The Odyssey: Homer

A little background:

With a lyric flow and colourful hue, Homer’s epic tales twist and turn with great heights of dramatic anticipation, plausible character depth, and morsels of mythic fantasy that have dazzled readers since the days he composed his poetry. Very little is known of the Greek poet called Homer, and yet his works, which were said to have been cradled by the side of Alexander the Great during his campaigns, have never failed to ignite the imagination with dreams of one-eyed monsters, beautiful goddesses, adventures over the ocean, bitter fighting at the walls of Troy, and love which reaches the abyss of Hades. It is about hate, friendship, revenge, honour, pride, self-gratification, love, pity, remorse, heroism, and the strength of mortal man in the face of bickering gods and their enticing will to interfere in the affairs of mankind.

Historians set Homer in his native land of Ionia, which is located in the eastern Aegean. This is where ancient tradition places the poet, in which nothing else is known of his life. The era of Homer is generally considered to be during the late eighth or early seventh century B.C. His composition is framed around the life of a Greek hero, Odysseus (one of many mentioned, i.e. Achilles), who sets sail from his home upon the island of Ithaca, leaving behind his lovely wife, Penelope, to take part in the largest sea borne invasion of the great walled city of Troy, mostly outlined in The Iliad. But for this article, we will work backward in time (like a Quentin Tarantino film), beginning with the absence of Odysseus, his unruly house filled with sniveling suitors for Penelope’s hand in marriage, and the stirring of his son Telemachus to search for his lost father.

Setting aside all the complicated and dramatic tales and relationships of Sparta and Greece, the Trojan Princes Hector and Paris, Helen, Priam, Agamemnon, and Menelaus all boiled together in a feud that brought 50,000 Greeks to the shores of Troy, we shall dive into the world of The Odyssey. The war with Troy will come in “The Iliad: Homer Part 2″, so keep your eyes peeled.

In all fairness, The Odyssey gives the reader in the 21st century a detailed glimpse into how the early Greeks thought, felt, conceived of the world around them, interpreted the nuances and phenomenons of nature, and interacted with themselves. Greece was ruled by city fiefdoms, or known in Koine¬†as “polis“, which made up warlike clans and kingdoms that clashed and strove for power. The two strongest, with a feud that would last for centuries, was the democratic¬†polis of Athens and the land-trampling, heavy hoplite soldiers of Sparta. Sparta would rule the land with its ferocious fighters and stubborn attitude on the battlefield, while Athens would roar across the waves with its seasoned navy.

Homer would write his poetry at the dawning of these powers as their strength grew, and he would dictate his thoughts and imagination based upon how he saw the world through Greek eyes and man’s role under the gaze of the gods. To the Greeks, life was about glory, heroism, and living the Greek life through literature, philosophy, education, personal hygiene, due respect of ancestors, the gods, art, and nature. Two things could sum up Greek life: beauty and the veneration of the body. In one word, Hellenism! This term, derived from the word “Hellas“, means all things Greek in life, and was the central aspect of the quality of life that was expressed through hedonism, which is the worship of pleasure.

While Homer sticks mostly to the adventure and strength found in men and the bonds that are formed through comrades-in-arms, he also pays close attention to Greek qualities: worship of gods, mythology, lore, sex, passion, and exploring the unknown with the belief that all life is ruled by the fury of the gods and man must always act in such a way to appease them. Therefore, Odysseus offers customary sacrifices to Zeus, showing his thanks for being victorious over Troy, and yet offers prayers to Poseidon to guide and guard him on his journey home, although past offenses to the god of the sea will render his voyage much more difficult than he could imagine.

Excerpts in light of Greek thought:

The following excerpt is taken from line The Odyssey lines 294-302, 307-308, translated by Robert Fagles. This section covers the arrival of the goddess Athena with her bronze spear and how she conceals herself to talk with the son of Odysseus, Telemachus. The son, who is observing the pathetic sight of the suitors in his house, watches with disdain as they feast and drink to his father’s “believed” demise, as they appeal to wed his mother and the bereaved wife of Odysseus, Penelope. This is just to give you a taste, you must read, The Odyssey for yourself.

Athena declares to Telemachus about the horrid behaviour of the suitors:

“Shameful!”- brimming with indignation, Pallas Athena broke out. “Oh how much you need Odysseus, gone so long- how he’d lay hands on all these brazen suitors! If only he would appear, now, at his house’s outer gates and take his stand, armed with his helmet, shield and pair of spears, as strong as the man I glimpsed that first time in our own house, drinking wine and reveling there… just come in from Ephyra, visiting Ilus, Mermerus’ son…If only that Odysseus sported with these suitors, a blood wedding, a quick death would take the lot.”

The Character of Odysseus:

Odysseus is the main character and the celebrated hero. Where so many men die at the gates of Troy or under the cruel hands of monsters and sirens, Odysseus is portrayed as a king with value, strength, and most of all, honour. He is a hero in the Greek world of Homer’s time and for centuries to come. He is uplifted as a symbol of virility and manhood, a model to live after. Odysseus is willing to sacrifice everything and anything to get home to his wife, who he has been separated from for ten years, and is best known for two things: being a great hunter and a man of cunning deceit.

Odysseus was a man who knew when and how to use his stealth and power of manipulation to see his will accomplished. He was a survivor, but also someone who was willing to do anything through his laborious journeys to find peace and safety back among his lands as king on the quaint island of Ithica. His cunning nature is best demonstrated in Homer’s account of what Odysseus does to the unruly suitors when he finally does return, to everyone’s surprise. At first coming off as understanding and hospitable, Odysseus has all the suitors distracted, locks them in his feasting hall, strings his bow, and slaughters them all in a bloody and horrific scene.

This fulfills the words of Athena to the son of Odysseus, that if he (Odysseus) were to return, there would be “a blood wedding” to befall the suitors. Thus, designed to be something of a prophetic fulfillment, Athena’s words ring true at the end and Odysseus restores order as Homer leaves us with the sense that finally the mighty heart of a warrior will at last find rest.

By, Peter J. Fast