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)
I completely agree that Homer was far cleverer, and more devious, than has been recognized, and that he gives clues which we must decipher. True, Odysseus in the Iliad is not the same character as in the Odyssey. In the Iliad he is a clever schemer, but lacks both courage and presence of mind; he is simply not a man of action. But the two epics are not meant to be consistent overall. The Iliad in general departs from traditional Trojan war mythology, to which the Odyssey largely returns, and it be a great mistake to try to reconcile them.
But one theme, apparently of personal importance to Homer, appears in both. Deification as the boy toy of a goddess (Athena) is something Achilles rejects in the Iliad, just as Diomedes ingloriously seeks it. Odysseus rejects it in the Odyssey. This is not illogical, but reflects Homer’s belief that the greatest heroes deserve better from the gods. Why, Homer wants us to ask, don’t they deify poets?
I claim no expertise in the Odyssey, but I believe that Penelope does recognize her husband from the outset, but doesn’t want to acknowledge him until he deals with the problem which his absence has caused.
Many clues suggest that the Iliad has been modified years after the events, just to give more emphasis on the protagonists of the Odyssey. At this point one could even venture a sensational hypothesis: that all the events that have the character of Ulysses in action in the Iliad were added later and therefore he did not actually never participated in the Trojan War! Or at least that his contribution was much more marginal than what is told. That is, that Homer has built a halo of glory around the “Telemachus’ father” to ensure a noble ancestry of his patron and employer. In fact, when the feats of heroes are narrated, very often the name of Ulysses is found last,
as if it were a later addition. And all the events they have as protagonist Ulysses in Troy have something “magical”, absolutely unlikely, not to say completely absurd. AM
When does the massacre of suitors take place? On the summer solstice!
Yesterday a greek professor wrote to me: “A passage in the Odyssey has been puzzling me for a long time: when Penelope tells Odysseus, who is still incognito at this moment, about two different kinds of dreams. The ones which pass through the gates of horn accomplish real things, whereas those coming forth from the gates of ivory are false and deceptive. Penelope does not believe in her dream of Odysseus returning home, because it came forth from the gates of ivory. Od.19.562– 567. This to me sits well with your interpretation that it was not Odysseus that returned. Please give me your feed back on this.” I talk about it at page 116 of my book L’ASTUTO OMERO! : “Penelope tells of having dreamed of twenty geese (male geese!) pecking grain (number twenty returns) and that an eagle arrives and kills them. It is interesting to note the presence of another pun that is lost in translation: dreams, says Penelope, can enter through two doors: those of the ivory door (ἐλέφας- elefas) deceive (ἐλεφαίρονται – elefairontai), while those of the ivory door horn door (κέρας- keras) present things that are true (ἔτυμα κραίνουσι – etyma krainousi) and therefore they are realized. Strangely, as Eustatius of Thessalonica had noted, for the ancients good and true things had an affinity with the most precious objects, but ivory is more precious than the horn: this contradiction, however, is resolved if we consider that the horn brings to mind the eye (the cornea, but also the pupil, κόρη, kore), while the ivory recalls the teeth, that is the mouth; in Homer the phrase “which word came out of the fence of your teeth” often resounds (Od. I, 64)); therefore one must believe in what is seen and not in what is said (and she sees well that what she has in front of her is not her husband).”
Today is the birthday of the poet Giacomo Leopardi, so we have to talk about THE SNEEZE OF TELEMACHUS!
Here is one of the strangest and weirdest pieces of information we get from the Odyssey, since Penelope:
So he said, and Telemachus sneezed loudly, and the whole house
Fearfully echoed: Penelope then laughed,
And immediately to Eumeus fleeting words said:
“Go, invite the guest to come forth here:
Can’t you see that the son sneezes at all my words?
So would the death of the suitors come true, of all”. (XVII, 541-546)
It seems that Homer wants us to know that Telemachus sneezes, so that the fact is also remarked by his mother the queen, but what can be so special a sneeze, to deserve to appear in an immortal work? For us moderns maybe nothing, but for the ancients such a gesture was considered good luck, so that even today when someone sneezes we exclaim joyfully: “Salute! (Heath!)”or “God bless you!”. Which is in itself quite strange, since often a sneeze is a symptom of the arrival of a more serious and annoying disease, such as fever or allergy, otitis or worse. According to the ancients the sneeze had to be of divine origin, being produced by a sacred part of the body, the head. So we say “Salute” to imply “May the gods bring you health instead of sickness” or something similar. Perhaps not many people know that Giacomo Leopardi, in addition to sad and pessimistic poems that have plagued for generations students who had to learn by heart, was also the author of an “Essay on the popular errors of the ancients” that had an entire chapter dedicated to sneezing. For us, the attention should be shifted not on the sneeze, but on its author, that is Telemachus: Homer wants us to know that the destiny of the annihilation of the suitors will be sanctioned by the divine will and will be fulfilled by Telemachus, and not by Ulysses.
The problem with this theory is that, when disguised as a beggar, not only does Ulysses’ nurse recognize him, but also his faithful dog Argus, who willed himself to live for 20 years so he could once again see his master and died for joy upon seeing him again. Argus was able to see the Goddess Athene, by the way, as was Ulysses, but not Telemachus.
As for the dog Argos: “Slowly they arrive at the palace, where the old dog Argos wags his tail and seems to recognize his master … but soon afterwards he dies. This is one of the most moving episodes of the entire poem, in which Homer manages with a few lines to describe a scene of great emotional intensity. But if we continue to try to observe the episode with the necessary coolness, we realize that even here our analysis maintains its validity: not even the dog will be able to “testify” to having seen Ulysses.
So much so that Eumeo remarks:
That’s a distant dead man’s dog (XVII, 312)
Now he is battered, exhausted, his master is dead far away (XVII, 318)
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