The Odyssey: more on Book 1 lines 32-112 from line 63

I’ve been fairly swamped with other things of late and so have not finished going through Book 1 in the level of detail I want. The remainder of the book does seem logically a single unit and so I want to do a post or series of posts on the rest only when I’ve gone through it more. Yet I realized that in the previous post I left out some important stuff, specifically from about line 63 and onward.

My reasoning was that the episode of the cyclops is better dealt with when in Book 9 it is described in detail and the real importance of the next portion is that Athena goes to appear to Telemachus in the form of a stranger. Yet when I happened to look at that section again, I realized this view gives the section short shrift. Hence I am writing this post as well.

Basically I omitted two main issues and a minor one. The minor one is Zeus‘ attitude when Athena raises the issue of Odysseus. The major issues are the cyclops Polyphemus as described here and the taking by Athena of a human form. Specifically Mentes, king of the Taphians, an island people known for their piracy, and an old friend of Odysseus.

First, Zeus’ attitude largely regards Odysseus’ situation as having nothing to do with him so that he is not really concerned either way. Poseidon is upset with Odysseus, he insists, because the latter blinded the former’s son, the cyclops Polyphemus. Often this attitude of Zeus is portrayed as if he were saying he can do nothing in the situation, but a more accurate representation is that Zeus chooses to stay out of the affair completely.

A notable tangential point important to the narrative is that Zeus making reference to the blinding of Polyphemus tells us that such an event happened independently of Odysseus’ own account. This fact is highly important because, since Odysseus is first and foremost renowned as a cunning liar, one cannot know how much of Odysseus’ tale we are as the audience intended to believe when later he tells his adventures. This conversation between Athena and Zeus tells us the events recounted to Nausikaa and the other Phaeacians have some kernel of truth.

Odysseus. Group of Odysseus blinding Polyphemu...

Image via Wikipedia

Naturally the question then arises about the nature of the cyclops Polyphemus and where the events are thought to have occurred. The location was treated by the ancients as vaguely somewhere west of Sicily, a curious statement since the Greeks had colonies throughout the Mediterranean. Another question lies in trying to deal with how an ancient Greek reader or listener would have understood the nature of Polyphemus. In some ways, the ancient Greeks would have understood Polyphemus as an embodiment of natural forces like the gods but more harsh and wild. From another point of view, they would also have understood the cyclops as an example of one of the strange creatures to be found in foreign lands. Yet they would not have found these attitudes to Polyphemus mutually contradictory. How literally the cyclops was taken to be would depend on the individual. In a way, the monsters of Greek mythology are akin to the aliens of modern science fiction.

The most interesting issue to me personally seems how to understand Athena’s going to Telemachus as the pirate-king Mentes, known to be a friend of Odysseus. That these two men should be friends reflects the fact that piracy in some ways was not looked down upon in the ancient world as it is today and Odysseus was not above taking advantage of strangers’ vulnerabilities himself. From a modern perspective, one sees three logical possibilities: 1. Mentes himself does not come to Ithaca but instead Athena disguises herself as him by taking his physical form. 2. Mentes comes himself to Ithaca and so the reference to Athena appearing should be understood purely metaphorically. 3. Mentes does come to Ithaca but he is possessed temporarily by Athena. Yet to the ancient Greek audience, these three possibilities would not seem meaningfully distinct. That Athena would literally take the form of Mentes and that Mentes would himself literally come to Ithaca would not seem mutually exclusive to an ancient Greek, although the distinction would develop later within the scope of Greek religion, i.e., philosophy.

These are important points and could as I planned originally be dealt with later, but they are also important for Book 1 itself, including the beginning of it. I’ll probably discuss them more when appropriate, but in the meantime I will be going over the remainder of Book 1 a bit more before posting again most likely.

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