Thinking Out Loud about The Odyssey, Part 4

The Odyssey, Books VIII-XVI, cont.

The realm of the Phaeacians is the epitome of peace, harmony, and civilization in the kingdom, to the point that it seems like an utopia. This may be why the ship-demolishing story—the ship returning home that is smashed before the eyes of the Phaecians—is included: so as to set off this kingdom as different. Why does Poseidon—and Zeus seems to encourage—the punishment of the Phaeacians? It seems that they were accustomed to gathering in those stranded from the sea—that is, Poseidon’s realm—so they overstepped their boundaries with respect to the gods, obliquely indicating that they were superior. The gods always show humans their limits, and they have set specific rules by which one must abide when it comes to the gods. This is the reason that the king of that realm that sped Odysseus home by binding the contrary wind in a bag, when Odysseus came back to him, rejected Odysseus: because of the curse of the gods.

The stories, particularly those of Odysseus, seem to mingle folk tales that were probably around at the time of the writing of the book. These stories are typical worldwide tales shared among sailors, like the episode of the Cyclops and other magical things. Homer marks Odysseus as a story teller, through Athena’s comment of it. It is an emphasis of the author to make us realize that he is a great story teller and that some of his stories may have been told merely to help Odysseus get home. Homer particularly makes sure to put most of what seems to be folk stories in the mouth of Odysseus, who tells these things without anyone being able to corroborate them. Only a few times are magical or folklore events in the mouth of the narrator.

When Odysseus makes himself known to his son, this is the beginning of Odysseus’ reclaiming of authority over his home and kingdom. The fact that Odysseus is magically transformed to a younger man may represent the perspective of Telemachus, that is, how Telemachus saw his father. Since Telemachus had not seen the young Odysseus, Telemachus is now allowed to see Odysseus in his full strength and youth, as Telemachus might have imagined him while his father was gone.

It is interesting that the Cyclops eats his guests in his own home, and Zeus—whose father ate his children (in his own home?)—punishes him for this (226).

It seems that The Aeneid is very similar to The Odyssey in that Odysseus and his men are continually tempted to quit their voyage though distractions that lure them to stay somewhere rather than to return. Nausicaa seems to be the human parallel to Dido, while Calypso and Circe seem to be her divine parallels. The difference between Homer’s books seems to be that while in The Odyssey the primary hero is moved forward chiefly by a love for country and for home, Aeneas seems to be moved primarily out of duty for country and seems more stoic. Odysseus also seems to follow his impulses more than Aeneas, and Odysseus seems to let fate happen, while Aeneas makes an effort to make it become what he knows it should become.

Homer goes out of his way to point out that the swineherd is the character one should love, being the only character for which the narrator uses the vocative, as with Patroclus. Perhaps the emphasis is that when the city is corrupt, one needs to be removed to the country (for example, as in As You Like It), as the swineherd and Odysseus’ father have done. Homer notes that the swineherd is virtuous, and he is continually offering sacrifices to the gods. The Odyssey is very aristocratic, and although the swineherd is in the lower classes, he is from noble birth. This also could show that there can be virtue among those that are subservient, even to evil people like the suitors.

Both in The Iliad and The Odyssey we have a civilization that is mingled with violence and plunder. The only way that they can afford the luxuries that they strongly desire is by plundering other nations, and this causes conflicts and tensions within society. Furthermore, in this society, honor is based on material goods; they are inseparable. Therefore, to show honor to someone, he must be given goods. For example, all the ships get 9 goats, but Odysseus’ ship gets 10, and that is how the hierarchy is established. The sailors cause the mutiny because they thought they didn’t get the plunder they deserved and let the wind out of the bag. Achilles’ fight with Agamemnon was precisely over plunder and honor related to it.

Additionally, the ethics in these books does not seem developed, or at least systematized. We are not told whether it is ethical for Odysseus to plunder a city on his way home from Troy or for the two fighters to deceive an enemy, telling him that they would spare him, if he told them information, and then they killed him. The swineherd does say that justice belongs to the gods, so Homer is somewhat concerned with this question, but Sophocles will deal with it more, and Plato yet more. Sophocles deals with the question of how one can establish civilization (justice system) with the furies (primitive gods), and the resolution is that the furies are transformed to eumenides, blessing those who revere the family, but they are no longer the supreme power in revenge. Sophocles questions how one can go from a society where kinship relationships are everything to one in which political relations and the commonwealth—though still valuing kinship—are the most important. Homer seems to note the development of the primitive gods to subordination, but no thoroughgoing theodicy exists until later (the time of Milton). Odysseus in Philoctetes is more or less a sophist.

Telemacus and Odysseus are shown to be very similar in tactic and wit. Telemachus seems to be his father’s and his mother’s son in every way with respect to words. The son is established when the father returns. This wit and scheming in problematic at times, because it includes deception.

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