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Lecture on the Odyssey

Ian Johnston


In any discussion of the Odyssey, we might begin by acknowledging that this is an extraordinarily influential book, not simply for the ancient Greeks but throughout Western culture. It has for centuries been one of the most perennially popular classics, both for general readers and for aspiring artists in all sorts of genres from lyric poetry to the visual arts. It has influenced the literature of the entire world and continues to do so to a remarkable extent—both in the high culture and in popular culture (from James Joyce’s Ulysses to television’s Xena the Warrior Princess or Hercules). In this lecture today, I hope to offer a few possible reasons for that extraordinary and continuing popularity and influence.

However, apart from discussing the Odyssey directly, I would also like to consider two related matters: first, some introductory remarks about the epic nature of this narrative and about its celebrated author and then as we proceed some comparisons between the world we encounter in this fiction and the one you have just finished dealing with in the Book of Genesis.

A Brief Historical Note: Homer

Before attending to such a lofty goal, however, let me say a very few introductory words about Homer himself or herself or themselves. I'm not a great fan of historical introductions, but a few words might be in order before we move into the poem.

Homer is the name of the person traditionally credited with the authorship of two major epic poems, the Iliad and the Odyssey, each consisting of twenty-four book of hexameter verse in an ancient Greek dialect. The first deals with some very famous incidents in the tenth year of the Trojan War, with special attention to the greatest warrior in the Greek forces, Achilles, and the second deals with the ten-year return from that war of a prominent leader of the Greek force, Odysseus, King of Ithaca. In addition to these two works, to Homer is attributed a number of short poems addressed to the gods, the so-called Homeric hymns.

There has been a very long debate about the identity of Homer. From the material in the poems, we estimate that the works which bear his name were composed in the middle of the eighth century BC, around 750 BC. The stories that he tells are about a time well before that, probably around 1100 BC (about the time of the historical events narrated in Exodus). Particular details of Homer's life, his identity, and his times are all totally obscure, except what we can glean from the poems themselves or from archaeological clues. There is virtually no other reliable sources of information.

The Greeks themselves believed that Homer was a single person, by tradition a blind poet, who composed and sang his songs to entertain the nobles. Many believed and still believe that the bard Demodocus in the Odyssey is a self-portrait. A number of cities, particularly ones on the coast of Asia Minor, claimed him as a native of their communities.

It seems clear that these poems were composed before the introduction of writing into Greece (one of the major differences you should notice between the Old Testament and the Odyssey is the total absence of writing in the latter and the extreme importance of it in the former). Hence, Homer, whoever he was, composed the works orally, committed them to memory, and recited them on demand, perhaps with a certain amount of improvisation to take into account the particular preferences of his audience. The poems were not written down in anything like the form we know about them until the sixth century BC, when the Athenian tyrant Pisistratus, as part of his attempt to boost Athenian culture, committed the poems to writing.

For the past two hundred years at least, since the rise of modern Homer scholarship, there has been considerable argument whether this traditional account of Homer is correct. Some have held that no single poet could have written two such different poems as the Iliad and the Odyssey, that the latter poem has such a feminine sensibility, especially by contrast to the very tough warrior ethic of the Iliad, that it might well have been written by a woman.  At any rate, it seems a much later composition by a very different sensibility. Others have claimed that the term Homer refers to a family of bards entrusted with memorizing, embellishing, performing, and passing on these ancient poems over a period of many centuries. Still others have maintained that the name Homer refers to the person or persons who put together a number of different traditional poems to create these two epics (hence, the author was more an editor or compiler than the original source of both poems). And so on. Since there is no strong independent evidence (i.e., material outside the texts themselves) to support or refute any of these conflicting ideas, no consensus has emerged about the author's identity.

The ancient Greeks certainly had no doubts about the historical events of the Trojan War, which they dated at roughly 1200 BC. Early modern scholarship tended to write off any historical basis for the two poems, claiming that the Trojan War was simply a marvellous fiction invented by Homer. That view was challenged very abruptly by the excavations by a rich German merchant Heinrich Schliemann of Hissarlik in Turkey (1870-1890).  Schliemann based his search for the site on the geographical details provided in the Iliad. There he uncovered the remains of a settlement which had clearly suffered violent destruction at approximately the traditional dates of the Trojan expedition (i.e., c. 1200 BC). One should note, however, that the site also raised a number of questions about the validity of identifying the unearthed city with Troy, so the old controversy has not entirely disappeared, but the number of those prepared to concede a historical basis for the Trojan War has substantially increased.

What is indisputable is that these two poems acquired in ancient Greece, and especially in Athens, an extraordinary authority, forming the closest thing to a sacred text which the Greeks shared. Homer's poetry became not simply a treasury of ancient history but also a vital source of moral instruction, and Achilles and Odysseus, the two heroes, become the great role models in traditional Greek thinking about how one should live one's life. It is the closest thing the Ancient Greeks had to a bible (although one should not push this comparison too hard, for among the Greeks there were many stringent critics of Homer).

You will be encountering a significant indication of the importance of Homer in traditional Greek thinking and education in Plato's Republic. For Plato is very conscious that, in challenging Greek traditions so radically, the great presence he has to confront and answer is Homer himself, the single most important cultural authority for a traditional view of life which Plato wishes to challenge. That is the reason why so much of his discussion of what is most appropriate in poetry and fiction generally involves a critical assessment of Homer's poetry in a series of arguments that would have shocked many members of his audience, for whom the authority of Homer was paramount.

There is not time here to trace the extraordinarily complicated transmission of the stories in these poems and of the texts themselves into our culture. They have certainly had a profound influence, but it is often difficult to account for direct influence of Homer’s text until fairly modern times, because the stories and characters of the poems were often filtered through other people's adaptations of Homer or other writer's versions of events which Homer first delivers, so that over time many additional details were added to Homer's stories and characters were often reinterpreted (e.g., for the Middle Ages Achilles is famous as a lover, Odysseus becomes a great villain, the great deceiver and liar). Homer’s text was not available in Western Europe until the fifteenth century, so that the countless versions of the Trojan War during the Middle Ages were all derived from other sources (e.g., in Dante’s Inferno).

The Odyssey as an Epic Poem

The Odyssey and the Iliad are commonly called epic poems, a term derived from one of the Greek words for poetry, and this phrase is applied to a certain style of writing based, in large part, on the models and criteria established by Homer's work, an extremely important form in the history of Western literature, since composing an epic work was for a long time considered the highest achievement a writer could attain.  So we might spend a few moments considering what this term means.

An epic poem, following the example of Homer, is a long narrative poem organized in a series of books (usually twelve or twenty four).  The story characteristically begins in the middle of the action and fills in the details of past events in various ways as the narrative proceeds.  What gives the long work its epic character, however, is its scope.  These works present the reader with what amounts to a comprehensive vision of experience at a particular cultural moment.  So the poem is not merely a long story about particular people in particular places; it is also a detailed cultural and spiritual map, delineating an entire belief system, the very basis of a civilization.  This map will include, among other things, what certain groups of people believe about themselves, about their relationship with the divine, about their sense of the past and future, about nature, both civilized and wild, and about what is most important in life.  In other words, the epic quality of an epic poem emerges from the way in which it holds up for our inspection an entire way of life.  For that reason, a really useful way to come to an understanding of a particular historical culture is to explore it famous epic poetry (if there is any), and you will be doing that when you read this poem and other works later in Liberal Studies and in English courses if you are taking any (particularly Dante's Inferno and Milton's Paradise Lost).

One of the most curious historical facts about epic poems is that they tend to get written when the civilization they are celebrating is clearly passing away or has disappeared completely.  Homer's poems are about a culture which no longer exists in quite the same manner in his day.  And Dante's Inferno and Malory's Morte D'Arthur, two famous epics of the Middle Ages, were written at a time when that cultural moment was changing forever or had largely disappeared.  And Milton's great religious epic, Paradise Lost, was created after the defeat of the Protestant experiment with Cromwell's Commonwealth.

The epic character of the Odyssey is readily apparent.  The poem takes us on a long journey to various centres of civilization, explores many different aspects of the wilderness, subjects a civilization's values, as these manifest themselves in the hero and heroine and the minor characters, to a series of tests, and illuminates for us the relationship between the gods and mortals, the present and the past, visions of this life and the next.  It thus offers us a valuable and detailed picture of a particular culture's sense of what it means to be a civilized, moral, and excellent human being.

In recent times, epic narratives have tended to be written in prose (for example, War and Peace or Moby Dick), and the epic novel has largely replaced the traditional epic poem as the highest summit of the creative writer's art.

Some Comments on the Structure and Style of the Odyssey

Before getting to what I really want to discuss in detail—that is the vision of life in the Odyssey and the character of the hero, I must first, however cursorily, acknowledge one great source of the pleasure we derive from reading this poem: its structure, that is, the way in which the narrative is organized.

One of the first things that strikes many readers about the Odyssey, especially in contrast to, say, the Iliad or even much of the Old Testament, is that we are clearly here in the presence of a very sophisticated story teller who is manipulating certain conventions of fiction in remarkable ways. For instance the narrative line of the Odyssey lays down two stories initially—the first one focusing on Telemachus and Penelope and events in Ithaca, and the second, which does not begin until Book V, focusing on the hero Odysseus. And when we begin to follow Odysseus's adventures, we have to keep close track of where we are, because the narrative uses a number of flashbacks, interruptions, and time shifts. The two narrative lines come together when the father and son are reunited in Book XVI, and the two stories march together to their common conclusion.

I don't propose today to explore the importance of this structure in detail, but I would like to call attention to one or two contributions it makes. When we think of the Odyssey, we tend to concentrate much of our focus on Odysseus himself, and certainly most of the really famous incidents from this poem concern the adventures of the main hero. But if we read the poem carefully, we should note just how much emphasis the structure gives to Odysseus's family, especially to his wife and son. In a way, the narrative emphasis in the structure puts pressure on us to see in this story more than just the memorable events in the hero's life, reminding us that this story is also about a family and about how each of the principal members of that family plays an important role in the successful reunion and the restoration of a traditional ruling household.

What's remarkable about this (and also very frustrating) is that such an obviously sophisticated narrative skill cannot just arise from nothing. For it presupposes, not just an artist educated to use conventions in this way, but also an audience familiar enough with such matters to follow what is going on. So we are very safe in assuming that the Odyssey could not have been sui generis—produced in a cultural vacuum all of a sudden. It presupposes a tradition of some sort and an audience familiar enough with that tradition to follow narrative complexities. And yet we have no trace of that tradition (other than the sibling epic, the Iliad). So here we have what is obviously the product of a long tradition of story telling, a work so remarkable that even today the Odyssey can serve as really useful instruction manual for writers wishing to study the ways in which plot construction and chronological variety can serve all sorts of vital artistic purposes, and yet we have no details whatsoever of the tradition out of which it arose, any of the other works on whose shoulders Homer, whoever he or she or they were, built.

This structure, in which different stories are going on at the same time and we are shifting back and forth between them, creates a very different effect than the narrative style of the Old Testament, where there is an apparently much simpler narrative line which is always dynamically thrusting ahead into new events. Here there is what I like to call an almost spatial organization of incidents, as if at one moment we are seeing one corner of a grand picture, then shifting to another, and then moving to another, and then going back to the first, and so on—with everything, in a sense, simultaneously present (including events from the past). This helps to create something I’ll have more to say about before I finish—a very different sense of time than we see in the Genesis narrative, for instance.

Reinforcing this sense of a spatial emphasis is the distinctive style in which Homer tells his story. There is not time to go into this in detail, but I would like briefly to mention a very famous essay on this subject which I recommend highly, the essay "Odysseus’ Scar," the first chapter of Erich Auerbach’s remarkable book Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature. In this essay Auerbach discusses how Homeric story telling is leisurely and digressive, with everything fully illuminated in long descriptions of past events or beautiful places and leisurely conversations at length. There is no attempt to move quickly or to generate suspense (Auerbch's well-known example of this technique, from which the essay takes its title, is the long digression right in the middle of the significant moment when the nurse is about to recognize Odysseus). What matters here is external description rather than psychological depth, historical development, or narrative suspense. The style celebrates the rich and fully detailed spatial surfaces of life. One of the great pleasures of reading the Odyssey comes from this vividly interesting and yet apparently relaxed way in which the story is told.

Auerbach contrasts this with the style of the Old Testament, focussing in particular on the story of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac. If you can remember that story, the differences in the styles becomes immediately apparent. In that Genesis story, there is no emphasis on external description. We don’t know what Abraham and Isaac look like, nor do we have any clearly detailed picture of the location. And there is virtually no conversation.  What we do have is a very compressed, terse, suspenseful story in which the overriding concern is the psychology of Abraham. Will he carry out God’s wishes and sacrifice his son? This crucial moment in Abraham’s life takes only a few lines (it’s much shorter than the description of how Odysseus got his scar), and the effect depends upon compression and upon what is left out. One can imagine how Homer might have told this story—it would have taken him a full book, and the effect would have been very different.

The Vision of Life

Now, however, I would like to direct our attention onto the world we confront in this epic. What are we to make of it? A good place to start might be to ask the following question: What is about this ancient poem, composed more than 2500 years ago, that makes it such a lasting pleasure for readers, more immediately accessible to modern students, for example, than almost any other ancient text?

What I'd like to suggest, first of all, is that this poem is a wonderful celebration of things which human beings have always particularly cherished, even today in these very different times. When we read this work we find in its value system and vision of the world a confirmation of many things we would most like to celebrate as well.

And what are those things? Well, briefly put, they are the peaceful joys available in a world in which the main concerns of human beings are family, friends, works of art, good food, conversation, hospitality, leisure, entertainment—a life dedicated to human warmth, security, and pleasure in good company, especially in our own families and communities. Again and again in the Odyssey we witness scenes where these qualities are celebrated and endorsed. The world may often be dangerous, the main characters may be growing older, and we are certainly conscious of evil lurking here and there; nevertheless life is full of joys, and it is entirely right and proper that we should find in them the guiding purposes of life.

I've made a large claim in a short space, and I hope to expand on this claim in more detail in this lecture. But it should be clear enough, I think, that we understand a vision of life like this easily enough. The idea that hearth and home can and should be the centres of our lives, that we find our proper justification in the everyday qualities that an appropriately respected and protected home life provides—this idea is still, I would argue, one of our most cherished visions. Indeed, many of us spend much of our lives trying to create and sustain just such a life (with entertainment centres instead of blind harpers, six packs instead of mixing bowls of wine, and so on). Certainly most of us would prefer to strive for that than to wander for forty years in the arid wilderness eating nothing but manna hoping for the promised land or risking death every day in an endless siege all for the sake of an enduring military glory.

I'm going to have a lot more to say about this later on. But think for a moment just how much of this poem is taken up with the pleasures of domestic hospitality—the eating, drinking, story telling, music, intimate conversations, warm beds, perfumed baths, dancing, beautiful architecture and silverware—all that "cozy eroticism" that transforms everyday events into something joyful and worthwhile. Coleridge called the Odyssey that "eating poem," and one sees what he means—at every stage people are sitting down together and stuffing themselves, taking part in what must be the oldest and most frequent communal social ritual, a shared meal at which anonymous guests are welcome.

Moreover, let us consider for a moment the most obvious organizing principle of this story—it focuses on the return home by the head of the family and the continuing attempts of those left behind to sustain the home until such a return. Throughout the story the preservation and the strengthening of the traditional home is the overriding value before which others must give way.

We learn early in the poem from the gods themselves that this universe has a single coherent and binding moral principle, that the home must be respected. There are many references (about ten or more) throughout the poem to the famous story of Agamemnon, the leader of the Greek expedition against Troy, who was murdered by his wife, Clytaemnestra, and her lover, Aegisthus, and of his son, Orestes, who avenged the murder by killing Aegisthus. This story—along with the unequivocal approval of the gods for the actions of Orestes—acts as a repetitive reminder of the single overriding moral principle of this universe, as important in this world as the commandments brought down from Mount Sinai by Moses are in the world of the Old Testament.

In other words, central to the vision of the Odyssey is the upholding of the major moral principle of the universe: the value of the home. This is, if you like, the ethical norm established in the poem both in the commandments of the gods and the actions of the principal characters. And Homer in the early books makes sure we see just what that home life really means, in the courts of Nestor and Menelaus. This enables us to understand clearly enough what is going wrong with all the suitors messing things up in Ithaca and why Odysseus, when we meet him, so values his home.

This particular point comes out here and throughout the poem on the special emphasis given to women. In the underworld Odysseus has a long conversation with his mother, and he and Agamemnon talk about wives—faithful and unfaithful. It seems that what is of most concern here is the family and the preservations of what it stands for and particularly for those women who are in charge of maintaining the home.  In marked contrast to the Iliad and to the Old Testament, the Odyssey gives special value to those women who successfully nurture their homes: Helen, Arete, and, above all, Penelope. These women concern themselves a great deal with the proper forms of hospitality, with making sure everyone is comfortable, getting enough to eat, easing their daily cares in the communal rituals of the home. Whereas in the Iliad, women in general have a very inferior value (in the chariot races the first prize for the winner is a cauldron, while the second prize is a woman skilled in crafts), here women stand at the very centre of what makes life most worthwhile, and thus it is not surprising that the reunion with Penelope and the various tests which Odysseus must undergo before she is prepared to accept him are a decisive part of the climactic movement of the poem. And it is also clear that the home is still there for Odysseus to come back to because of the intelligence, courage, and love of Penelope. It is thus fitting that the final test Odysseus must undergo is controlled by his wife (who, one might very well sense, has already recognized him, but who is going to insist that, in this instance, he answers to her).

There is, of course, another group of women—the temptresses, the wild women, those who lure the adventurer into the wilderness so that he will never return: the Sirens, Circe, Calypso. These women are divine and surpassingly beautiful, with magical powers and eternal life. They surely tempt Odysseus. But they are not his home. That for Odysseus is defined by Penelope—and he prefers human life in a civilized home to eternal life on an enchanted island.

The Gods as Visual Manifestations of the Divine

The mention of the gods in connection with the overriding moral principle I have referred to brings us to what Homer is particularly famous for: his creation of the gods and goddesses. No one who reads the Odyssey can fail to appreciate that these divinities are important. But we might well wonder how we are supposed to deal with them, especially given our very different Christian, Jewish, or Muslim traditions. Just what do they represent? 

For a long time, a number of interpreters neutralized any challenge this vision of the divine might have for us by insisting that these gods and goddesses were not intended seriously, that they simply a delightful poetic creation and had little to do with serious religious belief.  That view of the matter is surely inadequate, for at least two important reasons.  The first is that characters in the poem certainly take their gods and goddesses very seriously: they are the central issue in their beliefs about the world.  To dismiss them as mere poetical delights overlooks (and is perhaps meant to overlook) the important and serious religious vision at work in this poem.  The second reason is that we know that the classical Greeks took their gods very seriously and organized their religious life around worshipping them.  And Homer's depiction of the gods was a vitally important shaping influence in developing that religion.  So it seems clear we need to treat them as significant, too.

On a very obvious level, any depiction of gods and goddesses which we are inclined to take seriously is a very clear indication of how people who believe in those gods conceive of their world and themselves. One of the most immediate ways to understand why particular people behave the way they do is to examine carefully the nature of the gods they believe in, particularly in the relationship between the divine and the human which that belief endorses. Hence, to get an intelligent grasp on the world of the Odyssey, we must see how a faith in such divine presences shapes a very particular understanding of the world, an understanding that is extraordinarily different from what we see in the Israelites in the Old Testament.

Homer's divine universe is plural and made up of innumerable creatures who are recognizably like human beings. In many ways they are indistinguishable from human beings except for three things: their immortality, their power, and their beauty. The world of the Odyssey, like that of the Iliad, conceives of these gods in very sharp relief, in very particular visual detail. This, of course, is in marked contrast to the single God of the Old Testament who has no clear physical shape and who manifests Himself above all through his power and His voice, but never in a detailed physical form.

The world of the Odyssey is one which thus sees the ruling powers of the world, the forces which control everything which goes in nature and human life, as huge beautiful humanlike beings. These divinities, we should note, exist everywhere in nature. Poseidon, for example, is god of the sea, and the sea is the place where he resides. But in a complex sense Poseidon, along with a host of minor deities, also is the sea. In the same way, a eagle flying up in the sky may be a messenger from Zeus, an omen of Zeus, or even Zeus himself. The entire world of nature is permeated by divinities, major and minor, and one cannot easily draw a line between nature and the divinities which shape and control it.

This, too, is in marked contrast to the Old Testament, and marks one of the greatest differences between the Hebrew and the Greek ways of conceiving the world. In the Old Testament and in the religions derived from it (including Christianity) there is a sharp line between a single God and His created nature. We recognize in the nature the work of God, manifestations of His glory, excellence, and benevolence, but we do not worship nature as divine—that is one of the oldest heresies, and religions derived from the Old Testament have waged a constant war against it.

Hence the curious difference: in Greek religion the only truly holy things are places, usually natural environments (groves, mountains, valleys) and the gods who live there or who are themselves manifest in the natural environment; in religions derived from the Old Testament, especially Christianity, by contrast, only people are holy. There may be some special places (like Mount Sinai), but they derive their sacred character from a holy person associated with them (some miracle or martyrdom or magnificent service to God), not because they are divine. And when Christianity turned against the pagan world in the fourth century AD, its agents attacked the holy places with a vengeance (there is even a Christian saint whose holiness derives from the zeal with which he chopped down trees).

The intimate union between the gods and nature throughout the poem also presents us with a particular vision of the wilderness. In the Old Testament there is a good deal of wilderness, but it serves as a test of the Israelites; there is little sense that it has a beauty and an allure of its own.  It is, by contrast, harsh and almost entirely sterile.   The great danger for the Israelites is not that they will succumb to the temptations of a lush and seductive nature; it is that they will give up their faith that beyond the wilderness lies a land of milk and honey which they will soon reach.

In the Odyssey much of nature is beautiful, mysterious, and fecund—food grows on Polyphemos' island without any cultivation, and Calypso's place is like a natural paradise. But the wilderness is also dangerous for two reasons: brute monsters live there (and we know they are brute monsters because, like Polyphemos, they have no clothes, lots of hair, strange physiognomy (one eye, for example), and they eat people. The vision here is ambiguous—the wilderness is magical, divine, a source of inspiration, seductive song, even health; on the other hand, it is dangerous, a place where people get killed or go mad or lose their will to seek out civilization. This particular attitude, typical of a great deal of classical literature, has proved to be very influential throughout our history, especially during those periods when people generally knew very little about the real wilderness except what they heard about in old stories.

If you want to know why, for example, for decades after the voyages of Columbus the reports and illustrations of the natives of North America pictures them as naked giants covered with hair, with huge clubs, cannibalistic habits, and often deformed or abnormal faces, one factor that you will have to take into account is that this was the way Europe had for hundreds and hundreds of years understood the wilderness, drawing on Greek legends, the Odyssey, and various adaptations of it to fit the new world into what they knew from their traditions the wilderness must look like.

The detailed physical sense of the Homeric gods is important to note, too, especially in comparison with the God of the Old Testament, who forbids any graven images, who wants obedience to His words not to his image. In the Odyssey generally you will notice that there an enormous amount of visual detail, of the sort generally absent from the Old Testament. How the gods look is important, just as it is important how beautiful places look (like the palace of Menelaus or the paradisal gardens of Calypso). By contrast, in the Old Testament we are almost never given any sense of the appearance of anything, and no one ever stops, like Odysseus or Telemachus, lost in amazement at the sheer aesthetic beauty of a particular place or person.

What does matter in the Old Testament is the process of building something, especially something ordered by God, just as what matters about people and events is not what they look like but what they contribute to the unfolding story of the Israelites. The God of the Old Testament speaks, and things happen—in fact, the Hebrew word for speak is linked etymologically with the verb to act. So in that vision of life there is a very dynamic world controlled by a single divine force which is driving things forward all the time—what matters is the event, not a detailed description of how it happened or even of who participated in it.

In the Odyssey, by contrast, the gods are conceived spatially—with particular human shapes in a world which is celebrated for its appearance. There is no sense in the Odyssey, as there is in the Old Testament, of an unfolding history. There is rather a sense of a eternally beautiful and divinely infused spatial organization—often very dynamically active, but not in the process of changing the basic conditions of life or going anywhere different.  After all, Odysseus is in a sense going back to what he had before sailing to Troy.  He is not forging a new society for himself or his people; he is, by contrast, re-establishing what his father had.  In this vision of life, the future is going to be much the same as the present, for there is no driving historical force of change leading to something new.  In that sense, there is little of what we might call the historical sense in the Odyssey, of the sort which is central to the experience of the Israelites in the Old Testament, where their very understanding of themselves is permeated by a historical awareness that they are on the move to forging a new identity for themselves, something entirely different from what they have been.

Now this is a large topic, but it might be worth reflecting briefly on this issue. Let me, for example, make a very large claim which you will be exploring throughout the rest of Liberal Studies, namely that some of our most important Western traditions, the things which have decisively shaped what we have become, stem from the divided inheritance we have received from the Greeks and the Hebrews. The former stresses an understanding of the world which is predominantly spatial, celebrating the visual qualities of nature and the presence in it of divine anthropomorphic unchanging eternal personalities. From this we derive a number of our major concerns, ranging from the fine and plastic arts to geometry and our attempts to understand the world as operating by eternally unchanging mathematical laws. From the latter, the Hebrew inheritance, we derive a historical sense of our civilization as in process, in a progressive march towards the promised land, under the divine guidance of God Himself, who takes a special interest in us. When, in the early modern age, these two world views come together, so that we put a geometrical or mathematical understanding of the world in the service of a sense of unfolding historical destiny, we have the essence of a belief system that has, more than anything else, made the Western enterprise so dominant (the astonishingly powerful and rapid expansion of Western Civilization is not merely due to the technology made possible by the new science and the development of capitalism but, more importantly, from the moral imperative, derived from Hebrew scripture, that we serve God by seeking to advance our historical destiny through applying that technology to the conquest of other people and of nature itself).

[Let me insert a parenthetic observation here of something I find particularly interesting. It’s not strictly germane to understanding the Odyssey, but it is something you might want to think about in the next few semesters. A number of writers have drawn on the difference I have briefly sketched out above (and others) to claim that in our Western culture we have two basic ways of thinking about things: we can think like a Greek or we can thing like a Jew. To think like a Greek means understanding phenomena spatially—as a formal pattern of characteristics which determine what that phenomena is, without any reference to how it got that way. To think like a Jew means to understand things historically, that is, to explain them by telling their story, by indicating that what they are now is the result of a process coming from somewhere and going to a destination.

Let me offer you a couple of examples. In Liberal Studies, you are almost all of the time asked to think like a Greek. You read a book and discuss it in seminar or in an essay on the basis of what you find in it, the specific formal features which make it what it is (characters, plot, structure of the argument, and so on). We pay virtually no attention to the historical context of the book or the author and do not encourage students to think about books historically, that is, as products of some process which has made them what they are. If you go onto graduate school, however, in a great many cases, you will be asked to think like a Jew, that is, to explore in great detail some aspects of a book’s history (either in the biography of the author or the literary tradition to which it belongs or both).

This duality of thinking affects also the way we think about ourselves. You can think of yourself in a Greek manner, as someone who is made up in a certain way, with certain permanent characteristics, created, if you like, by fate. I am what I am because of the way I was made, and life is thus a matter of playing the cards I have been dealt. Or you can think of yourself like a Jew, that is, historically. I am the product of a certain story. I am what I am because of what’s happened to me in the past, the way I was treated as a child, the decisions I have made, the sins I have committed, and so on, which have developed my character (for better or worse) and changed the person I was into what I am now. (When I first visited a psychiatrist to be treated for depression, she asked me whether I wanted the chemical explanation or the behavioural explanation. I observed that that was a choice between the Greek notion of fate or the Hebrew idea of sin. She smiled and agreed. I settled for the chemical explanation).]

The Odyssey also presents these divine personalities as a huge interconnected family—ranging from the senior and most important members, the Olympian deities, down to innumerable nymphs and minor deities. What this does is make the universe and everything that happens in it emotionally intelligible as effects of divine actions, since we all have some familiarity with families and their idiosyncrasies. We may not understand why angry fathers or rebellious daughters or quarrelsome siblings behave the way they do, but we all acknowledge that they do, in fact, behave that way. To conceive the universe and everything in it as guided by the interactions of the huge divine family is to place us immediately in direct emotional contact with everything we see around us. When we hear thunder and lightning, we may be afraid, but we can emotionally grasp what is going on when we call these the tools of Zeus and signs that he is angry. And we can readily understand bad things that happen: they are the result of the emotional ups and downs of the gods. That system is much easier to grasp in some ways than a world order which is the product of an all-powerful, single, all-knowing, and good God. It also means that a great deal of the faith in the gods in the Odyssey is something we might call a belief in the irrational feelings of divine powers. For, unlike some aspects of Old Testament belief, these Greeks do not demand or always expect a particular god to behave in a rational or moral manner (the notion that a god is always good—i.e., always meets human criteria for morally appropriate behaviour—would be very puzzling to them). The gods get angry for all sorts of reasons (as in most families), and they can act on that anger. Hence, this faith does not require that the gods always appear benevolent or kind towards those who believe in them (you are going to be reading the supreme work of literature which displays this characteristic when you deal with Oedipus the King in a few weeks). There is no permanent covenant between the gods and people, so I have no right to expect that the gods will be on my side, even if I believe in them and carry out all the appropriate rituals.

[One might note here, in passing, that very interesting section of Odysseus’ trip to the underworld where we meet figures who are suffering eternal divine punishment for "sins" they committed—the Danaids, Tantalus, Sisyphus, and Ixion. This is, I think, the first example of what is to emerge as an extraordinarily important image in Western thought—the picture of an afterlife in which we are punished or rewarded for what we have done in this life. There does not seem to be in the living characters themselves a very strong sense of this feature of the afterlife (at least to the extent that it affects what they do), but the presence of this image of punishment after death is, as I say, an early example of what is to emerge in Socrates and in later Christian thinkers as a powerful idea].

But the gods of the Odyssey are not entirely irrational; they are not like the gods of the Iliad, who seem to agree on nothing and to spend much of their time fighting each other and killing human beings for their own reasons. In the Odyssey, as I have mentioned, they all acknowledge the principle of the sanctity of the home. Thus, there is at least one basic cosmic moral operating principle in this world. We have a divine sanction for making basic moral judgments: to do what the suitors are doing in Ithaca is wrong, just as what Aegisthus did to Agamemnon is wrong; to avenge such a wrong, as Orestes does and as Odysseus does at the end of the book, is a morally correct act (in spite of the savagery of his killing). We may disagree with that, but if so, we have to come to terms with the divine principle which endorsees it.

These gods can and frequently do interact very personally with particular human beings. They appear to them (often in the form of some other person) talk to them, often address them as particular friends of theirs, give advice and assistance in critical moments. Such appearances are, however, unpredictable and cannot be relied upon. But the very fact that they do occur suggests throughout that particular gods can have the interests of the particular human beings at heart now and then and can act decisively to help them (or hurt them). All this, of course, is very far removed from God of the Old Testament who does not visibly appear to anyone and who speaks directly very rarely and then only to those prophets who are extraordinarily privileged because of their faith (e.g., to Abraham and Moses).

The most significant of these direct interventions of the divine into human affairs in the Odyssey occurs at the very end of the poem, where Athena (in the guise of Mentor) succeeds in ending the rapidly escalating warfare which threatens the entire society. To some readers, this looks like a rather unconvincing and quick way of resolving a serious conflict.  Perhaps.  But it also provides us with a final emphatic indication that, so far as the gods are concerned, the important priority in the human community must be preserving the home, rather than engaging in repetitive and aggressive acts of blood revenge which threaten the survival of Ithaca.

Odyssey: The Character of the Hero

To establish the point more clearly about this being a world governed by a moral principle endorsing the traditional home and family and community, I want to consider now the adventures of Odysseus chronologically, that is, in the order in which they occur (not in the order in which they are told). I want offer the suggestion that one really important issue in this book is the importance of learning how to value one’s home, particularly with respect to other priorities.

When we first meet Odysseus in Book V, on the island of Calypso, he is yearning for home—something he prefers to immortality and life with a beautiful goddess in a wonderful natural paradise. The initial thing we learn about him is that his major motivation in life is an overwhelming desire to get home, back to a traditional human life on Ithaca. But this point, of course, is late in his adventures. When we consider the story of Odysseus in the chronological sequence of events, we can see that he was not always like this in his attitude to life. And I would suggest for your consideration an important theme in this story of Odysseus's adventures—namely, that his journey is, in large part, a process which educates him into the values of his home and his life as a peaceful head of a family and community. In a sense, the story insists that he has to be prepared for a suitable return.

At the start of his adventures Odysseus is a warrior king, committed to the world of the Iliad, a world in which the predominant value in life is military fame acquired in battle. That is the reason the warriors, including Odysseus, left their homes and went to Troy all those years before and are prepared to die for glory rather than leave the battle and go back. And when he first leaves Troy for home, Odysseus acts very much like a traditional warrior, setting out with boatloads of warrior followers to raid neighbouring cities for booty and fame. Going home may be important, but more important is to make sure that one's warrior reputation is augmented in the process. That first adventure with the Cicones, a standard act of military aggression, might come right out of the pages of the Iliad.  The fact that it brings about a major and unnecessary loss of men without any commensurate glory indicates that what he is doing here may well be a mistake.

And for the next events in the series we follow Odysseus very much as the self-assertive, aggressive, always curious warrior-adventurer, taking himself and his men through a series of events in which he has to confront the unknown: the Lotus Eaters, the Cyclops, the King of the Winds, the Laestrygonians, Circe, the Underworld, the Sirens, Scylla and Charybdis, the Islands of the Sun. You might have noticed how as these adventures progress Odysseus loses more and more of his men, more and more of his ships, so that those things which make up his warrior identity are inexorably stripped away, until he is tossed up on Calypso's island. From there he goes to Phaicia, where he arrives naked, alone, and without any sign of his status or warrior fame. He is anonymous—he has lost the identity he had at the start of his adventures.

In Phaicia, he begins to put his identity back together again. But he does it in a curious way. The memory of the Trojan War, the subject matter of the dinner entertainment, fills him with sadness for a life that is over. While he has fond memories of it, it acknowledges that it is behind him now.  He declares who he is and begins to reconstruct himself in the Phaician games, which is part of the domestic celebrations, part of the most important social virtue, hospitality. The fame and the riches he now begins to reacquire he wins in a different form of competition (it’s important to notice, of course, that, for all the change in the nature of the competition, he has lost none of his self-assertiveness and egotistical striving—more about that in a moment).

Back in Ithaca, he is no longer a proud warrior leader. He is anonymous, disguised, and alone. Bit by bit he reconstructs his social identity—revealing himself to the swineherd, to his son, to the nurse, to his wife, and finally to his father. In the process of re-establishing himself as a community leader, rather than as a warrior leader, he has to pass a number of tests—tests of endurance, strength, courage, wit, and so on.  In this testing, Odysseus has to disguise who he is and use something no noble warrior would ever resort to, duplicity and deceit.

I would like to suggest that in this sequence of events, Odysseus learns and demonstrates a range of qualities which are very much at odds with the earlier warrior ethic he displays in the Iliad and in the very first adventures on his return home. First and foremost he displays an ability to endure, to do whatever is required to get through a particular situation.  He is certainly not driven by a death before dishonour ethic which has no room for dissimulation and which scorns mere survival as an important priority.

The difficulties he faces are of two sorts. First, there are the direct threats and obstacles. These he must confront and overcome, often not directly (at least, not at first) but rather by using his ability to improvise and pretend, wit, resourcefulness, and, most important, the delayed emotional response (repressing his true feelings in order to manipulate the situation). Odysseus has an incurable capacity for getting himself into difficult situations, generally because he has an insatiable desire for self-assertion, for spreading throughout the world the knowledge of himself and his reputation, and these situations call from him a wide range of resources: forethought, courage, imaginative planning, deceit, invention, an ability to manipulate language to his advantage. His curiosity is an important attribute—he wants to experience new places and new people (like the Cyclops and the Sirens), not so much from a desire to learn about them, but in order to augment and publicize his own reputation as a great man who has confronted and overcome all that experience has to afford.

The second group of difficulties are the temptations to give up—the recurring desire to stop and surrender the seductive allure of the Lotus Eaters, the offers of Circe or Calypso, the song of the Sirens, the pleasures of Nausicaa. To survive these temptations, Odysseus has to discover and hang onto his desire to return home. Many times he claims he’d like to give up, but his appetite for food and his desire to get home keep driving him on.

One of the best examples of what I am talking about is the famous incident with the Cyclops. There's not time to go into this in detail, but the incident repays very careful study as an example of many of the qualities of the hero. The adventure itself is a direct result of Odysseus's insatiable curiosity and his desire to make himself known—that quality which we most associate with the classical Greeks, his desire for energetic self-assertion. Once he gets himself and his men into difficulties, he has to use all his resources to escape (both ingenuity and cruelty), and then at the end, his desire heroically to assert his identity almost costs him and his men their lives. What matters most is not getting away but making sure the blind Cyclops knows the name of the hero who has defeated him. We see the same characteristic rhythm of an Odyssean adventure repeated at other times, for example, in the Circe episode or with the Sirens.

What I'd like to suggest here is that in the development of Odysseus's character, this poem celebrates a certain quality of human experience: our ability to survive and to endure in order to get back home to the centre of the domestic community and to do so in such a way that we demonstrate and assert our own excellence.  And this necessarily involves exploring a view of heroism significant different from the warrior ethic of Homer's earlier epic poem.

If you are still with me, let us consider for a moment what I take it we all recognize as a decisive moment in the poem, the visit to the underworld, in Book XI. At this point, Odysseus confronts his old way of life and bids farewell to it, as he meets the great heroes from the Iliad, those people who defined the Greek warrior ethic, Agamemnon, the leader of expedition, and Achilles, the greatest warrior of them all.

A particularly important moment in this incident comes when Odysseus meets Achilles and the latter states: "Better, I say, to break sod as a farm hand/ for some poor country man, on iron rations,/than lord it over all the exhausted dead. (XI. 579-581, translation by Fitzgerald). Here, in death, Achilles is, in effect, saying that the warrior life is not worth it. To put death before dishonour, living only for the personal fame that comes when you die gloriously in battle, is an empty dream. Death itself offers no reward at all commensurate for the loss of life on earth, not even for the greatest warrior of them all, the one who achieved the greatest fame.

To put this speech into the mouth of the greatest example of the traditional warrior is to underline in the most dramatic way possible the difference between this poem and its Homeric predecessor, the Iliad, and to place a particular emphasis on the way in which this poem sees the justification of life in the joys that are possible rather than in an enduring fame based on one’s heroic conduct in battles away from home.

It’s important to note, as I’ve already briefly mentioned, that while the Odyssey is establishing a set of living priorities different from that earlier poem, there is still an enormous emphasis on the characteristic we most common associate with the classical Greek vision of life, namely the importance of heroic self-assertion. For Odysseus, like Achilles in the Iliad, is always striving, not only to be the best, but also to make sure that his demonstrated excellence is publicly known and acknowledged. While he may adopt a humble role in order to deceive others temporarily, that is only a strategy in an ethos which insists that the important priority of life is to establish how much better you are than others in all sorts of ways (in the qualities of mind and body, in your achievements, in battle, athletic competition, archery, and so on).  I recently saw a bumper sticker on a car with Alaska plates which summed up this ethic admirably: "If you're not the lead dog, the view never changes."  It is to this sense of the value of human life that we in the West owe the fascination we have with demonstrations of excellence acquired through competition (whether in athletics, good looks, or in business).

This ethic stands in marked contrast to what you have read in the Old Testament, where the emphasis is much more clearly on equality and cooperation under a set of divine commandments and laws equally binding on all. There are "great" men there, like Abraham or Moses, but their quality stems, not from any personal achievement uniquely their own, let alone from their physical prowess, intelligence, good looks, or ability to fight, but rather from the special favours God gives them because they have such a strong faith in Him. Abraham is ready to sacrifice his only son at the Lord’s bidding, and Moses is prepared to take on the task of leading the Israelites when God asks him to, although he insists that he is totally unfit for the task (one cannot imagine any Greek hero displaying that sort of humility or lack of self-confidence).

These two very different visions of human character have given us our two main sorts of cultural heroes—the fiercely competitive, self-assertive, egotistical hero, who lives to insist upon his own excellence in comparison with others, and the devout, unflagging, persistent, and faithful servant of the community, who defines himself by service to the group’s shared ideals (usually in a religious context), if necessary at the cost of his own individuality. From this difference Western Culture also derives that ambiguous inherited tension between the Greek ideals of competition (which rests on an aristocratic sense of inequality of the sort displayed in the Odyssey) and the Hebrew ideal of cooperation (which rests on an idea of equality under the law and before God)—but that’s something for another time.


Before concluding my discussion of the Odyssey, I'd like to generalize a bit about this vision of life as I have described it. Because it is from this poem, among some others, that we derive our understanding of what we call comedy.  This epic poem is one of the most important visions of life in our traditions, enshrining our most endurable and popular sense of what matters most in human experience.

When we use the term comedy to describe a work of literature, we are referring to at least two qualities of the work: its structure and the vision of life that structure offers and celebrates. The term comedy does not, strictly speaking, necessarily mean that the work is funny (although it often is).

In terms of structure, the term comedy refers most simply to way the conflict in a story is resolved. If we acknowledge that stories usually begin with a normal situation being upset, so that the central characters have to deal with a transformed reality, then the comic story will typically follow the adventures of a hero or heroine who seeks to regain an upset normality. In other words, he wants to go home again. The Odyssey provides the first great model of this vision. Odysseus is displaced, his domestic normality is upset, and he wants to get home. But many things stand between him and home—external obstacles which threaten to destroy him and inner obstacles which threaten to so sap his endurance and his faith in the voyage home that he will give up.

The conflict in the story of Odysseus is essentially a linear series of obstacles which Odysseus must overcome. He does so by using to the full his wide range of qualities and by adapting who he is and what he does to fit the particular situation he faces. In the process of overcoming this series of obstacles, he learns or he becomes transformed in some way, so that when the home is restored we have back again a lost normality or perhaps an even better reality, a transformed normality. The story is basically over once the lovers are reunited, the home relationships re-established, the traditional values rediscovered (perhaps in an improved form). At the conclusion we look forward to happy times for the new family (note the common formula: And They Lived Happily Ever After).

The Odyssey is our first great fiction celebrating this structure and this vision. Its decisive influence on western literature and art derives, in large part, from the fact that we find this vision very congenial. We may not believe in the same gods and goddesses, but, like Odysseus, many of us see in a story that celebrates the restoration of community and the home as the highest value in civilization—in the traditional comic vision—something very dear to our imaginations. And thus the fundamental comic structure and comic vision have enjoyed and continue to enjoy a vital life in our culture. That may be the main reason why, as we read this book for the first time, it seems, in spite of the significant differences between its vision of experience and our own beliefs, so familiar, so agreeable, so immediately accessible to us (far more so, I would argue, than the Old Testament or the Iliad or many of the Greek tragedies.

[The lecture prepared by Ian Johnston of Malaspina University-College, is in the public domain and may be used by anyone, in whole or in part, without permission and without charge, provided the source is acknowledged. The document below (prepared in August 2004) is a revised version of a lecture prepared in 1996]

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