So You Think You Know Odysseus?

(Gentle Readers: The following is a summary of several posts about Odysseus for my myth class.)

Homer’s Odyssey, read by many as the story of Odysseus, has perhaps exerted a fantastic influence on the reception of the survivor of the Trojan War.  One of the things I like to encourage is the idea that rather than representing the standard view of the figure, the Homeric epic goes to great lengths to reform and re-present a traditional figure whose broader mythical tradition may have been a bit more positive.

Odysseus' Magic Raft
Odysseus’ Magic Raft

(And it is fair to say that a close reading of the Odyssey itself can produce less-than-favorable revelations regarding the man it sings about.)

Part of the difference represented by Odysseus, I think, is that he is not strictly speaking a demi-god: instead of being a child of a god endowed with super-human ability, he is something somewhat mundane, a human being one step closer to the messy world of his audiences. He is, as the epic announces, the “many-minded man” and a “man of many shapes”. For this reason especially, he becomes a protean figure in myth.

Odysseus Declaims to Sirens?
Odysseus Declaims to Sirens?

The epic may play with this when Odysseus reveals himself to Telemachus in book 16, his son at first balks, certain that this man in front of him is a god or some delusion.  Odysseus responds memorably (16.204):

“No other Odysseus will ever come home to you”
οὐ μὲν γάρ τοι ἔτ’ ἄλλος ἐλεύσεται ἐνθάδ’ ᾿Οδυσσεύς

A groundbreaking television documentary in the ancient world entitled “So You Think You Know Odysseus” might start out with his biography as popularly known and then look more closely at the epic itself.  For instance, though we often talk about his son Telemachus, his wife Penelope and his father Laertes, we often miss the small detail presented in the epic that Odysseus has a sister named Ktimene. What is going on with her? Well, it seems that she was married off into the murky relationships that pervade the background of the Odyssey‘s rather unclear presentation of the geography and politics of the islands around Ithaca, a tale which makes Laertes out to be a conqueror and brings Odysseus’ rule into question.

But if we leave the Odyssey and look into the mythical tradition, we find that Odysseus dies–according to some–because he is defecated upon by a bird. He has a grandson related to Nestor. And he has up to 18 separate children apart from Telemachus. He was, in many ways, a classic, wandering inseminator.

Odysseus Prepares to Expose his 'Sword'
Odysseus Prepares to Expose his ‘Sword’

But he was also a bit of a scoundrel. According to one tradition, he tried to stab Diomedes in the back while they slipped out of Troy. The negative associations of Odysseus become standard during the classical age when he appears often (but not always) as a bit of a villain in Tragedy and as a counter-figure in oratory where Socrates prefers Palamedes to Homer’s hero.

But it would certainly be unfair to say that the dangers of Odysseus weren’t present in the epic itself: during the middle of his own story, Odysseus as much admits that his own actions were in part cause of his (and his family’s) suffering. In the mythical tradition, Odysseus is positioned as the remorseful cause of Ajax’ madness, the vengeful scourge of Palamedes, the manipulative master of Philoktetes, and the captain who loses all his ships. His suffering is endemic. He is never innocent. But he carries on.

Odysseus and Eurykleia
Odysseus and Eurykleia

I think that this traces in part to his essential humanity: for Plato, Achilles was the best man who went to Troy, and Odysseus was the “most shifty“. His changeable nature, rather than seeming heroic, is more real, more relatable, and far less than ideal. And this is what makes him so much more like us.

The “human-ness” of Odysseus is part of what made him appealing to later philosophers, the Stoics, as a survivor. The continuation of his tale makes him an apt metaphor or available allegory for the struggle of mankind to survive after the stories are done being told.

Homer, Odyssey (15.361-370) Odysseus’ Family

(This post is a bit longer than our usual fare, but I am almost as interested in Odysseus’ sister as in his death by feces! How many other Odysseis are out there?)


“So long as she was alive, even though she was grieving, it was dear to me to ask about her because she herself raised me along with slender-robed Ktimene, her strong daughter, the youngest of the children she bore. I was raised with her, and her mother honored me little less. But when we both arrived at much-desired youth, they sent her to Same and received innumerable gifts in return. She gave me a tunic, a cloak, and sandals—wonderful clothing, and sent me to the field. She loved me more in her heart.”



ὄφρα μὲν οὖν δὴ κείνη ἔην, ἀχέουσά περ ἔμπης,

τόφρα τί μοι φίλον ἔσκε μεταλλῆσαι καὶ ἐρέσθαι,

οὕνεκά μ’ αὐτὴ θρέψεν ἅμα Κτιμένῃ τανυπέπλῳ,

θυγατέρ’ ἰφθίμῃ, τὴν ὁπλοτάτην τέκε παίδων·

τῇ ὁμοῦ ἐτρεφόμην, ὀλίγον δέ τί μ’ ἧσσον ἐτίμα.

αὐτὰρ ἐπεί ῥ’ ἥβην πολυήρατον ἱκόμεθ’ ἄμφω,

τὴν μὲν ἔπειτα Σάμηνδ’ ἔδοσαν καὶ μυρί’ ἕλοντο,

αὐτὰρ ἐμὲ χλαῖνάν τε χιτῶνά τε εἵματ’ ἐκείνη

καλὰ μάλ’ ἀμφιέσασα ποσίν θ’ ὑποδήματα δοῦσα

ἀγρόνδε προΐαλλε· φίλει δέ με κηρόθι μᾶλλον.


Odysseus had a sister who was married to one of the nobles (presumably) of Same, a nearby Island that produced some of the suitors (see, e.g., 16.123-4). It seems doubly strange, then, that Telemachus and Penelope have so few allies and other help. Also strange, but probably in line with the patrilineal thinking, is the emphasis in the Odyssey on Odysseus’ line being “single” (Od. 16. 117-120):


ὧδε γὰρ ἡμετέρην γενεὴν μούνωσε Κρονίων·

μοῦνον Λαέρτην ᾿Αρκείσιος υἱὸν ἔτικτε,

μοῦνον δ’ αὖτ’ ᾿Οδυσῆα πατὴρ τέκεν· αὐτὰρ ᾿Οδυσσεὺς

μοῦνον ἔμ’ ἐν μεγάροισι τεκὼν λίπεν, οὐδ’ ἀπόνητο.


(go here for a translation)


But the scholia have a nice solution to this problem: they report that Eurylochus—the companion Odysseus thinks about killing at 10.441—was married to her!

Κτιμένην γὰρ γεγαμήκει τὴν ᾿Οδυσσέως ἀδελφήν. Q.V. γαμβρῷ

μοι ὄντι ἐπὶ τῇ ἀδελφῇ Κτιμένῃ. B.


Although, a scholion to the Iliad seems perplexed that Odysseus doesn’t mention her himself (Schol, ad Il. 16.175c1 A ex. 9-10).


Anyone know anything else about Odysseus’ sister?