Tag Archives: Homer

“Odyssey” by Homer: Book XVIII – Blows and a Queen’s Beauty

Statue of Penelope, Vatican

Statue of Penelope, Vatican

In this episode, Odysseus, still disguised as a beggar, fights with another beggar named Irus. The rowdy suitors cheer on the fight as entertainment, and Odysseus easily beats Irus. Then Penelope comes down to address the suitors and tricks them into bringing her gifts as a way of winning her. Penelope, like Odysseus, employs trickery and manipulation.

There are two things in this episode I want to point out. The first is the ideal of feminine beauty and the second is the symbol of fire.

Before going down to address the suitors, Penelope goes to sleep. While she is asleep, Athena heightens her feminine beauty. What struck me about this passage is how similar Penelope’s beauty is to Greek statuary. I have always thought of Greek sculpture as the ideal of physical beauty, so essentially, Athena is altering Penelope’s appearance so that she resembles a statue, or the ideal of what female beauty.

And while she slept the goddess
endowed her with immortal grace to hold
the eyes of the Akhaians. With ambrosia
she bathed her cheeks and throat and smoothed her brow—
ambrosia, used by flower-crowned Kythereia
when she would join the rose-lipped Graces dancing.
Grandeur she gave her, too, in height and form,
and made her whiter than carved ivory.

(Fitzgerald Translation: p. 342)

When Penelope appears before the suitors, she is praised for her beauty.

Penelope,
deep-minded queen, daughter of Ikarios,
if all the Akhaians in the land of Argos
only saw you now! What hundreds more
would join your suitors here to feast tomorrow!
Beauty like yours no woman had before,
or majesty, or mastery.

(ibid: p. 344)

What’s interesting about this passage is the claim that Penelope is more beautiful than any woman before. This would mean she is more beautiful than Helen, whose abduction started the Trojan War and led Odysseus from his home. So now, on a smaller scale, we have another battle ready to begin over a beautiful woman. It is almost as if the suitors symbolize the Trojans and Odysseus the Achaeans who went to fight in Troy.

So as I mentioned earlier, the symbol of fire was also significant to me as I read this episode. The first passage I want to discuss is when Odysseus takes his place beside the fire to tend to it while the suitors continue their revelry.

I stand here
ready to tend to these flares and offer light
to everyone. They cannot tire me out,
even if they wish to drink till Dawn.
I am a patient man.

(ibid: p. 346)

The first thing I thought of as I read this is that the fire represents illumination and that Odysseus is being likened to Prometheus. His adventures and tales serve as inspiration, lighting the way for generations of future poets and writers. But then as I thought about it some more, I found a second possible interpretation. The fire could also be a symbol of Odysseus’ wrath. If this is the case, then by standing and tending the flames, he is essentially feeding the rage that burns within him, and being “a patient man,” he will bide his time until he is ready to unleash his fury upon those who usurp his home.

There is another passage that supports the idea of fire as illumination. This is a quote by Eurymakhos as he observes Odysseus near the fire.

This man
comes with a certain aura of divinity
into Odysseus’ hall. He shines.

He shines
around the noggin, like a flashing light,
having no hair at all to dim his luster.

(ibid: p. 347)

As I read this, I had an image of Odysseus with an aura, almost like a halo. He shines with divine light, with an inner fire that makes him like a god.

I really enjoyed this book a lot. I found the symbolism to be intriguing and the flow of the tale to be brilliant. Check back soon for my thoughts on Book XIX.

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“Odyssey” by Homer: Book XVII – The Beggar at the Manor

OdysseusAsBeggar

I don’t have a whole lot to say about this episode. Basically, Eumaeus brings Odysseus (back in disguise as a beggar) to Odysseus’ home. There he is treated badly by the suitors, particularly Antinous who goes as far as hitting Odysseus with a stool. When Penelope hears about what happened, she asks to see the beggar to hear his story about what happened to her husband. Odysseus declines, saying he does not want the suitors to see him going to her chamber.

There was nothing in this episode that I feel needs deeper analysis. It was pretty straight-forward. I felt that the purpose was to move the tale forward and to introduce Odysseus to the suitors. His mistreatment by them will certainly add to his wrath when the time of reckoning is at hand. I guess the only thing I could add is that karma will come back to the suitors, and will do so quickly. When you mistreat someone, especially in that person’s home, then there will be a karmic debt to pay.

Thanks for stopping by, and keep on reading!

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“Odyssey” by Homer: Book XVI – Father and Son

"Reunion of Odysseus and Telemachus" by Henri-Lucien Doucet

“Reunion of Odysseus and Telemachus” by Henri-Lucien Doucet

In this episode, Odysseus and Telemachus are reunited. After Eumaeus leaves his hut to go inform Penelope that Telemachus has returned safely, Odysseus reveals himself to Telemachus and together they plot the overthrow of the suitors.

What stood out for me the most in this episode was all the irony. For example, when Odysseus reveals himself to his son, Telemachus thinks it’s a trick.

You cannot
be my father Odysseus! Meddling spirits
conceived this trick to twist the knife in me!
No man of woman born could work these wonders
by his own craft, unless a god came into it
with ease to turn him young or old at will.
I swear you were in rags and old,
and here you stand like one of the immortals!

(Fitzgerald Translation: pp. 295 – 296)

Here Odysseus is revealing his true self, without disguise, but his own son does not believe it is him. It’s almost like he has been pretending to be someone else for so long that now he cannot be himself. Shortly afterwards, Odysseus says to Telemachus that he is going to tell him the “plain truth” about how he got to Ithaca.

Only plain truth shall I tell you, child.
Great seafarers, the Phaiakians, gave me passage
as they give other wanderers. By night
over the open ocean, while I slept,
they brought me in their cutter, set me down
on Ithaka, with gifts of bronze and gold
and stores of woven things. By the gods’ will
these lie hidden in a cave. I came
to this wild place, directed by Athena,
so that we might lay plans to kill our enemies.

(ibid: pp. 296 – 297)

As far as I can tell, this is the first time that Odysseus has been completely honest in this tale. But the most ironic passage in this section occurs toward the end of the episode, when Eurymakhos lies to Penelope and tells her that there was no plot against Telemachus.

Blasphemous lies
in earnest tones he told—the one who planned
the lad’s destruction!

(ibid: p. 304)

So we have Odysseus, the trickster, who has been lying his way through the entire odyssey so far, who is deemed a hero, and yet the suitor who lies is blasphemous. Not that I am siding with the suitors; I most certainly am not. I just find the comparison to be quite ironic.

That’s all for now. Check back for my thoughts on Book XVII.

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“Odyssey” by Homer: Book XV – How They Came to Ithaka

Image Source: Wikipedia

Image Source: Wikipedia

In this episode, Athena travels to Sparta and instructs Telemachus to go back to Ithaca. She also warns him about the trap that the suitors have set to kill him before he gets home. She tells him how to avoid the trap and says that he should go to the house of the swineherd Eumaeus before returning to his home. As this is taking place, Odysseus is still at the home of Eumaeus where they continue to share stories.

I don’t have a whole lot to say about this particular book. It seems like pieces are being set in motion and moved into place. There did seem to be an emphasis on omens, though, especially concerning birds. Telemachus is presented with two omens. The first one is interpreted by Helen.

Listen:
I can tell you—tell what the omen means,
as light is given to me, and as I see it
point by point fulfilled. The beaked eagle
flew from the wild mountain of his fathers
to take for prey the tame house bird. Just so,
Odysseus, back from his hard trials and wandering,
will soon come down in fury on his house.
He may be there today, and a black hour
he brings upon the suitors.

(Fitzgerald Translation: p. 273)

The second omen is interpreted by Theoklymenos.

A god spoke in this bird-sign on the right.
I knew it when I saw the hawk fly over us.
There is no kinglier house than yours, Telemakhos,
here in the realm of Ithaka. Your family
will be in power forever.

(ibid: p. 285)

I have personally had some life-changing events happen in my life following “unusual” encounters with birds. I’ve come to believe that when you have an encounter with a bird that is out of the ordinary, it is definitely a sign. I’m curious—have any of you had an encounter with a bird and had something significant happen afterwards? Feel free to share your stories.

Cheers!

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“Odyssey” by Homer: Book XIV – Hospitality in the Forest

Odysseus and Eumaeus

Odysseus and Eumaeus

In this episode, Odysseus is given shelter in the hut of Eumaeus, his swineherd. Since Odysseus is disguised, Eumaeus does not recognize him, but invites him in as courtesy to a wanderer and offers Odysseus food and drink. Odysseus lies about where he is from and assures Eumaeus that his master is still alive and will return soon.

This book presents Odysseus more as the archetype of the wanderer, although, he still demonstrates a bit of the trickster through his lies and stories.

Come to the cabin. You’re a wanderer too.
You must eat something, drink some wine, and tell me
where you are from and the hard times you’ve seen.

(Fitzgerald Translation: p. 248)

After the meal, Odysseus and the swineherd begin talking. Eumaeus expresses his belief that all wanderers are also liars.

Wandering men tell lies for a night’s lodging,
for fresh clothing; truth really doesn’t interest them.
Every time a traveller comes ashore
he has to tell my mistress his pretty tale,

(ibid: p. 251)

The connection between the wanderer and the trickster archetypes is established. Odysseus embodies both, but I wonder if the implication here is that both archetypes are intrinsically connected. It is almost as if they are two aspects of the same. The trickster, who revels in deceit and trickery, must of necessity travel constantly in search of new dupes. Likewise, the constant wanderer must always be ready to use his wit and guile in order to secure what is needed and manipulate individuals into providing shelter and provisions.

One of my favorite quotes from this episode is when the swineherd confronts Odysseus and asks him why he is a liar.

That tale
about Odysseus, though, you might have spared me;
you will not make me believe that.
Why must you lie, being the man you are,
and all for nothing?

(ibid: p. 258)

Since Odysseus is an incarnation of the trickster, he cannot help but lie. It is part of his nature. Even though he will not gain anything—the swineherd has already given him food and shelter—Odysseus as the trickster must still lie and make up stories, for no reason but because he can.

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“Odyssey” by Homer: Book XIII – One More Strange Island

OdysseusAthena

In this episode, Odysseus is taken by the Phaeacians back to Ithaca. He is asleep when they arrive and is dropped off on the shore along with his treasure. When he wakes, he thinks he was tricked and dropped off somewhere else, since he does not recognize Ithaca because of the mists. Athena then appears to Odysseus in disguise, and Odysseus attempts to hide his identity from her. Athena then reveals herself and informs Odysseus that he is in Ithaca.

For me, the key section in this section is what Athena says as she reveals herself to Odysseus.

Whoever gets around you must be sharp
and guileful as a snake; even a god
might bow to you in ways of dissimulation.
You! You chameleon!
Bottomless bag of tricks! Here in your own country
would you not give your stratagems a rest
or stop your spellbinding for an instant?

You play a part as if it were your own tough skin.

No more of this, though. Two of a kind, we are,
contrivers, both. Of all men now alive
you are the best in plots and story telling.
My own fame is for wisdom among the gods—
deceptions, too.

Would even you have guessed
that I am Pallas Athena, daughter of Zeus,
I that am always with you in times of trial,
a shield to you in battle, I who made
the Phaiakians befriend you, to a man?

(Fitzgerald Translation: p. 239)

Here we have Athena acknowledging Odysseus as the Trickster. But there is something even deeper going on here. First off, she points out that “even a god might bow to you in ways of dissimulation.” I see a double meaning in this line. On one hand, Athena is saying that the gods would bow to him as a sign of acknowledgment and respect for his skill in the art of deception. But bow could also mean bend. If that is the case, then Athena is stating that Odysseus as the Trickster is so powerful that he has the ability to actually deceive the gods. The fact that Odysseus can bend the will of a god by sheer guile and will is an awesome power.

Next, we have the correlation between Athena and Odysseus in the area of trickery. She states that she is also famed among the gods for her deceptions. This made me wonder if Athena is the feminine counterpart to the masculine Trickster archetype expressed through the character of Odysseus. Essentially, Athena and Odysseus would be the anima and animus of the Trickster, if we were to consider this from a Jungian perspective.

If Athena and Odysseus are truly two aspects of the Trickster archetype, then that would explain why the goddess is so steadfast in her support for Odysseus. I feel that the text supports this idea, particularly when we consider how many times Athena has disguised and concealed herself throughout the tale, just as Odysseus has done.

Thanks for taking the time to read my thoughts. I will be posting on Book XIV soon.

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“Odyssey” by Homer: Book XII – Sea Perils and Defeat

Source: Symbol Reader

Source: Symbol Reader

A lot happens in this short section of the epic. Odysseus returns to Circe’s island after consulting with the dead, and she gives Odysseus more instructions on how to deal with the next set of challenges that he must face. First, he and his crew sail past the sirens and he alone is tied to the mast with unplugged ears so he can hear their song. Then the ship navigates between the dreaded Scylla and Charybdis. Then they arrive at Helios’ island where his crew slaughters the sacred cattle of the Sun for food, the result of which is Zeus destroying his ship and killing all his crew, and he winds up on Calypso’s island.

So, in my post on Book XI, I pointed out the irony that Alkinoos stated how honest Odysseus was. It made me think that maybe this whole story is one big lie. Odysseus is, after all, a manifestation of the Trickster archetype.

I washed my hands there, and made supplication
to the gods who won Olympos, all the gods—
but they, for answer, only closed my eyes
under slow drops of sleep.

Now on the shore Eurylokhos
made his insidious plea:

‘Comrades,’ he said,
‘You’ve gone through everything; listen to what I say.
All deaths are hateful to us, mortal wretches,
but famine is the most pitiful, the worst
end that a man can come to.

Will you fight it?
Come, we’ll cut out the noblest of these cattle
for sacrifice to the gods who own the sky;
and once at home, in the old country of Ithaka,
if ever that day comes—
we’ll build a costly temple and adorn it
with every beauty for the Lord of Noon.
But if he flares up over his heifers lost,
wishing our ship destroyed, and if the gods
make cause with him, why, then I say: Better
open your lungs to a big sea once for all
than waste to skin and bones on a lonely island!’

(Fitzgerald Translation: p. 221)

So, if Odysseus was asleep, then how could he know about the conversation Eurylokhos had with the crew? Obviously, he is making this all up. Essentially, he is telling a great big lie to manipulate Alkinoos and the Phaeacians. The entire “odyssey” is really nothing but a story told by the Trickster to get others to do what he wants them to do. Odysseus is one crafty dude, I give him that much.

Thanks for stopping by, and hope you enjoyed the post. Cheers!

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“Odyssey” by Homer: Book XI – A Gathering of the Shades

Odysseus and Tiresias: Wikipedia

Odysseus and Tiresias: Wikipedia

In this book, Odysseus describes how he performed the ritual that Circe instructed him to do. He raises the spirit of Tiresias who tells Odysseus that he is being punished by Poseidon for blinding Poseidon’s son, the Cyclops Polyphemus. He then describes the other spirits he encountered, specifically the warriors that died at the battle of Troy. He also sees the punishment of Sisyphus.

The section that stood out the most for me in this book is when Alkinoos praises Odysseus for his honesty.

As to that, one word, Odysseus:
from all we see, we take you for no swindler—
though the dark earth be patient of so many,
scattered everywhere, baiting their traps with lies
of old times and of places no one knows.
You speak with art, but your intent is honest.

(Fitzgerald Translation: p. 197)

We have some serious irony here. Odysseus is not really an honest person. He’s the Trickster. I’m starting to think that he is making all this up, that the odyssey is really a mental construct in Odysseus’ mind. I am going to have to start reading a little closer to see if I can uncover any more clues to support the assertion that Odysseus is really full of it and just making up a story. I’ll let you know what I discover.

Read on, friends!

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“Odyssey” by Homer: Book X – The Grace of the Witch

CirceAndSwine

In this book, Odysseus continues his tale of his journey. He actually covers three parts of his odyssey in this book. First, he describes his dealings with Aeolus, ruler of the winds. Aeolus gives him a bag of wind to aid in his voyage, but some of his greedy men think it has gold and open it, resulting in the boat being blown back to Aeolia. Next, Odysseus and his crew arrive at the land of the Laestrygonians, who are cannibalistic giants and devour a few of his men. Finally, they arrive at the island of Circe, who is depicted as a goddess but also a sorceress.

What I found the most fascinating about this book are the allusions to magic and ritual. Circe is obviously very skilled in the mystical arts and the imagery of her weaving “by that craft known to the goddesses of heaven” (Fitzgerald Translation: p. 171), her use of herbs and potions, and her wielding of a wand, all conjure some fantastic visions of the mystical woman.

The god Hermes offers to assist Odysseus in overcoming Circe’s spells. He provides Odysseus with instructions on how to use an amulet in conjunction with sex magic to protect himself from the sorceress.

But I can tell you what to do
to come unchanged from Kirke’s power (Note: alternate spelling in translation)
and disenthrall your fighting crew:
take with you to her bower
as amulet, this plant I know—
it will defeat her horrid show,
so pure and potent is the flower;
no mortal herb was ever so.

Your cup with numbing drops of night
and evil, stilled of all remorse,
she will infuse to charm your sight;
but this great herb with holy force
will keep your minds and senses clear:
when she turns cruel, coming near
with her long stick to whip you out of doors,
then let your cutting blade appear,

Let instant death upon it shine,
and she will cower and yield her bed—
a pleasure you must not decline,
so may her lust and fear bestead
you and your friends, and break her spell;
but make her swear by heaven and hell
no witches’ tricks, or else, your harness shed,
you’ll be unmanned by her as well.

(ibid: p. 174)

The plant that Hermes refers to appears to be mandrake, which according to myth will drive a human insane if pulled from the ground.

He bent down glittering for the magic plant
and pulled it up, black root and milky flower—
a molu in the language of the gods—
fatigue and pain for mortals to uproot;
but gods do this, and everything, with ease.

(ibid: p. 174)

Mandrake

Mandrake

Near the end of the book, Circe tells Odysseus that he must open a portal to the underworld, summon the spirit of the blind prophet Teiresias, and inquire about what he needs to do in order to return home. Circe provides instructions to Odysseus, and these instructions read like a dark magic ritual.

Here, toward the Sorrowing Water, run the streams
of Wailing, out of Styx, and quenchless burning—
torrents that join in thunder at the Rock.
Here then, great soldier, setting foot obey me:
dig a well shaft a forearm square; pour out
libations around it to the unnumbered dead:
sweet milk and honey, then sweet wine, and last
clear water, scattering handfuls of white barley.
Pray now, with all your heart, to the faint dead;
swear you will sacrifice your finest heifer,
at home in Ithaka, and burn for them
her tenderest parts in sacrifice; and vow
to the lord Teiresias, apart from all,
a black lamb, handsomest of all your flock—
thus to appease the nations of the dead.
Then slash a black ewe’s throat, and a black ram,
facing the gloom of Erebos; but turn
your head away toward Ocean. You shall see, now
souls of the buried dead in shadowy hosts,
and now you must call out to your companions
to flay those sheep the bronze knife has cut down,
for offerings, burnt flesh to those below,
to sovereign Death and pale Persephone.
Meanwhile draw sword from hip, crouch down, ward off
the surging phantoms from the bloody pit
until you know the presence of Teiresias.
He will come soon, great captain; be it he
who gives you course and distance for your sailing
homeward across the cold fish-breeding sea.

(ibid: p. 181)

I cannot help but wonder whether Homer was schooled in the magical arts. Regardless, this is a very interesting segment of the epic. I am eager to read about Odysseus’ encounter with the spirits. Check back soon for my thoughts on Book XI.

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“Odyssey” by Homer: Book IX – New Coasts and Poseidon’s Son

CyclopsPolyphemus

In this book, Odysseus begins telling the tale of his journey to the Phaeacians. He first tells them of his encounter with the Lotus-eaters. The lotus fruit is an intoxicant and as soon as Odysseus’ crew eats it, they lose touch with reality and only want to continue eating the fruit. After escaping from the island of the Lotus-eaters, Odysseus and his men are captured by the Cyclops Polyphemus who starts eating the men. Odysseus eventually blinds the Cyclops and escapes through trickery, causing Polyphemus to pray to his father, Poseidon, for revenge upon Odysseus.

For this post, I want to focus on the Polyphemus section. When Odysseus first encounters the Cyclops, Odysseus entreats him to show them hospitality in the name of the gods. Polyphemus’ response demonstrates a disdain for the gods, which I found interesting.

You are a ninny,
or else you come from the other end of nowhere,
telling me, mind the gods! We Kyklopes
care not a whistle for your thundering Zeus
or all the gods in bliss; we have more force by far.
I would not let you go for fear of Zeus—
you or your friends—unless I had a whim to.
Tell me, where was it, now, you left your ship—
around the point, or down the shore, I wonder?

(Fitzgerald Translation: p. 153)

I consider the Cyclops to be a symbol of a myopic person, someone who can only see one side of something, usually their own. So here the Cyclops has a singular, self-centered view. He is blind to his connection with the Divine and does not see or care about how others are also connected with the Divine. He cares only about himself and satisfying his basic urges and desires. What I found ironic, though, is that after Polyphemus is blinded, then he calls upon Poseidon, his father. I find two interpretations of this. From a cynical perspective, we have the self-centered person who disregards his spiritual connection with god praying and suddenly becoming “religious” when things go awry. We have all known people like this, who claim to not care about the Divine but immediately begin to pray when faced with adversity. But I also see a more spiritual interpretation. Once Polyphemus is blinded, he no longer sees the physical world. Instead, his vision is turned within and he recognizes his connection to the world of the Divine.

I mentioned before that one of the archetypes that Odysseus represents is the Trickster. In this part of the tale, he establishes himself as the Trickster. He begins his ruse by telling Polyphemus that his name is “Nobody.”

Kyklops,
you ask my honorable name? Remember
the gift you promised me, and I shall tell you.
My name is Nohbdy: mother, father, and friends,
everyone calls me Nohbdy.

(ibid: pp. 155 – 156)

After Odysseus and his men drive the stake into the Cyclops’ eye, Polyphemus calls out to the other Cyclopes for help.

‘What ails you,
Polyphemos? Why do you cry so sore
in the starry night? You will not let us sleep.
Sure no man’s driving off your flock? No man
has tricked you, ruined you?’

Out of the cave
the mammoth Polyphemos roared in answer:

‘Nohbdy, Nohbdy’s tricked me, Nohbdy’s ruined me!’

To this rough shout they made a sage reply:

‘Ah well, if nobody has played you foul
there in your lonely bed, we are no use in pain
given by great Zeus. Let it be your father,
Poseidon Lord, to whom you pray.’

(ibid: p. 157)

Odysseus responds to the events as the Trickster would, showing delight in his craft and deception.

So saying
they trailed away. And I was filled with laughter
to see how like a charm the name deceived them.

(ibid: p. 157)

As Odysseus and his men escape from Polyphemus, Odysseus begins to take on characteristics of the hero archetype. A hero has a flaw, which ultimately leads to the hero’s fall. Frequently, hubris is the flaw which heroes exhibit, and this is the case with Odysseus. He acts out of hubris and this ultimately allows Polyphemus to summon Poseidon’s wrath upon Odysseus.

I would not heed them in my glorying spirit,
but let my anger flare and yelled:

‘Kyklops,
if ever mortal man inquire
how you were put to shame and blinded, tell him
Odysseus, raider of cities, took your eye:
Laertes’ son, whose home’s on Ithaka!’

(ibid: p. 160)

This is a great book in the epic and truly demonstrates the complexity of Odysseus as a character. I hope you found my thoughts interesting and be sure to check back for my thoughts on Book X soon.

Cheers!

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