David F. Elmer

The Integral Odyssey

In a recent essay, Olga Davidson has explored, with her characteristic elegance and insight, a variety of myths that describe the authoritative presentation of an oral epic tradition in terms of the disintegration and subsequent reintegration of a primordial book.[1] Her point of departure and primary focus is a brief narrative in the Shāhnāma of Ferdowsi, which I quote here in her translation:

There was a book [nāma] from ancient times | in which there was an
abundance of stories.
It was dispersed into the hands of every mōbad. | Every wise one [of the
mōbads] possessed a portion of it.
There was a nobleman [pahlavān], born of the dehqāns, | brave, powerful,
wise, and noble,
one who inquired into the earliest days. | He sought to retrieve all the past
From every region an aged mōbad | he brought, who would remember this
book [nāma].
He asked them about kings of the world | and about the famed and
glorious heroes,
when and how they held the world in the beginning | that they should have
passed it down to us in such a wretched state,
how, with a lucky star, | every day completed a heroic exploit for them.
The great ones, one by one, recited before him | the stories [sokhanhā]
about kings and the turnings of the world.
When the lord heard their words from them | he set the foundations for a
renowned book [nāma].
Thus it became his memorial in the world. | The small and the great praise

Shāhnāma I 21.126–136

Arguing that “the picturing of a disintegrated and then reintegrated book is a metaphor for oral poetry,” Davidson goes on to review a number of similar narratives associated with various Iranian and non-Iranian oral traditions.[2] Among these is the myth of the so-called “Peisistratean Recension,” that is, the story, reported in several ancient sources, that the “scattered books” (libri confusos, Cic. De or. 3.137) of the Homeric poems were first assembled and put in order at the direction of—in Cicero’s version, by the very hands of—the Athenian tyrant Peisistratos in the 6th c. BCE.[3] Inspired by Davidson’s discussion of the metaphor of a disintegrated and reintegrated text, I wish to offer to her some reflections on ways in which a similar tension between integration and disintegration is expressed by the narrative of the Odyssey, a poem that appears to have a special connection to Athens.[4] The tension I will trace operates independently of any textual metaphor, but, as in the case of the examples discussed by Davidson, it still speaks to the nature of the Odyssey as the product of an oral tradition.

I begin with a simple observation: the Odyssey is a notoriously ‘disjointed’ narrative. The narrator’s request in the proem that the Muse begin the story “from any point whatsoever” (ἁμόθεν γε, 1.10) suggests that the starting-point for the narrative is in some sense arbitrary; and, indeed, when we first encounter Odysseus, it is in the very last stage of his journey home. Earlier events are related by Odysseus himself in the Apologoi, his retrospective narrative of his adventures returning from Troy, in narratological terms an analepsis that itself contains a prolepsis in the form of Teiresias’ prediction of the future.[5] The narrative of Odysseus’ return is thus told in a manner that seems to demand a certain amount of reordering and reintegration. That demand is finally met in Book 23, when Odysseus himself, in what might be called a second apologos, narrates the entire tale, complete and in order, for Penelope (23.310-41).[6] Odysseus is thus the final integrator of his own story.

In view of this ultimate act of narrative integration, it is altogether appropriate that Odysseus’ mastery as integrator should be put prominently on display at his very first appearance in the poem. After devoting the first four books to Telemachus—itself a kind of displacement of Odysseus as the poem’s main subject—the narrative at last zeroes in on Odysseus, marooned on Kalypso’s island, at the beginning of Book 5. He initially appears in a posture of passivity, weeping as he gazes out to sea; his first substantive action, in this scene and in the poem as a whole, is a signal act of integration, namely, the construction of a skhediē, an ‘improvised ship.’[7] The narrative describes the shipbuilding process in considerable detail, underscoring Odysseus’ ability to construct a harmonious whole out of scattered and disorganized parts.[8]

Interpreting this scene in a metapoetic perspective, Carol Dougherty has stressed the resemblance between the shipbuilder’s craft and the art of the rhapsode, both of which assemble discrete elements into balanced unities.[9] She is right to do so: Odysseus’ skill as shipwright clearly figures his proficiency as a craftsman of the spoken word, a proficiency that brings him into close proximity with the rhapsode. But the scene has also a structural significance within the narrative economy of the Odyssey. As an icon of integration, Odysseus’ assembling of the skhediē looks forward to an important act of narrative integration, namely, the moment in Book 11 when Odysseus concludes the Apologoi by describing his arrival on Kalypso’s island. This is the moment at which Odysseus’ retrospective narration catches up with the ‘dislocated’ situation depicted at the start of the poem; it is a moment that provides for audience or reader a measure of satisfaction at the apprehension of a narrative unity, a sense of completion and wholeness.[10] The Kalypso narrative is the ‘join’ by which this sense of wholeness is accomplished. It is no coincidence that the join is marked, iconically, by the exhibition of Odysseus’ joinery. No coincidence, either, is the fact that the poem’s final act of narrative integration—Odysseus’ ‘second apologos’ for Penelope—is likewise marked by a conspicuous display of joinery, in this case, Odysseus’ retelling of the process by which he constructed both the bed that lies at the center of his house and the bed-chamber (and by implication the house as a whole) that encloses it (23.190-201). This retelling is, of course, the catalyst for the scene of recognition and reconciliation with Penelope, at the heart of which is the narrative joinery that at last reintegrates the events of the poem’s disjointed fabula into a unified whole.

It must be said, however, that if Odysseus’ ‘improvised ship’ represents a certain integral wholeness, it is not a durable wholeness. The skhediē is very soon destroyed—disintegrated into its individual parts by a wave sent by Poseidon. This act on the part of Poseidon is indicative of the god’s overall function in the poem as the primary obstacle to the achievement of the narrative’s telos, the return of Odysseus and his reintegration into Ithacan society. As the embodiment of forces that deflect Odysseus from the goal around which the narrative is organized, Poseidon is a disruptor of the narrative totality represented by the Odyssey. His disruptive role is by no means put to an end by Odysseus’ landing on Ithaca in Book 12; it extends even beyond the end of the poem, for, as Teiresias predicts and as Odysseus reports to Penelope in Book 23, it is on account of Poseidon’s wrath that Odysseus will eventually have to make another journey, one that will take him so far away from the territory of his own epic of maritime wandering that he will find himself among people who mistake an oar for a winnowing-shovel.[11] The integral totality achieved at the conclusion of the poem is thus shadowed by the prospect of its imminent dissolution.

It is significant, however, that the ‘winnowing-shovel’ that marks the point of maximum divergence from the Odyssey’s defining center, Ithaca, provides a precise counterpart for Odysseus’ skhediē, understood as an icon of both integration and imminent disintegration. For, even as it indexes the disruption of the totality of the story of return, the oar mistaken for a winnowing shovel establishes another, larger totality by pointing back to Odysseus’ ship. At the moment of its destruction by Poseidon’s wave, the disintegrating skhediē is compared to a pile of chaff scattered by the wind (5.368-70):

ὡς δ’ ἄνεμος ζαὴς ᾔων θημῶνα τινάξῃ
καρφαλέων, τὰ μὲν ἄρ τε διεσκέδασ’ ἄλλυδις ἄλλῃ,
ὣς τῆς δούρατα μακρὰ διεσκέδασ’ …

As a strong wind stirs a heap of dry chaff,
which it scatters here and there,
so [the wave] scattered the timbers of the ship …

This is the only simile in the Odyssey to draw on the act of winnowing grain; in fact, this and Odysseus’ ‘winnowing-shovel’ are to my knowledge the only two references to winnowing in the poem.[12] The collocation, at two critical moments in Odysseus’ life-story, of two radically incommensurate spheres—ship-craft and agriculture—cannot be coincidental.[13] The oar-as-winnowing-shovel clearly looks back to the destruction of Odysseus’ ship—not unreasonably, since both are manifestations of Poseidon’s anger. Separated by thousands of verses and an unspecified number of years in Odysseus’ life, these two emblems of the disintegrating totality of the Odyssey establish, in their mutual responsion, an integral whole that extends beyond the limits of the poem. It is, I hope, not too fanciful to suggest that the act of winnowing itself figures this paradoxical combination of integration and disintegration: it is an act that dissolves one unity (the pile of threshed grain) in order to create another (the pile of grain separated from the chaff).

The metapoetic significance of Odysseus’ ship takes on an additional dimension in view of this tension between integration and fragmentation, which can be seen as an expression of a typical and distinctive aspect of the experience of totality provided by a traditional performance medium. In contrast to the sense of wholeness experienced by, for example, the reader of a novel, who can indeed grasp the entirety of the text as a closed and complete whole, the audience of a traditional performance typically experiences wholeness as something immanent and virtual, something graspable only through metonymic connections between the performance and the tradition as a whole. Simply put, a single performance can never encompass or present the entirety of tradition. Even the entirety of our own text of the Odyssey far exceeds the limits of a single performance. If the poem was performed in its entirety at a festival such as the Panathenaia, we must imagine the performance extending across multiple days, and featuring multiple performers[14]; it is doubtful, in such circumstances, whether even the most attentive listener could have absorbed the entire thing. All this is to say that the sense of totality offered by a traditional performance is an evanescent one, attainable momentarily by some attentive listeners as they call to mind all that may be implied by or immanent in a motif such as Odysseus’ winnowing-shovel. The experience of performance involves an ever-present tension between the fragmentary nature of the performed narrative and the integral tradition it evokes.[15]

I have suggested that this tension should be seen as typical of traditional performance, whether it takes place in the context of a festival such as the Panathenaia, which may well have permitted the performance of a poem in its entirety, or in a more restricted context (one thinks, for example, of the amateur rhapsodic contests attested by Plato, Timaeus 21b, for the Athenian festival of the Apatouria). And yet Panathenaic ideology seems to have characterized the festival as a ‘totalizing’ event, a moment at which, every fourth year, the poetry of Homer was reconstituted in its entirety. This is the picture that emerges from ancient accounts of the ‘Panathenaic Rule’ (which stipulated that the Homeric poems, and only the Homeric poems, should be performed in order by rhapsodes performing in relay), and especially of the ‘Peisistratean Recension,’ which Davidson has discussed as a parallel for the narrative of Shāhnāma I 21.126–136.[16] Given the links that have been observed between our text of the Odyssey and the sequence of Athenian festivals culminating in the Panathenaia,[17] one is tempted, if not obliged, to juxtapose this ideology with the Odyssey’s own internal representations of integrity and totality. In so doing one is inevitably struck by the contrast between the apparent finality of the text supposedly reconstituted under Peisistratos and the Odyssey’s own image of an unstable and evanescent whole. But the contrast is by no means a contradiction. The Odyssey’s very preoccupation with the tension between integration and disintegration can be seen as an extension of Panathenaic ideology.[18] The evanescent totality evoked by key scenes in the poem harmonizes with the dynamics of a ‘totalizing’ event that is also recurrent: no realization of a tradition can be considered truly final when it occurs on an occasion that is premised on the regular recurrence of such occasions in the future. Moreover, the ideology of a final and ultimate totalization, as expressed by the story of the ‘Peisistratean Recension,’ derives much of its potency as a claim to authority from the very fact that it cuts against the grain of the dynamics of traditional performance. The narrative of a disintegrated and reintegrated book speaks to the institutional authority claimed by the Panathenaia, as it does to the authority embodied in Ferdowsi’s Shāhnāma. As Davidson writes of the latter, “the book is . . . a symbol, expressing the authority and authenticity of the oral poetic traditions that are being performed.”[19]

Works Cited

Bergren, Ann L. T. 1983. “Odyssean Temporality: Many (Re)Turns.” In Approaches to Homer, edited by C. A. Rubino and C. W. Shelmerdine, 38–73. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Burgess, Jonathan S. 2004. “Performance and the Epic Cycle.” The Classical Journal 100 (1):1–23.

Casson, Lionel. 1964. “Odysseus’ Boat (Od., V, 244-257).” American Journal of Philology 85 (1):61–64.

Cook, Erwin F. 1995. The Odyssey in Athens: Myths of Cultural Origins. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Dougherty, Carol. 2001. The Raft of Odysseus: The Ethnographic Imagination of Homer’s Odyssey. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Davidson, Olga M. 2013. Poet and Hero in the Persian Book of Kings. 3rd ed. Ilex Foundation Series 11. Boston and Washington, D.C.: Ilex Foundation.

———. 2017. “The Written Text as a Metaphor for the Integrity of Oral Composition in Classical Persian Traditions and Beyond.” Classics@ 14. http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hlnc.essay:DavidsonO.The_Written_Text_as_a_Metaphor.2016.

Nagy, Gregory. 1996. Homeric Questions. Austin: University of Texas Press.

———. 2002. Plato’s Rhapsody and Homer’s Music: The Poetics of the Panathenaic Festival in Classical Athens. Washington, D.C.: Center for Hellenic Studies.

———. 2010. Homer the Preclassic. Sather Classical Lectures 67. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Purves, Alex. 2006. “Unmarked Space: Odysseus and the Inland Journey.” Arethusa 39 (1):1–20.

Smith, John D. 1986. “Where the Plot Thickens: Epic Moments in Pābūjī.” South Asian Studies 2 (1):53–64.


[1] Davidson 2017. See also Davidson 2013: 24-46.

[2] Davidson 2017 (not paginated).

[3] I follow Nagy 1996: 73 in speaking of the story of the Peisistratean Recension as a ‘myth,’ even though it takes the form of a report of a supposedly historical event. As will become clear in the course of my discussion, however, I take this ‘myth’ as a genuine reflection of historical forces at work in Athens in the late archaic and early classical periods.

[4] See n. 17, below.

[5] Bergren 1983 stresses the sometimes overlooked fact that prolepsis is as central and significant a feature of the Odyssey’s plot as analepsis.

[6] Significantly, this second apologos is in indirect speech, suggesting that the act of narrative reintegration belongs as much to the master narrator as it does to Odysseus. Compare the remarks of Bakker 2013: 11: “It is as if the poet and the hero are vying for the same space in the presentation of the poem. But they also head toward the same goal.” Penelope also narrates her own trials for Odysseus, so that the scene as a whole integrates the narrative of Odysseus’ journey with the narrative of events on Ithaca in his absence.

[7] For skhediē (nēus) as ‘improvised ship’ rather than simply ‘raft,’ see Casson 1964.

[8] Note especially the striking frequency of terms for ‘joining’ or ‘fitting’ based on the root αρ-: ἥρμοσεν (5.247), ἁρμονίῃσιν (5.248), ἄρμενον (5.254). This material quality of fitting well together extends even to the tools used by Odysseus: cf. 5.234 (ἄρμενον) and 5.236 (εὖ ἐναρηρός).

[9] Dougherty 2001: 32-37.

[10] In a keynote address delivered to a conference convened at the University of Zadar, Croatia, on April 7, 2017, I discussed this moment of narrative integration as part of a larger attempt to apply Peter Brooks’ theory of “narrative desire” to traditional oral narrative. Some of my remarks here are adapted from that presentation.

[11] See Purves 2006 for analysis of the way in which the inland journey dictated by Teiresias represents a journey beyond the boundaries of the Homeric tradition. Speaking of the scene in which Odysseus relates Teiresias’ prophecy to Penelope (23.239-96), Purves remarks, perceptively, “the meditation on boundaries at the end of the poem only serves to thematize the possibility of a story’s (endless) expansion within the context of an oral performance that the audience of an epic poem will experience in a way that readers of texts—who can count pages—will not” (17). It will be clear from what follows that I differ somewhat from Purves in my understanding of the oar mistaken for a winnowing-shovel. Purves sees this transformation of the oar’s significance as a sign of a complete break with the Homeric tradition: “For the Inlanders,” she writes, “the object on Odysseus’ shoulder . . . is stripped of the symbolic value that it exhibited in Homer’s world” (13). I prefer to see the oar-turned-winnowing-shovel as an index of a totality that escapes the limits of a single narrative instance.

[12] The Iliad has two similes referring to the act of winnowing grain: Il. 5.499-503 and 13.588-92. Note that the tertium comparationis is somewhat different in these two cases: while the common ground in the Odyssey simile centers on the scattering of discrete parts, in the Iliad similes the emphasis is on the whitening effect of the dust raised in battle (5.499-503) or the bouncing motion of an arrow that glances off its target (13.588-92). In both these cases, then, the winnowing image is connected to battlefield violence. A similar connection would seem to underlie the poetic kenning for ‘winnowing-shovel’ that Teiresias offers as a sēma: athērēloigos (Od. 11.128, 23.275), literally, ‘destroyer of chaff.’ The martial connotations of this term (loigos is a frequent Iliadic designation for the destruction of war) may indicate that the totality embraced by this sēma encompasses the Iliad as well as the Odyssey.

[13] In characterizing these two spheres as “radically incommensurate,” I am thinking above all of the distaste for sailing exhibited by the agriculturally-oriented persona of Hesiod in the Works and Days (cf. especially 649-51).

[14] See Burgess 2004: 8-9, however, for the view that the Iliad and Odyssey were most likely not performed in their entirety at the Panathenaia. Burgess imagines “discontinuous performance of discrete episodes” (11), stressing that “knowledge of the mythological superstructure would ensure that epic presentation of a part would readily suggest the whole of a larger story” (9).

[15] For a brief discussion of such a tension in the performance of the Rajasthani epic of Pābūjī, see Smith 1986: 53.

[16] For the ‘Panathenaic Rule,’ see Nagy 2010: 21-26 (Nagy prefers the term ‘Panathenaic Regulation’), and for the ‘Peisistratean Recension,” see ibid. 314-25 (with references to earlier work).

[17] Cook 1995 links the Odyssey to a specifically Athenian context. He finds traces within the poem of a number of features of Athenian cult, and links the poem’s thematics to the sequence of year-end festivals that culminates in the Panathenaia, which marked the start of the new year in the Athenian calendar. See esp. pp. 128-170.

[18] By the same token, it is possible to see the Odyssey’s self-consciously ‘disjointed’ treatment of the plot as connected to the Panathenaic principle of performing the poetry of Homer “in order” (ephexēs), as expressed by pseudo-Plato, Hipparkhos 228b-c (on which passage see Nagy 2002: 9-16). Odysseus’ eventual re-ordering and integration of the story in his narrative for Penelope realizes, within the poem, the organizational imperatives of the Panathenaic context.

[19] Davidson 2013: 46.