ESSAYS by Meghan Gandy

[   "Homer's Odyssey in the Past"  ]   "Homer's Odyssey in the Present"    "Greek Vases with Themes from Homer's Odyssey"

"Homer's Odyssey  in the Past"
Homer's   Odyssey  is an ancient Greek epic poem consisting of some 12,000 lines of exquisite language and intense emotion. Can this ancient tale of a man who wanders through magical lands to find his way home and to reclaim his wife and palace move a modern audience? As this exhibition demonstrates, the answer is an unqualified "yes." Although originally composed over 2,500 years ago, the   Odyssey   is alive today and still open to fresh interpretation.

The ancient Greeks believed that the   Iliad  and the   Odyssey  preserved an account of historical events, although critics recognized that Homer had embroidered upon the facts he inherited. After antiquity, however, both the Trojan War and the wanderings of Odysseus were relegated to the status of myth. It was not until the end of the nineteenth century that the excavations of Heinrich Schliemann brought to light the existence of a Bronze Age civilization in mainland Greece and the location of "Homer's Troy" in modern Turkey. Schliemann's discovery led some scholars to reconsider the ancient belief in a Trojan War.

Greek sources date the Trojan War to the twelfth century B.C., which would place it in the late Bronze Age. Even if the events of the Homeric epics are mostly fictional, to connect them with a Bronze Age tradition is not wholly without foundation. War chariots, bronze tipped spears, a tower shield like that of Ajax and a boar's tusk helmet like the one Odysseus wore are Homeric remnants of Bronze Age culture that have been confirmed by excavations. This archaeological evidence suggests that during the Bronze Age an epic tradition was already established which formed the basis for the later poems.

After the collapse of Bronze Age civilization, the story of the Trojan War and its aftermath was likely transmitted orally in the form of short songs and ballads and only much later unified into the works now known as the     Iliad  and the  Odyssey.  This long transition period helps to explain the perplexing mixture of linguistic and historical details that appear to span several centuries but are found together in a single line. It seems likely that with the rise in literacy at the end of the eighth century B.C., a single author with an intimate knowledge of the techniques of oral composition and the art of writing was responsible for shaping the final forms of the epics and for unifying the various internal elements and connections between the two works. Therefore, the Homeric epics, even in written form, retain the characteristics of orally composed poetry.

The ancient Greeks believed that the  Iliad   and the  Odyssey  were composed by a blind poet named Homer. Most sources suggest either the Ionian city of Chios or Smyrna as his birthplace. Little else was known about his activities even by the Classical Period, but frequent references to Homer in ancient literature attest to his revered status. Aristotle considered Homer "supreme" among ancient poets (Poetics 1451a), and even Plato conceded "...that Homer is the most poetic of poets and the first of tragedians..." (Republic 10.606e).

The focus of this exhibition, the   Odyssey, has become universal in its appeal. Sophocles, Euripides, Vergil, Ovid, Dante, Tennyson, Joyce, and Kazantzakis are just a few of the many authors who have developed the character of Odysseus. While he is not always portrayed as a moral hero, Odysseus does act with wisdom, courage, self-control and resourcefulness. His essentially human qualities have always been emphasized, and despite his troubles, Odysseus' resolve and intelligence allow him to emerge triumphant. Even when Calypso warns him that he will suffer still more trials, Odysseus replies, "And if a god will wreck me yet again on the wine-dark sea, / I can bear that too, with a spirit tempered to endure. / Much have I suffered, labored long and hard by now / in the waves and wars. Add this to the total-- / bring the trial on!" (5.244-248).

The physical and emotional torment of Odysseus is evident from the opening lines of the poem: "Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns / driven time and again off course...many pains he suffered, heartsick on the open sea...his heart set on his wife and his return..." (1.1-3, 5, 16). Nevertheless, Homer implies that despite his trials Odysseus is more fortunate than the godlike Achilles, hero of the   Iliad. When Odysseus descends to the Underworld he encounters the shade of Achilles, who tells him, "...I'd rather slave on earth for another man...than rule down here over all the breathless dead" (11.556-558). The message is that life, even one full of pain and sorrow, is preferable to death.

Penelope, the faithful wife of Odysseus, represents other equally important aspects of human behavior: loyalty, ingenuity, responsibility. She tells the disguised Odysseus, "Now my life is torment... look at the griefs some god has loosed against me!... I yearn for Odysseus, always, my heart pines away" (19.143-144, 151). This is crucial, for it is Penelope's fidelity to Odysseus and her shrewd deception of the suitors that allow the   Odyssey  to end successfully for its hero. When Homer finally reunites Odysseus and Penelope he emphasizes not only the pain of their twenty year separation, but also their unique bond:

The more she spoke, the more a deep desire for tears welled up inside his breast--he wept as he held the wife he loved, the soul of loyalty, in his arms at last. Joy, warm as the joy that shipwrecked sailors feel When they catch sight of land... struggling out of the frothing surf to reach the shore, their bodies crusted with salt but buoyed up with joy as they plant their feet on solid ground again, spared a deadly fate. So joyous now to her the sight of her husband, vivid in her gaze...(23.259-270).

The metaphor of a ship-wrecked sailor is particularly appropriate for Odysseus, who has suffered the wrath of Poseidon many times, but it is also used to describe the sorrow of Penelope. In this passage the two are brought together not only physically, but also emotionally through their trials. It emphasizes the similarity of their characters, which allowed their love to endure twenty years of separation.

Yet Odysseus' love of Penelope and his love of knowledge are interwoven themes. Odysseus desperately wants to return to Ithaca, but it is obvious that he enjoys his adventures along the way. He is insatiably curious; a characteristic that often gets him into trouble but also establishes him as the intellectual hero that has been so appealing to modern Western society. In fact, the first line used by Homer to characterize Odysseus' journey refers to his inquisitiveness, "Many cities of men he saw and learned their minds" (1.4). The   Odyssey  and its hero represent a passion for discovery. As W.B. Stanford writes, "In fact the quest for    Ulysses  is essentially a quest for a deeper understanding of man's ever-voyaging indomitable spirit. It will never be concluded as long as there are writers and artists and scientists and thinkers who share in the aim of Tennyson's     Ulysses:   'To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.'"

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