Odysseus in Aeschylean Drama: Revisiting the Fragments

  Kalamara, Zoe. "Odysseus in Aeschylean Drama: Revisiting the Fragments." CHS Research Bulletin 8 (2020). http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hlnc.essay:KalamaraZ.Odysseus_in_Aeschylean_Drama.2020.


During my year-long appointment as a CHS-AUTH fellow in Hellenic Studies, I had the opportunity to work on my research project: Odysseus in Aeschylean Drama: Revisiting the Fragments. In my paper I examine the highly fragmentary Aeschylean trilogy concerning Odysseus’ nostos, which consists of the plays Psychagogoi, Penelope, and Ostologoi. A close reading of the surviving fragments allows us to hypothesize that Aeschylus employs various mechanisms and techniques through which he successfully deconstructs the epic hero and presents a new Odysseus that hardly resembles the one the epic traditions have created. I examine each technique separately and back up my argument with textual evidence. Finally, in the last section of the paper I attempt to shed light on the reasons behind Aeschylus’ choice to portray Odysseus in such a manner.


The purpose of my paper is to demonstrate how Aeschylus deconstructs the resourceful Odysseus of the Homeric and cyclic tradition and instead presents a man humbled by gods and mortals, who, even after victoriously returning home, is anything but a winner. In his trilogy concerning the Odyssean nostos, Aeschylus deconstructs the epic hero and the world from which he comes. The tragic poet deprives Odysseus of his best epic qualities. The heroic traits that made him so special in the epic saga, namely his bravery, cunningness, and endurance, are all downgraded and challenged in the tragic trilogy.

Aeschylus reshapes both the characters and the setting of the Odyssean saga in order to detach them from the glory of the epic world. The first play I examine is the Psychagogoi, in which the poet reframes the trip to the Underworld against a less dangerous background and puts Odysseus in the side-lines by having a chorus of professional necromancers take up the leading part during the perilous quest. Aeschylus then inverts the epic prophecy concerning Odysseus’ death, by changing his demise into an unheroic and undignified one, unlike the two epic deaths we know of. Lastly, Aeschylus imitates and at the same time undermines the epic imagery and style, a process which results in the creation of conflicting images that both recall and negate the epic world.

In the second play, Penelope, Aeschylus continues to marginalize Odysseus by presumably having his loyal wife be the protagonist of the drama. He makes the killing of the suitors the background of the action instead of the central theme of the play. As the title of the play suggests, Penelope herself and subsequently her room inevitably become the focal point of this tragedy, and it is safe to assume that secondary characters of the epic, such as the nurse Eurykleia or even nameless maidservants, are employed to narrate Odysseus’ actions that happen ‘‘off-screen’’. As a result, Odysseus probably shows up only before and after the mnesterophonia. By doing so, Aeschylus deprives him of his moment of glory.

In the last part of the trilogy, the Ostologoi, I examine the way positive epic episodes are portrayed in a negative light. Odysseus’ arrival in Ithaca and the abusive behaviour he is faced with is portrayed in an excessively unflattering way. Finally, the unheroic use of epic vocabulary throughout the trilogy contributes to the further deconstruction of the heroic values and traits of the epic Odysseus. Overall, Aeschylus presents an Odysseus that is not much more impressive than a regular man; he is outshone by other characters, his epic achievements are no longer presented as great feats, he is humiliated and brought to his knees by gods and humans. He is, finally, defeated.

It is understandable that the highly fragmentary nature of the Aeschylean text does not allow us to fully support the above-mentioned assumptions. Hence, the full extent of the intertextual dialogue between Aeschylus and the epic poetry cannot be estimated. Furthermore, evaluating the trilogy within the full context of 5th century reception of Odysseus would require a longer effort, a worthy goal that calls for further research. It should nonetheless be mentioned that the normalisation of heroes is a continuous trend in 5th century tragedy, where poets put emphasis on the limits imposed by human nature. Scholars so far have chosen to explain Odysseus’ portrayal by Aeschylus in agreement with this trend.

However, in the last section of my paper, I suggest that Aeschylus’ portrayal might also be explained as an attempt to give the myth a serious twist. The epic Odysseus, the clever man who never experiences defeat and has divine support in everything he does, must finally pay back for all the times gods tipped the scale in his favour. His humbling fall from grace might be necessary for ethical balance to be restored. Thus, the tragic Odysseus is now unprotected by the gods, not because either of them are evil but because he finds himself in need of redemption due to what the epic Odysseus did.

A preliminary study on this topic is published in FirstDrafts@Classics. The academic assistance provided by my supervisors, prof. Martin and prof. Tsagalis was invaluable, and I am grateful to both for their comments and continuous support throughout the fellowship. The yearlong access to Harvard University’s online databases and resources proved of incalculable worth, especially since all libraries and university facilities remained closed for months due to the ongoing pandemic. Finally, our trip to Ancient Olympia in 2019 to attend the 8th International Scholars’ Symposium in the “Sports, Society, and Culture’’ series organised by the CHS and the IOA was a marvelous experience. During my visit there I had the opportunity to get in touch with researchers and professors from across the world and participate in interdisciplinary workshops in a stimulating and creative academic atmosphere.

Select Bibliography

Cousin, C. 2005. ‘‘La Nékyia homérique et les fragments des Évocateurs d’ âmes d’ Eschyle.’’ Gaia: revue interdisciplinaire sur la Grèce Archaїque 9:137-152.

Danek, G. 2015. ‘‘Nostoi.’’ Ιn The Greek Epic Cycle and its Ancient Reception. A Companion, ed. M. Fantuzzi & Ch. Tsagalis, 355-379. Cambridge.

Gantz, Τ. 2007. ‘‘The Aischylean Tetralogy: Attested and Conjectured Groups.’’ Ιn Aeschylus. Oxford Readings in Classical Studies, ed. M. Lloyd, 40-70. Oxford.

Hall, E. 2008. The Return of Ulysses. A Cultural History of Homer’s Odyssey. London.

Mikellidou, K. 2016. ‘‘Aeschylus Reading Homer: The Case of the Psychagogoi.’’ In Homeric Receptions Across Generic and Cultural Contexts, ed. A. Efstathiou & I. Karamanou, 331-341. Berlin.

Ogden, D. 2001. Greek and Roman Necromancy. Princeton.

Sommerstein, A.H. 1996. Aeschylean Tragedy. Bari.

Tsagalis, C. 2014. ‘‘Verses Attributed to the Telegony.’’ Classical Quarterly 64, 2:448-461.

———. 2015. ‘‘Telegony.’’ In The Greek Epic Cycle and its Ancient Reception. A Companion, ed. M. Fantuzzi & Ch. Tsagalis, 380-401. Cambridge.