Ten years have passed since the end of the Trojan War, and yet Odysseus, a hero of the war and king of Ithaca, has yet to return home. To the kind Phaeacians, upon whose island Odysseus has been shipwrecked, he recounts his wanderings, the torments and trials of the decade past.
A friend of mine who is a classicist says she prefers the Illiad--that she thinks it the more mature book. I love the Illiad, but I'd give Odyssey a slight edge. Even just reading general Greek mythology, Odysseus was always a favorite, because unlike figures such as Achilles or Heracles he succeeded on his wits, not muscle. It's true, on this reread, especially in contrast to say the Illiad's Hector, I do see Odysseus' dark side. The man is a pirate and at times rash, hot-tempered, even vicious. But I do feel for his pining for home and The Odyssey is filled with such a wealth of incident--the Cyclops, Circe, Scylla and Charybdis, the Sirens--and especially Hades, the forerunner of Dante's Hell. And though my friend is right that the misogynist ancient Greek culture isn't where you go for strong heroines, I love Penelope; described as the "matchless queen of cunning," she's a worthy match for the crafty Odysseus. The series of recognition scenes on Ithaca are especially moving and memorable--I think my favorite and the most poignant being that of Odysseus' dog Argos. An epic poem about 2,700 years old, in the right translation it can nevertheless speak to me more eloquently than many a contemporary novel.
Besides being a classic, The Odyssey is a fascinating tale in its own right of strange wonders and awful dangers, of the faithful and the faithless, of wrongs committed and retribution meted out. Odysseus, Achaean hero of the Trojan War, has been ten years fighting at Troy and another ten making his way home. Imprisoned by a nymph, shipwrecked, lost, waylaid — Odysseus, beloved of some gods, is hated by others. Meanwhile at home in Ithaca, many have despaired of his coming, including his wife Penelope and son Telemachus, who now suffer at the hands of Penelope's suitors, leading men of the Achaeans who wish to possess her. Odysseus will never return, they say, as they sit in his house eating and drinking up all his wealth. Telemachus is just a young man and cannot prevent their ravages. The situation is indeed desperate, as Penelope, worn out with mourning Odysseus, begins to accept her fate to become another man's wife.
Once I got used to it, I loved the repetition of certain phrases and descriptions: "long-tried royal Odysseus," "discreet Telemachus," "heedful Penelope," "clear-eyed Athena," "the gods who hold the open sky," "rosy-fingered dawn," "on the food before them they laid hands," and more. It reminded me that I was hearing a poem (I listened on audiobook) and that it was originally memorized by the bard, not read off the page. The repetition is comforting. It was easy to fall into the rhythm of the story and the archaic language, surrendering to the storyteller's art.
I find the interplay between the gods and men so interesting. I don't know if The Odyssey is an accurate picture of ancient Greek theology and I don't want to draw too many conclusions from what was understood even at the time to be mythological. But I had a similar experience listening to The Iliad — the gods are great and powerful and all that, but they are so very involved in human affairs, almost as if they can't bear to be left out... why should Athena care so much whether Odysseus ever gets home? Why is it that human affairs so concern the councils of Olympus? I suppose the simple answer is that these stories were made up by humans and since the thing that interests us most is ourselves, we can't imagine gods who aren't likewise fascinated.
I listened to an older translation by George Herbert Palmer and I'm glad I did. My experience of The Iliad was marred by the fact that it was a modernized translation, the latest and greatest supposedly. But all that really means is that it was dumbed-down for lazy listeners, to the point where some of the heroic moments almost became comical in our modern parlance. No thank you! I'm no expert in translation, but this one presented no jarring moments of disconnect between the style and substance, and I thought it fitted the subject matter very well. The reader of this particular audiobook, Norman Dietz, has a low, smooth, calm voice that I quickly learned to like.
This is an excellent story that never slackens its pace or lets you stop caring what happens to its hero. Don't be intimidated by its status as a classic — all that means is that it's a good story that has stood the test of time, delighting its hearers both in ancient days and now. I recommend it!
Some decades later, I am much more sympathetic. Scarred, bruised and broken in places with a head often barely screwed on, I've come to value a little forethought more than I ever did when younger, and come to sympathize with Odysseus' tormented wanderings and to celebrate his eventual triumph profoundly.
Fagles' translation is true to the story, readable yet retaining the loftiness of spirit so crucial to the unfolding of the story. I'll be returning to this many times, I think.
Richard Lattimore has given the poem a very Anglo-Saxon character with the high flown language of his translation. It reminds me of Seamus Heany's Beowulf, only with less alliteration. I have no idea if this accurately represents the character of the original, but in itself it's praiseworthy.
[Pause for you to finish reading chapter].
OK, deep breath, now your problems don’t seem so bad, do they? Recommended for all adventurers who need more perspective.
Let me get this out of the way – yes I was trying to fit each episode into O Brother, Where Art Thou? the whole time. Most don’t fit. Like…who exactly where the Hogwallops? And the ladies in the stream…were they Sirens or the girls who helped Odysseus when he washed up in the river on Ithaca? And just what was Baby-face Nelson supposed to represent? Ha! So I guess the Coens took a few liberties with their bong hits.
Oh and another thing I’ll get out of the way – ancient Greek men are insufferable. I’m aghast at how little they thought of women. The table in my dining room has more say over its destiny than a woman did in ancient Greece. They treat their dogs better. Penelope’s fate was so maddening because she had no say in it. The assholes eating her out of house and home had a perfect right to do so apparently, and neither she nor Telemachus could do a thing about it. And here I thought ancient Roman women got the short end of the stick…at least they got to eat in the same room as the men. Bah! Weak-minded humanity. Renders ½ its population as inert property while it slaughters the other. Men are weird.
Ok. That’s over now. I’m still mad about it, but what can I do? So the story itself went in a way I didn’t expect. Telemachus gets going first and we see him granted warm welcomes in the houses of both Nestor and Menelaus. The thing that really struck me here was how naive the ancient Greeks seemed to be. They accept strangers on the face of things and don’t even ask their names before giving gifts, new clothes, baths, money and ships with men and provisions to further their journeys. Weird. No wonder they found Odysseus highly tricky for a simple ploy like the horse at Troy. These days subterfuge is just an accepted part of any conflict and just daily life half the time. Anyway, we get some of Odysseus’s story from Nestor and Menelaus and not directly from Odysseus as I thought we would.
And the parts of the story I thought would be big deals and go on forever were treated with just a few lines and then – zip – they were done. The Sirens are a perfect example. That episode gets a lot of press and artwork devoted to it and it hardly lasts a minute with nothing of import happening at all. Again, not what I expected. There is, however, a lot of repetition of baths and anointing with olive oil and the rosy-fingered presence of dawn. Boy Homer ground that metaphor to death. The broad back of the sea or the fish-giving sea was another. But I guess it became more of a refrain for the bards who told this story again and again.
The wind-up took forever with lots of extraneous detail and elaborate lies to cover up Odysseus’s true identity. The whole time Odysseus was disguised as a beggar I was grinding my teeth with wanting to get to the ass-kicking. I mean, I don’t care what made up crap you tell everyone, just get on with it. Eventually, we get it, but like everything else he does, Odysseus takes his time. For a man who wanted to get home really fast, he spent a lot of time farting around…like spending all that time with Circe. Oh sure he really wanted to see Ithaca again. And it’s the same with the ass-kicking, he strings it out as long as possible. Finally everyone is dead and we think he and Penelope will just rush into each other’s arms and fade to black. Not so. More lamentations, disbelief and foot-dragging.
Anyway, it’s an interesting story and an enlightening one. I learned a lot about how the Greeks viewed their world and how helpless they really felt. So much shit just rolled downhill. Injustice heaped on injustice with a full complement of excuses. Cranky, childish and mercurial gods at the top, women and slaves on the bottom.
It’s very verbose, very complex and very tedious. As I was reading, trying to penetrate the Greek names and long-winded sentences (look, I know what happens when someone gets drunk, you don’t need to feed me some meandering anecdote about a centaur that had too much wine) I was really only gaining a sort of vague outline of what was going on. And if that was the case I may as well have been reading the plot summary on Wikipedia.
Oh, right, an outline of the plot. You should know parts of it. Odysseus is trying to return home after going to the Trojan War, and it takes him twenty years because, well, he lives in dangerous times. It’s told in a convoluted, non-linear way that begins in media res and relies heavily on second-hand tellings and flashbacks, which is not at all endearing to a reader who is not enjoying himself in the first place.
All the stuff that’s really well-known and at least somewhat interesting - the cave of the Cyclops, the isle of Circe etc. - takes up about 20% of the book, while the rest is all concerned about whatever his wiener son Telemachus is doing back home, or what Odysseus himself does when he returns (two thirds of the way through the story).
Odysseus is a shitty leader who makes a lot of bad decisions, gets all his men killed and has his head shoved firmly up his own ass, constantly telling people how great he is at everything. He also has a pretty warped moral compass; for example, upon arriving home, after he bonds with Telemachus by slaughtering the 108 suitors who had been trying to woo his wife, he discovers that several of his housemaids had been having sex with the suitors during the TWENTY GODDAMN YEARS they’ve been there. I know, unthinkable, right? Odysseus is so infuriated by this that he orders them killed. As they are herded into a courtyard, weeping piteously, Telemachus speaks up, and for a minute I thought there was going to be some kind of sanity, but apparently young Telemachus, no doubt stroking his chin in deep thought, is concerned that the housemaids aren’t being punished enough, and orders for them to die in a slow and painful method. Then he and Odysseus cut a dude’s wang off and feed it to the dogs. You see what I mean when I talk about what different attitudes these people had.
So, to sum up, is the Odyssey an excellent tale for its time? Yes.
Is it an excellent tale for a modern reader? No - it hails from an incomprehensible culture, and our tastes are tailored to our own.
Is it worth studying for a student of literature? Yes - but do yourself a favour and google a synopsis.
Caroline convinced me to read Wilson's introduction, and I'm glad I did. It's a corker. She explains The Odyssey this way:
"We encounter a surprising range of different characters and types of incident: giants and beggars, arrogant young men and vulnerable old slaves, a princess who does laundry and a dead warrior who misses the sunshine, gods, goddesses, and ghosts, brave deeds, love affairs, spells, dreams, songs, and stories. Odysseus himself seems to contain multitudes: he is a migrant, a pirate, a carpenter, a king, an athlete, a beggar, a husband, a lover, a father, a son, a fighter, a liar, a leader, and a thief. He is a man who cries, takes naps, and feels homesick, but he is also a man who has a special relationship with the goddess who transforms his appearance at will and ensures that his schemes succeed."
As she says, this isn't the usual hero who saves the world or "at least changes it in some momentous way"; instead, "for this hero, mere survival is the most amazing feat of all". The story raises
"important questions about the moral qualities of this liar, pirate, colonizer, deceiver, and thief, who is so often in disguise, absent or napping, while other people - those he owns, those he leads- suffer and die, and who directly kills so many people."
This complexity is what continues to fascinate me, and has led me through three translations and re-reads.
What is so outstanding about this translation?
"The Odyssey is a poem, and it needs to have a predictable and distinctive rhythm that can be easily heard when the text is read out loud. The original is in six-footed lines (dactylic hexameters), the conventional meter for archaic Greek narrative verse. I used iambic pentameter, because it is the conventional meter for regular English narrative verse - the rhythm of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Byron, Keats, and plenty of more recent anglophone poets . . . my translation sings to its own regular and distinctive beat.
My version is the same length as the original, with exactly the same number of lines. I chose to write within this difficult constraint because any translation without such limitations will tend to be longer than the original, and I wanted a narrative pace that could match its stride and Homer's nimble gallop."
I can't speak to the original, but hers certainly has stride and nimble gallop. She also leans toward simplicity of language, "in a style that echoes the rhythms and phrasing of contemporary anglophone speech." She notes that "stylistic pomposity is entirely un-Homeric". Occasionally (rarely, really) this results in what to me is an odd word choice, e.g. carrying weapons in a "hamper" - really? But overall it succeeds beautifully.
At a light touch of whip, the horses flew,
Swiftly they drew toward their journeys' end,
on through fields of wheat, until the sun
began to set and shadows filled the streets.
Helen, on the events in Troy:
The Trojan women keened in grief, but I
was glad - by then I wanted to go home.
I wished that Aphrodite had not made me
go crazy, when she took me from my country,
and made me leave my daughter and the bed
I shared with my fine, handsome, clever husband.
Circe confronting Odysseus:
"Who are you?
Where is your city? And who are your parents?
I am amazed that you could drink my potion
and yet not be bewitched. No other man
has drunk it and withstood the magic charm.
But you are different. Your mind is not
enchanted. You must be Odysseus,
the man who can adapt to anything."
Odysseus and Athena are natural partners. As she says,
"To outwit you
in all your tricks, a person or a god
would need to be an expert at deceit.
You clever rascal! So duplicitous,
so talented at lying! You love fiction
and tricks so deeply, you refuse to stop
even in your own land. Yes, both of us
are smart. No man can plan and talk like you,
and I am known among the gods for insight
He is such a liar! And it's so deeply engrained that he lies even when he doesn't need to. But his lies always carry a greater message: "His lies were like the truth/ and as she listened, she began to weep."
If you haven't read The Odyssey before, you probably know the basics of the story by osmosis. But that's nothing like experiencing this ancient yet so modern story. Emily Wilson has brought an intelligence, rhythm and excitement to it that to me is the best yet. Have some fun reading an old classic; it's a treat.
I don’t remember when I first heard the story of Odysseus’ journey home to Ithaca; seems as if I’ve always known it.
In my 20s,I heard and fell in love with Monteverdi’s Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria (which sounds inestimably more luscious in Italian than English:The Return of Ulysses to his Country) from the Met with baritone Richard Stilwell as the wily hero and mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade as Penelope. The joyful babbling of their ecstatic reunion duet brought out the humanity of the characters.
And I used to read Tales from the Odyssey by Mary Pope Osborne to my youngest daughter. She is still the only one who shares my enthusiasm for this classic.
End of long intro…..
The Odyssey can be enjoyed on many levels. It’s a great yarn about a shrewd soldier/king making his perilous (and tardy!) way home after the Trojan War (by the way, it was Odysseus who thought up the Trojan horse). It’s also a wide-ranging allegory about the often perilous journey of life. It abounds in psychological and spiritual archetypes. There’s something for every kind of reader.
As for Odysseus himself, he seems to lie for the sake of lying, is boastful and reckless. His very name means “he who causes pain or makes others angry.” Early on in the story, having outwitted the cyclops Polyphemus, Odysseus and his men make their escape by boat. When he judges them to be out of danger, Odysseus does a “nyah-nyah” boasting chant to the cyclops who of course tears the top off a mountain and hurls it at the boat. This causes an enormous wake whose waves draw Odysseus’ boat back to shore! The sailors row like mad to get away from the shore. When they are at a safe distance, our wily hero starts up with the “nyah-nyah” chant again! His poor men beg him to stop.
In the Iliad, it was all manly soldiers fighting other manly soldiers to recover the prize trophy wife, Helen. Conservative, stylistic, a time already ancient when Homer sang of it . By contrast, the Odyssey looks to the future, reflecting a new culture currently stable enough to become introspective. Odysseus’ journey home is populated by women/goddesses and monsters. No all out war any more, army against army, face-to-face combat. Rather the enemy becomes singular, hidden in caves or in the bodies of beautiful women or “lotus-eaters”. While completely enjoyable on a literal level, the story is also leading the listener, as all good stories do, into the realm of the inner life. It seems to me that few could identify with Achilles or Hector or Helen. However, we are all Odysseus and Penelope and Telemachus in one way or another. Homecoming can be almost anything: love,death, faith, consciousness. Likewise waiting.
Back to the story…..
The women want to sleep with Odysseus and the monsters want to eat him. The monsters ultimately succeed in devouring his crew leaving the ageing soldier to finish the journey alone. Polyphemus, Calypso, Circe, Scylla and Charibdis, the eponymous Mentor, Poseidon, and Athena make this a mythological all-star story. But for me, none of them can rival Penelope in character and depth. She is the other half of the “wily” Odysseus and I think that we can extrapolate much about her from what is said about him. She is the modern “Helen”:the kidnapped trophy wife appropriate for the old militaristic nation becomes the faithful wife and mother who waits 20 years (!) for the return of her husband. It only requires one man, Paris, to steal Helen away (she seems to have been agreeable to the idea). Yet an invading mob of suitors cannot coerce Penelope into abandoning her absent husband. Helen’s is “the face that launched a thousand ships”; Penelope holds herself in readiness for one ship only. Her waiting is not in the least passive however. Her husband’s goal is to reach home; Penelope’s goal is to keep her property and marriage intact until Odysseus returns. This demands skill and cunning equal to her husband’s.
I felt entertained and enriched as I listened to The Odyssey on my drive to and from work (for about 2 weeks). Narrator John Lee brings a virile sound to Homer’s lines. You can almost hear him enjoying the story as he reads. I highly recommend this way of experiencing The Odyssey; it is an oral work designed to arouse the intellect through the sounds of precisely chosen words. I can’t think of a better way to enjoy it!
10 out of 10!
Little of Homer is known, be he man or she woman. So often, Founders are shadowy, from dim beginnings great lights. By the time their import is comprehended, they themselves are gone. And perhaps all creative work is marked by many minds. Into the Odyssey much is infused. It is a mass of history, legend, myth, ideals, manners and modes and matured. Nothing, nothing about it, is primitive or undone.
Compared to the Iliad, the Odyssey is more even in style, conformed to plot, and harmonious in presentation of characters and events. [ix] Its unity is conspicuous. The plot assumes the ten-year Trojan War ended with the victors returning to Greece laden with plunder. All but one.
For another ten years, Odysseus (Ulysses to the Romans) wandered the seas and islands whose lord he had offended. Poseidon here plays like an instrument all the circumstances over which mind must struggle, elements and afflictions, forces living and natural. This theme of mind over matters is passed to us from the Greek genius.
The poem has a natural division into two parts. The first 12 books relate the homeward journey--at sea, among the islands and peoples, gods and phantoms. The 12 books of the second part give the report of the recovery by Odysseus of his kingdom, at home. The struggle entirely shifts from the enchanted to the human, from the voyager sea to the castle in Ithaca. The tension is now dramatic rather than incidental. This part has a sustained psychological power bearing on the final catastrophe--the slaughter of Penelope's suitors. A unifying theme of the work across both halves is eating -- unlike the Iliad which has constant fighting, the Odyssey is a series of banquets and occasions to dine.
Which leads me to this observation: The dominant forces in the poem are women. The men who appear are admirable in ways women admire: Odysseus, known for his wisdom and resourcefulness, and others -- Telemachus, Eumaeus, Antinotis, Laertes, and Eurymachus-- strong, loyal, bearing responsibility. But for the entire odyssey, Athena is the prime mover. The nymphs Calypso and Circe are most formidable, and Ino and Leucothea most resourceful. When Odysseus meets the dead in Hades, there are as many women as men.
In the Ithacan household, women are conspicuous and equal figures, and even the handmaid Melantho has a strong part. In short, woman is the equal comrade, respected, appreciated, looked to. The women of Homer's time did not live in isolation, nor in the thrall of a king. Harems were never characteristic to the Greeks. Helen sits in the hall with Menelaus, Arete in the hall with Alcinotis, and of course, Penelope has her run of the castle unattended, as is Nausica with her maids in the country. [xxiii] All are treated with dignity and major roles. Women have lost in the intervening ages what they once had.
As to style, similes are common, metaphors rare. [xxiv] The thing and that with which it is compared remain two, separate, as in life. There is a "child-like" quality in this story-telling. And, with this ancient tale, no "spoiler-alert" can be given: The Ending is Wonderful!
This iteration contains Questions and a Pronouncing Vocabulary.
driven time and again off course, once he had plundered
the hallowed heights of Troy.
Here we are once again, with the poet imploring the Muse to sing her song about the adventures ensuing the the fall of Troy. Having just finished rereading The Iliad which told of the rage of Achilles and the Trojan War, I find The Odyssey a much more congenial book, seeimngly modern in structure and outlook, even as it tells of events before the beginning of history as we know it. It tells the journey of Odysseus on his way hhome from Troy, a journey that takes him ten years. Odysseus is a man who, according to none other than Zeus, "excels all men in wisdom," (1.79). Odysseus has offended Poseidon, the god of the seas, by blinding his son Polyphemus the Cyclops; and, Poseidon, in retaliation has driven Odysseus off-course and delayed his return home to Ithaca. Athena rouses the rest of the gods and takes up Odysseus case. It is thus that we find Athena going to Ithaca and, in the form of Mentes, helping Odysseus' son Telemachus as part of her plan. We also meet Penelope, the wise and patient wife of Odysseus, who has been fending off the suitors who have been pursuing her in Odysseus absence. Telemachus tells Athena: "And mother . . . she neither rejects a marriage she despises nor cn she bear to bring the courting to an end -- while they continue to bleed my household white."(1.289-91). The situation is untenable and calls for action. With Athena's assurance that his father is still alive, Telelmachus may take the necessary action. We find ourselves in a very different kind of poem than The Iliad, but one that promises suspense and excitement. Key themes that appear and will reappear as we continue include the idea of the heroic journey, both for Odysseus and Telemachus, and the growth of the character of Odysseus, who is described by Athena as he endures his captivity under Calypso's power:
But he, straining for no more than a glimpse
of hearth-smoke drifting up from his own land,
Odysseus longs to die . . .
The Homeric poems were sung in a less-enlightened time, in comparison with the later Greek tragedies, and with the later epics too. Apollonius' Argonautica was composed, post Greek Tragedy, and his audience would have been, no doubt, familiar with Euripides' Medea. Questions such as how justice and revenge affect societies were addressed by Aeschylus in the Oresteia; likewise, the reception of the anthropomorphic gods, and their pettiness, was raised by Euripides in Hippolytus and the Bacchae. Furthermore, the real nature and brutality of warfare was also raised in the Trojan Women. Throw in how one state views another state, and questions of racial identity, and you have The Persians by Aeschylus, and Medea by Euripides. Additionally, if you include Philoctetes by Sophocles, and the issue of how youth should conduct themselves is also raised. If you consider, too, Ajax by Sophocles, and you find that the bloodthirsty myths of an earlier age are filtered through questions that C5 Athenian society faced. What is better, the brute force of an unsophisticated Ajax, or the sophistry and rhetorical arguments of Odysseus in Ajax? By the time we arrive at Virgil, and The Aenied, brutal events such as the death of Priam by Neoptolemus in Aeneid Book II, are tempered with a more enlightened approach. Neoptolemus is condemned for killing Priam, and rightly so, as mercy is important, and exemplifies the Romanitas of 'Sparing the humble, and conquering the proud'. However, Aeneas doesn't show mercy in his killing of Turnus at the end of Book XII.
If you're into Greek Literature, read the rest of this review on my blog.
The poem divides itself between Odysseus's ordeals (exciting!) and the troubles back at home with his wife and son (not quite so exciting). Some of my favorite parts:
- the encounter with a certain cranky monoptic giant with a taste for human flesh
- the trip to the underworld and Odysseus's conversations with the recently deceased. (Apparently being dead kind of sucks.)
- the Scylla and Charybdis incident, in which a crevice-lurking multi-headed monstrosity and a nasty whirlpool double-team our hero and his ship. What's not to like?
- The sirens, Circe and her isle of enchanted pigs, and so on.. All good stuff.
PS: I had one small irritation while reading this. Robert Fagles deploys the phrase "dawn with her rose-red fingers" one too many times in this book. He used it quite a bit in The Iliad as well, but The Iliad has a different flow and therefore it doesn't seem quite as conspicuously repetitive. I know it's part of Homer's poetic style, but a bit more variation from the translator would have been appreciated.
One last thought: I felt very, very sorry for Odysseus's dog.
Although Odysseus is favored by the gods for his wit and courage, he is damned by Poseidon to roam the seas for 10 years before reaching his beloved home of Ithaca. During these ten years Odysseus encounters many entertaining conflicts and characters. The Odyssey accounts for the greek heroes famous journey and struggle to finally have peace at his home.
Odysseus spends much of his time recounting his story to halls full of nobles who give him shelter at various points on his ten year journey. The nobles spend all their time drinking, feasting, playing games, standing on their dignity and raiding each other. The glory of The Iliad, is that is the kings and their retinues are fulfilling their real purpose, it is their intensity that makes the drama of the siege of Troy and makes that book so magnificent. The nobles at peace are an unattractive bunch.
For me, the most interesting part was Odysseus' visit to the underworld, the Greeks believed in an afterlife and it gave them a very good reason to stay alive, the underworld isn't very pleasant.