Halfway through the Odyssey, Odysseus is done with his long journey home: the Phaeacians have brought him back to Ithaca at last, safe and sound and loaded down with treasure. But the main problem of the book is left to be resolved: he is alone, facing a group of arrogant, well-armed men who want to rob him of his power, his land, and his wife. After such a long absence (nearly twenty years), he has no way of knowing if anyone on Ithaca still remembers him, let alone remains faithful to him or will fight alongside him to re-establish his kingship. How will this tactician, this man of twists and turns, accomplish his task?
His motto, like Mulder’s, might be Trust No One. Odysseus doesn’t even trust his own eyes and memory at first: “Tell me this for a fact — I need to know –/ where on earth am I? what land? who lives here? / Is it one of the sunny islands or some jutting shore / of the good green mainland slanting down to sea?” Athena must reassure him that he is indeed on Ithaca. Next, he must test his servants, disguising himself as an old beggar (again with the help of Athena) and pushing Eumaeus, his swineherd, to tell him how he really, no really, no really feels about the absent king Odysseus. He tells Eumaeus a false story about his history and his encounters with that fabulous man, Odysseus, embroidering a past he knows will elicit Eumaeus’s own stories. Lies and disguise, story and metaphor, become the way to bring forth the truth.
This pattern repeats itself as Odysseus tests the loyalty of his son, his wife, his father, his nurse, and even his old dog. Like Indiana Jones crossing an ancient suspension bridge, he tests each plank before trusting it with his weight. Premature discovery would be fatal; his secrets, his lies, and above all the stories he keeps repeating and elaborating, are vital to his plan to kill the suitors who are bent on taking his rightful place. And when the tables are turned on Odysseus, and Penelope can’t quite trust him, he proves his identity with one more secret, one more story: their marriage bed, made from a rooted olive-tree, immovable. (I loved this image of a marriage that was growing and yet unshakable.) This layering of story within story, the way to resolve a problem through story, is found throughout this work. I found it completely fascinating, far more interesting than the mere recounting of a journey. It reminded me strongly of The Arabian Nights, the way Scheherezade (herself a woman of twists and turns) would elaborate a story to get herself out of trouble, and then someone inside her story would tell a story, and the same again — along with the importance of deception and disguise. Bringing about the truth through deception was a strong theme here: Hephaestos’s subtle nets, catching the unfaithful lovers and bringing their actions to light.
A recent post on Better Living Through Beowulf reminded me of the importance of eating in this work. In the Iliad, it was important for the men to eat, so they would be ready for battle, but it was a fairly ritual act: sacrifice to the gods, roast the meat, eat, drink, go to bed. In the Odyssey, eating is often a dangerous act, loaded with significance: the lotus, laden with sleep and forgetting; the untouchable Cattle of the Sun; the blood of sacrifice, so desired by all in the House of the Dead; the members of the crew, devoured by Polyphemus and by Scylla; Circe’s drugged food that turns men into beasts, and its antidote, moly; the suitors, slaughtered in the feasting hall. Of course, there are good feasts, too, given by the Phaeacians, and homely food cooked by Eumaeus. But for the most part, there’s a lot of eating going on in the Odyssey, and most of it you would want to sail right by.
Finally, I was fascinated by the strong role of women in this book. In the Iliad, women exist at the fringes, and we see a few of them: Andromache, Helen, Hector’s mother. They appear and disappear as prizes, too. But they are everywhere in the Odyssey. Penelope, of course, was my favorite: utterly faithful, intelligent, witty, and just as cunning and crafty as her husband. (I pictured her looking like Holly Hunter. Know why?) But other women are just as interesting: Princess Nausicaa, a real temptation for Odysseus, who must have longed to give up and stay with the welcoming Phaeacians, start a new life, be this young woman’s husband. Circe, a bewitching queen, who played Orpheus to his Eurydice, showing him the way down to the dead and back. (Nice gender-switching, there.) Calypso, a dangerous goddess, who kept him trapped on her island for years, apparently for sex. The nurse Eurycleia, who was the first to recognize Odysseus, by the scar on his foot. The faithless serving maids — oh, I felt sorry for those serving maids, who were just looking out for their own interests, after twenty years! It was wonderful to have such a rich and varied cast of characters, after the slight one-sidedness of the Iliad.
I had heard from several people that they didn’t enjoy the Odyssey as much as they did the Iliad, so I was prepared for a simpler story, something like a Boy’s Own Adventure. It was nothing like that, nothing. I found something rich and layered, a work that talks about the way we disguise ourselves in fiction to tell the most important truths, a work that discusses story as a way of resolving problems. It’s also the story of a journey and an adventure, and it doesn’t end at the ending; Athena hands down her pact of peace, but we know that Odysseus has yet to live out his prophesied ending, far from the sea. I was astonished and rewarded by reading this work, that finds its way into so much of our literature and poetry. It’s beautiful and rugged. If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it.