Sunday, 2 October 2011

Blogging the Odyssey - Book 1

I'll start with a synopsis of the plot, taken from Sparknotes:

The story begins ten years after the end of the Trojan War.... All of the Greek heroes except Odysseus have returned home. Odysseus languishes on the remote island Ogygia with the goddess Calypso, who has fallen in love with him and refuses to let him leave. Meanwhile, a mob of suitors is devouring his estate in Ithaca and courting his wife, Penelope, in hopes of taking over his kingdom. His son, Telemachus, an infant when Odysseus left but now a young man, is helpless to stop them. He has resigned himself to the likelihood that his father is dead.

With the consent of Zeus, Athena travels to Ithaca to speak with Telemachus. Assuming the form of Odysseus’s old friend Mentes, Athena predicts that Odysseus is still alive and that he will soon return to Ithaca. She advises Telemachus to call together the suitors and announce their banishment from his father’s estate. She then tells him that he must make a journey to Pylos and Sparta to ask for any news of his father. After this conversation, Telemachus encounters Penelope in the suitors’ quarters, upset over a song that the court bard is singing.... [T]he bard sings of the sufferings experienced by the Greeks on their return from Troy, and his song makes the bereaved Penelope more miserable than she already is. To Penelope’s surprise, Telemachus rebukes her. He reminds her that Odysseus isn’t the only Greek to not return from Troy and that, if she doesn’t like the music in the men’s quarters, she should retire to her own chamber and let him look after her interests among the suitors. He then gives the suitors notice that he will hold an assembly the next day at which they will be ordered to leave his father’s estate. Antinous and Eurymachus, two particularly defiant suitors, rebuke Telemachus and ask the identity of the visitor with whom he has just been speaking. Although Telemachus suspects that his visitor was a goddess in disguise, he tells them only that the man was a friend of his father.

The Book begins with one of the most famous openings in Western literature:
Tell, Muse, of the many-turning man, who wandered far
when he had sacked the sacred citadel of Troy:
many were the men he met and the cities he saw,
many the woes he suffered at sea in his heart,
trying to save his life and bring back his comrades -
but yet he did not save his comrades as he wished;
for they all perished through their own recklessness - fools -
for they ate the cattle of Hyperion, the
sun; and he denied to them their day of return.
As this introduction indicates, the Odyssey is about estrangement and alienation, about wandering, homeland and return.  Book 1 doesn't tell us much about Odysseus' own wanderings - yet - but it sets up the central problem of the epic, which is that he is seeking a return (nostos) to his house (oikos), his loved ones (philoi) and his fatherland (patris gaia), from which he is currently separated.  We are told that he would rather die than not return home.  The basic message of the Odyssey is that you can't be a person - and, specifically, you can't be a man - without a context.  This means finding both your correct geographical place and your correct social place.

It isn't only Odysseus who needs to find his proper place.  His son, Telemakhos, has not yet grown into his role as the young man of the household.  Telemakhos is presented at home in Ithaka, a powerless youth who is feeling bereft of his father and daydreaming of his return.  His grandfather, Laertes, is still around, but the old boy has retired and pottered off to his country farm.  We learn that Telemakhos looks like his dad, but he is not yet sure of his identity:
My mother says that I am his son, but I do
not know that; for no man knows his own paternity.
How I wish I were the son of some blessed man
who was cut off by old age in his own estates.
Note the reference to the importance of dying among one's own property.  It is made clear that Telemakhos has a model in the form of Orestes, the son of King Agamemnon and Queen Klytaimnestra of Mykene.  While Agamemnon was away fighting in Troy, Klytaimnestra took a lover, Aigisthos.  When the king came back home, Aigisthos killed him - and Orestes has now killed Aigisthos in return.  Telemakhos is not yet at the point where he can do this sort of thing, but he is told by Athene that he needs to grow up quickly:

                                               ....You must not at all
          hold to childish ways, since you are no longer that age.

Telemakhos takes the hint.  He astonishes his mother by rebuking her and declaring that he holds the power (kratos) in the house, and he tells the suitors that they're going to need to leave the house soon.  He also takes the lead in giving hospitality to Athene - as we will see, giving hospitality to guests is a centrally important feature of civilised life in the Homeric world.

It is worth noting that both Telemakhos and the suitor Eurymakhos separately question the identity of the disguised goddess by asking where "his" home is and who "his" family are.  For Homer,* home, fatherland and family define who you are.  If you don't have one or more of them, you've got a problem.

* = There was no such person as Homer.  The Odyssey emerged from a longstanding bardic tradition, though a single poet was probably responsible for constructing the poem as we have it today.  The poem used to be dated to the 700s BC, but more recent scholarship points to a date in the 600s or 500s.  It may have been composed in Euboea (modern Evia).

The Book doesn't really have any powerful female voices.  There is Athene, but she is (1) somewhat androgynous and (2) a goddess, which doesn't entirely count.  Penelope, who will later become a more substantial figure, is introduced as a teary-eyed woman who tells the bard to stop singing about soldiers coming home because it upsets her.  Nevertheless, we are told early on that Odysseus is longing to see his wife again, and it is clear that she reciprocates.

This isn't to say that the Book has a crude view of male-female relations.  Take this passage, which describes Telemachus going to his bedroom:
There he went, to his bed, with his mind full of thoughts;
with him, carrying burning torches, went the wise
Eurykleia, daughter of Ops, Peisenor's son;
Laertes had bought her long ago with his wealth,
for twenty cattle, when she was still a young girl;
he honoured her like his dear wife in the house,
but he never slept with her and angered his wife.
She brought burning torches with him; she loved him most
of the house-maids; she had nursed him as a baby.
The "him" in the last lines is obviously Telemakhos, but she was Odysseus' wet-nurse too.  We will hear more about Eurykleia later.

Another theme of the Book is the divide between gods and men.  Gods run the show; men worship them and earn their favour through sacrifices (Odysseus has been particularly punctilious about this).  However, it is not entirely clear who is ultimately in charge.  "The gods" are spoken of as controlling events, yet individual gods have specific and sometimes opposing roles to play - Zeus, the supreme god, and Athene and Poseidon, who are respectively working for and against Odysseus.  There is also an interesting passage where Zeus complains about humans blaming the gods for their misfortune when it's really their own fault (this comes off a bit like a politician complaining to his colleagues about the ingratitude of the voters).  Later in the epic, we will come across the concept of a "fate" which seems to stand above the gods.

I liked this description of Athene:
So she spoke, and bound to her feet lovely sandals
of divine gold, which bore her over the sea and
over boundless country like the breath of the wind;
she took her strong spear, with its tip of sharp bronze, large,
stout and heavy, with which she subdues the ranks of
heroes in her anger, the daughter of great Zeus.
The narrative is well-crafted and well-structured, with enough circumstantial detail but not too much.  As Matthew Arnold said, Homer's literary style is "eminently plain and direct".  There is also a lightness and charm about the text, which distinguishes it somewhat from the Iliad.

It is worth noting the early occurrence of kleos (fame/renown) and timé (honour) as concepts in the narrative (together with the opposite concept of aiskhos, disgrace).  Homeric society was notoriously competitive and preoccupied with such notions.  They will recur extensively throughout the epic.