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The Hybris of Odysseus

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  11 October 2013

Rainer Friedrich
Department of Classics, Dalhousie University
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At the close of the Cyclops adventure Odysseus piously sacrifices to Zeus the ram that has carried him out of Polyphemus' cave. Yet the god spurns his offering and ponders instead the destruction of Odysseus' ships and their crews (ix 553–5):

These lines need explaining, as they present two difficulties, one formal, the other thematic. How can Odysseus know what Zeus is pondering? As a first-person narrator Odysseus assumes temporarily the role of the epic poet, yet without being given the latter's omniscience. He retains therefore the restricted perspective of an epic character which precludes any precise knowledge of supernatural processes.

Research Article
Copyright © The Society for the Promotion of Hellenic Studies 1991

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1 Jörgensen, O., ‘Das Auftreten der Götter in den Büchern 1-μ der Odyssee’, Hermes xxxix (1904) 357–82Google Scholar.

2 Fenik, B., Studies in the Odyssey (Wiesbaden 1974Google Scholar) [hereafter ‘Fenik’] 210. See also Irmscher, J., Götterzorn bei Homer (Leipzig 1950) 57Google Scholar; Heubeck, A., Der Odyssee-Dichter und die Ilias (Erlangen 1950) 84fGoogle Scholar. Heubeck sees in the act of blinding hybris on the part of Odysseus, but as this is an act that was forced upon the hero, his is only a factual guilt: an inevitable, yet unintended, offence to Poseidon (on Heubeck's view on divine agency and human guilt, see Friedrich, R., ‘Thrinakia and Zeus' ways to men in the Odyssey,’ GRBS xxviii [1987] 375400Google Scholar).

3 Jaeger, W., ‘Solons Eunomie,’ SBBerl. (1926) 6985Google Scholar (= Five essays, tr. A. M. Fiske [Montreal 1966] 75–99).

4 Fenik 222–3, see also 230.

5 Reinhardt, K., ‘Die Abenteuer der Odyssee’, Von Werken und Formen (Bad Godesberg 1948) 85–6Google Scholar; Cf. 85: ‘So gewiss Odysseus die Humanität vertritt, so mischt sich doch in die Urteilsvollstreckung etwas Menschliches, was vor der Gottheit nicht besteht: die Hybris, freilich in der feinsten Form: die Hybris als moralische Bewusstheit.’ Fenik's critique: Fenik 216.

6 Reinhardt (n.5) 91.

7 For a critical examination of Fenik's views on Helios and Zeus in the Thrinakia adventure, see Friedrich (n.2).

8 Fenik, 209; Cf. also H. Lloyd-Jones in The justice of Zeus (Berkeley 1971) 29; Kullmann, W., ‘Gods and men in the Iliad and the Odyssey.’ HSCP lxxxix (1985) 5fGoogle Scholar.

9 Fenik 211 (‘not uniform’, ‘deep-seated disjuncture’); 216 (‘inconsistent’), 218 (‘strongly divergent concepts of divine justice’); 220 (‘patent and unmitigated discrepancy’).

10 Focke, F., Die Odyssee (Stuttgart 1943) 247ffGoogle Scholar.; A. Heubeck (n.2) 72–87.

11 J. Irmscher (n.2) 65; more recently Rutherford, R., ‘The Philosophy of the Odyssey’, JHS cvi (1986) 148Google Scholar. — Erbse, H. (Untersuchungen zur Funktion der Götter im homerischen Epos [Berlin-New York 1986] 240fGoogle Scholar) sees no problem here: it does not matter that Odysseus acted in self-defence; what counts is that Odysseus has offended the seagod by blinding his son; therefore, what Poseidon does to Odysseus is said to be analogous to what Orestes does to Aegisthus. This analogy can be construed only if one believes, as Erbse does with B. Snell, that the notion of man's own responsibility (which Zeus' programmatic speech is generally held to express) is altogether invalid for the Homeric epic. On this last point see Heubeck's, A. review of Erbse's book in GGA ccxxxix (1987) 1324Google Scholar, esp.20ff.

12 W. Kullmann, in his lucid treatment of the different conceptions of the gods in Iliad and Odyssey (n.8, 12ff), sees them in terms of a rather rigid polarity, which renders them mutually exclusive and denies any such continuum. I cannot go into this here; suffice it to point out that Kullmann's view cannot account for the Iliadic nature of Poseidon and Helios in the Odyssey.

13 Cf. Burkert, W., ‘Das Lied von Ares und Aphrodite’, RhM ciii (1960) 141Google Scholar. On epic diversity in reation to epic unity see Friedrich, R., ‘Epeisodion in epic and drama’, Hermes cxi (1983) 45ffGoogle Scholar.

14 On Poseidon see Burkert, W., Greek religion: archaic and classical, tr. Raffan, J. (Oxford 1985) 139Google Scholar.

15 Cf. Burkert (n.13) 144.

16 In its narrative structures: see Fenik 218–19.

17 Similar problems are Zeus' behaviour and actions in Od. xii 374ff and xiii 127ff., which I have discussed elsewhere (supra n. 2).

18 Muthmann, F., ‘Interpretation der Kyklopie in Obersekunda’, Der altsprachliche Unterricht viii 3 (1965) 54Google Scholar. On the peira-motif in the theoxeny see Kearns, E., ‘The return of Odysseus: A Homeric theoxeny’, CQ xxxii (1982) 28CrossRefGoogle Scholar. More on this below.

19 Nestle, W., ‘Odyssee-Interpretationen I’, Hermes lxxvii (1942) 52Google Scholar: ‘sein εὔχεσθαι 475ff., 502ff ermöglicht erst den Fluch des Kyklopen (504f = 530f); Odysseus streift hier die Grenze der ὕβρις.’

20 Brown, C.S., ‘Odysseus and Polyphemus. The name and the curse’, CompLit xviii (1966) 200Google Scholar.

21 Nitzsch, G. W., Erklärende Anmerkungen zu Homers Odyssee IX–XII, vol. iii (Hannover 1840) XIVffGoogle Scholar (Exkurs: ‘Vom Zorn des Poseidon’). The notion of Odysseus' hybris seems to have originated with Nitzsch's commentary. Contra Nitzsch, von Nägelsbach, C. F. (Homerische Theologie [Nürnberg 1861] 3536Google Scholar) has held, anticipating the views of Fenik and those on whose views he draws, that Poseidon's wrath is that of a revenging, not punishing, deity, and as such without an ‘ethical justification’, since Odysseus acted, when blinding the Cyclops, in justifiable self-defence; the other gods are said to support Poseidon because they concede to one another the right to an unjust wrath and hatred.

22 Bradley, E. M., ‘The hybris of Odysseus’, Soundings li (1968) 3344Google Scholar, esp.39ff. (without referring to Nitzsch's excursus).

23 Combellack, F. M., ‘A wish without desire’, AJP cii (1981) 115–19Google Scholar.

24 All the other instances of this idiom are without a reference to a deity. Among them is Achilles' notorious address to the dying Hektor (Il. xxii.346–8):

ἀἱ γάρ πως αὐτόν με μένος καὶ θυμὸς ἀνείη ὤμ' ἀποταμνόμενου κρέα ἔδμεναι, οῑα ἔοργας, ὡς οὐκ ἔσθ' ὃς σῆς γε κύνας κεφαλῆς ἀπαλάλκοι.

What could Achilleus be said to presume here? Certainly not divinity; if anything, it would be bestiality.

25 For a fuller and more detailed argument see Friedrich, R., ‘Heroic Man and Polymetis: Odysseus in the Cyclopeia’, GRBS xxviii (1987) 121–33Google Scholar.

26 Stanford, W. B., The Ulysses theme (Oxford 1954) 76Google Scholar; see also Stanford's, commentary on the Odyssey (Oxford 1950 & 1955) 354Google Scholar: ‘Note O.'s motives—inquisitiveness and acquisitiveness—very typical of himself and many later Greeks.’ In stressing Odysseus' alleged cupidity Stanford continues a tradition that ranges from the scholiast who called the hero philochrematosQ ad Od. vii 225) to Jacoby, F. (‘Die geistige Physiognomie der Odyssee’, Die Antike ix [1933] 159–94Google Scholar (= Kleine philologische Schriften i [Berlin 1961] 107–38) who spoke of the mercantile spirit of the Odyssey; Cf. on this Friedrich (n.25) 124–26.

27 Cp. Nestle (n. 19) 52.

28 Cp. Eisenberger, H., Studien zur Odyssee (Wiesbaden 1973) 141Google Scholar. Compare the boasts of Hektor in Il. xvi 830ff and Achilles in xxii 331ff.

29 Thus Eisenberger (n.28) 141.

30 See on this C. S. Brown (n.20).

31 Eisenberger concedes as much, (n.28) 141, when he notes that such modesty is quite ‘ungewöhnlich’ for an heroic euchos.

32 Bowra, C. M., ‘The meaning of an heroic age’ (Earl Grey Memorial Lecture, Newcastle 1957Google Scholar) in: Kirk, G. S. (ed.), The language and background of Homer (Cambridge 1964) 27Google Scholar.

33 W. Nestle (n. 19) 65.

34 See Nestle (n. 19) 62f. Examples: Diomedes wounds Aphrodite and Ares (Il. v 330ff, 856ff); he very reluctantly cedes to Apollo (Il. v 432ff) as does Achilles at the beginning of Iliad xxii; Dione lists cases of gods being wounded by heroes (Il. v 381ff); and the lesser Ajax challenges the gods in Od. iv 499ff. Add to this the less than cordial relationship between the heroic king Agamemnon and the clergy: witness his treatment first of Apollo's priest (Il. i 22ff; Cf. 24: ἀλλ' οὐκ Άτρείδη Άγαμέμνονι ἤνδανε θυμῷ) and then of the seer (Il. i. 105ff).

35 The ferocity and vehemence with which Achilles abandons himself to his menis oulomene is a strong case in point: that this passion, born of his megaletor thymos, is an implicit negation of communal life is not only visible in the destructive effects it has on the heroic communtiy, but also reflected in Achilles' growing isolation. The cannibalistic phantasies in his savage address to Hektor (Il. xxii 346ff) provide another instance of the ‘Cyclopian’ element in the heroic megaletor thymos.

36 Stanford (supra n.26 [1954]) 66ff.

37 Cf. Od. xvii 485–7:

The gods take on all sorts of disguises, resembling strangers, and they range at large through the cities observing men as to their hybris and lawfulness.

Cf. Kearns (n.18) and Muthmann (n.18).

38 One of the referees suggests a parallel to another disastrous peira, Agamemnon's testing of the host in Iliad ii. Note that the different nature of both peirai reflects the larger difference of both epics: the one peira is heroic, the other ethical.

39 Cf. Walsdorff, F. (‘Odysseus bei Polyphem’, Der altsprachliche Unterricht viii 3 [1965] 1533Google Scholar); also Germain, G., Genèse de l'Odyssée (Paris 1954) 68fGoogle Scholar.—Much, perhaps too much, is made of lines ix 231–2 by Newton, R. (‘Poor Polyphemus: emotional ambivalence in the Odyssey’, CW lxxvi [1983] 139fGoogle Scholar) and Austin, N. (‘Odysseus and the Cyclops: who is who?’, in Rubino, C. A. and Shelmerdine, C. W., Approaches to Homer Austin 1983] 12fGoogle Scholar.). Newton tries to construe from ἐθύσαμεν the sacrifice and consumption of one of the Cyclops' sheep, which is certainly not warranted by the text. True, the verb suggests a burnt sacrifice, and all that the texts allows us to infer (quaint though it sounds) is that Odysseus and his comrades must have burnt some of the Cyclops' cheese, to which they help themselves uninvited.

40 Reinhardt (n.5) 91: ‘in Poseidon's Zorn ist etwas Negatives. Er will nur sein Götterrecht … Doch auch sein Negatives dient dem grossen Positiven, dessen Name Zeus ist. Zeus lässt ihn gewähren, wirkt doch auch sein Zorn zum Ganzen.’ This is said to point to ‘etwas hintergründig Theologisches in der Dichtung’ (ibid.)

41 Cf. Erbse, H. (Beiträge zum Verständnis der Odyssee [Berlin and New York 1972]) 141–2Google Scholar, where he draws a felicitous analogy to the Aeschylean Oresteia: with the covenant established by Zeus through Athena that precludes the vicious circle of revenge and counter-revenge among the people of Ithaca, the Odyssey-poet ‘schuf das Modell für die aeschyleische Orestie.’ See also Erbse (n. 11) 255.

42 Stanford (n.26 [1954]) 71 sees this incongruity in different terms (the victory over the Cyclops is Odysseus greatest Autolycean triumph but at the same time his ‘greatest failure as the favourite of Athene’) and explains it a conflation of pre-Homeric and Homeric traditions; on this see Friedrich (n.25) 122.

43 I use ‘theoxeny-like mission’ on the strength of Kearns' convincing demonstration that Odysseus' return is patterned on a theoxeny (n.18, also n.37).

44 Brown (n.20) 202.

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