Linear Time Marked by References to Nature in the Odyssey and Aeneid
Virgil’s The Aeneid and Homer’s the Odyssey share several structures such as the Epic Exordium and Homeric Epithets, yet the movement and organization of time tie them together by grounding the stories in the real world as much as possible. This use of time allows Virgil and Homer to appeal to their ordinary audiences whilst they read various fantastical elements such as Gods and supernatural powers they do not witness in everyday life. Even in flashbacks, both stories move in linear time, allowing for ordinary audiences to follow the story even though they cannot relate to the magical aspects. Both writers make use of nature to mark time which points to this being an everyday practice for the audiences, thus allowing them to relate to the audience by giving them an aspect they can understand without effort. Using nature to reference time passing is an observance that listeners or readers could identify, thus allowing for accessibility that non-linear narratives could not since they would not make such use of linear movement with nature involved. In addition, this way of passing time parallels to generational passing, which by nature is linear, but in both works has unique organization by pointing out a succession of fame, importance, and relativity—such as when Orestes became famous and well known only after his father Agamemnon was famous and had died, although death is not a requirement. Homer and Virgil make use of this organizational structure to allow for understandable use of flashbacks or digressions that make sense and to help readers or listeners easily follow the succession of time and progression of personalities or internal struggles. Both the Odyssey and the Aeneid can strike readers as surreal at times because of the foreign and fantastic settings, superhuman attributes to characters, and Gods—but the organization of time and references used to mark it help ground the stories in real life and relate to the audiences while allowing for smooth storytelling the audience can follow.
Linear time is an important tool for Homer because it is used in the Odyssey to converge the three main stories towards the end when Odysseus returns to Ithaka. Although the story begins in media res, and much of the action has already occurred, there is a clear inciting event which is when Zeus decides to intervene and order Odysseus be released from Calypso’s island, setting off the first and main string of events. The second beginning of a main string is when Athena, disguised as mentor, comes to Telemakhos telling him to leave in search of information of his father’s whereabouts or death place. The last string is Penelope’s struggle with the suitors at home who wish to marry her, yet in this story there is no clear beginning because it is a continuing event without an outlined inciting event. Homer has cleverly structured his work in such a way that these main strings happen in parallel time so that they may converge at the end easily. Another important factor for working with linear movement is to be able to move from one story to another without losing real time or jumping ahead then telling the reader he is moving back in time. After Telemakhos and Menelaus finish their discourse and Telemakhos has accepted a gift alternative to horses, Homer notably says, “At that same hour, / before the distant manor of Odysseus, / the suitors were competing at the discus throw / and javelin, on a measured field they used” (Od. 4. 654-657). Real time is an important framework for structure and for the audience to follow the story given the tremendous task of remembering various characters and stories about them. Odysseus’s last adventure in the land of the Phaeacians is where the readers learn of the past adventures, then his arrival back to Ithaka marks the crucial convergence of the three main stories and, more importantly, the three main characters.
An aspect of epic that Virgil incorporates into the Aeneid is the linear movement of time and organization of it which Virgil has made use of to mark the progress of Aeneas’s grasp on his fate and the different moving parts surrounding his destiny and who he meets. Linear movement is important in the Aeneid because Virgil could not make use of Aeneas’s various attitudes towards his fate if he were to jump around from one story to another while losing real time or jumping ahead. Virgil is working with one main story, Aeneas’s, therefore, various stories are not as available for him as they are for Homer so far, and Virgil uses forward movement of time to easily include flashbacks of Aeneas’s memories which Aeneas recounts in book two. In the flashbacks, time is also linear and they are used, in part, to set a precedence of obstacles for Aeneas throughout his journey toward his fate. The night the Trojans brought in the Trojan Horse, while people slept, Virgil uses nighttime to inform readers of a prominent inciting event: “In sleep, before my eyes, I seemed to see/ Hector, most sorrowful, black with bloody dust…/‘Alas, O goddess-born! Take flight/ Escape these flames! The enemy has the walls” (An. 2.296-313). After this, readers follow Aeneas until he escapes Troy with his fractured family. Forward action plays a prominent role for Virgil to illustrate not only Aeneas’s voyage but his internal progression toward his fate while making use of time marked by nature to ground the story in real time.
Linear movement with time marked by references to nature works both for the authors and the various audiences because it is important that the audience can follow the stories as they listen to it, retell it, or read it. Due to the various fantastical elements that the audience is exposed to, grounding the stories in real life is crucial for relating to the audience while keeping the story moving in a way that allows for digressions, flashbacks or interludes. Although elements such as voyaging across the sea while a god tries to delay you are most likely foreign to ordinary audiences, references to nature such as Eos, the goddess of the dawn, the sun, or the seasons passing are not. They mark time and seem to be practices that the audience can understand and identify because Virgil kept it as a characteristic, and Homer used it constantly. Illustrating clear movement of time is easy to follow and allows Homer and Virgil to include magical elements that are not grounded in real life nor exist in a way that the ordinary audience can relate with. Epic conventions set rules for epics just as linear movement sets rules or precedents for events, departures from a main story, and various meanings or purposes of characters. According to Steve Nallon and his analysis of the Odyssey in the article “Everything you ever wanted to know about the Odyssey,” the forward movement of the story can also be explained as lessons from the Gods where each one has a subtle message and Odysseus must learn basic rules such as leaving his war-like nature behind after leaving Troy when he mindlessly attacks the land of the Cicones or learning that Penelope is his one true love after many interactions with women. Audiences witnessing the various flashbacks in linear movement can identify a possible pattern of lessons or messages from each adventure. Nallon also points out that the audience may be discussing at length the different meanings or purposes derived from each sequential lesson.
Linear movement with flashbacks allows for focused storytelling of adventures since they have already occurred, overlapping strings of events that can converge or that are parallel, and time marked by references to nature that allow the audiences to relate to the story however they can. These references are seen in both the Odyssey and the Aeneid and they are important because they allow the audience to follow the progression of time while still witnessing all the exciting storytelling. The audience can also identify the author’s appreciation and use of nature to be able to relate with the work and generally associate the work with their surroundings or everyday practices such as using sunrise and sunset to tell time. Linear time is not always marked by nature but this would take away from the significance of nature’s presence in the story. A characteristic about nature that Homer works hard to illustrate is that nature can be dangerous because of monsters that inhabit it and various consequences for visitors and on the other hand, it can be a source of magic, divinity, and inspiration. Both authors depict nature as another ruling power in the world, like the Gods or storms, that controls events and characters. In the Aeneid, this is seen when Dido and Aeneas consummate after a storm forces them into a cave, thus beginning their love story that goes on to add to the progression of Aeneas’s attitude towards his destiny. This aspect of nature as a ruling power helps Homer and Virgil demonstrate an unpredictable aspect of magical events in nature. Real-life depictions of nature in both works illustrate environments that the audience can identify and relate to but that they may also have no experience with. Homer and Virgil’s inclusion of different settings that are quite detailed such as Calypso’s island that the audience has no experience with allows for them to imaginatively interpret events and find meaning in the use of different settings throughout the story, an aspect that both authors use to further obscure the journeys of each story. In sum, Homer and Virgil have used forward moving time marked by nature to make sure their audiences can easily follow the story, understand the progression of time, and identify why nature is helpful when illustrating events that move in a linear direction.
Nallon, Steve. “Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About the Odyssey.” Steve Nallon. Ed. Neil Binley. New Time Media, n.d. Web. 10 Mar. 2017. http://www.nallon.com/?p=246.
Wilkie, Brian, and James Hurt. “The Odyssey.” Literature of the Western World. Trans. Robert Fitzgerald. 5th ed. Vol. 1. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2001. Print.
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