The Massachusetts Medievalist contextualizes Odyssey 5-8

This week, #LesleyHomer will investigate books V-VIII of theOdyssey, which introduce the hero and set the stage for the most famous flashback in literary history.  We finally meet Odysseus, four books in, and he’s NOT super heroic when we first see him — in fact, he’s crying for home. Wilson tells us that “By day he sat / out on the rocky beach, in tears and grief, / staring in heartbreak at the fruitless sea” (V.157-159).  He does perform some more standard masculine achievement later in book five — he single-handedly builds an amazingly seaworthy raft, and then sails it expertly, unsleeping. Fagles provides this stunning image:

The wind lifting his spirits high, royal Odysseus
spread sail — gripping the tiller, seated astern —
and now the master mariner steered his craft,
sleep never closing his eyes, forever scanning
the stars…..  (V.295-299)

The contrast between the man crying on the beach and the man sailing the raft emblematizes Odysseus’s character. In the epic’s famous first line, Wilson calls Odysseus a “complicated man” (Fagles says “the man of twists and turns”), and he is indeed complicated.  He is mourning the loss of his home and family, but this heartbreak doesn’t keep him from sleeping with Calypso on a regular basis.  He initially ignores the advice of the sea-nymph Ino, but eventually realizes he’ll need to do as she instructed, leave his wrecked raft, and swim for shore with only her scarf to protect him. He cries some more at the various festivities at Alcinous’s palace, but rises to the challenge of masculine performance in athletics, easily beating all of the young whippersnappers at the discus throw (Wilson VIII.187).

I’d venture that it’s precisely this complicated-ness that makes Odysseus so appealing to us, thousands of years later.  He’s full of contradictions in his thoughts and actions, and those contradictions make him seem human. I certainly wouldn’t say that Odysseus is realistic but he does seem real to me. There are a number of moments in the epic when I’d like to strangle him for his arrogance and sexism, and an equal number where I’m cheering him on and would fight next to him if I could.

I mentioned in the intro post that Homer uses epithets throughout the epic both as mnemonic devices and as literary descriptors. While Athena is always “gray-eyed” and the sea is always “wine-dark,” Odysseus’s epithets change according to the the rhythm needed in the poetic line and according to the translator’s choices.  For instance, Fagles uses “long-enduring Odysseus” (V.190) and “worldly Odysseus” (V.237). Wilson seems to avoid epithets in their classic adjective-noun pairing as much as possible; for instance, she refers instead to “Odysseus, / informed by many years of pain and loss” (V.169-170). Other translators have settled on “crafty,” “clever,” “wily,” or “wise.”   Overall, Odysseus is characterized not by his martial skills or physical strength but by his experience, his wisdom, and his creative thinking (in book eight, we hear the Bard sing of Odysseus’s plan to construct the Trojan Horse – the tactic that won the Trojan War when more traditional military strategies had failed). His is heroism of brain, not brawn.

Finally, Books V-VIII set up Odysseus’s narration recounting his last ten years.  Book VIII ends with Alcinous asking Odysseus who he is, where he’s been, and where he’s going. The last time anyone saw Odysseus was at the end of the Trojan War, and the next set of books will provide Odysseus’s answers to those questions in flashback – thus providing one of the first framed narratives in western literature.


I’m hoping for some more comments and questions on this post than last time (thanks, Colin!), so here are some starter ideas- please use the comments function to ask questions and share ideas!

What are you thinking about Athena’s character and her role in the narrative? How does she inform your ideas about the gods in this text/culture? Can we discuss her as a “female character” (like Penelope or Nausicaa) or does divinity trump gender?

The nymph/minor goddess Calypso: does she qualify as an antagonist? Is she a positive or negative character? Or maybe both simultaneously?

Any ideas about the character Demodocus, a blind poet (just like Homer????), and his role in Odysseus’s diplomatic maneuverings?

2 Replies to “The Massachusetts Medievalist contextualizes Odyssey 5-8”

  1. Dr. D et al.,

    The further we get into the epic, the more I begin to see Athena as the hero of the story, rather than Odysseus himself. In a way, she acts as the story’s puppeteer, ensuring that the necessary interactions that will aid both Odysseus and Telemachus in their respective journeys occur at the right time. At the start of Book V, Zeus remarks that Athena herself is the mastermind behind Odysseus’ triumphant return, stating “Did you not plan all this yourself, so that/ Odysseus could come and take revenge upon those suitors?” (Wilson V.23) In books 5-8 alone she convinces Zeus to send Hermes to Calypso in order to free Odysseus, calms the tumultuous waters off the coast of Scheria to allow Odysseus a safe landing, convinces Nausicaa in her sleep to launder her clothes the next day where she will meet Odysseus, and even gives the princess the courage needed to converse with the hero prior to knowing his identity. What is interesting, and even perplexing to me is why she chooses to interact directly with Telemachus, though in disguise, while she remains behind the scenes in dealings with Odysseus. Perhaps this is because Odysseus has faith in both his own abilities and the gods’ existence, whereas Telemachus has room to mature and might require inspiration to act?
    I do not think Athena is a traditional”female character,” especially within the world of Homer. She has a greater sense of independence and a larger role in the goings on of the world compared to Penelope and Nausicaa, who are subject to the gender roles and hierarchies of their respective lands. Additionally, she often disguises herself as a male figure, thus avoiding any discrimination based on her gender. However, I do think she possesses a motherly quality of looking after, or caring for Telemachus and Odysseus, as she often brings relief to them during their times of need.

    As for Calypso, I wouldn’t say she is strictly positive or negative, but rather somewhere in between. Yes, Odysseus has been “retained” for seven years, but as Dr. D notes that doesn’t keep him from enjoying his time with the nymph, and he even spends one last romantic evening with her after he learns he is free to go. Wilson’s translation increased my sympathy for Calypso. When Hermes arrives and explains that Zeus has ordered him to petition for Odysseus’ release, she obeys. She was merely looking for love, and blames the gods for her inability to retain her mortal lover, “You cruel, jealous gods! You bear a grudge whenever any goddess takes a man/ to sleep with as a lover in her bed (Wilson V.118) I can’t help but feel sorry for the minor goddess’ longing for a partner, and considering that Odysseus was engaging in sexual encounters with her while his heart was really in Ithaca, it almost adds insult to injury for her situation.

    1. Nice thinking about Athena esp here – she is definitely driving the plot at this point! I also love the way she is able to make Odysseus both invisible (walking into the city) and extra-glamorous (when he rises in the athletics competition). Definitely a power we all could use!
      Maybe it makes more sense to compare Athena to Calyoso, since they are both deities, than to Penelope or Nausicaa. Calypso then seems so much more traditionally feminine, providing domestic and sexual comforts, while Athena is taking on a much more “masculine” role in the execution of the quest.

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