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On Reading Homer


Greek text of the Odyssey’s opening passage (credit : Wikimedia)



English: Odysseus. Group of Odysseus blinding ...

Odysseus (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


The last of this weeks video lectures from Peter Struck concentrated on the first ten lines of Homer’s epic The Odyssey. The translation that we are using is that of Robert Fagles. Here are those lines translated from the linked PDF.


Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns …driven time and again off course, once he had plundered  the hallowed heights of Troy.Many cities of men he saw and learned their minds,many pains he suffered, heartsick on the open sea,fighting to save his life and bring his comrades home.But he could not save them from disaster, hard as he strove—the recklessness of their own ways destroyed them all,the blind fools, they devoured the cattle of the Sun and the Sun god blotted out the day of their return. Launch out on his story, Muse, daughter of Zeus,start from where you will—sing for our time too.


The first word in an epic tells us what the epic is all about. This is the convention of epics and my notes on the Iliad talk about the significance of the word rage and in particular the rage of Achilles.


The first word, in Homer’s Epic, is the Greek word “andra”, which means “man”. There is another word for an un-gendered human being, but “andra” is masculine. In the second word, “moy” meaning ‘to me’ Homer makes reference to himself, he wants to someone to sing to him. “enipe” is  a way of giving a command to someone to say “do the singing”.


The next word “mousa” means muse. Homer’s story, he, as he understands it, resides with the goddess, the muse. This has a sense of divine inspiration to it. Some poets saw themselves as mouth pieces for the gods. In some cultures or historical contexts this generated the idea that there was a sacred and perfect text which could never be changed. In the case of Homeric poetry that’s not true, it is understand that the muse is there as an inspirational helper, using Homer’s voice as a way to transmit the divine voice.


Homer is asking the muse to sing to him about a man. The first descriptor Homer decides to use to tell us about this man is “a man of twists and turns”. The Greek word “polytropos” means many. The prefix and then “tropos” is a term that means a twist or a turn. The term “polytropos” means many other things as well, it means resourceful. The twistiness of Fagle’s translation indicates an aspect of the Greek term that means the person is a little slippery, and maybe a trickster. Odysseus is defined as a hero by his cleverness and his wiliness but he is also a wiseguy. Odysseus is


“driven, time and again off course.”


He is out of place, not quite where he is supposed to be. He is resourceful, he has a tremendous amount of wandering, and he also has a story in his background, he has a past which is centred on Troy.


“Once he had plundered the hallowed heights of Troy”


now during his wandering, this period of dislocation he doesn’t feel sorry for himself or fearfully stay away from what’s around him. He sees a certain amount of serendipity, that’s possible, in this situation of being dislocated. When his runs into someone who doesn’t think quite like him, he doesn’t lecture them or try to change their mind, insisting that his way of thinking about something is right and their way must be wrong. Odysseus is constantly curious about other ways of looking at the world. This is what gives him his power and his ability to be resourceful. He knows all kinds of ways in and out because he is a wonderful student of how different people view the world.


“Many pains he suffered, heart sick on the open sea.”


Odysseus is a man of suffering. He has a very intimate relationship with pain, difficulty, suffering, and at the same time endurance. He bears up under them and presses forward. There was something about being one of these “andra” that is related also to the idea of suffering and enduring pain. When Odysseus endures pain, he fights back. Fighting to save his life and bring his comrades home.


The Greek term “nostos” is used here in its accusative form that “noston”, which comes from the Greek nominative “nostos” which means home, a homeward journey. He is trying to take his men home find their way home and it’s a struggle to endure through all of the difficulties.


 “But he could not save them from disaster, hard as he strove”.


His men are not quite, up to the challenges that Odysseus himself is and they succumb.


“The recklessness of their own ways destroyed them all. “


When you’re a Greek, male and “andra”, being reckless is not a good thing. You’re supposed to be fearless, and should not shrink back from difficult situations, but to walk in pell-mell into awful situations without thinking things through first, that counts as recklessness, which is not clever. They pay a terrible price for their recklessness, they are destroyed. Homer is telling us that all of the men are going to be destroyed and that only Odysseus is going to make it through.


“the blind fools, they devoured the cattle of the sun and the Sun god blotted out the day of their return.”


In the Odyssey there are lots of different episodes, for example, the Cyclops or the sirens or any of the other many episodes that Odysseus and his men get into. “The Cattle of the Sun” is an important one, but it’s not always the foremost one in people’s minds. Homer though placed this episode right at the beginning, showing us what’s really important. The whole epic is contained in these ten lines.


Homer then goes back to his muse, and tells, asks the muse to, continue.


“Launch out on his story muse, daughter of Zeus. Start from where you will.”


The story from here jumps right into the middle, into the action. The back story is filled in with recollections and flashbacks. The muse has been told to start where she wants and she wants to start from the middle. She is a “fugatere dias”, a daughter of Zeus.


To close Homer brings the muse back into the story and asks again, this word for sing. Here also brings back himself,


“sing for our time, too.”


Homer brings in the first person pronoun again, in the first line, it was the first person singular. Homer is invoking himself to get involved in his own story, asking the Muse to keep it going. By the end of the tenth line, Homer brings himself in again but he includes us as well. The first person singular becomes a first person plural. So now all of us are invited to come along with Homer on this journey that is going to be his Odyssey.






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