“Everything Seems Strange” – Confusion Upon Returning Home

Odyssey 12.187-202

“….Then Odysseus woke
From sleeping in his ancestral land, but he did not recognize it
Because he had been long gone. For the goddess poured a mist on him
Pallas Athena, the daughter of Zeus, so she might make him
Unknown and advise him of each thing,
That his wife, citizens and friends might not know him
Before he paid back the suitors for their transgression.
This is why everything seemed foreign to their lord,
The lengthy paths, the harbors with safe-anchorage,
The steep cliffs and the flourishing trees.
He leapt and stood on his feet as he gazed upon his ancestral land,
Then he groaned and struck his two thighs
With open hands and spoke mournfully:

“Alas! To which mortals’ land have I come?
Are they arrogant and wild, unjust men,
Or are they hospitable folk with god-fearing minds?”

…. ὁ δ’ ἔγρετο δῖος ᾿Οδυσσεὺς
εὕδων ἐν γαίῃ πατρωΐῃ, οὐδέ μιν ἔγνω,
ἤδη δὴν ἀπεών· περὶ γὰρ θεὸς ἠέρα χεῦε
Παλλὰς ᾿Αθηναίη, κούρη Διός, ὄφρα μιν αὐτὸν
ἄγνωστον τεύξειεν ἕκαστά τε μυθήσαιτο,
μή μιν πρὶν ἄλοχος γνοίη ἀστοί τε φίλοι τε,
πρὶν πᾶσαν μνηστῆρας ὑπερβασίην ἀποτεῖσαι.
τοὔνεκ’ ἄρ’ ἀλλοειδέα φαινέσκετο πάντα ἄνακτι,
ἀτραπιτοί τε διηνεκέες λιμένες τε πάνορμοι
πέτραι τ’ ἠλίβατοι καὶ δένδρεα τηλεθάοντα.
στῆ δ’ ἄρ’ ἀναΐξας καί ῥ’ εἴσιδε πατρίδα γαῖαν,
ᾤμωξέν τ’ ἄρ’ ἔπειτα καὶ ὣ πεπλήγετο μηρὼ
χερσὶ καταπρηνέσσ’, ὀλοφυρόμενος δ’ ἔπος ηὔδα·
“ὤ μοι ἐγώ, τέων αὖτε βροτῶν ἐς γαῖαν ἱκάνω;
ἤ ῥ’ οἵ γ’ ὑβρισταί τε καὶ ἄγριοι οὐδὲ δίκαιοι,
ἦε φιλόξεινοι καί σφιν νόος ἐστὶ θεουδής;


maine coast
Not Ithaca. Maine.


When Odysseus awakes back on Ithaca he is confused—he does not recognize where he is and, after his many years of misdirection and wandering, he assumes he has been tricked and is in a foreign country.

The narrative seems to put the blame on the mist that Athena has put upon him, but this divine trick is directly explained as making Odysseus unknowable (as part of the revenge plot). The passage has caused a little confusion: Aristophanes of Byzantium, according to a scholion, wanted to change ὄφρα μιν αὐτόν to ὄφρα μιν αὐτῷ, thus making the pronoun μιν refer to Ithaca (i.e. “so that she might make Ithaca unknowable to him” rather than “so that she might make him unknowable.” (Schol. H ad Odysseam 13.190 ὄφρα μιν αὐτόν] ᾿Αριστοφάνης “αὐτῷ” γράφει καὶ τὸ “μιν” ἐπὶ τῆς ᾿Ιθάκης τίθησιν).

But I think the text with αὐτόν is much better. The point is that the land and the man are unknowable to each other because both have changed. Odysseus gazes at the landscape—man-made paths through wild-grown trees on the edge of the sea. In twenty years how much have the trees grown? Without people, buildings, or the like, would anyone recognize a place after twenty years of natural change?

Odysseus comes to trees again in book 24 when he reunites with his father. Between his waking panic and his full unveiling, the epic makes us think repeatedly about what a ‘home’ is and the many (positive and negative) things a homecoming entails. The movement from book 13 to 24 is both about Odysseus becoming known again to Ithaca and Ithaca revealing itself to him. The Greek connects the mutual lack of recognition: Odysseus does not recognize Ithaca (οὐδέ μιν ἔγνω) and he himself is unrecognizable (ἄγνωστον). And the language may strain a bit to get the correspondence—a Scholiast glosses “unrecognizable” as “invisible” (ἄγνωστον] ἀφανῆ. Scholia V ad Odysseam).

This scene comes to my mind each time I return home to Maine. I grew up in a rural area in the southern part of the state and spent the long summers of youth exploring the many acres of pine-forest that surrounded us. For a time, I could have found my way blind-folded for miles around. I knew the trees I climbed in; where there were old abandoned graveyards; the safe paths through a cranberry bog; the locations of birch stands and poplar trees.

But now, nearly twenty years later, it is unrecognizable to me. The shapes of the trees are new; the animal and human paths have shifted; old clearings are overgrown. But I also know that I am nearly unrecognizable too.

And why is this in my mind? This weekend I return to New England as part of a protracted return home, for good. I have lived outside of the Northeast for fifteen years, have suffered nothing near Odysseus’ trials (nor his glory) and will certainly have no epic battles to fight—but there’s no doubt that after so much time both place and person are different. May I encounter only hospitable and god-fearing folk!

Homer, Odyssey 16.147-149

“It is rather painful–but let’s let it be, even though it hurts us.
For, if it were at all possible for men to choose all things,
the first thing we would choose is the homecoming day of our father”

ἄλγιον, ἀλλ’ ἔμπης μιν ἐάσομεν, ἀχνύμενοί περ.
εἰ γὰρ πως εἴη αὐτάγρετα πάντα βροτοῖσι,
πρῶτόν κεν τοῦ πατρὸς ἑλοίμεθα νόστιμον ἦμαρ


Thus Telemachus says to the swineherd in front of his father in disguise.