The Fall of Troy and the Slaughter of the Suitors: Ultimate Symbolic Correspondence in the Odyssey

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When Greek children of the 9th century BC played "Greeks and Trojans," who were the good guys and who the bad? The terms of the question are anachronistic in various ways and need qualification, but the question is nevertheless fascinating. What prompts it is a new understanding of the emotional dynamics of the Odyssey that emerges from an analysis of its form. The heart of this analysis is a perception of symbolic correspondence between the fall of Troy and Odysseus's slaughter of the suitors. The correspondence is supported by, and prompts new explanations for, problematic passages and thematic relationships that have long concerned commentators. My interpretation suggests what in any case seems reasonable, that the Odyssey was strongly influenced in its composition and initial reception by contemporary response to the fall of Troy.

In considering this response I will make psychological claims that expand conventional reader-response theory by enlisting cultural anthropology to evaluate evidence spanning centuries of social evolution. My wide-ranging speculation is New Historicist in regarding the form of the Odyssey as evidence of contemporary attitudes toward the sacking of Troy; my approach is anti-New Historicist in assuming that a basic psychological dynamic is constitutive of human nature and in discerning psychological continuity between Homeric and later audiences. In the Odyssey, problematic passages and thematic parallels to the fall of Troy suggest that those who composed and first listened to the epic felt unconscious guilt over the victory of their not-so-distant ancestors. In the context of this unconscious guilt, the climactic action of the epic has transtextual significance. The slaughter of the suitors is symbolic reparation for the sacking of Troy--a reparation in which Odysseus symbolically becomes, or is made to resemble in his bloody defense of home and family, a last, now victorious, Trojan.

My leap from formalist analysis into considering what the Odyssey meant to its first audiences is precipitated by the implications whereby a text, and particularly a "historic" text, establishes its full field of meaning. I call these implications "transtextual" by analogy with "metahistory," Hayden White's term for the moral and esthetic motives which determine the way history is written. Chronicle and epic are related genres, and much of the content of the Odyssey is, like historical data, received, not invented. But in an epic, freedom to choose, arrange and embellish is far greater, so that the transtextuality of the Odyssey is broader in its implications. Of these implications I am chiefly concerned with the moral and psychological.

Consideration of the transtextuality of the Odyssey involves an exercise in reader-response theory--or, here, listener-response theory--across a vast expanse of time and differing cultures. At such distance, there are obvious dangers of projection--what Edward Said would call imaginative colonization of otherness. We may, however, be able to surmise the response of the Homeric audience to the epic and to the oral tradition that was, and to a significant degree remains, its context. The reason for thinking this possible is that, despite great cultural diversity, human beings are fundamentally the same. To say so is, of course, to fly in the face of current relativist theory, which holds that all "regimens of truth" are based on nothing more enduring than social consensus. Foucault, the chief spokesman for radical relativism, proclaims that any axiomatic system is arbitrary. Such exclusive localization of values has been challenged, however, by researchers from various disciplines. For example, G. P. Murdock and Alexander Argyros argue convincingly for basic cultural universality and maintain that cultural differences are noticeable only because they figure against a larger ground of common culture. Underlying this cultural ground are physical, biological and familial relationships that do not differ fundamentally between peoples of varying cultures. …


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