As with The Iliad, Homer begins The Odyssey with a prayer to his Muse, the supernatural spirit of creativity, for the inspiration to tell the story of Odysseus well. He begins by recounting that Odysseus’ men “were destroyed by their own wild recklessness” and then sets the theological scene for the whole epic in the words of Zeus:
Oh for shame, how the mortals put the blame on us
gods, for they say evils come from us, but it is they, rather,
who by their own recklessness win sorrow beyond what is given.
These few words, spoken by the father of gods and men, enunciate the principal theme, played out in the story of Odysseus’ delayed homecoming, that actions have consequences and that bad actions have bad consequences. This is the very theme that Homer had already rehearsed in The Iliad.
Try as we might to blame God or the gods for the sufferings in our lives, the sobering fact is that most of our suffering is a consequence of our own reckless behavior or the reckless behavior of others. Yet Homer is also aware that some suffering has what might be called “natural causes” and has nothing to do with the actions of people. This suffering is, in the words of Zeus, the sorrow which is “given,” the suffering which is, in some sense, a gift. It can be seen, therefore, that The Odyssey is a meditation on the mystery of suffering. It is, however, more than that. It is also a meditation on the wisdom to be acquired from the experience of suffering. This is why some suffering or sorrow is “given.” It enables the suffering soul to grow in wisdom and virtue.
If suffering is the theme of the epic, its form is that of a journey. It is no surprise that the very word “odyssey,” inspired by Homer’s original epic, has entered the language as a word meaning “journey,” especially a journey which is also an adventure or a quest. The journey of Odysseus, his odyssey, is not merely an adventure but a quest to return home. He is delayed by his own recklessness and by that of his men.
Odysseus’ original sin is the pridefulness which calls down the curse of Poseidon on him and his men. He had employed his legendary resourcefulness to execute an escape from the clutches of the cyclops, Polyphemus, claiming that his name was “Nobody.” After the escape, Odysseus shouts out boastfully to Polyphemus that he was not “Nobody” but was Odysseus of Ithaka. Having left his calling card, Polyphemus calls down the curse of Poseidon on Odysseus and his men. If Odysseus had been content to remain nobody, embracing humility, he and his men would have returned home expeditiously. Similarly, it is the recklessness of his men, who eat the cattle of Helios in defiance of repeated warnings of the consequences of doing so, which leads to their destruction.
Bereft of his men and his ship, Odysseus is washed up on the island of the goddess Kalypso, who offers him immortality if he will marry her. In the face of this very real temptation, Odysseus chooses death in the embrace of his mortality. He also accepts the dangers and suffering inherent in the renewal of his quest to return home to his wife, son, and people. In choosing a mortal life and a mortal middle-aged wife, instead of immortality and marriage to a timelessly young and perennially beautiful goddess, Odysseus exhibits the great self-sacrificial love which is inseparable from humility.
Upon his final arrival at Ithaka, he is told by the goddess Athene that he cannot return in glory but must be disguised as a beggar, enduring the suffering that his penurious appearance will cause him at the hands of the contemptuously prideful suitors who are besieging Penelope, his wife. Such a scenario provides great dramatic irony, the beggar being refused his own food by the uninvited guests who are consuming it in defiance of the will of either his wife or son. On a deeper level, however, it exposes the suitors as being in breach of the sacrosanct law of xenia, mandated by Zeus, which commands the host to show hospitality to the stranger but also, by extension, commands the stranger to respect the hospitality of the host by not abusing it. This law, which is the pagan equivalent of the commandment of Christ that we love our neighbor, is broken by the suitors in their arrogant abuse of the beggar but also in their contempt of Penelope and Telemachus, their powerless hosts. It is no wonder that Zeus, who is known as the guest’s god, will punish such recklessness.
Apart from Odysseus’ growth in wisdom and virtue, through the experience of suffering, The Odyssey also shows us a similar path of virtue on the part of his wife and son.
The rite of passage of Telemachus, from boyhood to manhood, is the epic’s subplot. At the outset, he is seen to be exasperated at the unwanted and uninvited presence of the suitors, and he is desirous of protecting his mother from their unwelcome advances. He is, however, powerless. His childish frustration is shown in the manner in which he throws down the sceptre, the symbol of the authority he cannot wield, in “a stormburst of tears.” Having gone on his own odyssey, voyaging to the palace of Menelaus in the quest to discover news of his father, he returns home both wiser and stronger. At the end of the epic, he has the physical strength to string his father’s bow, indicating that he is now stronger than the suitors who are unable to do so, but also the humility to desist from showing his strength by doing so, refraining at the last moment in obedience to a signal from his father. He has grown, therefore, both physically and morally. He has become a man in the fullest sense of the word.
Last but not least, by any means, is Penelope whose very presence has understated power and whose voice is that of indomitable virtue. As unbending in fidelity to the gods as she is unbroken in her love for her husband, she is an icon of strong and irrepressible femininity, standing shoulder to shoulder with the greatest of literary heroines, equal in stature to Dante’s Beatrice or to Shakespeare’s Portia and Cordelia. It is no wonder that the soul of Agamemnon, who had been murdered by his own treacherous wife, should be in awe at the “great virtue [in] the heart of blameless Penelope,” proclaiming that “the fame of her virtue shall never die away [because] the immortals will make for the people of earth a thing of grace in the song for prudent Penelope.”
Editor’s Note: This is the second in an ongoing series of articles explaining the great works of literature “in a nutshell.”
[Image Credit: Odysseus Overcome by Demodocus’ Song, by Francesco Hayez (Wikimedia Commons)]