Nonrestrictive Clauses I Have Loved, Homeric Edition

Libia, Cirene (sito archeologico), Tempio di Zeus

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Odysseus,

the man of twists and turns

long deprived

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

Penelope,

wary and reserved

the matchless queen of cunning

worn with pain and sobbing

Zeus,

the thunder king whose power rules the world

who marshals the thunderheads

who loves the lightning, champion of suppliants

Athena,

the one with the lovely braids

bright-eyed Pallas

the daughter of Zeus, with flashing, sea-gray eyes

daughter of Zeus whose shield is storm and thunder

…Postscript

Calypso, the bewitching nymph

Atlas, wicked Titan who sounds the deep in all its depths

Mentes, lord of the Taphian men who love their oars

Red-haired Menelaus, of all the bronze-armored Achaens the last man back

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

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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.

The Odyssey, 10 Years in 10 Days: ‘the Feast Flows on Forever’

Hubert Maurer, Circe and Odysseus, Kunsthistor...

Circe with Odysseus, left. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.”

Tiresias appears to Ulysses during the sacrificing

Tiresias with Odysseus, right. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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).

* Tyro, daughter of Salmoneus (Sisyphus’ brother) and occasional lover of Poseidon; the Amazon warrior Antiope, daughter of Ares; Alcmena, mother of Heracles (Hercules); Megara, oldest daughter of King Creon of Thebes; Epicaste, mother of Oedipus; Chloris, wife of King Neleus of Pylos; Leda, mother of Helen (yes, that Helen); Iphimedeia, another occasional lover of Poseidon; Phaedra, daughter of King Minos of Crete; Procris, daughter of King Erechtheus of Athens; Ariadne, another daughter of King Minos of Crete; Clymene, perhaps the wife of the Titan Iapetus; Maera, perhaps the daughter of Atlas; Eriphyle, daughter of the Argonaut Talaus; Patroclus, boyfriend of Achilles; Antilochus, son of King Nestor of Pylos; King Minos of Crete; the well-known hunter Orion; the giant Tityus, son of Zeus; and, finally, Heracles himself.

The Odyssey, 10 Years in 10 Days: ‘and the Broiling Eyeball Burst’

Illustration from Schwab, Gustav: “Sagen des K...

Polyphemus, getting his drunk on.(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Day 3: The wild, uncultivated land of the “high and mighty Cyclops.” Who: This is where things get good. Cyclopses are giant, one-eyed “lawless brutes.” What: Odysseus and his men barge into the high mountain cave of Polyphemus, the Cyclops son of Poseidon himself; gruesome high jinks ensue.

Our heroes are expecting to cheerfully greet Mr. Polyphemus and enjoy his hospitality, according to the Greek tradition of xenia. Polyphemus arrives presently, “a man-mountain rearing head and shoulders over the world,” but is apparently unaware of, or unconcerned about, Greek customs. He answers Odysseus’ obsequious request for a guest-gift by grabbing two men: “Rapping them on the ground, he knocked them dead like pups.” Brains gush everywhere; all of a sudden, Odysseus is in a Tarantino movie.

Polyphemus ends up eating four more men before Odysseus, the man of twists and turns, can contrive a theatrical ruse for getting away.

  • Step 1, Get the giant drunk. Sleep “overwhelmed him now, as wine came spurting, flooding up from his gullet with chunks of human flesh — he vomited, blind drunk.”
  • Step 2, Use the giant’s own walking stick to gouge out his only eye. “So we seized our stake with its fiery tip, and bored it round and round in the giant’s eye.”
  • Step 3, Convince the now-howling simpleton your name is Nobody, so when he cries for help, he sounds like an idiot. “Nobody’s killing me now!”
  • Step 4, Elude the whimpering, blinded beast by hiding among his sheep. “The idiot never sensed my men were trussed up under their thick fleecy ribs.”
  • …Oh, wait. There’s a Step 5? Yeah. Brag about it like a jerk just as your ship is about to get away. “So I called back to the Cyclops, stinging taunts…”

This is perhaps the most gruesome, and entertaining, part of the first half the book. Where else can you get passages like this? “…And the broiling eyeball burst — its crackling roots blazed and hissed.” It also is a timely demonstration of Odysseus’ arrogance, lest we forget who is to blame for the debacle on Ismarus.

Angered by the taunts, Polyphemus nearly swamps Odysseus’ little fleet by chucking part of the mountain at him. But our hero keeps jawing, even as his men plead, “Why rile the beast again?” Polyphemus gets the last word, though; he tattles on our heroes to his father, Poseidon, setting in motion the divine forces that conspire to keep Odysseus away from home.

Talking point: Odysseus is a dick. Death toll: 6.

‘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.