by John William Waterhouse (1891)
When Circe had detained me more than a year
There near Gaeta, before it had that name
Aeneas gave it, and I parted from her,
Not fondness for my son, nor any claim
Of reverence for my father, nor love I owed
Penelope, to please her, could overcome
My longing for experience of the world,
Of human vices and virtue. But I sailed out
On the deep open seas, accompanied
By that small company that still had not
Deserted me, in a single ship. One coast
I saw, and then another, and I got
As far as Spain, Morocco, Sardinia, a host
Of other islands that the sea bathes round.
My men and I were old and slow when we passed
The narrow outlet where Hercules let stand
His markers beyond which men were not to sail.
On my left hand I had left Ceuta behind,
And on the other sailed beyond Seville.
'O brother who have reached the west,' I began,
'Through a hundred thousand perils, surviving all:
So little is the vigil we see remain
Still for our senses, that you should not choose
To deny it the experience--behind the sun
Leading us onward--of the world which has
No people in it. Consider well your seed:
You were not born to live as a mere brute does,
But for the pursuit of knowledge and the good.'
- Dante, The Inferno, Canto XXVI, lines 88 - 115 (translated by Robert Pinsky)
Despite only having second-hand knowledge of Homer, Dante highlights a key aspect of Odysseus’ character—his never-ending curiosity. As we see in this section, it also gets him and his crew into trouble.
Books IX through XII are a storytelling tour de force. The section is almost completely a monologue by Odysseus, chronologically leading from Troy to Calypso’s island. As pointed out in almost any study of The Odyssey, Odysseus begins this section the same as he was in The Iliad, sacking cities for timê and kleos. By the time he reaches the land of the Phaeacians, he no longer has any of his men, ships, spoils of war, or even clothes—he has been stripped of everything. Also in those analyses, the change over this period is symbolic as well as literal, stripping away the warrior role and preparing Odysseus for his return home. The trip to visit the dead then provides a symbolic rebirth. While I don’t completely agree with that analysis, I find it a good framework to work with for now. Part of the problem of interpreting The Odyssey is the ambiguity and contradictions found within it. Then again, that’s also part of what keeps people reading and listening to it more than 2,500 years later.
So how does Odysseus answer Alcinous’ question on his identity? “I am Odysseus, son of Laertes, / well known to all for my deceptive skills-- / my fame extends all the way to the sky.” (Book IX, lines 18 – 20, all translations by Ian Johnston unless otherwise noted. Compare that to his earlier (chronologically, that is) declaration to Polyphemus: “[T]ell them Odysseus destroyed your eye, / a sacker of cities, Laertes’ son, / a man from Ithaca.” (Book IX, lines 665-667) Odysseus now knows that his fame is extensive—he did not know that before Demodocus sang. In addition, telling of his journeys to the Phaeacians insures even greater fame. If I were the Phaeacians, however, I would question the complete truthfulness from someone claiming skills at deception. In addition, Odysseus claims that he would stay an additional year in Scheria in order to receive more splendid gifts, claiming he will earn more respect upon his return to Ithaca. While not fully stuck in “warrior mode,” he still focuses on kleos in addition to returning home. So which is sweeter, “a man’s own country and his parents” or winning “more respect, more love from anyone who looks at me”? While the two are not mutually exclusive, Odysseus knows the situation at home and seems to be willing to put that on hold in order to win more honor. Of course, staying an additional year may have simply been piling it deeper for the Phaeacians.
The challenges that Odysseus faces on his journey come in many different forms, whether threats of physical harm (Polyphemus, the Laestrygonians, Circe’s magic, Scylla, Charybdis, etc.) or some less external hazard (the Lotus eaters or Circe’s drug, for example, both of which cause the user to forget about home). Other dangers emerge throughout this section: female wiles leading to destruction or thwarting original wishes (Circe, Calypso, Clytemnestra), overconsumption of alcohol (helps in escaping Polyphemus, but harmful in the land of the Cicones), or mis-timed sleep (crucial in both opening Aeolus’ bag of winds and the killing of Helios’ cattle and flocks).
Additional challenges arise because of disagreements between Odysseus and his men. In the opening lines of the work I mentioned that Homer says the loss of Odysseus’ men was due to their foolish behavior. In some cases that rings true—not listening to Odysseus in the land of the Cicones or wanting to stop on the island where Helios’ livestock lived, for example, cost many men their lives. But Odysseus has his share of actions responsible for his men’s deaths, most importantly his display of hubris when leaving the land of the Cyclopes. By telling Polyphemus his name, he provides the means in which the Cyclops knows who to curse. Much of the difficulty that follows ties to Poseidon avenging the injury done to his son(and as an aside, much is made of The Odyssey being a father/son story because of Odysseus and Telemachus, but sometimes lost in the shuffle is the lengths Poseidon goes to revenge the harm done to his son). One thing made clear is Odysseus’ concern for his crew’s well-being. Twice he takes great pains to mention he divided up the spoils evenly (after the initial success in the land of the Cicones and with Polyphemus’ sheep), which throws his men’s suspicion of Odysseus hoarding Aeolus’ treasure into an even worse light. Also, the anguish Odysseus suffers is apparent when he chooses to sail closer to Scylla, knowing he will lose six men but insuring the entire ship is not lost by sailing too close to Charybdis.
by Jacob Jordaens
Odysseus displays a constant curiosity with every new land. He looks for “Greek” signs of civilization, such as lands being cultivated or the building of cities in order to guess what type of people live there. Unfortunately his curiosity sometimes seems to border on the greedy side, wishing to see what type of gifts he will receive from the xenia demonstrated by the inhabitants. Most of these curiosities pale in comparison to Odysseus’ ultimate trip, that of going to Hades and back. The reason given for this trip comes from Circe, who tells Odysseus that the prophet Teiresias will “tell you your course, / the distance you must go on your return, / and how to sail across the fish-filled seas.” (Book X, lines 688 – 690) Yet in Book XII Circe provides almost all of the same information that Teiresias does on getting home successfully (as well as additional help). So the visit probably has more to do with storytelling effect, or rather dual storytelling effect for both Homer’s and Odysseus’ audiences. The allegorical effect, or visiting and being reborn plays a factor in having Odysseus make such a trip, as does the heroic aspect related to it.
And make an impact it does. One of the touching moments of the visit to Hades concerns seeing people he did not know had died, in particular his mother. Finding out that she died longing for him makes the scene even more touching. Another shade he sees is Agamemnon, again not realizing he had died. Agamemnon tells Odysseus the circumstances of his death and provides a warning about his return home, even while extolling Penelope’s virtues. Odysseus sees Teiresias and gets the needed information about his return home: if Helios’ cattle or sheep are touched, Odysseus will lose his crew and ship. And if Odyssey still happens to make it home, it will be in another’s ship, plus there will be trouble with suitors wooing his wife. Odysseus’ revenge on the suitors is predicted as well as an additional trip that Odysseus needs to fulfill (apparently to placate Poseidon). Even foretold is a seaborne death in his old age. In other words, Odysseus learns of his fate, a rarity among mortals.
Achilles’ appearance is the highlight of Odysseus’ visit to Hades, and possibly of the entire work. After Odysseus praises him and tells Achilles he has “no cause to grieve because you’re dead”, Achilles bitingly replies:
“Don’t try to comfort me about my death,
glorious Odysseus. I’d rather live working as a wage-labourer for hire
by some other man, one who had no land
and not much in the way of livelihood,
than lord it over all the wasted dead.” (Book XII, lines 623 – 628)
All he achieved, especially his kleos, while alive means nothing now that he is dead. Knowing he had a choice in fates must make his early death that much more bitter. However there is something that causes Achilles to rejoice and that is hearing about his son Neoptolemus and his exploits. In what seems to be a contradiction with his earlier message, Achilles rejoices in hearing about his son’s kleos. However it was Achilles’ everlasting glory that was tied to his own early demise, not his son’s or anyone else’s accomplishments. It isn’t hearing that his son was still alive that causes Achilles to rejoice but that he is “a celebrated man”. His earlier lament does not rule out preferring a glorious life while alive instead of being a wage-laborer—the most important part of that equation is being alive. The Odyssey focuses on the choice of life, even when faced with seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Odysseus mentions just that choice several times, when in the face of tremendous challenges whether he should give up and die or “remain among the living”? In every instance he chooses life, even though he knows it means additional suffering.
by John William Waterhouse (1891)
Nearing again the legendary isle
Where sirens sang and mariners were skinned,
We wonder now what was there to beguile
That such stout fellows left their bones behind.
Those chorus-girls are surely past their prime,
Voices grow shrill and paint is wearing thin,
Lips that sealed up the sense from gnawing time
Now be the favor with a graveyard grin.
We have no flesh to spare and they can't bite,
Hunger and sweat have stripped us to the bone;
A skeleton crew we toil upon the tide
And mock the theme-song meant to lure us on:
No need to stop the ears, avert the eyes
From purple rhetoric of evening skies.
- "Nearing Again the Legendary Isle" by C. Day Lewis
Update (19 May 2013): Book XI: The Book of the Dead at Classical Wisdom Weekly.