HE.S.T.A.F.T.A. - Scientific Society of Mental Health Professionals


  • Kostas ZervosPsychiatrist, Psychoanalyst
  • father
  • negative
  • primary anality
  • euphemism
  • perverse culture
  • Odyssey
  • Telemachus

Translated into English by Dimitris Kokkalis


The first rhapsodies of Odyssey are viewed focusing on the absence of the father.  It is assumed that through the evolution of the text, the reader is given the opportunity to observe the reconstruction of the representation of the father. On this narrative basis, concepts as primary anality, perverse culture, euphemism, and the difference between authority and power are brought up.

**Key Words: ** Odyssey, Telemachus, father, negative, primary anality, euphemism, perverse culture.

It is well known that the  Odyssey  begins by describing an impasse. Ten years have already passed since the end of the ten-year war, Odysseus has not returned home, it is unknown whether he is still alive and suitors that lay claim to his wife and spend his fortune have occupied his palace. There is nobody there to establish order. The first rhapsody of the poem is not at all short of images in order to describe the culture of corruption and illegality that prevails while the father is absent: the suitors, all members of the local aristocracy, are settled in the courtyards and the rooms of the palace and play dice while seated on cowhides from the animals of Odysseus that they themselves have slaughtered for their symposiums. They are served by servants of the palace who cook the slaughtered animals, bring bread in baskets and pieces of all kinds of meat on big platters, mix wine with water in brimming jugs and serve it in gold and silver cups. The suitors sit comfortably on thrones, they sing and dance to the sweet music of guitarist Fimios. They ravage others’ goods unpunished, arrogant and shameless: “with such outrage and overweening”, says the original text. And continues:  “νεμασσήσαιτο κεν ανήρ / αίσχεα πολλ’ ορόων, ος τις πινητός γε μετέλθει.”  ‘Angered would a man be at seeing all these shameful acts, any man of sense who should come among them’. But no one is. In the second rhapsody, when Telemachus convenes, for the first time, the Agora of Ithacans, no Ithacan aristocrat would condemn the suitors’ attitude.

As if they were all blind. The exceptions are Telemachus, who is now awakened by goddess Athena in the guise of Mentes, the old friend whom Odysseus had left behind as manager of his estate, and the omen-teller Malithersis.

During the meeting two eagles appeared, flapped their wings and then flew away striking at each other and injuring their cheeks and throats. Through this incident Malithersis will predict the arrival of Odysseus and the death of the suitors. No one will take this prognosis seriously. The feeling of  angst  is still unattainable. But something has been gained: the public notes the possibility of the father returning and enforcing the law.

Before reaching the Agora, Telemachus had experienced an awakening induced by the transformed goddess Athena. Athena has come to Ithaca after a decision by the gods. When the gods convened to decide about resolving the impasse, Zeus -the father of all- posed two issues. I remind you of his famous phrase:

“Look you now, how ready mortals are to blame the gods. It is from us, they say, that evils come, but they even of themselves, through their own blind folly, have sorrows beyond that which is ordained.” (D. N. Maronitis translation)

And he goes on to cite the case of Aegisthus, who defied the warnings from gods, had sexual intercourse with Clytemnestra, the wife of an Atrides, killed Agamemnon and then suffered the terrible consequences from Orestes.

The general point that the father of gods makes is about  **subjectivity ** and  responsibility,  and the example he cites refers to the  danger of incest and murder of the father . What should be done then, in order to resolve the impasse is for Telemachus to stop passively accepting -as if he were a suitor himself- his instinctual pressures (that is, to understand that it is all about his own psychic movements, that lie within the field of his own responsibility) and become aware of the risks of giving in to that pressure (murder and eternal revenge).

How does the transformed goddess manage that? Athena presents herself as Mentes, the old friend of Odysseus (that is, as part of a  live memory ) and finds Telemachus in his house taking part in a symposium together with the suitors: Telemachus initially appears as one among the other suitors. At first, her intervention concerns language. The dialogue between child and goddess is touching: in order to refer to his father, Telemachus is searching for the right words. “a man whose white bones, it may be, rot in the rain as they lie upon the mainland”, or “lost through a hard death”. Athena will answer differently: “your father”, “the divine Odysseus”, “you are Odysseus’ son”, “I still haven’t seen Odysseus”. Telemachus continues as if he doesn’t hear the name “Odysseus” or the noun “father” that Athena uses, and refers to him as: “the most miserable man born in this world” , “he whom gods have banished”. But Athena insists, “how much do you miss Odysseus”, “he who traveled with his fast ship in order to find deadly poison for his copper arrows”, “Odysseus”, “avenger” and finally “your father’s homesickness”.  Father acquires substance primarily through speech.

After that, Athena, without giving any kind of reassurance about Odysseus’ life or death, will say to Telemachus that he has to answer the question of whether his father “is dead or alive”. In other words he  **has to make a “yes or no” judgment about being. ** For this reason he has to convene the Ithacan Agora and ask the people to prepare a ship in order to go and ask his father’s fellow warriors about any news of his fate: Nestor at Pylos and Menelaus at Sparta.

After Athena has flown away through the roof in a bird’s form, a dazzled Telemachus will move towards the suitors and his mother, and seems that he has already learned to call his father by name. He says his name twice: “Odysseus”, “the divine Odysseus”.

This act of  recognition  of the father’s name and the subsequent  **identification ** with him will be seen more clearly the next day. “The son”, writes Dimitris Maronitis, “appears and acts at the beginning of the second rhapsody literally as his father’s mirror image: he is introduced by the poet as  _Odysseus’ dear son _ (Οδυσσήος φίλος υιός) and not with his own name. Armed and well-dressed, he convenes the Ithacans’ assembly as if he was the lawful king of the island. He is accompanied by two dogs, exactly like Odysseus. Beautified with the help of Athena (an association referring to the goddess’s many idealizing allusions to the father), he sits on the throne of his father. The crowd remains speechless. Older men retreat in respect, as if they saw Odysseus’ ghost before them”.

Despite all this, Ithacans do not condemn the situation at the king’s house as the son puts it and as they already know it. And when, later, Telemachus publicly confronts the suitors, the people stay silent and inactive. The suitors remain provocative and arrogant, they insult and ridicule and curse Telemachus, insisting that Odysseus does not exist and refusing to help him search for his father.

Up to this point what could we think about the situation described by the poem? If we assume that Telemachus and the suitors personify a single psyche, what is this psyche’s relationship with the object? The true object, Penelope, is present, albeit largely hidden or imprisoned. She is more of a personification, an icon of the primary object. The internal object is crippled, denying the subject’s satisfaction. On the other hand, the subject remains in a intermediate situation between a neurotic, overtly expressed hope that the wish will be fulfilled some day and an implied perverse obsession with a non-relational relationship. Many years have already passed by: the waiting, the wear and the obsessive immobilization could go on forever. And dominating this canvas is the shadow of the primary object, which impels to an oral cannibalistic feast.

We could understand the suitors arrogance as a defense against the threatened psychosis of this cannibalistic practice. Green has spoken about  **primary anality ** and its expression through the conflict between  obedience  and  arrogance . This is about an anality concerning the establishment of a borderline against the danger of slipping into orality and a psychosis far beyond the conflicts of the anal erogenous zone and has its roots in something extremely archaic: the trauma experienced when the object becomes aware of the  existence of  Id as a threat to control . The main characteristic of this condition is a confusion between  authority  and  power.

“The subject is incapable of perceiving authority as something human, limited, insecure and doubtful. As something that no one totally possesses and no one totally deprives. That it is conquered or inherited, increases or lessens, gets more or less lost. That it is spread and distributed in the relationship with the other. And that there always exists an anti-authority which stands against it”.

Here, on the contrary, the subject understands thoroughly the meaning of power, which has total potency, stands against weakness and seeks subjugation. This condition emerges during transference with the (usually borderline) analysand’s feeling that the analytic condition is a manipulative machine that aims at the satisfaction of the analyst’s sense of omnipotence. In view of this situation, the analysand takes a stance of either  total subjugation  or identification with this power, a stance of  **arrogance. ** If the stance of the arrogant suitors lies in the direction of power, the stance of the changed Telemachus as he addresses the Ithacans’ assembly heads towards authority.

Now let us summarize. Father, at the poem, is initially introduced in a negative way. It is he who is  no t here.  **He is the one that is missing. ** He is, as Green says, the object’s other. If Telemachus wants to meet him, he should convert his passive attitude to an active one. He should learn to articulate judgments of  **yes or no ** -alive or not alive- (that is judgments of a neurotic order, versus the psychotic judgments of  “yes and no”  or the borderline judgments  **of “neither yes nor no”) ** and finally he should resist the attraction of  arbitrary power  and move on in search of  human authority.

If we held on to the negativeness tactics by which the poem initially defines the father ( he is not here, he is missing ), we could better follow the next moves of Telemachus.

Arriving at Pylos, Telemachus meets Nestor as he is leading his people to a ceremonial sacrifice to Poseidon. Nine black bulls were to be sacrificed in front of the sea. But why does Nestor want to declare his respect to Poseidon? What does Poseidon signify? He is the one who fights against Odysseus’ homecoming. He is the chthonic god that is in conflict with Odysseus because he blinded his son Polyphemus. It’s the archaic, against which the suitors keep an arrogant stance in order to escape psychosis, while Nestor adopts a stance of subjugation. It is certain that Odysseus did  not  keep Nestor’s stance ( **he is not ** the father).And it’s because he did not succumb to the archaic that he would manage to return to his homeland, after a long and troublesome journey, and enforce human order. He will manage to become an Oedipal father.

Nevertheless, because the poet is fond of an incoherent tactic in writing or, in other words, adopts a synthetic dialectic process in order to designate a different way of harnessing the archaic as a prerequisite for entering into oedipal conjuncture, before Telemachus heads to Sparta he gives a description of another sacrifice ceremony led by Nestor, in which an untamed young cow with gold plated horns was offered to goddess Athena: the main ally of Odysseus during his difficult journey. The goddess of thought ( **he is ** the father).

If in Pylos the action plan was about respect to gods and subjugation to power, in Sparta it has to do with luxury, pleasure and wealth. Telemachus finds Menelaus marrying his son Megapenthis to Hermione, a Spartan aristocrat’s daughter. “The feeling of a pervasive lust” writes D. Maronitis “amplified by the presence of Helen, is conserved here till the end”. If the poet continues with the strategy of defining the father negatively ( he is not  the father), then here in Sparta we should see a narrative forewarning about Odysseus’s stops in Aeaea with Circe and in Ogygia with Calypso. Places where pleasure dominates, where no third person is present, and from where Odysseus must leave in order to accomplish the return to his homeland (he must leave there in order  to become  the father).

The poem gives a further element of negativity in the figure of Menelaus. Amidst the joyful atmosphere of the wedding, when Menelaus finds out who Telemachus is, he goes into a burst of supposed pain full of playacting and nonsense: if, he says, Zeus had allowed quick homecoming to him as well as to Odysseus, then he planned to empty a nearby state belonging to his kingdom and bring over Odysseus to live there with all of his wealth, his son and all his people from Ithaca, in order to have him near him. “A twin pleasure” as the poem says, “till the black cloud of death falls upon us”. That is, he would throw out of their houses two groups of people, the Ithacans and a part of Spartans, in order to have Odysseus near him, to have small talks till death!! The ironic style of the Odyssey’s poet is well known. It is also known that the poem is seen as a forerunner to the subsequent genre of comedy. But the way we have been reading this poem, I think we could recognize in Menelaus’ boasting, bragging and pomposity an element of the perverse culture and rhetoric we mentioned at the beginning and which Telemachus has to escape (the father is not there). And that becomes clearer later.

The same night, Helen remembers an incident from the time of Troy. It is when Odysseus, disguised as a wounded beggar entered the castle of Troy before the invasion in order to reconnoiter, and she had recognized him. “I was the only one to identify him” she says, “despite his disguise, and started testing him with my questions. But he, clever and canny, always slipped away”. Menelaus takes up the story: “when the Trojans hauled the wooden horse into their city, Helen went and started, while touching the horse’s belly, imitating the voices of women of Argos calling them to come out. Some of the warriors were ready to answer but Odysseus stopped them until Athena decided to take Helen away”. The issue of distorting reality, of transformation, of evading a “yes or no” Judgment concerning being, which in this poem is initially expressed through the narrative of Odysseus transformation (“I, Odysseus, am  not  Odysseus”) and afterwards through Helen’s voice transformation (I, Helen am not Helen), will be clearly put by Menelaus the next day.

Early next morning Menelaus has a meeting with Telemachus. The two of them. Two men, one against the other. The previous night’s emotion and big words are now gone and the tone now is plain and dispassionate: just as in Pylos, about the poet follows the same tactic of incoherence in Sparta. (in addition to who  is not  the father, he also tells us about who  is  the father).

Menelaus directly asks Telemachus about the purpose of his visit and the youngster says he wants to know what has happened to his father. Menelaus replies with an account of his own homecoming. About his sea wanderings which left him stranded on Faros island in the Nile estuary. He was helped out of there by Edothea, the sea goddess who advised him to ask her father Proteus about his way home; but first Proteus had to be caught. Because a characteristic of Proteus, as well as of pre-oedipal Odysseus or Helen, is that he can escape through his transformations—or his lies, we could say, (I am  not  Proteus).

Menelaus and his men waited on the beach covered with sealskins; Proteus came out of the sea, counted his seals and fell asleep. Then they sprang on him and wrapped their arms around him. He transformed himself to a lion, a snake, a leopard, a wild boar, to running water, to a high tree. When he got bored of his changes he asked them what they wanted and he was eager to help them.

In the end Menelaus does not tell Telemachus anything important things about the return of his father. But he does tell him how he could complete his own journey and return home. He speaks to him as a father and tells him how to carry out his own journey and find his father. And I think that the essence of his words is once again about the judgments on being: that the advent of the oedipal father, with whom Telemachus will identify, presupposes a rationale which does not allow being to become a lion and a snake and leopard and wild boar and running water or neither lion nor snake nor leopard nor running water nor anything.

Speaking about the concept of borderline, Green says: “The transitional object constitutes  a positive denial of choices  between a ‘Yes’ and a ‘No’, accepting their coexistence, and that is why it can be creative. Symptoms, that take the place of transitional objects, manifest a  negative denial of choice : neither ‘Yes’ nor ‘No’. In existential terms the question could be put like this: the object is dead (lost) or alive (found)? Or ‘Am I dead or alive?’. And the answer (of borderline pathology) is Neither ‘Yes’ nor ‘No’.” (Andre Green.p.170)

So, according to the poem’s narrative, Athena’s initial demand from the son is his escape from the constant dilemma of whether father exists or not. His father might be alive or dead but this is irrelevant to whether a father exists or not. And it is the second question that really has to be answered, not the first.

Namely, she is asking him -if we don’t want to be restrained to old stories- to escape from the  euphemistic use  of language, which we saw inundating our political and social life in the last thirty years, establishing a perverse culture where all of us, like the suitors, flirted with the idea that the answer to the question “does the father exists or not” might be “neither yes nor no”.[1] 

[1] This text was read three years ago at the Delphi’s psychoanalytic symposium, which was focused on the “father”. I had in mind, then, all the euphemisms that overwhelmed political life. The recent nonsense of ‘creative obscurity’ was untold then.

_ * This text was written using, all the way, as a guide D.N. Maronitis classic book: “Odysseus’s search and homesickness”._


  1. ‘Odyssey’, translation D. N. Maronitis, published by KASTANIOTIS 2001

  2.  D. N. Maronitis, ‘Odysseus’s search and homesickness, Odyssey’s dialectics’, KEDROS 1980

  3. Green Andre, ‘Private madness, Psychoanalysis of  Borderline patients’. Translation Thalia Logarides, copyediting K.Sinodinou-S. Mitrosilis.

Read the next article:

ARTICLE 7/ ISSUE 6, April 2015

Illusions, deceptions and delusions in public life (corruption as a mental state of non-difference)

Sotiris Manolopoulos, Psychiatrist-Child Psychiatrist, Psychoanalyst
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