The Odyssey – Crash Course

We’re going to begin at the beginning of literature, or, at least, a beginning of literature. “Sing in me, Muse, and through me tell the story of a man …” that lets all his shipmates perish, lies to everybody he meets, cheats on his wife with various nymphs, and takes 10 years to complete a voyage that, according to Google Maps, should have taken 2 weeks. That guy is, naturally, among the fantastic heroes of the ancient world. Ladies and gents, get to know Odysseus, the headliner of Homer’s The Odyssey.

Did I just say the odd at sea? That’s an excellent pun. Not in the original Greek though. Now everybody knows that you can’t correctly appreciate a book until you recognize a lot concerning its author, so before we go over The Odyssey, we’re going to start with a biographical picture of Homer, the legendary blind poet of ancient Greece.

What’s that? Evidently, we know nothing concerning him. Well, in fact, we understand that whoever composed them really did not actually compose them, due to the fact that they were composed by mouth. And was Homer even blind? Well, there are some verses about blindness in the Homeric Hymns and there’s a blind bard who shows up in The Odyssey, however, if writers just wrote about people that resembled themselves, then James Joyce’s characters would have all had one eye.

As for the subject of Homer’s poems, archeological evidence informs us that the Trojan War happened around the twelfth century BCE, although it possibly included far fewer gods and similes than in the epics based on it. Then again, possibly not; it’s not like we have photos. Anyhow, Homer authored The Iliad and The Odyssey in the eighth century BCE, so centuries after the events it explains. And after that, no one bothered to write them down for another 200 years, which means that they probably changed a great deal as they were handed down by means of the oral tradition, and also today there are disagreements concerning which parts are original and which parts are additions. There was a great deal of contending poems concerning the Trojan War, yet Homer’s were by far the most renowned, and they are now one of the most popular because they were also the only ones to make it through the burning of the Library at Alexandria.

So The Iliad and The Odyssey are epic poems, and we describe an epic as “a long narrative poem; on a serious subject; written in a grand or elevated style; centered on a larger-than-life hero.” By the way, that was an example of dactylic hexameter, similar to what you see in epic poems. So the events of The Odyssey occur after those of The Iliad, so let’s have a brief synopsis.

Helen, the wife of Menelaus, runs off with Paris, a Trojan royal prince; or perhaps she’s abducted, it’s unclear. Anyhow, Menelaus’s brother Agamemnon collects allies and goes to Troy to get her back, but the war drags on for 10 years. Whereupon everyone is truly exhausted and uninterested and wishes to go home till things instantly get rather tense because Agamemnon takes a concubine of Achilles’ and Achilles gets truly mad and says he won’t deal with anymore. And things go really severely for the Greeks up until Patroclus– Achilles’ best friend enters into a fight in his place and does a quite awesome task up until he’s slaughtered by Hector, the Trojans’ terrific warrior. Which forces Achilles to resolve himself with his own mortality, and return to the area where he ends up being the supreme death-dealing machine, slaying hordes of Trojans consisting of Hector, whose body he drags behind his chariot because that’s exactly how Achilles rolls, till Hector’s papa, Priam, comes and asks for his son’s remains and Achilles relents and they have dinner with each other, and after that, it ends with the war still going on and nothing truly resolved. Which’s The Iliad.

When The Odyssey opens, it’s 10 years later on, and everyone is currently back home except for Odysseus. His kid Telemachus and his wife Penelope do not know if he’s dead or alive, yet Homer discloses that he is on the island of Ogygia. Put behind bars by the nymph Calypso, who’s so romantically interested in Odysseus despite the fact that he spends his days laying on the beach and crying that she won’t let him go. However finally, the gods intervene and after a collection of experiences and a lot of backstory, he finally returns home to Ithaca in camouflage and kills a number of suitors that have been consuming all of his wine and beeves, frustrating his wife, and plotting to kill his child. And it seems like a cycle of physical violence is simply going to continue on, possibly for life, till the goddess Athena who loves Odysseus intervenes and restores tranquility.

So, several of the big questions around The Odyssey are Odysseus’ heroic attributes, the epic’s double standard for females, and whether you can ever in fact quit a cycle of physical violence. Odysseus barely shows up in The Iliad and he’s not a specifically wonderful fighter; in fact, he’s a rather sleazy person. He leads a night raid right into the opponent camp and kills a number of sleeping Trojans. That’s not particularly glorious. However, it is normal for Odysseus, who will practically do whatever it requires to endure. His distinct quality is metis, which suggests ability, or cunning. Odysseus is wise; he’s truly smart. He’s an unbelievably persuasive speaker who can talk his way out of the stickiest of situations, even ones that involve Cyclopses. He’s likewise sort of a beast of self-interest, and if he weren’t so smug and brash he may have gotten home in less than a gazillion years.

The best example of this is most likely Odysseus’ encounter with the Cyclops. So Odysseus and his men arrive at the island of the Cyclops, and he and his guys work right into the Cyclops’ cave, feasting on the scrumptious goat cheese that the Cyclops has collected, and then, anticipating the Cyclops to return and offer them presents because that’s what you do when somebody gets into your residence. There was an old Greek practice of friendliness, but that’s taking it quite far; it’s also basically exactly what the suitors are doing in Odysseus’ home, for which he eliminates them.

So the Cyclops gets back and he’s so upset concerning these intruders in his cave that he begins to consume them, and in action, Odysseus gets the Cyclops drunk and blinds him with a flaming spear, which is relatively easy to do because of course he just has the one eye. Odysseus has provided his name as Noman, so when the Cyclops cries out, “No man is harming me! No man is killing me!” the other Cyclops does not involve his aide, because you know they assume there’s no man harming him. It’s wordplay. It’s a blindingly great pun. But then when it looks like Odysseus may escape it, he can not endure the suggestion that “no man” is going to get the credit so he announces his real name, causing the Cyclops to call down curses on him, which culminates in all of his men being eliminated. As a general rule, do not be pals with Odysseus, and you likewise don’t want to be his opponent. Just stay away.

So Odysseus is a trickster and a phony and a pirate and a serial cheater, and he is accountable for the death of a great deal of people, and he additionally has most likely the worst sense of direction in all of Greek literary works. But is he a hero? Yes. To the Greeks, heroism didn’t mean perfection, it meant that you had a phenomenal characteristic or capacity, and Odysseus absolutely does. He’s the fave of Athena, the goddess of wisdom. She applauds all of his tricks and schemes, and she urges us to applaud them also, despite the fact that from our modern perspective, he’s a rather questionable guy.

The tale that haunts The Odyssey is that of Agamemnon, the leader of the Achaeans, that returns victorious from the war, only to be murdered by his wife and her new man. When they meet in the underworld, Agamemnon’s ghost alerts Odysseus that he better return in secret because Penelope might try and have him killed also. 

At the same time, Odysseus sleeps with every lady and almost marries an island princess, however, he ensures us that he was constantly true to his wife “in his heart.” Which is nice, however, it would be even better if he were true to his wife in his trousers. Anyway, also as he’s sleeping around, Odysseus is unbelievably concerned with whether Penelope is chaste. If she isn’t, he’ll likely kill her. After all, he, later on, kills all the housemaids for sleeping with the suitors, and he’s not even married to them. The epic seems like it’s building to a critical scene wherein Odysseus is going to check Penelope’s faithfulness, but rather, it’s Penelope who evaluates Odysseus.

When he reveals himself to her, she does not know him. She forces him to show himself by telling the secret of their marriage bed, and only after that does she accept him in among one of the most lovely lines in all of Homer: “and so she too rejoiced, her gaze upon her husband, her white arms round him pressed as though forever.” Some old analysts thought the poem needs to end right there like any type of good romance would, with Odysseus and Penelope blissfully reunited, but it doesn’t.

See Odysseus and a number of his close friends, with a big help from Athena, have butchered all the suitors, this is an issue because this isn’t The Iliad. They aren’t at war. The Iliad is a poem of war, and its major worry is kleos, which indicates splendor or renown achieved on the battleground that guarantees you a sort of eternal life because your actions are so amazing that everyone’s going to sing about you for life. Achilles didn’t get to go home. He had two selections: he can stay and deal with and win splendor, or he could go home and live a lengthy and peaceful life. In The Iliad, Achilles opted for splendor. Yet The Odyssey has to do with the choice. It’s about what we do after a war, just how we put war away. Odysseus isn’t particularly good at this. He’s an ancient example of PTSD. He’s been through a lot that he does not recognize just how to adapt to peacetime; his response to boys taking over his dining hall and grilling all of his pigs is a mass massacre. And the slaughter of the suitors brings about their family members involving an attempt to kill Odysseus, and if Athena had not come down from Olympus, and stopped it, rather quickly there would have been no person left on Ithaca active. And that’s a serious final thought: if it weren’t for divine intervention, the people in this story could have continued that cycle of physical violence forever. The Odyssey is a poem set in peacetime, but it advises us that humans have never been specifically good at leaving war behind them.

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