The Massachusetts Medievalist introduces the Odyssey

Welcome to #LesleyHomer! The opening four books of the Odyssey comprise the initial installment for our online reading group, but first some very basic items about the epic as a whole (note that citations are to book # in upper-case Roman numeral and line # in Arabic numerals; exact line references may vary depending on the translation you are using):

The actual Trojan War (the Greek attack on Troy – see maps here if your edition doesn’t provide some) probably happened around 1200 BCE. In the years following the war, an enormous literary tradition grew up telling, embellishing, and inventing the stories of the various characters in the war; the most famous of these narratives are Homer’s Iliad (which tells the story of only a few days towards the end of the war and not even the actual end) and Odyssey (the story of Odysseus’s 10-year journey home to Ithaca from Troy).

The epic was created orally in a nonliterate tradition: yes, that means that highly specialized bard-poets could recite all of Odyssey (twelve thousand lines) and probably Iliad too (fifteen thousand lines). While there is a lot of academic speculation about the power and process of memory in preliterate cultures, all we can really say for sure is that poets used formulas as mnemonic devices as they performed the poem. These formulas fit smoothly into the meter of the poem; that’s why we hear repeatedly about “gray-eyed Athena,” the “wine-dark sea,” and the rosy fingers of the dawn.  Note repetition between sections as well, as when Athena gives Telemachus instructions I.325 and then he basically repeats but adapts them II.238. Because of this oral composition, it’s usual to speak of when the Odyssey was composed rather than when it was written.

As you read, remind yourself that this poem was originally performed aloud for a group, probably semi-enacted and with musical accompaniment. Each performance would have been slightly different, as performers adapted, expanded, or curtailed the “text” as their abilities and audiences required. (We have a cool kind of meta-performance example I.375, when the bard sings a song in Odysseus’s hall).

The poem as we have it – preserved in various written forms that date from about 700 BCE– may have been compiled and refined by a blind poet named Homer. Alternately, “Homer” may simply be a legendary figure.

The Odyssey uses the same literary form as the Iliad: dactylic hexameter (the form’s wikipedia page is actually pretty solid if you want more detail).

Onward! The first four books of the Odyssey are often referred to as the “Telemachy,” kind of a quasi-stand-alone section that provides exposition for whole epic but also sets up a segment of the narrative as a coming-of-age story for Telemachus, who’s almost 21 (Odysseus himself does not appear in these first four books). Athena even tells Telemachus, “It’s time you were a man” (I.342) and he begins that process in I-IV.

Undergraduates are often confused by logistical questions that address Telemachus’s issues with the suitors: why are they in his house, consuming his wealth? Why can’t he make them leave? Answers to those questions are connected to his transition into adulthood.

Telemachus and his mother Penelope are in socially, politically, and financially precarious positions because of his age.  He is not strong enough to assume his father’s place as King of Ithaca (which would put Penelope in the somewhat comfortable role of dowager/widowed Queen). However, he is old and strong enough to be a problem for anyone else looking to assume Odysseus’s place.

If Odysseus is dead, then Penelope is a very rich, young-enough, and beautiful widow with no powerful adult male looking out for her interests. While Telemachus and others suggest that he could return her to her father, who would then assume the financial burden of her remarriage, it’s evident that many of the suitors are much more interested in moving directly into Odysseus’s social and political position through marriage to Penelope. Neither Penelope nor Telemachus is interested in such a marriage for her, but as the epic opens they can’t make the suitors leave for a number of reasons:

First off, they can’t violate the divine laws of hospitality. A guest must be fed and clothed and sheltered (note how Telemachus immediately offers food, clothing, cleanliness, and a bed to Athena disguised as Mentes). Since the suitors at one point were welcomed as guests, it could anger the gods to force them to leave (although Telemachus frequently expresses how much he would like to do that).

Second, he doesn’t have the military or political strength to make them leave on his own.  There are a lot of suitors, and they are all older (probably 25-35) than he is. He can’t act the Alpha-Male with veiled threats against them; they know he couldn’t back up any of those threats and he doesn’t have any powerful political/military allies in Ithaca. As we see in the council, some of the older men sympathize with his position but also don’t have the status or force it would take to get the suitors to leave.

Third, the suitors are taking advantage of Penelope’s maneuverings against them. In book II, Antinous blames her for leading them on, saying that she would choose one of them once she had woven her father-in-law’s funeral shroud (a dutiful, pious act that they would never interfere with).  Since she was un-weaving at night what she had woven during the day, she would never finish the shroud; they discovered her ploy and forced her to finish it, bringing her to deadline. But since she still hasn’t chosen, they are feasting at Odysseus’s/her house every day, consuming her wine and other high-status goods, forcing themselves sexually on the female slaves, giving orders as if they are trying out the role of master of the house. Telemachus is old enough to deeply resent this behavior (rightfully) but not yet mature or powerful enough to do anything about it.

Part of Telemachus’s journey to Pylos and Sparta, then, is to begin that process. He is seeking for information about his father–the official purpose of the journey — but he is also making friends, meeting allies, and getting experience of the world outside Ithaca.

So much more to think about as you reflect on books I-IV! But I hope that’s a good start — Looking forward to comments and questions from group members!

2 Replies to “The Massachusetts Medievalist introduces the Odyssey”

  1. Hello Dr. D et al,

    It was interesting to observe the theme of hospitality throughout books 1-4. In the introduction to the 2017 translation, Emily Wilson outlines the relevance of xenia (or hospitality) in the world of the Odyssey, noting “it was the responsibility of male householders to offer hospitality of this kind to any visitor” (Wilson 24). What stood out to me was Telemachus’ handling of this concept. Despite a lack of confidence in his transition into adulthood, which is evident in his shyness and his inability to ward off the suitors, he is able to fulfill the rites of xenia for his guest Mentes ( or Athena). When his guest first arrives, Telemachus immediately provides comfortable accommodations, including luxurious foods and a thorough washing, before inquiring as to the reason for their visit. He additionally offers Athena another bath after their meal and subsequent conversation, and does not delay her departure once learning of the urgent nature of her visit.

    After reading about Telemachus’ time with Nestor and Menelaus, it appears to me that Telemachus’ hosting abilities are on par (albeit slightly different) with these neighboring members of nobility, who are notably his own father’s peers. Telemachus clearly has more potential and maturity than he gives himself credit for.

    I’m excited to trace this character’s growth throughout the epic, especially with the influence of Athena, which has already given him the courage necessary to speak out against the suitors, to set out in search of news on his father, and to socialize with powerful leaders.

    1. Really good points here — I wonder if T is looking for father figures in general, since Odysseus hasn’t exactly been around? So Menelaus is a role model in so many ways — as host (as Colin astutely notes), as successful warrior, as king/leader……

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