Homer “The Odyssey”

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Rufus F.

Rufus is an American curmudgeon in Canada. He has a PhD in History, sings in a garage rock band, and does a bunch of other stuff.

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26 Responses

  1. Avatar Jaybird says:

    I’ve heard a great many times about how awful the ancient men treated the ancient women… how women were property and how man/boy love existed only because every woman was “achievable” but only men had to be wooed… but when I see something like Odysseus and Penelope (or the dynamic of the Lysistrata, for that matter), I see something 100% recognizable.

    One of the things I have not yet forgotten from my Ancient Greek class has to do with the word “Home”.

    You say stuff like “I’m going home” but never “I’m going school” or “I’m going church” or “I’m going store”.

    “Home” is infused with a very special meaning and has its own special construction in sentences… so special that if I say “I’m going to home”, it seems odd or off like English isn’t my first language.

    Well, Ancient Greek had this construction as well (surely it picked it up from its lingual ancestors as English did).

    When I see the story of Odysseus and Penelope, I see the magic contained in that word reflected… and I wonder how alien the male/female power dynamics really were. I see hints of universiality there.Report

    • Avatar Rufus F. in reply to Jaybird says:

      Oh, I think it all depends on the ancient Greek writer in question. Herotodus strikes me as bemused more than anything, and Aristophanes is certainly sympathetic to the plight of women, in my opinion. What’s great about Homer, to my mind, is that he has such a variety of male and female characters. I like Penelope and I also really like the slave girl in the Iliad who very eloquently and with great dignity tells us her plight before going to sleep with Achilles at the end of the story.Report

  2. Avatar Murali says:

    It seems unrealistic to ask a spouse to remain chaste during a few years of absence

    I hope you were being ironic. Have standards fallen so far that we cannot expect fidelity from our partners in our absence? Are we fated to return to a defiled marriage bed? Is this the undoing of western civilisation? The breaking of the family?Report

  3. Avatar Bob Cheeks says:

    JB, how insightful of you…much appreciated.
    Murali, “chastity, fidelity, honor” my, my, how quaint! We’re dealing with progressives here, dude.Report

  4. Avatar Paul B says:

    Erich Auerbach notes Homer’s, “externalized, uniformly illuminated phenomena, at a definite time in a definite place, connected together and without lacunae in a perpetual foreground.”

    This is an odd claim, since so much of the Odyssey is told not in Homer’s voice but by Odysseus himself to a rapt audience of Phaeacians. Turning the narrative over to the first person like that is a pretty important development in epic poetry — especially, as you note, since Odysseus isn’t quite to be trusted.

    And all this is set up by book 8, in which we hear the blind bard Demodocus sings first of the Trojan War, then of Aphrodite and Hephaestus (which simultaneously contrasts and mirrors the story of Penelope and Odysseus), then specifically of the Trojan Horse (at Odysseus’ request). And somewhere in there is one of my favorite lines, which I can’t find and can’t quite remember, something like: “the night is long and we’re not tired, so let’s fill it with a song.” So anyway, there’s a lot of cool stuff going on with the narrative.Report

    • Avatar Paul B in reply to Paul B says:

      Okay, found the line! It’s actually in book 11, when Alcinous is urging Odysseus to go on with his story: “The evenings are still at their longest, and it is not yet bed time – go on, therefore, with your divine story, for I could stay here listening till tomorrow morning, so long as you will continue to tell us of your adventures.” (I think that’s from the Loeb).

      And a little more on Aphrodite and Hephaestus: they’re married, she’s of course the goddess of sex and love, and he’s the crippled craftsman of the gods. She’s cheating on him with Ares, the manly-man god of war, so Hephaestus sets a trap to catch them in the act with a net that covers the bed.

      So on the one hand, unfaithful Aphrodite is contrasted with faithful Penelope; but on the other hand, Odysseus and Hephaestus are clearly parallel to each other — both using their cleverness to test their wives.Report

      • Avatar Rufus F. in reply to Paul B says:

        That’s a good point. I forgot all about Hephaestus.

        I think what Auerbach is getting at (and, by the way, Mimesis is a classic), is that Homer will often divert the narrative to show us something that perhaps could just be alluded to. His example is the scene with the nurse discovering Odysseus’s old wound. Homer doesn’t just tell us what it is; he actually narrates the hunting story as a sort of narrative flashback. There’s really very little that he leaves un-narrated in the story. What strikes me is how rarely anyone in the Homeric epics has a thought without announcing it. Like you, I really love how often Homer takes time to laud his profession- there are several passages about the joys of oral storytelling.Report

        • Avatar Paul B in reply to Rufus F. says:

          Oh, and I left out the best part about the Hephaestus/Aphrodite/Odysseus/Penelope dynamic: after Odysseus has tested Penelope to his satisfaction and finally revealed himself, she tests him by asking to move the tree-stump bed. Odysseus’ response, which I love so much I had read at my wedding, is the perfect explanation of what home and marriage are all about.

          And I’ll definitely check out Auerbach. From a look Wikipedia, though, I’m not sure I’ll agree with him. The very sketchiness he seems to like about the Old Testament — it takes a Rembrandt, say, to flesh it out into real psychological depth. Give me Homer’s richness any day!Report

  5. It wasn’t just a matter of sexual or emotional fidelity though, she was being pushed to choose not just a lover or a new husband, but a successor to Odysseus’s throne. Whoever she picked would become the new king, and could legitimately have Orestes executed without bringing blood guilt on himself and his city. These suitors weren’t just local guys, they were Princes from all over Greece. They were potential usurpers, and it seems to me Penelope could have saved her and her family a lot of grief if she had simply stepped down and appointed, or had Orestes appointed king, or at least regent or something ten years earlier. Maybe there is some cultural reason she couldn’t do that that has been lost, but I guess mainly we wouldn’t have the story if she had.

    It’s too bad the story didn’t focus more on that and less on the absurdities of Odysseus’s journey. It would have been better if they had been more realistic. It’s no wonder ancient people didn’t care much about leaving home.Report

    • Avatar Mr. Prosser in reply to PatrickKelley says:

      I think you meant to refer to Telemachus here not Orestes, but I get your point. Telemachus is in real danger and the slaughter of the suitors was probably justifiable to the audience. I think it its important to remember that Greek society in Homer’s era, as almost all Mediterranean societies of the era, was not that far removed from the matrilineal tradition in which all heritage and inheritance was traced through the mother’s line. Remember that even today you are not Jewish because your father is or was but because your mother is or was. Rufus writes,”Telemachus comments that no man knows his parentage with absolute certainty, perhaps explaining why female adultery is so important in these myths.” This is so true in a patrilineal context.
      I also enjoy the fact that Odysseus is a trickster. I no longer have a copy of the Odyssey around and I don’t remember, was Hermes a patron of Odysseus?Report

      • Avatar JRoth in reply to Mr. Prosser says:

        On Hermes, surprisingly not (although he does get a couple appearances, and provides O. with moly against Circe’s powers).

        One thing to bear in mind about the monarchy is that it’s not strictly hereditary – if P. were to marry a suitor from another island, she’d go off with him, but then Telemachus would be left with his (remaining) inheritance, and it would be up in the air whether he would or could succeed his father. In other words, his father’s wealth is heritable (and that’s a good power base), but his father’s crown is not – unless his father is able to set the stage for him.Report

  6. I take a slightly different angle on women in The Odyssey in my recent post, “Penelope as (M)Other: Telemachus’s Coming of Age in The Odyssey” at literatimom.blogspot.com. I argue that, in keeping with what we know about the circulation of women among men during this time period, women in this text are portrayed as objects to be owned and against which men were able to claim their own subjectivity. Telemachus others Penelope in multiple ways throughout the text in order to identify as a man and, specifically, as a warrior like his father.Report

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