HOMER AND THE ODYSSEY

HOMER

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Homer
No one knows whether Homer was a he or she, or even a real person. The ancient Greeks believed he was a blind, itinerant bard who was born in Smyrna (present-day Izmir, Turkey) and lived in Chios (a Greek island near the coast of Turkey). Chios was famous for its epic singers and many people on the island called themselves Homeridae , the descendants of Homer. But these are far from universally-agreed-upon facts. Colophon, Salamis, Rhodes, Argos and Athens also claim to be his birthplace

The claim that Homer wrote the Iliad and Odyssey is traced to Herodotus. Homer is dated to about 850 B.C. because one Homeridae living in the 5th century said that Homer lived 400 years before him. Scholars believe the stories themselves evolved soon after the Trojan War, which took place about 1200 B.C., around the same time that Moses was leading the Jews to the Promised Land.

Richard Bentley, an 18th century English critic, claimed the Odyssey was written for women with the implication being it might have been written by a woman. To back up this assertion he pointed out that the epic's portrayal of women was realistic, while the male characters were wooden and "hopelessly wrong." The details about shipping, he said, were erroneous (a boat is once described as having rudders in both ends) and there seems to be a lot of details about things men usually don't worry about (there are passages, for example, about folding laundry carefully). The same idea was more forcefully put forward in the 19th century by Samuel Butler.

In 19th-century a popular theory argued that a single bard, long after the Trojan War, wove stories of military adventure into two integrated poems -- a process that would be repeated in medieval romances. The English novelist and essayist Maurice Baring is credited with originating the quip that it wasn’t Home who composed the Ilaid and the Odyssey but another man by the same name. These day there are a number of modern scholars that believe Homer was more than one person. As evidence they point to inconsistences in style, plot and dialect. These allegations could easily be attributed to sloppy translations and are impossible to prove.

On the allegations that there were two poets, the scholar Michael Schmidt sneers it's ''as though Shakespeare could not have written 'The Comedy of Errors' and 'Othello.' '' He said this was this was likely the case even though Homer’s diction was ''a composite of different dialect strands . . . as though a poet wrote in Scots, South African, Texan and Jamaican, all in a single poem.''

Homer and Singing Bards

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scene from the Apotheosis of Homer
During Homer's time the people who told stories were mostly traveling bards who recited from memory, often accompanied by a lyre, at feasts and religious gatherings. They told stories about epic battles, heros, adventures and supernatural creatures. The "chapters" of the Iliad and Odyssey came from episodes that were recited by singer-poets at social gatherings. The people listening knew the story already. Perhaps the listened to it like a pop song that gave them a lift every time they heard it.

In the early part of the 20th century a young American scholar named Milman Parry tried to get a sense of what Homer's works were originally like by observing illiterate bards in Muslim Serbia that still sang heroic epics to illiterate audiences. The bards, Parry discovered, were skilled improvisers who recounted certain episodes but told different stories every time. [Source: "The Creators" by Daniel Boorstin,μ]

By observing the Muslim Bards, Parry determined, the chapters were perhaps an hour in length, because that was the limit of an audience's attention span, and were strung together from gathering to gathering with an involved plot and a larger theme.μ

Around the 7th century B.C., in ancient Greece, traveling bards began being replaced by trained reciters called rhapsode who began using written texts and performed at poetry contests. Their tellings were thought to be less spontaneous and improvised than the singer-bards.

Homer's Books

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Homer's world
The Iliad and the Odyssey were the first and greatest stories in Western civilization and many of the events described in them took place in present-day Turkey. The 3200-year-old epics were the basis for Greek religion, morality and history and arguably Roman religion, morality and history too. The 5th-century-B.C. Poet Aeschylus claimed that all his plays were merely “slices from the great banquets of Homer.” Plato mentioned him 331 times in his dialogues.

Greek soldiers who fought in the famous Persian Wars could reportedly quote long passages of the Iliad and the Odyssey . Romans looked to the books for moral lessons and used them as the basis of their great literary work Virgil’s Aeneid . Through the ages the Iliad and the Odyssey relayed information from generation to generation about geography, navigation and shipbuilding.

Homer's stories were written in verse, partly because verse was easier to remember. Homer used 8,500 different words in his works, compared to Hugo who used 38,000 different words and Shakespeare who used 24,000. The Old Testament has 5,800 different word; the New Testament, 4,800.

The era in which Homer is said to have lived is also the era that Greek writing first appeared and the illiterate Greeks began to read. The oldest verison of Homer is a medieval copy made in the 10th or 11th century Half of the documents written on Egyptian papyri that exist today are copies of the Iliad and Odyssey or commentaries about them. [Source: "The Creators" by Daniel Boorstin,μ]

Homer's books were the basis of Greek and Roman education. Not only did they define honor and moral conduct for the Greeks, they were the foundations of Western literature. Alexander the Great slept with a copy of the Iliad and traced his maternal ancestry back to Achilles. Latin translations of the Homeric classics helped spur the Renaissance and inspired writers like Dante and Milton to write in the Homeric style. Today it can argued that the ancient texts are the sources of the metaphors that life is a battle (the Iliad ) and life is a journey (the Odyssey ).

Book: Homer’s the Iliad and the Odyssey: A Biography by Alberto Manguel (Atlantic Monthly, 2008)

The Odyssey

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The Odyssey is the tale of Odysseus's journey home after the Trojan War. It is a very different book than the Iliad . Rather than being about battles and brave warriors who use their power and strength to take matters into their own hands it is about a single warrior whose power and strength are no match against the whims and capriciousness of the gods and who must learn to deal with a fate over which he has no control. Much of The Odyssey is about setback and delays. The crew is often complaining about something and Odysseus is not great fan of the open sea.

The first four books of the Odyssey describe Odysseus's unhappy son Telemachus home on the island of Ithaca on the west side of Greece. The eight books that follow describe Odysseus's travels (these include the the Voyage to Hades and encounters with Circe, Scylla, Charybdis, the Sirens, the Lotus Eaters, the Cyclops, the Wander Rocks and others. The final twelve chapters describe Odysseus' homecoming and the reclamation of his kingdom.

Book: Odyssey by Homer. The 2000 translation by Stanley Lombardo is regarded as one of the most accessible translations. The Penguin Classic version translated by Robert Fagles is also supposed to be good. Also recommended is M.I. Finley’s The World of Odysseus (New York Review Books Classics). For a modernist, 20th century interpretation there’s James Joyce’s Ulysses .

Odysseus

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Odysseus
Odysseus (Ulysses to the Romans) was a Greek king from Ithaca who fought in the Trojan War against the Trojans on the side of Achilles and the Greeks. He was the cleverest of the warriors in the Iliad and is credited with coming up with the idea of the Trojan horse. The name Odysseus is linked to the Greek verb odussomai , which means “to suffer pain.”

Odysseus was the kind of man women romanticize about (he was faithful, after all, for 20 years). He did not want to go to Troy to fight the war there and tried many tricks, including pretending he was mad by plowing a beach instead of a field, to get out of going but none of these tricks worked , and he was reluctantly forced to say good by to his wife Penelope and his son Telemachus.

When the war was over Odysseus set sail from Troy with 12 ships and a treasure taken from the Trojans. By this time he had been away from family for ten years already. A journey that should have taken several weeks ended up taking more than ten years as a result of delays brought about by monsters, enchantresses and foul weather.

Odysseus, the Lotus Eaters and the Cyclops

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Lotus Eaters
A short time after leaving from Troy, a great storm blew Odysseus's ships off course to the Land of the Lotus Eaters, where several of his men ate lotus fruit and from then on could think of nothing but eating lotus fruit. They lost their desire to go home and Odysseus had to drag them back to the ship.

After rescuing these men Odysseus landed next in the Land of the one-eyed giants, Cyclops, where he and some of his men were trapped in a cave by a Cyclops named Polyphemus, who was angry at some of Odysseus’s men because they ate some of his food and was no great lover of mankind anyway. Six of Odysseus’s men were eaten but Odysseus and the others escaped after Odysseus got the Cyclops drunk and gouged out his eye and he and his men escaped by clinging onto the underbelly of a ram.

Afterwards Odysseus and his men met up with Aeolus, the wind god, who gave Odysseus a favorable wind to reach home and bag with other winds. When Ithaca was in sight Odysseus fell a sleep. His men thought the bag was full of treasures and opened it, releasing winds that blew them away from Ithaca.

Odysseus, the Laestrygonians, Circe and the Sirens

Odysseus next landed in the Land of the Laestrygonians, giant women who were "more than men they seemed,/ gigantic when they gathered on the sky line/ to shoot great boulders down from slings." Their giant queen ate of number of Odysseus’s men, and her warriors threw boulders at Odysseus's ships, sinking 11 of them. Only Odysseus's ship and his men managed to escape.

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Odysseus and the Sirens
Next Odysseus landed on a friendly island ruled by the goddess Circe, who later became irritated by Odysseus' men and turned them into pigs. She tried to turn Odysseus into a pig too but her magic didn’t work on him because he had eaten a special flower given to him by Hermes. With the help of the gods Odysseus was able to get his men turned back into humans.

Odysseus spent a half year in bed with Circe until he became overcome with guilt about his wife. Circe told Odysseus that he if he wanted to make it home, the gods insisted that he promise never to kill any of the sun god's sheep and make a short visit to Hades. He and his men survived their short visit there and Circe filled a boat with provisions and they returned to sea.

In Hades, Odysseus met his mother. Describing Odysseus’s encounter with his mother there, Home wrote: “I tried to find some way of embracing my poor mother’s ghost. Thrice I sprung towards her and tried to grasp her in my arms, but each time she flitted from my embrace as it were a dream or phantom.” When Odysseus asked his mother why she didn’t try to embrace him she explained: “All the people are like this when they are dead. The sinews no longer hold the flesh and bones together, these perish in the in the fierceness of consuming fire as soon as life has left the body, and the soul flirts away as though it were a dream.”

While at sea, Odysseus and his men encountered the Sirens. Odysseus had been warned about them by Circe so he knew what to do. He had himself tied to a mast so he could hear the sirens and resist their tempting song. His crew had wax stuffed it their ears. If a man could resist the sirens's call, tradition stated, a siren had to die and she dutifully dived to her death into the sea.

Odysseus, Scylla and Calypso

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Odysseus in the Cave of the Winds
There next test was the whirlpool ("Three times/ from dawn to dusk she appears...a whirling maelstrom") created by the sucking of the monster Charybdid. Once through that Odysseus encountered the six-headed, twelve-tentacled monster Scylla. No ship had ever made it past them before. Scylla snatched six sailors but Odysseus and the others escaped.

Odysseus and arrived on the Sun God's island, where he broke his vow about killing the sheep to keep from starving. The vengeful sun god then sunk all of Odysseus' ships and all of his surviving men died. Odysseus escaped after floating for 10 days at sea and washing ashore on the paradise island occupied by the enchantress Calypso.

Calypso lived alone on the island and took no time in seducing Odysseus and then held him hostage for seven years. With the help of the gods, who were touched by Odysseus's homesickness, he was finally able to escape from Calypso on a raft. He floated for days and encountered a few more scrapes and close calls before he was able to make it home to Ithaca.

Odysseus Returns Home to Ithaca

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Penelope suitors
During the 20 years that Odysseus was gone (10 years in Troy and 10 years at sea) his wife Penelope had been approached by many men. To keep suitors away until Ulysses returned she told them that she would make her herself available after she finished the garment she was weaving, which she would secretly unravel every night.

When Odysseus returned to Ithaca he took up residence in a cave and pretended to be a beggar so he could assess what had happened on his island before claiming his throne. While staying at a swinwherd’s hut, Odysseus revealed himself to his son, Telemachus and together they plotted Odysseus’s return.

The following day, the disguised Odysseus showed up at his palace. In the meantime, Penelope had run out of delaying tactics and was forced to chose a new husband. She said she would marry the man who could string Odysseus’s bow, which required great strength, and fire a quiver of arrows and throw an ax through the hole in 12 axes set in a row.

All the suitors tried but couldn’t even string the bow. The disguised Odysseus approached and asked if he could try. All the suitors laughed: How could a beggar perform these tasks? Odysseus took the bow and strung it with ease. He then threw the ax through the hole and used the arrows to massacre all the suitors. “Ghastly screams rose up as men’s heads were smashed, and the whole floor ran with blood.” In the end corpses were piled “like fishes the fishermen have dragged out of the grey surf in he meshes of their net onto a curving beach, to lie massed on the sand longing for the salt water till the bright sun ends their lives.” Finally Odysseus was reunited with Penelope and claimed his throne and Penelope’s humiliations were avenged.

In July 2008, a team lead by Marcelo Magnsco of Rockefeller University in New York reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science that according to the Odyssey Odysseus returned to his hometown on April 16, 1178 B.C. based on sun and star positions. Homer reported that on the day of Odysseus’s return, the day he slaughtered the suitors of his wife, the sun was blotted from the sky, a possible reference to an eclipse and mentioned more than once it was time a new moon, which is necessary for such an eclipse. Other clues included: 1) six days before the slaughter Venus is visible and high in the sky; 2) twenty-nine days before two constellations---the Pleiades and Bootes---are simultaneous visible at sunset; and 3) thirty-three days before Mercury is high at dawn and near the western end of its trajectory. The later is an interpretation by researchers of Homer writing about Hermes, the Greek name for Mercury, traveling to the West to deliver a message. The other references are firmer but still shaky.

Odyssey and Real Places

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Odysseus and the suitors
The Tunisian island of Djerba is sometimes described as the island of the Lotus Eater and Trapani in southern Sicily is sometimes referred to as the land the Cyclops. The Cyclops, according to some scholars hurled boulders from Mount Etna and lived on islands near Catania, Sicily. Some people consider Corsica as the land of the Lestryonians and Ischia (an island in the Bay of Naples) to be Circe's island. The entrance of Hades is said to be near the Straights of Gibraltar. Western Sicily is supposedly where the sun god's sheep were killed. Some think Calypso was Malta.

The Odyssey 's whirlpool Charybdis, home of the monsters of Scylla and Charybdid, refers the turbulent waters between Italy and Sicily near Messina on the Sicilian side. Bonifacio on Corsica has been identified as the place where many of Odysseus's men were munched by the cannibalistic Laestrygonians. The description of it in the Odyssey goes: it is "a curious bay with mountain walls of stone/ to left and right, and reaching far inland, /a narrow entrance opening from the sea/ where cliffs converged as though to touch and close."

Zante in the Ionian islands was called "wooded Zacynthos" in the Odyssey. But most of its forests were lost to ancient boatbuilders and have since been replaced by olive groves and pastures grazed by goats. Cephalonia (3½ hours from Patras) is the largest and most rugged Ionian island and like Zante most of its forests where harvested for timber.

Ithaca

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Odysseus dreaming of Ithaca
Ithaca (5 hours from Patras) is a small thinly populated island just north of Cephalonia. According to the Odyssey Ulysses was born in Ithaca and spent 10 years trying to reach it after the Trojan War. There is some debate as to whether this island is indeed the Ithaca from the Odyssey .

Ulysses met his son after his long journey near two landmarks, mentioned in the Odyssey that are said to be easily recognizable today: Arethusa' Fountain, a small spring hidden behind a rock that still flows with "darkling water"; and Raven's Crag, a reddish cliff that is still a favorite soaring spot for ravens. Both places are located together near the southeastern tip of the island.

Most of Ithaca is surrounded by rugged coastline and the northern part of the island is terraced for farming. Vanthi, the island largest town, is located at the end of deep blue bay fringed by steep mountains. Possible sites where Ulysses may have lived or spent time are caves located around Polis Bay from which many of the artifacts that fill the Vanthi museum were found and the remains of an ancient Bronze age city situated on a well watered and easily defensible hill.

Odyssey and the Location of Ithaca

The island of Ithaca is located off the western coast of Greece not too far from Albania. Near the place where Odysseus met his son after his long journey are two landmarks, mentioned in the Odyssey that are easily recognizable today: Arethusa' Fountain is a small spring hidden behind a rock that still flows with "darkling water" and Raven's Crag is a reddish cliff that is still a favorite soaring spot for ravens. Both places are located together near the southeastern tip of the island. Possible sites on Ithaca where Odysseus may have lived or spent time are caves located around Polis Bay from which many of the artifacts that fill the Vanthi museum were found and the remains of an ancient Bronze age city situated on a well watered and easily defensible hill.

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Circe Offering the Cup
to Odysseus
Robert Bittlestone, a management consultant and amateur archaeologist, has argued in his book Odysseus Unbound that the true location of Odysseus’s Ithaca is not the modern island of Ithaca put rather the Paliki peninsula on the island of Cephalonia, which Bittlestone argues fits the descriptions of Odysseus’s home island better than Ithaca and that it was once an island based on geological discoveries he has made. Gregory Nagy, director the Center of Hellenic Studies in Washington D.C., told Smithsonian magazine, “He has done something very important. This is a real breakthrough, convergence of oral poetry and geology, and the most plausible explanation I’ve seen of what Ithaca was in the second millennia.” [Source: Fergus M. Bordewich, April 2006, Smithsonian magazine]

Homer’s description of Ithaca goes: "Around her a ring of islands circle side-by-side, / Douchlichion, Same, wooded Zachynthos too, but mine/ lies low and away, the furthest out to sea,/ rearing on to western dusk while others face east and breaking day.” Scholars have long agreed ancient and modern Zachynthos are one in the same. Similarly, Same was thought to refer to the main body of Cephalonia, which is home to a large present-day town called Sami. The island of Ithaca does not fit the description of being the “furthest to sea” and its mountainous topography is a far cry from “lying low.”

Bittlecone argues that if the Paliki peninsula were an island it would fit the description perfectly. He goes further, based on geological studies he did, and says that it was an island in Odysseus’s time and the sea channel that once divided the Paliki peninsula and Cephalonia has been filled in since Odysseus’s time by landslides and debris from earthquakes. Backing his claim is the fact that Cephalonia lies on one of the world’s most seismically-active faults and of evidence of numerous landslides that plausibly could have filled a channel found on the isthmus that divides Paliki and Cephalonia. . Geologist John Underhill of the University of Edinburgh, who checked out Cephalonia told Smithsonian magazine, “I thought it would be easy to disprove Bittlestone’s thesis but it wasn’t. Suddenly I thought, crike, there might really a channel down there.”

Further evidence backing up Bittlecone’s claim that Paliki was the Odyssey’s Ithaca includes the beach at Theras Bay, which fits the description of the place were Odysseus came ashore and met up with the swineherd Eumaerus. It is situated on a cove with ?two jutting headlands, sheared off at the seaward side” as Homer’s book says. There are also has many features that make it ideal for farming---including springs, nuts and dark pools needed to feed Eumerus’s 960 pigs---and seems like the proper distance from Odysseys’s hometown.

Book: Odysseus Unbound by Robert Bittlecone (Cambridge University Press, 2006)

Homeric Epics and Western Culture

When asked why he chose he chose Ulysses, instead of, say, Faust or Hamlet, James Joyce said Ulysses was a "complete all around character...a complete man in literature." Faust he said is "far from being a complete man, he isn't a man at all...he can't be complete because he's never alone." he then added "Hamlet is a human being, but he is only a son. Ulysses is son to Laetes, but he is father to Telmachus, husband of Penelope, lover of Calypso, companion in arms of the Greek warriors...He was subjected to many trials, but with wisdom and courage came through them all."

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Ulysses and the Sirens (1909)

Joyce added: "Don't forget he was a war dodger who tried to evade the military service by simulating madness...But once at the war the conscientious objector became a Jusqu'auboutits [bitter-ender]. When the others wanted to abandon the siege he insisted on staying till Troy should fall.”

Myths, See Religion

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, The Louvre, The British Museum

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Yomiuri Shimbun, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications. Most of the information about Greco-Roman science, geography, medicine, time, sculpture and drama was taken from "The Discoverers" [∞] and "The Creators" [μ]" by Daniel Boorstin. Most of the information about Greek everyday life was taken from a book entitled "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum [||].

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated January 2012

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