Classical professors looked forward with a mixture of eagerness and anxiety to the recent $40 million version of the Odyssey on NBC. Would the production reveal Homer, or would the Hollywoodification of his poem so distort the plot that we would be spending the remainder of our careers disabusing students and others of false impressions? And would the audience even be sufficiently interested by the story to consult the original?
I am no critic of television, and cannot answer this last question. There are liberties taken with Homer’s story, and matters related by Homer outside the poem are brought into the production. The Cyclops Polyphemus was horrible, but perhaps not horrible enough; Circe was enchanting, but perhaps not enchanting enough; Kalypso was sexy and seductive, but perhaps not sufficiently so—the conception at these points was that of an R-rated film, but the execution was that of a show to be aired on network television. There were many good things, of course. Aeolus was innovative and good, remarking that Odysseus, unlike most mortals, was able to learn from experience, something of which Homer would have approved. From Odysseus himself we learn that he is proud and arrogant, and that Poseidon is angry with him for his self-sufficiency and inadequate gratitude to the gods for destroying Troy: here Homer would have demurred. These are the only two characteristics we can assign to Odysseus, save his—intermittent but implacable—desire to return to Penelope.
Penelope in turn is faithful to the memory of her husband, and her young son Telemachus is eager to become a man and emulate his long-absent father. Both have to contend with a bunch of unruly suitors who want Odysseus’ property and his wife, even if they have to kill the boy to get these prizes. The end result of the television version—though not of the Homeric—is that after Telemachus and Odysseus have taken revenge on the suitors, Penelope satisfactorily and romantically falls into Odysseus’ arms. The television Odyssey is an adventure tale with a romantic ending, and an enjoyable one.
What, then, of Homer’s Odyssey? What is it really about? What themes docs it contain that are deserving of our attention? Before answering that question we must refer to the Iliad, the other great ancient Greek epic. For the Odyssey presupposes the Iliad, follows it, and in a very real sense completes it. Odysseus is the last warrior back from Troy, and it is his return that signals the end of the Trojan adventure. The first question the Odyssey answers, then, is: When did the Trojan adventure end? Answer: when Odysseus finally took up his rightful position as chief man on Ithaca.
The Iliad is a poem of war and heroic endeavor. The main characters are mighty warriors, bloodthirsty, successful in their work, rich as a result of the booty they acquire. Their lives—in many instances short—are devoted to heroic (i.e., warlike) activities, and their primary concern is with honor, not survival. Honor is attained by battle, and brings respect among one’s friends, fear in the enemy, and riches with which to reward one’s followers and support one’s self. Life is apt to be short, but it can be glorious.
Achilles sums up the heroic life in the Iliad when he reports his mother Thetis’ prophecy that he would live either a short and glorious life or a long and inglorious one. He is unable to imagine a long life of honor and respect, nor can he look forward to renown after his death as a consolation. His problem at Troy was that his comrades, and this means of course the expedition’s chief, Agamemnon, did not accord him the respect his pride demanded: they did not fulfill their part of the heroic bargain. And it was this failure that caused Achilles to query the validity of all his heroic assumptions.
Achilles was alone in this questioning. The other heroes, Odysseus among them, continued to assume the correctness of the heroic ethos and continued cracking heads. Homer does not reveal in the Iliad the final outcome of the war, nor does he tell us in that poem what happened to his heroes after the war was over. And yet the return of war-hardened heroes must have been a serious problem then as now. How could a hero, one who for ten years has been earning honor and riches through battle, adjust to a peacetime existence? We get hints at the answer to this question in Homer’s description of the shield of Achilles in Iliad XVIII, where marriages and harvests take place. Even there, though, contention is rife, but it is mediated and moderated by civic custom overseen by elders and judges. Greek life back home was nearly as contentious as was war on the battlefield, but violence was by and large contained: peace, though, does not automatically denote domestic tranquillity.
The problem of readjustment to a peacetime life must have been difficult, or, in the case of Sophocles’ Ajax, impossible. Homer’s Odyssey in its pre-Hollywood existence set about to answer questions of readjustment to a warless world. Odysseus is one of the great heroes of the Iliad, leader of a contingent of men. After the destruction of Troy he sets out for home with his men, all of whom he loses before finally reaching home alone and on another’s ship. His first adventure after the destruction of Troy is with the Cicones—omitted in the television version—whom he defeats in war, thus continuing his warlike, raiding ways. He is still in military mode. One of the temptations he must overcome before reaching home is the temptation to engage in piratical and military raids.
The remainder of his journey back contains those episodes most beloved of Hollywood, and the episodes we all remember from childhood. We recall the Lotus Eaters, in the television version combined cleverly with Circe; the Cyclops, Circe, Sirens, etc., though we may forget Aeolus and the Laestrygonians, and not be much interested in the scene on Phaeacia—though we cannot forget Nausicaa, as the television version did. After triumphing over all these enemies and temptations—and only about halfway through the poem—Odysseus lands on Ithaca and can begin the second part of his quest, that of reintegrating himself into local society as husband of Penelope and leader of the Ithacans.
Odysseus has survived, but for what? Questions arise concerning his welcome at home, his motivation to return to Penelope, and her desire—or the lack thereof—to be reunited with the man she last saw some 20 years earlier. His final test is the test both of his will to assume his earlier responsibilities with Penelope and of Penelope’s willingness to have him back.
One of the most gripping of Odysseus’ adventures is his visit to the underworld—suggested by Circe—where he is to meet Teiresias, a seer who can predict the future. From Teiresias he learns that it is his destiny (a) to return to Ithaca to wife and home, and (b) ultimately to die. Death is not to be in war, the Iliadic mode, but a peaceful one. He must accommodate himself to a peaceful life. It has been observed that Teiresias’ advice is not really very helpful in detailing how Odysseus is to reach Ithaca, and does not provide the kinds of information Circe’s remarks earlier had led us to expect. In fact it is only with Circe in the next book that Odysseus learns of the next horrors and adventures. That is to miss the point. Odysseus learns in the underworld his ultimate destiny, the destiny that awaits us all. He must first accommodate himself to a peaceful life. The television version was excellent in its depiction of the underworld, but defective in that it did not contain these aspects of Teiresias’ prophecy, the main point of Odysseus’ journey. One visits the land of the dead in order to learn about living, a theme that goes back at least to the epic of Gilgamesh in the Near East.
Teiresias’ advice is delivered to Odysseus, but is advice that is meant for all men: we are all at some point at least to give up a life of adventure and live a domestic life, and by so doing we can hope to have a peaceful end. Odysseus is Everyman, and Teiresias’ advice and predictions concern the lot in life of every man. Teiresias’ advice, therefore, is important; though it may be defective in detail for Odysseus, it does tell us the meaning of life, albeit perhaps in attenuated form. Any trip to the underworld should tell us something of the nature of our being, and Teiresias does just that.
Odysseus must settle down to an adult life of domesticity. No more adventures, no more sexual escapades, no more honor won in war. He must face up to the fact that in the Greek world, however attractive the heroic life might be to the young, at a certain point one must grow up, marry, settle down, produce heirs, and reenter civic society. So the Odyssey contains as well a sort of metaphorical growing up for Odysseus, a growing up we glimpse at times when Homer introduces stories from his childhood. In other words, the Odyssey is a sort of Bildungsroman in which the hero, already, to be sure, mature and an adult, learns the responsibilities of adulthood and maturity. He cannot be considered truly a man until he shoulders these responsibilities, responsibilities which in his case also entail managing an estate and governing a civic entity.
It was altogether too easy for the young Greek warrior to forget that a man’s role is to beget, to support family and children, and not ceaselessly to be led on by the siren song of adventure, fame, success. There are temptations along the way and they must be overcome. Odysseus’ crew could not conquer their gluttony and animal desires and hence died; Odysseus survived. He survived also the temptation of an immortality of ease and sex with the beautiful goddess Kalypso, the “concealer”; he survived the lure of limitless knowledge with the Sirens; he survived the life of sybaritic ease with the Lotus Eaters and the untroubled existence of the Phaeacians. He, the “man of many wiles,” also had to overcome his own tendencies to cleverness and risk-taking, tendencies that almost resulted in his being eaten by the Cyclops—though it was in fact his cleverness that enabled him to escape that ogre. Survival, not heroic derringdo, is man’s lot, and man must learn from experience.
Odysseus was at various times tempted by an easy life lived in oblivion, but like a good Greek opted for a difficult life that offered the opportunity of immortal fame among men. Survival is necessary, yes, but it does not bring fame and cannot confer immortality. This is the message of Odysseus’ adventures, those fabulous and exotic tales that we all remember: it is his task—and ours—to resist, to strive, to aim at fame; and above all to return home, where our true life is to be found, our true fame. Troy is wonderful, but it is a young man’s adventure and not the place for a mature head of family.
Kalypso had offered him immortality combined with agelessness: he could stay with her, forever young and forever vigorous, enjoying the male fantasy of continuous sex with a beautiful woman. There would, however, have been no issue from this coupling, and Odysseus would have remained in oblivion, a cipher in world history. The young, as we know, are immortal; death does not affect them, and it is only when they grow a bit older that they realize their mortality. The unmarried male in Greece, then as until recently at least, did not believe that death has any relation to him until he marries and becomes involved in the cycle of birth, maturity, death. Till then these things affect him not at all. So with Odysseus, as a warrior at Troy and with Kalypso death was an irrelevance: he was immortal. In the underworld he learned that he was not.
Upon his return to Ithaca Odysseus, now wiser about himself and about his motives, confronted an unknown situation: he did not know how the people would welcome him back; and more importantly, he did not know the mind of his wife, Penelope. Was she to be like Agamemnon’s wife Clytemnestra, who slew her husband, in league with her lover Aegisthus? Or was she—as Odysseus had been repeatedly told—still faithful and longing for him? Another question—unasked—by Homer is: Would Penelope welcome the now 20-years-older Odysseus? Odysseus himself seems convinced that he wants Penelope, but that is not enough. He wants not only her but his property, his standing, his son, and his father. He does not upon landing know whether he can count on any one of these people. He faces massive uncertainty and great odds when he lands on his home isle.
He does know that there are suitors in his halls who want to marry Penelope, to take over the rule in Ithaca, and to divide up the property that should properly go to Telemachus. These suitors are behaving—by Greek standards—in a monstrous way, eating at another’s expense, maltreating beggars, and in general behaving irresponsibly. They are totally hostile to Odysseus, whom they think dead; and to Telemachus, whom they plot to kill. Odysseus can be absolutely certain that he faces at least 108 enemies when he endeavors to reassert his kingly prerogatives. We, in turn, can be certain that the suitors must die for their offenses against the house of Odysseus and the laws of hospitality.
Struggle, disguise, and degradation await Odysseus in his own home. He first visits a swineherd, the lowest of his former slaves, and disguises himself so that it is as a beggar that he enters the house he had ruled in earlier days. Prior to his entering his house he meets up with his son Telemachus, reveals to him that he is his long-lost father Odysseus at last returned, and plans with him how things are to be handled in town. Once in his own home he has an opportunity to observe the suitors, make military preparations for their death, and to test his wife’s disposition. He is satisfied that she is in fact faithful to him and that she can count on him. He thus is prepared to kill the suitors and then ready to be reunited with Penelope.
At this point Homer pulls a switch on us. Odysseus kills the suitors all right, but instead of falling immediately into his arms Penelope is dubious whether this is really Odysseus she sees before her. Not that she does not really believe it is he, but she is perhaps afraid that he may not be the same Odysseus whom she loved many years earlier. Her trick with the bed convinces her that this is Odysseus and that he wants her. They can then go to bed and spend the night together, their first night together in some 20 years.
It is at this point that Hollywood ends the Odyssey, and some scholars in antiquity may—the matter is disputed—have ended the poem here. Homer, though, knew better. Odysseus was not yet home and master of his property until he had made peace with the relatives of the suitors and had completed his return to family by means of a meeting with his aged father, Laertes. Once he—together with Laertes and Telemachus— have faced down the suitors’ relatives, Odysseus can be truly said to be home and through with his adventuring, and the Trojan War can be said finally to be at an end. Laertes and this episode were omitted from the television Odyssey.
The first four books of the poem—the so-called “Telemachy,” which is sometimes (and incorrectly) thought not to be part of Homer’s original version of his poem—display Odysseus’ young son beginning to grow up and for the first time endeavoring to take charge of his own household: the Hollywood version well introduces this theme. Telemachus knows that the suitors are vile and must be punished, but he is too young to do anything about it. He finally undertakes two adult activities on his own behalf: he calls an assembly to announce to the Ithacans that the suitors should be sent away; and he undertakes, against all expectation, a trip in quest of knowledge of his father’s whereabouts. These books, then, describe the maturing of a young man and his beginning to undertake manly activities.
The remaining books describe the maturing of a grown man, the maturing of the grown Odysseus, who has to learn two things: that adventuring is not the role of the adult male, and that one’s proper life is with family, house, and polity. These things he learns both through his adventures and through his humiliation and triumph in his palace on Ithaca. He learns that man’s lot is, while young, to garner goods and property, but then later to govern the household thus acquired with his wife and family. There comes, however, a time when even these duties and pleasures must be forsworn, and the older man—in the Odyssey represented by Laertes—must yield place to the younger and prepare himself to die.
The Odyssey thus contains in nuce the stages of male existence. Telemachus represents youth becoming man; Odysseus represents adult man learning maturity and responsibility; Laertes represents the old man who must step aside for his son. All is there. Each one in the poem puts aside a stage of life and moves into another. Laertes gives up the familial and political life, assertive activities, in favor of his son; Odysseus forswears the soldier’s life, the life of youthful adventure; and Telemachus puts aside childhood, presumably for the heroic life of war and travel. The problems of these men thus differ. The story of the course of a Greek man’s life is there in the Odyssey. The central problem, however, remains that of reintroducing a hero to life without warfare, without acclaim, without booty.
Homer did not omit the women. Their role also is adumbrated in the Odyssey, though without the detail of Odysseus’ adventures and in part in a negative way. They tend to be characterized as sly seductresses, obstacles to the male’s fulfillment of his familial role. Nausicaa and Penelope and Anticlea, Odysseus’ mother, however, provide positive female roles—Nausicaa that of the expectant bride, Penelope that of the faithful wife, Anticlea that of the long-suffering mother. One notes in the case of Penelope that the life course of a married woman then as now in Greece was marriage, childbearing, and childrearing combined with abandonment if not desertion by her husband. Her reward was twofold: the proper development to adulthood of her son, and the (hoped for) return of her husband. An uncertain life, and Penelope was wise to query Odysseus on his return, not only as to whether he was Odysseus, but also whether he was still her husband and not merely the adventurer who had set sail for Troy some 20 years before.
For 20 years Penelope was in love with the idea of Odysseus, and when forced to choose a husband from among the suitors, wanted to choose that one who most resembled Odysseus. Hence it was that she proposed the contest of the bow: whoever could string Odysseus’ bow and shoot an arrow through 12 axe handles would be her husband. That man would be Odysseus-like, his equal, and hence worthy of her hand and bed. When the beggar strung the bow and shot the arrow through the axes—and subsequently killed the suitors—she knew that she had found Odysseus’ equal. She did not, however, yet know that he was Odysseus himself. In order to determine this she contrived to trick the trickster Odysseus by proposing that their bed be moved from its room into another place. Odysseus was horrified, knowing that one of the posts of their bed had been an olive tree—his protectress Athena’s tree and forever green—and that the bed should therefore not have been movable. When he protested, Penelope finally knew that it was he and they could then go to that bed. The television version made Penelope something of a loyal wimp rather than an active player in the drama of reconciliation.
The Odyssey‘s world was primarily a man’s world, and the adventures are primarily male adventures. They are, however, played out against scenes of domesticity (involving women), and thus indicate that it is the domestic life and the life of the community that should provide the center of a man’s adult existence. The Odyssey looks backward toward war and forward to a peaceful life. In later Greece the epic’s predictions were fulfilled in that classical warfare became a civic rather than a heroic activity, engaged in by citizen soldiers and not by freebooting entrepreneurs answerable only to themselves. These classical soldiers returned to wives and children every year. The Odyssey, poised between war and peace, is poised also between the heroic world of epic and the domestic world of the later Greek city-state.
I fear I have made out the Odyssey to be a kind of domestic tract, a geometric period precursor of Xenophon’s Oeconomicus. Clearly it is more than that. I have outlined above the societal meaning and relevance of the poem to a contemporary audience, a meaning that is confused though perhaps latent in the television version. But the Odyssey is a work of literary art full of adventure, excitement, suspense, thrills, and fears; and, above all, of marvelous poetry. The description of Kalypso’s cave is magnificent, as are many passages in the later portions of the poem. Homer’s characters are real, his tales gripping, his writing brilliant. This last and the leisurely pace at which he develops his story are inevitably lacking from the modern television version. Homer would not have objected to a television or movie version of his story, but he would have insisted that his vision of the story be honored, and that it end with Odysseus’ final integration into Ithacan society.
These issues were of importance to the Greek world, and may not be of such great importance to Hollywood producers. Nonetheless, attention to them, particularly to the social context of the Odyssey, would, I think, have added a dimension to the presentation and rescued it from some of the incoherence that I, at least, felt when viewing it. The answer ultimately is to read the poem.