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5 Cards in this Set
Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns
driven time and again off course, once he had plundered
the hallowed heights of Troy.
Many cities of men he saw and learned their minds,
many pains he suffered, heartsick on the open sea,
fighting to save his life and bring his comrades home.
But he could not save them from disaster, hard as he strove—
the recklessness of their own ways destroyed them all,
the blind fools, they devoured the cattle of the Sun
and the Sungod blotted out the day of their return.
Launch out on his story, Muse, daughter of Zeus,
start from where you will—sing for our time too.
With these words the Odyssey begins. The poet asks for inspiration from the Muse and imagines her singing through him. An ancient epic poem states at the outset, in capsule form, the subject of the work to follow, and this epic is no exception. The Odyssey announces its subject matter in a different fashion from the Iliad. Whereas Homer's first epic treats Achilles' rage, this one focuses on a “man of twists and turns.” It chronicles not battles, the stuff of Achilles' brief life, but a long journey through “[m]any cities” and “many pains,” the kind of test worthy of a resourceful hero like Odysseus. The opening lines foreshadow how the epic will end—with all of Odysseus's men dead except Odysseus himself—and provide a reason for these deaths: the recklessness and blindness of his crew , who do not realize that by slaughtering the Sun's cattle they seal their own dooms. The opening leaves unmentioned many other temptations the Achaeans will face and says nothing of the situation in Ithaca, which consumes nearly half the epic. It treats the subject matter of the epic in an abbreviated form but captures the themes those subjects will explore. As Knox notes in the introduction to the Fagles translation, in the Odyssey, in contrast to the Iliad, the Muse is asked to choose where to begin. Giving the Muse this freedom prepares us for the more complex narrative structure of the Odyssey, which relies on flashbacks as it moves through the many settings of the hero's ten-year journey.
royal son of Laertes, Odysseus, man of exploits,
still eager to leave at once and hurry back
to your own home, your beloved native land?
Good luck to you, even so. Farewell!
But if you only knew, down deep, what pains
are fated to fill your cup before you reach that shore,
you'd stay right here, preside in our house with me
and be immortal. Much as you long to see your wife,
the one you pine for all your days . . .
Calypso makes this final plea to Odysseus in Book 5, begging him to stay with her, and her temptation trumps all those Odysseus has seen before (5.223–232). She not only promises to save him from having to face future woes but to give him what no other human character in the Odyssey has: immortality. But Odysseus is not interested. All he wants is his home and wife, even though he admits in ensuing lines that Penelope cannot match Calypso in beauty. Calypso's plea embodies the tension in Odysseus's journey. He wants to see his wife and home again, but he also presumably wants all the tempting things Calypso has to offer. That she asks him one last time whether he wants to leave suggests (even if the question is just rhetorical) that she knows her offer is tempting, but the fact that Odysseus can refuse it and embrace all the “pains” she foretells shows how compelling his homecoming really is.
“But you, Achilles,
there's not a man in the world more blest than you—
there never has been, never will be one.
Time was, when you were alive, we Argives
honored you as a god, and now down here, I see,
you lord it over the dead in all your power.
So grieve no more at dying, great Achilles.”
I reassured the ghost, but he broke out, protesting,
“No winning words about death to me, shining Odysseus!
By god, I'd rather slave on earth for another man—
some dirt-poor tenant farmer who scrapes to keep alive—
than rule down here over all the breathless dead.”
This exchange comes as part of the conversation between Achilles and Odysseus when the latter journeys to the underworld in Book 11 (11.547–558). (The entire event is told as a flashback to the Phaeacians by Odysseus.) The heroes muse on the differences between the two worlds they now inhabit, and each finds the grass greener on the other side. Odysseus envies Achilles' strength and the glory that it won him; Achilles envies Odysseus for being alive. The differences reflect the change in outlook between the Iliad and the Odyssey. The first epic celebrates the glory (kleos) that comes from winning battles, and the mighty Achilles is naturally the focus. In the Odyssey, whose focus is the wily Odysseus, that earlier outlook is implicitly criticized. Achilles did win great glory, but it came at the cost of an early death, and he would do anything now to return to earth and live a life without glory. His indignant reply, “No winning words about death to me,” suggests that he does not believe Odysseus is speaking sincerely, but Odysseus means what he says and thus needs a warning like this so badly. Like other Greek heroes, Odysseus has a glory-loving streak. He too would like to be “honored . . . as a god,” but he must not lose his wits in his pursuit of glory.
Of all that breathes and crawls across the earth,
our mother earth breeds nothing feebler than a man.
So long as the gods grant him power, spring in his knees,
he thinks he will never suffer affliction down the years.
But then, when the happy gods bring on the long hard times,
bear them he must, against his will, and steel his heart.
Our lives, our mood and mind as we pass across the earth,
turn as the days turn . . .
Odysseus utters these words to the suitor Amphinomus shortly after defeating the “Beggar-King” Irus in Book 18 (18.150–157). Odysseus is himself in disguise as beggar, and his words here help maintain that cover. According to the story he has told, he once was a great warrior, plundering faraway lands, until one day he was captured. On one level, his words here reinforce those lies. The fatalism and helplessness he expresses—that a man only prospers while “the gods grant him power”—were frequently expressed sentiments of the Ancient Greek outlook, but they seem especially natural coming from a onetime king who has descended to the status of a beggar. Who better to comment on life's reversals than someone who has experienced them firsthand?
The words have additional meaning, however, for both Amphinomus and Odysseus. For Amphinomus, they foreshadow death. He is plundering the land of others, living a careless life, much as the beggar once did, but he too is a feeble man, and he is destined for a fall. The words are a prophecy to Amphinomus, and a warning; he does not miss their meaning, as he walks away “fraught with grave forebodings” (18.176). For Odysseus, on the other hand, the words do not foretell the future but recount the past and, perhaps, explain the lesson it has taught him. At the hour of his greatest triumph, the beginning of his nostos (“homeward journey”) from the city he had helped sack, his life “turn[ed]” and the gods began his suffering. He endured only by “steel[ing] his heart,” and he knows now that at such moments that is all that can be done.
Just as I
have come from afar, creating pain for many—
men and women across the good green earth—
so let his name be Odysseus . . .
the Son of Pain, a name he'll earn in full.
With these words in the middle of Book 19, Homer explains the origin of Odysseus's name (19.460–464). They are actually spoken by his grandfather Autolycus, who named the hero when he was an infant. The name implies that pain, like dark hair or some other physical attribute, is in some way in his blood, which may be true in two senses. First, as Autolycus happily brags, Odysseus is the grandson of someone who has created pain for many, and he might be expected to inherit this quality and grow up like his grandfather. Pain is part of his makeup because, like some kind of physical attribute, he is destined to live with it from birth. The name recognizes that pain will be a constant in his life. He may not always be on the receiving end of it (the Odyssey provides at least as many examples of Odysseus giving pain to others as feeling its sting himself), but it will always be there, like an extension of his body. From minor incidents like the goring that gives him his scar—which happens, not coincidentally, while he is on a hunting trip with his grandfather—to the massacre of the suitors, the Odyssey suggests that Odysseus has indeed earned his name “in full.”