Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2000.12.13

Georg Wöhrle, Telemachs Reise: Väter und Söhne in Ilias und Odysee oder ein Beitrag zur Erforschung der Männlichkeitsideologie in der homerischen Welt.   Göttingen:  Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1999.  Pp. 170.  ISBN 3-525-25221-8.  DM 58.  

Reviewed by Leah Himmelhoch, Colgate University (
Word count: 2500 words

Although scholars may dispute the reasons for Homeric competition and violence, most would agree that the Homeric warrior ethic paradoxically generates social fragmentation in the pursuit of social order.1 Yet, while prior scholarship considers this paradox a socially produced phenomenon with subsequent impact on the family, W(öhrle) cites anthropological precedent to argue the opposite, i.e. heroic relationships are informed by intra-oikos (father-son) dynamics, making heroic competitive violence analogous to father-son conflict. W. then reviews Homeric male-to-male dynamics to recreate both the Greek cultural attitude toward father-son relationships, and the poet's assessment of the father-son relationships depicted in the poems. W. ultimately intends to demonstrate that: 1) father-son relationships are a pivotal cultural construct for the Homeric audience; 2) father-son relationships motivate both epic narratives; and, 3) the poems offer their audiences complementary lessons about the dangers of excessive, irresponsible generational conflict (the Iliad), versus the benefits of respectful generational competition (the Odyssey), as an implicit plea for (patriarchal) social order amidst late eighth century socio-political turbulence. W.'s approach promises an interesting new lens through which to read both poems. W.'s argument, however, sinks into lengthy descriptions and over-literal, historicized readings, leaving W.'s conclusions either unsupported or near-truisms.

The book is 10 chapters long including the bibliography and index, targeting an educated audience. W. uses Schadewaldt's German translations of Homer and transliterates Greek terms. The text contains minor formatting mistakes; some footnotes appear on incorrect pages.2 This review will first summarize, then discuss W.'s thesis.

In the Preface, W. acknowledges the difficulty of discerning Homer's various realities. The poem's demands of genre and composition; the poet's ideology, artistic vision, and socio-historical moment; the audience's expectations and socio-historical moment -- each of these strands and more are woven into the text, impossible to disentangle completely. W. argues, however, that such distinctions are not meaningful for this research. To remain understandable and relevant, a text must relate to its audience's lives. W. aims to reconstruct cultural attitudes and values, not specific historical events.

Chapter 1, "Einleitung: Väter und Söhne in den homerischen Epen", clarifies W.'s methodology. Although problematic for reconstructing historical specifics, Homer is useful for reconstructing structures of human interaction. Homeric poetry was of proven didactic value for later Greeks, making its ties to an external reality indisputable. Indeed, epic may describe an idealized reality. Further, the text's "Beurteilungshintergrund" (p.16) -- background features, passing or hypothetical comments, maxims, similes, etc. -- illuminates the audience's real, contemporary society. Norms of a son's worth, fatherly superiority, and father-son dynamics are discernible. According to anthropological studies, patriarchies promote the rule of the father as a social ideal, i.e., intra-oikos models precede and inform extra-oikos systems. Hence, fatherly relationships are not strictly biological but cover all power-dynamics of superior to inferior. Homeric society's male-centered, stratified, power-based structure especially lends itself to this broad application of father-son logic. Fathers love their sons, but there is competition and sometimes violence (e.g., Hephaestus and Zeus (I.571-94), Phoenix and Amyntor (IX.944-95)). Patronymics and hereditary positions of male dominance suggest a Homeric male's status as "father" is an underlying norm and cornerstone of masculine identity. Women were generally deemed inferior to men and used as objects of exchange. Hence, men could only have meaningful relationships with other men: Achilles' and Patroclus' relationship is more intense than that between Odysseus and Penelope. Moreover, Penelope's feelings for Odysseus are greater than his for her (as suggested by the simile comparing Penelope's relief over Odysseus' return to that of a shipwrecked sailor reaching land, 23.233-40). Fathers, then, become crucial reference-points for sons because they serve as role- and cognitive-models for all male (meaningful social) interaction. When an adolescent joins the adult male world, he automatically treats his superiors like fathers. Likewise, the adolescent's initiatory peer group signifies separation from the biological father. An adolescent male's superiors and peers, then, become surrogate fathers. The ground rule for all father-son relationships is that a father's world is perpetuated by his son.

Yet, adolescents are not granted their fathers' privileges by the "Väterkollectiv" (p. 36). Youngsters must consistently excel in war, athletics and politics before they are judged equals. Sons, then, are pressured by paradoxical imperatives demanding them to succeed at all costs yet submit to paternal authority, the father's right to approve or punish. This causes friction and filial resentment. The maxim that younger generations are worse than older generations likely justifies paternal dominance. Fear of the father's curse also helps curb resentful, "bad" sons (e.g., Amyntor's curse of Phoenix). Yet, even "good" sons are harmed by this system, since the ultimate expression of filial piety (worthiness to become the father) is to die for one's father, as Hector does for Priam. The stratified relationships between Homeric princes are also modeled on father-son dynamics. Political and familial logics are inseparable: the basileus is a priori a "good father".

Chapter 2, "Achill als Sohn und Vater", catalogs Achilles' relationships as a son and a father. Although Peleus' influence at Troy is non-existent, Achilles has many surrogate fathers. In chapter XXIV, Achilles' and Priam's father-son substitution ironically marks the effective end of their family lines. Phoenix' significance as a father and a son emerges from the story of his exile (IX.944-95): at his mother's request, Phoenix seduced his father Amyntor's favored concubine. After Amyntor's subsequent curse of childlessness, Phoenix contemplated patricide, before fleeing to Phthia where Peleus and Achilles became Phoenix' surrogate father and son. Phoenix' story warns Achilles against disobeying his father/father-figures, emphasizing the need to preserve the Achaean hierarchy. Achilles' quarrel with Agamemnon presents a social father-son conflict. Indeed, Nestor's failure to restore patriarchal dynamics by invoking his own paternal authority signals the disintegration of the Greek camp's patriarchal system. Agamemnon's later offer to make Achilles his son-in-law both reasserts Agamemnon's superiority and attempts to restore the disrupted patriarchal order. To "be the best" and out-maneuver Agamemnon, however, Achilles must reject the heroic code. The Iliad, then, does not repudiate patriarchy, but exposes its destructive potential should its imperatives be pursued to extremes.

Achilles is also a father-figure. That Achilles' biological son Neoptolemus ("young warrior") is named for Achilles, demonstrates how sons are considered fathers' extensions. Likewise, Telemachus' name ("far-away fighter") describes Odysseus. The Odyssey suggests, however, that Achilles fails as a father and a son. With his death, Achilles can neither guide Neoptolemus, nor protect Peleus. Achilles is a social father to his companions, especially Patroclus (whom Achilles calls a child [XVI.7-11] and mourns like a son [XIII.222-25]). When fathers cannot act, sons act for them: Patroclus assumes Achilles' armor and role. Yet, the son cannot usurp fatherly prerogative: Patroclus cannot safely approach Troy. Homeric society's institutionalized warfare promoted bonding between warriors, even enemies, making them all brothers. This bond could take precedence over blood-relationships or alliances.

Chapter 3, "Priamos und seine 50 Söhne", discusses Priam's sons, whose number likely reflects Troy's wealth and Eastern origins. W. then contrasts Paris, the irresponsible son, with Hector, the dutiful son, further arguing that Priam's condemnation of his surviving sons as worthless in XXIV actually describes Paris. This implicitly demarcates Hector as Priam's one good son in the Iliad, making Hector analogous to an only son.

Chapter 4, "Hektor, der ideale Vater-Sohn", declares Hector an ideal father, son and brother. He protects all of Troy in fatherly fashion, even defending Helen against vilification and resenting hostility toward Paris (VI.521-25). Certainly, Hector laments Paris' irresponsibility, but he also indulges Paris. Paris himself concedes Hector's right to criticize (the corrupt son needs a moral opposite against which to define himself). The masculine Hector also knows restraint, as his handling of Iliad VI's feminine temptations proves. Hector successfully embodies the conflicting drives to be the best, yet submit to authority and social obligation, neither going to extremes like Achilles, nor shirking responsibilities like Paris. Hector's paradox lies in his willingness to die for Troy and his family, even though his death condemns both. Belief in the son's duty to die for father and country, Greek culture's obsession with youth and abhorrence of old age, the notion that internal worth is reflected externally -- all promote the son's sacrifice.

Chapter 5, "Göttlicher Vater - sterblicher Sohn: Zeus und Sarpedon", shows how Zeus is a father-figure for both gods and men, subject to the same pressures and obligations as mortal fathers. Ares and Athena represent bad and good divine sons, respectively. Ares embodies conflict and (unintentionally) mimics the resentful son striving to displace the father. Athena, who supports Zeus' rule, correctly expresses masculine power. Mortal children, however, are non-threatening and can be loved unreservedly. With Sarpedon's death, Zeus actually suffers the consequences of his will and his obligations to universal order. Zeus truly reflects (and validates) mortal patriarchy. The Iliad, then, highlights the negative aspects of patriarchal succession. The Odyssey, however, offers Odysseus and Telemachus as an ideal father-son relationship representative of legitimated succession -- albeit not without conflict.

Chapter 6, "Odysseus und Laertes", discusses the anagnorisis between Odysseus and Laertes in Odyssey XXIV. Odysseus' delayed self-identification psychologically prepares Laertes for Odysseus' reappearance and allows Laertes to re-enact the paternal process of testing and accepting one's son. Significantly, Odysseus' proofs of identity mark stages of paternal and social acceptance: the trees Laertes gave him as a child portend inheritance of the paternal estate, whereas Odysseus' famous scar marks his successful coming-of-age. Laertes' personalized anagnorisis completes Odysseus' social reintegration as father, husband, and son. Ithaca's patriarchal order of succession is re-established.

Chapter 7, "Telemachs Reise. Eine Annäherung" argues that the Telemachy is an "Entwicklungsroman" (p.140) wherein Telemachus' character develops as he confirms his lineage. When Odysseus finally meets the matured Telemachus, he tests him. Odysseus' question whether Telemachus submits to the suitors willingly or because of their numbers is both strategic and a gesture of superiority, as is the remark that if Telemachus is his son, no one should know of Odysseus' return. The bow scene especially marks Telemachus as a good son striving to excel but yielding to Odysseus. That Telemachus hangs the traitorous maids instead of putting them to the sword is not filial impropriety, but an understandable outburst of repressed hostility against the suitors, who defiled household property. In the final scene with the suitors' families, Laertes' pride watching his son and grandson vie over their abilities underscores the benefits of father-son competition, cooperation and respect, and legitimates patriarchal succession. The Odyssey stands in dramatic contrast to the Iliad, especially considering how Zeus' book 1 sanction of the suitors' punishment in book I invalidates the lex talionis proposed by their families, and binds Odysseus' patriarchal succession to a principle of law, the new polis order.

Chapter 8, "Nachbemerkung: Das Dilemma zu lösen?": Homeric research increasingly supports a unitarian understanding of Homer's epics. W.'s book contributes to that trend. The contrasting father-son depictions of the Iliad and the Odyssey suggest deliberate, complementary construction. Homer's father-son dynamics figuratively parallel late eighth century socio-political upheavals. The Odyssey offers a reformed society that acknowledges the good father/basileus and promotes a just order modeled on proper behavior between fathers and sons. The Iliad, however, depicts multiple kings with multiple conflicts. Iliad XXIV's meeting between Priam and Achilles, a father and a son who is also a son's murderer, embodies a destroyed patriarchal order. The poems, then, do not critique patriarchy but expose its flaws in an implicit plea for social order's return.

DISCUSSION: The proposition that father-son dynamics govern heroic interaction is well worth investigating, and W.'s list of Homer's prominent masculine relationships is useful for those interested in gender-studies. Yet, to avoid skewed interpretations, anthropological approaches should also carefully consider Homer's poetic concerns, and here W. falters. Treating Homeric relationships like anthropological field-notes, W. uncritically compiles internal evidence to support external/historical conclusions, when a textually-focused application of W.'s father-son thesis might contribute more to our poetic and cultural understanding of Homer. Indeed, most of W.'s historical observations about Homeric father-son relationships are destabilized by poetic analysis. For example, surely it is significant that Achilles and Phoenix are destructive sons when maternally aligned but good sons after they (re)embrace paternal principles, or that the immature (maternally influenced) Telemachus is ineffectual until he confirms his paternal lineage, or that Odysseus' effective social death during his travels coincides with his regular subordination to female influences, only ceasing once he reclaims his Ithacan identity as father, husband and son. Mother-son relationships, then, are also significant to Homeric narrative, even if they are negatively portrayed. Moreover, in both the Iliad and the Odyssey, father-son bonding marks the hero's successful transition to civilization. These repeated story-patterns potentially derail W.'s twin assertions that Homeric father-son interactions directly address/mirror external, late eighth century socio-political upheavals and that father-son dynamics in the Iliad and the Odyssey are intentionally contrasted as "bad" and "good", respectively. Likewise, it is noteworthy (and ironic) that Zeus' good, supportive son is Athena, who is good precisely because of her ineligibility for power, i.e., she stops patriarchal succession in its tracks. Doubtless, Athena symbolizes and endorses Zeus' eternal rule/patriarchy. Yet, Athena's femininity and mythological context make her a problematic historical source for masculine conduct, since a historicized Athena suggests the only good son is a non-competitive female son (which seems unlikely for a society as agonistic and male-focused as the one W. posits).

W.'s historicizing also produces questionable readings. For example, W.'s insistence in chapter 1 that Achilles' emotional bond with Patroclus is greater than that between Odysseus and Penelope seems odd considering Odysseus' decade-long nostos and rejection of physical immortality with Calypso. Even Odysseus' erotic adventures indicate different social definitions of male and female fidelity, not lesser feeling for Penelope. Additionally, when read with the Odyssey's narrative in mind, Penelope's comparison to a ship-wreck survivor suggests emotional parity, not disparity, with one particular sailor: Odysseus. Certainly, Greek poetry reflects historical female disempowerment and objectification. Moreover, many historical warriors likely developed greater feelings for each other than for women. Neither of these facts, however, dictates that husbands necessarily loved male companions more than their wives. Indeed, the Odyssey showcases profound, mutual conjugal feeling. The different depictions of Achilles' and Odysseus' love, then, largely reflect plot and character concerns: Achilles is impetuous, Odysseus is long-suffering. Finally, W.'s historicizing even produces internally inconsistent readings: To dismiss Telemachus' hanging of the maids as an understandable outburst unworthy of comment by the Odyssey's internal and external audiences (despite the narrative aside that the maids died "most pitiably," 22.472), ignores how Telemachus' disobedient cruelty brands him as worse than his father/ancestors.

W.'s book, then, never actually reconnects Homeric relationships with external systems, leaving its socio-historical conclusions unsupported. Moreover, W.'s final thoughts seem unremarkable because they argue largely undisputed points, like the importance of a stable, just, hierarchic, male succession to Homeric (historical Greek?) society, or the Iliad's and the Odyssey's possibly deliberate complementarity. Hence, however useful W.'s father-son approach may be for clarifying Homer's internal logic (something W. hardly pursues), W.'s unsuccessful attempt to rebound Homer back into history merely confirms Classical scholarship's growing suspicion that the only world Homeric poetry describes is its own.


1.   For Homeric violence and competition as stemming from: 1) a decentralized society's inability to restrain human nature, see Adkins, A. W. H. 1960. Merit and Responsibility. A Study in Greek Values. Oxford; 2) a martial code developed for communal defense that, ironically, promotes aggression between and within communities, see Redfield, J. M. 1993. Nature and Culture in the Iliad. Enlarged edition. Duke; 3) for shame-culture dynamics, see Dodds, E.R. 1951. The Greeks and the Irrational Berkeley; 4) for status rivalry, see van Wees, H. Status Warriors. War, Violence and Society in Homer and History. Amsterdam. For work on inter-generational conflict as a source of violent competition in the Iliad, see also Querbach, C. A. 1976. "Conflicts between Young and Old in Homer's Iliad". The Conflict of Generations in Ancient Greece and Rome. S. Bertram, ed. Amsterdam. 55-64.
2.   Note 11, found on p. 120, should be on p. 119; note 10, found on p. 102, should be on p. 101; note 13, found on p. 103, should be on p. 102.

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