The Heroic Life of Laertes

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?

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