Friday, May 29, 2009

The Odyssey discussion: Books XIII - XVI

Odysseus is put ashore in Ithaca
Theodor van Thulden
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Fair nymph! if fame or honor were
To be attained with ease,
Then would I come and rest with thee,
And leave such toils as these.
But here it dwells, and here must I
With danger seek it forth :
To spend the time luxuriously
Becomes not men of worth.

- from "Ulysses and the Siren" by Samuel Daniel

Odysseus may not have wanted to spend time luxuriously but Homer slows down the second half dramatically, allowing the reader/listener time to savor the emotional depth of his delayed homecoming. Instead of the usual analysis of Odysses’ rebirth happening after his visit to Hades, I see his return to Ithaca as breaking free of the past. Finally Odysseus is fully Odysseus again, even when he is in disguise. His past has served him well in his visits (especially in telling about them on Scheria), but the Sirens’ voices highlight the danger of dwelling in the past. Back home on Ithaca there are many new challenges demanding all his strength and cunning. These challenges will include revenge upon the suitors, but in order to carry that physical challenge out he will be tested mentally and emotionally as well. If the journey home was a process for Odysseus to be ready for home life, it also prepared him in ways he will need to defend it.

State of Ithaca
To say that Ithaca is in disarray understates the situation. I have already mentioned the ambiguous status of both Penelope and Telemachus. They are bound by society to do something, but their choices are diametrically opposed and dependent on their status: widowed or married, son or heir. Odysseus’ absence does present the opportunity to see where loyalties and behaviors lie with those in Ithaca as well as Odysseus’ household. The suitors show an attempted usurpation of more than just their ruler’s bedroom, although they do make clear that the throne should pass to Telemachus. If Odysseus is dead, they are plotting regicide. The reader/listener will also see which of the servants are loyal. Eumaeus’ performance as swineherd shows more than just loyalty but a dedication to Odysseus in the way he carries out his tasks. He demonstrates protection of Odysseus’ household in various manners, whether in actually protecting his herd or in wishing to protect Penelope from liars taking advantage of her misplaced hospitality. Odysseus’ constant questions to Eumaeus and Telemachus demonstrate he is assessing the situation in his household and the country. Who can he rely on? Who can he not trust? Finding out this information is crucial in planning his revenge.

The fate of Odysseus’ parents provides some of the saddest parts of The Odyssey. We have already seen Anticleia, Odysseus’ mother, in Hades in Book XI. Her death is explicitly tied to his absence, which has to add to Odysseus’ grief. We are told that Laertes, his father, “grieves excessively” for both his son and his late wife.

Odysseus, having been asleep during the last leg of his journey, is tested when Athena reveals to him that he is on Ithaca. While Odysseus feels “great joy”, he lies to Athena about who he is. This makes Athena happy, both for his shrewdness and his patience. In his conversations with Athena and Eumaeus, Odysseus interweaves an ounce of truth for every pound of lies. Since he can effortlessly spin falsehoods, the truthfulness of his stories to the Phaeacians can easily be called into question.

Although Odysseus has been instructed not to reveal himself to anyone, witnessing Telemachus’ arrival at Eumaeus’ hut provides a challenging emotional test. Homer uses a simile projecting Eumaeus’ feelings in terms of Odysseus’ mind-set:

Just as a loving father
welcomes his dear son after a nine-year absence,
when he comes from a foreign land, an only son,
his favourite, for whom he’s undergone much sorrow,
that’s how the loyal swineherd hugged Telemachus
and kissed him often, as if he’d escaped his death.
(Book XVI, lines 16 – 21, all translations by Ian Johnston unless otherwise noted)

Listening to Telemachus treating Eumaeus as a father figure would provide an additional test of composure. One of the funniest scenes in The Odyssey occurs when Odysseus reveals to Telemachus that he is his father. Telemachus refuses to believe the one time in this section when Odysseus attempts to tell the truth. All Telemachus knows is that the beggar was instantly transformed into a regal person (without having seen Athena cause the transformation)—of course he thinks his so-called father is a god instead. Odysseus’ brief reply on how he arrived in Ithaca shows his focus on revenge, immediately changing the topic in order to size up the challenge.

Telemachus has evidently passed the test that Athena set for him. As she tells Odysseus, she sent him on his trip to “earn a well-known reputation” by going. We have seen his journeys and now witness his safe return. The suitors see his return as a great achievement since he has escaped their trap. While we see his excellent behavior toward his father (in disguise), we had already seen the same thing earlier when he received Athena (also in disguise) in the first book. So has Telemachus changed? He readily admits that he does not believe his hands “are strong enough / to fight a man who acts with violence / against me first.” There is little to go on from these chapters to make a good judgment, but that is almost beside the point. After revealing who he is, Odysseus immediately beings talking to Telemachus as an equal (or at least as an adult), laying out his plans and what his son will need to do after returning to the palace. His father trusts him when giving his instructions on what needs to be done. In these directives, we can see Telemachus will be tested in the same manner as Odysseus since they all revolve around deceptions and lies. Since The Odyssey involves so much “doubling” in story or scenes, the comparison that comes to mind when Odysseus is plotting with Telemachus is the recent collaboration between Athena and Odysseus. The goddess’ plotting with a mortal is echoed in the scheming of father and son.

The lies continue up to the end of this four-book section, with the suitors lying to Penelope. They disavow any plans to harm Telemachus, while they continue to plot against him.

When Odysseus wakes after being placed on Ithaca, we hear the following speech for the third time:

”Where am I now?
Whose country have I come to this time?
Are they violent, unjust, and cruel,
Or do they welcome strangers? Do their minds
Respect the gods?”
(Book XIII, lines 240 – 244)

The first two times Odysseus said these lines were when he came to the land of the Cyclopes (horrible xenia) and when he awoke on Scheria (wonderful xenia). The irony here is that he is home on Ithaca, where the xenia he receives should not be an issue. Yet it will be crucially important because of the disguises he must wear. In addition, the changes that have taken place since his departure factor into his treatment—there will be good receptions from his son and his swineherd (even though they do not know him at first) and derision from the suitors (which will be seen in the next four-book section).

The xenia Odysseus receives in Eumaeus’ care goes beyond excellent and adds further layers of irony when the reader/listener finds out the swineherd is the son of a king. Here is the son of a king, reduced to being a servant, royally treating a king who appears as a beggar. In addition, Telemachus, the son of a king, treats this beggar (his father) well, too. Even when Odysseus tests Eumaeus, the swineherd provides proper graciousness and hospitality throughout. Another example of good xenia occurs when Telemachus welcomes Theoclymenus onto his ship for the return to Ithaca.

Throughout the work runs a feeling of sorrow and melancholy. Odysseus does not even see his return to Ithaca. The Phaeacians drop him off on Ithaca while he is asleep—the ultimate anticlimax to his wanderings. He has stated several times he wished to see his day of homecoming. He yearned “to see even the smoke / rising from his native land”, getting as close as seeing Ithacan men tending beacon fires before Aeolus’ winds were loosed and blew him away again. Now that he is home, Athena makes sure he does not recognize it at first so she can consult with him, her concern for his safety robbing him of the pleasure of his envisioned return.

When Athena reveals herself to Odysseus, this dark passage bears closer examination because of the disconnect between gods and mortals. When Athena says she has been “always at your side, looking out for you in every crisis”, Odysseus makes some dangerously pointed observations to a god. In effect, while noting her kindness during the Trojan War, he says he did not notice her help on his return. Not only that, he doubts she is telling the truth about this being Ithaca. Instead of being angry, Athena gently rebukes Odysseus and praises his intelligence and caution again. I don’t believe Odysseus ever comments on the atrocities committed after the war which would have angered Athena and caused her to withhold help from the Achaeans. The most we hear about them is Nestor’s comment in Book III that “They [Achaeams] had not been wise / or righteous, so many met a nasty fate, / thanks to the mortal anger of Athena, / bright-eyed goddess with a mighty father.” But the disconnection occurs when Athena (in effect) shrugs her shoulders and says she knew that Odysseus would eventually return home. Time is of no importance to a god. Yet the ten years it took Odysseus to return home make a huge difference in his life, and echoes Zeus’ comments about the seven-year delay in prodding Calypso’s release of Odysseus. The gods say that fate is being served, but the timetable matters to mortals. All of which should cause some tension within Odysseus as often as his fate is foretold in this work--he should be asking "when?" each time it is.

The bright spots in this section revolve around Eumaeus’ excellent behavior, both as a host and as Odysseus’ servant, as well as the reunion with Telemachus. But even the latter is bittersweet. Once Telemachus believes the man in front of him is Odysseus:

A desire to lament arose in both of them—
they wailed aloud, as insistently as birds,
like sea eagles or hawks with curving talons
whose young have been carried off by country folk
before they’re fully fledged. That’s how both men then
let tears of pity fall from underneath their eyelids.
(Book XVI, lines 269 – 274)

Yes, you expect an emotional scene, but with words like ‘lament’ and ‘pity’ (in addition to the simile), Homer has painted a picture of sadness for the lost years between them more than happiness to see each other.

Not helping in this gloomy atmosphere is the toxicity of Odysseus. His wanderings leave behind him a trail of death and destruction. The Phaeacians become the latest casualty in this section as Poseidon exacts his revenge for providing assistance to Odysseus. Not only does the god turn their boat to stone just before it returns home and holds the threat of a mountain range ringing Alcinous’ city over their head, but every future xenos will pay a penalty for Odysseus having been in Scheria. Those closest to him seem destined to sadness, a feeling which does not totally dissipate by the end of the work.

As we saw with Achilles in Hades, having kleos meant nothing to the warrior once he was dead, yet he was joyful to hear of his son’s honorable deeds. Likewise, Odysseus’ prayer to the Naiad nymphs includes the wish to help his son “grow into a man.” Odysseus knows he has obtained kleos, the Phaeacians providing a taste of what that will mean after his death. But in addition, these warriors believe that having a glorious son will redound to them and help keep their name alive. After all, when asked his identity, Odysseus (when telling the truth) says that he is Laertes’ son almost immediately after stating his own name. Even for heroic warriors (or maybe especially for them,) they know they will lose to their mortality at some point. So they do what they can make sure their name lives on.

Reunion of Odysseus and Telemachos
Lucien Doucet (1880)
Picture source

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