Repetition as Ritual: Echoes of The Odyssey through Time

15 March 2019


Jennifer Clarvoe’s article, “Poetry and Repetition,” is concerned mainly with how the repetitions within a particular text call attention to important elements and highlight unexpected connections within the poem that may go unnoticed otherwise. Clarvoe’s argument that most closely relates Homer’s epic to James Joyce’s Ulysses comes as a discussion of a short poem unrelated to either Homer’s epic or Joyce’s novel based on that epic. She says, “It is not a poem overtly organized by repetition, but one whose subliminal orchestrations have everything to do with these echoes and returns” (Clarvoe 40.) This same sentiment holds true for Joyce’s Ulysses. Aside from the novel’s title and it’s chapter titles which were not included in the original edition (JH 2017,) Ulysses is not overtly organized by the repetition of Homer’s work but has everything to do with echoes and returns to the elements of The Odyssey.

Clarvoe is not silent on the extensive use of repetition in The Odyssey. When she discusses the repetition of the ritual to conjure the dead in The Odyssey, Clarvoe says, “The repetition marks the ritual as ritual, as repeatable; it exists as a form out of time, to be fulfilled in time” (Clarvoe 31.) While the people of ancient Greece are not likely to need to use a ritual to conjure the dead out of the afterlife, Homer uses repetition of other rituals throughout The Odyssey to pass on important aspects of cultural knowledge. While Homer strictly details the rituals to be performed then shows them being performed in strict compliance to the instructions, Homer sets up a theme then iterates on that theme with each succeeding repetition when teaching more nuanced subjects than general life lessons. Homer is able to teach a fuller understanding of cultural expectations through a series of simple stories based on similar themes.

Homer signals the importance death as a theme as he repeats it multiple times throughout the narrative of The Odyssey. The specter of looming death is present within each of the books of Homer’s epic. In book 11, “The Kingdom of the Dead,” Homer even locates death as an actual place within the world as well as the souls that live within it. To Odysseus surprise, he finds Elpenor has beaten him to the underworld even though they had left his dead body on Circe’s island. (Homer 11.56-93.) However, Elpenor’s death is of no surprise to Homer’s audience as they are informed of Elpenor’s death in the previous book (Homer 10.605-617.) Homer uses this repetition of Elpenor’s death in his own words to reiterate the cultural importance of mourning and properly burying the dead. Now that Homer has set up Elpenor’s death as a ritual out of time, to be fulfilled in time, Joyce uses the trip to the graveyard to burry Paddy as a stand-in for Elpenor and as a way of iterating on the theme of death updating the theme for the modern world.

Elpenor’s request for a proper burial (Homer 11.79-80) is transformed in Ulysses. Elpenor warns that if he is not properly buried, Odysseus risks a curse from the Gods. Elpenor’s plea from the dead becomes a chance for Joyce’s Leopold Bloom’s interior dialogue to dissect the modern connotations of being excluded from the excepted burial rights of the dominant culture. In connection with the conversation about a suicide, Bloom thinks, “Refuse christian burial” (Joyce 1922.) The lack of capitalization of the proper noun, “Christian,” within Bloom’s interior monologue serves as a subtle reminder that he, born of Jewish descent, exists outside the bounds of the Christian majority and, therefore, would likely be refused a Christian burial himself. But exclusion of the religious minority is not the only problem that Bloom finds with burial rights since Homer had his say on the matter.

In The Odyssey, Elpenor offers a world where improper burial rights could invite a curse from the Gods. He says, “Don’t sail off/and desert, me left behind unwept, unburied, don’t/or my curse may draw god’s fury on your head” (Homer 11.79-81). But in Joyce’s novel, the curse is no longer the Gods metering out their fury on the living for not delivering the rights to the dead. Instead, the living deliver their curse on the dead for anyone who offends the masses with an improper death. Still on the subject of Suicide, Bloom thinks, “They used to drive a stake of wood through his heart in the grave. As if it wasn’t broken already” (Joyce 1922.) Therefore, Joyce’s modern world may have done away with Gods and the supernatural, but the monsters still inhabit the Earth only they take the form of mob violence and group think.

Interestingly, with his understanding for societies taboo against suicide, Bloom has no problem with the circumstances surrounding Paddy’s death. Looking at the conversation amongst the characters in the carriage Paddy’s death was the direct result of a lifetime’s overindulgence in alcohol. They say:

“— The Lord forgive me! Mr Power said, wiping his wet eyes with his fingers. Poor Paddy! I little thought a week ago when I saw him last and he was in his usual health that I’d be driving after him like this. He’s gone from us.

— As decent a little man as ever wore a hat, Mr Dedalus said. He went very suddenly.

— Breakdown, Martin Cunningham said. Heart.

He tapped his chest sadly.

Blazing face: redhot. Too much John Barleycorn. Cure for a red nose. Drink like the devil till it turns adelite. A lot of money he spent colouring it.” (Joyce 1922)

The total acceptance of Paddy’s life of alcohol abuse and his subsequent death from the same abuse goes totally counter to the many repetitions of the call for moderation within The Odyssey.

Elpenor’s death is likely the strongest of the calls for moderation in alcohol intake as his death is the explicit result of overindulgence. When Odysseus describes Elpenor’s death, he says, “There was a man, Elpenor, the youngest in our ranks,/none too brave in battle, none too sound in mind.[…]/sodden with wine […]/headfirst from the roof he plunged” (Homer 10.608-609, 612, 615.) Odysseus describes Elpenor in a poor light. He shows Elpenore as inexperienced by describing him as the youngest, as a coward by describing him as none to brave, as stupid by describing him as none to sound in mind, and as a possible alcoholic by describing him as sodden with wine. Very early in the next chapter, Elpenore repeats similar lines reinforcing the connections foolishness and drinking to excess. When describing his own death, Elpenor says, “[T]he doom of an angry god, and god knows how much wine—/they were my ruin” (Homer 11.67-68.) But even with the understanding that Elpenor led a foolish life Odysseus agrees to honor him with a hero’s burial. Elpenor says, “[B]urn me in full armor, all my harness, […]/so even men to come will learn my story.” Even though Odysseus describes Elpenor’s death as he would a fool’s death, he agrees to these terms for his burial.

Similarly, Bloom describes Paddy’s death positive terms. He says, “— The best death” (Joyce 1922.) Despite Homer’s repeated calls for moderation and despite the obvious signs of Paddy’s wasted life destroyed by overindulgence of alcohol, Both Elpenor and Paddy are honored in death receiving all the rights due to them as full members of their societies. This contradiction seems to show that in both Homer’s time and Joyce’s time a person’s burial is a time for somber recollections and happy memories of the dead despite what the evidence of their life may show.

Joyce’s subtle callback to Homer’s epic give the text of Ulysses both a framework from which to draw the scenes of the novel, and an ancient world view that in its contradictions with modern thought gives lessons to teach us in the present day how to be good members of society. Clarvoe might say that the repetition of The Odyssey in Ulysses is the ritual out of time to be fulfilled in our time as our lives repeat the same lessons taught three thousand years ago.

Works Cited

Clarvoe, Jennifer. “Poetry and Repetition.” Antioch Review, vol. 67, no. 1, Winter 2009, pp. 30–41. EBSCOhost,

Homer. Odyssey. Translated by Robert Fagles, Viking Penguin, 1997.

Joyce, James. UlyssesThe Joyce Project : Ulysses : Pigeonhouse, 1922.

  1. “Schemas.” The Joyce Project : Ulysses : Schemas, 2017,

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