About the Author
Stephen Mitchell is widely known for his ability to make old classics thrillingly new. His many books include the bestselling Tao Te Ching, the Iliad, Gilgamesh, The Gospel According to Jesus, The Book of Job, Bhagavad Gita, and The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke. His website is StephenMitchellBooks.com.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
The Odyssey Introduction
“Sing to me, Muse”
If it had been practicable, I would have omitted the name “Homer” from the cover of this book. That’s because, as most modern scholars think, the Odyssey was probably composed by a different poet from the poet of the Iliad. He was someone who knew the Iliad very well and copied many lines and passages from it, and while it is conceivable that both masterpieces could have been composed by the same person, the many important differences of vocabulary, grammar, geographical perspective, theology, and moral values make that unlikely. Since “Homer” is the name that I use for the poet of the Iliad (he was almost certainly not named Homer), I will call the Odyssey poet “the Odyssey poet.”
We know almost nothing about the Trojan War, which is the theme or the background of the two poems and seems to have taken place around 1200 BCE. We know even less about the poets. There is no consensus about their dates, but there are good reasons to believe the eminent scholar Martin West, who places the Iliad somewhere between 670 and 640 BCE and the Odyssey between 620 and 600. It is remarkable that two geniuses flourished so close to each other in time, but no more remarkable than Aeschylus and Sophocles, Mozart and Beethoven, or Matisse and Picasso. Like Homer, the Odyssey poet was trained in the ancient tradition of oral poetry, and he used a language that had evolved over centuries, bearing signs of its history in its many archaic features and its mixed dialect. He went from town to town, or from noble house to noble house, to find new audiences and sang his poems to them in partly extemporaneous performance, accompanying himself on the phorminx (a four-stringed lyre), like the blind Demodocus in Book 8:
The herald approached then, leading the honored poet
whom the Muse loved beyond all others, granting him both
good and evil: She stripped him of sight but gave him
the gift of sweet song. The herald, Pontónoüs,
set out for him a large chair, studded with silver,
in the midst of the banquet and leaned it against a tall pillar,
and he hung the beautiful clear-toned lyre on a peg
a little above the singer’s head, and he showed him
how to reach up and take hold of it in his hands.
And he put on a table beside him a basket of food
and a cup of wine to drink when he felt the urge to.
And they helped themselves to the food that was set before them.
And when they had eaten and drunk as much as they wanted,
the Muse moved the poet to sing of the glorious deeds
At some point the Odyssey poet wrote down or dictated his material, and in the course of many years he composed a poem far longer than anything that could be sung in a few hours or days. Sometimes he spliced passages from one place in the poem to another or added passages to an earlier draft, without covering his traces; in addition, many lines were later added by the professional rhapsodes who recited the poem to an avid public. But compared to epics in other traditions, the Odyssey, like the Iliad, has come down to us amazingly intact, over more than two and a half millennia.
“Sing to me, Muse,” the Odyssey poet says in the first words of the poem. That is how he expressed what seems like the miracle of inspiration. Yet he wasn’t merely waiting passively, as if he were taking dictation. He had at his command a large stock of traditional phrases, and even whole prefabricated scenes, which could be inserted into his poem; these allowed him to feel his way forward as he sang and gave him time to anticipate his next moves. It took a great deal of training to become a voice for the god, but beyond what he had learned, there was something new and exciting that happened each time he sang, and he believed that he was a vessel for the divine, a medium through whom a vaster, clearer intelligence was able to speak. So it isn’t surprising that Odysseus says, in perhaps the earliest blurb on record, that there is no man on earth he admires more than the poet Demodocus (this from a man who was a comrade-in-arms of the great Achilles). The Odyssey poet saw no contradiction between his own masterful autonomy and the impersonality, the transpersonality, of his song, as he shows us in the Phaeacian king’s praise of Demodocus:
“To him beyond any other
the god has given the gift of song, to delight us
in whatever way his spirit moves him to sing.”
The song is god-given, yet what the poet follows is his own spirit. His own spirit is the voice of the god, for as long as he is singing. The greater the poet, the more individual his song, the more distinguished from the run-of-the-mill performer who simply strings together traditional phrases, and thus the more inspired it is. In the same way, Phemius, the Ithacan poet, says,
“I am self-taught; in my mind the god has implanted
songs of all kinds.”
In the Odyssey the audience always responds to “the god-inspired poet” with intense emotion. As Odysseus listens to the tale of his own exploits at Troy, he can barely contain his sobbing. Penelope too, hearing a poet sing of Troy, is so powerfully disturbed that she begs him to stop. But for everyone else who hears them, the poems are an experience of unalloyed delight. The Greek word is terpein, “to have pleasure or joy, to delight in,” and it is the same word that is used in describing life on Olympus, where the gods “spend their long days in pleasure.” The Odyssey poet couldn’t imagine a greater human happiness than being at a dinner party where a gifted poet is performing. “It is a fine thing,” Odysseus says,
“to be listening to a poet
such as this, who is like the immortals in speech.
For I think that there is no more complete fulfillment
than when joy takes over an audience in the great hall,
and the banqueters are sitting next to each other
listening to the poet, and beside them the tables
are loaded with bread and meat, and the steward carries
the drawn wine around and fills their cups to the brim.
This seems to me the most beautiful thing in the world.”
There are two other Greek words that the poet uses to describe the effect of poetry; both come from verbs that mean “to enchant, bewitch, put a spell on.” The Phaeacian king compares Odysseus’s eloquence to a poet’s, and when Odysseus pauses during the long account of his wanderings, “throughout the shadowy palace / all who had listened were silent, seized by enchantment.” The nightmare version of this power to spellbind is the Sirens:
“Anyone who in ignorance hears their alluring
voices is doomed; he never goes home to find
his wife and beloved children rejoicing to see him,
for the Sirens bewitch him with their exquisite music
as they sit in a meadow, surrounded by massive heaps
of dead men’s bones with the flesh still rotting upon them.”
Only a people who were entirely susceptible to the beauty of words would think of projecting poetry’s negative image in such a hair-raising way.
Most of us read the Odyssey because we have to, as a school assignment, or because we think we should. (It is, after all, one of the foundational works of Western literature; Goethe called it and the Iliad “the two most important books in the world.”) What surprises many readers is that it still has the power to enchant. I discovered it as a ten-year-old, after my teacher had us trace Flaxman’s spear-carrying, helmet-and-negligee-clad Athena onto drawing paper. Athena was the goddess of wisdom, she told us, and while “wisdom” meant nothing to me at the time, I was impressed that the goddess had popped straight out of Zeus’s head, in a reversed form of the virgin birth that I had first heard about the Christmas before. The Odyssey wasn’t on our sixth-grade reading list, but I found a children’s version in the library and plunged right in. One-eyed man-eating ogres, self-navigating ships, ghosts sipping blood at the entrance to the underworld, shipwrecks, nymphs, princesses, witches, disguises, recognitions, and, to top it all off, a wholesale slaughter of bad guys at the end! What could be more exciting?
Reading the Odyssey, we enter a world infused by the imagination, “cleared of its stiff and stubborn, man-locked set.” Everything becomes fresh and new; familiar objects light up with an inner radiance, as if we were seeing the sky or smelling the grass for the first time. And we are always carried along by the steady yet constantly varying rhythms of the meter, which serves as a counterpoint to even the most horrific events, so that everything we read is lifted up into the realm of the beautiful.
No detail is too small to escape the poet’s attentive gaze, no dream image too fantastic to be made humanly accessible. The six-headed, razor-toothed, tentacled monster Scylla, for example, might easily have seemed cartoonish in the hands of a lesser poet, but she is presented to us so clearly, and her murderous attack described with such elegant precision, that she bursts into existence, as appalling as we could wish:
“At that very moment Scylla rushed out and snatched
six of my comrades—beautiful, strong young men.
I looked up and saw their arms and legs thrashing above me,
and they shouted to me and called out my name for the last time.
And as a fisherman stands on a jutting rock
and casts the bait with his rod, and the bronze hook sinks
into the water, sheathed in an ox-horn tube,
and he catches a fish and reels it in quickly and flings it,
writhing, onto the shore: just so were my comrades,
writhing, pulled up toward the cliffs, and at the cave entrance
she ate them. They screamed and kept stretching their hands out toward me
in their hideous final agony. That was the most
sickening thing I ever saw on my travels.”
And here is a picture of the Phaeacian princess Nausicäa and her handmaids washing the royal laundry. (It’s a passage that shocked the sniffy classicists of later ages, who thought that doing laundry was beneath the dignity of a princess.)
They came at last to the banks of a beautiful stream,
where the washing basins were always filled with clear water
welling up through them, to clean the dirtiest clothes.
Here they unyoked the mules from the wagon and sent them
along the stream to graze on the rich, sweet clover,
then lifted the clothes from the wagon and carried them down
into the basins, and each girl began to tread them,
making a game to see who could finish first.
And when they had washed off the dirt and the clothes were spotless,
they spread them neatly along the shore, where the sea
lapped at the land and washed all the pebbles clean.
After a swim, they rubbed themselves with the oil
and had their lunch on the bank of the eddying river
and waited there for the clothing to dry in the sun.
And when they had finished the meal, they took off their head scarves
and played a ball game, tossing the ball and dancing
to the rhythm, while Nausícäa led them in song.
One more example. After ten years of war at Troy and ten years of further hardships, Odysseus is finally given voyage home in one of the magical Phaeacian ships.
And he went aboard, and at once he lay down in silence,
and the crew took their places along the ship by the oarlocks
and untied the mooring cable from the pierced stone.
And as soon as they leaned back and churned up the sea with their oar blades,
a profound sleep fell on his eyelids, sweet and unbroken,
the image of death. As when a team of four stallions
leap forward together, feeling the lash of the whip
and lifting their hooves up high as they race down the track:
just so did the stern of the ship keep leaping and plunging,
and the dark-blue waves surged thunderously in her wake
as she hurried to finish the journey. Not even a falcon,
the fastest of wingèd creatures, could have kept up,
so lightly did she run on and cut through the waves,
bearing a man whose wisdom was like the gods’ wisdom,
who for twenty years had suffered so many hardships
as he passed through the wars of men and the bitter sea.
But now he was sleeping peacefully, free from all troubles.
Like the Scylla passage, these lines contain one of those extended similes that are among the glories of the Iliad. (The Odyssey poet uses them much less often.) The compliment about Odysseus’s wisdom is a formulaic one, like the embroidered phrases that a courtier might address to a king. We aren’t meant to press the phrase too closely but to enter the sense of temporary fulfillment that the poet has kindly given his main character in an “infinite sleep” that ends the first half of the poem. This is a coda that brings us back to the tonic chord, and its combination of speed and deep calm is a marvel.
Longing for Home
Though the architecture of the Odyssey is subtle and elegant, its plot couldn’t be simpler. Here is how Aristotle describes it:
A man has been away from his country for many years; he is harassed by Poseidon and left desolate. Meanwhile his home is in danger—suitors are consuming his property and plotting to kill his son. Finally, battered by the elements, he comes home, reveals his identity to certain people, attacks the suitors and kills them, and comes through safe himself. That is the essence; the rest is episodes.
Folklorists call this type of story “The Return of the Husband” or “The Return of the Rightful King” and find it in many different cultures, from different ages, all over the world.
Odysseus is the hero, and we are on his side not only because the story is structured for that, but because in many ways he is really admirable. We are told by Penelope that before he left home he was an exemplary king:
“Didn’t they [the suitors] hear from their fathers when they were children
how splendid a king Odysseus was, how he treated
everyone in this country? Never, in word
or in deed, did he act with injustice toward any man.”
This matters for everyone in Ithaca, because the welfare of a whole country depends on the righteousness of its king:
“. . . some virtuous king
who acts with justice and reverence for the gods,
and in his kingdom the soil yields wheat and barley,
and the trees are always heavy with fruit, and the flocks
bear young without fail, and the deep sea abounds with fish,
and the people flourish, because he knows how to lead.”
He has also been a good husband, if we judge by Penelope’s twenty-years-long devotion to him and by his own heartfelt experience of marriage, as expressed to Nausicäa:
“I pray that the gods will grant you your heart’s desire,
a good home and a good husband, and harmony
between the two of you. Nothing is sweeter than that,
when a man and a woman can live together as one,
with one mind and heart.”
But he isn’t a hero in the Iliad’s sense of the word. His main virtues are cunning and self-control, a genius for survival, an ...
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