Ancient Greek Literature
The End of the Odyssey
According to a scholium, two ancient critics, Aristarchus of Samothrace (c.220 – c.143 BC) and his teacher, Aristophanes of Byzantium (c. 257 – c. 185/180 BC), asserted that the Odyssey actually ended at book 23 line 296.
"οἱ μὲν ἔπειτα ἀσπάσιοι λέκτροιο παλαιοῦ θεσμὸν ἵκοντο." (Od. 23.295-6)
"Finally, at last, with joy the husband and the wife arrived back in the rites of their old marriage bed." (23.293-295, trans. Wilson)
The scholium reads “Aristarchus and Aristophanes say that this is the end of the Odyssey”. Together the grammarians established the most historically important critical edition of the Homeric poems, and may have been responsible for the division of the poems into 24 books.
The continuation of the Odyssey, from book 23 line 297 to the end of book 24, consists of four episodes. In the first, Odysseus gives Penelope a brief, and tactful, account of his adventures. Odysseus then sets out for the countryside to find his father (book 23 lines 297-end).
The second episode, from book 24 lines 1-204, sees the ghosts of the suitors conducted to Hades by Hermes. There is a conversation between Achilles and Agamemnon, and Amphimedon, one of the suitors recounts the whole story of the return and revenge of Odysseus. This section of the poem uses the late contraction of Ἑρμης instead of the Homeric Ἑρμείας and this is the only mention in the Homeric poems of the archaic function of Hermes as conductor of ghosts. Elsewhere in the Odyssey, Hermes has been a messenger between the gods and mortals. In addition, the geography and location of Hades is new. The ghosts of the suitors, whose bodies are still unburied, enter Hades without delay and mingle with other ghosts. Achilles and Agamemnon discuss Achilles’ funeral – a subject completely outside the scope of the Odyssey. Scholars have pointed out an inconsistency with a verb at the beginning of this episode, concluding that the entire section must have been transferred from another source.
Next is the reunion of Odysseus and Laertes (book 24 lines 205-411). Abnormalities of vocabulary, syntax and style occur sporadically through the Odyssey but a study of the language of reunion of Odysseus and Laertes (24.205-411) confirms that this scene is exceptional in this respect. Linguistic evidence suggests relatively late composition and scholars conclude that the scene as a whole must have been composed by a poet familiar with the idioms, syntax and vocabulary of at least the 6th century, but who had limited understanding of older epic language. Earlier references to Laertes in the Odyssey lead to an expectation of a meeting between father and son before the end of the poem but there is no reason why Odysseus should not explain at once to his father who he is, especially since time is pressing and danger threatens at home. The aimless and heartless lying tale to Laertes plays upon his father’s emotions then he suddenly springs the truth.
Finally, the battle takes place between Odysseus and his supporters on one side and the relatives of the dead suitors on the other. Athene brings peace (book 24 lines 412-end). The fourth section describes the battle with the suitors’ families: we are with the families in the agora deciding to attack Odysseus, then suddenly we are with Athene on Olympus with no transitional phrase, as is the norm in Homer. From this moment the story rushes to its conclusion.