The Odyssey, 10 Years in 10 Days: He Whom ‘the Blessed Deathless Gods Despise’

 

Aeolus, keeper of the winds (digital enhanceme...

King Aeolus. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

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.

 

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The Odyssey, 10 Years in 10 Days: ‘Blow on Mortal Blow’

Day 1: City of Ismarus. Who: The Cicones, ordinary Greeks who are minding their ordinary business. What: Odysseus and the flowing-haired Achaeans, in a fleet of 12 ships fresh from the victory Troy, land out of the blue and sack the city.

It’s an appalling orgy of sex and violence that Homer dispenses with in not quite two lines: “There I sacked the city, killed the men, but as for the wives and plunder, that rich haul we dragged away from the place.” It is a fine introduction to our hero. Apparently, to Odysseus, raping and pillaging is just what you do when you are on your way home.

Unfortunately, the quick and easy success makes Odysseus’ men loath to leave — “there was too much wine to swill,” as Homer puts it. And as will happen time and again, clever, brave Odysseus is nowhere near clever or brave enough to shift the wine-soaked Achaeans off their duffs and into their ships. This gives the Cicones time to rally a counterattack — which is astoundingly successful.

In other words, lounging around after an easy victory is probably the ancient equivalent of teenagers’ posting videos of a petty crime on Facebook.

In a furious clash, Odysseus and his men are routed from the city — “me and my comrades doomed to suffer blow on mortal blow” — beaten to their ships and are lucky to escape with (most of) their flowing hairs intact.

Talking point: It should have been a slam dunk, as far as city-sackings go, but poor leadership leads to disaster. Death toll: Most of the male inhabitants of Ismarus; 72 of Odysseus’ men.

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

Circe Offering the Cup to Odysseus. Oldham Art...

Circe. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Yeah, so, “The Odyssey.” And being still only through the first 14 “books,” I am nonetheless moved to make a few observations.

For one thing, what is with it with all the dames* in this thing?

I looked around. Commentators hold forth on this subject with regularity, if only because “The Odyssey” actually has real female characters, plural, whereas its sister epic “The Iliad” just has Helen of Troy. The common themes are addressed: women are temptresses, they are mother figures, they are obstacles to progress. In the introduction to my edition of “The Odyssey,” translated by Robert Fagles, the English classicist Bernard Knox delights in the “infinite variety of emotional traffic” between men and women. (He might be the only one.)

I sit back in my couch and say, Homeric women seem more like characters out of a bad episode of television. Consider the first time the reader meets Odysseus, a full 170 lines into Book 5. He is a prisoner of the nymph Calypso. He is crying. He misses his home and his wife so much, he is sitting on a headland “his sweet life flowing away with the tears he wept for his foiled journey home.”

That gives us perspective, right? Here’s the subject of our nostoi, our tale of return. And look how much he wants to, you know, return.

“In the nights, true,” Homer continues, elaborating on Odysseus’ “ordeal,” “he’d sleep with her in the arching cave…”

Sleep with her? Of course he’d sleep with her. What else are dames for?

What’s that you say? What else are dames for? To meet us at the door when we leave the next morning. As Homer puts it, Calypso “slipped on a loose, glistening robe, filmy, a joy to the eye.”

You will recognize that uniform as the poem progresses. It is standard for all the women.

Jean-Jacques Lagrenée - Helen Recognising Tele...

“Helen Recognising Telemachus,” by Jean-Jacques Lagrenée. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s not just a man’s world, of course. The women seem to agree. Helen — yes, that Helen — comes downstairs at the palace of her husband, Menelaus, in Book 4. Odysseus’ son Telemachus has just arrived and the queen is, all, Who’s this? Then she seems to recognize him. You know, she says, he’s the “boy that hero left a babe in arms at home when all you Achaeans fought at Troy…”

Oh, Helen. Troy? Really? You’d think, of all people, that you would be smart enough not to bring that up.

But, wait. Helen is ready with a rebuke for herself — 10 years later: “…launching your headlong battles just for my sake, shameless whore that I was.”

And, finally, Circe. A party of Odysseus’ men, in mid-odyssey, encounters her at her mysterious home on the island of good-luck-if-you-can-say-it Aeaea. Initially, she is quite friendly, as are the wild animals that live nearby. But she poisons the lavish banquet she lays out and literally turns Odysseus’ men into swine. One man escapes to tell Odysseus, of course, and he goes back to take care of business — as a hero is wont to do — after getting some immortal coaching from Hermes.

Basically, Odysseus is given an antidote for the poison and advised to threaten Circe with violence. This fits right into the hero’s wheelhouse, of course, but Circe’s first play is give herself up to him. In Odysseus’ words, “She screamed, slid under my blade, hugged my knees.”

What is a hero to do? She fills in the blanks, almost punnily, “Come, sheathe your sword, let’s go to bed together.” And they do!

Meanwhile, the muddy snout-centered faces of Odysseus’ crew are peeking forlornly out of Circe’s pigs pens. There is probably some melancholy oinking as Odysseus finishes up and has a bath. And then is served dinner. And then he gets around to saving his men. “Each man grabbed my hand,” Odysseus says, “and a painful longing for tears overcame us all.”

And that is Homeric women for you. They wear revealing clothes, prepare lavish dinners and are overwhelmed with desire for men — they are what dimwitted men think they are.

In other words, the male opinion of the fairer sex has scarcely changed through the millenniums.

* Forget Odysseus’ wife, Penelope, and her inability to manage a crush of boorish suitors who camp at her palace, waiting for her to you-know-what or get off the pot. Without her 1950s housewife fumblings, there isn’t a story to be told.