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Humanities Libertexts

3.2: The Odyssey

For many people, The Iliad and The Odyssey seem to go together. After all, they are both by Homer and The Odyssey seems to be a continuation of The Iliad. Of course, the reality is not quite so simple. First, since we are not sure that a person named Homer either wrote the poems or even actually existed, it is dangerous for us to assume that the same person was responsible for both poems, and given the history of oral composition that I described briefly in the last chapter, it is dangerous for us to assume that any single person wrote either of them. Furthermore, The Odyssey is a continuation of The Iliad in only the loosest sense. People tend to remember Odysseus’ spectacular adventures, but those adventures form only a small part of the poem. Those adventures are exciting, but the heart of The Odyssey is elsewhere. Actually there were a number of other poems built around the Troy story, but except for brief fragments, those poems have disappeared.

The Iliad opens by announcing as its subject the wrath of Achilleus and the destruction that resulted from that wrath. Achilleus’ wrath, with all its implications, begins and prolongs the action of that poem, a poem full of wrathful characters who feel compelled to show how heroic they can be in the most traditional sense of heroism. The Odyssey is quite different, as even the opening lines show, for the narrator announces as his subject not wrath or any other quality but a man, “the man of many ways” (again using Richmond Lattimore’s translation). What we see immediately is not the rigidity of Achilleus and his peers but the adaptability of Odysseus, the man of many ways.” Even more important, we are introduced to Odysseus’ intelligence. He may have had fantastic adventures, but what the narrator emphasizes is how much Odysseus learned from them. As we shall see, physical prowess is important in this poem, but it is far less important than mental ability. In addition, while The Iliad focuses on wrath, destruction, and death, The Odyssey focuses on a man, on his wife, on their son, and on life. The Iliad is an epic because it focuses on a pivotal moment in the history of Troy, the moment leading up to its destruction. The Odyssey is a romance because it focuses on individuals and on fantastic adventures.

The Odyssey then focuses on domesticity. Odysseus’ entire purpose in the poem is simply to get home to his wife and son, as he explains to the Phaiakians in Book XIII. He is just a man who wants to get home. He does not talk about how he is the best warrior, how he is superior to others. He does not boast, but his goal turns out to be harder to achieve than we might expect. Achieving it requires Odysseus to learn about himself, about the many roles he (like any other human being) must play in life, and about his wife and child.

In fact, this poem requires that wife, Penelope, and that child, Telemachos, to learn about themselves as well. In this sense, The Odyssey tells three separate stories, not one highly unified story as we see in The Iliad. If we look only at Odysseus, we miss far too much of the poem. Perhaps that is why we never even see Odysseus until Book V, and in our first view of him we see him sitting on Kalypso’s island and weeping over his separation from his loved ones. Yes, our first view of the great hero shows him crying because he cannot get home. The first four books of the poem, and large parts of later books, are devoted to Penelope and Telemachos and their fates.

We must always remember that if Odysseus’ plight—he has been away from home for twenty years, ten at the Trojan War and ten in his wanderings—has been hard on him, it has also been a trial for his family in Ithaka. His wife Penelope, one of the most remarkable women in all of literature, has awaited his homecoming for two decades, during the latter of which she has had to fend off the attentions of the one hundred eight suitors who have moved into her house and consumed the treasures that Odysseus left behind. Through a combination of wiles and intelligence (and often those two are the same thing), she has managed to preserve her independence, though as The Odyssey progresses, it is clear that unless Odysseus returns soon, she is about to lose that independence.

That Penelope’s independence should even be a question, however, is an indication of how remarkable this poem is, for women in ancient Greece had very little independence, and The Odyssey is full of independent women: Athene, Kalypso, Circe, the Sirens, Nausikaa, Helen, and Penelope come immediately to mind, though all but the last three are divine or supernatural. Nonetheless, the emphasis on women is obvious, and these women make important points not only about themselves but about men as well. Circe, for instance, is famous for her ability to change men into pigs, but (dare I say it?), rather than actually transforming them, she only seems to be allowing them to show their real natures. We have ample proof in other episodes that Odysseus’ companions behave like pigs, which means that Circe is just letting them be themselves.

Kalypso, on the other hand, is really taken with Odysseus and offers him immortality if he will stay on her island with her. She presents a major test for Odysseus, who indicates often in this poem that he is deeply concerned with the problems of human mortality; but Odysseus passes this test without a hint of hesitation. He wants only to be home with Penelope. He would rather be home with his by now middle aged wife than to live forever on a tropical island with a beautiful goddess, which is surely a sign of how much he loves that wife.

Athene, too, is a central figure in this poem. This goddess of wisdom is Odysseus’ protector and ally, and time after time we see that Odysseus would rather rely on the intelligence that she represents than on the muscle that he also has in abundance. In fact, it would not be going too far to say that the poem is largely about the uses of intelligence, which invariably triumphs over the more common male attribute of prowess in fighting. Time after time we see the superiority of wisdom over might. Might is a last resort, a lamentable last resort. Even Menelaos in Book IV expresses his regret to Telemachos over the Trojan War and its consequences. Menelaos and Helen, whose passions stood at the center of the war, have become images of domesticity, preparing in Book IV for the wedding of their daughter to the son of Achilleus, though we may sense some troubles beneath the surface. That modest domesticity, coupled with wisdom, is at the center of The Odyssey and brings us back to Penelope, who, despite her husband’s mysterious disappearance, remains faithful to him and outwits the suitors. Furthermore, even when Odysseus reveals himself near the poem’s end, Penelope has one more test for him. He cannot simply announce his return; he must prove himself to the woman who is so clearly his equal in intelligence. As we will see, Odysseus learns much about himself, largely through his encounters with women on his journey, but Penelope has also learned a great deal about herself during his absence.

The other character whose education about self is so important in this poem is Odysseus and Penelope’s son Telemachos. As the poem opens, Telemachos is about twenty years old. He has grown up in the shadow of a famous father whom he has never known, has watched as his mother has been besieged by the suitors, and has been helpless to prevent them from devouring his inheritance. In The Odyssey we watch him turn from a boy into a man, as he begins to assert himself and then allies himself with his returned father. The importance of Telemachos’ story to the poem as a whole can be seen in the way that the poem’s first four books are devoted to him, as well as in the attention that is given to Odysseus himself not only as Telemachos’ father but as his parents’ son. Family relationships are central to this poem.

 

Early in the poem, Telemachos announces one of the poem’s major themes:

My mother says indeed I am his [Odysseus’]. I for my part

do not know. Nobody really knows his own father.

(I.215-16)

 

James Joyce, in Ulysses, his rewriting of the Odysseus story, refers to this theme as the “mystery of paternity,” but that mystery refers to more than the simple physical relationship between a child and the child’s alleged father. In Telemachos’ case, it refers to his need to define himself without the aid of his absent father, to discover what it means to be not Telemachos, the son of Odysseus, but just Telemachos. This process, which we might think of as the process of becoming an adult, is not easy for the individual involved nor for those around the person. In order to define himself, Telemachos must go on his own journey, visiting Nestor and Menelaos, defying the suitors, and even establishing his power in relation to his mother. In all of these endeavors he is aided by his father’s guardian, Athene, goddess of wisdom, which means that he, too, is wise. Athene convinces him that his father will return, but she convinces him also that he cannot simply wait for that return. He must assert himself and take action on his own. As a result of this maturation, when Odysseus does return, Telemachos can relate to him not just as a son but as an independent person, which is an essential step in growing up.

This development in no way diminishes Telemachos’ attachment to his father. If anything, it strengthens that attachment, because Telemachos is driven not only by what is expected of him as a son but by his own choice. One of the most touching moments in the poem—and there are many such moments, as Odysseus reveals himself to friends and family members—comes when Odysseus reveals himself to Telemachos. Thanks to Athene, Odysseus’ appearance has been altered, so that when he meets Telemachos at the home of the swineherd Eumaios, the son does not recognize the father (whom he would not recognize anyhow), but Odysseus has a chance to see the fine person that his son has become. Finally, when the two of them are alone, Athene restores Odysseus’ appearance and he announces his identity, which Telemachos promptly doubts, until Odysseus says, “No other Odysseus than I will ever come back to you” (XVI.203-04) and the two of them embrace, father and son having proven themselves to each other and having accepted each other on their own terms as individuals. The moment is magical and almost as affecting as the moment when Odysseus reveals himself to Penelope and she tricks him into proving his identity, after which they “gladly went together to bed, and their old ritual” (XXIII.296).

Of course, growing up is never easy, and Telemachos has much to learn. Early in the poem, as he begins to assert himself, he criticizes his mother and tells her, basically, to go back to her room and leave the business of the household to him (I.356-60). He is not exactly delicate with his mother, and modern readers might well find the way he talks to his mother offensive, so we must be aware of the sexism inherent in the culture we are observing. In order to assert himself in front of the suitors, Telemachos, who is reaching male adulthood, must establish himself as independent of and more powerful than his mother. In terms of his society, he is correct to say that the household power is his, which Penelope acknowledges by doing what he says, but which she also laments as she weeps for her missing husband. In another sense, she is proud that Telemachos has asserted himself, though she is sad at the implications of his self-assertion for herself and for what it says about expectations for Odysseus’ return, because it means that another generation has matured and is about to take over.

Elsewhere in the poem, however, Telemachos learns to be more diplomatic in his self-assertion, and despite Telemachos’ harsh words to her, Penelope, as we have seen, is credited with insight and intelligence. The dynamics of this family are working themselves out in difficult circumstances, and it is vital, as we consider Odysseus, to keep in mind the stories of his wife and of his son.

Perhaps we should approach Odysseus first as a son himself, a role that he plays on two particular occasions in the poem. At the very end of the poem, after Odysseus has routed the suitors and been reunited with Penelope, he goes to tell Laertes, his aged father, of his return, but, being Odysseus, he cannot simply approach the old man and say, “Hi, Dad. I’m back.” Although he is greatly affected at seeing how sad and old his father has become over the past twenty years, Odysseus concocts one of his many stories, describing himself as someone who had seen Odysseus only five years before and still hopes for his return. As a result of this speech, his father pours dust over his own head, a sign of mourning. At this point even Odysseus cannot continue the masquerade and he reveals himself, but we are left wondering why Odysseus would behave in such a way. Why, seeing his father after twenty years, does he play a role, making up a new identity for himself? The answer is not that he is a cruel man who enjoys tormenting people. In fact, as we see throughout the poem, Odysseus enjoys inventing identities for himself. He tells stories to Eumaios, to Telemachos, to Penelope, to the Cyclopes—to almost everyone he meets. Some of these stories are told for strategic purposes, because at times Odysseus must not identify himself, but some of them seem to indicate Odysseus’ need constantly to recreate himself, to create an identity for himself, as though he is not entirely secure in who he is.

One of my favorite instances occurs just after Odysseus discovers from a stranger (who is Athene in disguise) that he has awakened in Ithaka, and he identifies himself by telling one of his long fictional stories, full of realistic details and identifiable names, to which Athene basically responds, “Oh come off it. I know who you are” (XIII.291- 95). Clearly Athene is fond of Odysseus, who is, after all, her protégé, and she recognizes much of herself in him. In other words, she knows that his deviousness and his deceptive tales, which are signs of his intelligence because he employs them so intelligently, are part of his nature. At the same time, she is telling him that though he may be great at inventing identities, he is no match for her. Simultaneously, then, he is being both praised and put in his place. He can adopt any identity that he likes, says Athene, but she will always know who he is.

We might legitimately wonder, however, whether he always really knows who he is, just as we may wonder whether we always really know who we are or whether, like Odysseus, we constantly go through a process of reinventing ourselves.

That question is raised not only by the many stories Odysseus tells and the many disguises he wears (some of them the work of Athene) but by the well-known adventures that he describes to the Phaiakians. Perhaps his most famous adventure, his encounter with the Cyclopes, illustrates this point best. The Cyclopes are a savage group who have developed no societal structure. Furthermore, their possession of a single eye in the middle of their foreheads indicates a lack of depth perception, a deficiency that is both physical and intellectual. In order to deal with such barbaric creatures, Odysseus must deny not only who he is but what he is, so that when Polyphemos asks his name, he answers, “Nobody” (in Greek, Outis). This may seem to us like a fairly primitive trick, and we may laugh at Polyphemos for falling for it, but it has a deeper meaning for The Odyssey. By denying his identity, by saying that he is “Nobody,” he succeeds in saving most of his men, as well as himself. And when he does assert his true self by yelling out his name as they depart the Cyclopes’ island, he dooms his men and condemns himself to more years away from home. The point that is made in this episode, and throughout much of the poem, is that identity, selfhood, can be dangerous. It must be understood and controlled. Consequently, Odysseus must even visit the Underworld, where he learns of his future—that his death will come from the sea—and where he meets his mother, who has died from grief during his absence, because he was such a good son and because she loved him so much. His love for his mother, his identity as a good son, has killed her. In short, everything we do, the good and the bad, has unforeseen consequences. The poet always comments on the ironies of human existence.

It should be obvious now that every part of the poem—every character, every episode—contributes to the overall effect of the poem. Nothing is extraneous and nothing is out of place, though we as readers must often exercise our own intelligence to see and understand the connections. In this sense, this three thousand-year-old poem is interactive, as literature tends to be. It shows us the stories of Penelope, Telemachos, and Odysseus, but we as modern readers must put those stories together, see where they lead us.

Usually a writer will help us in this task. A writer may focus on particular words or images to stress a point, or a writer may repeat particular kinds of scenes with significant variations, as we saw in The Iliad. In The Odyssey, the poet helps us by having numerous characters refer to yet another story, one that seems at first to have nothing to do with Odysseus, the story of Agamemnon’s homecoming. This story would have been known to the earliest audience of The Odyssey, but we may need to be reminded of it.

After the Achaians’ victory at Troy, most of the leading warriors had trouble with their homecomings. Many, in fact, died before they could return home, and in the course of The Odyssey we hear about the fates of Nestor, Aias, Menelaos, and others. Most prominent, however, is the story of Agamemnon, who reached home relatively easily, only to be killed almost immediately by his wife Klytaimestra and her lover Aigisthos, the latter of whom was killed several years later by Agamemnon’s son Orestes. (Some three centuries after The Odyssey was completed, the Greek playwright Aeschylus wrote a trilogy of play, The Oresteaid, based on this story. The focus of Aeschylus’ works, as well as numerous elements of the plot, is quite different from what we see in The Odyssey, though like all the Greek tragedies, they are well worth reading.) The story of Agamemnon is referred to prominently by Athene in Book I, by Nestor in Book III, by Menelaos in Book IV, by the occupants of the Underworld (including Agamemnon himself ) in Book XI, and by Odysseus in Book XIII). Why? Clearly this story stands in sharp contrast to most of The Odyssey. Agamemnon, as we saw in The Iliad is a man of force and brutality, but his physical power counts for little when he returns home. His return itself is without obstacles, and he learns nothing from his experiences, unlike Odysseus, whose return is difficult but provides him a vital education. Klytaimestra has hardly been faithful during Agamemnon’s absence and she plays an active role in his death, whereas Penelope remains faithful throughout Odysseus’ doubly long absence. (Of course, unlike Odysseus, Agamemnon came home with a captured woman, Kassandra, whom Klytaimestra also killed. Agamemnon really is not terribly bright.) And Telemachos joins his father in combatting their enemies, while Orestes was forced to seek vengeance on his own. The characters in Odysseus’ household all learn to subordinate their selfish desires to the greater good of the family, whereas in Agamemnon’s household each character operates independently, rather like the Cyclopes, looking out only for him or herself. In fact, the two stories once again return us to the question of identity by focusing our attention on how these characters behave and why they do so. It is revealing that the ghost of Agamemnon tells Odysseus what he learned from his bloody homecoming, that women are untrustworthy. Still the same old introspective Agamemnon that we saw in The Iliad. He contrasts sharply with Odysseus, who learns so much from his adventures, including that he absolutely must trust women.

There is one other aspect of The Odyssey that should be covered in this brief introduction, the role of the bards. There are a number of bards who appear in the poem, the most important of whom are Demodokos, the bard of the Phaiakians, and Phemios, the bard in Odysseus’ house. There are a number of reasons that a reader should pay close attention to these bards. One is that they give us an idea of how a Homeric poet might have operated. After meals, the bards are brought in to recite in poetic form the exploits of some hero, providing what we would call after-dinner entertainment. It is especially interesting that Demodokos is blind, since Homer (if such a person existed) was reputed to be blind. In fact, bards in oral cultures tend not to be blind, but literate cultures assume that only blind people would be able to memorize so much poetry. Of course, as I explained in the chapter on The Iliad, we are not really talking about memorization but oral composition. Another thing that is important about the bards concerns Odysseus directly. While he is with the hospitable Phaiakians, in disguise, Demodokos tells a story about Odysseus. That is, Odysseus has become a hero, the subject of heroic poetry, in his own lifetime. Odysseus, who has been cut off from society for so many years, is shocked to realize that he has become the stuff of legend. So moved is he that he weeps (again). What Homer has done here is to create a fascinating mirror effect, a meta-narrative: within a poem about Odysseus, we see the creation of a poem about Odysseus. Odysseus becomes the audience to his own story, just as we become the audience to this story, which, as it relates to human identity, to the vicissitudes of human existence, is also our story.

Finally, we see the honor that is paid to the bards. Poets love to write about the importance of poetry, naturally, and the poet might well be exaggerating the role of the bards, but it is clear that Demodokos is a respected member of the court who receives all sorts of special considerations. And Phemios, who is accused of collusion with the suitors back in Ithaka, is given the benefit of the doubt and spared. Perhaps the poet is simply glorifying poets, but more likely what we see is how important poets were to the society that produced these poems.

I have tried to make this discussion of The Odyssey shorter and less detailed than the discussion of The Iliad, partly because reading The Iliad is itself a preparation for reading The Odyssey and partly because The Odyssey presents fewer problems for modern readers, who tend to be more familiar with romance than with epic. There are fewer battle scenes, Odysseus’ adventures are already well-known, and the poem is set on a smaller scale. It still has cosmic overtones, but not to the same extent as The Iliad. However foreign The Odyssey might be to us, its domestic concerns, as well as Odysseus’ adventures, still resonate. He just wants to get home, to be with his wife and son and the loyal members of his household. He, like Achilleus, is aware of the dark side of human life, and he knows after his visit to the Underworld that he is fated to go wandering yet again, but we all know that human happiness is fleeting. What The Odyssey confirms for us is that human happiness is a possibility that can be found in the mundane.

Incidentally, for readers who really like The Odyssey, there are two modern works based on it that may be of interest. One is Nikos Kazantzakis’ The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel, and the other, loosely related to The Odyssey, is Derek Walcott’s beautiful and effective Omeros.

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