The Idea of Revenge in the Iliad and the Odyssey

In both the Iliad and the Odyssey we encounter vengeance exacted by the protagonists.

In the Iliad, a poem explicitly about the “rage” or “wrath” of Achilles, we discover the rage that follows from the sorrow for the death of a loved one. In Books XV and XVI, the beloved companion, Patroclus, is killed by Hector of Troy who strips the beautiful armor of Achilles from his body. The Trojans proceed to defile and abuse the body of Patroclus. Upon hearing this news, Achilles is overcome with grief and sorrow, soon followed by rage -a desire to exact revenge upon Hector. His motives are guided by a will for requital. He longs to inflict an equal or greater amount of suffering on Hector. As a warrior, Achilles knows only vengeance, not justice. He is not governed by laws, or nomos, but rather justice belongs to the stronger man. Notably, the victory in the war to conquer Troy does not go to “swift-footed” Achilles, but instead to “long-enduring” Odysseus who devises the famous wooden horse plot to bring destruction to Troy.

However, in the Odyssey we discover vengeance of a similar kind. After 20 long years, Odysseus returns home from his ventures to rocky Ithaca where a cohort of suitors live in his palace, eat his food, and bathe themselves in excess and luxury hoping to court Penelope, his wife. Although, like Achilles, Odysseus is furious with rage, he cloaks himself in disguise as an old beggar. He tells false tales of his adventures:

“Falsehoods all,
but he gave his falsehoods all the ring of truth” (Book XIX 235-236)

Even to his close comrades and loyal supporters, he remains disguised. Revealing oneself is dangerous, threatening to elude the enduring qualities of the king of Ithaca. Even to his own wife, Odysseus’s identity stays hidden until the opportune moment of revelation when he violently destroys the suitors in a bloodbath.

Unlike Achilles, Odysseus has tact. His guile separates him from the wrathful warrior, who is left vulnerable by his exposed heel. Odysseus, on the other hand, is careful not to risk his enduring name by leaving any part of his plot open to exposure. Unlike in the Iliad, where the audience feels sorrow for the death of Hector as well as Patroclus, in the Odyssey we are gratified by the revenge exacted on the suitors. The Homeric decision to introduce the audience to both sides of the Trojan war, taking us both behind the walls of Priam and also into the tents of the Achaeans, is characteristically different from the one-sided poem about “a man” that is revealed in the Odyssey. We are given a clear hero in the Odyssey, like Orestes in in his triumphant return, Odysseus reclaims his throne and exacts his vengeance.

Notes on Odysseus’s Tale to the Phaeacians

NM 7043
“Odysseus before Alcinous, King of the Phaeacians” by August Malmström in 1853

In Book IX, the “great teller of tales” responds to Alcinous’s request by first revealing his name as Odysseus (paralleling the tale of his venture with Polyphemus). He reminds the Phaeacians of his many troubles and woes after finally revealing his name, he recalls his story:

Upon leaving Ilium, Odysseus and his men were carried by the wind to Ismaras, to the stronghold of the Cicones’ stronghold where they sacked the city and shared the spoils. However, their neighbors came to help and forced Odysseus’s men to flee the island.

Next, they are blown off course to the land of the lotuseaters. Three men venture inland and mingle with the lotu-eaters who have intention of killing them. The men eat the sweet lotus fruit and forget their desire to return home -Odysseus had to drag them back to the ships, tie them down, and force them home.

Next, the crew smoothly runs into the sands of the island of the Cyclops. This island is savage, there is no farming, but only goat herding that takes place. Probed mainly by curiosity and intrigue to understand the giant men, Odysseus takes a group further inland into the cave of Polyphemus where they become trapped and he notices them by the light of the fire and begins to eat two at a time until on the third day Odysseus falsely reveals his name to be “Nobody.” He puts Polyphemus to sleep with wine and then gauges his eye with a scalding rod. He and his men, who can’t move the boulder at the cave entrance, escape undeneath the ribs of the sheep the next day. On leaving in his ship, Odysseus shouts taunts back to Polyphemus and reveals his true name to the giant, who then prays to Poseidon, his father, for either Odysseus’s death, or otherwise long and painful journey back home with the death of his comrades.

In Book X, Odyyseus recounts his story of Aeolian islands and Aeolus who harnesses the winds. He gives Odysseus a bag of the winds and releases the West Wind to send them home. On the way Home the men become curious and open the bag letting loose all the winds causing a squall. Odysseus says:

“And I woke up with a start, my spirit churning-

should I leap over the side and drown at one or

grit my teeth and bear it, stay among the living?

I bore it all, held firm, hiding my face…” (Book X 55-58)

Next, Odysseus is blown back to Aeolus who turns him away as cursed immeditately. They row on to the land of the Lastrygonians, led by Antiphates, who trap the men and skewer them to eat (giants). Odysseus quickly cuts the ropes of his ship and orders the men to flee.

Next, Odysseus sends his men inward at the island of Circe. All go in to hail the witch, except Eurlochus who senses a trap -he stays behind and watches as she turns them all into pigs and he returns to warn Odysseus at the ships. Odysseus ventures into her palace, much to the chagrin of the mutinous Eurylochus, and is given a gift from Hermes to prevent being turned into swine by Circe. She is amazed that he resists her spell. They eat and drink together with the crew until she instructs him to go forth to the land of the dead and consult Tiresias, the seer.

In Book XI, Odysseus ventures to the House of the Dead.They beach the ship, Odysseus with companions Perimedes and Eurylochus, and he makes a libation to the nations of the dead. Terror gripped him. First, his companion Elpenor who was not buried in the earth but left at Circe’s palace, approached Odysseus. He begs Odysseus to return to return and burn his corpse, which Odysseus vows to do.

Next he sees his mother, Anticleia, and it fills him with pity. Odysseus then sees Tiresias, the blind prophet, who drinks blood and tells hime that a god will make his journey home difficult. He tells him to not do harm to the sacred cattle of Helios, otherwise he may not make it home. Next, Odysseus’s mother drinks the blood and is relieved to converse again with her son. She died over longing for Odysseus to return home. Odysseus is unable to grab hold of her shade, though he tries three times – her ghostly shade is always “dissolving like a dream” (Book XI, 237).

Odysseus sees a long line of royal women, but he forbids them to drink the blood: Tyro, Antiope, Alcmena, Megara, Epicaste (other of Oedipus), Chloris, Leda, Iphimedeia, Phaedra, Procris, Ariadne, Clymene, Maera, Erphyle…

The night gets late and Alcinous interrupts Odysseus to offer him to stay and also wondering if he saw any heroes in the house of the dead.

Continuing, he sees Agamemnon who describes his gruesome betrayal/death as barbarism by his traiterous wife and he advises Odysseus neer to reveal the whole truth to his wife. Agamemnon does not know wheree his son Orestes is either. Next, Odysseus sees Achilles, Patroclus, Antilochus, and Ajax.

Odysseus praises Achilles power over the house of the dead, to which Achilles responds:

“By god, I’d rather slave on earth for another man-

some dirt-poor tenant farmer who scrapes to keep alive-

than rule down here over all the breathless dead” (Book XI 556-558).

This passage is clearly mirrored by John Milton’s in his later proposition in Paradise Lost. Achilles then asks about his son and his father, Peleus. Odysseus tells of the sack of Troy to Achilles, who died before the end of the war. The giant Ajax, however, refuses to respond to Odysseus’s call. Angry, he skulks off toward Erebus, or “darkness.” Odysseus also sees Minos golden scceptre decreeing justice over the dead, Orion the hunter with his club, Tityus the son of the earth with the two vultures eating his liver, Tantalus who tries to drink water but it always disappears and tries to eat fruit -pomegranites, pears, and apples- but as soon as he would strain for them they be blown up into the lowering dark clouds, Sisyphus grappling his monstrous boulder and heaving it upward only to tumblr back down again. He speaks with Heracles as crowds of the dead scatter before him. Heracles speaks to him and compares his exploits, such as the venture to the house of the dead, to Heracles’s own. Odysseus says nothing to him. The hordes of the dead begin to surround Odysseus and he returns in fear to his ship.

In Book XII, Odysseus tells of leaving the Oceean River and head east to where Dawn rises the sun. They return to Circe’s island to retrieve the body promised to Elpenor. They eat with Circe and she explains to Odysseus the path he has ahead of him. Upon passing the Sirens, Odysseus ties himself to the mast and stuffs ears of the crew with beeswax. He, alone, needed to hear their tantalizing song.

Next they encounter Scylla and Charybdis and Odysseus disobeys Circe advice and arms himself for battle with them. From this enounter we get several popular idioms such as “between Scylla and Charybdis” or “between a rock and a hard place.” Odysseus chooses to pass by Scylla (the craggy monster) and risk losing some crewmen, rather than lose the entire ship by passing close to to Charybdis (the whirlpool).

Upon passage they arrive at the island of Helios, lord Hyperion. Odysseus warns the men, but Eurylochus wades inward with mutiny on his mind. Odysseus loses the argument to the many who wish to venture inward. They rest for three days and again Odysseus warns them that Helios sees and hears all things. Ater one month, their rations run dry and Odysseus prays to the gods to find safe passage home. He falls asleep and his men, particularly Eurylochus, convinces the men to kill the cattle because dying of hunger is the wrost way to pass. Without a leader guiding the people, be they Moses, Jesus, Odysseus, or another, the masses conduct monstrous acts. Helios threatens to Zeus that he will only light the house of the dead unless Odysseus’s men are punished -Odysseus steps back to say that he heard this from Calypso who heard it from Hermes.

Odysseus is sent railing back through Charybdis, though narrowly missing the vortex, and he floats along for ten days to Ogygia, Calypso’s island. Odysseus ends his tale here as a he refuses to tell a clear story twice.

“Port Scene with the Departure of Odysseus from the Land of the Pheacians” by Claude Lorrain in 1646

For this reading I used the Fagles and Lattimore translations.

Phemius and Demodocus: Two Bards Considered

Homer Singing with his Lyre, early 19th century (oil on canvas)
Homer by Felix Boisselier, early 19th century

In Homer’s Odyssey, we encounter two different examples of poets, one hailing from the halls of Ithaca, and the other from the land of the Phaeacians. We hear neither one speak -Phemius is silent until the closing books of the text when he pleads for his life. As with all things inherited from the ancients, we notice the meticulous primacy placed on speakers in the poem, for speakers are capable of being put on trial, based on the knowledge we have of them. Homer, for example, removes himself at least one step, by invoking the muse at the outset -that is, by shrouding his face behind the ambiguous relationship between himself and the goddess. In doing s he conceals his authorship. In addition, the tales of the warrior’s Homecomings from Troy are sung by the poets, though we know they could have no knowledge or experience of Troy, and the bulk of the Odyssey is told not by Homer, but rather by Odysseus himself as he recounts his many twists and turns to Alcinous at the court of the Phaeacians. Keeping this ambiguity of the individual agency of the poets over their craft in mind, let us examine the two bards we meet in the Odyssey.

Phemius, the bard of Ithaca, is first introduced to the us in Book I of the Odyssey. His character is pitiable. He is forced by the suitors to sing pleasing songs with his lyre, yet he does not explicitly express his allegiance to the suitors. He sings a song of lament about the Achaeans in the Trojan War, and of long lost Odysseus who has never returned. This song, notably different from the songs experienced by Odysseus when he stays with the Phaeacians, impels Penelope to considerable grief. Penelope, in tears, asks Phemius to stop playing the song as it is painful for her to think of Odysseus. Telemachus, defiantly, reprimands her and allows the song to continue. Later, in Book XXII, we encounter Phemius again, begging for his life at the feet of Odysseus. He claims that he never wanted to play music for the suitors, and Telemachus vouches for Phemius. However, Odysseus, while sparing his life, commands Phemius to play wedding songs that will drown out the dying sounds of the suitors strewn across his house.

Phemius is the first bard we encounter. He is a self-taught player of the lyre and we only hear about his songs of sorrow, until commanded by Odysseus to play wedding songs -joyous songs. He successfully escapes the fate of death at the hand of Odysseus, when he reminds Odysseus that he is both a singer for humans, as well as the divine -“for gods and mortals.” He has been “inspired” by the gods with all manner of songs. He is also an oral poet who composes his own material, rather than copying those that came before him. He represents the uncomfortable mix of tradition and novelty -the latter of which the suitors are so fascinated.

In Book VIII, we are introduced to Demodocus. As the poet of the Phaeacians, Demodocus sings three songs -the first and the third of which bring Odysseus to tears, though they are concealed beneath his blur cape, noticed only by King Alcinous. Like Phemius, Homer does not allow us to hear him speak, only about his songs. After the first song, the pitiable music is interrupted for rigorous competition. For the second song sung by Demodocus, who is revealed to be blind like homeros meaning either “blind” or “hostage”, Demodocus sings of the love between Ares and Aphrodite -they make love in Hephaestus’s house, until spotted by Helios, god of the sun who notifies an angry Hephaestus, but Ares is eventually defended by Poseidon. The song ends with the two gods being freed and flying to their separate islands. Next, two people of the court dance -Odysseus notices their great dancing skills.

Odysseus, curiously, praises Demodocus as a man he ‘respects more than any other on earth’ (Book VIII, 546-550) because he has probably been taught by the Muse, Zeus’s daughter, or the god Apollo. He then beckons Demodocus to sing of Odysseus’s wooden horse trap, built by Epeus with Athena’s help “true to life as it deserves” (556). Invoked by the Muse, Demodocus obeys and brings Odysseus to tears. Again, Alcinous notices and commands Odysseus to reveal his name and his story. In response Odysseus plays the role of poet, or “maker” in Book IX by detailing the Odyssey, proper.

For this reading I used the Fagles and Lattimore translations.

The Iliad and the Odyssey: Two Proems Compared

“Rage” is the first word presented to us in the Iliad. The Goddess, not the muse, is commanded to sing of the rage of Peleus’s son Achilles. Which Goddess does Homer invoke? We are not given a clear answer, however we can acknowledge that this Goddess remains anonymous, not unlike Odysseus at the outset of the Odyssey.

Achilles’s rage is also tragic -“murderous” and “doomed,” causing the Achaean countless losses. Their deaths are innumerable -how can we then verify the causal relationship between Achilles’s rage and their deaths? We can find textual evidence of at least Patroclus’s death (Book XVI), though we will struggle in establishing a direct link between Achilles’s rage and Patroclus dying. Could it be that Homer was not referring to deaths that occurred at Ilium, nor deaths recounted in the Iliad? If so, we would be led to believe that Homer is referring to deaths that occurred after the war in Troy, perhaps including the many men that died en route home from Troy. The wrath of Achilles is, after all, not credited with winning the war -this victory is given to Odysseus for his crafty plan to infiltrate the strong walls of Ilium. Achilles’s wrath sends many souls hurling down the House of Death, but leaves their bodies for carrion, to decay and be eaten by both “dogs” and “birds.” Although there are many threats of both birds and dogs feeding on bodies, thereby defiling sacred nomos, we are given no examples of this throughout the book -not even Hector’s body that is protected from decay and feeding by a god. In addition, Achilles’s rage is clearly specified as “murderous” -it is not lawful killing, but rather unjust and contra Achaean custom.

Despite all of this, the “will” of Zeus moves toward its end. Zeus’s will is connected to the murderous rage of Achilles, and its unspoken end.

The poet commands the Muse, no longer called Goddess, to arbitrarily begin with the conflict between Agamemnon and Achilles. Homer asks: What god drove them to fight with such fury? Apollo is identified as the god who causes the rage of Achilles -he drives the fight between “brilliant” Achilles and the “lord of men.” Like Achilles, Apollo is not called exclusively by his name, but rather his status as a son, the son of Zeus and Leto -a stranger to the Olympians, banned by Hera. Additionally, while many are called the son of their father, Apollo is called the son of both father and mother, highlighting his elicit status of birth.

Why does Homer call upon the Goddess, or the Muse, to recall the story? Homer, being  the wily poet of antiquity, is no stranger to concealing himself. By putting the story in another being’s mouth, he removes himself from trial by the public and also creates ambiguity for the authorship of the tale. In putting the text to the rack, shall we put Homer, the Muse, or the characters who speak on trial? Justification for the poets is difficult.

At the close of the proem to the Iliad, we are brought out of a mist, like a great cloud being lifted. We meet the first character -a priest of Apollo, the archer- Chryses, who is the first character to speak in the text as he approaches the fast ships of Achaea to win back his daughter while brandishing high a staff with the leaves of the god Apollo. The primacy of the tragic rage of Achilles and also the priest of Apollo bringing the message of Apollo’s like-minded rage, play well with one another.

Curiously, though the Iliad begins with the rage of Achilles, caused by Apollo, and it concludes with the death and burial of Hector. We are brought both deeply into the Achaean camp, and also far behind the Trojan walls. Therefore the Iliad is not prejudicial, in favor of either Achaea or Troy. It is not a polemic work, but rather a mirror showing both sides.

Let us now turn to the opening of the Odyssey.

“Man” is the first word of the Odyssey, sometimes translated as “a man.” Homer, the poet, commands the Muse to sing of the “man of twists and turns”. Once again, Homer finds ambiguity in authorship by invoking the divine to shroud his tale in a deeper level of secrecy. Notably he beckons the Muse, not the Goddess, to sing. Also Odysseus remains anonymous, his name concealed. His name is not revealed until the end of the proem. Just as with the Muse and Homer, Odysseus confirms his masked nature throughout the tale -he is both “mind” and “no one” when speaking to Polephemus, the Cyclops. This is in direct contrast to Achilles who is called by name, as the son of Peleus, in the opening of the Iliad. Why is Odysseus called the man of twists and turns? Because he is continually driven off course after plundering the heights of Troy.

Odysseus also sees many cities of men and he learns their minds -he is well traveled and curious. He wants knowledge and by venturing out he gains wisdom by seeing the enduring things across the earth, but he also sees also the transient things throughout the cities of men. He also learns their mind, either referring to the minds of men or the mind of the city. Regardless, he is a wanderer but also a knower. He has also suffered many pains and heartsick, by fighting to bring his comrades home – a task we know he fails to accomplish. His story, like the Iliad, is about suffering. However, no one dies a pitiable death in the Iliad -those who find purple death swirling over their eyes die honorably and none are eaten by dogs or birds, whereas in the Odyssey, many men die, such as the suitors or Odysseus’s companions and they are killed unmercifully and sometimes dishonorably. There is a strong case to be made that Homer desires that his audience pay closer attention to Odysseus’s story than Achilles’s. For Odysseus, not Achilles, is given the opportunity to present his own song. While both face a choice: Achilles must decide whether to return home and live a long life or become a hero, or honorably divine, by killing Hector and thereby dying in Troy. Achilles’s choice is dictated by fate, a force beyond good and evil. His decision does not come from his mind with concern for the good of the Achaeans, but rather from his unrelenting passions. Odysseus, on the other hand, must make a choice to become like a god and live forever with Calypso on her island and in her cave, or return home. He chooses a fatal mortal life -one of death and suffering. Indeed, the Olympians have chosen this fate for him, too, as Zeus sends winged Hermes down to bring the message to Calypso to release Odysseus. Odysseus’s choice comes from his will to live and to know the great cities and men’s minds. He is wily and cunning, a man of many devices, yet he struggles politically to lead. His ventures and knowledge pose a threat to the city. He is unable to persuade Achilles in Book IX of the Iliad. His presence is nearly forgotten at home on Ithaca. His son does not know who his father is. Upon returning to Ithaca, he goes disguised and unrecognized, even by his own father. Only his dog Argo knows his master. After killing significant numbers of his own population, namely the suitors, as well as people in his own house, one has to wonder whether or not it would have been just for Odysseus to let his subjects live and begin to rebuild his status as leader or not. Is the killing of the suitors a just act? Odysseus, the man of many places, announces he is returning home but will go out on a “second sailing” soon when he is recognized and unsatisfied with the house of his father.

Returning to the proem, the Muse and Homer, two in one or perhaps one in two, chastise Odysseus’s men who could not be saved because they ate the cattle of the Sun, and the Sungod wiped them from sight. Why does the Muse choose the include the passage about the men eating the cattle of the Sungod? Is it to highlight Odysseus’s escape or his use of force to compel his men? Regardless there is no homecoming for these men, and perhaps for Odysseus either.

The poet beckons the Muse, identifying her as a daughter of Zeus, to begin the story (Odysseus is still anonymous) and to start from wherever she likes, singing for our time. Rather than beginning where Homer had drawn the reader, to the scene of the cattle of the Sungod, the Muse starts years later with Odysseus on Calypso’s island and Telemachus at home. All other men are now home from war, but Odysseus is not free from suffering, and will not be free from trials even when arriving home among his loved ones. The Muse states “every god” took pity on him, except Poseidon. Odysseus’s name is not revealed until the very end of the proem (1.25).

For this reading I used the Fagles and Lattimore translations.