In his book Why Homer Matters, Adam Nicolson pointed out how people seem to generally fall into two camps: those who like the Iliad, and those who like the Odyssey. There seems to be little overlap in taste. The Iliad is a youthful and masculine story of war and justice, directness, wronging, and vengeance. It is full of bloodshed and suffering and glory. The Odyssey, on the other hand, is difficult to grasp. The reader probably understands that it has something to do with homecoming and identity, but the story is an adventure tale, essentially of being repeatedly shipwrecked for ten years on end. It is a more mental story, where the threats are as likely to be forgetting about home or being turned into a pig as they are to be death the manner of the warriors on the beaches of Troy.
Yet these two epics are both Homer’s. They are, at the very least, both ascribed to him. Is there any thematic cross-over between these two works? If so, what?
I would like to argue that there is one very strong point of connection between the two works, and that theme is connection… as well as the parallel danger of disconnection.
Let me begin with an example that presents itself near the beginning of the Iliad:
Who among the gods set the twain at strife and variance? Apollo, the son of Leto and of Zeus; for he in anger at the king sent a sore plague upon the host, so that the folk began to perish, because Atreides had done dishonour to Chryses the priest. For the priest had come to the Achaians’ fleet ships to win his daughter’s freedom, and brought a ransom beyond telling; and bare in his hands the fillet of Apollo the Far-darter upon a golden staff; and made his prayer unto all the Achaians, and most of all to the two sons of Atreus, orderers of the host; “Ye sons of Atreus and all ye well-greaved Achaians, now may the gods that dwell in the mansions of Olympus grant you to lay waste the city of Priam, and to fare happily homeward; only set ye my dear child free, and accept the ransom in reverence to the son of Zeus, far-darting Apollo.”
Then all the other Achaians cried assent, to reverence the priest and accept his goodly ransom; yet the thing pleased not the heart of Agamemnon son of Atreus, but he roughly sent him away, and laid stern charge upon him, saying: “Let me not find thee, old man, amid the hollow ships, whether tarrying now or returning again hereafter, lest the staff and fillet of the god avail thee naught. And her will I not set free; nay, ere that shall old age come on her in our house, in Argos, far from her native land, where she shall ply the loom and serve my couch. But depart, provoke me not, that thou mayest the rather go in peace.”
So said he, and the old man was afraid and obeyed his word, and fared silently along the shore of the loud-sounding sea. Then went that aged man apart and prayed aloud to king Apollo, whom Leto of the fair locks bare: “Hear me, god of the silver bow, that standest over Chryse and holy Killa, and rulest Tenedos with might, O Smintheus! If ever I built a temple gracious in thine eyes, or if ever I burnt to thee fat flesh of thighs of bulls or goats, fulfill thou this my desire; let the Danaans pay by thine arrows for my tears.”Iliad, 1:8-42
I want to emphasize that this is the very first passage we see following the summarizing first seven lines. Fittingly, Homer tells us that this is really what begins it all; this is the cause of the μῆνιν (wrath) that this story is about. Agamemnon turns away the father Chryses and refuses to return his daughter Chryseis. Agamemnon is, in this manner, refusing a connection, and is in fact actively disconnecting a father from his daughter, and cruelly taunting him while doing so.
This is not just a moral crime. The second layer of connection/disconnection here is the nature of the king, Agamemnon, and his history.
Agamemnon is a son of Atreus. Their line is descended from Tantalus, the man who killed his own son and tried to trick the Gods into eating the human flesh. This is an ultimate act of disconnection, which is both caused by and results in insanity. The Gods were not fooled, and punished him with an eternal torture: they placed him beneath a brilliant fruit tree, whose limbs always withdrew when he reached for them, and next to a pool whose waters always receded when he stooped to drink.
But the gods restored his butchered son Pelops, who in turn had children of his own. Among them: Thyestes and Atreus. These two brothers were both vying for the kingship, and after Thyestes seduced Atreus’ wife Aerope, Atreus killed Thyestes’ sons and tricked Thyestes into eating them. After revealing the cannibalism, Atreus then banished Thyestes, who later had a son — Aegisthus — whom he instructed to take vengeance upon Atreus for his deceased siblings (Apollodorus gives a more comprehensive account in Epitome).
In short, the history of the house of Atreus is one very long string of troubling injuries of the family against itself. This pattern continues with Agamemnon, who offers as a human sacrifice his own daughter, Iphegenia, to calm the winds so that his army may sail to Troy.
Then, in the Iliad, Agamemnon makes a string of bad calls, which he blames upon the Gods for misleading him, for turning him astray. He essentially accuses the Gods of making him insane. But this insanity is not the God’s fault (as Zeus complains of in the opening of the Odyssey: mortals are always blaming the Gods for things which they bring upon themselves). Rather, it is a consequence of the disconnection which the entire house of Atreus has experienced from the beginning, and which Agamemnon partakes in. Later, Agamemnon betrays his wife Clytemnestra by taking the Trojan princess Cassandra in her place. Meanwhile, however, Clytemnestra has herself taken a new lover — one Aegisthus — with whom she then kills her husband Agamemnon upon his return, as vengeance for the death of her daughter Iphegenia.
By contrast, Agamemnon’s brother Menelaus manages to break the cycle of insanity. The entire Trojan war, in fact, is at least on the surface a battle to regain his wife Helen, despite her having slept with the Trojan prince Paris. After the Iliad, we meet Menelaus again in the Odyssey, when Odysseus’ son Telemachus is searching for news of his father. Of all the Achaeans who went to Troy, it seems that Menelaus alone achieved something of a “happy ending,” returning home a King with his wife back, his enemy destroyed completely, and immense treasure to boot. His connection, which was strong enough to motivate a ten-year siege, seems linked to sanity and, more explicitly, to happiness.
The Odyssey itself is a story of a link between connection (specifically familial connection) and sanity. The story of the Odyssey truly begins not with Odysseus, but with Telemachus, who is still not fully a man, but becomes a man in the process of seeking out his father.
“My mother,” answered Telemachus, tells me I am son to Ulysses, but it is a wise child that knows his own father. Would that I were son to one who had grown old upon his own estates, for, since you ask me, there is no more ill-starred man under heaven than he who they tell me is my father.
One of the key phrases which permeates the Odyssey is νόος (noos), “mind.” Odysseus is a wily and cunning character, but his νόος is threatened and indeed he worries that he has lost his skill and cunning in places in the story. This νόος is connected to νόστος (nostos), “homecoming,” not merely thematically and psychologically, but etymologically. Harvard philologist Greg Nagy explains:
10§7. Both words, noos and nostos, are derived from an Indo-European root *nes-, the basic meaning of which can be interpreted as ‘return to light and life’; when we survey the traditions of Indo-European languages – and Greek is one of these languages – we see that this root *nes– occurs in myths having to do with the rising of the sun at dawn or with the rising of the morning star. These myths, as we will now see, are relevant to the meanings of noos and nostos as these words interact with each other in the overall plot of the Homeric Odyssey.
10§8. Such interaction is already signaled at the very beginning of the plot of the Odyssey. The hero’s nostos, ‘return’, at verse 5 of Odyssey i connects with his noos, ‘thinking’, at verse 3 not only in the explicit sense of thinking about saving his own life but also in the implicit sense of being conscious of returning home.
10§9. This implicit sense is encoded in the telling of the myth about the Land of the Lotus-Eaters in Odyssey ix 82–104. When Odysseus visits that land, those of his comrades who eat the lotus lose their consciousness of home and therefore cannot return home. The verb lēth-, ‘forget’, combined with nostos, ‘return’, as its object, conveys the idea of such unconsciousness (ix 97, 102). By contrast, the noun noos, ‘thinking’, conveys the idea of being conscious of nostos. So, here is the basic teaching to be learned from the myth about the Land of the Lotus-Eaters: if you lose the “implant” of homecoming in your mind, you cannot go home because you no longer know what home is.
In short, the very concept of consciousness, which is tied to sanity and good judgment, is connected with familial connection, with the mental return home to family and to one’s fathers.
In the end, Odysseus meets his own father in an orchard, but only after Telemachus re-connects with his own father: Odysseus himself. Together, they are strong enough to retake Ithaca and destroy the parasitic suitors who have been living off the king’s estate and doting on Odysseus’ wife, Penelope.
Odysseus reconnects with Penelope herself — a νόστος of its own — through that same connected νόος: Penelope, unsure of whether or not this guest truly is her husband, tests his knowledge:
“My dear,” answered Penelope, “I have no wish to set myself up, nor to depreciate you; but I am not struck by your appearance, for I very well remember what kind of a man you were when you set sail from Ithaca. Nevertheless, Euryclea, take his bed outside the bed chamber that he himself built. Bring the bed outside this room, and put bedding upon it with fleeces, good coverlets, and blankets.”
She said this to try him, but Ulysses was very angry and said, “Wife, I am much displeased at what you have just been saying. Who has been taking my bed from the place in which I left it? He must have found it a hard task, no matter how skilled a workman he was, unless some god came and helped him to shift it. There is no man living, however strong and in his prime, who could move it from its place, for it is a marvellous curiosity which I made with my very own hands. There was a young olive growing within the precincts of the house, in full vigour, and about as thick as a bearing-post. I built my room round this with strong walls of stone and a roof to cover them, and I made the doors strong and well-fitting. Then I cut off the top boughs of the olive tree and left the stump standing. This I dressed roughly from the root upwards and then worked with carpenter’s tools well and skilfully, straightening my work by drawing a line on the wood, and making it into a bed-prop. I then bored a hole down the middle, and made it the centre-post of my bed, at which I worked till I had finished it, inlaying it with gold and silver; after this I stretched a hide of crimson leather from one side of it to the other. So you see I know all about it, and I desire to learn whether it is still there, or whether any one has been removing it by cutting down the olive tree at its roots.”
When she heard the sure proofs Ulysses now gave her, she fairly broke down. She flew weeping to his side, flung her arms about his neck, and kissed him.
I think that ultimately, this theme of connection is even more pervasive than is obvious in the story itself; it is embedded in the very language of narration and dialogue. Leonard Muellner observed that epic heroes never identify themselves with their given names, even though others may call them by those given names; rather, when identifying themselves, they give their patronymic name and place of birth. This is more obvious in the Greek, where “Agamemnon” is actually called “Atreides” (“son of Atreus”), “Achilles” is called “Peleides.”
And, of course, it is when King Priam finally reminds Achilles of his own father that Achilles is able to let go of his anger and sorrow for Patrokles:
Then Priam spake and entreated him, saying: “Bethink thee, O Achilles like to gods, of thy father that is of like years with me, on the grievous pathway of old age. Him haply are the dwellers round about entreating evilly, nor is there any to ward from him ruin and bane. Nevertheless while he heareth of thee as yet alive he rejoiceth in his heart, and hopeth withal day after day that he shall see his dear son returning from Troy-land. But I, I am utterly unblest, since I begat sons the best men in wide Troy-land, but declare unto thee that none of them is left. Fifty I had, when the sons of the Achaians came; nineteen were born to me of one mother, and concubines bare the rest within my halls. Now of the more part had impetuous Ares unstrung the knees, and he who was yet left and guarded city and men, him slewest thou but now as he fought for his country, even Hector. For his sake come I unto the ships of the Achaians that I may win him back from thee, and I bring with me untold ransom. Yea, fear thou the gods, Achilles, and have compassion on me, even me, bethinking thee of thy father. Lo, I am yet more piteous than he, and have braved what none other man on earth hath braved before, to stretch forth my hand toward the face of the slayer of my sons.”
Thus spake he, and stirred within Achilles desire to make lament for his father. And he touched the old mal’s hand and gently moved him back. And as they both bethought them of their dead, so Priam for man-slaying Hector wept sore as he was fallen before Achilles’ feet, and Achilles wept for his own father, and now again for Patroklos, and their moan went up throughout the house.
It is by connection that reconciliation is possible, that returning to wisdom and consciousness and good judgment — to sanity — is accomplished. Connection is the underlying theme of both the Iliad and the Odyssey, and which, ultimately, connects these seemingly disparate epics… and perhaps which connects them to us 2,800 years later.