The Ciconians, Revisited (Hom. Od. 9.39-66)

Rick M. Newton
Kent State University

Odysseus' encounter with the Ciconians, commonly viewed as a pirate raid in the tradition of the Iliad, repays close examination within the context of its own poem. The 27-line account ostensibly furthers the hero's narrative agenda, seeming to validate his claim to be a victim of "the malicious fate of Zeus" (9.52-53; cf. 9.14-15, 37-38), although this assertion is at odds with Zeus' declaration in 1.32-34. The Ciconeia also substantiates the poem's proem, which blames the disobedient sailors for their own sufferings (1.5-8). But subsequent allusions to what transpired in Ismarus (9.196-211, 10.38-44) suggest that Odysseus has compressed his account to further a specific agenda. These references, providing glimpses into the hero's actions while his men were running amok on the Thracian shore, suggest that he left the group to seek hospitality and remained with his host until the next dawn. His acquisition of Ismaric wine and other "gleaming gifts" suggests that the Ciconeia, like the Cyclopeia, conflates an Iliadic cattle-raid with an Odyssean exercise in xeneia. Throughout the apologue, Odysseus leaves his men in pursuit of hospitality.

Odysseus' brief narrative thus establishes a tension between three competing voices: those of Odysseus, Zeus, and the Odyssey-poet. The Phaeacians, who have not heard the proem or Zeus' pronouncement, may not be aware of these tensions. Nor, for the same reasons, may Odysseus himself. The Odyssey-poet, while blaming the foolish comrades, remains silent on the question of divine malice. Thus we, the external audience, are compelled to sort through competing claims and identify the authoritative voice as we attempt to resolve the vexed question of why mortals, and especially Odysseus, experience undue sufferings.

Rick M. Newton, Kent State University

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