Book Six: The Odyssey

After finishing the Iliad it only makes sense to follow it with the other Homeric epic, The Odyssey. The Odyssey is the story of Odysseus’s nostos, or homeward journey from the Trojan War. All of the other great Greeks have made it home safely except Odysseus. Throughout the epic we learn of the often tragic, but not always stories of these great Greeks. The poem starts in medias res, or in the middle. Since almost every Greek would know the story of Odysseus’s journey when it was told, this engages the audience right from the start. This also allows for Homer to let Odysseus recount his journey later catching everybody up to the present. There is one theme which interested me while reading the Odyssey:  the idea of xenia. Xenia translated literally from Greek means stranger and treating guests kindly is a major philosophical point driven home in the Odyssey.

The Odyssey begins not with Odysseus but his son Telemachus. With the approval of Zeus (or Jove) Athena (Pallas) goes to Ithaca disguised as Odysseus’s good friend Mentes. She predicts to Telemachus that Odysseus will return soon and advises him to gather all of the suitors of his mother, Odysseus’s wife Penelope and banish them from their home. Telemachus agrees, suspecting that he might have been speaking to a god or goddess in disguise.

At the council the next day Telemachus is praised by Aegyptius for finally being more like his father. Telemachus takes the floor and delivers an impassioned speech reprimanding the elders of Ithaca – now Penelope’s suitors for disrespecting his family and slaughtering his fathers oxen. This is the first example of xenia in the Odyssey as Telemachus is giving the suitors good hospitality but in return is being eaten out of house and home. During the meeting Telemachus prays to the gods to punish the suitors for being so disrespectful and soon after spies two eagles battling in the sky. A prophet interoperates this as Odysseus will be returning soon and all the suitors will soon be slaughtered. The suitors do not believe this and the meeting ends at an impasse. Telemachus then begins to prepare for his trip to Pylos and Sparta that he and Athena agreed upon. Athena visits Telemachus disguised as another friend of Odysseus, Mentor and predicts the trip will be fruitful. She then goes to town disguised as Telemachus and gathers a loyal crew to sail with him.

In Pylos Telemachus and Mentor (Athena in disguise) meet with the wise King Nestor and ask him about Odysseus. Nestor had no news about him, but did recount the actions after the Trojan War. He said that there was a falling out between the brothers Agamemnon and Menelaus, the two who essentially began the war on the Greek side. Menelaus set sail for Sparta with Helen immediately while Agamemnon stayed behind in Troy to continue to make sacrifices. Nestor left with Menelaus while Odysseus stayed behind with Agamemnon. Here we also learn of Agamemnon’s fate. Upon his return to Greece he found Aeigisthus, a Greek who cowardly stayed behind while everyone went off to war had seduced and married his wife Clytemnestra. With her approval Aeigisthus killed Agamemnon and would have taken over as ruer of Agamemnon’s kingdom had his son Orestes not returned from exile in Athens to kill both Aeigisthus and Clytemnestra.

Telemachus and Nestor’s son Pisistratus set sail from Pylos to Sparta to meet Menelaus and Helen who are each celebrating the two marriages of their son and daughter. They welcome the two travelers in graciously, again a good example of xenia accepting travelers during a wedding, and soon after Menelaus recognizes Telemachus due to his resemblance to his father. Helen and Menelaus begin recounting tales of Odysseus’s cunning including the story of how Odysseus thought up the infamous Trojan Horse. Menelaus then describes his journey back to Sparta including a detour in Egypt where he captured a prophet known as The Old Man of the Sea who informed him of the fates of Agamemnon and of Little Ajax who was shipwrecked on his return home. Ajax clung to a rock that Poseidon guided him to, but then took the credit for his survival so an angry Poseidon split the rock in two with his trident and Ajax was swallowed by the sea. The prophet also told Menelaus that Odysseus was the prisoner of Calypso on her island. Telemachus is joyed with the news his father is alive and returns to his ship to set sail for Ithaca, meanwhile the suitors being to scheme an ambush for him.

We return to Odysseus now, still the prisoner of Calypso. Zeus instructs Calypso that Odysseus’s fate is to return home and she must give him up. Calypso makes a great speech about the double standards of the male gods but in the end returns Odysseus and his men to their ships. While sailing homeward Poseidon returns to Olympus and is enraged to see Odysseus returning home. He conjures a storm and Odysseus is shipwrecked on the shore of Scheria, the island of the Phaeacians. There he is welcomed into their palace and is honored with a series of games. During these games Broadsea challenges Odysseus to a discus throw. Odysseus first declines but after being insulted beats him resoundingly. Afterwards Odysseus reveals his identity to his hosts.

Odysseus then recounts his journey from Troy to this point. Odysseus tells the story of being swept off course and plundering an island then being chased from it losing six men per ship. They then land on the island of the Lotus eaters, the lotus being an intoxicating flower. Odysseus wisely does not consume the flower and in order to escape he has to drag each crew member from the island and lock them in the ship. Then the men land on the island of the Cyclopses. They come across a cave filled with cheese and milk. In a rare move of foolishness Odysseus decides against his crew’s suggestion to take what they can and run and remains. The giant cyclops Polyhemus, inhabitant of the cave and son of Poseidon returns and imprisons the men, eating two of them for dinner. Odysseus knows he cannot kill Polyphemus right away because he has closed his cave with a massive boulder, so sage Odysseus constructs a plan. Calling himself Nobody Odysseus waits for Polyphemus to take his sheep out of the cave to graze. While the cyclops is gone Odysseus sharpens a point to staff that was in the cave and hardens it in the fire. Later that evening Polyphemus gets drunk off of Odysseus’s wine from his ship and eventually passes out. While asleep Odysseus and a few of his men drive the staff through the cyclops’s eye blinding him. When Polyphemus’s neighbors come to see what his howling is about he replies “Nobody’s killing me!” In the morning Odysseus and his men escape the cave on the underside of the giant’s sheep and lead the herd to their ships. Rather than sailing away unscathed Odysseus calls back to Polyphemus identifying himself. Polyphemus preys to his father to exact revenge, which leads to the rest of the Odyssey.

They then land on the island of Aeolus the ruler of the winds. He gifts odysseus a bag filled with the wind and conjures a favorable westerly wind to return the crew safely. After ten days Ithaca is in sight, but the crew is mistrustful of Odysseus. They believe that Aeolus has given him a great treasure that he will not share with anybody else and rip open the bag of wind. The wind drives them back to Aeolus’s island, who this time refuses to assist the Greeks. The Greeks are then forced to row their boats, eventually landing on an island of giants.  The giants eat two of Odysseus’s scouts and as the Greeks flee every ship but Odysseus’s is sunk by the giants who began hurling boulders. Odysseus then rows to the island of Aeaea home of the witch-goddess Circe. Circe turns Odysseus’s scouts into pigs on their arrival and Odysseus may have fared the same fate had Hermes not warned him. Hermes advised Odysseus to eat the herb moly and when Circe attacked him to lunge at her. Odysseus does this and overpowers her forcing her to turn his men back. Odysseus then becomes Circe’s lover and the men live with her for a year. Odysseus’s men finally persuade him they must leave and when he agrees Circe tells him the only way to get back is to see the prophet Tiresias in Hades. Just before leaving one of Odysseus’s crew members falls from the roof of Circe’s palace and dies.

In the underworld Odysseus meets his crew member who fell from Circe’s roof who begs him to return and give his body a proper burial. Odysseus then sees the prophet who tells Odysseus he is being punished for blinding Poseidon’s  son Polyphemus, but he will return home to Ithaca and reclaim his throne from the wretched suitors. He is also told to go to the island of the Sun to appease Poseidon.While there the Tiresias warns Odysseus not to touch the Suns herd of cattle or his entire crew will die leaving Odysseus the lone survivor. Before leaving the Underworld Odysseus speaks to Agamemnon who recounts his death again, Achilles, the hero of the Iliad who inquires about his son Neoptolemus, and then tried to speak to Great Ajax but is refused since it was Odysseus who won Achilles armor after he died. He sees Herecles, King Minos, Orion and others as well as witnessing the punishments of Sisyphus and Tantalus. After this he becomes afraid and retreats to his ship and sails away. Odysseus returns to Aeaea to bury his crew member and spend one last night with Circe. The next day she gives him council on how to pass the upcoming struggles, which he relays to his crew and they set sail.

As they pass the island of the Sirens Odysseus’s crew plugs their ears with beeswax as instructed by Circe and ties Odysseus to the mast so he alone can hear the Sirens enticing song, but as Odysseus pleas to be let free and go to the Sirens his crew only strengthens his bonds. After they pass the island the crew must navigate the treacherous straight of Scylla (the six headed monster that lives on the cliffs) and Charybdis (the vicious whirlpool that can swallow entire ships). Circe’s council is heeded again and Odysseus navigates close to the cliffs and each Scylla’s heads come down on the ship and devours one crew member, but the loss of six is better than all. Next is the Island of the Sun which Odysseus was warned he must go to but cannot touch any of the cattle. Odysseus wanted to avoid it completely but his exhausted crew convinces him to stop. A storm forces the crew to stay on the beach for a month and soon their provisions become low. The crew waits for Odysseus to fall asleep one afternoon and sneak off to kill a cow. The Sun finds out and is furious, he asks Zeus to punish them so when they leave Zeus whips up a storm that destroys the ship killing all but Odysseus who gets swept back almost into Charybdis and nearly dies himself. Odysseus floats to Ogygia the isle of Calypso which then catches the audience up to how Odysseus ended up with the Phaeacians.

The next day the Phaeacians bring Odysseus back to Ithaca. In Ithaca Athena visits Odysseus, tells him of Telemachus and recommends he go to his swineheard Eumeaus and then he can exact his revenge on the suitors. Athena disguises him as a vagabond and sends him on his way. Here is a great example of xenia because when Odysseus, the King of Ithaca but disguised as a vagabond arrives at his lowly swineheard’s hut he is welcomed with open arms. He is offered pork to eat and a bed to sleep in. The next morning Odysseus offers to leave hoping he will be invited to stay longer which he is and the two swap stories where Eumeaus tells the story of how he came to Ithaca. Telemachus then arrives at the hut, Eumeaus goes to the palace to tell Penelope that he has returned and Athena lifts Odysseus’s disguise. Rejoiced Telemachus and Odysseus create a plan for the suitors then Telemachus leaves Eumeaus’s hut to return to the palace. Eumeaus then takes Odysseus, back in his disguise to the palace where he is treated illy being kicked and having stools thrown at him. One even challenges him to a boxing match where aided by Athena Odysseus beats the man within an inch of his life.

Later that night when all the suitors are asleep Odysseus and Telemachus remove all the weapons in the house and put them out of reach. Penelope then arrives and recounts a dream she had foreshadowing the death of all the suitors. Penelope doesn’t believe it and tells the disguised Odysseus that she will marry the first man who can shoot an arrow through the holes of twelve  axe heads in a line. The next morning Penelope brings Odysseus’s bow and tells the suitors the first to string it and shoot an arrow through twelve axes will win her hand. Telemachus is first to try but fails to string the big bow, and so does each suitor who tries. Just before retiring for the day Odysseus as the vagabond asks for the bow. After much ridicule from the suitors Telemachus orders they hand him the bow. Odysseus strings the bow easily then loses an arrow through all twelve axes. Odysseus then turns and fires an arrow into a suitor’s throat. Taking the suitors by surprise Odysseus then reveals himself and terrifies the suitors by promising that none will survive. Telemachus runs to the arms cache they made and arms Eumeaus and himself but forgets to lock the room. One suitor arms some of his fellow suitors but is locked in the arms room on his second trip. A full out battle ensues where suitors are being slaughtered and Odysseus and company are only superficially wounded. Athena is there disguised at Mentor again but doesn’t initially take part.

When the battle is done Odysseus has a faithful servant round up those that were disloyal to him when he was gone, he has them clear out the bodies, wash the blood from the walls and furniture then has them ushered from the hall to be executed. Penelope who has slept through the entire ordeal comes down to see Odysseus. She first believes it to be a god playing a trick so she asks a servant to move their bridal bed, in which Odysseus replied it is impossible since it was built from the olive tree the house was built around, verifying he was the real Odysseus. The last book shows the suiters being led into Hades by Hermes and we see Agamemnon and Achilles again. The suitors describe their downfall blaming Penelope, but Agamemnon stands up for her comparing her to his wife. The goddess Rumor spreads word of the massacre to all the families of the suitors who have an assembly to discuss what to do next. Athena disguised as Mentor again kills one father to stem the violence and then makes all the Ithacans forget the masacre thus restoring peace in Ithaca.

Homer shows the importance of xenia, or being a good host in the Odyssey by ultimately killing all of the suitors and bringing Odysseus home safely. Telemachus, and Odysseus by default continued to give to the suitors, they ate all of Odysseus’s oxen and food, drank his wine and then treated Telemachus and Odysseus very poorly. Also Homer makes mention of how well Odysseus and Telemachus were treated on their stops, especially Telemachus when he visits Pylos and Sparta on his mini odyssey in the first few books. Xenia is observed by the gods as well and it is said that Zeus himself began this tradition. Homer also shows the importance on the other side of the coin with the cyclops Polyphemus who ignores Odysseus’s requests and is subsequently punished.

There are three keys to xenia. The first is being a good host, providing food, drink and a bath if needed. It is customary that the host ask nothing of their guest until their guest has stated their intentions. This reminds me much of the tradition in George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones world as it is a rule that once a person has eaten and drank under the roof of a host they cannot be harmed (though that isn’t followed in A Storm of Swords). The second key is being a good guest, always being polite and thankful and not to be a burden. The third key is for the host to present a gift to the guest to thank them for honoring them with their visit. We especially see this with Nestor and Menelaus on Telemachus’s journey.

I really love the Odyssey and it is very special to me since it was the first epic I have ever read. I read an abridged version in high school so I was familiar with the most of this story. I really like how Homer uses the idea of xenia and the use of a Greek hero. Odysseus is viewed as a hero to the Greeks but in our society he probably would not be so. The Odyssey is also a great followup to the Iliad because it studies the importance of inner glory while the Iliad is a story about glory from others through skill on the battlefield. Achilles reinforces this notion when he says: “By God I’d rather slave on earth for another man… than rule down here with the breathless dead,” alluding to the choice he made in the Iliad between a long life on earth or eternal glory and a short life.  I really recommend the Odyssey, it’s a bit easier than the Iliad to follow and is a really good way to break into epic poetry if you’ve never read one before.

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