Introduction to the Odyssey (Part 4): setting the scene

This last portion of my introduction to the Odyssey sets the scene of the story told in the Odyssey. The purpose here is to equip the reader to understand what is going on. The description is of course primarily my own take, but I am basing it on the text, and I have had a Classical education and studied the Odyssey in particular. For another view, see here. A good summary of events, overall and in each of the 24 books, with commentary can also be found here. My tentative plan is to have one blog post about each book and possibly something after the fact, but I may or may not actually stick to that plan as the need arises.

In a sense, the Odyssey is a sequel to the Iliad. After the end of the Iliad, the Greeks finally brought an end to the Trojan War by use of the Trojan Horse. Odysseus is the man who thought of that stratagem, as well as most others the Greeks had used during their ten year war. The characteristic heroic trait of Odysseus (which the Greeks admired but the Romans did not) is that he is a crafty liar who gets away with it and who uses deceit and cunning to achieve his ends when need be.

Map of Ancient Greek ColoniesThe story of the Odyssey tells the end of Odysseus’ ten year exile after the war, during which time he wanders. The Greeks vaguely pictured the area where he wandered as somewhere west of Sicily– a land so remote to most Greeks, in spite of the presence of some Greek colonies, that it was rather fantastic. So a key question to begin with is why Odysseus took so long to get home. Nothing that Homer mentions in passing (some of Odysseus’ exploits, such as feeding his men from cattle sacred to Helios) explains why Odysseus was so far afield in the first place.

In the Iliad, during the Trojan War, some gods favored Troy and some the Greeks. Because he devised the Trojan Horse, Odysseus was more responsible than any other individual for the sack of Troy. Saying the gods were angry at Odysseus in modern terms is allegorical. Since so much of Homeric warfare involved individual combat, where the person challenged to single combat is called out by name by the challenger, the Trojan survivors may in the immediate aftermath of the fall and sack of Troy may have been looking for Odysseus to get revenge. In other words, the direct route home may have been barred to Odysseus (and his men who depended on him) because he became a marked man when the Trojans learned of his role in their defeat. That role would certainly have been known because κλέοϛ, glory for deeds done and the political clout that came with it, was the practical point of warfare for individuals. Odysseus was no exception. So my own personal take is that Odysseus and his men had to flee for their lives at first. This explains why they ran low on provisions and hence needed to steal sanctified cattle; they were starving and desperate. In the end, they hide on the island of Calypso, presumably until it becomes safe to go home to Ithaca. That sanctuary in turn becomes a prison, but because Calypso is a nymph, a minor goddess associated with a particular locality, one need not take the imprisonment literally. The death of Odysseus’ men on the island of Calypso would probably be understood by the ancient Greek audience as the deaths by various causes of men in exile, and the imprisonment would then be foremost in the mind of Odysseus himself.

At home in Ithaca, a rebellion, not yet openly violent, has arisen. Odysseus the king has been absent at this point for about twenty years. Many of the nobles from the various towns within Ithaca are trying to force Penelope, Odysseus’ wife, to re-marry and thereby pick a new king. Their abuse of the royal household’s hospitality is part of that rebellion because the suitors feel the royal resources should be theirs anyway.

Πηνελόπεια / Penelópē

Image by just.Luc via Flickr

Penelope is the female counter-part of Odysseus. She both uses various stratagems to delay the suitors but also plays them off one against another so that no pre-eminent contender emerges. The suitors however do have allies among Penelope’s maidens. This is an aspect that a modern take on the story of Penelope seems to have missed.

Meanwhile Odysseus’ son Telemachus is now of an age where he wants to assert his own authority, but he remains immature. Like his mother, he knows Odysseus is alive, but at the same time he wants to assert his authority as the male head of the royal family in his father’s absence. Yet he lacks the experience and cunning of either his mother or his father.

This summary of the situation as the Odyssey opens should get the reader started. We can discuss the story as a whole at the end.

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2 Responses to Introduction to the Odyssey (Part 4): setting the scene

  1. Tim Seitz says:

    “The suitors however do have allies among Penelope’s maidens. This is an aspect that a modern take on the story of Penelope seems to have missed.”
    You link to Atwood’s The Penelopiad. How do you come to your conclusion? Atwood’s story is very much involved with the actions, duplicitous or otherwise, of the maidens.

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