To add one’s own puny mortal voice to the generation-spanning chorus that has told and retold these stories is to join the longest transmission bloodline in Western literature.
To add one’s own puny mortal voice to the generation-spanning chorus that has told and retold these stories is to join the longest transmission bloodline in Western literature.
the man of twists and turns
tried and true
full of tactics
that seasoned veteran cursed for so long tossed, tormented so
man of exploits
born for exploits
the great teller of tales
who excels all men in wisdom, excels in offerings, too
known to the world for every kind of craft
raider of cities
wary and reserved
the matchless queen of cunning
worn with pain and sobbing
the thunder king whose power rules the world
who marshals the thunderheads
who loves the lightning, champion of suppliants
the one with the lovely braids
the daughter of Zeus, with flashing, sea-gray eyes
daughter of Zeus whose shield is storm and thunder
Calypso, the bewitching nymph
Atlas, wicked Titan who sounds the deep in all its depths
Achilles, breaker of armies
Aegyptius, stooped with age, who knew the world by heart
Poseidon, god of the sea-blue mane who shakes the earth
Assignment 1: Choose one episode from the Odyssey that was not given a Functionalist reading in lecture, and analyze this episode through a Functionalist lens. …What social norm does this episode legitimize?
A functionalist reading of Odysseus’ encounter with the Cyclops can serve to justify values of prudence and consideration in leadership, even in a society enamored with heroes. Leaders have grave responsibilities; recklessness can lead to ruin.
In Polyphemus’ cave, to the soundtrack of his shrieking men, Odysseus learns vital lessons: First, don’t act rashly; second, never underestimate danger; and third, when resolved, commit to action. He applies these lessons to bloody effect in the climactic books.
The folly of acting rashly is demonstrated to Odysseus within moments of meeting the Cyclops. Odysseus’ men, surveying the fleecy lambs and drying cheeses, propose to burgle the giant’s cave; but our hero compounds that audacious impulse by wanting to wait “till I saw him, saw what gifts he’d give.” He ignores the possibility that the Cyclops would be unaware of, or unconcerned by, the formalities of Grecian hospitality.
Odysseus’ greed leads him to underestimate danger: the giant’s cave he took to be a rustic grocery becomes a trap after the giant shuts himself in for the night. Instead of full bellies and parting gifts, Odysseus and his men spend the night groaning on the floor of a manure-strewn cave.
But Odysseus makes effective use of his time. He contrives a three-pronged plan to disable the giant (by getting him drunk and gouging out his eye), humiliate him (by convincing him that Odysseus’ name is “Nobody”) and complete the burglary that was proposed in the first place (by hiding under the sheep when the giant lets them out in the morning). Though his proposal is complicated, Odysseus is all in, as the card players say. He exhorts his men: “Courage — no panic, no one hang back now!”
Though the lessons take time to sink in — not long afterward, he walks his men into another cannibal ambush — they seem to form a blueprint for his confrontation with the suitors. Odysseus bides his time on Ithaca, collecting information and considering the risks before consummating the awful, final slaughter. Clever, brave Odysseus seems to have learned to value caution as much as courage.
Storm-tossed Odysseus fetches up on the shores of Scheria. He has bedded down in a pile of leaves under some olive bushes. While he snoozes, the daughter of King Alcinous gets divine inspiration — to do her laundry. Like Circe and Calypso before her, the princess Nausicaa has marriage on her mind, and so she takes her clothes and her handmaids to the river, not far from where brine-caked Odysseus slumbers.
The ladies fairly froth with youth and beauty, as they wash clothes and play with a ball. When this lands near Odysseus, he jolts awake. “Man of misery,” Odysseus says, “whose land have I lit on now?” He quickly realizes there are young girls nearby. And Homer takes a brief detour into pornographic movie:
“Great Odysseus crept out of the bushes, stripping off with his massive hand a leafy branch from the tangle olive growth to shield his body, hide his private parts. And out he stalked as a mountain lion exultant in his power strikes through the wind and rain…” Book 6: 139-145
Nausicaa is, all, Now that’s what I’m talking about, and offers to help him. After giving Odysseus something to eat and clothes to wear, they all pile back to Alcinous’ marvelous palace. Odysseus can’t believe his luck. A few hours ago, he was freezing-too cold and covered in mud; now he is strolling through the house of the island’s richest man. The idea, from a literary perspective, is that Odysseus slowly gathers strength, from being a “glowing brand in the ashes” to his erotic, animalistic emergence from the shrubs. And eventually to his holding court and his own with a bunch of nobles.
For the man of misery, it keeps getting better. The king and queen make him the guest of honor of a banquet and an athletic competition. And, far more important, they urge him to tell the story of his journey. In fact, this is how Homer tells the reader Odysseus’ story, in a long, wine-soaked monologue in Books 9 through 12.
He had droned on and on, talking about cannibals and nymphs, and then cannibals again, and then nymphs again. And now he basked in the glow of Grecian civility as sizzling beef joints are heaped on platters and wine is sloshed into gold cups. Nobles are won over by his wit and charm. Princesses gape at his broad shoulders.
If he is honest, he will say it is the high point of his trip.
And when Odysseus is all done with his story, King Alcinous is delighted. He smacks his new, wave-tossed friend on the back and urges his nobles, who already have furnished Odysseus with “robes and hammered gold and a haul of other gifts,” to “each of us add a sumptuous tripod, add a cauldron!”
And then the king delivers my favorite lines:
“Then recover our costs with levies on the people: it’s hard to afford such bounty man by man.”
Scheria’s 1 percent greeted the king’s instructions “with warm applause.”
And, so the king loads him down with loot and gives him a ship to sail for home. Thence to Ithaca and, really, the beginning of the story.
Talking point: Nobody loves to hear about Odysseus more than Odysseus. Death toll: 0.
The circumstances of Odysseus’ arrival are never fully explained. We know that his ship is destroyed after the ill-advised Thrinacian barbecue, and we know that Odysseus survived by hanging onto some wreckage. But our first encounter Odysseus on Ogygia — indeed, our first encounter with him in the poem — takes place seven years later. Our hero is on a headland, “weeping there as always.”
Weeping. Our hero. Never mind that he’s been living as husband to a straight-up nymph (see above) for seven years. Homer attributes his tears to the fact that “the nymph no longer pleased.” Oh. That’s right. Odysseus is married. Clever, brave and faithful Odysseus.
“In the nights, true, he’d sleep with her in the arching cave — he had no choice — unwilling lover alongside lover all too willing.” Book 5: 170-2
“Unwilling Lover Alongside Lover All Too Willing,” I am pretty sure, is the B side to “Get Out of My Dreams, Get Into My Car,” by Billy Ocean.
Anyway, the point is that on Day 9 we have flipped back to Book 5. The goddess Athena, whose pique was what started Odysseus’ wanderings in the first place, has sent Hermes to tell Calypso that it is time to let Odysseus go home. Calypso is not happy. She tells Hermes that it’s not fair. I saved him, she says, he’s mine. But the jig is up, and she promises to help.
She gives him tools and clothes, and after Odysseus makes her promise not to screw him over, he sets to work building himself a raft. The poetic montage that Homer unfolds is better than any seen in a “Rocky” movie: his muscles ripple, his hair flows, he cuts down 20 trees, trims them with an ax, and fits the planks together like a master shipwright.
Thence to the open sea, where Poseidon, looking up from the depths, is, all, What the– Odysseus?!
“With that, he rammed the clouds together — both hands clutching his trident — churned the waves into chaos, whipping all the gales from every quarter.” Book 5: 321-3
Two hundred windblown, stomach-churning lines later, Odysseus, with another divine assist, manages to make landfall on the island of Scheria. He limps inland and burrows under some bushes to rest, like a “glowing brand in black ashes.”
Talking point: Say what you want about Odysseus — pervert, adulterer, ego-maniac — he is a pretty good swimmer. Death toll: 0.
Odysseus is cruising past, and out on his ship he can literally hear the cows. He remembers what Tiresias told him in the House of the Dead. And what Circe told him on Aeaea. Whatever you do, don’t eat the Sun god’s cattle. His men are, like, Boss, look, a good, green island. And Odysseus is, all, Guys, seriously, let’s just keep going. And his men are, like, That’s easy for you to say; we’re hungry. And so Odysseus relents — as long as his men promise to leave the Sun god’s herd alone. This they do, happily. And they beach their ship, meet a troupe of dancing nymphs and have a big party. So far, so good.
Of course, portents being portents, an ill wind keeps them marooned for weeks. At length, they run out of food. And the men grow tired of scrounging. (You can see where this is headed.) Desperate for a way out, Odysseus decides to take a walk to clear his head. And ends up taking a nap, which is always when things go to hell.
Odysseus’ men, meanwhile, are roused by a troublemaking ring leader to break their no-cattle-eating oath with the winning argument of, Why should we starve like animals when we can die like men. It’s persuasive, though; one guy goes to the corner to buy some charcoal, and the rest drive the herd to the beach where they “prayed, slaughtered and skinned” the lot.
The smell of roast beef reaches Odysseus, and he snorts awake. He realizes he is in for it, and like a good politician, immediately blames the gods for his problems. (“You lulled me into disaster.”) But for six days, Odysseus lets his men gorge themselves.
Finally, they take to the sea where, predictably, “killer squalls attacked us, screaming out of the west.” The storm begins to tear the ship apart to gruesome effect. The forestays are sheared off and the mast crashes down, striking “the helmsman’s head and crushed his skull to pulp and down from his deck the man flipped like a diver.”
And that’s the ballgame, for everyone else but Odysseus, who bobs along in the storm-tossed sea.
Talking point: When the going gets tough, Odysseus takes a nap. Death toll: Everyone else.
Day 7: A fantastical waterborne obstacle course. Who: The famous and thoroughly overhyped Sirens; a sneaky, six-headed monster named Scylla; and the sea-belching whirlpool Charybdis. What: Another classic demonstration of clever, brave Odysseus’ headstrong arrogance.
Remember, we are still on Aeaea with Circe, “the nymph with the lovely braids.” Odysseus has just returned from the House of the Dead, where he conducted a grim kaffeeklatch at Circe’s behest, seeking advice on the conduct of his much-delayed nostoi. Itching to be on his way, Odysseus learns that Circe has still more advice for him.
Basically, she ticks off the threats to come and prescribes a simple solution for evading them. First come the Sirens famous for their singing, “those creatures who spellbind any man alive.” But never mind that, Circe says, just use ear plugs.
Next comes a threat to navigation, the Clashing Rocks, which have smashed every vessel that ventured near — except for that snot-nosed Jason and the irritating Argonauts. The only way clear is to sail between two crags. On the right, “The yelping horror,” the six-headed Scylla, lurks inside a cavern “no rugged young archer could hit” and “shoots out her heads, out of that terrifying pit” to snatch prey like an angler lounging in a lawn chair. The left-hand crag is home to thirsty Charybdis, a terrible ship-eating whirlpool. Split the difference between the monsters, Circe says, and hope for the best.
So, off we go. Of course, Odysseus likes to change the play. There was no way he was going to pass up hearing the Sirens himself. And to be fair, Circe knows what she is dealing with in Odysseus’ swollen pride. So, she tells him: “If you are bent on hearing, have them tie you hand and foot in the swift ship.” And Odysseus’ men do. And the ship sails past. In the epic, it’s only 15 lines. That’s it.
Thence to the crags. Where Odysseus changes the play again. First, he doesn’t tell his helmsman why it’s important to speed straight through. Then he puts on his battle armor and grabs a spear in each hand. “I cleared my mind of Circe’s orders — cramping my style.” Odysseus’ blood is up, and his ship comes abreast of Charybdis as she takes a big gulp of seawater — “the whole abyss lay bare.”
While Odysseus and his men gape in amazement to their left, from way up on the right come the six heads of Scylla. Six men are snatched off the decks; “I could see their hands and feet already hoisted,” Odysseus says with a mix of regret and surprise, “flailing, high, higher, over my head.” His ship sails on to relative safety, but for Odysseus, it’s the nadir:
“Of all the pitiful things I’ve had to witness, suffering, searching out the pathways of the sea, this wrenched my heart the most.” — Book 12:280-282.
Talking point: Clever, brave Odysseus isn’t very good at following advice. Death toll: 6.
Day 6: Aeaean Island, with a day trip to the worst beach resort ever. Who: Circe, “the nymph with lovely braids,” and a ghoulish cast of many. What: Odysseus’ men, “sick at heart for the dear companions” they had lost, sojourn in what they believe is a harbor “safe and snug.” Alas.
A party of Odysseus’ men encounters Circe, “skilled in spells,” at her mysterious home. Initially, she is quite friendly, as are the wild animals that live nearby. But she poisons a lavish banquet she lays out and literally turns Odysseus’ men “bristling into swine — with grunts, snouts.” One man escapes to tell the others and, armed with divine advice, an antidote for the poison and his own virility, Odysseus confronts Circe.
Of course, this isn’t her first rodeo. “Come, sheathe your sword,” Circe says, “let’s go to bed together.” And he does! And they do! All of sudden, Odysseus is in a Bond movie. Meanwhile, the muddy snouts of Odysseus’ crew peek forlornly out of the shadows. Odysseus finishes up. He has a bath. And then is served dinner. Finally, Circe restores his men to human form and — sets the table for dinner again! She demurely tells Odysseus to go back to his ship and bring back the rest of his men. And Odysseus, the man of twists and turns, finds himself being slowly twisted around her finger.
He goes back to his ship, and tells his men about the great party he just left: “the feast flows on forever.” And they’re, like, But isn’t she the one who turned the guys into pigs? And Odysseus is, all, What? No, she’s nice. They shrug, and all pile back to the palace. “And there we sat at ease,” Odysseus says, “day in, day out, till a year had run its course.”
That’s right. A whole year. At this point, the bard intrudes to remind us all that this is a nostoi, and not a mashup of “The Blue Lagoon” and “The Wild Bunch.” Odysseus’ killjoy crew persuades him to think of home again, but when Odysseus goes to Circe’s “luxurious bed” to break the news to her, he is told that he has to first consult a famous wise man named Tiresias.
The catch is, Tiresias is dead.
And so to the “moldering House of Death” we go. Odysseus performs a stomach-churning ritual on the beach to summon the shambling dead from whatever arcaded pool bar they have down there. Clever, brave Odysseus, who tells the Phaeacians later that he was gripped with “blanching terror,” in reality indulges his vanity and transforms the bleak landscape into a macabre receiving line* of Greek’s formerly rich and famous. (Oh, really? You’ve heard of me? All the way down here? And what was your name again?)
Through the gloom and insubstantial handshakes, he spies the every-thirsty Tantalus and the always-groaning Sisyphus. He meets his comrades who died at Troy, including Agememnon, who gives him a prescient warning — especially for a man who has been committing adultery for a year — about the perils of trusting your wife; Achilles, who sheepishly admits that he doesn’t know what good all that hero stuff did him; and the still-mad-at-him-for-something-that-happened-at-Troy Ajax. But the real shocker is a chance encounter Odysseus has with his own dear mother — he didn’t even know she was dead.
At length, Tiresias lurches out of the shadows and literally says, Hey, Odie, “What brings you here?” Thankfully, the necessary consultation is quickly forthcoming, and it serves as a kind of explication de texte. First, Odysseus is told that Poseidon, the earth-shaker, is out to get him because of what they did to that poor Cyclops; this explains a lot to Odysseus, but the reader is probably slapping his forehead in irritation. Then, Odysseus is warned, out of the blue, to not eat cows belonging to Helios, god of the sun; this isn’t the last warning he gets, either, and by now the reader knows to expect a barbecue before long.
And so back to the “long swells” of the open sea and Aeaea, where Circe has laid out the picnic tables once again. She has more advice for Odysseus, too, but we’ll get to that tomorrow.
Talking point: Odysseus does not want to go home as bad as everyone thinks he does. Death toll: 1 (one of Odysseus’ men — “none too sound of mind” — falls out of bed and cracks his head open).
Day 5: the Laestrygonian land. Who: Cannibals, again; as Homer bleats, “not like men, like Giants!” What: Odysseus’ windblown fleet, fresh from the rejection by King Aeolus, is looking for a place to chill out. Laestrygone seems like just the place: “a milk-white calm spreads all around the place.”
Uhm. Didn’t Odysseus just escape from a giant cannibal? That schtick must have played well in ancient Greece because Homer barely switches it up here. In a scene of otherwise bucolic beauty, “where shepherd calls to shepherd,” we are presented not with a one-eyed giant man but a two-eyed giant woman, “huge as a mountain crag who filled them all with horror.” Presently, the crag’s husband, King Antiphates, arrives, presumably not too happy about how his wife has just been described. First, he grabs one of Odysseus’ men and “tore him up for dinner.” Second, “the king let loose a howling,” calling the Laestrygonians to supper.
Whereas Odysseus, for the most part, outsmarts the Cyclopses, his visit to Laestrygone is an unmitigated disaster, even bigger than the bloody reverse dealt to him by the Cicones. The giants seem to wreak havoc effortlessly, smashing Odysseus’ fleet with giant rocks and spearing his men like fish. It’s a “ghastly shattering din” of “men in their death-cries, hulls smashed to splinters.”
Odysseus does nothing to stop it, but to be fair to him he seems to have no time for heroism. His boldest act is to cut the lines mooring his ship to shore. In fact, only Odysseus’ ship gets away; as he slurs in his speech to the Phaeacian court: “Our squadron sank.”
Talking point: Sometimes an author just gets tired of having to keep track of a lot characters. Death toll: If you figure more than 50 men per ship, at least 550.
Day: 4 A pleasing, if strange, sojourn on the Aeolian island. Who: King Aeolus, son of Hippotas, the master of the winds, the imperator of incest. What: Odysseus and his crew take a monthlong breather here, enjoying “the savor of roasted meats” in a “splendid palace.”
King Aeolus is friendly enough, and Odysseus, I am sure, enjoys the attention — “He pressed me for news of Troy” — but things are nonetheless amiss. For one thing, the king married his sons to his daughters. But Odysseus is not one to judge, at least not when sex is involved. Before the Greeks depart, the king gives Odysseus the skin of an ox in which are contained three of the four winds. The fourth, the West Wind, is turned loose to push Odysseus home. It is the rare guest-gift in “The Odyssey” that is marvelous and practical.
However, Odysseus’ men, his hand-picked comrades, stalwarts who have fought with him for 10 years at Troy and for several weeks so far of the odyssey itself, now get suddenly jealous of his “heaps of lovely plunder” — in particular, the bulging ox skin. While Odysseus takes a nap — which is always when things go to hell — his boys start to scheme. “Hurry,” a malcontented ringleader says, “let’s see what loot is in that sack, how much gold and silver.” The ox skin is opened, the winds pour out, “and a sudden squall struck and swept us back to sea.”
Strangely, the winds sweep them back again, back to King Aeolus. Odysseus hops out of his ships and begs the king to retame the winds. But the king recognizes that someone is out to get Odysseus. He refuses to help, confirming that “the blessed deathless gods despise” Odysseus.
Talking point: As soon as Odysseus stops riding herd on his flowing-haired Achaeans, they run amok. Death toll: 0.