I’ve always had a fascination with Greek literature, and it seems that my interest is never satisfied. Even after doing a MOOC from Harvard last year on “The Greek Hero” I was excited to see another MOOC from University of Pennsylvania on Greek and Roman Mythology. So far—two weeks into the course—it has been amazing!
The first book assigned to read for the class was The Odyssey. However, the reading is split up into three weeks, so for each week I’ll be reading 8 of the 24 books (aka chapters) of The Odyssey.
You know you’re into Greek lit when you have a very strong opinion about which translator you prefer. While the professor of this course recommends Fagles, I really love the Fitzgerald translation, so that’s the version I’ll be quoting from here.
So…what’s The Odyssey all about? It can be seen as a sequel to The Illiad—after all the fighting is over, the heroes have to make their way home. For some, that journey is easy, for some it takes a few years, for some the return home means tragic death (Agamemnon) and for some, the journey goes on for 10 years. That’s Odysseus, the hero of this story. When the story opens, he’s been trying to get home for 10 years. But…he was shipwrecked on the island of Calypso, a sea nymph, who had detained him for several years and continues her attempts to make him happy as her lover. But Odysseus, while he has no means to get off the island, has never settled for staying there for the rest of his life.
Actually, the story doesn’t open with Odysseus on the island of Calypso. The story opens in the heavens, where Athena speaks to Zeus and intercedes for Odysseus, saying,
“But my own heart is broken for Odysseus,
the master mind of war, so long a castaway
upon an island in the running sea;
a wooded island, in the sea’s middle,
and there’s a goddess in the place, the daughter
of one who baleful mind knows all the deeps
of the blue sea—Atlas, who holds the columns
that bear from land the great thrust of the sky.
His daughter will not let Odysseus go,
poor mournful man; she keeps on coaxing him
with her beguiling talk, to turn his mind
from Ithaka. But such desire is in him
merely to see the hearthsmoke leaping upward
from his own island, that he longs to die.
Are you not moved by this, Lord of Olympos?”
Much of Odysseus’ trouble was due to Poseidon, god of the seas, being angry at him for killing his son. But Zeus basically says, “okay…Poseidon has had his revenge, he can’t stay angry at Odysseus forever.” To which Athena shares her plan for getting Odysseus home, and then,
“Flashing down from Olympos’ height, she went
to stand in Ithaka, before the manor.”
And from here we discover the condition of Odysseus’ home. While he’s been fighting and enduring a multitude of trials, a number of men have set their sights on marrying his faithful wife, Penelope. These suitors have invaded Odysseus’ house and basically party while waiting for Penelope to make a decision about which one she will marry. This is the context of the famous story about how she promises to marry after weaving a beautiful cloth, but then secretly unravels the cloth every night. Athena sees this outrage,
“Before her eyes she found the lusty suitors
casting dice inside the gate, at ease
on hides of oxen—oxen they had killed.”
But she doesn’t have long to contemplate this, because Telemachus—Odysseus’ son—sees her. Now, she had disguised herself as a friend of the family, Mentor, which is the most common disguise she takes through the story. She talks to Telemachus, and he essentially blames the gods for the mess that’s been created in his home. Telemachus is about 20 years old, but as Athena quickly realizes, he has some maturing to do. His father, and any other hero, would have taken action to make the situation better. But Telemachus spends his days wishing his father (presumed dead) would suddenly appear and make everything right again. As Athena tells him, those daydreams are fine for children, but not for men. So the story of Odysseus will not only be about his restoration as a hero but also also about his son’s growth as a hero. Telemachus, lacking the his father’s example, now has Athena (in the form of Mentor) to guide him and give him counsel as a maturing young man.
I had planned to get through Books I – VIII, but this was mostly just Book I…so I guess I’ll be doing more posts than I had thought!