The Odyssey picks up the story of the Trojan War after the Greek armies have sacked Troy and escaped its burning ruins. The title comes from the Greek word ‘Odusseia’, which means ‘the story of Odysseus’. Unlike the Iliad, which is concerned above all with the fate of a city (Troy), the Odyssey is focused on one man, Odysseus, a Greek warrior famous for his diplomatic skills, silken tongue and cunning. It is Odysseus who conceives the idea of building a wooden horse to storm the gates of Troy, using his ingenuity and not brute force to conquer the besieged city after 10 long years. The Odyssey tells the tale of his tumultuous voyage home to Ithaca (and so the word ‘odyssey’ now means a long and adventurous journey). Odysseus was the original boat person.
Odysseus was James Joyce’s childhood hero. Joyce famously retold his story in Ulysses, setting it in 1904 Dublin and drawing on its rich tale of fathers and sons – Odysseus and his son Telemachus, who comes of age during his quest for his lost father – and husbands and wives. For the Odyssey is also a story of married love, and of Odysseus’s loyal wife Penelope and her unrivalled skill with the loom and in stalling the dozens of suitors who camp in the halls of her palace hoping to marry her in the wake of her husband’s almost certain death.
As with the Iliad, choosing a lively translation is critical to enjoying this poem and the best I’ve read is the 1996 translation by Robert Fagles (1933-2008), poet and former professor of comparative literature at Princeton University. It opens:
‘Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns, / driven time and again off course, once he had plundered / the hallowed heights of Troy.’
But unlike the Iliad, where the poet requests his Muse to begin her song at the moment when Agamemnon and Achilles ‘first broke and clashed’, in the Odyssey the Muse is asked to ‘start from where you will’. And so she begins her tale with a meeting of the gods. We learn that all those Greeks who survived the Trojan War are safe at home,
‘But one man alone … / his heart set on his wife and his return – Calypso, / the bewitching nymph, the lustrous goddess, held him back, / deep in her arching caverns, craving him for a husband.’
All the gods – except for Poseidon, who’s still raging against Odysseus because he blinded his son the Cyclops Polyphemus – feel sorry for Odysseus trapped by Calypso’s spell. After Zeus has complained about the shamelessness of mortals (‘the way these mortals blame the gods’) and tells the tragic story of Agamemnon’s death at the hand of his wife’s lover, Athena takes advantage of Poseidon’s absence in Ethiopia to persuade Zeus to free Odysseus, her favourite mortal. Zeus agrees, instructing Hermes to bid Calypso to release Odysseus, while Athena flies off to rouse Telemachus, to ‘inspire his heart with courage’ to search for his father.
And so Odysseus’s tale is launched with the story of his son, Telemachus, who voyages out from Ithaca seeking news of his father. As Telemachus travels away from home, Odysseus, free at last from Calypso’s magic, embarks again on his journey home. He faces many trials, not only on his homeward journey but also on his return to Ithaca, where his wife and son have all but given up hope of seeing him again after his 20-year absence.
The stories of Odysseus’s adventures and the characters he meets along his way are well known: the enchanting goddess Calypso, the nymph Circe who turns men into pigs, his visit to the Land of the Dead, the Sirens with their bewitching song, the land of the lotus eaters, the Cyclops, the monsters Charybdis and Scylla.
The Odyssey also recalls fragments of the Trojan War, including the story of the Trojan horse, the rape of the Trojan princess Cassandra in Athena’s temple (a desecration which drives Athena to scatter the Greek fleet following its departure from Troy), and the deaths of Agamemnon and his mightiest warrior Achilles.
Robert Fagles called the Odyssey ‘the great poem of the post war world’, while the American poet Wallace Stevens said that together the Iliad and the Odyssey demonstrate ‘war’s miracle begetting that of peace’. But despite the fact that the Odyssey takes place after the war’s end, much of its energy comes in scenes of violence: Odysseus recalling the closing moments of the war, meeting the war’s heroes in the Land of the Dead, his battles to survive on his way home, the deaths of his men, and the ‘blood wedding’ that is the poem’s climax.
Fagles considered the Odyssey to be ‘something like the autobiography of the race and most everyone’s favourite poem’. In his translation he was especially keen to convey Penelope’s strength and her cleverness – which matches Odysseus’s – and the depth of their mutual love. When asked to read from his translation Fagles chose a scene from Penelope and Odysseus’s reunion after their 20-year separation:
‘he wept as he held the wife he loved, / the soul of loyalty, in his arms at last. / Joy, warm as the joy that shipwrecked sailors feel / when they catch sight of land … //… So joyous now to her / the sight of her husband, vivid in her gaze, / that her white arms, embracing his neck / would never for a moment let him go’.
So, why read the Odyssey in 2011? Here are three good reasons:
1. It’s one of the great works and founding narratives of the western literary tradition.
2. It’s inspired writers, artists and musicians for over 2700 years, including Greek dramatists such as Sophocles and Aeschylus (see below) and James Joyce’s Ulysses (the Latin for Odysseus). Christina Stead’s novel For Love Alone draws on the Odyssey as does the Coen brothers’ 2000 film O Brother, Where Art Thou? starring George Clooney as Ulysses Everett McGill who’s divorced from his wife Penny.
The Greek dramatist Aeschylus used the story Zeus mentions in his opening complaint against mortals as the basis of his tragedy cycle the Oresteia. These three plays tell of Agamemnon’s return from Troy, his murder by his wife Clytemnestra and her lover, and his son Orestes’s eventual return from exile to avenge Agamemnon’s murder by plotting with his sister Electra the murder of their mother. Orestes is later tried for matricide. Given the male-dominated western literary tradition, it’s notable that the goddess protector of Odysseus, Athena – who must cast the deciding vote in the court organised by Apollo to judge Orestes’ guilt – finds in favour of Orestes, denying the central relationship of mothers to their children and sanctifying the right of fathers over mothers. She says: ‘In heart, as birth, a father’s child alone. Thus will I not too heinously regard a woman’s death who did her husband slay.’ Athena – born from the head of her father Zeus (who had swallowed her mother whole) – prevails, Orestes is found not guilty and fathers rule.
3. In a century characterised by the mass movement of people over land and sea, it’s good to remember Odysseus, the original boat person, and the culture of welcoming strangers that prevailed in the Mediterranean of the Odyssey. Shipwrecked and anonymous, Odysseus is welcomed on foreign shores in the name of Zeus, the ‘champion of suppliants – suppliants’ rights are sacred’.
And in a world which John Berger called this month a ‘literal prison‘, it’s also worth remembering the Greek ideals of freedom that the Odyssey enshrines – ideas of freedom which were later considered so threatening to the Roman imperial autocracy that the emperor Caligula tried to ban the poem in 35 AD.