THE GREATEST ADVENTURE OF ALL TIME
Richly imagined by the blind bard around 900 B.C.E., Homer's story follows Odysseus on a decade-long journey as he flees Cyclops, angers his gods, resists the Sirens, averts his eyes from Medusa, docks in exotic cities-ever longing to return to his wife and son.
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Homer was probably born around 725BC on the Coast of Asia Minor, now the coast of Turkey, but then really a part of Greece. Homer was the first Greek writer whose work survives.
He was one of a long line of bards, or poets, who worked in the oral tradition. Homer and other bards of the time could recite, or chant, long epic poems. Both works attributed to Homer – the Iliad and the Odyssey – are over ten thousand lines long in the original. Homer must have had an amazing memory but was helped by the formulaic poetry style of the time.
In the Iliad Homer sang of death and glory, of a few days in the struggle between the Greeks and the Trojans. Mortal men played out their fate under the gaze of the gods. The Odyssey is the original collection of tall traveller’s tales. Odysseus, on his way home from the Trojan War, encounters all kinds of marvels from one-eyed giants to witches and beautiful temptresses. His adventures are many and memorable before he gets back to Ithaca and his faithful wife Penelope.
We can never be certain that both these stories belonged to Homer. In fact ‘Homer’ may not be a real name but a kind of nickname meaning perhaps ‘the hostage’ or ‘the blind one’. Whatever the truth of their origin, the two stories, developed around three thousand years ago, may well still be read in three thousand years’ time.
A Magnificent Saga
BOOK I: WHAT WENT ON IN THE HOUSE OF ODYSSEUS
BOOK II: HOW THE COUNCIL MET IN THE MARKETPLACE OF ITHACA; AND WHAT CAME OF IT
BOOK III: WHAT HAPPENED IN SANDY PYLOS
BOOK IV: WHAT HAPPENED IN LACEDAIMON
BOOK V: HERMÊS IS SENT TO CALYPSO’S ISLAND; ODYSSEUS MAKES A RAFT AND IS CARRIED TO THE COAST OF SCHERIA
BOOK VI: HOW ODYSSEUS APPEALED TO NAUSICAÄ, AND SHE BROUGHT HIM TO HER FATHER’S HOUSE
BOOK VII: WHAT HAPPENED TO ODYSSEUS IN THE PALACE OF ALCINOÖS
BOOK VIII: HOW THEY HELD GAMES AND SPORTS IN PHAIACIA
BOOK IX: HOW ODYSSEUS VISITED THE LOTUS-EATERS AND THE CYCLOPS
BOOK X: THE ISLAND OF THE WINDS; THE LAND OF THE MIDNIGHT SUN; CIRCÊ
BOOK XI: HOW ODYSSEUS VISITED THE KINGDOM OF THE DEAD
BOOK XII: THE SINGING SIRENS, AND THE TERRORS OF SCYLLA AND CHARYBDIS
BOOK XIII: HOW ODYSSEUS CAME TO ITHACA
BOOK XIV: ODYSSEUS AND THE SWINEHERD
BOOK XV: HOW TELEMACHOS SAILED BACK TO ITHACA
BOOK XVI: HOW TELEMACHOS MET HIS FATHER
BOOK XVII: HOW ODYSSEUS RETURNED TO HIS OWN HOME
BOOK XVIII: HOW ODYSSEUS FOUGHT THE STURDY BEGGAR
BOOK XIX: HOW THE OLD NURSE KNEW HER MASTER
BOOK XX: HOW GOD SENT OMENS OF THE WRATH TO COME
BOOK XXI: THE CONTEST WITH THE GREAT BOW
BOOK XXII: THE BATTLE IN THE HALL
BOOK XXIII: HOW ODYSSEUS FOUND HIS WIFE AGAIN
BOOK XXIV: HOW ODYSSEUS FOUND HIS OLD FATHER, AND HOW THE STORY ENDED
I have to thank several friends for reading and commenting upon certain parts of this translation; and particularly Miss A. M. Croft, B.A., whose help has been indispensable.
Four Books were published in the New English Weekly (1935), for which I thank the Editor, Mr. P. Mairet.
To guard against possible mistakes I add that the translation was made before T. E. Lawrence’s Odyssey was published. Whenever I was in doubt as to the meaning I consulted the scholiasts, Merry and Riddell and Munro for the Odyssey, Walter Leaf for the Iliad, and the most careful and exact translation I know, that of A. T. Murray in the Loeb Library, to all of whom I return my sincere thanks.
Much have I travelled in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-browed Homer ruled as his demesne;
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He stared at the Pacific—and all his men
Looked at each other with a wild surmise—
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.
HOMER’S ODYSSEY TELLS A SIMPLE AND FAMILIAR STORY: the return of a hero, a veteran of the Trojan War, who has spent ten trial-filled years wandering in exotic lands. Arriving at last in his homeland, Ithaca, he finds that domestic and community affairs have gone badly wrong in his absence. His wife, Penelopeia, is surrounded by aggressive suitors who presume her husband has perished abroad; his son, Telemachos, on the brink of manhood, lacks the authority to expel these unruly interlopers, who are eating him out of house and home. In this power vacuum, where lowly swineherds and housekeepers try to fill the roles vacated by their masters, Odysseus, slowly and painfully, begins to recover his position as master of his household and patrimony. Using first guile, and then force, he ultimately takes vengeance on those who are seeking to displace him, restores his household and reclaims his wife.
If the story is simple, Homer’s narrative is brilliantly complex. Its opening is a notorious tease, a deliberate play on audience expectations and a taste of what this convention-breaking song will offer. The poem’s first line springs a double surprise: where Homer’s Iliad, the predecessor and countermodel to the Odyssey, begins by announcing in resounding fashion both the name of its protagonist, “Achillês, son of Peleus,” and the prime mover of its story—the cosmic wrath that drives Achillês to destroy his nearest and dearest, and himself too—the second composition tells us only that it is about a man, “one who was never at a loss.” From the outset then, Odysseus is a hero with a difference; alone among those celebrated in epic by the ancient bards, he allows himself to remain incognito, and the suppression of his identity proves key to his resourceful nature and survival. It will be nine books before Odysseus declares who he is and the source of his renown: no Achillês-like rage or battle prowess, but a “readiness for any event.”
Nor do the novelties end there. Our poet has a supremely compelling story to tell: Odysseus’ adventures on his journey home include encounters with the one-eyed cannibal Polyphemos and a visit to a land where the mind-altering lotus is the food of choice: fresh dangers come in the form of the drug-dealing Circê, whose potions turn Odysseus’ crew into swine, a visit to the land of the dead, singers whose voices are so alluring that seafarers linger to listen until their bones rot, and battles with sea-swallowing monsters. But instead of leading with these famous episodes, which Homer’s audience would have been expecting, for the first four books of the poem, the poet says nothing of the travels that make Odysseus a paradigm for contemporary Greeks embarking on their first colonizing ventures. Instead we accompany Telemachos, a somewhat backward youth, on his own mini-odyssey; roused from inaction by a visit from his father’s patron goddess, Athena, he sets out to discover news of Odysseus, visiting veterans of the Trojan War in the hope of learning whether his father is alive or dead. In postponing the main event, the poet knows exactly what he is about. For a hero whose best hope of salvation depends on his remaining unknown, an oblique introduction is required, and we, members like Telemachos of the post-heroic age, must encounter Odysseus indirectly before meeting him face-to-face.
As we realize later on, Telemachos’ seemingly low-key journey also proves a dress rehearsal, in which the son’s experiences hold up a mirror to those that his father, in the poem’s multilayered chronology, simultaneously undergoes. Here too Homer flirts with audience expectations, making us think ourselves embarked on a typical coming-of-age story, where a young man achieves manhood and a sense of who he is by virtue of the ancient equivalent of a Grand Tour and his initiation into family lore. But ultimately the poet discards this first trajectory: were Telemachos fully to join the rank of heroes, what role would be left for his father? The Odyssey charts no Oedipal struggle in which the son displaces the paternal figure (although the poet occasionally nods toward that scenario); instead, when father and son do find each other in the poem’s second half, the youth gamely consents to play second fiddle to his illustrious progenitor.
The master story resumes in book V, when Athena engineers our hero’s release from the nymph Calypso’s too warm attentions (not for nothing does her name mean “the concealer”). Within this larger narrative, a smaller one is inscribed. Washed up naked and destitute on the island of the Phaiacians, Odysseus is rescued by another seductive and nubile maiden, and treated to the choicest hospitality in a land whose luxuries would have answered to the fantasies of the elite among the poet’s audience. But there is something sinister about the entertainment the Phaiacians supply, and when Odysseus inserts his own story into the poet’s larger tale in books IX-XII, bringing us up to the point at which Homer began his song, he designs his narrative as a warning to his hosts. As the adventures he relates demonstrate, two criteria distinguish good hosts from bad: poor hospitality means feeding off your guest (instead of treating him to a meal) and/or detaining him against his will. Fortunately the Phaiacian king, Alcinous, understands the message. After hearing the spellbinding story of the hero, whose compositional powers equal those of a poet and whose audience responds with all the generosity the ancient singer would hope to receive, the king completes the duties of the ancient host: where a stranger’s arrival demands the provision of a bath, food and maybe some clean clothes, departure requires gifts and conveyance home. The Phaiacians come up trumps: their magical, self-propelled ships can travel in wintertime, when no real-world Greek would risk seafaring, and they deposit the sleeping Odysseus on his native shore when hibernal cold still holds the site in frozen inactivity. The chronology and nature of the hero’s homecoming shows Homer’s novelistic skill and the archetypal nature of his story. Odysseus’ recovery of his home and kingdom will coincide with the springtime season of renewal, and his passage back to reality from the supernatural realm—this encompassing all Odysseus’ experiences after leaving Troy and including his sojourn in Phaiacia, a halfway house mingling fairy tale elements with details familiar to those acquainted with actual Greek colonies—occurs in the unconsciousness of sleep.
Like all good storytellers, Homer then seals off his magical world. When we last glimpse the Phaiacians, Poseidon, whose wrath against Odysseus stems from the hero’s blinding of his son Polyphemos, has turned their ship to stone and threatens to cover their island with a mountain (an original “cliff-hanger” that the poet never resolves). With all means of conveyance gone, no one can repeat the journey Odysseus achieved or verify whether the stories our hero and poet have told are true.
Many have found the early stages of the poem’s second half something of a letdown. For much of four books, we linger in a humble swineherd’s hut, where Odysseus, now disguised as a filthy beggar at a tap of Athena’s wand, is treated to an almost comic form of rustic hospitality while he trades hard-luck stories with Eumaios, his kindly if obtuse host. But here too design underlies the poem. Not only does Homer sound several of his central themes—the importance of a scrupulous observance of hospitality; the fact that the suitors have so corrupted the urban sphere that the usually disparaged countryside is now the more ethical realm—but he also offers a fascinating window onto his own art. Through the fictitious stories that Odysseus tells, we see how poets such as Homer worked. Reusing material from the story he told the Phaiacians, Odysseus also helps himself to characters and motifs from the Iliad and to the alternate stories of his own wanderings that bards contemporary with Homer would be singing. Because the poet flags these accounts as mendacious, he simultaneously deauthenticates rival singers’ narratives and makes us retrospectively wonder about the veracity of the seaman’s yarn Odysseus spun for the Phaiacians; we recall that his story—unlike Homer’s own—came without an opening appeal to the Muses, guarantors of the truth of ancient poets’ tales.
Disguise, of course, begs for recognition, and the second half of the poem is structured, as ancient critics already observed, as a series of recognition scenes. The first of these features the also disguised Athena, the only “reunion” in which the hero does not hold all the cards. The tables are turned when Odysseus, now enjoying the omniscience and impenetrability that Athena earlier possessed, reveals himself to the baffled Telemachos in book XVI. Book XVII varies the scheme with the meeting between the hero and his faithful hound, Argos: impervious to the disguise that works only on humans, the dog, like the goddess, immediately “sniffs out” his master without any sign or prompt. The loyal housekeeper and retainers are made party to Odysseus’ identity in books XIX-XXI, and the suitors’ almost willful blindness in the face of the visual and verbal clues given them abruptly ends when the hero declares himself just moments before delivering his enemies to their deaths. Still more tantalizingly postponed is the episode in book XXIII when Penelopeia finally acknowledges Odysseus as her husband even as she proves herself his faithful wife. The hero’s father, Laërtês, completes the sequence that has restored Odysseus to every facet of his pre-Trojan identity, repositioning him as father, husband, son and master of his patrimony. These reunions observe a neat arc: beginning with the son’s acknowledgment of the father, they close with the father’s recognition of the son.
Patterning is also apparent at the more microcosmic level. The poet plots the recognition episodes on a spatial trajectory that brings Odysseus ever closer to his goal: from the seashore he advances to the extra-urban realm, from the palace courtyard to its banqueting hall, and from the hearth to the innermost chamber, which houses the marital bed. The signs and tokens through which the revelations come about follow another intricate scheme. Each fills in a period in the hero’s life: his childhood, his adolescence, and the moment he brings his bride to his home. These tokens are crucial to our full understanding of Odysseus’ nature: when the housekeeper Eurycleia discovers the scar that the hero received in the course of the hunt that constituted his “initiation” into manhood, the poet includes a flashback telling how the infant Odysseus received his name: derived from the Greek verb meaning “to be a source of and/or target of pain,” it styles Odysseus nothing other than “Trouble.” Little wonder that characters sympathetic to the hero do best to use circumlocutions when describing or addressing him. (Recall that Odysseus’ name brought disaster on his own person: had he not revealed himself to Polyphemos in a parting act of bravado that belies his circumspection elsewhere, the giant would have been unable to bring Poseidon’s curse down on the hero’s head.) The bed, which the husband built for his wife, fittingly serves as the sign that reunites the marital pair. Probably Homer’s innovation, it symbolizes the essential properties of the participants in the scene: Odysseus as a craftsman whose products carry more conviction than his too crafty words; Penelopeia as the chaste wife who has remained as “fixed” in her home as the unmovable and inviolate bed. The olive wood post that anchors the bridal chamber not only recalls the mast to which Odysseus had himself bound so as to resist the Sirens’ beguilement but also looks forward to the final token, the fruit trees in the orchard that Odysseus must enumerate by way of “fixed signs” for Laërtês. Again the objects join the poem’s two worlds of the fantastic and the familiar into one: both evocative of and different from the trees that produce fruit throughout the year in the magical garden of Alcinous, they also symbolize the hero’s recovery of the land on which he ...
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