The Odyssey–

Yesterday: The Iliad   Tomorrow: Herodotus’ Histories

Twitter: @GreatBooksDude    Website: (specializing in online Great Books programs)

Few books are as compelling as The Odyssey: the tale of Odysseus’ journey home, the son who has grown up without him and wishes him back, the merciless slaying of the insolent suitors who deserve it, all of these plot elements are fundamental to every other piece of literature which comes after it.  In no place does The Odyssey appear to be repetitive, boring, or overdone.  Its characters are at once grotesque and awesome: the legendary Cyclops, the nymph Calypso who refuses to let go of Odysseus, the goddess Circe who turns his men to pigs, and the Sirens all stand out.  Its structure has been replicated in so many works of fiction that it is not even funny–The Red Badge of Courage, The Scarlet Letter, The Turn of the Screw–its themes have been repeated (notably in James Joyce’s Ulysses), and its plot was most recently used as the framework for the newest James Bond movie, Skyfall.  As will be re-stated with Herodotus’ Histories tomorrow, far from being profitless to read these fine works, entertainers have made hundreds of millions of dollars on them.  (In the same vein, it is worth noting that The Iliad and later Trojan War legends sparked the movie Troy.)  To go into such a field without having read these books is to leave one’s self without the full range of tools with which to operate.

For this reason, however, our wonderful school system has decided to cut its teaching of this fine book, so that students read only a few fragments of a few books of it, rather than the whole twenty-four book text.  And they have done the same thing with The Iliad, about which I posted yesterday.  While The Iliad is longer than The Odyssey, both demand full attention and full consideration, and the paucity of care in our educational system (both public and private schools are guilty in this regard) in this regard will ensure that our society is fucked up in the very near future.  Before I can say why this is, I must give a short plot summary:

The Odyssey begins with a discussion among the gods, where Athena–Odysseus’ protectress and, if you recall from The Iliad, the goddess of wisdom, which is Odysseus’ particular skill–addresses Zeus, saying that Odysseus has been away from home for 20 years, ten in the war and ten spent wandering the high seas.  Odysseus’ enemy, the god of the waters, Poseidon, is absent from this meeting of the gods, so Athena feels that her plea might go through.  She would like to bring him home and restore the fortunes of the royal family, which are floundering as insolent suitors, chasing Odysseus’ wife and insisting that he must be dead, are eating up his estate, holding banquets at his expense daily.  Zeus agrees that it is time for him to go home.  Thereupon Athena shows up in Ithaca (where Odysseus’ family rules) and disguises herself, visiting Odysseus’ son Telemachus (now about 20 years old and wishing to meet his father) and urging him to seek out his father.  Telemachus offers the disguised Athena hospitality; during the night she changes her disguise so that she appears as Telemachus, then finds a crew for a ship to set out in search of news of Odysseus.  The next morning Telemachus sets sail for Pylos, where the aged Greek hero Nestor rules (Nestor figures prominently in The Iliad, with his son Antilochus, but not enough that I could feature them yesterday).  Nestor tells him that he hasn’t heard anything, but if he heads to Sparta he might ask Menelaus.  Providing him with safe travel, Telemachus rides there, meeting Menelaus and his again-wife Helen.  Menelaus tells him that he has heard that Odysseus is stuck with the nymph Calypso (which is true).

At this point the scene shifts.  We find Odysseus stuck on an island with Calypso, who refuses to let him go, promising him immortality in exchange for his (presumably) sexual services.  One can’t really imagine Odysseus rejecting this offer at his core, but he outwardly claims that he would like to go home to his wife Penelope.  Instead he is forced to go home to Penelope, as Zeus, responding to Athena’s request, has sent the messenger god Hermes to demand Odysseus’ release.  Calypso reluctantly furnishes Odysseus with a ship, but this is destroyed when Poseidon finds out he has escaped.  Odysseus swims ashore, veiling his nakedness with leaves on the shores near Phaeacia.  He falls asleep and wakes up to the sound of ladies laughing; the always-ready Odysseus’ horns go up.  He approaches the princess Nausicaa, pleading for help; she tells him to follow her and her maids back to the palace, at a distance so her honor is not impaired, and beg it of her father, Alcinous.  The gracious Alcinous does not ask for his name, but after participating in palace events, Odysseus attends a banquet held by Alcinous, and hears the bard Demodocus sing of the Trojan War.  Odysseus then asks Demodocus to tell of the legend of the Trojan Horse–remember that they do not know Odysseus’ identity, but the Trojan Horse had been his idea–and hearing this story he breaks down into tears.  At this point he is forced to reveal his identity, whereupon it follows quite naturally that Alcinous and friends will want a recap of his adventures.

They are as follows: 1) He was shipwrecked and his crew encountered the Lotus-Eaters, who fed two members of his crew, causing them to forget about returning home; 2) He and his crew were captured by the Cyclops, who demanded the crew as food until Odysseus got him drunk and stabbed his eye to blind him, this alienating the Cyclops’ father Poseidon; 3) He was given a bag sealing up the winds by the god Aeolus, thus guaranteeing him a storm-free passage, but his crew assumed the bag had money and opened it, releasing the winds, causing another shipwreck; 4) He and his crew ran into cannibals, and all the ships besides his were ruined in this encounter; 5) His ship ran into the island of Circe, and despite his warnings not to partake of any of her offers, his crew accepted food and drink from her and were turned to swine, whereupon Odysseus himself, having been warned about her charms, took a potion which disabled them and recovered his men; exchanging a year of love for it (another offer which Odysseus’ penis could not refuse) 6) He traveled to the West and entered the underworld (shades here of GIlgamesh), meeting the dead spirits of friends, fellow-warriors, and family; 7) He returned to Circe’s island and then left, avoiding the enchanting music of the Sirens (thus avoiding losing control of his ship and having it yet again wrecked) by having his sailors tie him to the mast of the ship and cover his ears; 8) At this point his ship passes between Scylla (a many-headed monster) and Charybdis (a dangerous whirlpool), while Odysseus loses several men; 9) He lands on an island, is detained there by Zeus, leaves and finds another island, only to have his men ignore warnings and kill the cattle belonging to Helios, the sun-god; 10) Thus he was sent back on ship to Charybdis, suffering yet another shipwreck, where all of his men perished, Odysseus managing to hang on by dear life to a fig tree above the whirlpool, finally washing up at Calypso’s island, where we first met him.

Alcinous then agreed to help Odysseus sail home; his nation was known for its skill on the open seas.  When they arrive at Ithaca he is fast asleep and is laid on the island; he wakes up and finds his way to the house of his loyal swineherd, Eumaeus.  He is disguised as an old hobo by Athena so that he can go see the state of affairs in his palace.  At the same time Telemachus, having arrived back safely from Sparta, finds his way to Eumaeus’ hut.  Odysseus reveals himself to Telemachus.  They contrive a plot to kill the suitors.  Odysseus goes to his palace, still dressed as a beggar, and is recognized by his old nurse while she washes his feet.  He swears her to secrecy.  The next day the suitors, at Penelope’s prompting, compete for her love by attempting to string Odysseus’ bow.  They all fail.  As the beggar Odysseus attempts to join, the suitors laugh at him and attempt to exclude him; but reluctantly they agree to let him have a shot.  He successfully strings his own bow, then turns it on the suitors and slaughters them in his own house, assisted by Telemachus, Athena, a loyal cowherd, and Eumaeus.  They hang maids who slept with the Suitors.  He finally identifies himself to Penelope, who verifies his identity by making a false statement about their bed, to which he objects vehemently.  He goes the next day to visit his father Laertes, proves to him that he is in fact his son, then is nearly ambushed by the citizens of Ithaca in revenge for the killing of their sons (which their sons no doubt deserved, though I have not focused on their behavior).  Athena intervenes and manages to persuade them to a cessation of hostilities.

The Odyssey is, first and foremost, the greatest testament to positive thinking ever written.  All the books about self-help psychology and believing that things will work out, all the help of therapists and mental health professionals, these cannot replace a simple reading of a relatively short 24-chapter poem (in the Great Books of the Western World set it is a little over 130 pages, but as this is two columns per page, large pages, small print, it is probably closer to 220 pages in a normal version) which details how positive thinkers prevailed by a wide margin over negative thinkers.  I said this much in The Decline of the Epic?

But it is, moreover, a powerful tale of the love of a father and a son who meet when the son is an adult and make up for lost time.  It is a story of a loyal wife and mother and a strong attempt to preserve family values when the world around these people insists that they should be destroyed.  It is a masterpiece of conservative literature.  One translator of the epic believes it was written by a woman, but this is highly doubtful.  In any event, it shows a strong conservative impulse, despite Odysseus’ philandering.  No doubt, Penelope pleased his penis as much as did Circe and Calypso and as he hoped Nausicaa would.

One additional note before I leave off: in The Odyssey there is a description of a full eclipse, which astronomers have used to date the specific events of the poem, as the date of the eclipse roughly corresponds to April 16, 1178 BC.  If Troy was destroyed by war or fire (or some combination of the two) in around 1190–as archaeological excavations seem to show it was–then it is not far-fetched to see the sack of Troy as having taken place in 1188 BC and Odysseus’ journey from there being 10 years, matching the amount which the poem is supposed to reflect.  Thus there may lie deeper historical truths to both poems, though as I stated in my last post these would be more historical fiction than strict history per se.  Epic poetry as a genre generally is historical fiction.

On that note I will leave you until tomorrow, when I’ll bring a real history to life.  Or at least a book that purports to be real history.

For more information on The Odyssey, see


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