Wednesday, 20 June 2018

The Odyssey - A Journey Home



I was sitting down watching Youtube one afternoon and I came across an episode of Crash Course Literature on The Odyssey, and it made me realise that I haven't written a post on what is effectively a story that is one of the cornerstones of Western society. Normally I would wait until I have seen a movie, or a play, before writing such a post, but the only movie that I have happens to be a rather substandard tele-movie that stars Amand Assante as Odysseus, and I highly doubt that I am going to see a play. However, while it has been a few years since I have read the book, it happens to be one that not only I have read a number of times, but I have even read some parts in the original Greek (namely because I studied Ancient Greek at university, and when you move into second year you suddenly find yourself attempting to read Homer).

So, having been inspired by the Crash Course video, I felt that maybe it would be appropriate for me to actually write a post on this particular story. Okay, I will no doubt be visiting pretty much all of the themes that John Green visits in his video, namely because they are the major themes of the book (and then some), but I'll also be giving some of my own thoughts on it as well, though I'll also be drawing on what we had been taught at uni, even though that was something like twenty years ago.

However, before I show the John Green Video, here is a video from another channel that I follow that gives you a brief overview of the story:


Woah, that was pretty intense, and that was just an overview. It's a shame that they don't write stories like this anymore. Anyway, here is John Green (of the Fault in Our Stars fame):

The Oral Tradition

Our university lecturer, and in fact my High School classics teacher, defined an epic poem as being oral in nature, and both the Odyssey and the Iliad fall into the category. In fact ever since I heard that definition I have been trying to find out if there are any other poems that fall into that category. While The Aenead and Paradise Lost have been considered epic poems, the fact that they were written down doesn't put them into the same category as The Odyssey (though technically Paradise Lost started off as an oral poem, it is just that Milton's daughter wrote it down straight away - interestingly both Milton and Homer were blind, though the whole Homer being blind is more of a myth).

The thing with epic poems is that they tend to be highly structured, and are also poems meaning that they are also set out in a form of meter. This is so that it can be easily remembered. In fact if you look at both poems (that is The Odyssey and the Illiad) carefully you will notice that there are a lot of phrases that are repeated, such as rosy-fingered dawn and whiley Odyssey. Once again these structures were designed as an aide d'memoire as the stories were passed down orally and only written down at a later date (and Homer is said to have been the one to have written the epics down as opposed to composing them).


However, I have encountered a couple of poems that may fall into that category - the Song of Roland, a poem about the rear-guard of Charlemaigne's army as they fought the Moorish invaders, and the Nibelungenleid, the tragic story of Sigfriend and his wife (though the second half of the book is basically one huge battle, but then again one could argue that the same goes for the Odyssey). Maybe we could include Beowulf into that category as well, and if we travel to the east I'm sure we can find a few more examples, such as the Epic of Gilgamesh and some of the Indian and Chinese myths.

Poem's Structure

As I've mentioned, The Odyssey is a highly structured poem, and this has a lot to do with the fact that it was an oral poem. Interestingly there was been some studies performed on the oral tradition since there are still places in the world where it is practiced. For instance the story of Haiwatha in the United States, and some of the aboriginal stories here in Australia, come from an oral tradition. In fact we even heard of one story over in Western Australia about a strong, but rather dim, man who accidentally killed a family member and was then hunted down by his tribe (sounds a bit like Of Mice and Men).

The poem is divided into chapters, and each of these chapters are further divided into blocks of four. The chapters, I suspect, were what the bard would tell on a nightly basis and when it was written down each chapter took up a single scroll. In fact they aren't referred to as chapters but rather as books. Each of the chapters are actually a self-contained story, making the entire poem episodic in nature. I also mentioned that these chapters are further divided into blocks of four, which deal with a further overarching theme. For instance, the first four books are called the Telemachid, and deal with Odysseus' son, Telemachus attempting to find out his father's location. We then jump over to Odysseus for the next four books, and then the next four after that is Odysseus' story.


Any discussion of the structure of the poem wouldn't be complete without the opening couple of verses. In fact the story begins half way through, which is a literary device when used well can be incredibly effective. In fact this is quite common in a lot of Greek and Roman literature, as well as books right down to the present time. However, I should point out that it works very well when used effectively. Anyway, the opening few sentences of the Odyssey are as follows:

Tell me, O Muse, of the man of many devices, who wandered full many ways after he had sacked the sacred citadel of Troy. Many were the men whose cities he saw and whose mind he learned, aye, and many the woes he suffered in his heart upon the sea, seeking to win his own life and the return of his comrades. Yet even so he saved not his comrades, though he desired it sore, for through their own blind folly they perished—fools, who devoured the kine of Helios Hyperion; but he took from them the day of their returning.
First notice how Homer opens his story by invoking the Muse. This is a common literary device, and is even used by Milton in Paradise Lost. In a way what Homer is doing is calling upon the gods of the arts (which is what the Muses were) to not only aid him in telling the story, but to do so really well. Then we are given a rundown on the major theme of the story, and despite its complexity, the Odyssey can be summed up into a simple sentence - the Homecoming of Odysseus. So, without further ado, let us hear the story of Long Suffering Odysseus.

Odysseus' Story

Okay, the video has probably gone over most of the background anyway, however I should point out a few things, namely that Odysseus comes from the island of Ithaca, which is actually located on the far side of Greece. In fact is pretty much as far away from the centre of the action as you could imagine. Yet, I'm surprised that he is still considered to be a Greek, particularly since not only he would have had an accent (and the Greeks really didn't like people who spoke with accents), but the Macedonians, and the Thracians, weren't considered to be legitimately Greek (though that attitude changed when Alexander conquered the known world).

Odysseus, as you can probably guess, wasn't a great warrior - rather he was known more for his trickery. In a way he was more of a con-man. In another sense you could consider him to be a bit of a country person, at least compared to Agamemnon and Menelaus who came from the major cities of the time. However, he was connected enough with them that when Agamemnon called him to go to war against the Trojans, he was more than happy to lend a hand.

I should mention that the Trojan War goes somewhat beyond an attempt to get Menelaus' wife back from Paris, though I will go much deeper into that aspect when I in turn look at the Illiad. However, this whole Helen of Troy thing was little more than a pretext for Agamemnon to expand his influence over the Bosopherous. The thing with Troy was that not only was it a heavily fortified city (which is why the siege lasted ten years), but its influence extended over a vital trade route through the the Black Sea (or the Euxionous Pontus, or the Hospitable Sea, as it was known back then).



However, there is mention of the length of the war, namely ten years, and when people are away for ten years, particularly when they happen to be kings, things tend to happen back in their homeland. However, they were determined to defeat the Trojans, and that was eventually accomplished through a trick played by Odysseus with the now famous wooden horse. It is interesting how this event has so come to dominate our culture, with the saying 'beware of Greeks bearing gifts', and of course the sneaking malicious software that comes onto your computer disguised as something nice.

So, after ten long years, they managed to get into Troy, and laid the city to waste. However, things weren't going to go the way they planned because getting back home wasn't going to be easy of any of them, and even those who managed to get back home (such as Agamemnon), nasty surprises were there waiting for them.

Long Suffering Odysseus 

Now there is something rather interesting when it comes to the Greek Gods, and that is that they are pretty fickle. Now, it was suggested in the above video that despite the gods hating Odysseus, they still seemed to help him out, but that is a little simplistic. The thing with Odysseus is that he didn't upset all the gods, just a couple of them - Poseidon and Apollo. However, he also had gods looking out for him, in particular Athena. We even have an instance where Hermes went in to bat for him, and even put pressure on Calypso to let him go (at Zeus' insistence of course). However, since he (and pretty much all the Greeks) had to cross the ocean to get home, upsetting Poseidon isn't going to help all that much, and it is even more of a problem when we realise that Poseidon is the patron god of the Trojans.


Yet it wasn't just Odysseus that had some issues with getting back home, because so did a number of the other Greeks. However, the problem was that poor Odysseus, not only did he keep on going off course, but his crew weren't particularly the most helpful either. For instance, they go and raid Circe's larder for food, decide to open a bag containing the four winds because they think Odysseus is hiding treasure from them, and not to mention the fact that they decided to eat the cattle of the sun god, which angered Apollo to no end. So, it seems that poor Odysseus was faced with no end of troubles, and some of them were not necessarily his own fault.



Yet, consider the other Greeks, such as Menelaus, who was trapped in Egypt for an extended period of time and found himself prisoner of the Egyptian king Proteus (and there is an interesting myth that Helen didn't run off with the Trojans, but was kidnapped by the Egyptians, and the only reason they went to Troy, other than Agamemnon's imperial ambitions, was because of the gods). As for Agamemnon, well, he got home only to discover his wife in bed with some other guy, and before he could do anything about it, he was promptly dispatched.

House and Home

So, Odysseus' troubles didn't end when he got back to Ithaca because, well, he had been gone something like twenty years and in all intents and purposes he was dead. The thing is that his wife Penelope had remained faithful, holding onto the hope that he was still alive. Mind you, nobody else was under that impression, and there was a huge amount of pressure for her to remarry. The problem was that the options that were available were pretty attrocious, when you consider the suitors that is. Yet, the thing was that Odysseus was the king of Ithaca, so of course whoever married Penelope would get that title, ignoring the fact that Odysseus' son was pretty much old enough to take over. The problem was that these suitors weren't a push over.

Yet, it is interesting to note how they had pretty much made themselves at home in Odysseus' palace, and were helping themselves to his food, and his servants, and were even making attempts with his wife. The thing is that they are pretty much condemned for this behaviour, yet it has been suggested that when Odysseus does a similar thing it is just part and parcel of him getting home. However, the thing is that he doesn't necessarily help himself to other people's property, or their food - it is generally his crew, and they certainly suffer because of it.

In fact we see problems with his crew right from the beginning. Well, okay, just after they left Troy, they did launch a pirate raid against an island that really didn't do anything to them. Then again, it isn't as if they got away scot free, and also notice how Odysseus' failure to keep his crew in line ends up coming down on his shoulders. In fact there seems to be an incredible lack of discipline when it comes to these guys. Sure, he warns them, but doesn't go much beyond that.


Before I move on though, I want to mention the Lotus Eaters. This is a very interesting story. The thing with the Odyssey is that it happens to be multiple layers of story with multiple story tellers, and by the time we get to Odysseus we are at such a distance from the action that reality has pretty much been thrown out of the window. Then again, Odysseus is the type of person to spin such a great yarn, and what makes it interesting is that I suspect that there is enough truth woven into it to make it sound feasible. Well, we should also remember when this occurred since we are talking of a time where much of the world was unknown, and Odysseus had pretty much disappeared off the edge of the map.

Yet the Lotus Eaters, despite all of the mythology surrounding it, certainly sounds like a bunch of people addicted to drugs. In fact the description of how the crew decided that they might as well spend the rest of their lives there, munching away on Lotus, really does sound like the uncaring attitude of a addict. As I suggested, there is enough truth woven into this fantastic tale that it certainly sounds feasible.

Perpetual War

One could be forgiven for thinking that Homer was anti-war, at least having the idea that war really only ever breeds war. Take World War I for instance - at the end of hostilities it was decided that Germany must pay and in doing so sowed the seeds for the next conflict (and it was even noted when the treaty of Versaille was rolled out, that it pretty much setting the stage for the next European wide conflict). Yet what Homer seems to be concerned with here is not so much the idea of the perpetual war, but rather that wars never truly come to an end, at least while there is somebody left alive, because they will always come back for revenge. Another idea is that violence will alway beget violence.

Take the suitors for instance. Odysseus returns to Ithaca to discover that the suitors are basically eating him out of house and home, so he concocts a cunning plan to get rid of them, which is ultimately successful. However, the suitor's families weren't of the opinion that the suitors got what was coming to them (even though we, the reader, are pretty glad to see them come to a rather bloody end), but rather are furious that Odysseus dare resort to violence in dealing with the problem (despite the fact that I suspect that asking them nicely to leave would not have worked) that they want payback, and it was only through the intervention of Athena that it is brought to an end.



Consider the other Greeks as well, because Agamemnon doesn't return home to a heroes welcome, but rather to an assassin's knife, and even then that doesn't bring the cycle to an end as Orestes then returns to avenge his father's death, and further is then cursed to being pursed by the furies for daring to murder his mother. Once again, it is Athena who has to step in to prevent this situation from descending any further. The Greeks knew this full well because every time they beat the Persians, they would only come back again to attempt to salvage some pride.

In a way the ancient world was a world that seemed to be constantly at war, and many of these wars were simply pay back for previous wars. Well, when we put things into focus, the history of the world very much seems to be a history of war, whether it be wars of empire building, or wars of revenge. This is something that Homer, and the Greeks, really understood. What people don't realise, particularly those who criticise the United States for being perpetually at war, is that we actually live in a period of unprecedented peace. Sure, there are issues that need to be solved, and innocents are still dying, but I guess this is why Homer has Athena step in and bring about the peace because it was clear that the bloodshed simply was not going to end.

The Studly Stud

Isn't it interesting that there is this social acceptance that men are allowed to sleep around and women aren't. For as long as I can remember, a male's manliness has been defined by the number of notches on his belt, while a woman's virtue has been defined by her faithfulness and her purity. In fact when I was in university there was a movement amongst a number of women to attempt to overturn this perception, in the way that they would also hold up their belts and boast about the number of notches in it.

Yet this isn't something new - it has sadly always been like this. Consider the medieval and renaissance world where if a woman didn't bleed on her wedding night then she would be put to death. In fact the groom was required to hold the bed sheet out of the window for all to see, so as to guarantee the purity of his bride (and there is also the situation where the two families would be in the bed chamber to make sure that the marriage was consummated). In that sense there is always the issue that it is easier for a man to hide his promiscuity than it was for the woman, but in many cases this also has a lot to do with the male dominated nature of our world.

This issue goes even as far back as the Ancient Greeks. Sure, the Athenians weren't known for their human rights records, whether it be with slaves, or with women. In fact pure born Athenian women pretty much had less rights than the female slaves - in a way they were actually allowed out of the home. Sure, there is this argument that a pure woman guaranteed pure children, which was culturally important in a world where illegitimate children were treated like dirt, but that doesn't necessarily mean that it was right.


However, can we actually consider Odysseus to be unfaithful, particularly where in the two major cases - with Circe and with Calypso, he was pretty much there against his will. Interestingly it appears that in most cases he was quite faithful, and the only reason that he slept with Circe was to basically defeat her (though this also shows the male centered world in which the book was written were sleeping with a woman was synonymous to defeating the woman, though this is still prevalent today where men speak of their 'conquests'). Yet there still seems to be this idea that a real man is a sexually activate man.

However, let us look at poor Penelope (and as I am writing this I noticed that I have Atwood's Penelopiad sitting on my shelf) who is expected to be faithful to Odysseus, despite the fact that he has been gone for twenty years. Okay, let us ignore the fact that the suitors are not particularly attractive and accept the reasonableness of what is being asked. Honestly, twenty years is enough to expect that somebody who hasn't come back wasn't coming back, yet the expectation was that she was supposed to wait for him. Then maybe I am looking at her from a modern world's outlook.

We must remember that the Odyssey was the ancient Greek textbook on behaviour, and Penelope was held up as being the pinnacle of virtue, which basically meant that you only ever married once - ever. There was no 'oh, my husband might be dead because nobody has heard from him in over ten years, so I might just marry the guy down the road'. No, if the husband was gone, namely was away at war, it was the wife's job to remain faithful for when he returned home. In many cases going to war was an endeavor that took an incredibly long time - in the case of Troy is was over ten years. In the end, a stable family, and a stable kingdom, was one where the woman remain faithful, no matter what happened or what was said.

Descent into Hell

This is something that appears in quite a lot of literature, and one could even suggest that there is an element of Christianity here as well. Basically Odysseus descends into the underworld, the abode of the dead, in an attempt to find a way home. However, this technique is suddenly used in the Aeneid, and also occurs with Heracles and with Orpheus. Okay, in Orpheus' situation he descends into hell to rescue his dead wife, and Heracles does so to defeat Cerebrus, which is one of the tasks, however Odysseus (and in turn Aeneas, though he technically doesn't count) does so purely for information.

Notice how this section takes place pretty much in the middle of the book, and it is here that Odysseus receives his revelations. He learns of the death of Agamemnon, and why he died, and he also meets up with other comrades from the war, including Achilles (who pretty much says that being dead really isn't all that great, though he was the one who chose immortal glory over a long and boring life, so he's only got himself to blame), and Ajax. Well, for those who are not familiar with the myths, Ajax and Odysseus has a bit of a quarrel over who would get Achilles' armour, and Odysseus basically cheated Ajax out of it. Well, as it turns out Ajax still hasn't forgiven Odysseus. I have written further on this play here.


This idea of the Katabasis (or the journey down) is an interesting concept, and as I have suggested there are also Biblical reflections, particularly where it comes to Christ's death and resurrection. In a way in my mind it is that dark place that many of us descend into many time in our lives, only to come out as much better and stronger people (if we do indeed manage to come out of it - many of us don't). It could be seen as a point in our lives were we are forced to change, where we learn a truth about ourselves, and when we emerge we are much wiser, and have a much better understanding of where we are heading.

This is what happened with Odysseus when he returned from the underworld. It is also interesting that as I have mentioned, many of the heroes from Greece did so, but not many of them were successful - Orpheus wasn't. In a way it is seen by many as a way of defeating death, or at least taking the sting out of it. Death is the great leveller, and the great unknown, and many of us look to heroes who have conquered death so as to allay our own fears. In a way many of the ancient heroes have now been subsumed by Christianity, where Christ has been the one to defeat death, yet unlike the heroes of mythology, Christ's Katabasis occurred in history.




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The Odyssey - A Journey Home by David Alfred Sarkies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.This license only applies to the text and any image that is within the public domain. Any images or videos that are the subject of copyright are not covered by this license. Use of these images are for illustrative purposes only are are not intended to assert ownership. If you wish to use this work commercially please feel free to contact me

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