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Digging into the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library: Spotlight on “Allegories of the Odyssey”

Posted On March 25, 2020 | 16:18 pm | by nicolee | Permalink
Zeus is destiny (and other keys to understanding Homer)

By Nicole Eddy

The twelfth-century author and grammarian John Tzetzes, a fixture in the scholarly circles of imperial Byzantium, did not want to write another book “like some of those guys, who are deceptive big-talkers, or produce only shadows.” He and his literary rivals faced a serious problem: the epic poems of Homer, the Iliad and Odyssey, are some of the most important jewels of Greek literature and were widely read in the Byzantine empire (as they are today). Yet Homer’s stories of battles, sea voyages, strange monsters, heroic adventures, and the dramatic rivalries between pagan gods and goddesses would have been a challenge to readers firmly ensconced in a Christian worldview. How can these important poems be read and understood if the stories they tell are antithetical to unembellished history or Christian orthodoxy? Allegories of the Odyssey is Tzetzes’s answer to that challenge, and a new book in the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library series by Adam J. Goldwyn of North Dakota State University and Dimitra Kokkini of Birkbeck, University of London, is the first translation of this poem ever published.

Tzetzes dedicated Allegories of the Odyssey to an unnamed queen, and while the identification of this patroness is uncertain, one very plausible candidate is Bertha von Sulzbach, a Bavarian princess who came to Constantinople in 1142 and married the emperor Manuel I Komnenos a few years later, in 1146. Bertha was eager to learn more about the culture of her new home, taking on the name Eirene (it was then a common practice for foreign brides to adopt a Greek name) and commissioning from Tzetzes a work, Allegories of the Iliad, that could introduce her to the Greek literary tradition. Allegories of the Odyssey picks up where the Iliad volume leaves off, continuing the project for the second of Homer’s epics and on behalf of the same patron—or of another Byzantine queen reluctant to see his work go unfinished.

Tzetzes did not consider himself a “Christianizer” of the classics, and indeed he spoke disparagingly, if perhaps a bit unfairly, of other authors who might rationalize Homer’s gods as, for example, misidentified angels. He didn’t think Homer had got it all wrong, but instead saw him as cleverly packaging wisdom and truth inside a broadly appealing tale of adventure. By conveying important truths using allegory, a literary device where abstract concepts are communicated through the actions of symbolic characters or personifications, Tzetzes believed that Homer demonstrated his skill—and that his own commentary on the epics could reveal in clear, comprehensible language how to appreciate that hidden wisdom. 

Sometimes the allegories Tzetzes expounds are relatively simple: Zeus, father of the gods, often represents destiny, so that when Homer says, for example, that no one can “evade or make void the will of Zeus,” it means that no one can avoid his destiny. Or Athena, the goddess of wisdom, again and again stands for prudence, and Tzetzes explains the advice and direction she gives to Odysseus as the urgings of a quality within the hero’s own mind. 

At other times, the connections are more unexpected and complex. In one scene from Homer, the shipwrecked Odysseus washes up naked on the shores of an unfamiliar island, where he seeks aid from the island’s beautiful princess. Embarrassed at his filthy and waterlogged appearance before the young and attractive Nausikaa, the Homeric Odysseus washes off the dried salt and rubs his skin with olive oil. After this, “Athena, born from Zeus, made him taller,” and “from his head she made the locks to flow in curls like hyacinths,” transforming the pathetic shipwreck into a supernaturally attractive Prince Charming. But no goddess stands by the traveler’s side in Tzetzes’s reading. Instead, Athena personifies the natural properties of olive oil itself, a plumping and moisturizing ointment that augments the body and turns hair lustrous: in short, olive oil can make you . . . taller? The artistry of Homer’s allegory lies in metamorphosing a mundane cosmetic into an epic immortal, and in encoding oil’s natural qualities in a way that the observant and educated can decipher—with a little help, of course, from Tzetzes!

For Tzetzes, the value of these titanic epics is not as simple history or straightforward adventure tales, but as an encyclopedic reflection of the collected wisdom of philosophy, natural history, astronomy, and more. In Allegories of the Odyssey, we do not just read Homer. We read along with one of the poet’s greatest interpreters, as he reveals to us treasures we might otherwise not see.

Buy Allegories of the Odyssey and browse other DOML volumes at


Nicole Eddy is managing editor of the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library. Photo by Elizabeth Muñoz Huber, postgraduate digital media fellow.