In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • The Clinical Odyssey:Odysseus's Apologoi and Narrative Therapy
  • Joel P. Christensen

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...