Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Blogging the Odyssey - Book 9

First, the Sparknotes summary:

Reluctantly, Odysseus tells the Phaeacians the sorry tale of his wanderings. From Troy, the winds sweep him and his men to Ismarus, city of the Cicones. The men plunder the land and, carried away by greed, stay until the reinforced ranks of the Cicones turn on them and attack. Odysseus and his crew finally escape, having lost six men per ship. A storm sent by Zeus sweeps them along for nine days before bringing them to the land of the Lotus-eaters, where the natives give some of Odysseus’s men the intoxicating fruit of the lotus. As soon as they eat this fruit, they lose all thoughts of home and long for nothing more than to stay there eating more fruit. Only by dragging his men back to the ship and locking them up can Odysseus get them off the island.

Odysseus and his men then sail through the murky night to the land of the Cyclopes, a rough and uncivilized race of one-eyed giants. After making a meal of wild goats captured on an island offshore, they cross to the mainland. There they immediately come upon a cave full of sheep and crates of milk and cheese. The men advise Odysseus to snatch some of the food and hurry off, but, to his and his crew’s detriment, he decides to linger. The cave’s inhabitant soon returns—it is the Cyclops Polyphemus, the son of Poseidon. Polyphemus makes a show of hospitality at first, but he soon turns hostile. He devours two of Odysseus’s men on the spot and imprisons Odysseus and the rest in his cave for future meals.

Odysseus wants to take his sword to Polyphemus right then, but he knows that only Polyphemus is strong enough to move the rock that he has placed across the door of his cave. Odysseus thus devises and executes a plan. The next day, while Polyphemus is outside pasturing his sheep, Odysseus finds a wooden staff in the cave and hardens it in the fire. When Polyphemus returns, Odysseus gets him drunk on wine that he brought along from the ship. Feeling jovial, Polyphemus asks Odysseus his name. Odysseus replies that his name is “Nobody” (9.410). As soon as Polyphemus collapses with intoxication, Odysseus and a select group of his men drive the red-hot staff into his eye. Polyphemus wakes with a shriek, and his neighbors come to see what is wrong, but they leave as soon as he calls out, “Nobody’s killing me” (9.455). When morning comes, Odysseus and his men escape from the cave, unseen by the blind Polyphemus, by clinging to the bellies of the monster’s sheep as they go out to graze. Safe on board their ships and with Polyphemus’s flock on board as well, Odysseus calls to land and reveals his true identity. With his former prisoners now out of reach, the blind giant lifts up a prayer to his father, Poseidon, calling for vengeance on Odysseus.

Odysseus now finally tells Alkinoos who he is, taking the opportunity to boast about his reputation at the same time:
I am Odysseus, son of Laertes, known among
men for all my wiles, and my fame [kleos] reaches heaven.
He gives his address as Ithaka, despite not having been near the place for 20 years (he does the same to the cyclops too).  He then explains how he yearns to get back there.  He sets out a kind of manifesto for the poem:
....Indeed, there is nothing
sweeter for me to look on than my homeland [gaiés].
Kalypso, the lovely goddess, kept me with her,
in her hollow caves, wanting me as her husband;
So too Kirke kept me in her palace, the wily
woman of Aiaié, wanting me as her husband;
but they never persuaded the heart in my breast.
So, nothing is sweeter than one's native land [patridos] and
parents, even if one dwells far off in a rich house [oikos]
in a foreign land, away from one's parents.
The desire to return home is the sentiment the animates the entire epic, and outwardly tempting offers like those of Kalypso - and Alkinoos - are just as much an obstacle as the violent adversaries whom Odysseus encounters.

Odysseus now begins his account of his travels.  We are now in the realm of folklore, and parallels to Odysseus' adventures can be found in various other cultures around the world.  As has been said in reference to the story of Polyphemos the cyclops:
The Polyphemos story is widely attested in folklore....  [I]n 1904 Oskar Hackman published a collection of 221 versions; more have come to light since then.  They come from a geographical area stretching from England to Russia, down to Turkey and the Near East, and also to northern Africa.  (Lowell Edmunds in J.M.Foley, A Companion to Ancient Epic)
There is an ongoing debate, which has lasted since antiquity, over whether the various locations visited by Odysseus have real-world counterparts.  In 2004, one scholar wrote that around 80 theories regarding the geography of the Odyssey had been advanced in the previous 40 years, around 30 of which were illustrated by maps.  It has been claimed that the Lotus-eaters lived in North Africa and that the island of the cyclopses was Sicily.  Kalypso's island has been variously identified as one of the Azores and one of the islands of Malta, while Skherié has been located anywhere from Corfu to the Caribbean.

Odysseus' first port of call is the land of the Kikones, a Thracian tribe who had joined in the Trojan War on the side of the Trojans.  After fighting with them, he sails to the land of the Lotus-eaters.  The defining feature of these people is that they consume a narcotic-type plant which Homer calls lotos - needless to say, no-one knows exactly which plant he meant.

The Lotus-eaters episode sheds some light on the importance of memory in the epic.  It is fundamentally memory which is motivating Odysseus to return to the once-familiar surroundings of his homeland, house and family.  It is memory - remembrance of the Trojan War - that has just caused Odysseus to break down in tears twice in Book 8.  The Lotus-eaters cause Odysseus' men to lose their memories - and this is no good at all.  It is no more acceptable for them to stay in north Africa (or wherever) munching on lotoi than it was for Odysseus to set up home with Kalypso.  Odysseus forcibly drags the unfortunate soldiers back to his ship and carries on with his journey.

The Polyphemos episode is too well known to need much comment.  The cyclopses are the paradigm of uncivilised barbarians just as the Phaiakians represent the acme of civilisation.  They have no communal public life.  Polyphemos openly scorns the gods (apart from Poseidon), and he kills humans in the most violent way before eating them:

          "You are a fool, stranger, or you have come from afar -
          you who bid me to fear or take care of the gods;
          for the cyclopses pay no heed to aegis-bearing Zeus
          or the other blessed gods, since we are much stronger.
          Nor would I, to avoid the anger of Zeus, spare
          you or your comrades, unless my heart so bids me."

When Odysseus tries to invoke the civilised Greek custom of guest-friendship and asks him for a guest-gift, the monster replies sarcastically that he will eat Odysseus last.  The episode also, of course, highlights Odysseus' cleverness.

Finally, we get another sense that events are dictated by a force separate from and above the gods.  In this case, this fate is termed Moira.