Voyaging with Odysseus: The Wile and Resilience of Virtue

Article excerpt

Odysseus has lived through many transformations since Homer commemorated him in the Odyssey. None of them, however, has made Homer obsolete. Both the Iliad and the Odyssey have been translated many times. By common consent of those competent to judge such matters, Robert Fagles has done a superb job with the Odyssey. [1] Even before I read it, I heard it read by Ian McKellan. That was an eye-opener, or should I say ear-opener. It sounded as though that was the natural way to come at it. The spaciousness, the contrast of tones alternating between casual, even rambling digression and the tightness of dramatic moments, the sense of intimacy a voice establishes--all these drew me into the poem and made me aware of new meanings, or forgotten relationships, that I would like to share. The Odyssey is so large and various that we need reminding of its riches. The only way to do this properly, it seems to me, is to travel along with Homer, hitting the highlights and commenting as I go.

Ignoring the gods is costly.

The son goes in search of his father

As the poem opens, the gods, who steer human destiny in the large while leaving elbow room for humans to confound themselves on their own, are having a conference. The assembled gods take pity on Odysseus held captive on Calypso's island, all except Poseidon, still enraged at what Odysseus did to his son, the Cyclops. But Poseidon is away in far-off Ethiopia, so the others are uninhibited. Zeus speaks, complaining that mortals blame the gods for their miseries when they themselves add to their problems by their own recklessness. As example he takes Aegisthus, who was repeatedly warned by Hermes not to court Clytemnestra or murder Agamemnon but who went right ahead anyway and is now paying the price. Exactly so, says Athena, let all die thus who deserve it. But, father Zeus, Odysseus longs for his home and wife despite all the goddess Calypso can do to seduce him. So why are you dead set against him? What nonsense, he replies, I think Odysseus a splendid man; it's brother Poseidon who has it in for him. But l et's plan the poor fellow's return. How can Poseidon stand against the rest of us?

Of course Athena has it figured out: let Hermes tell Calypso she has to let Odysseus go while I go to Ithaca and rouse his son to go seek information about his missing dad. She descends from Olympus as Mentes to find sad Telemachus sitting amidst the good-for-nothing suitors. He greets her with automatic courtesy, but when they have eaten he tells her so no one else hears of the wicked behavior of these revelers feasting at the expense of his father, who he presumes is dead. Athena assures him it is not so and offers advice: tell the suitors to go home and let Penelope go home to her father if she wishes, but he should go to Pylos, Nestor's home, then on to Sparta, where Menelaus and Helen live, to find out what is known about Odysseus. You are tall and handsome now, you're no longer a boy, you must act like a man.

Penelope comes down from her room, begging the bard to sing a different song--this one saddens her so. Surprisingly, Telemachus rebukes her, saying it's not the bard's fault, but Zeus's.

So mother, go back to your quarters. Tend to your own tasks, the distaff and the loom, and keep the women working hard as well. As for giving orders, men will see to that, but most of all: I hold the reins of power in this house.

Everyone is astonished--perhaps even Telemachus is--at this bold speech, the first indication that now he is indeed a man. Soon he is off on his way to Pylos, but not before rebuking the suitors soundly.

Even Zeus, apparently, is afraid to offend his brother Poseidon, the god most responsible for Odysseus's misadventures. Athena, who showed her partiality for Odysseus as a person only once or twice in the Iliad now becomes his ardent patron and guardian in the Odyssey. Why the gods have made Odysseus languish on Calypso's island for seven long years before bestirring themselves we will never know, but without Athena's support Odysseus might never have escaped that nymph. …