The Human Element and Scale of the Odyssey

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As Peter Jones remarks in his 1991 introduction to E. V. Rieu's translation of the poem, "The Odyssey—the return of Odysseus from Troy to reclaim his threatened home on Ithaca—is a superb story, rich in character, adventure and incident . . . and making the household, rather than the battlefield, the centre of its world" (p. xi). That, I think, goes a long way toward explaining its perennial appeal, even some 3,000 years after it was written.

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That is not to say that the Iliad, Homer's other epic poem, is not also a superb story: just a different kind of story. If Homer's works were operas, the Iliad would be something out of Wagner: rather heavy, highly formalized, and full of deep meaning—along with some really great singing and special effects. The Odyssey, on the other hand, would be something like Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro: it has a definite moral message, but that message is conveyed through humorous means, on a human scale, with plenty of mistaken identities and other plot twists—and again, some really great singing and special effects. Or, to put it in somewhat more modern terms, the Iliad is more like Cecil B. DeMille's treatment of The Ten Commandments, while the Odyssey has a bit more in common with George Lucas's Star Wars films.

Jones also suggests (p. xxxii) that Homer has adapted Odysseus's adventures in Books 9-12 from the myths surrounding Jason and the voyage of the Argo (which were themselves made into a short epic poem by Apollonius of Rhodes in the third century BC). While there are certainly characters in Homer that also appear in those myths (chiefly the parents of the Homeric heroes, but Circe is also the sister of the king who proves so troublesome to Jason and his companions), and certain of the episodes do bear a resemblance to those attributed to the company of the Argo, it seems to me that "adapted" is perhaps too strong a word: and it must be emphasized that Homer would have had excellent reasons for including such material in the first place, if that is what he did.

To begin with, heroism is usually set against the background of a great war or major battle. Having already used that setting in the Iliad, Homer must now turn to the other traditional setting for heroes and heroism, the long and difficult journey: there was simply no other "vocabulary" for heroic behavior available for him to use.

Related to that problem is one of what we might call "credentials." Tradition had it that Odysseus's father was one of those who sailed with Jason on the Argo: enough to establish Odysseus as a potential hero, but not to prove him a hero in his own right. (The same sort of thing happens to Telemachus in the Odyssey: merely being the son of his father is enough to put him in line to inherit Odysseus's estates and authority, but if he is going to hold on to that inheritance, he must earn the respect of others and demonstrate his ability and fitness to succeed his illustrious father.)

Given that Odysseus was much more skilled at stratagems, ambushes, and tactics than at simple hack-and-bash fighting (at least given the way Homer depicted him in the Iliad), the best way to establish Odysseus's "credentials" as a hero would be for him to do the same sorts of things his father Laertes had done in his younger days, as those are the sorts of things that heroes do when they are not "lucky" enough to have a war in which to prove their merits.

Unlike the Iliad, the Odyssey is concerned more with the individual than the group, and with individuals who are much more down-to-earth than those we find in the earlier poem. Most of us will never be a Hector, keeping an invading force at bay all by ourselves, or an Achilles, single-handedly responsible for the continued success of our comrades-in-arms. But we might measure up to a Penelope, a Telemachus, or even an Odysseus, at least in spirit and understanding: there may not have been enchantresses, magic potions, and interfering gods to contend with, but at least until the middle of the 20th century there were still new places and new peoples to discover and to explore, much as Odysseus did on his wanderings. Our eyes are now beginning to turn outward into the reaches of space, but the spirit of Odysseus is no less comfortable there than it was here on earth: it can scarcely have been by accident that the command module of the ill-fated Apollo XIII mission was christened the Odyssey.

As Jasper Griffin points out in his discussion of the "after-life" of the Odyssey (1987, p. 99), the popularity of the Homeric poems is something of an anomaly: most epic works are popular for a time, then fade away into obscurity, only to be read by scholars and specialists. One of the things that makes the Odyssey so enjoyable to read is that it is full of people that we can relate to, unlike so many of the traditional stories handed down over the centuries. There is a little bit of Odysseus, of Penelope, of Telemachus, of Eumaeus (and, to be honest, probably some of the suitors as well) in each of us. These are people we can relate to: people we might conceivably meet in real life, on the street, in our homes, at school, where we work, etc.

H. D. F. Kitto is right to say (p. 288) that Longinus's criticism of the Odyssey tells us more about Longinus than it does about either Homer or his work. Longinus was looking for things in the Odyssey that simply were not there: and for very good reasons. While it has obvious connections with the Iliad, and was almost certainly written or composed after that poem, it is important to look at the Odyssey as a work in its own right. It is incorrect to call it an "epilogue" to the Iliad, as if it were merely an afterthought, something to tie up a few of the loose ends Homer leaves hanging at the end of the earlier tale.

It is also important to look at the Odyssey as a work of its time. There is much in the poem that we can relate to, but at least a few things that do not sit well with most modern readers. Slavery for example, is something that everyone in the poem (and in Homer's own time) took for granted. Although it may disgust us, it should be noted that the slaves in the Odyssey, especially Eumaeus and Eurycleia, are well-fed, prosperous (Eumaeus even has a slave of his own: see XIV. 449- 453), and treated more like a member of the household itself than a servant in it. Laertes is said to have honored Eurycleia no less than his own wife (I. 432-33), and Anticleia raises Eumaeus with her own daughter and, when the daughter is married off, she gives him gifts and sends him to a country estate (XV. 361-70).

There is also the question of the suitors' destruction. The wholesale slaughter of 108 men simply because they thought to pay court to an available woman, even given that they were rude and disrespectful, seems a bit much to our modern sensibilities. No one in Homer's audience would have given this a second thought: something that could also be said, at least in parts of the world, even well into the modern era. As Homer is careful to point out from the very beginning of the poem, the suitors bring their destruction down on themselves and could easily have avoided it if they had paid attention to the warnings they were given (e.g., II. 160-70, XX. 350-57).

To understand that attitude, it is important to remember, first of all, that the obligations of a host to a guest and vice-versa were considered sacred duties, enforced by Zeus in his aspect as god of strangers. Ancient mythology is full of allusions to the fate of those who maltreat their guests, from the story of Baucis and Philemon in Ovid's Metamorphoses right back to the destruction of the Cities of the Plain in the Hebrew Scriptures. Secondly, in Homer's Greece, the ability of a family or a household to survive is directly linked to its being able to feed itself. By consuming the resources of the household, the suitors are threatening nothing less than the survival of Odysseus's family. On top of that disruption of the social order, the suitors are also plotting to kill both Telemachus (IV. 843) and Odysseus, if they can manage it (II. 244-51). Where we have police forces and law courts, in Homer's day personal vengeance and family retribution were the only means for redressing wrongs. Eventually the Greeks would come to see that this system had its own problems, and to lay the groundwork for our modern legal system, but that day was several centuries after Homer's time.

Any suggestion that the Odyssey is the production of a mind in decline is not worthy of serious consideration. Just consider the intricacy of the plot, the masterful choice of both setting and the point of dramatic "time" at which Homer begins the story, the way he manipulates his chronology so the major characters can tell their stories of what has taken place during the 20 years of Odysseus's absence without being dull or anti-climactic, the extensive use of foreshadowing and symbolism, etc. It was quite likely for reasons of this kind that Aristotle described Homer as the "supreme poet in the serious style" (Poetics 1448b20).

Aristotle also ascribed to Homer the origins of Athenian tragedy and comedy, and it is probable that he had the Odyssey specifically in mind when he made that claim. There is little question that both Achilles and Hector are quasi-tragic figures in the Iliad, but it is in the Odyssey that the norms of tragedy as Aristotle would later describe them in his Poetics can best be seen. We have the noble man, temporarily brought low by misfortune and, at least to some degree, by his own character, together with some rather ignoble types who enjoy early prosperity but eventually reap their just rewards. There is even a double change of circumstances: from good to bad for the suitors, from bad to good for Odysseus. Justice and order prevail in the end, Odysseus is safely restored to home, kingdom, and family—and along the way we are treated to some fantastic stories and comic episodes that Aristophanes in all his glory would have been happy to use.

Peter Levi accurately sums up the Odyssey's merits and attractions when he says:

What is refreshing in the Odyssey is its expression of simple and vigorous human appetites. What is more deeply satisfying in it is deeply entangled in the miseries and dangers of the long story, the sadness of Odysseus and the terrible momentum of his homecoming, lit, as it were, by the lightning-strokes of Zeus. One would be justified, perhaps, in reading this long poem only for its surface brilliance and variety. But at a deeper level the satisfaction of the Odyssey is hard to disentangle from the recurring motifs and images that are mirrors of its meaning. Men are foolish, strangers are dangerous, the anger of the sea is obscure and implacable, Zeus is hard (Pelican History of Greek Literature, 1985, p. 42).

Source: Michael J. Spires, for Epics for Students, Gale Research, 1997.

Overview of the Odyssey

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The Odyssey is the second work of Western literature (the Iliad is the first). The ancient world agreed almost unanimously that both epics were the work of Homer. The Odyssey—the return of Odysseus from Troy to reclaim his threatened home on Ithaca—is a superb story, rich in character, adventure and incident, reconciling reality with fantasy, the heroic with the humble, the intimate with the divine, and making the household, rather than the battlefield, the centre of its world.

What stands out . . . is the brilliant ingenuity with which Homer has engineered situations in which accounts of Odysseus' adventures and of developments on Ithaca in his absence can be plausibly given—not merely the great flashback of [Books] 9-12, but a host of smaller, highly significant, moments. And the more one thinks about it, the more difficult it becomes to envisage an Odyssey which did follow a purely temporal sequence. . . . Consider an Odyssey which started in [Book] 1 with Odysseus leaving Troy. First, the adventures which the poet has put into Odysseus' mouth as a flashback in [Books] 9-12 would have to be narrated as a third-person narrative. ('First Odysseus went to X and then he went to Y', etc.) Consequently they would lose much of their excitement as a personal reminiscence, and of their significance as an extended exercise in heroic self-revelation. Second, once the hero had returned, it would be impossible to give the intensive treatment to Penelope, Telemachus, the suitors and the effect of Odysseus' prolonged absence on the household that the poet achieves in his chosen version. One would not know what the hero was returning to, and why his return was so urgently needed. We would lose the rich and subtle characterization of, and interaction between, the people in Ithaca to which he returns. . . .

Seen in this light, Homer's decision to target the epic on the moment of Odysseus' return is a master-stroke. Far from losing perspective on the previous twenty years, the reader is endowed with a far sharper and more telling focus on it, because the events of the intervening years are selected by, and told through the mouths of, the characters themselves. What those twenty years mean to them is of far greater significance to the plot than simply 'what happened during Odysseus' absence'.

This rich interaction of past and present is one of the great glories of the Odyssey, and is an important component of the narrative's power and pathos. . . . The past [gives] the key to the present, as it does so often in the Odyssey. In an epic of return and recognition, how could it not? When Argus recognizes Odysseus, we go back to Odysseus' hunting days (17.291-317); when Eurycleia does, we go back to his naming ceremony (19.392—466); when Laertes does, we go back to the young Odysseus in his father's garden (24.336-44). . . .

There was no law that forced the poet to stick to material within the traditional story. It is, for example, clear that the poet has introduced all sorts of non-Odyssean material into the Odyssey. The Ares-Aphrodite story . . . is obviously one. Calypso is probably an invention to allow time for Telemachus to grow up. . . . Sometimes the joins in such material show. For example, the tales which Odysseus tells in [Books] 9-12 were almost certainly adapted from the Jason/Argonaut saga (Circe, the Wandering Rocks, the Sirens and Scylla and Charybdis were all probably Argonautic adventures before they became Odyssean ones too; cf. 12.70). The result is that in an epic where Poseidon is the main antagonist, Odysseus' men are finally destroyed by the sun-god. Again, consider the effect of the bow-contest upon the narrative. Athene is Odysseus' great patron, but the bow is Apollo's instrument: consequently, it is not until Odysseus has used up the arrows (22.116-25) that Athene enters the fray (22.205-6). . . .

In the Iliad, divine intervention is commonplace. Gods appear either as themselves or in disguise (usually the former) and are ever-present, helping their favourites and hindering their enemies. In the Odyssey, their presence is far less noticeable, and with the possible exception of 15.1-9, they appear only in disguise. Zeus himself remains on the whole apart from the action, and when he does intervene, he is a quite unlliadic god of human justice. Observe how Homer sets out the ethical programme of the Odyssey in the opening book: Odysseus' men brought their own death upon themselves by eating the cattle of the sun-god (1.7-9), and Aegisthus did likewise by ignoring divine warnings, killing Agamemnon and marrying Clytaemnestra (1.32-43). In other words, the gods are concerned about the justice of human behaviour in a way in which they are not in the Iliad. What, therefore, will be the consequences for the suitors of their behaviour in Odysseus' household? The moral lesson is finnly drawn at their slaughter (22.35-41, 23.63-7).

But there is one god with a high profile in the Odyssey—Odysseus' patron, Athene. She stands by her favourite and guides his steps almost continually, and the teasing encounter they enjoy at 13.221 ff. is unique in Homer for the closeness of the relationship it depicts between god and mortal. It is tempting to say that Athene's continuing presence diminishes the stature of Odysseus. But it is important to emphasize that in Homer the gods help only those who are worthy of it. Athene's patronage does not diminish but enhances Odysseus' status as a hero. Her willingness to help his son Telemachus is a similar index of his value. . . .

This hero [Odysseus] needs more than martial skills if he is to survive, return home and restore his house to what it used to be. His cunning is evinced in many different episodes. . . . Restraint and endurance, deception and disguise: these Odyssean characteristics are shared, of course, by Athene, and willingly embraced by Telemachus when he is reunited with his father in [Book] 16. In the prevailing atmosphere of ignorance of the true nature of things in which characters wallow from the very beginning of the Odyssey . . . such characteristics help to generate a text dominated by irony, pathos, despair and joyously happy surprise (especially in the recognition scenes).

Odysseus, down the ages, has been a man of many parts. But the text of our Odyssey invites us to admire its multifariousness: it is the secret of its enduring hold on our imagination. Howard Clarke summarizes those qualities which make our Odyssey what it is:

The Odyssey is broad and inclusive: it is an epic poem, not in the Iliad's way, with men and nations massed in the first conflict of East and West, but epic in its comprehension of all conditions of men—good and bad, young and old, dead and alive—and all qualities of life—subhuman, human and superhuman, perilous and prosperous, familiar and fabulous The Greek critic Longinus described it as an 'ethical' poem, a word that Cicero later explained (Orator 37,128) by a definition that could well be applied to the Odyssey— 'adapted to men's natures, their habits and every fashion of their life'.

Sources: Peter V. Jones, "Introduction," in The Odyssey, by Homer, translated by E. V. Rieu, Penguin Classics, 1991, pp. xi-lii.

Homer: The Odyssey

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The conception of starting the poem with Odysseus offstage for the first four books was a bold one. Not only did it involve technical difficulties in handling and uniting two strands of narrative, it also risked the first appearance of the hero being an anticlimax. In the first four books Odysseus is constantly mentioned: he is in everyone's thoughts. On Ithaca life has been in a kind of limbo for twenty years, with no public assemblies since Odysseus left. Old Nestor, a well-informed man, thinks constantly of Odysseus but has not set eyes on him for ten years. A long journey brings us to Sparta, where Menelaus tells us that long ago and far away he was told by a god that Odysseus was held on an island by a nymph, without a ship. From that tremendous climax of remoteness the hero must somehow return.

The decision that the Odyssey should be set ten years after the fall of Troy—the figure strongly recalling the ten years of war at Troy which have elapsed before the Iliad—meant that most of Odysseus' adventures would have to be told retrospectively. It would be highly anti-climactic to narrate all that after the killing of the Suitors and the dissipating of tension, so a place needed to be found where the stories could be unpacked at leisure. . . .

The Phaeacians provide the setting for the tales. They are men, but remote from ordinary humanity and close to the gods: they serve as a transition between the fantasy world of the tales and the human world of Ithaca. The poet is explicit about their early history and also about the reason why there are no marvellous Phaeacian ships to bring home shipwrecked mariners nowadays: that may suggest that they are largely the poet's own creation. . . .

The adventures are in themselves timeless and placeless, belonging to Sinbad the Sailor as much as to Odysseus. Somehow they have become attached to the name of one of the heroes who fought at Troy, in a definite historical context. An effort has been made to arrange them in a coherent and morally intelligible order, especially in terms of obedience to the gods and resolute endurance. Apart from their intrinsic interest, they are needed in order to keep the Odysseus of Books Thirteen to Twenty-One, who does very little that is heroic, accepts humiliations, and at moments looks like a real beggar than a hero, in our minds as a man of truly great deeds. . . .

The whole poem is pervaded and held together by a very explicit theory of justice and of divine behaviour. . . . Zeus is ultimately responsible for the protection of the helpless, beggars and suppliants and good kings in distress. All that happens in the Odyssey is, as far as possible, made to illustrate that conception. Sinners are, in the end, punished; die final triumph of Odysseus is a triumph for goodness over evil. . . .

All serious poetry of early Greece involves the gods. The presence of the divine agents, visibly at work in what happens, enables the poet to show the meaning of events and the nature of the world. . . . But the divine cast-list [in the Odyssey ] is considerably less extensive, with a number of the great gods of the Iliad barely appearing, such as Hera, Apollo, Artemis, and Hephaestus, and no more lively scenes of divine dissension. Poseidon does not want Odysseus to get home, and so the subject is simply not raised among the gods until a day comes when he is away (Book One); and when Odysseus says to Athena that he was not aware of any help from her on his perilous journey, she replies that she did not want to fight with Poseidon her uncle.

Fewer gods, then, appear, and they do not behave in the old turbulent manner. The frivolity of the gods, indeed, is now concentrated in the story which Demodocus sings to the Phaeacians: . . . again with Ares and Aphrodite in an undignified role. . . . [The] tale is a variation on the central theme of the Odyssey, a wife's chastity menaced in the absence of her husband. On earth that ends in tragedy, whether she yields like the guilty wife of Agamemnon or resists like the virtuous Penelope; in heaven there is temporary embarrassment, laughter, and the adulterous pair go off to their separate cult centres and resume their existence of splendour. . . . But the gods draw the same moral from this story as men draw from the destruction of the Suitors: "Ill deeds come to no good." (8.329). . . .

The Odyssey is . . . a poem of wide interests and sympathies. Animals, servants, exotic foreigners, craftsmen, beggars, women: all are objects of its curiosity. It is no good to be a modest vagrant (17.577); it is better to beg in the town than in the country (17.18); outdoor servants like to talk face to face with the mistress and hear her news, and have a meal, and go off with a present (15.376-8). Such humble truths interest the poet of the Odyssey. . . .

In the Odyssey the individual stands against the group, Odysseus against his insubordinate sailors, Telemachus and Penelope and Odysseus in turn against the Suitors. When Odysseus is alone among the Phaeacians we see the same pattern, though with less hostility: the isolated individual with no resource but his wits, confronting a self-confident and homogeneous mass. It is not an accident that the Suitors remain so little individualised.

Not only is it now one against many: in this world the hero must contend not only with his equals but also with turbulent inferiors. Odysseus' sailors are mutinous, and they find a ring-leader in Odysseus' kinsman Eurylochus (10.429ff., 12.278ff), apart from their disastrous action, caused by jealousy, of opening the bag of the winds (10.34-55). . . . [In his false tales,] Odysseus may claim to be the illegitimate son of a wealthy man, exluded from inheriting by his legitimate brothers at the old man's death (14.199-215), or even a man who was in bad odour with a great chief because he insisted on leading his own contingent rather than subordinating himself, who was consequently treated unfairly in the division of booty, and who avenged himself by killing the chiefs son. . . . (13.256-68). These stories of Odysseus are close to real life and the events of the stormy archaic period; there is little high-flown heroism about them. . . .

In such a world loyalty is a treasured quality. Some of Odysseus' servants are faithful, and they are rewarded. Others are disloyal. The maidservants are hanged, Melanthius the goatherd comes to a sticky end. The fidelity of Odysseus' wife is crucial to the story, and the contrast between her and the disloyal wife of Agamemnon is repeatedly emphasised. . . .

The plot of the Odyssey [creates] a tension between two types of heroism: the dashing Hiadic fighter like Achilles, pitted against other heroes in equal battle, and the wily opponent of giants and witches, who must use guile against overwhelming force and impossible odds. Achilles chooses a glorious death at Troy rather than long life without fame, but Odysseus will die in his bed, a very gentle death in sleek old age. To reach that goal he must show himself a survivor, prepared to beg, to use guile, to accept humiliations, to conceal his feelings. . . .

In all these ways, the attitude to property, to food, to telling the truth, Odysseus stands closer to the common attitudes of men. He is brave and he has fought well in battle, but he is more at home in night expeditions, ambushes, stratagems. He finds himself in situations in which Achilles cannot be imagined: you simply cannot be Achilles in the cave of a Cyclops. The heroism of Achilles represents the highest flight of the heroic which early Greece could imagine, living for glory and accepting death. Odysseus is not just less heroic than that; he also has human attachments of a sort which Achilles does not. . . .

Odysseus is forced to learn the power of self-control, to keep silent and not go in for easy heroism. He fails once, early in his adventures, at the end of the ordeal with the Cyclops. Having kept his nerve and his self-possession, remembered to give a false name instead of his real one, remembered that it will not do to attack the sleeping monster and kill him with his sword—that would be heroic, but they would all be doomed without the power to roll away the mighty stone—and having kept his men up to the mark in the act of blinding the monster, he yields to a temptation of heroism in revealing his own name as a shout of triumph. That was a disastrous mistake, and we do not see him repeat it. In his own house he endures in silence, accepts insults without immediate response, and bides his time, even watching Penelope weep while appearing unmoved (19.209ff). . . .
The power to conceal one's feelings is important in a world full of treachery and hostility. But for those who, in such a world, show themselves worthy to be trusted, the response is warmly emotional. . . . At last the ice can melt, as it does again in the meeting and embrace between husband and wife in [Book 23]. Fidelity is rewarded, and the guard finally can be lowered. Still there lie perils ahead, but the ultimate outcome will be happy, with gods benevolent and love restored in the family and prosperity among their people. . . . From the narration of suffering we are to draw serenity: the gods devise disasters, Odysseus is told, that there may be song among men (8.579), and to listen to that sad song gives delight. Listen and learn, Penelope was told: the gods bring unhappiness on many others besides you (1.353-5). In the end Odysseus and Penelope have learned that hard lesson. Life is full of unhappiness, but that is what is transmuted into song. They achieve harmony with that process and learn, as we are to learn, the lesson of the Odyssey.

Source: Jasper Griffin, in Homer: The Odyssey, Cambridge University Press, 1987, pp. 47-98.

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Critical Overview