Homer, Odyssey 11.100-117: Teiresias implies that the Arrival of the Suitors is Odysseus’ Fault

[Today the Almeida Theater in the UK is presenting a live reading of the Odyssey. Duly inspired, we are re-posting some of our favorite Odyssey themed posts]

“You seek a thought-softening homecoming, Odysseus: but the god has made it hard for you, since I do not think that the earth-shaker will forget anger he set in his heart, enraged as he is because you blinded his dear son. But still, even now, though you have suffered evils, you may come home, if indeed you wish to save your own life and your companions. When your well-made ship first nears the island of Thrinakia as you wander over the dark sea, you will find the cattle and fat flocks of Helios who oversees and witnesses everything. If you leave them alone and think of your homecoming, then you will return to Ithaca, even though you have suffered evils. If you harm them, that will be a sign of ruin for your ship and companions. Even if you survive yourself, you will come home badly, after losing all of your companions, and you will find pain in your house: arrogant men who consume your household, suitors of your godly wife and bringers of bridegifts.”

‘νόστον δίζηαι μελιηδέα, φαίδιμ’ ᾿Οδυσσεῦ• 100
τὸν δέ τοι ἀργαλέον θήσει θεός. οὐ γὰρ ὀΐω
λήσειν ἐννοσίγαιον, ὅ τοι κότον ἔνθετο θυμῷ,
χωόμενος ὅτι οἱ υἱὸν φίλον ἐξαλάωσας.
ἀλλ’ ἔτι μέν κε καὶ ὧς, κακά περ πάσχοντες, ἵκοισθε,
αἴ κ’ ἐθέλῃς σὸν θυμὸν ἐρυκακέειν καὶ ἑταίρων, 105
ὁππότε κεν πρῶτον πελάσῃς εὐεργέα νῆα
Θρινακίῃ νήσῳ, προφυγὼν ἰοειδέα πόντον,
βοσκομένας δ’ εὕρητε βόας καὶ ἴφια μῆλα
᾿Ηελίου, ὃς πάντ’ ἐφορᾷ καὶ πάντ’ ἐπακούει.
τὰς εἰ μέν κ’ ἀσινέας ἐάᾳς νόστου τε μέδηαι, 110
καί κεν ἔτ’ εἰς ᾿Ιθάκην, κακά περ πάσχοντες, ἵκοισθε•
εἰ δέ κε σίνηαι, τότε τοι τεκμαίρομ’ ὄλεθρον
νηΐ τε καὶ ἑτάροισ’. αὐτὸς δ’ εἴ πέρ κεν ἀλύξῃς,
ὀψὲ κακῶς νεῖαι, ὀλέσας ἄπο πάντας ἑταίρους,
νηὸς ἐπ’ ἀλλοτρίης• δήεις δ’ ἐν πήματα οἴκῳ, 115
ἄνδρας ὑπερφιάλους, οἵ τοι βίοτον κατέδουσι
μνώμενοι ἀντιθέην ἄλοχον καὶ ἕδνα διδόντες.

(1) Some god made your homecoming hard (100); Poseidon is angry (101-102); Helios will be angry (109-110)
(2) You blinded Polyphemos (making Poseidon angry, 103)
(3) Your men might harm the flocks (angering Helios, 108-11)
(4) They will suffer and so will you

The divine actions are positioned as reactions to human action (itself unmotivated by the divine). So if Odysseus had not angered Poseidon then they would not end up on Thrinakia where his companions would not have the option to anger Helios by eating his sacred cows.

All of this is in accord with Zeus’ opening statement in the Odyssey where he complains that Aigisthus ignored divine warnings (1.32-34)

ὢ πόποι, οἷον δή νυ θεοὺς βροτοὶ αἰτιόωνται.
ἐξ ἡμέων γάρ φασι κάκ’ ἔμμεναι• οἱ δὲ καὶ αὐτοὶ
σφῇσιν ἀτασθαλίῃσιν ὑπὲρ μόρον ἄλγε’ ἔχουσιν

Mortals! They are always blaming the gods and saying that evil comes from us when they themselves suffer pain beyond their lot because of their own recklessness.

Teiresias the Trans-Prophet: Origins of Prophecy and A Long-life, Not Requested

Book 3 of Ovid’s Metamorphoses offers a delightful tale about Teiresias’ blindness and power of prophecy. The Theban was born as a man but changed into a woman when he saw two snakes copulating in the forest. Years later—after getting married and having at least one child—she happened to be walking in the forest and witnessed the same thing. Wham! Teiresias was a man again.

Sometime after that, Teiresias was summoned to Olympus to adjudicate a marital dispute between Zeus and Hera who had been arguing about whether sex was better for males or females. Teiresias gave an enigmatic answer (1 part enjoyment far a man to 10 for women) and Hera blinded him in rage. Zeus compensated for this by giving him the power of prophecy.

What most people don’t know is that this tale is not at all an Ovidian innovation. A few fragments attributed to Hesiod preserve the answer and Teiresias’ reaction to Zeus’ “gift”.

The first few lines present Hesiod’s answer (Fr. 275):

[Teiresias described how]

“A man delights only in one portion of ten
While a woman delights her thoughts filling out the other ten.”

οἴην μὲν μοῖραν δέκα μοιρέων τέρπεται ἀνήρ,
τὰς δὲ δέκ’ ἐμπίπλησι γυνὴ τέρπουσα νόημα.
Another fragment appears to have Teiresias addressing Zeus (fr. 276):

“Zeus father I wish that you would give me a shorter life
And grant that I might know only the things equal to the thoughts
Of mortal men. Now you have not honored me at all,
You who have made my lifetime so long,
That I will live on through seven generations of mortal men.”

Ζεῦ πάτερ, εἴθε μοι †εἴθ’ ἥσσω μ’† αἰῶνα βίοιο
ὤφελλες δοῦναι καὶ ἴσα φρεσὶ μήδεα ἴδμεν
θνητοῖς ἀνθρώποις· νῦν δ’ οὐδέ με τυτθὸν ἔτισας,
ὃς μακρόν γέ μ’ ἔθηκας ἔχειν αἰῶνα βίοιο
ἑπτά τ’ ἐπὶ ζώειν γενεὰς μερόπων ἀνθρώπων

Teiresias is right to lament. As he probably knows from his recent power of prophecy, he will witness Dionysus’ return to Thebes (and subsequent bloodshed); the exposure of Oedipus and his parricidal, incestuous return; the deaths of Oedipus’ sons Eteokles and Polyneices at each other’s hands; and the sack of Thebes in the next generation. And even then his story isn’t over: Odysseus will wake up his tired ghost in the Odyssey for one more prophecy.

As for Teiresias’ answer to Zeus and Hera? When I teach this story I joke that he’s more afraid of Zeus than his wife. But his answer is part of a general Greek misogyny that justifies the cloistering of woman by characterizing them as libidinous by nature. The number 10 seems significant here: there may be an irony in the use of “enjoy”. In the Greek world, babies are born after 10 lunar months. If I had to give an answer to why “10:1” to save my life, that would be all I would have.

Fortunately, no Olympian beings will be seeking my advice…

The Sons of Odysseus Part 4, Telegonos

(This is a continuation of a search for all the children of Odysseus)

In our version of Hesiod’s Theogony, Telegonos appears in a disputed line as one of the sons of Kirkê and Odysseus. It is thought that the line was interpolated to keep Hesiod ‘current’ with the Cyclic poem the Telegony by Eugammon of Cyrene (which is lost):
“Kirkê, the daughter of Helios, Hyperion’s son,
After having sex with Odysseus, gave birth to
Agrios and Latînos, blameless and strong.
And she also gave birth to Telegonos thanks to golden Aphrodite.
Her sons rule far away in the recess of the holy islands
Among the glorious Tursênians.”

Κίρκη δ’ ᾿Ηελίου θυγάτηρ ῾Υπεριονίδαο
γείνατ’ ᾿Οδυσσῆος ταλασίφρονος ἐν φιλότητι
῎Αγριον ἠδὲ Λατῖνον ἀμύμονά τε κρατερόν τε•
[Τηλέγονον δὲ ἔτικτε διὰ χρυσῆν ᾿Αφροδίτην•]
οἳ δή τοι μάλα τῆλε μυχῷ νήσων ἱεράων
πᾶσιν Τυρσηνοῖσιν ἀγακλειτοῖσιν ἄνασσον.

West (1966, 434-5) considers the line about Telegonos to be a Byzantine interpolation. Though I do not aim to argue strenuously against troubling this line, it is important to note that Telegonos’ name (“born far away”; “begotten far away”) may be echoed in the line after the supposed interpolation (μάλα τῆλε). Both his and Telemakhos’ names in marking their distance, their ‘farness’, seem to echo the far-flung traveling nature of their father.

(And though Telemakhos is obviously in the Odyssey and mentioned in the Iliad, neither he nor Telegonos have a large presence in the larger body of myth. Both are largely absent from Archaic and Classical Greek art…)

Eustathius (Comm. Ad Od.1.142.35) explains such naming for sons: “Concerning being born far off, it is sufficiently clear in the Iliad. And now it will be addressed to an extent. Among the ancients, that someone is far-born is not only about where he was born, as the only son of Menelaos was Megapenthes, but that he was born when he father was far away or grew up in this way after he was born. A first example of this is Telegonos who was born from Kirkê when Odysseus was far away.”

Περὶ δὲ τοῦ τηλύγετος, ἱκανῶς ἡ ᾿Ιλιὰς δηλοῖ. νῦν δὲ εἰς τοσοῦτον ῥητέον. ὡς τηλύγετος παῖς παρὰ τοῖς παλαιοῖς, οὐ μόνον μεθ’ ὃν οὐκ ἔστι τεκνώσασθαι, ἢ ὁ μόνος υἱὸς ὡς ὁ Μεγαπένθης ἐνταῦθα τῷ Μενελάῳ, ἀλλὰ καὶ ὁ τῆλε ὄντι τῷ πατρὶ γεννηθεὶς, ἢ καὶ αὐξηθεὶς μετὰ γέννησιν. παράδειγμα τοῦ πρώτου, Τηλέγονος ὁ ἐκ Κίρκης τῆλέ που γεννηθεὶς τῷ ᾿Οδυσσεῖ.

Continue reading “The Sons of Odysseus Part 4, Telegonos”

The Death of Odysseus by Feces: Aeschylus, fragment (275 R; 478a1-5)

According  to Aeschylus’ fragmentary Psychagogoi, Teiresias prophesied to Odysseus that his death would come from the sea in an avarian fecal format:

         <ΤΕΙΡΕΣ.> ‘ἐρρω<ι>διὸς γὰρ ὑψόθεν ποτώμενος

         ὄνθω<ι> σε πλήξε<ι>, νηδύιος χειλώμασιν.

         ἐκ τοῦ δ’ ἄκανθα ποντίου βοσκήματος

         σήψει παλαιὸν δέρμα καὶ τριχορρυές’.


“As a heron flies on high, he will strike you with shit from his stomach’s end.

And the thorns from that watery food will rot your old and balding skin.”


This may correspond to the Odyssey‘s cryptic note that “death will come from the sea”. For a great discussion, see Timothy Gantz. Early Greek Myth. 1993. 711-712.


(If only there were a vase painting.)