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The Odyssey mystery
Story summary
Reading the classics
Apollo's feast
Psycho the first
Lying 101
The cult of Odysseus

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Lesson 8

We read the massacre of the suitors and the reunion of Odysseus and Penelope, which complete the Odyssey in storybook fashion.

But what does this nonsense mean?

Homer nods

The Odyssey is full of fairy tale elements, and it ends so unbelievably that critics for thousands of years have wanted to change it. In this tale, dreams and wishes appear to come true, no matter how fantastic, but the characters in the storybook are puzzled. Nothing seems right to them. Events are disordered and unnatural. The sun does not rise on time to rouse the dreamers, and even after sunrise a dark cloud shrouds them from view. Reality seems to have evaporated.

At his homecoming Odysseus wants to know, is he actually in Ithaca or is Athena playing tricks with his mind? And how can he possibly kill all of those suitors? If he does kill them, how can he avoid the vengeance of their families?

Penelope wonders too, have her dreams become real? How can Odysseus have returned? If he has returned, how can it be that he looks like some young god? 

These are good questions. They should plant doubts in our minds, too. Did Homer lapse into nonsense--maybe he finally succeeded in singing himself to sleep? Or are there technical problems of a corrupt or patchwork text--too many retellings of the Odyssey by different bards or too many  editors over the years, perhaps? How can we account for the odd and seemingly incoherent ending? 

Story summary: City of Dreams
Odyssey 20-24

Before trying to solve the mystery of the Odyssey, consider the evidence by reading Books 20-24. Here's a quick summary:

Odyssey 20.1. The suitors gather at the palace in Ithaca for the feast day of Apollo, and they sacrifice animals for their meal. Still disguised as a beggar, Odysseus joins them in the dining room, but Athena inspires them to provoke him with insults. As anger builds, odd things begin to happen. The goddess robs the suitors of their wits, and they begin laughing, but their meat is smeared with blood, and their eyes fill with tears. A seer among them, Theoklymenos, predicts that doomsday is coming. The suitors laugh at him, and Theoklymenos leaves them to their fate.

Odyssey 21.1. Widow Penelope offers herself to whichever suitor can string the mighty bow of Odysseus and send an arrow through twelve axe handles of iron lined up in a row, a feat that (she claims) Odysseus performed in the old days before Troy. Telemakhos is the first to enter the tournament, in order to keep his mother from leaving the house with any of the suitors as husband. After a few tries, Telemakhos finds that he is man enough to string the bow, but Odysseus secretly signals to him that he should appear to fail at it, and so he fails. Then the suitors, in turn, begin trying to string the bow. They are confident of success, and they use every trick of lubricating and heating the bow, but the bow will not be strung. While the suitors are engaged in this contest, the beggar privately reveals himself as Odysseus to the swineherd Eumaios and the stockman Philoitios, both of whom hate the suitors and pledge to Odysseus that they will help to kill them. Once the suitors give up the bow-stringing contest for the day, the beggar seizes the bow, easily strings it, and sends an arrow through the axe handles. 

Odysseus the archer as a classical statuette.Odyssey 22.1. The beggar reveals himself to the suitors as Odysseus. They beg for mercy and offer to repay the full amount of the damage that they have caused, but Odysseus will have them pay with their lives. With the help of Telemakhos, Eumaios, Philoitios, and especially Athena, he slaughters all of the suitors, sparing only the bard Phemios and Medon, the only suitor who has been kind to Telemakhos. At Odysseus' direction Telemakhos then hangs twelve serving-women of the household who misbehaved by sleeping with the suitors.

Odyssey 23.1. Odysseus' old nurse Eurykleia awakens Penelope and tells her that Odysseus has returned and has killed all of the suitors. Penelope doesn't believe it. Some god must have killed the suitors to punish their wickedness--Odysseus can't have returned, she thinks. She descends to meet the stranger again, but she still does not recognize him. He thinks it's because he's covered with dirt and wearing bad clothes, so he bathes. When he comes from the bath, however, he looks like a piece of glowing artwork, graceful "like one of the immortals" with a full head of long curly hair. Still Penelope does not recognize him: Odysseus certainly never looked like that! Telemakhos, however, insists that his mother recognize Odysseus. Is her heart made of stone? Still in doubt, she puts the stranger to the test of describing the bed that Odysseus constructed many years earlier (because only Odysseus and one servant ever knew about the bed, uniquely built on the trunk of a standing olive tree). When the stranger tells how he built the bed, Penelope realizes that he must be Odysseus. She embraces him, and they go to bed to make love and recount their adventures. When Athena allows the morning to come, she hides Odysseus, Telemakhos, the swineherd and the stockman in darkness, and she leads them safely out of town.

Odyssey 24.1. At the same time the god Hermes is leading the spirits of the dead suitors in darkness down to Hades. There, in the City of Dreams, they meet the spirits of dead Achilles and Agamemnon. Agamemnon has just been describing the glorious 18-day funeral that Achilles had at Troy, when Achilles' mother Thetis and sea-nymphs mourned, and the muses sang the dirge for the dead, and a great tomb was erected overlooking the Hellespont. Agamemnon wishes that his own death had been so nice. On his return home from Troy, however, he was murdered in his bathtub by his unfaithful wife Klytemnestra and her boyfriend Aigisthos.

24.106. The dead suitors tell Agamemnon how they courted Penelope, who wanted to destroy them, and how she led them on with hopes of marriage, and how Odysseus with the help of some god then returned home and killed them all. Agamemnon concludes that Odysseus has been blessed with an excellent wife. He wishes that wicked Klytemnestra had been as loyal, but she has brought disgrace on all womankind forever, "even the good ones."

24.203. Odysseus visits the country farm of his old father Laertes. At first Odysseus assumes a false identity, and Laertes does not recognize him, but then Odysseus reveals his identity to Laertes and proves himself by showing his scar and telling the story of the fruit trees that Laertes had given to him as a child. Laertes is overjoyed to see his son again. At the happy reunion feast that follows, Athena makes Laertes look young and strong again, like an immortal. Avengers of the dead suitors then attack the farm, but Laertes, Odysseus, Telemakhos and their servants arm to fight them. The three generations stand together and kill several of the avengers before Athena abruptly stops the bloodshed and makes peace between the contending forces. There the Odyssey abruptly ends.

Classical carving of the return of Odysseus.

Reading the classics
three general approaches to meaning

In ancient days before specialization of labor, bards filled social roles that we now assign separately to historian, doctor, and prophet. Their art can be "about" the past, present and future all at once: the victim died, but the victim is presented in the art, and the victim reveals what the future will bring. 

  • "Past" meaning is the historical sense, sometimes referred to as the "literal" or "surface" meaning. So, for example, the Odyssey is about the return of the warrior Odysseus to his home in Ithaca after the Trojan War. Many readers view Homeric story-telling and other classic literature primarily or even entirely in this "historical" way, but there are problems with this approach. First, it does not reveal any present or future relevance: why should we care what happened to Odysseus long ago? Second, ancient literature almost always deals in legends or myths, where historical facts are shadowy at best. Traditional stories about Adam and Eve, Heracles, Trophonius, Jesus, Aeneas, Beowulf, Arthur and the like are full of improbabilities that modern professional historians find unpersuasive. These stories may contain historical elements, but they clearly reflect interests that are not historical interests.

  • "Present" meaning is the moral lesson, or other immediate application, for the audience. It can take different forms. It may be an ethical teaching, such as the golden rule embedded in Odysseus' tale told to the Phaeacians [recall Lesson 2]. Alternatively, the relevance may be behavioral in the sense of usefully modeling how people act, like the fight-or-flight response in the choice of Achilles [recall Lesson 3 and Lesson 4]. Alternatively, present meaning may promote specific social, political or religious ideas, such as Homer's theme of ransom [recall Lesson 3] or the displeasure of Zeus with the Zeus-men [recall Lesson 6]. Present meanings often are taught in schools, to indoctrinate students into currently fashionable ideologies and beliefs of various kinds: Marxism, feminism, Freudianism, behavioralism, existentialism, Catholicism, deconstructionism or whatever. But there's an obvious historical problem in using ancient literature to promote modern ideas. You can develop a Marxist interpretation of Homer, if you work at it, but the historical Homer--whoever he was--could not have been a Marxist. 

  • "Future" meaning is the prophetic aspect of literature, sometimes called the "allegory," the "spiritual meaning" or the "revelation." Future meaning may seem primitive today, and it is generally overlooked in modern discussions about literature, outside of science fiction, but it is an essential level of meaning in the ancient classics. It may have originated in the prehistoric practice of identification with sacrificial victims [recall Lesson 2]. In any case, future meaning in ancient literature generally is about death, the immortal soul, or the next world to come. It may show what will happen to us in the afterlife, as in the Egyptian Book of the Dead, or it may envision what is going to happen when the current world comes to a close, as in the New Testament's apocalyptic Book of Revelation. This meaning is a mystery or secret because it is hidden from the present. Only art can reveal it. 

For illustration, a past reading, a present reading, and a future reading of the concluding books of the Odyssey are presented later in this lesson.

The bundling of past, present and future meanings into a single work of art makes for complexity that the medieval poet Dante called "polysemous" (="more than one meaning," not to be confused with the giant, one-eyed cannibal who curses Odysseus). Dante gave the example of the famous Exodus story in the Hebrew scriptures. The flight of the Hebrew people from captivity in Egypt to the promised land had multiple meanings, in Dante's understanding:

  • historical--a story of the Israelite past in the time of Moses; 

  • present--a moral story about escaping from sin through faith in the Lord, a story about what readers of Dante's day should do;

  • revelatory--an allegory about God's plan for humankind. The allegory in this case was double. The exodus was about Christ's redemption of humankind (that is, Moses prefigured Jesus as savior of the cult), and it was also about the flight of the soul at death from worldly corruption (symbolized by Egypt) to eternal glory (the promised land).

Dante's Divine Comedy is polysemous, too. The plot of Dante's masterpiece is the classic story of travel to the world of the dead. It contains discussion of historical characters (the famous dead), description of their present spiritual condition (damned or saved or otherwise as is revealed by visiting them in the afterlife), and prophecy of things to come in Dante's own life and death. [More on Dante's meanings later; see Lesson 19.]

It follows that no single interpretation is going to account fully for the Odyssey, The Divine Comedy or any other traditional classic that has meaning from a variety of points of view. Nevertheless, interpretations can be very helpful. Understanding how others have read a classic can broaden our own appreciation by revealing aspects that we inevitably have missed. To use a crude analogy from sports casting, there's room for a "color commentator" as well as a "play-by-play commentator" in the broadcasting booth. Analysis adds depth to audience experience of the game. 

Artemis (lower left) and Apollo (lower right) massacre the children of Niobe, colorized image from a classical tomb carving.

Apollo's feast: an allegory of death
a future interpretation or prophecy

In the ancient tomb engraving above, archer gods Artemis (lower left) and Apollo (lower right) slaughter the children of Niobe. Achilles tells the story to Priam at the end of the Iliad, to encourage the sorrowing old king to eat:

Even lovely Niobe had to think about eating, though her twelve children - six daughters and six lusty sons - had been all slain in her house. Apollo killed the sons with arrows from his silver bow, to punish Niobe, and Artemis slew the daughters, because Niobe had vaunted herself against Leto; she said Leto had borne two children only, whereas she had herself borne many - whereon the two killed the many. Nine days did they lie weltering, and there was none to bury them, for the son of Kronos [Zeus] turned the people into stone; but on the tenth day the gods in heaven themselves buried them, and Niobe then took food, being worn out with weeping. They say that somewhere among the rocks on the mountain pastures of Sipylos, where the nymphs live that haunt the river Akheloos, there, they say, she lives in stone and still nurses the sorrows sent upon her by the hand of heaven. Therefore, noble sir, let us two now take food; you can weep for your dear son hereafter as you are bearing him back to Ilion - and many a tear will he cost you. Iliad 24.596

Like Niobe, Priam is losing all of his children to death. (So, too, is Achilles' father Peleus.) Like Niobe, Priam once was happy but now must eat so that he has the strength to go on remembering and weeping. This is the cruel magic of Niobe's story in the Iliad

Niobe guards her last surviving daughter, image taken from a statue of uncertain origin in Florence.Odysseus' slaughter of the suitors and maids in the Odyssey is much the same story about the massacre of those who have insulted death, but here the story's point of view is that of death (the spirit Odysseus), not life (Achilles). Odysseus is the offended archer god, and the young suitors are the Niobids who are getting what they deserve because they have insulted him. The provoking of death into deadly revenge is the same basic story that opens the Iliad with Apollo's plague arrows avenging the insults that Agamemnon has given to Apollo's priest, Chryses. It is an underlying, recurring theme of the Homeric songs: death is easily provoked, and life is the price that is paid for it.

The young suitors don't care to consider death. They are not persuaded when the seer Theoklymenos tells them of the catastrophe of their feast, soon to come:

"Unhappy men, what is it that ails you? There is a shroud of darkness drawn over you from head to foot, your cheeks are wet with tears; the air is alive with wailing voices; the walls and roof-beams drip blood; the gate of the cloisters and the court beyond them are full of ghosts trooping down into the night of Hades; the sun is blotted out of heaven, and a blighting gloom is over all the land." Odyssey 20.345

The suitors laugh at this premonition as foolishness, but doomsday is at hand, and Odysseus, like Apollo with his deadly bow, spoils the banquet. The slaughter takes place on the feast day of Apollo, the death bringer, but the defenseless suitors are completely unprepared to meet death. They think it's another party day. They do not suspect the truth of the religious ceremony until death is upon them.

Odysseus is the death-bringer wherever he goes in the Odyssey. He is responsible for the destruction not only of the suitors and their girlfriends but also Troy, Kikones, all of his crew, and the good Phaeacians. (Poseidon is angry at them for helping Odysseus to get home, so he sends a volcanic catastrophe that sinks their ships and buries their harbor under a mountain.) Odysseus is responsible even for the death of his mother, Antikleia ("anti-fame" or infamy). She has died for grief because of his long absence at Troy (Odyssey 11.180). Get it? Infamy dies because of her son's refusal to quit the fighting and go home. Oh, well. . .

An allegorical interpretation of all this carnage is that Odysseus is an embodiment or personification of Death. He claims the lives of enemies and friends, strangers and subordinates, whole cities, and even his family and household servants. 

Classical carving of Hades and Persephone, King and Queen of the underworld. Homer's Odysseus and Penelope are their prototypes. The coming of Death is a standard theme in classic literature, but the account of it in the Odyssey has an unusual twist. This Death does not understand his mission in Athena's service. She makes him think that he's alive and simply going home, though delayed by many misfortunes. His victims don't know who he is either, until it is too late for them. Death tells false stories and puts on disguises that mislead people about his identity. He even likes to tell stories about Odysseus, as if he himself is not Odysseus. Homer exploits these episodes of mistaken identity for their macabre humor and irony. They seem to twist the idea of the hero communion itself; for those who want to live, it's clearly better NOT to meet this hero.

At least in primitive thinking, it's useful for death to be personified. If Death is a personality who can be offended, then it also may be possible to avoid giving offence or perhaps even to apologize for past offenses. For example, in the Iliad where Apollo represents death, Odysseus calms Apollo's anger and ends the plague by banqueting in the god's honor, offering sacrifices and singing hymns that Apollo enjoys (Iliad 1.470, see Lesson 3). Apollo/Death is pacified by offering gifts and soothing words, the same formula that makes heroes relent and give over their anger in heroic song tradition. (Remember old Phoenix' description of heroic songs, Iliad 19.513; see Lesson 4).

In the Odyssey, however, Death has not been given his due. Food is shared only begrudgingly with him, as if he is some annoying beggar, rather than the lord of the manor, and the words spoken to him are only insults. His real presence is not acknowledged, nor is his return expected. He is there in disguise at the feasting, however, and his anger soon boils over.

When the suitors finally understand that they are confronted by Death, they try to buy their way out of the banquet room. They offer to pay for all of the damage they have caused, as if they have been eating in some restaurant, but the bribe is offered too late. They pay the cashier with their lives on the way out of the hall. 

Some very old ideas are at work in this banqueting. If the dead forefathers are nourishing the soil, the food that they are growing from the soil belongs to them. The cattle are theirs--to borrow the idiom of the Odyssey--and therefore the living who must eat to survive are cattle thieves. Angry heroes (animated by angry spirits like Apollo, Artemis, Athena and Poseidon) bring the living to justice for their thievery by making them die, turning them into cattle-feed so that life is recycled.

This is justice, in a natural perspective. One is eaten, in turn, for eating others. It's only fair. Yet, the living want to cheat death. They prefer to eat more than their share, and they devise strategies to avoid being turned into fertilizer for as long as possible.

That's where hero ritual comes in, as a tool to help the living to eat and not be eaten. In the ritual, the living sing soothing words to the dead heroes and give them back portions of their food through sacrifice offerings and libations. If the heroes accept these offerings and the flattery, they forget their anger. The living then can continue to steal the heroes' cattle and eat them in relative peace, with less fear of the heroes' revenge.

Hero ritual in this sense is a trick to make the dead believe that that they are honored or benefited somehow when the living feast on their farm. For the ritual to work, deceit is essential: survival requires stealing and devouring cattle and then lying about it. 

Odysseus, while still living, is particularly skilled along these lines. He belongs to a family that proudly includes the notorious cattle thief and liar Autolykos. When Odysseus claims that he survived his voyage home because he alone piously fasted, while all of his crew members feasted on cattle at Kikones, or on the cattle of the sun, he is merely practicing his art.

Once Odysseus is dead, of course, he does not admire the deceit of the living. He finds it an outrage that they are devouring his animals and offering at best insincere praise about him. He sees through the hypocrisy of their banqueting, and his anger flares into murderous rage. Apart from his wife and child and nurse, his only friends are the caretakers of his cattle, the swineherd and the stockman. 

On this reading or interpretation, the Odyssey is an allegory about the mystery of death, much like the story of Demeter and Persephone, or Orpheus and Eurydice, or other Greek myths of death and rebirth. The purpose of these stories isn't to tell historical truths of any kind, or simply to entertain, but to explain the fate of the soul and the meaning of death. Homer belongs firmly in the tradition of allegory that leads from the Egyptian Book of the Dead and Biblical story-telling to Plato, Virgil, Dante and Milton--all of whom undertook to write about this most ambitious and universal of all themes, the nature or meaning of death.

Nicholas Poussin, "Shepherds of Arcadia" (1638), Musee du Louvre, Paris.

Solving the mystery of the Odyssey
a present interpretation

Never believe the interpretation that Odysseus is Death, or Death's right-hand man, and that dead heroes and gods are responsible for killing everybody all over the Mediterranean!  How can the dead kill the living? Did Homer really believe that such a thing is possible? Does he expect us to buy it? Are the gods (and dead heroes) really to blame for all the anger and killings in the Homeric songs? Or isn't all of this spiritual clap-trap just some elaborate cover up to conceal the truth about what's really going on? 

Let's do some rational detective work on the murders of the suitors and their girl friends.

Who done it? There's only one suspect in this case. The character who gives unity to the Odyssey as a whole is Telemakhos. His name means "last mouth," and the song is his story. The tragic events are presented from his disturbed point of view.

Telemakhos wants to see his parents reunited, even long after it appears that the father has abandoned the home or died. Since the father has neglected him, Telemakhos lacks self-esteem, but he finds an imaginative, magical solution to his emotional problem. Like a child who develops an imaginary play-mate, he summons the missing father to return to the household by calling the father's daemon and becoming possessed by it. Once the father is "present" in this way, the problem is persuading the mother, the servants, and the mother's suitors that the father really has returned. Nobody wants to believe the story. Do you? Did you fall for it? Ha! Ha! Ha!

Do you also believe in fairy tales? Telemakhos wants to maintain his place in his mother's affections as a group of potential step-fathers compete to win her and take her away from the home. The story type is standard fairy tale material where the weak, defenseless child, with magical help, defeats the wicked, interfering step-parent in order to preserve the bond with the natural parent. (Often in modern fairy tales this story involves a daughter/step-mother relationship, as in Cinderella or Snow White, rather than a son/step-father relationship, as in the Odyssey, but the story in outline is the same in either case.)

Like Hamlet in Shakespeare's play, and with similarly bloody results, Telemakhos approaches the job of maintaining his mother's affections by contacting the dead father and following his directions for revenge. The encounter with the father's spirit immediately transforms Telemakhos' behavior. His boyish submissiveness vanishes; suddenly he is helping "dad" plot a lot of murders. (Later Christian epic writers Dante and Milton both associated Odysseus with Satan. Telemakhos can be seen from a Christian spiritual framework as a witch.)

This magical way of growing up isn't recommended for use in the home. In current psychological jargon, Telemakhos develops MPD, multiple personality disorder. The new super-manly daemon personality, "Odysseus," is capable of terrible violence and aggression that the boy personality, "Telemakhos," cannot recognize as part of the self. Splitting into separate identities or characters allows "Telemakhos" to deny his anger toward his mother and his murderous rage against all of her dozens of boyfriends. These adolescent emotions are acceptable, only if they belong to "Odysseus" and not "Telemakhos." They would be "wicked" in "Telemakhos." And of course Telemakhos is not wicked, as he demonstrates for all to see when in his righteous zeal he hangs all of the naughty chamber-maids who slept with the suitors.

In his possessiveness Telemakhos keeps his mother always shut up in the house, a bit like the crazed murderer Bates in Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho. In his jealousy Telemakhos speaks harshly to her, ordering her to her room so that he can go about his "man's business." He is also the first to enter the bow-stringing competition to win her, in order to keep her from leaving the house with any other man [Odyssey 22.101]. Indeed he alone (except for "Odysseus") can string the bow, but he pretends to the suitors that he cannot string it because he is still a weak young boy [Odyssey 22.131]. He can't openly press a sexual claim to his mother, after all. His jealousy remains hidden, as "Odysseus" remains in disguise until the strategic moment to reveal himself.

The disguise can't be maintained indefinitely because Penelope wants a mate, and there are plenty of applicants. As the suitors try to string the bow, to take Penelope from Telemakhos' household, the anger of "Odysseus" reaches the boiling point. In the blow-up, "Odysseus" (his name in Greek means "child of anger" or "pain giver") comes forward to plan the guest murders, and to direct and lead the killers. He is no longer a suppressed personality within Telemakhos, but he comes out, as if he were an entirely separate and distinct individual. He introduces himself to the "good" servants (that is, servants who follow orders and go along with master's wishes, whatever they may be), and they acknowledge him and agree to help him as good servants do. He also reveals his name to the suitors before he executes them, so that down in Hades they always will say that Odysseus and not Telemakhos was their murderer.

Telemakhos' dissociation of personalities is a psychotic episode, the purpose of which is denial of personal responsibility for his horrendous crimes. When "Odysseus" kills, it's a heroic thing, a warlike and military thing, a thing done according to the plan of the gods; it doesn't seem like calculated murder of unsuspecting, unarmed young men at a dinner party. It is "Odysseus," not Telemakhos who is covered with the suitors' blood and gore. And "Odysseus" washes up. After his bath, he looks young, fair-haired and godlike.

Telemakhos participates in the violence but only at dad's direction. This illusion gains him the classic accomplice excuse: "I was just following orders" or "the devil told me to do it." By order of "Odysseus," Telemakhos hangs the serving-women in the household who have accepted any of the suitors as sex partners. He uses an irrational pretext that they are being brought to justice. Their conduct is not criminal. Their fatal mistake is that they have made the choice that Penelope is not permitted to make. Their deaths serve as warnings to her to give no hint of any infidelity--and she complies with her widow's endless weeping, and other exaggerated public demonstrations of her grief, to protect her public reputation for sexual loyalty.

The hangings of the maids also serve as warnings to the "good" servants in the household, like the old nurse Eurykleia, to keep their mouths shut about what they have seen and what they know, or else they too will be dead meat. (Recall how "Odysseus" threatens Eurykleia when she washes his feet and suddenly discovers his identity; Odyssey 19.386. Her name means "good reputation.") The old nurse, in one of Homer's most brilliant characterizations, pretends to be gleeful that the suitors have been slaughtered, and she informs on her co-workers, apparently with full knowledge of what is going to happen to them. Like Telemakhos, she is only following orders. She is the good servant. He is the good boy.

Feminists like to point out that there's an obvious double standard of sexual morality here. Homer clearly is observing it, not promoting it. Penelope must remain faithful to Odysseus, even while Odysseus has been celebrated for his extramarital exploits. Sex with the witch Circe, for instance, has symbolized Odysseus' magical return to manhood [recall Lesson 2]. Telemakhos, whose adolescent fantasies these are, thinks of his father as having universal female favor and extensive sexual permission. Hand in jealous hand with this view of father as an enchanter of goddesses is the intolerable idea that mother could be a loose woman who needs to be watched very closely.

Another way to describe Telemakhos' condition in modern psychological terms is paranoid psychosis. His violent break with reality is caused by intense fear and insecurity. What is he so afraid of? That people will find out about his possessive jealousy toward his mother. 

The portrayal of the suitors reveals this anxiety from the outset of the story. At first Telemakhos has tried to hide his emotions by pretending to the suitors that he has no concern about their wooing: he's just a pre-sexual "boy" who isn't competing with them in any way or hindering their access to mom. But the deception doesn't work in the end because guilt gives Telemakhos away. He begins to fear that the suitors have found him out. He begins to view them as secretly conspiring against him. They want to murder him, he thinks, because they can see the dirty little truth that they won't make any progress in courting Penelope until Telemakhos is dead.

The suitors never harm Telemakhos. He only imagines their conspiracies against him. He thinks he is saved from their plots by his spiritual companion. In his mind the suitors can detect the presence of some powerful spirit protecting Telemakhos, and they are threatening to consult an oracle to find out about it. They don't know that it's "Odysseus," and his friend Athena, of course. The name of Odysseus is Telemakhos' magical secret. Being possessed by this spirit gives Telemakhos a sense of security and control in his seemingly very dangerous situation, his paranoid fear of being exposed as an Oedipus.

Odysseus anf the Cyclops, image based on a classical vase decoration. The old paintings typically show the cyclops with normal eyes as well as the giant eye in the middle of the forehead. The images may be depictions from plays.In magic, the knowledge of a spirit's name commonly is thought to give control over the spirit. Homer must have been well aware of this belief. That is why Odysseus maintains his disguise in Ithaca, and even threatens to kill his old nurse Eurykleia if she reveals his identity to anyone. Penelope herself is not trusted with the spirit's name until all of her [other] suitors are dead. (Recall that with the Cyclops, Odysseus is not careful to remain anonymous as "Noman." Once Odysseus reveals his name to Polyphemus, the Cyclops has power to curse him and his household.)

The confrontation between Telemakhos and the guests in his mother's household is a variation on the Iliad theme of the Zeus-men brawling to the death over women. [Recall the Zeus-men from Lesson 6.] "Odysseus" is the Zeus-man, the throw-back or anachronism that unexpectedly emerges as primitive deadly violence in later, seeming more peaceful times. In civilized minds, the heroic age recurs only as harmless fantasy, or as an exercise of historical imagination. In a mind enraged to violence, however, it can return to glorify repulsive bloody deeds. "Odysseus" destroys Ithaca as he destroyed Kikones or Troy.

"Odysseus" gets away with murder not only because he is a Zeus-man but because he suffers from the cyclops' curse (Odyssey 19.526) and also is trapped as a helpless actor in Teiresias' prophecy (Odyssey 11.118). The curse and the fortune-telling, and other divine intervention in the story, such as Athena's assistance in the slaughter of the suitors, are Telemakhos' attempts to excuse even "Odysseus" from personal responsibility. They are Telemakhos' fantasies, not Homer's. 

Rationalization of atrocities probably was common in Homer's time, as it remains with us in somewhat less violent times today. Criminals often pretend to be innocent, imagining that their bad behavior was destined or fated, or they were driven to insanity by some evil spirit or drug. Militant movements often base ideologies of violence on some imagined glorious past (that never happened). Heroic fantasies also can figure in hate crimes, racial and ethnic violence. To slaughter Jews, for example, it helps a lot to be an Aryan superman, not just some ordinary Joe Nazi. (Superman and man are not the same species, so one naturally preys on the other.) Such are the practical uses of fantasy.

Lying: an introduction

Another curse from which Telemakhos suffers is a family hereditary problem that goes back to Odysseus' grandfather Autolykos, who was the world's most accomplished liar. From Autolykos, Odysseus received not only his name (Odysseus = "child of anger") and his identifying scar, but his love of deceit and false stories. Odysseus is the man whose false words are hateful as the gates of Hades, to blunt-spoken Achilles (Iliad 11.307), and Telemakhos is a subtle chip off the old block, another damned liar.

Twenty years of a father's absence, possibly fighting and womanizing with the Zeus-men on the high seas, take their toll on the family back home. Where's dad? He is imagined to have important things to do at the office at Troy, great things that justify his sacrifice of precious family time. Recall that, in the Iliad, scroll 2, it is Odysseus who encourages the Achaean veterans to keep up the long war at Troy, even though they miss their wives and children. They need to keep up the fighting, he says, to perform the will of Zeus.

The Odyssey shows the consequences of parental abandonment on the neglected son. The boy has grown up with the illusion of a father whose make-believe adventures substitute for real parenting. Telemakhos is immersed in stories, dreams and lies, to the point of acting out an Odysseus fantasy to attack his real life problems, especially his mother's wish to remarry. It's hero worship gone mad.

Lying is an integral part of life, because life is not always what we want it to be. It can originate from some severe trauma, such as child abuse. The traumatic event is denied and replaced in the imagination (in child abuse, often the imaginations of both abuser and abused) with a more acceptable, fictitious story. An abusive parent, for example, may be replaced by an imaginary loving one who is not molesting but disciplining the child for the child's own "good." Under this fiction or lie, an abused child begins to develop an alter ego, separate self, or internal spirit who is "bad," or "naughty" or otherwise responsible somehow for the "punishment." The child must then play this imagined negative part from time to time to reinforce the lie that the parent is loving, not abusive. Children need loving parents and will create them if real ones aren't available.

Of course Homer can't speak the lingo of psychology, abnormal or otherwise, because he predates psychology by a few thousand years. But Homer did not need to foresee psychology to describe some of the same things that psychology finds in its modern studies of noos. The durability of human behavior, and Homer's deep fascination with it, explains why the Odyssey reads so much like a modern psychological novel.

Fiction is interested in liars because fiction lies. It makes its pretenses obvious. No one is expected to believe; in fact the story invites skepticism. In the end it's not the Trojan War that matters but how the descendants imagine it and fantasize about it. That is its relevance and continuing presence.

Homerland & the cult of Odysseus:
a historical interpretation

Apart from hero rituals, a primary way that the Hellenes attempted to contact the spirit world was through dreaming. They believed that ghosts or souls of the dead could be met in dreams, especially dreams occurring at hero burial sites like the pit of Trophonius [described in Lesson 7] or at historic battlegrounds like Troy, where the old warriors appeared to visiting tourists nightly for hundreds of years. The dreamers slept on tombs, or indeed in them, to receive "knowledge" of the next life. Sometimes, like offerings, they slept on the fleece of sacrificed rams, or they blanket-wrapped themselves in hides of sacrificed bulls (as Odysseus appears to do, see Odyssey 20.91). They fasted, took mind-altering drugs, or breathed intoxicating gas. These simulations of death were used to induce the appearance of the dead in their dreams.

Dreaming becomes an explicit theme in the Ithacan episodes of the Odyssey. Penelope seems to spend most of her time lost in her dreams, distant from the waking world and its disappointments. When she is awake, and she meets the beggar, she does not recognize Odysseus, but when she sleeps, she dreams that Odysseus' spirit lies next to her, and the dream seems real. (Odysseus at the same time dreams it, too!) Awakening from this dream, when she again thinks that he is dead and gone, she prays to join him in death once again: 

"I wish that the gods who live in heaven would hide me from mortal sight, or that fair Artemis [bringer of death to women, the sister archer-goddess of Apollo] might strike me, for I would fain go even beneath the sad earth if I might do so still looking towards Odysseus only, and without having to yield myself to a worse man than he was. Besides, no matter how much people may grieve by day, they can put up with it so long as they can sleep at night, for when the eyes are closed in slumber people forget good and ill alike; whereas my miserable daimôn haunts me even in my dreams. This very night I thought there was one lying by my side who was like Odysseus as he was when he went away with his host, and I rejoiced, for I believed that it was no dream, but the very truth itself."

On this the day broke, but Odysseus heard the sound of her weeping, and it puzzled him, for it seemed as though she already knew him and was by his side. Odyssey 20.56-90, bracketed words and emphasis added.

The return of Odysseus is Penelope's dream, but is the dream true or false? She is confused by its strangeness (Odyssey 19.559). The long-awaited day that brings Odysseus back to her clearly is not a familiar, earthly one. The sun no longer dawns and sets with earthly regularity but runs its course as quickly or as slowly as Athena arranges (Odyssey 23.231). The Odysseus who appears to Penelope looks like a tall, shining young god, and he has performed feats in fighting that no mortal could perform. Penelope recognizes that she must be dreaming, but she resists the idea that the dream is true. Only after the stranger passes all of the tests that she can devise does she finally believe the dream. 

The man of Penelope's dreams turns out to be a ghost. The Odysseus who wins the archery contest and massacres all of the suitors and their friends is a hero spirit or daemon returning from the dead. [Recall Lesson 7.] On the morning of the slaughter he awakens from sleep covered in the hides of the animals that the suitors have butchered. In this guise, assisted by the swineherd and the stockman, Odysseus is the spirit of the victim animals who will turn the sacrificers into victims, to pay for all that they have eaten. [Recall from Lesson 2 the mother of all stories, the sacrificer becoming the sacrificial victim.] 

Homer even tells us, in one of the most imaginative of all Homeric images, what kind of food the hero appears to be. As he tosses and turns through the night, Odysseus is a sausage burning for revenge against the banqueters:

He chided with his heart, and checked it into endurance, but he tossed about as one who turns a paunch full of blood and fat in front of a hot fire, doing it first on one side and then on the other, that he may get it cooked as soon as possible, even so did he turn himself about from side to side, thinking all the time how, single handed as he was, he should contrive to kill so large a body of men as the wicked suitors. Odyssey 20.15 (emphasis added)

Though Odysseus habitually worries about his enemies as if he were still mortal, he has nothing to fear. There are only 108 suitors to be killed, many times too few to concern Athena. To the suitors Odysseus may as well be Apollo, Artemis or death personified. How are they going to kill someone who is already dead? In the fighting he doesn't receive a scratch.

Funeral monument of Hegeso, daughter of Proxenos, at Athens, cir. 400 BC.And there's no need to worry about avengers of the suitors, either. Athena ends the hostilities between Odysseus and his enemies, just as she controls the battle with the suitors, or the length of the day and night, simply by directing it to happen. Under her governance, Ithaca is a thought-world where ideas and wishes come true, a place where magic never fails.

There are other curiosities at the end of the Odyssey. One is Odysseus' old father Laertes, for whom Penelope had woven the death shroud three years earlier. He must have needed it. He seems to be there in the after-life too, out in the orchard on the family farm. Homer describes Laertes as "the hero" (Odyssey 24.219-345)--that is, the dead ancestor who is responsible for the fertility of the soil and the growth of plants. He doesn't look well, all dirty and wearing foul clothes. Why doesn't he ever come into town any more? Odysseus seems to bring his father back from the dead by calling him to come in to dinner. Once Laertes eats, Athena changes his appearance, and makes him look young again, like one of the immortals (Odyssey 24.361; recall how hero spirits were brought back to life through libations and food offerings in Hellenic hero worship). Modern readers sometimes wish that Homer had ended the Odyssey like a romance, quitting the story with the reunion of husband and wife, but it ends in a heroic dream instead, with Odysseus and Telemakhos, too, joining old father Laertes to cultivate the family farm.Crown of virtue, image from a classical vase painting

There is a place for Penelope in the ending, but her ultimate role is that of earth goddess. Down in the ground in the City of Dreams, where the dead suitors have been assigned to spend eternity, they spread Penelope's fame by telling her story. Her virtue is such a model for times to come that "the immortals shall compose a song that shall be welcome to all people in honor of the constancy of Penelope" (Odyssey 24.191). Penelope's virtue makes her famous forever as the model, loyal wife, but she is imaginatively responsible for life on earth, like Laertes but not as dirty. The beggar addresses her as if she were a divinity of fertility: 

"like some blameless king, who upholds righteousness, as the monarch over a great and valiant nation: the earth yields its wheat and barley, the trees are loaded with fruit, the ewes bring forth lambs, and the sea abounds with fish by reason of his virtues, and his people do good deeds under him." Odyssey 19.106 

Many details in the Odyssey remain mysterious. The bow stringing competition, the twelve axe handles, Laertes' woven and unwoven death shroud, Odysseus' scar, Penelope's live olive tree bridal bed, and other weird details add to our impression of the dream-like, irrational quality of the story. 

But perhaps the significance of these details would not have been lost on the Odyssey's first audience. Perhaps historically at Ithaca there was a hero shrine where visiting "suitors" from the region came to dine and then be "killed" by a beggar-priest with an antique bow of horn so that they could enter the City of Dreams to meet the heroic dead, singing Penelope's praises. The beggar may have shown his guests a tapestry supposed to have been woven by Penelope, the unstrung bow of Odysseus and an olive tree supposed to have supported the bed of Odysseus and Penelope. Then after supper, before putting the initiates to sleep, he may have removed his beggar's disguise, and proved himself to be Odysseus by showing them a scar on his thigh, stringing the bow and shooting an arrow through the axe handles. Could he have drugged the guests to knock them out? or were guest "murders" simply staged by attendants of the priest? How could such cult illusions of death have been managed?

Did Homer sleep there at the hero shrine of Odysseus? Was he one of the guests who returned from "the dead" to tell their dreams while seated on a throne of memory, like dreamers raised from the pit of Trophonius? 

Lesson Summary:  This lesson provides several different sample interpretations of the ending of the Odyssey. Ancient literature often can be understood at various levels of meaning, such as simultaneous historical, moral and spiritual meanings. As in hero ritual itself, in heroic literature the dead could provide instruction not simply about themselves but also about how to live and about the experience of death that awaits all of us.

Additional related readings
and journal topics

1. Interpretation: which of the interpretations of the Odyssey on this page makes the most sense to you? Do you have another interpretation? What makes one interpretation better than another?

Photo of Artemis, visiting the Louvre Museum, reaching for her quiver of arrows. In her other hand, the buck will become her bow of horn. The victim will become the sacrificer.2. Artemis--to whom Penelope prays for death-- is the sister goddess and counterpart of Apollo. She is the huntress who brings death to mortal women by shooting them with arrows, just as Apollo "the distant deadly archer" brings death to mortal men. These gods are associated with deer hunting, bows and death because the Hellenes used horn in bow-making. As compared with ordinary wooden bows, bows of horn were costly and hard to string, but they shot for twice as much distance, allegedly with greater accuracy. Odysseus' great bow that the suitors cannot string is a bow of horn. Compare the "gate of horn," the source of all dreams that are real, in Penelope's famous speech about dreams (Odyssey 19.559).

Apollo Parnopios, c. 450 BCThe use of horn in Hellenic bow making, is discussed in scholarly fashion by Robert Drews, The Coming of the Greeks (Princeton 1988). Drews also discusses the earliest use of horses and chariots in warfare. He argues that the Hellenes' Indo-European ancestors, with their war chariots and bows improved with horn, came from the region of the Caucasus Mountains and eastern Asia Minor in the middle Bronze Age, about 1600 BC. The same technologically advantaged group spread their conquests at about the same time into Egypt, where history knows them as the "Hyksos," and also as far east as India, in the so-called "Aryan invasion." Hence the broad collective name "Indo-European" used to designate these people. The total territorial expansion of these Bronze Age Indo-Europeans bears an interesting resemblance to the empire conquered by Alexander the Great roughly 1300 years later. Both the Indo-European empire and the Hellenistic one are precursors of the British Empire whose bards almost without exception were lovers of Homer and Greece. Like Greek, English belongs to the Indo-European family of languages.

Perhaps it is also noteworthy that the Indo-European empire, and Alexander's empire, are roughly coterminous with the modern Moslem world where the ways of the Greeks and English-speakers often are resisted nowadays. 

3. Ageless youth in art: Hellenic art up until classical times represents men and women in the prime luster of youth. It was not until the Hellenistic era, beginning in the 4th century BC, that artists became interested in representing other phases of life, depicting children, elderly people and other adults who show signs of wear and strain, such as the famous "Boxer" and "Old Market Woman" statues [shown in Lesson 13]. 

The earlier classical convention of timeless youthful perfection originates in funerary art, re-present-ing the past lives of the deceased. This funerary art is meant to reflect the memory, and to keep it permanently; it isn't meant to be a copy of nature or the illusory condition of everyday life. When the Odysseus-spirit is restored to the appearance of youth, is there a complex pun that he's dead, that he's artificial, and that he's young Telemakhos?

4. Insulting death: a famous example in English of the insulting-of-death story is "The Pardoner's Tale" in Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales (cir. 1400 AD).

5. Relationships between the Iliad and the Odyssey: think back to our discussion of generational strife in the Iliad (Lesson 4). If we explain the Odyssey as Telemakhos' story, told from his warped point of view, then what do we make of the Iliad? Is it also a distorted story, or even a lie, emanating from a particular character's point of view? If so, whose view could it be? Who would have a motive to tell such a story? Telemakhos again? Someone else?

In your view, how are the two great Homeric songs related to each other?

6. Fairy tales: for a good analysis of the step-parent (and other key issues) in fairy tales, see Sheldon Cashdan, The Witch Must Die: The Hidden Meaning of Fairy Tales (New York 1999).

7. Loss of parent: Have you lost a parent through a separation, divorce, abandonment or death? Are you a step-child, or a step-parent, or are you likely to become one?  Can you describe the emotional process?

8. Growing up: in adolescence how did you change from one character or personality to another? from a "child" to an "adult"? Describe these two "people" in terms of their similarities and differences. (If this subject seems overwhelming on the personal level, you may want to try describing the growing-up of someone else: one of your own adult children, perhaps, or some well-known person you have studied or watched in youth and age.)

9. Criminal, violent, stupid or atrocious behavior: Telemakhos gives sordid murders the appearance of heroic justice. What excuses do people make in order to appear innocent or wise or fair (or fill in the blank virtuous), to themselves or to others? 

Review your own experiences as a liar and as a victim or subject of lies. 

It's estimated that on average people in the USA tell at least one lie per day, and about 700 per year, with one and three social interactions affected by lies. About one-half of all lying is lying about one's self: usually, to avoid embarrassment or punishment, or to gain advantage or create a positive impression. Only an estimated one-quarter of all lying is telling "white lies," defined as harmless lies told under circumstances where nobody expects to hear the truth. ("How are you today?" "Just great." "Gee, you look great, too.")

Psychological testing has shown that nobody is a "born liar." The skill normally is picked up at about age four, when a child first learns that others do not know what he or she is thinking. (The natural thought before age 4 seems to be that "everybody else knows what I know.")

It's also estimated that only about 5% of people are highly skilled liars. Actors, politicians, spies, and poker players are among the occupations where these skills of pretending stereotypically are put to professional use. It's similarly estimated that only about 5% of people are highly skilled at detecting lies, so lies often "succeed" in going undetected. When lies are passed off as truths, they can be said to contain magical power

10. Classical ghosts and dreams: For other examples of "incubation," that is the appearance of the dead in dreams, see

  • Iliad 23.65-91 where Patroklos appears in the night to Achilles; 

  • Pindar, Pythian Odes 4.156-163 where Phrixus appears to Pelias to ask that his soul be brought back from Colchis with the golden fleece; this dream motivates the voyage of the Argo; 

  • Aeschlus, Persians 197-221 where Atossa summons the ghost of her husband Darius after it appeared to her in a dream; 

  • Virgil, Aeneid 2.268-297, 2.771-295, and 5.719-745 where Aeneas encounters the spirits of Hektor, his wife Creusa, and his father Anchises; see also Aeneid 7.81-101where the oracle of Faunus at Latium converses with ghosts and gods.

  • Plautus, Ghosts 490-492, a comic treatment of the theme; 

  • Apuleius, Metamorphoses 9.31 where the miller appears to his daughter; 

  • Cicero, The Dream of Scipio, where the hero Scipio Africanus appears to his son Aemilianus;

  • Seneca, Trojans 438-460 where Hektor appears to Andromache, and Octavia 115-124 where Brittanicus appears to Octavia and 715-755 where Agrippina appears to Poppaea; 

  • Lucan Pharsalia 3.8-35 where Pompey dreams of Julia; 

  • Statius, Thebiad 2.1-127 where Laius appears to Eteocles.

Powers of Literature

Copyright © 2001











Was Homer out of steam? Did he nod off once Odysseus got home?



























Figure left (classical figurine): Odysseus the archer. Does he remind you of another archer in Homer?






































Image left (classical carving): Penelope and friends. Is she dreaming? If so, is her dream "real"?




What is "the" meaning of the Odyssey?  Cliff's Notes and other student guidebooks don't give "the" answer. You won't find "the" answer in the library, and no teacher can provide "the" answer, either. There are lots of answers because there are lots of readers. Seeing how other readers have responded is one of the best ways to sharpen your own appreciation.






















































Image left (from a classical tomb): the slaughter of Niobe's children by Apollo and Artemis.






















Image left: Niobe guards her last remaining daughter (classical statue of unknown origin).





























Image left: king and queen of the underworld, responsible for regeneration of vegetation, the basis for the life cycle.























































Nicholas Poussin (French 1594-1665), Et in Arcadia Ego (c 1651). Louvre, Paris. The innocent shepherds stumble upon a monument with curious markings on it. What does it mean? They can't read!







































































































Image left (from a classical vase): Odysseus and the Cyclops. Has the killer blinded us and kept his name hidden?


























Image left (peeled from a classical vase): Odysseus slaughters the suitors, but where's Telemakhos? Is this the perfect crime?



































Left: modern Ithaca. There's no evidence, apart from the Homeric songs, of the existence of a historical Odysseus. Excavations on Ithaca have turned up nothing.






















































Image left: funeral monument of Hegeso, daughter of Proxenos, at Athens, cir. 400 BC. Hegeso receives gifts at her tomb. Representation of the dead in their fertile prime was a convention of Hellenic funerary art. Even the elderly dead were shown rejuvenated. (Compare the rejuvenations of Odysseus and his father Laertes.) 











Image left (from a classical vase): an angelic messenger presents a matron with a crown of virtue. The bird represents the soul which takes wing and flies away at death. (Hence angels have wings.)









































Image left: photo of Artemis, visiting the Louvre Museum, reaching for her quiver of arrows. In her other hand, the buck will become her bow of horn. The victim will become the sacrificer.










Image left: Artemis' twin brother, Apollo. Reconstructed bronze (original 5th c BC) in the Archaeological Museum in Athens.