[Inspired by the Almeida Theater’s live performance of the Odyssey today, we are reposting some of our favorite passages]
(For a more conventional paper-based version of the following, go here)
When Odysseus and Telemachus finally meet in book 16 of the Odyssey, the father is suddenly stripped of his disguise to reveal himself to his son. Telemachus, shocked, believes that this is instead some god come to trick him. Odysseus, frustrated by the slight delay in reunion, tells his son that “no other Odysseus will come home to you” (16.204). Although from the perspective of the narrative the audience knows that this is in fact Odysseus (and even though Telemachus immediately relents and embraces his father), the line prompts us to think of what it means to say that this man is Odysseus and to ponder what “another” Odysseus might be.
One of the things nearly everyone knows is that Odysseus, the son of Laertes, has a son named Telemachus. This fact is asseverated early in the Iliad when Odysseus makes an oath based on his identity (2.260-64):
“May I be called the father of Telemachus no longer
If I don’t grab you and strip the fine clothes from your back,
The cloak and the tunic that hides your genitals;
And then I will send you wailing among the swift ships
As I beat you from the assembly with unseemly blows.”
μηδ’ ἔτι Τηλεμάχοιο πατὴρ κεκλημένος εἴην
εἰ μὴ ἐγώ σε λαβὼν ἀπὸ μὲν φίλα εἵματα δύσω,
χλαῖνάν τ’ ἠδὲ χιτῶνα, τά τ’ αἰδῶ ἀμφικαλύπτει,
αὐτὸν δὲ κλαίοντα θοὰς ἐπὶ νῆας ἀφήσω
πεπλήγων ἀγορῆθεν ἀεικέσσι πληγῇσιν.
Odysseus also refers to himself as “Telemachus’ dear father who fights in the forefront” (Τηλεμάχοιο φίλον πατέρα προμάχοισι μιγέντα, 4.354) later in the epic. These moments are exceptional because every other hero defines himself by his patronym, by his father and past rather than his son and his future.
Most scholars seem to understand this as a nod to the Odyssey and Odysseus’ different character. The scholia present the common reaction to this from Aristonicus: The Iliad is aware of the Odyssey (Τηλεμάχοιο: ὅτι προτετυπωμένος τὰ κατὰ τὴν ᾿Οδύσσειαν μνημονεύει τοῦ Τηλεμάχου. τοῦ αὐτοῦ ἄρα ποιητοῦ καὶ ἡ ᾿Οδύσσεια, Schol. A ad Il. 4.354a 1-3).
What if this reference is not exclusive and specific (i.e. pointing to our Odyssey as we have it), but is instead selecting out and constructing one of many possible Odysseis? Yes, it is true that this notion is not incompatible with the presumption that Odysseus’ words in the Iliad ‘shout out’ to the identity of the Odysseus in the Odyssey. But at the same time, it seems to engage in a Homeric pattern of omitting or marginalizing other traditions for Odysseus—traditions that describe the events after he gets home, or provide different details about what happened after he left Troy; and traditions that transgress the strong identification between Odysseus and his son Telemachus. The larger mythical tradition, it seems, knew a different Odysseus who had many more sons.
Odysseus is said to have heard a prophecy that he would be killed by his son. So, according to some (Dictys, Hyginus) he sent Telemachus away. But what Odysseus didn’t know, allegedly, is that it had more than one son. How many? That depends on whom you believe.
The question–and the various answers we can generate–illustrate both the importance of Odysseus as a figure (in terms of geography and time) and the malleability of myth. To start, here’s the list of all the named children I could find: 17 names for sons (for, I think, 13 individuals) and a daughter:
Telemakhos and Arkesilaos/Ptoliporthes (Penelope) [Eustathius/Pausanias]
Agrios, Latinus and Telegonos (Kirke [Hesiod]) or Auson [Lykophron]
Rhomos, Antias, Ardeas (Kirke) [Dionysus of Halicarnassos]
Nausithoos and Nausinoos (Kalypso) [Hesiod]
Leontophron or Dorukles or Euryalos (Euippê, Epirote Princess) [Eustathius]
Polypoitês (Kallidikê, Thesprotian Princess) [Proklos]
Leontophronos (Daughter of Thoas, Aitolian Princess) [Apollodoros]
Kassiphone (Kirke) [Lykophron]
Now, it is fair to note that much of the attestation for these children is later than the classical period. But, with the exception of Lykophron (and more on him later), these are not authors who seem to be in the habit of making things up.