Written by Alberto Majrani, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Who really killed the suitors in Homer’s Odyssey? A careful reading of the epic poem reveals a myriad of clues left by Homer with a surprising conclusion: Ulysses was not…really Ulysses. He was the expert Achaean archer Philoctetes in disguise!
With this key, the Homeric poem suddenly assumes a logic and coherence hitherto unsuspected. This explains why Homer continues to praise the art of deception: it is he who has deceived us for three thousand years! And the surprises do not end there: all the apparent inconsistencies of the Iliad and the Odyssey that have plagued students and teachers for generations, known as the “Homeric Question”, now fall effortlessly in place. The ancient texts finally agree with historical and archaeological data, fully revealing the genius of their author.
It’s a strange story, that of Ulysses. Is it possible that the King of Ithaca stayed away for twenty years, missing his homeland, abandoning a beautiful nymph who would make him immortal, only to return to a wife no longer young after a dangerous solo crossing?
And when he does return, nobody recognizes him, not even his father or his own wife, so he kills all the pretenders threatening to provoke a bloody revolution, and finally, when he would have every right to a little peace and quiet, he decides to sail away in secret, leaving everyone baffled! All right, yes, it is a mythological tale, but it is not very…logical!
And what if Ulysses was not actually…Ulysses? Let’s examine the hypothesis that the son of Ulysses, Telemachus, had hired a mercenary to interpret Ulysses and to slaughter of the suitors asking the hand of his mother Penelope: the same Telemachus would then cast a poet to tell a fantastic story that could justify all the years of his father’s absence. All this in order to free the royal palace of all the suitors eating them out of house and home — not to mention that if someone had married his mother, Telemachus would have lost his right of succession to the kingdom.
In fact, Penelope was of noble birth, being the daughter of the powerful King Ikarios, while Ulysses was an “upstart” tradesman familiar with piracy and looting, activities which, at that time, were not clearly defined. The claimants themselves were plotting to get rid of him, and he had to anticipate them as soon as possible.
Who was this mercenary? Can you imagine? Think about it…it is suggested to us by Ulysses himself…when he is in the land of the Phaeacians. Ulysses claims to be the best of the Achaeans in archery, immediately after Philoctetes!
As for Philoctetes, who was he? Maybe someone remembers him thanks to the amusing cartoon “Hercules”, produced by Disney in 1997 in which the script writers got a bit too carried away by the need to invent a fun story. They changed the events and roles of various mythological characters. It’s best, then, to refer to Classical sources.
The Iliad tells us that Philoctetes was the head of a contingent of the Achaeans headed to the Trojan War. However, he was bitten in the foot by a snake, a serious wound that became infected and forced his teammates to abandon him on the island of Lemnos. As Sophocles recounts in his play Philoctetes, according to a prophecy, Troy would fall only with the help of Hercules’ weapons. Philoctetes had been a pupil of Hercules and had inherited his bow and arrows, so after being cured by the Achaean doctor Machaon, Philoctetes kills Paris, decisively contributing to the defeat of the Trojans.
Of course! The mercenary was Philoctetes! That explains a lot: he had known Ulysses for some time—that lent itself well to interpret him– he also was a “family friend” and therefore may have been more willing to risk his life in such a dangerous undertaking. He was an extremely skilled archer, requiring a level of training that Ulysses could not have maintained after so many years at sea.
That is assuming, of course, that Ulysses was really equipped with this skill: as the Iliad recounts, Ulysses never uses the bow, even during the games in honor of Patroclus, in which he won wrestling and running competitions. And when he finally does have a bow in hand—borrowed from the young warrior Meriones—all he does with it is whip horses!
Note also that Homer does not say that Philoctetes was abandoned on Lemnos on Ulysses’ orders: this is the work of subsequent mythographers and repeated by Sophocles, who reworked the old myths to build on his story–not very different from the authors of Disney. So there is no reason to think that Philoctetes was harboring resentment against Ulysses or his family members.
The youth of Ithaca would not have recognized Philoctetes, but some elderly people might, so it was necessary to leave the island as soon as his mission against the suitors was accomplished. He had been seriously wounded in the foot by a snake, which would have left him with some obvious lameness. In fact, Homer, without saying so openly, does everything to make us understand that the mysterious stranger limps: he walks slowly, leaning on a cane, is likened to the god Hephaestus, who is lame too. There are many strange references to “feet”, for example the old nurse who recognizes “Ulysses” by his knee injury caused by a wild boar (which is never mentioned either in the Iliad or the rest of the Odyssey, in which the legs of the runner Ulysses are absolutely perfect), a recognition that comes just as she washes his feet. Perhaps it had more to do with the foot than the knee!
But Philoctetes was not content with his substantial reward— i.e., all the precious objects Telemachus loaded on his ship when he sailed off—he aspired to eternal glory! And since he could not reveal the deception, he was lauded as one of “the best of the archers Achaean” by the great “Ulysses” himself.
That same “Ulysses” even alludes — in the poem dedicated to him — that there was someone better than him in the art of archery. His words are something of a Freudian slip, a kind of “Message in a Bottle” launched to posterity, as if to say: “he who has ears to hear, let him hear!”. Homer has left a host of similar messages throughout the poem that guide us through the actual course of the action.
As for the real Ulysses, he had probably died long before, killed in battle or drowned at sea. This can be deduced from the fact that, throughout the Odyssey, the idea that the hero is now deceased is repeated several times. What about the fact that at some point Ulysses descends into the underworld? Or the episode in which his name is Nobody, so the cyclops Polyphemus will repeat that Nobody blinds him, No one kills him? Other messages in bottles, which.. no one, so far, had taken literally!
And again, does it not appear very suspect the extraordinary coincidence in time, that Ulysses would return to Ithaca after two decades, and within hours his son is landing on the same beach, located on the opposite side to the main port?
Also, what should we infer from traditional biographies which say Homer was blind? It could be that the poet was looking for a justification for not recognizing he who passed himself off as Ulysses?
Let’s reconstruct the affair, let’s imagine how could it have taken place in reality. There is a power vacuum in Ithaca; the king left for decades and never came back. The suitors are plotting to eliminate Telemachus and take over the kingdom, so he sets sail with a ship full of precious objects to hire a mercenary (Philoctetes already means “the one who loves to possess”). Philoctetes comes and performs the massacre with the help of the most faithful servants, whom, as the swineherd Eumaeus and the cowherd Philoetius take the trouble of informing us, will be adequately rewarded
The fake Ulysses cannot stay there pretending nothing had happened, because sooner or later someone will recognize him. So he sails off again, leaving Telemachus the kingdom… and they all lived happily ever after.
The Odyssey is not just a fairy tale for overgrown children, but an intricate maze filled with ingenious references that will inevitably escape those who do not study it closely. Quandoque dormitat bonus Homerus–“Even good old Homer nods,” Horace proclaimed– but maybe Homer was a lot more awake than we thought!
This article is based off a new book by Alberto Majrani titled L’ASTUTO OMERO e il geniale inganno dell’Odissea (The CUNNING HOMER – Ulysses, Nobody, Philoctetes and The Ingenious Deception Of The Odyssey) which addresses the Homeric question. As of April 2021, the book is available only in Italian. To request the complete 428-page pdf ebook, which includes 280 images at the price of Euro 6,28, send an email to [email protected] Publishers, journalists, University professors are provided a FREE copy of ebook. The paper book costs 28 euros + shipping (weight 1300 grams). More info on Internet https://cunninghomer.blogspot.com/ (in English) or https://astutoomero.blogspot.com/ (in Italian)