute poverty may be attributable to donations of their possessions to their cults at the time of initiation. It seems no accident that in time Christian preaching would spread rapidly in geographical areas of hero cult tradition.

Image based on a scene by the Lycaon Painter, cir. 440 BC, now owned by the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.It's tempting to view the wise Odysseus--the vagabond beggar who returns with magical powers from an extended stay among the dead--as a cult initiate. His experiences with earth mothers Calypso and Circe might be understood as initiations of the sort that went on in Trophonius' pit and other hero hot spots of the ancient world. Odysseus' descent under Circe's direction to visit Teiresias (Odyssey 10.488 - 11.640) has been associated since classical times with a famous oracle of the dead at Lake Acheron in Thesprotia (in northwestern Greece, not far from Ithaca). Here Odysseus could have followed the supposed path to the underworld taken by the legendary poet and prophet Orpheus when he rescued his bride Eurydice from the dead. 

The magic of the Odyssey

Fate decrees death and yet life somehow goes on. Odysseus the cunning trickster and survivor embodies this mystery. He continues when it appears that there is no hope for his continuation, like the beautiful girl who reappears unharmed after the great magician has sawn her coffined body completely in half. 

The coffin on stage has a false bottom that we can't see, of course, so the miracle is only an imitation miracle, a representation of the real one. After the show, if the magician reveals the false bottom, we understand that magic is performed. We can feel foolish for having been deceived about this, or outraged that we have been cheated, but we won't get our money back. We saw the performance, and our experience of wonder was quite real, though based entirely upon illusion.

Odysseus the trickster, in his disguise as an old beggar, announces to the Ithacans that Odysseus will return to them. These are his magical words. Because we can see behind the disguise, we know that this prophecy easily can come true. The future is present to us. We know that Odysseus is there already, and all that remains to complete the trick is to drop the disguise and to appear. The Ithacans, however, are fooled by the disguise, so the feat seems impossible or most improbable. To them, Odysseus' return after so many years away is a miracle. They are deceived by appearances.

We can sense an author's frustration when no one believes the old beggar's story about Odysseus' return. "Throw me off a cliff if I am lying to you," Odysseus begs Eumaios. (Eumaios' name means "good man.") Yet Eumaios says to himself, what can an old beggar like this possibly know about Odysseus' return? 

Eumaios thinks that the old beggar is lying about Odysseus' return in order to win Penelope's favor and to receive food. He sees a beggar and not the truth of the beggar's story, that Odysseus is returning. Compounding his mistakes, he accepts as true the beggar's lies about his personal misfortunes. The lies seem plausible because an old beggar perhaps could perhaps have had such experiences.

Odysseus and his dog shown on a Greek coin.The suitors also are fooled. They do not respect Odysseus' property rights or his ties with his family and servants because they think that he is dead and gone, never to return. They take Odysseus' food and insult him, as if they were the hosts and he were only some beggar intruding on their feast. They prove Phoenix' idea that heroes are to be given gifts and fair words to make them give over their anger [recall Lesson 4]. The suitors' insults and inappropriate offerings provoke the hero-spirit to anger and revenge. 

Eumaios and the suitors are contrasted as nonbelievers. Eumaios (the "good man") does not recognize Odysseus, but nevertheless he is hospitable in sharing dinner generously, in the spirit of Phaeacian King Alkinoos (the "right mind"), and he speaks kindly of Odysseus. On the other hand, Antinoos (the "anti-mind" or "bad mind") and the suitors are hostile and intolerant, begrudging any offering of food or good words to Odysseus. We might say that Eumaios at least goes through the motions of offering sacrifice, though he does not believe that the hero actually will speak, but the suitors have no respect even for the outward form of the ritual. They won't sacrifice to the hero.

Stories are enjoyed at Eumaios' cottage where they help to pass the long hours of the night, though it's supposed they aren't really true. This is pleasant fiction, poetry, artifice, entertainment... Story-telling also takes place at the suitors' banquet at the palace; the bard Phemios is there to sing, but we never hear the song. This is only art for show, ostentation, consumerism. Apparently, Phemios is a slave who is forced to entertain the suitors, but they pay no attention to his singing. He stands in contrast with the bard Demodocus, the truth-teller who is well treated and center stage at the Phaeacian court of Alkinoos "good-mind." [Recall Demodocus from Lesson 2.

Eumaios is a slave, but the suitors are aristocrats, perhaps suggesting that hero religion (like Christianity later on) was popular among the lower classes. The social contrast is continued in the differences between Queen Penelope and her serving woman Eurykleia, Odysseus' old nurse. In the famous reunion scene between the beggar Odysseus and Penelope [Odyssey xix. 53] it is Eurykleia and not Penelope who recognizes Odysseus. The revelation comes in the act of service, as Eurykleia washes the beggar's feet and so discovers the scar that Odysseus received as a youth while hunting. Penelope is present during this discovery, and Eurykleia's spilling of the bath water that abruptly follows, but Penelope is inattentive and distracted. It's Eurykleia who first tells Penelope of Odysseus' return.

Odysseus and the nurse, with Telemakhos, scene from a classical vase.

How can Penelope fail to recognize Odysseus? Like the suitors, she misreads appearances and assumes that Odysseus is dead and gone forever. Even though Odysseus like some daemon haunts her dreams, Penelope rationalizes that dreams can be true or false and that her dreams about her husband must be false.  If Odysseus is any more "real" than a figment of her imagination, she demands proof of it. Whenever she hears stories about Odysseus' survival, she devises tests to prove the credibility of the stories.

The beggar tells Penelope that he is Aithon, a brother of Prince Idomeneus of Crete, and that he entertained Odysseus with great hospitality when Odysseus was on his way to Troy twenty years earlier. Penelope is suspicious of this false story, because it seems that the beggar is simply claiming that hospitality is owed to him in return for his supposed hospitality to Odysseus in the past. So she tests the beggar's credibility. If the beggar can tell her what Odysseus was wearing twenty years earlier, when the beggar claims to have seen Odysseus, then surely the beggar must be telling the truth, she thinks.

Remarkably, the beggar can tell Penelope exactly what Odysseus was wearing, down to the smallest details, so she is satisfied that his story is true, though we are fully aware that it is false. Her test of the beggar is a superficial one.

Penelope dreams that Odysseus will return to her, but she supposes that the dream is untrue. As she tells the beggar

Stranger, dreams are very curious and unaccountable things, and they do not by any means invariably come true. There are two gates through which these insubstantial fancies proceed; the one is of horn, and the other ivory. Those that come through the gate of ivory are false, but those from the gate of horn mean something to those that see them. I do not think, however, that my own dream came through the gate of horn, though I and my son should be most thankful if it proves to have done so. Odyssey 19. 559

Because she puts no faith in the dream of Odysseus' return, she is ready to decide which of the suitors to marry, and she proposes an extravagant test to determine the question. Her new husband will be the one who is most like Odysseus, who can string Odysseus' bow and shoot an arrow through twelve handles, as Odysseus used to do. The contest will take place in the morning, when she is awake and evidently not dreaming.

Penelope and Eumaios lead lives that are true to a story in which they ultimately do not believe. They grieve for Odysseus, and their actions show deep respect for his memory, but they don't recognize him in his present form, they don't believe that he's ever coming back, and they don't want to accept any stories about his return. There is a cult of Odysseus here, since these people are acting as they think that Odysseus would want them to act, but there is no communication with the dead. The cult members have no real faith. Odysseus' return can't really happen. 

All of the Ithacans are characterized in terms of their beliefs and non-beliefs about the return of Odysseus. Nothing else about them really matters, from the afterlife perspective of the Odyssey. And Odysseus is characterized in the same way. He wonders: Is this really Ithaca, and is it really me who has returned? 

Lesson Summary: The Odyssey reverses point of view from the Iliad. In place of the perspective of the living who are going to death, it gives us the perspective of the dead who are coming back to life. Odysseus is a hero-spirit returning to its cult on Ithaca at the magical call of Odysseus' son, Telemakhos. The return creates confusion for the Ithacans, who don't believe that Odysseus can come back, and for many readers of the Odyssey, who understand that Odysseus returns but don't recognize that he is dead. 

Additional related readings
 and journal topics

1. Horrors!: The theme of the return of the dead is presented often in popular culture today but frequently under the subject of horrors. Think of classic films like The Mummy, Dracula, Dawn of the Dead or even Frankenstein. Why is this subject so popular? Why are we afraid of the dead? Are we the suitors? 

(For a recent film that is more in line with the Odyssey, see The Sixth Sense in which the hero doesn't know that he is dead.)

The idea that the dead are angry, and desire to harm us, is a staple of the horror films. What motivates the dead creatures to behave as they do?

In the Hellenic hero cults, the hero spirits got angry when they weren't fed or praised-- in other words, when the living failed to perform the rituals in their honor. This idea would have been stressed by priests and others who depended on the rituals for their living. The Odyssey also plays upon guilt for neglecting the dead. When the suitors won't feed or praise "Odysseus," he is stirred to anger and revenge.

2. Belief in the dead: Do you believe in the existence of the dead? If they exist, where are they? or in what sense do they exist? and can there be contact between the dead and the living?

If you were contacted by one of the dead, what would happen? What would the spirit do and say? How would you react? What would other people say about your claimed experience? 

3. Reincarnations of Odysseus: given Homer's interest in Odysseus' after-life and story-telling, it isn't surprising that this hero has been resurrected by poets and fiction writers down through the ages. Two famous modern examples in English are Alfred Tennyson's Ulysses and James Joyce's psychological stream-of-consciousness novel Ulysses (1922). For a good scholarly treatment of this great Odysseus/Ulysses theme in literature, see W.B. Stanford, The Ulysses Theme (University of Michigan Press 1968). 

4. Trophonius' hole:  The most complete description of the Trophonius' cult appears in Pausanias, Description of Greece 9:39. The early Christian church father Tertullian (assumedly biased against Trophonius and his kind) says that the initiate encountered Trophonius through dreaming (Tertullian, De anima "On the spirit" 46:11).

Unfortunately we have few accounts of the ancient Hellenes' hero cults. A recent scholarly discussion of some of the major sites for calling the dead appears in Daniel Odgen, Greek and Roman Necromancy (Princeton 2001).

5. Lake Acheron: The classical historian Pausanias recognized that the geography of Lake Acheron matched some of the details in Homer's description of Odysseus' journey to consult the ghost of Teiresias. Description of Greece 1.17.4-5. Notwithstanding that both Heracles and Orpheus, as well as Odysseus, descended there, and that Dante and other poets celebrated the place, the famous lake of ancestral souls was drained for land development in the 20th century. 

6. Calling up the dead: for Bible stories on this subject, see Saul and the Witch of Endor (1 Samuel 28:3-25), the prophet Elijah's reanimation of a dead boy at Zarephath (1 Kings 17), Jesus' raising of the daughter of Jairus (Luke 8:49-56), Jesus' raising of Lazarus (John 11:1-44), Peter's raising of Tabitha (Acts 9:36-42), and Paul's saving of young Eutychus (Acts 20:7-12). We can recognize the portrait of the artist in all of these characters who raise the dead [recall impersonation of victims from Lesson 2].

7. What is history? What is mythology? Comedians were ridiculing Trophonius' hole even by the time of Socrates (4th century BC). Yet how much progress has been made toward the perfection of time machines since Trophonius' day?

Even today, isn't the art of history still devoted to overcoming the separation between the living and the dead? Historians for the most part would like us to believe that history is true, that they can take us to see the dead, and that we really will see the dead when we get there. (Not the dead as they are now, of course, but as they were, during life. Anybody can show us some of the dead as they are now, but there's no magic in simply digging up old bones.) Some historians even claim that a kind of prophetic knowledge is to be gained from the enlightenments that they offer: "those who don't know history are doomed to repeat it," as the historian's old saw goes.

History is an art because the discipline is based on the magical premise that the past can be re-present-ed. The present-ing normally occurs through a story of past events, more or less in narrative sequence. ("First this happened, then that, and eventually another thing.") The historian's foremost objective is to tell these events so that the story will be believed. The readers who believe will sense that they have broken the time barrier and are perceiving important elements or aspects of the past itself. In this sense, a history book works like a hero cemetery to provide an illusion that time can be arrested, that we can revisit the past.

A victim caught forever in the volcanic activity at Pompeii.The nature of history as an art has become somewhat more obscure in the last hundred years or so because professional historians have become increasingly sophisticated in their efforts to avoid being seen as illusionists or artists. These days, many present themselves as discoverers of new artifacts from the past and as developers of carefully reasoned theories about the past, not as story-tellers or direct presenters of the past. In their work, technically, there is much less narrative, much more description and much more argument than in histories written prior to the modern age. (To see examples: consult any academic history journal in your local college library.)

The general model for this modern form of historical writing is scientific method, with its insistence on skeptical observation of facts and limited inferences. This science-like approach can attract serious research money, so it's likely to endure for a while, especially at research institutions (such as, perhaps, your local university or college). 

There are, however, at least three serious problems with the scientific model for history: 

  • First, although history is becoming more professional than ever before, it also is becoming increasingly unpopular. Its studies bog down into so many minute details and complex problems that the vast majority of serious history writing has become insufferably trivial and boring. More and more, historians talk only to one another within narrow professional specializations, as scientists do, and their audiences continue to shrink, along with all public interest in the past.

  • Second, history is not a science, and it never will be a science as long as its subject is the past. The past will never be re-produceable, and it will never be observable, either, barring the invention time travel or communications at speeds faster than the speed of light.

  • Third, science aims at prediction. The aim is not observation for its own sake but detection of natural laws and processes that can be harnessed to solve practical problems. With very limited exceptions, however, the study history has not produced meaningful predictions of events or solutions to any of mankind's practical problems. It is only as an art that the usefulness of history can be realized. History is essential to the formation and perpetuation of cultures; those who accept stories in common are bonded in mind. 

Prior to its recent confusion with science, history was acknowledged to be an art, and it openly used techniques of re-present-ation to give audiences the illusion of being present at important past events. The first models were the classical Greek historians Herodotus and Thucydides. They were frank story-tellers, and not at all above embellishing their narratives with Homeric-style speeches and dramatic scenes for stronger re-present-ation of the action.

Thucydides, image from a classical bust.For a vivid example, see Pericles' funeral oration in Thucydides' history, The Peloponnesian War. Thucydides recites verbatim a speech by the famous Athenian leader Pericles (builder of the Parthenon) to the citizens of Athens concerning the dead who have been slain in defense of the city. Thucydides makes us think that we really are there, actually hearing the great Pericles talk, but of course we're not there at all. The speech is a trick; the historical Pericles did not use the words that Thucydides wrote. 

All classical historians make liberal use this fictional technique of misquotation, as did Plato and other classical dialogue writers, as did Homer and the classical story-tellers. When the historians didn't have specific facts that would bring a story to life with vivid detail, they simply made them up. Plausibility was important to the illusion, but cold facts were not. This standard of plausibility was set by readers, so it tended to assure that history actually was read. If the modern standard is set only by academic researchers, the question is whether we are gaining valuable knowledge of the past or only losing public interest in it. As the social bonds of common history erode, we become more suitor-like, a group of contestants rather than a culture. That is, we make our past a debating ground, rather than a place that unites us through common "memories."

The ancient idea of the historian's work included fact-gathering about the past, of course, but it also featured story-gathering. As Homer apparently had done, Herodotus traveled extensively through the ancient world gathering stories that people were telling about the past. He retold these stories in his histories, sometimes adding the note that he didn't believe this or that particular tale (but obviously he found it too entertaining to leave out). 

Today, mainstream historians often dismiss story-gathering of this kind as mythology, or "tradition," as the unreliable record taken from people's memories of the past, not from objective artifacts or directly verifiable evidence of the past. Memory is distrusted. Mythology is only hearsay or second-hand information; it is not the best evidence, if it can be considered to be evidence at all. 

The Homeric songs are mythology in this sense, because they re-present or re-visit the past through the filter of memory. Like Homer, Demodocus wasn't there at Troy. He can say something about Troy that moves everybody to tears, if they believe that he is telling the truth, but he performs this act simply on the basis of moving stories that he's heard from other story-tellers. Homer serves up his stories according to what he believes that audiences want to hear.

Shakespeare's history plays and historical tragedies work in much the same way; Shakespeare took story outlines or plots from old chronicles and folktales and plays, and he dramatized them so that the characters might seem to come alive on stage. The results are of no value whatsoever in a modern historical sense because none of the speeches or dialogue in the plays has any firm basis in historical fact. Yet generations of English people "remember" Henry V, Richard III, Julius Caesar, Marc Antony, Macbeth and many others from Shakespeare's fabrications. 

Mythology these days doesn't look scientific enough to be respectable as a source of valid information about the past, but mythology has several key points in its favor:

  • Mythology may not be true, and yet it is popular and powerful. For example, generations of Hellenes learned history from Homer and the bards, and generations of Brits took their history from Shakespeare. Generations of Egyptians took their history from images painted and carved on the pharaohs' mortuary temples, and generations of Israelites took their history from the books of Moses. From one point of view, all of these students were badly misinformed about the past. But the larger point is that the shared mythologies helped to establish unifying cultural identities. Like-mindedness resulted when people remembered the same stories.

  • Whether or not it provides an accurate record of what really happened in the past, mythology does reveal how the past has been remembered. The perceived relevance of the past is surely an important area of study, even when the perceptions can be shown to be factually wrong, misleading or incomplete.  

  • And there is a discipline here. The subjective element in mythology doesn't give free license to make up any stories that one pleases, as in fiction or poetry (both of these words signify "made up" or invented things). In mythology there must be general fidelity to the tale (the myth, the thing that has been told) or recital of the hearsay. Homer is a singer of tales, not a poet or creator of fiction in our modern sense. The fame of the heroes preceded and informed his songs. He sticks with these legends or traditions for which belief already exists; at least he tries not to contradict popular beliefs.

It's essential for members of cultures to share common stories of the past. The stories don't need to be true. Perhaps generally they're seldom true. But they must be believed, and they must be memorable, at least in broad outline, so that they are present-able in people's minds. Because our memories are designed to receive and store experiences, cult messages and propaganda are conveyed by illusions of experiences. Through art, the group shares illusions that give them a set of common references.  

Holding up the Homeric songs to modern standards of history writing is pointless. Homer could not have predicted modern historical methods and might not have found them useful, even if he had predicted them. The Homeric songs are memorable illusions.  

8. Ancient historians: the histories of Herodotus and Thucydides are available free on line at MIT's The Internet Classics Library. Anyone interested in the study of history in general, or in Greek history in particular, should read these sources. Other info sources: Herodotus on the web; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook. Among the great historians who have recognized the spiritual nature of history, following Herodotus, is G.W.F. Hegel whose Reason in History theorized a "world spirit" or collective agent that progresses over time and broadly directs the historical process. Literary analysis of history has become fairly common in modern times; for an example see Hayden White's books Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth Century Europe (Johns Hopkins 1973) and The Content of the Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation (Johns Hopkins 1987). 

Powers of Literature

Copyright  2001





























Figure left: classical vase image of shipwrecked Odysseus, old and seedy, with Athena, his immortal guide and protector through nearly all dangers. He thinks that at times she neglects him, but she says that impression isn't true.
















Image left: Homer from a classical carving.
























Figure left: Telemakhos and Penelope shown on a classical vase. Penelope in Hellenic art always is shown seated, head in hand, as if she were asleep.

Telemakhos is the central human character in the Odyssey. Watch him very closely as you read.






































































































Image left: hunting scene from a classical vase (modernized).













Image left: Arnold Boecklin's Isle of the Dead (1880) colorized. Where do the dead go? Can they come back? Can anyone ever go back to any former time?



























Image left (Renaissance design): the hero of Thebes Cadmus with his wife Harmonia who became snakes at their death. Their shrine in Boeotia was not far from Trophonius' hole.
























Image left (from a classical vase): the sacrificer Odysseus expecting to raise Teiresias first sees the ghost of Elpenor rising (from the waters of Acheron?) to complain about his lack of proper burial, as Hermes awaits the job of escorting Elpenor to the underworld. Improper burial caused ghosts to walk the earth. In the Odyssey Odysseus himself becomes unburied when he leaves Calypso (Calypso = "buried").





Image left (from a classical carving): in the dark, Penelope fails to recognize the beggar as Odysseus. Again note the figure of Penelope as dreamer. The dead were encountered in dreams in Trophonius' hole and other hero sites. Is Penelope's dream real or is it false, as she fears?



Homer characterizes the Ithacans on the basis of what they believe about Odysseus. Only Telemakhos really believes...














Image left: Odysseus and his dog shown on an early Greek coin. Why is the dog alone in recognizing Odysseus' return?



























Image left: scene of Eurykleia washing Odysseus' feet (from a classical vase)