Bryn Mawr Classical Review 96.04.27


Irwin F. Cook, The Odyssey in Athens: myths of cultural origins. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1995. Pp. 216 + x. $35.00. ISBN 0-8014-3121-2.


Reviewed by Andrew Ford, Princeton University, aford@princeton.edu.

The opening speech of the Odyssey has been read as programmatic for the poem, particularly Zeus' complaint that, while mortals say evils come from the gods, "they get grief beyond their lot through their own recklessness" (one way of translating OI( DE\ KAI\ AU)TOI\ | SFH=|SIN A)TASQALI/H|SIN U(PE\R MO/RON A)/LGE' E)/XOUSIN at 1.33-34). These reflections prompted by Aegisthus' fate can easily be applied to the "reckless" suitors and justify their slaughter at the poem's end. But already the scholia reflect puzzlement as to how well Zeus' words fit with the rest of the poem, and two of the Odyssey's most prominent themes seem difficult to interpret in these terms: Poseidon' harassment of Odysseus seems based on vengeance and wounded pride rather than any sense of justice; and the crew who "recklessly" (as the proem insists, 1.7-9) eat the cattle of the Sun prove in the telling to be considerably hard-pressed by the gods, and in any case represent only the last of twelve ships that are destroyed.

Erwin Cook's complex interpretation of the Odyssey sees in it a perfectly consistent theodicy in which virtuous self-restraint is rewarded and injustice punished. He goes on to claim that this moral and social message was read in Athens as a proto-democratic lesson in divine justice and human responsibility. Indeed, he concludes, such a poem can best be contextualized as part of the ritual program of Athens in the later sixth century when Athenian cult and myth actually influenced our text of the Odyssey in the late stages of its evolution. Cook prosecutes his arguments with vigor, wide-ranging methodology, and broad reading in the scholarly literature. Advanced students of the poem will find new things here even if they are not completely persuaded by the larger case.

The book comes in the wake of several attempts to rehabilitate the poem's apparently discrepant views on divine justice. Bernhard Fenik had influentially argued that it is unnecessary to force moral consistency on the Odyssey because an oral poet composed with an eye more on sustained drama than theological consistency and so was free to avail himself of ethically "primitive" tales alongside more refined ones (Studies in the Odyssey [Wiesbaden 1974] 208-27). Cook rejects this as the equivalent of analysis; nor does he credit Jenny Strauss Clay's thesis that the "double theodicy" is deliberate and thematic (The Wrath of Athena [Princeton 1983] 213-239). Another possible defense, taken by Wilamowitz, is to interpret Zeus as promising less than has been advertised. S. Douglas Olson's new Blood and Iron (Leiden 1995) 205-223 defends the moral coherence of the poem by taking 1.33 ff. to say only that men foolishly bring troubles on themselves in addition to those sent from above. The poem would then enjoin prudence without promising cosmic justice. Cook recognizes (46 n.78) that Zeus' words are ambiguous, but interprets them very strongly: inferring from "men get ills from their reckless acts" a "causal link between human suffering and crime," he not only absolves the Olympians from any responsibility for human suffering but makes them active patrons of justice (33-35). Hence, "over a century before Aeschylus composed the Oresteia, the Odyssean [divine] assembly could furnish the Greeks with a metaphysics for social law" (34).

In general, Cook's theodicy is close to that offered by Charles Segal in "Divine Justice in the Odyssey: Poseidon, Cyclops and Helios," AJP 113 (1992) 3-29 (reprinted in his collection, Singers, Heroes and Gods in the Odyssey). Segal speaks of a "more or less unified" notion of Zeus' justice as a "work in progress" which the hero only comes to understand in the course of the poem; Poseidon is not denied "primitive" aspects, but these are "bracketed" in books 5-12 and represent the blocking "other" to Zeus' emergent order. For Cook too the justice of Zeus is realized only at the end of an arduous process, and Poseidon is the theodicy's bow to "realism" rather than some primitive survival; absent from the divine assembly both physically and spiritually, he is an "inscrutable force" behind the events that are confined to his autonomous realm, books 9-12 (46-47). As for Thrinacia, it is singled out in the proem precisely because of all Odysseus' trials and adventures it best exemplifies the poem's central theme of "men who die by their restless acts" (esp. 112 ff.).

The greater length of Cook's treatment is owed to his "synoptic" reading, which converges on his theme by combining structural analysis, "intertextual readings," comparative analysis of myths, and ritual interpretation (6). His argument proceeds through five chapters which treat in order the beginning of the poem, Odysseus' Apologoi, the Cyclopeia, Thrinacia, and the conclusion of the poem in an Athenian context. Two appendices expatiate on weakness in analytical approaches and the Athenian cults of Poseidon and Athena.

Chapter one, "Dialectics of Enlightenment," finds the moral parameters and basic themes announced in the proem's sharp contrast between the clever man who survives and his foolish companions who perish by atasthaliai; at the same time, "intertextual" references (by which he means no more than polemical allusions) to the Iliad proem invite us to identify Odysseus with metis and oppose him to unsuccessful leaders dependent on bie such as Achilles and Agamemnon (47). This same antithesis will be read back onto the opposition between Odysseus and his crew, their destruction demonstrating their lack of restraint and justice.

The second chapter, "The World of Poseidon," analyses Odysseus' Apologoi in which the opposition of metis and bie is overlaid with one between nature and culture. The poem's concerns accordingly expand to subtend themes of civilization and political organization (48-49): justice depends on restraint which is now not simply a tactic but a moral quality, associated with culture, reason, and law. From such a perspective, The Cyclopeia and the Mnesterophonia are linked as showing that successful return and revenge depend on restraint and endurance, while improper and gluttonous feasting leads to disaster.

Taken in itself, the Cyclopeia is a moral tale in which we may infer that Polyphemus' blinding is a divine punishment for his atheism (60, necessitating that we credit Odysseus' inference about divine motivation 9.479-80 but not the one four lines later at 9.553-4); but since Odysseus gets many troubles out of this, he too must be criminal in some way. Cook finds hubris in Odysseus' boastful self-naming, particularly out of place in Poseidon's world where there is no heroism or kleos: "In this scene Odysseus is unable to master his anger; laying claim to heroic identity thus become an act of unrestrained behavior" which earns him ten years of wandering (51). Cook is not the first to take upon himself the task of drawing that fine line between heroic self-assertion and hubris, but his "self-restraint" can seem rather Christian at times, as when Odysseus is congratulated for being impervious to the sexual temptations of Nausicaa (63). Sexual self-control seems an inconspicuous quality in the consort of Circe and Calypso, and is probably not the chief reason that an isolated castaway would refrain from violence against a royal virgin and her retinue.

Cook then turns to implicate Thrinacia in the larger pattern of forbidden banquets through an examination of Odysseus' "Structural Fabulation" in the Apologoi (65 ff.). Structural fabulation is a revision of Whitman's Ring-analysis with the added claim that "mirroring" between the individual episodes so paired provides "a comprehensive scheme that could explain the sequence in which the events are presented" (74). I cannot recapitulate the highly involved patterning which even Cook declines to exhibit in full (87; alternative analyses may be canvassed through n. 74 on 74), but "[t]he most important implication of this scheme is that it relates the Cyclopeia to the Thrinacian episode" (76). This abstract formal relation is substantiated on a number of other levels, ranging from the stories' shared filiation with Indic myths about appropriating the cattle of life (81, following Douglas Frame), to parallel thematic patterns, culminating in similar patterns of divine interference in the two episodes (see chart on 78). At the center is the Nekuia in which Teiresias' warning about Thrinacia is moral instruction to Odysseus linking justice and return.

Chapter three, "In the Cave of the Encloser," goes more deeply into the Cyclops story, using folk-tale analysis to read it in mostly familiar terms as the contemporary battle of the Greek explorer. Odysseus' olive-wood stake becomes a symbol of "ships, agriculture, social organization and social stability, leadership, piety, Athena" -- all of which are brought to bear against Polyphemus (109). Yet the moral is not simply the triumph of culture over nature, for its ultimate issue will be Odysseus' founding a cult to Poseidon, thus mirroring the union of hero with his ritual antagonist in cult (90). Read in ritual terms, the story is said to be about the crisis of civilization: to save oneself from the violence of nature by one's wits is an offense to nature and represents the dialectic of pain and triumph which accompanies every technological advance (110).

In chapter four, "Cattle of the Sun," Cook essays to make the slaughtering of the cattle of the Sun consistent with the proem and the rest of the epic by reading it as an explicit test of self-restraint that the crew fail. Although the crew are in some sense backed into a corner by Zeus, and make a sacrifice of their meal with promises of restitution, they are clearly marked as oath-breaking criminals who eat what they are divinely against, thus paralleling the suitors, Cyclops, and Aegisthus (113). But in a typical pattern (see below), to reduce this episode to moral clarity Cook adds a barrage of supporting arguments that tend toward overkill. For one, the crew's extenuating circumstances are not an issue, since they had already shown themselves to be improperly addicted to feasting in the Cicones: "The gods may compel the crew to kill and eat the cattle of the sun, but this is merely to seal a fate they have already earned" (116, cf. 56-7). Nor may the sacrifice of the cattle be used to defend their behavior because it derives from the ancient myths which represent the rise of culture as an illicit sacrifice (118-119). Moreover, the crew pervert the sacrificial ritual with their pathetic substitution of water and barley for wine and by sacrificing undomesticated animals (119) (But is this latter not also a "a defining feature of the tradition" and so irrelevant to incriminating them?) For good measure, Odysseus' inconvenient sleeping (off Aeolia as well as on Thrinacia) had earlier been explained with a one-paragraph introduction of Freud to argue that "on one level" it represents the crew's own loss of self-restraint and the relapsing of the their super-ego (63-4).

Zeus' destruction of the crew after Thrinacia thus perfectly exemplifies his announced theodicy, but his assent to Poseidon's savage demand for revenge on the Phaeacians some 200 lines later might raise questions (123). Here Cook quite sensibly digresses on the ambiguities of parallels, which may as easily contrast as equate two passages (125-7). His purpose is to read this scene as sharply distinguishing Zeus, who acts from justice, from Poseidon, who acts from personal vengeance. This is fair enough, though there is a theoretical difficulty: how can we know whether two alleged parallels are equated or contrasted without first making up our minds that the poem is going one way (i.e. toward a complex unity) rather than another (i.e. dramatic variety)?

In any case, Cook can find the Phaeacians guilty by equating their excellent seamanship with hybris, and also notes that they ignored Nausithous' prophecies (124). Not only are the sufferers found guilty, but Zeus can be shown to be merciful: thanks to his intervention, Poseidon providentially leaves behind a minatory monument. Indeed, Zeus urges his brother to achieve his end with "a minimum of suffering" (124 n.36), if we emend his words at 13.158 to make them say the opposite of what they say: with for mega (Aristophanes' reading or conjecture, attested ad 13.152), Zeus urges his brother "not to cover their city with a mountain" instead of the universally transmitted "cover their city with a great mountain." Cook urges in favor of this reading that Aristophanes attests to its antiquity, but this may only attest to the antiquity of the impulse to moralize an overtly amoral text.

The final chapter, "Homer and Athens," ties in the climactic Mnesterophonia, in which the suitors' guilt is confirmed by their ignoring Theoclymeneus' divine vision, itself imagistically evoking the sacrifice on Thrinacia (148). The hero's revenge is finally a triumph over the rude forces that oppose civilization as the poem closes with the Ithacans' demand for blood vengeance opposed by Zeus' theodicy urging restraint in the form of mitigated punishment (152).

There is a tricky moment in the revenge when Odysseus kills Leiodes along with the rest of the suitors, despite the fact that the poet vouches for him as "the only suitor to whom recklessness was hateful" (21.146f., cf. 22.314). Cook recognizes that this problematizes his ethical construct of the Odyssey, but views it as a phase of the story in which Odysseus comes near to being assimilated to the paradigmatic violent conqueror, Achilles, thus affirming the danger of the heroic warrior and the paradoxical violence of cultural foundation (151-152). But he notes in addition that Odysseus lacks the poet's omniscience to be temperate, and adds exculpatingly that he is only "temporarily" unrestrained here (151). (Yet this entails no harm for Odysseus, whereas his "temporary loss of self-restraint" [61] with Cyclops earned him ten years exile). Finally, he observes that Leiodes does not actually deny that he courted Penelope, and that his father's name, Oinops, and his position by the mixing bowl make him a glutton. Here, as in the treatment of Thrinacia, the arguments taken as a whole add up not so much to an overwhelming case as a classic case of denial: Odysseus did indeed kill Leiodes, but he was not himself, and he had no way of knowing that Leiodes was innocent, and anyway Leiodes was probably guilty.

In Ithaca, order is restored during a new-moon festival to Apollo at the beginning of the new year, which gives Cook occasion to turn to his thesis that the Odyssey and Athenian cult developed together and influenced each other. Working within Nagy's evolutionary model of text fixation, he envisions rhapsodic performance of the Odyssey becoming fixed recitation in the second quarter of the seventh century and only being written down in the middle of the sixth. If so, our Odyssey could have been influenced by competitive performances at the Panatheneia, particularly by themes from the cult of Athena in the Erectheum which he argues is especially evident in the Ithacan narrative (129).

For Cook the denouement can be mapped onto a variety of Athenian year-end festival festivals celebrating the restoration of order. Particularly close is the cult of Poseidon-Erechtheus at Athens, if one can extract its master plot from Euripides' Erechtheus (134 ff.). This story of how Poseidon killed Erechtheus for having killed his son Eumolpus is parallel to the god's harassment of Odysseus for harming his son Polyphemus (158). So read, epic and cult express the reconciliation of Athena (Zeus' justice) and Poseidon (its violent opposite); in each Poseidon is neutralized through apotropaic cult identifying him with a culture hero and subordinating him to Athena to benefit the city (160).

Cook has several arguments beyond structural parallels to link the Odyssey with specifically Athenian versions of Athena-Poseidon stories. Among these are artifacts specific both to cults of the Erechtheum and the Odyssey. Athena's Mycenean manifestation in the form of an olive tree and sacred lamp in the king's house finds a unique echo in the Odyssey (145): her lamp (19.34) is to be identified with the one in the Erechtheum, and the final olive tree, Odysseus' bed, suggests Athena's morios in the Erechtheum's pandrossion, inheriting its symbolic resonances of technical innovation, harnessing nature, and the Athenian decision to organize politically (161 ff.).

I will not dilate on this section, though I found its thesis intriguing in its details. Cook does not skirt its formidable technical problems and uncertainties -- how old is the cult of Erectheus-Poseidon? when were mirrors and lamps reintroduced into Greece? So little is known about archaic Athenian rites that his reading cannot be a probative contribution to the question of Homer's date, but it is good to see the topic under active discussion. Nagy's evolutionary model enters the fray beside Janko and Powell arguing for the traditional early Homer, while Walter Burkert and M. L. West (most recently in "The Date of the Iliad", Mus. Hel. 52 [1995] 203-219) have been pushing the Iliad toward the middle of the seventh century. Cook's strategy represents an interesting and legitimate complementary approach, asking how the poems may have made sense in the Athenian city through which they certainly passed. Nagy's view is also invoked in Richard Seaford's recent reading of Iliadic death ritual as reflecting new cultural needs of the polis (Reciprocity and Ritual [Oxford 1994] ch. 5).

I suspect that Cook's ethical interpretation will occupy most readers, as it occupies most of his book. For in his argument, as often, moral and aesthetic coherence are inextricable. Refusing to countenance the possibility of moral ambiguity in the poem ("Rumors of Homer's otherness have been greatly exaggerated": 34 n. 44), he champions a "competent" poet (125, 176) and a text "composed with care by a poet in full control of his craft" (28). Anything less that a perfectly consistent theology would unacceptably imply a poet "not very far advanced in his craft" (179), "guilty" of peculiar methods of composition (46).

It is tempting to be offered both moral profundity and exquisite subtlety of design in one package, though this reader felt that the accumulation of arguments was paradoxically the opposite of convincing in the end. Of course it is difficult to test Cook's reading in detail without descending into moral casuistry, but one final quibble points to a larger question about his scheme. If one asks why the reckless and mutinous actions of that part of the crew on Odysseus' ship after Aeolia should have created havoc for all the others, Cook's answer is a notion of collective guilt. He finds this exemplified in the case of the 'good' suitor Amphinomos, who of course is slaughtered along with the rest even after Athena has put Odysseus through the charade collecting bread from the suitors "so he might learn who was just and not" (17.363f.). For Cook, Athena thereby affirms her opposition to the suitors, "insisting on the criminality of merely being a suitor" (176). The same idea allows him to say that Thrinacia "represents the collective experience of the crew" (28). But the idea that "guilt is a function of collective rather than individual identity" (156) seems hard to square with the statement that "survival and successful return are made dependent on the justice of the individual" (36, my emphasis).

Cook's and other defenses of Zeus' theodicy are valuable for reminding us that, for all its puzzling details, the general tenor of the Odyssey is certainly one in which the good eventually win out and evildoers come to a bad end; and there is nothing in Greek literature that more resembles the conclusion of the Odyssey than the conclusion of the Oresteia. Still, against the thesis that this happy ending was regarded as a blueprint for civil society -- as a "metaphysics for social law" (34, 112) or "cosmology" (125) -- can be set Hugh Lloyd-Jones' observation that a stark opposition between good guys and bad guys is also characteristic of moral simplicity and appropriate to the Odyssey's affiliation with romance (The Justice of Zeus [Berkeley 1971] 30-31). Aristotle for one analyzed the Odyssey's "double ending" as "comic" (Poetics 13.1453a30 ff.).

A final general point worth making may be that when traditional tales are employed as ethical paradigms it is an advantage rather than an impediment to their filling that role if they offer a rich, even contradictory array of moral exempla. So when Homer's heroic tales were moralized -- I do not insist for the first time -- in the wake of the sophists at Athens, his Odysseus could appear alternately as the paragon of wisdom or as a lying cheat (e.g. Hipp. min. 364c ff.). Certainly, Zeus' theodicy "was good to think with" (as Euripides' wicked joke at Cyclops 285 shows); but it may be that it is less the tradition than the individual critic who insists that the text speaks a single, univocal message which he alone had decoded.