The Rambling Writer’s Reflections on Greece: Odysseus, “The Man of Twists and Turns”

The tricky Greek hero of Homer’s “The Odyssey” has fascinated us for thousands of years. Come with me and  trace his ten-year journey home after the Trojan War.

NOTE: As I reflect on my travels in Greece, while working on my novel THE ARIADNE DISCONNECT, I’ll be weaving together threads of thoughts and photos here.

Odysseus has been one of my favorite characters since my childhood fascination with Greek mythology and heroic tales. Unlike the more conventional Greek heroes like Achilles, Odysseus relied less on his considerable prowess as a warrior, and more on his ability to “twist and turn” life’s vagaries to his own advantage. After his idea to trick the Trojans with the famous hollow wooden horse, leading to their downfall, Odysseus the king of Ithaka set out for home with his ships laden with plunder. However, having offended certain deities of Olympus, he was beset with disasters and challenges that stretched his journey to ten years. His long-suffering, faithful wife Penelope, along with his son Telemachus, had not seen him for about twenty years by the time he finally washed up on the shore of his island. There, he faced the last dangers in ousting the aggressive suitors who were inhabiting his palace and demanding that Penelope marry one of them.

As a young reader, I especially loved all the imaginative monsters and other trials the resourceful hero managed to overcome, like the Sirens whose songs lured men in ships to their doom:

(Marble statue in the Athens Archaeological Museum. All photos are mine, except for public domain images identified below)

Recently rereading Homer’s epic poem “The Odyssey” in a translation by Robert Fagles, I’m more interested in the psychological twists and turns as Odysseus negotiates with both deities and mortals, and manages to get his way most of the time. As my feminist sensibilities have grown, I also have a more negative reaction to all the male-heroic posturing and braggadocio in the epic, but of course Homer was creating a brilliant mirror of ancient cultural realities. In that world and those times, men of the nobility dominated women and slaves, and Homer can be pretty casual about describing those dynamics. There’s been recent acclaim for a new, feminist translation of “The Odyssey” by Emily Wilson. According to reviews and a few excerpts I’ve read, she was aiming to replace such translated terms as “maids” with “slaves” to emphasize the brutal treatment some of them received in the story. I hasten to add that I’m not a Classics scholar, but have studied some of the literature, and I don’t feel that Homer would have understood our modern-day sensibilities about sexism and slavery. Feel free to weigh in!

Scholars have debated for centuries the question of authorship of “The Illiad” and “The Odyssey, questioning whether Homer actually existed as a single bardic poet. Some maintain that the works were created by multiple bards over many years. In the Penguin translation by Robert Fagles, his collaborator Bernard Knox presents a fascinating Introduction that discusses the many theories, and concludes that Homer was probably a single bard who lived around the 7th to 8th century B.C., composing his epics about the mythic  heroes of the vanished Golden Age 400 or more years earlier. Again, feel free to weigh in.

I just found a terrific site created by National Geographic that shows a map of the Mediterranean recreating the long, roundabout route mythical Odysseus might have taken. If you scroll through the image bar on it, you’ll see images and brief explanations of each location: http://mapmaker.nationalgeographic.org/eSOBu2XqFTYXOBXJf9anCd/

The Journey:

Odysseus and the other Achaeans defeated the Trojans, sacking the city. Heinrich Schliemann found the ruins of Troy in modern-day Turkey. Below is a bronze helmet from a Mycenean-era warrior, of the type probably worn by the Achaeans. The Trojan War was probably around the 12th century B.C.

A battle scene on a ceramic drinking vesssel:

After stopping to raid the island of Cicones for more supplies (piracy was common and accepted at the time), now thought to be on the Aegean shore of Thrace, Odysseus and his ships were blown far off course to the Land of the Lotus Eaters, possibly on the north coast of Africa or a Tunisian island. After the hungry men ate the lotus flowers, they lost all will to do anything but lounge around, and Odysseus had to force them back to duty.

 (Illustration by William Edward Frank Britten, “The Lotos-Eaters.” Public domain)

Heading back toward Greece, they next made shore at the island of the Cyclops, a one-eyed giant. Hungry again, Odysseus and his men watched the giant herd his flock of fat sheep into a cave and went in to try to bag some. The Cyclops trapped them in the cave and started eating the men, one by one. Finally, Odysseus devised a plan to escape, after sharpening a log to blind the sleeping giant. Unfortunately, this enraged the sea-god Poseidon, who began to create storms and other obstacles for Odysseus.

This magnificent bronze statue in the Athens museum was found in the sea and originally thought to be Poseidon hurling his (missing) trident. Some experts now believe it is Zeus, king of the Olympian deities, but they both gave Odysseus a hard time. Athena, goddess of wisdom, had a particular fondness for Odysseus and his tricksy ways, and she helped him out when possible. Sometimes she had to work behind the backs of those two dominant male gods. Homer actually did present several strong women characters, both mortal and immortal, in the epic.

After more misfortunes, some caused by disobedience of his men, Odysessus and crew landed on Circe’s island. A beautiful witch, she turned all the men except Odysseus into swine, and kept him there as her lover for a couple of years. He finally talked her into letting them go, after she told him he must journey into the underworld to consult some of the dead. His men restored from the spell, they set out again. The National Geographic site puts her island at Circio National Park south of Rome in Italy.

(Briton Riviere painting of Circe and the swine, from “Character sketches of Roman, Fiction and the Drama,” public domain)

Sailing away, they passed the island of the Sirens (possibly Capri), where the half-bird, half-woman creatures lured ships and men to their doom with their irresistible songs. Odysseus wanted to hear their songs, but had his sailors put wax in their ears and tie him safely to the mast as they passed by.

(Thor and I saw this wonderful piece of folk art in an antiquities shop in Athens. It looks like it might be Poseidon glowering as the ship passes by. Odysseus seems to be enjoying the siren songs.)

Next in their travails, Odysseus and his men had to sail through the dangerous, narrow channel between the monster Scylla and the whirlpool of Charybdis (as the saying does, “caught between Scylla and Charybdis” for a no-win situation). Rather than certainly losing his sole remaining ship and all hands to the whirlpool, Odysseus chose to pass closer to the monster, who grabbed and ate six crewmen.  The site is commonly supposed to be the Strait of Messina separating Sicily from mainland Italy.

Those troublesome crewmen hadn’t yet learned their lesson, and while Odysseus slept after reaching the island of Helios (perhaps the island of Malta), they butchered and ate some of the sun-god Helios’s cattle. Zeus punished them by destroying the ship with a thunderbolt (see Poseidon/Zeus statue above), and only Odysseus survived, floating on a fragment of the ship.

He washed up on Calypso’s island. A beautiful nymph, she fell for the hero and kept him there for seven years as her lover. She offered to grant him immortal youth if he would stay with her, but he longed for his home and wife Penelope, and she finally let him go on a new boat. The epic repeatedly describes Odysseus as not only witty, but handsome and powerfully-built, and I guess those females just couldn’t resist him. Here’s his bronze statue in the Athens museum:

Despite more trouble from Poseidon, Odysseus reached the island of the Phaecians (maybe the Greek island of Corfu), who were known for their hospitality to strangers. He recounted his heroic deeds and bested the locals at athletic contests.

The king’s daughter Nausicaa hoped he would stay and marry her. He declined, as he needed to return to his kingdom and his wife Penelope. They showered him with gifts and sent him home to Ithaka.

He arrived disguised as a beggar to scope out the situation with the suitors, who had plotted to kill his now-grown son Telemachus. The Queen Penelope, clever and resourceful, had held the suitors at bay by promising to marry one when she had finished weaving a shroud for her father. Every night, she unraveled what she’d woven that day, but eventually her maids betrayed her secret. She would be forced to choose one of the men. Before she does so, she extracted some rich gifts from them all, detailed in the epic. (The Greeks love to give and receive gifts.)

Here are some gold ornaments that Penelope might have received:

With help from Athena, Odysseus, Penelope, and Telemachus managed to defeat the suitors. There’s a bloody scene of carnage as the warriors are killed, along with the betraying maid-servants. Homer seems to convey that it’s all in the cause of justice, and Odysseus finally found peace back in his home, with his family.

In my near-future Greek thriller THE ARIADNE CONNECTION, Peter Mitchell is a smuggler plying the Mediterranean waters, relying on his wits to elude various patrols. When he joins Ariadne on her mission to cure a new pandemic, she questions him about his interest in Greek history, asking what is his favorite book. He answers, “The Odyssey,” and she laughs, recognizing that he’s also a “man of twists and turns.” But, like the women in Homer’s epic, she can’t help liking him.

*****

You will now find The Rambling Writer’s blog posts here every Saturday. Sara’s latest novel from Book View Cafe is available in print and ebook: The Ariadne Connection.  It’s a near-future thriller set in the Greek islands. “Technology triggers a deadly new plague. Can a healer find the cure?”  The novel has received the Chanticleer Global Thriller Grand Prize and the Cygnus Award for Speculative Fiction. Sara has recently returned from a research trip in Greece and is back at work on the sequel, The Ariadne Disconnect. Sign up for her quarterly newsletter at www.sarastamey.com

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The Rambling Writer’s Reflections on Greece: Odysseus, “The Man of Twists and Turns” — 14 Comments

  1. Nice recap. There was too much horror for me as a kid reader, and what emotionally slayed me was his faithful dog staying alive just long enough to see him return. I didn’t get interested in Odysseus until I was old enough to learn about the historical context of the story, ancient storytelling, and how myth and history intertwine. (My son, not a reader, recently asked me for my copies of Homer. I have the trusty old ones. I wonder if I should get him this newer translation.)

    • I really like this Robert Fagles translation, as he succeeds in his goal of balancing the ancient bardic tone with accessibility for modern readers. Personally, I don’t like the new translations that use “plain language.” One of the goals of the bards was to “enchant” their listeners with glorious language that was elevated above everyday speech.

        • Hi, cgbookcat1. I was in rush with my previous response, and want to explain that I mean it sincerely — it’s good that we have choices and can please our own tastes. I’m curious about what you especially enjoyed in Wilson’s version. I think a feminist version of “The Odyssey” is a fine idea. My main reservation, after reading a couple articles, some excerpts, and interviews with Emily Wilson, is that she deliberately chose to translate some ancient Greek terms into English words that would convey different emotions from what Homer would have intended, given the culture at the time. She was admitting to a feminist agenda (e.g. using “slave” instead of “handmaiden”) That’s why I feel her version should be called something like “A Feminist Odyssey” instead of a translation. What do others think?

    • Yes, I should have added that the version I read as a kid was almost certainly a “young readers” abbreviated version, without the horrific bloodshed in such gory detail at the end. That still bothers me, but those ancient Greeks apparently considered the revenge a proper justice. Even Penelope’s old handmaid rejoices to see Odysseus all covered with blood and gore after he vanquishes the suitors. And also, even though Odysseus in disguise tried to warn the only decent suitor to leave, it was fate and the will of the gods that the suitor stay to be killed.

  2. Homer never mentions why it is so important that Penelope marry. Her suitors could easily usurp her kingdom and kill her son without a 2nd thought. Happened all the time. But here Penelope seems to be the key to wealth and power.

    Could this be a hold over from an even more ancient tale when a man ruled by right of his wife? She holds the crown. Only _her_ husband can rule. Without her there is no kingdom.

    I like to think so. But I may be over ruled.

    • The fascinating Introduction in my copy talks about some of the historical/cultural issues like this. It appears that Homer referenced two types of dowry and marriage arrangements — some of them matriarchal from ancient traditions, and some more patriarchal. So maybe Penelope did have more power than we might think.

  3. Sara I think you should write a layman’s guide to Homer. This is wonderful. I can’t wait to get back to Greece and see some of the places he traveled, as well as the folk art.

    • Wow, that would be a project! There’s so much more I could say about Homer and different scholars’ thoughts on the composition and culture of the times. But I leave that to the experts. And, yes, I want to go back to that wonderful antiquities shop in Athens….

  4. I have just completed a Homer-based tour of Greece. Pre-reading for the journey … The Odyssey. (of course) And now I am utterly captivated by this book and so am REALLY enjoying your blog.

    • Thanks, Judy! Always good to hear from readers. Thor and I have been curious about a Homer-based tour, since I read a review of a book about a son who took his father on such a tour. Would you share what group you joined, and how it went for you?

  5. http://www.asatours.com.au/tours/homers-greek-islands-2020/
    Australians Studying Abroad. We were lucky to have a very knowledgeable Greek guide to complement our Australian Professor… and it was wonderful. A group of fifteen persons some interested in Homer (and mostly The Odyssey), one a Homer loving Botanist, another just wanting an interesting journey. A particularly memorable experience was… the Walk!!! From Exogi to Stavros past the archaeological site of the ‘Palace of Odysseus’ on Ithaca. 20 days in Greece – island hopping on the trail of Homer…. Bliss.