Friday, May 15, 2009

The Odyssey discussion: introduction

Marble seated harp player
Cycladic, late Early Cycladic I–Early Cycladic II, ca. 2800–2700 B.C.
Picture source
(More about the figure here)

While my thoughts constantly change on what direction I want this site to go, the one thing I have kept in mind of late is that I want my discussions to benefit someone approaching a work for the first time. Most online study guides have good overviews but sometimes lack depth. Yet many of the academic papers I find focus on minutiae or theory that is beyond me. So I aim for a happy medium…something that assists in maximizing the experience of reading a work while providing links (or information, or whatever) in case there is a particular area into which the reader wants to dig deeper. In short, I’m aiming for what I would like to see in approaching a work for the first time. The community that comes from reading is just a huge bonus.

All that as a reminder (probably more for me than to anyone else) on what to expect from the discussions on The Odyssey. I have heard or read about several people who have given up on the work after just a book or two. The usual complaints follow along similar lines: the beginning books go nowhere, why does Athena make things so difficult when she could easily solve everything quickly, why focus on Telemachus, what's the big deal about the suitors, or a combination of these.

Yet everything is in there for a reason and the structure is vitally important. So before someone else gives up on the whiny kid before reading about his dad, I will lay out a few of the themes I remember from my previous reading of The Odyssey. The structure deserves a post of its own, so I’ll wait before I tackle that topic. One of the central themes is Odysseus’ attempt at homecoming (nostos in Greek). His longing for home…the vitality of home…is what drives him throughout the work. That he chooses home over immortality shows just how important it is to him. The work begins by focusing on Odysseus’ home and how dire the situation is in Ithaca—he is needed there immediately. His household, as well as his country, is at risk. Yet he will be unable to make it home successfully without the help of the gods, strangers, and family. Domestic happiness won’t come easy, if at all.

I mentioned in my discussions on The Iliad that the concepts of kleos and timê drive much of what happens in that story. Kleos is still an important concept in The Odyssey but in a somewhat different fashion (which I’ll touch on later). More important is the concept of xenia, which has to do with the guest/host relationship. As the Wikipedia entry mentions, generosity and hospitality (on both sides) are required and, most importantly, it is an obligation. Zeus is the god overseeing xenia, which should let the reader know the importance placed upon it in ancient Greece. During The Odyssey, note the places where good xenia occurs as well as bad examples of it.

A work doesn’t stay relevant for thousands of years simply on hospitality and struggles to get home, no matter how cool the monsters or stratagems may be. There are deeper themes present that make the work timeless. The one I probably enjoyed most the first time I read it was that of identity. “Who am I?” is a question that has to be answered many times throughout the book. The obvious examples are during Odysseus’ or Telemachus’ visits when it comes time to answer the hosts' question. Subtler examples permeate the work, such as Penelope and her status. Is she a widow? Is she still married? The answer to those questions has radically different implications. Telemachus has the same problem, with adolescent angst thrown in for good measure. In finding who he is, he strengthens his role within the family and his understanding of his parents. Masks can be worn before and during revelations, not just by the gods but by human characters as well. Not only can the question “Who am I?” be difficult to answer, self-discovery can be a painful or complicated process. Kleos plays a role here as well. Odysseus desires to make himself and his exploits known, sometimes with unintended results. The journey Odysseus undergoes leads him not just physically back to his household but also prepares him to successfully head it.

There are more themes running throughout The Odyssey and the last one I'll mention runs throughout the whole work, so much so that it can be easy to miss. Almost everyone in the story is searching or longing for something. Home, rest, resolution, a husband, to be left alone…the list goes on and on. The thing desired seems to constantly elude the searcher. Obstacles can be forceful (monsters, suitors) or subtle (Nausicaa, the Lotus Eaters), physical as well as emotional (such as temptations weakening the spirit to continue).

Before ending the introduction, let’s back up a step and look at the purpose of the work. Stories like The Odyssey were meant for entertainment but they were also cultural touchstones, giving moral guidance to the listeners. For example, both successful and disastrous homecomings are illustrated in the work. What makes homecomings successful? Why do other homecomings fail? What lesson would the Greeks draw from these differences? In instances of good xenia and bad xenia, what are the differing outcomes? What does it take for a successful home? What happens to those that exhibit excessive greed? And so on…the story provides role models as well as examples of behavior to avoid.

One other point that is easy to forget. The Odyssey was originally an oral work…listen to it. Even in translation it is beautiful to listen to or read out loud and hear the Muse…

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