Homer “The Odyssey”

Judging by the freshmen at my university (hereafter “Mall U”), I’d guess that high schools now assign the Odyssey more often than the Iliad. I suppose the Odyssey is more a yarn, with daring do, exotic locations, high adventure and true love. It’s more accessible and the Iliad is, by contrast, intense, violent, and a bit dismal. Personally, however, I prefer the Iliad and find the Odyssey a bit too much like a boy’s adventure tale.

The tale begins ten years after the Trojan War. Achilles is dead, Menelaus and Helen have reconciled, and most of the warriors have returned home. All but one ill-fated ship. In Ithaca, Odysseus’s wife Penelope and her son Telemachus are awaiting his return. He’s been gone for nearly two decades and the natives are getting restless. The local swells are hanging around the royal house, drinking and trying to get in Penelope’s tunic. She is undecided: desperately awaiting his return, while letting the suitors hang about offering her gifts. She has promised to marry someone after weaving a burial shawl, and each night she unweaves it, perhaps the most creative example of cock-teasing in world literature!

Telemachus is sick of these layabouts and sets sail to get news of his father. Or maybe his father. Descent matters here; it makes a difference if he is descended from the semi-divine race as Odysseus’s son, or from the merely human race; if so, he likely won’t survive the ordeals he faces. Telemachus comments that no man knows his parentage with absolute certainty, perhaps explaining why female adultery is so important in these myths. This is, after all, before Jerry Springer and paternity tests! Regardless, Telemachus is the ideal son of a great leader; loyal, brave, and able to manage the house while his father is gone. In fact, a controversial novel of Ancien Régime France fleshed out his story, giving good advice for the descendants of great leaders and, thereby, casting aspersions on the current King.

Penelope is certainly devoted. In fact, her devotion seems excessive and unbalanced in spots; she spends much time lamenting Odysseus and weeping copiously, even after nearly two decades of absence and his believed death. He laments her too, of course; but Odysseus is also weeping for hearth and home, the central motif of the Odyssey, and represented in some way by Penelope. Certainly, her misery is a bit much.

And yet, there is something majestic about her melancholy and stoic resolution, which stands in stark contrast to the femme fatale grasping of Circe and Calypso. She is a monument to female fidelity. Homer also plays Penelope off Clytemnestra, who we hear through the grapevine has killed her husband, Agamemnon, upon his return from the war. There’s strength to Peneleope. Her ruses give the sense that she is determined to have her own way. I get the feeling that she’s not just a princess, but a drama queen.

There’s also something amusing about Odysseus’s constant female troubles. In noir, the femme fatale pretends to love the hero in order to manipulate him; here, they love him but he can’t get rid of them! Circe, Calypso, even the sirens are nightmare females seeking to trap and devour a good man. And I am perhaps not “post-Freudian” enough not to note that Odysseus nearly loses his ship to Charybdis, a massive, toothed, vaginal canal! I’m also not the first to note Homer’s uneasiness about women; Helen of Troy is the archetypal femme fatale; Clytemnestra is her epigone. Even Penelope is keeping the suitors around so her husband can kill them.

Even Odysseus, who is a stud, seems weirdly distrustful. Upon returning to Ithaca, he takes the appearance of an old beggar, in order to find out if his house is in order. To a great extent, this is explained by the fact that the men besieging his home are violent and rowdy; but not entirely. He’s also checking on the loyalty of his wife, which is a bit obnoxious, given that Odysseus has been absent for two decades and believed dead. It seems unrealistic to ask a spouse to remain chaste during a few years of absence, much less twenty years!

Who is Odysseus?

He is often taken as a symbol of human curiosity and wanderlust; but he spends the majority of the story pining for home. I read the Odyssey as a celebration of home and a call for hospitality to strangers. There’s a ritualistic flavor to Homer’s repeated accounts of the pleasures to be found at home; I lost count of all the times characters were bathed and oiled. One would be advised not to ask for similar treatment today. Nearly every episode records how a homemaker responds to the needs of a supplicant traveler; those who do well are rewarded, while those who do poorly, most notably the Cyclops, are punished; it’s never a good idea to eat your guests. I’m reminded of the Old Testament, in which people often make the mistake of maltreating angels or protected people of God and pay the price. As for Odysseus, it’s possible that his troubles arise from being a poor guest; but it seems more likely that his mistake is his hubristic and stupid boasting after blinding the Cyclops. But the suitors might well be killed for being the sort of visitors that decide to stay. In the world of 700 BCE, in which travelers often put their lives in the hands of their hosts, and vice-versa, hospitality is a paramount virtue.

Odysseus is a hero of human ingenuity and the Odyssey is a testament to his resourcefulness and talent as a trickster. This, however, raises the question of just how much of his tales of adventure at sea can be believed. After all, he is characterized most often as a magnificent liar.

Athena

In one story, Odysseus, like Gilgamesh, sails to the end of the earth and the land of the dead, Hadês. Here he sees his mother, dead by grief, Agamemnon, who warns against fully trusting a wife, the cursed Sisyphus and Tantalus, and Achilles, who is revered here but far prefers the land of the living. Damned or not, Hadês is a miserable, dark and gloomy place for all who die.

Athena is Odysseus’s protector. She is the daughter of Zeus, who Hesiod says ate her, fearing she was his equal, before she burst forth from his forehead. Many therefore see Athena as representing thought, but it’s also an act of aggression. Often portrayed in armor, Athena, to me, represents the lucid and coolly calculating side of war, the strategy that counterbalances the fury of Ares. She protects Odysseus to protect his scheming mind. They have a sort of patron/client relationship. His victories are a paean to civilizing rationality.

Again, we note the Homeric style by which everything is narrated openly; when a goddess appears, we hear where she came from, how she traveled, and she speaks her thoughts. Jane Ellen Harrison mentions Homer’s “horror of formlessness”, and there’s a good point there: everything in the epics is clear and visible. Erich Auerbach notes Homer’s, “externalized, uniformly illuminated phenomena, at a definite time in a definite place, connected together and without lacunae in a perpetual foreground.” There is no tension in the epics that might arise from mystery about what will happen next; from the beginning, we know that Odysseus will make it home.

I find his homecoming strange though. After winning a test of strength, Odysseus and Telemachus slaughter the suitors. The whole scene is excessive; he claims to kill them for their outrageous violence, but it amounts to boorish behavior and a failed plot to kill Telemachus. It would make more sense to run them off: “Scram, wimps!” Instead, Odysseus kills every last man for having dropped in for a visit and deciding to stay for several years. If it is important to give hospitality, clearly it is also important not to abuse it.

It seems unjust that Ulysses is destined to grow old in peaceful boredom in Ithaca. Dante, instead, continued his story, sending him out on another ill-fated voyage into the Atlantic and finally into the eighth circle of hell, seeing in Ulysses the insatiable desire for experience and knowledge. Tennyson took a similar tack, having the older Ulysses set sail for one last suicidal voyage, telling his men, “’Tis not too late to seek a newer world.” Homer’s epic seems to tell us ‘tis not too late to return home.

Endnotes:

1. Tune in next time for the Oresteia by Aeschylus, which explains that whole “killing Agamemnon” thing.

2. After that I’d like to get to the Histories of Herodotus. I wanted to do it first, but I’m only half-done. It’s about 600 pages, so there you go.

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26 thoughts on “Homer “The Odyssey”

  1. I’ve heard a great many times about how awful the ancient men treated the ancient women… how women were property and how man/boy love existed only because every woman was “achievable” but only men had to be wooed… but when I see something like Odysseus and Penelope (or the dynamic of the Lysistrata, for that matter), I see something 100% recognizable.

    One of the things I have not yet forgotten from my Ancient Greek class has to do with the word “Home”.

    You say stuff like “I’m going home” but never “I’m going school” or “I’m going church” or “I’m going store”.

    “Home” is infused with a very special meaning and has its own special construction in sentences… so special that if I say “I’m going to home”, it seems odd or off like English isn’t my first language.

    Well, Ancient Greek had this construction as well (surely it picked it up from its lingual ancestors as English did).

    When I see the story of Odysseus and Penelope, I see the magic contained in that word reflected… and I wonder how alien the male/female power dynamics really were. I see hints of universiality there.

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    • Oh, I think it all depends on the ancient Greek writer in question. Herotodus strikes me as bemused more than anything, and Aristophanes is certainly sympathetic to the plight of women, in my opinion. What’s great about Homer, to my mind, is that he has such a variety of male and female characters. I like Penelope and I also really like the slave girl in the Iliad who very eloquently and with great dignity tells us her plight before going to sleep with Achilles at the end of the story.

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  2. It seems unrealistic to ask a spouse to remain chaste during a few years of absence

    I hope you were being ironic. Have standards fallen so far that we cannot expect fidelity from our partners in our absence? Are we fated to return to a defiled marriage bed? Is this the undoing of western civilisation? The breaking of the family?

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  3. JB, how insightful of you…much appreciated.
    Murali, “chastity, fidelity, honor” my, my, how quaint! We’re dealing with progressives here, dude.

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  4. Erich Auerbach notes Homer’s, “externalized, uniformly illuminated phenomena, at a definite time in a definite place, connected together and without lacunae in a perpetual foreground.”

    This is an odd claim, since so much of the Odyssey is told not in Homer’s voice but by Odysseus himself to a rapt audience of Phaeacians. Turning the narrative over to the first person like that is a pretty important development in epic poetry — especially, as you note, since Odysseus isn’t quite to be trusted.

    And all this is set up by book 8, in which we hear the blind bard Demodocus sings first of the Trojan War, then of Aphrodite and Hephaestus (which simultaneously contrasts and mirrors the story of Penelope and Odysseus), then specifically of the Trojan Horse (at Odysseus’ request). And somewhere in there is one of my favorite lines, which I can’t find and can’t quite remember, something like: “the night is long and we’re not tired, so let’s fill it with a song.” So anyway, there’s a lot of cool stuff going on with the narrative.

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    • Okay, found the line! It’s actually in book 11, when Alcinous is urging Odysseus to go on with his story: “The evenings are still at their longest, and it is not yet bed time – go on, therefore, with your divine story, for I could stay here listening till tomorrow morning, so long as you will continue to tell us of your adventures.” (I think that’s from the Loeb).

      And a little more on Aphrodite and Hephaestus: they’re married, she’s of course the goddess of sex and love, and he’s the crippled craftsman of the gods. She’s cheating on him with Ares, the manly-man god of war, so Hephaestus sets a trap to catch them in the act with a net that covers the bed.

      So on the one hand, unfaithful Aphrodite is contrasted with faithful Penelope; but on the other hand, Odysseus and Hephaestus are clearly parallel to each other — both using their cleverness to test their wives.

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      • That’s a good point. I forgot all about Hephaestus.

        I think what Auerbach is getting at (and, by the way, Mimesis is a classic), is that Homer will often divert the narrative to show us something that perhaps could just be alluded to. His example is the scene with the nurse discovering Odysseus’s old wound. Homer doesn’t just tell us what it is; he actually narrates the hunting story as a sort of narrative flashback. There’s really very little that he leaves un-narrated in the story. What strikes me is how rarely anyone in the Homeric epics has a thought without announcing it. Like you, I really love how often Homer takes time to laud his profession- there are several passages about the joys of oral storytelling.

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        • Oh, and I left out the best part about the Hephaestus/Aphrodite/Odysseus/Penelope dynamic: after Odysseus has tested Penelope to his satisfaction and finally revealed himself, she tests him by asking to move the tree-stump bed. Odysseus’ response, which I love so much I had read at my wedding, is the perfect explanation of what home and marriage are all about.

          And I’ll definitely check out Auerbach. From a look Wikipedia, though, I’m not sure I’ll agree with him. The very sketchiness he seems to like about the Old Testament — it takes a Rembrandt, say, to flesh it out into real psychological depth. Give me Homer’s richness any day!

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  5. It wasn’t just a matter of sexual or emotional fidelity though, she was being pushed to choose not just a lover or a new husband, but a successor to Odysseus’s throne. Whoever she picked would become the new king, and could legitimately have Orestes executed without bringing blood guilt on himself and his city. These suitors weren’t just local guys, they were Princes from all over Greece. They were potential usurpers, and it seems to me Penelope could have saved her and her family a lot of grief if she had simply stepped down and appointed, or had Orestes appointed king, or at least regent or something ten years earlier. Maybe there is some cultural reason she couldn’t do that that has been lost, but I guess mainly we wouldn’t have the story if she had.

    It’s too bad the story didn’t focus more on that and less on the absurdities of Odysseus’s journey. It would have been better if they had been more realistic. It’s no wonder ancient people didn’t care much about leaving home.

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    • I think you meant to refer to Telemachus here not Orestes, but I get your point. Telemachus is in real danger and the slaughter of the suitors was probably justifiable to the audience. I think it its important to remember that Greek society in Homer’s era, as almost all Mediterranean societies of the era, was not that far removed from the matrilineal tradition in which all heritage and inheritance was traced through the mother’s line. Remember that even today you are not Jewish because your father is or was but because your mother is or was. Rufus writes,”Telemachus comments that no man knows his parentage with absolute certainty, perhaps explaining why female adultery is so important in these myths.” This is so true in a patrilineal context.
      I also enjoy the fact that Odysseus is a trickster. I no longer have a copy of the Odyssey around and I don’t remember, was Hermes a patron of Odysseus?

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      • On Hermes, surprisingly not (although he does get a couple appearances, and provides O. with moly against Circe’s powers).

        One thing to bear in mind about the monarchy is that it’s not strictly hereditary – if P. were to marry a suitor from another island, she’d go off with him, but then Telemachus would be left with his (remaining) inheritance, and it would be up in the air whether he would or could succeed his father. In other words, his father’s wealth is heritable (and that’s a good power base), but his father’s crown is not – unless his father is able to set the stage for him.

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  6. I take a slightly different angle on women in The Odyssey in my recent post, “Penelope as (M)Other: Telemachus’s Coming of Age in The Odyssey” at literatimom.blogspot.com. I argue that, in keeping with what we know about the circulation of women among men during this time period, women in this text are portrayed as objects to be owned and against which men were able to claim their own subjectivity. Telemachus others Penelope in multiple ways throughout the text in order to identify as a man and, specifically, as a warrior like his father.

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