Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2010.05.05
Marigo Alexopoulou, The Theme of Returning Home in Ancient Greek Literature: The Nostos of the Epic Heroes. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 2009. Pp. viii, 150. ISBN 9780773447202. £64.95.
Reviewed by Justine McConnell, University of London (firstname.lastname@example.org)
[Table of Contents is listed at the end of the review.]
Tracing the theme of nostos through ancient Greek epic, tragedy, and Hellenistic poetry, Marigo Alexopoulou's book provides a survey of this important literary trope. Such a cross-genre analysis has not previously been published, and, as such, Alexopoulou's work fills an important gap in the scholarship. She argues that the theme of returning home is so important in ancient Greek literature because it played a prominent role in ancient Greek life, and that the exploration of the inability of a nostos to ever be a 'return to the same' is crucial.
The volume, which has been developed from the author's doctoral thesis, begins with an introduction discussing nostos as a literary and artistic theme, and relating it to the historical conditions of ancient Greece. The pervasiveness of warfare and the necessity of travel for trading purposes compelled thoughts of departure and return to be prominent in people's minds. The role that the myths of the Nostoi played in colonization is briefly discussed, as is the similarity in position between those returning from exile and ostracism, and the myths of nostos.
Following this, chapter two turns to discussion of nostos in the Homeric Odyssey. Examining the theme of returning home as an important element within many folklore traditions, Alexopoulou mentions the work of Vladimir Propp, to whose analysis she returns a number of times throughout the volume. Alexopoulou discusses the way in which the Odyssey surrounds its hero with examples of other nostoi, either more swift and successful than Odysseus's, or, like Agamemnon's, disastrously fatal. Although this is familiar territory, it functions well as a basis for the following chapter on tragedy, where the demise of Agamemnon predominates. Furthermore, Alexopoulou argues that the themes of bathing, clothing, and eating that mark Odysseus's movement from the world of fantastical adventures to the more real, transitional world of the Phaeacians recur not only as he achieves his nostos back on Ithaca, but will also be seen in tragedy's portrayal of the 'return home'.
The relationship of nostos to death is also considered in this chapter, prompting discussion of the katabasis in Homer. The focus here is on death, even if only of a certain part of the hero (in Odysseus's case, the part that makes him wander); this may be a problematic argument given that here, as again at page 82, Alexopoulou dismisses the fact that Odysseus sets off on another journey after his successful return to Ithaca. This is a strange omission from a work on nostos, as Odysseus's predicted voyage surely raises questions about what a nostos truly is and whether Odysseus ever fully achieves it. The final part of this chapter focuses on disguise and recognition as a crucial part of Odysseus's successful return home, clearly outlining the various stages by which this happens. It was a pity however, to see no incorporation of Terence Cave's 1988 work, Recognitions either here or elsewhere in the volume, which would have added further nuance to the work.
Moving on to chapter three, Alexopoulou turns to an area that has received less scholarly attention: the role of nostos in Greek tragedy. This, as the author mentions, was first traced by Oliver Taplin; building on his work, Alexopoulou argues for the use of the nostos plot as a structuring device not just in Aeschylus's Persians and Agamemnon, and Sophocles' Trachiniae, but also in both extant Electra plays, as well as in Euripides' Andromache and Heracles. Alexopoulou emphasizes the diversity found within these 'nostos plays', and discusses the deployment of the theme as a means by which the audience's emotions and expectations can be manipulated, heightening suspense. She demonstrates that tragedy usually presents a distortion of the nostos theme, so that, for instance in Euripides' Electra, the homecoming of Orestes leads ultimately to the separation of Electra and her brother. At the same time, the tragic nostoi overturn the expectation of triumph that Pindar's epinician odes may have led the audience to expect. Likewise, the themes of bathing and clothing that marked Odysseus's reintegration into society are seen to be distorted in tragedy. This chapter provides a useful survey of Greek tragedy's treatment of the nostos theme, emphasizing that the mutability both of the traveller and of those at home is central to tragedy's exploration of the theme; though the drama may entertain the idea that a 'return to the same' is possible, it ultimately demonstrates that this is not the case.
The following chapter focuses on Hellenistic poetry, beginning with Apollonius's Argonautica. Alexopoulou points to the originality of its inclusion of a female travelling figure, contrasting Medea with those wives who wait at home, Penelope and Clytemnestra. The lack of a magnetic pull towards the Argonauts' homeland is also considered, as Apollonius's interaction with, and response to, the Odyssey is examined. A number of Callimachus's epigrams are then discussed; the strong connection that they make between fears over the danger of the sea and its threat to the achievement of one's nostos is argued to reveal the Hellenistic era's continuing preoccupation with the nostos theme, in life as well as literature.
Despite asserting no need for an 'exhaustive conclusion', the Epilogue does function in this capacity. Unfortunately, there is one moment in this chapter and two in the appendix that follows, in which sizable chunks of text have been cut and pasted in verbatim from earlier in the volume; this detracts somewhat from these closing pages. Even so, the Appendix points to an interesting extension of Alexopoulou's work by introducing the reception of the nostos theme in modern Greek literature. Beginning with the ballad of the 'Return of the long-absent husband', a variant of which was collected by Nikolaos Politis, who first noted its close relationship to the recognition scene between Odysseus and Penelope in Homer. Going on to look at the theme of returning home in works by Giorgos Seferis, C. P. Cavafy, and Yiannis Ritsos, Alexopoulou demonstrates how the attraction of this theme has not only persisted through the folklore tradition, but gained renewed power with the creation of the modern Greek state in 1832, and the modern Greek diaspora. As Alexopoulou herself declares, this section is 'far from comprehensive', but serves as a valuable appendix to the work.
Regrettably, the press's formatting and production of the volume is slightly amateurish, and there is a sense that the editorial process was minimal: not only the repeated sections of text towards the end, but also frequent typographical errors and some instances of incorrectly-referenced works (including on the first page of the Preface, where the reference should be to Thalmann 1992, rather than 1980).
Nevertheless, Marigo Alexopoulou's work fills an important gap in the scholarship by bringing together analysis of this crucial theme throughout a number of genres and eras of ancient Greek literature. As such, it is a useful and informative work that could prompt much further research.
Table of Contents
Nostos: a popular theme
Nostos and war
The seafaring experience
Wandering for philosophical, religious (theoria) or touristic ends
Colonisation, exile and ostracism
2. Nostos in Homer
Nostos as a story pattern
Nostos and ritual
The nostos narratives and its variants
The effects of absence
Nostos and oblivion
Nostos and death (katabasis)
Wandering (themes of bath, clothes and food mark Odysseus' transition)
Return, disguise and deceptive stories
3. Nostos in Tragedy
Typical roles with their typical themes
The role of the woman (sleepless nights and dreams)
The motif of longing
Women and the failed nostos
The absent male figure
The theme of clothes
The theme of bath and bed
The theme of sacrifice
Nostos and athletic imagery
Nostos and recognition
Secret nostoi (deceit and/or revenge)
Nostos and tragic plot
Messenger-scene in nostos-drama
Nostos-drama and suspense
Welcome scene in nostos-drama
The idealistic nature of the nostos-drama
4. Nostos in Hellenistic Poetry
General on Hellenistic poetry
Nostos in Apollonius' Argonautica
Departure-voyage to Colchis
The role of Medea in the return-story
Callimachus' selected nostos-epigrams