Introducing Painful Signs

I am moving some essays and longer projects to a substack called “Painful Signs, Or, Joel’s Substack.” I am experimenting with this space for a few reasons: (1) wordpress has gotten a little annoying; (2) I’d like to try something different; (3) substack seems to make it easier to raise funds we can donate to good causes. Here’s the summary on the first page from the site:

It is an extension of the multiverse designed for longer essays, threaded projects, and revision and renewal of older ideas. I have spent over a decade building a website bringing together translations and commentary on ancient Greece and Rome with great collaborators and partners. This site will feature only my own work and, in its first months/years, focus in particular on the Iliad.

As nears 10,000 posts and the twitter feed @sentantiq dies a Musk-fueled death, this new space provides something of a tabula rasa to think again about writing outside of the cycle of academic publication, about public engagement, about how to think and write about the past, and how to develop and sustain new projects.

This site will have free and paid subscriptions. Free subscriptions get access to regular shorter posts; longer posts and the archive go to paid subscriptions.

All funds generated by paid subscriptions will be donated to non-profit groups working to support the study of the ancient world and emphasizing public engagement. I will make annual statements about where funds are sent.

I have trouble imagining too many people doing paid subscriptions, but anything we get from the other site will be sent to groups and initiatives we have supported in the past.. isn’t going anywhere. I won’t cross-post much from substack, so check it out and subscribe (for free or otherwise!)

Why “Painful Signs?”

“Painful Signs” is my loose translation of the description of the message Proitos sends along with Bellerophon in book 6 of the Iliad when he sends him to Lykia, with the hopes his father-in-law will murder him. (Proitos’ wife was in love with Bellerophon, but he refused her, so she told Proitos that Bellerophon raped her. Because they were guest-friends, however,  Proitos could not have him killed in his country).

Homer, Iliad 6.168-170

“Then he sent him to Lykia and he gave him painful signs,
He marked many heart-rending things on a folded table,
Which he told him to show to his father-in-law, so he would die.”

πέμπε δέ μιν Λυκίην δέ, πόρεν δ’ ὅ γε σήματα λυγρὰ
γράψας ἐν πίνακι πτυκτῷ θυμοφθόρα πολλά,
δεῖξαι δ’ ἠνώγειν ᾧ πενθερῷ ὄφρ’ ἀπόλοιτο.

This is the only apparent reference to writing in Homeric epic, but most sources believe it is not actually so. Here are ancient scholars’ comments:

Schol. T ad Hom. Il. 6.168 ex

Murderous signs: letters.

“It would be strange if people who developed every kind of craft would not know about letters. Some people claim these are like the sacred images of the Egyptians, used to communicate actions.”

     σήματα λυγρά: γράμματα…ἄτοπον γὰρ τοὺς πᾶσαν τέχνην εὑρόντας οὐκ εἰδέναι γράμματα. τινὲς δὲ ὡς παρ’ Αἰγυπτίοις ἱερὰ ζῴδια, δι’ ὧν δηλοῦται τὰ πράγματα.

Schol. A. ad Hom. Il. 6.169 ex

“written on a folded tablet”: this appears to use letters. But it does not mean this-instead to scrape [graphein] means to ‘smooth’ out. This is really the impression of images through which Proitos’ father-in-law may understand”

γράψας ἐν πίνακι πτυκτῷ: ὅτι ἔμφασίς ἐστι τοῦ τῆς λέξεως γράμμασι χρῆσθαι. οὐ δεῖ δὲ τοῦτο δέξασθαι, ἀλλ’ ἔστι γράψαι τὸ ξέσαι· οἷον οὖν ἐγχαράξας εἴδωλα, δι’ ὧν ἔδει γνῶναι τὸν πενθερὸν τοῦ Προίτου

Schol. D ad Hom. Il. 6.168

“Signs: symbols and shapes through which he communicates a plan. For there was no use of writing [letters]”

σήματα: σημεῖα καὶ τύπους δι᾿ ὧν δηλοῖ τὴν ἐπιβουλήν. οὐδὲ γὰρ ἦν τῶν γραμμάτων χρῆσις

Schol. D ad Hom. Il. 169

“After he wrote”: after he sketched out signs and symbols. For heroes did not know about writing.”

γράψας: χαράξας σημεῖα τινὰ καὶ συμβόλαια. τοὺς γὰρ ἥρωας μὴ ἑπίστασθαι γράμματα

I like this phrase “painful signs” and its use in the Iliad because it conveys (to me) some sense of the peril of secret messages, of the potential dangers of a fixed communication, of the insidious side of language. There’s something telling in the way that the message’s bearer does not know its contents and their implications.

So, I am taking this phrase as a bit of a thematic tuning for the beginning of a return to thinking about the Iliad . I think it is probably tenuous to claim that this tablet taken from the Peloponnese to Asia Minor is in away a symbol for epic itself, but I don’t think its too much to say that the episode shows a poetic concern with what effects signs have on the world, and how they have different meaning depending on who you are.

color photograph from a museum catalog.Waxed ivory writing tablet: one of a set of sixteen writing tablets hinged together as a folding set. It is scored on the back and front to receive the wax surface, which would have been inscribed in cuneiform with a stylus.
Waxed ivory tablet from British Museum. #131952. Neo Assyrian, 8th Century BCE

Circe’s Island Is Really about Reincarnation: An Allegorical Reading of Odyssey 10

Here is another allegorical interpretation of the Odyssey attributed to Porphyry.

from Stobaeus, i. 44. 60 

Τοῦ αὐτοῦ (sc. Πορφυρίου)·

“The things that Homer says about Kirkê contain a wonderful theory about the soul. The interpretation runs as follows:

Some have the heads, voice, head and skin of swine, but the mind remains constant as it was before. This myth is similar to the riddle about the soul presented by Pythagoras and Plato, that it is indestructible in nature and unseen but that it is not safe from harm or unchangeable. In what is called its destruction or death, it undergoes a change and then a transference into different kinds of bodies pursuing an appearance and fit according to pleasure, by similarity and practice to how it lived life. In this, each person draws a great advantage from education and philosophy, since the soul has a memory of noble things, judges the shameful harshly, and is able to overcome the unnatural pleasures. This soul can pay attention to itself, and guard that it might not accidentally become a beast because it has grown attracted to an hideously shaped, unclean body regarding virtue, a body that excites and nourishes uncultured and unreasoning nature rather than increasing and nourishing thought.

Τὰ δὲ παρ᾿ Ὁμήρῳ περὶ τῆς Κίρκης λεγόμενα θαυμαστὴν ἔχει τὴν περὶ ψυχὴν θεωρίαν. λέγεται γὰρ οὕτως,

οἱ δὲ συῶν μὲν ἔχον κεφαλὰς φωνήν τε τρίχας τε καὶ δέμας· αὐτὰρ νοῦς ἦν ἔμπεδος ὡς τὸ πάρος περ. ἔστι τοίνυν ὁ μῦθος αἴνιγμα τῶν περὶ ψυχῆς ὑπό τε Πυθαγόρου λεγομένων καὶ Πλάτωνος, ὡς ἄφθαρτος οὖσα τὴν φύσιν καὶ ἀίδιος, οὔ τι μὴν ἀπαθὴς οὐδ᾿ ἀμετάβλητος, ἐν ταῖς λεγομέναις φθοραῖς καὶ τελευταῖς μεταβολὴν ἴσχει καὶ μετακόσμησιν εἰς ἕτερα σωμάτων εἴδη, καθ᾿ ἡδονὴν διώκουσα τὸ πρόσφορον καὶ οἰκεῖον ὁμοιότητι καὶ συνηθείᾳ βίου διαίτης· ἔνθα δὴ τὸ μέγα παιδείας ἑκάστῳ καὶ φιλοσοφίας ὄφελος, ἂν μνημονεύουσα τῶν καλῶν ἡ ψυχὴ καὶ δυσχεραίνουσα τὰς αἰσχρὰς καὶ παρανόμους ἡδονὰς δύνηται κρατεῖν καὶ προσέχειν αὑτῇ καὶ φυλάττειν μὴ λάθῃ θηρίον γενομένη καὶ στέρξασα σώματος οὐκ εὐφυοῦς οὐδὲ καθαροῦ πρὸς ἀρετὴν φύσιν ἄμουσον καὶ ἄλογον καὶ τὸ ἐπιθυμοῦν καὶ θυμούμενον μᾶλλον ἢ τὸ φρόνιμον αὐξάνοντος καὶ τρέφοντος.

“Once the soul is translated, that which is fated and nature, which Empedocles named the divine force that “wraps us in a foreign robe of flesh”, also re-fits the soul.  Homer has named this circular journey and return of rebirth Kirkê, the child of the sun because the sun binds every destruction to birth and every birth in turn to destruction, always weaving them together. The Island Aiaia is also that place allotted to receive one who dies—where the souls first arrive as they wander, and suffer alienation as they mourn and they do not know which way is west nor “where the sun which brings mortals light comes upon the earth”.

As they long for their habits of pleasure—their shared life in the flesh and their way of life with the flesh—they provide the draught with its character again: it is the drink where birth is mixed and stirs together what is truly immortal and mortal, the thoughts and sufferings, the ethereal and the earthbound. The souls are enchanted and weakened by the pleasures that will lead them back to birth again. At this time, souls require great luck and great wisdom in order to avoid pursuing their worst aspects or passions and dedicate themselves to a cursed and beastly life”.

Αὐτῆς γὰρ τῆς μετακοσμήσεως εἱμαρμένη καὶ φύσις ὑπὸ Ἐμπεδοκλέους δαίμων ἀνηγόρευται “σαρκῶν ἀλλογνῶτι περιστέλλουσα χιτῶνι”καὶ μεταμπίσχουσα τὰς ψυχάς, Ὅμηρος δὲ τὴν ἐν κύκλῳ περίοδον καὶ περιφορὰν παλιγγενεσίας Κίρκην προσηγόρευκεν, Ἡλίου παῖδα τοῦ πᾶσαν φθορὰν γενέσει καὶ γένεσιν αὖ πάλιν φθορᾷ συνάπτοντος ἀεὶ καὶ συνείροντος. Αἰαίη δὲ νῆσος ἡ δεχομένη τὸν ἀποθνήσκοντα μοῖρα καὶ χώρα τοῦ περιέχοντος, εἰς ἣν ἐμπεσοῦσαι πρῶτον αἱ ψυχαὶ πλανῶνται καὶ ξενοπαθοῦσι καὶ ὀλοφύρονται καὶ οὐκ ἴσασιν ὅπῃ ζόφος “οὐδ᾿ ὅπῃ ἠέλιος φαεσίμβροτος εἶσ᾿ ὑπὸ γαῖαν” ποθοῦσαι δὲ καθ᾿ ἡδονὰς τὴν συνήθη καὶ σύντροφον ἐν σαρκὶ καὶ μετὰ σαρκὸς δίαιταν ἐμπίπτουσιν αὖθις εἰς τὸν κυκεῶνα, τῆς γενέσεως μιγνύσης εἰς ταὐτὸ καὶ κυκώσης ὡς ἀληθῶς ἀίδια καὶ θνητὰ καὶ φρόνιμα καὶ παθητὰ καὶ ὀλύμπια καὶ γηγενῆ, θελγόμεναι καὶ μαλασσόμεναι ταῖς ἀγούσαις αὖθις ἐπὶ τὴν γένεσιν ἡδοναῖς, ἐν ᾧ δὴ μάλιστα πολλῆς μὲν εὐτυχίας αἱ ψυχαὶ δέονται πολλῆς δὲ σωφροσύνης, ὅπως μὴ τοῖς κακίστοις ἐπισπόμεναι καὶ συνενδοῦσαι μέρεσιν ἢ πάθεσιν αὑτῶν κακοδαίμονα καὶ θηριώδη βίον ἀμείψωσιν.

For it is right that it is called and considered a crossroad in the underworld around which the parts of the soul split: the rational, the emotional, and the desirous. Each of these produces a force or an inducement to the life appropriate to itself. This is no longer myth or poetry but truth and a story of nature. In this transformation and rebirth, when the aspect of desire overpowers and takes control, [Homer] is claiming that because of the dominance of pleasure and gluttony, they transform into the bodies of donkeys and pigs and receive unclean lives on the ground. The interpretation runs as follows.

Whenever a soul has an emotional component that has grown completely savage because of harsh rivalries or murderous savagery developing from some disagreement or vendetta, that soul finds a second birth which is full of bitterness and angry thoughts and falls into the shape of a wolf or a lion, embracing this body as if it were a tool of vengeance for his controlling passion. For this reason, one must keep clean when near death as if for a religious rite and restrain from every kind of base pleasure, put every harsh emotion to bed, and to withdraw from the body by suppressing envies, enmities, and rages down deep. This “Hermes of the golden-staff” happens to be that very reasoning which indicates clearly the good and either wholly restrains or saves it from the deadly draught should it drink—it preserves the soul in a human life and character for as long a time as is possible.”

ἡ γὰρ λεγομένη καὶ νομιζομένη τῶν ἐν Ἅιδου τρίοδος ἐνταῦθά που τέτακται περὶ τὰ τῆς ψυχῆς σχιζομένη μέρη, τὸ λογιστικὸν καὶ θυμοειδὲς καὶ ἐπιθυμητικόν, ὧν ἕκαστον ἀρχὴν ἐξ αὑτοῦ καὶ ῥοπὴν ἐπὶ τὸν οἰκεῖον βίον ἐνδίδωσι. καὶ οὐκέτι ταῦτα μῦθος οὐδὲ ποίησις ἀλλ᾿ ἀλήθεια καὶ φυσικὸς λόγος. ὧν μὲν γὰρ ἐν τῇ μεταβολῇ καὶ γενέσει τὸ ἐπιθυμητικὸν ἐξανθοῦν ἐπικρατεῖ καὶ δυναστεύει, τούτοις εἰς ὀνώδη καὶ ὑώδη σώματα καὶ βίους θολεροὺς καὶ ἀκαθάρτους ὑπὸ φιληδονίας καὶ γαστριμαργίας φησὶ γίνεσθαι τὴν μεταβολήν. ὅταν δὲ φιλονεικίαις σκληραῖς καὶ φονικαῖς ὠμότησιν ἔκ τινος διαφορᾶς ἢ δυσμενείας ἐξηγριωμένον ἔχουσα παντάπασιν ἡ ψυχὴ τὸ θυμοειδὲς εἰς δευτέραν γένεσιν ἀφίκηται, πλήρης οὖσα προσφάτου πικρίας καὶ βαρυφροσύνης ἔρριψεν ἑαυτὴν εἰς λύκου φύσιν ἢ λέοντος, ὥσπερ ὄργανον ἀμυντικὸν τὸ σῶμα τῷ κρατοῦντι προσιεμένη πάθει καὶ περιαρμόσασα. διὸ δεῖ μάλιστα περὶ τὸν θάνατον ὥσπερ ἐν τελετῇ καθαρεύοντα παντὸς ἀπέχειν πάθους φαύλου τὴν ψυχὴν καὶ πᾶσαν ἐπιθυμίαν χαλεπὴν κοιμήσαντα καὶ φθόνους καὶ δυσμενείας καὶ ὀργὰς ἀπωτάτω τιθέμενον τοῦ φρονοῦντος ἐκβαίνειν τοῦ σώματος. οὗτος ὁ χρυσόρραπις Ἑρμῆς ἀληθῶς ὁ λόγος ἐντυγχάνων καὶ δεικνύων ἐναργῶς τὸ καλὸν ἢ παντάπασιν εἴργει καὶ ἀπέχει τοῦ κυκεῶνος, ἢ πιοῦσαν2 ἐν ἀνθρωπίνῳ βίῳ καὶ ἤθει διαφυλάσσει πλεῖστον χρόνον, ὡς ἀνυστόν ἐστι.



*oil on canvas
*148 x 92 cm


All Unhappy Families….

Homer, Iliad 9. 447-461

. . . I first fled Hellas famed for fine women
after rows with my father, Amuntor, son of Ormenus.
He was enraged with me over his well-coiffed mistress.
He loved this woman and he disgraced his wife,
my mother. She pleaded with me all the time
to screw the mistress–make her rebuff the old man.
Persuaded, I did it. But my father found out,
cursed me bitterly, called on the hated Furies
that he never hold a dear son of mine
on his knees. The gods fulfilled the curse,
chthonian Zeus and dread Persephone.

I planned to cut him down with my sharp sword,
but a god checked my rage–he showed my heart
what folks would say, people’s bitter insults–
so I wouldn’t be “father-killer” among Achaeans.

***The final 4 lines are recorded by Plutarch but do not appear in manuscripts or papyri of the epic. Plutarch claims without evidence Aristarchus excised the lines.

οἷον ὅτε πρῶτον λίπον Ἑλλάδα καλλιγύναικα
φεύγων νείκεα πατρὸς Ἀμύντορος Ὀρμενίδαο,
ὅς μοι παλλακίδος περιχώσατο καλλικόμοιο,
τὴν αὐτὸς φιλέεσκεν, ἀτιμάζεσκε δʼ ἄκοιτιν
μητέρʼ ἐμήν· ἣ δʼ αἰὲν ἐμὲ λισσέσκετο γούνων
παλλακίδι προμιγῆναι, ἵνʼ ἐχθήρειε γέροντα.
τῇ πιθόμην καὶ ἔρεξα· πατὴρ δʼ ἐμὸς αὐτίκʼ ὀϊσθεὶς
πολλὰ κατηρᾶτο, στυγερὰς δʼ ἐπεκέκλετʼ Ἐρινῦς,
μή ποτε γούνασιν οἷσιν ἐφέσσεσθαι φίλον υἱὸν
ἐξ ἐμέθεν γεγαῶτα· θεοὶ δʼ ἐτέλειον ἐπαρὰς

τὸν μὲν ἐγὼ βούλευσα κατακτάμεν ὀξέϊ χαλκῷ:
ἀλλά τις ἀθανάτων παῦσεν χόλον, ὅς ῥ’ ἐνὶ θυμῷ
δήμου θῆκε φάτιν καὶ ὀνείδεα πόλλ’ ἀνθρώπων,
ὡς μὴ πατροφόνος μετ’ Ἀχαιοῖσιν καλεοίμην.

Ingmar Bergman. Scenes from a Marriage.

Larry Benn has a B.A. in English Literature from Harvard College, an M.Phil in English Literature from Oxford University, and a J.D. from Yale Law School. Making amends for a working life misspent in finance, he’s now a hobbyist in ancient languages and blogs at

Poets and Audiences, Some Pithy Sayings

The following anecdotes are taken from the Gnomologium Vaticanum


“When Antagoras the poet had a performance at Thebes and obtained no honor, he said “Thebans, Odysseus screwed up when he covered his companions’ ears as he was sailing by the Sirens. It would have been right for him to hire you as sailors.”

᾿Ανταγόρας ὁ ποιητὴς ἀκρόασιν παρέχων ἐν Θήβαις καὶ μηδεμιᾶς τυγχάνων τιμῆς εἶπεν· „ὦ ἄνδρες Θηβαῖοι· ἥμαρτεν ᾿Οδυσσεὺς ἐμφράξας τῶν ἑταίρων τὰς ἀκοάς, ὅτε τὰς Σειρῆνας παρέπλει· ἔδει γὰρ αὐτὸν ὑμᾶς ναύτας μισθώσασθαι.”



“When Antagoras the Rhodian epic poet was reading his composition the Thebais in Thebes and no one was applauding him, he took the book and said, “You are rightly called Boiotians, for you all have cows’ ears!”

᾿Ανταγόρας ὁ ῾Ρόδιος ἐποποιὸς ἐν Θήβαις ἀναγινώσκων τὸ τῆς Θηβαΐδος σύγγραμμα, ὡς οὐδεὶς ἐπεσημαίνετο, εἱλήσας τὸ βιβλίον εἶπεν· „δικαίως καλεῖσθε Βοιωτοί· βοῶν γὰρ ὦτα ἔχετε.”



“When Persinos the poet was asked who the best poet is he says “each poet is to himself, but Homer to everyone else.”

Περσῖνος ὁ ποιητὴς ἐρωτηθεὶς τίς ἄριστός ἐστι ποιητὴς „παρ’ ἑαυτῷ μὲν ἕκαστος”, <εἶπε>, „παρὰ δὲ τοῖς ἄλλοις ῞Ομηρος”.



“Protagoras, when he was slandered by some poet because he didn’t welcome his poems, said “Wretch—it’s better for me to be slandered by you than to listen to your poems.”

Πρωταγόρας ἐποποιοῦ τινος αὐτὸν βλασφημοῦντος ἐπὶ τῷ μὴ ἀποδέχεσθαι τὰ ποιήματα αὐτοῦ „ὦ τάν”, ἔφη· „κρεῖττόν μοι ἐστι κακῶς ἀκούειν ὑπό σου ἢ τῶν σῶν ποιημάτων ἀκούειν”.


Color photograph of an oil painting of the bust and head of a clown. The clown has a striped white and red shirt, a red nose, and somewhat discolored makeup.
Joseph Kutter, “Tête de clown / Head of a Clown” 1937

Despite All Our Rage, We Are Still Just #Birds in a Cage

(Scholars hating scholars. And themselves)


Athenaeus, Deipnosophistae 1.22

“You know that somewhere Timo the Philasian calls the Museum a birdcage as he mocks the scholars who are supported there because they were fed like the priciest birds in a big cage:

Many are fed in many-peopled Egypt,
The paper-pushers closed up waging endless war
in the bird-cage of the Muses.

ὅτι τὸ Μουσεῖον ὁ Φιλιάσιος Τίμων ὁ σιλλογράφος (fr. 60 W) τάλαρόν πού φησιν ἐπισκώπτων τοὺς ἐν αὐτῷ τρεφομένους φιλοσόφους, ὅτι ὥσπερ ἐν  πανάγρῳ τινὶ σιτοῦνται καθάπερ οἱ πολυτιμότατοι ὄρνιθες·

πολλοὶ μὲν βόσκονται ἐν Αἰγύπτῳ πολυφύλῳ
βιβλιακοὶ χαρακῖται ἀπείριτα δηριόωντες
Μουσέων ἐν ταλάρῳ.

 Pausanias, 9.30.3

“It would not be sweet for me to write about the relative age of Homer and Hesiod, even though I have worked on the problem as closely as possible. This is because I am familiar with the fault-finding character of others and not the least of those who dominate the study of epic poetry in my time.”

περὶ δὲ ῾Ησιόδου τε ἡλικίας καὶ ῾Ομήρου πολυπραγμονήσαντι ἐς τὸ ἀκριβέστατον οὔ μοι γράφειν ἡδὺ ἦν, ἐπισταμένῳ τὸ φιλαίτιον ἄλλων τε καὶ οὐχ ἥκιστα ὅσοι κατ’ ἐμὲ ἐπὶ ποιήσει τῶν ἐπῶν καθεστήκεσαν.


From Athenaeus’ Deipnosophists, Book 5 222a-b

“And, you, my grammarians who do not inquire into these sorts of things, I quote from Herodicus the Babylonian:

Flee, Aristarcheans, over the wide back of the sea
Flee Greece, men more frightened than the brown deer,
Corner-buzzers, monosyllabists, men who care about
Sphin and sphoin and whether its min or nin*.
This is what I would have for you storm-drowned men:
But may Greece and God-born Babylon always wait for Herodicus.

And, to add another, the words of the comic poet Anaxandrides:

…It brings pleasure
Whenever someone discovers some new notion,
To share it with everyone. But those who at first
Keep it to themselves have no judge for their skill
And are later despised. For it is right to offer the mob
Everything anyone might think is brand-new.

The majority of them departed at these words and slowly the party disbanded.”


‘ὑμεῖς οὖν, ὦ γραμματικοί, κατὰ τὸν Βαβυλώνιον ῾Ηρόδικον, μηδὲν τῶν τοιού-
των ἱστοροῦντες,

φεύγετ’, ᾿Αριστάρχειοι, ἐπ’ εὐρέα νῶτα θαλάττης
῾Ελλάδα, τῆς ξουθῆς δειλότεροι κεμάδος,
γωνιοβόμβυκες, μονοσύλλαβοι, οἷσι μέμηλε
τὸ σφὶν καὶ σφῶιν καὶ τὸ μὶν ἠδὲ τὸ νίν.
τοῦθ’ ὑμῖν εἴη δυσπέμφελον· ῾Ηροδίκῳ δὲ
῾Ελλὰς ἀεὶ μίμνοι καὶ θεόπαις Βαβυλών.’
κατὰ γὰρ τὸν κωμῳδιοποιὸν ᾿Αναξανδρίδην (II 159 K)·

ἡδονὴν ἔχει,
ὅταν τις εὕρῃ καινὸν ἐνθύμημά τι,
δηλοῦν ἅπασιν· οἱ δ’ ἑαυτοῖσιν σοφοὶ
πρῶτον μὲν οὐκ ἔχουσι τῆς τέχνης κριτήν,
εἶτα φθονοῦνται. χρὴ γὰρ εἰς ὄχλον φέρειν
ἅπανθ’ ὅσ’ ἄν τις καινότητ’ ἔχειν δοκῇ.

ἐπὶ τούτοις τοῖς λόγοις ἀναχωροῦντες οἱ πολλοὶ λεληθότως διέλυσαν τὴν συνουσίαν.

*Alternative pronoun forms found in manuscripts.

Seneca, of course, gets in on the game:

Seneca, De Brevitate Vitae 13

“It would be annoying to list all the people who spent their lives pursuing board games, ball games, or sunbathing. Men whose pleasures are so busy are not at leisure. For example, no one will be surprised that those occupied by useless literary studies work strenuously—and there is great band of these in Rome now too. This sickness used to just afflict the Greeks, to discover the number of oars Odysseus possessed, whether the Iliad was written before theOdyssey, whether the poems belong to the same author, and other matters like this which, if you keep them to yourself, cannot please your private mind; but if you publish them, you seem less learned than annoying.”

Persequi singulos longum est, quorum aut latrunculi aut pila aut excoquendi in sole corporis cura consumpsere vitam. Non sunt otiosi, quorum voluptates multum negotii habent. Nam de illis nemo dubitabit, quin operose nihil agant, qui litterarum inutilium studiis detinentur, quae iam apud Romanos quoque magna manus est. Graecorum iste morbus fuit quaerere, quem numerum Ulixes remigum habuisset, prior scripta esset Ilias an Odyssia, praeterea an eiusdem essent auctoris, alia deinceps huius notae, quae sive contineas, nihil tacitam conscientiam iuvant sive proferas, non doctior videaris sed molestior.


And self loathing eventually takes over.

Palladas of Alexandria, Greek Anthology 9.169


“The wrath of Achilles has become for me, as a grammarian, the cause of my destructive poverty. I wish that that wrath would have killed me along with the Danaans, before the bitter poverty of scholarship put me to death. But instead, so that Agamemnon could take Briseis and Paris make off with Helen, I have become a beggar.”

Μῆνις ᾿Αχιλλῆος καὶ ἐμοὶ πρόφασις γεγένηται
οὐλομένης πενίης γραμματικευσαμένῳ.
εἴθε δὲ σὺν Δαναοῖς με κατέκτανε μῆνις ἐκείνη,
πρὶν χαλεπὸς λιμὸς γραμματικῆς ὀλέσει.
ἀλλ’ ἵν’ ἀφαρπάξῃ Βρισηίδα πρὶν ᾿Αγαμέμνων,
τὴν ῾Ελένην δ’ ὁ Πάρις, πτωχὸς ἐγὼ γενόμην.

No One Calls the Iliad a “Prequel” to the Odyssey….

From (Ps.) Longinus On the Sublime, 9.11-13

“Nevertheless, all through the Odyssey, which must be examined for many reasons, Homer reveals that as great inspiration fades away, storytelling becomes the dominant attribute of old age. For it is clear in many ways that this epic was composed second. Throughout the Odyssey we find episodes modeled on scenes from the Iliad, and, by Zeus, he apportions his heroes grief and misery as if these tales were long already known. The Odyssey is nothing other than an epilogue to the Iliad:

There lies fierce Ajax; here lies Achilles
There likes Patroklos, an advisor equal to the gods,
There lies my own dear son. (Od. 3.109-111)

The cause of this fact, I imagine, is that when the Iliad was being written at the peak of his strength, Homer imbued the whole work with dramatic power and action; when he was composing the Odyssey, however, he made it more of a narrative, as appropriate for old age. For this reason, you can compare the Odyssey’s Homer to a setting sun: the magnitude remains without its power. Since, in it, he no longer preserves the same power of the Iliad, that overwhelming consistency which never ebbs, nor the same rush of changing experiences, the variety and reality of it, packed full with things from true experience.

It is as if the Ocean were to withdraw into itself, quietly watching its own measure. What remains for us is the retreating tide of Homer’s genius, his wandering in storytelling and unbelievable things. When I claim this, I am not forgetting the storms in the Odyssey and the events placed near the Kyklopes and elsewhere—I am indicating old age, but it is still Homer’s old age. And, yet, the mythical overpowers in every one of these scenes.”

δείκνυσι δ’ ὅμως διὰ τῆς ᾿Οδυσσείας (καὶ γὰρ ταῦτα πολλῶν ἕνεκα προσεπιθεωρητέον), ὅτι μεγάλης φύσεως ὑποφερομένης ἤδη ἴδιόν ἐστιν ἐν γήρᾳ τὸ φιλόμυθον. δῆλος γὰρ ἐκ πολλῶν τε ἄλλων συντεθεικὼς ταύτην δευτέραν τὴν ὑπόθεσιν, ἀτὰρ δὴ κἀκ τοῦ λείψανα τῶν ᾿Ιλιακῶν παθημάτων διὰ τῆς ᾿Οδυσσείας

ὡς ἐπεισόδιά τινα [τοῦ Τρωικοῦ πολέμου] προσεπεισφέρειν, καὶ νὴ Δί’ ἐκ τοῦ τὰς ὀλοφύρσεις καὶ τοὺς οἴκτους ὡς πάλαι που προεγνωσμένοις τοῖς ἥρωσιν ἐνταῦθα προσαποδιδόναι. οὐ γὰρ ἀλλ’ ἢ τῆς ᾿Ιλιάδος ἐπίλογός ἐστιν ἡ ᾿Οδύσσεια·

ἔνθα μὲν Αἴας κεῖται ἀρήιος, ἔνθα δ’ ᾿Αχιλλεύς,
ἔνθα δὲ Πάτροκλος, θεόφιν μήστωρ ἀτάλαντος·
ἔνθα δ’ ἐμὸς φίλος υἱός.

ἀπὸ δὲ τῆς αὐτῆς αἰτίας, οἶμαι, τῆς μὲν ᾿Ιλιάδος γραφομένης ἐν ἀκμῇ πνεύματος ὅλον τὸ σωμάτιον δραματικὸν ὑπεστήσατο καὶ ἐναγώνιον, τῆς δὲ ᾿Οδυσσείας τὸ πλέον διηγηματικόν, ὅπερ ἴδιον γήρως. ὅθεν ἐν τῇ ᾿Οδυσσείᾳ παρεικάσαι τις ἂν καταδυομένῳ τὸν ῞Ομηρον ἡλίῳ, οὗ δίχα τῆς σφοδρότητος παραμένει τὸ μέγεθος. οὐ γὰρ ἔτι τοῖς ᾿Ιλιακοῖς ἐκείνοις ποιήμασιν ἴσον ἐνταῦθα σῴζει τὸν τόνον, οὐδ’ ἐξωμαλισμένα τὰ ὕψη καὶ ἱζήματα μηδαμοῦ λαμβάνοντα, οὐδὲ τὴν πρόχυσιν ὁμοίαν τῶν ἐπαλλήλων παθῶν, οὐδὲ τὸ ἀγχίστροφον καὶ πολιτικὸν καὶ ταῖς ἐκ τῆς

ἀληθείας φαντασίαις καταπεπυκνωμένον· ἀλλ’ οἷον ὑποχωροῦντος εἰς ἑαυτὸν᾿Ωκεανοῦ καὶ περὶ τὰ ἴδια μέτρα †ἐρημουμένου τὸ λοιπὸν φαίνονται τοῦ μεγέθους ἀμπώτιδες κἀν τοῖς μυθώδεσι καὶ ἀπίστοις πλάνος. λέγων δὲ ταῦτ’ οὐκ ἐπιλέλησμαι τῶν ἐν τῇ ᾿Οδυσσείᾳ χειμώνων καὶ τῶν περὶ τὸν Κύκλωπα καί τινων ἄλλων, ἀλλὰ γῆρας διηγοῦμαι, γῆρας δ’ ὅμως ῾Ομήρου· πλὴν ἐν ἅπασι τούτοις ἑξῆς τοῦ πρακτικοῦ κρατεῖ τὸ μυθικόν.

While Longinus sees many moments in the Odyssey as modeled after the Iliad, others have suggested that the Odyssey does not refer to the main events in our Iliad. [This is called Monro’s Law.] Instead, it refers generally to events which occur outside the Iliad in the Trojan War in general. Rather than indicating that the Iliad and the Odyssey did not know of one another, many interpreters have instead suggested that such nonconvergence is pointed and indicative of deep mutual knowledge.

Detail. Wooden board (writing tablet) inscribed (Greek) in ink with lines 468-473, Book I of Homer's Iliad.

A Tunic of Flesh and Kirke as an Allegory

Plutarch’s Moralia Fr. 200

“Our fated nature is identified by Empedocles as the force behind this remaking, “wrapping [us] in a tunic of strange flesh” and transferring souls to a new place. Homer has called this circular revolution and the return of rebirth by the name Kirke, a child of Helios, the one who unites every destruction with birth and destruction again, binding it endlessly.

The Island Aiaia is that place which revives the person who dies, a place where the souls first step when they are wandering and feel like strangers to themselves as they mourn and cannot figure out which direction is west nor where the “sun which brings life to people over the land / descends again into the earth.”

These souls long for their habits of pleasure and their life in the flesh and the way they lived with their flesh and they fall again into that mixture where birth swirls together and truly stirs into one the immortal and moral, the material of thought and experience, elements of heaven and earth. The souls are enchanted but also weakened by the pleasures that pull them to birth again. At that time, souls require a great amount of good luck and much wisdom to find some way to resist and depart from their worst characters and become bound to their most base parts or passions and take up a terrible and beastly life.”

Αὐτῆς γὰρ τῆς μετακοσμήσεως εἱμαρμένη καὶ φύσις ὑπὸ Ἐμπεδοκλέους δαίμων ἀνηγόρευται σαρκῶν ἀλλογνῶτι περιστέλλουσα χιτῶνι καὶ μεταμπίσχουσα τὰς ψυχάς, Ὅμηρος δὲ τὴν ἐν κύκλῳ περίοδον καὶ περιφορὰν παλιγγενεσίας Κίρκην προσηγόρευκεν, Ἡλίου παῖδα τοῦ πᾶσαν φθορὰν γενέσει καὶ γένεσιν αὖ πάλιν φθορᾷ συνάπτοντος ἀεὶ καὶ συνείροντος. Αἰαίη δὲ νῆσος ἡ δεχομένη τὸν ἀποθνήσκοντα μοῖρα καὶ χώρα τοῦ περιέχοντος, εἰς ἣν ἐμπεσοῦσαι πρῶτον αἱ ψυχαὶ πλανῶνται καὶ ξενοπαθοῦσι καὶ ὀλοφύρονται καὶ οὐκ ἴσασιν ὅπῃ ζόφος οὐδ᾿ ὅπῃ ἠέλιος φαεσίμβροτος εἶσ᾿ ὑπὸ γαῖαν,ποθοῦσαι δὲ καθ᾿ ἡδονὰς τὴν συνήθη καὶ σύντροφον ἐν σαρκὶ καὶ μετὰ σαρκὸς δίαιταν ἐμπίπτουσιν αὖθις εἰς τὸν κυκεῶνα, τῆς γενέσεως μιγνύσης εἰς ταὐτὸ καὶ κυκώσης ὡς ἀληθῶς ἀίδια καὶ θνητὰ καὶ φρόνιμα καὶ παθητὰ καὶ ὀλύμπια καὶ γηγενῆ, θελγόμεναι καὶ μαλασσόμεναι ταῖς ἀγούσαις αὖθις ἐπὶ τὴν γένεσιν ἡδοναῖς, ἐν ᾧ δὴ μάλιστα πολλῆς μὲν εὐτυχίας αἱ ψυχαὶ δέονται πολλῆς δὲ σωφροσύνης, ὅπως μὴ τοῖς κακίστοις ἐπισπόμεναι καὶ συνενδοῦσαι μέρεσιν ἢ πάθεσιν αὑτῶν κακοδαίμονα καὶ θηριώδη βίον ἀμείψωσιν.

Aristotle, Physiognomics 808b

“[in this case] the soul and the body would experience things together, but they would not have the same reactions as one another. But, now, it is entirely clear that one follows another. This is especially obvious from the following. For madness seems to be a matter of the mind; doctors, however, respond to it by cleansing the body with medicines and also by telling them to pursue certain habits in life which may relieve the mind of madness.

So, the form of the body is relieved by treatments to the body at the very same time that the soul is freed from madness. Since they are both relieved together, it is clear that their reactions are in synchrony. It is also clear from this that the forms special to the body are similar to the capabilities of the mind, with the result that all similarities in living things are clear signs of some kind of sameness.”

ἡ ψυχή τε καὶ τὸ σῶμα συμπαθῆ, οὐ μέντοι συνδιατελοῦντα ἀλλήλοις. νῦν δὲ καταφανὲς ὅτι ἑκάτερον ἑκατέρῳ ἕπεται. μάλιστα μέντοι ἐκ τοῦδε δῆλον γένοιτο. μανία γὰρ δοκεῖ εἶναι περὶ ψυχήν, καὶ οἱ ἰατροὶ φαρμάκοις καθαίροντες τὸ σῶμα καὶ διαίταις τισὶ πρὸς αὐτοῖς χρησάμενοι ἀπαλλάττουσι τὴν ψυχὴν τῆς μανίας. ταῖς δὴ τοῦ σώματος θεραπείαις καὶ ἅμα ἥ τε τοῦ σώματος μορφὴ λέλυται καὶ ἡ ψυχὴ μανίας ἀπήλλακται. ἐπειδὴ οὖν ἅμα ἀμφότερα λύονται, δῆλον ὅτι συνδιατελοῦσιν ἀλλήλοις. συμφανὲς δὲ καὶ ὅτι ταῖς δυνάμεσι τῆς ψυχῆς ὅμοιαι αἱ μορφαὶ τοῖς σώμασιν ἐπιγίνονται, ὥστ᾿ ἐστὶν ἅπαντα ὅμοια ἐν τοῖς ζῴοις τοῦ αὐτοῦ τινὸς δηλωτικά.

Epictetus, Fr. 26

“Epictetus used to say, ‘you’re a tiny soul lugging around a corpse’.”

Ψυχάριον εἶ βαστάζον νεκρόν, ὡς Ἐπίκτητος ἔλεγεν.

Wright Barker (British, 1863-1941) – “Circe” c.1889Color photograph of an oil painting. A woman, nude to the waste, gestures towards the viewer from the top of marble steps. Lions and wolves gather around her

Paris’ Weakness and the Glory of Education

Iamblichus, Life of Pythagoras 42

“For when the barbarians and the Greeks were struggling against each other around Troy because of one man’s lack of self-control they endured the most terrible calamities—some in war, some in the return home—and the god assigned a punishment for that single injustice for one thousand and ten years, providing an oracle for the sack of Troy and requesting the journey of maidens from Locris to the temple of Athena in Troy.

[Pythagoras] used to harangue the young men regarding education too, demanding that they consider how strange it would be to judge rational thought the most desirable of all things when one must judge concerning everything else using it, yet people spend no time nor toil in practicing it. And this is when care given to the body is similar to worthless friends in abandoning you quickly; education, however, is like the most good and noble companions who stay by your side right up to death—and, for some, it provides immortal glory after life is over.”

τῶν γὰρ βαρβάρων καὶ τῶν ῾Ελλήνων  περὶ τὴν Τροίαν ἀντιταξαμένων ἑκατέρους δι’ ἑνὸς ἀκρασίαν ταῖς δεινοτάταις περιπεσεῖν συμφοραῖς, τοὺς μὲν ἐν τῷ πολέμῳ, τοὺς δὲ κατὰ τὸν ἀνάπλουν, καὶ μόνης <ταύτης> τῆς ἀδικίας τὸν θεὸν δεκετῆ καὶ χιλιετῆ τάξαι τὴν τιμωρίαν, χρησμῳδήσαντα τήν τε τῆς Τροίας ἅλωσιν καὶ

τὴν τῶν παρθένων ἀποστολὴν παρὰ τῶν Λοκρῶν εἰς τὸ τῆς ᾿Αθηνᾶς τῆς ᾿Ιλιάδος ἱερόν. παρεκάλει δὲ τοὺς νεανίσκους καὶ πρὸς τὴν παιδείαν, ἐνθυμεῖσθαι κελεύων ὡς ἄτοπον ἂν εἴη πάντων μὲν σπουδαιότατον κρίνειν τὴν διάνοιαν καὶ ταύτῃ βουλεύεσθαι περὶ τῶν ἄλλων, εἰς δὲ τὴν ἄσκησιν τὴν ταύτης μηδένα χρόνον μηδὲ πόνον ἀνηλωκέναι, καὶ ταῦτα τῆς μὲν τῶν σωμάτων ἐπιμελείας τοῖς φαύλοις τῶν φίλων ὁμοιουμένης καὶ ταχέως ἀπολειπούσης, τῆς δὲ παιδείας καθάπερ οἱ καλοὶ κἀγαθοὶ τῶν ἀνδρῶν μέχρι θανάτου παραμενούσης, ἐνίοις δὲ καὶ μετὰ τὴν τελευτὴν ἀθάνατον δόξαν περιποιούσης.

The Love of Helen and Paris, Jacques-Louis David, 1788

Desperate and Unnatural: Post-Canonized Storyworlds and the Epic Cycle

Remember that the frontier of the Rebellion is everywhere. And even the smallest act of insurrection pushes our lines forward. And then remember this. The Imperial need for control is so desperate because it is so unnatural.

Karis Nemik, Andor, episode 12

If you spend a little time learning about Greek myth and ancient epic, you’ll encounter the Epic Cycle, a term for a group of poems around that told the story of the Trojan War from the very beginning (the wedding of Peleus and Thetis?) to the very end (Odysseus’ return home and its aftermath). Recent years have seen dozens of articles and books on the topic. As a Homerist, I have had to engage with this scholarship a great deal.

And my central problem is this: I think the Epic Cycle, as we talk about it, is a scholarly fiction.


I have been catching up with the Disney series Andor over the past few weeks and find myself agreeing deeply with a general opinion of its excellence–the plot is exciting, the characters are moving, and the themes of the rebellion both advance those of the original movie and complicate them. The rebels here are conflicted–some are aggrieved, some are true believers, and some are more venal. Together, they dramatize the cost of resistance and the seductive dangers of that complacency that makes us all complicit in oppression.

But watching Andor and enjoying it–after also cheering for The Mandalorian, Obi-Wan, and the Book of Boba–has made me think repeatedly about the relationship between canon and fixity and what it means to be an audience to an expanding universe. As a Homerist who comes from the end of Gen X (I was born in 1978), watching the explosion of the Star Wars universe has made me think a lot about the epic cycle and secondary narratives. 

Red figure vase:  Hephaistos polishing the shield of Achilles in the presence of Thetis. In the field, a pair of greaves, a helmet, tongs, hammer and saw. Meaningless inscription.
Hephaistos Polishing Achilles’ Shield – THE SHIELD OF ACHILLES. Caskey-Beazley, Attic Vase Paintings (MFA), no. 082.

The making of a canon

It is impossible for my children to imagine what Star Wars meant when I was their age. One of my first memories is seeing The Empire Strikes Back in a drive-in theater with my parents and being terrified by Darth Vader. Anyone who can remember prior to 1999 knew of Star Wars as an unfinished but finished trilogy: there were always rumors that George Lucas would return to a galaxy far away and long ago, seeded especially by the numbering of the first movie as IV, but for a decade or so it seemed like it would never happen.

To be a fan of Star Wars prior to the return of the movies was to rewatch VHS cassettes and read authorized novels and wait for random viewings of the super strange Ewok adventures, The Battle for Endor and Caravan for Courage. Part of what made Star Wars moving was its boundedness and the promise of more. As a child, I would weep at the end of Return of the Jedi because I didn’t want it to end. As an adult, I have written about our uncomfortable relationship with narrative closure, how we want it to come but we also dread it because it is the end of a world and is, in some way, an echo of our own deaths.

Episodes and Universes

There are two ways of thinking about entries or episodes in a narrative universe. For Star Wars what became canon were the movies–but the more episodes added to the list, the less stable the canon became. There’s a danger of surplus narrative and how we refer to the whole changes two. I think people mean two different things when they talk about the epic cycle. One is general, expansive: the cycle refers to the full range of narratives associated with the Trojan War. The other is an imagined canon of episodes. 

So, the classic Trojan Cycle described by Proclus include the Cypria, Aithiopis, Little Iliad, Iliou Persis (Sack of Troy), Nostoi (also called, according to some, The Return of the Atreids [ἡ τῶν Ἀτρειδῶν κάθοδος], and the Telegony. We have only a handful of fragments for most of these poems Some scholars have also suggested different ‘cycles’ which would focus around heroes (a cycle of epics about Herakles, for example, the Calydonian Boar Hunt or the Argo) or centering around cities other than Troy (where a Theban cycle might include the Oidipodeia, Thebais, Epigonoi, and perhaps even the Alkmeonis). This is the one I don’t think is real.

The larger a canon is, the less effective it is in exerting authority. I think that the original Star Wars trilogy exerted a centripetal force on its audiences, pulling them together to a narrative center. As the universe expands–or as the canon multiples–its force is more centrifugal, moving audiences into clusters. This is one way I think comparing a modern entertainment ‘universe’ to Trojan War narratives is useful: the Iliad and the Odyssey were panhellenic texts that persisted in applying aesthetic pressures on other traditions and their audiences. But the narrative world of the Trojan War included countless other stories and spanned many different kinds of genres.

Often when we talk about the authority of the Homeric poems, we are talking about the cultural position they occupied  in Archaic and Classical Greece as performance narratives connected to political power. This authority transformed as they moved into fixed texts and aesthetic objects for Hellenistic readers and later. Over time, they became quasi-sacred. But other stories set in the Trojan War world existed prior to our epics and kept on spinning out from a notional but fictive center: local, epichoric traditions preceded the Iliad and Odyssey and persisted well into the Christian era. The discrete episodes filled out the Universe and allowed audiences to live within them: the static nature of the canonized object is mitigated by the fluidity of ongoing traditions.

This comes clear often in accounts of ritual and local practices, like those observed by Pausanias who puts Penelope’s grave in the Peloponnese, not far from that of Aeneas’ father Anchises. What’s different, I think, about ancient Trojan War narratives is that these local or epichoric narratives developed prior to the canonized epics and continued long after. As Irad Malkin has shown in The Returns of Odysseus, as Greeks spread across the Mediterranean, they took their stories with them, adapting their myths of people like Odysseus to accommodate their new realities.

When I first watched the Mandalorian, I was simultaneously charmed and critical: prior to the new movies, you could not imagine two characters with more commercial potential than a Boba Fett analog and a baby Yoda. People my age loved Boba Fett because his action figure looked so cool. (I used to sleep with Boba as a toddler, I confess.) These characters are also tangential to the canonized storyline, they allow the space to create a new story while also still drawing on the nostalgia and cache of the center. This is part of the thrill and peril of expanding narrative traditions: the cameo of a main character in a peripheral story can be fun, but when the canon limits overmuch, the story becomes campy and over allusive (which explains, in part I think, why Rogue One works well but Solo does not).

The cultural forces of capitalism that produced the Mandalorian are, of course, different from those that perpetuated Trojan War narratives in Archaic and Classical Greece, but they remain somewhat analogous cultural forces. Both rely on audience interest and respond to changing cultural trends.

promotional image from the show andor

Audiences and Change

When we talk about the market forces that influence the expansion of the Star Wars universe, we are talking in part about audiences. Discussions of the epic cycle–and Homer in general–too often forget that ancient performers responded to their audiences as well. Audiences exist through time and time creates different kinds of audiences. When we talk about interpreting or making sense of cultural objects, we emphasize the intention of creators because it is so difficult to talk about the multiplicity of audiences. But I have been thinking about audiences as palimpsest. A palimpsest is a manuscript that has been cleaned and repurposed for a new text, and yet the old text can often be seen underneath it. Christos Tsagalis has used it productively as a metaphor for how oral traditions work. Yet this model is still about the object and not the people who view it. We change as individuals over time and our relationship to a text or cultural object changes from one generation to another.

I took dates to the rerelease of the original three movies in high school. When The Phantom Menace was released, I was there on the first weekend with roommates and my future wife (who purchased Star Wars legos while waiting to see the movie and assembled them during the film). And despite the exhilaration of the opening chyron and the music, I left disappointed. The second trilogy is cluttered, confused and confusing, and tries too hard to fill in the blanks of the later/earlier films. The second trilogy is both shaped and trapped by nostalgia.

Part of the problem is the difference between a backstory that is unexplained and a forced explanation. The “clone wars” as referenced in Star Wars are nebulous and strange: we know they were in the past and bad. When we get to them in the later trilogy, they lose the menace and strangeness. What was a detail in service of another narrative fails in certain ways when it is fleshed out because it does not and cannot exist on its own terms.

The later Star Wars films have a secondariness in that they both serve to fill out a preexisting story and they also attempt to establish intertexts and references to the earlier films that prevent them from truly being their own. This is part of the challenge of judging narratives that develop in the shadow of a canon: we love them because they continue the larger story, but also begrudge them for not being the originals they imitate.  Indeed, when authors like Jasper Griffin critique the poems of the epic cycle–without actually having access to them–for their fantastic content or their derivative nature, they are judging them by aesthetic standards, by rules, that they can never actually attain.

But changing some of the boundaries creates new space: consider the effectiveness of different kinds of Trojan War narratives on the tragic stage. Similarly, the later film Rogue One and the television series inhabit a familiar and attractive world but have their own stories to tell. They are compelling because they do not rely on their audiences fully knowing the original trilogy, but merely being familiar with the general ‘rules’ and characteristics of the Star Wars universe. They are free to respond to contemporary concerns and to establish new narratives. Further, with the television shows especially, they benefit from different generic boundaries: the pacing of episodic television lends itself to different kinds of stories from a 120 minutes space opera.

What I am trying to say, I guess, is that the process of canonization limits narratives that try to do the same thing as the canonized object but provides space for those that forge into new genres or plots. In addition, the further from the canon that narratives go, the more space they have to respond to changing audiences. Once Lucas released Star Wars into the world as a billion dollar intellectual property, others were able to escape the canonicity, to use the familiar world to tell new stories.

Image of the Mykonos vase with a version of the Trojan Horse that has cut out windows to show the warriors inside
Mykonos vase (Archaeological Museum of Mykonos, Inv. 2240). Decorated pithos found at Mykonos, Greece depicting one of the earliest known renditions of the Trojan Horse

Homer and Trojan War Narratives

The relationship between the later narratives of the Star Wars universe and the original trilogy has made me think a lot about the relationship between the Iliad and the Odyssey and Trojan War narratives. This analogy fails at a certain point because the Homeric epics likely had many different versions of their own narratives and were engaged with and responding to epic performance of all kinds (and not just Trojan War and heroic poems). But the main point I take with me is the willingness of audiences to engage in the expansion of narrative worlds and how narratives in the expanded Trojan War universe change based on new genres and new audiences.

One of the things I regularly emphasize about the limits of our own ability to understand ancient epic because we know so little about what ancient audiences knew or how they experienced epic. Think here of the difference between someone like me for whom Star Wars was canonical and my children who love Grogu and have always known who Luke Skywalker’s father was. They don’t labor under the same aesthetic weight either: they do not judge Phantom Menace by the standard of Star Wars because they don’t remember a time before when these films did not co-exist. The difference between the expanded Star Wars universe material and the second trilogy is that between inhabiting/exploring a world and concretizing/freezing it.

When it comes to the cultural position of the Homeric epics, we make the mistake of assuming the Iliad and the Odyssey always had the same monumental status as they gained by the end of the 5th century BCE. I have had exchanges recently with the Assyriologist Seth Sanders who has been somewhat perplexed by Classicists’ tendency to see “cycles” in ancient near eastern literature. He has remarked on how the development of fixed–or ‘charismatic texts’–occludes the varied and continuing nature of oral traditions and living narrative mythscapes. As a comparison, he points out the possibility that some texts from the Hebrew bible were transmitted as “monuments”. In calling it this, he notes he is adapting the art historian Alous Reigl’s notion of monumentality as a dialogic dynamic between a cultural artifact and an audience for whom that object defines something of their community’s past or authoritative identity.

The impulse to tell the whole story is a feature of post-canonization. Audiences yearned for more Star Wars and eventually got them. But the narrative satiety that resulted was disappointing until the limits set by the canon could be exceeded. As the Iliad and the Odyssey became canon, the Trojan War mythscape moved to another genre with different boundaries (tragedy) and different narrative traditions. There was no cycle telling the later tale until scholars of a post-canonized period felt the need for it.

image of the mandalorian shooting and holding grogu

The Fictive Epic Cycle

Imagine a future scholar of narrative, say in 3023, trying to make sense of the Star Wars universe. The collapse of time might very well lead them to believe that the nine movies of three trilogies were always part of an authoritative cycle. But the content and contemporary responses to the later movies would likely perplex them. The collection of stories about the Trojan War are from a much longer period in time than the mere forty years that spans the release of the Star Wars movies. We know less about the alleged poems origins than we do about their contents, but they are not centered in the same cultural space and time.

But to step back for a moment: what is the epic cycle? The ‘Epic Cycle’ most often refers to the Trojan War poems recorded by Proclus (2nd or 4th Century ce) in his Chrestomathia (appended to the Venetus A manuscript; 10th Century ce, Codex Marcianus Graecus 822) and summarized by the later Photius (9th Century ce, Patriarch). The limited fragments of these poems are conventionally dated to the 7th through 6th centuries bce. The phrase Epic Cycle refers both to the mythical events spanning from creation to the end of the race of heroes and in the same way as Proclus, in isolating a specific group of poems that tell the story of the Trojan War. There are many similarities between Proclus’ summary and the work of the mythographer Apollodorus; but there is not a one-to-one correspondence between the events of the Trojan War myths and the poems of the cycle. 

Rudolf Pfeiffer suggested that kuklos meant everything that was composed by Homer, everything that was attributed to a heroic world set in the story of the Trojan War. Gregory Nagy suggests that there’s some relationship between the etymology of the name Homeros as “one who fits things together” and that the kuklos points to the whole. Marco Fantuzzi and Christos Tsagalis expand on this idea in their introduction to their 2015 handbook by suggesting that the term is “historically ambiguous” referring to the entirety of the sky, a ring composition, or anything that repeats and returns.

The dual notion of totality and repetition, I think, makes the or a kuklos  an attractive concept but an impossibility in actuality. It is both a metonym and a metaphor. This reading works well if we consider kuklos as indicating potential entirety or completion rather than an actual one. In the world of performance, the terms kuklos and Homeros may rightly become signals of authority: to be Homeros is to be a singer who has the skills to bring the potential of the kuklos into reality; to assert that a story or song is part of the kuklos is to authorize it ex post facto as part of the tradition. It is both a nodding to a canon and an alteration of it.

I am only partly convinced that kuklos functioned in this way in performance traditions in Greece; I am certain, however, that it became something completely different in the hands of literate and literary scholars. There is a wider discussion of kuklika poems and kuklikoi poets among Hellenistic scholars (starting with Aristarchus of Samothrace, 3rd-2nd Centuries bce). But evidence for both the term kuklos and the practice of separating the kuklikoi poems from the Iliad and the Odyssey is often traced back to Aristotle who makes a few enigmatic references to Kuklos poetry (Elench. 171a10 7-11) and who also distinguishes Homeric epics from other poems by other poets based on assessments of quality (Poetics 1459a37). The poems (and poets) who appear in these scholarly traditions, however, do not align with Proclus’ summary. Scholars have explained this away by saying there were other cycles, e.g., those around Thebes, Herakles, or other topics.

Here is my summary of the principles to keep in mind.

  1. There is no evidence of a series of epic poems that told the whole story of the Trojan War from the same performance tradition and period of the composition of the Iliad and the Odyssey
  2. All of our evidence comes from Aristotle and later. The evidence is from literary scholars treating the Iliad and the Odyssey as texts.
  3. There is evidence of long narrative poems about other traditions (e.g. Thebais)
  4. Our emphasis on the Epic Cycle is skewed by the gravity of Homer: We have more extensive fragments from Panyassis and Aristeas than we have for anything from the epic cycle
  5. There is significant evidence of Trojan War narratives in other genres: lyric, elegiac, iconographic contemporaneous to or even prior to the epics we possess
  6. The Epic Cycle is an initial creation of Hellenistic scholars trying to provide narrative and aesthetic frameworks for the Iliad and the Odyssey. This initial creation has been concretized by subsequent Classical scholarship, a process intensified by some of the scholarship of the past decade.
  7. The positivistic assumption of the epic cycle as a stable set of texts and plots reasserts textual and literary aesthetics on a system that was much more fluid and dynamic (leading to a range of interpretive problems)

And, from this, a secondary list of things we can say about the epic cycle:

  1. Everything we know about the epic cycle is subordinate to the Iliad and the Odyssey as canonized, monumentalized epics.
  2. This subordination occurred either as part of trying to tell the whole story of The Trojan War or as evidence of the aesthetic superiority of the Iliad and the Odyssey
  3. The fragments and their summaries were selected to facilitate point #2 and are likely secondary or tertiary selections rather than excerpts taken from whole poems at the hands of Hellenistic editors.
  4. The privileging of Trojan War narratives as part of these efforts has suppressed the extent and importance of non-Trojan War epics: e.g. Thebais, Oedipodea, Heraklea.
red figure vase showing oedipus sitting in a hat looking up at the sphinx
The Riddle of the Sphinx: An Attic red-figure lekythos | NGV

There are many moments while watching a show like Andor that invite audiences to think about its relationship to various narrative authorities–to the shape of the empire in the original trilogy to the future events of Rogue One. But it succeeds in part because its narrative is different enough. Successful expansions of narrative universes allow traditional narratives to respond to contemporary concerns, the way that Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannos turns an ancient myth to an opportunity to reflect on plague and politics in contemporary Athens.  Authoritative narratives exert a special gravity on their audiences; but audiences push back too: they make these stories into vehicles for their own lives. When the stories become too inflexible, they adapt them or make new ones.

The expanding Star wars universe allows this now too, and sometimes with discomfort. One of the subplots of Mandalorian Season 3 troubled me: the presentation of the New Republic’s amnesty program and the betrayal of Dr. Pershing by Elia Kane suggests that while the attempts of the New Republic to be progressive and inclusive are more just than the fascism of the Empire (and its descendants), they remain coercive and subject to the baser impulses of human nature.

This ‘both-sides’ approach to the struggle against fascism in an imaginary universe is a reflex of our own contemporary experiences and conversations. Such a thematic reflection would likely be lost on future audiences as they treat the Star Wars narratives as part of a canonized cycle of tales. In much the same way, Trojan War stories developed in particular times and places, in responses to their audience’s experiences and needs. Subsequent scholars imposed an order and created a systemized series of tales that never truly existed, to respond to their own needs for stability and closure.


Some things cited and some things to read

Alwine, A. T., ‘‘The Non-Homeric Cyclops in the Homeric Odyssey’’, GRBS 49 (2009) 323-333.

Arft, J., and J. M. Foley. 2015. “The Epic Cycle and Oral Tradition.” In Fantuzzi and Tsagalis, 78–95.

Barker, E.T.E. 2008. “ ‘Momos Advises Zeus’: The Changing Representations of Cypria Fragment One.” In Greece, Rome and the Near East, ed. E. Cingano and L. Milano, 33–73. Padova.

Barker, E. T. E., and J. P. Christensen. 2006. “Flight Club: The New Archilochus

Fragment and its Resonance with Homeric Epic.” Materiali e Discussioni per l’Analisi dei Testi Classici 57:19–43.

———. 2008. “Oedipus of Many Pains: Strategies of Contest in Homeric Poetry.”

Leeds International Classical Studies 7.2. (

———. 2011. “On Not Remembering Tydeus: Diomedes and the Contest for Thebes.” Materiali e discussioni per l’analisi dei testi classici 66:9–44.

———. 2015. “Odysseus’ Nostos and the Odyssey’s Nostoi.” G. Philologia Antiqua


Albertus Benarbé. Poetorum Epicorum Graecorum. Leipzig: Teubner, 1987.

Jonathan Burgess. The Tradition of the Trojan War in Homer and the Epic Cycle. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003. 

Cingano, E. 1992. “The Death of Oedipus in the Epic Tradition.” Phoenix 46:1–11.

———. 2000. “Tradizioni su Tebe nell’epica e nella lirica greca arcaica.” In La città

di Argo: Mito, storia, tradizioni poetiche, ed. P. A. Bernardini, 59–68. Rome.

———. 2004. “The Sacrificial Cut and the Sense of Honour Wronged in Greek

Joel Christensen. “Revising Athena’s Rage: Kassandra and the Homeric Appropriation of Nostos.” YAGE 3: 88–116.

Malcolm Davies. Epicorum Graecorum Fragmenta. Göttingen : Vandenhoek & Ruprecht, 1988.

Malcolm Davies. The Greek Epic Cycle. London: Bristol, 1989.

Fantuzzi, M., and C. Tsagalis, eds. 2014. The Greek Epic Cycle and its Ancient Reception: A Companion. Cambridge.

Margalit Finkelberg. The Cypria, the Iliad, and the Problem of Multiformity in Oral and Written Tradition, ‹‹CP›› 95, 2000, pp. 1-11. 

Lulli, L. 2014. “Local Epics and Epic Cycles: The Anomalous Case of a Submerged Genre.” In Submerged Literature in Ancient Greek Culture, ed. G. Colesanti and Giordano, 76–90. Berlin and Boston.

L. Huxley. Greek Epic Poetry from Eumelos to Panyassis, Cambridge 1969.

Richard Martin. Telemachus and the Last Hero Song, ‹‹Colby Quarterly›› 29, 1993, pp. 222-240.

Jasper Griffin. “The epic cycle and the uniqueness of Homer.” Journal of Hellenic Studies 97 (1977) 39-53.

Ingrid Holmberg “The Creation of the Ancient Greek Epic Cycle”

Malkin, I., The Returns of Odysseus: Colonization and Ethnicity, Berkeley 1998.

Marks, J., ‘‘Alternative Odysseys: The Case of Thoas and Odysseus’’, TAPhA 133.2 (2003) 209-226.

Gregory Nagy. The Best of the Achaeans: Concepts of the Hero in Archaic Greek poetry. Baltimore 1999.

Nagy, G., “Oral Traditions, Written Texts, and Questions of Authorship”, in: M. Fantuzzi / C. Tsagalis (eds.), Cambridge Companion to the Greek Epic Cycle, Cambridge 2015, 59-77.

Nelson, T. J., ‘‘Intertextual Agōnes in Archaic Greek Epic: Penelope vs. the Catalogue of Women’’, YAGE 5.1 (2021) 25-57.

Rutherford, I., “The Catalogue of Women within the Greek Epic Tradition: Allusion, Intertextuality and Traditional Referentiality”, in: O. Anderson / D. T. T. Haug (eds.), Relative Chronology of Early Greek Epic Poetry, Cambridge 2012, 152-167.

Albert Severyns. Le cycle épique dans l’école d’Aristarque. Paris: Les Belles Lettres 1928.

Albert Severyns. Recherches sur la Chrestomathie de Proclos. Paris: Faculté de Philosophie et Lettres, Liége, 1938.

Giampiero Scafoglio. La questione ciclica, ‹‹RPh››78, 2004, pp. 289-310.

Laura Slatkin. The Power of Thetis: Allusion and Interpretation in the Iliad. Berkeley 1991.

Michael Squire. The Iliad in a Nutshell: Visualizing Epic on the Tabulae Iliacae. Oxford: 2011.

Tsagalis, C., Early Greek Epic Fragments I: Antiquarian and Genealogical Epic, Berlin / Boston 2017.

Marco Fantuzzi and Christos Tsagalis. “Introduction: Kyklos, Epic Cycle, and Cyclic Poetry.” In M. Fantuzzi and C. Tsagalis (eds.). ACompanion to the Greek Epic Cycle and Its Fortune in the Ancient World. (Brill, 2014).

Martin L. West. The Epic Cycle: A Commentary on the Lost Troy Epics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.


What’s the Odyssey About?

Cicero, Brutus 72

“For the Latin Odyssey is just like some creation of Daedalus and the plays of Livius are not worth reading twice.”

nam et Odyssia Latina est sic1 tamquam opus aliquod Daedali et Livianae fabulae non satis dignae quae iterum legantur.

Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Philosophers 6.27

[Diogenes] was amazed that scholars were studying Odysseus’ sufferings but
remained ignorant of their own.

τούς τε γραμματικοὺς ἐθαύμαζε τὰ μὲν τοῦ Ὀδυσσέως κακὰ ἀναζητοῦντας, τὰ δ᾽ ἴδια ἀγνοοῦντας.

Ovid, Tristia 2.375-6

“What is the Odyssey about except about love,
A woman alone, pursued by many suitors while her husband’s gone.”

aut quid Odyssea est nisi femina propter amorem,
dum vir abest, multis una petita procis?

Aristotle, Rhetoric 1406b

“Alcidamas called the Odyssey a ‘fine mirror of human life’ ”

καλὸν ἀνθρωπίνου βίου κάτοπτρον

Michael Apostolios, Proverbia 14.56

“I will make your house a wooden horse”: this means I will make it disappear. Themistokles’ groom said this. It comes from the Wooden Horse at Troy, the one Odysseus used to take the city.”

Ποιήσω τὴν οἰκίαν σου Δούρειον ἵππον: ἤτοι ἀφανίσω αὐτήν· ἱπποκόμος εἴρηκε τουτὶ Θεμιστοκλέους· εἴληπται δὲ ἀπὸ τοῦ ἐν τῇ Τροίᾳ Δουρείου ἵππου, ᾧ ᾿Οδυσσεὺς τὴν Τροίαν ἐπόρθησεν.

Plato, Laws 658d

“But I think that we old men might listen happily to someone reciting the Iliad and the Odyssey well and quickly declare that they were completely victorious! Who, then, would rightly be the winner—that’s the next issue, right?”

Ῥαψῳδὸν δέ, καλῶς Ἰλιάδα καὶ Ὀδύσσειαν ἤ τι τῶν Ἡσιοδείων διατιθέντα, τάχ᾿ ἂν ἡμεῖς οἱ γέροντες ἥδιστα ἀκούσαντες νικᾷν ἂν φαῖμεν πάμπολυ. τίς οὖν ὀρθῶς ἂν νενικηκὼς εἴη, τοῦτο μετὰ τοῦτο· ἦ γάρ;

Dio Chrysostom, 55 On Homer and Socrates 8

“Homer didn’t think it right to tell where he came from, who his parents were, no even what he should be called. Nope—instead, he’s happy if we don’t know the name of whoever composed the Iliad and the Odyssey.”

Ὅμηρος μὲν γὰρ οὐδὲ ὁπόθεν ἦν εἰπεῖν ἠξίωσεν οὐδὲ ὧντινων γονέων οὐδὲ ὅστις αὐτὸς ἐκαλεῖτο. ἀλλὰ ὅσον ἐπ᾿ ἐκείνῳ καὶ τὸ ὄνομα ἠγνοοῦμεν ἂν τοῦ γράψαντος τὴν Ἰλιάδα καὶ τὴν Ὀδύσσειαν.

Here’s a post On Not Reading Homer. And, conversely, one on Reading Homer.

“L’Odyssée” by Jean-Auguste Dominique Ingres, 1850