Anyone who hasn’t read the Odyssey and the Iliad, the two great Greek epics attributed to Homer that form the basis of Western literature, doesn’t know what they’re missing out on. And those who have read them may have missed, undoubtedly, a curious detail: despite the constant interference of the gods in the characters’ lives, either to help or to harm them, they don’t seem to be aware of exactly which gods are intervening in each situation. They attribute these actions in a general way, leaving it to the narrator or the gods themselves to clarify to the reader. This is known as Jørgensen’s Law.

Obviously, the name comes from the scholar who discovered it. His name was Ove Jørgensen (not to be confused with the philosopher Jørgen Jørgensen, creator of the homonymous dilemma), and he was Danish, born in Copenhagen in 1877. The son of a distinguished chemistry professor, he pursued university studies in Art, showing a special preference for classical literature and graduating in 1902 with a thesis on the so-called Homeric question, that is, the debate about the identity and real existence of Homer – which had been ongoing since antiquity – and its impact on the authorship of the poems attributed to him.

Jørgensen continued his studies on the Greek poet, traveling to Berlin, Athens, Constantinople, and Rome, establishing relationships with prestigious specialists in the field and the historical context. As a result of this experience, in 1904, he published an article proposing a theory based – as he himself admitted – on a discovery made by a German researcher in 1835: when Odysseus (Ulysses), the protagonist of the Odyssey, recounts his adventures to the Phaeacians, he never mentions the continuous assistance received from the goddess Athena.

Throughout the 19th century, other German scholars such as Gregor Wilhelm Nitzsch, Heinrich Düntzer, Wilhelm Hartel, and Carl Rothe found more examples of this ignorance on the part of the character in various passages of the work. Shortly after entering the 20th century, it was Jørgensen who systematized all this by proposing an explanation in the aforementioned article for Hermes (a German magazine dedicated to classical studies); its title was Das Auftreten der Goetter in den Buechern ι–μ der Odyssee (“The Appearances of the Gods in Books 9-12 of the Odyssey”).

Was Odysseus ungrateful? No, obviously not. According to Kayser, this omission is because the king of Ithaca does not know who intervened on his behalf to get him out of the difficult situations he faced, beyond the fact that it was of divine nature. So would it be a mistake by Homer? The repetition suggests otherwise, since in fact the character admits that he has received assistance from Olympus; he simply does not specify from whom exactly or the attribution is incorrect, as he does with Zeus and a storm that the narrative explains was caused by Poseidon.

J. Marks, a professor at the University of Florida and author of a book titled Zeus in the Odyssey (which considers the plot of the Odyssey as resulting from a plan by the father of the gods), summarizes it simply and understandably: The Homeric narrator and the divine characters are generally aware of the divine agent responsible for any particular act or circumstance in the narrative. Human characters, on the other hand, remain ignorant of the actions of specific gods unless informed by a divine character or, in the case of seers and singers, possess special powers.

In reality, this causistic indefiniteness of the Odyssey and the Iliad is not absolute, as it excludes the minor gods (Circe, Calypso, Proteus, Eidotea, Aeolus…), the major ones when they have very marked characteristics of their own (the sudden deaths attributed to Apollo and Artemis) and the second-hand narratives included in the work (such as the legendary stories told by some characters; for example, when Helen explains the judgment of Paris). This adds to the other great individual driving force of the Homeric characters, the thumos (internal drive, desire, energy), of which a good example is Achilles and his sense of honor.

Based on an analysis of books 9, 10, 11, and 12 of the Odyssey (the chapters that deal with the encounter with Polyphemus, the stay with Circe, the visit to the underworld, the incident of Helios’s sheep, and the years with Calypso), Jørgensen emphasizes that it is the actions of the major deities to which the aforementioned indefiniteness must be applied, although examples can also be found in others. This is the case in book 24, where one of Penelope’s suitors, Amphimedon, attributes Odysseus’s return to Ithaca to an κακός δαίμων (evil daimon); or in book 14, where Jørgensen’s law is mentioned up to nine times during the conversation between Odysseus and the swineherd Eumaeus, attributing divine intervention sometimes to Zeus and sometimes to a god or the gods without specifying.

That’s the crux of the matter. According to the aforementioned law, the Homeric characters use a series of generic and interchangeable terms, of which these four predominate: θεός (“theos”, which translates as god or deity), δαίμων (“daimon”, fate or fate determined by the gods) and Ζεύς (“Zeus”, the father of the gods and lord of Olympus). Jørgensen explains that in the conventional language of the poet, these are four names for the same thing. When, for example, Teucer’s bowstring breaks, for him it was a daimon who did it, but for Ajax it was a god, and for Hector it was Zeus.

However, not all scholars agree to consider this canon in absolute terms, and there are criticisms or qualifications regarding certain terms of that conceptual tetrad. Thus, the American professor Erwin F. Cook believes that Zeus appears only in events related to destiny and the weather, something that refers to pre-Hellenic deities of the worship of natural forces. Also, the concept of daimon has been discussed; Irene de Jong, a Dutch professor of ancient Greek, believes it basically refers – except for three exceptions in the Iliad – to negative aspects.

In any case, these terms are used interchangeably, sometimes deliberately mixed, such as when the bard Demodocus blames Athena for the suffering of the Greeks in Troy, but shortly after Telemachus tells his mother that Zeus should be held responsible. However, Jørgensen’s law is something that Homer applies only when mortal characters speak, humans, because when it comes to gods, it is clear who is acting, just as the narrator also distinguishes each one.

What is the reason for this peculiarity? It would be a literary device used by the poet to distinguish with special emphasis between the voice of the narrator, inspired by the muses, and that of the characters, as seen by Jenny Strauss Clay, an American professor of Classical Studies specializing in the works of Homer. The former always explicitly states the intervening divinity, informing the reader accordingly, while the latter use the mentioned generic terms. The ironic circumstance is that most of the Odyssey is told by its protagonist, not by a voice-over.

This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on April 1, 2024. Puedes leer la versión en español en La ley de Jørgensen o por qué los personajes mortales de los poemas homéricos no saben distinguir qué dioses intervienen en sus vidas


Homero, La Odisea | Homero, La Ilíada | Ove Jørgensen, Das Auftreten der Goetter in den Buechern ι–μ der Odyssee | J. Marks, Zeus in the Odissey | Jenny Strauss Clay, The wrath of Athena: Gods and men in the Odyssey | Irene J. F. de Jong, A narratological commentary on the Odyssey | Erwin F. Cook, The Odyssey in Athens: Myths of Cultural Origins | Wikipedia

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