Textbook Leftovers

Odyssey Outset

Posted on: October 9, 2011

Sorry again for the delay, folks. I had some stuff to work out (I’m lying, I was just lazy). I’ve started a blog schedule over at my other blog, so check it out if you like. And now, with no more stalling, the first installment of our study of The Odyssey!

Image from Ed O'Keefe Photography, used without permission
An image search for the Mediterranean Sea is a beautiful thing. I recommend it.
Image © Ed O’Keefe

First, I want to flip back a few pages and revisit the introduction Norton gives to the Homeric epics. Both of these massive works are a clear reflection of the times. Greece as a whole was undergoing gigantic changes in its culture, politics, and social structure. Remember that the Iliad and the Odyssey were always publicly performed – while they were shaped by events, they no doubt had a hand in shaping the events themselves. The Iliad clearly deals with the ideas of peace and war, but especially grapples with the question of who should have power – the ones with merit (Achilles) or the ones with position (Agamemnon)? It never answers the question, but makes a valiant effort to explore it from many angles, including that of the women and the slaves, and even from the outsiders.

The Odyssey has a central question as well – what is a community? What is a culture? Why do we do things the way that we do? Over the course of his decade of adventuring, Odysseus encounters and experiences many different kinds of cultures and the people that live in them. This is compared with the breakdown of order at home. The epic never declares any one kind of culture to be the best – the “normal” civilized life of Greece is riddled with violence and betrayal, and the others are shown to have gaping flaws as well. It just endeavors to examine them and lay them out to be seen for what they are.

It is into this complex question that we now dive. I’m only dealing with Book One today.

The poet begins, as is common in epic poetry, with the poet’s plea to the Muse to “through me tell the story.” There is a brief summary/description of Odysseus, summing up his hopeless journey across the seas. We get a couple spoilers for the story ahead. Then, “Of these adventures… tell us in our time, lift the great song again. Begin when…”

We are taken to Olympus, on a date near the end of Odysseus’ long journey, when he is a captive of Kalypso (this translator uses more Greek-looking translations of names than the Latinised ones we’re used to). Zeus is holding court, and he’s meditating on the death of Aisísthos. “My word, how mortals take the gods to task! All their afflictions come from us, we hear.” Bwahaha, Zeus, you so funny. Zeus sums up with a divine “I told you so” to Aisísthos, and then Athena takes the floor.

She’s worried about Odysseus. He’s been wandering and captive for so long, and she wants to know why he’s not been allowed to go home. Zeus informs her that it’s all Poseidon’s fault. Poseidon is mad because of something Odysseus did on his travels (spoilers!). But Zeus agrees with Athena – enough is enough. On her suggestion, Hermes is dispatched to tell Kalypso to let Odysseus go, and she herself determines to pay a visit to his long-lonely wife Penélopê and son Telémakhos.

Athena disguises herself as a family friend, a sea-captain called Mentês, and goes to Odysseus’ house at Ithaka. We meet Telémakhos as he’s sitting by himself, daydreaming of his father coming home and getting rid of all these scrubs trying to make a pass at his mom. He hasn’t given up on his father, and he’s really tired of these losers eating all his family’s food. He welcomes Athena-in-disguise and invites her to feast with him (and the other “guests”). He takes her (she’s disguised as a him, these pronouns are tricky) aside and asks if she has any news of Odysseus.

There is an interesting bit here where the poet details the actions of the serving-people as they bring in the food and serve the feast. I think the poet makes a special effort to include these kinds of people in his narrative, and I like it a lot. The people in the background are so often forgotten and marginalized, and it’s nice to see them given some recognition, especially when they’re marginalized groups like women and slaves. I think the poet did this because he was aware of his audience. He’d be performing in public squares and markets. The people who’d hear him would be more likely to be these “unimportant” people, because the important ones were off doing business or discussing politics. But by making the marginalized people part of the tale, they remember it. They take it back with them. They talk about it. The words and ideas spread. Clever man, this poet.

Now, back to Telémakhos. He confides to Athena that he really wants to get rid of these bloodsucking losers. If only his father could return… He tells his guest that he’s not hopeful for that, though, and asks her to tell about herself. She obliges quickly, and makes sure to toss in some concrete encouragement: “never in this world is Odysseus dead.” She also points out that Telémakhos resembles Odysseus greatly, and the son comments that “my mother says I am his son: I know not surely” since he’s never even met his father. This is an interesting little tidbit that tells me that Athena is deploying all her abilities to give Telémakhos courage and confidence.

Now they get even more intense. Telémakhos spills his guts about the suitors that his mother is having to hold off in hopes of the return of her husband, and how he wants to beat them all in the face before they destroy the family. Athena dispenses a great and detailed plan for Telémakhos, and then departs.

Later that night, Telémakhos, filled with a clear spirit of hope, tells off the jackals. They try to talk back, but he’s clearly more intelligent than all of them combined. He goes to bed, but doesn’t sleep because he’s plotting his course ahead.

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