In the last book of the Odyssey, Homer has written himself into a bit of a corner. Odysseus has slaughtered an entire generation of high-class young men — the hated suitors. While the moment is doubtless cathartic, it creates political problems, as the young men’s families obviously object to their sons being mass-murdered. Civil war threatens Ithaca, until Athena intervenes, imposing a peace settlement upon the combatants. Her words are accompanied by a divine sign — lightning from her father Zeus — and yet, as the last line abruptly states, Athena brokers the treaty while “still in her guise as Mentor” (in Wilson’s translation — others are similar).
As a Great Books instructor, I have taught the Odyssey more than perhaps any book other than the Bible, and that last line never fails to land with a thud. Some students even report flipping through the pages of their book, expecting there to be another chapter. Surely we can’t end on the apparently trivial note that Athena is still disguised as that random old dude! I think that disappointment and anti-climax is appropriate, but also intentional. The moment feels like a comedown because it marks the end of the age of heroes and the beginning of normal history.
In this threshold moment, we know that the peace of Ithaca is the product of divine intervention, but it looks for all the world as though a wise old man has talked some sense into his compatriots. It is a secularizing moment, one last divine intervention that ushers in an era of merely human decision-making. It abruptly ends a cycle of violence by calling on the combatants to submit to reason. Only Odysseus, the last hero standing, is exhorted to submit to the will of the gods — but precisely by brokering a compromise using his trademark cleverness and adaptability.
It is a more compressed and abrupt version of the same basic transition that Aeschylus will later dramatize in the Eumenides. Here too we are at the threshold moment between the heroic era and ordinary history, and here too we are faced with a cycle of violence growing out of the fallout of the Trojan War. Athena once again brokers a peace, appearing as her divine self and yet still voting on the jury as though she is a human. Without the clever Odysseus to devise a creative solution, she invents the Athenians’ novel system of justice herself — a system that is not only fully secular, but presupposes the final submission of the most unruly of the divine beings, the Furies (renamed the “Eumenides” or “Kindly Ones”). Much later Virgil will pen his own abrupt ending to the legacy of the Trojan War, suggesting that the Furies have not been so fully tamed as they escape from the body of the dying Turnus — another moment that leaves students wondering if some pages have been left out.
It is as though the Greek (and later Roman) literary imagination, so profoundly shaped by Homer, cannot picture the end of the heroic age as anything but an abrupt deus ex machina. It takes divine agency to leave us to our own devices, and it must happen all at once, all of a sudden. No gradual transition is possible, no slow fade-out of the great heroes. Indeed, in Homer’s original version, the younger generation that presumed to take Odysseus’s place has all been slaughtered — after being humiliated by their failure to string the great man’s bow. From this perspective, Telemachus’s training at the hands of Athena-Mentor is not really about becoming a hero like his absent father. She is training him, as one of the few survivors of that transitional generation, in gathering and commemorating the heroic stories.
Telemachus can never be Odysseus, but he needs to know and remember him. And by the same token, Odysseus cannot truly live in the world that is coming into being. In the Odyssey itself, Teiresias instructs Odysseus to carry out a fresh journey, carrying an oar until he finds people so land-locked they don’t know what an oar is. The later tradition has tended to picture a further sea voyage, which Dante and Tennyson both describe in their own way. The hero cannot rest content to be just some ordinary guy, not even an ordinary king. (Plato initially seems to disagree, claiming in the “Myth of Er” that Odysseus, alone of the Greek heroes, would have the wisdom to select the life of an ordinary person for his soul’s next go-round — but that is for his next life, not his current one.)
It is a strange thing — a mythical narrative with a quasi-historical endpoint. The heroic era is irrevocably lost, but also the foundation and origin of the boring “normal” world. At the same time, that heroic world is shown to be impossibly self-destructive, engendering cycles of violence that can only end in disaster and disgrace. Those suitors we so love to hate are us, or more precisely, they are the effete Athenians who made the Homeric legacy so central to their own identity. We commemorate Odysseus, but we commemorate him precisely as irrevocably gone, as impossible — because we know that we would be destroyed if we attempted to be him.
This is a dynamic we might characterize as something like the “death of god” for the ancient world, a disenchantment that is met with equal parts of nostalgia and relief.