Week 8 of a Greek Lit Course: The Odyssey Begins

The Odyssey begins just like the Iliad: Homer supplicates the Muses, hoping that they will give him the ability to tell the tale of he who “saw the cities and knew the minds of many men,” (1.3) .Of course, this is Odysseus we’re talking about. That quote is attests to Odysseus’ flexibility, or polytropos, which translates to “many form.” Odysseus is favored among the gods — save for Poseidon, who has thrown him into many trials not wishing to see the poor man get back to his home — not only recognized for his strength in battle, which he proved in the Iliad, but for his eloquence in speech. In the first few books he proves his oratory prowess when he is able to win the favor of the unwed Phaeacian princess Nausicaa, with “cunning” words: “I entreat you, my queen. Are you a god or mortal? If you are a god, who holds wide heaven, I think you nearest Artemis, great Zeus’s daughter,” (6.149–151). This of course is just another example of Odysseus’ uncanny ability of captatio benevolentiae, the same rhetorical device he used when pleading with Achilles to come back and fight on the Greek side. Here by likening Nausicaa to Artemis, a very beautiful and majestic goddess, going further to say that he literally thinks she might be the goddess, he proves his oratory ability. Odysseus is obviously a very brilliant man and knows exactly what buttons to push to get what he wants. He’s convincing to say the least and definitely multifaceted.

Ironically the epic of his namesake does not start with his story, but the story of his son, Telemachus. The epic is about the nostos, or homecoming, of Odysseus and his son plays a big role in defending — or starting to defend — his oikos, a Greek term that includes the family, the family’s property and the house. So we don’t actually see the main man until the 5th book, but Homer tells us that he is on the island Ogygia trapped by the goddess Calypso who wishes to make him her husband. After a short council of the gods, where we find out that Orestes, Agamemnon’s son, murdered Aegisthus. Aegisthus and Clytaimnestra plot and kill Agamemnon because Clytaimnestra had been ruling with Aegisthus as her king. Orestes avenges his father by killing Aegisthus. Zeus also slips in to this description that he is tired f the mortals blaming the gods for everything: “How mortals now blame gods, for they say that evils are from us. Yet they themselves have woes beyond their lot by their own recklessness,” (OD.1–32–34). Here, he emphasizes that there is such a thing as human folly that the gods have nothing to do with — attesting to the will of human beings rather than fate always being the deciding factor. In the last book of the Iliad this same idea comes up. Achilles explains to Priam that Zeus decides our fate as he chooses it from two buckets, could be an assortment of the good and the bad or he may pick all the evils. He tells Priam that basically what happened to Hecktor and the rest of his sons is the result of Zeus picking a lot of evils from his bucket. This is one of the main contrasts between the last book of the Iliad and the first book of the Odyssey. The Greek word associated with foolishness is atalasthia. Another word may also apply: someone who is nepios is socially disconnected, disconnected from the gods, or disoriented. By the end of the Iliad, we see the perfect form of Greek hospitality. Achilles hosts his greatest enemy. There is a lot of supplication, but Achilles treats the king of Troy Priam well. He feeds him and houses him and protects him from the other Greek leaders. We also see nepios in the suitors for Penelope, Odysseus’ wife, who show no xenia to the disguised Athena: “He [Telemachus] made straight for the front doorway, displeased at heart that a stranger stand a long time at the door,” (OD.1.119–120). The suitors are socially disconnected from Greek culture. They have been squatting in Odysseus’ house, eating the food and doing nothing, complaining that Penelope ought to choose a wife. The last book of the Iliad really demonstrates the ideal behavior in Greek culture. We watch the pristine burial of Hecktor and the entire social process. We also see the importance of a strong King in Priam, which Ithaca is totally without in Telemachus’ weakness in the Odyssey. The last book of the Iliad helps to emphasize the lack of sophistication and cultural awareness in the young Telemachus and in the suitors, complementing Homer’s goal for the initial books of the Iliad: the Telemachia, Telemachus’ coming of age story.

Telemachus gets his bildungsroman in the first four books of the Odysssey. In the first book he does not prove to be a hero. He has allowed these men to dominate his home and has not defended his oikos. When he greets Mentes (Athena), he tells her the story of how the suitors invaded and how he was able to do nothing about it. He has to whisper to Athena in his own home so as to not upset them. He tells her, “If they saw that one [Odysseus] returning home to Ithaca, all would pray to be lighter on their feet than to be richer in raiment and gold,” (1.164–65). Telemachus has very little self confidence and is relying on his father’s homecoming alone to restore the oikos — not at all heroic. He’s not even confident that Odysseus is his father, although Penelope has told him such. It is not until the end of the book that he shows the slightest bit of indignation with the suitors after proving some type of leadership with his mother. When his mother asks Phemius to change the song he’s playing about the Trojan War, Telemachus tells her that Phemius’ playing is fine and that “Speaking is of concern to men, to all, especially to me, for the power in this house is mine,” (1.358–359). A couple hundred lines before, he tells Athena that he must wait for Odysseus’ return and Athena has now spurred some kind of confidence in his heart to finally take responsibility for his home. His mother obviously didn’t see thing coming: “Astonished, she went back to the house, for she put in her heart the astute words of her son,” (OD.1.360–361). She is pleased by his assertion. Telemachus goes further to tell the suitors that they have to leave at dawn and calls an assembly, which hasn’t happened since Odysseus left, probably off his high from telling his mom to go away. Although challenged by one of the suitors, he does not waver. By the end he seems slightly more heroic, but we’re still waiting.

There are certain components to Telemachus’ maturation that we watch occur in the first two books. His challenge to his mother that I mentioned above was one of his first steps. Telling the suitors to leave his house and there finally affirming himself is another: “But at dawn let’s go and sit down in assembly, all of us, so I may declare outright my will to you, that you leave my palace,” (1.372–73). He goes on to order them to find other food sources and to take refuge at their own homes. By outright telling them that way they are doing is wrong, he asserts his dominance. He goes so far as to threaten them with death if they stay: “Then, without compensation, inside this house you’ll perish!” (1.380). Strong and stern. Calling an aseembly was another step to his maturation because there hadn’t been one since Odysseus left. Revamping Ithaca all by himself, Telemachus tells the suitors and leaders of his goal to find his father by sailing to Pylos and speaking with Nestor then Menelaus. By renewing the hospitality ties of is father through xenia, he will complete his last step at maturation. He fulfills his lineage and may be able to get leadership pointers, help to kill the suitors, get a chance at kleos for just being the son of Odysseus, and renews the oikos for the family. He will then have become a real man through Athena’s help.

Penelope as compared to the women of the Iliad is not much different. She is willing to (or must) submit to the will of the men. Although, she seems to be more faithful. In the Iliad, Andromache predicts her husband’s death before he dies, whereas Penelope is being told her husband must be dead by everyone and suitors are at the door, but she’s not convinced and she waits for Odysseus’ return, going so far as to trick the suitors into thinking that she is creating a funeral shroud for Laertes before she can pick. She is, but she unravels it every night. The suitors just think she’s a slow weaver (almost 20 years). Helen we find out is fully loyal to neither Menelaus or Paris. She is furious with Aphrodite for having saved Paris from Menelaus, but she we find out that she tries to trick the Greeks into exposing themselves in the Trojan Horse. Penelope’s described as beautiful and I’m sure with her cunning could play a similar role as Helen does — that is teetering the fence and always staying on the winning team — but she holds out for Odysseus. Her faith in unwavering and its in her conviction where we find contrast with the women of the Iliad.

In book 4, we see the strained relationship between Helen and Menelaus, when Telemachus arrives to get some information from him. They may be in love, but they are no longer as close as they once were. After drugging Telemachus and Menelaus (with a nepenthe) so she is able to tell stories of Odysseus’ great ability, Helen is able to also tell her side of the relationship. It seems though that she knows that she has done wrong, but wants to convince everyone else that she hasn’t. Her goal then is to win the whole heart of Menelaus back, but Menelaus doesn’t seem to willing. Helen tells of a time when Odysseus came into Troy disguised as a beggar and Helen “swore a great oath not to make him known among the Trojans as Odysseus before he reached his huts and swift ships, right then he told me in detail the Achaeans’ intent,” (4.253–56). She also explains that she regrets her “mad blindness, that Aphrodite gave me, when she led me there from my beloved fatherland, and I deserted my daughter, my bedroom, and my husband, who lacked nothing in either looks or wits,” (4.261–64). Through her speech about Odysseus, Helen craftily attempts to prove her loyalty. First of all, she doesn’t out Odysseus, although she claims that she the only person in Troy to recognize him, somewhat alluding to the idea that only good and noble people are able to see gods among them; therefore, she could’ve had Odysseus captured, so she is both loyal and good. Secondly, she loved to watch the Odysseus kill the Trojans because as all the Trojan women shrieked loudly, her “heart rejoiced.” She was obviously on the Greek side. Thirdly, she anointed Odysseus in olive oil, which flashes me back to Hera’s scene where she bathes in the stuff. Helen makes Odysseus seem god-like and you don’t do that to enemies. Last if Odysseus really did tell her all the Achaeans plans “in-detail” then she had the option to remain in Troy. She could’ve warned Paris before he was slaughtered by the Greeks after they let in the horse, but she obviously wanted to return home. She even takes the Agamemnon-apology route and blame the goddess for tricking her with divine powers. Menelaus on doesn’t buy it. In his Odysseus story with spousal jabs, he declares Odysseus the master of sophrosune, or self-control. In the Trojan horse, Odysseus is really the only one not to succumb to Helen’s trick. Helen “called out to the best of the Danaans by their names, making your voice like the voices of the wives of all the Argives. Then divine Odysseus, Tydeides, and I, sitting in the middle, heard you as you shouted. We were both eager, and set out to either get out or immediately answer from inside,” (4.279–83). Everyone inside the horse wanted to respond to their wives, but Odysseus kept them under control. But the real point here is that if Helen truly wanted to come home, why the hell would she try to trick the Greeks into exposing themselves, risking a loss in the battle. Helen is obviously very much an opportunist and cannot be trusted, so their relationship is strained at best.

Finally in book 5 we see Odysseus who for the pat 7 years has been struggling on an island with the goddess Calypso. Perhaps not struggling, more so trapped, but in the beginning he enjoyed it. Calypso is a lower goddess and is subject to the whims of the 12 on Olympus. The goddesses seem to only want to intervene in human affairs in the Iliad, but Calypso wants to be a part of the human world. She wants a human as her husband. Other goddesses usually just have affairs and move on. Thetis, who marries a human, still lives in the bottom of the sea. Calypso wants forever with Odysseus though. Athena acts the same way she does in the Iliad, but with more interference. She really likes Odysseus so she just about assumes his role in getting Telemachus to adulthood, still there is no real affection. Hermes goes to Calypso and tells her that its time for Odysseus to go. She complains for a bit first. Here she represents the goddesses and points out the god’s double standards: “You are merciless, you gods, jealous beyond others, who resent goddesses that bed beside men openly, if any makes a beloved one her spouse,” (5.118–120). She tells stories of other goddesses who also don’t ever get to have romances with humans. In the end though, she complies and sends Odysseus off in 5 days.

So a lot does happen in the first 6 books and it seems that Homer is going to use a lot of dichotomy to emphasize certain relationships in the Odyssey and Odysseus’ cunning. I’m looking forward to the rest of the Odyssey. Where the Iliad got a bit redundant by this time, the Odyssey keeps changing it up.