publisher colophon

When Alkinoos elicits Odysseus's narrative of his trials at the end of Odyssey 8, he asks for a tale of the Trojan War, a fate "the gods fashioned, a ruin they allotted to men to become a song for us and later generations" (8.577–80).1 The attitude implicit in the tale he requests countermands Zeus's opening lament in the epic that men blame the gods for their fate but are themselves responsible for suffering worse than they deserve thanks to their own recklessness (atasthalia).2 Odysseus echoes Alkinoos in promising to tell "the many pains which the Ouranian gods have given me" (κήδε᾿ ἐπεί μοι πολλὰ δόσαν θεοὶ Οὐρανίωνες, 9.15). But the story he tells navigates in surprising ways between the sentiments [End Page 1] of his host and Zeus, developing a complicated picture of his own agency and responsibility.

In a recent publication (2014), William H. Race compares Odysseus's period on Skheria to a therapeutic rehabilitation.3 From a modern therapeutic perspective, this illuminates both the type of therapy Odysseus undergoes and the therapeutic power of the Odyssey for its audiences. In this paper, I expand upon Race's suggestion to show that Odysseus's narrative shares many features with the modern counseling approach called Narrative Therapy. The lessons and frameworks of Narrative Therapy help us to appreciate the therapeutic function of the Apologoi—Odysseus's stories of his journey in Books 9–11—and to understand the emphasis on agency and responsibility they share with the epic as a whole. After briefly surveying how this interpretation relates to scholarship on Homeric psychology, I will explain how some basic features of Narrative Therapy apply to the Odyssey and then analyze articulations of agency in Odysseus's tale in Book 9.


My overall argument is that the psychological function of Odysseus's own narrative may be conceptualized usefully from the perspective of the practice of Narrative Therapy as articulated by David Epston and Michael White. This therapeutic exercise conceives of individual human identities as produced through and among different types of personal and cultural narratives; the stories that people tell about themselves constrain their ability to act. As such, the therapeutic intervention this approach offers involves and requires the retelling of tales. In short, I suggest that Odysseus's retelling of his own tales in Books 9–12 reflects an understanding of the cognitive function of narrative and of the impetus for Odysseus to tell a particular type of story before he can complete his journey home. In order to make this argument, I would first like to comment briefly on what it means to talk about psychology in Homer and the cognitive status of narrative, before laying out some key features of Narrative Therapy. [End Page 2]

Considerations of Homeric psychology have traditionally emphasized theoretical questions, such as whether or not Homeric heroes make real decisions, the lexical range of expressions of emotions and thought, and the cultural implications of these kinds of studies.4 We often assume implicitly that there is a correlation between the worldviews expressed in the poems and those of their (putative) audiences (see Russo and Simon 1968 and Russo 2012). As early as Freud and Jung, psychoanalysts noted the paradigmatic nature of cultural narratives as extensions and expressions of human psychology.5 Recent studies in brain science, moreover, show not only that our brains are wired to empathize with fictional characters, but also that the experience of narrative can "re-wire" our brains to inform the way we respond to future experiences.6 Mark Turner writes persuasively on how narrative sequencing is fundamental to human thought (e.g., 1996.4–6), and Andy Clark demonstrates how narrative patterns aid in the "predictive processing" that is characteristic of human intelligence and planning for the future (2015.14–16).7 In addition to the communal aspect of language—with which narrative is inextricably linked—the power of narrative is also social: narrative depends on and is activated by engagement with other people.8 Such engagement influences and directs the shapes [End Page 3] and functions of human brains.9 This also provides a crucial evolutionary advantage: we are able to learn from the experiences of others—near, far, alive, and dead—in addition to our own.10

This larger cognitive perspective has special relevance for Homeric poetry and what some have called "folk psychology."11 Studies in the performance of oral poetry have long emphasized the interdependence of singer and audience and the manifold ways that the performance context and the story communicate and reinforce cultural values. Epic performance is dialogic, facilitating the presentation and interrogation of different ideas.12 Drawing on the essential interconnections between narratives and their audiences, we can understand the epics as displaying a broad and implicit understanding of the human mind. Rather than being simplistic, such a folk psychology on the part of Homeric epic reveals a complex understanding of human mental operations and acknowledges undermining and defeatist patterns of thought. Such acknowledgment is accompanied by embedded ameliorative—or what I will call therapeutic—responses.

The ancient Greeks did not have an explicit scientific understanding of the human brain corresponding to modern theories, but this does not necessarily mean that they did not possess an implicit, immanent, and debated conception of the self. Modern philosophers and neuroscientists have developed—and often contested—distinctions between "an immediate [End Page 4] consciousness of one's self" and a "coherent consciousness that extends with past and future stories that we tell about ourselves" (LeDoux 2002.20). The Odyssey, I suggest, also evinces and develops a sense of what we now call the "narrative self": that identity constructed through and within our memory and communicated through the stories we tell (cf. Dennett 1991 and Neisser and Fivush 1994). Much has been made of the thematic importance of storytelling in the Odyssey.13 While emphases on its metapoetic significance are compelling, modern cognitive science and psychology add new layers to what we understand about storytelling's function. As stated above, a large number of cognitive scientists and psychologists see narrative as connected to mental operations, the formation of identity, and the negotiation of social relationships. Conceptualizing human consciousness and cognition in this way has implications for how we treat behavioral problems (specific maladaptations or general issues of mental health). Therapists who approach selfhood from a narrative perspective understand that we are not constant, fixed beings, but instead we can "revise, re-collect and remember" (Epston and White 1992.30) who we are through the act of telling and retelling our tales.14 The Odyssey, in particular through its use of embedded narratives, emphasizes how our sense of self is linked both to the stories we tell about ourselves and also those others tell about us.15


Reading the Odyssey in the light of recent work on narrative and the human mind, I suggest Odysseus's Apologoi—which have multiple functions in the epic—reflect a therapeutic process by which the hero re-authors his own tale to negotiate the relationship between divine agency and his own responsibility. Such a renegotiation allows him to reclaim his identity and [End Page 5] commit to his nostos.16 At the same time, Odysseus's performance may also invite audiences to consider issues of responsibility and fate in a secondary therapeutic step that better prepares them to reconsider their own lives.17

People are always talking about Odysseus in his epic, and he talks a lot about himself. These different tellings create a tension between the memory of who Odysseus was and who he is expected to be upon his return home.18 In the epic, we find contrary responses to the power of memory: while, at times, memory causes considerable pain, the act of rehearsing even bad memories is seen as cathartic, as when Eumaios announces that it is pleasurable to recall even terrible grief after it is over.19 Recent research in the treatment of mental health promises to help us understand this tension better: memory is not stable and constant, nor are the stories that stem from it. Rather, memory flexibly adapts to fit the needs of the present situation (see Conway 2005 and notes 56 and 57 below).

For trauma victims, however, the instruments and acts of memory become fixed out of their control. They fixate on details and become paralyzed by the replay of the same events (see Fernyhough 2012.181–85). The stories they tell about the world are, in a sense, pathological, insofar as they help to recreate and perpetuate the trauma to which they correspond. One way to treat this dysfunction of narrative is through the telling [End Page 6] and retelling of memories in a clinical setting. This process helps trauma victims learn to escape the destructive loops of past events and resolve distortions in memory by focusing on and communicating their stories in different ways.20 The poststructuralist clinical approach of Narrative Therapy sees individual identity as comprised of multi-tiered systems of personal and cultural discourses21 and employs as one of its practices "re-authoring conversations,"22 allowing patients to control old narratives and establish new ones for future action.23 The therapeutic process aims to facilitate the patient's reinterpretation of the past in such a way that he redefines his sense of self, recuperates agency, and can plot a new course for the future.24

Narrative Therapy, as envisioned by the late Michael White, emphasizes that individual human identities are fluid and changing and that many of our psychological maladaptations derive in part from the belief that our actions are specific manifestations of core aspects of the "self." White calls this "internal state psychology" (2007) and suggests that it limits a sense of personal agency and hinders the ability to adapt and change in the future because it roots our sense of what we can do by limiting our behavior to narratives—frequently distorted—of what we have done. White notes that therapy patients are often paralyzed by ruminations over what has been and require interventions to redefine their concept of themselves in order to act in the future (2007.106). In proposing that part of the purpose of therapy is to allow individuals to recuperate a sense of agency by altering their sense of themselves and their own stories, White uses Jerome Bruner's term "intentional state psychology" (1986.35–36) to [End Page 7] emphasize the potential for individuals to retell their stories and create a different sense of themselves. As White explains: "Intentional state understandings shape people's endeavour to come to terms with the unexpected in life, provide a basis for their effort to address obstacles and crises, and make it possible for them to come to terms with a range of predicaments and dilemmas that confront them in everyday life" (2007.103).


We can view the Odyssey as presenting Odysseus before, during, and after a therapeutic process analogical to Narrative Therapy. The Phaiakian episode at the epic's center—the Apologoi—constitutes the central and transitional moment. Prior to it, Odysseus is in an internal state, one defined by a limited sense of agency, ruminating and incapable of acting. Following his tales, he is an agent of impressive power, with an intentional control over what happens that is tied in part to his use of narrative. The epic first presents its hero as isolated and deprived of agency on the island of Ogygia, where he spends the days weeping and the nights sleeping with Kalypso (5.151–58).25 But even before Odysseus enters the epic, we are prepared for his appearance through the journey of his son, who seems similarly helpless in his narrative debut.26 Just as Telemakhos must enter a realm of action to make a name for himself, Odysseus suffers again at sea before he arrives in Skheria, forced to deliberate about his actions and swim to safety when he is shipwrecked again (5.299–473).27 This struggle—where the hero rediscovers that his own efforts have an influence on his fate—is the first step in his reclamation of self and agency.28 The next therapeutic step comes when Odysseus tells his story: he isolates his mistakes and [End Page 8] conceptualizes them as part of a causal chain that resulted in his own suffering.29 Rather than being merely an object of divine wrath and "innocent" recipient of suffering, he acknowledges his fault in his earlier suffering and regains the agency to influence his return.30

The context and content of Odysseus's stories to the Phaiakians in Odyssey 9–12 contribute to their transitional and therapeutic character. First, consider the therapeutic framework and Odysseus's challenges in beginning his tale. As mentioned earlier, William H. Race emphasizes the therapeutic context of the Apologoi where "Alcinous and Odysseus conduct themselves like therapist and patient" (2014.48). But during the Apologoi, the therapeutic effect is both transactive (creating bonds between speaker and audience) and transformative: actively recalling makes the memory vulnerable to change. The Phaiakians are Odysseus's audience and his collaborators in witnessing his narration.31 In this exchange, Odysseus undergoes a transformation, and modern psychology offers multiple reasons for why this might work. In the therapeutic treatment of trauma, for example, extinction training (also called Exposure Therapy) strives to overlay old memories with new ones where the process of reconsolidation leads the traumatized to recreate their memories rather than destroying them completely.32 In addition, therapeutic conversations, by prompting memories and narratives to change, allow people to "modify their goals or embrace objectives that suddenly become important to them, making changes that they could not have foreseen at the outset" (White 2007.4). From these perspectives, then, Odysseus's remaking of himself in his tale is a critical preparation for the actions that follow his departure from Skheria. [End Page 9]

The transformative aspect of retelling—and the perspective to be transformed—may be signaled in Odysseus's proem to his own song.33 As mentioned earlier, Odysseus's particular problem in his first appearance can be framed as one of agency: he remained on Ogygia for seven years and only built the raft to leave when the gods told him to. Narrative Therapy, as briefly summarized above, applies two crucial steps in addressing causality and responsibility. In the first, therapists engage in "externalizing conversations" to explore problems as separate from identities34 and to trace notions of causality that may be harmful (restricting a speaker's conception of himself).35 In the second, "re-authoring conversations," patients' new stories engage in the "landscape of action" and reflect upon the intentions and purposes that are often thought to shape events.36

When Odysseus begins his tale by asking "what will I relay first and what will I tell last" (9.14), he performs a poetically marked move to acknowledge the difficulty of organizing any tale, while also signaling a deeper attempt to organize a sequence of events in terms of causality and responsibility. The first problem he faces is that the epic presents a conflation of two different causal chains: in one, Helios is author of his suffering with the death of Odysseus's companions. In another, Poseidon is responsible for Odysseus's delayed homecoming. At the same time, the epic's external audience has been told that the companions are to blame for their own destruction. (And this audience has also witnessed Odysseus's recent suffering at Poseidon's hands.) Alkinoos's request for a song of the ruin caused by the gods conforms to this recently narrated tale but is dissonant with Zeus's words in Book 1 and the epic's theme of mortal responsibility. The challenge Odysseus faces—which the audience must attend to as well—is to resolve this dissonance in order to move on from the world he has been inhabiting and to begin the return to his home. The therapeutic [End Page 10] consequences of the Apologoi cannot be missed: instead of depicting himself as the helpless object of divine caprice, Odysseus proceeds to isolate a human cause: his admittedly mistaken yet ultimately unexplained boasting over the blinding of Polyphemos.37

Such a therapeutic understanding of the need for telling this tale enriches our appreciation of its structure and meaning.38 The Apologoi begin with a reclamation of identity and proceed through evaluations of responsibility. After Odysseus casts about for a place to start his narrative, he names himself: "I am Odysseus, the son of Laertes, known to all for his tricks; my fame reaches even to heaven" (εἴμ᾿ ᾿Οδυσεὺς Λαερτιάδης, ὃς πᾶσι δόλοισιν / ἀνθρώποισι μέλω, καί μευ κλέος οὐρανὸν ἵκει, 9.19–20). This unique naming is thematically and therapeutically significant: the hero identifies a public self as the starting point of his tale. The contrast with the outer narrative frame, where Odysseus's name is postponed, may point to the importance of the story he tells in identity formation (or reaffirmation).39 This naming also initiates a complex relationship with his famous trick of calling himself "No-man" in Book 9. Although the audience experiences his naming first and then his abrasion of his name second, in his experience, his reclaiming of his name follows years after its denial. The denial and recuperation of a name may speak to different conceptions of the self. For example, Charles Fernyhough describes a trauma patient whose lack of agency was connected to a sense of being a "nobody" without direction and memory (2012.201). On the other hand, John Peradotto suggests that [End Page 11] Odysseus's rejection of a name in the Cyclops episode of Book 9 marks him as a "narrative agent par excellence" (1990.155).40 Rather than arguing against one of these suggestions, I think that Odysseus's narrative before the Phaiakians demonstrates how the claiming of an identity at the beginning of his narration allows him to emerge from a state of claiming no identity in order to remember his ability to claim any identity.

Again, following Peradotto, Odysseus's capacity to be polytropos is conferred both through his naming and the range of stories that are told about him. But when we first see him speaking in Book 9, his ability to live up to this epithet is unclear. From his initial ascription of responsibility to the gods (κήδε᾿ ἐπεί μοι πολλὰ δόσαν θεοὶ Οὐρανίωνες, 9.15), Odysseus distinguishes between different types of responsibility and agency. In the first tale, which he frames but does not tell clearly, he explains that both Kalypso and Kirke held him back from his homecoming (ἦ μέν μ᾿ αὐτόθ᾿ ἔρυκε Καλυψώ, δῖα θεάων, 29; ὣς δ᾿ αὔτως Κίρκη κατερήτυεν ἐν μεγάροισιν, 31). He reverses the order of the two goddesses and couples them together before he explains his own place in that narrative (9.32–35):

But she never persuaded the heart in my chest.Because nothing can be sweeter than your homeland and parents,Even if a man lives in a wealthy house far awayIn a foreign land, apart from his parents.

ἀλλ᾿ ἐμὸν οὔ ποτε θυμὸν ἐνὶ στήθεσσιν ἔπειθεν.ὢς οὐδὲν γλύκιον ἧς πατρίδος οὐδὲ τοκήωνγίνεται, εἴ περ καί τις ἀπόπροθι πίονα οἶκονγαίῃ ἐν ἀλλοδαπῇ ναίει ἀπάνευθε τοκήων.

As the audience discovers later, Odysseus is not entirely truthful here: his men must ask him to leave Kirke's house and remind him of his homecoming. And the external audience might also sense a disingenuous note since, in his first appearance in Book 5, Odysseus is "lamenting his homecoming since the goddess was no longer pleasing to him" (νόστον ὀδυρομένῳ, ἐπεὶ οὐκέτι ἥνδανε νύμφη, 5.153).41 In addition to the temporal [End Page 12] reversals of his stays in Ogygia and Aiaia, note the syntactic elision: he mentions two goddesses restraining him but collapses them into one tale: a singular "she" failed to move his heart. This short revision of his experiences functions as a marker for the type of story Odysseus will tell. It will be rearranged to fit current needs: the Odysseus who just named himself as the son of Laertes now implies (or reasserts) that his identity is constituted by his land and his genealogy. In addition, he opposes the uncontrollable forces of these divine women to his own agency, the power of his thumos that would not submit.42 But just as he begins that story and the process of reassertion, he revises the narrative yet again with a different beginning and a different ascription of responsibility. He abruptly announces: "Come, I will tell you about my homecoming of many griefs, the journey Zeus forced upon me as I was returning from Troy" (εἰ δ᾿ ἄγε τοι καὶ νόστον ἐμὸν πολυκηδέ᾿ ἐνίσπω, / ὅν μοι Ζεὺς ἐφέηκεν ἀπὸ Τροίηθεν ἰόντι, 9.37–38).

Narrative Therapy often requires multiple retellings of the same tales to produce new results. In Odysseus's song, however, we find a composite retelling, complete with hedges and revisions. But even this composite can be viewed as a process. The re-authoring of tales discussed earlier prompts speakers to reflect on their past, to isolate prior and perhaps problematic frameworks for agency and action, and, in reframing, to create a new sense of a self who will act in the future.43 Michael White uses figures to show how in the act of retelling tales, patients move between the landscape of action (the events themselves) and the landscape of consciousness or identity (the telling and retelling of these events).44 Figure 1.1 below, adapted from maps representing the reflections and revisions that occur during Narrative Therapy, presents another way of thinking about the relationship between the events and their narrative context in the Apologoi. [End Page 13]

Figure 1.1. Vertical lines show direction of judgment. Back diagonals show paths of reflection on current event. See .84–98.
Click for larger view
View full resolution
Figure 1.1.

Vertical lines show direction of judgment. Back diagonals show paths of reflection on current event. See White 2007.84–98.

In this framework, Odysseus's composite retelling provides a series of transformative breakthrough points generated through separate reflections on his own role in his fate as he moves back and forth in narrative time.45 The narrative he provides thus continues to weigh human action and the attribution of blame.46 As part of this process, Odysseus presents a neatly constructed tale organized around a series of episodes.47 The episodic structure has implications for how we judge the relationship between the facts of the events and the fidelity of their telling. Cognitive scientists distinguish between semantic memory—the recall of facts—and episodic memory—the narrative recall of sequences and events (see Rubin 2006 for these distinctions). The mental structures responsible for storytelling are identical with those of episodic memory and often operate independent of facts (Fernyhough 2012.239–47). Episodic memory is as much, if not more, about making sense of the present as it is about making sense of the past. The process of isolating, judging, and accumulating episodes allows Odysseus to attribute blame and causality in multiple directions in a manner that is coherent with his current needs and beliefs. [End Page 14]

In the first stop at Ismaros, Odysseus is unambiguous about the concurrence of chance and decision. The wind carried him to the Kikonians, but he sacked the city and killed them, and, although he ordered his men to go (ἠνώγεα, τοὶ δὲ μέγα νήπιοι οὐκ ἐπίθοντο, 9.44), they were too foolish to know better: the focus significantly falling on the companions' failure to obey because of their foolishness (9.39–44).48 Although he caps the episode by saying that this was Zeus's wicked fate for them (τότε δή ῥα κακὴ Διὸς αἶσα παρέστη, 53), there is no divine intervention in their decisions. Odysseus and his men collaborate here in their subsequent destruction.

When they stop at the land of the Lotos-eaters, even though again it is a storm from Zeus that helps bring them there (9.67–75), Odysseus presents a different perspective. Note here the emphasis on will from Odysseus's perspective: "they were not willing to go home . . . but they wanted to stay among the Lotos-eating men / plucking the Lotos and forgetting their homecoming" (ἤθελεν οὐδὲ νέεσθαι . . . ἀλλ᾿ αὐτοῦ βούλοντο μετ᾿ ἀνδράσι Λωτοφάγοισι / λωτὸν ἐρεπτόμενοι μενέμεν νόστου τε λαθέσθαι, 9.95–97). Odysseus does not make his men objects of an addictive lure, but instead agents who were willing to give up their homecoming. The compulsion in this case comes from Odysseus's agency: he overcomes their will to stay by force (τοὺς μὲν ἐγὼν ἐπὶ νῆας ἄγον κλαίοντας ἀνάγκῃ, 9.98). Here Odysseus clearly isolates his own agency as he investigates his identity as a leader. He sent his men to investigate, they were led astray by desire, but he led them away from danger.

Although Odysseus attributes some of his own and his men's suffering to the gods in the first two episodes from his tale, he most clearly is considering the balance between his responsibility as a leader and his men's obedience. In the contemplation of this dynamic, we can imagine Odysseus evaluating in advance how to tell the most memorable and thematically important tale from his journeys: the events in the land of the Cyclopes.49 While some god again helps them along the way (9.142), Odysseus unequivocally states that it was he who made the decision to "test" the men (αὐτὰρ ἐγὼ σὺν νηΐ τ᾿ ἐμῇ καὶ ἐμοῖσ᾿ ἑτάροισιν / ἐλθὼν τῶνδ᾿ [End Page 15] ἀνδρῶν πειρήσομαι, οἵ τινές εἰσιν, 9.173–74), and that it was his proud heart (9.214–15) that compelled him to ignore the pleas of his men to let well enough alone (ἀλλ᾿ ἐγὼ οὐ πιθόμην,—ἦ τ᾿ ἂν πολὺ κέρδιον ἦεν, 9.228). Here we find an inversion of the scene among the Kikonians when his men would not obey, but without an immediate, direct admission of foolishness.50 In yet another important contrast, Odysseus makes no attempt to attribute his folly to the gods, instead conceding that it would have been better to listen to his men.51 His inability to control himself and his articulation of this inability represent the ongoing revision of his tale and his vision of his actions in it: while his thumos previously resisted the persuasion of the goddess, here it prevents him from being persuaded by his men.52 Perhaps he realizes that he cannot claim agency in resisting the goddesses without also accepting blame for ignoring his men. At the least, the gap between the behavior he describes and the regret with which he frames it indicates a change in character as the current narrator looks critically upon the former self who performed the deeds.

This regret and possible character change impact the way he tells the rest of the episode. In his retelling of his story, Odysseus does not attempt to gain sympathy for himself or to explain away his suffering by attributing it all to the gods. Instead, he credits some divine power for giving them the courage to blind Polyphemos, while still framing the strategy itself as a product of his own planning and his own clever wit (9.375–430, but especially ὡς ὄνομ᾿ ἐξαπάτησεν ἐμὸν καὶ μῆτις ἀμύμων, 414), culminating in a description that focuses almost entirely on his own agency and mental activity (420–24):

But I was taking counsel about how things might turn out best,Whether I might find some escape from death for me andMy companions. So I was weaving every trick and metisFor the sake of our life: for a great evil was very near.This plan seemed best to me in my heart. [End Page 16]

αὐτὰρ ἐγὼ βούλευον, ὅπως ὄχ᾿ ἄριστα γένοιτο,εἴ τιν᾿ ἑταίροισιν θανάτου λύσιν ἠδ᾿ ἐμοὶ αὐτῷεὑροίμην· πάντας δὲ δόλους καὶ μῆτιν ὕφαινον,ὥς τε περὶ ψυχῆς· μέγα γὰρ κακὸν ἐγγύθεν ἦεν.ἥδε δέ μοι κατὰ θυμὸν ἀρίστη φαίνετο βουλή·

Here Odysseus focuses on his own mental activity and the process by which he was responsible for their escape. Although he (through his thumos) ignored the better advice of his men, he nevertheless could also rely on himself to rescue them (μοι κατὰ θυμὸν).

In the telling of the tale, Odysseus takes the important therapeutic step of separating external and internal causes of suffering. He moves between different ascriptions of blame, but he does not spare himself. In the retelling, moreover, he also shows a clear understanding of where he goes too far and contrasts his earlier actions with his current framework. But to some extent, Odysseus's retrospective emphasis on his own intelligence and his construction of his identity stalls out in the rehearsal of his most famous stratagem, the claim that his name is ou-tis, "No-man" (9.364–67). Although the anecdote is itself a performance of metis—both in the trick and the pun involved in its execution—it, too, effects a contrast between the named narrator and the unnamed agent of the tale. By naming himself at the outset, he has already contested the famous erasure and questioned the import of its fame. When he reacts in rage against Polyphemos, he claims Zeus as the origin of his vengeance (τῶ σε Ζεὺς τείσατο καὶ θεοὶ ἄλλοι, 9.479) and positions himself as its instrument, while in the story he tells, he shows that he is the agent.53 The contrast emphasizes the gap of understanding often elided by human forms of expression: we attribute things to the gods to distance ourselves from responsibility or culpability. And this is the substance of Zeus's complaint in Odyssey 1.

Odysseus continues to contemplate this theme as he brings the episode to a close. At the most critical moment in the tale, Odysseus's men again warn him not to enrage the Cyclops (9.492–501), and he faults his arrogant heart for not listening to their advice. Note their emphasis on his will (τίπτ᾿ ἐθέλεις ἐρεθιζέμεν ἄγριον ἄνδρα; 494), echoing his own summary of the Lotos incident; this combines again with an echo of his comments about resisting Kirke, as Odysseus admits "they [the men] could not [End Page 17] persuade my proud heart" (ἀλλ᾿ οὐ πεῖθον ἐμὸν μεγαλήτορα θυμόν, 500). Once he gives his name to Polyphemos—an error of pathology or emotion, depending on our perspective54—the Cyclops reveals that all might have been divinely ordained by prophesying Odysseus's terrible troubles.55

The details of Polyphemos's prophecy have a great bearing on both the Apologoi and the epic as a whole (9.532–36):

"But if it is his fate to see his family again and returnTo his well-built home and his own fatherland,May he return terribly late, after losing all his companions,On someone else's ship. And may he find grief in his household."So he prayed as he spoke, and Poseidon heard him.

"ἀλλ᾿ εἴ οἱ μοῖρ᾿ ἐστὶ φίλους τ᾿ ἰδέειν καὶ ἱκέσθαιοἶκον ἐϋκτίμενον καὶ ἑὴν ἐς πατρίδα γαῖαν,ὀψὲ κακῶς ἔλθοι, ὀλέσας ἄπο πάντας ἑταίρους,νηὸς ἐπ᾿ ἀλλοτρίης, εὕροι δ᾿ ἐν πήματα οἴκῳ."ὣς ἔφατ᾿ εὐχόμενος, τοῦ δ᾿ ἔκλυε κυανοχαίτης.

Polyphemos's prophecy becomes Odysseus's prolepsis for his future experiences. In presenting prophecies to his audiences, Odysseus also provides a branching causal chain. Here is where correspondence and coherence in memory may be useful categories to consider.56 Martin Conway, in writing about these forces in human memory, foregrounds the fact that "cognition is driven by goals; memory is motivated" (2005.594). Correspondence (a basic equivalence between events in the world and the story told by memory) facilitates day-to-day survival. Coherence in narrative is the privileging of details that make sense together and communicate a story of a self who functions in the world. In emphasizing the difference between coherence and correspondence in memory systems, Conway suggests that [End Page 18] the "working self" may at times "operate independently" from what he calls the "autobiographical knowledge base."57 Given the situation in the Odyssey, is it plausible that Odysseus's account corresponds to Polyphemos's prayer and that he already knew at the time of the event what Poseidon had in store for him? Or is it more likely that he has developed a story that coheres with the perspective he is now articulating, one in which he asserts his own agency in his suffering? In the latter case, we can observe again how Odysseus uses his tale to establish characteristics for himself. At the same time, he articulates a worldview that is more consonant with Zeus's comments. If Polyphemos is to bear the responsibility for the suffering meted out by Odysseus for being a bad host, then surely Odysseus here accepts that his own behavior attracted the vengeance of Poseidon.58 The process of revision may be represented again in a table based on the work of Michael White, showing the reflective engagement between previous events and the telling of the tale (Figure 1.2 below).

The narrative, of course, is also an invitation to a debate. Some in Odysseus's audiences might disagree, insisting that the gods put him in that position, but Odysseus's story is therapeutic because by taking responsibility for that first cause of his suffering, he recuperates for himself agency in repairing it and returning home. Odysseus's articulation of his most famous deeds credits their success to his own intellect and his suffering to his arrogance. The gods act as guarantors that the good in him is rewarded (with survival) and the bad justly punished. The therapeutic narrative allows Odysseus (and his audiences) to redefine and isolate their good qualities while also clarifying those to be avoided. Such a process, a critical goal of Narrative Therapy, contributes to the recreation of the self.

Part of the interest of the rest of his tale, which I will cover in brief, is in how Odysseus continues to negotiate the cascading and overlapping attributions of responsibility.59 What makes his version of events seem additionally therapeutic and inviting to audiences is that Odysseus does not always explain his actions; he even seems at times to be uncertain why [End Page 19] he did what he did, as if he were not the narrator and the protagonist but rather a teller of someone else's tale.60 In the episode of the bag of winds, for example, his companions undermine a divine aid out of greed, curiosity, and, perhaps, their distrust of Odysseus, who failed to warn them or explain to them.61 Here again we find emphasis on the foolishness of his men (αὐτῶν γὰρ ἀπωλόμεθ᾿ ἀφραδίῃσιν, "We perished because of our own stupidity," 10.27; and βουλὴ δὲ κακὴ νίκησεν ἑταίρων, "A wicked plan overcame [my] companions," 10.46), as Odysseus blames his failure on falling asleep after nine days at the rudder (31) and vividly imagines the conspiratorial conversation among his men (34–45) before admitting that he considered throwing himself into the sea (49–55). At this moment, the therapeutic session stalls: Odysseus externalizes the blame, locating it in his men and the surprising arrival of sleep. He is, briefly, a man without agency again. And King Aiolos echoes this powerlessness when he insists that gods are punishing Odysseus and his companions (10.66–76).

Figure 1.2. Vertical lines show direction of judgment. Back diagonals show paths of reflection on current events. Forward diagonals show influence of judgment on formation of present identity (and past identities) and future plans. See .84–98.
Click for larger view
View full resolution
Figure 1.2.

Vertical lines show direction of judgment. Back diagonals show paths of reflection on current events. Forward diagonals show influence of judgment on formation of present identity (and past identities) and future plans. See White 2007.84–98.

The explanation for this interruption may be that Odysseus has, for better or worse, isolated his mistake with Polyphemos as the efficient [End Page 20] cause of his suffering. Since his tale does not end, however, we (and the Phaiakians) are left to consider the implications of subsequent actions (and inactions). And here, too, there is ample opportunity to recognize manifestations of Odysseus's earlier behavior. When they had come to the land of the Laistrygonians, it is Odysseus who sends eleven of his ships to investigate, only to see them destroyed by savages. Although it might have made for a simpler tale, he blames no one else for the loss: he sends them in, he saves the men who remain.62 On Kirke's island, he has some help from Hermes to subdue the sorceress, but then he lingers for a year and his men must pull him out of his torpor (10.466–75). Yet again, Odysseus has his men represent the possibility of getting home as the result of the collaboration of man and god: they ask if Odysseus will "remember his paternal land, should it be god-fated to be saved and return" (δαιμόνι᾿, ἤδη νῦν μιμνῄσκεο πατρίδος αἴης, / εἴ τοι θέσφατόν ἐστι σαωθῆναι καὶ ἱκέσθαι, 472–73).

Just as Odysseus ventures forward with his story, beginning with the goddesses who restrained him, only to backtrack and restart the tale, so, too, he offers one account of his own culpability, only to depict subsequent episodes in contrasting ways. But he re-emphasizes the main theme when he presents Tiresias's prophesies. Odysseus's situation as framed by Teiresias is a result of Poseidon's anger, anger motivated by Odysseus's blinding of Polyphemos, but his home's suffering is also connected to this conditional: if you harm the cattle, your men and ship are doomed, and if you actually survive after this, you will come home only after losing your companions on a foreign ship (11.105–07). Odysseus thus preserves a balance between divine and human agencies, but also connects the causal chain to his own initial action, one he has already characterized as his without mediation. Further, he offers an implicit proleptic frame for the rest of the epic: a close reading of Teiresias's narrative and the timeline of the suitors' arrival in Ithaka reveal that had Odysseus not been detained after leaving Polyphemos's land, he would have made it home before any disruption. In this way, even the advent of the suitors can be traced to his mistake. But he also distances responsibility from himself and thus authorizes this further by putting this causal chain in its fullest expression in the mouth of the seer Teiresias (should the audiences—Phaiakian and external—have failed to see the connections earlier). [End Page 21]

After he returns from the Nekyia, Odysseus's tale takes a more restrictive turn and features a steady decrease in agency and freedom of will. While the gods do not make Odysseus listen to the Sirens, he chooses to and must cede agency to his men, however briefly.63 The choice between Skylla and Kharybdis, when Odysseus selectively follows Kirke's advice in what we might consider a vain protest against his limited control, also represents well the limited significance of choice and free will in some situations. And the final episode in the tale, the one anticipated by the proem, features Odysseus's men making what we might call rational decisions in exercising their will (stopping on an island to rest; slaughtering the cattle and making sacrifices to the gods)64 with sometimes insufficient advice from their leader.65 Odysseus, though he has been warned of the consequences, does not warn them fully and properly.66 While it is customary to criticize the lack of obedience in his men, the series of events looped together may represent an attempt on Odysseus's part to free them of some blame. His companions obey him by not obeying him in the Sirens' scene and he acts strangely; they follow him through Skylla and Kharybdis and watch their companions die; finally, they prevail upon him to stop on Thrinakia and obey him for a month—and little good seems to come from it.

The overall narrative emphasis on agency paints a picture in accord with Zeus's comments: men make decisions that bring their own fates upon them. But it also communicates the corollary that actions taken by men willingly with the gods' favor meet with greater success. In both cases, men are [End Page 22] free to make mistakes or win success.67 The ultimate impression is of a narrative that tries to make sense of the world's causal exigencies. Odysseus's tale charts a path through his past that lays some things at the gods' feet but puts a considerable burden on human decisions and actions, especially his own. The fatal scene anticipated in the proem finally told here becomes the result of a conspiracy of mistrust, mistakes, and divinely mandated consequences. But the telling also makes us rethink the proem's tale (1.6–9):

But he could not save his companions, though he longed to,For they perished because of their own recklessness,The fools who ate up the cattle of Hyperion's son HeliosHe deprived them of their homecoming day.

ἀλλ᾿ οὐδ᾿ ὧς ἑτάρους ἐρρύσατο, ἱέμενός περ·αὐτῶν γὰρ σφετέρῃσιν ἀτασθαλίῃσιν ὄλοντο,νήπιοι, οἳ κατὰ βοῦς ῾Υπερίονος ᾿Ηελίοιοἤσθιον· αὐτὰρ ὁ τοῖσιν ἀφείλετο νόστιμον ἦμαρ.

At the beginning of the epic, we are assured that everything is clear and fated. And when this simple tale is reinforced with the story of Aigisthos and Zeus's complaint, the audience is briefly left to feel that we know what is going on: this poem—and this world—has a preordained order whose outcome we already know. But in his telling of this tale—and his own—Odysseus complicates things. By accepting some implicit blame, he stops being simply the victim who fails—thanks to their actions and divine fate—to save his men and achieve his desire, and becomes someone whose own actions contribute to his men's failure and enact a justified divine vengeance. Odysseus's therapeutic narrative recharts his journey as one where victim and victor can co-exist in one body, and one tale.


The Narrative Therapy perspective introduced in this paper adds a third step to the process of externalizing and re-authoring conversations: "re-membering conversations" that allow people to revise the construction of [End Page 23] their identity with respect to the "significant figures and identities of a person's past, present, and projected future" (White 2007.129). This process recognizes that our identities are not completely independent objects, but rather that they consist of the people we know and the discourses that operate among us. So Odysseus's transformation continues throughout the epic and it remains, at some level, therapeutic.

The patterns outlined in the Apologoi repeat in the epic's second half where we find similar negotiations of external and internal motivations in the reflections of his household members (family and servants) and even of the suitors, whose doom is fast approaching. Odysseus's tale has not given the impression that his suffering is only his fault, but rather it has challenged a claim of simple divine causality. At the same time, the Apologoi and the second half of the epic imply that the therapeutic process is incomplete. And just as Odysseus's rehabilitation continues, so, too, will the audience's engagement with questions about his behavior in his return to life. The examination of agency, then, prepares the audience to "read" the homecoming with its bloody vengeance and the abrupt end of the amnesty in Book 24.

Odysseus's therapeutic narrative illustrates the enduring and mutually beneficial power of epic and modern psychology to reinforce and elucidate one another. The introduction of new ideas and terminology has provided novel means to consider the epic's messages and assumptions. Additional applications of modern theories—including studies on the effect of social isolation on Odysseus's behavior or theories of education for Telemakhos's maturation—may further show the depth of the Odyssey's insight into the workings (and non-workings) of the human mind. Audiences leave these tales with the stories' models in their minds, and can use them to tell their own stories and explore their own worlds. Just as we can say—literally or metaphorically—that human consciousness develops and exists to make sense of ourselves and our stories,68 so, too, I propose, cultural narratives like the Odyssey develop as a type of pan-consciousness, a dialogic "text" that invites the groups that "read" it to make sense of their world through its frameworks. [End Page 24]

In the first part of this paper, I mentioned the difference between internal state and intentional state frameworks for understanding human actions. The essential idea of the internal state concept is that human beings are constant, nearly stock, figures whose actions are tied to fundamental aspects of their character. The intentional state understanding posits that we are entities always in flux with the potential to chart new courses for our lives. Such a formulation is especially appropriate for the character of polytropos Odysseus, that hero of many forms. The epic offers him up as a man capable of changing himself and his surroundings, and this depiction is consonant with Zeus's implied characterization of man at the beginning of the epic. In large part, this theme also conveys an admonition about the danger of applying the narratives from epic (and myth) as paradigms to live by. Instead, the epic's psychological lessons emphasize the process of claiming agency and the ways in which it is possible for us to take control of the tale.

Joel P. Christensen
Brandeis University


Adkins, A. W. H. 1960. Merit and Responsibility: A Study in Greek Values. Oxford.
Agamben, Giorgio. 2013. Nymphs (trans. A. Minervini). Chicago.
Ahl, Frederick, and Hanna M. Roisman. 1996. The Odyssey Reformed. Ithaca.
Allan, William. 2006. "Divine Justice and Cosmic Order in Early Greek Epic," JHS 126.1–35.
Andersen, Øivind. 1987. "Myth, Paradigm and Spatial Form in the Iliad," in Jan Bremer and Irene J. F. de Jong, eds., Homer Beyond Oral Poetry: Recent Trends in Homeric Interpretation. Amsterdam. 1–13.
Austin, Norman. 1969. "Telemachos Polymechanos," CCSA 3.45–63.
---------. 1975. Archery at the Dark of the Moon: Poetic Problems in Homer's Odyssey. Berkeley.
Bakhtin, M. M. 1986. Speech Genres and Other Late Essays (trans. Vern W. McGee). Austin.
Bakker, E. J. 1997. Poetry in Speech: Orality and Homeric Discourse. Ithaca.
----------. 2013. The Meaning of Meat and the Structure of the Odyssey. Cambridge.
Barker, Elton T. E., and Joel P. Christensen. 2015. "Odysseus's Nostos and the Odyssey's Nostoi," in G. Scafoglio, ed., Studies on the Epic Cycle. Rome. 85–110. [End Page 25]
Beck, Deborah. 2005. "Odysseus: Narrator, Storyteller, Poet?" CP 100.213–27.
------. 2012. "The Presentation of Song in Homer's Odyssey," in Elizabeth Minchin, ed., Orality, Literacy, and Performance in the Ancient World. Leiden. 25–54.
Bergren, Ann. 1983. "Odyssean Temporality: Many Re(turns)," in C. Rubino and C. Shelmerdine, eds., Approaches to Homer. Austin. 38–73.
Bruner, Jerome. 1986. Actual Minds, Possible Worlds. Cambridge.
Christensen, Joel P. forthcoming. "Learned Helplessness: The Structure of the Telemachy and Odysseus's Return," in Jeroen Lauwers, Koen De Temmerman, and Jan Opsomer, eds., Psychology and the Classics: A Dialogue.
Churchland, Patricia. 2013. Touching a Nerve: Our Brains, Our Selves. New York.
Clark, Andy, and David J. Chalmers. 1998. "The Extended Mind," Analysis 58.7–19.
Clark, Andy. 2015. "Embodied Prediction," Open MIND 7.1–21.
Clarke, Howard. 1967. The Art of the Odyssey. Englewood Cliffs.
Clay, Jenny Strauss. 1983. The Wrath of Athena: Gods and Men in the Odyssey. Princeton.
Clayton, Barbara. 2004. A Penelopean Poetics: Reweaving the Feminine in Homer's Odyssey. Lanham.
Conway, Martin A. 2005. "Memory and the Self," Journal of Memory and Language 53.594–628.
Cook, Erwin. 1995. The Odyssey in Athens: Myths of Cultural Origins. Ithaca.
Danek, Georg. 1998. Epos und Zitat: Studien zur Quellen der Odyssee. Vienna.
Dennett, D. C. 1991. "Animal Consciousness: What Matters and Why," Social Research 62.2.691–720.
--------. 2017. From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds. New York.
Dietrich, Bernard Clive. 1965. Death, Fate, and the Gods: The Development of a Religious Idea in Greek Popular Belief and Homer. London.
Dodds, E. R. 1951. The Greeks and the Irrational. Berkeley.
Doherty, Lillian. 1995. Siren Songs: Gender, Audiences, and Narrators in the Odyssey. Ann Arbor.
Dougherty, Carol. 2001. The Raft of Odysseus: The Ethnographic Imagination of Homer's Odyssey. New York.
Drewery, Wendy, and John Winslade. 1997. "The Theoretical Story of Narrative Therapy," in Monk et al. 1997a.32–51.
Eagleton, Terry. 1991. Ideology: An Introduction. London. [End Page 26]
Epston, D., and M. White. 1992. Experience, Contradiction, Narrative, and Imagination: Selected Papers of David Epston and Michael White, 1989–1991. Adelaide.
Felson-Rubin, Nancy. 1994. Regarding Penelope: From Character to Poetics. Princeton.
Fenik, Bernard. 1974. Studies in the Odyssey. Wiesbaden.
Fernyhough, Charles. 2012. Pieces of Light. New York.
Finkelberg, Margalit. 1995. "Odysseus and the Genus 'Hero,'" G&R 42.1–14.
Foa, Edna, and Elizabeth Hembree. 2007. Prolonged Exposure Therapy for PTSD. Oxford.
Fowler, Robert (ed.) 2004. The Cambridge Companion to Homer. Cambridge.
Frame, Douglas. 1978. The Myth of Return in Early Greek Epic. New Haven.
Freedman, Jill, and Gene Coombs. 1996. Narrative Therapy: The Social Construction of Preferred Realities. New York.
Friedrich, Rainer. 1991. "The Hybris of Odysseus," JHS 111.16–28.
Gaskin, Richard. 1990. "Do Homeric Heroes Make Real Decisions?" CQ 40.1–15.
Gazzaniga, Michael S. 2012. Who's In Charge? Free Will and the Science of the Brain. New York.
Gazzaniga, Michael S., and Joseph LeDoux. 1978. The Integrated Mind. New York.
Gill, Christopher. 1996. Personality in Greek Epic, Tragedy, and Philosophy: The Self in Dialogue. Oxford.
Gottschalk, Jonathan. 2012. The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human. Boston.
Greene, William Chase. 1963. Moira: Fate, Good, and Evil in Greek Thought. New York
Griffin, Jasper. 1980. Homer on Life and Death. Oxford.
Hammer, Dean. 2002. The Iliad as Politics. Norman.
Harden, Sarah, and Adrian Kelly. 2014. "Proemic Convention and Character Construction in Early Greek Epic," HSCP 107.1–34.
Harrison, E. L. 1960. "Notes on Homeric Psychology," Phoenix 14.63–80.
Heckhausen, H. 1977. "Achievement Motivation and its Constructs: A Cognitive Model," Motivation and Emotion 1.283–330.
Heiden, Bruce. 1991. "Shifting Contexts in the Iliad," Eranos 89.1–12.
Hernandez, Pura Nieto. 2000. "Back in the Cave of the Cyclops," AJP 121.345–66.
Heubeck, Alfred, Stephanie West, and J. B. Hainsworth. 1988. A Commentary on Homer's Odyssey, Volume 1. Oxford. [End Page 27]
Heubeck, Alfred, and Arie Hoekstra. 1989. A Commentary on Homer's Odyssey, Volume 2. Oxford.
Hutto, David. 2007. Folk Psychological Narratives. Cambridge.
Jameson, Fredric. 1981. The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act. Ithaca.
Jaeger, Werner. 1926. "Solons Eunomia," SPAW 11.69–85.
Johnson, Christopher D. 2012. Memory, Metaphor, and Aby Warburg's Atlas of Images. Ithaca.
de Jong, Irene J. F. 2001. A Narratological Commentary on the Odyssey. Cambridge.
Kandel, Eric. 2006. In Search of Memory: The Emergence of the New Science of Mind. New York.
Katz, Marilyn. 1991. Penelope's Renown. Princeton.
Kearns, E. 2004. "The Gods in the Homeric Epics," in Fowler 2004.59–73.
Kelly, Adrian. 2008. "Performance and Rivalry: Homer, Odysseus, and Hesiod," in M. Revermann and P. Wilson, eds., Performance, Reception, Iconography: Studies in Honor of Oliver Taplin. Oxford. 177–203.
Kullman, Wolfgang. 1985. "Gods and Men in the Iliad and the Odyssey," HSCP 89.1–23.
Lakoff, George, and Mark Johnson. 2003. Metaphors We Live By. Chicago.
Lamberton, Robert. 1986. Homer the Theologian. Berkeley.
LeDoux, Joseph. 2002. The Synaptic Self: How Our Brains Become Who We Are. New York.
---------. 2015. "Feelings: What Are They and How Does the Brain Make Them," Daedalus 144.96–111.
Le Hunte, Bern, and Jan A. Golembiewski. 2014. "Stories Have the Power to Save Us: A Neurological Framework for the Imperative to Tell Stories," Arts and Social Sciences Journal 5.2.73–76.
Lesky, Albin. 2004. "Divine and Human Causation in Homeric Epic" (trans. Leofranc Holford-Strevens), in Douglas L. Cairns, ed., Oxford Readings in Homer's Iliad. Oxford. 170–202.
Lloyd-Jones, Hugh. 1971. The Justice of Zeus. Berkeley.
Logan, Robert K. 2007. The Extended Mind: The Emergence of Language, the Human Mind, and Culture. Toronto.
Louden, Bruce. 2011. Homer's Odyssey and the Near East. Oxford.
Madigan, Stephen, 2010. Narrative Therapy. Washington, D.C.
Marks, Jim. 2008. Zeus in the Odyssey. Washington, D.C.
Martin, R. P. 1984. "Hesiod, Odysseus, and the Instruction of Princes," TAPA 114.29–48. [End Page 28]
----------. 1993. "Telemachus and the Last Hero Song," Colby Quarterly 29.222–40.
Meineck, Peter. 2017. Theatrocracy: Greek Drama, Cognition, and the Imperative for Theatre. New York.
Mikulincer, Mario. 1994. Human Learned Helplessness: A Coping Perspective. New York.
Minchin, Elizabeth. 2001. Homer and the Resources of Memory: Some Applications of Cognitive Theory to the Iliad and the Odyssey. Oxford.
Monk, Gerald, et al. (eds.) 1997a. Narrative Therapy in Practice: The Archaeology of Hope. San Francisco.
--------. 1997b. "How Narrative Therapy Works," in Monk et al. 1997a.3–31.
Most, Glenn W. 1989. "The Structure and Function of Odysseus' Apologoi," TAPA 119.15–30.
Murnaghan, Sheila. 1987. Disguise and Recognition in the Odyssey. Princeton.
-----------. 2002. "The Trials of Telemachus: Who was the Odyssey Meant for?" Arethusa 35.233–53.
Nagler, Michael. 1974. Spontaneity and Tradition: A Study in the Oral Art of Homer. Berkeley.
Neisser, U., and R. Fivush. 1994. The Remembering Self. Cambridge.
Olson, Douglas. 1995. Blood and Iron: Stories and Storytelling in Homer's Odyssey. Leiden.
Page, Denys. 1944. The Homeric Odyssey. Oxford.
Palmer, Alan. 2010. Social Minds in the Novel. Columbus.
Panksepp, Jan. 2010. "Affective Consciousness in Animals: Perspectives on Dimensional and Primary Process Emotion Approaches," Proceedings of the Royal Society 277.2905–07.
Parry, Alan, and Robert E. Doan. 1994. Story Re-Visions: Narrative Therapy in the Postmodern World. New York.
Parry, Hugh. 1994. "The Apologos of Odysseus: Lies, All Lies," Phoenix 48.1–20.
Peradotto, John. 1990. Man in the Middle Voice: Name and Narration in the Odyssey. Princeton.
Pucci, Pietro. 1987. Odysseus Polutropos: Intertextual Readings in the Iliad and the Odyssey, Ithaca.
-----------. 1998. The Song of the Sirens: Essays on Homer. Lanham.
Race, William H. 2014. "Phaeacian Therapy in Homer's Odyssey," in Peter Meineck and David Konstan, eds., Combat Trauma and the Ancient Greeks. New York. 47–66. [End Page 29]
Richardson, Scott. 1996. "Truth in the Tales of the Odyssey," Mnemosyne 49.393–402.
Rose, P. W. 1997. "Ideology in the Iliad: Polis, Basileus, Theoi," Arethusa 30.151–99.
---------. 2012. Class in Archaic Greece. Cambridge.
Rubin, David C. 2006. "The Basic-Systems Model of Episodic Memory," Perspectives on Psychological Science 1.277–311.
Russo, Joseph. 2012. "Re-Thinking Homeric Psychology: Snell, Dodds, and their Critics," QUCC 101.11–28.
Russo, Joseph, and Bennett Simon. 1968. "Homeric Psychology and the Oral Epic Tradition," Journal of the History of Ideas 28.43–58.
Rüter, Karl. 1969. Odysseeinterpretationen: Untersuchungen zum ersten Buch und zur Phaiakis. Göttingen.
Saïd, Suzanne. 2011. Homer and the Odyssey. Oxford.
Schadewaldt, Walter. 1958. "Der Prolog der Odyssee," HSCP 63.15–32.
Scodel, Ruth. 2002. Listening to Homer: Tradition, Narrative, and Audience. Ann Arbor.
Scully, Scott. 1986. "Studies of Narrative and Speech in the Iliad," Arethusa 19.135–53.
Segal, Charles. 1994. Singers, Heroes, and Gods in the Odyssey. Ithaca.
Shay, Jonathan. 2002. Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming. New York.
Snell, Bruno. 1960. The Discovery of the Mind (trans. T. G. Rosenmeyer). Oxford.
Steinrück, Martin. 2008. The Suitors in the Odyssey: The Clash between Homer and Archilochus. New York.
Stewart, Douglas. 1976. The Disguised Guest: Rank, Role, and Identity in the Odyssey. Lewisburg.
Sullivan, Shirley D. 1988. Psychological Activity in Homer: A Study of Phrên. Ottawa.
Teffeteller, Annette. 2003. "Homeric Excuses," CQ 53.15–31.
Thalmann, W. G. 1988. "Thersites: Comedy, Scapegoats, and Heroic Ideology in the Iliad," TAPA 118.1–28.
------------. 1998. The Swineherd and the Bow. Ithaca.
Tracy, Stephen. 1990. The Story of the Odyssey. Princeton.
Turner, Mark. 1996. The Literary Mind: The Origins of Thought and Language. Oxford.
Van Der Valk, Marchinus. 1949. Textual Criticism of the Odyssey. Leiden. [End Page 30]
Van Nortwick, Thomas. 2009. The Unknown Odysseus: Alternate Worlds in Homer's Odyssey. Ann Arbor.
White, Michael. 2007. Maps of Narrative Practice. New York.
----------. 2011. Narrative Practice: Continuing the Conversations. New York.
Willcock, M. M. 1967. "Mythological Paradeigmata in the Iliad," CQ 14.141–51.
Williams, Bernard. 1993. Shame and Necessity. Berkeley.
Wilson, Edmund. 2014. "On Free Will and How the Brain is Like a Colony of Ants," Harper's September 2014.49–52.
Wyatt, F. 1989. "The Intermezzo of Odyssey 11, and the Poets Homer and Odysseus," SMEA 27.235–53.
Zaborowski, Robert. 2003. "Tadeusz Zieliński and the Homeric Psychology," Eos 90.291–300.
Zerba, Michelle. 2009. "Odyssean Charisma and the Uses of Persuasion," AJP 130.313–39.
Zieliński, Tadeusz. 2002. "Homeric Psychology," Organon 31.15–45.
Zlatev, Jordan et al. 2008. The Shared Mind: Perspectives on Intersubjectivity. New York.
Zunshine, Lisa. 2006. Why We Read Fiction: Theory of Mind and the Novel. Columbus. [End Page 31]


1. All translations are my own; the Greek text used is from Von der Mühll's Teubner.

2. ὢ πόποι, οἷον δή νυ θεοὺς βροτοὶ αἰτιόωνται. / ἐξ ἡμέων γάρ φασι κάκ᾿ ἔμμεναι· οἱ δὲ καὶ αὐτοὶ / σφῇσιν ἀτασθαλίῃσιν ὑπὲρ μόρον ἄλγε᾿ ἔχουσιν, Od. 1.32–34; Od. 1.6–9. Pucci 1998.19–20 notes that the proem anticipates Zeus's comments. On the thematic importance of anticipating the atasthalia of the suitors, see Danek 1998.41–42. Cf. Cook 1995, Steinrück 2008, and Bakker 2013.114–18. For humans' responsibility in their own suffering, see Olson 1995.214, Teffeteller 2003.19, and Louden 2011.228. For the atasthalia as marking a "rational" error for which men are wholly responsible, see Finkelberg 1995. In favor of the programmatic character of these lines for the whole epic, see Adkins 1960.19–20, Dietrich 1965.216, Griffin 1980, Kullman 1985.14, Segal 1994.195–210, Kearns 2004.67–69, Allan 2006, and Marks 2008.22–23. Contra: Van der Valk 1949.243 and Clay 1983. Fenik 1974.208–300 argues that Zeus's comments in Book 1 do not cohere intellectually; they are the sentiments of the poet against the tradition; cf. Schadewaldt 1958. The Odyssey has a "developed understanding of human autonomy," Gill 1996.46; cf. Russo and Simon 1968.288–95.

3. For Race 2014, Books 5–12 represent the "rehabilitation of Odysseus through the Phaeacians' provision of basic physical necessities, socialization, and physical and psychological therapy." Their land is an "idealized halfway house" (47). Race's work is influenced by Shay 2002.

4. For Homeric man's limited conception of self, see Snell 1960 and Adkins 1960; contra: Lesky 2004; cf. Russo and Simon 1968, Gaskin 1990, Hammer 2002.49–79, and Russo 2012 for discussions. See also Williams 1993 and Gill 1996.29–92, who argues that Adkins and Snell presuppose Kantian and Cartesian conceptions of self and morality. For divisions of thought, emotion, and soul in Homer, based on lexical distinctions, see Snell 1960, Sullivan 1988, Zieliński 2002, and Zaborowski's discussion (2003). For the gods as evidence of internal human psychology, see Dodds 1951.14 and Snell 1960.18–22; contra: Austin 1975.82–86. Cf. Clay 1983.136–38.

5. In this paper, I focus on aspects of narrative, but in addition to the work of psychoanalysts, there are parallel perspectives on the reinforcing and productive substance of collective meaning-making. For cognitive metaphors, see the classic work of Lakoff and Johnson 2003. Visual art offers a complementary perspective: see, for example, Agamben's 2013 adaptation of Aby Warburg's theory of the Pathosformeln (see Johnson 2012) for the socio-cultural figure of the "nymph."

6. See Gottschalk 2012.60–67 on "mirror neurons" and our sympathetic embrace of narrative. For narrative and the emergence of human consciousness, see Dennett 2017.177–204 and Logan 2007.41–58; cf. Gazzaniga 2012 and LeDoux 2015. See also Parry and Doan 1994.23 and Le Hunte and Golembiewski 2014.

7. For an analysis of Aristotelian plots and narrative theory in conjunction with Clark's approach, see Meineck 2017.30–51.

8. For a literary view of how our collective life is developed through common narratives, see Zlatlev et al. 2008 and Zunshine 2006.6–8.

9. Palmer 2010.39–41 calls "intermental thought" a type of "extended cognition or intersubjectivity" that characterizes the dynamic relationship between external and internal functions of minds. For a succinct articulation of extended mind theory, which posits that other people and the environment function as an essential part of the functioning of human minds, see Clark and Chalmers 1998. Cf. the longer exploration in Logan 2007.

10. See Le Hunte and Golembiewski 2014.73: "The human brain, above all others, has the most developed ability to extrapolate meaning and implications from stories. Moreover, one of the great evolutionary advantages of being human is that we don't need to actually live through an event to gain the perspective of someone else's experience."

11. Bruner 1986.49: "Folk theories about the human condition remain embedded in metaphor and in a language that serves the end of narrative. And folk narrative of this kind has as much claim to 'reality' as any theory we may construct in psychology by the use of our most astringent scientific methods." On folk psychology, cf. Hutto 2007 for the process of children learning about mental states and White 2007.102–06. Russo and Simon 1968 posit a strong equivalence between the form of Homeric poetry (and performance) and its psychological representations; cf. Russo 2012. On the psychological nature of myth and Homeric poetry, see Segal 1994.62–64.

12. On the dialogic nature of epic, see Peradotto 1990.53 and 62–63 and Heiden 1991.5; for the term, see Bakhtin 1986.170; cf. Scully 1986.135 and Bakker 1997.21–25. For analogical cross-currents in ideology in Homer, see Rose 1997 and Thalmann 1988.3–5. For the Odyssey, see Rose 2012.142–65; cf. Dougherty 200l and Saïd 2011.354–72.

13. See Stewart 1976.146–95 for an extensive treatment of the epic's interest in poetic creation; cf. Bergren 1983.38, Martin 1984.46, Pucci 1987.209–13, Segal 1994.113–41, and Saïd 2011.125–32.

14. Drewery and Winslade 1997.38: "Who people are is a matter of constant contradiction, change, and ongoing struggle." See Epston and White 1992.30–33 for the "multistoried nature" of human life and the ways in which people retell narratives to create a personal "text" that can be both constructive and destructive.

15. For how the stories we tell both "restrain and liberate our lives," see Madigan 2010.29–30; cf. Drewery and Winslade 1997.33–34. For the cognitive perspective, see Gottschalk 2012.60–67.

16. On the Apologoi in general, see Wyatt 1989, Most 1989, and Pucci 1998.145–47. On its structure and importance for his homecoming, see Frame 1978.34–73, Most 1989, Olson 1995.43–64, and de Jong 2001.149–51. On the "truth" of the events described therein, see Parry 1994 and Richardson 1996. Ahl and Roisman 1996 see Odysseus as using his tales among the Phaiakians in a manipulative and calculating fashion. It is possible to harmonize their approach with the therapeutic one—perhaps there is enough ambiguity for audiences to choose which Odysseus is preferable to them and reflects their worldview. For Odysseus's self-interest in the Apologoi, see Segal 1994.85–109, Olson 1995.1–17, and Zerba 2009.231.

17. For the importance of "evaluative information" and the way that Homeric poetry encourages audiences to consider and judge its contents, see Minchin 2001.123–24. In the absence of evidence for the reception of Homeric performances, it is difficult to make any claims about what audiences expected from the poems. That stories were told for educative or persuasive purposes is fairly clear from the deployment of paradeigmata throughout both the Iliad and the Odyssey (on which see Willcock 1967 and Andersen 1987). For general frameworks for limiting our expectations about Homer's ancient audiences, see Scodel 2002. For the extent to which ancient audiences were primed for non-literal meanings in the epics, see Lamberton 1986.

18. For a brief summary of the relevance of cognitive research on memory to Homer, see Minchin 2001.11–14.

19. Od. 15.398–402. See Shay 2002.39 on the therapeutic connection between pleasure and pain.

20. Fernyhough 2012.199: therapy for trauma is about reintegrating the parts of the memory into a coherent whole; cf. Madigan 2010.65.

21. For the various influences on practitioners of Narrative Therapy, including cybernetics theory, postmodernism, and the work of Michael White, see Freedman and Coombs 1996.6–18; cf. Parry and Doan 1994.1–11.

22. Madigan 2010.81: "Re-authoring conversations invite clients to help flush out some of the more neglected areas and events of their lives (often covered over by the problem story being told). These may include achievements under duress; survival skills growing up; and personal qualities left out of their story, such as generosity, ethical stances, and kindness."

23. Madigan 2010.36, Epston and Roth 1995, and Monk 1997b.21–24.

24. For the goal of Narrative Therapy in finding "more satisfying interpretations by bringing forth stories that are more congruent with the lives they intend to live," see Parry and Doan 1994.30. Drewery and Winslade note that "No one has complete power over himself or his environment" (1997.36) and for this reason, Narrative Therapy endeavors to look for "alternative stories that are enabling," a process described as "repositioning" that is critical to reclaiming agency (42–43). For how externalizing problems contributes to the development of a "sense of responsibility, rather than diminish[ing] it," see White 2011.118–20.

25. Cf. Race 2014.48 for Odysseus's "depressed state." Cf. Zerba 2009.332 for Odysseus in the Apologoi as "the suffering subject who can make himself the object of his own telling."

26. For the narrative depiction of both Odysseus and Telemakhos in states of helplessness, see Christensen (forthcoming). See Murnaghan 1987.165–66 and Barker and Christensen 2015 for how the Telemakhy anticipates the plots of Odysseus's narratives. Saïd 2011.132 notes that we should "consider the beginning of the Odyssey as a sort of indirect portrayal of Odysseus: his absence serves to arouse the listeners' curiosity about the rest of the story."

27. Race compares this journey to "the terrifying, lonely period of coming off a long addiction" (2014.48). For Zerba 2009.315, Odysseus's story is a "remembered experience [which]... effects passage between the heroic past of Troy and the kingdom of Ithaka with its domestic and political interests." Cf. Segal 1994.14–25.

28. For the therapeutic practice of immunizing against a feeling of helplessness through the execution of successful decisions and actions, see Mikulincer 1994.6–7.

29. Minchin 2001 writes about the importance of narratives in exploring causal relationships. Just because a narrator expresses one causal relationship, that does not mean that the audience will respond with the same interpretation of events (35).

30. Cf. Race's assertion that Odysseus's narrative is "full of his own blunders" (2014.58). For Segal 1994.19, Odysseus's narration marks his readiness to return. For storytelling as an act of self-creation in the Odyssey, see Van Nortwick 2009.71–73, and 80–81 for narrative as an act of "existential agency." Clayton 2004.59–60 focuses on how Odysseus's later Cretan narratives are even more productive in this sense.

31. For the importance of the audience to the therapeutic context and the "co-creative" character of "preferred tales," see Monk 1997b.20–21; cf. Drewery and Winslade 1997.35. On the importance of outsider-witnesses to the retelling of reimagined narratives, see White 2011.129–31. For Odysseus's act of narration pointing not to the Phaiakians but to the external audience, see Wyatt 1989.256–57; cf. Pucci 1998.146–47.

32. For this type of treatment applied to PTSD, see Foa and Hembree 2007.

33. Harden and Kelly 2014.16 n. 36: "The proemic nature of this passage is obvious." Cf. Kelly 2008.178 notes 8–9 and de Jong 2001.227–29. For Odysseus's depiction as an epic singer, see Beck 2005 (who argues that Odysseus is styled more as a storyteller than a poet); and Kelly 2008.178–82; cf. Beck 2012.

34. See White 2007.9–27 on externalizing conversations; cf. Drewery and Winslade 1997.44–46 for externalizing conversations as a type of deconstruction. Cf. Parry and Doan 1994.42–43.

35. See White 2007. Figure 1.3 Steps: "Negotiating an experience-near and particular definition of the problem; Mapping the effects of the problem's activities; Evaluating the effects of the problem's activities; Justifying the evaluation."

36. White 2007.61: stories in re-authoring conversations have themes that "often reflect loss, failure, incompetence, hopelessness or futility."

37. For the conflated divine rages, see Austin 1975.136–38. Segal 1994.185 describes well the discrepancy between the "morality of Zeus" and the "vindictiveness of Poseidon and Helios." Fenik 1974.208–12 notes that the rage of the gods is ultimately given mortal origins. For the overlapping plans of Zeus and Poseidon in Thrinakia and how they fulfill Zeus's stated "theodicy" (by punishing the suitors) but preserve and in fact magnify Odysseus, see Bakker 2013.124–29; cf. Marks 2008.42–45 for a different perspective.

38. For the structure of the Apologoi and earlier bibliography, see Most 1989.22–23. Against earlier analyses, Most breaks the Apologoi into two groups of five rather than three groups of three. For my analysis, the balance and breakup is less significant. Odysseus's tale has a logic that moves gradually to explain the loss of his companions, with each tale interlocking and anticipating others; see Saïd 2011.157–58.

39. Pucci 1998.136 describes Odysseus's self-naming as "formally unique" and traces the dynamic between persona and narrator in this preface (135–40). He also locates tension between the Odysseus Demodokos described earlier (the city-sacker) and the one developed in the Apologoi (the castaway). Deferring the naming of Odysseus is a well-known motif of the Odyssey: the epic waits until line 21 to name him, cf. Peradotto 1990.115 and Rose 2012.147; he lands in Skheria in Book 6 and names himself in Book 9; he lands on Ithaca in Book 13 and names himself to his son in Book 16.

40. On the punning in this passage, see Pucci 1998.126–28.

41. For Odysseus's duplicity here and its connection to his characterization as a singer, see Kelly 2008.181–82. For the Odyssey's internal audiences, see Doherty 1995.17–19 and 73–131; cf. Peradotto 1990.117–18, who sees invited identification with Telemakhos, and Martin 1993 for Telemakhos reflecting the historical audience. Cf. Murnaghan 2002.139.

42. For an analysis of the word thumos as embracing intellectual and emotional functions while also operating as an organ of "willing acts," see Zieliński 2002.27–32.

43. Austin 1975.139 anticipates this connection in Greek culture: "[In the Odyssey] remembering comes close to making a plan for the future." Cf. Segal 1994.198: "The Odysseus who arrives on Ithaca in book 13 has performed the narrative act of recollecting his many years of travel. In addition to this integrative work of bringing past experience into his present time of life, in book 13 he has the benefit of planning his future moves with Athena."

44. For these distinctions, see White 2007, passim, and Bruner 1986.11–16.

45. Pucci emphasizes the "humiliating and exhilarating narrative of his losses" (1998.142).

46. Shay 2002.80 characterizes this as guilt. As Fenik 1974.215 argues, the guilt attributed to the crew and to Odysseus himself will vary for "every reader," just as it varies in presentation.

47. For studies in episodic memory and their application to Homer, see Minchin 2001.33–34. Epson and White 1992.34 note how in therapy sessions, people often link episodes in sequences (with or without actual correspondence to events) based on theme or selected plot.

48. For Odysseus's telling of this episode as exculpatory, see Pucci 1998.150–51.

49. For Odysseus's fault in the Cyclops episode, see Shay 2002.46–50, Bakker 2013.123, and Olson 1995.209; contra: Lloyd-Jones 1971.29, who argues that blinding the Cyclops is not a crime "in the eyes of Zeus and justice," and Adkins 1960.63, who suggests that Odysseus must act so to survive. For Segal 1994.213, Odysseus resembles his antagonist. For the theme of vengeance as it applies to this scene, see Hernandez 2000.

50. Odysseus does allow for Eurylokhos to attribute atasthalia to him later in the narrative: 10.431–37.

51. Shay 2002.46–50: "Odysseus is determined to reclaim his warrior identity... with disastrous consequences for his people" (50). Shay does not, however, take note of the analeptic nature of the narrative; he treats it as if it is the main action in the narrative and not one reflecting upon prior events and preparing for the later ones.

52. Churchland 2013.169–71 shows that "self-control and being smart are achievements of the neocortex and how it interweaves with the ancient subcortical structures."

53. See Bakker 2013.114 for Odysseus's presentation of himself as an instrument of Zeus's revenge during the Mnesterophonia; cf. Allan 2006.24–25 and Fenik 1974.216–17.

54. Allan 2006.22: Odysseus makes a mistake in boasting of his real name; Shay 2002 prefers the pathological interpretation.

55. For Polyphemos's prayer as a prophecy, see Bakker 2013.118–22.

56. Correspondence is the correlation of memory with the facts of events; coherence is a force that conditions memories to be consistent with beliefs about reality and the self contemporaneous with the telling of a tale. See Conway 2005; cf. Fernyhough 2012.11–13.

57. Conway surveys neuroimaging studies for both types of memories and suggests that the system of coherence is "knowledge based and conceptually organized." He argues that the anatomical locations of these memory types are separate (2005.621–22).

58. Dietrich 1965.220: "In blinding the son of Poseidon, Odysseus gives a motive to the god for retarding his return, just as his companions' offence against Helius on the island of Thrinakia... is the cause of his miserable condition when he reaches Scheria."

59. Segal 1995.217: Odysseus moves from "a model of wrathful retaliation to one of personal responsibility and to an at least partially defined moral causality."

60. Pucci 1998.147 describes it as "particularly disquieting that Odysseus cannot always explain why the plot-agent acts as he acts." For the ways in which Odysseus's Apologoi is "defined... by its subjectivity," see Zerba 2009.215. Cf. de Jong 2001.223–26.

61. See Shay 2002.51–53 for Odysseus's lack of disclosure to his men as a symptom of trauma and as evidence for poor leadership.

62. Shay 2002.60–64 wants to blame Odysseus for the failure at the fjord.

63. Shay 2002.87–88 frames the Sirens as a metaphor for how veterans want to know the complete truth and the outcome of all the stories left unfinished. The paradox is that "Complete and final truth is an unachievable, toxic quest, which is different from the quest to create meaning for one's experience in a coherent narrative" (87).

64. For Zeus's rejection of the sacrifice because of Odysseus's hubris, see Friedrich 1991; cf. Bakker 2013.124. Ahl and Roisman 1996.150–51 are skeptical about Odysseus's nap. So is Shay 2002.102; cf. Segal 1994.216. From a different perspective, perhaps in each case Odysseus's sleep is imperative: Churchland 2013.226 describes how sleep is neurobiologically essential to the consolidation of memory.

65. Bakker 2013.124: The Cyclops scene and Thrinakia bookend the Apologoi in contrasting ways: Odysseus stands apart in the first as a leader who misleads his companions and apart in the second as an outsider who has lost control. For Segal 1994.215, the Thrinakia scene "validates Zeus's theology in the proem, which we now see through Odysseus's eyes, and also introduces an important change in the conception of divinity."

66. On the Thrinakian episode and its "theological problems," see Bakker 2013.116–17; cf. Clay 1983.218–20 and Danek 1998.261–65. Shay 2002.100 complains that Odysseus never explains to his men the prophecies from Kirke and Teiresias.

67. Fenik 1974.222 emphasizes that in their mistakes, neither Odysseus nor the sailors can blame divine causes.

68. For LeDoux 2015. 5–6, "Consciousness is an interpreter of experience, a means by which we develop a self-story that we use to understand those motivations and actions that arise from non-conscious processes in our brains." Cf. Gazzaniga and LeDoux 1978 and Gazzaniga 2012.

Additional Information

Print ISSN
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.