Dead Greek Guy: Reading Homer’s Odyssey

Note: This is the last of the Dead Greek Guy journaling that I did twelve years ago. It’s funny how readings so long ago become important in creating a new narrative world.

Books 1-11:

I have read the first eleven books of The Odyssey, from the Telemachy to Odysseus’ release from Calypso to Odysseus’ arrival and storytelling at the land of the Phaeacians.

In thinking of the heroes of The Iliad and what it means to be a Greek and a human being, I can see The Odyssey as a kind of education of Telemachos and Odysseus, of how to be an urban, civilized Greek man.

For Telemachos, his educational journey involves visiting households of his elders – Nestor and Menelaos – to see how a real Greek household should be managed. His own household, overrun with suitors with a mother who does not have the authority to send them away, is a shambles, compared to the well-run and hospitable households of these two old survivors of the Trojan War.

For Odysseus, his educational journey involves visiting various lands and peoples, seeing how they treat guests, how civilized they are, and what information they can impart to him.

Odysseus’ education also involves his own ownership of responsibility for his own actions, i.e., recklessness has definite consequences, and one cannot blame the gods for one’s own stupidity.  I am thinking of Odysseus’ taunt of Polyphemus after he and his companions are safely in the sea after escaping.

If it weren’t for Odysseus’ insatiable curiosity, he would not have lost four of his companions to the Cyclops’ meal. If it weren’t for Odysseus’ pride, he would not have Polyphemus’ prayer to Poseidon to make Odysseus’ return long, difficult, and lonely.

Odysseus is the most circumspect of the Achaians in The Iliad, but the world of The Odyssey is not of the Trojan War. How does a warrior adjust to peace-time? And with Telemachos, how does a boy, who did not grow up with a strong, noble father figure, become a strong, noble man himself, controlling his own household?

I think The Odyssey answers those questions.

Another idea: The gods in this epic are less like mortal men and more like guides and administrators.

Says Zeus in Book One, “Well now, how indeed mortal men do blame the gods!/ They say it is from us evils come, yet they themselves/ By their own recklessness have pains beyond their lot” (lines 32-34). In other words, man’s free will tends to make bad judgments. But the gods, like Athene, come down as guides, perhaps as a guide to man on how to make good judgments.

Also, talking with others and telling their own life stories for didactic purposes seems to be the mode of narrative in The Odyssey. I cannot help but notice that much of the Telemachy is Nestor and Menelaos telling their stories to Telemachos, and the narrator of the Wanderings of Odysseus is Odysseus himself, narrating to the Phaeacians his own story.

Another question: Does this mean that the more human, or civilized, a people are, the more conversation they have? In The Iliad, there wasn’t so much conversation as ordering, taunting, and blustering. In fact, there was a talking horse. I think the discourse in The Odyssey is markedly different.

Books 11-24:

I have just finished reading The Odyssey, and some thoughts come to mind.

Odysseus “of many wiles” has different names (No-one, stranger, Aithon, for examples), different life stories, and, in the final nine books of the story, even a different appearance (old beggar man).  But most importantly, he has different ways of speaking the “truth”: “He spoke many falsehoods and made them seem like the truth” (19.203).

I have mentioned in my earlier journal entry that The Odyssey seems to be an epic about learning, knowing, and testing.  But what did Odysseus learn in his wanderings?

In Book Eleven, the souls of the dead recognize, or know, the living when they drink blood, i.e., Odysseus’ mother: “until my mother / Came up and drank the black-clouded blood.  She knew me / At once” (11.152-154).

Suffering and knowledge seem to go hand in hand, especially when the world seems to be not what it appears. The death of Agamemnon bears this link between suffering and knowledge: he believed that his wife was true until Aegisthus slayed him.

Odysseus is often called “long suffering,” and through his suffering, which was his lessons of the world as it is, including the suffering in his own household as a beggar man, he learned many things:

1) Do not automatically trust strangers, e.g., Lotus-Eaters, Polyphemus, Laistrygones, unless they merit your trust, e.g., Phaeacians, Circe.

2) Do not automatically trust your own household and countrymen, e.g., the suitors, the servants, unless they merit your trust, e.g., Eumaios, Telemachos, his nurse, Laertes.

I suppose learning to be cynical and mistrustful is an awful lesson, but it is a lesson that Menelaos and Agamemnon learned the hard way. Odysseus will not make such a mistake because he has learned through his suffering.

This lesson explains why Odysseus is so slow to regain his household and make himself known to his family, why he must test the loyalty of his household and family. On the surface it looks cruel and inhuman, but it is not because Odysseus does not feel:

But he struck his breast and rebuked his heart in a speech:
“Stand it, my heart.  You stood something still more shameful
On the day the Cylops with irresistible force devoured
My mighty companions.  And you endured, until a plan
Led you out of the cave when you thought you were to die.”
20.17-21

What is on the appearance is not the truth.

Athene of The Iliad, a goddess of war, becomes, in The Odyssey, the goddess of peace: She comes down and stops the beginning of a civil war on Ithaka.

Is this a contradiction?

It does not seem so since it continues Zeus’ plan (24.473-486). War on Troy was apt because Troy had to fall for its various transgressions against the guest-host oath – not giving up Helen and even fighting on Paris’ behalf. War on Ithaka is not apt because it is a civil war, after the Trojan War has ended and Odysseus, the King of Ithaka, has come home.

I think that Athene becomes a different sort of god when she functions to solemnize oaths which men make among themselves, and she also gives a final lesson to Odysseus:

The war is over; let there be peace.

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