Tag Archives: Odyssey

Reading Challenge #10: Homer’s Odyssey.

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.

odyssey coverThe 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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Caves, Dining Halls, and Civilization in Homer’s Odyssey.

[Note: As part of my course in Homeric Greek, each student had to write a paper analyzing a key term or set of terms in the Odyssey.  Three of us are blogging our papers for my upcoming blog carnival.  This one is based on my paper, though obviously pruned!]

Homer skillfully uses terms for living spaces to demarcate civilized from uncivilized people.  This adds to the characterization of Odysseus as a hero “of many twists and turns” (πολυτροπος) who traverses and masters both the civilized and uncivilized worlds.

The most fundamental distinction in dwelling places in Homer is the division between cave-dwellers and house-dwellers.

Those who live in a cave (σπέος and ἄντρον):

  • Polyphemus and other Cyclopes
  • Kalypso, who slept with Odysseus “in hollowed caves”
  • Skylla
  • local deities and spirits, including the water-nymphs of Ithaka

Those who live in a house with a dining-hall (μέγαρον):

  • Odysseus
  • Other great lords: Agamemnon, Menelaos, Alkinoous
  • Zeus and other Olympian gods
  • Circe on her pleasure-island

Only civilized people or gods live in a house with a dining-hall.  In the Homeric world, the dining hall was not only was the physical center of a house and the location of its central hearth.  It was where socializing happened, where ξενοι (stranger-guests) were received, where feasts took place.  The term μεγαρον does not refer to the entirety of a house (δωμα).  But it is often used to refer to the most important part of the house, where the action happens.

What’s the difference?  Cave-dwellers are uncivilized.  They are lawless and do not interact with others of their kind, whether human or god.  Since they do not meet in assemblies, there is no need for them to have a room of their house devoted to dining with guests.  Polyphemus eats, sleeps, and receives his guests all in one giant cave.

For Homer, law and assembly define civilization for both mortal creatures and gods.  Cyclopes observe neither laws nor hospitality etiquette.  Just as the (quasi-)human cyclopes are lawless and ignore custom living in caves, so do the local deities who also live in caves.  This is clear in book five, when Kalypso remarks to Hermes that he does not come around to her island very often.  Kalypso is out of communication with the Olympian assembly of the gods.  Like other nymphs in the epic, she is not in assembly with the other gods.  Here she follows their laws only grudgingly.  And both the human Polyphemus and the goddess Kalypso display their lack of civilized behavior by flagrantly violating ξενια (guest-stranger) codes, one by eating his guests and the other by keeping him as a prisoner.

The μέγαρον as imagined by George Autenreith.

Homer uses this duality to characterize the suitors as animalistic.  The suitors eating up Odysseus’ home are presumably civilized men.  They come from established families of Ithaca.  Yet after they die, when Hermes leads them to the underworld, Homer makes an interesting comparison:

[Hermes] waved them on, all squeaking
as bats will in a cavern’s underworld [μυχῷ ἄντρου],
all flitting, flitting criss-cross in the dark
if one falls and the rock-hung chain is broken.

The suitors are compared to beasts living in caves.  The suitors are as unlawful as animals.  They fail to respect their host Odysseus/Telemachos by eating his home to the bone and conniving to take his wife.  Although they seem civilized because they come from civilized families, their actions are not.  Odysseus’ task in cleansing his hall of the suitors is not merely gaining back his own house, but symbolically cleansing Ithaca of uncivilized forces that threaten its stability.

In the first line of the entire epic, we hear that Odysseus is πολυτροπος.  He is a man of many twists and turns, able to function and succeed in many different circumstances.  In the first half of the Odyssey, Odysseus’ most well-known struggles take place in caverns, such as those of Kalypso and Polyphemus.  But later in the epic, his challenges take place in dining-halls, especially Alkinoous’ and Odysseus’ own hall.  In both situations, Odysseus succeeds.  He is crafty, independent, and resourceful enough to beat opponents who have no care for laws and social mores.  Yet he is also tactful, using “winning words” in social situations where verbal persuasion is called for rather than brute force or trickery.  The use of the interrelated terms for cave and dining-hall help flesh out this distinction between civilized and uncivilized peoples.