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.
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.
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.