Homer's Odyssey: The Myth of The West

Presentation to the Melbourne Philosophy Forum, 5th of September, 2010

The Odyssey is a sequel to the Iliad, describing the journey home of the Greek hero Odysseus following the fall of Troy. He ends up somewhat waylaid on the journey due to his own adventurous nature and interventions from the Gods (supported by Athena, opposed by Poseidin), and it ends up taking him ten years to reach his home Ithaca after the ten year Trojan War. In his absence, Odysssus is assumed to have died, and his wife Penelope and son Telemachus (who is twenty at the time of Odysseus' return) must deal with a number of suitors. The story is written in media res with the actual journey in a linear sense requiring reconstruction from the original text. The following is a reconstruction of events, which often bare little resemblance to the narrative time of the story. This, and the writing style, have led some to make reasoned criticisms of claims that the Odyssey is a "great work" of literature. The book itself was formalised by the Athenian tyrant Peisistratos, who ruled between 546 and 527 BC, from a pre-existing oral tradition.

The Odyssey has often been remarked as a pivotal text in classic enlightenment thought as Odysseus uses cunning reason to get past most of his obstacles with supernatural powers tending to be a bane rather than a benefit. Likewise the human condition is emphasised; neither God, nor beast, nor a dead spirit. Another significant theme is that of homecoming (nostos); the idea that adventure must have a return, even if the hero (c.f., Joseph Campbell) is forever changed by the experience. Finally, ritualised Hellenic hospitality (xenia) is also a reoccurring theme. It is noted that those who do not follow xenia are antithetical to Homer, whereas those who do engage in the ritual are beneficial. Finally, there is a patriarchal and authoritarian theme; Penelope is largely cast in a subservient role, and when the rule of Odysseus is disobeyed, disaster results.

A famous essay in The Dialectic of Enlightenment by Horkheimer and Adorno discusses the story of the Odyssey

Scene One: The Land of the Lotus Eaters

Odysseus' crew having left the Trojan War victorious, in good spirits and with significant loot. Their captain, Odysseus, gained great renown during the war as one of the heroic leaders of the Greeks, along with Nestor and Idomeneus, and an advisor for Agamennon advising him not to withdraw. During the campaign, Odysseus served to moderate the more forthright Achilles. When Achilles was slain in battle, it was Odysseus and Telamonian Ajax who retrieved Achilles's body and armour in the thick of the fighting. With Diomedes, Odysseus went to find Achilles's son, Pyrrhus, to come to give him his father's armour and aid in the Greek campaign. It was Odysseus and Diomedes who recovered the arrows of Heracles from Philoctetes. It was Odysseus and Diomedes who stole Palladium, the magical wooden statue of Pallas Athena, from Troy's citadel thus weakening the city's defenses. Finally, it was Odysseus who devised the strategy of the Trojan Horse, and it was he would lead the warriors from the trap. Odysseus has travelled with a dozen ships with the intention of returning to Ithaca, but firstly raiding the lands of the Kikonians and their town of Ismara, as they supported the Trojans. Initially the raid was successful, with most of the Kikonian men slain, their goods pillaged and their women taken as slaves. However, against Odysseus' advice many of his men desire to stay overnight for feasting and the following day they are attacked by Kikonian reinforcements, losing six from each ship (seventy two total) before retreating. Soon after leaving the fleet was blown off course in a terrible storm and was washed ashore in a distant land. This is the lands of the Lotophagi, the LotusEaters.

They soon encounter a settlement of the Lotophagi, natives of the land, led by Butehamun. The Lotophagi show hospitality to Odysseus' crew which, unfortunately, included the consumption of a blue lotus, a nourishing, soporific and psychedelic drug.

Scene Two: Polyphemus, The Cyclopes

Escaping the lands of the Lotophagi, the fleet continues on its journey and stops at an rich wooded island of wild wheat, barley, graps and a plentiful number of goats. With extremely short supplies, Odysseus stops at the island and selects a number of crewmembers the collect supplies. At first this is quite successful, as a number of wild goats (nine for each ship, ten for Odyseuss') is found and there is feasting and wine. Odysseus gets it into his head however to visit the Cyclopes, which are known to be nearby. They are known to be a wild people who do not till the soil and have no towns or villages, preferring to live in family groups on the hillsides. Odysseus which to discover whether they are "uncivilised savages, or a hospitable and human race". Taking a group with him Odysseus finds on the face of a cliff near the sea, a great cave overhung with laurels and a station for a great number of sheep and goats. Inside there are cheeses, milk, and more lambs and kids. Some of the crew will argue for taking the food at this point; Odysseus still wishes to meet the owner. Others argue that a sacrifice be held to the Gods.

The Cyclopes returns, a massive and monstrous being, and the Greeks scatter and hide in the cave. The Cyclopes rolls a massive stone to close the entrance of the cave "so huge that two and twenty strong four-wheeled wagons would not be enough to draw it from its place against the doorway" which
should give one an idea of the strength and size of the beast. The Cyclopes then engages the party in conversation, attempting to discern where their ships are located; regardless of the answer or any offers two crewmembers are grabbed, their heads smashed against the rocks, and the Cyclopes will eat them raw and completely.

A number of possible escapes are available. The traditional one is Odysseus giving the cyclopes some liquor and, having introduced himself as "Nobody" (a pun on the name 'Odysseus'), then building a great fiery spear which the captured party drives into his eye. The Cyclopes calls out in pain and his neighbours come to find out what is wrong with Polyphemus crying out in the middle of the night. "Nobody has hurt me", he replies, which their interpret as a sickness of mind and depart. The following morning everyone escapes by tying themselves to the bellies of the sheep and although the Cyclopes feels the back of the ship all escape. Odysseus mocks the Cyclopes as they leave and Polyphemus declares he will bring the wrath of Poseidin upon him.

Scene Three: Keeper of the Winds

Departing the cyclopes, the next place of call is the floating Aeolian island, inhabited by Aeolus, son of Hippotas, his wife, and his six sons and six daughters (who have married each other). Their island is surrounded by a wall bound by iron. The place would be well-fortified against any aggression, but with the presence of Odysseus among the crew they enter this place. Here they will be entertained and be treated with luxury. All Aeolus asks is storytelling about the campaign in Troy and the journey thus far. At the end of a month, for Aeolus pumps questions from all and sundry and in every detail, he finally bids Odysseus well and sets him on his journey. The fine sailing that occurs after this is indeed pleasant. Odysseus has been given a bag bound with a silver cord by Aeolus, and some crewmembers have become jealous of how closely he guards it, for his will not say what is contained within. It is clear that there is some great treasure within which the captain is not sharing. After ten days with Icatha just coming within view the bag is opened. When this happens the winds contained within are released, whereupon a great storm is released that blows the fleet back to the Aeolian island. Here, when the story is recounted, Aeolus and his family offers no assistance and describes Odysseus and his crew as "vilest of manking... abhorred by heaven" and sends the fleet on its way.

Scene Four: Land of the Laestrygonians

Following the second departure from the Aeolian island there is no wind at all; the fleet must make what time they can by rowing and spend six days and nights by such method. On the seventh day they reach a rocky land with a small harbour (seamanship checks required) leads to the town of Telepylus, the city of the Laestrygonians. A group is set out to scout the lands which. First they spy a shepheard driving a flock of sheep and goats and then a young woman, a daughter of Antiphates. When they visit their home, they discover it is inhabited by ogres who set about and attack Odysseus' crew. When the Greeks retreat back to the ship hue-and-cry has been called and "thousands" of Laestrygonians are now giving chase. It is necessary now to row out of the harbour as rocks and spears are thrown at the departing vessels. "They threw vast rocks at us from the cliffs as though they had been mere stones, and I heard the horrid sound of the ships crunching up against one another, and the death cries of my men, as the Laestrygonians speared them like fishes and took them home to eat them."

Scene Five: The Pigs of Circe

After the encounter with the Laestrygonians, Odysseus's fleet is now manned by a mere fourty-four men, about half of what he set out with. Sailing and rowing is particularly hard, and through wind and current the fleet finds itself at an island. For some time the crew languishes on the shore our of sheer exhaustion and Odysseus searches the land, discovering that it is certainly an island. From a vantage point on top of a hill he notices a stream of smoke from deep within the forest. Returning to the beach, he sends half his men out to find the source of the smoke, an expedition led by Eurylochus. The reconissance group will find a house of cut stone in the middle of the forest. It will be surrounded by wolves and lions patrolling all about it, but rather than display aggression the animals will wag their fail, fawn upon them, rub their noses against the party and so forth. From within the house they can hear singing and the sounds of a loom at work. When called, a beautiful ravenhaired woman with four servants welcomes the party and invites them inside where she provides them a meal of cheese, honey, grain and wine, causing them to fall drunk whereupon Circe casts a transformation spell turning them ino pigs. Eurylochus did not enter Circe's abode and informed Odysseus what has happened. Odysseus takes it open himself to rescue their crewmembers from the witch. On the way they will encounter Hermes in the form of a young man, who tells them they cannot defeat Circe with force of arms. Instead, he recommends, they take some of the herb that he has brought which will protect them against the drugs that she puts in the food and drink. The herb itself has a black root and a white flower; it is known as Moly; "and mortal men cannot uproot it, but the gods can do whatever they like." Circe will engage in the same actions as before, but when it is clear that she cannot betwitch the characters present she will plead for mercy, claiming that all she wanted to do was provide happiness for the crewmembers (and indeed, they are as happy as pig can be). She offers her affections to any who care as a token of her friendship. But unless a solemn off is sworn that she will bring them no harm she will use this opportunity to "unman" the characters, for such activities with a goddess like her is dangerous for mortals. The four servants, who are nymphs, will also attend to the needs of the party.

Assuming that they have achieved such assent however, Circe will eventually return the crew to the nonporcine state and invite them to stay as long as they desire. According to the story they stayed in the company of Circe and her housemaids for a year; the place is so good it is possible that they may never leave. Note that during this time one character, the youngest of the crew, Elpenor, will in a drunken state falls from the roof of Circe's house and kills himself. When the party does decide to leave, Circe remarks "You must go to the house of Hades and of dread Proserpine to consult the ghost of the blind Theban prophet Teiresias, whose reason is still unshaken. To him alone has Proserpine left his understanding even in death, but the other ghosts flit about aimlessly." No guide will be required, for the North Wind will take the boat to the required place and then enter the underworld. An offering of milk, wine and water is required as an offering to the dead. Naturally enough, Odysseus's crew will complain bitterly of this proposal, for none wish to visit the land of the dead.

Scene Six: Hades

Circe sens a good wind to aid Oysseus as the fleet sails to the western edge of the world. Reaching a harbour, a sacrifice is made to the dead first of honey and milk, then with wine, White barley is sprinked on the whole, before two sheep are sacrificed. After this ghosts come out from Erebus, the lower half of Hades, the underworld. This is where the dead must pass immediately after dying before Charon ferries the souls of the dead across the river Styx, upon which they entered the land of the dead. Elpenor is the first ghost to make himself known, and he pleads for the others to return to Circe's home give him a proper cremation or burial. Odysseus then encounters the ghost of his dead moth, Anticlea, who informs him that he is thought of dead and the many suitors to Penelope. The crew encounter ghosts of relatives and friends who have died in their absence, and give dire warnings of the situation at home.

This is confirmed by the ghost of the androgynous Theban Teiresias who gives prophecy that Odysseus' fleet will be challenged by Poseidon for blinding his son, the Cyclopes Polyphemus. Teiresias also says the Odysseus will return home alone; a statement that will should cause some fear among those present! After putting the suitors to his wife to the sword, Odysseus must find a new home and establish a new land far from the sea and make sacrifices to Poseidon. Other famous spirits will also come forth to see the unusual spectacle of the living in the land of dead. This includes Agammenon, who has been murdered, Achilles, Ajax, who is still angry with Odysseus for taking his prize during life the armour of Achilles. ""When I saw him I tried to pacify him and said, 'Ajax, will you not forget and forgive even in death, but must the judgement about that hateful armour still rankle with you?" After this there are visions of those punished in Hades, "Tityus son of Gaia stretched upon the plain and covering some nine acres of ground. Two vultures on either side of him were digging their beaks into his liver... Tantalus, who stood in a lake that reached his chin; he was dying to quench his thirst, but could never reach the water, for whenever the poor creature stooped to drink, it dried up and vanished, so that there was nothing but dry ground... Sisyphus at his endless task raising his prodigious stone with both his hands. With hands and feet he tried to roll it up to the top of the hill, but always, just before he could roll it over on to the other side, its weight would be too much for him, and the pitiless stone would come thundering down again on to the plain."

Scene Seven: The Call of the Siren

The next scene involves the fleet passing the island of the Sirens, a halfbird halfwoman creature. From Circe's description they are believed to be drowners of men, ("There is a great heap of dead men's bones lying all around, with the flesh still rotting off them") but with an irrestiable song. Odysseus, wanting to hear their song, has his sailors plug their ears with beeswax and tie him to the mast. When he hears their song, he ordered the sailors to untie him but they cannot hear him. Eventually when the isle is passed he is released.

Scene Eight: The Straits of Scylla and Charybdis

Immediately beyond the Isle of the Sirens (it's a rather tough part of the world), Odysseus must pass through the dangerous strait that is inhabited by Scyalla on one side and Charybdis on the other. Scylla has six monstrous heads perched on long necks along with twelve feet, whereas Charybdis had a single gaping mouth that sucked in huge quantities of water and belches, creating whirlpools.

On Circe's advice, Odysseus chooses the Scylla route at maximum speed for that can lead to minimum casulties. "For Scylla is not mortal; moreover she is savage, extreme, rude, cruel and invincible. There is no help for it; your best chance will be to get by her as fast as ever you can, for if you dawdle about her rock while you are putting on your armour, she may catch you with a second cast of her six heads, and snap up another half dozen of your men; so drive your ship past her at full speed, and roar out lustily to Crataiis who is Scylla's dam, bad luck to her; she will then stop her from making a second raid upon you." Circe's advice, as grim as it is, is certainly the most sensible option.

Scene Nine: The Isle of the Sun God

After the experiences of the Sirens and the Sea Monsters, Odysseus' fleet reaches Thrinacia Island. Circe and Teiresias both have warned Odysseus not to land there, for the cattle and sheep belong to the Sun God Helios and are tended by his daughters, the goddesses Phaethusa and Lampetie. The crew, lead by Eurylochus are exhausted and saddened by the recent experience. They argue bitterly with Odysseus to let them take harbour and rest upon the shore. Odysseus realising that he cannot row the fleet on his own submits to the desires of the majority, but pleads with the crew not to harm any of the cattle and sheep. For an entire month bad winds blow continuously and the crew are unable to leave the island. With their supplies exhausted, crewmembers urged by Eurylochus slaughter and eat some of Helios's cattle.

"For a whole month the wind blew steadily from the South, and there was no other wind, but only South and East. As long as corn and wine held out the men did not touch the cattle when they were hungry; when, however, they had eaten all there was in the ship, they were forced to go further afield, with hook and line, catching birds, and taking whatever they could lay their hands on; for they were starving."

Disturbingly, the cattle proved their divine origins after slaughter: "And indeed the gods began at once to show signs and wonders among us, for the hides of the cattle crawled about, and the joints upon the spits began to low like cows, and the meat, whether cooked or raw, kept on making a noise just as cows do."

When the fleet sails away from the island, Helios successfully pleads to Zeus to send a thunderbolt at the ships, which occurs on the seventh day with an incredible storm. This is an attack directed by Zeus himself against the ships and their crew; in all probability everyone will be killed, either from the lightning bolts from the sky, ships breaking apart ("the mast fell upon the head of the helmsman in the ship's stern, so that the bones of his head were crushed to pieces"), or drowning.

Scene Ten: Calypso

Any characters that survive, including Odysseus, find themselves washed ashore on the island of Ogygia which is inhabited by nymph Calypso, the daughter of Titan, and her maids. Enarmoured by the heroes who have survived the wrath of Zeus himself and desparately lonely, Calypso treats the surviving crew members with great kindness and affection. She wishes those present to stay forever, and promises immortality and eternal youth (for she has both). Odysseus however is more interested in returning home, despite the charms of the nymph. According to the story, Odysseus does not leave for seven years and that only occurs after Athena asks Zeus to give him the opportunity to depart; heartbroken, Calypso helps Odysseus and any others build a raft Any characters that survive, including Odysseus, find themselves washed ashore on the island of Ogygia which is inhabited by nymph Calypso, the daughter of Titan, and her maids. Enarmoured by the heroes who have survived the wrath of Zeus himself and desparately lonely, Calypso treats the surviving crew members with great kindness and affection. She wishes those present to stay forever, and promises immortality and eternal youth (for she has both). Odysseus however is more interested in returning home, despite the charms of the nymph. According to the story, Odysseus does not leave for seven years and that only occurs after Athena asks Zeus to give him the opportunity to depart; heartbroken, Calypso helps Odysseus and any others build a raft to escape the island, and then attempts suicide but cannot due to her immortality.

Even with the raft however, the ever vindictive Poseidon sends another storm his way, after some twenty days at sea on the raft. If either are successful the character will reach the land of the Phaeacians, near death if the raft is lost, in relatively better question if it is retained.

Scene Eleven: The Phaeacians

With the remaining characters washed ashore and semiconscious, Athena has instructed the princess Nausikaa, the daughter of King Alkinoös, to go to the seashore to wash her clothes (of all things!). Whoever remains is awakened by the sounds of the princess and her maids playing on the beach, which terrifies the maids to see these naked unkempt individuals. Nausikaa, encouraged by Athena, stays to converse with the group. Clothes, food and drink are provided by the princess along with directions to the palace of King Alkinoös. Athena, disguised as a young girl, advises the group how to enter the palace, which is guarded by mechanical dogs made of silver and gold, constructed by Hephaestus, and surrounded by walls of bronze and gates of gold. Inside the palace has a lighting system consisting of golden statues of young men with lighted torches in their hands. Athena, providing Odysseus, a cloaking cloud provided by Athena, can bypassthe protection systems of the palace and enters the chamber of King Alkinoös, where despite
some surprise they are offered the hospitality and the opportunity to discuss their journey thus far. Depending on how successful the storytelling is, the Phaeacians may indeed decide to assist the remaining group with one of their thought-controlled galleys but only after an offer of the King's daughter in marriage is made, a feast is held, and games of poetry, singing, lyre, wrestling, boxing, discus etc, are held.

The boat provided by the Phaeacians is truly remarkable:

"The ship bounded forward on her way as a four in hand chariot flies over the course when the horses feel the whip. Her prow curvetted as it were the neck of a stallion, and a great wave of dark blue water seethed in her wake. She held steadily on her course, and even a falcon, swiftest of all birds, could not have kept pace with her. Thus, then, she cut her way through the water, carrying one who was as cunning as the gods, but who was now sleeping peacefully, forgetful of all that he had suffered both on the field of battle and by the waves of the weary sea."

Scene Twelve: Return to Ithaca

The party, or what remains of it, returns to Ithaca. Taking up a disguise, they meet Telemachaus, Odysseus' son, who gives them hospitality but does not recognise his own father. The group then visits the home of Eumaeus the swineherd, an old friend of Odysseus. There the party can reveal itself and determine how to deal with the five score suitors to Penelope's hand, who have spent the years at Odysseus' house, eating his food and generally being a nuissance. Upon arrival at his home, Penelope has announced to the assembled suitors that whoever can string Odysseus' old bow and shoot an arrow through the sockets of twelve axes standing an a row can have her hand; none of the suitors are successful that is a lot of arrows! Odysseus will have an attempt whilst Telemachus' argues the case that he be allowed to do so. The shot is successful, and battle results with Athena's aid; until all one hundred and eight of Penelope's suitors are killed. Penelope initially does not believe that her husband has really returned and tests him by ordering her servant change the bed in their wedding chamber. Odysseus protests that this cannot be done since he made the bed himself and knows that one of its legs is a living olive tree. At that point Penelope accepts that it really is Odysseus.