Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The Gifts of Odysseus


There are many different ways to think about ancient literature. It can be taken as a poetic form of history as Heinrich Schliemann[i] did when looking for the city of Troy. Especially if it is very old, and comes from before the invention of writing it can be seen as a form of mass entertainment that was recited in a theatre. Ancient text can also be examined linguistically[ii], anthropologically[iii], psychologically[iv], theologically[v] or from how the work is perceived historically[vi] and probably any number of other ways to help us later day readers understand how language developed and to provide clues to how ancient people lived and what their cultures were like or just simply in understanding the work involved.   Sometimes, or so it appears to me, all of these things are true. As could probably be expected one also finds proponents of less esoteric readings of ancient text. These would see The Odyssey as simply an adventure story that reflects the culture and mores of the society that produced it; what might be called the “Hollywood” version of ancient tales; just stories, just entertainment, nothing deep and nothing wrong with that. Lastly modern scholars sometimes attempt to re-write or rework classics to better fit modern sensibilities or themes whether that is Post Modernism[vii], feminism[viii], or whatever “ism” is the scholar’s preferred soap-box issue or to make the heroes of ancient literature progenitors of whatever political or philosophical persuasion they are advocating. It seems that sometimes lost in scholarly debate is the simply question; “What did the original hearers or readers take away from this work?”

Perhaps the most obvious example of way in which modern scholars can continually re-plow the fields of classic literature for new intellectual crops is The Odyssey. Even its name has become a euphemism for all sorts of things. Lost in the wealth of often very interesting research into this work is the observation that it was probably not simply a poem but a work of moral literature. It is not simply an adventure tale. The purpose was not just to entertain but help the ancient Greeks know what being “Greek” meant. But what are the moral lessons that Homer wants us to learn? To find the answer to that question it is necessary to understand that the poem is not merely account of the adventures and misfortune of Odysseus but what his son Telemachus can learn morally from the trials and triumphs of his father. Indeed, an argument can be made that main character of the Odyssey is not Odysseus but his son Telemachus and his growth towards manhood.[ix] This would explain the non-liner plot in the poem. We are given a clue to the meaning of this poem by looking at the names “Odysseus” and “Telemachus” which mean “Trouble” and “Fighting Man” respectively. Even a cursory reading of The Odyssey reveals that Odysseus is a very different man emotionally and intellectually when he returns to Ithaca than the man who left so many years before. The gifts of Odysseus to his son are the lessons learned by the father and passed along to the son with the mediation and help of Athena so that the son does not become the man named “Trouble” like his father. When this theme is understood the organization of the poem can be seen as intentional.

The Odyssey while longer and written to a different audience bares some striking organizational similarities to the book of Job in the Bible. Both are about powerful men who are brought low by supernatural forces in order to teach them important lessons and who are then restored to their former prosperity once the lesson is learned; importantly both Odysseus and Job need to learn the same lesson that they should not trust solely in their own cunning, power or wealth but should be grateful to God or gods for their success. Where the works differ is in the use of time and secondary lessons. Job suffers a single trial for which he has no explanation and turns to his counselors for an explanation. Odysseus survives a series of calamitous adventures that each should teach his son something. Unlike Job there is seldom a counselor to explain it to Odysseus and he has to figure it out himself. Also unlike Job the lessons Odysseus learn have much more to do with how he should live than simply faith in the supernatural that while not as important in some respects are vital to helping Telemachus avoid the mistakes made by his father.
  
When we first meet Odysseus in the Odyssey he is on an island owned by the nymph Calypso where he has been for seven long years. He is there involuntarily because Calypso is keeping him as her love slave. While the terms and conditions of his incarceration may be snickered at (How many men, at first thought wouldn’t jump at the chance to be the lover of a beautiful nymph?) the predicament is more universal. Calypso didn’t really love Odysseus; she was merely using him to fulfill her own needs. I ask, how fulfilling would a sexual relationship be if it was forced or coerced? How much fear would be in such a relationship of retribution for not performing up to the desired standard? Indeed, reading the account we find that Odysseus has consistently refused the offers of a more than physical relationship with Calypso and provides her with just enough to remain in her favor. Suppose the genders were reversed in this situation, If Calypso was a male and Odysseus a female would this be a situation to be snickered at? How many women would snicker at being held captive for sexual favors for seven years

On a less erotic but applicable note, how many men become slaves to their job? How many men wake up one day and find that years have passed and that the people who are important to them that they really loved have been sacrificed upon the alter of occupation, trade or profession? How much worse is it if the man does not actually love the profession? Often men fall into this trap while trying to provide for their families as Odysseus was simply trying to return home to his wife. Once in this trap they have a difficult time extricating themselves. That this is the first place we meet Odysseus is instructive.

We do not learn more of the story until Odysseus has escaped, by the skin of teeth from Calypso and washed up on the shore where Phaeacians live which is actually closer to the end of the story than the beginning. It is here that we learn from Odysseus himself what had befallen him.

The story Odysseus tells the Phaeacians by now one of the most familiar ever told and ranks with David and Goliath and Noah’s flood in its universality and I will not deal with each episode in detail. But here are the lessons learned by Odysseus.
The trap of sloth and laziness; it would have been easy to simply stay on the Island of the Lotus Eaters.

The trap of imposing upon other is learned at the cave of the Cyclops. At that point in the story Odysseus was traveling in a 12 ship fleet so at least a couple of hundred men. When they find the Cyclops home open they simply help themselves to the sheep and cheese that are there. When the Cyclops returns he is, I think understandably, angry. Granted, he may have been a cannibal anyway but there is a certain justice in saying you ate my sheep now I will eat you. Would it have hurt Odysseus and his crew to ask before raiding the larder?  Humans unlike monsters can think about the needs of others

There is another lesson to be learned from the adventure with the Cyclops. The way you treat your enemies is as important as the way you treat your friends. Think about the story. In order escape Odysseus blinds the Cyclops and then he and his men run to their ship and sail away. The normal interpretation of this event is that Odysseus was cunning and smart. A better interpretation is that he was cruel and calloused. How can a shepherd keep track of his sheep if he cannot see them? By blinding the Cyclops rather than just escaping from him or even just killing him Odysseus doomed the one-eyed giant to a life of poverty. Humans, unlike Cyclops exhibit mercy and Odysseus lowered himself to something less heroic by the manner of his escape

I find the island of Circe to be perhaps the most interesting place in the epic. Circe was turning the crew into pigs. Think about that a minute. A pig is an unusual forest animal. They are smart. They travel in groups and are big enough and mean enough to fend off most predators. But they live by instinct. This is sort of the other side of the coin from the island of the Lotus Eaters rather than forgetting who they were because of the pleasant conditions the crew was in danger of becoming simply animals. When we as humans put our physical needs higher than our ethics or morality we are no better than pigs. Being a pig is OK for pigs humans were made for something better.

There is an important rather obvious lesson that has already been alluded to. While never so clearly stated in the poem the 1997 made for TV version of the Odyssey did an excellent job making this lesson clear. In that version as Odysseus’ raft is sinking in a storm sent by Poseidon Odysseus calls out “Poseidon! What do you want from me?” and receives the answer “To know that without gods man is nothing.” Notice how throughout the poem the Greeks make obligatory offerings to the gods, the occasional prayer and then go about their business as if it made no difference. Odysseus is apparently almost oblivious to the help he receives from Hermes and Athena.  As a Christian I can identify with the gist of that in the normal way but the inverse is true. We may be nothing without divine help but we are also not gods. There is a place for gratitude and humility even in our success. Odysseus by his pride, lack of humility and failure to acknowledge the help he’d received or to show remorse was ungrateful. Humility, gratitude and thankfulness are appropriate responses that should be exhibited in our lives. To give thanks for blessings from above or from our friends and family is a uniquely human virtue as far as we know. The inverse is also true. We may be nothing without God but neither are we gods. When we act as though we are divine, the final arbiter of morality and ethics we become not good and benevolent deities but petty, self-centered tyrants. When Odysseus stood upon the prow of ship and shouted his name to the blinded, rock-throwing Cyclops he was essentially saying “I am god, you can’t hurt me”

Even remembering our place in the universe is not the greatest lesson Odysseus gave his son. Bigger still was the knowledge that greatness is measured more by our response to failure than to success. We remember Odysseus as much for his trials and mistakes on the journey home as we do the Trojan War. The way we deal with adversity not victory defines us.

It is these lessons that allowed Odysseus to tell his son “Know when to be angry” Notice at the end of the poem he allows Athena to disguise him. He receives and is grateful for divine aide. He keeps his eyes on the goal and is not distracted by the pleasantness of his home and doesn’t revert to instinct and simply rush forward to attack like a wild-boar. Once he traps the suitors he does not merely blind them so that they may exact revenge but kills them which was justice in that day and time. These are the gifts of Odysseus to his son.

Until Next Time
Fai Mao
The Blogger who still reads literature 



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[ii] Floyd, Edwin D. "Linguistic, Mycenaean, and Iliadic Traditions Behind Penelope's Recognition of Odysseus." College Literature 38, no. 2 (Spring2011 2011): 131. MasterFILE Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed April 22, 2013).
[iii] Barbara, Carey. "Notes for daily living." Toronto Star (Canada), n.d., Newspaper Source, EBSCOhost (accessed April 22, 2013).
[iv] Nwakanma, Obi. "O, Polyphemus: On Poetry and Alienation." Ariel 39, no. 4 (October 2008): 139-146. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed April 22, 2013).
[v] Halkin, Hillel. "Sailing to Ithaca." Commentary 120, no. 4 (November 2005): 69. MasterFILE Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed April 22, 2013).
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[viii] Suzuki, Mihoko. "Rewriting the "Odyssey" in the Twenty-First Century: Mary Zimmerman's "Odyssey" and Margaret Atwood's "Penelopiad.." College Literature 34, no. 2 (Spring2007 2007): 263-278. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed April 21, 2013).
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