This past semester I tried something new, an Interdisciplinary Studies course on Homer, the ancient Greek epic poet whose works act as one of the cornerstones of Western Civilization. But rather than focussing on the great mountain of Homeric scholarship produced ever since the Archaic Age, we simply read one book of the Iliad and the Odyssey before for every class meeting and got together to discuss it. We used Ian Johnston’s translations, which I like and which are also available online. I was very impressed with my students’ insights, and I’m pleased to say that the course got even better as the result of the lockdown: we simply conducted it by email, and writing out one’s thoughts, and responses to those thoughts, concentrates the mind even better than open-ended discussion. For the record, I preserve some of this discussion, none of which is of my composition. Well done!
Starting at line 31, when Athena appears to Nausicaa, she comes as a friend of similar age. I found this funny because the way Athena talks to Nausicaa, she sounds more like a mom criticizing her cleanliness than a friend. She acts like the “mom-friend” to Nausicaa; the friend who always tells her friends what they are doing wrong and “how to get a man.”
I observed a Homeric Simile in lines 127-138 describing how Nausicaa stands out in her group of servants like the goddess Artemis in a group going for a hunt. I found this simile especially interesting since Odysseus says, “If you’re one of the gods who hold the wide heaven, then I think you most resemble Artemis… in your loveliness, / your stature, and your shape” when he first addresses her (189-192). Homer must have made this connection deliberately to either emphasize his simile or to prove the loveliness of Nausicaa—or both.
When Odysseus is first introduced in this book, he covers himself with thick bushes since the waves made him naked (159-160). This reminds me of Adam in the book of Genesis when he feels ashamed of his nudeness after eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Odysseus is also introduced with a Homeric Simile in lines 161-169. This simile compares him to a mountain lion to emphasize his stealthy movements. This simile seemed weird since the mountain lion would be hunting prey, and Odysseus is hiding from fear.
I would LOVE to find a study on the society of Phaeacia, and how well Homer’s mythic status for the place correlates to its place in real-world history. Homer sets up this society as an idyllic, heavenly society blessed by a multitude of gods. I find it interesting how godly blessings seem to get passed down from generation to generation – women continually receive blessings from Athena with the loom, and men receive the same with their skill on the sea from Poseidon. (Piggybacking on what Jamie said-maybe Odysseus receiving help and honor from people blessed by Poseidon could be a form of irony in the story? Or maybe a way for Homer to take Poseidon down a peg, if that makes sense?) However, despite receiving blessings from the gods to the point of being the perfect Greek society, they do not hold an important Greek ideal – hospitality. From what we can tell, other Greeks are always ready to receive strangers into their homes and treat them with hospitality and warmness, but the Phaeacians are said to treat strangers with wariness, not being the friendliest people. I feel like that is an important point in the story, thought I am not sure if there is any commentary Homer is trying to make here.
I found it interesting that only one Muse loved and gifted Demodocus, but Homer does not state which Muse it is (line 74). It also says that she destroyed his eyes and gave him this gift at the same time, so he traded one kind of sight for another. This feels like a typical theme/occurrence in mythology. I also wonder if this sight helped him identify the “honored guest” since his first unprompted song was about Odysseus and Achilles arguing at Troy (line 90). Alcinous also notices how this and a later song about Troy make his guest weep, but does not ask who he is or why this is his reaction. Instead, Alcinous simply asks Demodocus to change songs.
After the feast and first song, Alcinous changes the subject by inviting the Phaeacians to compete in games. This reminded me of funeral or festival games. This scene makes it seem like the Greeks took any opportunity to show their strength and practice athletic challenges. They find honor in this competition as expressed in Laodamas’ words: “there’s no greater glory for a man / than what he wins with his own hands and feet” (line 181-182). Euryalus also guilt trips Odysseus into competing in discus by claiming Odysseus is an all show no work kind of person. Odysseus proves him very wrong and spends a lot of time bragging about his competitive prowess.
The Phaeacians conclude the games with more feasting and songs, and they give expensive gifts to Odysseus before his journey. One song is about Aphrodite and Ares cheating on Hephaestus. This song, of the three, is written in more detail than the other two. It includes detailed storytelling and dialogue among the gods, including Apollo and Hermes discussing how they would like to be the ones trapped with Aphrodite in a total male-ego led conversation (lines 422-431).
I also found it interesting that Odysseus promises Nausicaa he will pray to her like a god until the end of his days (line 583-585). He is honoring her for saving him, but will his prayers mean anything since she is a living (younger) human and not an immortal deity? Or is he just saying this to be polite and show gratefulness?
He also ass Demodocus to play a song about the Trojan Horse (line 318-326). Is this so he can reminisce and grow sad again, or because he wants to hear of his glory days and have everyone hear about his greatness? Although he has avoided telling them who he is for this long. It’s is odd that the Phaeacians have gone through all this trouble to honor him and have no clue who he is.
My first observation about this book is a criticism on Odysseus’ character. In lines 40-51 he describes how painful it was to be trapped with Calypso and kept away from his homeland. He did not mention his wife, his parents he misses, his wife? Nah. Not even mentioned. Neither is his son, he only misses the terrain of Ithaca.
I also found it interesting that the behavior of his men mimics the behavior of the suitors—they want to drink, slaughter (other people’s) animals, and be merry. They have no concern for returning home. When Odysseus does get them back in the ships, he assures the ritual sacrifices are made before they leave, unlike Menelaus (lines 87-89). However, this sacrifice did not do him any favors; his ships were still attacked by storms at sea.
In telling his tale, Odysseus spends little time discussing Ismarus or the Lotus-Eaters. He gives small summaries about how he and his men acted in those situations, but most of his summaries and descriptions center on the appearance of the land and oceans they traveled through. I wonder if this is in response to his longing for his homeland.
After these two events are chronicled, Odysseus spends most of his tale focusing on the detail of his encounter with Polyphemus. My guess is he does this because it shows more cunning in Odysseus than the other two encounters, and this portrays him as a stronger hero than simply avoiding a mesmerizing flower.
Odysseus’ first appeal to Polyphemus is interesting because in it, he describes how:
All suppliants and strangers—as god of guests,
He cares for all respected visitors.” (line 354-356)
This is the first time I’ve heard this quality attributed to Zeus. Usually I would think of Hermes as god protecting travelers, and I guess my brain associated these two things together. Zeus never seems great at caring for his guests either which makes this more interesting.
Looking onto Odysseus’ craftiness, we notice he gives Polyphemus the name “Nobody” when he introduces himself (line 486). He thought ahead enough to realize that, if Polyphemus asks for help and names his attacker, other Cyclopes will think he is alone. However, he does not remain nameless. When he screams his name as the ship is leaving, this is an act of Hubris because he wants everyone to know his power and cunning (line 664). Hubris is Odysseus’ fatal flaw—all heroes have one. His pride will likely cause him more problems throughout his journey. His flaw makes him more human though, he is not some perfect hero travelling and winning every battle.
Of course, after revealing his name we learn of a prophecy that conveniently existed before Odysseus met Polyphemus. So Polyphemus belittles Odysseus by claiming he his puny and weak, and he brushes it off by saying he couldn’t protect himself because it was meant to be. So even monsters blame their negative situations on the gods. But at least he can send his dad after Odysseus for the rest of his journey. This is where we learn why Poseidon has been angry at Odysseus for the whole epic.
1. Odysseus is… oddly patient with his crew. I can definitely see his mourning as proportional to his circumstances, but if I were him I definitely would have had a much more violent reaction to their stupidity in getting the crew off-course from Ithaca. I guess you can’t really go on a violent rampage when you’re dependent on a crew to keep your ship moving.
2. The reaction of Aeolus reminds me of that old Jewish belief that someone with lots of misfortune must have done something wrong in the eyes of God to deserve their punishment. I’m writing this with a massive headache so I don’t think I can provide much more commentary on this point.
3. Before reading this book, I was under the impression that Odysseus was a massive playboy that slept with a bunch of women outside of marriage but held up a double standard and got mad at his wife for possibly being unfaithful (though she did remain faithful in her marriage bed). However, so far in this book, the nature of Odysseus’s sexual relationship with women is much more DARK than I expected. Thus far, Odysseus has been held at the mercy of powerful women, who keep him captive on their islands, far from civilization. The only way he’s been able to be safe in these situations has been to perform sexually for these women. In the case of Circe, of course, he has the power to attack her, but Hermes explicitly tells him that the only way to save his crew is to sleep with Circe so she’ll turn them back. That does NOT sound consensual to me, at all. Of course we got told that he eventually has sex with these women voluntarily, as was the case with Calypso, but from a psychological standpoint this does not make his situation better, as plenty of victims of abuse end up believing they are volunteering and complacent in their abuse due to Stockholm Syndrome. The implication of this interpretation is troubling to me, so if I get this wrong I will not be offended! These are just my first impressions upon reading this passage.
4. Did Circe explain why Odysseus had to travel to the Underworld to talk to the prophet? Or is this just a random task she’s making him complete?