Finished reading on 8/19/17
To round out my reading of the classical epics I read The Odyssey this month which I wasn’t necessarily looking forward to because I had taught parts of it last year and because I had already read most of it in college and high school. However, I was pleasantly surprised by how enjoyable reading the unabridged version is. It still remains my least favorite of the three epics but not so much lower than the other two.
The Odyssey is unexpectedly sensual. Homer is forever going on about the slaughtering of animals and the roasting of meat, the drinking of wine, the eating of extravagant feasts and so forth. I literally (not figuratively) got hungry while reading those frequent descriptions. My mouth started watering every time he went on in great detail about the slaughtering, cooking and eating of meat. Not only is the food sensual but the descriptions of the heroes, specifically Odysseus are specifically designed to arouse your sense of attraction. Homer seems especially obsessed with the well-shaped and muscular forms of the heroes. It’s very clear that he knows how this will appeal to his female listeners/readers (or perhaps The Odyssey was really written by a young woman as Samuel Butler suggests). Here is one description of Odysseus given by another character: “In build, at all events, he is no common man, – in thighs, and calves, and arms above, strong neck, and massive chest” (Book VIII). And here is another: “Meanwhile Odysseus gathered his rags around his waist and showed his thighs, so fair and large, and his broad shoulders came in sight, his breast and sinewy arms. Athene, drawing nigh, filled out the limbs of the shepherd of the people, that all the suitors greatly wondered” (Book XVIII). Other than these sensuous descriptions, the tale is not full of long and arduous descriptive detail. It is highly action and dialogue oriented much like The Iliad.
When we think of The Odyssey, we think of Odysseus’ long journey home and all of the adventures he has along the way. But actually that part of the narrative is only 36% of the entire poem. 45% of the book is devoted to Odysseus’ arrival on Ithaca and his revenge on the suitors. The first 19% of the book is about the situation on Ithaca before Odysseus arrives and Telemachus’ journey to the mainland seeking news of his father. The actual narrative describing Odysseus’ journey is incredibly fast paced compared to the second half. The second half happens in a matter of 3-5 days, whereas Odysseus was wandering for 3 years before he was marooned with Calypso. This leads me to my main question about The Odyssey, is it really about Odysseus’ journey home or is it actually about his homecoming? I think realizing that The Odyssey actually isn’t what we make it out to be in our abbreviated high school editions makes me appreciate the epic more. The central action is focused on Odysseus’ vengeance on the suitors, not his adventurous journey home. This unifying theme makes the poem more appealing.
It is this change in focus that makes me rethink the most easily identified theme in The Odyssey. We can all easily connect to the longing for home which drives Odysseus to continue his wanderings even when all hope of reaching home seems utterly lost. This persistence, this yearning I have often identified with the Christian desire for “home” meaning our home with Christ. However, if the thrust of The Odyssey is really Odysseus’ homecoming and the recompense of the suitors than perhaps he is more of a Christ type along the lines of the returning king and the righter of long tolerated wrongs.
Overall I prefer the Iliad. However, I will say that out of The Iliad, The Odyssey and The Aeneid, it’s The Odyssey that has the most moving and powerful scene: Odysseus’ reunion with Penelope. “As he spoke thus, her knees grew feeble and her soul within, when she recognized the tokens which Odysseus truly told. Then bursting into tears, she ran straight toward him, threw her arms round Odysseus’ neck and kissed his face, and said… so she spoke, and stirred still more his yearning after tears, and he began to weep, holding his loved and faithful wife” (Book XXIII). Taken out of context these excerpts of their reunion lose much of their intensity and power. And yet you can still sense how precious these two are to each other. This moment of love is unique to The Odyssey and similar moments do not have a place in either The Iliad or The Aeneid.
Of course Penelope is a very unusual figure. Women in the ancient world were of a degraded position. Their only honor being their ability to bear a man sons and continue the family line. Women were not trusted and were often viewed as being deceitful and full or treachery. Yet The Odyssey is very inclined to sing the praises of Penelope and not just to her faithfulness but to her wits and wisdom as well. This also sets The Odyssey apart from the Iliad and the Aeneid in which in neither do women play a significant part except as distractions to the heroes.
This poem reveals in several interesting way the mindset of the ancient Greeks towards the gods and the role the god’s played in their daily lives. For instance it is very clear that morality and specifically the morality surrounding hospitality was tied to a fear of the gods. Rich and noble people did not dare refuse to offer a beggar food and shelter for fear that the beggar could be a god in disguise. The gods are also blamed for irregular or uncouth behavior. There are several incidents of a character wondering or assuming that another is under the influence of a god. The theory seems to be used to say that at times the gods are actually responsible for a person’s misdeeds. Helen continually blames her betrayal on Aphrodite. The thing is, if they all believed that Aphrodite really was responsible for Helen’s behavior then why did the Greeks think of Helen as a symbol of betrayal?
I also noted this time that a side plot to The Odyssey is Telemachus’ coming of age. Telemachus has grown up without a father. He knows what it is like to have a fatherless family, to be missing a much needed father figure. How relevant a situation to our times! It is interesting to see that he can’t really grow into his full manhood until his father shows up again. He needs his father to become a man. Again how telling for the state of many young men in our society! As Homer says, “Ah, many a grief the son of an absent father meets at home, when other helpers are not by” (Book IV).
On a side note, the story of Agamemnon’s murder at the hands of his wife’s lover and his son’s subsequent revenge on his father’s betrayers reminds me eerily of Hamlet. Of course there are some obvious differences one being that Hamlet’s mother became the lover of his father’s murderer only after the crime was committed and unknowingly too. But in any case the son’s duty to avenge his father is clearly present in both.
On another note: is Phaeacia a vision of utopia? The people are supposedly descended from the gods and continue to be the favorite of the gods. They don’t interact with the outside world and it is specifically stated that they aren’t very good with weapons or warlike games.
I have little else to say about The Odyssey being that most people are very familiar with it and its themes. However, I’ll say this, you probably read an abridged or simplified version in high school and it’s worth it to go back and become familiar with the poem in its entirety.
“The song which men most heartily applaud is that which comes the newest to their ears.”
“Ah, many a grief the son of an absent father meets at home, when other helpers are not by.”
“But enter, and have no misgivings in your heart; for the courageous man in all affairs better attains his end, come he from whence he may.”
“Better to be the hireling of a stranger, and serve a man of mean estate whose living is but small, than be the ruler over all these dead and gone.”
“Friends, hitherto we have not been untried in danger.”
“for afterwards a man finds pleasure in his pains, when he has suffered long and wandered long.”
“Earth breeds no creature frailer than a man, of all that breathe and move upon the earth.”