BMCR 2021.06.14

The ethics of revenge and the meanings of the Odyssey

, The ethics of revenge and the meanings of the Odyssey. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2019. Pp. xii, 265. ISBN 9780190909673 $74.00.


Loney has written an important book that examines tisis (revenge) in the Odyssey demonstrating how this theme shapes and is shaped by the narrative. Although parts of the topic have received considerable attention, oddly enough no one has yet examined it as a whole. Thus, Loney’s study comes to fill an important gap in Homeric scholarship, especially since several of his conclusions are innovative and meaningful for the entire epic. While not written to serve as an introductory work, the book discusses some of the most crucial passages in the poem, and it succeeds in showing that tisis, a form of negative reciprocity, provides an important lens through which one may better understand and appreciate the sophisticated nature and multivocal narrative of the Odyssey. The author has a keen eye for resonances in language and content in the Odyssey, without failing to bring into the discussion parallel passages, predominantly from the Iliad. I found particularly intriguing Loney’s suggestion of a seven-stage model on which tisis narratives are deployed (see below on Chapter 2), but the author makes important observations throughout. I single out one of the ideas that struck me as highly significant: the suitors may typically be compared with Aegisthus and accordingly “are condemned as if murderers and adulterers, but have not actually accomplished either crime” (p. 170). This observation will no doubt influence future discussions of the poem.

The Introduction sets the tone of the treatise by bringing together three pertinent short passages from the beginning and the end of the Odyssey (the speeches of Aegyptius and Eupeithes in Books 2 and 24 respectively, plus Zeus’ final speech –examined also in the last chapter), which deploy the language of tisis and give us a glimpse at how revenge permeates the narrative. In short, tisis as initially stated by Aegyptius, resonates with the revenge planned by the suitors’ kin, aligning Polyphemus and Odysseus as agents of death, to be finally wiped out by Zeus just before closure.

The rest of the book is organised in three parts, each divided into two chapters. The first part, treating tisis in legal documents and literary texts from the archaic age (including the Odyssey), is crucial for a grasp of Loney’s theory for it defines tisis and lays out the pattern underlying revenge narratives in the poem. The second part examines key incidents of tisis in the Odyssey (from the story of Aegisthus and the cases of divine vengeance to the suitors’ punishment), while the third part discusses the aftermath of the mnesterophonia. This fitting arrangement of material, in alignment with how the story progresses, makes the book ideal to be read alongside the poem itself.

Chapter 1 (“The Archaic Context of Vengeance”) investigates revenge in the wider background of Archaic Greece. Bearing the basic meaning of paying, tisis and cognate terms indicate punitive transactions, mainly monetary penalties, as seen in legal inscriptions from Gortyn where the term τίτας denotes an official or a board of officials in charge of collecting fines. Traces of this meaning may still be detected in Homer (e.g. Alcinous’ use of τείσομαι at Od. 13.15 with the sense of taxation), but in literary texts tisis abandons for the most part its monetary connotations to refer mainly to retribution, a form of negative reciprocity that strives for balance. In the Iliad, tisis is closely related to vengeance in the sense that a warrior should pay (τείσει) with his own death the slaying of an enemy –a practice vaguely analogous to the paying of ransom (ἄποινα). Drawing on the work of the anthropologist Marcel Mauss, Loney distinguishes positive and negative acts of reciprocity, the former including institutions such as gift-exchange, marriage, supplication etc., the latter referring to revenge. Three salient aspects are at work here: temporality, agency, and calculation. Positive reciprocity requires a delay between the two acts and dissimilarity of the exchange, while negative reciprocity “is best realized by the immediate return of an identical harm” (p. 28). Also, in absence of a neutral arbiter in Homer, it is up to the avenger to determine an encounter as tisis and decide its form and measure. Both reciprocal systems are best exemplified in the speech exchange between Patroclus and Achilles in Il. 22.254-272. The fruits of this approach in shedding light on Homeric characters may be seen in Loney’s excellent observation that Achilles’ anger towards Priam at Il. 24.559-560 can be explained in view of the latter’s demand for immediacy in returning Hector’s corpse, thus “denying that the exchange can be conducted on the basis of generosity” and “transforming it into a simple economic transaction” (p. 27).

Chapter 2 (“Vengeance in the Odyssey: tisis as Narrative”) argues that tisis occupies a focal place in the structure and ideology of the poem. Taking its cue from the exemplary tisis account of Aegisthus at the outset of the epic, the whole narrative is built upon separate, though overlapping and interconnected accounts of vengeance. In its treatment of tisis, theOdyssey stresses equivalence and synchrony between harm and retribution. All these observations solidify even further Loney’s argument; but the author’s claim that tisis in the Odyssey is distinct from the Iliad’s mēnis (which is “an unstable hatred whose reasons and objects can readily slip”, p. 50) left me wishing for a more well rounded, even if brief, comparison between the two concepts. In addition to the detailed discussion of the proem and the first speech of Zeus in this chapter, a crucial contribution here is the definition of tisis: “a retaliatory action that an avenger performs –especially killing– that at the same time implies an entire sequence of events that makes the act of killing (to use English terms) into ‘retribution’ rather than ‘murder’ or some other way of conceiving of killing” (p. 60). Plus, the suggestion of a seven-stage model of tisis narratives in the Odyssey: 1. Background conditions: master is absent, 2. Unheeded warning: grounds for ἀτασθαλίαι, 3. Plotting and preparation I: for the precipitating offense, 4. Precipitating offense, 5 Plotting and preparation II: for the retributive act, 6. Retributive act, 7. New conditions: former order is restored. Initially drawn from Orestes’ revenge, this model is programmatic but also exemplary, with the rest of tisis narratives not fitting to it exactly. The remaining chapters expand on similarities and variations from the initial pattern.

Chapter 3 (“Three Narratives of Divine Vengeance”) examines tisis relating to the gods Helius and Poseidon. Regarding the Thrinacia episode, Loney discusses in detail how the poem constructs the culpability of the comrades, downplays dissenting voices and disqualifies Odysseus from any charge. Although it conforms to simultaneity and equivalence, this story differs in presenting Zeus as the agent of tisis, which does not conform to the proem’s reference to Helius as the avenger god. Loney explains this incongruity with regard to the selective presentation in the proem and Odysseus’ superior knowledge about the incident. The topic of Poseidon’s tisis unfolds in three separate incidents: Odysseus’ revenge against Polyphemus, and the two tisis sequences of the Sea-god upon Odysseus and the Phaeacians. In Loney’s careful examination of theses narratives against the initial pattern, I found particularly illuminating Odysseus’ resemblances with the figure of Aegisthus, and the symmetry between blinding (offense) and wandering – a punishment that symbolically makes the hero invisible to the world.

Chapter 4 (“Odysseus’ Terrifying Vengeance”) explores the central revenge of the poem, namely Odysseus’ against the suitors. To this end, Loney brings forth passages from various stages of the story (chiefly, from the first two Books and the Mnesterophonia). The greater bulk of the discussion is, quite justly, devoted to divergences of Odysseus’ revenge from the model laid out in Chapter 2. The numerous unheeded warnings to the suitors are uttered when their offences are in progress and not before their beginning as in the rest of tisis narratives, while the suitors’ main offenses are plotting, wooing, and dining (and not adultery and murder as with Aegisthus). The text, however, is at great pains to criminalize their behaviour. Loney is very observant in unveiling hidden meanings or ambiguities in Homeric diction that serve this end. For instance, the double sense of βίοτος (livelihood and life) as the target of the suitors’ consumption elevates their transgression to murder, as does the syntactic ambiguity of οἶκον ἐμόν at 1.251, which additionally bears overtones of cannibalism.

Chapter 5 (“The Multiple Meanings of Odysseus’ Triumphs”) argues that the narrative allows for a darker view of Odysseus as avenger alongside the mainstream, positive one. Starting from the question why Odysseus silences Eurycleia’s joyous outcry at 22.411-416, Loney examines passages mainly from scenes after the slaughter of the suitors in which he detects ambiguities and ironies regarding the image of the hero. Thus, Eurycleia’s focalized description of the slaughter as ‘great deed’ (μέγα…ἔργον, 22.408) carries undertones of disapproval. Likewise, Eupeithes’ reprimand that the hero ‘utterly lost the men’ (ἀπὸ δ’ ὤλεσε λαούς, 24.428) may bear the additional sense of ‘killing the men’. I found myself resisting parts of the discussion in this chapter and felt that perhaps too much emphasis is put on detail or on the semantic range of words and formulas. But I must admit that the author reaches his conclusion through a meticulous examination of language usage, thus making a strong case for an underlying sinister image of the hero after the slaughter of the suitors.

Chapter 6 (“The End of the Odyssey and of Revenge”) explores tisis in Book 24. After a well-measured evaluation of scholarship regarding the controversial End of the poem, which takes into consideration both analytical and unitarian views, Loney rightly foregrounds the constructed end of Aegisthus’ example to argue that this lies in tension with the inconclusiveness of tisis narratives in the rest of epic. In his own words, “Narratives of vengeance in the Odyssey fail to reach a stable telos in two main ways: either they bring about further narratives of vengeance that, in lieu of a satisfactory ending to the first narrative, interpose their own narrative logic; or, they leave significant questions or tensions unresolved” (p. 203). This is very much true, and Loney moves to display the open-ended nature of Poseidon’s revenge which, taking its cue from the blinding of Polyphemus, results in Odysseus’ late return, moves to the slaughter of the suitors, and, as Teiresias foretells in the Nekyia, extends even beyond the end of the epic. The tensions underlying the conclusion of the poem are visible in the opposition of the suitors’ kin that carve for the continuation of vengeance. Solution is provided in the last divine council with Zeus’ suggestion for the imposition of amnesia that prepares for the abrupt but necessary finale that puts a halt to a potential vendetta. Overall, Loney’s examination in this chapter takes the discussion of the Odyssey’s denouement to a whole new level beyond the stale opposition amongst adversaries and defenders of authenticity – a level that appreciates the idiosyncrasies of the End and treats them as means for further interpretation.

The book is well-written, the author’s style is engaging for the reader, and the text is virtually almost free of misprints.[1] The bibliography is up to date, and I detected no shortcomings: the author is especially well read on Homeric scholarship and has an admirable ease at employing ideas and concepts from a variety of epochs and trends. An Index Locorum and a General Index facilitate the reader’s navigation.

All in all, Loney’s book will no doubt become a work of reference in future discussions not only of the theme of revenge but also of the ethics and ideology of the Odyssey. The author is to be congratulated for providing the field with such an important study.


[1] I have noticed the following minor misprints: 4.425 instead of 24.425 (p. 4); 24.216-23 instead of 22.216-23 (p. 37); ‘how to end’ instead of ‘how the end’ (p. 203, n. 26).