His Mind Teeming
The Odyssey, Books 9-16Hello, and welcome to Literature and History. Episode 13, His Mind Teeming. This episode is number two of three on Homer’s Odyssey, an ancient Greek poem set down around 725 BCE. If you’re just jumping in, I’d recommend first listening to the previous show, in which I introduce the characters and situation of the Odyssey, and lay out the story of the first eight books. In today’s show, we’re going to sail through the most famous part of the Odyssey – Odysseus’ perilous journeys in the two or three years after the Trojan War, and his arrival, after twenty years of wandering, on his homeland of Ithaca. [music]
Let’s review what’s happened in the story so far. Last time, we covered the first third of the Odyssey. In Books 1-8, we first learn that after the decade long Trojan War, poor Odysseus wandered an additional nine or ten years. When the Odyssey begins, Odysseus is being held captive on an island by a beautiful nymph called Calypso, who tortures him by giving him all the food and wine he can drink and making love to him every night. Ever loyal to his homeland and wife, Penelope, Odysseus has only stayed with Calypso for seven years because he’s been forced to, and the first we see of him, he’s crying near the ocean and thinking of home.
Fortunately, Odysseus is friends with another goddess, one considerably more powerful than Calypso. Good old Athena, the daughter of Zeus, with gray eyes the color of a still ocean and, and intelligence greater than anything in the cosmos, has his back. In the opening of the Odyssey, she sets in motion a plan to get the lost hero home.
At Odysseus’ palace on his island kingdom of Ithaca, however, not all is well. Since he’s been gone for twenty years, many of the local nobles assume that he’s dead, and that his wife, kingdom, and treasures, are all up for grab. In total, 108 suitors, four attendants, and a bard have all converged on Odysseus’ wife Penelope, pressing their offers of marriage to her. Their presence is a sausage party in more ways than one, for in addition to rather rudely insisting that Penelope give up on her missing husband, the suitors are devouring Odysseus’ pigs, goats, cows, wine, and other foodstuffs.
Odysseus and Penelope’s son Telemachus has also been victimized by the 113 freeloading men who’ve moved into the palace. He’s not quite of age yet, so he can’t just tell them they’re legally required to get lost. And so he’s languished there, not quite having the martial abilities of his father, a little socially inexperienced, but nonetheless tough and stalwart in his criticisms of the unwanted guests. In the previous episode, we traveled with him on a journey to the mainland – first to Pylos, and then to Sparta, to speak to his dad’s old army buddies Nestor and Menelaus. We left young Telemachus, the son of Odysseus, in Sparta, about to return home from Ithaca, and not aware of a plot on his life by the scheming suitors.
After books 1-4, which were all about Telemachus, we joined Odysseus for books 5-8. With Athena’s help, Odysseus escaped the twenty-four hour feasting and sex slavery of Calypso’s island and then became caught in an intense storm. After drifting for days, Odysseus finally made land in a place called Phaecia, [music] where he staggered onshore and fell asleep in a leaf pile. The next morning he awakened to the site of a princess and noblewomen washing their clothes in a river. He stepped out of the leaf pile in the nude and scared the girls, but, being Odysseus, managed to articulate why he was there and impress the princess so much that she compelled him to come to her father’s palace. There, Odysseus’ social skills continued to shine. There were banquets, and wine, and games in honor of the visiting stranger. And when the king noticed that his mysterious guest became teary and emotional over bardic recitations of the Trojan War, the king finally asked Odysseus to tell his story, the autobiographical narrative that will, in itself, occupy several books of the Odyssey.
As in the previous episode, the translation I’m using is the Stanley Lombardo’s, published by Hackett Classics in 2000. And the book titles come from the E.V. Rieu translation, published by Penguin in 1946.
Now, I just want to make one thing clear again before we pick up the story. This is chronology. Roughly speaking, let’s say that on year zero, Odysseus set out to fight in the Trojan War. The war lasted ten years, so at year ten, Odysseus left the city of Troy. Now, keep in mind that the Odyssey takes place in year 19 or so. The whole poem takes place in the month before he gets back to Ithaca, and the month afterwards – all 19 years after the Trojan War began. So when Odysseus begins telling the Phaecians – again, that’s the people onto whose shore he washed up – when he begins telling the Phaecians about his adventures, he’s talking about events that happened between year 10 – the end of the Trojan War, and year 13, or so, before he became the captive of Calypso. So, to recap, years 0-10, he fought in the Trojan War. Years 10-13, he journeyed and encountered many monsters – you’ll hear about this part in a minute. Years 13-19, he was imprisoned in Calypso’s buffet slash orgy. And during year 19, he escaped Calypso, met the Phaecians, and is about to escape back to Ithaca. I hope that helps, and that I didn’t make it sound too dry. The middle years of Odysseus’ adventures – years 10-13 – contain the most famous parts of the Odyssey, so relax, take a deep breath, and get ready for what is possibly the most famous flashback in all literature. [music]
The Odyssey, Book 9: The Cyclops1 Odysseus sat at the feast table of the Phaecians, all eyes on him. The assembly was cheerful, the banquet tables stocked with food and drink, and wine flowed freely. It was all beautiful, but behind it, he felt the old anguish of the Trojan War. He wondered where to begin, and started by telling them his name. He was Odysseus, he said. And then, he began his story.
When he and his people left Troy, they came to a town called Cicones. There, “I pillaged the town,” Odysseus said, “and killed the men. / The women and treasure that we took out / I divided as fairly as I could among all hands.” 2 Though he told his men to leave immediately after the city was sacked, they stayed, drinking and feasting on the spoils of the invasion. This cost them dearly, because the relatives of the townspeople arrived from the surrounding countryside, inflicting heavy casualties on Odysseus and his men and causing them to have to flee.
Once they were out at sea, they were struck by a hurricane. The storm was so vast and violent that it was as though night were rising up out of the ocean. The sails started to shred into tatters, and the men packed them away and paddled doggedly toward the mainland. By dawn of the third day, conditions seemed to improve, but then blustery, strong winds pushed their ships far, far off course, until they came to a strange island, where there dwelt a people called the Lotus-Eaters. [music]
Odysseus and his men disembarked, weary from the wet weeks at sea. They prepared food and water, and sent emissaries to the strangers on the island. But the men sent to the Lotus Eaters did not come back. The lotus fruit was a potent drug, and when a man drank it, he lost his will, and forgot about home, and merely wanted to stay on the island, mild-eyed, and maybe a bit melancholy, and eating lotus forever. Odysseus recovered his men under the influence of the narcotic and bound them to the ship, and the men voyaged on, their oars fast in the churning pale ocean.[music]
They sailed, then, to a new land. It was a place where wheat, barley and grapevines grew and intertwined without having ever been planted. The forests grew thick there, and wild goats wandered amidst the trunks, and grass waved in the lush meadowlands by the shore. Odysseus and his men arrived in the murkiest hour of the night, running unwittingly into a gentle beach and then sleeping there. When they awoke, they found themselves in a natural harbor, the outlet of a clear spring, where poplars grew in droves. They had come to the land of the Cyclopes, a giant, rugged race who dwelt high in mountain caves and had no dealings with men.
As dawn blossomed in the sky the men went out in hunting parties, bringing back a plentitude of goats to eat. Later, Odysseus told his men he wanted to see what sort of a people dwelt on the island – savages or civilized – and whether he might have some dealings with them. The adventurers boarded their ships and sailed around the island, coming to a lofty cave shagged over with laurels. Studying it even from afar, the Greeks could tell that sheep and goats wandered around the cave by day, but were penned into it at night. It was the cave of a hermit, and a giant one, too.
Taking a skin full of delicious wine and twelve of his men, Odysseus prepared to meet the stranger. When they arrived at the cave, however, its inhabitant was gone. Within his domicile, the stranger had an incredible quantity and variety of food. Whole pens of animals, together with jars full of milk and crates stocked with cheese, filled the cave. The men suggested looting it and fleeing. Odysseus insisted in meeting the savage.
The Greeks ate some of the stranger’s cheese, and suddenly, the Cyclops arrived. His appearance was so terrifying that the Greeks ran and hid deeper within the confines of the cave. The Cyclops rolled a stone slab in his cave’s entrance, and proceeded with his night’s chores, milking his livestock and preparing more cheese. When he lit a cooking fire, he saw the Greeks. He spoke, and his voice seemed to make the air vibrate. “Who are you strangers?” he asked. “Sailing the seas, huh? Where from, and what for? Pirates, probably, / Roaming around causing people trouble” (131).
Odysseus replied that they were Greeks, and that they were at his mercy. They only sought hospitality, and giving hospitality was an obligation that everyone had under the gods. The Cyclops was not impressed. Cyclopes, he said, didn’t care about the gods. They were stronger than the gods. If he wanted to spare them, he would. He asked where their ship was. Odysseus said they had wrecked, and were helpless.[music]
The Cyclopes felt no pity. He seized two Greeks and crushed their heads into the cave floor, and then tore them apart and ate the pieces whole. He chased the meal of human flesh with milk, and then drowsed off. Odysseus prepared to strike, but then stopped himself. If he drove his blade into the Cyclops’ liver, no one would be able to move the stone. They spent a horrible night in the cave with the sleeping monster, and in the morning, he ate two more men, and left, shutting them in the cave for the day.
In his absence, Odysseus planned. Now, you might ask, did Odysseus have the brainpower to escape the den of a cannibalistic giant? Why yes – yes he did. He was Odysseus. He found a giant mast of wood and sharpened it, hardening it in the fire, and then hid it. That afternoon, when the monster returned he ate two more men, and Odysseus goaded him into taking some wine, and then more wine, and more still. He asked Odysseus’ name, and Odysseus said his name as “Noman” (135). Burping, his breath reeking of human flesh, the Cyclops sunk to the ground and promised that “Noman” would be given the prize of being eaten last.
Odysseus and the surviving men then heated up the mast of wood and plunged it into the single eye of the Cyclops. The stake was so hot it caused the monster’s eye to boil, and it singed his eyebrow and eyelids. The creature shrieked and arose, pulling aside the giant stone that blocked the cave’s entrance, calling out to its brethren, but his petitions for help were ignored. The Cyclops sank by the opened door of the cave and put his hands down low, waiting for anyone stupid enough to attempt an escape.
The Greeks quietly gathered around the Cyclops’ large sheep. Tying themselves to the sheep’s undersides, they waited for dawn, and when the first light appeared in the sky, the livestock clamored to be released into the fields. Then, the Greeks shuttled past the Cyclops, Odysseus last of all. They brought the sheep down to their ships and, not waiting to mourn their losses, got the vessels out to sea. [music]
Once they were at a safe distance, Odysseus shouted at the Cyclops, taunting him. The idiot had made a mistake, he said – he’d abused guests, which was a loathsome act in the eyes of Zeus. Then, terrifyingly, the Cyclops hurled a section of cliff at the Greek ships, its undertow threatening to drag them back to the island, but the Greeks managed to regain control. This time, they pushed even further out, and Odysseus could not resist the urge to taunt him. Remember, he said to the Cyclops, that if anyone ever inquired how he’d lost his eye, “Tell him that Odysseus the marauder did it, / Son of Laertes, whose home is on Ithaca” (139).
More harsh words followed, and the Cyclops, realizing his own powerlessness, said a prayer to his father Poseidon. “Here me, Poseidon, blue-maned Earth-Holder, / If you are the father you claim to be. / Grant that Odysseus, son of Laertes, / May never reach his home on Ithaca” (139). This curse, voiced only a few weeks after the close of the Trojan War, would haunt Odysseus for almost a decade. The men ate the Cyclops’ sheep on a nearby island and slept on the beach. By dawn, the darkness of the experience began to set in, and as their oars splashed through the gray sea, they continued on in shock, thinking of their lost shipmates. [music]
The Odyssey, Book 10: Circe[music]Having left the island of the Cyclopes, the Greeks reached an island that was home to a being called Aeolus, the god of the winds. The island was an extraordinary sight to behold, for it was surrounded by a wall of stone capped with bronze, and seemed to float above the ocean.
The Greeks were welcomed on the island of Aeolus. They were entertained and regaled for a month, and Odysseus told Aeolus all about the Trojan War. The courtyard echoed with Odysseus recitations and savory odors wafted through the palace corridors. When it came time for Odysseus to continue his journey, Aeolus gave him a great blessing – a bag filled with the winds, opened just so that only the west wind could escape – the wind that would blow the Greeks home.[music]
They left the home of Aeolus, propelled for nine days by the west wind, until they came within sight of Ithaca, Odysseus’ homeland. He was so close he could see the fields that he knew, and peasants tending fires, but then exhaustion overwhelmed Odysseus. He’d been manning the sails for nine days, and could do so no longer. While he slept, his men wondered what sorts of treasures were in Aeolus’ bag. They opened it, and a chaos of winds blew the Greeks far out to sea, back, they were stricken to find, to the island of Aeolus.
They disembarked once more on the island of the god of the winds, but when Odysseus asked for help again, Aeolus was disgusted. Clearly, he said, Odysseus was cursed. He told the wanderers to leave and not come back. And so the Greeks set out to sea once more, paddling laboriously over the now windless ocean. In this fashion they continued for a week, until they came to a new land. [music]
It was a land of unending twilight. The Greeks passed into a natural harbor shaped like a great maw. Headlands projected far out on either side, and as they went forward, sheer cliffs dwarfed their vessels. The water was smooth and silver as glass. A band of scouts was dispatched, and found a girl drawing water from a place near the harbor. She led them to her father’s house, but Odysseus’ men were terrified to see that the girl’s parents were giants. An unfortunate Greek was caught, slaughtered, and devoured, and the others fled back to the ships.
The people who lived in this land of continuous twilight – of still waters and high cliffs – were called the Laestrygonians, and they poured from the surrounding countryside upon hearing of the arrival of the Greeks. In the Laestrygonian harbor, the Greeks faced horrors. Huge rocks were flung down from the cliffs, crushing and sinking Greek ships in their entirety. The Laestrygonians themselves attacked from the shore, impaling the Greeks and carrying them off to eat. Odysseus sliced his ship’s ties to the shore and the Greeks paddled frantically back out to sea, helpless to avoid the falling boulders. When it was over, only Odysseus’ own ship survived.[music]
This single ship made its way slowly away from the land of the Laestrygonians until it reached another island. The surviving Greeks, traumatized by their losses and physically battered from their recent run in with the Laestrygonians, drifted into a sandy harbor and rested for several days on the ship. Their hearts were sore with grief, and recent experience had taught them caution in launching expeditions into new lands, but on the third day there, Odysseus left the ship, climbed a precipice, and looked around. He hoped to see arable farmlands and people and hear the calls of men’s voices. Instead, he saw a single column of smoke, curling through a dense canopy. Odysseus did not investigate. He went back to his ship, killing a stray stag on the way to serve as food for his men. The fresh food, and Odysseus’ heartening words, filled the men with new hope. The next morning, he said it was time to investigate the island, and with some reluctance, his men formed a scouting party. Odysseus himself, this time, would remain with the ship.
[music]The men went through the quiet woods, and found the source of the smoke. A solitary house stood there, made of polished stone. All around the structure were wolves and mountain lions, perched on their hind legs, their tails swishing back and forth. The animals watched the Greek scouts. That, by the way, would be the moment when most people would say, “Okay, guys, let’s get the [censored] out of here.” But Odysseus’ men did not say this. They lingered around the house, and the strange animals. And from the house came singing – singing clear and beautiful –singing that caused the ground to thrum gently beneath their feet. Indoors, a woman was weaving a shimmering tapestry, a graceful light from the fabric spilling out onto the clearing around the house. The men called out to the strange woman, and she opened her house’s doors and ushered them in. Only one man remained outside.
The men who had entered the house were given a concoction of wine, and in this wine were dangerous narcotics. The men felt their effects immediately, and only shortly thereafter the doors opened again and the surviving man saw the woman for what she really was. She was a witch, and as she waved her wand at the gullible men they grew bristles and took on the appearance of pigs. Contemptuously, the witch tossed the pigs acorns and berries. Her name was Circe, and the Greeks had come to her island.
The surviving man fled through the forest and back to the ship, telling Odysseus about the awful events that had taken place. Odysseus nodded, buckled on his sword, and followed the lone survivor back to Circe’s house in the thick woods. On the way, he met the god Hermes. Hermes gave Odysseus a special herb to protect Odysseus from the witch’s spells, and gave him special instructions on how to deal with his dangerous adversary. When she saw that Odysseus was undaunted by her attacks, Hermes said,
She’ll be afraid and invite you to bed.And so Hermes gave Odysseus a black rooted herb that blossomed into a pale flower, and, his brow furrowed, he finished his journey through the thick woods. Now, you might ask, would Odysseus be able to survive ingesting some dubious narcotics and then having sex with someone he definitely shouldn’t? Why yes – yes he would. He was Odysseus.
Don’t turn her down – that’s how you’ll get
Your comrades freed and yourself well loved.
But first make her swear by the gods above
She will not unsex you when you are nude,
Or drain you of your manly fortitude. (149)
Odysseus knocked on the door, and the witch invited him in. She had him sit on a fine silver chair. His heart was pounding in his chest, but, trusting Hermes, when the witch handed him a golden cup laden with more drugs, he drank it. Then the witch Circe tapped him with her wand and told him to get to the pig sty with all the others. Instead he drew his sword.[music]
The witch Circe’s jaw dropped. He wasn’t like other men, she said. He must have a very powerful mind – an unassailable one. He must be Odysseus. “Well then,” she continued, “sheathe your sword and let’s / Climb into my bed and tangle in love there, / So we may come to trust each other” (150). Odysseus was skeptical. Having such a powerful and capacious mind, he knew that when someone switches from trying to drug you and turn you into a pig to requesting sexual intercourse in the space of about twelve seconds, all is not well. “[Y]ou want to trick me / Into going to bed with you,” he said, “so that you can / unman me when I am naked” (150). He made her swear that this was not the case. She swore, guaranteeing that no unmanning would take place. Trusting her oath, Odysseus said he was ready, and climbed into her bed.[music]
Afterwards, the not unmanned Odysseus was given a nice bath, wine, some food, and a new tunic. There was just something about Odysseus that made people want to bathe him, feed him, and hook him up with nice new tunics. Anyway, notwithstanding his recent copulation with another agelessly beautiful woman, being bathed by her lovely maidens, and all the food and wine he could gulp up, the hero was nowhere near happy, and the witch could sense it. He pleaded that she turn his men back into men, and Circe complied. As she saw the horror that she had inflicted on them, the witch was moved to pity. She told Odysseus to beach his ship and bring all of his men. She no longer meant anyone any harm. Soon, all of Odysseus’ men save one were in Circe’s house, and she was pulling out all the stops with her hospitality. Every one ate, everyone got new tunics, and was rubbed with oil. She said they’d all suffered terribly, and they looked badly underfed. It was time to rest and get some food back in their bellies.
So the men stayed that night. And the next. And days stretched to weeks, which stretched to months, and then they’d been there an entire year. Evidently Odysseus did not feel that extensive infidelity was impermissible to a man of his stature. Anyway, finally Odysseus’ men confronted him. Had he forgotten his home? Had he forgotten Ithaca, and his wife Penelope, and his son Telemachus?[music]
Odysseus went to Circe’s bed, and, touching her knees, told her that it was time for them to go. She said she’d keep her promise. He was perfectly free to go. Only, he had to go to hell. No, seriously, he needed to go to Hades, to the underworld, to consult the ghost of a blind seer. Circe promised him that she’d see him safely there, and gave him lengthy instructions on how to access the underworld when the time came. Only the blind seer, she said, could tell him the correct route home, and how long it would take him to get there.
Hearing this, Odysseus prepared his men, telling them the joyous news that he was going to – uh – Hades – to consult with the blind seer. Now, I’ve mentioned this blind seer a couple of times. His name was Tiresias. He’s not a major character in the Odyssey, but he comes up again and again in world literature, from Virgil to Dante to T.S. Eliot. So, telling his men that they were going to the gates of Hades so that their leader could chat with this famous blind seer Tiresias, Odysseus had his men board the ship. Seen safely off by the witch Circe, they were soon moving swiftly toward the entrance to the underworld.[music]
The Odyssey, Book 11: The Book of the DeadOdysseus and his men sailed for days, and the ocean grew deeper and deeper beneath them, until they came to a land where it was always night, and mist hung over the dark water. There, the men undertook a ritual that Circe had prescribed. A pit was dug, and sacrifices made over it, so that inky blood pooled at its base. This awakened the dead. They teemed up to the pit, seemingly from nowhere, those who had died old and young, warriors and maidens, their sudden famished cries making Odysseus go limp with fear. Another sacrifice seemed to control the procession of the dead. A man who had just died an accidental death on Circe’s island came first, and made Odysseus promise to return to Circe’s island and give him a proper burial. Odysseus’ mother came to him, but he was most anxious to speak with the blind seer Tiresias.
The man’s ghost appeared, his gilded staff bright in the deep darkness. Odysseus allowed the seer to drink the blood of the sacrifice. Then, the seer delivered his prophecy. Tiresias told Odysseus he’d have to face Poseidon again, and again. The seer said Odysseus would face various trials on his long journey home, and told him of the suitors, and even said that after Odysseus had reestablished himself on Ithaca, his journeying would not be at its end. Then Tiresias gave Odysseus advice on how to talk to other ghosts, since he had the portal open to Hades. You know. I guess if you have a portal to the underworld open you try to get as much mileage out of it as possible.
Odysseus spoke to his mother first, and when asked, admitted that he had still not come home. She told him about the situation on Ithaca, and said that Odysseus’ father was broken by his disappearance. When he tried to hug her, she was like a shadow, insubstantial and untouchable. The intangibility of his mother brought his loss of her home once more, and she told him that it was the same with everyone – after one’s body was lost one existed only as an apparition.
Odysseus’ mother vanished, and next he spoke with various wives of legendary heroes – a great many – too many to recount. In fact, if you’ll remember the recitation of all these adventures – from the Lotus Eaters to Hades, is delivered by Odysseus himself, seven or eight years after they happened, and he is in the kingdom of the Phaecians. Once Odysseus paused his narrative, the Phaecians realized how long he’d been speaking, and the full depth and breadth of his narrative. Now, you might ask, did Odysseus have the narrative talent to make his adventures shine and crackle with excitement – even when he spoke for hours on end? Why yes – yes he did. He was Odysseus. The Phaecian king Alcinous praised his story thus far, and said that the famous Greek hero would receive lavish gifts and a fine escort home indeed. “[Y]ou have told your tale,” he said, “with the skill of a bard. . .Your words have outward grace and wisdom within” (168). King Alcinous asked Odysseus if he’d seen any of the other Trojan heroes in Hades? Couldn’t he tell them? It wasn’t that late, after all.[music]
And so Odysseus continued with his narrative. He’d seen Agamemnon, the Greek king who’d been murdered by his wife’s lover. Agamemnon recollected the nightmarish circumstances under which he’d perished. At a feast, he and many others loyal to him were killed. King Agamemnon’s ghost warned Odysseus against trusting women, although, he said, Odysseus’ wife Penelope was really quite reliable. Still, said the shade of Agamemnon, when Odysseus got back to Ithaca, he’d better get off his ship in secret and do some reconnaissance work first, just in case there was a plot against his life.
In Hades Odysseus saw the ghosts of his friends from the Trojan War – Achilles, Patroclus, and Ajax. The ghost of Achilles, in particular, spoke to him, and Odysseus tried to console the dead warrior. This again is the Stanley Lombardo translation, published by Hackett Classics in 2000.
[N]o man, Achilles [said Odysseus],But Achilles was not so easily convinced that he’d been fortunate to fall as the greatest hero of the Trojan War. His words are some of the most famous lines in the Odyssey.
Has ever been as blessed as you, or ever will be.
While you were alive the army honored you
Like a god, and now that you are here
You rule the dead with might.
You should not lament your death at all, Achilles. (172)
Don’t try to sell me on death, Odysseus, [said Achilles].Understanding now the distinction between what we talked about in the previous episode – the distinction between kleos, or battle-glory, and nostos, or homecoming, Achilles has decisively concluded that it would have been far better to live a long and undistinguished life at home than to die a blood soaked hero. After emphasizing that there was nothing good about death, Achilles asked Odysseus about his son. Odysseus said Achilles’ son had distinguished himself bravely at the end of the Trojan War and had survived unscathed. This seemed to bring the ghost of Achilles some peace.
I’d rather be a hired hand back up on earth,
Slaving away for some poor dirt farmer,
Than lord it over all these withered dead. (172)
Odysseus tried to get the ghost of giant Ajax to talk to him, but Ajax would not speak. So Odysseus gazed around the expanses of Hades and saw various creatures of myth and legend – Minos, and Orion, and Tityos, Tantalus, and Sisyphus, observing the ways that each suffered. And he saw Heracles. Heracles was darker than the rest of Hades, and his ghost scared countless other ghosts away. After waiting a bit longer, Odysseus finally decided he needed to turn tail and head back to his ship, and the men began first by rowing, and then sailing, putting ever more distance between themselves and the gates of the underworld. [music]
The Odyssey, Book 12: Scylla and CharybdisThe Greeks went all the way back to Aeaea, the island of Circe, and when they arrived late at night, they drove the ship into the beach and slept on the shore until dawn. When the morning broke, the men went and got the remains of the Greek who had accidentally died the day they’d all embarked for Hades, and he was given a fitting burial.
The witch Circe joined them after the funeral, her maidens bringing food and wine. She told the Greeks to spend the day resting. Good bread and bright red wine, she said, should help them do away with the dark memories of Hades. Everyone feasted, and at dusk the men drowsed off by the ship’s moorings. Circe asked Odysseus to speak with her in private, and gave him advice on how to get through several upcoming challenges he’d face on his journeys. [music]
Once again, the Greeks set out from the island of Circe, and as the ship sped over miles of waves, he told them a little about what he’d heard. The water became increasingly still. The ship was fast approaching the island of the Sirens, beings who entranced travelers with their promising songs and sweet voices, only to bring them to bad ends, for the Sirens were hungry monsters and sung their songs atop heaps of rotting bones. Circe had told him all about the Sirens. Odysseus, heeding her advice, cut up wax and put it in all his rowers’ ears, and had them bind him to the mast so that he could listen to their song.
As they passed the island of the Sirens, Odysseus heard the tantalizing words of their song. They knew everything, they said – “We know all that happens / on the teeming earth” (183). Odysseus longed to know, too, and asked the men to cut him loose so that he could go to them, but, following his prior instructions, they only secured him more tightly to the mast. In such a fashion, safely insulated from forbidden knowledge, Odysseus and his men made it past the Sirens.
The next challenge brought greater horror. The men had to navigate between two rocks, about an arrowshot across, and only Odysseus knew about what would happen. To the right was a rock with a fig tree on it, but beneath the rock there was a vast whirlpool Charybdis, a vortex of water that engulfed anything that came near it. To the left of the ship was a tall stone, smooth as glass, and within it dwelt a six headed monster named Scylla. Their only chance, Odysseus had been told, was to hug the rock of Scylla, for even if Scylla killed a few of them, it was far better than the lot of them perishing to the dark, spiraling waters of Charybdis.
The men rowed quickly, ever wary of being drawn to the starboard. Odysseus looked at the glass smooth rock and waited for Scylla to appear, clutching his weapons. The ocean churned. To the right, the men could see Charybdis, the mass of water swirling and bubbling like a cauldron, heaving spray hundreds of feet overhead. In the midst of the pull of water the rock bellowed, and as the whirlpool deepened the men could look down and see all the way down to the black sand of the sea floor. Even Odysseus took his eyes from the high rock at the dizzying sight of the huge concavity of moving water, and when he did, the monster Scylla tore down her rock and seized six men – one in each head. The hero watched, helpless, as the men reached out to him, but Scylla had already rushed back up to her rock den, and the men in her mouths soon ceased to writhe. With this sacrifice, which Odysseus had known about and accepted, they made it through the narrow passage between Scylla and Charybdis. [music]
Moving ever onward, feeling as though death lurked in every direction, the Greeks came within sight of a gorgeous warm island. They were exhausted and soaked to the bone, but Odysseus said they would not be able to make land there. Remonstrations from his crew finally convinced him otherwise. Night was falling, after all. Odysseus said they could make land there, but not, under any circumstances, to kill any of the livestock on the island. They were the cattle of Hyperion, the sun, and to kill them would bring the wrath of a god on the wanderers. Besides, Odysseus said, they had plenty of provisions from Circe. So. The men were forbidden, regardless of what happened, to kill the cattle of the Sun God. And of course, what do you think they did?
The men moored their ship and prepared supper, and thinking of their comrades fallen to Scylla, fell into an uneasy sleep. In the middle of the night, an intense storm wracked the ocean, causing the Greeks to move their entire ship into a sheltered cave. Odysseus warned his men again to stay away from the cattle of Hyperion. Then, for thirty days, the winds roared to the south and east. The ship lay sheltered from the wind’s blustering, and the men slowly went through the provisions they had onboard. Odysseus fretted, thinking ever of home. It was hot, and the wind blasted over the island, as though it would never stop.
One day, when he went off to pray, his crew corralled a number of the sun god’s cattle. The cattle were killed, some parts offered to the gods, then cut up and roasted on spits. Odysseus awoke to see that his men were barbecuing the forbidden cattle. Hyperion told Zeus about the crime, and Zeus promised the sun god retribution. For six days, even in spite of Odysseus’ chastisement, the Greeks slaughtered Oxen and feasted on them. Upon the seventh, the winds finally abated and the men set out again on their ship.
For a while, everything seemed normal. The island of the sun god was left behind, and all they could see was the bright blue of the sky and the deep wine-purple color of the ocean. But then a cloud passed over them, and the sea grew even darker, and the west wind exploded over them. The forestays and mast all snapped, and the helmsman was killed. Then lightning hit the ship, smoke boiling up from the greenwood. Men flew overboard in the explosion, and the surge of waves snapped the boat’s keel. Odysseus used rigging to secure himself to some flotsam, but the wind pressed him hard, and he drifted back the way they’d come. He was terrified to find himself once again near the whirlpool Charybdis, and as the whirlpool sucked him into its spiral, he leapt out of the seawater and atop the rock that perched above the whirlpool. He waited for the wreckage to reemerge, and when it did, he dropped back into the sea, letting the whirlpool heave him outward. For nine days, he floated, and on the tenth, he washed up on the island of Calypso, where, he told his listeners, he would spend the next seven years[music].
The Odyssey, Book 13: Odysseus Lands in IthacaAfter four books of talking, Odysseus finished the story of his travels. The Phaecians had been mesmerized by the narrative. And lucky for us, all the flashbacks and multiple timeframes of the Odyssey are now over. It’s about nineteen years after the Trojan War, Odysseus’ travels are really over, and the second half of the Odyssey will see him home. Alcinous, the king of the Phaecians, told Odysseus that the Phaecians really would take him to Ithaca. There were no more nymphomaniac nymphs, sultry witches, weird drugs, forbidden wind bags, sacred cattle, or cannibalistic monsters. The Phaecians went to bed, and the next day, as king Alcinous made sacrifices, all Odysseus wanted was to go home.
He gave his blessings to the Phaecians and their queen. Then, a procession led Odysseus down to the seashore. His ship’s hold was stocked with bread and wine, laundered clothing and rugs, and Phaecian women set out bedding on his ship’s deck. Odysseus bade the Phaecians farewell, and when his crew began stirring the ocean with their oars, he fell into a deep sleep. In the nighttime hours the ocean was colored indigo, but as morning rose the dawn star colored the water all silver. Soon enough, the ship had reached the harbor of Ithaca. [music]
The natural harbor there was a site to behold. Appendages of rock arced out into the water. At the harbor’s headlands, an olive tree grew near a cave, a cave where bees hid their honey away and nymphs wove dark shrouds. The Phaecian ship passed into the harbor, and Odysseus, still asleep, was lifted out of the ship and set gently onto the sand. His gifts and goods were hidden nearby, and, leaving Odysseus to repose peacefully on the warm earth of his homeland for the first time in almost twenty years, the Phaecians headed home.
As Odysseus slept peacefully, Poseidon fumed. He told Zeus that Odysseus had arrived home with all the grace of a returning hero. Poseidon was displeased. After some discussion about the matter, Zeus and Poseidon, head honchos of the gods, came up with a plan that would save Poseidon’s reputation amidst the other gods. The Phaecian ship which had carried Odysseus home, just as it came into sight of its home city, was turned into stone. That would teach those perfectly innocent and entirely inoffensive Phaecians to – uh – um – take people places – and offer hospitality to strangers – wait – didn’t Zeus like that? Well, the Homeric pantheon were a powerful bunch, but not necessarily logical, equitable, or even particularly intelligent. The Phaecian king Alcinous, seeing the beautiful ship turn to stone, reacted quickly. He’d heard about this in a prophecy. They needed to sacrifice bulls to Poseidon, and stop giving people escort to where they needed to go. Then they’d be okay. The bulls were sacrificed, and the Phaecians, we are to assume, received no more bullying from Poseidon.[music]
Back on his homeland of Ithaca, that slender island off the west coast of the Greek mainland, Odysseus awakened. Athena, frequently absent in recent books of the Odyssey, will now begin to take a more prominent role. She began by making Ithaca look different for Odysseus. He arose, seeing curving trails and tall rocks, wind-pressed trees and the deep harbor, but recognized none of it. Odysseus smacked his hands on his thighs and wondered aloud where in the world he’d come now. The Phaecians, he concluded, must have robbed him and dropped him off in some remote island in the middle of nowhere. But when he searched his treasures, found nothing missing.
Then Athena appeared to Odysseus in the form of a shepherd. Odysseus addressed her. He asked the shepherd boy to keep his goods safe, and asked where he was. The boy seemed surprised Odysseus didn’t know, and explained,
It’s got rough terrain, not for driving horses,Hearing that he’d come to his homeland, Odysseus experienced a surge of joy, but quickly concealed it. He didn’t, after all, know who the shepherd was. Odysseus lied and said he was from Crete. He made up an elaborate story about having murdered a Cretan youth and explained how he’d come to the harbor at Ithaca.
But it’s not at all poor even without wide open spaces.
There’s abundant grain here, and wine-grapes,
Good rainfalls, and rich, heavy dews.
Good pasture, too, for goats and for cattle,
And all sorts of timber, and year-round springs.
That’s why Ithaca is a name heard even in Troy,
Which they say is far from any Greek land. (199)
Athena smiled. She changed into her own appearance, her eyes turning ocean blue. She was a tall woman, and she put her hand kindly on Odysseus’ cheek. The speech she makes to him is another one of the most famous ones in the Odyssey – here’s Stanley Lombardo’s translation of it:[music]
Only a master thief, [Athena said,] a real con artist,Athena smiled, her eyes glinting azure and sea gray. She told him everything that had happened with the Phaecians had been her idea, and that now it was time to take control of his house again. Only, to do so, he’d need to stay in hiding for a while. Odysseus said he knew her, and knew she had helped him for a long time. But, he was concerned. If they were on Ithaca, why didn’t it look anything like Ithaca?
Could match your tricks—even a god
Might come up short. You wily bastard,
You cunning, elusive, habitual liar!
Even in your own land you weren’t about
To give up the stories and sly deceits
That are so much a part of you. . .Here we are,
The two shrewdest minds in the universe,
You far and away the best man on earth
In plotting strategies, and I famed among gods
For my clever schemes. Not even you
Recognized Pallas Athena, Zeus’ daughter. (200)
Athena used her powers to undo the illusion she’d first placed in front of Odysseus. The mist cleared, and he saw in sharp relief his harbor, and the grand olive tree that stood near a cave where he used to perform sacrifices. Then, finally, Odysseus knew he was home. He sunk to the ground and kissed it, and said a prayer. [music]
Athena said it was time to concoct a plan. They were the two greatest minds in the universe, after all, weren’t they? They’d come up with one whopper of a plan. They could certainly take down a bunch of freeloading suitors. And they’d also test Penelope, to confirm that she was still as loyal to Odysseus as she’d ever been. The first step was to give the hero a disguise. She made him look shriveled and old, and made his black hair become withered and thin. His eyes became clouded and uncertain. For clothing, he’d have a piece of sail cloth. Thus disguised, no one would even want to be around Odysseus, let alone recognize him. He’d first go to an old swineherd who was loyal to him. A swineherd, by the way, is someone who herds pigs, and this pig herder ends up being an important character. The swineherd dwelt by a tall rock, and his pigs enjoyed drinking water from a spring there and gobbling up acorns. Meanwhile, Athena said, she’d go to find Telemachus, and bring him back from Sparta.
And so Athena disguised Odysseus. When she was finished, he looked old and saggy. His clothes were grimy rags, and his only possessions a staff and a battered, empty pouch. Their plans set in motion, the hero and the goddess went their separate ways.[music]
The Odyssey, Book 14: In Eumaeus’ HutOdysseus took a winding path up from the harbor, the rough route eventually leading him to an elevated woodland that looked out over the ocean. There, Odysseus found his loyal swineherd. The man had kept care of Odysseus’ property through thick and thin, and the hero found the swineherd sitting in his yard. Nearby, his pens kept a plentitude of sows and hogs. When Odysseus approached, the swineherd’s many dogs rushed him, but the swineherd was able to call them off.
The man then welcomed Odysseus, and gave him a comfortable place to sit. The swineherd’s name was Eumaeus. On a side note, Homer really, really likes Eumaeus. In the latter books of the Odyssey, Homer addresses Eumaeus directly, and uses terms of endearment. So, when Odysseus thanks Eumaeus for his hospitality, you would expect Homer to write, “And Eumaeus nodded and answered back.” Instead, Homer writes, “And you answered him, Eumaeus, my swineherd” (207), as though speaking directly with this relatively minor character. Don’t get me wrong – I like swineherds as much as the next person – I just think, like most who read the Odyssey, that Homer’s privileging of Eumaeus the swineherd is a little odd. A lot of scholars have addressed this topic, but to keep things moving forward, let’s just assume that Homer really, really liked bacon.
So, after this super awesome swineherd Eumaeus proved to be a hospitable, gentlemanly fellow – even to the ignominiously disguised Odysseus, Eumaeus explained his situation the shabby stranger. His master, Eumaeus said, was gone. It was a tragedy, and it had jeopardized his safety and stability as an upstanding swineherd. Eumaeus then treated the stranger to a meal of – you guessed it – pork, and lamented that the suitors always took his best hogs, and the goats of Odysseus’ other herdsmen. Again and again, Eumaeus lamented that his master Odysseus was gone – a man who had treated him with mildness and respect, a man under whom he would have prospered all his days.
Odysseus, still in disguise, begged to differ. Odysseus, he said, was not dead. He said that the king would return, and that he would return within a month, and that in the dark of the moon he would come back to his palace and take vengeance on all who had disrespected his family. Eumaeus, however, refused to get his hopes up. He said things were dire indeed, for some of the suitors, anchored on a rocky island near Ithaca, planned to ambush poor Telemachus upon his return from the mainland. No, said Eumaeus, nothing could be done. But what about the stranger, he asked? Who was Odysseus? [music]
Now, you might ask, did Odysseus have the duplicity and creativity to tell an elaborate lie about his origins? Why yes – yes he did. He was Odysseus. He told Eumaeus the swineherd that he was from Crete, and, embellishing his narrative with certain features of his real autobiography, he told a rollicking tale of his youth on Crete, his early battles, his participation in the Trojan War, a journey to Egypt, where he stayed seven years. After shipwrecks, more battles, and a handful of divine interventions, said Odysseus, he wound up on Ithaca. His story is, in fact, quite long, suggesting that he relished inventing the fictitious story about his origins.
In any case, Eumaeus pitied the stranger for his travels and trials. But he echoed his skepticism that Odysseus would ever come back. Odysseus told him he’d make a wager. If Odysseus returned within the month, Eumaeus would owe him a cloak and tunic. If Odysseus didn’t, then Eumaeus would throw him off a cliff. The swineherd, really believing his master would never return, declined. Instead, he prepared Odysseus an elaborate meal.
After a hardy dinner, the sun went down and a moonless night rose all around them. A clammy wind blew in from the west, and rain began to fall. Odysseus told Eumaeus a fictitious story about serving under Odysseus in the Trojan War. As the snow fell and his bronze armor was crusted with frost, he’d been terribly cold, and Odysseus had secured a cloak for him. Then, maxing out his karma points with his former master, Eumaeus gave the stranger a cloak and went out into the rainy night to keep close watch over Odysseus’ herds.
Now, Homer’s love for Eumaeus is contagious. I got to thinking. What if a couple of Eumaeus’ fellow herders wrote a song about him? How would they enumerate the fine qualities of this ancient, illustrious pig breeder? What would they sing, and what style of music would they use?
That, again, was the song that Eumaeus’ friends would sing about him. Well, enough of that for now – let’s get back to the Odyssey.[music]
The Odyssey, Book 15: Telemachus ReturnsMeanwhile, as Odysseus got cozy with his terrifically loyal swineherd Eumaeus, Athena went to find Telemachus. The boy was awake, staring up at the sky, and thinking of his father. The goddess told Telemachus it was time to go back to Ithaca. The suitors were as bad as ever – and one of them, Eurymachus, seemed on the verge of actually wooing Penelope. Just as bad, they’d set up an ambush for Telemachus. But not to worry, the goddess said. She’d speed Telemachus back to Ithaca. From the harbor, he needed to walk up and spend the night with the swineherd, after which he could go back to Penelope and the palace.
Telemachus didn’t question the goddess’ orders. He awoke his companion and proposed that they leave immediately, driving their chariot by starlight. But his companion said they should at least say farewell. Later that morning, Telemachus had to politely refuse Menelaus’ elaborate offers of gifts and tours of Sparta’s marvelous towns. Seriously, he said, he needed to get going. So, with a fancy bowl from the king, a nice robe from Helen Formerly of Troy Now of Sparta, and, inevitably, sacrifices, meat, wine, and decorous speeches, Telemachus was ready to go. A propitious sign – an eagle carrying a goose, seemed to portend Odysseus’ return to Ithaca. Menelaus and Helen waved farewell, and Telemachus hustled back across the wheat fields of Sparta, and across the rocky lands of Pylos. When they came upon the outskirts of wise old Nestor’s town, Telemachus asked his companion if he might just be dropped off at his ships. No offense to Nestor – it was just that Telemachus, and, perhaps, readers of the Odyssey, had had about enough scenes of people feasting together and complimenting one another’s merits for the present. His companion – Nestor’s son – said this would be fine.
When Telemachus got back to his ship, he met another youth. This youth gave Telemachus a story all about his origins, and then asked if he could come along back to Ithaca. Telemachus assented. It was time to sail. The mast was raised and they brought up the sail. With a wind sent by Athena, the ship rushed across the bright saltwater, sailing into the night. Looking at the nearby islands, Telemachus wondered where the ambush lay. [music]
Meanwhile, Odysseus was still in the company of the swineherd Eumaeus. He told his host that he’d soon go to Odysseus’ palace and look for work. Perhaps they’d let him split firewood, or prepare food or wine. In any case, he didn’t want to trouble Eumaeus too much. On a side note, this is one of many instances in which Odysseus tests a former acquaintance to see how loyal, or virtuous, or selfless they are. Others from his old life will soon be subjected to the same treatment.
Eumaeus’ virtuousness remained faultless. He told the disguised Odysseus it would be very dangerous to go to the suitors. They were supercilious, violent, and unpredictable – they’d make mincemeat out of the old beggar. He told Odysseus to just stay with him. Odysseus thanked the swineherd extensively, and then asked about the parents of Odysseus – whether they still lived, and their current doings. He learned that his mother had died of grief missing him, and that his father was wasting away in a remote corner of the island. Odysseus asked about Eumaeus’ origins.
Homer’s favorite swineherd responded with an extensive origin story. His parents had been wealthy. At a young age, he’d been kidnapped by Phoeneican traders, and, after long voyaging, had been purchased by Odysseus’ father Laertes.
As Eumaeus finished his autobiography, Telemachus and his shipmates had arrived in the harbor. They packed sails away and secured the ship to the beach. [Theoclymenus scene; he’s told to go to Eurymachus] Telemachus and the youth who’d come with them from Pylos saw another favorable sign in the sky – a hawk with a dove in its talons – which evidently indicated that Telemachus’ lineage would continue on Ithaca. With this promising omen, Telemachus parted company from his crew, and took the rocky path up to meet Eumaeus, and, though he did not know it, for the first time in his life, to meet his father Odysseus.[music]
The Odyssey, Book 16: Odysseus Meets His SonAs Telemachus came up the path, Odysseus and Eumaeus made breakfast. When Telemachus entered, Eumaeus was stunned. He greeted his master’s son effusively, offering kisses and praise. As for Odysseus, this was the first time he’d seen his son. But he was in disguise, and he kept his composure. The men shared a meal, and Telemachus asked about the stranger in the hut. Eumaeus explained the stranger’s origins, as he’d heard them. Telemachus wished that he could help the disguised Odysseus. At the least, he’d give the stranger a sword, and sandals, clean clothing, and a free journey to wherever he needed to go. But, Telemachus added, it wouldn’t be safe for the stranger amidst the suitors. “They are far too reckless and arrogant,” he said, “And I fear they will make fun of him, mock him, / And it would be hard for me to take that” (242).
The disguised Odysseus said he pitied Telemachus. He said he wished he were Odysseus, and could strike back against the suitors with deadly force. Telemachus nodded sadly, and went into detail about how the suitors had flocked the palace. Then Telemachus told Eumaeus to tell Penelope that he’d returned, and send word to his grandfather Laertes, as well. Eumaeus left to do his bidding.
A moment later, Athena entered, and, invisible to Telemachus, summoned Odysseus outside. She said it was time to tell his son the truth, and changed his appearance back into his normal one – clean, taller and younger, and with a shining black beard and tanned skin. When Odysseus reentered Eumaeus’ hut, Telemachus was stunned at the sight of him. He said the stranger must be a deity – only deities could change their appearances. No, said the other man. He was no stranger. He was Odysseus. The hero kissed his son, his tears falling freely to the ground. But Telemachus still couldn’t believe it – not until Odysseus explained that Athena had caused the transformations.
Then Telemachus knew he was telling the truth. The father and son embraced one another and wept, the long years of loss and pain and exhaustion coming to an end in the humble hut of the swineherd. As the light faded outside, the pair finally regained their composure, and Telemachus asked how Odysseus had come to Ithaca. He briefly told the story of the Phaecians, and then said it was time to plan how to kill the suitors. Telemachus balked and said it would be impossible. When asked, he revealed that there were 108 suitors, 4 attendants, and a bard. A bit much for two guys, Telemachus added. Maybe if they didn’t have that bard. Odysseus agreed that they needed help. Fortunately, they had the help of Athena and Zeus. But still, Telemachus was not convinced.
Odysseus explained his plan, a plan which involved him being brought into the palace as a beggar, Telemachus hiding the suitors’ weapons, and then Odysseus and Telemachus killing the lot of them. Part of the plan was also talking with Penelope and other attendants to test who was loyal to him, and who’d gone over to the suitors. Telemachus agreed, though he suggested a minor modification to the plan. Imagine that if the first time you met you father, he told you it was time for you to help him kill over a hundred people, and that the gods had sanctioned it. I think I might say, “Hey, dad, how about we get some ice cream, or maybe play catch, or go fishing. Rather than the mass murder.” Man, if you think about it, Telemachus had a pretty tough life, before and after Odysseus got back. [music]
Meanwhile, in the palace, Penelope found out that her son had come back safe to Ithaca. The suitors were not pleased at this. Their assassin ship had come back already, indicating that Telemachus’ vessel had passed it. One of the suitors, Antinous, proposed killing Telemachus in the palace. Another, gentler suitor – one who Penelope actually liked – said this wasn’t a good plan, or at least Zeus ought to be consulted first.
As the suitors ate lunch in the palace, Penelope descended into the room where the men were eating. She had heard of Antinous’ plot to kill Telemachus in the palace, and said she was disgusted. Odysseus had done much for Antinous. They all needed to stop their murderous machinations immediately. Another suitor promised Penelope that Telemachus would be safe from the suitors, although he didn’t mean it. Exhausted and powerless, Penelope went back upstairs, only falling asleep with the help of Athena.[music]
Back at the hut of the swineherd Eumaeus, Odysseus and Telemachus were making dinner. When the swineherd returned, Athena disguised Odysseus again. Eumaeus said he’d delivered the news, and also, revealed that he’d seen a weapon-laden ship full of suitors return to Ithaca. The first assassination attempt on Telemachus, then, had failed. The young Ithacan smiled and looked at his father. The suitors, he thought, would soon be the ones who had to run.
Will Odysseus take back his palace, and exile the suitors from his homeland? Will Penelope get to reunite with her beloved husband? Will Telemachus safely make it into adulthood, and follow his father’s footsteps? Will the swineherd Eumaeus get – uh – um – like, herd more swine and stuff? Or – uh – get a promotion? Or meet a certain special lady swineherd? We’ll cover the end of the Odyssey in the next show. For now, I think it’s past time to talk about Homeric characters – what makes some stand out more than others, and why, perhaps Odysseus stands out most of all.[music]
Flat Gods and Dynamic HumansIn all of Homer’s hundreds and hundreds of characters, there are a few who tower above the rest of the crowd. What makes them stand out, for the most part, is their dynamism, or the way that they change over the course of the story. In the Iliad, we watch Achilles go from being dangerously angry at Agamemnon in Book 1, to losing interest in the war altogether in Book 9, to becoming an almost cannibalistic murderer by Book 20, to, finally, showing poor old Priam some humanity and mercy and letting him take his dead son’s body back to Troy in Book 24. The changes that happen in Achilles’ mind are the ones that drive the entire Trojan War. Hector, also, is not merely a brave warrior. He is self conscious, making hotheaded decisions and living to regret them. Over the course of the Iliad we see him playing the role of a father, a son, a husband, a brother, and a civic official. Part of the reason why the Iliad is such a tragedy in its closing books, and perhaps the very reason the book ends with the words, “That was the funeral of Hector, breaker of horses” (492), is that Hector is a multidimensional character – a man who might be our neighbor, friend, or leader.
Contrast him with most of the Homeric gods and you have totally different figures. Across the board, Homer’s divinities are boisterous, egotistical, selfish, and lack a sense of introspection – even a consciousness of past, present and future. Because many of them just embody one specific value, we don’t remember them so much as individuals as we do abstract essences. When Ares appears, we know what to expect. The god of war is a one trick pony, and other than wanting to feel important, he doesn’t exactly have a personality. Aphrodite appears, and you think, “Oh, the goddess of love, here to make people do it, or rescue one of her pansy fighters from the thick of battle. Oh, boy.” Hera shows up, and you know she will be the jealous wife of Zeus, vain and ireful against any who have slighted her. Poseidon rises from the ocean, spectacularly, his blue hair coursing rivulets of seawater, but let’s be honest. He’s not a very interesting character, is he? Just like the rest of the gods, he’s jealous, insecure, unforgiving, and violent. Even Homer’s Zeus, who has to arbitrate disputes and occasionally exhibits traces of multidimensional thinking, can never be anything more or less than himself – monotonously omnipotent, lustful, and having a mild case of attention deficit disorder.
The gods are divine versions of the flatter Homeric characters. Diomedes, for instance, receives a huge amount of page space in the Iliad, but other than being a proficient warrior, he doesn’t have any particularly distinguishing qualities. Similarly, Ajax is the Sherman tank of the Greek army, defending them even when Achilles is having a twenty-book-long temper tantrum in his little beach hut. But other than the fact that he’s a big, hardworking fighter, what’s there to say about Ajax, other than that he has the same name as a product that cleans bathtubs and toilet bowls? In contrast to these flat characters are ones like Achilles and Hector, and Hector’s sister-in-law, Helen. Helen of First-Sparta-Then-Troy-Then-Sparta-Again, a more complex character than Diomedes and Ajax, may not have speared too many people or severed many limbs. And unlike Zeus and Poseidon, she can’t chuck lightning or cyclones at anyone. But by way of compensation, she has a coherent worldview, an awareness of her place in the geopolitical order of the greater Aegean, and a sense of personal accountability. Far from finding her a ditsy diva, or a jiggly scapegoat for the Trojan War, we find her in both the Homeric poems to be wiser and more practical than most of the characters around her. That’s why, if I had to be stuck on a desert isl – well – an Aegean island, with any Homeric character, it would be Helen. And my choice has nothing to do with her looks. Nothing to do with her looks, whatsoever. Nope, nope, nope. [music]
Restless OdysseusWell, anyway, highest in the ranks of Homer’s dynamic characters is the star of today’s show, Odysseus. He is, in fact, so dynamic, so constantly changing from scene to scene, that Homer risks making Odysseus a cipher, a vaporous enigma that moves like mist through his own story, never quite coalescing. A Homeric epithet used to describe him over and over again throughout the Odyssey, nineteen times total by my count, is often used before he says something. This epithet is, “his mind teeming,” the title of this episode, and the main idea I want to convey now that we’re two thirds of the way through Homer’s second great poem. This epithet is most commonly used as follows: “Odysseus, his mind teeming, said ‘x,’” or “Odysseus, his mind teeming, said ‘y.’” At a simple level, it means that the hero of the Odyssey is turning things over in his mind, or using his powers of induction and deduction to make decisions. Yet “his mind teeming” also means that Odysseus is trying to decide who to become in any given moment. Homer scholar Sheila Murnaghan writes that “Odysseus is a master at assessing situations, devising plans, using language for his own ends, and manipulating the relations of appearance and reality. . . His most characteristic and successful tactic is his use of disguises, which depends on a rare willingness to efface his own identity and a cool-headed capacity to say one thing while thinking another. Odysseus disguises himself at every stage of the Odyssey’s plot.”3 Odysseus really does spend much of his story disguised, always prevaricating or making up stories about himself.
We covered one of the most famous moments in the Odyssey in this episode. Odysseus has come to Ithaca, and a shepherd boy – actually Athena in disguise, asks him who he is. Odysseus is about to tell the boy the truth, but then, Homer writes that Odysseus “checked that impulse, And, jockeying for an advantage, made up this story: ‘I’ve heard of Ithaca, of course [Odysseus tells the boy] —even in Crete, Far over the sea, and now I’ve just come ashore’” (199-200) Then, his story about being from Crete goes on and on. Athena replies with the lines we heard earlier:
You wily bastard,It’s a memorable moment, a goddess likening herself to a mortal, and you can almost imagine Athena giving Odysseus a high five or fist bump. The two are the most duplicitous characters in Homer, and Athena gloats about it. Duplicity, along with its second cousin, correct social deportment, are the things that get Odysseus where he needs to be in most of the Odyssey. He charms Nausicaa, and the Phaecians. He hoodwinks the Cyclops. His trickery leads the witch Circe, who wanted to turn him into a pig, instead want to get it on with him. Later, as he journeys between Scylla and Charybdis, he doesn’t tell his men that some of them will have to die to get past the six headed monster. The omission may help save more lives, ultimately, but it seems to be the kind of thing you might want to discuss with your crew. Odysseus, however, has no problem keeping it under wraps. Nor does he have any trouble with the elaborate rituals he uses to trick Hades into letting him have an audience with the dead. Even – in fact I think this is the most interesting thing – even being himself involves duplicity, for whenever he casts off a disguise and becomes Odysseus, Athena magically enhances his appearance, making his beard dark and thick, his muscles larger – making him glow with a divine sheen. Even when Odysseus is himself, he is still illusory. The biggest mistake he commits in the entire Odyssey is a spontaneous act of honesty. Twelve years after the start of the Trojan War, as he leaves the island of the Cyclops and dodges the huge stone projectiles hurled by the monster, he tells the Cyclops his name. The Cyclops knows, then, that Odysseus blinded him, he tells his father the god Poseidon, and Poseidon makes Odysseus pay for his moment of honesty – for eight long, harrowing years. [music]
You cunning, elusive, habitual liar!
Even in your own land you weren’t about
To give up the stories and sly deceits
That are so much a part of you. . .Here we are,
The two shrewdest minds in the universe,
You far and away the best man on earth
In plotting strategies, and I famed among gods
For my clever schemes. (200)
The Odyssey is a story about a trickster, about a glib liar whose ultimate allegiance is to himself and his own dignity. Even when he comes back to Ithaca, he doesn’t rush to the palace – he takes his time. He wants to test everyone, and make sure that his subjects, including his long-suffering wife, have remained indefatigably loyal to him. This is Odysseus’ dark side, and we’ll see a lot of it in the next episode. Because while a trickster makes for a great story, there is a certain element of a sociopath in anyone capable of such a protracted string of lies and social performances. A trickster has to suspend his empathy, to dispassionately see any given social situation as a chessboard to manipulate. When Athena calls Odysseus a “wily bastard” or a “cunning, elusive, habitual liar!” these are words of camaraderie, but not, particularly, compliments. She is not claiming that they are good, or kind. She is saying that they’re very smart, and that they can make things happen that others can’t make happen.
The trickster figure is everywhere in world literature. I think we love to read and hear stories about tricksters, because they get to break the rules that we can’t. They get to pass through social barriers. They understand hidden wires of motivations, and know just how to pluck them. Tricksters get things for free – wealth, travel, sex, and fun – things that the rest of us accrue only slowly and cautiously in our lives. Tricksters ultimately laud the possibilities of human intelligence, for their greatest strengths are their ever teeming minds. In reading their stories, we get to dream of having our own adventures, transcending the humdrum circuit of the everyday, and seeing what’s over the hill that we pass by on the way to work. [music]
Next time, we’re going to see Odysseus home. And the suitors are going to learn that even if his queen is beautiful, and even if his kingdom promises great riches, and even if you 112 other dudes with you, it’s still a really, really bad idea to move into an epic hero’s house and disrespect his family.
I mentioned this last time and will briefly repeat it. If you like this podcast, and have a second, I’d really appreciate it if you’d write a review of the show on iTunes, Stitcher, or whichever platform you’re using to listen to it. Reviews, in addition to social media plugs and word of mouth, are the way podcasts get sorted by applications and noticed by new listeners. I can’t wait to bring you the final episode on Homer’s Odyssey – as soon as I record that baby I’ll get it out there. Thanks 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||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 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 the first(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.^Homer. The Odyssey. Translated by E.V. Rieu. London and New York: Penguin Classics, 2000, p. 124. All book titles are taken from this edition. Link.
3.^Homer. The Odyssey. Translated by Stanley Lombardo. Hackett Publishing. Kindle Edition, 2000, p. 28. Further references will be noted parenthetically. Link.
4.^Ibid, Kindle Location 170.
3.^Homer. The Odyssey. Translated by Stanley Lombardo. Hackett Publishing. Kindle Edition, 2000, p. 28. Further references will be noted parenthetically. Link.
4.^Ibid, Kindle Location 170.