It follows, then, that the first part of the story is the proving of his worth by Telemachus; proving that he is grown and ready to take his place as a young man and not a boy. It would be hard to imagine a similar reality in modern western society; today, Penelope could get a job and not be expected to marry again, and the situation would therefore not require the same of Telemachus. In Athenian times, wealth was measured in livestock, land, and precious articles: gold, fabrics, and pottery. Many of the wealthy characters in the story have gotten much of their wealth from luck in battle.
Today, the evidence of wealth is still similar in many ways: instead of livestock, there are cars; but land is still of importance, as are precious things, and money is the most important of all. The Anex , or war-leader such as Odysseus is a commander during war but not a king; by that I mean he does not have absolute authority, and those under him do not regard him as having any special claim to this station except that which he has earned by his feats. Similarly, high positions today are won in part because of talent; in this respect Odysseus has more in common with a modern corporate leader than a historical king.
In the past, kin was important.
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While such complications are just as likely to entangle us today, the importance of kin is less institutionalized, and in many ways much eroded from what it was in ancient societies. Consequently, we are more likely to feel guilt than obligation when thus entangled. Guilt, too, is unarguably powerful. Proper rituals for the gods involved sprinkling wine and grain on the ground and burning part of the meat to be eaten; there were also proper rituals for guests and proper ways for guests to respond. This is illustrated many times in the story, and counter-illustrated by the suitors, who break those rules.
This is related to the rules of hospitality —that is, that a household would give hospitality to all guests who came and asked. In fact, this particular facet of Ancient Greek culture was not unique to them, but was also important to many other ancient cultures, illustrated in the bible, as well as in Old Norse myths; a counterexample is in the Cyclops, who breaks the rules of hospitality when Odysseus comes calling with gifts—rather than responding properly to the gesture, Polyphemus locks the men up and eats them. There is no clear correspondence to these hospitality rules in modern Western culture, though gifts are certainly used to try to facilitate reciprocity—if less so in families and communities, then at least as a tactic in marketing products and services.
The Ancient Greeks valued feats of physical strength it was they, after all, who invented the Olympics and such importance is illustrated in the games scene, where a man taunts Odysseus to try his hand at them—and the shoot-arrows-through-axe scene, where it is this which convinces those gathered that he is truly Odysseus.
But the Greeks also valued the mind, and cleverness: every man who tells of Odysseus praises his cunning in war, one notable example being the Trojan horse gambit. In issues of strength, at least, there is a direct similarity: even now, the Olympics show that feats of strength, endurance, and dexterity are still of importance to much of the world.
And as to issues of cleverness, modern Western culture highly lauds the quality of Creativity, especially in the form of Innovation in businesses. In modern Western society, such revenge is frowned upon, or rather it is institutionalized; the law takes care of revenge for the wronged while a lone person is not expected to.
In some ways the society and culture of the Ancient Greeks seem strange; in other ways they are unexpectedly familiar. Though the structures may change, under it all, humans are still humans; it is this that allows a story written so long ago to still speak to readers today. How to Read a Poem uses images like the mouse, the hive, the switch from the Billy Collins poem —to guide readers into new ways of understanding poems.
A Translator’s Reckoning With the Women of the Odyssey
Buy How to Read a Poem Now! Its beauty is often lauded in Homer, but it is generally seen as a place to be avoided — portrayed, as appropriate to Poseidon, as a vast waste, full of potential dangers, merciless, full of pirates and monsters. We need only think of the description of Odysseus after his raft is destroyed on his way to Scheria, and he finally washes up on the shore after three days in the sea:.
And he let his two knees bend and his strong hands fall, for his spirit was crushed by the sea.
And all his flesh was swollen, and sea water flowed in streams up through his mouth and nostrils. So he lay breathless and speechless, with scarce strength to move; for terrible weariness had come upon him. He has internalized the sea, and one could say that this is really his nadir, but I think that came with his attack on the Cicones. He will no longer be the aggressor, the seeker of personal glory.
Through his trials to this moment, about which more later, he has paid off some of his debt of injustice, and has reached a point of being a blank slate, a point from which he begins to re-member himself. And this is also a lesson for us: unless we are prepared to lose everything we think we know about who we are, we should just stay on Ogygia with Calypso and enjoy. So in general, the sea represents a state of ignorance, where nothing can be learned.
It is something to be crossed, to get over, in order to find a place where learning and xenia can take place. It represents the kind of featureless emptiness that keeps us separated from home. Except for the men eaten by the Cyclops, pretty much all the other crew die at sea, eaten by Scylla or shipwrecked by Zeus after eating the cattle of Helios. There seems to be an exception made for the sailors of Scheria, who glide along the ocean in their self-navigating ships.
This is the way many of us feel about day-to-day life in the working world, a life lived at the surface, far from the shore or any landmarks. Smooth sailing under these conditions can actually be a kind of punishment; an autopilot without direction. We become executable files, playing out some mechanism implanted in us some other time in some other place.
We too may be required to hit some kind of bottom, some Charybdis, in order to change course. We have also alluded to caves or grottoes, and these too are often portrayed as places of danger or temptation, such as the rocky home of the flesh-eating monster Scylla. But they are also shown as places we enter willingly to some extent, seeking something we think is of value for the quest.
The Odyssey Essay | Eumaeus, The Odyssey’s Ideal Man | GradeSaver
Once there, though, we can be trapped: think Calypso, or the cave of the Cyclops, or stretching it a bit, the house of Circe. The Underworld, as described in Book 11, is perhaps the ultimate cave: no one gets out alive. The message seems to be that we enter these caves at our peril and should always be planning our escape, like Theseus in the labyrinth. We can too easily become addicted to the tokens of the Good we find there, the small doses of exhilaration found in drugs, sex, drink, fame, wealth, and other pleasurable states.
Or, as Plato says in the Gorgias , the Good is one thing; the pleasurable another. In fairness I should mention that caves are not always given such a bad rap. In a lovely description of the harbor where Odysseus is dropped off on his return to Ithaca, Homer tells us that:. At the head of the harbor is a long-leafed olive tree, and near it a pleasant, shadowy cave sacred to the nymphs that are called Naiads. Therein are mixing bowls and jars of stone, and there too the bees store honey. And in the cave are long looms of stone, at which the nymphs weave webs of purple dye, a wonder to behold; and therein are also ever-flowing springs.
Two doors there are to the cave, one toward the North Wind, by which men go down, but that toward the South Wind is sacred, nor do men enter thereby; it is the way of the immortals. This cave of the Naiads sounds like a lovely place where men and immortals may mingle, although they have separate entrances.
Later Book , Athena uses this same description to prove to Odysseus that he has in fact landed on Ithaca. It sounds like a step up from the other caves, and we can only wish that Odysseus had entered it for a more thorough description. But then he might become entranced by the ever-flowing streams and have trouble escaping from it as well. The tree can also serve as a 3-D analogy for the Divided Line , used by Plato to illustrate the continuum of the Good, from the physical, visible world of effects to the invisible, intelligible world of causation.
On a tree the leaves are the most changeable and transitory, subject to birth and death, while the eternal part is also the invisible — not just the roots themselves but the earth itself which holds and nourishes them. Unlike other symbols in The Odyssey , there is seldom ambiguity about trees — they are unalloyed good. Round about the cave grew a luxuriant wood, alder and poplar and sweet-smelling cypress, wherein birds long of wing were wont to nest… Book It is from these trees that Odysseus makes his raft that will carry him away from this bittersweet captivity. The next appearance of this symbol is the pivotal scene described above where Odysseus washes up on the shore of Scheria having lost everything.
As noted before, he immediately faces another dilemma: if he stays on the shore he could die of exposure, but if he heads inland he could be eaten by animals. A solution presents itself in the form of two trees that reflect his dual state of mind:. Through these the strength of the wet winds could never blow, nor the rays of the bright sun beat, nor could the rain pierce through them, so closely did they grow, intertwining one with the other. Book 5: These also represent another stage in his transition from Strife into Love.
Now, although they are two, they have essentially become one. When he reunites with Penelope in Book 23 , it is the shared secret of the bed fixed to the root of an olive tree that finally convinces her of his identity. And finally when he goes to find his father, Laertes, the secret recognition, in addition to the scar caused by the boar, is also based on trees:. And come, I will tell thee also the trees in the well-ordered garden which once thou gavest me, and I, who was but a child, was following thee through the garden, and asking thee for this and that.
It was through these very trees that we passed, and thou didst name them, and tell me of each one. Pear-trees thirteen thou gavest me, and ten apple-trees, and forty fig-trees. The reunion is complete: he has moved from the fallen dried leaves of the olive tree on Scheria, up the Divided Line as it were or like downward-moving sap, back to the unseen root, to the earth.
He has finally returned to his native land. Books nine through twelve of The Odyssey consist of Odysseus himself recounting in the court of Alcinous and Arete, his mis adventures to date. He begins with an off-handed account of sailing to the stronghold of the Cicones, a tribe that supposedly supported Troy during the war, and slaying all the men they could and stealing the women and treasure. But the Cicones call in reinforcements, and Odysseus in an uncharacteristic act of cowardice, flees with his men, leaving the dead behind.
I think this incident provides a good description of his state of mind upon leaving Troy: murderous, larcenous, cowardly, drenched in Strife. There we went on shore and drew water, and straightway my comrades took their meal by the swift ships. But when we had tasted food and drink, I sent forth some of my comrades to go and learn who the men were, who here ate bread upon the earth; two men I chose, sending with them a third as a herald. So they went straightway and mingled with the Lotus-eaters, and the Lotus-eaters did not plan death for my comrades, but gave them of the lotus to taste.
And whosoever of them ate of the honey-sweet fruit of the lotus, had no longer any wish to bring back word or to return, but there they were fain to abide among the Lotus-eaters, feeding on the lotus, and forgetful of their homeward way. These men, therefore, I brought back perforce to the ships, weeping, and dragged them beneath the benches and bound them fast in the hollow ships; and I bade the rest of my trusty comrades to embark with speed on the swift ships, lest perchance anyone should eat of the lotus and forget his homeward way.
So they went on board straightway and sat down upon the benches, and sitting well in order smote the grey sea with their oars. It actually starts out pretty well, and they easily find nine goats to eat for each ship Odysseus gets ten. But then Odysseus decides to go exploring, and from there things go south. There a monstrous man was wont to sleep, who shepherded his flocks alone and afar, and mingled not with others, but lived apart, with his heart set on lawlessness.
For he was fashioned a wondrous monster, and was not like a man that lives by bread, but like a wooded peak of lofty mountains, which stands out to view alone, apart from the rest. He is also a one-eyed giant, a son of Poseidon, who thinks himself above the gods. But they enter his cave anyway, proceed to help themselves to his hand-made artisanal cheeses, and wait for him to come home and greet them as guests.
Long story short: he imprisons them and continues to eat them. So Odysseus and his men hoist a huge piece of olive! With some further trickery they escape back to their ships and taunt Polyphemus as they sail away. This is the start of the bad blood between Odysseus and Poseidon. He is a law unto himself and thinks himself above the gods.
We may not think ourselves in that category, but many of us indulge in the guilty pleasure of following the exploits of those who do, and who seem to fill the ranks of the celebrity culture. So we too are complicit by entering the cave when all the signs are there. Book 10 finds the unhappy crew chased away from a couple of more islands: the first in a preview of what happens when Odysseus goes to sleep, his crew in an act of selfishness spoils the favorable wind that King Aeolus has provided them and earns his disfavor.
Greek Women in The Odyssey
Bit by bit, he is being purged of the associations that had marked his journey into Strife, and there is more to come. They sail on and end up in the company of Circe, whom we have discussed. She then sends them off to seek further instructions from the Theban seer Teiresias, who unfortunately as we know, dwells among the dead spirits in Hades. But the main message he gets is from Teiresias who tells him:. And I will tell thee a sign right manifest, which will not escape thee. When another wayfarer, on meeting thee, shall say that thou hast a winnowing-fan on thy stout shoulder, then do thou fix in the earth thy shapely oar and make goodly offerings to lord Poseidon—a ram, and a bull, and a boar that mates with sows—and depart for thy home and offer sacred hecatombs to the immortal gods who hold broad heaven, to each one in due order.
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And death shall come to thee thyself far from the sea, a death so gentle, that shall lay thee low when thou art overcome with sleek old age, and thy people shall dwell in prosperity around thee. In this have I told thee sooth. Book 11, In other words, get as far as you can from the waste of the sea, and find people who know nothing of it and think the oar is a winnowing fan — a tool of discrimination, used to separate the wheat from the chaff. Only then will you be restored to full stature. It is interesting to note that this episode does not actually occur in The Odyssey.
But his trials are not over yet. And then they must face the twin dangers of Scylla, a man-eating multi-headed monster, and Charybdis, a violent whirlpool which can suck an entire ship into oblivion in seconds. These include monsters of various sorts, a visit to the afterlife, cannibals, drugs, alluring women, and the hostility of Poseidon himself. These challenges resemble those of earlier heroes like Heracles and Jason. In the Iliad , the hero Achilles faces no such challenges, indicating that the Odyssey has a very different idea of heroism.
He and his men enter into the cave of the Cyclops, get him drunk on some seriously potent wine, and then stick a large burning stake into his eye. Polyphemus is blinded but survives the attack and curses the voyage home of the Ithacans. On the last leg of his return he is entertained by the Phaeacians on the island of Scheria perhaps modern Corfu , where Odysseus, his identity unknown to his hosts, rather cheekily asks the local bard Demodocus to sing the story of the wooden horse, which Odysseus had used to hide the Greek soldiers and surprise the city of Troy.
Odysseus is more than keen to hear about his own heroic exploits. His reaction to the bard prompts his host, the king Alcinous, to ask him who he is and what is his story? Odysseus can rightly claim to be the conqueror of Troy based on his creative thinking in dreaming up the idea of the horse in the first place, not to mention his courage in going into its belly with the other men. His role in breaking the siege at Troy is a precursor to breaking the stalemate in his own house.
His heroism is characterised by these two elements — his cunning intelligence, and his courage in the darkness of confined spaces. This kind of heroism is very different from Achilles in the Iliad, whose renown is built on his use of the spear and shield in single combat in the bright light of day. Achilles never sees the fall of Troy because he dies beforehand unless one watches the film Troy.
Just as Odysseus is too clever for the Trojans - and the suitors - so his wife Penelope is a model of cleverness and circumspection. The suitors agree to this, but little do they know that she weaves the shroud by day, and un-weaves it by night. She is eventually betrayed by one of the maids in the house, and forced by the suitors to complete it, although the ruse does last for three years.
The Greeks had no illusion that the characteristic cleverness of Odysseus had a sinister aspect to it, not the least in the way that he deals with the Trojans after the war. Some of the atrocities at Troy, notably the killing of the young boy Astyanax son of Hector and Andromache , are sheeted home to Odysseus by the poets. Likewise, the Roman poet Vergil in his Aeneid Book 2 emphasises the dark trickery of Ulysses the Roman name for Odysseus in getting the Trojans to drag the Wooden Horse inside the city walls.
Even within the Odyssey there is a significant contrast between the careful and clever return of Odysseus, and that of Agamemnon, king of Mycenae, who is murdered as soon as he gets home. The gods are far less prominent in the Odyssey than the Iliad, although Athena in particular has her moments. In many ways Odysseus and Penelope are models of the sorts of things that Athena represents.
The Odyssey also has a more elaborate structure and chronology than the Iliad.