Guide to the Classics: Homer’s Odyssey

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Ulysses and his crew escaping from Cyclops Polyphemus. Credit: Wikipedia / Public domain.

Homer’s Odyssey is the quintessential quest that relates to our journey through life and the importance of love, family and home. The adventures of Odysseus influenced everyone from Batman to Bob Dylan.

By Chris Mackie

Grecian Delight supports Greece

Homer’s Odyssey is a Greek epic poem that chronicles Odysseus’s return trip to the island of Ithaca after the Trojan War, which Homer recounted in The Iliad. In Greek tradition, the war lasted ten years. Ulysses then spent another ten years returning home in the face of hostility from Poseidon, god of land and sea.

Odysseus’s return to his island, however, is not the end of his woes. He discovers that 108 young men from the area have invaded his house to pressure his wife Penelope to marry one of them. An impasse exists, and it is only resolved by an archery competition at the end of the poem – which then leads to the slaughter of all suitors by Ulysses and his son Telemachus.

Peace on the island is finally restored thanks to the intervention of Athena, goddess of wisdom, victory and war.

Penelope, waiting on Ithaca
Penelope is expecting her husband in Ithaca. Painted by Domenico Beccafumi circa 1514. Credit: Wikimedia / Public domain.

Odysseus’ quest to return to his island and kick out the suitors hinges on the power of his love for home and family. This notion of love overcoming fear and hate is a common theme in Greek quest mythology.

The Odyssey, like the Iliad, is divided into 24 books, corresponding to the 24 letters of the Greek alphabet. In the middle of the poem (books 9-12), Ulysses describes all the challenges he faced while trying to get home. These include monsters of all kinds, a visit to the afterlife, cannibals, drugs, alluring women, and the hostility of Poseidon himself. These challenges resemble those of previous heroes like Heracles and Jason. In the Iliad, the hero Achilles does not face such challenges, which indicates that the Odyssey has a very different idea of ​​heroism.

Cunning and courage

The critical episode on the way back is the meeting of Odysseus with Polyphemus, a Cyclops and son of Poseidon (recounted in book 9). He and his men enter the cave of the Cyclops, intoxicate it with a very powerful wine, then drive a large flaming stake into its eye. Polyphemus is blinded but survives the attack and curses the Ithacans’ return journey. All of Odysseus’s men are ultimately killed, and only he survives his return home, mainly due to his versatility and intelligence. There is a strong element of the trickster figure on Homer’s Ulysses.

It is very important in the Odyssey that the hero’s fame as the destroyer of Troy quickly entered the oral lore of the world through which he travels. On the last leg of his return, he is entertained by the Pheacians on the island of Scheria (possibly modern Corfu), where Odysseus, his identity unknown to his hosts, rather brazenly asks the local bard Demodocus to sing the story. the wooden horse, which Ulysses had used to hide the Greek soldiers and surprise the city of Troy.

Ulysses (Roman name for Ulysses) and the sirens - Odyssey homer
Ulysses (the Roman name for Odysseus) and the Sirens. Credit: Wikipedia / Public domain.

Ulysses is more than eager to hear about his own heroic exploits. And so well Demodocus sings the story of the horse which tears the cheeks of Odysseus and he moans heavily. His reaction to the bard prompts his host, King Alcinous, to ask him who he is and what his story is.

Ulysses can rightly claim to be the conqueror of Troy based on his creative thinking by imagining the idea of ​​the horse in the first place, not to mention his courage to enter his womb with other men.

His role in breaking the siege of Troy is a precursor to breaking the deadlock in his own home. He is a kind of “siege breaker” at the beginning of the Greek epic. His heroism is characterized by these two elements – his cunning intelligence and his courage in the darkness of confined spaces.

This kind of heroism is very different from Achilles in the Iliad, whose fame is built on his use of the spear and shield in single combat in the light of day. Achilles never sees the fall of Troy because he dies before (unless you watch the 2004 film “Troy”). You could say that Achilles wins his Trojan War by killing Hector, with the support of Athena, but it is Ulysses who is the real destroyer of the city by virtue of a new and different heroism.

Just as Odysseus is too intelligent for the Trojans – and suitors – so his wife Penelope is a model of intelligence and circumspection. She tries to avoid remarriage and delays the event with a clever ruse: she does not agree to marry a suitor until she has finished weaving a shroud of death for Ulysses’ father, Laertes. The suitors accept this, but they do not know that she weaves the shroud by day and unties it at night. She is eventually betrayed by one of the maids of the house and forced by the suitors to finish her, although the ruse lasts three years.

The Greeks had no illusion that Odysseus’ characteristic intelligence had a sinister aspect, especially in the way he treated the Trojans after the war. Some of the atrocities committed in Troy, notably the murder of the young boy Astyanax (son of Hector and Andromache), are told in Ulysses by the poets.

At the end of the 5th century BC. AD in Athens (more than 200 years after Homer’s Odyssey), the rise of demagogic politicians, such as Cleon, seems to have affected the portrayal of Odysseus in the Greek drama. In works such as Sophocles ‘Philoctetes and Euripides’ Trojan Women, the emphasis is on her appalling cruelty and duplicity. Likewise, the Roman poet Vergilus in his Aeneid (Book 2) emphasizes the dark cunning of Odysseus (the Roman name of Odysseus) to get the Trojans to drag the wooden horse inside the walls of the city.

Back from war

The Odyssey is therefore a maritime epic to the point where attention is drawn to the seat of the house of Ulysses. The Return Journey of the Trojan Warrior was a favorite theme in Greek mythology, and we know of another ancient epic poem (simply called “Nostoi”, meaning “Returns”) that told a similar story. Even within the Odyssey, there is a significant contrast between the cautious and intelligent return of Odysseus and that of Agamemnon, the king of Mycenae, who is assassinated upon his return home.

There are a number of signs that the Odyssey is a later poem than the Iliad, and not necessarily by the same poet (despite the Greek tradition that they are both by “Homer”). The gods are much less important in the Odyssey than in the Iliad, although Athena in particular has her moments. It is associated with intelligence (metis in Greek) and victory (nike), both of which relate to Odysseus’ survival story and that of his family. In many ways, Odysseus and Penelope are role models of the kind of things Athena represents.

Ulysses and Telemachus kill the suitors of Penelope, Odyssey homer
“Ulysses and Telemachus kill the suitors of Penelope” by Thomas Degeorge. Credit: Wikipedia / VladoubidoOo / CC BY-SA 3.0

The Odyssey also has a more elaborate structure and timeline than the Iliad. The first four books deal with the situation of the house invasion in Ithaca and the travels of young Telemachus to mainland Greece. Athena takes Telemachus from the feminine space of the house to the outside world of masculine politics. Subsequently, Odysseus himself is the center of the poem’s attention as a wanderer, storyteller, and siegebreaker in his own home. The world of folktales through which he travels (in books 9 to 12) is narrated indirectly by Ulysses on his return journey to a Pheacian audience, rather than directly by the poet. This notion of Ulysses as a storyteller is at the heart of the Odyssey.

In many ways, the Odyssey is the most famous literary work of ancient Greece, though some would say it lacks the radical luster of the Iliad. The fact that the word “odyssey” entered our language from Homer’s poem speaks for itself. The story of the Odyssey is a quintessential quest that relates to the passage through life and the importance of love, family and home. Many readers today find the Odyssey more accessible and more “modern” than the “archaic” Iliad.

The Odyssey in a modern interpretation

The rich variety of mythical tales in the Odyssey (especially its wanderings through a world of wonders and mysteries in books 9-12) has meant that the poem’s cultural history is surprisingly large, whether in literature. , art or cinema. Entire monographs have been written on the reception of Odysseus in later periods. When we keep in mind that Odysseus’s name in Rome, Ulysses, is often used by artists and writers, such as by James Joyce, then we have an idea of ​​the predominance he occupies in the western cultural history.

Creative tales of the Odyssey in a modern context include films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Paris, Texas, and O Brother Where Art Thou? Likewise, the theme of the returning war veteran has Homeric overtones in films like The Manchurian Candidate, The Deer Hunter, and In the Valley of Elah.

Additionally, Odysseus likely influenced the early comic book superhero Batman in the late 1930s and 1940s, just as Greek demigods such as Heracles and Achilles help light up the alien background. of Superman. As a human bat, Batman puts disguise to good use, as Ulysses does, and he thrives on taking on his challenges in the dark of night.

But the last word about Ulysses and his adventures should go to Bob Dylan, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016. Dylan has written a lecture in honor of his Nobel Prize victory, focusing on a part of the literature that influenced and touched him. . One of those works was The Odyssey, and with echoes of Constantine Cavafy’s magnificent poem Ithaca, Dylan reflects on Odysseus’ adventures and their immediacy as a lived experience:

In many ways, some of the same things have happened to you. You too have dropped drugs in your wine. You too shared a bed with the wrong woman. You too have been bewitched by magical voices, sweet voices with strange melodies. You too have come so far and have been so far back. And you also had close calls. You’ve made people angry you shouldn’t have. And you too have traveled this country all around. And you also felt this bad wind, the one that does not blow you anything good. And that’s still not all.

Chris Mackie is a Professor of Greek studies at the University of La Trobe. This article was originally published in The Conversation and is republished under a Creative Commons license.


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