The Many Worlds of the Odyssey

Time: September 9, 2011, 11:30 am to 6:30 pm
Place: Philosophy Hall 716, Columbia University
Organizer: Katja Vogt
Speakers: Francesco de Angelis (Columbia University), Clemente Marconi (NYU), Silvia Montiglio (Johns Hopkins), Neville Morley (Bristol), Leah Whittington (Columbia University, Society of Fellows), Katja Vogt (Columbia University)
Co-sponsored by: Center for the Ancient Mediterranean, Columbia University, and the Society of Fellows in the Humanities at Columbia University

Beginning with Plato’s Theaetetus, philosophers have considered it a difficult task to formulate a coherent version of relativism. According to one long-standing intuition, people can live in radically different ways, where this involves holding different values and conceptualizing the world in different ways – so much so that, in a sense, each way of life constitutes its own ‘world.’ The Odyssey is an obvious place to start if one wants to explore this idea. The stages of Odysseus’ travels can be thought of as sojourns in different worlds, worlds with their own kinds of inhabitants, food, customs, values, etc. In an intriguing phrase, the shorelines of Polyphemus’ island are described in the very terms that are otherwise used for the limits of the world: peiras gaiês (9.284) – it is a world to itself, as are the other places that Odysseus encounters.

The conference is devoted to an inter-disciplinary study of this aspect of the Odyssey and the afterlife of this range of ideas in later writings and art. How does the Odyssey conceptualize different ways of life? How does Herodotus relate to the Odyssey’s quasi-ethnographic dimension? What kind of inspiration are the inhabitants of the many worlds of the Odyssey for ancient art? How do Roman writers develop the relevant ideas? How do ideas of the limits of the world, and the question of whether other worlds can be imagined, shape ancient thought about values?