Monday, 31 October 2011

Blogging the Odyssey - Book 5

As usual, we start with the Sparknotes summary:

All the gods except Poseidon gather again on Mount Olympus to discuss Odysseus’s fate. Athena’s speech in support of the hero prevails on Zeus to intervene. Hermes, messenger of the gods, is sent to Calypso’s island to tell her that Odysseus must at last be allowed to leave so he can return home. In reply, Calypso delivers an impassioned indictment of the male gods and their double standards. She complains that they are allowed to take mortal lovers while the affairs of the female gods must always be frustrated. In the end, she submits to the supreme will of Zeus. By now, Odysseus alone remains of the contingent that he led at Troy; his crew and the other boats in his force were all destroyed during his journeys. Calypso helps him build a new boat and stocks it with provisions from her island. With sadness, she watches as the object of her love sails away.

After eighteen days at sea, Odysseus spots Scheria, the island of the Phaeacians, his next destination appointed by the gods. Just then, Poseidon, returning from a trip to the land of the Ethiopians, spots him and realizes what the other gods have done in his absence. Poseidon stirs up a storm, which nearly drags Odysseus under the sea, but the goddess Ino comes to his rescue. She gives him a veil that keeps him safe after his ship is wrecked. Athena too comes to his rescue as he is tossed back and forth, now out to the deep sea, now against the jagged rocks of the coast. Finally, a river up the coast of the island answers Odysseus’s prayers and allows him to swim into its waters. He throws his protective veil back into the water as Ino had commanded him to do and walks inland to rest in the safe cover of a forest.

Zeus decides that it is time for Odysseus to go home, and sends Hermes to tell Kalypso to let him go.  Kalypso entertains Hermes hospitably and reluctantly obeys his orders.  Kalypso is a nymph who lives on a desert island (called Ogygia) and is keeping Odysseus there.  Odysseus has become her lover, but the romance appears to have gone out of their relationship, and at this point the hero is spending most of his time sitting on the seashore and crying.

Ogygia is no place for Odysseus, and Kalypso is no fit partner for him.  The island is a remote and exotic place, and Kalypso is a goddess.  She and Odysseus even eat different food - she dines on nectar and ambrosia, the food of the gods, while he eats normal human victuals.  She makes it clear that immortality is on offer for him if he stays with her, but that isn't what he wants or needs.  He is upset at being detained from going home, and he immediately suspects a trick when Kalypso tells him that he is free to go.  This and the next few Books will depict Odysseus in a variety of different and unsuitable locations, until eventually he is able to go back to the place and the social environment where he belongs.

We are given something of an insight into Kalypso and Odysseus' relationship by this remarkable passage, in which the goddess laments the hero's impending departure:
"If you knew in your mind how many woes you were
fated to suffer before reaching your homeland [patrida gaian],
you would stay here with me and live here as your home,
and you would be immortal, though you desire to see
your wife, whom you are always longing for every day.
I trust, indeed, that I am no worse than she is
in figure or statute, since it is not likely
that mortals rival gods in figure or beauty."
Clever Odysseus then answered her, and he said:
"Queen goddess, do not be angry; indeed I know
full well that to you thoughtful Penelope is
inferior in beauty, and she looks smaller:
she is mortal, and you are divine and ageless.
But yet I wish and I yearn every single day
to go home and to see the day of my return...."
So he spoke; and the sun set and the darkness fell.
They went to a corner of the hollow cave and
took pleasure in love, lingering beside each other.
Samuel Butler, who thought that the Odyssey had been written by a young woman, said: "Calypso's jealousy of Penelope is too prettily done for a man.  A man would be sure to overdo it."  Be that as it may, Odysseus' desire to return home to Penelope - which is certainly sincere - is easier to square with his willingness to carry on shagging a beautiful goddess in the meantime within the framework of Homeric morality and culture than it is with modern ideas of fidelity.  At this point, incidentally, Odysseus has already slept with another female character, Kirke, whom we will meet in Book 10.

Kalypso is right: Odysseus is indeed in for a rough time before he reaches safety.  Poseidon whips up a storm which Odysseus narrowly survives with a little help from the other gods.  The danger of the storm and the helplessness of Odysseus are evident in the narrative.  It will be several Books before we learn exactly why Poseidon has such anger for Odysseus.

It's worth noting that the importance of kleos (renown) features again in this Book.  Odysseus wishes that he had died at Troy and won the kleos that would have gone with such a death.

The power of the gods is very evident in this Book, both the malign power of Poseidon and the benevolent power of Athene and the other divinities who take Odysseus' side.  But it is not made entirely clear how the divine realm works.  To be sure, it is clear that Zeus rules over the other gods.  Yet Zeus also declares that Odysseus will come home with his ship and laden with treasures - and this is not what happens, since Poseidon is still able to make sure that he is shipwrecked as he tries to return.  Odysseus is then helped by Athene, the demigoddess Ino and an unnamed river god.  More enigmatically, as Hermes is explaining Zeus's orders to Kalypso, he remarks that it is not Odysseus' fate (aisa, moira) to die with Kalypso, but to return home to Ithaka.  Is there, then, a power which rules over even Zeus?