Ulysses and Odysseus

Ah, the joys of research!

Do you know why the famous character, slayer of Troy, maximum deceiver, and greatest traveller of all times, inmortalized by Homer in his Odysseia is called Ulysses?

Well, it's a story worth knowing, trust me. The Greek name is Odysseus, son of Laertes, which in Greek is written Ὀδυσσεὺς Λαερτιάδης. The funny thing is that Homer didn't write in this elaborate, cool Greek script, with spirits, accents, and whatnots.

Actually, he didn't write at all!

The Illiad and the Odysseia were written some centuries later, after lots of oral transmission. Now, for an illiterate society, oral transmission is very important, bards have extraordinary memories, and stories can be transmitted faithfully from generation to generation with a great deal of fiability (i.e. it's not gossip!).

When they were first written, however, the Academics in Alexandria hadn't worked out the alphabet, and most of the usual Greek notation used today got fixated in Byzantine times (!). They wrote in what they had, a variation of the Phoenician alphabet, and every state-city had a particular variation of it, several letters had different representations (a cool example: the letter 's' was sigma: Σ, but it was also written as C. This is seen in the non-capital letters, where sigma is σ, but when it cas the last letter of the word (in many nominatives and accusatives!) it was written as ς. From this last way the Romans, through the Etruscians which got the script from the Greek colonies in the Magna Graecia and elsewhere in the West Mediterranean, got their 'S', which is ours. From the other capital sigma, the one we use to write the C of 'cat' the Russians got their cyrillic script 'C' (and from there the famous CCCP = SSSR, where P is the capital rho, of course).

So, we don't actually have Ὀδυσσεύς, but ΟΔΥΣΣΕΥΣ, no spirits, no accents, no nothing!

Now, let's suppose you are copying (by hand!) a manuscript you got in a clay tablet, a caw hide, a papyrus leaf or even a sheet of Pergamus, and you are trying to decypher the original scribe's particular way to put the sigmas, and the ypsilons, and he's using the infamous digamma, by Zeus! Damn him and damn you for trusting a book to a Naxian... They are good sailors, but literature... Ah! That's something only Athens can be proud of.

You finish your copy and it's sent to, dunno, Siracuse, where it's copied again, and from there to, say, Taras (Tarento). Now, in the way, a little copy typo has got in the middle.

The first time the copyist read the starring's name, he thought someone in Siracuse had a funny way to write the lambdas. Yes! He should have read ΟΔΥΣΣΕΥΣ, but Δ had the lower stroke written in a funny way, and he though it was Λ.

Thus, from ΟΔΥΣΣΕΥΣ we get ΟΛΥΣΣΕΥΣ. From ODYSSEYS we get OLYSSEYS. This happened with other combination of letters and accents, and we also got OYLYSSEYS, OYLYSSHS (where H is the long E, eta), etc...

Now you can see the trend, right? Guess that OYLYSSEYS was read by a Roman, aloud, many times, but something didn't sound right. He was getting VLYSSEYS (OY is a false diphthong in Greek, and was read like English 'oo', remember that Y is like a French u or a German ü, midway between U and I), but the final Y wasn't necessary and it didn't really fit with any Latin declension, and thus someone (*) wrote VLYSSES, and VLYSSES he was ever since. We can also find VLYXES, though, as it's said, "your mileage may vary".

Basically somewhat different accents, and little differences in writing gave us two apparently different and unrelated names. Remember your school days?
"Homer was an Antiquity poet. He composed two most famous poems, the Illiad, which talks about the war of Troy, and the Odyssey, which talks about Ulysses's travels."
Illiad = Troy, Odyssey = Ulysses. Yeah, very intuitive titles, yessir! Of course, time got in the middle, and a lot of time at that! Illiad comes from Illión, the Myceanean name for the town.

Well, after this fun, I'll comment about a little update on my novel draft, The Goth. It's peculiarly difficult to write about a time period which is fairly well documented but you lack the sources! I'll try to go to the only library I've found that has the 400 pages book about Valens, that may help...

For the rest of all of us, nice weekend and ΚΑΛΛΙΣΤΗ.

(*) that someone is unknown, but a well know someone else that used it was called PVBLIVS VERGILIVS MARO, who wrote a book called AENEIDA in the I Century CE which got very famous, specially since it finally told, after many centuries, how the damned horse had made Troy to fall! :-) We know him as Virgilius nowadays, but, remember, he was also called Publius, like me. ;-)


Pacal said...


I always wondered how Odysseus became Ulysses and Iliad, Troy.

However your comment concerning Homer composing the Iliad and Odyssey orally, (I've been a one person composed both man myself), that has been subject to dfebate for quite sometime. It has been contebded because of the complexity of the poems that they were composed in writing, in the form we have it today.

I myself don't accept this arguement, however it is not a done deal that the Iliad and Odyessy were composed oraly.


Excalibor said...

Thanks! I learned about this on the Ancient Greek course by Assimil a friend of mine lend me the other day.

I liked it a lot, I will have to get it and, eventually, learn it! One of my secret fantasies is to be able to read AEschilus or Lucian in the original Greek... :-)

I dunno about Illión becoming Troy, but it must have a simple explanation, because the town was called Wilusa at the time, which is completely different as well! I'll inventigate and publish about it... :-)

As for Homer, some even say he didn't exists, or if he did, maybe he was a "they". Let's suppose, for the sake of simplicity, that he did exist and he was just one person travelling through Ionia. He actually must have received two very different oral traditions about Myceanean times (the events in the poems point to Bronze Age IIIB, which are, IIRC, in the XIII-XII BCE, while Homer lived around IX-VIII BCE). Considering Linear B knowledge was lost with the Fall of Civilization and that the Dark Ages ranged up to the VIII BCE with the first experiments on the Phoenician alphabet, I think there are quite a lot of elements that support the oral transmission hypothesis:

1) metrics and rythm, which--apparently, as my Greek is very feeble--are such that it's easy to read the poem without getting exhausted

2) there are a huge number of clichés about the characters--both human and divine--and places (Hera of the While Arms, Hector tamer of horses, etc) which are clearly intended to provide an instant recognition to an aural audience (if you'll allow me the redundancy), and to offer hooks to get back into the narration if you got momentarily lost.

3) the vocabulary ranges from expressions which refer to realities unknown to the Greek, and that must have been transmitted orally since the time the Grek ancestors, along other tribes of pre-Indo-Europeans, lived in their original area, to expressions found in Classical Greek, and that are very umprobable in Myceanean Greek (but Linear B tablets are so terse!). This can be seen because basically the same formulae are found in the Indo-iranian Veddas, and the separation between Sanskrit and Greek must have happened sometime during the III Milenium BCE.

4) there are other reasons that many authors show, but, obvioulsy, evidence to the contrary can also be provided, considering we don't have but copies of copies of copies of...

I am a great believer of oral tradition. We know the Celts had a particular branch of the clergy dedicated exclusively to memorize and recite the History of the People and their Glorious Past and devotion to the Gods, and the bards were one of the most important types of druids.

There's a symbol done to protect from the evil spirits that's used in my homeland, an important traditional amulet against Evil. It's been described in literature, but my region is a poor, small harbor, where the closest cultural center until very recently was more than 100 kilometers away, several painful hours by car, and days away walking or by ship. There was just one school and most people would be able to read.

This symbol, however, survived the illiterate period, it's called a figa and it can be traced down to Etruscan times (VII BCE !!!). Non-written transmission of information is difficult to follow, but cultures without written language are very careful not to lose their past. Simply think of the christmas carols that exist since, who knows? Charlemagne? the Crusades? Common people barely understood Latin in the XVII Century, but Adeste Fideles was sung as it's sung nowadays (and people definitely does not understand Latin anymore!).

So some centuries until Homer manage to fussionate different framents of history here and there and compose the Illiad? Sure! And then he travelled and in the other side of Asia Minor he learned of the adventures of the heroes of Troy? And he composed the Oddysseus based on those stories? Sure! ANd they were sung (or recited) by the bonefire light in the towns and villages through the Ancient Greek World until the first writers managed to fix into writing what they had heard the night before? Sure! This is the start of the problem between Oddysseus and Ulysses, which manuscripts helped spread and fixate.

Now's late, but let's continue with this fascinating topic another day, shall we?

Thanks for your help!

Pacal said...

Thanks for your comments.

Has I said I don't accept the written composition theory. The reasons you gave for believing the oral composition hypothesis are reasons commonly given for the oral composition of the Epics. However none of those reasons are conclusive simply because they could be explained by oral sources used in creating a written composition. As I said the main reason given for the written hypothesis is the complexity of the Epics, which are signifigantly more complicated than virtually any other epic.

Has I said I don't accept this hypothesis mainly for reasons you gave and also because certain Epic traditions that have shown signifigant compexity in oral compositions. (The Sanskrit Epics the Marahabata,Ramayama and certain Tamil Epics)

The written hypothesis is based on the notion that "Homer" composed the Epics in writing shortly after the introduction / invention of the Greek Alphabet(say 50-150 years), in deliberate imitation of of an oral Epic, although more complex.

As for who composed the poems, over the years there have been numerous theories. It is my understanding that the many "Homers" idea has been rendered rather unlikely by linguistic analysis of the poems which indicate one writer for the Iliad and possibly another for the Odyessy. My solution is that the Iliad was composed when "Homer" was "young" and the Odyessy when he was "old", which explains the differences between the two.

Regarding Mycenean survivals. Recent evidence suggests that that Greek oral tradition goes back to Mycenean times. However none of this says much about how much history is preserved in the Iliad and Odyessy.

One of the most eye opening experiences of my life has a intersted student of Classical etc., history was reading translations of the Mycenean Liniar B tablets. Well the bottom line was the social world described by the tablets was to put it mildly different from the world described by "Homer". I could mention "Homer's" very wrong descripitions of Chariot warfare, to the almost total lack of writing,(except for one very obscure reference), do not indicate a secure familiarity with the Myceanean world. The list is easily lengthened. Further the society is spectacularily simplified from the buracratic ridden society of the Mycenean palaces. The list of physical similarities between the epics and the Mycenean world are to put it bluntly a crop from a stoney field.

The cries of triumph of the "homerites", when such discoveries made and their naive faith in the epics compined with their refussal to see what comparitive analyisis of other epic traditions tell us. Are to me terminally annoying.

Analysis and comparison of Epics with actual historical events where we have good historical sources also do not give much comfort about historical reliability of Epics. For example the Song of Roland, F....s up the the ambush at Ronchesvalle to a spectacular extent. (Wrong enemy, Sarcens instead of Christian Basques), and this "enemy" is incorrectly described as idolators and even worse every single one of the Sarcens are made up. In the Iliad for example the Trojans are basically Greeks,(worship the same gods, have the same social practices etc. most have Greek names)For example Hector seems originally to have been a Boetian hero and was transported to Troy in myth. Probably the most spectacular example of a Epic F...ing up is the Nielbelung, which screws up so much it is risible. (It has Attila the Hun, THeodoric the Great and a Bishop from the 9th century living at the same time, and Seigfried seems to be completly mythical).

Regarding Chronology analysis of various historical traditions in other places indicate that oral traditions can be spectacularily wrong, full of made up characters, condensed or expanded for various reasons and virtually impossible to check without a outside check.

I do not have a great deal of faith in oral traditions without a check to measure it against. It appears for example that generally speaking oral traditions can be accurate for about 200 years back but that anything before that is questionable.

Of course an oral dynastic King list can be accurate, but anything requireing poetic compostion becomes contaminated by the composition process.

I frankly think very little history exists in the Iliad / Odyessy. Frankly I just don't see that if the poet could add stuff about the Heroes talking to gods, Appollo firing arrows of plague into the Greek camp and so forth, he wasn't similarily free to adjust such thingsas who was their in the war and what they did etc.

One of the most boring conceits of classical studies is the frequent assumption that Greco-Roman oral sources are privlidged and assummded to be "reliable". Why? I can see no reason to assume this except bias.

I expect that the "history" of the Trojan war, if and, when it clearly emerges will have little resemblance to Homer's brillent epics.


Heroic Poetry, C. M.Bowra, Macmillian, London,1952.

The Chronology of Oral Tradition, D. F.Henige, Oxford univeristy Press,Oxford, 1974.

The World of Odysseus, Second Edition, M. I. Finley, Penguin Books, 1979.

Economy and Society in Ancient Greece, M. I. Finley, Penguin Books, 1981.

Just my thoughts.


Gabriele C. said...

For example the Song of Roland, F....s up the the ambush at Ronchesvalle to a spectacular extent. (Wrong enemy, Sarcens instead of Christian Basques), and this "enemy" is incorrectly described as idolators and even worse every single one of the Sarcens are made up.

Not to mention it was a defeat; Charlemagne lost the entire baggage train, the soldiers guarding it, plus some nobles who fell there.

Roland is NOT among the nobles mentioned in the first sources (Annals, Eginhard).

It seems the Homer discussion has a lot in common with the discussion about Turold and the tradition of the chanson de geste. :)

Excalibor said...


Thanks for your comments! they are well thought out and informed, as always...

I recall reading a book about the Myceaneans bt Chadwick in which he mentions that there are many "fantasious" things on the Illiad (the Oddysey is, in comarison, simple). But also that many things ringed very true.

For example the list of ships in that moved to Illion, and the description of the kings of the Greek towns.

I would expect the Illiad to be a big fantasy based on a true facts that were passed down orally, the same way we have lots of fantasies about cowboys and the Native Americans or, well, have you seen some of the supposedly historical movies of recent? Like, mmm, Alexander, or 1492 or Kingdom of Heaven or... They are mostly fantasy! And they could be based on primary sources and a huge corpus of secondary and scientific sources. But they film-makers did that.

Just let's hope Homer was not the Hollywood producer of classical antiquity... :-)

BTW, my last investigations point that by Troy VIIb (probably the Troy) times, warfare was not based on archer chariots like in earlier Bronce Age times (in XIV-XIII BCE for example). By the end of the XIII, start of the XII, warfare was more focused on infantry, due to technological advances in all fronts... Actually, some things must show Homer's own time warfare, but Archaeology shows that the Dendra armor, for example, was about 100 years bebore the war, and Homer mentions how Ajax (or someone else, don't remember) is wearing an old-fashioned armor just like that one...

anyway, we are lucky to have those gems (blame of the producers of the movie "Troy": Bana or Pitt are pretty hot, but the script is hideous! And, for a moment, I thought I was watching The Lord of the Rings, which, while cool, is completely wrong in here!)

thanks for all!

Basil Xydias said...

Dear friend,

I have read your interesting story about how Odysseus became Ulysses by a linguistic mistake. Thinking that you should like to know alternative theories, I suggest that you examine the possibility of a non mistaken change of (Δ = delta) to (Λ = lambda). This transformation of delta to lambda is used in other cases also ( δασύς = λάσιος, δάκρυ = lacryma, δαήρ = levir, Πολύ-δεύκης = Pol-lux ). This is what Hesychius of Alexandria says in his Lexicon (5th cent. AD). See also the Liddell-Scott dictionary of Greek Language for the letter (Δ, δ, δέλτα = delta).

Basil Xydias

mnls0 said...

In addition to the above, I would say that definitely ΟΛΥΤΤΕΥΣ is not a mistake, but another form of the name. It can be found in ancient scripts (as upon one vase in H. Throne-Holst collection, Stockholm where OLYTEYΣ is written)