Taphians and Thesprotians Within and Beyond the Odyssey

Rebecca Rohdenberg & Jim Marks
It is undisputed that the Homeric account of Odysseus took shape in the midst of various and often conflicting stories about the hero’s parentage, involvement in the Trojan War, and protracted return. [1] As if in recognition of this fact, the Ody ssey puts forward a variety of internal narrators who offer a variety of perspectives on its hero. Some of these perspectives on Odysseus are presented as credible, such as those of Nestor, Menelaos and Helen, and Demodokos, while others are typed explicitly as “false,” such as Odysseus’ Cretan Tales.
The Odyssey’s preoccupation with questions of truth and falsehood reflects and is reflected in, on the one hand, Odysseus’ heroic identity as a strategist and trickster. At the same time, as a hero who “saw the cities of many men” (1.3), Odysseus was also the subject of conflicting claims by various Greek communities that recognized him as a founder-figure, particularly among the settlements of west Greece and Magna Graecia. [2] This profusion of local and regional associations naturally presented potential difficulties for a narrative like the Homeric Odyssey, which appears to have been composed and performed for audiences that were drawn from across the Greek world; in technical terms, the Homeric account of Odysseus is relatively more “Panhellenic,” while such non-Homeric stories as those that associate Odysseus with specific locations in Italy are relatively more “epichoric.” [3]
Panhellenic audiences, then, will have included people who held contradictory views about Odysseus. To the extent that it can, the Odyssey avoids such potential conflicts by locating many of its hero’s adventures in a fantasy world that cannot be mapped onto “real” Greek geography. Ancient Greeks associated the lands of Kirke, Kalypso, the Kyklopes, and Odysseus’ other wanderings with various parts of the Mediterranean—particularly in Sicily and southern Italy—but the Odyssey ignores such associations. In other words, the Odyssey for the most part refuses to connect the “cities of men” that Odysseus visits with any identifiable location or people so that the hero’s encounters can be universal, or rather Panhellenic.
Nevertheless, some degree of engagement with “real” geography is inevitable, since some of its settings, in particular the island of Ithake, were of course real places in ancient Greece. So it is that, in a few situations, the Homeric account does embrace a local tradition, such as that of Polis Cave on the island, where Odysseus is said to hide his gifts from the Phaiekes. [4] In other situations, however, the Homeric account flatly contradicts—in effect attempts to silence—local traditions, such as one that identified Arkadia as the place that Penelope was buried after being banished from Ithake by Odysseus for her infidelities. [5] Looked at schematically, the Odyssey as it was taking shape will either have accepted, recontextualized, ignored, or rejected such local and regional, or “epichoric,” traditions, the better-known of which will have been held dear by one or more constituencies within the epic’s Panhellenic target audiences.
It is from this perspective that we will be discussing two peoples whom the epic tradition locates in west Greece near Ithake, the Taphians and Thesprotians. These groups play complementary but opposed roles in the Odyssey. The Taphians are positively valorized as helpers of Odysseus, while the Thesprotians are depicted in a more negative light. It is our contention that the Odyssey uses these ethnicities as foils for different strands of myths about Odysseus. The Taphians, on the one hand, stand for versions of Odysseus’ return that are generally consistent with the underlying themes of the Panhellenic Odyssey. The Thesprotians, by contrast, represent versions of Odysseus’ myth that were inconsistent with the Homeric, Panhellenic vision of the west Greek hero. Thus, in the Odyssey, stories about Odysseus that are associated with the Taphians are meant to be understood as “true,” while those associated with the Thesprotians are framed as being “false.”
Beginning, then, with the Taphians, positive valorization of them is established in Book 1 of the Odyssey, when Athene descends from Olympos to Ithake and appears to Telemakhos disguised as a Taphian leader named Mentes (1.103). The goddess tells a false tale that is based on what is apparently “factual” from the perspective of the main narrative. Athene explains to Telemakhos that a hereditary guest-friendship exists between his family and the Taphians, one that traces back to the previous generation, to Mentes’ father Ankhilaos and Odysseus’ father Laertes, and that Odysseus has himself been a guest of the Taphians; indeed he even once received from them arrow poison that had been refused when he sought it from nearby Ephyre (1.180-200, 255-64). [6] According to Strabo (10.2.20), Mentes’ Taphians were believed to have lived on an island near Ithake, which strengthens the impression that we are dealing with west Greek epichoric myth. Against the objection that the Taphians could be a Homeric invention, we note that, though relatively obscure, they do appear in Hesiodic poetry and a number of later sources. [7]
Athene, after her initial encounter with Telemakhos, exchanges her Taphian identity for a more local one—that of the Ithakan Mentor—and Taphians are mentioned only in passing elsewhere in the Odyssey. Twice they are named as slave traders: Eumaios purchases a slave from them (14.449-52), and the Phoenician woman who kidnapped the boy Eumaios claims herself to have been enslaved by them (15.427). It is sometimes claimed that this association with slavery is meant to cast the Taphians in an unfavorable light, [8] but there is little if any indication that engaging in the slave trade is considered inherently dishonorable from the perspective of either the characters, most of whom engage in it at least as consumers, or the narrators in the Odyssey or elsewhere in early Greek epic. [9]
The last mention of the Taphians in the Odyssey deserves to be quoted in full, because it both expands our understanding of the relationship between Odysseus and the Taphians, and provides direct evidence for the constructed opposition between the Taphians and Thesprotians. In Book 16 of the Odyssey, Penelope, while rebuking the Suitors for their plot to kill Telemakhos, reminds their leader Antinoos of a debt that his family owes Odysseus:

ἦ οὐκ οἶσθ᾽ ὅτε δεῦρο πατὴρ τεὸς ἵκετο φεύγων,
δῆμον ὑποδείσας; δὴ γὰρ κεχολώατο λίην,
οὕνεκα ληϊστῆρσιν ἐπισπόμενος Ταφίοισιν
ἤκαχε Θεσπρωτούς: οἱ δ᾽ ἡμῖν ἄρθμιοι ἦσαν:
τόν ῥ᾽ ἔθελον φθῖσαι καὶ ἀπορραῖσαι φίλον ἦτορ
ἠδὲ κατὰ ζωὴν φαγέειν μενοεικέα πολλήν:
ἀλλ᾽ Ὀδυσεὺς κατέρυκε καὶ ἔσχεθεν ἱεμένους περ.
Don’t you know about when your father fled here as a suppliant,
in terror of the people? For in fact they had become very much angered,
because he joined with Taphian pirates
and harassed the Thesprotians, who were allied with us.
Him they wanted to destroy and deprive him of his heart
and to eat up his extensive and pleasant livelihood;
but Odysseus restrained and held them back for all their eagerness.
Odyssey 16.424-30
Penelope’s speech is of course crafted to respond to the immediate narrative situation: since Odysseus protected Antinoos’s father, Antinoos should have felt obliged to look after, rather than have sought to kill, Odysseus’s son. [10] The earlier occasion to which Penelope refers seems likely to be the Odyssey’s ad hoc invention rather than an allusion to some specific myth, which raises the question of why the Taphians and Thesprotians are presented in this way.
For here Antinoos’s father, who will after the killing of the Suitors emerge as the main leader of opposition to Odysseus, is placed in league with the same Taphians who have earlier been named by Athene as Odysseus’s hereditary guest-friends. In this case, however, such an alliance is objectionable to the Ithakan people, whose sympathy lies with their allies who are victims of Taphian aggression, the Thesprotians. Again, it is not that piracy itself is unheroic—Odysseus himself carries out a similar raid on the Kikones soon after leaving Troy (Odyssey 9.39-66)—but rather that the Taphians’ attacks fall on friends of the Ithakan demos, which has been indifferent to the sufferings of Odysseus’ family (2.64-67, 239-231), and a large portion of which, the Ithakan Suitors and their families, actively seeks to destroy the hero. In other words, Odysseus is aligned with the Taphians, in a manner consistent with his hereditary relationship with them, and in opposition to the Ithakan people, who are aligned with the Thesprotians, and who prove to be of no help to Odysseus when he returns.
As it happens, an allusion has already been made to Odysseus’ relationship with the Thesprotians by Athene in her disguise as the Taphian Mentes. As mentioned above, she tells Telemakhos that Odysseus received from the Taphians arrow poison after it was refused by another city, Ephyre. A number of places are called “Ephyre” in the Homeric epics, but it is generally agreed that Athene’s reference here is to the city in west Greece that Strabo refers to as “Thesprotian Ephyre.” [11] Thus, in ethnic terms, Odysseus in Athene’s anecdote gets what he wants from Taphians after he is refused it by Thesprotians.
Elsewhere in the Odyssey, Thesprotians appear exclusively in Odysseus’ “Cretan Tales,” the false stories that Odysseus tells after he returns to Ithake in disguise. Significantly, these fictitious Thesprotians are revealed to be treacherous or at best unreliable. Thus in the lying tale that the disguised Odysseus tells Eumaios, his Cretan persona is taken in as a guest after being shipwrecked by the Thesprotian king, who tells him that “Odysseus” is in the area preparing to return to Ithake, and then sends him on his way; however, the Thesprotian sailors charged with conducting the persona plot to enslave him, to escape which he jumps ship on Ithake. [12] From the perspective established by the Odyssey, the Thesprotian king, while apparently hospitable, places a suppliant in the hands of his treacherous subjects, and he relates a false story about Odysseus, or perhaps a story about a false Odysseus. Thus when the “real” disguised Odysseus tells Penelope a similar story, she simply dismisses it out of hand (19.281-300 with 313).
Taken together, these references, we suggest, constitute a Homeric polemic against a Thesprotian-linked version of its hero’s story, according to which Thesprotia itself is cast as a place that seems favorable, but proves to be unreliable and even dangerous. By a simple analogy, the negatively valorized and/or misinformed Thesprotian characters stand for stories about Odysseus that are inconsistent with the Homeric, Panhellenic version of the hero.
This untrusworthiness on the part of the Thesprotians is thus a product of the Odyssey’s engagement with a narrative tradition of the sort that came to form the final phase of the Epic Cycle, namely the Telegony. That epic told a very non-Homeric story that included Odysseus’ banishment from Ithake and subsequent exile in Thesprotia—hence its apparent alternative title, the Thesprotis. [13] After killing the Suitors, Odysseus leaves Ithake and settles among the Thesprotians, marries their queen, fathers a son, and leads the Thesprotian army in a war with neighboring peoples; he then returns home to Ithake and a chance encounter with Telegonos, his son by Kirke; Telegonos in ignorance kills his father Odysseus, and the narrative closes with Telegonos marrying Penelope and Telemakhos marrying Kirke. This outcome for Odysseus of course runs completely contrary to the main themes of the Homeric version of the story, which insists on a permanent homecoming and a pacified Ithake for the hero, the inviolability of his marriage, and his fathering of a single son, Telemakhos. [14]
Irad Malkin has argued that “Thesprotia in the Odyssey…seem[s] to indicate both an allusion of the Odyssey to its sequels and alternatives and a reflection of Ithaca’s multiple real-world connections,” [15] and we consider this to be the most productive perspective from which to view the Thesprotians, and the Taphians as well. These superficially similar peoples—seafarers and slave traders who dwell in west Greece—point to two different visions of the relationship between the Panhellenic Odyssey and the vibrant west Greek myths about its hero. To expand upon our earlier formulation, the Taphians represent the kind of positive, constructive engagement that the Homeric tradition seeks to establish with epichoric stories that were consistent with, or at least unobjectionable to, the Odyssey’s underlying themes. The Thesprotians, on the other hand, stand for epichoric tales that were irreconcilable with the Homeric Odysseus. We note that gemination is a phenomenon exampled elsewhere in the Odyssey; thus, for example, the ambivalent Phoinikes, who in the false tales alternately help and hinder Odysseus, form a pair with the positively valorized Phaiekes. [16]
Given the fact that “Taphian” and “Thesprotian” were identifiable ethnic and/or regional designations in historical ancient Greece, however, we might ask why a Panhellenic narrative would valorize the latter negatively. One factor could have been the fact that Thesprotia boasted one of the more influential and well-known religious sites in ancient Greece, the oracle of Zeus at Dodona. Dodona can be expected to have served as something of a storehouse of local myths pertaining to the foundation of the oracle and its customs, as well as its links with other local traditions. [17] We may compare the mass of myths associated with the oracle of Apollo at Delphi or with Olympia. The Taphians, by contrast, are also located near Ithake, but while they likely had their own Odysseus-traditions, they seem to have lacked any equivalent religious or other institutions that might have impressed their stories and beliefs on the rest of Greece. As a consequence of their relatively obscurity, an alliance between the Taphians and the Panhellenic hero Odysseus would not have presented obstacles to the Panhellenizing agenda of the Odyssey.
As if to confirm our suspicion that narrative traditions centered on Dodona would have engaged with local myths about Odysseus, we find in the Odyssey’s lying tales the claim by the Thesprotian king that “Odysseus” has

τὸν δ᾽ ἐς Δωδώνην φάτο βήμεναι, ὄφρα θεοῖο
ἐκ δρυὸς ὑψικόμοιο Διὸς βουλὴν ἐπακούσαι,
ὅππως νοστήσει᾽ Ἰθάκης ἐς πίονα δῆμον
ἤδη δὴν ἀπεών, ἢ ἀμφαδὸν ἦε κρυφηδόν.
gone to Dodona, in order that
from the leafy divine oak he may hear the plan of Zeus,
how he might return to the rich land of Ithake,
already being gone so long, openly or in secret.
Odyssey 14.327-30
As a number of scholars have argued, the reference here suggests an alternative version of Odysseus’ return that places him firmly in the realm of “real” Greek geography—and stretches what might be expected of a Panhellenic construct. [18] And we may ask again why the Odyssey would, even so subtly, cast a major Panhellenic site like Dodona in anything other than a positive light.
One possible motivation for the negative valorization of Dodona might have been the traditional rivalry between the oracle of Zeus there and the other major oracular cult in ancient Greece, that of Apollo at Delphi. Both cults claimed to be the most ancient oracle, so each forged a connection with Deukalion, the so-called “Greek Noah.” [19] Likewise in the myth of the Argonauts, it has been suggested that the relationship between the Argo’s oracular beam, derived from a sacred Dodonan oak, on the one hand, and the god Apollo and his prophet Idmon on the other, represents an overlay of Delphic sympathies on an originally west Greek myth centered on the cult of Zeus. [20]
If we map this rivalry between Dodona and Delphi onto the Odyssey’s valorization of the Thesprotians, it would appear that the Homeric epic is in effect siding with Delphi by presenting as unreliable the ethnic group associated with Dodona, the Thesprotians. Now Delphi to be sure is nowhere mentioned by name in the Iliad and Odyssey, but it is clear that the site is what is meant by references to “the marble threshold of the archer Phoibos Apollo in rocky Pytho” in the Iliad (9.405; cf. 2.519); and to the oracle of “Phoibos Apollo in sacred Pytho” in the Odyssey (Odyssey 8.79-81).
This is not of course to suggest that the Odyssey is somehow “pro-Apollo” and “anti-Zeus,” but rather that the Delphi/Dodona opposition is a manifestation of the Taphian/Thesprotian opposition, both of which are rooted, not in religious beliefs, but in the thematics of the Homeric, Panhellenic Odyssey. The most we might say is that, if stories about Odysseus were current at Delphi when the Odyssey was taking shape, these would likely have been relatively more Panhellenic, more Homeric, than the decidedly epichoric stories about the hero that would have been current around Dodona. These associations are of course highly speculative, but we believe that they are worth pursuing, for instance in an exploration of the relationship between the Odyssey’s clear links to Athens and Athenian relations with Dodona and Delphi.
Our analysis of the deployment of the Taphians and Thesprotians, in any case, suggests that the Odyssey incorporates these ethnic and regional designations as part of a larger program of negotiation among conflicting accounts of the last phase of Odysseus’ mythic life, from his return from Troy to his death. By presenting Odysseus from a variety of perspectives, the Odyssey acknowledges the complexity of the myths that have grown up around its hero, their occasionally contradictory nature, and their epichoric origins. As a Panhellenic epic, the Odyssey embraces as much of this material as it can, and at the same time offers a kind of hermeneutic for classifying tales about Odysseus. Some are given the Homeric seal of approval, others are rejected as false, and in the process the Odyssey preserves some remnant of the countless other versions of Odysseus that have fallen silent.

Works Cited

Ahl, Frederick and Hannah Roisman. 1996. The Odyssey Re-Formed. Ithaca.
Burgess, Jonathan. 2001. The Tradition of the Trojan War in Homer and the Epic Cycle. Baltimore and London.
Danek, Georg. 1998. Epos und Zitat: Studien zu den Quellen der Odyssee. Wiener Studien 22. Vienna.
Deoudi, Maria. 2008. Ithake: Die Polis-Höhle, Odysseus und die Nymphen. Thessaloniki:  University Studio Press.
Heubeck, Alfred, Stephanie West and J.B. Hainsworth. 1988. A Commentary on Homer’s Odyssey. Volume I: Introduction and Books I-VIII. Oxford.
Levaniouk, Olga. unpublished article. “Ephyra in the Odyssey.”
Malkin, Irad. 1998. The Returns of Odysseus: Colonization and Ethnicity. Berkeley, CA.
—. 2001. “The Odyssey and the Nymphs.” Gaia: 5: 11-27.
Marks, J. 2008. Zeus in the Odyssey. Hellenic Studies 31. Washington DC.
Mitchell, Lynette. 2001. “Euboean Io.” CQ 51.2 339-352.
Parke, Herbert. 1967. Oracles of Zeus: Dodona, Olympia, Ammon. Oxford.
Russo, Carlo. 1950. Hesiodi Scutum: introduzionem testo critico e commento con traduzione e indici. Florence: La Nuova Italia Editrice.
Scully, Stephen. 1987. “Doubling in the Tale of Odysseus.” CW 80: 401-417.
Tsagalis, Christos. 2012 “Deauthorizing the Epic Cycle: Odysseus’ False Tale to Eumaios.” in Franco Montanari, Antonios Rengakos and Christos Tsagalis, edd. 2012. Homeric contexts: neoanalysis and the interpretation of oral poetry. Trends in classics – supplementary volumes, 12. Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter. 309-345.
van Courtland Moon, John. 2008. “On the Moral Implications of Poison: The Development of the Norm against the Use of Poison: What Literature Tells Us.” Politics and the Life Sciences 27.1: 55-77.


[ back ] 1. See for example Tsagalis 2008:30-92; Danek 1998; Ahl and Roisman 1996.
[ back ] 2. These associations appear for instance in the Hesiodic Theogony (1011-1018). Malkin 1998 catalogues many of these non-Homeric stories about the wanderings of Odysseus and other Trojan War heroes.
[ back ] 3. On the Panhellenic orientation of the Homeric epics, see the classic formulation by Nagy 1979:7: “Homeric Epos …synthesizes the diverse local traditions of each major city-state into a unified Panhellenic model that suits most city-states but corresponds exactly to none.” See also most recently Nagy 2010:51-55.
[ back ] 4. For the relationship between Polis Bay at Ithake and the Cave of the Nymphs there in Odyssey 13.345-365, see Deoudi 2008; Malkin 2001.
[ back ] 5. The Arkadian tomb of Penelope, Pausanias 8.12; see Marks 2008:25-26.
[ back ] 6. Like piracy, the use of poison is not necessarily “unheroic” in the ancient Greek tradition; On the emergence of prohibitions against the use of poison, see van Courtland Moon 2008.
[ back ] 7. Sons of Lysidike daughter of Pelops killed by Taphians, Hesiod Catalogue 193.9-18 MW. Taphians responsible, with the Teleboans, for killing Elektryon’s sons, Aspis 19; cf. Apollonios Argonautika 1.747-51. Poseidon begets Taphios on Hippothoe daughter of Lysidike in the Echinadian Islands, [Apollodoros] Bibliotheke 2.4.5-6. Taphios goes to island of Taphos and calls his people Teleboans, Tzetzes on Lykophron 932. Taphians involved in a cattle raid on Mycenae, which cattle they entrust to Polyxeinos of Elis, grandson of Augeas and an Elean leader in the Iliad (2.522-00, hapax) and guest-friend of Odysseus in the Telegony (on which see below).
[ back ] 8. Thus Heubeck 1988:88 ad 1.105.
[ back ] 9. Russo 1950:77 ad Aspis 19, for example, cites Thucydides 1.5 for the conclusion that piracy was not considered unheroic.
[ back ] 10. Danek 1998:326 ad Odyssey 16.421-423.
[ back ] 11. Strabo 8.3.6; cf. 7.7.9-10; see Malkin 1998:128. Thesprotia is not mentioned in the Iliad, though note the reference in the Catalogue of Ships (2.657-67) to the Rhodian leader Tlepolemos, son of Herakles and Astyokheia (Astydameia at Pindar Olympia 7.23), whom Herakles brought from a placed named as Ephyre, and whom schol. Arn/A ad loc calls a Thesprotian. We thank Olga Levaniouk, another participant in the first meeting of the Kyklos Project, for allowing us to see an unpublished paper in which she demonstrates that Ephyre, though geographically indeterminate, has certain consistent attributes in the ancient Greek literary tradition; specifically, epic Ephyre is “a wealthy city associated with cleverness and cunning plots, and a source of murderous pharmaka” that “evokes the themes of conflict between the old and the young of coming of age, of hoarding kings and fiery hubristic warriors who attack their cities.”
[ back ] 12. Tale told to Eumaios: Odyssey 14.191-379 with Tsagalis 2012:338-343. The Thesprotians attempt to enslave the Cretan persona at 14.340-355.
[ back ] 13. Marks 2008:104 n44. Note that the Telegony’s geographical sympathies embrace not only west Greece but also Greek north Africa, on which see Burgess 2001:11.
[ back ] 14. For this significance of the Homeric Odysseus having but a single son, see Marks 2008:83-85
[ back ] 15. Malkin 1998:130; cf. Tsagalis 2012:309-13.
[ back ] 16. Thus for example Odysseus in one of his lying tales goes out of his way to stress the helpfulness and blamelessness of the Phoinikes (15.272-276), while in another they deceive and attempt to enslave the hero (14.288-300). For the general phenomenon of doubling in the Odyssey see Scully 1987.
[ back ] 17. Note that the plot against Telemakhos is called off by the Suitor Amphinomos on the grounds that he must consult “the judgments (themistes) of great Zeus” (Odyssey 16.403), which at least suggests nearby Dodona, a suspicion strengthened by Strabo’s (7.7.7) alternate reading of Tomouroi for themistes, which he explained as referring to priests of Dodona named after nearby Mt. Tomaros; see Parke 1967:15-16.
[ back ] 18. Marks 2008:100-104 with bibliography.
[ back ] 19. See Parke 1967:40-44. Deukalion and Dodona: Plutarch Pyrrhus 1.1; Deukalion and Delphi: Pausanias 10.6.2.
[ back ] 20. Parke 1967:13-15; Mitchell 2001:341-344.