The Odyssey, 10 Years in 10 Days: ‘as a Mountain Lion Exultant’

Odysseus and Nausicaä by Charles Gleyre (19th ...

Odysseus and Nausicaa. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Day 10: The isolated island of Scheria. Who: King Alcinous and the Phaeacians. What: Odysseus warms up for his reunion tour of Ithaca by playing King Alcinous’ court.

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.

Ulysses at the court of Alcinous

Ulysses at the court of Alcinous (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of my favorite lines from “The Odyssey” comes in Book 13. Odysseus has just finished his boozy story. And he is a huge hit.

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 Odyssey, 10 Years in 10 Days: ‘Weeping There as Always’

Gérard de Lairesse - Mercurius gelast Calypso ...

Day 9: The island of Ogygia. Who: The nymph Calypso. What: Calypso’s hobby of beach-combing finally turns up something she can use: a husband.

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.

‘Man of Misery, Whose Land Have I Hit on Now?!’ (Part I)

English: Head of Odysseus from a sculptural gr...

Odysseus. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I am MOOCing my way through Homer’s “The Odyssey,” which amounts to a fairly intensive first-time reading. With lectures, quizzes and whatever.

It is not my first time for Homer, though. I reread “The Iliad” with relish a few years ago, after struggling mightily with it in my teens. Schools are funny places. Books are a lot like food, I think; your taste and what nourishes you best can change over time. But teachers don’t seem to know it.

Anyway, even though I had not read “The Odyssey” before, and being still only through the first 12 “books,” I am nonetheless moved to make a few observations.

For one thing, I was prepared for a rollicking travelogue of gore and adventure. I had apprised myself of the chronological greatest hits of Odysseus’ trials, oddly repetitive though they may be, and was ready to tick them off my scoresheet. Of course, I realized “The Odyssey” is not about a journey, it’s about a return. But what I did not realize is all that running around and waking up in the surf — “Man of misery, whose land have I hit on now?!” — really is just a fraction (maybe an eighth) of the action.

Odysseus tied on the mast. Icon for the Greek ...

Odysseus tied on the mast. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

To wit, consider the Sirens. You know, the Sirens and their “high, thrilling voices.” Everyone knows that Odysseus had to be lashed to the mast of his ship to keep from swimming toward the seductively sonorous Sirens in rapture, there to forget about his home and family forever.

That is great, of course. And the whole thing could be quite gripping, in the hands of a Hollywood screen writer, perhaps. But the encounter with that spectacular choir consumes just 15 lines, in Robert Fagles’s translation, anyway. Fifteen lines! And Odysseus didn’t “have” to be lashed to the mast of his ship. His advice initially was to plug his ears, an entirely more manageable and sensible tactic, if you ask me. But clever, brave Odysseus is also something a self-indulgent, thrill-seeking douchebag, and curiosity drives him to resort to ropes.

Sirens, Cyclopses and the alluring Calypso, who with the best of intentions keeps Odysseus a prisoner on her island – they’re the things you hear the most about. But — and remember we are considering here only the first 12 books — more memorable is Odysseus’ attempt to leave Ogygia, where he was held in the seven-year conjugal embrace of Calypso. Poseidon, the earth-shaker and god of the sea, has it out for our hero: “I’ll give that man a swamping full of trouble!” says Poseidon, a man who it can be presumed knows from his swampings. Homer continues: “With that he rammed the clouds together — both hands clutching his trident — churned the waves into chaos, whipping all the gales from every quarter” and like that. The reader’s heart races. Odysseus, clever, brave, self-indulgent Odysseus, knows he’s in trouble; he even rebukes himself: “Wretched man — what becomes of me now, at last?”

But never mind that. The whole of Book 11 describes Odysseus’ apparently superfluous, but definitely creepy journey to the underworld, where he performs a stomach-churning ritual to summon the shambling dead. Clever, brave Odysseus is supposed to be seeking advice, but his self-indulgent side transforms the bleak landscape into a kaffeeklatsch. Odysseus, always one to enjoy an advantage, chit-chats with a macabre receiving line of Greek’s formerly rich and famous, warming himself in the glow of their jealousy. He meets the comrades who died at Troy, including the still-mad-at-him Ajax, and — shock! — his own dear mother, who he doesn’t even know is dead.

It is all brilliant stuff.

That is why it is a classic, I suppose. But in the journalism business, we call that burying the lede.