This book is the result of an attempt to read the Odyssey simultaneously as a literary artifact and a political instrument. Its author, Jim Marks, tries to show that Zeus, in the hands of the singer, is the character responsible for giving narrative unity to the poem and establishing a Panhellenic version of the story to the detriment of “epichoric” (local) traditions. That kind of approach, though innovative and stimulating, is questionable, as I will try to demonstrate, because it downplays aspects of the poem that are central to its understanding.
The book is divided in two parts. In the first one (chapters 1-3), the author discusses Zeus’s role in the structure of the Odyssey, paying attention to what he calls the “three major narrative choices” (p. 7) in Odysseus’s story: (1) the return through the “enchanted” world (and not through the “real world”); (2) the triumph over the suitors by means of deception (and not as the leader of an invading force); and (3) the killing of the suitors resulting in a solution provided by a deus ex machina (excluding a political closure). Marks argues that these choices define the Panhellenic Odyssey against other competing narratives and give coherence to the version we have of the story.
In Chapter 1, “Oresteia and Odyssey“, Marks argues that Zeus’s narrative of events concerning Aigisthos, Agamemnon and Orestes in Book 1 announces the direction that the poem will take. Viewing the god’s opening speech as a polemical casting of the tale, not only with theological or moral implications, but above all with narrative ones, he proposes that the very distinctiveness contained in this speech “raises the specter of other versions” (p. 18). Marks deals very attentively with character equivalencies (Agamemnon/Odysseus, Klytaimnestre/Penelope, Orestes/Telemachos, Aigisthos/suitors) and calls attention to the fact that the Homeric approach to the story omits the theme of the cycle of vengeance that the avenger brings upon himself, as we see in Aeschylos’s trilogy Oresteia. He concludes that the Odyssey shows traces of the process of negotiation with a larger tradition — in which we could find for instance an unfaithful Penelope and the god Hermes as her seducer — and that this process contributes to deepen characterization and establish a unitarian narrative course in contrast with non-Homeric contexts.
In Chapter 2, “Ogygie to Ithake”, Marks shows how in the divine council that opens Book 5 and resumes the first one in Book 1 Athene’s plan of promoting Odysseus’s nostos is now presented as a plan of Zeus, who thus takes control of the narrative; at the same time (Marks notes) Poseidon, the hero’s antagonist, unintentionally contributes to the fulfillment of that plan by keeping his hostility. Both gods then operate in a subordinate and limited way, under the broad perspective of Zeus: Athene did not work with the possibility of a shipwreck during the return of her protégé and Poseidon did not expect that this shipwreck would take Odysseus to the people responsible for his safe homecoming. Marks also explains that the almost total absence of Zeus (and other gods alike) from the Apologoi (Books 8-12) is a consequence of Odysseus’s limitations as a (mortal) narrator, and claims that the fact that his adventures did not take place in the “real” world insulated them from conflicting epichoric traditions. Despite that, the author examines three variant readings at Odyssey 13.158, and suggests that one of them, by which the Phaiakes’ city should not be covered by a mountain, is representative of a possible narrative “switch” that regulated, during each performance, the interface between Homeric and epichoric versions.
In Chapter 3, “The end(s) of the Odyssey“, Marks demonstrates that Book 24 is perfectly integrated to the rest of the poem, because Zeus’s over-reaching noos resolves the narrative in a way that is consistent with the preceding themes. Marks views the figure of Zeus in the epilogue of the Odyssey as the one charged with the role of establishing a boundary against non-Homeric traditions, specifically those in which the suitors’ families seek vengeance and drive Odysseus into exile.
In the second part of the book, Chapter 4, “After the Odyssey“, deals with epichoric and “real world” narrative options for the resolution of the conflict with the suitors. These alternatives lead to themes like Odysseus’s exile, children he begot other than Telemachos and the hero’s death; although the Odyssey rejects theses approaches, Marks claims that they are preserved, for the sake of pleasing local audiences, in “false” — from the perspective within the poem — tales (such as the Cretan ones) and allusions to discarded possibilities (such as Teiresias’s ambiguous account of Odysseus’s death in Book 11). In Chapter 5, “Nestor’s Nostoi”, Marks argues that in the nostos-narrative in Book 3 Nestor operates like a selective singer, conceiving the Trojan War in terms of performable sections, and that his deployment of divine characters (e.g. subordinating Athene’s motivation to Zeus’s) is thematically equivalent to the one in the main narrative. Finally, in Chapter 6, “Divine Plan and Narrative Plan”, Marks proposes that Zeus was the “natural figure with which to identify an over-arching [narrative] plan” in the poem; in other words, this god provided the arrangement of events requested by oral composition-in-performance, for he embodies a “skeleton for the poem’s overall thematic coherence and unity” (p. 136). At the same time, Marks argues that, since Zeus as a god was “less central” to rituals and myths of individual communities, he was a natural choice for Panhellenic authority.
It can be seen, even from this brief outline, that the second section of the book is built as a conceptual justification for the reading of the Odyssey that informs the first part, where all those ideas (the existence of parallel versions and the elaboration of the narrative through the character of Zeus) were already being dealt with. The author’s movement towards clarity is perceptible, as if he were accompanying the readers through the construction of his method. As a matter of fact, clarity of exposition is one of the great qualities of this work: not only does the “Introduction” offer a neat presentation of the main purposes of the book and a summary of each chapter; Marks also gives helpful conclusions for every section, resuming his initial considerations and systematizing his results.
The first part, however, seemed to me more interesting, because Marks explores persistent problems concerning the interpretation of the poem. He proves to be an attentive reader, and the answers he advances for the role of the Oresteia-paradigm, the relations between Zeus and Athene/Poseidon, the repetition of lines, and the suppression of the vendetta theme, which links the epilogue of the Odyssey to its prologue (where there is no mention of the persecution of Orestes), are some of the precious contributions he makes to the study of Homeric poetry, in a style that is both simple and sharp.
The unitarian approach is a sensible one and Marks lucidly focuses on the coherence of the Odyssey. What I personally find problematic is his interpretation of the process, namely that Zeus is deployed as a narrative “tool” in order to elaborate this unity and, through the choices he is credited with in the narrative, to “de-authorize” and marginalize other traditions. It is clear to the Homerist that Marks is in debt to Gregory Nagy’s hypothesis that the Homeric and Hesiodic poems represent the “mainstream” of Greek poetry, competing with other local versions of the same stories. In his chapter on “Hesiod and the Poetics of Panhellenism” ( Greek Mythology and Poetics, 1990, pp. 36-82), Nagy viewed the contrast between true and false words that the Muses claim to enunciate in the Theogony (vv. 26-28) in terms of competition between Panhellenic and epichoric traditions. Marks extends this approach to the Odyssey, and does it by exploring precisely the figure of Zeus as the key factor for this Panhellenic movement and applying it to an overall interpretation of the poem.
This approach, however fascinating, is not without significant difficulties, and regrettably Marks seems less aware of them than he should be. First of all, we know hardly anything of the relations between the Homeric poems and the rest of the epic poetry that was produced in Archaic Greece. It is true that the same myth could be elaborated with much freedom, both in the context of the same genre and from genre to genre, as lyric fragments and dramatic poetry show us unequivocally. All these versions coexisted, and it is also true that the most powerful and complex ones tended to overshadow the feeblest, and consequently acquire an “authoritative” status. That is the furthest we can go. The plausible conclusion we can draw is that there was a rich exchange between these traditions and possibly innumerable connections. A clear picture of the political use of those stories is out of our reach.
In the specific case of the Odyssey and its relation with the myths concerning Odysseus, his return and his revenge, we face a nebulous situation. In the “Introduction” Marks acknowledges “the incomplete nature of the evidence for Homeric multiforms and for non-Homeric traditions”, but still he hopes “to demonstrate that the available evidence is sufficient to support the case that many of the Odyssey‘s narrative choices are informed at least in part by the need to engage with competing myths” (pp. 5-6). Such “available evidence” is rather cursorily presented in the book as “relatively late sources” (p. 11) or accounts that “post-date the Odyssey” (p. 89). For all his efforts, Marks cannot give the promised evidence to his reader and has to admit, eventually, that “such interpretations are naturally incapable of proof due to the dearth of ancient Greek testimony” (p.132). At this stage the reader wonders to what extent the proposed reading is arbitrary.
Moreover, Marks’s attempt to explain the structural role played by Zeus (and his plan, boule) in terms of the function of oral tradition, as if he were the personification and instrument of the control the singer had over his composition-in-performance, faces one serious limitation, in that it reduces the development of the narrative to the action of a single character. We cannot deny that Zeus, as the supreme god, plays a fundamental role in Homeric poetry, to the point that he may sometimes be assimilated to fate itself, but the interactions between gods (Zeus included) and heroes are complex, with human decisions forcing the gods to act this or that way. It seems to me that it is more reasonable to think of Zeus not simply (or mainly) as a decisive literary or poetic device, but as a character among others, affecting them and being affected by them, and to ascribe his preeminence to religious and moral causes, to which, however, Marks assigns a “subordinate” role (p. 21). Zeus’s absence from the most part of the Apologoi can be explained in plausible narrative terms (the limitation of human perspective), but one should perhaps go beyond that and wonder about Odysseus’s relationship with the god, who refuses his sacrifice offerings in Book 9 (vv. 551-555). Can this lack of divine interference (or favor) be explained on moral grounds — a god’s dissatisfaction with a hubristic hero?
Finally, if Marks is right in minimizing the differences between the Iliad and the Odyssey, stating in his “Preface” that the two poems “can be seen as more closely akin on a structural level than is generally appreciated” (p. vi), should that lead us to a search for a Panhellenic instrumental Zeus in Achilles’ story and, consequently, for alluded epichoric traditions in the Iliadic narrative? And how should we explain, for instance, the role of Zeus in Book 2, where he deceives Agamemnon and where that same deception, with the trial of the troops, opens the possibility of an abandonment of the siege not allowed by fate (v. 155)?
As a conclusion, it must be said that, on the one hand, Marks’s work offers many penetrating readings of the Odyssey and contributes to call our attention to the structural unity of the poem; but, on the other, that his approach seems to be less telling when overwhelmed by a theory that is problematic and lacks enough evidence to support it.