Summer Reading: Homer’s Odyssey, Books 1-4

This fall, I will begin working on my Classics senior thesis, which I have decided will emphasize the Odyssey of Homer. In preparation for this project, I will be reading the entire epic again (in English: I’m not skilled enough to read all of it in Greek!) over the course of the summer. My goal is to earn a better sense of how the whole poem fits together and to gather some ideas for what direction I want to go with this project.

So far, I am considering food and feasting as a topic, since there is so much eating and consumption of sustenance in the Odyssey. There seems to be a lot I could do with the cultural, social, and literary importance of food. I’ll have to see if this turns out to be a viable topic. I might stumble across another, more interesting idea as I am reading.

I have not settled on a preferred English translation yet. In the past, I have found the Fagles translation to be quite readable, but it is not accurate enough for an ancient Greek student like me. While the traditional Lattimore translation is very accurate, it is somewhat stilted and awkward. For now, I am using the new 2014 Powell translation, which seems to strike a decent balance between smoothness and accuracy.

In this post, I’ll be sharing my thoughts on the first four books of the Odyssey, and discussing what ideas might be useful for my thesis project. First, a summary of what happens in these books:

Book 1: The Olympian gods convene a council, and the goddess Athena convinces the king of the gods, Zeus, that it is time to help Odysseus, who is held captive by the sea nymph Calypso, to return home. Athena, disguised as an old friend called Mentes, visits Odysseus’ son, Telemachus, on his home island of Ithaca. She places courage within him and tells him to travel abroad for news of his father. We also witness the arrogance of the suitors trying to woo Odysseus’ wife, Penelope, as well as the grief and sadness of Telemachus and Penelope over Odysseus’ absence/presumed death.

Book 2: Telemachus, now with courage within him, summons an assembly of the Ithacans, and tries to call out the suitors for their arrogant and disgraceful behavior, but he can do nothing against the powerful group of 108 men. In the night, he leaves on his journey, accompanied by Athena, who this time is disguised as a man called Mentor.

Book 3: Telemachus sails to Pylos, where he visits the old man Nestor, a Trojan War hero. Nestor’s family are performing a grand sacrifice to the gods and invite Telemachus to join their feast. Nestor recounts what information he knows about the other Greeks returning from Troy after the war, but he has no news of Odysseus. Telemachus spends the night, before heading to Sparta to visit Helen and Menelaus.

Book  4: Telemachus arrives in Sparta as Menelaus is holding a marriage feast for the weddings of his son and daughter. He is entertained by Menelaus and his wife Helen, who tell stories of Odysseus’ cunning from the Trojan War. Menelaus also narrates his own homeward journey and says that during his time in Egypt, he learned from Proteus, an old sea god, that Odysseus is being detained by Calypso. As the book ends, the suitors plot to kill Telemachus on his way back to Ithaca.

So what did I notice about these four books?

1) Despite being the hero of the epic, Odysseus is strangely absent in this part of the story. Instead, the focus seems to be Telemachus. The Odyssey is about the return of the hero, and to emphasize that, he must begin in a state of absence. He is missing, presumed dead, completely disconnected from society, and his deferred appearance mirrors his current state.

For the full impact of his return to be felt, we must feel the impact of his absence. We must see that without Odysseus present the arrogant suitors are left free to wreck his household. Penelope is in grief. Telemachus has no father-figure to teach him strength and courage, and is left powerless against the suitors.

But Odysseus does begin to return, not physically, but through Telemachus. Athena/Mentes speaks to Telemachus about his father. Helen and Menelaus share stories of Odysseus’ grand war exploits. Everyone he meets says he looks like his father, and speaks like him too. As Telemachus learns of Odysseus and gathers the experience to be a man, it is as if Odysseus is returning, as manifested through his son’s courage and skill.

2) Time and again, we hear the story of Agamemnon (from Zeus, Athena, Nestor, and Menelaus), the commander of the Greek army, who was killed by his wife’s lover, Aigisthos, upon his return home. His wife, Clytemnestra, was disloyal, and he died as a result. Orestes, Agamemnon’s son, who killed Aigisthos in retaliation, is raised up as a hero and a good son. (The fact that he also killed Clytemnestra, his own mother, is glossed over.)

The story of Agamemnon suggests the moral idea that those who commit wrongs (Aigisthos/the suitors) bring retaliation and destruction upon themselves, but it also acts as a mirror for Telemachus, Odysseus, and Penelope, and develops tensions within the plot: Will the missing man’s wife remain loyal to him? Will she marry a new husband? Can the man’s son find the strength to avenge his father, if necessary?

3) In these four books, it is suggested that food and feasting seem to carry significance as the markers of social structures, conventions, and values. The exorbitant feasting of the suitors as they consume Odysseus’ resources without permission present them as the “bad guys” of the Odyssey. They, as uninvited feasters, disrupt the ancient Greek cultural value of xenia, which comprises the rules of hospitality between hosts and guests, as well as respect to be afforded to strangers and suppliants.

Meanwhile, Telemachus’ journey to Pylos and Sparta allows him to see how proper feasts ought to be held. The feast is a method of showing respect to honored guests and a way of connecting with the gods (through sacrifice) and appropriately honoring them. It affirms social ties, such as marriage or that which exists between guest-friends. It provides the opportunity to remember those who are gone, especially heroes like Odysseus, and respect their memory by recalling their fame (kleos in Greek) and great deeds.

But food has a dark and dangerous side too. As everyone is weeping over Odysseus’ presumed death, Helen mixes a drug into their wine which makes them forget their pains and feel no suffering, even if they were to witness the most horrific sight. But is it possible to retain human connection if we cannot feel the pain that so often accompanies it? In this sense, what we eat and drink has a deep impact on our essence of humanity.

Next time, I will share my thoughts on books 5-8 of the Odyssey, when we actually get to meet Odysseus and witness his attempts to rejoin human society on the island Scheria, after being lost at sea for so long.

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4 thoughts on “Summer Reading: Homer’s Odyssey, Books 1-4

  1. Hi Brian! Now you’ve motivated me to start the Odyssey too. I finish my other two books so I knocked off books 1-4 last night and this morning. Third time reading it and I am still noticing new things.

    “But is it possible to retain human connection if we cannot feel the pain that so often accompanies it?”

    This is a really good question.

    I have a few questions of my own:
    1. What is up with the epithet “long-haired” (κομοωντος) for the Achaeans? Cunliffe and Autenreith are not much help here. Is long hair supposed to connote strength and potency as it does for Samson?
    2. I LOVE LOVE LOVE the irony with the Nestor scene as Nestor keeps talking about things Athena did, how they should sacrifice to Athena, how Athena must be protecting Telemachos, how Athena started the fight between Agamemnon and Menelaos. Meanwhile of course Athena is right there hearing all this! So was Nestor aware it was her at that point in time (he is later in the chapter) or not? That was really skillfully composed.
    3. The opening of the book is really interesting. It doesn’t actually open with Odysseus, or even with Telemachos and Penelope, but with Zeus and the Olympians having what seems to be a philosophical discussion on human fate. Athena brings up Odysseus almost as a counterexample: “Yes, humans spin their own dumb fates, but this one man seems innocent….” Have you read Job? It reminds me of that. As in the Iliad Homer here gives readers a view into Olympus that mortals aren’t supposed to see.
    4. Zeus — why is he such a pansy? In the Iliad he tells the other gods to STFU and don’t you dare disobey me or I will kill you. So if he really likes Odysseus why doesn’t he do that to Poseidon? Why do they have to wait until Poseidon is away at sacrifices before acting to help the poor mortal? It’s as if the war between humans is over, so the war between gods is over, so civilization returns to normal laws and customs of civility rather than the displays of brute war force in the Iliad.

    Okay that’s all I have for now.

    1. Thanks for the great comment! I encourage you to put down your thoughts in one of your own blog posts as well: get some traffic flowing between our blogs.

      1) Have you looked at LSJ as well? Also try Stanford’s commentary–he might have something useful in there too. I think you are right that long hair connotes strength and courage: I know it did for the Spartans of the classical era (see Herodotus, when the Spartans are preparing to fight the Persians at Thermopylae).

      2) I didn’t think of that! Great observation. I’m not sure what the force of this irony is, though. I’m sure it depends on WHEN Nestor knows it is Athena, and if he’s intentionally talking about her “exploits” to grant her honor.

      3/4) Yes, the Odyssey’s moral universe is somewhat different from the Iliad’s: here, Zeus and most of the gods represent some manner of order, while Poseidon is the god of natural forces and chaos. And we do see that moral forces do exist in the Odyssey, whereas they do not in the Iliad: destruction comes to the wicked in the Odyssey, but there is no clear moral structure like this in the Iliad.

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