A Typology of Want: why Elpenor?

The discussion

A shorter version – without notes — of this paper was presented at the annual meeting of the American Philological Association in San Diego, CA on 28 December 1995.
that follows began as a brief response I sent to a query that came across the Homer list:

”Why did Odysseus and his crew abandon Alpenor’s [sic] body on Circe’s island? … What leader would leave the body of one of his men behind in such a situation … ? … Did Homer sacrifice consistency of character here for the sake of the plot?”

I shall argue that a pre-occupation with consistency of character and the quality of the hero’s leadership is a misleading one:  what we should be preoccupied with is not characterization in this episode, whether of Elpenor, Odysseus, or his other men, but patterning.  The poetics speak to esthetic criteria and not concerns of plot or personalities.


E.g., W. Arend Die Typische Scenen bei Homer, Problemata:  Forschungen zur Klassischen Philologie, Heft 7 (Berlin 1933);  Albert B. Lord The Singer of Tales Harvard U. Press;  Athenaeum 76 (1960, 1971);  Bernard Fenik Studies in the Odyssey, Hermes Einzelschriften 30 (1974);  M.W. Edwards “Type Scenes and Homeric Hospitality TAPA 105 (1975): 51-72;   Wolfgang Fauth “Zur Typologie mythischer Metamorphosen in der homerischen Dichtung” Poetica: Zeitschrift für Sprach- und Literaturwissenschaft 7 (1975): 235-268;  Barry Powell Composition by Theme in the Odyssey Meisenheim am Glan (1977);  N. Forsyth “The Allurement Scene: A Typical Pattern in Greek Oral Epic” CSCA 12 (1979): 107-120;  S. Lowenstam The Death of Patroclus:  A Study in Typology Beiträge zur klassischen Philologie 133 (1981);  A. Thornton Homer’s Iliad:  Its Composition and the Motif of Supplication Hypomnemata 81 (1981);  D. Gary Miller Improvisation, Typology, Culture, and ‘The New Orthodoxy’:  How ‘Oral’ is Homer?  Lanham, New York, London:  University Press of America (1982);  Cora Angier Sowa Traditional Themes and the Homeric Hymns Chicago: Bolchazy-Carducci Publishers (1984).
have addressed extensively the matter of typology

’Typology’ is a term (and concept) to which recourse is now commonly had in linguistics.  Although I am by no means original in extending the use of ‘typology’ to a literary context, I reference (P. Sgall “Typology and the Development of Indo-European Languages” Actes du Xe Congrès international des linguistes III.  Bucarest: Édition de l’académie de la république socialiste de Roumanie [1970]: 505) a formulation that is mutatis mutandis particularly useful for my purposes:  “… the type not as a class of actual languages, but as an extreme consisting in the combination of properties the occurrence of anyone of which creates a favourable environment for the others.  (This presupposes a probabilistic or statistical approach.)”  [My italics.]

Of great importance in the typological approach is the basis for selection of those criteria that are to determine ‘membership’ in a meaningful set or sub-set of types.  See Roman Jakobson “What can typological studies contribute to historical comparative linguistics?”  Proceedings of the 8th international congress of linguistics Oslo: Oslo University Press (1958):  20.  Cf. further Stephen R. Anderson “Typological distinctions in word formation” in Timothy Shopen [ed.] Language typology and syntactic description Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (1985): 9 (“ … the purpose of a typology is to uncover relations among phenomena.” [My italics.];  Leonard Talmy “Lexicalization patterns:  semantic structure in lexical forms” in Timothy Shopen [ed.] Language typology and syntactic description Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (1985): 57 (“… a comparatively small number of patterns [a typology] …”);  Bernard Comrie Language Universals and Linguistic Typology: Syntax and Morphology Chicago: University of Chicago (1981): 31 (“… typological research is concerned more directly [viz., than language universals research] with possible variation.”  [My italics.]).  See also Fauth above, note 2) 250-251.
in Homeric poetry and elsewhere, and I wish here to focus narrowly on a specific analysis at least in part typologically motivated that may offer a grounded rejoinder to the questions posed above.


Very much in the same neighborhood as my comments is the persuasive peregrination in Miller (above, note 2) 76-79.
Additionally I invoke broad considerations of the mythic paradigm of heroic katabasis and some admittedly more contingent arguments from the onomasiology of Elpenor.  The three


Odyssey 10.550-561, 11.51-83, and 12.8-15.
brief sections that reference Elpenor may possibly be seen as the membra disiecta of a more fully developed and cohesively presented type of narrative of the sort that, in its many permutations, permeate Homeric poetry:  the abduction of a woman, the ransoming of a child, the family circumstances of a warrior who is slain, the preparation of a meal, and so forth.  Elpenor’s story, in short, is an inset, or micro-version, of at least part of the larger narrative in which it has been fixed.  The narrative line of the type may be thought of as that of the search for a hero who, somehow through his own folly, has died and not yet been given the proper burial that he needs, whether for the satisfaction of his ψυχή or the securing of his κλέος.

Elpenor’s ψυχή seems ostensibly to require such satisfaction for its own sake, but more to the point is its insistence to Odysseus that a σῆμα (note Telemachos’ intention at 2.222 to do the same for Odysseus if need be; the language is virtually identical:  11.75 σῆμά τέ μοι χεῦαι and 2.222 σῆμά τέ οἱ χεύω) be erected on his burial plot in order that he be ἐσσομένοισι πυθέσθαι (11.75-76).  On the connection between the importance of proper and public (cf. ἄκλαυτον at 11.72) burial for the securing of one’s κλέος, see Peter V. Jones “The ΚΛΕΟΣ of Telemachus:  Odyssey 1.95”  AJP 109 (1988):  500.

Let me proceed heuristically.  Suppose that indeed this is the kind of plot arrangement that underpins this tale.  Are there any parallels within the Odyssey itself for such a story?  Well, yes, there certainly are.  Isn’t this the skeleton of the story of Odysseus as he is presented to us in the earlier books of the poem from the point of view of his son Telemachos?  In fact, Telemachos makes some half dozen references in the first book alone

See also 2.46, 131-2 and 220.
to his father as being dead (1.166, 168, 242, 354-5), impliedly dead (1.177, 235-6), or probably dead (1.161-2), and Athena’s protestation to the contrary

Cf., similarly, those of Halitherses (2.163-5, 174-6).
(1.196-7;  but cf. her hypothetical worst-case at 289) seems at least initially to make no dent in his pessimism about Odysseus’ fate.  Even as late as Book 15, Telemachos is still convinced of his father’s demise (15.268: … νῦν δ’ ἤδη ἀπέφθιτο λυγρῷ ὀλέθρῳ).

Telemachos is of course not the only person who addresses the presumed death of Odysseus, even long after we, the audience, know that he is far from dead:  so too in the course of the poem do Agelaos (20.332), Antinoos (21.88), Eumaios (14.133-8;  17.312, 318-19), Eurykleia (2.365-6;  19.369), Eurymachos (2.182-3), Laertes (24.284, 291-2), Melantheus (17.253, with extreme irony, as the disguised Odysseus is in fact right in front of him), Penelope (2.46;  18.202-5;  19.141., 257-8, 313;  23.67-68;  24.131 [where she knowingly lies about his death to the suitors]), Philoitios (20.208, 257-8, 313), and, of course the hapless suitors (2.333, 22.35).  Indeed, even Odysseus himself wonders in front of Laertes if Odysseus might well be dead (24.263-4).  It is clear that at one level Odysseus in the Odyssey is mapped into this pattern of the hero people consider dead and in want of burial.  And Elpenor’s fear that he, Elpenor, lie ἄκλαυτον (11.72) is precisely the one to which Laertes gives pained expression (24.292-3), when he bewails that he and Antikleia did not weep (κλαῦσε) for their dead son at a burial.  Similarly, Elpenor’s fear of having neither a grave nor a σῆμα (11.75) to mark it is echoed by the fear of Telemachos that Odysseus, having died apart from his comrades, will not have a τύμβον (1.239) such as he would have gotten if he had died at Troy among his comrades.

The reconstruction by others of the needs of Odysseus who is presumed dead and the underworld recitation by Elpenor who is actually dead share an element in a typology in their stress on the public marker and public weeping as essential for proper burial.  Elpenor’s folly led to his death, just as the folly of Odysseus (e.g., in the cave of the Cyclops, with the gift of Aiolos on the island of Thrinakia) has led to a protracted absence that is not unreasonably understood by others as his death.  There is thus some initial justification for drawing a parallel between Odysseus and Elpenor as variant protagonists in a typological narrative.

Now, Telemachos’ stated purpose for leaving Ithaka is to go in search of some news about a dead hero, his father.

The term οἰχομένοιο (1.281) means ‘gone’ in the same double sense as in English.  Cf., e.g., Aeschylus Persae 1.
His hope is that he may find out something about what happened to Odysseus, or, barring success in this enterprise, at least have the opportunity, once returned to Ithaka, to heap up a burial mound in his honor and perform the requisite exequies (2.222).  Much as Telemachos travels to the Peloponnesus purposively to learn of his father’s situation and take it upon himself to perform such burial rituals as may be necessary, so Odysseus travels to the underworld and incidentally learns of Elpenor’s situation and is asked to take it upon himself to give Elpenor a proper burial – a point already noted by Miller (above, note 2: 79).  The Elpenor story is at this level a micro-version of the Telemacheia, and by exploiting a fundamental pattern of the poem – a hero dead not entirely without his own fault requires burial from a friend – Homer in typical fashion retells the same story in a different context and with different characters.  The Elpenor story is a thematic variant in which the rôle Odysseus plays in the Telemacheia Elpenor plays here, and the rôle Odysseus plays here Telemachos plays there.  What I am suggesting is that the point of the Elpenor story is not so much a matter of heroic or anti-heroic characterization of either Odysseus or Elpenor as it a matter of narrative esthetics and epic poikilia .

If I am right in mapping the Elpenor story and the Telemacheia onto the same narrative type as indicated, it is still necessary to account for a rather central distinction between the two realizations of this type:  Elpenor is in fact dead, but Odysseus – contrary to what almost everyone believes – is not.  He is a kind of dead man walking.

Every formula is at least in theory subject to some modification, however minor, and that modified one in turn subject to further modification.  What is good for a phrasal-metrical formula is surely at least as good for a larger formula such as a thematic pattern.  Quite simply, I am positing a narrative archetype as it were that is much older than either Homeric poem and that is subject to a certain amount of manipulation.

Another variant of this hypothetical archetype might well be seen in the second Homeric Hymn, in which Demeter’s quest for Persephone would have an intermediate realization:  the heroine (in this case) is neither really dead (as was Elpenor) nor really alive (as was Odysseus), but occupies a kind of intermediate or liminal stage in that she lives part of the year in the underworld (the Elpenor variant) and part in the upper world (the Odysseus variant).
What is a true katabasis theme in the case of Elpenor, who really did go down to the underworld and stay there, becomes in the case of Odysseus a displaced katabasis:  he did go down to the underworld, (literally in Book 11 and emblematically in many other visits, like to the Cyclops, Kalypso, and so forth), but he is not really dead.  The Odysseus variant then is perhaps closer to that of Persephone, who is rescued.  Functionally, from the point of view of all those individuals who think him dead, Odysseus’ appearance in the here-and-now has to be read as a displaced resurrection.  Indeed, the finding by Odysseus of Elpenor and the taking care of his needs reads like a compendious prolepsis of the finding by Telemachos and many others of the allegedly dead Odysseus and the taking care of his particular needs on Ithaka.

In terms of katabatic journeys, the return of Odysseus and his men to Circe’s, where they were before entering the underworld, parallels, on my reading, their return to Goat Island, where they were before entering the displaced underworld of the Cyclops’ cave.  That is to say, what the Cyclops’ cave is to Goat Island the underworld is to Circe’s place (and perhaps Circe’s place is to the forest where Odysseus meets Hermes), or, more generically, the underworld is to the ‘staging’ area to the underworld.  One might argue, then, that the return to Circe’s to bury Elpenor is motivated by formal demands (return to the pre-katabatic staging area) of the type – again, on my view, the whole episode owes more to artistic exploitation of traditional narrative than to any characterization of either Elpenor or Odysseus.  In this connection it seems worth observing that Telemachos, after his journey, also returns to what was his staging area, Ithaka.

A final thought on the name Elpenor is relevant.  Schwyzer

E. Schwyzer Griechische Grammatik  I (München 1959) 441.
notes that while specific examples of this compositional type (with verbal inception) may represent a later analogical formation, it belongs to “uralte Gruppe” of words, especially in relation to names (“Namengebung”) – this would point to Elpenor’s name (and perhaps the hypothetical tale type) as being anything but late.  Is the etymology of Elp-enor helpful for the hermeneutics?  The (w)elp- stem (with typical loss of digamma) is a p-extension from a root *wel- that yields Latin cognates vel-le and vol-up-tas.

Cf. Schwyzer (above, note 11) 701;  Hjalmar Frisk Griechisches etymologisches Wörterbuch 1.502-3;  Ferdinand Sommer Zur Geschichte der griechischen Nominalkomposita Abhandlungen der Bayerischen Akademie des Wissenschaften (Philosophisch-Historische Klasse, Neue Folge) München (1948) 27, 175;  Ernst Risch Wortbildung der homerischen Sprache Berlin (1974) 64, 191.
Is the sense ‘hope’ or the sense ‘want’ the primitive here, or are they even distinguishable?  If the name is as ancient as I am suggesting, it would be enticing to think that it captures primitively his ‘wish’ and ‘desire’ for, his ‘want’ of a burial – the precise point of this (hypothetical) standard type tale.  The second element of the name (-ēn- [-ην-]) is common enough in Homer (-ήνωρ) and of course means ‘man’.  Elpenor is, then, ‘want-man’.

The three arguments (narrative typology, mythic paradigm, etymology) would, finally, seem to point to a very old layer of composition and offer a kind of typology-driven accounting for the presence of this otherwise seemingly gratuitous episode in the Odyssey.

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One Response to A Typology of Want: why Elpenor?

  1. heather says:

    very nicely done!

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