As I said in this short report of one of my classes, there are countless people more qualified than I am to analyze The Odyssey. So I don’t pretend to be anything other than someone who has read the book many times and walked students through it more than once.
This year, I taught a literature class to a small group of homeschool students in the fall. Then I offered an Odyssey discussion on facebook for moms who might want to prepare for a time when they will be teaching the book to their own children. What I am sharing here is the discussion prompts I posted for each of the twenty-four books of The Odyssey.
Page numbers refer to Richard Lattimore’s translation.
“What has Athens to do with Jerusalem, the Church with the Academy, the Christian with the heretic?” This quote from the early Christian author, Tertullian of Carthage, who wrote before 220 A.D., is still being discussed by philosophers and classical educators, among others.
Though Tertullian was undoubtedly thinking more deeply than we have to deal with here, the quote is often used to stir up a debate about why in the world we would read pagan Greek philosophers and mythology. I’ve had more than one Christian homeschool mom tell me her kids would not be reading those lies. They seem to put mythology on the same plane as telling your kids Santa Claus is real.
Some parents are concerned that children might be confused by finding out there are people who worshiped other gods. Why do books like The Odyssey matter?
“The first thing that came to mind is, if you’re reading your Bible, you will know that the Apostle Paul spoke directly to the Greeks informing them of their Unknown god. I have no idea how many statues were all over the city, let alone on Mars Hill, but it was real and Paul filled them in.
The Odyssey might seem silly, but it was pretty real to them.
Since we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, it is good to know at least a bit about whom we do wrestle.
It might just be an entertaining story to us, but someone might meet up with us who needs to hear the truth.
Other gods are still worshiped worldwide!”
The reading plan was four books a week for six weeks. The first four books unite in forming what is called The Telemachy. Of course, it’s called that because it’s about Odysseus’ son, Telemachus.
I think it may be disappointing to some first-time readers who have heard pieces of the tale like the Cyclops, or the Sirens, that the book doesn’t even start with the good stuff.
So, why does Homer do that? Who cares about Telemachus?
A couple of notes:
Notice that on page 361, if you have the same edition I do, that there is a Glossary. It will help with pronunciation of names, and also if you need a reminder of who someone is.
Sometimes it just lets you know a person mentioned isn’t someone you have to worry about keeping track of. Whew!
If you’re ever interested, Aeschylus’ trilogy (how modern!) written in the 5th century B.C., called “The Oresteia,” is the story of what happened to Agamemnon when he came home from the Trojan War. “Agamemnon” is the first part of the story, where said character is killed. “The Libation Bearers” is about his son Orestes’ revenge. The third is called “The Eumenides.” In this, because Orestes kills his mother, the Furies pursue him. It ends with a trial where Athene has to decide what’s to be done with Orestes.
Ooh, Book 4 ended in a cliff-hanger! “There the Achaians waited in ambush.”
Will Telemachus be killed before he sees his father again? Will Penelope then be forced to marry one of the suitors before Odysseys can get home? Will the suitors get their comeuppance?
Now we have a scene change. Here’s what we’ve been waiting for – what’s happening with Odysseus?
Hermes is sent to say, “Sorry, Kalypso, the party’s over!” But those sneaking gods wait to do it while Poseidon isn’t around. So, it’s been decreed that Odysseus will get home, but Poseidon doesn’t have to make it easy on him.
Thank goodness for the Phaiakians. They were nearly so hospitable that they didn’t ask Odysseus who he was, or ask him to tell them his story. But it still takes them till Book 8. If Odysseus hadn’t cried while the poet was singing, who knows when we’d have gotten the whole story!
Points to note:
Hospitality – When Hermes comes to tell Kalypso what Zeus wants her to do, she does ask him what he’s doing there, but doesn’t expect him to answer until he’s had a good meal. Maybe she’s allowed to question him because she knows him.
But there are several instances of Odysseus, or someone else, being entertained by people to whom they are strangers, and no one even asks them their names until they’ve performed the hospitality rituals. How can they even stand it?
Book 5, line 138, Zeus is referred to as the “aegis-bearing.” The aegis is a shield Athene (or someone else, depending on the myth you read) gave him. “Aegis” now means “protection” or “guidance.” As in, Throughout the story, Odysseus acts under the aegis of Athene.
Book 7, line 197; the heavy Spinners are the Fates.
One thing that can make it difficult to keep track of what’s going on, until you get used to it, is the use of extended similes. In Book 5, lines 432-435, instead of just saying, Odysseus got scraped up like an octopus tossed by the waves, it is described:
“As when an octopus is dragged away from its shelter
the thickly-clustered pebbles stick in the cups of the tentacles,
so in contact with the rock the skin from his bold hands
was torn away.”
If they go on long enough, it can be hard to remember what we were talking about before this. Another example, even longer, is in Book 6, starting with line 130, “like some hill-kept lion . . .
Sometimes you just have to go back and try the sentence again. Keep an eye on the punctuation rather than the line breaks.
Book 9 – Finally, finally! If Odysseus hadn’t cried, would the oh, so hospitable Phaiakians ever have asked him who he was?
Now we get the famous stories of Odysseus’s struggles to get home.
Line 34, the heart of the story, “So it is that nothing is more sweet in the end than country and parents . . .”
I’ve never taken the time to count, but I have noted that there are many times in the story, from the very first paragraph, that we’re told it was their own stupid fault none of Odysseus’s companions made it home. Here’s another, at line 44: “but they were greatly foolish and would not listen.” Oh, dear.
And then, line 228, Odysseus has his own lapse in judgment, and ends up having to get them out of the Cyclops’s cave. So, this time, it’s his fault so many of his men are killed. But it is by his cleverness that any of them escape.
Line 460 – How many times have you read the word “niddering”? I love it.
Book 10 – The bag of wind. Can’t you just see what’s going to happen; “our own silliness.”
Book 11 – Why do you think Odysseus has to visit the land of the dead? Couldn’t Circe have told him what he needed to know?
Book 12 – It’s worth noting (I think) how many names and incidents from The Odyssey have worked their way into our language.
A siren is a woman who entices men to their doom.
Finding yourself between Skylla and Charybdis means you have two choices, and neither is good.
Aristotle quotes line 219 in his discussion of The Golden Mean, where virtue consists in aiming for the intermediate between two extremes.
“Hence he who aims at the intermediate must first depart from what is the more contrary to it, as Calypso advises–
‘Hold the ship out beyond that surf and spray.’
For of the extremes one is more erroneous, one less so; therefore, since to hit the mean is hard, in the extreme, we must as a second best, as people say, take the least of the evils; and this will be done best in the way we describe.”
Nicomachean Ethics, Book II, 9, 30
So, people had been choosing “the lesser of two evils” for thousands of years before Patrick O’Brian’s Master and Commander series, wherein Captain Aubrey makes his “lesser of two weevils” joke.
Poseidon is still really angry with Odysseus. Now that Zeus has spoken, he can’t kill Odysseus, but he can punish those who help him. His punishment makes the Phaiakians give up their practice of helping strangers. Too bad!
So . . . Odysseus is home. Yay! Or, yay soon?
Odysseus has to go in disguise in order to find out whether he has any friends on his own island. Eumaios, the swineherd, has been longing for the return of his master. At least Odysseus can honestly assure him that the master will soon be back, even if hardly anything else he tells Eumaios is true.
Now Telemachus has to get back home.
We get the sad tale of Eumaios. He was the son of a king, but was sold into slavery by his nurse. Wow, sad!
In line 71, Menelaos says, “In all things, balance is better.” Aristotle echoes this in his Nicomachean Ethics, in the discussion of the Golden Mean. And the apostle Paul as well, when he says, “Let your moderation be known to all men” (Phil. 4:5).
My literature students in our Homeschool Enrichment Program this fall wrote a Chreia/Maxim essay on this saying. We discussed the merits of the saying itself, the respectability of the speaker, and gave examples from life.
The suitors are foiled and Telemachus makes it home.
Now Odysseus has two men on his side.
The suitors, or at least Antinoos, are getting worried. Telemachus is becoming a threat.
This chapter seems full of irony, now that things are coming to a head. I always chuckle when Telemachos says (line 12), “It is not for me to put up with everybody, now when I have troubles on my mind.”
I wonder if Eumaios thought this sounded strange. The years with the suitors, their plotting his death on his way home, and suddenly he just can’t be bothered with one beggar?
Then he says, “Speaking the truth is the way I like best.” Oh, excuse me! Who does that around here?
Here, we get one of the most pathetic episodes in the entire book; lines 290-327. The story of Odysseus’s dog, Argos. He, too, has been waiting for Odysseus to come back. This dog is over 20 years old!
Line 296 says Argos had been “put aside.” I checked six other translations:
“Treated as rubbish now,” Fitzgerald
“A castaway,” Fayles
In this chapter and the last, the suitors and servants are showing which side they are on. Odysseus is willing to spare anyone loyal to him, but they are very few. He would never have known for sure if he had come home openly.
Odysseus concocts a big story for Penelope. “He knew how to say many false things that were like true sayings.”
I’m glad my husband is terrible at that!
Line 298 “No one has worse luck with his guests than you, Telemachos.” Hahaha! The joke’s about to be on you, Suitors.
Line 391, “for they had made a very big sacrifice.” This reminds me of II Samuel and I Chronicles when David says, “No, but I will buy it from you for a price. I will not offer burnt offerings to the Lord my God that cost me nothing.”
The suitors made a big sacrifice with someone else’s animals. Not exactly a sacrifice.
The shooting contest is like the climactic scene of an action movie. Of course, we know who’s going to win, but it’s still exciting.
I think it’s interesting that Eurymachos bemoans the shame of not even being able to bend Odysseus’s bow (line 249). What can you expect after years of doing nothing but feasting?
Which is sort of what Penelope says to him:
“Eurymachos, there can be no glory among our people
in any case, for those who eat away and dishonor
the house of a great man. Why be concerned over reproaches?” (lines 331-333)
Everybody gets what they deserve!
You may want to note which men are killed who had been warned by Odysseus or someone else, who is spared and why, and what punishments besides death are meted out.
Line 416, “So by their own recklessness they have found a shameful death.”
This hearkens back to line 7 in the first book, “They were destroyed by their own wild recklessness.”
It makes me think of what Aslan said in The Magician’s Nephew. “All get what they want; they do not always like it.”
It’s fitting that, after all the blarney Odysseus has perpetrated on so many people, in the end, Penelope gets to trick him into revealing himself. ‘Bout darn time!
Sometime or other, in the margin at line 310, where Odysseus starts telling Penelope his story, I wrote, “Roll credits . . .”
Still a few more loose ends to tie up, and another visit to Hades.
Now all the right people are happy, and all the right people are dead.