The ‘Submerged’ Heroic Life of Laertes (the Father of Odysseus)

I have been somewhat obsessed in the past with the family of Odysseus, particularly Odysseus’ sister, his death by feces,  his lesser-known grandson, and a remarkable number of children not named Telemachus.

Where the Homeric Odyssey suppresses names of children used by ancient myth to relate Odysseus to a wider physical world, the epic nevertheless has some hints here and there about geography and politics. Of course, this will can us a bit more about his family and home. In the Odyssey we find what seems to be a formulaic combination of three islands near Ithaca. When Odysseus describes where he’s from, he names his home and then adds (9.23-4):

“Many islands are inhabited right near each other
Doulikhion, Samê, and forest-covered Zakunthos.”

πολλαὶ ναιετάουσι μάλα σχεδὸν ἀλλήλῃσι,
Δουλίχιόν τε Σάμη τε καὶ ὑλήεσσα Ζάκυνθος.

And earlier during his discussion with Telemachus, Odysseus hears the suitors similarly described as (16.122-125; cf. 19.130-1):

“However so many of the best men who rule among the islands,
Doulikhion, Samê, and forest-covered Zakunthos.
Alongside all the men who lord over steep Ithaka—
This many men are wooing my mother and ruining my home”

ὅσσοι γὰρ νήσοισιν ἐπικρατέουσιν ἄριστοι,
Δουλιχίῳ τε Σάμῃ τε καὶ ὑλήεντι Ζακύνθῳ,
ἠδ’ ὅσσοι κραναὴν ᾿Ιθάκην κάτα κοιρανέουσι,
τόσσοι μητέρ’ ἐμὴν μνῶνται, τρύχουσι δὲ οἶκον.

Just from these lines, the wooing of Penelope appears to be a power-struggle among the local aristocracy, which happens to extend from Ithaca to the surrounding islands. And, interestingly enough, the Catalogue of ships in the Iliad paints a similar although significantly different scene (2.625-637):

“And these men from Doulikhion and the holy Ekhinain Island
Who inhabit in the corner of the sea facing Elis
Megas, equal to Ares, led these men,
Phuleidês, whom the horseman Phuleus, dear to Zeus bore,
who ruled Doulikion after he was angry at his father.
Forty dark ships followed him to war.
Then Odysseus led the great-hearted Kephallanians
Who occupied Ithaka and flourishing Nêritos
While also caring for Krokuleia and harsh Aigilipa
And the men who inhabit Zakunthos and live around Samos,
Both those who occupy the seashore and inland.
Odysseus, equal in metis to Zeus, led them,
And twelve dark-cheeked ships followed him.

corr.     Οἳ δ’ ἐκ Δουλιχίοιο ᾿Εχινάων θ’ ἱεράων
νήσων, αἳ ναίουσι πέρην ἁλὸς ῎Ηλιδος ἄντα,
τῶν αὖθ’ ἡγεμόνευε Μέγης ἀτάλαντος ῎Αρηϊ
Φυλεΐδης, ὃν τίκτε Διῒ φίλος ἱππότα Φυλεύς,
ὅς ποτε Δουλίχιον δ’ ἀπενάσσατο πατρὶ χολωθείς·
τῷ δ’ ἅμα τεσσαράκοντα μέλαιναι νῆες ἕποντο.
Αὐτὰρ ᾿Οδυσσεὺς ἦγε Κεφαλλῆνας μεγαθύμους,
οἵ ῥ’ ᾿Ιθάκην εἶχον καὶ Νήριτον εἰνοσίφυλλον
καὶ Κροκύλει’ ἐνέμοντο καὶ Αἰγίλιπα τρηχεῖαν,
οἵ τε Ζάκυνθον ἔχον ἠδ’ οἳ Σάμον ἀμφενέμοντο,
οἵ τ’ ἤπειρον ἔχον ἠδ’ ἀντιπέραι’ ἐνέμοντο·
τῶν μὲν ᾿Οδυσσεὺς ἦρχε Διὶ μῆτιν ἀτάλαντος
τῷ δ’ ἅμα νῆες ἕποντο δυώδεκα μιλτοπάρῃοι.

So it seems that Doulikhios gets its own entry in the catalogue and its own leaders whereas Odysseus leads over a bunch of Kephallenians which include three other islands unrepresented among the suitors as well as Zakynthos and Samos. Note, also, that though Odysseus’ resume seems a bit inflated by the accumulation of place names, his total number of ships (12) is still smaller than the contingent from Doulikhion and the nearby islands.

If we make the leap to say that Samos = Samê (if not actually than in some way formulaically), obviously, there is a cultural memory that politically ties some of these places together (but not all) while also grouping them geographically. (That both politics and geography are marked might seemed obvious, but the royal families move around a bit.) At the same time, the exact structure of the political relationship among these ancient sites is at play (in the poetry, at least).

More interesting than the grouping of Samos, Doulikhios and Ithaka, is the relative absence of the ethnonym Kephallenians in the Odyssey and the disappearance of the other islands named in the Iliad e.g. Nêritos). But there is a tantalizing hint in Laertes’ prayer from book 24 (376-378):

“ Father Zeus, Athena and Apollo [if only I could be young]
The way I was when I took Nêrikos, the well-built city
On a harbor, when I was ruling among the Kephallenians.”

“αἲ γάρ, Ζεῦ τε πάτερ καὶ ᾿Αθηναίη καὶ ῎Απολλον,
οἷος Νήρικον εἷλον, ἐϋκτίμενον πτολίεθρον,
ἀκτὴν ἠπείροιο, Κεφαλλήνεσσιν ἀνάσσων,

So, apparently, Laertes did rule before Odysseus (and ruled the Kephallenians in part because he sacked Nêrikos). I can only imagine (and speculate) that we can see something in the background, some political strife in the absence of Odysseus that results in the fragmenting of a multi-island political hegemony. (I still don’t quite understand why Odysseus no longer rules, however).

In his absence, it seems that it was unclear who would rule (as most of us know). It seems that Odysseus inherited his right to rule from his father and that he expected it to be possible for his father and son to somehow retain his place of honor (geras).
Odyssey 11.174-176:

“Tell me of the father and son I left behind,
Does my geras still belong to them or does some other man
Already have it because they think I will not come home?”

εἰπὲ δέ μοι πατρός τε καὶ υἱέος, ὃν κατέλειπον,
ἢ ἔτι πὰρ κείνοισιν ἐμὸν γέρας, ἦέ τις ἤδη
ἀνδρῶν ἄλλος ἔχει, ἐμὲ δ’ οὐκέτι φασὶ νέεσθαι.

But, as we know from the Iliad, a geras can change hands and is in part contingent upon the community’s willingness to bestow it upon you and ensure that you keep it. Later when the outcome of the return seems in doubt, Telemachus names the man of the Ithakans he would have his mother marry (15.518-524). He imagines his father’s geras going with him:

“But I will tell you of another man you might encounter,
Eurymakhos, the shining son of sharp-minded Polyboios,
Whom the Ithakans now look upon the way they would a god.
He is by far the best man remaining and the best
To marry my mother and receive my father’s geras.
But Zeus is the one who knows these things as he rules on high,
Whether or not he will bring about a deadly day for them before a marriage.”

ἀλλά τοι ἄλλον φῶτα πιφαύσκομαι, ὅν κεν ἵκοιο,
Εὐρύμαχον, Πολύβοιο δαΐφρονος ἀγλαὸν υἱόν,
τὸν νῦν ἶσα θεῷ ᾿Ιθακήσιοι εἰσορόωσι·
καὶ γὰρ πολλὸν ἄριστος ἀνὴρ μέμονέν τε μάλιστα
μητέρ’ ἐμὴν γαμέειν καὶ ᾿Οδυσσῆος γέρας ἕξειν.
ἀλλὰ τά γε Ζεὺς οἶδεν ᾿Ολύμπιος, αἰθέρι ναίων
εἴ κέ σφιν πρὸ γάμοιο τελευτήσει κακὸν ἦμαρ.”

This is a bit of an interesting passage since it shows Telemachus reflecting on the likelihood of his mother marrying a man who is one of the chiefs of the suitors (along with Antinoos) and who dies early in book 22 (77-88).

The scholia give some interesting confirmations and backgrounds for these placement of the islands:

  1. <ὅς ποτε Δουλίχιον δ’ ἀπενάσσατο πατρὶ

χολωθείς:> διδάσκει ὡς ἀνηκέστου διαφορᾶς τῶν οἰκείων κρείσσων
ὁ χωρισμός. b(BCE3E4)
D Δουλίχιον νῆσος πρὸ τῆς Κεφαλληνίας. αἱ δὲ ᾿Εχινάδες
—καλοῦνται ᾿Επειοί. A
D πατρὶ χολωθείς: ὃς εἰς τὸ Δουλίχιον—ἡ ἱστο-
ρία καὶ παρὰ Καλλιμάχῳ (fr. 77). A

  1. <Κεφαλλῆνας:> ἡ Κεφαλληνία παράκειται ταῖς ᾿Εχινάσι·

Κέφαλος γὰρ ὁ Δηΐονος, φεύγων ἐκ Φωκίδος διὰ τὸν τῆς γυναικὸς
ἀκούσιον φόνον ᾤκει ἐν Θήβαις. συστρατεύσας δὲ ᾿Αμφιτρύωνι καὶ
ταύτην γέρας λαβὼν οὕτως ἀφ’ ἑαυτοῦ ὠνόμασεν. ἐκ τούτου Κιλλεύς,
οὗ ᾿Αρκείσιος, οὗ Λαέρτης. b(BCE3)

So, Kephallenian is named for a dude from Kephalos and is near the Ekhinades, who are also called Epeians. Kephalos left Phôkos because he killed his wife and won this island when he went to war with Amphitryon. Apparently, he’s the great-great grandfather of Odysseus.

But the political fragmentation in Odysseus’ absence is what really interests me (along with the lack of clarity about the succession, the geras and what precisely the geras comprises). Any thoughts?

5 thoughts on “The ‘Submerged’ Heroic Life of Laertes (the Father of Odysseus)

  1. Perhaps this political fragmentation explains Odysseus’ views on political philosophy outlined at Iliad 2.203-6:
    οὐ μέν πως πάντες βασιλεύσομεν ἐνθάδ’ ᾿Αχαιοί•
    οὐκ ἀγαθὸν πολυκοιρανίη• εἷς κοίρανος ἔστω,
    εἷς βασιλεύς, ᾧ δῶκε Κρόνου πάϊς ἀγκυλομήτεω
    σκῆπτρόν τ’ ἠδὲ θέμιστας, ἵνά σφισι βουλεύῃσι.

    We have been accustomed from the past several centuries of history to regard the expansion or even accretion of smaller political entities into larger, unified ones, as the natural teleological progress of nation building. This is effectively the Roman model, and it has been more or less consistently followed since the end of the Medieval period. Yet, I think that the situation of these island nations is in some measure paralleled by the fragmented political power of the Greek poleis through much of their history, and indeed, is remarkably similar to the fragmentation of political powers during the rise of feudalism subsequent to the collapse of the Roman Empire in the west.

    I am hardly equipped with the expansive historical knowledge and theoretical penetration to explain why political units undergo periods of consolidation and fragmentation, but I imagine that the socially-accepted outlet for the attainment of personal glory may have something to do with it.

  2. It has always surprised me in the Odyssey that Odysseus should expect to come back and immediately be restored as king after an absence of twenty years. During this time their must have been struggles for power and it would seem that the one who received the geras would be the one that married Penelope. This would legitimise his rule perhaps by making him acceptable in the eyes of the people as it seems that the geras is given by the people. Odysseus himself says to Arête queen of the Phaeacians.

    τοῖσιν θεοὶ ὄλβια δοῖεν
    ζωέμεναι, καὶ παισὶν ἐπιτρέψειεν ἕκαστος
    κτήματ᾽ ἐνὶ μεγάροισι γέρας θ᾽ ὅ τι δῆμος ἔδωκεν:

    May the gods give them wealth to live and may each man pass onto his children the possessions in his hall and the geras which the people give.

    Od 7 150

    As to the actual places that Odysseus ruled, my wife a few Christmases ago gave me a very weighty tome called Odysseus Unbound by James Diggle and John Underhill. This argues that Ithaca was part of modern day Kephalonia, the modern peninsular of Paliki. It argues that at that time the peninsular was a separate island which was later joined by seismic activity. Neriton was a mountain on Ithaca. Doulichion was modern day Ithaca. I need to read it again to remember all their arguments.

    You mention the scholastic calling the Ekhinades Epeians. Leaf and Bayfield’s edition of Homer says that Epeians is the proper name for the inhabitants of Elis. Maybe there was a movement of population.

    I like palaiophron’s comments on political fragmentation. Why it happens I have no idea.

    1. Thanks for mentioning the Diggle and Underhill book. I don’t know as much about actual geography as mythical geography–and I am more interested in the Homeric projection of theses places and powers–but I do think I should probably look at it.

      There is more to be done!

      But thanks for your help and ideas

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