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A Functionalist reading of the Aeolus episode (Odyssey 10.1–76)

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Edited by Tony Keen, Monday, 20 Oct 2014, 12:22

(This piece was originally written as an assignment for the University of Pennsylvania/Coursera course Greek and Roman Mythology. Please note that this does not mean that I believe in Functiuonalist readings as explanations for all myths - see my other recent blogpost about that - but that I find the approach useful in this particular case.)

In the Aeolus episode (Odyssey 10.1–76;[1] Fagles, 1997, pp. 230–233), Odysseus’ fleet arrives at Aeolus’ island. Aeolus entertains him according to the rules of xenia (Struck, 2012a), giving Odysseus a bag containing all winds except that needed to return to Ithaca. Unfortunately, Odysseus’ crew open the bag, and Odysseus is driven back to Aeolus. Despite Odysseus’ pleas (10.68–71; Fagles, 1997, p. 232), Aeolus this time sends him away empty-handed.

The Functionalist approach (Stuck, 2012b), originally formulated by Bronislaw Malinkowski (Morford et al., 2011, p. 11; 2015, p. 12) proposes that ‘Myths are stories whose themes legitimize social and cultural norms for the culture that tells them’. What norms are legitimized here? Aeolus might at first seem to be violating xenia. But Leodes’ fate, struck down by Odysseus despite seizing his knees in supplication (Odyssey 22.310–329; Fagles, 1997, pp. 448–449), shows that xenia’s demands do not always trump all other aspects of the Homeric social code (Struck, 2012c). The Aeolus episode legitimizes the social norm that xenia, though overwhelming, is not open-ended.

Amongst the Phaeacians (Books 7–8, 13.1–76; Fagles, 1997, pp. 179–210, 286–289), Odysseus has no direct and immediate obligations to his hosts (Struck 2012a), but once home he will be expected to dole out similar treatment, either to those whose hospitality he has previously received, or to strangers. Reciprocity lies at the heart of xenia. The Aeolus episode shows that one cannot simply go straight back to somewhere one has received xenia, at least not without allowing a decent interval (repeat visits were legitimate if enough time had passed, as shown by Telemachus’ words to the disguised Athena: ‘are you a friend of father’s, a guest from the old days?’; Odyssey 1.175–176; Fagles, 1997, p. 83). Gifts, once given, become the recipient’s responsibility, and the gift-giver has no obligation to replace gifts the recipient has failed to take care of.

The Suitors’ failure to recognise these limits—they should have moved on long ago—is central to the Odyssey, so the Aeolus episode reinforces the poem’s overall themes.

Reference list

Fagles, R., trans.(1997) Homer: The Odyssey, New York, Penguin.

Morford, M.P.O., Lenardon, R.J. and Sham, M. (2011) Classical Mythology, international 9th edn, Oxford & New York, Oxford University Press.

Morford, M.P.O., Lenardon, R.J. and Sham, M. (2015) Classical Mythology, international 10th edn, Oxford & New York, Oxford University Press.

Struck, P. (2012a) ‘Week 2 Lecture 7: Knee-grabbing and xenia’, Greek and Roman Mythology [Online]. Available at https://class.coursera.org/mythology-2012-001/lecture/18 (Accessed 13 October 2014).

Struck, P. (2012b) ‘Week 2 Lecture 8: Functionalism’, Greek and Roman Mythology [Online]. Available at https://class.coursera.org/mythology-2012-001/lecture/19 (Accessed 13 October 2014).

Struck, P. (2012c) ‘Week 4 Lecture 6: The bow’, Greek and Roman Mythology [Online]. Available at https://class.coursera.org/mythology-2012-001/lecture/38 (Accessed 13 October 2014).



[1]              Line references are to the Greek text.

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