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21.12.13 Goldwyn/Kokkini (trans.), John Tzetzes, Allegories of the Odyssey

The Medieval Review

21.12.13 Goldwyn/Kokkini (trans.), John Tzetzes, Allegories of the Odyssey


The Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library continues to produce handsome and readable facing-page translations of important texts, many previously unpublished. This volume follows the 2015 translation of the Allegories of the Iliad by the same scholars and in the same series. As Goldwyn and Kokkini note in their introduction, Tzetzes, who died in 1180, could count on an audience familiar with both the source epics and with his allegorical method. They characterize Tzetzes as “a misunderstood genius forced into poverty by an anti-intellectual and corrupt world” (xiii) who nonetheless produced a significant body of work. The Chiliades, an amorphous verse miscellany, is perhaps best known. The Iliad allegory is in two parts: books 1-15 are dedicated to the Empress Eirene, a Bavarian princess who married the Byzantine Emperor Manuel I Komnenos in 1146, to introduce her to the cultural touchstone of Homer. The remaining books were patronized by an otherwise unknown Konstantinos Kotertzes, and in this part, summary of the action gives way to more line by line commentary, a method that continues in the Odyssey allegory. The first of two Prolegomena in this volume addresses the work to his “queen” (line 16) who may or may not be Eirene. Much remains uncertain about the rationale for Tzetzes’s project and the circumstances of its reception. All of his work is characterized by allusive and ostentatious displays of learning, and one wonders who was paying attention, either at the time or over the centuries. With this translation in our hands, however, those displays open windows into the cultural and aesthetic milieu of twelfth-century Byzantium.

The allegory of every book begins with a synopsis of the plot followed by 10- to 20-line comments on individual lines and parts of lines to highlight a theme such as food, dreaming, or a natural phenomenon. Quotations from the Odyssey, even if just a word, are in italics and are given in A. T. Murray’s 1919 Loeb translation. Notes by Goldwyn and Kokkini identify the relevant lines in Homer and briefly discuss literary and historical contexts. Because the allegory is “cryptic, complex, and opaque” (xx), I found it useful to scan the notes before reading a book to discover potential themes and points of interest. An index of names also helps readers to navigate the text. Tzetzes claims that “every allegory needs to be allegorized” (Pro.A.55) and he advises how one may spot false allegories: “if they do not hold on continuously to the whole concept / they are allegorizing, then they are talking nonsense” (4.139-140). Many passages blend standard mythological relationships with inscrutable associations. For example:

“‘Now Dawn arose from her couch beside lordly Tithonos,
to bear light to the immortals and to mortal men.’
Here allow me to explain that Tithonos is Priam’s brother,
and his wretched wife is the goddess Dawn.
Here I understand the morning weather as Tithonos,
who is goods for sale, which are placed in markets for purchase,
that is, day was spreading over men and the elements” (5.65-71).

This specular labyrinth makes the experience of reading Tzetzes a mash up of Joyce’s Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake. Allusions and associations proliferate: Hesiod, Herodotus, Empedocles, Anaxagoras, Aristophanes, John of Antioch, John Malalas, Ptolemy. The reader is left seeking a rationale or through-line; the code or the key. The telos is definitely not Ithaca, but something in Tzetzes’s psyche to make the Odyssey the vehicle for his ambition.

Destiny is the significance of every god or goddess, and the translators suggest that the ubiquity of this allegorical gloss reveals Tzetzes’s “seeming boredom” (ix) with the project. The first Prolegomenon speaks of an ocean of words drowning his desire to allegorize, and other metaphors, such as crossing rivers and building bridges, compare his project to the attempts by the Persian King Cyrus to engineer his crossing of the river Gyndes. Tzetzes promises to supply a wealth of pearls, precious stones, and other kinds of delights. The project is worthy, but overwhelming even for Tzetzes. The mood lightens, however, with frequent puns and word plays: “Look at Homer now, how in his all wise mind / he playfully misleads with homonyms” (7.23-24). At times Tzetzes treats the Odyssey as a manual of rhetorical devices.

Book 1 is the longest at 340 lines; the “great twenty-fourth book” comes in second at 293 lines. Oddly, book 21, with the famous stringing of the bow and shooting through the ax heads episode, is the shortest at only 37 lines. There are snippets of legendary material, extraneous to Homer, throughout:

1. The Cyclops has a daughter, Elpe, mentioned in book 1 and several times in book 9. The blinding of the Cyclops is an allegory for the abduction of his daughter, a tradition that may go back to Diktys (see note on pages 293-294).

2. How both “Scripture” and Homer think that the sky is solid and call it a “’firmament’” (3.16).

3. An excursus on Proteus, his daughter Eidothea, and divination by water, alluding to a story in theBirds by Aristophanes (in book 4).

4. Mentions of David and Solomon in book 5.

5. How the creation of the cosmos parallels the adultery of Aphrodite with Ares (book 8).

6. How Odysseus is bald (Odyssey 18.355) and Tzetzes adds the detail that he wears a red hat (18.9).

Other passages are reminiscent of master teacher dialogues in the genre of Solomon and Marcolf:

1. How does one control the winds? “Make a bag from a dolphin skin / ...blow into it, tie it, and set it against the wind” (10.53-54).

2. “What do the ‘four handmaidens’ of Kirke mean? / That she had an abundance of the four seasons” (10.118-119).

One of the most compelling allegories comes in book 24, when Hermes is the spoken word who conducts souls to the Underworld (in 5.101 Hermes is the “written word”). Tzetzes makes the same connection in the Prolegomenon to his Allegory of the Iliad, and thus this particular allegory frames his Homeric project. Hermes fulfills his conventional role as psychopomp and psychagogue, and Tzetzes also evokes the long tradition of Fame emerging from the earth or a cave (cf. Polyphemos). To my knowledge, Tzetzes did not read Martianus Capella, but both men look to Stoic thinking regarding the logos. In all of his allegorizations Tzetzes performs additional weddings between Philology and Mercury.