Guide to the Classics: Homer’s Odyssey

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Odysseus and his crew escape the cyclops, as painted by Arnold Böcklin in 1896.

Chris Mackie, La Trobe University

The Odyssey of Homer is a Greek epic poem that tells of the return journey of Odysseus to the island of Ithaca from the war at Troy, which Homer addressed in The Iliad. In the Greek tradition, the war lasted for ten years. Odysseus then spent a further ten years getting home in the face of hostility from Poseidon, god of the earth and sea.

Odysseus’s return to his island, however, is not the end of his woes. He finds that 108 young men from the local vicinity have invaded his house to put pressure on his wife Penelope to marry one of them. A stalemate exists, and it is only resolved by a bow contest at the end of the poem, which then leads to a slaughter of all the suitors by Odysseus and his son Telemachus. Peace on the island is eventually restored through the intervention of Athena, goddess of wisdom, victory and war.

Penelope, waiting on Ithaca. Painted by Domenico Beccafumi circa 1514.

The quest of Odysseus to get back to his island and eject the suitors is built on the power of his love for home and family. This notion of love conquering fear and hatred is a common theme in Greek quest mythology.

The Odyssey, like the Iliad, is divided into 24 books, corresponding to the 24 letters in the Greek alphabet. Within the middle section of the poem (Books 9-12), Odysseus describes all the challenges that he has faced trying to get home. 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.

Cunning and courage

The critical episode on the way home is Odysseus’s encounter with Polyphemus, a Cyclops and son of Poseidon (told in Book 9). 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. All of Odysseus’s men are eventually killed, and he alone survives his return home, mostly because of his versatility and cleverness. There is a strong element of the trickster figure about Homer’s Odysseus.

It is very important in the Odyssey that the hero’s renown as the destroyer of Troy has quickly entered into the oral tradition of the world through which he travels. 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 resists the Sirens.
Carole Raddato/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Odysseus is more than keen to hear about his own heroic exploits. And so well does Demodocus sing the story of the horse that tears run down Odysseus’s cheeks and he groans heavily. 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. He is a kind of “breaker of sieges” in early Greek epic. 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 2004 film Troy). One might say that Achilles wins his Trojan war by killing Hector, with Athena’s support, but it is Odysseus who is the real destroyer of the city by virtue of a new and different kind of heroism.

Just as Odysseus is too clever for the Trojans – and the suitors – so his wife Penelope is a model of cleverness and circumspection. She tries to avoid re-marriage and delays the event by a clever ruse: she agrees to marry a suitor only after she has finished weaving a death shroud for Odysseus’s father Laertes. 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.

Penelope keeps her suitors at bay by spinning a shroud for three years. Painted by Pinturicchio circa 1500.

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. In late-5th century BC Athens (over 200 years after Homer’s Odyssey) the rise of demagogic politicians, like Cleon, seems to have affected the portrayal of Odysseus in Greek drama. In works such as Sophocles’ Philoctetes and Euripides’ Trojan Women the focus is on his appalling cruelty and duplicity. 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.

Returning from war

The Odyssey, therefore, is a maritime epic right up to the point where the focus of attention is the siege in Odysseus’s house. The return journey of the warrior from Troy was a favourite theme in Greek mythology, and we know of another early epic poem (simply called Nostoi, meaning “Returns”) which told a similar story. 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.

There are a number of signs that the Odyssey is a later poem than the Iliad, and not necessarily by the same poet (despite the Greek tradition that they are both by “Homer”). The gods are far less prominent in the Odyssey than the Iliad, although Athena in particular has her moments. She is associated with cleverness (metis in Greek) and victory (nike), both of which are germane to the story of Odysseus’ survival, and that of his family. In many ways Odysseus and Penelope are models of the sorts of things that Athena represents.

Odysseus and his son slaughter Penelope’s suitors on Ithaca.

The Odyssey also has a more elaborate structure and chronology than the Iliad. The first four books deal with the situation of the house invasion on Ithaca, and the travels of the young Telemachus to mainland Greece. Athena takes Telemachus from the female space of the house to the outside world of male politics. Thereafter, Odysseus himself is the centre of the poem’s attention as wanderer, tale teller, and siege breaker in his own home. The folktale world through which he travels (in Books 9 to 12) is told indirectly by Odysseus on his journey home to a Phaeacian audience, rather than directly by the poet. This notion of Odysseus as tale teller is central to the Odyssey.

In many ways the Odyssey is the most renowned literary work from Greek antiquity, even though some people would say it lacks the radical brilliance of the Iliad. The fact that the word “odyssey” has come into our language from Homer’s poem speaks for itself. The story of the Odyssey is a quintessential quest that relates to the passage through life and the importance of love and family and home. Many readers today find the Odyssey more accessible and more “modern” than the “archaic” Iliad.

Modern interpretations

The rich variety of mythical narratives in the Odyssey (especially his wanderings through a world of wonder and mystery in Books 9 to 12) has meant that the cultural history of the poem is astonishingly large, whether in literature or art or film. Whole monographs have been written on the reception of Odysseus in later periods. When one bears in mind that Odysseus’s name at Rome, Ulysses, is often used by artists and writers, as it was by James Joyce, then we get a sense of how dominant a figure he is in western cultural history.

Creative re-tellings of the Odyssey in a modern context include films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Paris, Texas, and O Brother Where Art Thou? Likewise the theme of the returning war veteran has Homeric overtones in films like The Manchurian Candidate, The Deer Hunter and In the Valley of Elah.

Odysseus, moreover, probably influenced the early comic book superhero Batman in the late 1930s and 40s, just as Greek demigods, such as Heracles and Achilles, help to inform the extra-terrestrial background of Superman. As a human bat, Batman uses disguise to good effect, as Odysseus does, and he thrives on conducting his challenges in the darkness of night.

But the last word on the subject of Odysseus and his adventures should go to Bob Dylan, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016. Dylan wrote a lecture in honour of his Nobel victory, focused on some of the literature that influenced and affected him. One such work was the Odyssey, and with echoes of Constantine Cavafy’s magnificent poem Ithaca, Dylan reflects on Odysseus’ adventures and their immediacy as a lived experience:

In a lot of ways, some of these same things have happened to you. You too have had drugs dropped into your wine. You too have shared a bed with the wrong woman. You too have been spellbound by magical voices, sweet voices with strange melodies. You too have come so far and have been so far blown back. And you’ve had close calls as well. You have angered people you should not have. And you too have rambled this country all around. And you’ve also felt that ill wind, the one that blows you no good. And that’s still not all of it.

The ConversationSuggested translation: The Odyssey of Homer, Richmond Lattimore.

Chris Mackie, Professor of Classics, La Trobe University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Guide to the classics: Homer’s Iliad

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The Greeks defend their ships from the Trojans in Alfred Churchill’s Story of the Iliad, 1911.

Chris Mackie, La Trobe University

Homer’s Iliad is usually thought of as the first work of European literature, and many would say, the greatest. It tells part of the saga of the city of Troy and the war that took place there. In fact the Iliad takes its name from “Ilios”, an ancient Greek word for “Troy”, situated in what is Turkey today. This story had a central place in Greek mythology.

The poem deals with a very short period in the tenth year of the Trojan war. This sometimes surprises modern readers who expect the whole story of Troy (as, for instance, in Wolfgang Petersen’s 2004 film Troy). But Homer and other early epic poets confined their narratives to particular periods in the war, such as its origins, key martial encounters, the fall of the city, or the returns of the soldiers to Greece. There is no doubt that Homer and other early poets could rely on a very extensive knowledge of the Trojan war among their audiences.

Brad Pitt as Achilles in the film Troy.
Warner Brothers

The central figure in the Iliad is Achilles, the son of Peleus (a mortal aristocrat) and Thetis (a sea-goddess). He comes from the north of Greece, and is therefore something of an outsider, because most of the main Greek princes in the poem come from the south. Achilles is young and brash, a brilliant fighter, but not a great diplomat. When he gets into a dispute with Agamemnon, the leading Greek prince in the war, and loses his captive princess Briseis to him, he refuses to fight and remains in his camp.

He stays there for most of the poem, until his friend Patroclus is killed. He then explodes back on to the battlefield, kills the Trojan hero Hector, who had killed Patroclus, and mutilates his body.

The Iliad ends with the ransom of Hector’s body by his old father Priam, who embarks on a mission to Achilles’ camp in the gloom of night to get his son’s body back. It is worth noting that the actual fall of Troy, via the renowned stratagem of Greeks hidden within a Wooden Horse, is not described in the Iliad, although it was certainly dealt with in other poems.

All of this takes place under the watchful gaze of the Olympian gods, who are both actors and audience in the Iliad. The Olympians are divided over the fate of Troy, just as the mortals are – in the Iliad the Trojan war is a cosmic conflict, not just one played out at the human level between Greeks and non-Greeks. Ominously for Troy, the gods on the Greek side, notably Hera (queen of the gods), Athena (goddess of wisdom and war), and Poseidon (god of the land and sea), represent a much more powerful force than the divine supporters of Troy, of whom Apollo (the archer god and god of afar) is the main figure.

Achilles mourns the death of Patroclus.
John Flaxman, The Iliad, 1793

The many faces of Homer

The Iliad is only one poetic work focused on the war for Troy; many others have not survived. But such is its quality and depth that it had a special place in antiquity, and probably survived for that reason.

Achilles dragging the body of Hector behind his chariot. Vase circa 490 BC.

We know virtually nothing about Homer and whether he also created the other poem in his name, the Odyssey, which recounts the return journey of Odysseus from the Trojan war, to the island of Ithaca. The Iliad was probably put together around 700 BC, or a bit later, presumably by a brilliant poet immersed in traditional skills of oral composition (ie “Homer”). This tradition of oral composition probably reaches back hundreds of years before the Iliad.

Early epic poetry can be a way of maintaining the cultural memory of major conflicts. History and archaeology also teach us that there may have been a historical “Trojan war” at the end of the second millennium BC (at Hissarlik in western Turkey), although it was very unlike the one that Homer describes.

The Iliad was composed as one continuous poem. In its current arrangement (most likely after the establishment of the Alexandrian library in the early 3rd century BC), it is divided into 24 books corresponding to the 24 letters of the Greek alphabet.

It has a metrical form known as “dactylic hexameter” – a metre also associated with many other epic poems in antiquity (such as the Odyssey, and the Aeneid, the Roman epic by Virgil). In the Odyssey, a bard called Demodocus sings on request in an aristocratic context about the Wooden Horse at Troy, giving a sense of the kind of existence “Homer” might have led.

The language of the Iliad is a conflation of different regional dialects, which means that it doesn’t belong to a particular ancient city as most other ancient Greek texts do. It therefore had a strong resonance throughout the Greek world, and is often thought of as a “pan-Hellenic” poem, a possession of all the Greeks. Likewise the Greek attack on Troy was a collective quest drawing on forces from across the Greek world. Pan-Hellenism, therefore, is central to the Iliad.

Death and War

A central idea in the Iliad is the inevitability of death (as also with the earlier Epic of Gilgamesh). The poignancy of life and death is enhanced by the fact that the victims of war are usually young. Achilles is youthful and headstrong, and has a goddess for a mother, but even he has to die. We learn that he had been given a choice – a long life without heroic glory, or a short and glorious life in war. His choice of the latter marks him out as heroic, and gives him a kind of immortality. But the other warriors too, including the Trojan hero Hector, are prepared to die young.

The gods, by contrast, don’t have to worry about dying. But they can be affected by death. Zeus’s son Sarpedon dies within the Iliad, and Thetis has to deal with the imminent death of her son Achilles. After his death, she will lead an existence of perpetual mourning for him. Immortality in Greek mythology can be a mixed blessing.

The Iliad also has much to say about war. The atrocities in the war at Troy are committed by Greeks on Trojans. Achilles commits human sacrifice within the Iliad itself and mutilates the body of Hector, and there are other atrocities told in other poems.

The Trojan saga in the early Greek sources tells of the genocide of the Trojans, and the Greek poets explored some of the darkest impulses of human conduct in war. In the final book of the Iliad, Achilles and Priam, in the most poignant of settings, reflect upon the fate of human beings and the things they do to one another.

The archaeological site of Troy in western Turkey.
Jorge Láscar, CC BY

Postscripts and plagiarists

It was often said that the Iliad was a kind of “bible of the Greeks” in so far as its reception within the Greek world, and beyond, was nothing short of extraordinary. A knowledge of Homer became a standard part of Greek education, be it formal or informal.

Ancient writers after Homer, even the rather austere Greek historian Thucydides in the 5th century BC, assume the historicity of much of the subject-matter of the Iliad. Likewise, Alexander the Great (356-323BC) seems to have been driven by a quest to be the “new Achilles”. Plutarch tells a delightful story that Alexander slept with a dagger under his pillow at night, together with a copy of Homer’s Iliad. This particular copy had been annotated by Alexander’s former tutor, the philosopher Aristotle. One can only imagine its value today had it survived.

In the Roman world, the poet Virgil (70-19BC) set out to write an epic poem about the origins of Rome from the ashes of Troy. His poem, called the Aeneid (after Aeneas, a traditional Trojan founder of Rome), is written in Latin, but is heavily reliant on Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey.

The ConversationMy own view is that Virgil knew Homer off by heart, and he was probably criticised in his own life for the extent of his reliance on Homer. But tradition records his response that “it is easier to steal Heracles’ club than steal one line from Homer”. This response, be it factual or not, records the spell that Homer’s Iliad cast over antiquity, and most of the period since.

Chris Mackie, Professor of Greek Studies, La Trobe University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.