Quæ Sumus: Homer, Odyssey

LITERATURE Essay 1: Homer, Hesiod, Homeric Hymns

Part 2: Homer, Odyssey; What We Are

* * *

William Girard, Landing of Odysseus, c.2010, Private Collection

Sing through me, O Muse, of the man of many turnings, many devices who off-course wandered time-and-again after plundering the citadel of high walled Ilium.  Many cities he saw, many men, and learned their minds; many pains he suffered in woe, heartsick on the open sea, seeking for life and to bring his comrades home, the fools who in wild recklessness devoured the cattle of Helios, God of the Sun…

translation, M. Curtis

BY Olympian inspiration, Homer tells of Odysseus Polytropos “the man of many turnings”.  Odyssey, this second of the poet’s epics, continues the tale of Troy and recalls numerous places and many persons, places and persons recorded in other annals and supported by contemporary archeological and geographic discoveries in Egypt, Babylon, and other ancient sites.  Yet, Homer is not a reporter, a registrar, a mere scientist: Homer is an artist, a poet who discovers non-corporeal patterns, divine purposes active and present in our corporeal existence.

You will be familiar with the Chinese construct of yin-yang, the complementary-contrary forces of “dark-bright” of “negative-positive”, of how the “they” in the “thee” interrelate.  In Odyssey, Homer viscerally realizes a hero active in duality: freedom & responsibility, truth & lie: Homer, in beauty, through the Muse in Beauty, creates Odysseus, a man, a Homecoming in fidelity, a Memory in identity.

John Williams Waterhouse, Ulysses and the Sirens, 1891, National Gallery of Victoria

Many incidents in Odyssey beautifully reveal the deep, abiding transcendence of human action.  Among my favorites: Penelope’s test of some man who after twenty years of absence she does not recognizes; of her asking this man, Odysseus to move the bed, which, of course, Odysseus cannot do because he carved their marriage bed from a living tree rooted in Ithaca’s rocky earth, and only she and he know the nature of this marriage bed, a bed around which the great palace and many-peopled Ithaca extends.  When Odysseus tells Penelope that the bed he carved cannot be moved, she recognizes Odysseus, they are reunited, et cetera, as you will imagine.  You, no doubt, will have other favorites, remembered or in first-reading.  If, first-reading, you in advance might like to know the characters of Odyssey.    

William McGregor Paxton, Odysseus and Nausicaä, 1937, private collection



Telemachus: son of Odysseus and Penelope; searches for then finds his father, Odysseus, then assists in the slaughter of his mother’s loathsome suitors; many adventures he had, recounted by later authors. 

Odysseus’ Sailors: unfortunate men who suffered set-backs, were transformed to pigs, and died in diverse circumstance, usually violent.

John William Waterhouse, Circe Invidiosa, 1892, National Gallery of Australia

Calypso: a captivating nymph whose charms held Odysseus seven years confined, in the ill-suited promise of immortality.

Polyphemus: a savage, one-eyed, man-eating giant, a cyclops, son of Zeus who is tricked, robed and blinded by Odysseus.

Circe: an enchantress, a goddess who with a magic wand turns men into docile beasts; Odysseus is by Hermes warned, and avoids that trouble, yet is taken with her into wine and bed and forgetfulness for one year; when of his time, in his will leaving, Circe grants the hero life-preserving advice.

Nausicaä: a princess, beautiful as a goddess, with whom the hero shares an unrequited love; “Never forget me, for I gave you life” she says to him; for his part, of all the women, Odysseus does not mention to Penelope, Nausicaä.  

Odysseus, AD I, Archeological Museum, Sperlonga

Suitors: Penelope had many suitors who pressed their abhorrent advantage, foremost among these, the vile Antinous, first of Odysseus’ victims.

Penelope: true wife of Odysseus, who to retain honor deceives, delays her suitors by multiple device, one such, weaving and unweaving for seven years a delicately flowered shroud; even after Odysseus reveals himself, she is in doubt, thinking him, perhaps, a god disguised; by turns she excepts her hero home.

Odysseus: the wily, adventurous trickster is often contrasted with the great-souled, singular, and god-like Achilles, yet, Odyesseus, by accepting himself the husband of faithful Penelope, he proves himself the better man, some critics conclude—as do I conclude Iliad the greater poem, Odyssey the better.


Homeric Simile (Epic simile)

A likeness between dissimilar things, stretched just-short of conceit, that moment of realization, of illumination, as in,

            “as a blacksmith plunges a glowing ax or adze / in an ice-cold bath and the metal screeches steam / and its temper hardens – that’s the iron strength – / so the eye of the cyclops sizzled round the stake!”

Fagles, Robert. The Iliad. New York: Viking/Penguin, 1990


A phrase or adjective expressive of some identity unique to person or a thing. 

            rosy fingered dawn  /  wine dark sea  /  “sparkling eyed” id est, Pallas Athena


ODYSSEY begins after the sack of Troy.  We spend four of Odyssey’s twenty-four books with Telemachus in searching the wide-world for his father, Odysseus, and when in Sparta Telemachus learns from Helen & Menelaus (now returned from war) that Odysseus was held seven years captive by the bewitching Calypso.  While Telemachus is away in Sparta, back home, Penelope’s eager suitors plot to murder Telemachus upon his return to Ithaca. 

Next, we find that Odysseus has been ship-wrecked, washed ashore upon the isle of the Phaeacians, where he is charmed by the stunning Nausicaä, and where to the Nausican court he recounts his adventures:

the Lotus-Eaters, the cyclops Polyphemus, the release of Aeolus’ wind, the cannibal encounter, the spells of Circe, the meeting with the ghost’s Agamemnon and Achilles, the land of the Sirens, the monster Scylla, the whirlpool Charybdis, and the island of Thrinacia where his foolish men eat the cattle of Helios and are by Apollo pitilessly punished with drowning–

that is, all but Odysseus who washes ashore upon the island of Calypso, and who, after many years suffering, of exhausting sex, and of homesick longing, escapes–

then, the final Nausician ship-wreck and the recounting to the Phaeacian’s of his numerous adventures (above mentioned).

Attributed to the Eagle Painter, Blinding of Polyphemus, c. 520 BC, Villa Julia

After Odysseus recites his tall-tale, the Phaeacians secret him back to Ithaca where after minor adventures—with Athena, et alia—he, disguised as a beggar, strings his mighty bow, and with his son, Telemachus, without pity murders all those despicable suitors who intended to enjoy his wife, the honorable Penelope; and, alike a god, Odysseus, without pity, without regret, spears the men with sharp bronze, hangs the women by rope around the neck, fearsomely, much in the way of Achilles, yet, without the nation-braking anger, with a domestic purpose. 

And then, and then, after some little fuss (bed negotiations, et cetera, as described, above) Penelope and Odysseus are reunited.  Next day, the Ithacans are enraged by Odysseus killing of two generations of rowdy sailors and high-born suitors (fathers, brothers, sons), whereupon, in dea ex machina, Athena intervenes, calms the vendetta and Ithaca is once more at peace. 

Here in Odyssey ends both Iliad-and-Odyssey, Homer’s telling of rage, of war, of destruction, of wandering, of loss-of-home, and of a long sought, familial restoration.


Paramount Pictures, Ulysses, 1954, Italian release; 1955, American release

Plato refers to Homer as “He who has taught all the Greeks.  Best and most divine of poets”.

             Ulysses, James Joyce, novel, 1922

“Ulysses”, Lord Alfred Tennyson, the oft quoted poem, 1842: Tho’ much is taken, much abides;  / and tho’ We are not now that strength which in old days / Mov’d earth and heaven, that which we are, we are: / One equal temper of heroic hearts, / Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will / To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”  … et cetera 

* Part Two of the first essay or the 280-plus essays of “Quæ Sumus: What We Are”. 

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