Dios Mio: The Role of the Gods in Human Life

Homer’s The Odyssey is the epic tale of Odysseus and his travels home from the Trojan War, facing monsters, mutiny, and other countless setbacks. Throughout the story, Odysseus is stuck maneuvering between two gods, Poseidon and Athena. Their actions provide an interesting look into the role the gods play in the human lives: more like demigods, it would seem, the gods interfere at times, but in general human destiny is in human control, or in the dominion of fate, which is separate and greater than the will of the gods.The major conflict of the story begins because of the intervention of a god; Poseidon listens to his son’s prayer for revenge after Odysseus blinds him, begging that, “should destiny intend he shall see his roof again … far be that day, and dark the years between,” (163) and begins to create trouble. Nonetheless, it is worthy of note that it was not the scheming of a god that led Odysseus astray in the first place. He had no particular need to enter to the cave of the kyklops, nor was he tricked. It was only vanity, curiosity, and greed that goaded him into it, eventually even driving him into revealing his name and, we are left to presume, thereby making the prayer of the kyklops that much more effective. Secondly, even though Aiolos does call their voyage “cursed by heaven” (167) when they are blown back to his island, this first ill to befall them has nothing to do with the divine, but again only human weakness. Ulysses does not tell his men what is in the bag of winds (a possible oversight in leadership), and they, seeking treasure, open it up while he sleeps, thereby tossing the ship away from Ithaka.The world of Homer has room for free will, divine intervention, and also, as the kyklops mentions, fate. Fate seems an idea somehow larger than even the gods, for none of them are willing (or perhaps even able) to circumvent it; Poseidon himself says that although he would like to kill Odysseus, fate does not allow it, and so he will content himself with making Odysseus “suffer all the way” (233). Some things simply must be, despite the desires of gods or man.The complex interweaving of these forces embodies what Zeus mentions in the very beginning, namely that “greed and folly double the suffering in the lot of man” (2). Zeus suggests that a certain amount of suffering is allotted to man from the outset (fate), but that a full half of it comes about from the mistakes man himself makes. The gods, of course, seem able to mitigate or compound this suffering as the whim strikes them. Athena, for example, offers a lot of aid to Odysseus, including disguising him (fog, the appearance of a beggar), advice, and various other magical tricks, among other things, even lengthening time for him so that he might enjoy his first night back with Penelope. But she does not do everything for him. In the fight, “she gave no overpowering aid” despite her divine powers, because “father and son must prove their mettle yet” (417). Odysseus, also, despite the support of Athena, still must scheme and connive. It is as if the gods can magnify or combat the work of men, but not replace it — as the aphorism goes, the gods can only help those who help themselves. In something of a logical trap, it may even be because of Odysseus’ abilities that she is willing to help him in the first place. His endless strategems are why she says to him, “I cannot fail you, in your evil fortune” (240), although we are left with the feeling that his own abilities still might have been enough to succeed, though perhaps not as smoothly.One god (Athena) circumventing the will of another god (Poseidon) is interesting for additional reasons, as well. Firstly, contrary to more modern perspectives, it is a second indication of the limitations inherent in Homer’s conception of the gods. When Poseidon is gone, Athena is able to convene a council to help Odysseus, without Poseidon knowing or being able to do anything about it. One cannot imagine say, Yahweh, being tricked in a similar way. The gods are neither all-knowing nor all-powerful, and apparently they can be distracted. Due to these factors, and since the gods appear to have all-too-human limitations regarding the number of things in which they can involve themselves, they are not to be overly depended upon.The way in which Odysseus is trapped between Poseidon and Athena also evidences that, as considered in the Euthyphro, if there are a variety of gods with conflicting interests, then no one way of living can be pleasing to all of them. Odysseus must struggle with the will of Athena, Poseidon, Helios, Zeus, et al., which is not an easy task. In the Homeric world, then, one might imagine people attempting to get by as best they can and hoping not to attract the ire of any gods, and maybe occasionally even courting favor (through sacrifice, etc.). This stands in stark resolution to a contemporary Christian ideal in which the divine proscribes an entire way of life. Although this is not to say that even in the Homeric world the desires of the gods do not have some impact on behavior. For example, the strict rules of hospitality evidenced many times in the epic seem based both on fear of reprisal from a god and the ever-looming possibility that any random visitor may be a god in disguise. There are also indications that gods eventually enforce justice — as Odysseus suggests happened to the suitors.One remaining difficulty has to do with how much we believe that everything Homer attributes to a god really is the action of a god. “Some god, invisible” (169), for example, is blamed for the party’s landing of the island of Kirke. Is this really fair, or is it just luck or human action? This question can be applied to many other actions said to be ascribed to gods in the novel, from falling asleep to weather patterns. It is definitely a fair point — Homeric characters themselves seem vague about what to blame for certain turns of events. This notwithstanding, it is clear the gods do impact human life at least sometimes in the Homeric world (i.e., lightning bolts), but the weight their actions are given in human affairs pales in comparison to the much more integral forces of fate and human self-determination.

Odysseus: Cultural Supremacist or Embittered Narrator?

The foreboding dark mist in “the gloom of the nightâ€? (141) shadowing Odysseus’ arrival to the island of the Cyclopes suggests a sinister and frightening site. Recounting the unnaturalness of the occupants and the horror of the ensuing events, Odysseus’ narration seemingly confirms this interpretation. However, an attentive perusal of the island’s description, presented from lines 105 to 192 of chapter nine in Homer’s Odyssey, reveals that Odysseus’ judgement of the island begins before his terrifying encounter with the Cyclopes. Does this suggest that Odysseus’ negative sentiments towards the Cyclopes derive from a staunch belief in the superiority of Greeks? Since Odysseus narrates this story after the fact, however, he could instead be ascribing his anger towards the Cyclopes onto his account of the island’s people. In this essay, I propose that Odysseus’ true motives actually form a nuanced junction of the two hypotheses.Odysseus’ incessant criticism of the Cyclopes suggests that he views those who are different to be inhuman. The first adjectives he employs to describe the Cyclopes are “lawlessâ€? and “outrageousâ€? (14), suggesting people who are wild since they live outside the law. While his emphasis on the fact they possess “no institutionsâ€? or council meetings does not intrinsically imply immorality, Odysseus believes that this represents creatures who “care nothing about the othersâ€? (140). Thus, not only do they lack the structure of typical Greek institutions, this dearth shows an utter lack of concern for the wellbeing of others. He subsequently narrows his discussion to a description of a single subject whom, like his fellow Cyclopes, has a “lawlessâ€? mind. Odysseus then boldly accuses him of being a “monster of a manâ€? that was a “monstrous wonderâ€? and “not like a manâ€? (142). The repetition of the monster metaphor insists on Odysseus’ view that the Cyclopes are inhuman and grotesque creatures, confirmed by his direct accusation of him being “not like a man.â€?Odysseus proves the Cyclopes’ inhumanity by juxtaposing their immorality with their lack of land cultivation. He believes that these two qualities are closely related, describing how the “lawless outrageous Cyclopes who, putting all their trust in the immortal gods, neither plow with their hands nor plant anythingâ€? (140). This is Odysseus’ first discussion of the Cyclopes, and thus his first proof of their immorality lies in their agricultural practices. He further defines a man as a cultivator of the land, as he tells how the Cyclops is, “not like a man, an eater of breadâ€? (142). Bread is a food that comes from toiling and harvesting the land, showing that Odysseus believes that cultivation is a compulsory practice for men.Odysseus’ condemnation of the Cyclopes is based mostly on the fact that they are unlike the Greeks, suggesting a predisposed bias against all foreigners. Odysseus’ criticisms of the Cyclopes are constructed by a series of oppositions, of describing what they do not do, such as planting or plowing. The unmentioned yet clear object of comparison is the Greek system. The Greeks are workers of the land and eaters of bread. While he never pronounces the Greeks to be inherently superior, his bias becomes clear through his assumption that those who do not follow the Greek practices are inhuman. Thus, when encountering foreigners Odysseus carries his predisposed confidence in the normality of the Greeks, causing him to be immediately suspicious of outsiders. Before exploring their island, Odysseus says that he seeks to discover “whether they are savage and violent, and without justiceâ€? (141). Odysseus already assumes the likelihood of their inhumanity before encountering them. By prematurely judging the Cyclopes, Odysseus appears to be a cultural supremacist who is so convinced of the rightness of his people that he immediately doubts all outsiders’ sense of humanity.However, the retrospective element of this narration complicates the depiction of Odysseus as the judgmental visitor convinced of his nation’s superiority. Although Odysseus describes the events as they unfold, the reader cannot assume that his account accurately reflects his state of mind at the time. Intentionally or not, Odysseus’ later negative experiences with the Cyclops inform his narration. From a practical standpoint, it is impossible for Odysseus to immediately describe the Cyclopes as lawless and outrageous if he truly narrates his feelings and impressions as the scene progresses. Although Odysseus could speculate that these alien beings are immoral before meeting them, he could not immediately deduce such strong attributes as his initial impression. After losing a great deal of his men to the Cyclops cannibalism and almost being consumed himself, it is not at all surprising that Odysseus questions the morality of the Cyclopes. However, his opinion stems from his own subjective negative experience. Perhaps his later condemnations of their society and practices come from his trying to understand and explain the behavior of these people. Seeing how they are so morally different from the Greeks might cause him to retrospectively view everything that differentiates these two cultures as reflecting upon not only their morality, but their humanness as well.In trying to reconcile the view of an Odysseus who judges the Cyclopes for their difference from the Greeks with an Odysseus whose projection of his subsequent negative experiences causes his estimation, the truth is that Odysseus represents a combination of these two interpretations. By contrasting his assessment of other cultures with his judgement of the Cyclopes, one realizes that Odysseus uses very similar methods of appraisal. When presenting the Lotus-Eaters, his first description of them is how they “live on a flowering foodâ€? (139). He shows his view that this is an unnatural, inhuman practice by requesting his men to seek out any “men, eaters of breadâ€? (139) might be in the vicinity. Again, he asserts than to be a man one must be an eater of bread, a cultivator of the land. The fact that these creatures are forgetful and dreamy might suggest a negative, lazy comportment, but these traits would not seem to immediately imply inhumanity. Odysseus’ judges these people as being not like men since they are not bread eaters. Although the incestuous inhabitants of Aiolians’ consumption of bread is not discussed, they too are marked as alien in that “good things beyond number are set before themâ€? (152). Bread, of course, represents land cultivation, and thus those who do not work the land and merely have unlimited stores of food are similarly inhuman. Odysseus judges other cultures by the same standards that he applies to the Cyclopes in determining every practice that is not Greek to be an example of inhumanity. Thus, Odysseus’ negative assessment of the Cyclopes could represent that he is merely a cultural elitist, and that his condescension would apply regardless of his later experiences.The comparative extremeness of his description of the Cyclopes, however, indicates a specific bias not expressed towards the other foreigners. Even the deadly deceptive Sirens are modified only with the adjective “magicalâ€? (189). The equally formidable Charybdis and Skylla are quantified by the term “dreadedâ€? (192). Odysseus reserves his most lavish insults for his deplorment of the Cyclopes. In addition to being “lawless,â€? “outrageous,â€? and “monstrous,â€? his deep voice inspires “terror,â€? his spirit is “pitiless,â€? and yet he deigns to believe that his people to be “far betterâ€? than the gods. When Odysseus himself proclaims that the “greatest evilâ€? that he and his men have experienced is “when the Cyclops had [them] cooped in his hollow cave by force and violenceâ€? (190), he seems to confirm that the Cyclopes merit his most vicious defilement. His strong characterization of the inhumanity of the Cyclopes then derives from his subsequent horrifying experiences. However, given that his judgement of cultures is strongly influenced by their difference from the Greeks, Odysseus’ disparagement of the Cyclopes proves to be a combination of cultural supremacy and extremely negative associations.Odysseus’ evaluation of the Cyclopes provides an opportunity to explore several themes relevant to the epic as a whole. His definition of the Greek system as the measuring stick against which a nation’s humanity can be assessed prompts a larger examination of the issue of cultural elitism. While this initially appears to be a negative and prejudiced quality, it could be considered an important characteristic in other contexts, as this fierce nationalism allies him with his fellow Greeks and helps them to wage successful battles. It is difficult to discern at what point national pride is necessary, and at what point it engenders an inability to understand societies other than one’s own. The issue of narrating a story with the benefit of knowing its entire course is equally problematic. Does Odysseus’ hindsight provide a more nuanced understanding of his adventures, or does it preclude an objective narrative? As great portions of this epic consist of various characters describing events after they have occurred, this is a provocative inquiry to pursue. The Odyssey presents complicated issues and questions that cannot easily be classified or resolved, forming instead an obscure, dark mist similar to the one that greets Odysseus as he approaches the Cyclopes’ island.

Odysseus and Recognition

Which scenes of the Odyssey between Odysseus’ return to Ithaca and his slaughter of the Suitors show Homer at his best as a story teller.’ (Books 14-24)In the Odyssey Homer has created a poem to stir the depths of an audience’s emotions, able to create scenes both full of anger at the Suitors’ arrogance and tragic with sorrow and hardship. In books 14 to 21, he has assembled a series of poignant recognition scenes which intersperse small incidents showing the threat posed by the usurping Suitors. These scenes between Odysseus and his faithful servants are some of the most powerful in the Odyssey, and add much to the tension in the run up to the final battle against the Suitors.In book 14, Homer pays particular attention to the faithful servant Eumaeus in order to highlight the difference between him and the unfaithful servants in the palace:’unwilling to sleep there away from his boars… He got himself ready for a night outside, and Odysseus was delighted to see his diligent concern for his absent master’s property.’This shows not only how laudable Eumaeus is, but also how detestable the actions of the Suitors are. Such scenes as this are able to charm the audience and create great sympathy and admiration for Eumaeus and the other struggling servants true to Odysseus. We can see how much Homer loved the swineherd from his use of apostrophe in addressing Eumaeus, a privilege reserved for him alone. Eumaeus is shown to be a strange mixture of nobility and humility; he owns his own servants and yet carries out the most humble tasks, perhaps showing how Homer feels all people should behave and providing a stark contrast to the pride and boastfulness of the Suitors.Eumaeus is also used to create tension in the play. He calls Odysseus ‘old friend’ subconsciously it seems; a subtle hint at their relationship? Eurymachus’ words are also employed by Homer to create much dramatic irony:’the gods showed their utter hatred of him [Odysseus]… he is dead and gone: the dogs and the birds of the air must by now have torn the flesh from his bones’Homer makes a point of devoting much of the conversation in this section of the poem to a discussion as to whether Odysseus if dead. Eumaeus is adamant that he is, and Odysseus is adamant he isn’t. This creates irony as Odysseus is unable to convince Eumaeus, whom we know to be wrong, and makes the final battle, when it eventually comes, far more dramatic as it dispels all the tension previously built up.Another scene of great power is the recognition of Odysseus by Telemachus in book 16. We are told:’Telemachus could not yet accept that it was his father…”Telemachus flung his arms around his noble father’s neck and burst into tears… they cried aloud piercingly and more convulsively than birds of prey when… robbed… of their… young.’These quotations show firstly the skilful way in which Homer draws out Telemachus’ acceptance of his father with his disbelief to create more tension in the audience, and secondly the strong emotive language and images he uses to make the scene more powerful. The simile is particularly notable as it suggests wild uncontrollable emotions ravaging the two men and shows the depth of their feelings as well as adding an element of danger, and perhaps nobility (many birds of prey were associated with the gods; Zeus’ eagles, for example) to them.Recognition scenes are perhaps the most powerful in this poem; the scene in book 19 where Eurycleia recognises Odysseus being a prime example:’Abruptly she let go of her master’s foot which made the metal ring as it dropped against the basin, upsetting and spilling all the water on the floor… her voice stuck in her throat… Odysseus’… hand sought and gripped… [her] throat.’This section of the book shows Homer using all his skill to create the surprise of Eurycleia. The basin is focused on as it is an everyday object allowing the audience to relate to it, and the contrast with steady Eurycleia and her sudden loss of speech and grip show the extent of her shock. It is a response both realistic and authentic, giving Eurycleia a human side which makes her more understandable and more pitiable to an audience. This impression is further backed up when Eurycleia ‘lifted her hand to Odysseus’ chin’, giving a visible signal of her affection for her ‘master’. She calls him ‘my dear child’, showing the closeness of the relationship between these two, and making this a more powerful scene. Another sentence in this section is:’Delight and anguish swept through her heart together’This shows the conflicting emotions unleashed in the old woman; delight at Odysseus’ safe return, yet worry at the hardships he must have suffered, and must still suffer at the hands of the Suitors. The contrast of these two feelings help to show an audience the sudden rush of uncontrollable emotion which overwhelms Eurycleia, making this section more effective, and more emotive to an audience.Odysseus’ reaction here (grabbing Eurycleia by the throat) may seem violent to a modern audience, but I believe it serves to show the strain Odysseus is under, and how much is at stake here. His anxiety makes him harsher than perhaps he would normally be as it is of vital importance that he is not discovered at this early stage, and this heightens the audience’s sense of anticipation making it more effective and more dramatic.Homer’s use of strong similes throughout books 13-21 is particularly striking. For example, his comparison of Odysseus with a dog when he is tempted to kill the maids prematurely:’His heart growled within him as a bitch growls standing guard over her helpless pups, ready to fight when she sees a stranger.’This simile suggests the protectiveness Odysseus feels for his ‘pups’; his family and possessions, and also his bravery. The Suitors are like the stranger, threatening and unwanted, and the whole scene is vivid, emotive, and easy for a Greek audience to relate to. Homer’s easily understandable similes are much in evidence in the rest of the poem as well:’he looked like some wretched old beggar leaning on a stick, his body covered with filthy rags.’ (book 17)This shows how complete the disguise provided by Athene is, and how dejected Odysseus now appears. Pathos cannot help but created for him by such a vivid simile, even though we know he is really ‘godlike’, showing Homer at his best as a story teller.Homer gives us yet another poignant and potent scene in the death of Argus dog:’There, full of vermin, lay Argus… directly he became aware of Odysseus’ presence, he wagged his tail… though he lacked the strength now to come nearer to his master’This touching reunion shows the degradation that has taken place in Odysseus’ absence, and serves to further the plot as well as being highly emotive. It is the start of a series of recognition scenes, and there is a sense of tragic irony in that the dog cannot be taken in by a goddess’ disguise. The dog is the lowliest of all Odysseus’s subjects, yet it is still loyal to him (like Eumaeus), creating more irony, and when ‘the black hand of Death’ descends on him, there is a great amount of pathos created in an audience.The ‘battle’ of Odysseus and Irus, too, is a highly effective piece of writing. As he fells Irus, we are reminded of Odysseus’ tremendous power, and the language Homer uses is particularly vivid, yet there is still an overtone of the menacing Suitors cast over the scene:’Irus… fell down in the dust with a scream, grimacing and drumming on the earth with his feet. At this the noble Suitors threw up their hands and died of laughing.’This is a disturbing passage; the proximity of the violence and the Suitor’s mirth seems unnatural, and the strange phrase ‘died of laughing’ adds morbidity and a chill of death to the Suitors, either making their death seem inevitable, or making them seem eerie and oddly preternatural. Homer here is able to create excitement and genuine entertainment for an audience, whilst casting an air of death over the scene.Homer, then, is able to create great scenes using imagery and emotive language. The Odyssey is a work of great sensitivity to the character’s feelings and the audience is manipulated with great skill, whilst at the same time there is the cut and thrust of action and adventure. Recognition scenes are cunningly woven into the fabric of the poetry with every scene exploited to the full.

The Gendered Stories of the Odyssey

In the Homeric world, the very roots of stories were gendered. The Muses, who inspired humans to create story and song, were women, the daughters of Memory. Stories thus have gendered identities from their very inception, and in the Odyssey, the men and women telling them are adhering to the strict gender roles ascribed by ancient Greek culture. Female stories and songs are generally used to seduce, and to otherwise gain control over men by luring them in or by deceiving them. Men tell stories to relate facts, and to reinforce codes of behavior; frequently, male storytelling occurs as part of proper etiquette or ritual. Since the Odyssey itself is of the second type, each of the instances of storytelling are instructive.The Sirens sing to seduce; their song is the entirety of their existence. They are, like the rest of the Greek pantheon, humans on a grander scale. In particular, the Sirens are larger-than-life women, and they amplify the misogyny of the Odyssey to its clearest incarnation. Their song is a symbol for the power of desire; it strips men of their defenses and self-control, distracting them from their everyday lives and concerns. They sing of some unique knowledge they possess, extending back into antiquity the contemporary more that women have secret information which men must constantly attempt to divine from them. There is pleasure in the attainment of this knowledge ‹ “You can have joy in hearing the song of the Sirens,” Circe tells Odysseus ‹ but he must physically restrain himself against the irrationality that lust will produce in him (XI.52). In general, storytelling bridges pleasure and pain, and in this instance, the ultimate pleasure of the Sirens’ song brings the ultimate pain.Not only is the seduction itself more powerful, but the consequences of it are deadly. Circe paints an ugly picture of this for Odysseus, saying that the Sirens “sit in their meadow, but the beach before it is piled with boneheaps of men now rotted away, and the skins shrivel upon them” (XI.45-46). The Sirens, epitomes of female desirability, are untouchable. Perfection and its achievement are inversely related; Homer seems to be saying that the greater the desire and lust, the smaller the possibility of its attainment. If the Odyssey is a morality tale ascribing self-control and moderation to the perfect man, then the Sirens, through hyperbole, represent the dangers seductresses present.The Sirens are not the only female characters whose song represents their seductive power. When Hermes comes to tell Kalypso the will of Zeus, who has commanded her to release Odysseus, he stands and admires the scene before him. The garden is lovely; the interior of the cave warm and sweet-smelling; in short, all is idealized, including Kalypso’s activity. “She was singing with a sweet voice as she went up and down the loom with a golden shuttle” (V.61-62). Because this passage falls in the midst of others describing a kind of domestic paradise, Kalypso is presented as the ultimate domestic icon, in the same way that the Sirens are the ultimate seductresses. Her power in this area is so absolute, in fact, that Odysseus cannot escape this divine oikos until Zeus himself demands his release. There is also a slight extension of the Sirens’ seductive power into Calypso’s “sweet voice.” Kalypso’s song, as well as her weaving, seem to symbolize her femininity; in the idealized home, these are the activities of its female head-of-household.Circe, too, was “singing in a sweet voice as she went up and down a great design on a loom” when Odysseus’s men came upon her (X.221-222). It is this song which draws them in, since, as Polites says “the whole place murmurs to the echo of it” (X.227-228). Outside Circe’s home are lions and wolves, which she has tamed by drugging them, causing them to forget their ferocious natures. As soon as she has drawn the heroes to her with song, Circe serves them a potion which makes them forget their homes. For the animals, the drug was enough, but for the humans, it must work in conjunction with the song. Songs, then, are perhaps drugs that work on the intangible essence of humanity, on some element of the consciousness, rather than on the physical bodies and basic needs that humans have in common with animals.Helen, too, drugs her listeners. Her potion is “heartsease, free of gall, to make one forget all sorrows” (IV.221). Storytelling, which at its best transports its listeners to an alternate world, causing them to forget their own, simultaneously encourages memory of things past. The Muses are, after all, the daughters of Memory, so perhaps it is appropriate that in the ritual of her storytelling, Helen is causing her audience to forget some things and to remember others. Hers is an almost masculine story-type, intended, like the stories of Nestor and Menelaos, to teach Telemachos more about his father. However, she tells it because she experienced it firsthand, and was the only person to see through Odysseus’s disguise. When Helen is finished, Menelaos interprets the story into the fully masculine format for Telemachos’s instruction.Penelope, too, tells a story. It is initially told before the action of the Odyssey commences, and is present in the text only through retellings. Penelope’s story crafted from necessity; she tells it in order to postpone having to choose between the suitors, so as to give Odysseus more time to come home. Like Kalypso, Penelope tells her story while she is weaving. Homer thus sets up a parallel between the two women which illumines their disparity: one divine and one mortal, one holding Odysseus captive and one awaiting his return. The action of weaving gains another symbolic dimension when we consider the idiom “weaving a tale.” Penelope is rumored to be skilled at weaving ‹ “expert in beautiful work” ‹ and, if this is considered to represent skill in storytelling, it makes sense that she was able to deceive the suitors for three years (II.17). Penelope’s story is also a lie, which is another predominantly masculine story-type. She tells it, however, precisely because there is no man to tell it for her; it is because Odysseus is gone that she is being courted.Whereas women tell stories to gain power over men, men tell stories to achieve some concrete goal, or as part of a formalized cultural practice. Demodokos is the most accomplished storyteller in Phaiacia, a place renowned for its storytelling. He represents the ideal storyteller from a formal perspective. When he sings, Odysseus says that it is as if “you had been there yourself or heard it from one who was” (VIII.491-492). Indeed, Odysseus tells him that he prizes him “above all mortals beside,” elevating him to an almost divine level (VIII.487). Storytelling was among the most valued skills in ancient Greece, and its formal practice was generally constrained to men. Demodokos also sings exclusively of gods and heroes, excluding mortal women. His tales reify the heroic ethic and the Greek patriarchy.Storytelling and singing play another, more specific, role when the deeds being sung of are factual rather than fictional. Telemachos has grown up not knowing his father; he has never had a male role model. When Athena sends him on a journey for news of his father, the information he finds is more useful to fill this gap in his education and personal growth than it is to find his father in a literal sense. During his visits to Nestor and Menelaos, Telemachos hears many stories about his father’s past. Rather than just allowing their listeners to visualize the action, these stories act in the place of actual experience or first-hand knowledge. Even as Telemachos is using these stories to come closer to his father, the other men are using his stories to identify him as Odysseus’s son. Nestor says to Telemachos that “surely your words are like his words, nor would anyone ever have thought that a younger man could speak so like him” (III.124-125) Here, stories are being used to reinforce a weak point in the patriarchal lineage so important to the heroic tales.If Demodokos exemplifies storytelling as a formal performance art, then Odysseus is its ideal practitioner among non-professionals. For him, storytelling and singing are practical skills which he employs to smooth his journey and to conform with good etiquette. As one of the legendary Greek heroes, and a man renowned for his skill in discourse, Odysseus is a talented storyteller and singer. Alkinöos, the king of Phaiacia, compliments him, saying:”Odysseus, we as we look upon you do not imagine that you are a deceptive or thievish man, the sort that the black earth breeds in great numbers, people who wander widely, making up lying stories, from which no one could learn anything. You have a grace upon your words, and there is sound sense within them, and expertly, as a singer would do, you have told the story” (XI.363-368).The irony of this is that at times in his travels, Odysseus chooses to tell lies. They are often the most pragmatic and polite option. When he would like a mantle to sleep under, Odysseus simply tells a pointed ‹ if fictional ‹ tale, and at its conclusion, one is promised him. Athena, who favors Odysseus, often helps him to lie, or disguises him so that his lies will be convincing, as when he returns to Ithaca claiming to be an old man. Lying well is an extremely useful talent, since, while traveling, Odysseus is often asked to identify himself through story, since, apart from memory and legend, there were no other available sources of information about a stranger. Men in the Odyssey generally use singing and storytelling for entertainment, information or “crafty purposes”­ namely spying or disguise.Homer is himself one of the male storytellers he describes in the Odyssey. If Odysseus can distort the truth to gain what he wants, whether it be a mantle to sleep under or immortalization in song, Homer, too, can lie. As the most famous of the Greek epic poets whose works we have today, he is, in some ways, Demodokos ‹ the foremost storyteller of a culture renowned for its poetry. The distinction he makes between male and female storytelling may be entirely consistent with ancient Greek culture, or it may be a fiction all Homer’s own, which he made for purposes unknown to us. Aristophanes’s Lysistrata, for one, paints an entirely different picture of the role of women. The idea of gendered storytelling, whether bias, fact, or some gray area between the two, is nonetheless an important facet of the Odyssey.

Guest-Host Relationships in Homer’s Odyssey

Odysseus’ disastrous encounter with the Laistrygones is a useful reference point for analyzing the nature of guest-host relationships in The Odyssey. When it is compared with his arrivals at the lands of the Phaiakians and the hands of the Cyclopes, a fuller picture of Odysseus and the customs of his time emerges; in addition, this reveals some of Homer’s more adroit storytelling techniques. To regard The Odyssey as the tale of one man’s wanderings, as many do, is to ignore half its importance; it is also the story of his stops between wanderings.Initially, all proceeds well when Odysseus sends three men to learn the nature of the Laistrygones: the land, with its smooth roads, seems orderly – this, coupled with the placid harbor that greeted their arrival at Lamos, leads the reader to believe that this is a peaceful place – and the first person the posse meets is receptive and informative. This information, relayed mutedly by Homer, is reassuring: after their troubles with the Cyclopes and six days of sailing, it seems the voyagers will finally find rest. The positive (by now, more perceptive readers might call it ominous) signs continue – a glorious king’s home awaits the sailors – until the shocking moment when a giantess fills them with horror. The peaceful mood is destroyed by Antiphates’ wrath, and Death, having stalked the men from the dock, finds a victim. Flight and slaughter ensues, and resourceful Odysseus barely escapes with the remainder of his men.This is more than storytelling – Homer has a message hidden beneath the thrill of the narrow getaway. The peaceful setup accomplishes two things: one is obviously in the way of entertainment (the sudden attack on the Ithakans becomes all the more surprising and exciting for his listeners); the other tells the reader about the nature of host-guest relationships.Odysseus has a relentless optimism about his hosts – he always approaches them, even in the land of the Cyclopes, which he knows to be lawless. After exploring the cave of Polyphemos, Odysseus’ men plead with him to steal his goods and set sail; the logician, though, will have none of it: “I would not listen to them… / not until I could see him, see if he would give me presents.” This seems a trifle mad. Here, unlike in Lamos, Odysseus expects to find “a man who was endowed with great strength, / and wild, with no true knowledge of laws or any good customs” but yet is not the least afraid – he is confident that no matter how savage this creature is, he will surely be won over by gifts of food and wine. Decency is assumed. The simplest explanation is that Odysseus wholly believes that Zeus, god of guests, will not fail him. Quixotic Odysseus entreaties Polyphemos blithely, fully expecting cooperation:…now in turn we come to you and are suppliantsat your knees, if you might give us a guest present or otherwisesome gift of grace, for such is the right of strangers. Thereforerespect the gods, O best of men. We are your suppliants,and Zeus the guest god, who stands behind all strangers with honorsdue them, avenges any wrong toward strangers and suppliants.The underlying message is clear: being a good host is so expected, by so far the default expectation, that despite unmistakable signs that the “host” is hostile, normally clearheaded Odysseus still expects grace and hospitality. Odysseus’ arrival at the land of the Phaiakians is similar to the exploration of Lamos – both scenes are cautious; the men are diplomatic. Odysseus’s plea to Nausikaa is crafty. Although Odysseus employs a different supplication technique here than at Polyphemos’ cave, it hardly seems necessary; here, in a civilized land, the response feels guaranteed. A supplication to the bloodthirsty Laistrygones would have been useless. Alkinoös responds to Odysseus admirably, and the weary traveler is without want for the duration of his stay. The drastic difference in outcome is attributable solely to the character of those that are supplicated.By the end of the encounter with the Laistrygones, lamentations should well up in emotionally invested readers – but not only for the murders of Odysseus’ men. Something besides life has been destroyed: a basic fabric of generosity, hospitality and good will that the voyagers deserve has been betrayed. If Odysseus and his men found welcoming hosts at every turn, the latter would lose their significance – they would be taken for granted. By building the travelers’ hopes at each new location and sometimes dashing them savagely, Homer elevates the status of the good folk who do receive them in peace and give food and shelter. The relations between guest and host form the core of The Odyssey; their range – from eight years of divine food and loving to cruel death – reveals that no matter what horrors a man encounters at war and on the open sea, a crueler fate could await in another man’s home.

The Odyssey 23.183-204: Even the Strongest of Men Has a Weakness

In lines 23.183-204 of the Odyssey Odysseus is trying to prove to his wife that he really is himself, and that he is not a manifestation of a trick being played on her by the gods. Penelope has tricked Odysseus into betraying himself to her by telling a servant to move Odysseus’s bed outside of the room. Odysseus becomes angered at this command because he constructed the bed himself and knows that the bed cannot be moved easily. Homer then has Odysseus give a monologue that describes how he constructed the bed. In these twenty-one lines Homer uses Odysseus’s description of the construction of the bed to parallel the constitution of Odysseus’s character and the events of his life. Homer’s diction contributes to the allegorical characteristics of this passage while the tone of the passage portrays an Odysseus who is much different from the Odysseus of previous chapters.From the very beginning of the passage, the tone in which Odysseus speaks reveals a more sensitive side to the brave warrior that Homer has written about in the Iliad and the majority of the Odyssey. When Odysseus says “What you have said, dear lady, has hurt my heart deeply” it is the first time that Odysseus proves that he really has missed his wife and that he loves her dearly. In previous chapters Odysseus has mentioned that he misses his wife and wants to go home: when he is on Kalypso’s island he misses his wife so much that he chooses his freedom over immortality. But it is only in this first private conversation between Odysseus and Penelope that Homer reveals the depth of Odysseus’s love for his wife.When Odysseus is describing how he built the bed, Homer has him speak in a tone that is nervous and pleading. He meticulously describes every detail of the bed’s fabrication, as if Penelope will doubt him if he leaves something out. At the end of the passage Odysseus’s tone returns to the loving tone he used in the beginning. In the last three lines, the tone of Odysseus’s speech reflects the longing he feels for his wife. The monologue ends on a painful note, and the reader is convinced that Odysseus is overcome with emotion, that all of Odysseus’s soul is pivoted around what Penelope will say next. Homer develops the tone throughout the whole passage by carefully choosing words that give an aura of painful pleading. For example, when Odysseus says ” there is no mortal man alive, no strong man” his redundancy shows that Odysseus is very distracted by the thought of another man moving his bed; Odysseus is almost trying to convince himself that the act would be impossible. Homer has Odysseus speak in this distracted, imploring manner in order to show how important Penelope’s faithfulness is to Odysseus.As mentioned above, Odysseus’s entire monologue parallels the essence of his character as well as the events of his life. Homer’s diction helps to create this allegorical aspect in the passage. When Odysseus says “it would be difficult…change its position” (l. 184-186) Homer is using the sturdiness and steadfastness of the bed to represent the strength and uprightness of Odysseus’s character. Odysseus has suffered many trials and tribulations yet he has arrived at his goal with his mind intact, and has never abandoned the ideas and things that are important to him. Throughout all of his journeys nothing was able to sidetrack him or change his position. Next, Odysseus states that “There is one particular feature…made it” (l. 188-189). Here Homer is saying that like the bed, Odysseus has constructed his character and intelligence by himself, and that no other man had a part in making him who he is. This trait of Odysseus is very important; since he never let anyone influence him when he was still constructing his own character, it is not hard for him to stay true to himself and his goals. Homer’s diction in this phrase is very forceful; he uses the word “particular” and the redundant phrase “I myself, no other man” to emphasize how Odysseus’s construction of his own character has made him an especially intelligent individual. This phrase stresses that all of Odysseus’s intelligence and morality come from within him.Odysseus’s description of the actual construction of the bed (l.190-194) is also a parallel to the construction of his character. He starts out describing the “bole” or trunk of an olive tree. This trunk represents Odysseus’s body. It was “growing strongly” and “it was thick, like a column”. Homer’s choice of the word “column” creates an image of a colossal Odysseus who is as strong and beautiful as a Greek marble column. When Odysseus says “I laid down my chamber around this” it parallels Odysseus laying his character and intellect around his body to guard it. “And built it until I finished it” means that Odysseus perfected his body and soul until he was a man. The “close set stones” represent Odysseus’s mental coherence while the “compacted doors” represent the connection between how Odysseus thinks and how he carries out his intelligence physically. One example of how Odysseus opened the “compacted doors” between his body and mind was when he conjured up the scheme to blind the Cyclops and then had the physical strength to execute his plan.Odysseus says that after he constructed his bed (and his character) he began to perfect it (l. 195-201). He “cut away the foliage of the long-leaved olive, and trimmed the trunk from the roots up”; metaphorically he started to put the finishing touches on his mind and body. The tool Homer chooses to include in this passage for the “planing” of the bed, the “brazen adze”, is a symbol of perfection. A brazen adze is an ax-like tool, made of brass, which is head-mounted at a perfect ninety degree angle. Odysseus uses this tool to “true it [the plane of the bed] straight to a chalkline”. Homer’s use of the word “true” emphasizes Odysseus’s fidelity to himself. Then, the construction is summarized by the line “I began with this and built my bed, until it was finished” which symbolizes how Odysseus began with a natural intelligence and built his mental and physical capacities until they could rival the physical and mental talents of the immortals. The “gold, silver, and ivory” he uses to decorate the bed represent the honor, affluence, and attractiveness that he has achieved by having such a strong mind and body.At the end of the description Odysseus states “there is its [the bed’s] character…moved it elsewhere” (l. 202-204). This statement undermines all of what Odysseus has previously said about the strength and immutability of the bed. Homer is showing the reader that for the first time in Odysseus’s life he is doubting himself. The phrase “I do not know now” shows that Odysseus is unsure if his character can withstand his wife’s rejection, even though he is has the most mental strength of any mortal. Odysseus thinks that if some man has “cut underneath the stump of the olive, and moved it [the bed] elsewhere” it will be the equivalent of someone uprooting all of the physical and mental strength from his body and disposing of it. After a greatly detailed monologue about the greatness of his strength, the acknowledgement of how his wife’s love makes him weak is a passionately strong conclusion.There is a striking contrast between Odysseus’s description of his strength and his revelation of weakness, but Homer makes the entire passage credible by using words that give Odysseus an anxious, pleading tone. Homer’s diction also makes it possible for a passage about a bed to represent the construction of a character’s mental strength. In these twenty-one lines, Homer has given the reader a message: even the strongest of men has a weakness, and this weakness will be the cause of the journeys and sufferings of his life. In Odysseus’s case, his weakness is his love for Penelope, and this love causes him to return home and recapture his household.

Cunning as a Defining Characteristic

At its core, The Odyssey is a story that centers around the cunning of its main characters. Throughout the epic poem, both Odysseus and his wife, Penelope, are known for their mental capabilities. Odysseus is constantly referred to as “godlike,” and Penelope is called “circumspect.” Circumspect, as defined by Dictionary.com, means “heedful of circumstances and potential circumstances; prudent,” and Book 23 clearly illustrates the circumspection of both Penelope and Odysseus. In this book, Odysseus uses his cunning to rid his home of the unwelcome suitors, and Penelope, in turn, uses her cunning to protect not only herself, but her people as well, by forcing Odysseus to prove his identity to her. Closely interwoven with the plot in this book is also the theme of using disguises and hidden identities to achieve one’s desired results. This is something Odysseus and many other characters do, and it plays an especially important part in this book. Ultimately, the scene in Book 23 in which Penelope tests Odysseus’ true identity serves to emphasize the importance of cunning as Odysseus’ means of survival, as well as Penelope’s means of survival; most importantly, though, it emphasizes the fact that their mutual cunning forms the basis for an unbreakable link that binds them unwaveringly together.Circumspection is Penelope’s defining characteristic, and no where is this more evident than in Book 23. From Eurykleia’s first mention of Odysseus’ return, Penelope is wary. She responds to the nurse’s claim by saying, “‘Dear nurse, the gods have driven you crazy…/ They have set you awry…'” (XXIII, 11-14). Though her emotions manage to get the better of her momentarily, “…Penelope in her joy sprang up from the bed, and embraced the old woman, her eyes streaming/ tears, and she [Penelope] spoke to her…/ ‘Come, dear nurse, and give me a true account of the matter,/ whether he has really come back to his house…'” (XXIII, 32-36), she refuses to allow herself to believe because she must first consider all the possibilities. She finds it most likely that Odysseus’ ostensible return is but a ruse of the gods. She says, “‘You [Eurykleia] know/ how welcome he would be if he appeared in the palace:/ to all, but above all to me and the son we gave birth to./ No, but this story is not true as you tell it; rather,/ some one of the immortals has killed the haughty suitors in anger…'” (XXIII, 59-64). Though she wants nothing more than for what Eurykleia says to be true, she is still ruled by her circumspection. She is fully cognizant of the fact that if she allows herself to believe, she is putting herself at risk emotionally and allowing for the possibility of additional pain and severe disappointment. Because of this, she is unwilling to accept the possibility that Odysseus has indeed returned until she can discover for herself, without any doubt, if this is true. Also augmenting Penelope’s unwillingness to accept Odysseus’ return is her awareness of the results of the trickery of the gods. She believes that the Trojan War was caused by the meddling of the gods and she refuses to allow herself to become part of a similar event. She says, “‘The gods granted us misery,/ in jealousy… For there are many who scheme for wicked advantage. For neither would the daughter born to Zeus, Helen of Argos,/ have lain in love with an outlander from another country,/ if she had known that the warlike sons of the Achaians would bring her/ home again to the beloved land of her fathers./ It was a god who stirred her to do the shameful thing she/ did…'” (XXIII, 210-223). By being wary, therefore, she is protecting not only herself, but also her people. Helen’s acts brought much strife and destruction to her land and her people, and Penelope was unwilling to do the same. Penelope and Odysseus are both gifted with an understanding of the gods and their ways that allows them to achieve much more favorable results when dealing with the gods than can be achieved by most mortals. This is witnessed time and again on Odysseus’ journey home, such as when he deals with the Old Man of the Sea (IV), Kalypso (V), Polyphemos (IX), and Circe (X). In each of his dealings with the gods, Odysseus manages to settle things favorably. The mental capabilities of Odysseus and Penelope not only allow them an advantage in dealing with fellow mortals but also with the gods.After rousing herself to go and see the dead suitors and the man who killed them, Penelope finally comes face to face with Odysseus. Even as she descends the stairs, though, she remains ambivalent as to her course of action. She thinks to herself, “…whether to keep away and question her dear husband,/ or to go up to him and kiss his head, taking his hands” (XXIII, 86-87). As always, her mind prevails over her heart and she chooses the former course of action. Even under the reproach of her son and Odysseus himself, she refuses to give way, saying, “‘…[I]f he is truly Odysseus,/ and he has come home, then we shall find ways, and better,/ to recognize each other, for we have signs that we know of/ between the two of us only, but they are secret from others'” (XXIII, 107-110). She is determined to follow her plan through to the end, and Odysseus is surprisingly receptive to the idea, smiling in response to her suggestion.Odysseus, whose cunning is world-renowned, exhibits it once again in Book 23 both in dealing with the suitors and his wife. As with Polyphemos and the Old Man of the Sea, Odysseus recognizes that he cannot overcome the swarm of suitors with brute strength – he must use his intelligence. Because of this, he assumes the disguise of a beggar when he returns to Ithaka, thus allowing him to enter his household without raising suspicion. Having gained successful reentry, he then plans and executes the deaths of the suitors. Once again, he knows that he must plan things out and think things through in order to succeed. When Penelope announces her intention to test his identity, his initial response is to smile. Despite all that he has gone through in order to return safely home, his wife presents one more obstacle to their reunion, but he is nonetheless able to accept it. He smiles because he recognizes Penelope’s cunning in such a move and is reminded of the bond that they share through their mutual appreciation of each other’s mental capacities. He is more than willing to prove himself to the woman with whom he shares such an incredible bond.Penelope’s attempt to ascertain Odysseus’ true identity, however, does not involve straightforward questioning such that we have seen in the other instances where a host attempts to discover the identity of an unknown guest. The norm, except in the case of Polyphemos (IX), is to feed the guest and then question him once the meal is done. This is seen time and again when Odysseus travels to Pylos (III), Sparta (IV), Scheria (VI), and Aiolos (X). Penelope instead chooses to trick Odysseus by suggesting that their marriage bed, which was built around a living olive tree, be moved. The only way the bed could be moved, however, is if the tree has been cut down. Odysseus, of course, knows this, and so he responds angrily, saying, “‘What you have said, dear lady, has hurt me deeply. What man/ has put my bed in another place? But it would be difficult/ for even a very expert one, unless a god, coming/ to help in person, were easily to change its position./ …There is one particular feature/ in the bed’s construction. I, myself, no other man, made it./ … I do not know now,/ dear lady, whether my bed is still in place, or if some man/ has cut underneath the stump of the olive [tree]…'” (XXIII, 183-204). Following this, Penelope is at last able to allow herself to accept that Odysseus is indeed the man before her: “…[H]er knees and the heart within her went slack/ as she recognized the clear proofs that Odysseus had given;/ and then she burst into tears and ran straight to him, throwing her arms around the neck of Odysseus, and kissed his head…” (XXIII, 205-208). Odysseus’ journey has, at last come to a temporary end, and he is finally reunited with his soul mate. At the end of The Odyssey, Odysseus and Penelope are allowed to live out their days in peace. This, however, was not something that was just given to them; rather, they earned it by living by their minds rather than their hearts. Because they did not live by rash, heat-of-the-moment, emotional decisions, but instead were restrained and collected, they obtained the life that so many mortals seek. In the end, their love and their relationship proved as solid and unchangeable as their marriage bed, of which it was symbolic. As the bed was built around the living tree, so their marriage was also built around a living foundation – their undying connection of love and their unbreakable bond of mutual cunning.

Culture Clash

Generalizations and associations seem to permeate the culture of every human society. If this were not the case, there would be no need for the sociological study of ethnocentricity. The Odyssey of Homer strongly exhibits this quality of judging cultures and other peoples based on criteria defined by its own ancient Greek civilization. In this way, one can draw a parallel between Ancient China and Ancient Greece. The Chinese once viewed their country as the center of the universe; their values, beliefs, and customs were the standards against which they measured everything and everyone else. From The Odyssey, one can detect a similar methodology in the way in which the Greeks assessed the level of sophistication of other cultures by using their own familiar conventions as universal standards for defining humanity. Through The Odyssey, one can isolate three main methods the Greeks used in their cultural classifications: hospitality, story-telling, and diet. However, in order to appreciate fully the importance of such standards of comparison, one should examine the context in which each criterion was used. Since Homer does not directly list each criterion one by one, one might have to give a cursory examination of the attributes of each civilization that Odysseus encounters, as well as the different impressions the Greeks had when encountering each one, so as to formulate a basic understanding of how hospitality, story-telling, and diet relate to one another and to the general concept of humanity.Hospitality is one of the largest recurring themes in The Odyssey. By examining how Nestor greets Telemachos to his household, one can see a good model of how a host should treat his guests. Before Nestor even identifies Telemachos as Odysseus¹s son, he and his family kindly escort Telemachos and his companions into their house, inviting them to dine with the rest (The Odyssey, Book III, 34-44). Nestor actually asks the strangers to identify themselves only after Telemachos and his companions have finished their meals (III, 69-74). Though we in our modern day might find this custom of “eat first, ask later” to be quite odd, the ancient Greeks commonly used this concept of hospitality as a method of assessing the level of grace and refinement of a particular people. Story-telling is also another integral part of ancient Greek culture to which the characters in The Odyssey attached high value and excellence. For instance, because of Odysseus¹s amazing tales of his travels, the Phaiakian listeners were all “stricken in silence, held in thrall by the story all through the shadowy chambers” (XI, 333-334). Consequently, the Phaiakians proceeded to inundate Odysseus with more gifts, so as to compensate him for his sufferings as well as show their appreciation for his well-told stories (XI, 336-341). Overall I felt that the ancient Greek concept of hospitality and the high value attached to story-telling were quite interesting, though a bit foreign to my own understanding of culture. However, I was able to relate to most of their values concerning diet and culinary refinement, including the assumptions on the nature and quality of a culture associated with those ethics. For instance, one can refer to how Odysseus described the Cyclops, Polyphemos: “his mind was lawless, / and in truth he was a monstrous wonder made to behold, not / like a man, an eater of bread, but more like a wooded / peak of a the high mountains seen standing away from the others” (IX, 189-192). Despite the fact that the Cyclops was described as monstrous, lawless, and primitive, one should note the direct comparison to humans Odysseus made in order to help his listeners better understand the morally depraved nature of Polyphemos. In short, the Cyclops did not eat bread, like Œnormal¹ humans. First, the phrase “eater of bread” acts as a metaphor for non-anthropophagia. Since both the Cyclops and Odysseus spoke the same language and could communicate on a coherent level, the thought of one sentient being knowingly devouring another sentient being seemed barbaric and repulsive, almost cannibalistic. Hence, I cringed as I read how Polyphemos killed two companions of Odysseus by smashing them into the ground, “like puppies”, and then ate them raw (IX, 287-295). I suppose that since I share this same aversion toward cannibalism as the Ancient Greeks, I have bridged a section of this cultural gap that prevents me from fully understanding their concept of humanity and refined civilization. If one tries to adopt this same degree of fervor with respect to Greek hospitality and story-telling, as one might in one¹s rejection of cannibalism, we might better relate to the way the Greeks in The Odyssey evaluated different cultures, classifying some as barbaric and others as more superior. For example, the first concepts that come to my mind when I think of the word Œcannibal¹ are primitive, cruel, uncivilized, violent, and uncultured. Hence, by associating the word Œcannibal¹ with the Cyclops, the vices of such adjectives carry over in my mind, and a negative impression of the individual surfaces. One can then hypothesize that this formulation of an image of a particularly barbaric race was exactly the effect that Odysseus wanted to convey to his listeners at the time. However, although someone could argue that nothing prevents Odysseus from manipulating the concepts of hospitality, story-telling, and diet so as to invoke an extreme negative impression of a particular foreign culture, one might suggest that the ancient Greeks merely had concrete examples to describe barbaric cultures, where inhospitableness and cannibalism were simply associations given to such unrefined civilizations. For instance, one could compare Polyphemos with the Laistrygonians. Like the Cyclops, the Laistrygonians were much larger and stronger than humans (X, 112-113). This race of giants likewise demonstrated murderous cruelty when they threw giant boulders at the ships of Odysseus, so that all but his own were destroyed (X, 121-132). However, the greatest similarity between the Cyclopes and the Laistrygonians is the fact that they both eat human flesh. Two of Odysseus¹s men were immediately captured and prepared for dinner in the house of one of these giants (X, 116), while others were being speared like fish and taken away to be eaten (X, 124-125). Hence, an ancient Greek could then create assumptions about different cultures by generalizing on the concepts of diet, hospitality, etc. and associating them with the seemingly barbaric nature of those civilizations described. For instance the fact that both the Cyclopes and the Laistrygonians are eaters of flesh can imply that they are also cruel, inhospitable, and dangerous. Likewise, if Odysseus encounters a third race that seems pitiless, inhospitable, and primitively aggressive, it would not be unreasonable for one to surmise that such a race might also be devourers of human flesh‹not eaters of bread like man.As a final point, one can also draw a correlation between the values of ancient Greek culture and their theological beliefs. For instance, when Odysseus first spoke to the Polyphemos the Cyclops, he requested a “guest present” or “some gift of grace, for such is the right of strangers” (IX, 267-268). When I initially read those lines, I felt that Odysseus¹s words were a bit forward and daring, almost rude. However, by reading further, I attained a possible reason for why Odysseus reasoned the way he did, for he said: Therefore respect the gods [Š.] We are your suppliants, and Zeus the guest god [Š] avenges any wrong toward strangers and suppliants” (IX, 268-271). Therefore, one might argue that it is this fear of incurring a god¹s wrath that causes these Greeks to follow customs they have gradually believed to be godlike or god-defined. But note how Polyphenos responds to Odysseus¹s comment on the gods when he said: “The Cyclopes do not concern themselves over Zeus of the aegis, nor any of the rest of the blessed gods, since we are far better than they” (IX, 275-277). It then follows that since the Cyclopes do not fear the gods, they act impulsively and are motivated only by their selfish desires. The epitome of the Cyclops¹s haughty fearlessness is demonstrated by the way he continually slaughters Odysseus¹s companions for food. Polyphemos completely ignores this code of hospitality that is such an integral part of Greek culture and their theology and totally ignores any consequences of his actions. Hence, one could add that the Cyclopes are not only an inhospitable, uncultured, man-eating barbaric race, but they also are sacrilegious, haughty, and short-sighted. Indeed, one likely could not draw all of these conclusions solely by observing the diet of the Cyclopes. Rather, by appraising the behavior and customs of another civilization against ethics and values that are so seemingly universal in their eyes, the ancient Greeks were able to draw generalizations on the sophistication of another race¹s culture. As we could see with the both the Cyclopes and the Laistrygonians, such generalizations were upheld and proven to be accurate.Overall, by carefully noting all incidences in The Odyssey where a convention, custom, or moral is being challenged or applied, one could get a glimpse of what sort of ethics and values the ancient Greeks in epic poetry held. Furthermore, one would then have the basis of arguing for what the values and customs of the actual ancient Greek civilization at that time might have been. Objectively, though, one might argue against the absurdity of judging an entire culture or race of people based on their diet. However, even in our world today, we see people passing judgement and generalizations left and right, especially through the media. Perhaps, if the Cyclopes or the Laistrygonians had their own Homeric poet, we would then see a different side of the story than the one related to us through the winged words of Odysseus.

Sleep and Death in Homer’s Odyssey

In the Odyssey, Homer uses the idea of sleep to represent the idea of death, which makes the struggle to remain conscious and the struggle to remain alive one in the same struggle. Odysseus is constantly fighting to remain alert, to avoid monotony. It is this metaphorical insomnia that enables Odysseus to return to his native land. However, in the end, sleep is an inevitable part of being alive, just as death is. Odysseus, being human, cannot avoid this. A way to delay‹if not to transcend‹both sleep and death though is through storytelling.Sleep is death’s representative on earth. The most important distinction that can in fact be drawn between sleep and death is that death is a permanent state of affairs, and therefore carries with it a more negative connotation. Penelope defines sleep as “the oblivion of all/ things, both good and evil” (20:85). Such is death. Sleep has the ability to “quiet” (12:31) as does death. Furthermore, when describing how Telemechos slaughters the maids guilty of treason, Homer employs a metaphor by saying that “the sleep,” the death, “given them was hateful;/ so their heads were all in a line, and each had her neck caught/ fast in a noose, so that their death would be most pitiful” (22:469-471). Death is therefore a more “hateful” version of sleep. This idea is present again in Homer’s description of Hades, in which one must pass through “the country of dreams” in order to arrive at “the dwelling place of souls” (24:12-13).Just as the world changes uncontrollably when one dies, so too does the world change uncontrollably when a character falls asleep. Odysseus is asleep when his fellow seamen let loose the winds and when they eat Helios’ sacred cattle. He is asleep when Alkinoor’s daughter discovers him. He is asleep when he arrives in Ithaka. Penelope sleeps through what would be her saddest and happiest moments: when her son leaves her for the unknown, and when her husband extracts his revenge from the suitors. Athene even “drifted a sweet sleep over [Penelope]…endow[ing] her with gifts immortal/ to make the Achaians admire her” (18:187-191). Thus we see what setbacks and miracles can and do take place while the character in question sleeps through them. It is this daunting fact that leads Odysseus to yell out, “Father Zeus, and you other everlasting and blessed/ gods, with a pitiless sleep, you lulled me, to my confusion” (12:371-372). It is this “confusion” that the characters awaken to, just as Ares and Aphrodite, after falling asleep together in love, awaken to find themselves trapped in the “artful bonds that had been forged by subtle Hephaistos” (10:298). Similarly, a human character is trapped in whatever situation he finds himself in when he wakes up.Unlike Ares however, Odysseus, being human, must struggle when he wakes up to break free from the bonds of his situation. Ares’ savior Poseidon does not save Odysseus from anything, but in fact makes the seas even rougher. And so, by struggling against Poseidon’s seas and Poseidon’s son the Cyclops, Odysseus is struggling against death, the final oblivion. Therefore he is in a sense struggling against sleep, as sleep is simply death on a smaller scale. This idea of struggling against sleep, against a death of sorts, is shown again and again in Odysseus’ struggle to avoid monotony. He escapes Kalypsoe, who offers him permanent monotony. He escapes the Lotus-eaters, who would have him forget his own home. He avoids the Sirens, who would have him listening to their songs until his death, which would be redundant, as it would essentially be death to listen all day to the “honey-sweet voice” (12:183) of the Sirens. That is the nature of monotony. Since it is Odysseus’ nature to struggle against death, it follows that he would suffer from insomnia, which is to struggle against sleep specifically. Indeed, Athene often puts Odysseus to sleep, as Odysseus tends to spend his nights “on an unpleasant/ couch… lay[ing] and wait[ing] [for] the throned Dawn in her splendor” (19:341-342). Once, Athene scolds Odysseus for his inability to sleep, saying, “There is annoyance in lying awake and on guard all night. You will soon be out of your troubles” (20:49-53). Thus Athene implies that one must, in the end, accept sleep. (Athene however never scolds Telemechos for his newfound insomnia, as Telemechos is learning to be an adult, and therefore must learn to be an “insomniac” first.)Just as Odysseus must accept the sleep Athene forces on him, a human being must in the end accept death. Just as Penelope says that “it is in no way possible for people forever/ to go without sleep” because the immortals have given each man “his own due share all over the grain-giving corn land” (19:589-593), so too have the immortals given every mortal his own due share of death. If the struggle against death is what defines Odysseus‹what defines us as human beings‹then finally dying must be equally important in our definition of ourselves. And just as sleep makes the evil “endurable, when one cries through the days, with the heart constantly troubled,” so too must death make life endurable, in so far as we know that there will finally come “an oblivion of all things” (20:83-86).Homer often suggests that the way to avoid the inevitable sleep is story-telling. Storytelling makes the night “endless” and enables Alkinoos to “hold out till bright dawn” (11:372-375). Eumaios insists on hearing Odysseus’ story because he believes that “Too much sleep is only/ a bore” (15:392-395). Thus stories are a way of transcending the natural need to sleep. Stories must also be a way, therefore, of transcending death. The very existence of The Odyssey proves that. Odysseus’ story has long outlasted Odysseus. Both Homer and his main character show the ability of story-telling to overcome sleep, of art to overcome death.Homer enables the reader to better understand Odysseus’ struggle for life against the forces of death by depicting Odysseus’ struggle to be awake, both literally and figuratively, against the forces of sleep or monotony. But, in the end, a man must accept his fate, or he must tell stories.

Narrative and Thematic Techniques in Books 9 and 19 of the Odyssey

‘What could be finer than listening to a singer of tales?’Book 9 opens with what might be termed an apologia on the part of the poet: ‘what could be finer / Than listening to a singer of tales’ (9.2-3)1. Odysseus eulogises Demodocus, the blind bard, and at the same time Homer eulogises his own art of storytelling ­ an art that I will examine in the course of this essay, through two books that hold particular thematic prominence in the Odyssey. The first of these, Book 9, involves Odysseus’ encounter with Polyphemus, the man-eating Cyclops, while in the second, Book 19, the hero, now in the guise of an old beggar, meets with his wife, Penelope. Both challenge and stretch the protagonist, be it emotionally, physically or mentally, and in the process of doing so the episodes emphasise and augment many of the pervasive thematic and narrative features of the epic. As the protagonist of course, Odysseus is himself a galvanising force within the poem. Even when he is not occupying the foreground of the narrative, as in the Telemachy, Odysseus provides a centre for the actions and words of those on whom Homer does choose to focus. Penelope’s enduring grief, Telemachus’ voyage, and the presence of the Suitors ­ all stem from the troubles of this single figure. It is therefore not surprising that, at times, there is only an oblique distinction between ‘characteristic’ and ‘theme’, as is the case with mêtis (intelligence / cunning). Physical prowess alone is not enough to warrant the label of ‘hero’. Strength must be balanced with mental dexterity and ingenuity, faculties that Odysseus applies to great effect in his escape from Polyphemus’ cave: ‘Noman is my name. They call me Noman ­ My mother, my father, and all my friends, too!’ (9.364-365) Odysseus engineers a plan that simultaneously punishes the Cyclops and ensures that he and his men are freed from the dwelling, and although physical force is involved, the hero could not have made his escape without this quality of mind. Sheila Murnaghan further notes that one of the several forms of ‘no-man’ in Greek is in fact mêtis, an irony unfortunately lost in translation.2 Importantly, Odysseus is defining himself, both immediately and through action, as a trickster. Nor are his words hollow, and time and again in the Odyssey he proves himself to be a warrior of the sharpest intelligence, as the meticulously prepared death of the Suitors demonstrates (Bk.22). Yet, Odysseus’ self-label here also reflects the functional use of epithets within the narrative. The poet frequently applies the term polumêtis to the hero, meaning ‘mêtis in abundance’, and Books 9 and 19 illustrate the repeated application of a variety of epithets, including ‘cunning’ (9.22, 19.640), ‘Son of Laertes’ (9.21, 503, 524 & 19.179, 268, 371), ‘god-like’ (19.234, 293), and ‘flawless’ (19.355, 499). Almost like layers of paint on a canvas, a portrait of the multifarious Odysseus is built up, and the same technique is used to portray other characters; Athene, for instance, is continually referred to as ‘grey-eyed’. Homer also employs the repetition of certain syntactic units. ‘Rosy-fingered dawn’ is perhaps the most obvious of these, while in Book 19 alone, the phrase Odysseus’ ‘teeming mind’ occurs no less than eleven times.3 What can be seen then, is that epithets and repeated lines act as narrative bricks that both punctuate the story and allow it a fluid progression. This formulaic quality serves to highlight the oral tradition from which the Odyssey descends, and improvisational singer’s like Demodocus would have used repetition to structure their pieces, as well as to give themselves much needed opportunities to think ahead.Interestingly, Odysseus is not the only individual to whom the word mêtis is associated. Antinous cites Penelope as one ‘Who knows more tricks than any woman alive’ (2.96). Certainly her weaving and unweaving of Laertes death shroud, a trick that keeps the Suitors at bay for almost four years, is a deception of which the hero himself would have been proud. Penelope relates these ‘wiles’ to her disguised husband in Book 19 (lines 154-177), and it is of significance that this is the second account of the episode in the Odyssey. Penelope’s description of events matches that told in Book 2 (lines 101-120), by Antinous, word-for-word, but for the necessary move from third to first person. However, this shift in perspective is important. On the one hand, Antinous addresses Telemachus as follows: It’s not the suitorsWho are at fault, but your own mother, (2.94-95) But, on the other hand, Penelope’s response to the situation is markedly different: The men barged in and caught me at it,And a howl went up. So I was forced to finish the shroud.Now I can’t escape the marriage. I’m at my wit’s end. (19.168-170) Here, the language is that of coercion, incarceration, even violence. The retelling of the story in Book 19 is more than simply narrative repetition. We are being offered an opposing testimony to that in Book 2, one that places the ‘fault’ at the feet of the Suitors rather than Penelope. And this antithesis is indicative of the transitory nature of viewpoint in the Odyssey as a whole, a trait that foreshadows the ‘stream of consciousness’ used by Modernist novelists such as Joyce and Woolf. The murder of Agamemnon, presented by Zeus in Book 1, Menelaus in Book 4, and finally the shade of Agamemnon himself in Book 11, is a particularly strong example of this narrative technique. Homer offers the perspective of firstly, the divine; secondly, the human; and thirdly, the dead.The Odyssey is a poem of perspectival shifts, but equally temporal shifts. Throughout the Odyssey the past interpolates the present, as is the case in Book 9, where, in the comfort of the Phaecian palace, Odysseus tells of his misfortunes following the Greeks’ triumph at Troy. Much comment has been made on the complex, perhaps even convoluted, structure of the poem, but it allows for the juxtaposition of characters and situations that in turn augment some of the pervasive themes of the story. For instance, Book 9 explores the conventions of hospitality and civility through a contrast between the Phaeacians and the Cyclopes. The book opens with Odysseus extolling the feasting, drinking and singing of Alcinous’ court as ‘the finest thing in the world’ (9.12). The narrative then jumps back an entire decade as he proceeds to tell of his encounters with the Cicones, the Lotus-Eaters, and Polyphemus. As Steve Reece notes, the final of these is less than welcoming: Instead of offering them a meal, he makes a meal of them […] This is surely the darkest form of parody. (Steve Reece, A Stranger’s Welcome, University of Michigan Press 1993, p. 134) The inversion of guest-friendship by the Cyclops is certainly startling. Reece argues that the scene follows the pattern of hospitality shown earlier by the Phaeacians (as well as Nestor and Menelaus), but that the conventions are continually reversed.4 Thus, the revelation of the guest’s real name occurs on departure rather than arrival; the guest is interrogated before, rather than after the meal, as was tradition; the gifts exchanged (Odysseus’ wine and Polyphemus’ sardonic promise) are intent on destruction; and the host issues a curse rather than a blessing as his guest leaves. This is not to say that Odysseus and his men are free of blame ­ they enter the cave uninvited, quite happily feast on his stocks, then blind their host and make off with his flock. Importantly, Polyphemus’ bastardisation of guest-friendship resonates with the later transgressions of the Suitors, who devour the wealth of their host’s household and react with aggression towards anyone they consider to be a beggar. And this tension between the civilised and the savage, the hospitable and the inhospitable can be seen again in Book 19, as the tenderness of Eurycleia is set against the roughness of Melantho, who threatens to strike the disguised Odysseus with a torch (19.72-75). Reece points to a further inversion here, as the torch has associations with fire, warmth and shelter. Yet, there is a second key contrast in Book 19, between Odysseus the boy and Odysseus the man, and as in Book 9, it is achieved by means of a temporal shift in the narrative. Odysseus’ recollection of the wound he received from the tusk of a boar while visiting his grandfather, Autolycus, on Parnassus, briefly transports the reader back to the hero’s childhood: Odysseus rushed him,Holding his spear high, eager to thrust.The boar was too quick. (19.488-490) Odysseus’ rashness as an adolescent is juxtaposed by the patience and restraint he demonstrates during his conversation with Penelope, where his ‘eyes where as steady […] as if they were made of horn or iron’ (19.27-28). What we have here is Odysseus in microcosm: a man who learns from his experiences in order to prevent the repetition of previous mistakes. The blood smeared hero’s refusal to ‘gloat over the slain’ in Book 22 (l.436) is indicative of him having learnt the lessons taught by his encounter with Polyphemus, where his departing gibes and boasts arouse Poseidon’s wrath. Throughout the poem the reader sees the protagonist grow ­ the Odyssey is a journey towards self-discovery, as much as it is a journey home. Interestingly, the young Odysseus also acts as a foil for Telemachus, who’s coming-of-age is another important theme in the epic, and in Book 19, he is twice referred to as a ‘man’; firstly by his father (19.96) and then by his mother (19.174).The interpolation of the present by the past, then, acts as a crucial narrative device, in that it highlights many of the Odyssey’s central themes and ideas. Time past and time present collide throughout the story, and the result is a vivid picture of an irreparably changed post-war world. Retrospection is continually accompanied by exhibitions of grief, as Odysseus acknowledges at the start of Book 9: But you have a mind to draw out of meMy pains and sorrow, and make me feel it again. (9.13-14) These are the words of a war veteran and they encapsulate the struggle to contain and understand the painful nature of the past in the poem. In Book 4, the characters of Menelaus, Helen and Telemachus are united by their need to weep, and both Books 9 and 19 end with ‘grieving’; Odysseus’ men mourn for their lost comrades (9.556-557) and Penelope sobs herself to sleep (19.664). Yet perhaps the most striking image of sorrow in Book 19 is brought out by means of a simile: Snow deposited high in the mountains by the wild West WindSlowly melts under the East Wind’s breath,And as it melts the rivers rise in their channels. (19.221-223) Penelope’s tears are likened to the melting of snow on the mountain tops, in what is a supremely positive image. The cold and wild is dispelled by the warm and gentle, just as Odysseus’ homecoming will drive out the wildness of the Suitors and the frozen, sorrowful state of his wife. Thus, the simile transforms the grief of Penelope into an act that portends the triumph of the hero. Coupled with her auspicious dream, in which the eagle breaks the necks of the geese, the poet prepares us for the climax of the story. As Agatha Thornton notes, in previous omens, the raptor has caught its prey (15.174-176), and plucked it (.15.573-576), but, until now, has not actually killed it.5 Homer uses similes throughout the Odyssey to focus the reader’s attention on particular aspects, or nuances, of the story. In Book 9, where Polyphemus is ‘like a mountain lion’ (9.285) and Odysseus’ men ‘like puppies’ (9.282), similes are employed in order to enhance the contrast between savage and gentle, might and weakness. On occasions, the poet uses this narrative technique in collusion with another ­ irony. The most notable instance of this is the astonishing simile of Odysseus as the wailing woman in Book 8 (l.565), in which images of warrior and widow are simultaneously juxtaposed and unified. Irony, or more specifically dramatic irony, also plays an important role in the meeting between the disguised Odysseus and Penelope in Book 19. We, as the audience or reader, are aware of what Penelope is not ­ that the man she is questioning is, in fact, her own husband.6 And this in turn leads on to another major theme in the Odyssey, that of deception and identity. Self-preservation through self-suppression is one of the poem’s pervasive ironies. Odysseus becomes a withered beggar only to defeat the Suitor’s, just as by becoming ‘Noman’ he is able to trick and escape the Cyclops. Like his guardian god, Athene, Odysseus has a chameleon nature, that he uses adeptly, both to survive, and, crucially, to test. It is for this reason that, as a king, he is prepared to suffer a pauper’s existence, and, as a hero, to accept anonymity. He wishes to test Penelope’s love and loyalty, and to see ‘if he [the Cyclops] would give him a gift of hospitality’ (9.220). Thornton points out that ‘testing a person is well established compositional theme in the Odyssey’.7 Odysseus tests Laertes in Book 24 and Eumaeus in Book 15, while in return, he himself is tested by his father (24.336-338) and twice by his wife (19.232, 23.179-186). The scar left by a boar’s tusk is a constant reminder to Odysseus of the dangers of rash behaviour. He is as precise in preparation as he is forceful in action.However, one might question the moral certitude of the test in Book 19. In spite of Agamemnon’s warning to ‘not go easy on your own wife’ (11.458), Odysseus’ refusal to reveal his true identity to Penelope does seem rather cruel. Even when she breaks down in front of him, her grief a sure sign of her love, he still maintains his disguise. This is the woman whom he holds above Calypso, the woman he has not seen for twenty years, and yet he is as unmoving as ‘iron’. Equally questionable is his blinding of Polyphemus and the particularly gruesome manner in which it is achieved. After all, Odysseus, as I earlier asserted, is hardly a model guest himself. Perhaps even more disturbing, though, is the hero’s conduct earlier in Book 9, at Ismaros: ‘I pillaged the town and killed the men.The women and treasure that we took outI divided as fairly as I could […]’ (9.42-44) The actions of Odysseus here seem all the more ruthless because firstly, the attack was unprovoked (unlike the blinding of Polyphemus or the death of the Suitors), and secondly, because he shows no remorse. M. I. Finley argues that such acts are justifiable when seen within the context of a warrior culture, and to a certain extent I believe this to be true.8 Nevertheless, Odysseus is a complex character, and perhaps his chameleon nature extends to morality. He thinks the Cyclops ‘a savage with no sense of right and wrong’ (9.206), but the paradox here is that right and wrong are themselves equivocal. The world of the Odyssey is a world of antitheses such as justice and injustice, and, like the weeping woman of Book 8, the divide between two contraries is sometimes only oblique. The Odyssey is a complex poem, thematically and structurally: it makes no black-and-white distinctions. Characters, ideas, and situations are constantly juxtaposed, and the result is that time, place, and action are forever shifting. Narrative techniques such as irony, viewpoints, epithets and similes serve to augment a whole spectrum of issues ­ from hospitality and identity, to morality and loyalty. Ultimately, Odysseus’ journey is epic, not only in genre, but also in the way that it embraces such a multitude of perspectives and themes. Homer creates a rich tapestry of human thought and emotion; one that asks many more questions than it solves. Bibliography Line numbers refer to the verse translation of Homer Odyssey by Stanley Lombardo (introduced by Sheila Murnaghan, Hackett 2000) and not to the original Greek text. M. I. Finley, The World of Odysseus, Chatto & Windus 1977, Ch. 5 Helene P. Foley, ‘Penelope as Moral Agent’; Christine Mitchell Havelock, ‘The Intimate Act of Footwashing: Odyssey 19′ in The Distaff Side, ed. Beth Cohen, Oxford University Press 1995 Peter Jones, Homer’s Odyssey: A Companion to the English Translation of Richard Lattimore, Bristol Classical Press 1988, pp. 77-89, 172-185 Steve Reece, The Stranger’s Welcome: Oral Theory and the Aesthetics of the Homeric Hospitality Scene, University of Michegan Press 1993, Ch. 6 & 8 Agathe Thornton, People and Themes in Homer’s Odyssey, Methuen 1970, pp. 47-57, 79-108 1 Homer, Odyssey, trans. Stanley Lombardo, Hackett 2000 (see bibliography)2 Introduction to Lombardo, pp xviii3 References to Odysseus’ ‘teeming mind’ in Bk. 19: line 43, 76, 115, 178, 237, 285, 368, 416, 5464 Steve Reece, A Stranger’s Welcome: Oral Theory and the Aesthetics of the Homeric Hospitality Scene, University of Michigan Press 1993, pp.126-1435 Agathe Thornton, People and Themes in Homer’s Odyssey, Methuen 1970, p.566 This is, of course, fiercely debated. Even if Penelope does recognise Odysseus, this actually increases rather than decreases the irony of the scene. An succinct discussion of the debate can be found in: Peter Jones, Homer’s Odyssey: A Companion to the English Translation of Richard Lattimore, Bristol Classical Press 1988, pp. 172-1747 Agathe Thornton, People and Themes in Homer’s Odyssey, Methuen 1970, p.508 M. I. Finley, The World of Odysseus, Chatto & Windus 1977, p.113