The Autumn Leaves
The Odyssey, Books 17-24Hello, and welcome to Literature and History. Episode 14: The Autumn Leaves. This is the third of three episodes on Homer’s Odyssey. The first two covered the first sixteen books of the epic, and this third episode will cover the final eight. If you’re just joining in and want to hear the Odyssey from the beginning, head back to Episode 12. Otherwise, let’s get back up to speed.
The Trojan War ended about nine years ago. Ever since it ended, our hero, Odysseus, has been trying to get home. The first couple years of his journey were exhausting and traumatic, and again and again he became lost, or marooned, being forced to watch the slow diminution of his crew. Odysseus and his men were preyed on by the Cyclops, by giant cannibals called the Laestrygonians. They were endangered by the witch Circe, and then nearly all perished when journeying between the vast whirlpool called Charybdis and the six headed monster called Scylla. They nearly starved on an island populated with sacred cattle, and after they ate these cattle, Odysseus washed up on an island only to be held captive by a nymph for seven years, sad years in which he only dreamt of home. He escaped, however, with help from Athena, and managed to reach the civilized land of the Phaecians. This seafaring people, after a due course of feasting and tale telling, brought the hero back to his homeland of Ithaca, after a nearly twenty-year absence.
You remember what was happening on Ithaca, don’t you? Odysseus’ wife, ever loyal, had for a number of years been courted by over a hundred men who wanted to marry her – men Homer calls the suitors. As if their advances on a married woman weren’t objectionable enough, these suitors were stealing huge amounts of food and wine from the absent king Odysseus’ fields and cellars. His son, Telemachus, almost of age but still not quite, was livid at the disrespect being paid to his patrimony. He went to the mainland to seek help, but returned to Ithaca, narrowly avoiding an assassination attempt by some of the suitors.
To return to right where we left off last time – Odysseus was finally home. He found that a pig herder, or “swineherd” named Eumaeus, had remained steadfastly loyal to him. This, at least, was one person he could depend on. And in a climactic moment, Odysseus stripped off his disguise as an old beggar, and introduced himself to Telemachus for the first time. Thereafter, father and son plotted a way to get back at the suitors for their insolence, their freeloading, and their presumptuousness with Queen Penelope. [music]
Everything that you’ll hear about today in a minute here is in neat chronological order, and it all takes place on Ithaca. The only very slightly confusing thing is that Odysseus spends a number of the following books of the story in the disguise of an old beggar – a disguise that the goddess Athena helps create. This means he’s not just wearing some old robes – it means his appearance is dramatically different. He’s older, and frail. His hair is thinning. His appearance is unrecognizable. Odysseus remains in this disguise, because he wants to be cautious, have a look around his palace, and pinpoint who else has remained loyal to him, and who hasn’t.
As in the previous episodes, 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.
The main story of these final eight books of the Odyssey isn’t about adventure, or edge-of-your-seat warfare, or wheeling and dealing with gods. These eight books, down to their core, are a revenge story – a story about an older veteran coming home, and taking his home back from a flock of young usurpers. It’s time for Homer’s final flourish, for one of literature’s most famous stories of retribution, as we venture through the end of the Odyssey. [music]
The Odyssey, Book 17: Odysseus Goes to the Town1 Early in the morning the day after he first met his father, Telemachus put his sandals on and gripped his spear. He told the swineherd Eumaeus he was heading to the palace, and asked Eumaeus to please escort Odysseus, still disguised as a beggar to everyone except for Telemachus, to the town so that he might beg from all the people there.
When Telemachus arrived at the palace a little later that morning, the old nurse Eurycleia saw him, and wept with joy that the young prince had returned. Then, the maids of the palace wept for joy that the young prince had returned. Then, his mother Penelope wept for joy that the young prince had returned. Seeing her son’s shining eyes, she told him she was so happy he was unharmed, and asked what he’d learned during his visit to the mainland. Telemachus treated her rather brusquely, merely telling her to go and wash and then offer sacrifices to the gods, and she did as she was told. As smart as Telemachus was, being respectful to his mother was not, lamentably, one of his salient characteristics.
A moment later, Telemachus walked through the main hall of the palace, bearing a spear, and two hounds appeared and walked on either side of him. He eyed the suitors with enmity, but no one said anything. Joined by a man he’d befriended on the mainland, Telemachus was bathed, then ate and drank. His mother Penelope came downstairs and asked him, again, what had happened on the mainland. Had he found out anything about Odysseus? This time, Telemachus let her know. He lengthily explained what he’d heard on the mainland, sparing no details, except for the fact that he’d actually met his father the night before. He left that bit out. And then Telemachus’ companion voiced an unexpected prophecy. The man said Odysseus was already in Ithaca, and that the suitors would pay for their transgressions presently. [music]
At that moment, however, the suitors were paying for nothing. They slaughtered livestock and enjoyed yet another lavish meal. And out beyond the palace walls, over shrubby shoulders or rock and across wooded ravines, Odysseus began making the very last leg of his journey home. He asked the swineherd Eumaeus for a staff, and, now thoroughly dressed in the garb of a beggar, went along the rough path that led to town. They stopped to drink at a clear spring surrounded by poplars, and it was at this peaceful spot that Odysseus experienced firsthand how Ithaca had changed during his absence.
One of his goat herders was leading a flock to the palace to be slaughtered. This herder had evidently been influenced by the presence of the suitors, for he’d become arrogant and rude. Upon seeing the swineherd Eumaeus and the disguised Odysseus, the goatherd exclaimed, “Well, look at this, trash dragging along trash. / Birds of a feather, as usual. Where / Are you taking this. . .diseased beggar, who will slobber all over our feasts?”2 He warned them that Odysseus shouldn’t come to the palace, and then kicked Odysseus in the hip. The hero didn’t budge. He considered several creative ways in which he could kill the goatherd, but kept his silence. The arrogant goatherd went on to say he hoped Telemachus would be slaughtered by the suitors, and then vanished, his goats in tow. Later, when he got to the palace, the goatherd was given his own seat. Clearly, he fit in with all the other bad guys. And just as clearly, he’d been added to Odysseus’ list of people to kill.[music]
Loyal old Eumaeus and hobbling, disguised Odysseus shambled slowly to the palace, and Odysseus commented on what a nice place it was. Eumaeus went in first, and when Odysseus entered, he saw his old dog. Argus, whom he’d bred just before the Trojan War, had fallen on hard times. The poor animal slept in a pile of manure, and when he saw Odysseus he recognized his master immediately. His tail wagged, and his ears drew back, but he was too feeble to get to Odysseus. The sight made the returning hero cry, and, content that he’d seen his master one last time, old Argus died.
When the swineherd Eumaeus entered the feast hall, Telemachus spotted him immediately. The prince had the old herdsman come to his table and sit on a stool next to him. Odysseus entered next, leaning on his staff in the threshold, framed by ashwood and cypress, and looked in on the suitors. Telemachus had some food brought to him, and he ate it. The night lengthened. As the suitors became increasingly rowdy, Odysseus went and begged for crusts of bread among them. He came to the suitors’ ringleader, Antinous, who was rude and dubious about the tattered old man. When Odysseus asked Antinous, specifically, for something to eat, he included in his request a long – and mostly fictitious – story about his life. He’d been wealthy once, but pirates had caused his vessel and crew to be diverted to Egypt. Then he was sold into slavery, wound up in Cyprus and from there travelled to Ithaca. Odysseus, on a side note, seems to love telling elaborate and false stories about his origins. Anyway, Antinous, having listened to the old beggar’s protracted and fictitious autobiography, just told him to get lost. Odysseus remarked on the irony that Antinous was being quite stingy while simultaneously freeloading in another man’s house. This was too much for the ringleader of the suitors to bear. He picked up a stool and hurled it into the old beggar’s shoulder blade. And Antinous was too imperceptive to notice that the old beggar didn’t blink, and didn’t budge.
Odysseus said the suitor had struck him unjustly. Antinous threatened that Odysseus would be skinned. But finally, the other suitors cautioned Antinous. You really shouldn’t hit an old beggar. I mean it’s perfectly normal to converge with a hundred and ten other guys all trying to marry a reluctant and depressed forty-something woman and stealing from her household, all for the sake of possessing a small, scrappy rural island, but heaving furnishings at an inexplicably robust old beggar? That’s just too much, man.
Penelope, watching from the sidelines, hoped that the suitors would perish, Antinous most of all. Penelope summoned the disguised Odysseus, thinking to ask the old beggar if he knew anything about her missing husband. Odysseus promised to speak with her later, in the evening. Telemachus saw that everything was falling into place, and loyal old Eumaeus, none the wiser, went back to his herd of pigs. [music]
The Odyssey, Book 18: The Beggar in the PalaceIn the town of Ithaca, the disguised Odysseus wasn’t the only beggar. Another beggar shouldered his way into the door of the hall and told Odysseus to get out. He was fat, and greedy, and made a living by performing errands and gobbling up great quantities of food and drink by means of compensation. Odysseus tried to keep his calm, but being told to get out of his own house by a vagrant was a bit too much for him to bear, and some of his anger broiled up to the surface. Soon, they were arguing.
Antinous, the ever-revolting ringleader of the suitors, saw that the two beggars were having harsh words, and proposed to let them fight for entertainment. The winner would get roast meat, and exclusive bragging rights in the dining hall.
The fat beggar rolled up his sleeves. And Odysseus removed his ragged garb and tied it around his waist, revealing his huge muscles, which Athena enhanced to look even larger. The suitors gawked. “[That fat guy] is history” (278), said one. “Brought it on himself, too” (278), added another. “Will you look at the thigh on that old man!” exclaimed a third. The fat beggar Odysseus was to fight quaked in fear, and Odysseus, when the fight began, dropped him with a single punch. The suitors guffawed as the fat beggar writhed on the ground. Then, Odysseus dragged him out of the hall by a heel, set him up against a wall in the palace courtyard, and the man’s staff back in his hand. “[S]top lording it over the other beggars, / You sorry bastard,” said Odysseus, “or things could get worse” (279).
He went back into the hall and the suitors congratulated him, giving him a huge meal. Over dinner, he told a suitor that the lives of men were unpredictable, and his own fortunes had risen and fallen, and advised the suitor that it would be best to stop freeloading from Odysseus. [music]
Upstairs, Penelope had a sudden notion to say something to Telemachus. She would go boldly amidst the suitors and say it. Before Penelope had a chance to head downstairs, though, the goddess Athena appeared, put Penelope into a light sleep, and sprinkled the beauty of Aphrodite over the mortal woman. Penelope’s skin grew paler, her figure fuller, and her height taller. After her magical makeover, Penelope awoke, and went downstairs. Her appearance made the suitors weak kneed. Her words were just as powerful. Telemachus, she said, was a man now. He needed to make sure that guests – like that brawny beggar guy – were treated well, and not abused. Telemachus concurred. Penelope then chastised the suitors for not courting her in a civil way. Suitors, she said, brought gifts to prospective brides.
Sure enough, inspired by the shiningly beautiful Penelope’s just words, the suitors began to have gifts brought in for her. She received a robe, a necklace, earrings, and another necklace, and dozens more. Having extracted at least some payment from her freeloaders, Penelope went upstairs, still glowing with a nimbus of silver light. [music]
When she left, the day lengthened, revelry continued, and evening set in. Maidservants took dry, seasoned wood and put it into braziers to light the hall, but Odysseus stopped them. They should go to Penelope, he said, and cheer her up. As for keeping the braziers lit, he could to that. Only, the maidservants had no interest in helping their mistress. They were sleeping with various suitors, and these were their de facto employers, now. One maidservant, in particular, told Odysseus he was idiotic for acting so confident just because he’d beat up a fat bum. If one of the suitors wanted to take him down, she said, he wouldn’t stand a chance. Odysseus said that he’d advise Telemachus of their indiscretions, and they scattered in fear.
As the evening lengthened, the suitors began to abuse Odysseus again. One offered him work at an outlying farm, saying if he could keep the braziers blazing, perhaps he was good for something other than begging. And Odysseus, continually stepping a little out of the character of a downtrodden old beggar, said that he could beat this suitor at farm work, or out-soldier him on the battlefield. The disguised hero finished his remonstration by saying, “No doubt you think / You are some great man, a tough guy, / Because you hang out with puny weaklings. / If Odysseus came back home, these doors, / Wide as they are, would be far too narrow / For you to squeeze through as you made for daylight” (288). The suitor asked him what in the world made him think he could talk that way to a superior. He flung a footstool at Odysseus, but missed, and the resulting clamor made the suitors argue about the beggar. Finally, Telemachus intervened, asking them all to leave for the night. Following a sizable nightcap, the suitors took their leave. [music]
The Odyssey, Book 19: Eurycleia Recognizes OdysseusOnce the unwanted guests had departed, Odysseus turned to Telemachus. He told his son to take all the weapons out of the hall, and, by the magical light of a concealed Athena, the two carried the many weapons that usually hung in the dining hall to a storage area. Telemachus went to sleep, but Odysseus remained in the hall, thinking of ways to get vengeance on all the suitors.
Beautiful Penelope came downstairs and sat by the fire in a chair inlaid with silver and ivory. She watched her handmaidens tidy up the mess all of her suitors had made. One of these handmaidens began laying into Odysseus again, telling the old beggar he’d best get out of the dining hall for the night – he was too poor and filthy to belong there. Odysseus told her she shouldn’t deprecate an old beggar – fortune’s wheel could as soon turn on her, too. Then Penelope asked Odysseus to come and sit near her so that she could question him about her missing husband.
She asked the beggar who he was, and why he’d come. As to who he was, the beggar declined to go into detail, sparing us, thank goodness, yet another prolonged and fictitious origin story. Penelope expressed her ongoing sadness about the absence of her husband. She told the beggar about a shroud she’d been weaving for her father-in-law Laertes. She’d told the suitors that the day she finished the shroud, she would marry one of them. Then, for three years, every day she wove, and every night, she unwove the shroud. It might have gone on, but one of her serving women betrayed her secret, and she was caught in the act of unweaving. Thus, she was forced to finish her shroud. The suitors wanted her to marry. Her parents wanted her to marry. Telemachus wanted everyone out of the house. She didn’t know what to do. By way of changing the subject, she asked who he was again. [music]
This time, Odysseus replied, telling his wife a fictitious story about being from Crete. He said while on Crete, he’d actually met Odysseus – the hero had been on his way to the Trojan War, and after a short delay there, he'd been able to continue. Hearing fresh news about her husband – even if it were twenty years old, Penelope cried, her tears as clear as snowmelt. Odysseus resisted the urge to cry himself. Penelope asked what her husband had looked like, wanting to confirm the truth of the stranger’s story. Odysseus, of course, had no trouble describing himself, and what he’d worn on the way to the Trojan War – a purple fleece cloak, a gold brooch, a tunic bright as sunlight. He even described the attendant who’d been with Odysseus, sending Penelope into another bout of tears.
Odysseus then offered his wife some words of comfort. Odysseus, he said, was alive. Mingling the truth with fiction, the old beggar told Penelope that Odysseus had wound up with the Phaecians, and was gathering up treasure before coming home, as well as plotting to make sure that he’d be safe when he got there.
Penelope gracefully acknowledged the old beggar’s words, but said she just didn’t believe him. Still, the old beggar deserved even more kindness and hospitality, for having actually known Odysseus. He would be welcome in Ithaca as long as he’d like, and his stay would be complete with a nice, fuzzy bed, baths, and a share of all feasts. But Odysseus declined. He’d given finery up, he said. At most, if there were an old, trusted serving woman – not one who’d be revolted by an elderly beggar – he would accept a foot washing.
Penelope said he was a considerate, wise man. She had just the woman – a dear old nurse named Eurycleia. Eurycleia had nursed Odysseus himself, and she was certainly fit to make the poor old beggar comfortable. The old nurse Eurycleia expressed sorrow at Odysseus’ absence. The hero, she said, had been pious and good and kind to all – he didn’t deserve to wander. Eurycleia prepared the bath and studied the old beggar.
“Many road-weary strangers have come here,” she said, “But I have never seen such a resemblance / As that between you and Odysseus, / In looks, voice – even the shape of your feet” (301). Odysseus said that others had noticed the resemblance, as well. As his old nurse Eurycleia moved the bright basin, Odysseus suddenly moved into the shadows. He had a very distinct scar from a boar’s tusk – a wound he’d received in the thigh above the knee – when he was very young. He did not move his leg soon enough. His old nurse Eurycleia felt it, and recognized it. Tears came to her eyes, and she reached out and touched his face. “You are Odysseus, dear child,” she said, “I did not know you / Until I laid my hands on my master’s body” (304). [music]
Penelope didn’t notice, and Odysseus took rapid steps to ensure that his secret was kept. He grabbed the nurse and said she must keep his identity a secret – on pain of death she must. Eurycleia said of course she’d keep the secret. Not only that, she’d give Odysseus an inventory of which of the handmaidens had remained loyal to Odysseus and his family, and which had opportunistically attached themselves to a suitor. With this assurance, Odysseus’ feet were washed, and he carefully hid his scar and returned to the fireside.
Penelope said she had one final question for the old beggar. Though Telemachus had begun urging her to marry, she said she kept having the same prophetic dream – an eagle came down into her palace hall and killed an assembly of geese, which she interpreted to mean that her husband would return. Odysseus said that was absolutely what the dream meant. The king would return, and the rabble would be scattered. Still, she was not convinced. She sighed. Dawn was coming. The light hung low in all the braziers.
The next day, she said, her hand would finally be forced, and she’d have to marry a suitor. Only, she’d make them endure a trial. Back in the days when Odysseus had lived in the palace, he used to line up twelve axes that had holes in their heads. Then, he’d string his massive bow, stand far back, and shoot arrows through all of them – a feat of almost superhuman strength and marksmanship. If any of the suitors could replicate this shot, she would marry him.
Odysseus said it was a good plan, because he had a feeling she’d see her husband the following day. With a heavy heart, Penelope bid the stranger goodnight, and only through the magic of Athena did she fall asleep. [music]
The Odyssey, Book 20: Prelude to the CrisisOdysseus, by his own request, lay outside, on blankets spread over the palace porch. There, he heard the maidservants leaving the palace to go and find suitors to sleep with. Their disloyalty to poor Penelope, Telemachus, and loyal old Eurycleia made him growl to himself. He thought, and thought, and thought about how he could handle all the suitors until Athena came to him. He had nothing to worry about, she said. She was on his side, and she wouldn’t fail him. With this assurance, Odysseus finally fell asleep.
Dawn broke early the next day. It was a feast day, and the sunshine brought Ithaca to life, the herdsmen, ferries and cart drivers eager to make a profit from the palace revelry.
Penelope awoke with the sun, remembering her grief right away. She wished for death, and for exile to a faraway land. Her voice, though in a far distant part of the palace, awoke Odysseus. He said a prayer to Zeus, and, by way of response, Zeus made a thunderclap come through the clear morning. Telemachus and the old nurse Eurycleia began preparations for the day. It was a holiday, and the suitors would arrive earlier than usual to begin devouring the palace’s provisions.
Women went to draw cool water from the spring, and serving men split wood. Herdsmen brought in livestock. The swineherd Eumaeus stopped and greeted Odysseus cordially. The goatherd who’d kicked Odysseus earlier was again rude to him. Another worker, a cowherd, by contrast, was very respectful to the old beggar.
The suitors, as they assembled for their morning meal, discussed how to best kill Telemachus, but decided that it was not the day for murder. Feasting began, and Telemachus brought his father to a small table and served him. It wasn’t long before the suitors expressed dissatisfaction that the old beggar was being treated like one of them. One of them heaved an ox’s hoof at the old man, but Odysseus dodged it.
Telemachus was livid. “I understand now,” he said, “what’s going on around here. . .one man can’t stop many. . .You don’t have to be hostile to me, / But if you are determined to cut me down, / Well, I’d rather be killed in cold blood / Than have to watch this disgusting behavior - / Guests mistreated and men dragging the women / Shamefully through these beautiful halls” (319). These were harsh words, but many of the suitors continued to mock the old beggar and Telemachus, and as father and son endured a few more minutes of abuse, Penelope prepared to set her plan in motion.[music]
The Odyssey, Book 21: The Great BowIn the long years that the suitors had stayed at the palace, Penelope had kept some of her husband’s old possessions. They lay hidden, in a far off storage room, locked and kept secret. The storeroom held chests of his old clothes and numerous other odds and ends that brought to mind memories of decades past with her beloved husband. Within these treasures were Odysseus’ bow, quiver, and arrows, gifts from an old friend. Penelope cried at the sight of them. As far as she knew, these might well be her last moments as a loyal wife. She took them from the vault, along with some iron and bronze equipment Odysseus had long ago used when performing his miraculous shot with the bow, and went into the dining room.
There, she issued her challenge. She would marry one of them, she said. Only, he would have to first string Odysseus’ bow, and shoot it through the holes in all twelve of the iron axe heads. The leader of the suitors, Antinous, said it was time to separate the boys from the men. Telemachus prepared the axe heads in a perfectly straight row, and said he would be the first to try. Three times he attempted to string the box, and on the fourth, he was about to succeed, but Odysseus cautioned him not to. The younger man ceased his efforts and called for the first volunteer from the suitors.
The first of them failed. Antinous said they ought to set the bow near a fire and oil it so that it could be bent more easily, but even when these steps were taken the procession of men who tried could not string Odysseus’ bow. As the suitors tried and tried, Odysseus went outside with the swineherd and the cowherd, the two servants who’d remained loyal to him in his absence. He revealed his identity, and said they’d have great rewards. The three were elated to be together again, and Odysseus told them what was next. No one would be able to string his bow, he said. He asked the swineherd Eumaeus to bring him the bow when everyone else failed to string it, and then to tell the women to lock all the doors, and to not pay any heed to cries, or screams, or the scuffling of men trying to escape. It was all just going to be the noise of daddy coming home. [music]
The last of his plans laid, Odysseus sat back down. The second-in-command of the suitors had tried, and tried, and failed to string the bow, and bemoaned the obvious truth. None of them were as strong as Odysseus. They’d be the laughingstock for generations. Only Antinous, chief of the suitors, kept his cool. It had been entertaining, he said. But really, bending bows? Shooting arrows through axes? It was a feast day. They’d leave the axes there, and have some wine. They were far too comfortable there to worry about some contest devised by some woman.
Odysseus stood up and addressed them respectfully. He petitioned them to let him see if he had any strength left in his limbs. Antinous derogated the old beggar. The old buffoon was drunk, said Antinous. Besides, even if he could by some bizarre miracle string the bow, they’d still see him exiled. Penelope wanted to see the old man try. She told them so. They had no honor, anyway, since they were stealing food and drink from a helpless woman and her son. They’d lose no more if an old vagrant schooled them in a contest of strength and archery. If the old beggar won, he’d have fine goods and passage to anywhere in the world. Telemachus agreed. The old beggar would even get to keep the bow. And, Telemachus told Penelope, it might be a good time to go up to her room. Periodically throughout the Odyssey, Telemachus tells Penelope to go up to her room, displaying good old fashioned ancient world chauvinism, but on this particular occasion, he’s telling her because things are about to get quite messy in the dining hall. Penelope went upstairs and fell asleep. [music]
In the dining hall, all eyes were on Odysseus. As had been the plan, the swineherd Eumaeus carried Odysseus’ bow to him, enduring some verbal abuse from the suitors on the way there. Then, Eumaeus told the old nurse Eurycleia she’d better shut, and lock the hall’s doors, and ignore all sounds of violence therein. The hall was quietly sealed, and beyond even the hall, the outer courtyard was sealed shut.
Odysseus held his bow, turning it and examining it, and the suitors made fun of him. The old dolt was pretending to be a connoisseur in archery, they said. What a ridiculous sight.
Then, with no effort, Odysseus strung it, and plucked the string, making a clear, birdlike tone. The suitors looked on with sudden awe as he fitted an arrow onto the bowstring, drew, and shot. His arrow whipped through the holes of the axe heads. He hadn’t even risen from his chair. He looked over at his son and said he did still have a bit of strength, after all. Perhaps he didn’t deserve the suitors’ jeers and mockery. “But,” Odysseus added, “now it is time to cook these men’s supper, / While it is still light outside, and after that, / We’ll need some entertainment – music and song - / The finishing touches for a perfect banquet” (335). The hero’s eyes darkened, and then “Telemachus, / The true son of godlike Odysseus, slung on / His sharp sword, seized his spear, and gleaming in bronze / Took his place by his father’s side” (335). [music]
The Odyssey, Book 22: The Battle in the HallOdysseus pulled the rags from himself, arranged his arrows in front of him, and said now he had something to show them. Now, you might ask, even though Odysseus was in his forties, and was probably suffering from exhaustion, did he still have the gall to challenge the hundred men in front of him? Why yes –yes, he did. He was Odysseus. He drew and shot Antinous in the throat, just as the other man was lifting a large, double-eared goblet to his mouth. The chief of the suitors fell first, thrashing and gurgling, kicking the table.
The suitors rushed to the walls, where the ancestral weapons had been hung – but they were all gone. They shouted at the old beggar. He’d had a lucky shot, they said! The ugly old man had made a grave mistake, murdering the best young man in the kingdom.
Odysseus was not intimidated. [music]
You dogs! [he said.] You thought I would neverThe suitors writhed against the locked doors. One of them, Eurymachus, spoke up. He said yes, they’d done foolish things. But Antinous had driven them to it. Now, said Eurymachus, please spare the rest of them. The most guilty had been punished. The rest of the suitors, he promised, would pay him back in oxen, bronze, and gold until Odysseus felt he’d been dealt justly with.
Come home from Troy. So you wasted my house,
Forced the women to sleep with you,
And while I was still alive you courted my wife
Without any fear of the gods in high heaven
. . .of any retribution from the world of men.
Now the net has been drawn tight around you. (337)
Odysseus, hearing the men’s offer of remuneration, decided that perhaps forgiveness would be the only just thing – no, I’m just kidding. Unfortunately, Odysseus was not in a forgiving mood. If every single one of them, he said, gave everything their families had, he was still going to murder them all. They were going to have to fight. The men’s blood pounded in their veins. [music]
Eurymachus yelled at them to get behind the tables and charge him with them. Odysseus wouldn’t be able to shoot all of them. No coward, Eurymachus charged, but Odysseus shot him in the chest. The suitor wheeled, clattering plates and goblets off a table and onto the floor. Another man went for Odysseus but took a spear in the back from Telemachus. The young prince rushed to the room where armaments were stored and brought back weapons, shields, and armors. The two old herdsman adorned themselves in the gear of war. When Odysseus had run out of arrows, he slammed a helmet on and grabbed spears.
Unfortunately Telemachus left the weapons storeroom open, and many of the suitors were also able to grab weapons and armor. The arrogant goatherd – not to be confused with Eumaeus the swineherd or another person, the cowherd helping Odysseus – this lousy arrogant goatherd had found the stock of weapons and distributed them to the suitors. Odysseus dispatched his two herdsmen to deal with the suitor’s single herdsman. This wicked goatherd, who had kicked Odysseus in the hip down at the watering spring, was caught, tied, and hung up to be dealt with later. And the two good herdsman rushed back to help Odysseus. [music]
In the main hall, Athena appeared in disguise next to Odysseus to help him fight. The bowshots and spears of the suitors all failed to reach their target, thunking into the door, the doorpost, and even the wall instead. Then Odysseus and his three fighters struck back, their hurled spears simultaneously killing four suitors. Another volley followed, and another still, and soon the fighting was close quarters, and blood steamed on the floor. A soothsayer who’d told prophecies for the suitors begged for his life, and Odysseus answered by decapitating him. The bard who’d played for the suitors then begged for his own life – he’d been forced to come there.
Telemachus heard the man’s plea and agreed. They shouldn’t kill the bard, he said. The bard might play the lyre, but he was no liar – the poor guy was innocent. Another man – a herald, was also innocent. The herald heard this and came out from where he’d been hiding beneath a chair. Odysseus nodded and told the innocent men to go outside for their own safety.
The hero looked around his hall, but all was still. The suitors lay in dead masses, like fish on a beach. Odysseus summoned his old nurse Eurycleia. She was stunned at the sight of the violence in the hall – of Odysseus covered in gore from head to foot. He said he wasn’t done, and asked which women in the house had betrayed Penelope and Telemachus and allied themselves with the suitors. Old Eurycleia said there were twelve of them.
Odysseus gave more orders. The two loyal herdsmen were to get the maidservants who had been disloyal, and compel them to help mop the blood and carnage out of the hall. With this done, the two herders would take the twelve disloyal maidservants to the courtyard fence, and there, “Slash them with swords / Until they have forgotten their secret lovemaking / With the suitors. Then finish them off” (350). And so, in the most grisly scenes in the Odyssey, the disloyal maidservants cried as they cleaned up the gory mess of their former lovers, and were taken out into the yard and hung. Then, the goatherd who’d kicked and derided Odysseus was brought out. His nose and ears were removed, his genitals were ripped off, and his hands and feet severed.
Having committed summary execution and torture as he saw fit, Odysseus then had smoke ran through the house to clear out all the bad fumes. The women who’d been loyal to him were summoned and expressed deep joy at the hero’s return, and, weeping now that it was all finally over, Odysseus embraced them.[music]
The Odyssey, Book 23: Odysseus and PenelopeThe old nurse ran upstairs and found Penelope. Odysseus was back, she said. And he’d made short work of the iniquitous suitors. Penelope didn’t believe a word of it, but Eurycleia insisted. Penelope asked what had happened, and old Eurycleia told her about how when she burst into the hall after the fight, “[T]here he was, Odysseus, standing / In a sea of dead bodies. . .It would have warmed your heart to see him, / [Splattered] with blood and filth like a lion” (354). Hmm. Mass murder is heartwarming. Mass murder. Heartwarming. These were different times, folks.
Still, Penelope couldn’t believe it. She came down into the hall, passing through a stone threshold, and saw her husband in the firelight. She was reluctant to come near the returned hero. Telemachus chastised her for not embracing her husband. Hard to imagine why. Who wouldn’t want to fly into the loving embrace of someone who’d just unnecessarily slaughtered over a hundred people? Penelope, before the hugging and reunions began, said she had questions for the newcomer – questions that only the real Odysseus would know the answer to. And Odysseus said he was just the man to answer them.
Beforehand, there were just a couple of things to do. They had just, after all, killed a large number of Ithacans. To distract potential investigators, Odysseus had the palace hall filled with dancing and music, so that local townspeople would think a wedding was in process. The hero then went and had a bath, and Athena again made him look like himself, enhanced his height and musculature, and caused his hair to be as thick and curly as bunches of hyacinths.
Odysseus sat down in front of Penelope and said she was being very cold. Really, he was Odysseus. There were no tricks. Seeing her continued skepticism, Odysseus told the old nurse to bring a bed for him. He’d sleep alone. Penelope had one last clever test. Odysseus had asked for a bed to be brought. The real Odysseus would have known, and Penelope certainly knew, a curious fact about their wedding bed. It was built into a tree – an olive tree that grew in their bedroom and had been preserved when the palace was built. Penelope told the old nurse to bring this bed out for Odysseus to rest on.
Odysseus, naturally, was nonplussed. “By God, woman,” he said, “now you’ve cut deep. / Who moved my bed? It would be hard / For anyone, no matter how skilled, to move it” (359). The bed, he told her, was built into an olive tree, after all. He’d trimmed, trued, bored, and inlaid the tree and made it into a bed for them. For goodness’ sake, his bed was still there, wasn’t it? [music]
This reaction, finally, convinced Penelope. She rushed toward him, embraced him, and kissed him again and again. His bed was right where he’d left it. Oh yeah. And so was his wife. You couldn’t, Penelope said, be too careful, though. Gods were appearing in the guise of mortals left and right, and she’d wanted to be totally sure. They kissed, and wept, and held one another, like shipwrecked swimmers who’d finally found land, and the night grew very late. They talked quietly, and Odysseus told her about the prophecy he’d heard from the prophet in Hades – that some day he’d go on another journey. For the present, though, he was home. The loving couple went down the hall to their lavish tree-bed, a bed as deeply rooted and stable as their loyalty to one another. After making love, they shared stories about what they’d endured. She told him about the indignities she’d suffered under the suitors, and he about the long, traumatic journey he’d made – the city he’d sacked after Troy, then the Lotus-Eaters, the Cyclops, Aeolus and the bag of wind, the cannibal Laestrygonians, the witch Circe, the visit to Hades, the Sirens, the dreadful journey between Scylla and Charybdis, the island of the cattle of the sun, his captivity by Calypso, and finally, how he met the Phaecians who helped him get home. Homer tells us that Penelope “loved listening to him” (362), but as to how much she loved hearing that eight years of Odysseus’ journey home involved having sex with semidivine vixens, we are not told. All caught up after twenty years, Odysseus and Penelope fell asleep. I imagine that there was some pretty epic cuddling. [music]
The next morning, the sun rose up out of the ocean. A soft, rose colored light filled Odysseus’ bedroom. He told his wife to please be careful and stay in the palace for the present – the families of the suitors might seek retribution. As for him, he see to the herds and flocks, and more than anything, he wanted to see his father.[music]
The Odyssey, Book 24: The Feud is EndedThe suitors were all dead. A god gathered them together, and led them
Down the cold, dank ways, pastThere, in the underworld, the Greek champion Achilles spoke with the ghost of the Greek king Agamemnon. They lamented that Agamemnon had been killed due to familial betrayal, and had not had an honorable death in battle, like Achilles. The king recollected the seventeen days of mourning the army had held for their fallen champion, and said he’d had no honors upon his death. The conversing king and champion were surprised to see the bevy of suitors suddenly being escorted into Hades.
The streams of Ocean, past the White Rock,
Past the Gates of the Sun and the Land of Dreams,
Until they came to the Meadow of Asphodel,
Where the spirits of the dead dwell, phantoms
Of men outworn. (365)
Agamemnon studied the newcomers. They were all Ithacans, he said. He questioned one of the suitors in particular. Had there been a shipwreck, or something? The man told him about how all of the suitors had converged on Odysseus’ palace in his absence, how Penelope had delayed them with the shroud, and how, just in time, Odysseus had returned and did them all in. Agamemnon, thinking of his own disloyal wife, spoke of steadfast Penelope with the highest praises. “What a mind she has,” said Agamemnon, “A woman beyond reproach!. . .[H]er virtue’s fame will never perish, / And the gods will make among men on earth / A song of praise for steadfast Penelope” (370).
Back in the fields of Ithaca, Odysseus, Telemachus, and the two loyal herdsmen came to the home of old Laertes, Odysseus’ father. The former king of Ithaca was alone, and dressed in a mended old shirt, digging at a plant’s roots. The sight broke Odysseus’ heart, but he steeled himself to be cautious. Caution had worked so far during his homecoming. He’d do well to continue.
Odysseus approached ragged old Laertes, who did not look up. Odysseus told the old man he was certainly an admirable planter and farmer, but that he should take better care of himself. Old Laertes looked like a king in the garb of a beggar, after all. A teller of tall tales to the last, Odysseus offered Laertes a story about how he once met and hosted Odysseus, and bestowed lavish gifts on him. Laertes inquired further – and so Odysseus offered him yet another fictitious origin story about being from a remote land, having come most recently from Sicily. But he said he hadn’t heard from Odysseus in a long time.
The old man was crushed. He sunk down, picked up handfuls of dust, and let them sift down onto his ragged goatskin cap. Odysseus could take it no longer. He embraced and kissed his dad. “I’m the one that you miss, Father,” he said, “right here, / Back in my homeland after twenty years” (374). Laertes asked for proof, and Odysseus showed him the boar scar, and told his old father the exact number of each row of trees in Odysseus’ boyhood orchard. And then, Laertes was convinced.
The hero took his father to a cottage, where old Laertes was cleaned and bathed. Telemachus and the herdsmen prepared a large meal, and Athena made old Laertes shine with dignity and vigor. And so, in a cottage by an old farm Odysseus, his father, and his son were in the same room together for the first time, sharing a meal with those who had been loyal to them. [music]
Back at the palace, all was not well. It was not possible to contain the news that over a hundred young Ithacan males – the pride of the island, really – had been killed. The father of Antinous, in particular, took up the voice of the people. Odysseus, he said brought Ithacan youths to Troy twenty years ago, and of all of them, only he had returned. Now he’d murdered more of their children. It was time to act – before Odysseus had a chance to abscond to the mainland.
But the bard who had been spared had a different idea. What had happened, he explained, had happened due to the will of the gods. The fathers of all of the suitors should have stopped what was happening. The king’s wife was being dishonored, and his wealth devoured. The suitors deserved it. Some of the angry mob was convinced by this speech. But a majority of them went to find Odysseus, stopping along the way to pick up weapons and armor.
Athena saw the grim situation that was unfolding. Would Odysseus really have come all the way home and bested the suitors, just to be outnumbered in a bloody coup on his island? Athena talked it over at Zeus, and the two decided that they would make peace on Ithaca.
Meanwhile, Odysseus, his son, and his father saw the angry mob approaching old Laertes’ farm. The three, joined by a few other loyal followers, prepared to defend themselves. First, old Laertes, aided by Athena, hurled a spear that hit Antinous’ father in the head. After this auspicious beginning, Odysseus’ small band attacked, ready to fight to the last man.
Only, thankfully, they didn’t have to. Athena screamed. “ITHACANS!” she said. “Lay down your arms now” (380). The ground rattled and thundered with the noise of falling weapons. Trembling, the townspeople fled back to the city. Odysseus went after them, but Zeus stopped him. Odysseus was glad to obey. And the Odyssey closes with these lines – “[T]he goddess made both sides swear binding oaths - / Pallas Athena, daughter of the Storm Cloud” (381). And that’s the end. One hopes that following this divine armistice, Odysseus returned to his palace, the Ithacans accepted what had happened had been the will of the gods, and the returning hero got to enjoy a long tenure of peace on the island of Ithaca, his odyssey finally over. But we’ll never know. [music]
Homer and Cyclical TimeI have a few things I want to tell you about, since this is the last episode on Homer. First, let’s talk about that ending. Now, if you’re like most readers, you’re probably thinking, “What?” You’re thinking, “The guy comes home, commits an unnecessary mass murder, kills defenseless women, and brutally tortures a herdsman? Then, in the chaos that ensues, the gods appear and magically fix everything? What the hell kind of an ending is that?” There are other questions, too. If Odysseus is supposed to be a hero, then why does Homer include the tragic scene of all the suitors’ families coming to the palace at Ithaca, and bewailing not only their dead sons, but also all of the dead soldiers who went to the Trojan War with Odysseus and never returned? If Odysseus wants so desperately to return home to his wife and family, to the safe domestic confines of his palace, why can’t he understand that other Ithacans have homes and families, and murder, for any reason, hurts everyone on the island? Why, on the very last page of the poem, is Odysseus ready to hurl himself into battle and kill all the families of all the suitors? Why does the Odyssey, seemingly a more modern and civil tale than its predecessor, degenerate into an orgy of violence?
These are all very sensible questions, and I think they have equally sensible answers. The most obvious one is that we are not yet in an era of literature in which single characters were held up for emulation. This is not a story about a brave David, with his sling and his singular faith in god, standing up against a Goliath. This is a story about Goliaths facing down Goliaths, in a universe in which all gods are Goliaths, too. Odysseus is no different. His battle prowess and cunning are formidable, and make for good stories, but the man himself is also a monster. He was the primary instrument in the obliteration of Troy, an obliteration so horrific that the Homeric poems only tell of it in fragments. Common archaeological images of the conquest of the city are grim, surviving in black figure and geometric pottery of Ancient Greece. These images show mass executions, women being forced into sex slavery, children slaughtered, and perhaps the saddest of all, the death of Hector’s baby son – that same baby who was bashful when he saw his the crest on his father’s helmet back in Book 6 of the Iliad. The most common depiction of the baby’s death is him being thrown from a tower – possibly by Odysseus himself.
The primary instrument in Troy’s destruction, Odysseus doesn’t shy away from telling his Phaecian hosts that he destroyed another city on the way home from the Trojan War – a place called Cicones. “I pillaged the town,” Odysseus brags, in Book 9 of the Odyssey, “and killed the men. / The women and treasure that we took out / I divided as fairly as I could among all hands” (126). Odysseus has no conception of himself as a beneficent hero, or a force of goodness and humanitarianism in a chaotic world. He is capable of execution, infanticide, torture, and enslavement, not to mention having a fetish – even compulsion – for telling intricate lies. When reading the Odyssey we hope, sometimes for him to be a more modern hero – a champion of goodness and justice, but find him instead to be more like the ancient Sumerian hero Gilgamesh – a heartless killer who rarely rises above the level of bicep-flexing egotism. [music]
The violence that ends the Odyssey is as raw and terrible as any that we meet in the Iliad – guts and brains and shattered bones. And while the killing that ends Odysseus’ story is shocking in its sudden intensity, we need to understand it in the context of the ancient world. The late 700s BCE – again the timeframe that scholars generally concur produced the Homeric poems in their written form – this was not a peaceful time. The Neo-Assyrian Empire, bearing iron weapons and chariots, was busy subduing most of the known world, having reduced the northern kingdom of Israel to a client state. Its founder, Tiglath-Pileser I, left a record of a city that had rebelled against him, offering ghastly details about his acts of retribution:
I built a pillar over against the city gate and I flayed all the chiefs who had revolted, and I covered the pillar with their skins. Some I impaled upon the pillar on stakes, and others I bound to stakes round the pillar. . .I cut the limbs off the officers. . . who had rebelled. . .Many captives… I burned with fire and many I took as living captives. From some I cut off their noses, their ears and their fingers, of many I put out their eyes. I made one pillar of the living and another of heads, and I bound their heads to tree trunks round about the city. Their young men and maidens I burned with fire.3Now, the Neo-Assyrians were especially famous for this sort of thing. But we see in the stone stele and victory inscriptions of kingdoms from Egypt to ancient Persia similar records of mutilations, impalements, and unspeakable acts of torture. This violence is an unavoidable part of human history, and three thousand years ago, ancient conquerors understood the mechanics of oppression through bloodletting, and the threat of it. Thus, when we see such things occurring in Homer’s Odyssey, or, for that matter, in much of the Old Testament, we have to understand that the unsettling carnage that occurs in so many ancient texts isn’t some sadistic authorial invention – it’s a reflection of a historical reality.
When you take the historical context of the Odyssey into account, the sudden outburst of slaughter that caps off Odysseus’ story begins to make more sense. The epic might have ended with peacemaking, with the consecration of Telemachus as the budding prince of a more tranquil era, with the suitors cowed by Odysseus’ harsh eloquence and sent home, repentant, to their families. But instead, it ends with the threat of retributive killing and tit-for-tat violence still in the air, the climate for the kind of clannish conflict that caused the Trojan War in the first place. The Iliad culminates in a moment of tragic sympathetic understanding between Achilles of Greece, and old King Priam of Troy, an understanding that seems to show the possibility of peace in the midst of a war. The Odyssey is the opposite. The kingdoms it features – Phaecia, Sparta, and Pylos, are all at peace, but the Odyssey’s final books end with violence that threaten to cast the coming generations into long centuries of payback killings. The ending of the Odyssey is not an optimistic one. It doesn’t promise some upward arc of history, and a coming time of happiness and harmony for all. Instead, its view of history is cyclical, an Ouroboros serpent, eternally devouring its own tail, terrifyingly beautiful in its relentless destruction and creation – war, peace, war, peace, war, peace, and humans and gods all caught up in the ineluctable spiral. In retrospect, the ending of the Odyssey is disappointing, dark, and tragic. But in its symmetry with Homeric poetry as a whole, it makes perfect sense. [music]
War and Peace and Epic SimilesI want to talk a little more about Homer’s worldview. There’s more to Homer’s view of life on earth than a mere cycle of recurring war. His outlook was not so pessimistic as this. Over the course of these six episodes on the Iliad and the Odyssey, I’ve largely ignored on one of the most characteristic aspects of their style. Homer fans, what major element of the Iliad and Odyssey have I barely mentioned, over hours and hours of talking about them? I have not said much about Homer’s similes. As we all learn in Literature 101, a simile is a comparative linguistic device, most often using the words like or as. I might say, “Her smile was like a daffodil,” or “On her bicycle, she was a fast as a comet.” I imagine that if you’re this deep into my podcast you’ve heard of similes, and maybe even epic similes – those expansive, prolonged comparisons for which Homer is so famous. In an epic simile, you draw out the comparison so lengthily that you spend more time describing an imaginary, far off world than you do the thing you’re actually describing. In other words, a simile is “Her smile was like a daffodil.” An epic simile might be, “Her smile was like a daffodil, white and pale yellow and clear green, growing in a single sun shaft beneath the winding boughs of dark trees, leaves and pedals shy and bright under dewdrops, stirred by the faintest breeze, the tiny substantiation of nascent spring.” Like most epic similes, this smile and daffodil one spends so much time on the daffodil that it loses the smile, and leaves you in a still, forested place, far away from the smile. Homer’s similes work similarly.
First of all, this is not an obscure subtopic. Epic similes in Homer are the hallmark of his style. If you were taking a class on Ancient Greek literature, you’d spend at least a full class period on them. Let me give you the gist of that class period. Many of the more repetitious similes in Homer are animal comparisons during combat. An assailant is compared to a lion, or wolf, or eagle; his victim, to a helpless domesticated animal or smaller bird. There are dozens and dozens of these animal similes, and, after a certain point, they start to blur together. Achilles is like a lion, Odysseus is as fierce as a lion, Menelaus a lion, Patroclus an eagle, Hector a lion, Hector an eagle, Odysseus an eagle, Achilles a wolf, Patroclus a lion, Menelaus a wolf, Menelaus an eagle, and so on. With unapologetic repetitiousness, Homer’s animal similes create a sense of the violence and bestiality of combat, and also, perhaps unintentionally, its senselessness and monotony. In an effort to show the incomparable martial power of his heroes, and exaggerate the gory spectacle of their combat, with visions of bloodied lion muzzles, eagle talons, and gut gobbling wolves, Homer sometimes makes warfare seem as wearisome and predictable as carnivores perpetually seeking their next meal.
So, when we talk about the marvelousness of Homer’s epic similes, it usually isn’t the lion, wolf, and eagle combat stuff. Let me give you an example of a shorter Homeric simile that typifies his style. This is Stanley Lombardo’s translation, by the way – citations and links to awesome recordings are at literatureandhistory.com So, here’s a representative Homeric epic simile. It’s from the Iliad, and in it, the Trojans and Greeks are about to clash. [music]
The Trojans whirled to face the [Greeks],It’s such a strange comparison – an army on one hand, and wind winnowed grain, on the other. The process of winnowing grain – of sweeping away extraneous dry pods, and husks, and stems so as to retain only the grain kernels – this is an odd parallel to draw in the middle of the Trojan War. It’s a peaceful agricultural ritual, part of the rhythmic cycle of seasonal change, the heart of making bread. We hear the simile and think not of war, but instead of the autumn, the smell of baking dough, the tiny, precious shapes of seedpods and grass stalks. Homer’s simile has nothing to do with war. But, placed in the middle of a war story as it is, it takes the reader away from the cruel battlefield and offers a glimpse of a different place and time, an everlasting autumnal ceremony which persists, and will continue to persist, regardless of which of the braggarts on the battlefield happen to make it out alive. These comparisons are all over the place, and they frequently offer the most beautiful imagery in the Homeric poems. [music]
Who remained in tight formation and did not flinch. [And the simile begins.]
Wind carries chaff over the holy threshing floors
When men are winnowing, and [the Goddess of the Harvest] herself,
Blond in the blowing wind, separates
The grain from the chaff, and the piles of chaff
That accumulate grow whiter and whiter.
So too the Greeks under the cloud of white dust. (98)
In other Homeric similes, Hector’s horses are likened to a fresh spring torrent, coursing down into farm fields from highlands. The motionlessness of the Greek army is compared to a bank of mist hanging beneath cool clouds and forming wreaths around mountaintops. The strife of the Greek king is like dark waves in the sea, hit by opposing winds, cresting white and tangled with masses of seaweed. In the midst of a long day of fighting, both sides in the Trojan War are weary, like weary woodsmen, tired of felling lumber, rubbing their tired hands in the cooling evening and thinking of dinner and the comfort of their hearths and homes. Stones falling down onto the warriors assaulting a siege wall are like snow falling gently over the earth, covering everything except for the always-moving gray sea. These similes are everywhere. They are magic compressions of time and space, capsules of alternative possibilities in the midst of the hellish war story. They give both Homeric poems a grace and depth, showing that although the war and strife rage on, elsewhere, peace, exuberant joy, and the harmonious procession of seasons have not, and will not, and will never stop.
My favorite occurs at the end of Book 8 of the Iliad. The armies are camped out on the plains of Troy – Greeks on the beaches and Trojans by the river, and their watch fires illuminate their nocturnal routines of cooking, eating, and resting their exhausted limbs. Homer compares them to [music]
Stars: crowds of them in the sky, sharpThese fierce men, rapists and killers, are for a moment in Homer’s nocturne made as peaceful as stars on a bright, cool night – stars so luminous that they cause an observing herdsman to smile in their soft light. The simile is transformative, both making the Trojan War seem a mere eye blink in galactic history, but by the analogy it draws, making the warriors beautiful and everlasting in the damnation of their transience.
In the moonglow when the wind falls
And all the cliffs and hills and peaks
Stand out and the air shears down
From heaven, and all the stars are visible
And the watching shepherd smiles.
So the bonfires between the Greek ships
And the banks of the [river]. (159)
These are the basic facts about Homer’s epic similes, then. Some are repetitious, and compare fighting men to lions, wolves, eagles, and so on. But many are brilliantly imaginative, bringing to mind even in moments of violent combat a kaleidoscope of images. In his similes we see herdsmen and villagers, children and youthful adventures, snowfall and the slopes of mountains, and the customs and habits of peacetime life. The similes are themselves like stars, showing the serene inevitability of peace in the mist of the darkness of war and strife. [music]
The Autumn LeavesIn one of them that comes up a number of times, probably the most famous simile in all of Homer, human beings are likened to leaves. Apollo calls humanity “Pitiful creatures who like leaves on a tree / Flame briefly to life, eat the fruit of the fields, / Then wither and die” (Iliad 417). A fighter in the Trojan War believes that “Human generations are like leaves in their seasons. / The wind blows them to the ground, but the tree / Sprouts new ones when spring comes again. / Men too. Their generations come and go” (116). There are allusions to this simile in Virgil’s Aeneid, Dante’s Divine Comedy, the poetry of John Milton, Percy Shelly, T.S. Eliot, just to name some of the heavyweights. If you happened to catch the title of this episode, “The Autumn Leaves,” then you know I’ve come to the capstone of my six installments on Homer.
This single image – a season of leaves, budding and then green, then gold, then brown, is the Homeric vision of humanity. Our lifecycle has its own pale youth, vigorous green noontime, autumnal glow, and final fall, and frost, and desiccation. Leaves that fall to the forest floor nourish further seasons of growth, just as a generation of humanity stands on the shoulders of a previous one. The churn of it is breathtakingly lovely, and indiscriminately pitiless.
To bring things back to the end of the Odyssey – to those final few violent books which seem to promise a return to military conflict, I think that this conclusion to the Iliad and Odyssey, queasy as it might make us, creates a coherent, albeit melancholy story. The Homeric worldview is more cyclical than linear. It’s a view older than the religions that most of us practice today. It is not the Ancient Egyptian, or Christian or Islamic view – that souls might be made immortal and dwell with god for eternity – that humanity is progressing ever forward to some definitive day of collective judgment, after which justice will be meted out. To Homer, there is no ultimate stasis, and no final happy ending for the pious. There’s only that succession of efflorescence and rot, from century to century. Time is a wheel, an Ouroboros serpent, and it leaves no one to repose under choirs or angels or in lush green gardens. It turns and turns, like the seasons, and leaves come and go.[music]
Homer, Heraclitus, and FluxLiterary scholars, both ancient and modern, have long aligned the Homeric poems with an ancient Greek philosopher named Heraclitus of Ephesus. Heraclitus lived and wrote a century before Plato. He did not share Plato’s notion of a single creator deity, nor a transcendental realm of forms that persists in spite of their imperfect earthly incarnations. Heraclitus, like Homer, believed in flux, and change.
Of all Heraclitus’ writings, perhaps the most famous is a quote about a river. It’s translated as “It is impossible to step twice into the same river.”4 Again, “It is impossible to step twice into the same river.” Any class on Ancient Greek thought will include this famous quote. But what does it mean? Let’s hear Heraclitus’ full explanation. “It is impossible to step twice into the same river. . .It scatters and regathers, comes together and dissolves, approaches and departs. . .On those who [do] step into the same rivers ever different waters are flowing” (41). Maybe you’ve thought about this before. A river moves, an ocean’s waters are always flowing and comingling. You’ve never eaten the same meal twice, because the molecules that make up the ingredients are different, every time. You’ve never heard the wind in the leaves the same way, because branches and boughs and twigs are always shifting and changing. You’ve never taken the same walk twice, because the earth is spinning and hurdling through space at over a thousand miles an hour.
Perpetual change is a simple idea to comprehend, but it’s also a paradox, isn’t it? When I first read Heraclitus, I scribbled down these two lines to shorthand what I thought of his doctrine of change. They were, “Green in the spring. Gold in the fall. / Everything changes. So nothing changes much at all.” In other words, everything is always changing, then change is, somewhat oddly, the constant, dependable bedrock at the center of the world. That’s not a particularly difficult or interesting idea in and unto itself. I bet you’ve thought about it before.
To Heraclitus, this idea of perpetual change and flux is why you can’t ever step into the same river twice. It’s also what makes a river a river. Rivers perpetually course with new water, changing their directions, swelling or drying over millennia. They move, and eventually, through the mechanism of being what they are, they are devoured by time. Thus, to be a river, a river has to perpetually be driving itself toward its own annihilation. This, I think, is a more interesting idea.
At the heart of Heraclitus’ philosophy is the notion that things are defined by their opposites. Thus, he writes that “Disease makes health pleasant and good, as hunger does being full, and weariness rest” (39). Most of us have thought about this, I think. There are the old sayings that you can’t have good without evil, or that absence makes the heart grow fonder. Runners know that after a long course you feel excellent afterwards, for what you’ve endured. Heraclitus was fascinated by this stuff – by the way that opposites actuate or help etch out the existence of one another, the way that a river slowly obliterates itself simply by being what it is.
Thinking of rivers, and sickness and health, Heraclitus that “while tending away [a thing] agrees with itself – a back-turning harmony, like a bow or a lyre” (40). So when I tune this guitar string to a G, [sound] the opposite pressures that pull it into form are what make it what it is – a note – a thing made by diametric opposites. By being stretched between its beginning and end, it can vibrate and be what it is. But every pluck of it slowly, slowly causes infinitesimal fracturing in its copper and bronze coiling, until finally, it gives way, just as a river, by being a river, becomes something other than a river, or a leaf, by being a leaf, becomes something other than a leaf. [music]
Final Thoughts on HomerIf it all sounds too philosophically nebulous, that’s okay. The point is that the Homeric poems, violent as they are, still see human life as beautiful, fragile, and precious. Precisely because there is no permanence to any of it, no promise of transcendence, and no omniscient god wisely guiding things into their places, the poems depict the delicate finitude of each person’s span of time on earth, and see radiance and resonance in the overall process of changeless change. Through the dark of warfare and the exquisiteness of his long similes, Homer’s poems take the full gamut of human existence and see us as no different from a season of leaves, green in our time, but, like all things in nature, fated to fade and pass. So that’s that. Now, you know the Odyssey. And if you caught the three episodes on the Iliad, then now you know Homer. High five, amigo. [Autumn Leaves chords]
Six episodes ago, I said I’d tell you why, when I first read the Iliad and Odyssey during autumn of my senior year of college, I blazed through them in a scant couple of weeks – why they meant so much to me. I don’t want to overestimate your interest in my personal experiences with literature, so I’ll make it quick.
These were the first pieces of ancient literature that I’d read as an adult. Their darkly gorgeous, polytheistic worldview was thousands of years removed from my area of specialty – the nineteenth century – CE or AD, I mean. Their view of man as powerless beneath fate, and conception of human time as cyclical were far different than the Christian and Islamic notions of an end time, or salvation through good works. In a semester of reading Victorian and Edwardian literature, Homer was utterly different, raw, vicious, and unforgettable, like a blood splattered Achilles thrown down into a tea party, like a titan who had come before today’s gods. I’ll never forget reading him for the first time on my bedroom floor, the changing autumn leaves faintly visible by lamplight beyond my window late at night. And when I hear or play one of my favorite jazz songs, Autumn Leaves, I don’t think of smoky lounges or moonlight on saxophones. I think of rivers, never the same, not even for a second. I think of a time before heaven or hell, before monotheism. And I think of Homer, who could look annihilation in the teeth, and only see mesmerizing beauty.
That again was a quick version of the song Autumn Leaves, a jazz standard from the 40s. [music]
So, what’s next? What could possibly be more influential in literary history than Homer? I’ll give you a clue. Let’s say it’s 725 BCE. Sail south from the now-familiar Aegean, and then eastward, along the southern coast of Turkey. Once you pass Cyprus, turn south, and go along the coast of modern day Lebanon, and then anchor your ship. You will find yourself in a land rocked by war. The Neo-Assyrian Empire has reduced the power and wealth of the region dramatically, but still, in the coming century, written texts will be developed that will one day be translated into a thousand languages and make their way across every continent, and every country on the planet. What kingdom am I talking about, and what text? I’m talking about Israel, and the Old Testament.
The Old Testament is so important that I’ve already done one episode to lead up to it, and this was Episode 2, Before the Flood, which covered the Babylonian creation and flood stories – tales which certainly influenced the shape of the Book of Genesis. I thought for a while about how to best steer us into the fascinating, dense, dark 2,000-page beast that is the Hebrew Bible. And in the next episode, I’m not going to talk about Genesis, or Abraham, or Moses, or Jacob. I’m going to talk about a place, a little sliver of seacoast land in the eastern Mediterranean about the size of Taiwan, a place that the ancient world called Canaan. All of the main characters we’ve met in this podcast so far – the Mesopotamians, the ancient Egyptians, and the Greeks, came together in the land of Canaan. And at the nexus of these great civilizations, one small, resilient population, ground underfoot for generations by aggressive neighbors, locked arms and started writing the Old Testament. In the next episode, we’ll talk all about the roller coaster history of Canaan during the Late Bronze and first Iron Ages. While there won’t be any plagues of locusts or trumpets blasting down walls yet, I think you’ll still find the history of Ancient Canaan a pretty amazing story.
Just two more things. As I’ve been requesting, if you like this podcast, please, do me a favor and write a review of it on iTunes, or whichever platform you’re using to listen to it. Those reviews, along with social media plugs and word of mouth, are the lifeblood of podcasts – they help free educational programs like this one get out there into the world and find new listeners. Writing and recording this show and all this music is a lot of work, and if you can take two minutes and write a review, you’re doing something that really helps me out in return. So thanks for listening to Literature and History, and I’d like to close with a song. This one is about six minutes long, and if you’re impartial to the silly songs on this podcast – no worries! Just hit stop or skip to the next show.
If you’re amused by them, though, here goes. I got to thinking. Odysseus was gone for almost twenty years. I was thinking about what that must have been like for Penelope, when he got back. What kinds of conversations did they have? Did she know about his flagrant infidelity? Was she, perhaps, put off by the fact that he’d secretly tested her loyalty, rather than trusting her, and that he killed scores of people she knew well? Putting myself in Penelope’s perspective, I wrote the following song, which also features cameos by everyone’s favorite swineherd, Eumaeus.
|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.
2.^Homer. The Odyssey. Translated by Stanley Lombardo. Hackett Publishing. Kindle Edition, 2000, p. 262. Further references will be noted parenthetically. Link.
3.^Kriwaczek, Paul. Babylon: Mesopotamia and the Birth of Civilization. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2012, pp. 238-9. Link.
4.^Robin Waterfield, Ed. The First Philosophers: The Presocratics and Sophists. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000, p. 41. Further references noted parenthetically. Link.
5.^ "Les feuilles mortes" copyright 1946 by Enoch (Paris, France).
2.^Homer. The Odyssey. Translated by Stanley Lombardo. Hackett Publishing. Kindle Edition, 2000, p. 262. Further references will be noted parenthetically. Link.
3.^Kriwaczek, Paul. Babylon: Mesopotamia and the Birth of Civilization. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2012, pp. 238-9. Link.
4.^Robin Waterfield, Ed. The First Philosophers: The Presocratics and Sophists. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000, p. 41. Further references noted parenthetically. Link.
5.^ "Les feuilles mortes" copyright 1946 by Enoch (Paris, France).