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an i n t e r n a t ion a l journal o f c lassic s

7 · 2014

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issn 1971-9078
e-issn 2035-3561
isbn 978-88-6227-831-7
studies on the greek epic cycle
ed. giampiero scafoglio · i.
Giampiero Scafoglio, Introduction. An Epic Cycle revival 11
Gregory Nagy, Homeric cross-referencing to a Cyclic tradition of performance 15
Giampiero Scafoglio, Un guerrier qui vient de loin. Ajax de la tradition pré-ho-
mérique à l’Iliade 33
Françoise Létoublon, Le Palladion dans la guerre de Troie: un talisman du cycle
épique, un tabou de l’Iliade 61
Elton T. E. Barker, Joel P. Christensen, Odysseus’s Nostos and the Odyssey’s
Nostoi : rivalry within the Epic Cycle

Jonathan S. Burgess, The Death of Odysseus in the Odyssey and the Telegony 111
Livio Sbardella, La Teogonia esiodea e quella ciclica : competizione narrativa e

tradizioni rapsodiche 123

Authors and abstracts 137
Jonathan S. Burgess

I n the past I have stated that Teiresias’ prophecy of the death of Odysseus is harmoni-
ous with the Telegony’s death of Odysseus. My claim was that the phrase ejx aJlov~ may
suggest “apart from the sea” but really means “from the sea,” and that ajblhcrov~ implies
not a natural death by old age but rather a slow poisoning from the stingray barb of
Telegonus’ weapon. 1 My argument here allows that all this may indeed be so, but ranges

more widely in its consideration of what both the Odyssey and the Telegony may be saying
about the hero’s demise. I will put aside text-to-text literary history 2 and proceed with  

thematic interpretation of each epic within the context of various tales about the hero’s
death. Limitations of the evidence available (a vague prophecy of an event outside the
Homeric epic’s boundaries ; an ancient summary of the lost Cycle poem) make it impos-

sible to decide how exactly each poem portrayed the hero’s death, but I conclude that
each poem handled the topic similarly, though with different implications.
In my methodology, the Epic Cycle poems represent a strong pre-Homeric tradi-
tion. 3Within the performance culture of the Archaic Age the initial influence of the Ho-

meric poems would not be quick or extensive. I have even suggested that the epics in the
Cycle may have been composed without any knowledge of Homer. This, I maintain, is
indeed possible for Telegony, apparently a Cyrenaean composition of the early sixth cen-
tury BCE. It may be that the Cyrenean poem was influenced by the Odyssey, in which
case the Telegony should be regarded as an interesting example of reception. Since some
date the final form of the Odyssey to the later sixth century, the same respect should be
accorded to the Odyssey as potential reception of the Telegony. 4But my approach is not  

founded on dates or intertextuality ; instead, it triangulates the Homeric and Cyclic epics

with various traditions about Odysseus.

More specifically, I avoid a vertical approach that seeks to discern either the layering of
earlier and later passages in the Odyssey or the compilation of different stories in the Tele-
gony. Each epic is here treaty as a unity, though I am cautious about conflating ancient
testimony about Telegonus to fill out the Proclus summary. Since I do not assume that
the Cyclic poem invented the character or the story of his killing of Odysseus, I do not re-
gard all narratives about Telegonus as reflexes of the Telegony. At the time of its compo-
sition, the Telegony would not have been an important version of Odysseus’ post-return

1  Burgess 1995, p. 234 n. 70, 2001, pp. 153-154, 2014, pp. 179, 2014 p. 357 n. 8. The helpful essay about the death of
Odysseus at West 2013, pp. 307-315 is now a fundamental discussion of the death of Odysseus.
2 E.g., Hartmann 1917 ; Grossardt 2003 (the latter with extensive consideration of folktale motifs potentially

embedded within the Homeric epic). For more “horizontal” perspectives that explore surviving evidence for hypo-
thetically alternative or competitive narratives, as perhaps indicated by the Odyssey itself, cf. Danek 1998, pp. 214-228,
454-457 (oralist and narratological) ; Malkin 1998, pp. 120-155 (historical and geographical) ; Marks 2008, pp. 83-111

(literary and theological).

3  See Burgess 2001 for a full explanation of this methodology (for the Telegony, pp.11, 143, 153, 162, 167, 170), with
Burgess 2009, pp. 56-71 on epic “intertextuality” in an oral culture. The claim by Clement (Strom. 6.25.1) that Eugam-
mon stole from a poem about Thesprotia by the mythological Musaeus suggests that the Telgony’s content is pre-
Homeric (Martin 2011, p. 841). For discussion of Musaeus and Pausanias (8.12.6) Thesprotis multi-forms, see Cerri
2002, pp. 172-176. 4  Cf., e.g., Cook 1995 ; Jensen 2011.

112 jonathan s. burgess
adventures, let alone the original version. After the poem was recorded, for whatever
reason, it may have become influential to later readers. But even Telegonus narratives by
Aeschylus and Sophocles varied greatly from the Telegony, and undocumented traditions
about Telegonus surely prevailed throughout antiquity, making stemmata-like analysis
of the Telegonus myth dubious.
In the Odyssey’s underworld scene, Odysseus seeks information about his return from
Teiresias. The seer’s remarks are infamously lacking in details about how to return. Rath-
er, he is more concerned with providing a “logic tree” concerning the potential conse-
quences of future events. 1For the inland journey, the seer finds it expedient to employ

an imprecise tale type, that of the “sailor and oar.” 2 The carried oar and the mandated

sacrifice may suggest that appeasement of Poseidon is the journey’s motivation, but Od-
ysseus is not told this explicitly, and he does not indicate that he understands this to be
the case in his non-reply (11.139). 3 In the version he provides to Penelope (23.265-287) he

speaks of the journey only as fated. 4  

The sketchy and unmotivated nature of the seer’s prophecy may result from Homeric
displacement of the normal sequence of events. Proteus mandates sacrifice for Menelaus
before he returns, and it has been thought that claims in Odysseus’ lying tales that “Odys-
seus” is travelling in Thesprotia before his return (14.314-359, 19.262-307) may reflect an
alternative tradition. 5 The journey of “Odysseus” to Dodona for divine guidance con-

cerning his returning strategy (force or wile, 14.330, 19.299) parallels Teiresias’ remarks
(11.120). It has also been speculated that the nekyomanteion by the Thesprotian Acheron is
the inspiration for the Homeric nekyia. 6 One might suppose, therefore, that in pre-Ho-

meric versions Odysseus sought guidance from Teiresias through necromancy in Thes-
protia, sacrificed to Poseidon somewhere on the mainland, and sought divine guidance
at the Dodona oracle before he returned home.
Whatever the innovation of the Homeric underworld episode, there is extraordinary
complexity in its articulation of Odysseus’ projected post-return travel and death. Promi-
nent is the theme of the oar. Even before Odysseus encounters Teiresias, he is confront-
ed by the oarsman Elpenor (11.51ff.), who asks to be buried at Circe’s island with an oar
to mark his tumulus. The planting of the oar will personalize the semiotic message of his
sh`ma (“sign,” 75), as funeral mounds are typically labeled Homeric epic. 7 Elpenor thinks  

that the mound will ensure that men of the future will remember him (78), but even if
sailors should visit Aeaea in the future, they would not be able to “read” the sema of the
oar-marked mound. 8 Viewers of a burial sema need to possess information in order to

1 See Peradotto 1990, pp. 63-93.

2 Cf. Dornsieff 1937, pp.166-167. On the tale type of the “sailor and the oar,” see Hansen 2002, pp. 371-378, Gros-
sardt 2003, pp. 225-226.
3  Hartmann 1917, pp. 216-217 argues that the prophecy as a whole makes appeasement of Poseidon as a motive
4  Peradotto 1990, p. 73 states that Penelope’s reaction is our primary means of gauging the ambiguity of the
words of Teiresias, but her cautious optimism only tells us how an internal, interested character might react to them,
not the external audience possessing wider knowledge.
5 Cf. Peradotto 1990, pp. 76-77, Danek 1998, pp. 215-216, Malkin 1998, pp. 129-130, Marks 2008, pp. 89-92.
6  See Ogden 2001, pp. xxiv-xxv, 43-64, who argues that Greek colonists were responsible for the re-localization of
the Odyssean nekyia from the (pre-Homeric) Thesprotian oracle to Avernus, with Pausanias 1.17.4 and my website
on the topic (<http ://>).

7  Nagy 1990, pp. 203-222 is seminal on Homeric semata, including in the prophecy of Teiresias, especially on the
essential process of their decoding.
8  On the “anonymous” nature of Elpenor’s sema, see Purves 2010, p. 84 (though it is conceivable that Aeaea
would be occasionally visited : Burgess 2012, pp. 277-279, 286). Perhaps Elpenor intends the fixed oar to mark the end

of his rowing (see Nagy 1990, p. 214, comparing Theocritus Idyll 7.155-56), but it is clear he expects a heroic burial.
the death of odysseus in the odyssey and the telegony 113
unlock its message. Compare Hector’s proleptic vision of the funeral mound of the war-
rior he assumes that he will defeat (7.84-90). The Trojan hero is confident that this sema
will broadcast his own fame to future seamen, not that of his anonymous victim. Heroic
kleos needs to contextualize the message of a funeral sema, and in Hector’s imagination
the defeated Greek will not have the kleos necessary for his funeral mound to function
as intended. As for Elpenor, a heroic funeral mound seems comically inappropriate for
a lowly oarsman who fell off the roof to his death after a drunken evening. Odysseus ac-
quiesces without comment (80), and the Greeks dutifully bury the corpse of Elpenor in a
prominent mound (12.9-15), but Elpenor’s sema will surely not serve as a marker of kleos,
should it ever be seen. For the audience of the Odyssey, it has an unfortunately comic ef-
fect. We are confronted shortly before the Teiresias prophecy, then, with the potential
failure of a sema to be understood.
The “inland journey” foretold by Teiresias centers on the semiotics of another oar, the
one carried by Odysseus. The prophet specifies that Odysseus needs to travel to a people
who do not know of the sea, sea-salt, ships, or oars (122-125), as signaled by someone
mistaking the oar upon his shoulder as a winnowing shovel (127-128). 1 The inlander will  

actually use the kenning “destroyer of chaff” for the oar, just as Teiresias himself employs
the kenning-like “wings for ships” to describe oars (125). In multiple ways this carried oar
is remarkably metaphoric. Not only does it seem in some way to reference Poseidon,
but arguably the carrying (or “metaphoring”) of the oar signals the crossing of a cultural
boundary. Odysseus has toured exotic cultures in his sea wanderings, and now he is to
pass over a boundary between a marine way of life and an agricultural way of life. 2  

The carried oar may be a “meta-oar” of multiple significance for us, but it also func-
tions semiotically for the characters within the story. The inland wayfarer that meets
Odysseus completely fails to recognize what the oar signifies. The misunderstanding is,
paradoxically, the “very clear” sema that Teiresias tells Odysseus to expect : there he is to  

stick the oar in the earth and sacrifice to Poseidon (129-131).Teiresias’ phrasing for the
sticking of this oar in the ground is lexically similar to Elpenor’s request that an oar be
fixed on his mound (77), which is a sign to the audience that we are invited to contem-
plate the fragile semiotics of Teiresias’ prophecy. Elpenor has false hopes regarding his
oar-marked funeral sema, we suspect. The inland wayfarer will fail to recognize Odys-
seus’ oar. Odysseus is to realize that this mis-recognition serves as a sign, but we should
be prepared to wonder whether he correctly understands other signs in the prophecy.
Teiresias seemingly foretells Odysseus’ return to Ithaca and eventual death in old age
apart from the sea. But prophecies are famously misleading. 3Relevant is the oracle to

Agamemnon in the first song of Demodokos in Book 8. An ensuing quarrel between

Achilles and Odysseus is regarded by Agamemnon as a prophesized quarrel between the
“best of the Achaeans” (75-82). 4 But Agamemnon is mistaken. As the listening Odysseus

1  On winnowing “shovel” being the correct analogy to an oar, not winnowing “fan,” see Hansen 2002, p. 378 n.
2 See Burgess 2014, pp. 175-177. Cf. Vidal-Naquet 1996 for the anthropological nature of the wanderings, with
my qualification that much of what Odysseus visits is exotic human, not non-human, culture.
3  See further Kahane 2005, pp. 3-22, 95-131, who discusses such prophecies, including the Teiresias prophecy, in
reference to the riddle of the lice that Homer fails to understand in the biographical tradition. Cf. West 2013, pp. 310-
314, who explores comparative material to explain the words of Teiresias.
4  For this much-discussed passage, see now West 2013, p. 98, and Nagy, this volume. In what follows I assume
the prophesized quarrel is between Agamemnon and Achilles. Differently from West, I do not think that Odysseus
is a “substitution” for Agamemnon for the sake of the listening Odysseus. Since the words of Demodocus refer to
ruin for both Greeks and Trojans, perhaps they reference the consequences of Achilles’ wrath, or more generally the
“plan of Zeus” told in the Cypria (Burgess 2004, p. 17).
114 jonathan s. burgess
and the Odyssey’s external audience would know, the later quarrel between Achilles and
Agamemnon is what the oracle predicts. Not long after this passage Teiresias describes
Odysseus’ death, and the external audience should here wonder whether Odysseus cor-
rectly interprets it. It would of course be very effective for an audience, and not just a
character, to be initially unaware of an oracle’s meaning, only to realize the truth at a
later point in the narrative. But since the Odyssey does not narrate its hero’s death, an au-
dience would need to have prior knowledge of Odysseus’ death to recognize that Teire-
sias’ words are misleading. My argument assumes that the ancient audience would know
a tradition of the hero’s death that is similar to that narrated in the Telegony.
Sophocles knew a misunderstood oracle made for a good plot, not to mention parri-
cide. In the Odysseus Akanthoplex (“barb-struck”), the hero misunderstands a oracle that
his son would kill him to refer to Telemachus, not Telegonus. 1 Aeschylus bypassed Tele-  

gonus in the Psychagogoi (fr. 275 Radt), but his version of the hero’s death is a multi-form
of “death from the sea” : Teiresias prophesizes that a sea heron’s excrement, containing

a barb from a sea creature, will fall on the hero’s head. 2Both tragedians were apparently

content to think that what the Homeric prophecy really meant by ejx aJlov~ was death
“from the sea,” not “apart from the sea.” We don’t know if the Telegony referenced a mis-
leading prophecy, Homeric or otherwise. Telegonus arrives from the sea before killing
his father (Proclus), and in many versions of the Telegonus story the son of Odysseus also
wielded a sting-ray weapon (so, death comes from the sea in more than one way). 3 What  

is clear, despite the variation, is that in antiquity an Ithacan death for Odysseus somehow
came “from the sea.”This was probably pre-Homeric and traditional, and the Homeric
prophecy of Teiresias plays off that tradition.
But in the heated rhetoric of Cycle scorners, Eugammon either comically failed to
understand the Greek of Teiresias’ phraseology, or he willfully perverted it in order to
create a cheap sensationalist plot. By adding to his sins the free use of parricide, immor-
talization, and procreation, the Cyclic author thus anticipates Hellenistic literature, or
(horrors !) the ancient novel. 4 By these standards much of early Greek myth needs to be

derided. But Aeschylus and Sophocles, for example, would not have employed an awful
poem to invent further perversities. It’s probably most accurate to conclude they were
creating multi-form versions of a wide-spread motif of “death from the sea” for Odys-
seus. If that motif was notably represented in their time by the Telegony, that means they
were free of the anti-Cycle bias that began in Hellenistic scholarship and remains promi-
nent today.
But my own rhetoric has become heated, so let us proceed to examine whether my
argument is supported by a close reading of Tiresias’ prophecy. Teiresias predicts that
qavnato~ dev toi ejx aJlov~ aujtw`/...ejleuvsetai. This preposition with a verb of movement, by
comparative Homeric usage and by standard Greek usage, should result in the meaning
“death will come to you from the sea.” Some have been surprised by the willingness

1  Odysseus also apparently receives a prophecy from Dodona in the Euryalos, which although featuring a different
plot also ends with Telegonus killing his father with the stingray weapon. All this depends on interpretation of a few
fragments and testimonies from later literature ; see Gantz 1993, pp. 711-713 ; Sutton 1984, pp. 46, 90-94.

2 See West 2013, pp. 309-310.

3  Carrière 1992, pp. 33-34 explores the various ways in which “death from the sea” might be manifested. Danek
1998, p. 227 points out that Telegonus does not need the sting-ray weapon for a death arriving “from the sea.”
4  Some choice quotes from excellent scholars : “ce misérable poème... un genre nouveau, celui du roman en

prose” (Severyns 1928, pp. 409-410, quoted approvingly at West 2013, p. 291) ; « a resolution rightly called by Severyns

‘ce dénouement à la fois romanesque et ridicule’ » (Griffin 1977, p. 42) ; « second-rate... [the ending] has evoked pity

and contempt in about equal proporitions » (Davies 1989, p. 94).

the death of odysseus in the odyssey and the telegony 115
of scholars from antiquity onward to think that the phraseology should or could mean
“death will occur when you are apart from the sea.” 1 I share this exasperation, but for the

misdirection of the prophecy to be effected there must be some possibility of it being mis-
understood. The preposition can denote separation in other syntactical constructions,
and given the general circumstances of the prophecy (return home, old age, the people
prosperous), as well as a word order in which the second personal pronoun intervenes
between “death” and the prepositional phrase, Odysseus can be forgiven for thinking
that he will be apart from the sea when he dies.
So it may not be the normal understanding of qavnato~ dev toi ejx aJlov~ aujtw`/...ejleuvsetai,
but “death will come to you when you are apart from the sea” must be just possible. 2  

“Death from the sea” would not easily register to a listener of a prophecy that makes no
mention of Telegonus or a stingray-barbed weapon or barbed excrement. These are ex-
traordinary stories, as the critics are fond of emphasizing, but that’s the point : the death  

of Odysseus is so unexpected that the hero is easily misled by the prophecy. The conclu-
sion that death will be “from the sea” is not encouraged by the prophecy’s wording, or
by the wider context of the Odyssey, which generally celebrates its namesake as a long-
suffering hero who deserves to survive his wanderings at sea and return home. Why,
then, is this unfortunate death of Odysseus allowed to slip into the Odyssey ? I do not think  

because the Homeric poem was obliged to mention a pre-Homeric tradition, or because
it was trying to somehow undermine such a tradition in an agonistic manner. Rather, I
suggest, the Odyssey goes out of its way to admit elements, here and elsewhere, that are
contrary to the dominant themes of its narrative. 3  

My readers must by now be wondering : “Why, then, does Teiresias describe the

death as ajblhcrov~, commonly translated as ‘gentle’ or ‘weak’ or ‘peaceful’ ? That doesn’t  

match being stabbed by some sort of sting-ray weapon.” 4 But since we know that ejx aJlov~

should mean “from the sea,” and can only be mistakenly interpreted as “apart from the
sea,” we should be alert to the possibility of ajblhcro;~ also being misleading. In previous
publications, I have suggested that the poisonous nature of the spine of the stingray, well-
known in antiquity, might lead to a slow or “peaceful” death. 5 Alternatively, one might

argue that Odysseus died instantly, and thus without pain. 6 It is easy to raise objections :

despite the sudden death of the television personality Steve Irwin by a stingray wound,
death is rarely the result of being stung by the sting-ray. And the toxin of the sting-ray,
not to mention the jaggedness of the spine, actually causes much pain. 7 But real-world  

1  For a correct interpretation, see West 2013, pp. 307-308. See also Ballabriga 1989, p. 294 (with reference to the
most relevant Homeric passages), Carrière 1992, pp. 38-39, Louden 2011, p. 22. Many scholars today at least consider
the meaning ambiguous.
2 See Cerri 2002, 155, who distinguishes Odysseus’ interpretation of the oracular wording from the audience’s.
3 See Burgess, 2014, 351-352.
4  Hartmann 1917, pp. 74 n. 69, 221, a sentiment shared by many scholars. Since I don’t assume intertextuality
between the Homeric and Cyclic epics, I am not obliged to explain how Teiresias’ words match the Telegony or vice
5  See n. 1 above. Grosshardt 2003, p. 212 notes the theme of poison in the Odyssey ; Mayor 2003, pp. 56-57, 74-75

describes Odysseus as a poisoner (1.255-64) justly poisoned. Cf. Epicurus Gnomologium Vaticanum fr. 4 for the adjec-
tive ajblhcrov~ describing a long-lasting yet mild pain, and Johannes Zonaras Epitome Historiarum 537 (Bütner-Wobst)
for a slow-acting, gentle poison. I owe these references to the thorough survey of ancient and medieval sources at
Reece 2009, p. 123 n. 85, 124 n. 86. See Thompson 1947, pp. 279-271 for ancient sources about the sting-ray and its role
in the Telegonus story.
6 Cf. Dornseiff 1959, p. 168 ; rejected at West 2013, p. 308. Aelian NH 1.56, 2.36, 50 forcefully describes a wound

by a sting-ray as immediately lethal.

7  West 2013, p. 308-310 concludes that Aeschylus’ version better represents a death of slow-acting poison that
might be deemed ajblhcrov~. Cicero (Tusc. Disp. 2.21.48) claimed that Odysseus lamented much more from the pain of
116 jonathan s. burgess
piscology is not necessary here. What matters is how the motif of a sting-ray spine would
be able to function in a poetic narrative for an ancient audience. 1 The audience might be

expected to employ some suspension of disbelief if a poem described death from sting-
ray wound in such a way that it fulfilled the prophecy’s ajblhcrov~ (whether a slow or
instantaneous death).
But for the sake of argument let us suppose that death resulting from a sting-ray wound
could only be imagined as very painful. Then could ajblhcrov~ be interpreted differently ?  

The existence of both the prefixed ajblhcrov~ and the non-prefixed by-form blhcrov~ is
curious, and explanation has been various. Steve Reecegently mocks non-descriptions
of the alpha-prefix, like “euphonious,” “intensive,” “pleonastic,” and “superfluous.” 2 His  

analysis convincingly concludes that the expendable, insignificant alpha-prefix results

from oral/aural misdivision of words, with blhcrov~ primary and ajblhcrov~ a secondary,
pre-Homeric development. On the evidence of Homeric usage elsewhere, the mean-
ing of the alpha-prefix and non-prefix forms would be the same. But of interest to my
argument is his admission that an explanation of the prefix as an alpha-privative “comes
immediately to mind.” 3 Arguably this comes belatedly to mind, to explain the proph-

ecy after a fatal wound somehow coming “from the sea.”Though Homeric ajblhcrov~ is
used to describe something weak, one could imagine a death scene in which the word’s
alpha-prefix is recognized as actually privative. 4 The sting-ray death, under this new ap-

prehension, would be “not weak,” or violent. Such a punning use of ajblhcrov~ by Teire-
sias would reverse the wordplay of ejx aJlov~. There context allows Odysseus to imagine
a just-possible meaning to obscure the regular one. In my alpha-privative explanation of
ajblhcrov~, its regular meaning contributes to misapprehension of ejx aJlov~, but the odd-
ity of the alpha-prefix provides wriggle-room for a hypothetical, opposite meaning. A
mythologically informed audience of the Odyssey would comprehend the true implica-
tion of Teiresias’ words.
Other scenarios are possible, such as the suggestion by Jim Marks that ajblhcrov~ as
“feeble” or “easily penetrable” references the fragility of the aged Odysseus when tak-
ing up arms against the intruder. 5 The phraseology that seemingly defines the ajblhcrov~

qavnato~, toi`o~...o{~ kev se pevfnh/ ghvra/ u{po liparw`/ ajrhmevnon (135-136), might imply that the
adjective describes the nature of Odysseus at his death, not the cause of the death. What-
ever the counter-intuitive meaning of ajblhcrov~, like the preceding ejx aJlov~ it is a semi-
otic challenge that the audience, but not Odysseus, is expected to interpret correctly. And
recognition that Odysseus does not perceive the true meaning of the wording is essential.
The ancient audience as mythologically informed would comprehend the semiotic na-
ture of the words, as well as “read” the overall sema that Odysseus does not understand
the prophecy. 6 An informed audience would be like the Odysseus who with knowledge

the wound in the Odysseus Akanthoplex by Sophocles than in the Niptra by Pacuvius, often thought (in other respects !) 

to reflect the Sophoclean play.

1  See Carrière 1992, pp. 40-42. 2  Reece 2009, pp. 122-132.
3  Reece 2009, p. 127. A few ancient and modern scholars so theorized. 4 Thus Cerri 2002, p. 156.
5  Marks 2008, p. 95. And is it is clear to me that further ambiguities in Teiresias’ words could be explored. It
hardly seems coincidental that the word for “chaff” (qhvr) in the kenning “chaff-destroyer” (ajqhrhloigov~, 11.128), for
example, can also mean the barb of a weapon or fish. Cf. Ballabriga 1989 for an interesting discussion of the lexical
nature of the kenning, which ultimately I find unconvincing.
6  Compare the different analysis of West 2013, pp. 307-315 : comparative riddling material is employed to create a

hypothetical “prophecy about Odysseus’ immunities” (314), of which only an “echo” remains in Odyssey 11, “which
the poet perhaps put in without full awareness of is purport, to presage an eventual happy end to Odysseus’ life” (315).
The Telegony provides more apposite comparative material to explain the functional semiotics of the prophecy.
the death of odysseus in the odyssey and the telegony 117
of both oars and winnowing shovels recognizes the sema of the inlander’s misunderstand-
ing. Scholars have instead played the role of the inlander who is oblivious of what’s really
going on. 1 And given the scantiness of our evidence, we will never be as informed as the

ancient audience. But the internal evidence of Teiresias’ words demands that we suspect
their misdirection. And connoisseurs of Homeric poetics should expect that the prophecy
is more than a vestigial remnant of some forgotten motif, or unnecessary prolepsis be-
yond the Odyssey’s narrative teleology, or gratuitous mystification of material that it
would rather disregard. So to be more like the oar-carrying Odysseus and less like the
inlander, we need to get out and wander through ancient accounts of Odysseus’ death.
Apollodorus conveniently reports various post-return tales : travels on the mainland,

including an extended stay in Thesprotia, followed by a return to Ithaca where Telego-

nus unwittingly slays his father (Epit. 7.34-37) ; the exile or slaying of an unfaithful Penelo-

pe (Epit. 7.38-39) ; and the exile of Odysseus for the slaying of the suitors to Aetolia, where

he dies (Epit. 7.40). Later literature, commentary, and material culture splinter the possi-
bilities further. Notable are the coins of Mantineia, Arcadia, that show Odysseus with an
oar, 2 and Plutarch’s testimony that Odysseus went to Italy in exile for the murder of the

suitors. 3 It has also been thought that the Odyssey provides indirect testimony for such

post-return adventures : beyond the prophecy of Teiresias about an inland journey and

death at home, the issue of exile for Odysseus is repeatedly brought up in the poem. 4  

The Telegonus story seems to agree generally with Teiresias that Odysseus died on
Ithaca, as opposed to going into permanent exile. 5It is impossible to discern whether

details of the Telegony’s death scene harmonized with the Homeric poem on the basis of
Proclus. The Telegony or variant accounts might have explained the true meaning of a
prophecy of Teiresias after the hero was mortally wounded, assuming such a prophecy
was referenced. 6As for the mainland journeys of Odysseus in the Cyclic poem, we do not

really know if either corresponds to the “inland journey” of the Homeric poem. 7 More  

likely, the Odyssey alludes to pre-Homeric mainland legends by means of the Tiresias
prophecy, which borrows the folklore motif because its geographical vagueness suits

1  For a different analogy, Odysseus in the inland journey is in command of a double meaning of the oar, while
the inlander is not, just as in the Polyphemus episode Odysseus is in command of the double meaning of outis, while
Polyphemus and his neighboring Cyclopes, in different ways, are not.
2 See Malkin 1998, p. 125-126, where the Arcadian interest in Penelope and Odysseus is described as relatively late
(the coins date from the 4th c. onward) and peripheral to northwest Greece traditions.
3  Malkin 1998, p. 125 defends the reference to Italy, though this is often emended to Aitolia, since the testimony
is otherwise harmonious with Apollodorus Epit. 7.40. Plutarch references Aristotle’s Constitution of the Ithacans as the
source of the exile story. See further Merkelbach 1969, pp. 145-150, Marks 2008, pp. 92-94.
4  See further below. Grossardt 2003, p. 226 denies that exile of Odysseus is pre-Homeric. In my interpretation,
the Homeric poem alludes to exile as the normal consequence of the slaying of the suitors, though its own ending
is different.
5  Marks 2008, p. 95 points out the prophecy is not explicit about this, though Odysseus is to return to Ithaca from
his inland journey.
6 The Telegony need not have referred to the words of Teiresias in the Odyssey, or even to a prophecy of Teiresias
at all. The Proclus summary mentions “the sacrifices spoken of by Teiresias” accomplished by Odysseus upon his
return from Elis. At Apollodorus Epit. 7.34 Odysseus is said to propitiate Poseidon in accordance with Tiresias’ direc-
tives. These might be editorial harmonizations to the Odyssey, not accurate descriptions or reflections of the internal
contents of the Telegony. I consider the various attempts to match up the sacrifices between the Odyssey and Proclus/
Apollodorus on the assumption of intertextuality pointless. As for Teiresias’ prophecy in Aeschylus, it is not mislead-
ing and so completely different from the Homeric one.
7  If the verse about waves not waking people quoted by Synesius is from the Telegony, as recently speculated (see
West 2013, pp. 296-297 ; Tsagalis 2014 is sceptical ; relevant is his appendix’s argument against the presence of the

“sailor and oar” motif in the Telegony), that would suggest the Cyclic poem’s employment of the “sailor and oar”
motif. Sophocles seems to have used this motif in Odysseus Akanthoplex (frr. 453, 454 Radt), and the Mantineia coins
illustrate it.
118 jonathan s. burgess
prophetic vagueness. 1 Fallout from the slaughter of the suitors could be the motivation

for the hero’s mainland travel in the Telegony ; Odysseus’ long sojourn in Thesprotia in

particular might be considered a quasi-exile. 2  

Odysseus’ initial trip to Elisin

/ the Telegony to see cattle makes use of a livestock theme
prominent elsewhere in the Odyssey and in the Telegony. Later in the Telegony Telegonus
plunders Ithaca in some way upon arrival (Proclus), perhaps helping himself to livestock
(Apollodorus Epit. 7.36 ; Oppian Hal. 2.500, with scholion) or farmland (Hyginus Fab. 127).

The Homeric poem is obsessed with the depletion of the Odysseus’ resources by the suit-
ors, notably meat, 3 and Eumaeus boasts that Odysseus has herds on the mainland as well

as on Ithaca. 4 Naturally enough, some suspect that Odysseus travels to Elis to inspect his

own herds, 5 though many prefer Severyns’ argument that these are the famous herds of

Augeas, now in the care of his grandson, and Odysseus’ host, Polyxenus. 6  

In either case, cattle are prominent in the episode. The krater given to the hero by
Polyxenos displays iconography of “the story of Trophonios, Agamedes, and Augeas,” 7  

and scholars have admirably speculated about this story’s pertinence : perhaps Augeas’  

trapping of the thieves Trophonios and Agamedes has congratulatory correspondence

to Odysseus’ defeat of the suitors, or perhaps it has monitory value for the Ithacan inter-
ested in the cattle of Elis, whether belonging to the host, the visitor, or to both in some
disputed manner. 8 Potential significance also exists for the sting-ray spear of Telegonus,

which in some testimony Hephaestus made from a sting-ray killed by Phorkys for raiding
his fish. 9As Jim Marks effectively puts it, “the stingray loses its life because it intrudes on

Phorkys’ territory ; conversely, it will take the life of Odysseus when Telegonos intrudes

on his territory.” 10 In either scenario, the poaching of animal resources occurs with the

As for the Thesprotian sojourn, Odysseus’ marriage and rule at a non-Ithacan location
are extraneous to any possible motivation of Poseidon appeasement, and the hero’s ref-
erence to visiting “many cities” (23.267-267) in his repetition of Tiresias’ prophecy to Pe-
nelope would seem to contemplate something more extensive than a pedestrian mission

  1 See Purves 2010, pp. 70-84 for a fascinating exploration of the nature of “getting lost” in the inland journey.
  2 At Od. 24.430-431 Eupeithes, father of the slain Antinous, suspects Odysseus will flee to Pylos or Elis. Merkel-
bach 1969, pp. 145-150 contended that exile was the motivation for Odysseus’ mainland journeys, though his argu-
ment for a continuous journey by emendation of Proclus has not found wide acceptance. Oracle and/or necromancy
consultation, as apparent in Aeschylus and Sophocles, not to mention the lying tales of Odysseus, is another alterna-
tive. For mainland traditions of Odysseus settling beyond Thesprotia and establishing cults, see below.
  3  See now Bakker 2013.
  4  14.100-102. Cf. 4.635, where a herd of horses belonging to Noemon is situated in Elis.
  5  So my translation at 2001, p.180, which I do not wish to change. Possibly relevant is the hero’s stated intention
to make up lost livestock by plunder and the taxing of the “Achaeans” (23.355-358). Cf. Eurymachus’ promise of an
indemnity calculated by its worth in cattle (Od. 22.55-59), and the terms of the indemnity of Plutarch Moralia 294 CD,
which include sacrificial victims.
  6  Severyns 1962. The view that Odysseus wants to view the Augean herds like a tourist, while staying with an
old Trojan War buddy (Polyxenus is mentioned at Il. 2.618-624) stems from unwillingness to find thematic function
in Cyclic poetics.
  7 See West 2013, pp. 293-294 for the story and its analogues. As is apparent, I do not agree that the story “has no
perceptible relevance to Odysseus” (294).
  8 Cf. Tsagalis 2008, pp. 80-82, Steinrück 2008, pp. 135-136, Marks 2010 (no pagination). Marks also notes that
the eventual establishment of an oracle for Trophonios may be relevant to accounts of Odysseus seeking out an
oracle or establishing an oracle.
  9 Schol. Od. 11.134 ; Eustathius ad Od. 11.134 (1676.43) ; see further at Telegony fr. 4 Bernabé. I do not assume that this

account of the spear’s origins (or even the spear itself) existed in the Telegony, but if not it would seem to well illus-
trate thematic concerns present in the Cyclic poem. That Circe, expert in potions, bestows her son with a potentially
poisonous sting-ray weapon is also significant.
10  Marks 2010 (no pagination). It is at the bay of Phorkys (13.96-98) that Odysseus returns to Ithaca.
the death of odysseus in the odyssey and the telegony 119
to make sacrifice. 1 Readers of the Odyssey may well wonder why Odysseus would marry

and rule elsewhere after all the trouble the hero went through in getting home. Tempo-
rary exile might possibly be the cause, as noted above, but even so the circumstances of
the sojourn directly contradict the teleology of the Homeric poem.
When Telegonus raids the resources of Ithaca, he reveals the continuing vulnerability
of the island, something much regretted in the Homeric portrayal of the suitors’ take-
over. The Telegony demonstrates that death on a sea-girt island could never really be
“apart from the sea,” as Odysseus wants to understand ejx aJlov~. 2 If an on-land death is the

hero’s ideal death, then Teiresias’ inland country would seem to be more suitable. 3 And  

the killing of Odysseus by Telegonus hardly upholds the patriarchal values of the Odys-
sey. Nor does the removal of Telemachus from Ithaca, along with long-suffering, ever
domestic Penelope. The following double marriage of Telemachus to Circe and Tele-
gonus to Penelope, though producing laughter in some quarters, is of great ideological
import. The centripetal values of home, property, and rule in the Odyssey are disregarded
by the Telegony. 4 The reunion of Odysseus and Penelope, so prized by the Odyssey, is

no longer the end of the story. But the Telegony need not be thought to be opposing the
Odyssey in particular, since the Cyclic poem’s characterization of Odysseus as ethically
dubious is typical of Greek myth. 5  

Whose interest do these various stories about the post-return adventures of Odys-
seus serve ? Mainland epichoric tales, especially when they specified children and oracles,

seemingly co-opted the hero. 6 It is notable that the Odyssey and the Cyclic poem agree

that Odysseus will die in Ithaca. 7 Do the two poems thereby represent an Ithacan version

of the hero’s death ? Teiresias’ reference to a prosperous people (11.136-137), in harmony

with Zeus’ final settlement, is seemingly flattering of Ithaca. 8 But the anger of the suitors’

relatives in the Odyssey, mourning the loss of an entire fleet at sea and the slaughter of a
generation at home, might have been shared by historical Ithacans, or rather by inhabit-
ants in the region. 9 In Aristotle’s Constitution of the Ithacans, the outsider Neoptolemus as

arbitrator respects both Odysseus’ faction and the aggrieved relatives. Odysseus is exiled
but the relatives must pay yearly indemnity to Odysseus, transferred in his absence to
Telemachus (so, he remains to rule in Ithaca). 10 It is also reported that two clans claimed

descent from the freed slaves Eumaeus and Philoetius. That Neoptolemus is suspected
of hegemonic aspirations in the region perhaps also suggests an Ithacan perspective. This
real-world take on the consequences of slaughter does not follow either the Odyssey or
the Telegony. Some of the details, like Eumaeus and Philoetius, seem Homeric in origin,

1  The “touring of cities” motif is present (to the surprise of many) in the Homeric poem’s initial description of its
hero’s wanderings at sea (1.3-4), as well as in Alcinous’ querying of Odysseus’ travels (8.572-576) and in the lying tales
(15.491-492, 16.63-69, 19.170). 2 See West 2013, p. 307.
3  Hansen 2002, pp. 366-377 notes that the “sailor and oar” motif and Teiresias’ version of it differ principally on
this point. It is not true that ancient narrators “had to allow Odysseus to return in the end” (376), however, since
settlement and death for Odysseus is the norm in the mainland stories (Davies 1989, p. 91).
4 See Tsagalis 2008, pp. 68-69. Arkesilaus, perhaps a substitution for Poliporthes (Apollodorus Epit. 7.35 ; Pausa-

nias 8.12.6 [for the Thesprotis]), might have continued Odysseus’ rule on Ithaca. But the Cyclic poem does not share
the Odyssey’s interest in three generations of single sons (Od. 16.17-20).
5  The classic survey of Odysseus myth at Stanford 1968 is sadly mistaken to suggest the Cycle and Attic tragedy
somehow perverted an originally noble Homeric hero.
6 Cf. Hartmann 1917, pp. 87-97, Cerri 2002, pp. 151-153, Debiasi 2004, pp. 257-258, West 2013, p. 295.
7  Hartmann 1917, pp. 230-231 notes this agreement between the Homeric and Cyclic poems, ascribing it to the
literary invention of Ionian epic. 8 See Marks 2008, pp. 74-78 for an excellent analysis.
9  See the serious charges against Odysseus at 24.427-429, with Burgess 2014. That Odysseus leads a force compiled
from the area, not just Ithaca (Il. 2.631-637), and that only a minority of the suitors are from Ithaca (16.247-251), sug-
gests that Ithacan issues are necessarily regionial. 10 Plutarch Moralia 249d, Apollodorus Epit. 7.40.
120 jonathan s. burgess
but the mentioning of exile and indemnity in the Odyssey, though unrealized, may reflect
a pre-existing story. 1  

The Telegony ultimately removes the hero and his immediate family altogether from
Ithaca, to the edges of the earth, unless here Circe is localized in Italy. 2 Since Ithacans  

did not think the hero was buried on their island, the exile or removal of Odysseus
would not necessarily offend. Heroic afterlife in supernatural or peripheral realms is
not incompatible with worship at real-world locations, like the Polis Bay cave. 3 And  

Arkesilaus, apparently replacing Poliporthes, may have provided heroic lineage for his-
torical Ithacans as well as for the Cyrenean Battids named Arkesilas. 4 Beyond the detail  

of Arkesilaus, though, it is hard to discern why the Cyrenaean poem would be other-
wise concerned with the post-return adventures of Odysseus. It may be that Odyssean
tales gained wide interest as a result of Greek expansion in the western Mediterranean,
including north Africa. 5 The Telegony is often suspected of joining different mainland

epichoric stories together, to which it then added the Telegonus story. It seems to have
done this marvelously well, in my view, just as the Odyssey does in its panHellenic com-
pilation of various traditions. Without a text of the Telegony it is impossible to be conclu-
sive, but I doubt that either the Homeric or Cyclic poems were much invested in specific
epichoric agendas.
In conclusion, it is rewarding to compare the Homeric and Cyclic poems on the death
of Odysseus, even without assumption of a direct relationship between them. A close
reading of the prophecy of Tiresias indicates that it is thematically and semiotically so-
phisticated. The seer asserts that his predictions are all true (137), but much depends on
the interpretation of his vague, elliptical, and provisional words. He speaks of a “death
from the sea” for the hero, not “death apart from the sea,” though we are to understand
the latter as the hero’s misunderstanding. As for the seeming prediction of a “gentle”
death, we should expect this also to be misleading, and there are multiple ways in which
ajblhcrov~ could so be. Close reading of the Telegony is precluded by its non-survival, but
a careful weighing of testimony and reception reveals that this too was thematically so-
phisticated. The Cyclic poem agrees with Tiresias’ prediction of an Ithacan death, though
on the whole it portrays the hero and his homeland in a radically different manner. Yet
even in the prophecy of Tiresias, as elsewhere in the Odyssey, there exists dissension
with the epic’s explicit ideology. Both poems, in my view, provide external portrayals of
Ithaca and its region, through manipulation of regional tales about Odysseus to convey
narratives that would be of interest elsewhere in the Greek world.
Since we are removed from the anthropological song culture of the Archaic Age, it is
impossible to “solve” the meaning of the words of Teiresias exactly. But through a close
reading of the Homeric epic, and proper contextualization of the Cyclic epic, we can be-
gin to sense the implications of Teiresias and the Telegony about the death of Odysseus.

1  Cf. 20.41-43, 22.44ff., 23.117-122, 361-365, 24.324-326, 431-432

2  Already at Theog. 1011-1016 two of Circe’s children, Agrios and Latinos are vaguely connected with northwest Ita-
ly ; Telegonus is mentioned as a third child of the couple (1014). As noted above, the Plutarch testimony for Aristotle’s

Constitution for the Ithacans has Odysseus exiled to Italy. For Odysseus and his progeny in Italy, cf. Hartmann 1917,
pp. 229, 231-232, Phillips 1953, Malkin 1998, pp. 178-209, Debiasi 2004, pp. 265-267, 270-271, West 2013, pp. 302-303.
3 See Malkin 1998, pp. 94-119, where it is argued that non-Ithacans also participated in ritual directed at Odysseus
from an early time. Cf. Burgess 2009, pp. 98-131 on afterlife and cult of Achilles.
4  Eusthathius (fr. 3 Bernabé), though here and elswhere the Byzantine scholar is very confused about the poem
(see West 2013, p. 300). For potential Cyrenian or Libyan connections with Zakynthos, see West 2013, p. 289, Tsa-
galis, 2015.
5 In Malkin 1998, Odysseus is a key figure for such expansion (though I do not accept his early dating of the Odys-
sey to explain the hero’s centrality). See also Debiasi 2004, pp. 159-261 (who emphasizes an Euboean role).
the death of odysseus in the odyssey and the telegony 121
The result is greater appreciation of the role these different poems played within shared
systems of literary and cultural meaning.

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c o mp osto in car atter e dan t e mon ot y p e d a l l a
fabrizio serr a editor e , p i s a · r om a .
s tamp ato e rileg a t o n e l l a
t ipog rafia di ag n an o, ag na n o p i s a n o ( p i s a ) .
Luglio 2015
(cz 2 · fg 3)

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