Monday, 27 February 2012

Blogging the Odyssey - Book 13

First, the Sparknotes summary:

The account of his wanderings now finished, Odysseus looks forward to leaving Scheria. The next day, Alcinous loads his gifts on board the ship that will carry Odysseus to Ithaca. Odysseus sets sail as soon as the sun goes down. He sleeps the whole night, while the Phaeacian crew commands the ship. He remains asleep even when the ship lands the next morning. The crew gently carries him and his gifts to shore and then sails for home.

When Poseidon spots Odysseus in Ithaca, he becomes enraged at the Phaeacians for assisting his nemesis. He complains to Zeus, who allows him to punish the Phaeacians. Just as their ship is pulling into harbor at Scheria, the prophecy mentioned at the end of Book 8 is fulfilled: the ship suddenly turns to stone and sinks to the bottom of the sea. The onlookers ashore immediately recognize the consummation of the prophecy and resolve to abandon their custom of helping wayward travelers.

Back in Ithaca, Odysseus wakes to find a country that he doesn’t recognize, for Athena has shrouded it in mist to conceal its true form while she plans his next move. At first, he curses the Phaeacians, whom he thinks have duped him and left him in some unknown land. But Athena, disguised as a shepherd, meets him and tells him that he is indeed in Ithaca. With characteristic cunning, Odysseus acts to conceal his identity from her until she reveals hers. Delighted by Odysseus’s tricks, Athena announces that it is time for Odysseus to use his wits to punish the suitors. She tells him to hide out in the hut of his swineherd, Eumaeus. She informs him that Telemachus has gone in search of news of him and gives him the appearance of an old vagabond so that no one will recognize him.


We have now passed the half-way point of the epic.  The first 12 books were concerned with Odysseus' wanderings, and the next 12 books will be concerned with his homecoming in Ithaka.  The Homeric scholar Geoffrey Kirk suggested that the poet had artificially lengthened the second half of the epic so that it would bear comparison with the Iliad.

When Odysseus lands on Ithaka, he doesn't initially realise where he is.  He asks the same paradigmatic question about the inhabitants that he asked when he arrived in Skherié:

          "Are they arrogant and wild and without justice,
          or do they welcome strangers and think piously?"

Once again, hospitality and piety are the hallmarks of civilisation.  When he discovers where he is, Odysseus doesn't initially believe it.  But when he does get the message, he is naturally glad to be back:
Then much-suffering goodly Odysseus was glad,
rejoicing in his own land [gaiéi], and he kissed the fertile earth.
Straight away, he prayed to the nymphs, raising his hands:
"Water-nymphs, daughters of Zeus, never did I
think I would see you again: but now with gentle prayers
I hail you!  And I will give you gifts, as I did before,
if the daughter of Zeus, the driver of spoil, kindly
allows me to live and my dear son to grow up.
This passage highlights several themes of the epic: the almost mystical bond between Odysseus and his native land; the role of the gods in human affairs; the importance of human piety; and Telemakhos' transition to manhood.

The gods play a prominent role in the Book: Poseidon is continuing to make problems, while Athene reappears to serve as Odysseus' guide and protector.  Odysseus pretends to be from Crete and tells her some tall tales while she is still in disguise.  She is impressed by this display of métis, cunning intelligence, which is her own area of patronage.

We learn that Penelope has been leading on the suitors and sending them messages, although we are also told that her heart is elsewhere.

Finally, there is further mention of kleos (fame, reputation).  Athene tells Odysseus that she send Telemakhos on his journey in order that he should gain kleos.