After reading Homer’s Iliad, Hesiod, and the Homeric Hymns, I am finally rounding out my reading of Archaic Greek poetry. And just in time: wedding planning is rapidly taking over my summer! This was my third reading of Homer’s Odyssey, and my first with Robert Fitzgerald’s translation. I like his balance between Lattimore’s highly structured language and Fagles’ looser, more dynamic rendering.
The Odyssey provides the counterpoint to the Iliad: after the Trojan War is over, Odysseus, one of the Achaean generals, spends ten years trying to return home. He gets lost in various detours with non- and semi-human creatures: witches, nymphs, goddesses, cannibals, a cyclops, and more! When he comes home, all of his men are dead, and he must slaughter all of the suitors vying for his wife before he can reclaim his home and reign once more as ruler of Ithaka.
I had always thought of the two epics as opposites: an epic of war versus an epic of peace, an epic of pessimistic fatalism versus an epic of returning home to bliss, an epic of armies versus an epic of one man. But in many ways, the Iliad and the Odyssey are parallel to one another.
- One major theme of the Iliad is what happens when civilization breaks down in the frenzies of war. The Odyssey reflects this too, as Odysseus encounters uncivilized, barbarian men in strange lands. Odysseus has to use both his brawns and his wits (as well as Athena’s help) to get out of the messy situations he is in, situations in which his adversaries do not respect the laws of civilized humans. For example, he and his men are too weak to defeat Polyphemus and escape his cave, but Odysseus uses his wits to find a way out. This is in contrast to the Trojan War, where brawns are more important than brains. Humans may prevail against one another in strength, but not against giant one-eyed monsters. For that they need wits.
- One of the themes of the Iliad was honor: who has it? who has the most? We saw Achilles sitting at the beach, not fighting because he felt his honor had been insulted by Agamemnon. Was Achilles so honorable that nobody should insult him (that’s what he thought) or was he dishonorable because he was not fighting (what Agamemnon thought)? Homer seems to be pointing to the fact that honor is just a social construction that people can disagree on. The same happens in the Odyssey, in which the multitude of suitors think of themselves as the greatest men in Ithaka. Obviously Odysseus thinks otherwise. To him, even the lowly swineherd Eumaios has more honor than the suitors.
- In both epics, Homer offers a bleak vision of the afterlife. In book 11, Homer visits the underworld to speak to the prophet Teiresias. There he also speaks to his mom, Achilles, and Agamemnon, among others. This seems to validate Achilles’ point in the Iliad: everyone dies, and great heroes get no better afterlife than wimpy cowards. Greek religion varied in its views on the afterlife, and Homer’s gloomy vision of post-death existence contrasts sharply with the glorious afterlife promised in Orphism and some other devotional cults.
I know many classicists argue that the Iliad is a better work of art, but I personally like the Odyssey a lot more. After reading it for the third time I can say it merits a fourth.
One last thing — this oral performance by Richard Dyer-Bennett helps me linger on the words of the epic as I should. It’s amazing. If only he recorded the whole thing.