Home » Greek and Roman Mythology » The Odyssey Books One to Eight

The Odyssey Books One to Eight


John Flaxman (Credit bc.edu)

This is the second week of my course with “Penn” on Greek and Roman Mythology. I really like the videos with Peter Struck. He is very enthusiastic about his subject and has an amusing presentation.

These are my notes from Week Two lectures. Evidently they are more the words of Peter Stuck than my own.


Telemachus’ Troubles

Books I through IV of Homer’s Epic is where the story of Telemachus unfolds.    We learn about Odysseus, his house, Ithaca, Penelope, through his eyes. He tells us about what it is to be a Greek hero and about the negative aspects of being a hero.  Telemachus is a young man, not quite ready to step up into the hero role that his father has been executing for his adult life.  He’s only twenty years old and his father’s been gone for ten years of fighting and ten years of wandering.  For the Greeks twenty is old enough to take some action, the great Greek warriors who became grand heroes started at about that age, or a little bit younger.  Achilles was conquering whole swathes of territory at this age.

Blaming the gods

The Farewell of Telemachus and Eucharis – Jacques-Louis David (Wikipaintings)

This is David’s representation of him filtered  through the Renaissance, but truly captured something of what Homer  had in mind with this figure, Telemachus as a young man not quite ready to take action and in this feeling of kind of languor over the situation.  In the opening scene Telemachus is daydreaming.  Athena, in disguise, makes contact with him, and the narrative jumps into Telemachus’s head.  He could almost see his magnificent father here in the minds eye.  If only he might drop from the clouds and drive away his mother’s suitors, Telemachus is waiting for something to happen, a miracle or some other impossible thing. Rather than affect it himself, as a Hero, he blames the gods, blames the situation, blames fate, blames others, but especially he blames the gods.

“Once we were a wealthy house now the gods have reversed our fortunes with a vengeance.  The gods have invented other miseries to plague me as well.”

From this we can understand that the Greeks had a very broad understanding of divine involvement in the world, it might make perfect sense for someone to turn around and say it’s the gods’ fault.  Take a look at another example of this.  Penelope has just come down, from her chambers, she hears Phemius the bard singing tales of homecomings of the great heroes coming back from Troy.

“Phemius!So many other songs you know to hold us spellbound, works of the gods and men that singers celebrate. Sing one of those as you sit beside them here and they drink their wine in silence. But break off this song—the unendurable song that always rends the heart inside me …the unforgettable grief, it wounds me most of all!!”

At which point Telemachus jumps in and says

“Why, mother,” poised Telemachus put in sharply, “why deny our devoted bard the chance to entertain us any way the spirit stirs him on? Bards are not to blame—Zeus is to blame. He deals to each and every laborer on this earth whatever doom he pleases. Why fault the bard if he sings the Argives’ harsh fate?”

Heroes don’t typically jump in with this kind of fatalistic talk; they don’t typically blame the gods for all the things that go on in the world.  Heroes jump in and try to take action as best they can.  There is a kind of double determination that’s at work in the Homeric world, if Zeus or one of the other gods declares something, it’s going to happen, and they’re much stronger than we mortals. But that determinism doesn’t turn into fatalism that is a discussion of the weak. Heroes assume that they are powerful cogs in the machineries of fate, and their hands will bring the fated outcome to fruition.  They need to be involved, they need to be engaged, the more engaged the more heroic, and the less engaged the less heroic.

Zeus himself comments in on this particular issue. He says

“Ah how shameless—the way these mortals blame the gods. From us alone, they say, come all their miseries, yes, but they themselves, with their own reckless ways, compound their pains beyond their proper share.” 

Growing up and taking responsibility.

Telemachus and Mentor (credit cdn.bellanaija.com)

Telemachus needs to make this turn from the kind of a person that sits back and lets bad things happen, and feels bad for himself, to someone more like Odysseus who takes action and gets things done.  He needs help and guidance which comes in this figure of Athena, disguised usually as Mentor. The first time we see her in Book I she’s in the figure of Mentes, but typically she is in the form of Mentor.  (The English word “mentor” is drawn directly from the Greek proper name.) Athena leads Telemechus on a journey literally as well as figuratively in order that he can grow up.  She’s standing next to him and says

“You must not cling to your boyhood any longer—it’s time you were a man.”

With a nudge from Athena, Telemechus decides to call an assembly at the end of Book l.

 Book II

When he does call the assembly it has a pretty sad result.  He brings all the people together and says “Oh. You, suitors, I’ve had it up to here with you”. He gesticulates and gets angry and fulminates and says that it all has to stop.  The reaction of this crowd of people who are violating him is that they all feel sorry for him.  They pat him on the head and they say,  so sorry Telemachus we are eating you out of house and home we can see  how that makes you sad but really don’t  blame us you should blame your mother.  They pass the buck and talk as if there is some abstract thing that is hurting Telemachus.

Telemachus’ Tour

After his failed attempt to rile the suitors he gets ready to go off on a tour with Mentor (Athena) as his guide.  Travel is a way for him to gain knowledge. In his tour round these great capitals in books three and four, what he is doing is taking a journey into a past which has a kind of grandeur to it.

Peloponnisos Dytiki Ellada ke Ionio Argolis (Credit : panoramio.com)

Here is a slide of a famous probably our most famous ancient citadel from this time, the citadel of Mycenae, Agamemnon’s palace. This is the lion gate and it has an  air of majesty to it. When this was built back in the first millennium BCE there would be these grand citadels.  As the citadels aged and as history built up around them people started to wonder how they were all those centuries. They imagined that their ancestors were greater than they were. They even called these stones Cyclopean stones because they felt there was no way a human being could have moved them and they are kind of things that only a Cyclops could move.  There was a mythic orientation toward their deep past that the Greeks already had during Homer’s time.  The impulse here to look at your ancestors as being much greater than you were leads us to our first universal law in the course.

Universal law number one, nostalgia is the most powerful force in the universe.  When people are looking back to their past they always imagine that it must have been better.

Telemachus visits two amazing places starting with Nestor’s coastal city on the island of Ithaca. He has a trip by boat to Pylos.  When he arrives in Pylos there are nine divisions of 500 people each (4,500 in total) on the beach each of those groups is slaughtering nine bulls, 81 bulls being slaughtered simultaneously on a beach. This is extraordinary to him; the grandeur of this scene is something amazing, a conspicuous display of wealth.  81 bulls during Telemachus’ time is a fortune. This is a world of grandeur Telemachus takes a little while to consider that this should be the kind of grandeur that exists in his household.

Telemachus departing from Nestor (credit : Wikimedia)

From Pylos he goes over land to Sparta where he meets Menelaus, Agamemnon’s brother, and Helen of Troy, that face that launched a thousand ships.  Throughout this trip Telemachus gains knowledge, and at the same time he’s mirroring in a smaller, more controlled way, the kind of adventure that his father is on.  For each of them the experiential knowledge that’s gained through travelling is something that’s profound, that’s powerful, that’s life-shaping that gives them tools, and that allows them to advance in their own lives.  Travel is a deeply powerful tool according to the scale of values.

Telemachus has his audience with Nestor, in Sparta he has an audience with Menelaus and Helen.  The elders sit back and listen to Telemachus’ version of events. The first thing they do, when  they hear what is happening, is to react  the way a  person should react they’re angry.  We see this multiple times as the story is being told.  Athena has already shown it as Mentor, she is outraged and she talks about how shameful this exhibition is.  Here, we hear from Menelaus, we also hear from Nestor, that this is shameful what’s happening.


The tour is partly education for Telemahus to be schooled in how his emotions ought to be working.  His emotions need some calibration.  There’s an acculturation that he needs to do to know that it is right now to feel anger.  That is the kind of emotional response he should be having.  Each person that he talks to expresses that.  Then also, at each turn, we hear a particular name that’s brought up.  When we’re talking to Nestor on page the name Orestes comes up.  Athena disguised as Mentor talks about Orestes.  Menaleus, after hearing the story of what’s  happening in Telemachus household, talks  about Orestes, and in Zeus in his introductory remarks right at  the very beginning, talks about him.  At each point a person who mentions Orestes is an older authority figure.  They’re reacting to this expression of powerlessness.  In Zeus’ case, it’s the idea that people  just toss up their hands and it just feels  like everything is just faded and it’s the  gods fault.  Instead, take action like Orestes did.

The murder of Aegisthus (credit : wikimedia)

One of the famous stories of homecoming that is percolating in the background is that of Agamemnon’s voyage home. He gets home pretty quickly, with no struggle to get a ship back to his to his citadel.  His wife, however, has taken up with a lover and the two of them murder Agamemnon shortly after he arrives.  Clytemnestra, Agamemnon’s wife, and her lover killed the head of household, Agamemnon, her husband.  Within the Greek ethical code, if someone kills your father as a son or a daughter, it is now your duty to kill your father’s killer.  Agamemnon’s son and daughter are responsible now for taking revenge against this killer, which means for them, killing their own mother.  This is a nasty business, ugly, and awful.  In Homer’s version the lover,  Aegisthus,  is the one most  responsible for the death of Agamemnon.  Orestes, Agamemnon’s son, takes care of business and kills Aegisthus.  Later we will look at a classical Athenian tragedy where the story of Agamemnon is told through Aeschylus’ eyes.  Homer’s focus points to Orestes who, in a situation that was very ugly and very nasty, had the gumption to do what needed to be done.

Orestes’ story shows up multiple times in The Odyssey always as this kind of code when Telemachus feels sorry for himself. It comes from an older more experienced person saying giving the message that even in the nasty business that Orestes had to deal with he took care of business.

Helen of Troy

Helen recognising Telemachus (Credit : Artclon.com)

In book four, there’s a wonderful scene when we see what’s happening, in the house of Menelaus and meet Helen of Troy herself. There are some interesting things for us to note about Helen, first of all, her beauty, her bewitching guile.  It’s extraordinary, and obviously overwhelming.  She is indeed the face that launched a thousand ships.  When meet her she brings in a nice bowl for them to drink from that is going to soothe their pains.  She adds to it something extra, special drugs that she got on her sojourn in Egypt when she and Menelaus were blown off course.  She mixes them into wine that creates a wonderful potion. The narcotic effect of the wine is another thing that seems to be hovering around the aura that is Helen.

In the case of Helen, we have beauty, magical power, intoxication and a little bit of danger, as well, because she can bring you out of this world.  This is a cluster of ideas that we’re going to see regularly in Homeric epic, women who have power, who have very clear erotic dimension to  their power and who are mixed up in the idea of magic.  They have extraordinary beauty and when they arrive in a room they turn heads.  There’s a tremendous power that Homer sees in this cluster of ideas, and we’re going to see it represented in multiple places as our story moves forward.  Not least, when we turn to away from our story of Telemachus in the first four books of the Odyssey and move on to meet our hero, the man himself the man the muses are singing of, Odysseus.

Book v

Odysseus on Ogygia

Hermes ordering Calypso to release Odysseus (credit : wikimedia)

At last we meet Odysseus and we meet him exhibiting his hero-ness not straight away but by the middle of book five and forward.  Now given all the characterizations of Telemachus up till now, as someone who sits around, feels sorry for himself, doesn’t take action, as being not heroic, when we meet Odysseus, he pretty much matches that description as well.  He’s just sitting on the beach and he’s got Calypso who’s keeping him captive.  This nymph goddess has him in her clutches and won’t let him go.  He feels sorry for himself and cries on the beach.  There’s not much he can really do.  That situation that he is in of powerlessness, though, is soon going to change.  But why does Odysseus spend quite so long on that island?  Why doesn’t he break free and get out of there?  Is it so bad to be on an island with this beautiful nymph?  She has desires for him, and he seems to be in a kind of Bower of Bliss.  The ancients, when they read this epic, were wondering why Odysseus spent so much time with that with that Goddess.  But he’s there and he’s stuck and there’s no way for him to get off, that’s clear.

To mark the transition between Telemachus’ journey and that of Odysseus we have, as we did at the beginning of book one, an audience with Zeus.  We go back up to the very top of the universe.  The message is given to Hermes, go down and tell Calypso it’s time to free Odysseus.  When the message is given to Calypso Hermes adds an interesting note that we shouldn’t just let pass, he basically says, don’t cross Zeus.  If you don’t do what Zeus says he’s going to make your life a living hell.  It means Zeus is going to crush you, physically.  Zeus’s power in the Universe comes from violence and people are frightened of him.

Odysseus re-finding his Hero-ness

Odyssey and his raft. (credit : learner.org)

Hermes comes down and delivers the message to Calypso; it’s time to let him go.  Calypso isn’t very happy about this but relents.  This goddess whose name, Calypso comes from a verb meaning to hide.  Odysseus is out of touch from life and from the wider Greek world for those seven years.  When, Calypso gets the message she lets him go. To do this all she has to do is give him some tools. Zeus decreed that he should leave her island by raft and not by ship.  With tools, Odysseus can fix anything.  He gets his axe chops down the trees, strips them, plains them, gets them  perfectly true, binds them together,  erects a mast, puts together the all the  different kinds of tackle that are  required to make his sailing vessel sound  and he’s got a perfect ship ready to  go.  Odysseus is a great builder.  This use of hands and the introduction of Odysseus in the scene of the, of the raft building shows his hero-ness fully on display, heroes are just good at things.

Odysseus jumps onto his boat and he’s able to sail it as a master sailor.  He’s not only good at building a craft; he’s good at sailing one too.  In his hands is becomes a perfectly seaworthy vessel.    But Poseidon crushes him as he’s trying to make his way.  Odysseus then tries to find where he can land. If you’re a sailor you know that seeing a shoreline is not necessarily a good thing.  If it is a gentle shoreline or if it’s has an inland or a port, that’s perfectly good you can get in and get out of the storm.  But if there’s a, a shoreline that doesn’t have a nice place for you to land, a shoreline means certain death.  Odysseus is facing that kind as he’s being tossed by the waves and trying to calculate his way into the shoreline that’s nearby him after Poseidon crushes his raft.

Ancient Olive Tree (Credit : Wikimedia)

He’s able to sense when he gets close to the current of a river that’s flowing out from the mainland. This is a sign that there’s safety there, he can sense in his body the river nymph as it’s second nature  to him to know where safety’s going to  be.  He finds his way in and uses the river to swim in to get away from the violent crashing of the waves of the sea against the shore line. Then he crawls out without, without problem.  When he gets into the inlet he gets out of the river washes up on shore, literally naked from the roiling sea. There’s not much life left in him.  All that he really has is the ticking of his heart, that’s the only thing left operative.  He still has enough of his brainpower to start a calculation.

He wonders to himself whether it will be  wise for him to, stay nearby the river  overnight and if he does that he runs into  a danger, he realizes, he calculates.  That danger is that he could be exposed, because the he remembers that a cold wind blows from a river at around dawn.  It may seem okay now but by dawn there will be a cold air blowing across him and he could expire from exposure.  So he considers going inland more, but then if he moves inland, he’s going to make himself vulnerable to becoming prey for animals that will hunt him and eat him.  He chooses a middle course; he sets out for the woods not far from the water.  He makes a rudimentary shelter for himself, showing us again his skills as a   craftsman. He found a grove with a clearing all around and crawled beneath two bushy olive springing from the same root, one olive wild the other well bred stock.

“No sodden gusty winds could ever pierce them,  nor could the sun sharp rays invade their  depths,  nor could a downpour drench them through  and through,  so dense they grew together, tangling side  by side.” 

Odysseus gathers up what he finds an abundance of leaves. He is overjoyed at the abundance of leaves.  He anchors on to the positive things, focuses on what he’s capable of, and he doesn’t sit back and feel sorry for himself.  That’s kind of poignant when you think about poor Odysseus when he’s stuck at the very end of book five.  The leaves are all around him,  he’s crafted himself this  special kind of bed out of olive leaves  that’s going to keep him alive  enough for the evening,  When Homer closes with really a  wonderfully poignant simile about the  situation our hero finds himself in.

“As a man will bury his glowing brand in black ashes off on a lonely farmstead, no neighbours near to keep a spark alive – no need to kindle fire from somewhere else -so great Odysseus buried himself in leaves and Athena showered sleep upon his eyes….sleep in a swift wave, delivering him from all his pains and labours, blessed sleep that sealed his eyes at last.” 

Odysseus gets his rest at the end of  book five after getting away from  Calypso, escaping the dangers  that he finds at the sea,  getting himself inland, escaping the  danger of crashing against the shore,  escaping the danger of dying of exposure,  escaping the danger of dying of  exposure and  escaping the danger of getting  eaten by a wild animal.

Book vi 

Odysseus on Scheria

Odysseus, Athena, and Nausicaa (Credit : livius.org)

When morning comes, Odysseus is still alive, he comes up out of his leaves and when he does, he sees this scene in front of amazing beauty, young women washing laundry at the nearby edge of the river.  He has to figure out a way to get clothes and that’s going to mean regaining his speech.  He finds near by him that these young women are doing laundry, he’s in an embarrassing state Odysseus is now utterly bereft of everything, including clothes.  Despite the embarrassment of the situation and the abject position that Odysseus is in, bedraggled, starving, hungry, pummelled, he approaches one of the young women.

 “I am at your mercy, princess.  Are you a goddess or a mortal?  If one of the gods who rule the skies up there, you’re Artemis to the life, the daughter of mighty Zeus.  I see her now.  Just look at your build, your bearing, your lithe flowing grace. I hope you get everything you want in life, and may the gods bring you a husband, a house, and lasting harmony. “

Odysseus is no one to be starting making overtures to this young woman.  But, he right away talks to her in ways that in Greek society at the time, Homer would have assumed a young woman wants to be addressed.  You’re beautiful, you must be a goddess, your parents must be very proud, soon enough you’re going to be having a husband.  He instantly wins over some affection from her when her guard is dropped a little.  She wants to help him; she’s ready to give him some clothes.  He doesn’t come on strong; he just does it in a kind of meek way, playing his weak hand in a way that’s appropriate to that weak hand.  Interestingly he hints about marriage because  Athena had planted the  seed of marriage in Nausicaa’s mind when she suggested that she go wash her clothes.

 “Nausicaa, how could your mother bear a careless girl like you? Look at your fine clothes, lying here neglected—with your marriage not far off, the day you should be decked in all your glory and offer elegant dress to those who form your escort. That’s how a bride’s good name goes out across the world and it brings her father and queenly mother joy. Come, let’s go wash these clothes at the break of day—  “

This is the crucial first step for Odysseus, he needs to make an alliance to get himself into human society.  Odysseus arriving on an unknown shore is a way that many of his adventures are going to start.

Book vii


Zeus and Semele (Credit : mythology.wikia.com)

Odysseus goes into the centre of the city which is not quite like a normal citadel.  The Phaeacians have a slightly different kind of reality that they live in.  They are far away and they don’t mix all that well with others we’re told.  They’re at the world’s frontier out of all human contact.  There’s plenty of food there, the crops are irrigated by springs with a natural irrigation system.  There’s a gentle wind that brings ripeness in all seasons. There are lush, almost magical orchards that just produce fruit.  They have boats that steer themselves without steersmen, the boats just know where they’re supposed to go.

The strangest thing of all is the idea that the Gods talk to them Face to face. They don’t usually disguise themselves when they come and talk to the Phoenicians.  There’s a story of Zeus and Semele, a young mortal girl who has a tryst with Zeus and convinces him to show himself to her in all his full glory. He asks her not tom make him do it, when he does, she gets incinerated because of how amazingly glorious Zeus is.  There are other stories of humans getting in trouble by getting too close to gods. But the Phoenicians seem to have this easy rapport with the gods face to face.  This puts them in a mythic space. They are also extraordinary  sailors, their sailing  prowess, brings them what sailing prowess  always does, extraordinarily rich trade, and tremendous  amounts of wealth.

Ring Composition

This scene, where the wealth of the palaces is described, gives us a chance to talk about one of the common Homeric techniques of telling the story.  Homer uses a technique called ‘ring composition’.  In ring composition, some specific thing, A, is articulated in the story.  Then there’s a long digression,  B, where we talk about something that is  related to this, usually specific, physical  thing we just ran into, and then we  know that we’ve finished with the digression  when we mention A again.  For example he might say “and then the  general picked up that sword, that sword which was handed down many  generations earlier to his grandfather and  his grandfather and got passed down to  him.  That sword is the one he picked up now.”  So usually we will have an articulation of the physical object, we’ll have long digression, and then another articulation of the physical object to finish off the circle.

This technique is used in great effect when Homer is describing the riches at the palace of King Alcinous.

“Now as Odysseus approached Alcinous’ famous house, a rush of feelings stirred within his heart, bringing him to a standstill even before he crossed the bronze threshold….  A radiance strong as the moon or rising sun came flooding through the high roofed halls of generous King Alcinous.  Walls plated in bronze crowned with a circling frieze glazed as blue as lapis, ran to the left and right from outer gates to the deepest court recesses and solid gold doors enclosed the palace.” 

The description goes on and lots of details are brought out in a long digression of tales of the extraordinary wealth of Alkinoss’s Palace, visible to Odysseus.  At the end of this digression:-

Such were the gifts, the glory showered down by the gods on King Alkinoss’ realm.  And there Odysseus stood, gazing at all this bounty, a man who borne so much once he had his  fill of marvelling at it all, he crossed  the threshold quickly, strode inside the  palace.”

So with our ring composition, we have an A and a B, and an A.  The A is our threshold and the digression in B is our long and detailed tales of wealth and A again is our threshold.

Odysseus enters the palace and we see it through his eyes.  He walks in, hits the threshold and then he’s overwhelmed

Knee Grabbing and Xenia

Odysseus at Alcinous’ Palace (Credit : Francesco Hayez)

Odysseus makes his way through this extraordinarily wealthy palace.  He gets close to Arete and Alcinous, the queen and the king and grabs the queen’s knees. This is a Greek custom that gives him instant status as a guest friend.  To grab hold of someone’s knees makes you their suppliant and they then owe you guest friendship and the kind of hospitality that is required of great Greek person to give to someone who’s one of those guest friends.  This is a good thing; it entitles you all kind of stuff of your hosts, if your hosts are good hosts.  If your hosts are bad hosts you never know what you’re going to get, but good hosts demonstrate how good they are by their hospitality.  This hospitality is not just any kind.  It’s a special, overwhelming kind of hospitality.  In Greek, they gave it a special word.  It’s called, xenia, a custom of extraordinary, overwhelming hospitality.

Earlier Odysseus didn’t grab Nausica’s knees.

“Plead now with a subtle, winning word and stand well back, don’t clasp her knees, the girl might bridle, yes.”

In the Iliad also we have seen how Thetis grabbed Zeus’s knees when begging him to honour Achilles to compensate him for losing Brisires. I am not at all sure about knee grabbing. I hope to find out more about it. I don’t think it can be purely for the guest friend relationship. Thetis used it to elicit a promise from Zeus. It was used this way by Medea in Europides’ Medea (thanks for reminding me Joyce)

Hospitality is an important central component of aristocratic Greek behaviour.  Visitors are thought to come from Zeus and suppliant’s rights are sacred. The prominent Phoenician, in book seven, lays down the whole law, saying, we got to watch out for this, we got to be really nice to these guests because that’s a sacred duty of ours.  The need to be hospitable is also mentioned by Nausicaa to her maidens.  It’s a further marker of just how important it is.  Hospitality is thought to answer to a scale, where more is always better.  The more lavish, the more extravagant you can offer. You demonstrate your own status by your ability to give lavish gifts. The more you give the better person you are.

Odysseus’ obligations are zero, he’s just there to be willingly entertained, fed, taken care of, flattered, cajoled, to be the centre of attention.  His lack of obligation is so extreme that they don’t even bother to ask him his name.  They don’t even know who he is up through book eight.  Only at the close of book eight does King Alcinous think it’s now appropriate to ask our stranger’s name.

Now, so, what is it about xenia?  Why this kind of hospitality?  It’s probably answerable best by a single word, trade.  The Mediterranean Sea brought all kinds of ancient cultures together to benefit from mutual trade with one another. Having a cultural plank in your cultural platform that says that you ought to treat strangers really well helps grease the wheels of trade for all the cultures involved.  The Greeks surely benefited from this and the demonstration of overwhelming hospitality was at the same time a way to ensure that people thought that your shores will be friendly ones and will look at you kindly as trading partners.

Reassembling the Hero

On Scheria Odyseuss he washed up onshore, made his connection with the king and queen, secured his status as a guest friend and now he enters into the next step of his recovery.  In these books we are rebuilding the hero.  In book five he acquired the very basics that he needed to escape from Ogygia and be autonomous again.  In book six he pieces together the rudimentary regaining his ability to speak and getting some clothes and making his way into the centre of the palace. Now he’s going to slowly rebuild his strength and pivotal to that is food.  He has to eat something and then we see him start to perform in these physical games.  The games play a role in book eight as Odysseus is rebuilding himself and rebuilding his hero-ness.  Strength is an important thing of what it is to be a hero.  We also get in this, this exhibition of Odysseus’ strength through the games.

Disc thrower (Credit : ancientsites.com)

Odysseus shows himself to be extremely skilled.  For example, near the end of book seven Odysseus shows us how alliances work.  He made an alliance with Alcinous, it’s been very valuable to him.  After he makes his contact with  Queen Arete you’ll notice a kind of  strange back and forth between Alcinous  the King and Odysseus.  Alcinous is ready to kind of scold his daughter because Nausicaa has allowed Odysseus to come into the palace unaccompanied.  He’s hinting that he’s a little  disgruntled with his daughter at not  displaying the kind of hospitality, Xenia  that is so important in this part  of the in this part of the story.  Odysseus right away jumps in Nausicaa , and makes up a lie.  He said that she offered to bring him to town but he insisted. Odysseus now is protecting the one that protected him.  That white lie is only going to secure his position with Nausicaa and it does him no harm with respect to anything else.  So it’s an automatic kind of incremental gain in his closeness with Nausicaa and his back and forth with her securing that relationship.

Odysseus knows full well what to do in sometimes complex social interactions where conflict arises.  The prince,  Broadsea,   in book eight starts taunting  Odysseus.  Now, taunts are kind of standard stuff for heroes, taunts and epithets, you take the stuffing out of your enemy and call them nasty names.  But when you do, you’re being aggressive  and getting in that person’s face, that  person, if they’re a real hero, is going  to come right back at you.  Odysseus is not quite yet ready to do that.  Some teasing happens early on, and he lets it go.  But when Broadsea comes and really gets into his face, Odysseus draws a firm line.  He steps up and throws the discus farther then anyone had ever seen.  He knows when to draw a line; he also knows how to enforce that line.  When to give ground and be flexible and when it’s necessary to draw a line is a very important leadership skill.

He also shows later in book eight that he knows when it’s right to make up.  After the conflict with Broadsea,  Broadsea offers amends, and offers him the sword.  Odysseus is gracious about accepting the gift and is ready to be friends with this person that had basically insulted him.

What makes a Hero?

Greek Heroes (Credit : ancienthistory.about.com)

We’re seeing him piece together of his hereoness.  From this we can start to sketch in a rough definition or at least a rough set of qualities, characteristics, and attributes that we see in heroes.  First of all they suffer, Odysseus suffers tremendously.  The hero also endures these difficult situations don’t only cause the hero pain, but the hero bears up under the pain and endures.  A hero is intelligent and is able to use their mind to figure the best course of action in any situation.  A hero will also be a great craftsman.  Odysseus built his boat, is good at sailing, good at discus throwing, he’s just good at things.

A hero is also going to be, maybe, crafty someone who’s a little sneaky.  Odysseus is a big liar.  He has always lied to a purpose but he does lie, this craftiness is something that we are going to see him exhibiting.  A hero clearly gains knowledge through experience especially through travel.  It is much more than just data.  Odysseus needs to learn the details of where he is going, but his living through the experience always is something that gains an additional kind of knowledge for him, something extraordinarily valuable.

The title hero is hard won and has to be won through the only through the knowledge that only comes through experience.  A hero makes alliances.  Odysseus is good at drawing up those connections.  A hero also clearly has strength.  That’s being put together reassembled in book eight.  A  Hero is not a merchant.  When they’re insulting Odysseus and taking the stuffing out of him.  They tease him and say

“I never took you for someone skilled in games, the kind that real men play throughout the world. Not a chance. You’re some skipper of profiteers, roving the high seas in his scudding craft, reckoning up his freight with a keen eye out for home-cargo, grabbing the gold he can! You’re no athlete. I see that.”

Odysseus is greatly offended by that.  A hero has to be better equipped to do stuff on the battlefield.  That’s typically where the hero shows his strength.


By the end of book eight Odysseus he is still nameless.  They don’t even know who he is; we have not heard his name.  It’s related to us through Homer’s narrative but looking at it and through the eyes of the Phaeacians, he is still anonymous.

In book eight, there’s a statement from Alcinous who says now, it’s time for us to get to know you, Odysseus, and who you are.  We need to know your identity. When he makes this statement, we get a really clear definition about what it is that these ancient Greeks in mythic times thought an identity was all about.

“So don’t be crafty now, my friend, don’t hide the truth I’m after.  Fair is fair, speak out!!.  Come, tell us the name they call you there at home -your mother, father, townsmen, neighbours, roundabout, surely no man in the world is nameless, all told.  Born high, born low, as soon as he sees the light, his parents always name him, once he’s born.  And tell me your land, your people, your city too.  So our ships can sail you home- their wits will speed them there.  ….But come, my friend, tell us your own story now and tell it truly.  Where have your rovings forced you?  What lands of men have you seen, what sturdy towns, what men themselves? Who were wild, savage, lawless?  Who were friendly to strangers, God-fearing men?  Tell me why do you weep and grieve so sorely when you hear the fate of the Argives, hear the fall of Troy?”. 

These are the pieces that will make up a heroic identity.  Odysseus in order to plug us in to the rest of himself will have to take over and give us some more details about his background.

We have seen these type of questions posed early in book one when Telemachus asked Athena (disguised as Mentes )

“Tell me about yourself now, clearly, point by point. Who are you? Where are you from? your city? your parents? What sort of vessel brought you? Why did the sailors land you here in Ithaca? Who did they say they are?I hardly think you came this way on foot! And tell me this for a fact—I need to know—is this your first time here? Or are you a friend of father’s, a guest from the old days?”

Poetry and Demodocus

Demodocus makes an appearance in book eight.  Through this character we get a little window into what it  might’ve been like for this guy, Homer in  his own world.  We have a kind of vision through Homer’s eyes of how a poet functions in society .

Demodokos (Credit : Wikimedia)

We know from Homer’s portrayal of  Demodocus that ancient poets had a bardic  role in their society.  They sung songs in order to entertain.  They were part of the retinue of wealthy, aristocratic people.  They had some light musical accompaniment.  They may well have had dancers accompanying the different stories that they told.  They were to tell episodes from famous mythic past.  In this story we have Odysseys himself asking the poet to play the one about the Trojan horse.  Demodocus answers his call, picks up his musical instrument and tells the story. Odysseys figures prominently in the story and this provokes him to tears, and sets off the course of events that leads to the king asking him who he is.

After dinner a poet will listen to requests, will tell episodes from great ancient narrative tales and has a role as an entertainer in the court of aristocratic people.  They’re also known for a few feats.  They’re able to do things that are a little extraordinary.  Two things in particular.  Number one memory.  An ancient poet could sit down and recite from memory huge chunks of poetry and recite them in perfect metrical cadence with musical accompaniment in way that was stunning.

Secondly poets exhibited a certain kind of wondrousness in their ability to take some emotional state that they themselves may feel, and impersonate, and exhibit as they are performing their poetry and then, transfer that to large groups of people.  So, almost by magic, they can internalize some subjective state and transmit it to other people.  Anyone who’s been in a room where a charismatic figure is working their wiles already knows that this feels like a kind of magical power.  The bard was thought to have the magical power residing in them of having other people around being moved by his or her song be affected by the song that was being sung.  Some people in antiquity compared this power to magnetism something extraordinary action at a distance that made a certain subjective state and the poet f be like a contagion and spread around the crowd around them.

Ares and Aphrodite caught in Bed (Credit : greekmythcfs.wikispaces.com)

Looking at Demodocus gives us a window into how Homer imagined ancient bards to act.  We can look at the traditions that surround Demodocus and the stories that he tells.  One of his stories in perhaps, Demodocus’ most famous story, not the Trojan Horse, it’s this scene where Aphrodite has an affair with Ares to the detriment of her loving husband, Hephaestus.  This story unfolds in detail that gives us pause and makes us feel a little bit sorry for Hephaestus.  Ares comes along and seduces Aphrodite, they have an amorous tryst.  Helios, the god who inhabits the sun sees everything, since he can see everything that’s happening on Earth, and he tells Hephaestus.  Hephaestus then is angry of course he makes special netting made out of very fine metal.  He is perfect at working with different kinds of metals and makes a trap that not even gods can escape from.  So, next time Ares and Aphrodite get into the bed they get trapped by Hephaestus’ net and all the gods come around and start to laugh.  They laugh at this awful scene – poor Hephaestus, look, Ares is having sex with Aphrodite – one or two of them says, oh, boy  wouldn’t it be nice to be Ares right now  because you could have this beautiful  queen to yourself and so on and so on.

It’s a story that has a certain edginess to it, it pushes the boundaries of propriety and if it does to our eyes, well, it surely did to ancient eyes as well.  The tryst of Ares and Aphrodite was something that was fascinating to ancient commentators.  They were trying to figure out Homer was trying to tell us with this  tryst of, of Ares, the God of War and  Aphrodite, the Goddess of Love.  And what’s Hephaestus’ role in all this?  Well, the allegorists have a field day with this.  They jump on in and claim, in antiquity, that there are all kinds of hidden subterranean messages in this story.  One of them, Heraclitus from the first Century CE (not Heraclitus from  the pre-Socratic philosopher)  he was a  commentator on Homer’s poetry. He tells us that the union of Aphrodite, love and Ares of strife, is, is actually the union of love and strife. There’s laughter, surely, when the gods gather round, but it’s divine laughter because it’s a cause for joy when love and strife come together.  Never mind Heraclitus that they seem clearly to be laughing out of a snickering, sardonic kind of emotion, not out of joy, but it didn’t matter to Heraclitus.

Another idea claimed that this whole story was a comment on the art of blacksmithing.  So, we have fire, Hephaestus who softens iron, Ares by capturing him, and then we need to apply passion, here represented by Aphrodite to the work in order to be good blacksmiths.  And at the end it’s Poseidon who calls everything off and all the other gods are snickering and Poseidon says, no,  no, that’s enough.  Let’s let them free.  So, Heraclitus reads that as an indication that water, in a form of Poseidon holes the iron out and cools it off.

Another commentator from the first century  a man named Cornutus tells us that when  Aries and Aphrodite get together it’s kind  of adultery.  So fair enough and he says the brutal and the violent do not correspond well with the cheery and the gentle nor is one naturally intertwined with another but there is a noble offspring because the legend had it later on that after Ares and, and Aphrodite got together, there was indeed an issue from their romantic relationship and this is the god the deity Harmony.  So, we have, in Cornutus’ reading yes, it’s a representation of adultery but in the end harmony.  Something good comes out of the brutal and the violent and the cheery and the gentle coming together.

Finally, the author of The Life of Homer, an unknown person, who was known in antiquity as Plutarch, in the first century CE, writes this, Ares and Aphrodite are love and strife and they sometimes get together then there is harmony and sometimes they’re apart.  Helios denounces them, Hephaestus chains them, and Poseidon water, frees them.  He claims that it is clear from this that the hot, dry essence and its opposite the cold, wet one, sometimes draw the universe together, sometimes pull it apart.  So, there are lots of interpretations that get kicked off by this story that Demodocus tells us of Ares and Aphrodite. This probably still the  case today, it is the parts of it ancient  myths that seem to be the strangest, that  are the most disturbing to us, that are  the most provocative the most unsettling.  These are the parts of myth that draw the most attention and get the most commentary as people try to figure out what the heck just happened.  The Odyssey is an example from antiquity of a myth that gets told, retold, interpreted and reinterpreted.


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