Sunday, 11 November 2012

Blogging the Odyssey - General Summary

My project of blogging the Odyssey has now finished, and it's time to draw the threads together.

The Odyssey may be the third oldest text of Western civilisation, after the Iliad and the works of Hesiod.  It grew out of a long tradition of bardic songs about the deeds of gods and heroes.  It may or may not have been put together by a single individual, and it may or may not have reached substantially final form in the seventh century BC (most scholars used to think the eighth century more likely - some would prefer a dating in the sixth).

The Odyssey consists of 12,100 lines of stately hexameters written in an archaic dialect of Greek that was probably old even in Homer's time.  Its grammar is surprisingly and perhaps deceptively simple.  The epic contains a single overarching story, told in a non-linear way, with several sub-plots.  There are some pleasing vignettes, like the scene where Odysseus' decrepit old dog Argos lives just long enough to be reunited with his homecoming master before he drops dead.  The text contains multiple recurring formulaic phrases (the "wine-faced sea", "prudent Penelope") and even whole lines ("When early-born rose-fingered Dawn appeared...."), these being relics of its origins in oral poetry.  I have never found a really satisfactory English translation of Homer, and so I have used my own rough-and-ready translations in my blog posts.

Why does the Odyssey remain so popular?  Kids like it because it incorporates a series of colourful and memorable folktales.  So do lots of adults: people who couldn't even show you where Troy is on a map can tell you how Odysseus escaped from the cyclops and what Skylla and Kharybdis were.  This led the columnist James Delingpole to get rather the wrong end of the stick: "The Odyssey and the Iliad you kind of don't need to read because a bit like the Bible — which I also haven't read — you know the key stories anyway".

More seriously, the resonance of the Odyssey's message with audiences in widely separated times and cultures might be attributed to the widespread experience of separation from one's home, spouse and family, to the universal need to find one's place in the social world, or to the sentiment that human life itself is some kind of wandering or exile (exules filii Hevae).  The classical scholar Robert Fagles has described the epic as "something like the autobiography of the race".

What is it about?

The principal theme of the epic is the return (nostos) of the legendary hero Odysseus to his fatherland (patris gaia, patré) and his house (oikos), from which he has been displaced.  His mission is to restore himself to the location - both the geographical location and the social location - where he belongs and from which he is separated.  Geographical and social origin are markers of who a person is: this is why, when characters in the epic meet, they typically ask each other where they come from and who their parents are.

Odysseus' longing for his home pervades the epic.  In Book 9, he says:

          ....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.

We initially find Odysseus on the demigoddess Kalypso's desert island.  She wants him to stay there forever and receive the gift of immortality, but he turns her down.  His next port of call is the far-off land of the Phaiakians, who have gold and silver fittings on their houses and mix with the gods face to face.  The local king, Alkinoos, offers him his daughter's hand in marriage and an oikos among the Phaiakians.  He turns this down too.  Outwardly tempting offers like those of Kalypso and Alkinoos are just as much an obstacle to him as the violent adversaries whom he encounters, like Polyphemos the cyclops and Skylla the sea-monster.


No treatment of the Odyssey would be complete without referring to the Greek custom of guest-friendship (xeinosyné, or xenia in later Greek).  This was a kind of sacred, institutionalised form of hospitality which required a host and a guest to treat each other with special courtesy, and required the host to present his guest with a gift.  This would be reciprocated if and when the host later came to call on the guest.  The guest-friend relationship could be inherited by the parties' descendants.

Observance of xeionsyné is consistently used by Homer as an index of civilisation.  It is correctly observed by Odysseus,  Telemakhos, Menelaos, Eumaios and the Phaiakians.  It is violated by the suitors, who plunder Odysseus' wealth and throw things at him, and completely inverted by Polyphemos the cyclops, who tells Odysseus that his guest-gift will be the privilege of being eaten last.

The gods

Who is responsible for what happens in the world?  One obvious answer is the gods.  With Homer, we are in a world of deities, miracles, omens and second sight.  The gods are in charge; men are subordinate to them, and a pious man seeks to win their favour through worship and sacrifices.  Soothsayers and others can foretell the future from dreams, visions and portents.   Poseidon is responsible for most of Odysseus' wanderings, while Athene is his patroness and benefactrix.   Odysseus' eventual triumph over the suitors is portended by several omens.

Yet things are not quite straightforward.  Zeus is clearly the king of the gods.  Yet, very close to the beginning of the epic, even Zeus complains about human beings blaming the gods for their sufferings when they're really their own fault.  There are other passages again which indicate that shadowy powers above the gods - the Fates or Moira, Destiny - are really in charge.

Marriage and gender

At the heart of the epic is a marital relationship - that of Odysseus and Penelope.

Penelope is one of the more memorable character in Homer.  She starts off in the early Books as an emotional female, and is evidently under the authority of Telemakhos in Odysseus' absence, but she ends up as a much more substantial character.  It is important that she is the only character in the epic who ever succeeds in outsmarting Odysseus, the master trickster.

There is a widespread conception that ancient marriage was a business arrangement without emotional content.  Yet the touching portrait of Odysseus and Penelope, which holds up mutual love and affection as the ideal between husband and wife, is at odds with the clichéd image of ancient Greece as a patriarchal society in which love played little part in marriage.  It is important to Homer that the couple really love each other.  This is why Odysseus tells Nausikaa that "like-mindedness" or "like-thinking" (homophrosyné) is the ideal for a happy marriage.  On the other hand, ancient ideas are not wholly commensurate with modern ones: Odysseus is allowed to have extramarital sex with Kirké and Kalypso, whereas no such latitude is ever extended to Penelope.

We are given other depictions of marriages too.   Part of the reason why Laertes is so depressed is that his wife has died, and we are told that he refrained from sleeping with the slave-woman Eurykleia out of respect for his wife's feelings.  Conversely, Homer gives us depictions of dysfunctional marriages, in the form of the stories of Hephaistos and Aphrodite and (in particular) Agamemnon and Klytaimnestra.  The latter couple inverts the relationship of Odysseus and Penelope.  Penelope is faithful for twenty years until her husband comes home, whereupon he kills her suitors.  Klytaimnestra is conspicuously unfaithful to her husband, and when he comes home she kills him.

Agamemnon makes a personal appearance in Book 24, and praises Penelope's fidelity.  He foretells that Penelope will have kleos (fame) in song in future years - a prediction of the Odyssey itself.  Yet Homer's portrait of Penelope is by no means confined to the stereotypical feminine virtue of fidelity.  But then Book 24 has a number of unsatisfactory features.

Father and son

The other major family relationship in the epic is that between Odysseus and his son Telemakhos.

In the early Books, we find Telemakhos growing into his role as a man - as a prince, indeed - in both the public and private spheres.  He clearly takes after Odysseus - we are told that he looks and talks like him - but he is distressed by his fatherlessness.

Odysseus and Telemakhos are closely linked together.  In Book 15, it is Telemakhos rather than Odysseus who is depicted as needing to make a return (nostos) to his home (oikos) and native land (patris gaia), assisted by Athene - a good example of his attributes and conduct being drawn in parallel with those of his father.  In Book 16, a barely veiled comparison is made between Telemakhos and Odysseus when the former is likened in a simile to a man who has been wandering abroad for ten years.  The same Book contains the long-awaited reunion of Odysseus and Telemakhos.  Homer doesn't make that much of the event, however - it seems to be generally less important than the reunion of Odysseus and Penelope.

In the last few Books, we again see Telemakhos in the process of stepping into his role as the young adult head of the household.  We are repeatedly told by Homer that he has reached manhood and is ready to assume the position of master of the house (at least until Odysseus reveals himself).  Significantly, he is the only person who is strong enough to string Odysseus' bow.

Honour and reputation

It's a bit of a cliché to identify Homeric society as an honour-based culture.  The epic contains repeated references to kleos (renown, fame) and timé (honour).  Indeed, the notion of a man's great deeds winning kleos was very old even in Homer's time, to judge from the fact that the traditional phrase kleos aphthiton (undying fame) has a parallel in early Sanskrit poetry.  Bardic poetry is one way of preserving kleos, and Homer refers to heroic poetry as klea andrón, "the famous deeds of men".

Eumaios says of Odysseus:

          ....He was hated by all the gods,
          greatly, in that they did not fell him among the Trojans
          or in the hands of his friends, when he had finished with war.
          All the Akhaians would have made a tomb for him
          and he would have won great fame [kleos] for his son thereafter.

Yet all is not what it may seem.  In the Iliad, Akhilleus famously said that he had chosen to win fame (kleos) on the battlefield instead of having a journey home (nostos) and a long life.   In the Odyssey, the ghost of Akhilleus appears to give the lie to this.  The deceased don't have a proper, full afterlife in a heaven, or even a hell - they experience a joyless half-existence as wraiths in a shadowy realm of the dead.  Akhilleus' kleos doesn't appear to be doing him much good down there.


There is enough in the Odyssey to allow us read it as a deeply traditionalist, conservative text.  It depicts an agrarian Mediterranean culture based on social hierarchy, the patriarchal family and ideas of personal honour.  Its hero is a battle-hardened warlord.  It is permeated by a sense of needing to occupy one's proper place in society and of attachment to one's native land.  It takes for granted the existence of hereditary monarchy, economic privilege and slavery.  Historically speaking, it may well have been composed under aristocratic patronage.

Yet this broad-brush characterisation doesn't do justice to the complexity of what Homer shows us.  His message is as much personal as social, let alone political.  His themes include the pain of separation and the longing for home; life in a world which appears to be governed by powerful forces beyond one's control; marital love; and the need for a boy to find his place as a man.  The militarism is vastly less than in the Iliad, and, as noted, Akhilleus' desire for kleos in the earlier epic is questioned and undermined.

The conservative values of the epic are subverted as much as endorsed.  Odysseus' longing and love for Penelope challenges or transcends the patriarchal frame of the story.  The slave-woman Eurykleia is loved and respected by Odysseus and his family in a way that sits uneasily with her status, and she refers to both Odysseus and Penelope as "my child" (teknon emon).  Social status is shown to be the product of chance: Odysseus' slave Eumaios is of noble blood but finds himself working as a swineherd because he had the misfortune to be captured by a gang of Phoenicians.  Telemakhos refers to him as "daddy" (atta).  In Book 17, Odysseus, while disguised as a beggar, tells the suitors that he is a nobleman down on his luck.  Class barriers are porous, and social status is a matter of chance.