Most of us remember Homer’s epic tale from high school or college literature classes and never think to revisit the wonderful, exciting world of The Odyssey. Even those of us who enjoy the fantasy wrinkle our noses in distaste, not so much at the memory of the book but at our struggle with it. Try it again folks – there is really great stuff in this tale written somewhere around 700 BC., is mesmerizing and unforgettable. Once you begin to turn the pages you will be swept up in this story of two women, strangers, whose tragic secrets connect them and lead them on a journey toward emotional healing.
Don’t let the term “epic poem” throw you; that just means this story comes out of an oral tradition. Robert Fagles’ excellent translation makes reading this a pleasure. We start, of course, with the hero of the piece, Odysseus, who has been away from his home in Ithaca for twenty years. Odysseus, king of Ithaca and married to the beautiful Penelope, is the kind of man legends are built upon: he is a great warrior and seaman; good with his hands, he is praised as the best carpenter around; wonderful provider, he is the best marksman and hunter of boar among all his fellows; and, a favorite with women both mortal and immortal.
He does have his share of bad luck, however.
The story is divided into books. After the muses are cued and honored, Homer starts in the middle of the tale. Books 1-4 feature Telemachus, a young man around 21 or so who is the son of Odysseus and Penelope and must deal with the suitors surrounding his mother. One hundred men seek the queen’s hand in marriage, and because the society of the time views hospitality as a moral obligation, they are literally eating the queen and her son out of house and home - not to mention irritating the poor women to death trying to pressure her into marriage. Telemachus must become a man quickly, for the suitors want him dead and out of the way. Athena intervenes, sending the young man on a trip and allowing time and travel to season him so that upon Odysseus’s return, the king will have a strong right arm in his son.
Books 5-8 take the reader to the realms of the gods, and we find out the backstory of Odysseus and Poseidon. Athena, who is always in Odysseus’ corner, persuades Zeus that it’s time for our hero to be free of the beautiful nymph, Calypso, who has held him prisoner for seven years. Poseidon objects, for he bears a grudge against Odysseus for blinding his son, Polyphemus. He cuts the king no slack for self defense; Polyphemus, a cannibal who cares not one whit for the morals of hospitality, was trying to kill the king and his men, but that’s no excuse. Even a Cyclops has to eat, and Poseidon wants to square things for his son’s injury by making the road home as difficult as possible for Odysseus. Things are hashed out, and Calypso is given notice that her pet prisoner must be loosed.
The wanderings of Odysseus are chronicled in books 9-12. The wayfaring king meets yet more cannibals who sink all the companion ships with him. The lone ship reaches the isle of the lovely enchantress Circe, who may have well coined the notion that men are pigs. She doesn’t concern herself with the notion of hospitality either, at least not for the king’s men; they are turned into porkers while Odysseus becomes her lover for a year. The action continues as the weary king struggles homeward. He meets a six-headed monster, visits with his dead mom and a blind seer, and tears out his hair in frustration when his men eat the sacred cattle of the sun god.
Our faith in hospitality is restored in books 13-24. Odysseus is sent on his way by a group of people famous for sending wayfaring people to Ithaca and ultimately conquers all the problems at home with the help of loyal servants, his son, and of course, the watchful Athena.
This is wonderful reading, more exciting than any tale George Lucas or Stephen Spielberg has taken to the big screen. I hope it is still taught in public schools and offered up with the excitement and verve it deserves.