January Things

As I’ve been working on this thesis that investigates the relationship between the Odyssey and Second Sophistic (1st- 3rd century AD) texts – in particular, Heliodorus’ Ethiopian Story, I’ve been focusing more and more on particular characters and relationships, particularly a comparison of the relationships of Athena and Odysseus in the Odyssey and Kalasiris and Charikleia in the Ethiopian Story.

In the Odyssey (as any fans of Greek epic poetry or people who paid attention in their 9th grade mythology unit of English will know), Athena is the goddess of, among other things, wisdom and war strategy. (She’s also the patroness of Athens after winning a contest with Poseidon for that city’s favor, but Homer doesn’t really talk about Athens that much). She is the helper of heroes in the Iliad and of Odysseus in the Odyssey.  Athena does more than any other deity to help Odysseus accomplish his homecoming and overcome the obstacles dealt out to Odysseus by the fates and the unfriendly Poseidon, who holds a grudge against Odysseus for blinding his son Polyphemus.  Athena especially accompanies Odysseus every step of the way most especially when he reaches Ithaca, providing him with disguises, saving his son from people who plot to kill him, etc.  Without Athena, there’s a good chance that Odysseus’ homecoming would not happen.

Odysseus is considered her favorite because they both share this capacity for μῆτις (metis), a Greek term that denotes intelligence, cleverness, and cunning.  Odysseus displays his own μῆτις, for instance, when he tricks Polyphemus the Cyclops.  After telling Polyphemus, who has trapped Odysseus and company in his cave and begun eating Odysseus’ men for dinner (yikes!), Odysseus blinds Polyphemus.  Everyone still left alive escapes by attaching themselves to the bellies of sheep (made less problematic by the fact that the Cyclops’ eye no longer helps him with sight) and escaping when the sheep leave the cave.

Anyway, before all that, Odysseus says that his name is Nobody (οὐτίς/outis).  Now, another way to say Nobody in Greek is μή τις, because μή (me) and οὐ (ou) can both stand a negation, so “no,” “not,” or “don’t” depending on the context. And τις (tis) without an accent denotes “someone” while τίς with an accent is basically “someone” but referring to a specific person, having in mind who that someone is. Anyway, so when Polyphemus, angry about being blinded, shouts to his fellow Cyclopes for help, they ask who has hurt him, Polyphemus says μή τις “Nobody” has hurt him, which sounds exactly like μῆτις, the Greek word for cunning and intelligence.  That’s not 110% important for understanding the argument, but it’s really cool!!

Athena and Odysseus both share this quality of using intelligence to win and are sometimes contrasted with other heroes who achieve their goals mainly through strength and/or brute force.

Now, what I’m working with and writing about how, in a manner reflective of the Odyssey, the characters of the Ethiopian Story are using their own cunning devices and clever plans to work their way out of difficult situations. The reason for looking at this text in view of the Odyssey is that 1) Texts of this period in general tend to have a reflective element and a fondness for referencing famous works and 2) this text very clearly references the Odyssey, for instance, when the ghost of Odysseus appears to Kalasiris in a dream. While Heliodorus himself doesn’t employ the word metis – which is not surprising because he’s writing in the 4th century AD and Homer composed his poems somewhere around the 8th or 7th century BC – he does create characters who rely upon intelligent schemes. Charikleia and Kalasiris, the main heroine of the novel and her mentor/father figure Kalasiris display this quality.  Kalasiris is the mentor to both Charikleia and Theagenes, the main hero and Charikleia’s fiance, until about halfway through the novel when he dies.  Throughout the progress of the novel, Charikleia grows bolder and more confident in her use of tricks to help herself and Theagenes escape danger.  From the beginning, the author notes that she is very intelligent.  In fact, a family member in the beginning of her story complains, that whenever he tries to convince her of something, she talks her way out of it through clever arguments.  But when the couple set out to go to Charikleia’s homeland of Ethiopia, Kalasiris is sort of the primary actor, a person who is also very intelligent and who is definitely helping the couple to achieve their own goals, yet through means that he has devised.

So as I write more and more of my thesis, I’m focusing on the idea of a sort mentorship between Kalasiris and Charikleia, two similar sorts of people with regards to intelligence, and Athena and Odysseus in the Odyssey.  I’m also going to be sort of looking more into Athena’s role in other mythological stories as the helper of heroes (my reading has mostly been about the novel, since the Ethiopian Story is in any case the focus of my paper).  Well, if anyone has read to the end of this blog post, I appreciate however much time that took, since I just typed what feels like a lot. 🙂


  1. sarahstratton says:

    This was really neat to read. I find it interesting that in both of these texts the mentorship relationship involves a male and female pairing. I know in some cultures cunning and trickery were frowned upon and considered to be the realm of women while men did straightforward battle so it was always interesting to me that Odysseus was praised for his use of tricks. When the ghost of Odysseus appears to Kalasiris is there any implication that he is fulfilling a mentoring role? I’m curious as to whether Heliodorus tried to create a sort of “lineage” from Athena to Odysseus to Kalasiris to Charikleia. Good luck with your continuing work!

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