The Odyssey in Athens: Myths of Cultural Origins

The Odyssey in Athens: Myths of Cultural Origins

The Odyssey in Athens: Myths of Cultural Origins

The Odyssey in Athens: Myths of Cultural Origins


A study in poetic interaction, The Odyssey in Athens explores the ways in which narrative structure and parallels within and between epic poems create or disclose meaning. Erwin F. Cook also broadens the scope of this intertextual approach to include the relationship of Homeric epic to ritual. Specifically he argues that the Odyssey achieved its form as a written text within the context of Athenian civic cults during the reign of Peisistratos. Focusing on the prologue and the Apologoi (Books 9-12), Cook shows how the traditional Greek polarity between force and intelligence informs the Odyssean narrative at all levels of composition. He then uses this polarity to explain instances of Odyssean self-reference, allusions to other epic traditions-in particular the Iliad-and interaction between the poem and its performance context in Athenian civic ritual. This detailed structural analysis, with its insights into the circumstances and meaning of the Odyssey's composition, will lead to a new understanding of the Homeric epics and the tradition they evoked.


Gregory Nagy

The "Odyssey" in Athens: Myths of Cultural Origins, by Erwin Cook, brings a new dimension to the study of connections between mythology and poetics in the Homeric Odyssey. the author argues that the evolution of this epic was conditioned by rituals as well as myths, specifically by the civic rituals of the city-state of Athens, culminating in the festivals reorganized under the rule of the Peisistratidai, from around the middle until toward the end of the sixth century bce. According to Cook, the Homeric Odyssey, which he sees as a performance tradition explicitly rivaling the Iliad, finally became crystallized into a text in Athens. He views the process of Athenian state formation, including the development of civic festivals, as coextensive with the crystallization of this Homeric text.

In the complex of myths and rituals encompassed by the civic festivals of the archaic Athenian calendar year, the author reconstructs a fundamental interplay between two concepts, biē 'force' and mētis 'intelligence', analogous respectively to the concepts of "nature" and "culture" in the discourse of anthropologists. As Cook shows, the same opposition of biē and mētis, or of nature and culture, is played out in the overall composition of the Odysseyboth in the fantastic tales retold by Odysseus himself in Books 9 to 12 (the so-called Apologoi) and in the story about his revenge against the suitors after his homecoming to Ithaca.

These concepts are not mutually exclusive, however. Although nature excludes culture, culture does not necessarily exclude nature. To put it another way: although nature is distinct from culture so long as it . . .

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