Kleos and Nostos
Homer's Odyssey, Books 1-8Hello, and welcome to Literature and History. Episode 12: Kleos and Nostos. [Music] In this episode, we’re going to venture into the unforgettable world of Homer’s Odyssey. This great classic of world literature, a sequel to Homer’s Iliad, is about the long, difficult homeward journey of the Greek hero Odysseus. The Trojan War, after ten long years, has ended. And poor Odysseus, the hero of the Odyssey journeys for nearly ten more years, facing monsters and temptresses, and the constant opposition of the sea god Poseidon. Eventually, Odysseus reaches his homeland, the island of Ithaca, on the west side of the Greek mainland, literally oceans away from the northwestern coast of Turkey, where the Trojan War was fought. But upon arriving home, Odysseus finds that his nearly twenty year absence has left his kingdom and family imperiled by a dangerous, violent young pack of usurpers who are trying to murder his son and marry his wife. And so the Odyssey, which begins as a tale of adventure, ends as a story about revenge. [music]
The previous three episodes of this podcast covered Homer’s Iliad, the epic that comes before the Odyssey. Just in case you didn’t catch those episodes, or you’ve been away for a bit, I’ll briefly summarize the aspects of the Iliad most relevant to its sequel the Odyssey. First of all, these are Ancient Greek epics, thought to have been set down in writing some time around 725 BCE, a few hundred years before the pinnacle of Classical Greek civilization – that’s the civilization that produced Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Pericles, Sophocles, Euripides, and company. Thus, the Iliad and the Odyssey are some of the foundational texts of Ancient Greek literature.
The Iliad is about a legendary war between confederated kingdoms from Greece on the west side of the Aegean, and the kingdom of Troy to the east. The Trojan War began when a Trojan prince kidnapped or seduced a Greek woman named Helen, bringing her back to Troy. This woman was unfortunately the sister-in-law of the Greek king Agamemnon. Agamemnon and his slighted brother Menelaus, upon Helen’s abduction, summoned thousands of Greek warriors to their cause, crossed the Aegean, and laid siege to Troy. After ten years of war, countless beheadings, impalements, and a lot of bronze weaponry brandished by both armies, the Greeks decisively gained the upper hand when their champion, the terrifying demigod Achilles, slaughtered the Trojan champion Hector. The Iliad ends, however, not with the end of the Trojan War, but instead with the burial of Hector.
That’s the core story you need to understand before diving into the deep blue water of Homer’s Odyssey. There was a terrible war. Many of the Greek heroes, who have missed their homeland intensively since their departure, have returned to their families. Others have suffered from further wanderings. And of all the wandering heroes who want nothing more than a safe homecoming, Odysseus has had it the hardest. At the outset of the Odyssey, he has been gone for over nineteen years. Even after the end of the Trojan War, he faced an additional decade of trying to get home, being held captive, shipwrecks, fights with frightening creatures, and the stalwart opposition of the sea god Poseidon. Just as the Iliad begins nine years or so into the Trojan War, the Odyssey begins nine years into Odysseus’ arduous and exhausting journey home.[music]
Let’s talk about some of the main characters of the Odyssey before we begin the first book. First, Odysseus himself. If you heard the story of the Iliad, you’ll perhaps remember how instrumental Odysseus was to the Greeks, even at their most dire moments. He was loyal to Agamemnon, at moments when internecine tensions threatened to break the Greek forces apart. He was smart and diplomatic, being sent to the champion Achilles in the Greeks’ greatest hour of need. And in many hectic moments of battle, but most especially in Book 11 of the Iliad, Odysseus was a fighter, capable of facing droves of soldiers at once, fighting back to back with the giant Ajax, always, seemingly, where the Greek defenders most needed him.
Because of his many abilities, it’s no wonder that the Homeric Greek epithets associated with him begin with poly-. He is polymētis, or in possession of a variety of intellectual and social skills. He is polytlas, or capable of enduring many things. He is polymechanos, or profoundly brilliant. And he’s poikilomētis, which can be translated as “dapple-skilled,” as though his skills are as movable and diverse as sunshine being dappled by tree leaves and boughs, melding, amorphous, and adaptable.1 Throughout the Odyssey the main character is indeed “dapple-skilled,” sometimes deep in the shadow of disguise, at other times fighting in the open, but always moving, navigating, negotiating. Though not as powerful fighter as the Greek champion Achilles, Odysseus is nonetheless far more interesting. Achilles can slaughter people, but Odysseus can win a war.[music]
Other characters in the Odyssey are closely connected with him, though they’re in different geographical locations. First, there is Odysseus’ wife Penelope. Undoubtedly also a Homeric hero of the first order, Penelope is as intelligent, perceptive, and resourceful as her long-absent husband. Now, note that Odysseus and his wife are a king and queen – king and queen of a small island nation called Ithaca, in the northwestern Aegean. As things have become worse and worse during Odysseus’ absence, Penelope has buckled down and worked to hold his kingdom together. In addition to Odysseus and his brilliant wife Penelope, there’s one more character you need to know about before cracking open Book 1 of the Odyssey. This is Odysseus and Penelope’s son, a young man about eighteen years old, called Telemachus.
Telemachus is also a main character. Telemachus was conceived just before the beginning of the Trojan War. He has never met his father, and, brought up in an increasingly turbulent environment in which various people are encroaching on his absent father’s property, Telemachus has certain understandable issues. Though he’s observant and has a lot of potential, at the beginning of the Odyssey, Telemachus is timid and uncertain. When he thinks of his father, Telemachus prefers to believe that Odysseus is dead, since it’s far too painful for him to hope otherwise. Telemachus is almost of age to be king of Ithaca himself – almost, but not quite, and so on his father’s island he holds the exceptionally difficult position of almost being a sovereign king, but still being treated like a little boy. Okay, so, so far you’ve met Odysseus, his awesome wife Penelope, and their conflicted but ultimately good and respectful son, Telemachus.
There’s one other character in the Odyssey who’s worth mentioning before we begin. That’s Athena. Athena is Odysseus’ patron goddess. Armed with a huge spear and great intelligence, Athena is the central reason why Odysseus has made it as far as he has, and, adopting disguise after disguise, she manipulates the characters and events of the Odyssey. Her Homeric epithets can be translated as “owl-eyed,” “gray-eyed,” or “with sea-gray eyes” or “with eyes like sea light.”2 These epithets, along with many other descriptions, show that although Athena can outthink other gods and fight well, her overriding quality is a self-possessed serenity, as calm as a still sea beneath overcast skies. [music]
Right, so, that’s the major characters who will pop up fairly quickly at the beginning of the story. Let’s talk for a second about geography. I don’t want to make any assumptions about your knowledge of Greece’s geography, and this is a podcast, so we don’t have any visual aids, so I’ll just say the following. The Trojan War was fought far to the east of the ancient Greek world. The Greek mainland, is, naturally, the center of the Greek world, the lowermost extent of the Balkan peninsula that extends down into the Mediterranean, a rocky, mountainous, warm, dry land mass ringed with small islands. The Greek mainland includes Pylos and Sparta, where some of the action at the beginning of the Odyssey takes place. To the west of the Greek mainland, just off the coast, is a small island called Ithaca. It’s where the majority of the events in the Odyssey take place – a shrubby, narrow island in the Adriatic Sea.
Now you know the paramount characters and some of the main locations of the poem. I should say one last thing about the Odyssey, and this is to briefly introduce the poem’s chronology. Just like its predecessor the Iliad, the Odyssey begins in the middle of things. It starts in the final year of Odysseus’ long wanderings. And it starts not with the main character, but his son, Telemachus, dealing with major problems in the family kingdom of Ithaca. On one hand, the fact that the poem begins with Telemachus is a little frustrating. You think, “Come on! Get to that bearded voyager! Bring on the Cyclops, the sirens, the witch, and all that fantasy novel stuff!” Instead, the Odyssey begins with four books that are all about the frustrations of poor young Telemachus.
When we meet Odysseus, finally, he’s stranded on an island, and he’s been held captive there for a number of years by a lusty goddess. And what a life he’s led! Can you imagine a worse fate than being forced to cohabit and have sex with a beautiful sea nymph on a warm, gorgeous island, surrounded by flowers and fresh fruits, and having all the food and drink you need? God! It sounds unbearable. Anyway, when we meet Odysseus first, he’s held captive on this remote island by a lovely deity named Calypso, and it’s a testament to his loyalty that though he’s been there a long time, he’s never once thought of staying. In today’s episode, after we hear about young Telemachus’ adventures, we’ll learn about how Odysseus escaped Calypso’s paradise – er – I mean hellish prison – and arrived at in a seaside kingdom called Phaecia.
So as with previous works in this podcast, I’m going to summarize the Odyssey, using an occasional quote directly from the text. Almost all of the quotes I’ll take from the Odyssey are from a translation by Stanley Lombardo, put out by Hackett Publishing Company in 2000. He has issued audio recordings of his own translations which I encourage you to get a hold of, and I have put up relevant links at literatureandhistory.com. I used his translations of Hesiod’s Works and Days and Theogony a few episodes ago – they’re also published by Hackett – and I really enjoy Lombardo’s work overall – it’s always lucid, clear, musical, and natural. Also, the book titles (book 1 of the Odyssey, book 2 of the Odyssey, book 3, etc.) – the book titles are from another edition – the first one I read, published by Penguin Classics back in 1946.
Okay, so, now that you have all the information you could possibly need, I’m going to tell you the story of the first eight books of Homer’s Odyssey. As with the Iliad, I’ll play little snippets of music here and there, but whenever I play a variant of this main Odyssey theme, we’re starting a new book. [music]
The Odyssey, Book 1: Athena Visits Telemachus3All of the surviving veterans of the Trojan War had returned to their homes. Nine years ago, the war had ended. And for nine years, Odysseus had wandered, hindered by monsters and deities, thwarted always by the vast ocean and the god Poseidon, who was against him. But Poseidon had turned his attention away from Odysseus. And on Mount Olympus, far above the churning ocean and scattered islands of the Aegean, the gods discussed the fate of the long suffering hero.
The most powerful of the gods, Zeus, pondered the events that had taken place after the Trojan War. Athena interrupted her father’s meditations to make a plea on behalf of Odysseus. She was the goddess of wisdom and warfare, discernment and strategic combat, and of all mortals, she most favored Odysseus. With his craftiness and simultaneous great prowess of warfare, he embodied everything that she did. Odysseus, she said, had been away from home long enough. Just now, he was stuck on an island with a goddess named Calypso – a remote, forested island surrounded by deep ocean. Calypso wanted Odysseus to stay with her forever, and continued to use all her powers of persuasion to try and make Odysseus forget his homeland. Odysseus, lonesome and homesick, only wanted to die.
Zeus nodded his shaggy head. He agreed that Odysseus was a great man, and that he deserved better than to die the captive of a possessive minor goddess. But, Zeus said, Odysseus had angered Poseidon by doing something terrible to one of his children. Poseidon would have to be dealt with if the gods wanted to help Odysseus home.
Athena had a plan. She’d dispatch a messenger to the island where Odysseus was being held captive, and the messenger would tell the goddess Calypso that it was time to release her captive. At the same time, Athena herself would go to Odysseus’ homeland, an island called Ithaca. She told Zeus why she intended to go there.
Things were not well on Ithaca. Odysseus had been gone for twenty years, and in his long absence, his kingdom had fallen into disarray. His beautiful wife, Penelope, was being courted by a large assembly of suitors, who assumed that Odysseus was long dead. These suitors were devouring the island’s resources, killing his livestock, and becoming ever bolder with Penelope. Athena said that she’d go to Odysseus’ son, who was nearly of age to be king himself, and help him protect his mother and keep the island of Ithaca secure. [music]
And so Athena sped off to Ithaca, her golden sandals carrying her high over mountains and foothills, stream lands and dark channels of ocean, and she came to Odysseus’ palace, her gray eyes looking darkly upon the intruders. Penelope’s suitors were enjoying themselves, gobbling up her absent husband’s food and forcing his servants to wait on them. Disguised as a traveler, Athena watched them silently. Gluttonous and loud, the suitors were too busy with their own pleasures to acknowledge Athena. In Ancient Greece, where hospitality was a cardinal virtue, ignoring an arriving guest was an egregious insult. But Odysseus’ son Telemachus saw her, and he greeted the stranger respectfully, not knowing that she was a goddess. Respect was something that came naturally to Telemachus, for he’d been raised to revere a missing father, and he knew that wandering strangers might be great men and women.
He led Athena into the interior of the palace, and invited her to sit on a beautiful, linen covered chair far away from the suitors. Their boisterous presumptuousness embarrassed and humiliated him. He set a stool under her feet, so that she would be comfortable. She was given generous helpings of food. Clear water from a silver pitcher was given to the goddess in a golden basin, so that she could wash her hands. When it came to hospitality, young Telemachus knew not to stint. But before Telemachus could ask the stranger about his absent father, the suitors swaggered in. They drank wine, sang, danced, and made advances on the serving maids.
As the suitors began their daily banquet, Telemachus spoke to the stranger. He explained that all the suitors were freeloaders gobbling up the provisions of the absent king. He was past the point of hoping for his father’s survival – dear Odysseus’ bones were probably far beneath the oceans, or decaying in the rain on some distant beach. He’d given up. After describing the hopeless situation on the island, he asked Athena who she was.
She told him she was a trader with a ship anchored nearby. As for Odysseus, though, she assured him that the long lost wanderer was alive and well, and would be returning home soon. Athena asked if he were Odysseus’ son, and Telemachus replied that indeed he did have that misfortune. Some day, the suitors who were courting his mother would finally compel her to marry one of them, and then he, poor Telemachus, would be killed off. Athena shook her head and gritted her teeth, her gray eyes flashing behind her disguise. If Odysseus did return home, she said, he would make short work of the vile, disrespectful lot who’d courted his wife and stolen his possessions. She was sure of it. [music]
Now, Athena said, it was time for Telemachus to stop sitting around on Ithaca. First, she told him to scatter all the suitors and send Penelope back to her father’s house – Penelope’s relatives would arrange the marriage. Second, he needed to travel to the mainland, talk with two of Odysseus’ old friends, and try and figure out if anyone knew of Odysseus’ whereabouts. The bottom line was that it was time to take action. He was old enough.
After she left, Telemachus felt heartened and clearheaded, and he decided that the stranger must have been a god. Filled with new confidence, Telemachus turned to face the suitors. They were listening to a song about heroes coming home from the Trojan War. Penelope heard it and came down to them. There she stood, in a halo of soft light coming down through an aperture high in the palace wall. Behind her veils, there were tears in her eyes. She’d come down, she said, to protested the music. Why this song? She asked. Couldn’t they play something else that didn’t remind her of her husband, something not, for instance, about homecomings after the Trojan War? Telemachus told her to go back upstairs. Then he turned to face the suitors.
“[I]n the morning,” he said, “we will sit in the meeting ground, / So that I can tell all of you in broad daylight / To get out of my house.”4 They were eating and drinking away the storehouses of Odysseus, and making bold advances on his mother. If they stayed, as far as he was concerned, they deserved death. The suitors were temporarily stunned into silence, but the chief most among them, a man named Antinous, spoke up. “Well, Telemachus,” he said, “it seems the gods, no less, / Are teaching you how to be a bold public speaker. / May [Zeus] never make you king / Here on Ithaca, even if it is your birthright” (12). Telemachus said he would indeed be king of his own house. Upon being asked, he told the suitors that the stranger had merely been a trader, and that he had no hope of his father’s return. And so the suitors returned to their feasting, and Telemachus went to his room. He lay awake all night, thinking of the journey that Athena had outlined for him. Wrapped in fleece, he gazed up at the high ceiling and lay in his corded bed, protected from the suitors only by his room’s door. [music]
The Odyssey, Book 2: The Debate in AtticaAt dawn the next day, Telemachus arose and dressed, and called for an assembly of all the influential men on Ithaca, together with the suitors. He explained that the situation in his home was disgraceful. The suitors weren’t following the customary protocol, and the provisions of his house were almost totally devoured. At the end of his speech, he burst into tears and hurled his scepter to the ground.
Only Antinous, the head of the suitors, replied. Penelope, he said, was leading all of them on – it had been going on for almost four years. She’d even begun weaving a very large robe with fine threads – a robe for her father-in-law, for when the old man passed, she would marry one of the suitors. Only, the chief suitor Antinous explained, she’d been unweaving it every night, too. For three years she’d done this, and now, in the fourth year, they were compelling her to finish it. They’d be happy to leave – to stop consuming all of Odysseus’ foodstuffs – but first Penelope had to cease her delay tactics.
Telemachus cursed Antinous and the other suitors, and began a speech. This is again the Lombardo translation. Telemachus said that if his mother [music]
offends your sense of fairness,At this, a pair of eagles suddenly soared down from a neighboring peak, looking down at the assembly and brandishing their fearsome talons. An old man prophesized the suitors’ downfall, but the suitors brusquely ignored them. Telemachus, hearing that the suitors would continue to freeload and be disrespectful, told them that he was going to the mainland. If his father were alive, he’d hold off the suitors a final year, until he came of age. If Odysseus were dead, then Telemachus would hold a proper funeral for his father, and then marry off his mother. After more frustrating conversations with the townspeople of Ithaca, Telemachus went down to the sea and prayed to Athena. [music]
Get out of my house! Fix yourselves feasts
In each others’ houses, use up your stockpiles.
But if it seems better and more profitable
For one man to be eaten out of house and home
Without compensation – then eat away!
But I will pray to the gods eternal
That Zeus grant me requital: Death for you
Here in my house. With no compensation” (19).
She replied in the voice of someone familiar to him that his journey would be successful, and that the suitors would pay for their transgressions. Later, when Telemachus went back to the palace to gather his things, he found the suitors helping themselves to extravagant portions of meat and drink. Antinous, the chief of the suitors, laughed openly at Telemachus, inviting them to feast with them as he had before, and mocking Telemachus’ planned journey to find out what had happened to his father. “Antinous,” said Telemachus, “there is no way I can relax / Or enjoy myself with you arrogant bastards” (24). But the suitors only laughed at his harsh words. The notion that Telemachus would bring help from the mainland seemed ludicrous.
The prince did not choose to speak with them any more. Telemachus went down to a storeroom and, against the remonstrations of a servant, asked her to pack up food and drink for his impending voyage. Meanwhile, Athena rounded up sailors. When night fell, she came to Telemachus and told him it was time to set out. The wind blew westward over the dark water, and the ship was loaded. They departed by starlight, the bow of the ship whispering through an indigo colored wave, and sailed until the break of dawn. [music]
The Odyssey, Book 3: Telemachus and NestorIn the early morning, the ship of Telemachus reached a land called Pylos, a rocky territory by the sea. Pylos was the land of wise old Nestor, one of the major Greek figures in the Trojan War. Nestor, again and again at crucial moments during the war, had used his wisdom to get the Greeks out of terrible predicaments. Old Nestor was a great friend of Odysseus, and Telemachus reasoned that if anyone knew where Odysseus was, Nestor would.
Though Telemachus expressed shyness about meeting his father’s old comrade, Athena assured him the meeting would go well. First they enjoyed old Nestor’s hospitality. The king and his sons offered Telemachus and Athena food and wine. When prompted, Telemachus revealed his identity, and explained his purpose.
Old Nestor was pleased to know that Odysseus’ son had come to him. The presence of Telemachus caused him to launch into reminiscences about the end of the Trojan War. There had been problems, he said. The story that Nestor told was the first puzzle piece Telemachus would hear – the first record of what had actually happened after the war ended. Once the city was sacked, Nestor said, the Greek king Agamemnon and his brother Menelaus had feuded with one another. Some of the Greeks had stayed with Agamemnon – Odysseus was one of these. Others had followed the king’s brother Menelaus westward. Favorable winds had driven Menelaus’ followers across the Aegean, to the mainland and surrounding islands. Nestor himself had enjoyed a safe homecoming. The same couldn’t be said for other Greeks. Menelaus’ own journey home had been much more arduous. Odysseus was still, after all these years, missing.
As for Agamemnon, old Nestor explained, he’d met a horrible end. The once proud King Agamemnon had been murdered by his wife’s lover, although his death had been avenged by his son. Speaking of sons, Nestor said, what was going on in Ithaca? Telemachus explained the disgraceful situation with the suitors. Nestor lamented the absence of Odysseus, and Telemachus said that he himself had given up hope.
When asked, wise old Nestor told young Telemachus more about what had happened to the returning Greeks. Telemachus, said Nestor, should go and talk to Menelaus. But it was late. Old Nestor and his guests shared wine and made an offering to the gods, and then the king invited Telemachus and Athena to stay with him. Nestor also promised the next day Telemachus could use a chariot and horse for overland travel to Menelaus’ kingdom. Athena departed in the shape of a bird, and the men realized the identity of the goddess, who had been in disguise.
The next morning, Nestor made a lavish sacrifice for Athena. The men feasted, and after breakfast, the horses were prepared. Telemachus, accompanied by one of Nestor’s sons, left the rocky lands of Pylos. They journeyed for a full day, and then another, and the land became more level. They found themselves amidst wheat fields ringed by foreboding peaks, a grand, arable flatland home to an ancient kingdom. They had come to the lands of Menelaus, to the kingdom of Sparta. [music]
The Odyssey, Book 4: Menelaus and HelenIn the kingdom of Menelaus, festivities were in progress – specifically, a double wedding. Menelaus’ daughter was marrying the son of the dead Greek champion Achilles. And Menelaus’ son was marrying a Spartan girl. A feast was in progress, and one of Menelaus’ servants announced that travelers had arrived, asking if these unexpected guests should be allowed in.
Menelaus said they were quite welcome. When you travelled, you hoped for hospitality from others. When you were at home, you offered it yourself. That was how things worked. And so Telemachus’ horses were fed, he and his travelling companion were offered baths, and they were seated by Menelaus and given generous helpings of food. He told them a little about his travels over dinner. He’d wandered eight years after the Trojan War – through Cyprus, Canaan, Egypt, and south to Ethiopia and west to Libya. His travels, he said, had brought him great wealth, but he would exchange it for the return of other lost heroes of the Trojan War. Of all of them, he missed Odysseus the most. The lost hero had been the most hardworking, devoted person in the Greek army, and Odysseus had got nothing out of it.
Menelaus’ reminiscences caused Telemachus to weep, having heard such praises of his father. Just then, Menelaus’ wife Helen emerged from her chambers. This was the famous Helen of Sparta turned Helen of Troy turned back to Helen of Sparta. She remarked that Telemachus bore a striking resemblance to Odysseus, and Telemachus’ companion confirmed her suspicions. Menelaus was overcome with emotion. He had wanted to do so much for Odysseus, he said – he wanted to give Odysseus great gifts, and cities, but most of all he wanted the companionship of his long lost friend. All those at Menelaus’ table wept, feeling the accumulated losses of the Trojan War, thinking of the loves and friendships it had severed, and the trauma it had caused.
Menelaus’ companion said perhaps they should forestall their lamentations. And Helen, who had known her fair share of grief and regret, did not want the men to go on weeping all night. She put a special Egyptian narcotic into their wine - one which numbed feelings of anguish. She said they should tell stories, and volunteered to go first.
Helen remembered a time during the Trojan War when Odysseus had beaten and battered himself, and, disguised as a beggar, infiltrated the walls of Troy to gather information. Helen had recognized him but said nothing – for she wanted the war to be over and wanted to go home to Greece. Only Odysseus would have the wit and luck to successfully reconnoiter in such a fashion.
Next, Menelaus remembered the Trojan horse. The Trojan horse was a hollowed out sculpture – ostensibly a peace offering, that Odysseus had devised. The sculpture, given to the Trojans just before the end of the war, convinced the Trojans that the Greeks were through fighting. They brought it into their city. Only, it was filled with elite Greek fighters. Menelaus remembered a strange episode, the night the elite Greek fighters were secreted inside the Trojan horse, within the walls of Troy. Helen, eerily, circled the sculpture. She brushed it with her hands. She called to the Greek fighters inside, using the voices of their wives. The hidden warriors, missing their spouses desperately, struggled with the urge to respond, but Odysseus restrained them.
Telemachus couldn’t hear any more. The tragedy of his brilliant but still missing father was too much to bear, and he begged that they all go to bed. The guests were given sleeping quarters, and everyone turned in. [music]
The next morning Menelaus went to Telemachus and asked him why he’d come. Telemachus told him about the suitors and the situation back on Ithaca. Disgusted, Menelaus prophesized a grisly death for the intruders. He told Telemachus about being stranded just north of Egypt. He’d had to use trickery in order to contend with one of the sea gods of Egypt. From this god, Menelaus learned that he needed to return to Egypt to offer a sacrifice to Zeus. He also learned about the death of the Greek hero Ajax (the giant man had drowned), and the horrible news about Menelaus’ brother king Agamemnon (who, again, had been viciously murdered by his wife’s lover). As for Odysseus, Menelaus learned that he was stranded on an island with the goddess Calypso. Having heard these three accounts, he went back to Egypt, made appropriate sacrifices to the gods, and set up a barrow for his dead brother. Thereafter, he had a smooth journey home.
Menelaus had finished the stories of his adventures. He offered Telemachus lavish gifts and a long stay in Sparta, but Telemachus said he needed to get going. Things were getting no better back on Ithaca, and the longer he was gone, the worse the situation would become. [music]
Indeed, meanwhile, back on Ithaca, the suitors were cavorting and devouring Odysseus’ food stores. The foremost suitors were stunned to learn that Telemachus really had gone to the mainland. Two in particular, Antinous and Eurymachus, were incensed. Antinous planned to ambush the returning prince.
Fortunately for Telemachus, Penelope found out about the plot. She was incredulous. The suitors were truly without pity or gratitude. They did not remember what kind of a king Odysseus had been. Her husband had been kind, honest, impartial, and temperate. Of all kings, he didn’t deserve such deviousness and greed. Of all kings, he didn’t deserve to have his son massacred. She went to her room, overwhelmed by the injustice of it all, and then proposed that someone go and talk to Laertes, Odysseus’ father, who might be able to do some good.
It wouldn’t be necessary, a maid told her. This maid’s name was Eurycleia, and she will be a recurring character throughout the Odyssey. She was elderly, and had been Odysseus’ nurse when he was a boy. Eurycleia said that Telemachus had little to worry about, since he was in the company of Athena. Penelope felt that she had little she could do but have faith in her family’s patron goddess, and, though Athena promised Penelope that her son would be protected, as it grew late Penelope still heard the murderous murmurs of the suitors below her. At twilight, the suitors set sail, planning to kill Telemachus. They moored their ship on a small, rocky island near Ithaca, and awaited the homecoming of the island’s prince.
The Odyssey, Book 5: CalypsoDawn broke, throwing rose colored light into the eastern sky, so that it was as though flecks of fire rained down to the sea. High up on Mount Olympus, above the rocky harbor of Pylos, above the wheat fields of Sparta, the great god Zeus listened to his daughter Athena. Athena explained Odysseus’ urgent situation. The hero was held captive by the nymph Calypso, and his son in terrible danger. Zeus considered Athena’s petition, and sent the messenger god, fast as quicksilver, to Odysseus. The messenger god wafted over land and sea, and dove down through the sky like a cormorant until he glided along the whitecaps over the violet colored water. Soon, he reached the island of Calypso.
The ringleted nymph was burning cedar wood in her home, and the smoke flowed faintly through the wooded island like incense. Here is Homer’s description of Calypso’s island: [music]
Around her cave the woodland was in bloom,The messenger god saw Calypso there, but Odysseus was not with him. Instead, the hero sat, as he always sat, down by the ocean, his eyes darkened by sorrow and rimmed with the salt of his tears. The messenger god saw this all at once, and addressed Calypso.
Alder and poplar and fragrant cypress.
Long-winged birds nested in the leaves,
Horned owls and larks and slender-throated shorebirds
That screech like crows over the bright saltwater.
Tendrils of ivy curled around the cave’s mouth,
The glossy green vine clustered with berries.
Four separate springs flowed with clear water, criss-
Crossing channels as they meandered through meadows
Lush with parsley and blossoming violets.
It was enough to make even a visiting god
Enraptured at the sight. (72)
He’d come on behalf of Zeus, he explained, and Zeus couldn’t be denied. It was time for Odysseus to return home to his family. Calypso’s lip curled. “You gods,” she said, “are the most jealous bastards in the universe - / Persecuting any goddess who ever openly takes / A mortal lover to her bed and sleeps with him” (73). Calypso reminded the messenger that she’d saved Odysseus’ life, that she’d nursed him back to health and offered him immortality – but – but – indeed, the messenger was right. One couldn’t deny Zeus.
And so Calypso went to where Odysseus sat. He watched the breakers, sunken with homesickness. Now that she knew she was losing him, Calypso only felt pity for her captive. “You poor man,” she said. “You can stop grieving now / And pining away. I’m sending you home. / Look, here’s a bronze axe. Cut some long timbers / And make yourself a raft” (74). She’d stock it with provisions. The Greek hero was dubious. A raft? One needed more than that to cross the ocean. He made her promise that it wasn’t some cruel trick on her part, and she took an oath by the subterranean river Styx that she really was ushering him home. And so this was the plan of the always faultlessly circumspect Homeric gods. To cross the dangerous breakwaters and rocky shorelines, and venture hundreds of miles across the open ocean, the gods gave him. . .an ax. . .with which to build his own raft. I suspect that his sense of gratitude was probably limited.
Calypso brought Odysseus back to the cave for one last meal. Surely he’d stay with her, she said, for Penelope didn’t nearly match her beauty, and he’d face great hardships on the way home. Odysseus was nothing if not tactful. He said of course Calypso was more beautiful – she was a goddess. But Penelope was his wife. And as for more trials and tribulations, Odysseus said “God knows I’ve suffered and had my share of sorrows / In war and at sea. I can take more if I have to” (76). Perhaps in order to prove that he could take any suffering life threw at him, Odysseus conceded to making love to Calypso all night long. [music]
After another miserable night of sex with gorgeous sea nymph, Odysseus put his pants on and accepted the construction tools Calypso gave him. She led him to an alder and poplar grove where the trees grew tall, and said that the wood there would make for a fine vessel. Then, clad in a long silver robe, shimmering in the light of the forest, Calypso turned sadly and left him to his work. Now, you might ask, did Odysseus actually know how to build an oceangoing vessel? Why yes – yes he did. He was Odysseus. Montage time.
He cut twenty trees, smoothed them, and trued them. Using an augur brought by Calypso, he bored holes in the planks and fixed them together with pegs and joiners. He made ribs and covered them with planks, a mast, a rudder, and a barrier to deflect waves. A cloth from Calypso served as the sail. Four days of work saw the job finished, and on the fifth, Calypso bade him farewell, after bathing him, dressing him in fresh clothes, and giving him food, water, and a sack of dark wine. She even put a soft breeze behind him to help send him off. Alas, poor Calypso, we won’t be seeing any more of her.
You know, there’s a lot of hang wringing and teary eyes on the part of Odysseus about being stuck on Calypso’s island. And he was there for seven years! As brilliant as Odysseus is, I think it’s a bit surprising, and maybe just a little suspicious that the guy never devised a scheme to escape Calypso. So I got to thinking, as he sat by the ocean, which is what we see him doing in his first appearance in the Odyssey – as he sat there by the ocean, lamenting the passage of the years, what was Odysseus really thinking? What kind of a song would he sing to explain his situation to the world? Well, it would have to be a sea shanty, of course, a jig – something in 6/8, you know, one two three four five six. I got to thinking that this was the song he would sing.
That, again, was Odysseus’ song of quote unquote lamentation as he strickenly reposed on a warm sandy beach in the Mediterranean. In any case, let’s move on. Odysseus escaped on his recently constructed raft.
Odysseus felt only optimism as his sail first caught the breeze and the wind filled his hair. Now, you might ask, did Odysseus actually know how to sail alone on the open ocean? Why yes – yes he did. He was Odysseus. Navigating by the Pleiades, by Ursa Major and Orion, he sailed for seventeen days, staying oriented by the constellations. At night, the stars shown over the deep water, and on the eighteenth day, he came within sight of land. Mountains rose up out of the ocean, a bulwark of rock massed high over the misty water. Odysseus was close – close to the land of a people called the Phaecians, where the gods had wanted to send him. He was almost there.
But at that moment, Poseidon saw the wanderer. He was still furious at Odysseus, who had grievously hurt one of his cherished sons. Poseidon tightened his hand on his trident and, as the clouds spooled around him, he dragged his great fork through the ocean. Soon, wind and water were everywhere, and the sky darkened.
Seeing the massing storm, Odysseus trembled. He wished, not for the first time, that he’d died at Troy. The sea churned and the wind howled, and briny water blasted over his raft and soaked him immediately. Soon he was thrown off his ship, and the raft’s mast snapped. A vast wave coursed over him, and he barely made it back to the surface. Once there, he clung to the raft for dear life. A nymph came to him as the waves tossed the raft around, and, pitying him, told poor Odysseus to take a special veil. If he put it on, he’d be able to swim to shore without fear of drowning. Odysseus had had enough of nymphs, though. They did cruel, treacherous things, like giving you wine, making love to you, and offering to make you immortal. You just couldn’t trust them. He elected to stick with his raft. At that moment, a massive tsunami heaved its way out of the ocean and broke on Odysseus’ raft. He clung desperately to a beam and decided it was time to take his chances with the magical veil. Moments later he was swimming desperately toward the shore. Poseidon had seen enough. He’d basically taken care of Odysseus, hadn’t he? Yeah, basically. No need to take that extra step and confirm that the resilient survivor hadn’t survived yet another attempt on his life. Poseidon dusted off his hands, and assumed his work was finished.
Odysseus swam for three days, helped forward from a gentle breeze sent by Athena. Finally, at dawn on the fourteenth day, he was within sight of land. He paddled desperately forward, but when he came close he saw that as far as the eye could see there were only cliffs – cliffs and the slate colored saltwater that broke against them. He feared being smashed against the rocks himself, or being dragged back out to sea, or being attacked by an unseen predator beneath the water. The water indeed washed him in, threatening to crush him against a sea wall, but he clung to a rock, and clung to it again as the current pressed back out to sea. But Odysseus couldn’t hold on, and was washed back out into the ocean. He swam and swam, and eventually saw a place where a river delta softened the swaying ocean currents.
He prayed for safe harbor there, and found himself being washed in to the river’s shallows. There, he finally staggered out of the water, physically broken. Everything was swollen. He could scarcely breathe, he could not speak, and just lay there on dry land. When he had the strength, he rose and moved away from the water, sinking into a bank of reeds and kissing the warm soil. He was on his last legs, and knew it. He needed to find a place to get warm for the night. In a tangled thicket where two olive trees intertwined, he found great heaps of leaves, and, exhaustedly, he sunk down into them, covering himself with them to keep warm. Protected in his burrow, Odysseus fell into a deep sleep. [music]
The Odyssey, Book 6: NausicaaFast asleep beneath his leaves, Odysseus did not know the land into which he’d come. But Athena did. She knew that he’d arrived in the kingdom of the Phaecians, a kingdom with a walled city, shrines and houses, beyond which lay long stretches of fields. Athena went to the Phaecian kingdom, to plan how to get Odysseus home.
The ruler of the Phaecians was called Alcinous, and his daughter, a beautiful princess, was named Nausicaa. Athena went through beautiful princess Nausicaa’s doors in a soft stream of air, and, in disguise, spoke with her. She told Nausicaa to take a mule cart, and hurry and go to the river to wash her clothes, for although Nausicaa was a gorgeous woman, she still needed to have clean silks and sashes.
At dawn, beautiful Nausicaa went to her father Alcinous, king of the Phaecians, and asked permission to use the cart to go and wash clothes. Her father consented. Stocked with provisions for a day of washing, Nausicaa and her maids were soon jostling down the road to the river, the straps and buckles of the mules jingling in the clear morning air. At the river, the mules were unhitched, and they gobbled up the lush clover that grew along the riverbanks. As for the women, they washed their clothes, and set them on the seashore to dry, taking the opportunity to bathe themselves, rub each other with oil, and play a game with a ball. The women were having a grand old time, and their voices awakened Odysseus. He muttered that he wandered where in the world he was, shook the sleep from him, and stood up. Covering his nakedness with an olive branch, Odysseus went to speak to the girls.
Excepting princess Nausicaa, the girls were all frightened off at the site of the – uh – nude hobo looking guy. Now, you might ask, could Odysseus handle himself socially, and appear genteel and nonthreatening as he stepped out of a leaf pile naked, caked with dirt, his hair full of twigs? Why yes – yes he could. He was Odysseus. He flattered Nausicaa, telling her she had the beauty and stature of Artemis, and said she filled him with awe. He said he didn’t dare touch her, and explained that he’d been lost at sea for a score of days, having come all the way from Calypso’s island. His long speech ended with words that were humble and complimentary: [music]
Pity me, mistress. After all my hardshipsI only hope that if I ever step naked out of a leaf pile and into a riverside scene of beautiful oiled noblewomen playing a three thousand year old version of soccer, I’ll manage to be as eloquent as Odysseus. But I suspect I’d probably keep hiding in the leaves. In any case, how did Nausicaa respond to this friendly, articulate vagrant? Very positively. Well, Nausicaa said, he certainly seemed like a decent guy. She told him he’d come to the land of the Phaecians. And the Phaecians, like all good Greeks, were hospitable folks. He’d have clothes, and she’d take him to the city, of which she was the princess. She summoned the other girls, telling them they’d been silly to flee at the sight of a filthy, unclothed middle aged drifter. Odysseus was a guest in their land. It was time to treat him like one. [music]
It is to you I have come first. I don’t know
A soul who lives here, not a single one.
Show me the way to town, and give me
A rag to throw over myself, some piece of cloth
You may have brought along to bundle the clothes.
And for yourself, may the gods grant you
Your heart’s desire, a husband and a home,
And the blessing of a harmonious life. (90)
They took him over to the river, gave him a golden flask of oil, and told him to bathe. Odysseus consented, but asked if they could – uh – please go off a little ways? He was a little self conscious, and besides, he was foul with sea brine and not looking his best. So they left him to clean himself up, and he rubbed himself with oil and adorned himself in his new garments. Athena, ever wanting her favorite mortal to look attractive, “made him look / Taller and more muscled, and made his hair / Tumble down his head like hyacinth flowers” (91).
Thus clad and refreshed, Odysseus strutted around the bend of the river, shimmering in the mid-morning light. Nausicaa found him godlike, and wished aloud that a man like him could be her husband. She told the others to give the glistening stranger some food and drink, and, understandably famished, Odysseus ate his fill. Now, Nausicaa said, about that trip back to the Phaecian city. Would he mind if she dropped him off a ways before they got to the city? Because if she showed up with a supermodel looking guy swaggering along beside her mule cart, people were going to gossip. And really his best bet was to come into the city alone and ask after Alcinous, and then throw his arms around the queen’s knees and ask for help getting home. Odysseus consented.
And so, on the way to the Phaecian city, princess Nausicaa left Odysseus in a poplar grove that rose up from a broad meadow. There, Odysseus voiced a solemn prayer to Athena, asking only that the Phaecians like him and pity him for his sufferings. [music]
The Odyssey, Book 7: The Palace of AlcinousOdysseus approached the Phaecian city concealed in mist from the goddess Athena. And this wasn’t the only help she gave him. She appeared as a little girl carrying a pitcher just outside the city walls. He asked the child if she knew where to find the house of Alcinous, king of the Phaecians and father of princess Nausicaa. Disguised Athena said she’d be glad to help – but to keep his head down, because the Phaecians could be weird about strangers. On the way to the palace, Odysseus admired the Phaecian harbors, and their swift ships, and the palisades that graced the tops of their walls.
When they arrived at the palace, the disguised Athena told Odysseus about the lineage of king Alcinous’ family. The queen, Athena said, was called Arete. And Arete was totally awesome. She was understanding, discerning, and a terrific ruler. Her husband Alcinous appreciated her, and treated her like a – a queen? Well, he really loved her. The rulers of the Phaecians were a happy family, and Odysseus would do fine with them. [music]
Still, as he entered the palace hall, Odysseus was intimidated. The walls were bronze, with a blue glaze around their crowns. Gold and silver was everywhere, along with beautiful statuary, plush seating built into the walls, delicious food and drink, and an overall ambiance of lush plentitude, blossoms and sweet fragrances. Even beyond the palace hall, Odysseus could see an orchard, where trees hung thick with figs, apples, olives, pomegranates and pears. He marveled at the luxuries the gods had given to King Alcinous and his family.
Steeling himself, Odysseus went in. Following princess Nausicaa’s earlier instructions, Odysseus threw himself at the feet of the brilliant queen. Now, you might ask, could Odysseus conduct himself decorously amidst nobility, even when intimidated by their pedigree and opulent palace? Why yes – yes he could. He was Odysseus. Briefly, he wished them great prosperity, begged for a fast journey home to his people, and petitioned them to end his sufferings. Then, humbly, he sat in the ashes near the fireplace.
At first, the Phaecians just stared at him. Then, their instincts of hospitality arose. Give the stranger a chair, said one of them. Get the wine. Get this guy some food. King Alcinous agreed. Odysseus was seated next to the king, and given water to wash his hands. The adventurer enjoyed bread and other dishes, and everyone drank wine.
Alcinous, without even hearing anything else about the stranger, resolved to help him. The next morning, he said, they’d reconvene, and make sacrifices to the gods. Then, they’d figure out how they’d get Odysseus home. And, said king Alcinous, they’d get him home safely, too! He might be a god, and be testing them.
Odysseus disabused the king of this idea. He wasn’t a god, he said. Rather, he told king Alcinous and his court, “I am completely human. Better to liken me / To the most woebegone man you ever knew. / That’s who I’d compare myself to” (101). He said he had a great story to tell, but first he should eat – about that one had no choice. The Phaecians liked him. His looks, humbleness, and noble deportment were all of the first order. After more food and wine, everyone except for Odysseus and the king and queen retired.
Queen Arete had, by this time, had a chance to examine Odysseus’ garments, which, if you’ll remember were given to him by princess Nausicaa. Queen Arete recognized them, for, in fact she had made them, and asked Odysseus why it was, exactly, that he was wearing her daughter’s – uh – tunic? Dress?
The Greek hero told them an abridged version of his recent adventures. He’d just escaped the island of Calypso, where he’d been stuck for seven years. She’d sent him off in the eighth year, and Odysseus had set out. After horrible storms, a broken ship, and gulping a lot of seawater, he’d washed up in the Phaecian River, where Nausicaa had found him, helped him out, and let him wear her clothes. Upon being asked, Odysseus explained he’d come separately at his own volition, because he didn’t want to be presumptuous and accompany the princess in public.
This explanation fully convinced Alcinous that Odysseus was a great guy. In fact, he went so far as to wish that Odysseus would stay in his kingdom, marry Nausicaa, and be his son. He’d even get a house filled with – well, wait a minute – they couldn’t do that. Odysseus wanted to go home, didn’t he? They’d get him home. They were Phaecians, not kidnappers. They had his back. Odysseus prayed to Zeus that kind and understanding Alcinous would have happiness and fame all the days of his life.
And so brilliant queen Arete had a bed prepared for the wandering Odysseus. He’d enjoy lavish purple coverlets and bedspreads soft with fleece – nice upgrade from the previous night of grime and leaves. The Greek hero, and the whole house of Alcinous settled into their beds and enjoyed peaceful slumber. [music]
The Odyssey, Book 8: The Phaecian GamesThe next morning, king Alcinous awoke, and an assembly was held to prepare an escort for Odysseys’ trip home. Once everyone had arrived, Alcinous made the announcement. He wanted a new ship brought out into the harbor, and a crew of fifty-two people to man it. While the ship and crew were prepared, Odysseus joined king Alcinous in the palace to listen to a bard sing about the Trojan War. The bard, sat on a silver-studded chair, played a beautiful lyre to accompany himself. The song was, of all things, about Odysseus himself, and the famous Greek warrior’s deeds during the Trojan War, and a quarrel he’d had with the champion Achilles.
As the bard sung Odysseus was overcome with emotion. He eased his purple cloak over his head from time to time so that no one would see his tears, but king Alcinous saw them. The king proposed that they switch from music to athletic games. There was a race, and strong young runners sped across a plain, the dust rising from beneath their swift feet. Then the Phaecians held a game of wrestling, high jump, discus, and boxing. One of the young men, seeing Odysseus’ impressive build, asked if the stranded adventurer would like to participate in one of the games. Odysseus declined, but the young man taunted him, saying perhaps Odysseus was a person of no consequence, after all. Odysseus told the young man that he was certainly smart and strong, but not very intelligent. If the young man really wanted athletic competition, he could have it.
Now, you might ask, was Odysseus actually proficient in the sports of the classical Olympics? Why yes –yes he was. He was Odysseus. Odysseus stood up and seized a discus – one far larger than the ones that had been hurled in the competition. He wound up and hurled it, and it flew so far and fast that it hummed in the air, landing far, far beyond any the Phaecians had thrown. Odysseus inquired if anyone wanted to try and beat his throw. No? He asked if anyone would like to box him, or wrestle him, or race him. Had he mentioned that he could shoot a bow, and hurl a spear? [music]
Alcinous knew his guest’s blood was up, and diffused the situation, saying that the wandering stranger had done what was natural to defend his honor. He proposed that they switch to dancing. Dancing proceeded, and a song about some of the Olympian gods. It was a bawdy tune. In it, beautiful Aphrodite was having an affair. She was married to the ugly smith god Hephaestus. And at every opportunity, she was sleeping with handsome Ares, the god of war. Hephaestus arranged a trap, so that he could catch them in the act, and just as Aphrodite and Ares were about to have sex, they became snared in a series of invisible wires wrought by the brilliant smith god. The male gods came to see, and jibed and joked about it, until eventually the adulterous lovers were separated and sent in their different ways.
When the song ended, dancing proceeded, and Odysseus admitted that the Phaecians really were extraordinary dancers. King Alcinous proposed that the wandering stranger be given more gifts. The youth who had insulted Odysseus earlier at the games gave him a fine sword and apologized, wishing Odysseus a safe journey home. Odysseus thanked the young man and said, “And you, my friend, be well, and may the gods / Grant you happiness. And may you never miss / This sword you have given me to make amends” (118).
Then, Odysseus was given more gifts – a cup of pure gold from Alcinous, a clean cloak and tunic from the king’s wife, and more goods from other nobles. The Phaecians provided a large copper basin filled with warm water for the hero to take a bath. With this finished, he went to join the Phaecian nobles, who were drinking wine.
Princess Nausicaa saw him, and, her heart fluttering, asked him to please not forget about her – she’d saved his life, after all. Odysseus said there was no danger of this. He’d pray to her all his life, as though she were a goddess. After this promise, Odysseus went to the feasting table. Offering a piece of pork to the bard who’d sung earlier, Odysseus made a request. Could the man please sing about the Trojan horse? This was a song that Odysseus would like to hear.
The Phaecian bard told the story. In the twilight of the Trojan War, after the fall of the Trojan champion Hector, the Greeks had burned their huts and tents on the beach. They got into their ships, and left, leaving behind them a great wooden horse, in which there was a core group of battle-hardened warriors. When the Trojans brought the horse into the city, after a time the Greeks broke out and ransacked the city.
Hearing the song – the recitation of a time of such great peril, and intensity, and suffering, Odysseus wept. As before, only king Alcinous noticed, and the king requested that the song stop. And finally, he asked Odysseus his name. “[T]ell me this, and tell me the truth,” said Alcinous. “Where have you wandered, to what lands? / Tell me about the people and cities you saw. . .And tell me why you weep and grieve at heart / When you hear the fate of the Greeks and Trojans” (123). With this question hanging in the air, Book 8 of the Odyssey ends. [music]
Rapprochement and Hospitality in the OdysseyWe’re eight books into the Odyssey – just a third of the way through this poem – but I bet you’re already conscious of a pronounced difference between the Iliad and the Odyssey. First and foremost, no one has been beheaded, gutted, or impaled. No bombastic heroes have issued combat challenges to one another and then gone at it with bronze swords. Second, there are more than two classes of people. The Odyssey isn’t a poem about Greeks and Trojans – it’s a poem about a single man navigating his way through a complex, ever-shifting social and geographical landscape, all in an effort to get home. In the Odyssey, tact is at least as useful as swordsmanship.
When I first read the Odyssey I found its many scenes of rapprochement – or of people exchanging gifts and becoming friends with one another – as exhilarating as the Iliad’s battle scenes. The spontaneous displays of kindness and generosity, the common grounds discovered between people from far flung lands, the essential humanity shown as, again and again, strangers come together and share wine and food and stories, all showed an optimism and humanism that helped counterbalance the Iliad’s blood-soaked apocalypse. We’ve just heard of Odysseus’ kindly reception by first Nausicaa, and then her father Alcinous, king of the Phaecians. When the boisterous young man insults Odysseus in the book we’ve just finished, we expect Odysseus to stab him. But the Odyssey is not the Iliad, and the king gently diffuses the situation, and later, at dinner the impetuous young man apologizes and gives Odysseus a gift by way of remuneration. No harm is done, lessons are learned, and no severed limbs have to soar through the air. Time after time in the Odyssey, scenes of characters from different lands treating one another with respect and gracious expressiveness generally make readers smile. If Theodore Roosevelt’s foreign policy can be summed up with “speak softly, and carry a big stick,” the policy of the Odyssey seems to be “speak eloquently, and carry a few skins of wine.” The latter, to me, seems a more reliable recipe for peace and prosperity, though I do love old Teddy.
The earliest scene of rapprochement takes place when Telemachus is welcomed at Pylos by the old Greek warrior Nestor. One of the lines in this scene isn’t really remarkable or consequential, but since I first read it and underlined it, it’s become one of my favorite lines in Homer. After Telemachus and his companion have been given a warm reception and all the food and drink they want, Nestor says,
It is seemlier to ask our guests who they areNestor’s words here, polite and unpresumptuous, indicate that he’s happy to have them as guests whoever they are. Nestor’s words, and many other similar passages in the Odyssey show that the Mediterranean world that produced the Homeric epics understood the value of courteous diplomacy between foreign powers, and between hosts and guests. [music]
Now that they have enjoyed some food with us.
Who are you, strangers? Where do you sail from?
Are you on some business, or are you adventurers
Wandering the seas, risking your own lives. . .? (30)
The Uluburun Shipwreck and Commerce in the Late Bronze AgeIn 1982, an extraordinary discovery was made just off the coast of a peninsula in southwestern Turkey, a peninsula called Uluburun, near the city of Kas. It was a late Bronze Age shipwreck, dated to about 1305 BCE, a shipwreck that, once excavated, showed a microcosm of a thoroughly interconnected Mediterranean world. The ship, sailing from either Cyprus or somewhere in Canaan, was bound westward, probably somewhere in the Aegean. Its crew, its goods, and even its materials of fabrication, were extremely cosmopolitan.
Copper and tin ingots were the main cargo. Enough metal was onboard to smelt bronze weapons for a small army. Archaeologists also found glass ingots, colored cobalt blue, lavender, and turquoise, having the same coloration of contemporary Egyptian ones. Jars from the land of Canaan also filled the hold, stocked with glass beads, olives, and an ancient form of turpentine. Divers excavating the wreck also found elephant tusks, tortoise shells, a trumpet, agate and carnelian, a variety of jewelry, weapons and armor, and tools. All told, the cargo and passengers who’d perished there carried goods from as far east as Mesooptamia, as far west as Sicily, as far north as the Baltic sea, and as far south as sub-Saharan Africa. The Uluburn shipwreck showed a multicultural world brought together through organized economics.
Thus, if the general cultural mythos of a roving warrior band sacking a city shaped the Iliad, as we discussed in the previous episode, the Odyssey is the product of a later, more commercially interdependent world. It’s not a story about a battlefield where soldiers wear one of two different colors. It’s a story of a time a bit more like our own. [music]
Kleos and NostosThat brings me to the main point I wanted to cover today, the title of this episode, Episdoe 12: Kleos and Nostos. Kleos means, loosely, “glory won at war,” and nostos, “homecoming.” These two things don’t logically coexist with one another very well. If you happen to remember, in Book 9 of the Iliad, crafty Odysseus and giant Ajax go to the Greek champion Achilles’ hut and beg him to reconsider – to join their military efforts and win glory for himself. And Achilles tells them no for a number of reasons. One of these reasons is that he’s heard a prophecy that he can either die in the Trojan War and live on forever as a hero of legend. Or he can journey back home, live a long, happy life, and be forgotten by time. He thus faces a clear choice between kleos, or nostos, and at that moment, he chooses nostos, homecoming. Little does he know that his friend Patroclus is about to be killed, which will change his mind and cause him to hurl himself back into battle, choosing, almost involuntarily, kleos – the glory of a death in battle. Before his friend is killed, Achilles only wants to come home, devoting all his efforts to nostos and leaving kleos far behind.
Nostos is one of the common themes in the Homeric epics. Last time, we talked about the “epic cycle,” the lost cycle of poems out of which only fragments survive. One of these epics was called Nosti, or “returns,” or “homecomings,” and it was about the returns of various Greek heroes from the Trojan War. There was a sense in the Greek epic tradition – and this is fascinating – that getting home after the war was as difficult as the war itself. Again, that getting home after the war was as difficult as the war itself. This idea is at the heart of nostos, or homecoming.
Now, for some of the Greek heroes, homecoming was difficult for very obvious reasons. In the first eight books we’ve read today, we learned that the Greek king Agamemnon was murdered by his wife’s lover. Menelaus was swept off course and wound up in Egypt. And Odysseus – well – we’re about to learn about the full extent of his voyages. But embedded in the concept of nostos is another notion – that even if you’re not murdered, even if you don’t wash up in Egypt, or lose your crew to monsters, coming home from war is still painful and difficult. In what we read today, behind the veneer of Odysseus the meanderer is Odysseus the killer. To return one more time to the scene of the young man who taunts him at the Phaecian games, before temperate king Alcinous intervenes, we see Odysseus starting to lose his cool.
Your mind is crippled. [Odysseus tells the gutsy young man,]He hurls his thrumming discus far beyond the Phaecians’ discuses, and says,
And now you’ve got my blood pumping
With your rude remarks. . .Your words
Cut deep, and now you’ve got me going. (111)
Step right up – I’m angry now –Something melts away here, and we see the Odysseus of the eleventh book of the Iliad, a merciless killing machine who deprecates his foes as they die beneath him. It’s an indication that part of homecoming, or nostos is a geographical journey, but another, and perhaps far more difficult part of nostos is rejoining society and coping with the traumas of war. Odysseus himself has lived through this war, and been instrumental in its grisly end. We, and the Phaecians, weren’t on the ground in the final days of the Trojan War. We didn’t witness in detail the mass slaughter, the infanticide, the rape, and the enslavement. In all of the Homeric poetry, we only hear of the war’s end in fragments – recollections and the summations of songs, as though it is far too terrible for a civilized society to hear about in its totality. Odysseus, however, lived through all of it and still bears its scars, and the confluence of emotions, dark flashbacks, perhaps guilt, and even a perverse nostalgia, bubble up in his mind throughout the Odyssey when someone broaches the subject of the Trojan War. [music]
I don’t care if its boxing, wrestling,
Or even running. Come one, come all. (112)
Nostos and Coming HomeIf one aspect of nostos is a geographical journey, and another is something we might call post traumatic stress disorder, there’s a third aspect, too. I don’t think you need to be an ancient Greek epic hero to understand the complexities of going home after a long absence. Leave your friends and family for a decade, and when you return, the configuration of relationships will have changed. Some friendships will have severed, others formed, newcomers will have made their ways into your old social circles, and old friends will have moved away. The shape of your hometown will have changed – old trees fallen, new ones growing up, and businesses and neighbors come and gone. While this is all just a part of being human, it’s nonetheless a profound and difficult emotional experience. And in addition to suffering the privations of a long journey and the trauma of war, Odysseus has, like the rest of us who have left home and come back, to deal with a social world which has moved and evolved, and perhaps even made his relevance questionable.
I titled this episode “Kleos and Nostos” because I thought it would be a good way for us to understand the major difference between the Iliad and the Odyssey as we move from one to the other. The warfare in the Iliad and the kleos, or battle glory, that comes out of it, are brutal, but they are also uncomplicated. Unsheath your sword, clash weapons with your foes, kill and die for the sake of your army. This is the ethos of the Iliad, a violent, clannish ethos that demands both submission and fearlessness. Spectacular as the Trojan War is, what happens on the plains of Troy perhaps belongs to an earlier phase of human civilization, a phase of genocidal conflicts and lootings between city states, during which war is both tragic and inevitable. The world of the Odyssey, however, and the complex theme of homecoming at the center of it, is the world of the Uluburun shipwreck. In this late Bronze Age world, people are on the move, commerce is changing cultures, and a well manned cargo ship is far more iconic than a bronze axe. In the Odyssey, just as in our own world, things are changing so fast that it’s difficult, wherever you’ve been, to ever really make it home. [music]
In the next episode, we’ll look at the most famous parts of Homer’s Odyssey, which occur between books eight and sixteen. In these books, we learn about Odysseus’ encounters with the Cyclops, sirens, the fearsome monsters Scylla and Charybdis, the forbidden bag that his sailors weren’t supposed to open, and did, the sacred cattle that his sailors weren’t supposed to eat, and did, the three thousand year old drug addicts Homer calls the Lotus Eaters, the cannibalistic Laestrygonians, and the seductive witch Circe. It’s going to be a crazy, awesome episode, and I can’t wait for you to hear it.
And by the way, if you’re enjoying this podcast, do me a favor and write a quick review of it – iTunes, Stitcher, or whichever application you’re using to play it, that allows you to write a review. The way most of these applications sort podcasts is pretty cool – if something’s getting a lot of good reviews, it’s more likely to show in up search results, since people are enjoying it. So if Literature and History gets some good reviews from helpful audience members, it’s more likely to come up in iTunes, for instance, under headings for literature, history, and its various subtopics – you know, Homer, Hesiod, Gilgamesh, and all that. As I record this, I’ve just launched the show, and could use all the support I can get! Thanks in advance for any nice reviews, and for listening to Literature and History, and I’ll see you next time.
|Paid||Hardcopy/Kindle||The Odyssey||Homer||This is the Stanley Lombardo translation I quote from in the podcast - clear, musical, and beautiful. Highly recommended.|
|Free||Podcast||Ancient Greece Declassified||Lantern Jack||This free podcast features interviews fantastic, accessible interviews with contemporary giants of classical scholarship. I very strongly recommend that you listen to the outstanding interview of Andrew Ford - the fourth installment in Jack's series.|
|Paid||Hardcopy||Homer: The Poetry of the Past||Andrew Ford||Leading Homer scholar Andrew Ford published this modern classic about twenty years ago, and it continues to be a standard, due to its unusual combination of broad accessibility and and scholarly diligence. The book is particularly fascinating in the context of this episode, since it considers the Iliad in the context of late Bronze and early Iron Age history, and the work the Homeric poet does as an author of historical fiction.|
|Free||Podcast||The Trojan War Podcast||Jeff Wright||This is a serialized, 20+ episode program on the Trojan War, including the peripheral stories outside of Homer's Iliad. Host Jeff Wright focuses on weaving the whole epic into a gigantic, edge-of-your seat audio program - his voice, delivery, organization and obvious love for the topic all do justice to Homer and his legacy. Highly recommended.|
|Free||Podcast||The History of Ancient Greece||Ryan Stitt||Launched in the spring of 2016, Ryan Stitt's The History of Ancient Greece is the long awaited counterpart to Mike Duncan's The History of Rome. Ryan begins in the Stone Age and guides his listeners through the complex and fascinating history of Ancient Greece, covering topics like geography, culture, military technology, architecture, and much, much more. You don't want to miss this one!|
|Free||Podcast||The Maritime History Podcast||Brandon Huebner||You will love this podcast. It's all about the history of mankind at sea. Extremely relevant to the Odyssey. I wrote a long review of Brandon's podcast here. If you want to hear his episode on Homer and maritime history, it's here. Check it out!|
|Paid||Audiobook||The Odyssey||Homer||Same item as previous (wonderful Lombardo translation of the Odyssey), only on Audible. he reads it, actress Susan Sarandon offers interstitial context. Both are fabulous - Lombardo reading his own translation is really breathtaking at times.|
|Paid||Hardcopy||The Odyssey||Homer||The prose E.V. Rieu translation that I and many other folks grew up with. Also really good. This is the one I took the book titles from.||Paid||Hardcopy/Audiobook||Why Homer Matters||Adam Nicolson||This book came out in 2014 to rave reviews. Nicolson is an extremely strong historian and reader. As if this weren't enough, reviewers (me included, I guess) remark again and again on the brilliance and panache of his writing style. An experienced travel writer, Nicolson writes about the setting and background of the Homeric epics with impassioned beauty and unforgettable descriptions. Read this baby. Or listen. He narrates the book on Audible, too.|
|Free||Podcast||The Ancient World||Scott Chesworth||This is a terrific, energetically delivered introduction to ancient history from earliest times up until Rome. Plenty of free, accessibly arranged information about Homeric Greece, too. Click the link already!|
|Paid||Podcast||Darkness Buries the Bronze Age||Dan Carlin||This is Dan's program on the Bronze Age Collapse. It's really awesome. If you haven't heard Dan Carlin, (the grand vizier of history podcasters), you're missing out.|
|Free||Podcast||The Ancient World Rediscovered||Scott Chesworth||An entertaining, well organized survey of some of the great discoveries and wacky personalities of archaeology from the late 1700s until the early 1900s, including archaeology at the city of Troy, and the ruthless German tomb raider Heinrich Schliemann. Troy's archaeology is in this episode and concludes in this one.|
|Paid||Hardcopy/Kindle||The First Philosophers: The Presocratics and Sophists||Robin Waterfield||This book is a gem. Anyone who deals with Presocratic Greek philosophy has to have a mastery of a bunch of scraps from later writers. On one hand, you don't want a book that dumbs things down too much and gives you these scraps out of context. On the other, you don't want full scale specialist polemics just because you're reading a bit Heraclitus. Waterfield strikes the perfect balance in this highly readable little anthology.|
|Paid||Audiobook||Everyday Life in Ancient Greece||Cyril Robinson||Setting aside all the Themistocleses, Leonidases, and Alexanders, Robinson's book talks about how most folks actually lived during the Greek Golden Age. Over the course of 4 hours, Robinson tells you what it would have been like to actually live in Pericles' Athens.|
|Paid||Kindle/Hardcopy||Ancient Greece: From Prehistoric to Hellenistic Times||Thomas R. Martin||A rock solid single volume history on the Ancient Aegean world. Well organized, readable, exciting, and carefully researched. I strongly recommend this book.|
1.^For a good discussion of Odysseus' epithets see Nicolson, Adam. Why Homer Matters. New York: Henry Holt and Co., 2014, p. 224. This book was central to my research on Homeric authorship, and many other topics having to do with the Iliad and Odyssey. Link.
3.^Homer. The Odyssey. Translated by E.V. Rieu. London and New York: Penguin Classics, 2000, p. 3. All book titles are taken from this edition. Link.
4.^Homer. The Odyssey. Translated by Stanley Lombardo. Hackett Publishing. Kindle Edition, 2000, p. 28. Further references will be noted parenthetically. Link.
3.^Homer. The Odyssey. Translated by E.V. Rieu. London and New York: Penguin Classics, 2000, p. 3. All book titles are taken from this edition. Link.
4.^Homer. The Odyssey. Translated by Stanley Lombardo. Hackett Publishing. Kindle Edition, 2000, p. 28. Further references will be noted parenthetically. Link.