Monday, 23 February 2015

The Odyssey

Odysseus and the massacre of the suitors

The Odyssey, in the excellent and established prose translation of Rieu, is a fantastic if at times boring proto-novel about homecoming, νόστος - from which our word nostalgia derives - story-telling, - various minstrels in the story highlight the art of story-telling as well as Odysseus' own painstaking account of his misadventures to his hosts the Phanaecians - guest-friendship or ξενια, hardship, endurance, fate, the foreign, the exotic, the afterlife (Odysseus' Odyssey goes as far as talking with the dead in Hades), love between husband and wife (Calypso and Odysseus, Penelope and Odysseus), father and son (in the shape of Odysseus and Telemachus as well as with Odysseus' own father Laertes but also Poseidon and the Cyclops) as well as an interesting reflection of ancient customs, if not completely historical, and habits of thought. 

Odysseus himself proves ruthless towards the end of the poem in killing the suitors and hanging the maids of his palace who "acted disgracefully in his absence". The final book, book 24, whose authorship is in doubt and unlikely to be Homer's, shows that the families of the murdered suitors seek retribution against Odysseus and Telemachus for the massacre.

Fortunately for the latter, however, they are in the gods' favour, and do not meet murderous ends. Divine intervention, particularly Athena who intercedes for both father and son, is paramount and as in The Iliad, the gods have to come to an agreement about final outcomes for certain privileged human beings.

Thus the Phanaecians are punished by Poseidon for hosting Odysseus and returning him safely home to Ithaca, and thus are forced to end their long established custom of receiving and aiding strangers in their land.

Wealth in the book is often described in terms of luxury objects, in one case a cup wrought by Hephaestus himself, but also in terms of cattle and produce, which the suitors deplete in Odysseus' absence in the course of which it is deemed that they deserve their dire end, having violated another's property, including wife, son and servants. 

Penelope is drawn out as the perfect, faithful wife, in great contrast to Agamemnon's treacherous partner Clytemnestra who successfully plots his murder on his return from Ilium (Troy). 

The story also highlights more mitigating traditions in contrast to the status-conscious, hierarchical top-down structures of Ancient Greece (and Rome), with the very wealthy, such as Menelaeus and Odysseus, and the rest of the population; these are honour and clemency owed to beggars and supplicants. Odysseus uses this custom to his own advantage, however, to finally reclaim what is rightfully his. 

For modern eyes, reading The Odyssey can be at times a drudgery, as suspense and plot twists were not in fashion in Homer's time, for the end is long predicted in advance, obeying the divine laws of necessity - ἀναγκη. 

And the gods too are subject to fate as is highlighted by Poseidon's final concession to Zeus and Athena not to bring more pain and suffering on to Odysseus, who blinded his son, the Cyclops. That is because Odysseus' fate already has been established and mutually agreed upon among the gods. 

ἀναγκη thus appears as a mutually agreed upon contract among high-ranking divinities.


While not as gory as The Iliad which after all covers warfare in all its bloody glory, The Odyssey highlights many elements of human conduct we would today deem savage and uncivilised and which do continue to exist in more violent places of the world. These include mutilation of genitals, nose and ears, rape of women (the suitors and Odysseus' maids for example) and the usual cut and thrust of stabbing objects such as bows and arrows, knives, swords and spears. 


These less savoury aspects of the ancient paradigm - and Homer never makes moral judgement about this or that custom, this or that simply is - were not lost on my ears as I have matured out of my rose-tinted view of the ancient way of life and have come to value more mild-mannered ways as less hurtful and destructive. 


While perhaps at times exhilarating and fun to read, human practices such as those portrayed in George R. R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire series reflect the very worst of human instinct and it is an error in my view to deem them romantic and refreshingly un-politically correct, even for a second. Systems that promote exploitation and suffering for the benefit of a few lordlings are easier to read about than endure in reality.