1. On Seeing Homer
Epic is that kind of poetry—as distinguished from lyric and epic poetry, the poetry of the lyre and of action—which is particularly named after the word, for epos means the word as uttered in speech or song. Hence in reading the Homeric epics we certainly should, in addition to attending to the tale told, listen closely to the sound itself of the utterance. Let me give two examples of what the sound of the word may reveal.
First, an example of listening for meter: At the beginning of the Odyssey, Zeus speaks, because
He thought in his heart of blameless Aegistheus.
mnēsătŏ | gār kătă | thȳmŏn ὰ´ | mȳmŏnŏs | Aīgīs | thōiō (I 29). Notice that the fifth foot is not a dactyl (ˉ˘˘) but a spondee (— —). Now it is a rule of the epic hexameter line, rather rarely broken, that the fifth foot, at least, must be dactylic. In this line, therefore, the very name of the murderous shirker who together with treacherous Clytemnestra turned Agamemnon’s return into an ambush, a vile fact which forms the background of the Odyssey, does violence to that stately cadence of the epic meter, making it unnatural, heavy, and misshapen.
Second, an example of listening for words: When Achilles grieves for the death of his dearest friend, Patroclus, whom he had sent into battle in his own stead he cries:
Him have I lost.
But if we listen to the Greek words—ton apolesa (Il. XVIII 82), we will hear a second, equally possible, meaning, ominous and enlightening:
Him have I killed!
Nevertheless what I want to say here will derive more from sight than from sound. The ancient conviction that Homer was blind is surely a consequence of the special place that sight holds in his poetry, a recognition of its preternatural visual intensity. But we can go further; we can say that both the Iliad and the Odyssey depend crucially on vision, on allowing the words to build a visible world in which the inner events of the epic suddenly appear. Let me now give an example of what the sight behind the word may reveal:
Achilles the swift is pursuing a dazed and bemused Hector around the walls of Troy (Il. XXII 122 ff.). They run in agonizing slow motion, three times round as in a dream, and the fastest man on earth cannot catch his much more solid, slower quarry. Finally Hector breaks the eternity of this pursuit and stands, facing about. What does Achilles, what do the spectators see? They see Achilles facing Achilles, for Hector is wearing Achilles’ old armour, striped from Patroclus’ corpse (XXII 323). Greek armour covers practically the whole man; a Greek in battle is an armoured effigy. The antagonist that Achilles so viciously hurls at is himself, the old Achilles before Patroclus’ death, before his dreadful apotheosis, when he was still a man among men. Yet this crucial sight, the most revealing vision of the Iliad, is not told directly in words but only prepared through them. .
So there exists a second epic realm “behind” the epic lines, a world swirling with ironic double visions, significant glances, tactful asides, mysterious smiles, meaningful gestures, awesome scenes. So, for example, Achilles, even as he sits stubbornly by his tents, is given his usual epithet “swift in his feet” (Il. IX 196). For we are to see him swift and sedentary at once. And there is a similar irony in calling the villainous Aegistheus “blameless.” So Odysseus delivers Agamemnon’s conciliatory message to the offended Achilles exactly as given, except that Homer paints in a revealing gesture. For he makes Odysseus repeat the king’s oath that he has never been to bed with Achilles’ girl, “…as is the rule among mankind, men or women…,” with a deep obeisance: “…as is the rule, my lord, of men and women…” (Il. IX 134, 276). So Telemachus, wide-eyed but adroit, compares Menelaus’ palace to Olympus in a stage whisper, bending toward his friend with ostentatious reticence (Od. IV 74); so he persuades this same friend, Nestor’s youngest son, who conveys his perfect understanding with a glance, to allow him to board the boat homeward without a farewell call on old Nestor who will talk on and on; so Odysseus, as indulgent glances pass between him and Nausicaa’s parents, takes the blame for her charmingly over-discreet lack of hospitality (Od. VII 303). There is no end to such examples.
Here, then, is a world of crucial sights for the eye, which, however, arise from the stately, artificial tongue of the Homeric epic, a language especially well fitted to conspire with the poet to produce this inexhaustible store of paraphenomena. For just as the subtleties of human intercourse are best entrusted to sedate ceremony in life, so a fixed, formulaic language seems best for conveying its intricacies in poetry. And more particularly, the well-burnished epic idiom appears especially to invite a lively complement of images.
I hope now to make explicit a part of this implicit, complementary world. Yet that will be more a task in what I might call “perceiving” the epics than in interpreting them. This latter task is much harder, if it is possible at all, and it can only be undertaken on the premise that poetry contains something intended for truth, and that behind the realms of uttered word and imaginative sight there is yet a third world of truth into which the former realms lead. I shall try somewhat to interpret one of the epics, the Odyssey—yet very cautiously, because I wish to avoid a certain kind of irresponsibility which that poem particularly induces in interpreters. I will give an example.
Odysseus is shut up for seven years by the nymph Calypso, whose name means, “She Who Covers.” She lives on an island in the navel of the sea “in hollow caves, longing for him to be her husband”: “en spessi glaphyroisi, lilaiomene posin einai” (I 15), as the bewitchingly slippery Greek goes. Now a cave, it is sometimes said, is a womb, and Odysseus’ painful escape from its timeless moist comfort is a second birth. But is this “interpretation” not itself a metaphor, and should the interpreter of poetry himself ply poetry? I think not. It seems to me that interpretations of poetry should be soberly prosaic, and should not represent the poet as having proposed fantasies which no sane adult can credit. For poetry begins in marveling, and no one can marvel at the incredible.
2. Achilles and Odysseus
By way of beginning let me paint one more picture from the Iliad. Achilles the truthful, for whom a liar is “as hateful as the gates of Hades” (IX 312), knows something which dominates all his doings, a knowledge so painful that he lies about it even to his friend Patroclus and only old Nestor guesses what has happened (XVI 51, XI 794): his mother has told Achilles plainly and finally how “short-lived,” how “swift-fated,” he is to be (I 416, XVIII 95). So, once Patroclus, his deputy in death, is gone, Achilles is not longer quite among the mortals, but both above and below them: in battling for his friend’s corpse, he who has fed on the immortals’ food, on ambrosia (XIX 347), is like a divine, an Olympian, being, while when he fights Hector he is like a beast, a lion or a wolf who could feed on Hector’s raw flesh (XXII 262, 347). But when the battle is burnt out and he returns to his tent, he becomes yet something else, a being which Agamemnon had detected in him earlier—he assumes the part of Hades, the ruler of the underworld (IX 158). Let me set the scene.
The god who conducts the dead to the underworld across the river Styx is Hermes. Now Priam, who comes by night to beg for his son Hector’s body, is brought to Achilles’ abode by Hermes who awaits him by the river (XXIV 353). The garments which Priam brings with him are white, the Greek color of mourning (XXIV 231). He finds an Achilles who, at intervals, familiarly addresses the dead (XXIII 19, 105), and in whose precincts the body of Hector lies for many days mysteriously uncorrupted (XXIV 420). Achilles, whose home is Pthia (IX 363), which means the “Perishing Land,” must appear to Priam—and to us—to sit in the somber splendor of underworldly state, the potentate of a premature, above-ground hell, who harbours not only the souls but also the bodies of the dead. We shall see this same dread being, who dominates the end of the Iliad, once more, at the center of the Odyssey.
Reciprocally there is established within the Iliad, as Achilles’ particular foil and counterpart, the man who will give his name to the Odyssey, a poem which begins with the word “man,” as the Iliad begins with the word “wrath”—menis in Greek. For as Achilles’ being is concentrated in a passion, so Odysseus is a man “of many turns” polytropos, a man of craft—metis in Greek.
These two have had their royal quarrels (Od. VIII 75), but they are ultimately bound rather than divided by being in that peculiarly intimate opposition of extreme and mean which is embodied in their spatial position in camp, where Achilles’ boats are beached at one far-out wing, while Odysseus’ little fleet is drawn up in the very middle of the Greeks (Il. XI 6).
Homer has put their comparison in Odysseus’ own mouth (Il. XIX 216). It is short, but may be adumbrated as follows:
Everything about Achilles is young, brief, brave, brilliant, somber, swift, abrupt, unwise, grave; he is in essence short-lived; ‘minute-lived’ (minynthadios) is his proper term.
Odysseus is of an older generation (Il. XXIII 790), short-legged—dignified while seated in council, but squat on his feet, as the Trojans have observed (Il. III 211); a wrestler (Il. XIII 710, Od. IV 343 and VIII 230), not a runner, except once, and then away from battle (Il. VII 95); given to cunning clowning on occasion (Il. X 254 ff., Od. XIV 462 ff.); a clever speaker, endlessly resourceful, who is used on every mission or embassy: to enter Troy as negotiator or as spy (Il. III 206, Od. IV 246), to fetch Achilles for the Trojan expedition (Il. XI 767), to return the captured girl Briseis to her father (Il. I 311), and finally, to attempt—fateful failure—to bring Achilles back into battle (Il. IX 180). And he has staying power—he ever refuses to leave precipitously (Il. II 169, Od. III 163) and he, not Achilles, sees the war to its conclusion by means of the well-disciplined stratagem of the wooden horse. (Od. IV 270 and VIII 502).
The words that belong to Odysseus are “much” and “many” (poly and polla). Listen to the first lines of his own epic and hear how these words sound at once the sea-sputtering accusation against Poseidon’s name and the Greek cry of pain popoi:
Andra moi ennepe, mousa, polytropon, hos mala polla plangthe, epei Troies hieron ptoliethron epersen. pollon d’anthropon iden astea kai noon egno, polla d’ho g’en pontoi pathen algea hon kata thymon.
In sum, as Achilles’ life is concentrated in camp, so Odysseus’ life extends beyond, into peace. Perhaps nothing brings this out better than the names of their only sons. Achilles’ son, who comes to Troy after him, is called Neoptolemus (Il. XIX 327), the “New Warrior,” while Odysseus’ son, who awaits him at home, is called Telemachus, “Far-from-Battle.” It is a significant touch that in the Iliad, Odysseus assumes for himself the appellation of “Father of Telemachus” (II 260 IV 354), as if to show where his heart lies.
Now every characteristic anecdote, every revealing story of Odysseus in the Iliad has, as the references above show, its deliberate counterpart in the Odyssey, just as the underworld Achilles who will appear in the Odyssey is prefigured in the Iliad. The two epics belong together not only as the natural sequence of “War and Peace”—to give them a joint title taken from their one and only rival work—but as the two elements of a sight seen in the Iliad: Achilles bearing before him on his new shield—the shield Odysseus is to inherit (Od. XI 546)—the dancing and battling cities and the encircling Ocean of the Odyssey (XII 478 ff.). The world of Odysseus is, at it were, supported by Achilles. I shall return to this observation later.
3. The cheating myths
I shall begin with the second half of the Odyssey. No sooner has Odysseus arrived back home in Ithaca than he begins to give various accounts of himself and his trip. He tells five such stories (XIII 256, XIV 199, XVII 419, XIX 172, XXIV 303), of which only one single one, the last, told to his father as an afterthought, is clearly, though cleverly, concocted. The other four, in spite of certain tongue-in-cheek touches, shine with verisimilitude, and, indeed, everyone finds them plausible. To be sure, Odysseus’ own announcement of Odysseus’ imminent return is sceptically received, but on the part of one listener, at least, this disbelief is, as we shall see, pretended. Only Athena, the first to hear one of these accounts, exposes them. Told to her they are indeed ”lying lore,” or “tricky tales,” or “cheating myths” (XIII 295), for she knows, as we shall see, the still deeper truth of the matter.
The longest of these tricky tales is told to Eumaios, Odysseus’ faithful swineherd (XIV 199). It goes like this: The teller is a nameless Cretan bastard who enjoys war and seafaring, and who, on returning from service in Troy, sets out for Egypt to find a fortune. There his men, drunk and out of control, attempt an incursion on the locals and are routed. The narrator himself seeks protection from the Egyptian king, stays to live with him for seven years, and is then persuaded by a cunning Phoenician to come to stay with him also for one year. This Phoenician later causes the Cretan to board a boat which is ostensibly conveying cargo to Libya but is in fact carrying orders to sell him as a slave. They are shipwrecked and he, riding the mast, is driven to the Thesprotians on the north-western Greek mainland. Here he hears of Odysseus, who has gone to the famous nearby oracle of Dodona to seek advice concerning his return. They promise the Cretan passage but, once on board, strip him of his goods and bind him. He escapes while they are having supper in Ithaca, and hides in a thicket.
Each of the four tales is different, but the same thread runs through all of them. The teller is a Cretan. The Cretans were the famous seafarers and the infamous liars of antiquity. This Cretan has sailed to all the far-flung Mediterranean ports of call—Cyprus, Libya, Egypt—and has had much commerce with the Phoenicians, the shippers and conveyers of that sea.
Now I claim that distributed through these cheating myths are the facts of the voyages of Odysseus—that he has really spent the last ten years in these places. It is at the least plausible to think so. He must have been somewhere on earth or sea in those lost years. But no candid adult will claim that he was in fact with the giants, nymphs, and witches that people those adventures of his which I shall call “the odyssey proper,” meaning the travels which belong peculiarly to Odysseus. Therefore we must think that he was with those Cretans, Egyptians, and Phoenicians who in fact people the Mediterranean sea, among whom he has in fact been reported seen (XIV 382), and who keep coming to his mind when he is obliged to give an account of himself. This is, after all, precisely where Menelaus went, who having been driven off course at the same place as Odysseus, took his ships to all these ports, and especially to Egypt, in search of gold (III 301, IV 83). So it is clear what Odysseus was doing—no man was ever more prudent about worldly things, more greedy for goods, to put it plainly, and less likely to be willing to return profitless from Troy, or to assume beggary except as an ironic guise. He does, in fact, return a rich man, and “Save my things, save me,” is the merchant-like order of his prayer to Athena (XIII 230). Furthermore, not only does a young Phaeacian contemptuously describe him as looking like a huckster (VIII 163), but he in fact has the versatility appropriate to an “operator”: he is a skillful servant by grace of Hermes (XV 321), a useful consultant and an enchanting raconteur with the polish of a professional minstrel—at least his swineherd thinks so (XVI 521). And finally, is it not curious how Homer himself says in the third line of the Odyssey that Odysseus saw the cities of many men, while the adventures of the odyssey proper are mainly about the islands of single women?
Now of these odyssean adventures, as opposed to the factual accounts, only one single one ever comes to the ears of the known world while Odysseus is yet lost. It is reported by Athena to Telemachus in a prototypical cheating myth (in which she tactfully turns the seductive nymph into “rough men” [I 198]) as well as by Proteus to Menelaus (IV 557), and by Telemachus to Penelope (XVII 143) that Odysseus is, for the duration, with Calypso, with her whose name signifies oblivion. That is to say, throughout Greece Odysseus is reported missing—the “stormy snatchers” have swept him away, “out of sight and out of hearing” (I 242).
The other places and beings of the odyssey proper are made known to no one, not even on Odysseus’ first return. Instead, the cheating myths allude to the adventures (IX-XII) in parallels and coincidences.
For instance: the drunk attack on the Egyptians in the cheating myth is a parallel to the Ciconion adventure; the seven years with the king of Egypt are coextensive with the time given to Calypso, and the year with the Phoenician coincides with the year assigned to Circe; the Thesprotians and Phoenicians are, like the Phaeacians, people that give passage. In both the cheating myths and the adventures there are shipwrecks and lonely survivals riding on mast or keel, oracles consulted, whether Dodona or Teiresias, passages promised, thickets for hiding.
These coincidences reveal how the cheating myths and the adventures are related to each other. As the notorious “Cretan liar paradox” of logic arises when a Cretan claims that all Cretans are liars—upon which his speech cannot be called either true or false—so Odysseus, who is shamelessly careless about harmonizing his various accounts or hiding his embroideries, can hardly be said to tell true or false. The essentially prosaic lying tales are neither true or false—they are, as I said, mere fact. Odysseus expresses his contempt for fact, for the publicly accessible, dull, daily labors of life, by making his accounts precise but not uniquely exact; they express what might—obnoxiously—be called “reality in general.” They are a tissue of facts.
What I mean is this: Anyone who travels in truth, travels twice. First, he flees home, accomplishing an itinerary, to which belong charter groups, terminals, hotels, sight-seeing excursions, transportation. These are the facts, or if you like, the prose of the trip, boring at best, sometimes even hazardous, and these, in their trying indifference, are soon confused, forgotten, perhaps reinvented. But behind the facts of companions, locale, and transportation there are the places and voyages of the soul seeking home, those presences and appearances, those fragrant essences, which come as much from, as to the imagination—the sights which are seen by the soul, not the eyes. These are the truths, or, if you like, the poetry, of our travels, for which the facts—some, not all—were only the occasion.
So while a shabby, mendaciously factual Cretan Odysseus is collecting loot in Egypt and Phoenicia, and Odysseus of, as we shall see, more splendid stature is on a different voyage, a voyage of true nostalgia (literally: “return ache”), on which he sees, as can only a man whose strongest roots are at home (IX 34), the truths of alien people and places. When I say he “sees their truths” I mean, then, that certain appropriate factual occasions of his travels form themselves for him into cogent and brilliant events which, although they live only for and by the imagination, are yet more capable of carrying a meaning than are the mere facts. By the poetic truths of events I therefore mean those versions of occurrences which by their radiance invite interpretation. Such versions are here called adventures: The adventures of Odysseus’ odyssey are the truths of his travels. This amounts to the provoking assertion that the realm of the imagination is closer to the world of truth than the world of “reality.”
4. The odyssey
So then, for instance, in Egypt, a source of narcotics (IV 228), where in fact the inhabitants drug themselves at their feasts by sniffing the lotus flower, some of Odysseus’ men are evidently induced to “experiment”—this is transfigured by Odysseus into that perilous venture into the state of irresponsible forgetfulness and loss of purpose which he tells of as the Land of the Lotus Eaters (IX 84). So Odysseus comes upon one of a tribe of troglodytes, staring, blinkered, and depthless of vision, who are without cities, assemblies, laws, commerce, or true communication. Him Odysseus recognizes as a Cyclops, a single-eyed “Circle Eye,” who does not know the power of words (IX 112). For example, Odysseus has told him that he is called “No-one,” and the Cyclops after having been blinded by Odysseus, in turn uncomprehendingly repeats to his neighbours that “No-one” has hurt him, so that they leave him without help. Similarly he misses the second meaning and warning contained in Odysseus’ anonymous name, a warning which Odysseus himself explains on a later occasion (XX 20): A parallel form of outis, the Greek word for “no-one,” is metis; but metis is also Odysseus’ word, the word for wisdom and craft, so that Odysseus has named himself to the giant Cyclops as his foil in craft and civilization.
So, again, they come to a place where Odysseus’ swilling and gorging men make pigs of themselves and become like animals; this reveals itself to Odysseus as the power of Circe, the “Circle Woman” who turns unmanly men into pigs, while he masters her by attacking her, sword before him, and armed with Hermes’ herb, surely an aphrodisiac (X 321). Note that Odysseus understands all his men’s desires as the appetite for food and drink—in his report they even eat the lotus which the Egyptians sniff. With respect to himself, on the other hand, Odysseus transforms his sojourns among men (the Egyptian king, the Phoenician trader) into encounters with women—a marvelous touch!
One more interpretation: somewhere on his travels Odysseus hears a kind of poetry, debilitating and corrupting, in which all the toils of Troy are turned into melodrama and sentiment. He listens ravished and yet with reservation and resistance. He is in truth hearing the Song of the Sirens (XII 184).
And so, further, the truth of the whole progress of his seafaring is that it is a road into oblivion along which he divests himself not undeliberately of the attendance of his men—even recklessly, as his lieutenant claims (X 436). For he brings them into places and temptations with which they cannot cope and leaves them on their own at crucial moments, or, in the terms of the adventures, he falls into a deep sleep. This is the sleep in which he lies when they let out upon themselves the winds which Odysseus had had, so to speak, “in the bag,” and again when they ravenously fall on the Sacred Cattle of the Sun and by eating them bring final destruction on themselves (X 31, XII 338). As Athena says, using the same equivocal word as did Achilles concerning Patroclus: “…I knew in my heart that you would return having lost (or equally: having destroyed) all your comrades” (XIII 340). According to the fourth line of the Odyssey, Odysseus strives to gain “his soul and the return of his comrades;” the odyssey proper shows that these two purposes are incompatible.
A sufficient interpretation of the Odyssey would offer a coherent fabric of truth-behind-fact woven out of all the adventures. I shall attend in some detail only to two of them. I shall begin with the last, the twelfth sea-adventure, Odysseus’ stay on the Island of the Phaeacians.
5. The twelfth adventure
Phaeacia, which means the “Radiant Land,” is the place of the first telling of the “odyssey proper.” The man who made the odyssey, which is in Greek as much as to say the poet of the odyssey, is Odysseus, who recounts his voyages, truthfully, artfully, and in well-rounded order, beginning and ending with Calypso (IX-XII). Phaeacia is therefore the place where the odyssey is composed, where the sea adventures—”experiences,” as we would say—are given shape, put into words. Thus Alcinous, the Phaeacian king, interrupts the telling of that adventure of adventures, the voyage to Hades, to exclaim that Odysseus does not seem “a cheat and a dissembler” who “fashions lies out of what No-one has ever seen,” and he marvels at Odysseus’ “shapeliness of words”—morphe epeon, at his epic form (XI 367).
Here, as Odysseus steps on land, Poseidon gives up Odysseus, sputtering his dismissal in his own version of the fourth line of the Odyssey:
Houto nyn kaka polla pathon aloo kata ponton.
So now, having suffered many evils, wander on over the sea! (V 377)
And here Athena, for the first time in ten years, again appears to Odysseus (XIII 318). That is as much as to say that the formless element, the sea of troubles and boredom which surrounds the islands of adventure and delight, persecuting as it conveys, now recedes in favor of craft, clarity, and composition.
For this radiant country is a land of luxury and lyre, of dances and baths, of near-animate works of art (such as candelabras in the shape of golden youths and gold-and-silver dogs), of perpetually blooming orchards, of magnificent architecture, and cunning tapestries (VII-VIII). And the Phaeacians have poetry—wonderful, irreverent comedy (VIII 266) and heart-rending melodrama of the siren sort, which makes Odysseus weep like a woman (VIII 523). They are, moreover, a folk which regards all the present pains of mankind as sent by the gods for the sole purpose of being turned into song for those to come (VIII 580)—aesthetes, we would say.
The Phaeacians have been removed from Hyperia—the “Beyond Land,” where they suffered from the crude strength of the Hyperian Cyclopses, to Scheria—the “Cut-off Land” (VI 4, 8). In this country they live in detached elevation—they have no enemies and yet they do not love strangers (VII 32), but are intimate only with the gods (VII 205). Nevertheless their vocation is to give passage, to convey—we would say: to “communicate”—and the spirit-like nature of what they convey is shown in their ships, which are swift as thought and governed by thought (VII 36, VIII 559). Of course they pray to Hermes the Interpreter and Conveyer (VII 137).
In this resort, in this—I will say it—in this artists’ colony, Odysseus becomes a poet. Here he frequently expresses his love for singers (VIII 487, IX 3), and here he himself sings. It seems very appropriate that this is the only adventure which is reported directly by the poet of the greater Odyssey, by Homer himself.
Odysseus is conveyed out of Phaeacia, where dreams are given shape in comfort, to rocky Ithaca with his treasure of tales while lying, as he is wont to at crucial moments, in a Hermetic sleep much like death (XIII 80). And Poseidon, the god of untiring formlessness, in revenge covers, (literally “calypsoes“), the sea exit of the odyssey forever (VIII 569). There will be no second such epic.
Odysseus is received into “reality” by Athena who, in a transport of affection, apostrophizes her Odysseus as cunning, dissembling, bold, brilliant in craft, insatiate in tricks, and as a man who will not leave off cheating myths and deceits (XIII 293). The man who was praised for his truths in Phaeacia, the land of poetry, becomes a mere liar in rocky Ithaca.
6. The middle adventure
Phaeacia is the place in which Odysseus found himself able to shape his trip into poetry, to give it form. Is there a place whence the substance or matter of poetry is particularly derived, a bourn and source of poetry?
If it can be shown, as I hope to do later, that there is in fact a thirteenth adventure, then the seventh adventure becomes in number what it is in truth—the central event of the odyssey, the one which earns Odysseus—one time only in all the epic—the appellation “hero” (X 516).
This seventh adventure is Odysseus’ voyage to the mouth of the Land of the Dead (X), to Hades, the underworld at the extremes of the earth and sea, which is to be reached only by ship (XI 159). Odysseus has been sent there particularly for the purpose of consulting the oracle of Teiresias on his return (X 492). He is indeed told of its stations and hazards, but the management of his reinstatement in Ithaca is, significantly, left in his own hands. In addition Teiresias utters that strange prescription which orders Odysseus to leave Ithaca once more, promptly after regaining home, in order to march inland, an oar on his shoulder, until he shall come to a place where that oar shall be taken for a farmer’s tool. There he is to plant it in the ground, and then he may feel assured of a gentle death, late and far from the sea (XI 135). The meaning of this planted oar is that it is a sailor’s grave. This is pointedly shown by the form of the burial, a mound with an oar stuck on top, which the company gives that drunk young fool Elpenor who anticipates Odysseus’ ship in Hades by falling off a roof and breaking his neck (XII 15). Odysseus’ oar will, of course, mark a cenotaph, an empty tomb, just such a tomb as Telemachus has promised to make for him, should he remain lost at sea (II 222). This inland ceremony is a necessary and fitting aftermath and conclusion to the odyssey, for as Circe says with awe, Odysseus is “twice dead” (XII 22)—twice dead as he is twice traveled—and therefore owes himself a burial, a false tomb far inland, remote from the sea that hates and drives him.
But the business on which he has come takes only the briefest time. His stay is really otherwise occupied: In Hades Odysseus is instructed in the myths of the Greeks here he becomes learned in the matter of poetry.
Here he learns the tragedies of Agamemnon and Oedipus; here he is told the tales of Minos, Tantalus, Sisyphus, Heracles. Here at the center of the center of the Odyssey come forth all the women of Greece in their grandeur, among them two who have slept with gods but kept faith with their husbands, Tyro and Alcmene, to whom his own wife has already been favorably compared (II 120). (At this point in his tale Queen Arete, grateful for his praise of women, charmingly interrupts to praise Odysseus, not indeed for his tale-but for his beauty and size [XI 337]).
But as king and mighty ruler of the dead (XI 485), here as in life, comes Achilles, inconsolable at his state—he would rather be a slave on earth than the king of the dead. Odysseus, a passing visitor in Achilles’ very own realm, comforts him a little with a good report of his son the New Warrior, Neoptolemus. Achilles as the most ghostly of the dead, as Hades’ deadest denizen, dominates this world.
All that come to tell their tales to Odysseus are souls—psychai (X 530)—which means, in Greek, “cold breaths,” spirits, bodiless and bloodless. Hades is the repository of shades, that is to say, of the ghosts of the past, of beings of memory. Of themselves these are impotent, unable on their part to see the living, and like dreams, impalpable (XI 29, 143, 207). It is Odysseus who gives or refuses these schemata presence by refusing or giving them blood (XI 147). It is Odysseus who gives flesh and blood to memories, which are the substance and matter of poetry. Odysseus’ central adventure is his voyage to the bounding flux which surrounds and delimits our world of bodily sights, a voyage of recollection to those remote recesses of memory where lives our common past, the dead whose stories have been canonized into myths. In Hades Odysseus is initiated into the lore which is the matter of poetry.
7. The thirteenth adventure
Everywhere people are talking of the “returns,” the nostoi, of the Greek contingent from Troy. The minstrel sings of them in Ithaca and Aeolus wants to hear about them on his floating island (I 326, X 14). One such return is famous, or infamous, above the rest—that of Agamemnon, king of Greek kings, foully murdered on his return to Mycenae by Aegisthus and his treacherous wife Clytemnestra. Zeus tells of it on Olympus, Nestor tells Telemachus in Pylus, Menalaus in Sparta, and Agamemnon himself tells Odysseus in Hades (I 36, III 264, IV 518, XI 412). But there is another return which is much spoken of because it is yet outstanding—Odysseus’ own. Moreover, the former stands behind and informs the latter. Telemachus, on his trip in search of his father, never forgets that other, avenging, son, Orestes (I 298, III 203), while Odysseus’ own homecoming is colored by the murdered king’s advice in Hades: “Therefore do not you yourself ever be gentle to your wife, and do not tell her the whole tale which you know, but tell her some, and keep some hidden” (XI 442).
Consequently Odysseus returns filled with suspicion, which is confirmed by Athena’s similar, albeit less partial, advice to “tell no man or woman” of his return (XIII 308). And although in Hades Penelope’s own mother-in-law, Odysseus’ mother Anticleia, has already declared to him Penelope’s constancy (XI 217), Penelope herself behaves deviously enough to justify Odysseus’ reserved behavior. The house is full of wooers, daily wined and dined, to whom she sends messages and promises, and among whom she has favorites (XIII 381, XVI 397).
The fact, then, of Odysseus’ return is that he slips back late, slow, suspicious, and incognito, outwits Penelope’s wooers by gaining possession of his old powerful weapon, the great bow, makes a blood bath among them and those servant girls who follow them, and only then, having re-possessed his hall, reveals to his wife who he is.
But the truth of his return, which turns it into a thirteenth adventure by giving it the sheen of a high tension is this: Those two, Odysseus and Penelope, recognize and know each other from the moment he enters his home, and proceed to act out a charged, subtle farce, worthy of the complex nature common to them, in which poetry and prudence are intertwined by means of a high craft. Their object is to know the truth about each other. The way the evidence for this situation mounts is a model of Homeric subtlety. Let me set it out.
Penelope, whose epithet is “the circumspect” (periphron), would be unlikely to fail to notice what it plain to everyone else. Telemachus has returned from his trip suddenly bearded (XVIII 176) and a man, and for the first time certain that he is the son of a father he has never seen (XV 267). This certainty comes to him first in Sparta where he arrived at the delicate moment of her daughter’s wedding to be immediately recognized by the aging but still uncanny Helen, who sees in him the father she had evidently known very intimately (IV 143, 250). With this image before her, how could Penelope herself miss the original? Then also, signs and portents announcing her husband’s return have mounted: an old oracle, claiming that Odysseus would return in the twentieth year of his absence, is revived; a strange sooth-sayer, Theoclymenus, suddenly comes on the scene for no other purpose but to announce the return; the swineherd Eumaius has repeated to her Odysseus’ cheating myth, according to which he is even now in Ithaca. Moreover it is now or never that Odysseus must return to her, since he himself has told her to re-marry at the appearance of Telemachus’ beard (II 170, XVII 157, 527, XVIII 270). Accordingly she presses her son for the results of his trip in curiously assured terms. She had, she says, despaired of ever seeing Telemachus again when he had gone off after tidings of his father. And she continues: “But come, give me an account of how you came face to face with the sight of him” (XVII 44). Telemachus, who has promised his father secrecy, is clumsily evasive. It is clear that she is, at the very least, highly expectant.
Odysseus comes into his hall from the pig farm where he has revealed himself to his son in glory (XVII 264 ff.). Now Odysseus has a property familiar in people of temperament and mobility of soul: his stature changes with the occasion, or as Homer put it, he is frequently—four times in Ithaca—transformed by Athena, twice from his native radiance to an equally congenital shabbiness, twice the reverse (XIII 429, XVI 172, 456, XXIII 156). He comes in the shape he assumed for his cheating myths: his frame shriveled, a worn and weary, aging, balding, beggary huckster. Argos, his ancient hound, hears him and gladly expires. Odysseus refuses to be presented to Penelope. She is at once collected and hysterical, twice laughs “a meaningless laugh” (XVIII 163), and falls into a relaxed sleep, is herself beautified by Athena, and immediately goes before the wooers to announce herself ready for re-marriage and to ask for gifts. Odysseus is deeply satisfied with her strategem. That evening, after Telemachus has gone to sleep, Penelope descends and, blooming in beauty like two goddesses, sits on a throne to interview Odysseus.
And now begins a curious, teasing, allusive conversation (XIX 104 ff). Odysseus asks her not to question him “…lest you fill my heart with many sorrows…” ( XIX 117). Now the Greek here for “sorrows” is odynaon, a word which sounds in Odysseus’ own name; so for instance, he sits on Calypso’s isle “sorrowing [Odysseus-like] for his return” (noston odyromenos, V 153). He is audibly naming himself to her. Next he tells a cheating myth, shamelessly different from the one the swineherd has already repeated to her. In this story he calls himself Aethon (XIX 183), the “Burnished or Shining One,” the splendid Odysseus he is not now but can expect to be when his moment comes. By presenting himself as a Cretan who left home again a mere month after his return from Troy, Odysseus immediately insinuates the uncomfortable fact that he himself is not yet home to stay: that there is one more absence in store for his wife. As this Cretan he claims to have seen Odysseus twenty years ago and, laughably, describes in detail a brooch he then wore. He also claims that Odysseus is now near home. She, playing the sceptic, says (and from now on she keeps speaking in this equivocal way): “Neither will Odysseus come nor will you be conveyed hence…” and “Him will I never receive home again…” (XIX 257, 313). These statements hold, of course, equally if the man before her is Odysseus. Then she tells Odysseus’ old nurse: “Come arise, wise Euryclea, and wash your master’s…” she turns the order to wash her master’s feet into: “…your master’s contemporary’s feet” (XIX 358). Euryclea, who has immediately seen whom the stranger resembles, discovers the scar on his leg. Homer takes time out to tell the story of the scar, acquired by Odysseus as he climbed Parnassus, the Muses’ mountain, on a boar hunt, and of the naming of Odysseus by his grandfather Autolycus. That famous thief, liar, and misanthrope insisted on calling Anticlea’s baby “Odysseus,” the “Hated One,” or better the “Object of Wrath,” as in the verb odyssomai, “I am wroth” (XIX 4407), a meaning alluded to by Athena when she asks Zeus about Odysseus in these terms: “Why are you so very wroth with him?”—ti ny hoi toson odysao? (I 62). The scar goes with his name as his signature, and, in fact, the Greek word for scar, oule, is to be heard in a dialect version of his name, Ulysses (Oulixeos). Scars and persecution, especially at sea, characterize the Odysseus of the cheating myths—the prosaic Odysseus.
Euryclea sees the scar and with a clatter drops the foot into the bronze basin. Penelope, sitting next to them, does not move a muscle—Athena, that is, her alert wariness, has turned her attention aside.
After this episode Penelope tells her husband a deliberately provoking dream and asks him to interpret it: She had twenty geese who had left the water to feed in her house, and her heart was warm with joy. A great eagle came swooping down and broke all their necks and she wept. In the dream the eagle himself interpreted, saying: the geese are the wooers and I am your husband returned. Odysseus interprets, speaking ambiguously of the dream or of himself: Odysseus himself has shown you what he will do.
Penelope next conspiratorially proposes the contest of the bow: whoever can string and shoot straight Odysseus’ great weapon is to have her in marriage. Odysseus, of course, approves.
They go to sleep, she upstairs, he below. Odysseus hears her weeping, and presently “it seemed, to his heart that she had already recognized him and was standing at his head” (XX 99). To avoid a precipitous reunion he takes his blankets and moves outdoors.
When the contest begins on the morning after, Penelope argues for letting her husband participate, reassuring the wooers in her new equivocal mode: “Do you expect that if the stranger strings Odysseus’ great bow he will take me home and make me his wife?” (XXI 314). Just as in her order to Eurycleia, the Greek word order gives the momentary impression that she is calling the stranger “Odyseus.”
It is the day of the feast of Apollo, the god of bow and lyre. Odysseus strings the weapon like “a man well skilled in the lyre and song” and the string sings sweetly for the poet-archer.
Penelope has been sent upstairs and there sleeps the soundest sleep ever since Odysseus’ going (like Odysseus she takes to sleep at crucial moments). Carnage goes on below until the hall is purged of wooers and followers. Euryclea is sent upstairs to announce Odysseus’ presence. Penelope descends. She finds Odysseus sitting against a pillar, with lowered eyes. Silence ensues, so long a silence that Telemachus feels compelled to interrupt it. Odysseus smiles at his nervousness: Let your mother test me. She will not acknowledge me because I am shabby; so let us bathe. And to keep rumour of the killing from spreading he orders a mock wedding feast; therefore everything that follows has a background of marriage music. The bath and Athena burnish Odysseus into glowing radiance; he has become “Aethon.”
With matter of fact indifference Penelope now accepts him as master of the house, but she still refuses to call him by name and addresses him distantly as “Sir” (XXIII 174). Off-handedly, she orders his bed to be brought out, the bed which Telemachus had feared fouled with spider webs (XIV 35).
Worse has happened—it has become a movable piece of mere furniture, this bed which Odysseus joined with his own hands, using a live olive as post—”a great token,” as he says—and building the bed chamber around it. For the first and last time, Odysseus is distraught with anger.
And at this moment Penelope throws her arms about him and calls him Odysseus. For the true crux of this last adventure was not the testing of Penelope by Odysseus, but that of Odysseus, so slow to come home, by Penelope, and her question was never: is this Odysseus? but: is it an Odysseus who cherishes live roots deep in the house? But now she comes to him, Homer says, as if she had reached land after a shipwreck (XXIII 239). His wife, by masking her immediate penetration of Odysseus’ factual incognito, has raised the occasion of his return into a test of the wanderer’s truth to his roots; she has assured herself that the “great token” still holds its meaning.
Dawn is held back by Athena while they talk. Again before anything else, he tells her once more that he is not yet home for good, that he has, by Teiresias’ prescription, to go inland to consummate his release from Poseidon and Hades, the sea and the underworld. So Ithaca is for now only a way station between sea and land.
Then they go to bed, and “after the two had delighted in lovely intercourse, they delighted in tales” (XXIII 300). And so, in this resting place, Odysseus tells the odyssey once more, for the first time in the “real” world. He tells his wife the whole story, in order and complete, all twelve adventures, including—for the first time, of course—the Phaeacian adventure, and not withholding his long times with the two ripe seductresses Circe and Calypso. In one point only does he follow Agamemnon’s advice not to tell all: he omits any mention of Nausicaa, who, lithe as a young palm shoot, dreamed of him in Phaeacia; he does not mention to his middle-aged wife the only girl in the Odyssey.
Might we not expect this work with its concurrent realms of prose and poetry to have an ending appropriate to each? And so it has. The concluding scene of the twenty-fourth book occurs within the realm of sober political fact (XXIV 205 ff.). Odysseus completes his return by revealing himself to his father, Laertes. The three generations of Laertes’ house together face an uprising of the slain wooers’ relatives, for whom, as for the wooers, courtship and carnage are both entirely political matters (XXII 52). Odysseus’ resumption of the kingship of Ithaca, in spirit legitimate because of the kindness and justice of his past rule (IV 88, XIV 61), is confirmed in fact when Athena causes the parties to swear mutual oaths of peace. So, literally, ends the Odyssey.
But simultaneously another concluding scene is taking place in a very different realm. There is a second Descent to Hades. Hermes leads the souls of the wooers into the underworld (XXIV 1 ff.). They throng about Achilles. Agamemnon draws near, once more tells the tale of his own murder and consoles the ever disconsolate Achilles with an account of the Funeral of Achilles, the most memorable of funerals, for to it came to sing the daughters of Memory, the nine Muses themselves (60). Then the wooers tell and make deposition in Hades of the adventure called the Return of Odysseus, and how—note well—their death was plotted by husband and wife together (168). Henceforth the story of constant Penelope is recorded among those of the other unforgettable women of Hades, so that there may be made about her too “a pleasant song among men on earth” (197).
And so the repository of poetic truth holds the full tale both of Achilles’ end and of Odysseus’ return.
It follows that although the principal and paradigmatic matter of poetry is and remains Achilles, that warrior of deathly splendour who is all one, all passion, altogether nothing but a being for poets, there is a second great matter for poetry: there is Odysseus, a vivid, viable, versatile, multifarious man, the man by whose agency alone Achilles is admitted to blood and voice, the man who made the odyssey—a poet. And so it is shown that the Odyssey, a poem about a poet, is a work of reflection.
This essay originally appeared in the St. John’s College Journal (Volume 26, No. 1, 1974) and is republished here with permission.
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