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Why You Should Read the Odyssey by Homer

By Edited Feb 23, 2016 0 0

I first encountered the Odyssey in tenth grade, and unlike many of the assigned books which were thrust upon me so imperatively as to arouse my vengeful indolence, I gladly lost myself in it. Here were sufficient charms to enrapture even the most reluctant adolescent: ruby red rivers of blood and wine (nearly always converging in one sense or another) braised crackling beef and a universal insatiability for all three. There were sunshiny shields like small moons and massive myrmidons, [the sheen of whose spears was like stars on the sea]. Here were polished jangling armor, shrieking arrows, nautical camaraderie, magic. Often, periods of bloodshed or peril sloped softly into idyllic fireside chats or dithyrambic feasting. Here were eloquent conversations between statuesque men whose bodies glowed (thanks to nubile handmaidens!) beneath fine cloth. Here were glimmering mountains of outrageous wealth given to strangers in exchange for their stories or mere company and appetites. How fully such fantasy uplifts one from the drudgery of a mundane though privileged existence!

This story stimulates the stomach and mind while piquing animalistic rage and avarice and, in waking all these, widens eyes and ears and kindles fires in guts until the channels by which information is received are open and hungry. Deep within the tasty fluff of swordplay and spoils is substance, which consumers may have waved off as being too strong had it been served unsweetened.

Besides the stuff of pre-pubescent daydreaming, we find in the Odyssey commentary on the Grecian family dynamic and the varying roles of its members in the allegoric descent of the suitors, Telemakhos's increasingly assertive interaction with Penelope, and Odysseus's return. Other domestic issues include the duties of the employed to their employers and the deference for which ideal servants are handsomely rewarded.

Military command structure is touched upon: the unquestioning and often fatal loyalty of a soldier to his commander is glorified and juxtaposed to the doom or despair attending each act of mutiny or failure to follow orders. The sacredness of the ancient laws that regulate the interaction of families within one civilization is hinted at by Odysseus's fear of revenge on the part of the suitor's families and by the ferocious swiftness with which the offended parties bring an ultimately prevented battle to the Gentlemen Laertes.

This story deals with too many weighty issues to be considered candy. It would certainly be enthralling but empty if it dealt only with the mindless severance of limbs and orgies and repellently dry if it only listed the laws according to which mankind should conduct itself. Therefore Homer strikes an agreeable balance. A world’s worth of human concerns are dealt with and sound advice is given for each, yet the Odyssey remains fascinating. The keen storyteller has charged his tale with action and subtle humor to make them pleasurable. 

He enjoys longer life in the minds of his audience than does the pedantic writer of bleak textbooks, the absorption of which is a tedious chore. This is part of the reason the Odyssey is such an enduring text. The engaged reader gladly constructs kaleidoscopic worlds from dichromatic print while the challenged but unrewarded reader is likely to turn away. In the case of the wandering orator reciting the tale, the words must fall pleasantly on listeners' ears, and have audible color and flare to deserve attention. The poetic flourishes throughout the story, such as “fingertips of rose,” “cast sweet sleep,” the drool loosing loot and the horrorshow tolchocks of steel against collywobbled gullivers are the hooks that hold a listener’s attention while keeping him open to receive lessons.

The Odyssey’s edifications are masterfully subtle so that the entire work remains fun. As a concerned parent will ensconce a dry, bitter pill in sugary cake to insure the necessary dosage is administered, so does Homer make his morals palatable by whipping them into satisfying adventure and indulgently opulent descriptions of treasures and estates.

The sweet tooth is sated with extravagance while the encapsulated messages, ranging from the importance of loyalty to that of social conventions, are absorbed. One is far more likely to remember the lavishly rendered and exciting adventures of Odysseus, including those behaviors which got him into trouble and those with which he won favor and peace, than a few pompous aphorisms. Homer knew that the illuminated manuscript enjoys a longer life for being engaging.

Anecdotally, the laws and customs governing the gods' intercourse is exposed, and the entire work describes the one-sided clash of the gods' laws and pride against the laws and pride of men, as many an errant mortal is castigated for insolence or failure to make ample tribute to his divine enablers. In the mortal realm, humans are stratified by wealth, nobility, vocation and skill. This cosmic hierarchy, in which humans occupy the rung just above the lesser animals, puts the human condition into a realistic focus instead of ballooning into aggrandizement of humanity’s modest powers as some atheistic or more modern literature is wont to.

This is a primary indication that Homer, though he is no more intimate than others with the human condition, is far more realistic in his observance of humanity and nature. His invocation of the gods may or may not spring from Homer’s possibly devout  and possibly inexistent faith, as there were many in the ancient world, especially of the intelligentsia and literati, that did not take the gods existence as an absolute truth but rather an essential tradition and necessary charade from which their cultural identity was derived and common belief systems were established. These people took the widespread pantheism no more seriously than we take the existence of mother goose or the characters in fairy tales which surreptitiously moralize.

Though I do not profess to be an expert on ancient religions and the sincerity with which ancient people worshipped, I believe Homer’s pervasive use of the gods was primarily a literary device. Esoteric compositions are often mistaken as great literature on the basis of their abstruseness, but, as the Odyssey was meant for all, Homer made it easily digestible to those poorer sorts who may have been cursed with less developed imaginations.

Without cheapening or attacking the empyreal beliefs of his time, Homer uses the gods and their humanlike volatile temperaments as explanations for the impetuosity of nature, the transience of wealth and fortune and the unpredictability of life. In making the gods anthropomorphic, Homer also ascribes the punishment of foul deeds to the wrath of a chafed celestial. This is a symbolic simplification of complex phenomena into the universally graspable. Besides winning attention, a universally graspable narrative ensures that listeners will not lose out on key elements and lessons because of poor education or idiocy, the pandemic of the days of yore which continues to thrive.

In any case he framed his tale in settings familiar to all listeners, be they townsfolk or country bumpkins. He peopled his tale carefully, including characters identifiable to all social classes and extolling the virtues of each: the fierce and intrepid soldiers of great capability, the able, persevering seafarers, the aristocracy of refined grace and even the poorest of swine and goat herds that were nevertheless magnanimous and loyal. Shakespeare’s plays, too, appealed to the full spectrum of persons that attended his productions, be they rich or poor, dimwitted or brilliant, and thus found fame amongst kings and mendicants alike.

So too does Homer find the praiseworthy in each class and occupation to ensure a good reception no matter the audience’s composition. Another indication that the Odyssey was not exclusively for the rich or erudite is found in the fact that it was shared orally for so long. People of any economic class could gather around the gravid performer to hear the tale.

Homer’s pedagogy relies heavily on parables. The Cyclops is a myopic atheist whose narrow-mindedness and unshakable habits imprison him and prevent him from a life enriched by art, companionship and variety. Any persons giving themselves wholly to a soulless production-obsessed pursuit are hereby warned that they may find themselves removed from society or, worse, fed through the drudgery of unchanging process like sheep. Their myopia will be their downfall. The Lotos eaters are drug addicts whose narcotic pleasures take precedence over their homes (destinies). They are distant from the places in which they belong, aloof to the necessities of human interaction, unmotivated, and therefore doomed to remain static.

We see that Homer valued modesty in that Odysseus’s excessive chest thumping upon defeating the Cyclops was instantly condemned by a swell which took many of his men’s lives. The episode involving the sirens is a warning against the sweet but specious promises of soothsayers. We can unearth Homer’s value system by examining occasions in which a character is punished as a direct result of his or her own actions. Barring the occasional supernal whim, "misfortune" or hardship is always portended by a creature’s deviance from the laws regulating his or her specific section of existence.

The formula is fairly basic and constant throughout the Odyssey and ancient in literature: A temptation is taken or a deviation made, the offender is punished and from his or her mistake we infer the moral. The ruffian that insults Odysseus at Alkinoos’s games is admonished but instantly makes reparations and apologizes. This verbal skirmish intends to dissuade all would be offenders in attendance from insulting anyone while also giving them advice on how to repair the situation should a tiff arise anyway. By leaving his mother in ignorance and grief for so long, Odysseus kills her and has to bear her tragic end; a warning to all would be unreachable children. Laertes senior, too, suffers in his son’s absence, but is greatly invigorated by his son’s surprise visit and Odysseus even manages to remember tenderness and generosity with which his old man treated him in childhood.

Kirke is the gorgeous woman after whom adulterers lust but in whose clutches eventually come to ruin or despair, or, in a painful epiphany, find themselves separated from their forsaken and saddened families by a vastness as insurmountable as the turbulent sea. Odysseus, being the ideal alpha male and commander is superior in appearance, skill and ability to lead. He is revered by fighting men and known world wide. In being nearly perfect he is allegoric and reminiscent of Joyce’s [any general], while the system comprised of the typically male wanderlust that drags a man from his homestead, the anguish caused to all parties, and the great difficulty with which the situation is repaired is reminiscent of [any corpsestrewn plain].

All women, being constantly described as weaving, and all men as battling or pontificating is so stereotypical as to be allegoric and therefore their symbolic actions can be taken as suggestions of proper morality. Adultery and its byproducts weakened ancient Greece, just as it weakens the family today while causing a great deal of problems for all involved. It is a woefully disruptive yet frequent occurrence, and in showing his listeners how the tragedy of infidelity crippled a great hero, Homer hoped to curb its devastating effect on families and society. Odysseus, “The Male”, for all his might falls to the bottomless desire by which most men are urged to spread the seed. He cannot resist beautiful women, even though his family languishes without him, but he will eventually learn from his mistakes and be rewarded for his change in attitude. A bibulous but wise gangster once, with an inclusive wave of his hand to indicate a gaggle of floosies and the pharmacopoeia around which they were gathered like flies around fresh droppings, observed, "We all know this is what it is. You do what you want. But you have to go home. You have to keep up appearances."

Homer’s view of mankind is tolerant and realistic and his advice gently points to the best path; that which causes the least disruption for all. After much growth, Odysseus is ready to return home a man.

Odysseus develops some intriguing qualities, however, for which men are not often praised in a stereotype-frenzied society which would sooner accept a damaging constant than an incongruous improvement. In the denouement, he displays a flexibility typically regarded as feminine. Whether or not he likes it, he is penitent, tacitly, and once he has made the solitary, draining pilgrimage back home, spurned on by the painful introspection that only exile can foster, to the home that came to disgrace and shame in his absence, he picks off the evils that have soiled his family one by one (perhaps incommunicative habits, resentment, festering reticence?).

Then he has the entire house scoured clean; fresh. He engages in a solemn concord with his long lost wife and the symbol of peace grows between them. His willingness to learn from past mistakes is seen in the relative modesty with which he considers his vanquishing of the suitors. He wants to be merciful to the less guilty suitors and, though he is divinely obliged to kill most of them, lets Phemios and Medon go free.

When a character is rewarded we can tell that Homer considered his or her conduct to be exemplary. Penelope is rewarded for her superhuman patience by the return of her husband along with the respectability of her household while Eumaios and the faithful shepherd  are to receive riches and praise for their loyalty to Odysseus.

Homer praises these newfound and hard-won traits which manifest themselves in the improved, matured hero because Odysseus is blessed with a pleasant and peaceful senescence as master of his house and in the company of his loved ones, to whom he feels a strong affinity. As the unusually perspicacious Theodore said in J.D Salinger's “Teddy” in reference to his imperfect parents, "I have a very strong affinity for them. They're my parents, I mean, and we're all part of each other's harmony and everything." It is essential to the harmony of Odysseus's house that father, mother and son are together physically and supportive to one another emotionally.  

The word affinity comes from the Latin root meaning adjacent. Despite all hardship, the familial affinity which was pivotal to ancient Greeks is that magnetic force between Penelope, Telemakhos and Odysseus. Only when all three are reunited and reconciled can their home be untroubled. All crumbles when the familial bond is stretched thin: Telemakhos is held in a sort of limbo, teetering on the brink of manhood, inert without his father’s guidance, Penelope is caught in a maze of anguish and half blind with tear-blear, and the upkeep of the estate, the physical representation of a family’s health, falls by the wayside.

Upon Odysseus’s return and the completion of the family unit, conditions slowly improve. In ancient Greece, this sense of affiliation was so strong that the oldest male member of a family was obliged by law to avenge a family member’s death by personally cutting down the murderer. This law was so dutifully observed that century long feuds and enmities were kindled, the likes of which Twain parodied in the chapter of Huck Finn concerning the Hatfields and McCoys. Family Odysseus’s affiliation is what keeps Penelope chaste, leads Telemakhos to seek word by sea, and compels Odysseus to endure all dangers until he is restored to his proper place amongst his wife and son.

The Odyssey is rife with deux ex machina and, though it is laden with values unique to the Greeks and Homer’s time, it also cites as morally sound many practices still held in high esteem, if not widely practiced, today. We, too, hold as laudable and good the fulfillment of one's duty, modesty toward one's achievements (and who but the farthest gone solipsist or megalomaniac could claim full credit for anything “done” on a teeming, rapidly hurtling globe?) and permanent affinity to one's friends and family.

Homer places great emphasis on holding fast to one’s position and seeking no more or less. Greek lore placed a great emphasis on accepting one’s hereditary status without trying to climb beyond it and many stories warn of the danger of lusting after power. Icarus fashioned wings to ascend nearer to the gods, against his father Daedalus's [warning], and perished for his illusions of grandeur. (How interesting that the next cunning artificer, Stephen Dedalus, would give birth to another doomed child, the schizophrenic Lucia!)

The importance of modesty is a recurring theme in Greek literature.
I find it strange that in consistently affirming the importance of fulfilling the duties of one's lot, there is no explanation of the capriciously bestowed extraordinary talents and favor which propel some lucky men to the top of the pack. Perhaps the explanation lies in the omission. Perhaps by making no mention of the seemingly arbitrary classification of men and women to various classes of skill, power and fortune, Homer conveys the inexplicable nature of the gods'/chance's/fates' winnowing of mortals.

Homer himself blesses Odysseus with an unceasing stream of gifts that the hero always finds himself on the better end of and, in doing so, the poet grants himself several opportunities to speak on materialistic matters. Suggesting the volatile nature of wealth, Odysseus goes from absolute squalor and disgraceful appearance to the seat of honor in Alkinoos's palace whereupon he receives a great many gifts. The frequent bestowal of riches upon guests by their hosts outlined the practices or, in the case of the middle and lower classes at least the spirit with which a guest should undertake to be hospitable. Homer thought gifts should be given freely, received graciously and that kindness should be reciprocated.

It was a great honor to be hospitable, and a duty associated with the father of all gods. It is interesting to note that this constant, invariable openness and generosity toward strange guests did not spring from an innate philanthropy but instead from a fear of severe punishment by one of the divines. The gods are described as possessing infinite wisdom in hopes that their better moments (such as Athena's prevention of the war between the suitors families and the Laertes) are emulated by mortals.

This is a good example of the heavy handed way in which the idea of the gods was sometimes used to frighten mortals into civility. The widespread belief in Zeus and his family may have been the tool employed by the knowing few to control the populous. Whether or not the enlightened were themselves liberated from this illusion does not weaken the effect its propagation had on public behavior. Storytellers could still rely on their invocation of the gods to be sources of credibility for themselves and interest in their audiences.

If Homer was philosophically inclined toward any of the leading ideas of his time, he may well have believed that goodness, beauty and truth were all interrelated to the inherent order of nature in which each atom has an equally important place. This order is embodied in The Odyssey by the kingdom of the immortals which reigns over the world below. According to the philosophical schools of thought which espouse the mathematical perfection of nature, Men, those sentient aberrations, cause rifts whenever by weaknesses of judgment or character they break with the governing customs of their stations or test the boundaries of the gods’ will/nature’s patience.

By warring with the order/gods/nature they bring injury upon themselves, so the utmost aspiration of happiness-seeking men is an awareness of their position as small pieces in a beautiful whole. Once one’s lot is realized, one strives to follow the course of nature as closely as possible, maintaining order by not making trouble. As the particulars of each of these absolutes (truth, beauty, goodness) is so obscure and slippery that they have absorbed many a philosopher’s lifetime, the practical and worldly aspiration toward these ideals involves resigning oneself to humanity’s incomplete sense of cosmically proper behavior; basically what we can intuit as congruous with the natural order.

It is difficult to verbalize the practices in line with these ideas in a manner that is universally applicable, but a moral man will know by common sense that which is wrong and that which is right: such as preservation of life, maintenance of the family unit, the following of orders and the fulfillment of duties, and mercy. A wise man whom has spent a great deal of time in contemplation of these ideals is more closely attuned to the true sense of goodness and his sharing of this wisdom is a boon to his society. Hence people like Homer come forth to aid their fellow man with their own empirical knowledge of those ills that lead to despair, and those acts of goodness which lead to happiness.



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