Monday 14 April 2014

The Odyssey (an Oral Tradition) by Homer

"Tell me, Muse, of the man of many ways, who was driven far journeys, after he had sacked Troy's sacred citadel."

It is nearly 20 years after the Trojan War and Ithaka is still without its king, Odysseus.  Anarchy reigns, as numerous suitors vie for the hand of his wife, Penelope, while ravaging his household goods and disrespecting his memory, and his son, Telemachos, is helpless to prevent them.  Has our hero perished in his quest to reach his homeland, or is he still alive somewhere, struggling to reach home?

The Odyssey begins in media res, or in the middle, where Odysseus is near the end of his journey, becoming shipwrecked on the land of the Phaiakians. These people, who we learn are very close to the gods, give Odysseus an audience for the retelling of his story and the various adventures he has experienced, while attempting to return home from the battlegrounds of Troy.

From a violent assault on the land of the Cicones, to narrowly escaping a drugged existence in the land of the Lotus-Eaters, Odysseus endangers his men by deciding to stay in the land of the Cyclops in hopes of gaining host-gifts, and they must set to perilous flight.  Poseidon, angered at the maiming of his Cyclops son, Polyphemus, plots their suffering and Odysseus and his men must endure captivity by Circe, an island goddess; a trip to the land of the Dead; a narrow escape from the Sirens, Scylla and Charybdis; and further imprisonment by the nymph, Calypso, lasting seven years, before he is released and lands on the island of the Phaiakians.  Yet, mainly because of the rage of Poseidon, but due also to Odysseus' and his men's misguided judgement, his whole crew is killed on the way home and he is left to continue the final part of his journey alone.

Fame and glory, or in Greek, kleos, are the most important values in this society. It appears that the suitors can disrespect and commandeer Odysseus' household, only because there is no story attached to his fate.  If he had died fighting in Troy, and therefore receiving a generous helping of fame and glory, this inheritance would have passed down to Telemachus, which would have engendered a reverence and respect among the people. It might not have prevented a few of the more aggressive suitors attempting to utilize their power, but Telemachos certainly would have received more support and sympathy from other Ithakan families.   Gifts and spoils are another aspect of fame and glory.  The more one acquires, the more renown is added to their reputations.  This perhaps explains why Odysseus pours on the charm with the Phaiakians, who bestow on him more gifts than he could have won at Troy, then taxi him to Ithaka, unaware that they have angered Poseidon, who turns their ship to stone in the harbour on their journey back.

The guest-host relationship, or in Greek, xenia, is another aspect of Greek culture unfamiliar to modern readers.  If a guest visits your house, you are required by the tenets of hospitality to give him food and shelter.  These acts are even more important than discovering his name and peoples, as we often see this information offered after the initial formalities are served.  The concept of xenia is emphasized because one never knows if one is hosting a man or a god.  As a modern reader, it was amusing to see poor Telemachos attempt to extricate himself from Menelaos' hospitality and avoid Nestor's, in an effort to avoid wasting time in the search for his father.  I'm certain amusement wasn't Homer's intention but it wasn't surprising as to the emphasis placed on this tradition.  Any deviation from this custom could result in dishonour and a possible feud with your potential host or guest.

1. Mt. Olympus   2. Troy   3. Kikonians   4. Lotus-Eaters   5. Cyclops
6. Aeolia's Island   7. Laestrygonians   8. Circe's Kingdom  9. Land of the Dead
10. Sirens   11. Scylla & Charybdis   12. Kalypso   13. Ithaka
source Nada's ESL Island

Greek literature has been a surprising passion of mine.  From my first read of The Iliad, I was hooked and I often wonder why?  The heroes are chiefly concerned with fame, glory, reputation, pillaging and the spoils of war; the gods are jealous, capricious, vindictive and possess far too many human traits for comfort.  Yet I think what draws me to these characters is that they are so real …….. fallible, vulnerable, imperfect, yet they exhibit these deficiencies through an heroic, courageous and larger-than-life persona. They have their customs and traditions, institutions designed to help their society flourish, and which are important enough to sacrifice happiness, comfort and, at times, even their lives, to preserve.

The Odyssey Read Along Posts:  Book I & II / Book III & IV /  Book V & VI /  Book VII & VIII /  Book IX & X /  Book XI & XII / Book XIII & XIV /  Book XV & XVI /  Book XVII & XVIII /  Book XIX & XX /  Book XXI & XXII /  Book XXIII & XXIV

A note on translations:  if you plan to read only one translation of The Odyssey, I would highly recommend Richard Lattimore's translation, as it is supposed to be closest to the original Greek, while also conveying well the substance of the story.  Fitzgerald is adequate but likes to embellish, and the Fagles translation …….. well, as one learned reviewer put it, "they are so colloquial, so far from Homeric that they feel more like modern adaptations than translations."  I would have to agree.

For people who are interested in introducing their children to the tales of Homer, there are a number of excellent books for children which I will list here:

This book counts as Plethora of Books Classic Club Spin, so I finished her book and my spin book, as well.  I'm going to give myself a pat on the back and less guilt for not finishing my previous spin book (yet). :-)

Translated by Richard Lattimore


  1. You've done so well on your series of posts! I'm still floundering :S

    I'm finding the Fagles translation easier - I remember what you said (I *think* it was you) about it being a bit "high school", but it works for me for that very reason! I'm thinking of re-starting it and getting a bit more involved with it as you did. I've not even come vaguely close to getting a grip on it so far!

    1. I know how dedicated you are to re-reading different works of literature, so, if you need Fagles to understand the gist of the story initially, certainly go with Fagles.

      The Odyssey didn't grab me the first time around (however, The Iliad did). Yet when I read it this time, the second time, I was able to focus much more on different subtleties and give a more thorough examination to the Greek culture, which was so interesting. So don't worry if you feel "mpeh!" after the first read …… I think (hope) you'll then appreciate it more after you read it again. Or perhaps I'm just a weird ancient Greek literature geek …….. ;-)

    2. I'm considering putting it down for now and re-reading The Iliad first. Really want to read them both and then go back to Ulysses. I need a plan! :)

    3. Well, The Iliad is my favourite so I certainly wouldn't dissuade you! ;-) Actually, I find The Iliad and The Odyssey very different, especially if you examine the actions and behaviour of the gods. There is no real benefit that I can see to reading them "in order". Try the Great Courses lectures if you really have trouble. They go on sale quite often and are a good tool for understanding. For The Iliad, I used A Companion to The Iliad which was really helpful but it is based on the Lattimore translation. Good luck with your quest! Consolation of Reading blog is reading Ulysses (Joyce) at the moment and is doing an excellent job of noting where it intersects with The Odyssey. It is almost making me want to read Joyce ……. almost …….. ;-)

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  2. Ditto. You are doing an amazing job. Homer intimidates me.

    I have two copies of The Odyssey, and neither are Lattimore or anyone you mention. (I do have Lattimore's translation of The Iliad.)

    And we have all of the children's versions you listed, which we love. They are perfect for getting acquainted with Homer. In fact, we are starting a new Ancients-Classical year this fall. Another excuse to read them all over again.

    1. Thanks, Ruth! I did have a companion book and a Goodreads group for support when I read The Iliad but I kind of just stumbled through the Odyssey. I'm so happy I chose to read it again.

      Hey, we are starting the Ancients too this fall. I already have a large reading list for my daughter. She's read some of the Greek plays ….. Sophocles and Euripides ….. but I'm looking forward to introducing her to Homer.

    2. How old is your daughter?

      My younger ones will read the children's versions, but I want my 14-yr. old to read the Iliad, Odyssey, and Aeneid in their original. (She'll be 15 by then.)

      Maybe this fall I'll be reading them along with her.

    3. My daughter is 15 now and will still be that age when fall rolls around. She has her own classics list and this year has read Frankenstein, A Tale of Two Cities, Robinson Crusoe and is presently reading Vanity Fair. She shouldn't have a problem with The Iliad ……. she uses the Classical Writing curriculum and their literature component challenges the students with the books chosen, and the examples they use for teaching writing are often from ancient texts, so she's pretty familiar with the language.

      I've scheduled her to read The Iliad and The Odyssey but left out the Aeneid. I read through all three in a row and found it really burnt me out. But it's certainly doable. I'm going to play it by ear and see how it goes.

    4. That's what I am afraid of - getting burnt out. But I want her to enjoy the stories more than anything, and she is already familiar with them and the characters. So I think I am going to stick with the best versions for simple, plain English.

      For example, my Lattimore trans. of Iliad looks like prose, but my Palmer and Rieu translations of the Odyssey seem to be plain English and easier to read. So, I think I'll go that route. We'll see...

    5. It would really help if you read them first (you didn't want to hear that, did you? ;-) ) You could then explain any parts that may be unclear to her. I feel MUCH more equipped having read them to be able to teach them.

      I really like the re-tellings and certain simplified versions for younger children. They are so helpful for cementing the basic story. However, I tend to shy away from these versions when they are older because they are at an age when they should, with a little work, be able to understand "the original", and by reading the simplified versions you are not really reading Homer. Homer is verse, which is a large part of its beauty and grandeur. For example, pretend someone re-wrote a Wordsworth poem in rap. Of course, it would be understandable to a rapper and he might get some of the meaning, but it wouldn't really be reading Wordsworth, KWIM? And certain simplified versions tend to get away from what Homer actually wrote. For example, Butler appears to have tried to improve on Homer (he doesn't), so you are not getting Homer, but Homer and Butler (I may even say Butler and Homer). :-Z Even Fitzgerald embellishes but not enough to detract from the original. I actually quite like him but I know some purists don't.

      Don't let the verse intimidate you, honestly it is very similar to reading prose. One of my Odyssey reading buddies was completely intimidated by Lattimore, but once she read him, she found he wasn't nearly as difficult as first anticipated.

      You also may be able to get the Great Courses lectures (Iliad, Odyssey & Aeneid) at your library, if you don't want to purchase them. Elizabeth van Diver, the lecturer, is excellent and they are very helpful.

      In any case, whatever you decide your children will move further along in their classical journey! And we can compare notes when the year is over! :-)

    6. Well, I have to read Homer for TWEM poetry, which is years from now, and I guess it would not hurt to do it now if it will help my daughter. And I believe Bauer suggests prose (Fitzgerald, Fagles, Lattimore) anyway. I still have a lot of planning and research to do for the school year, so I have not made up my mind what to do. Thanks for the suggestions.

    7. It's hard to know which path to take sometimes. You just have to start and then the clues from your children decide which way you go. All the best with your planning!