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Thoughts on The Odyssey

All roads pointed to Homer; Classics graduates would tell me that is was he who birthed the literary Western Canon, Psychologists like Freud and Jung drew inspiration from his archetypes, and writers like Campbell who saw the stages of a heroes journey.

I’d highly recommend the conversation on the Odyssey featuring Hitchens and Lombardo if you want to get a sense of the story and this guide to pronouncing the Greek character’s names.

What’s it about?

The Odyssey is a strange and oddly familiar story. It’s the heroic story of Odysseus’ 10 year journey home following a 10 year campaign, told in literatures’ first book, The Iliad. The core themes revolve around adventure and the necessity for change, tragedy borne of both the natural and supernatural world, and fate.

What made Odysseus great?

He’s the greatest strategist. Christopher Hitchens argues that The Odyssey shows how man is at the will and whim of the Gods, mere playthings. While it’s true that much of the story unfolds under the guidance of Athene and that destiny has already been written, Odysseus shows man’s ability to exercise free will in the face of catastrophe. Poseidon had just thrown his trident into the ocean to create a wave to crash down upon Odysseus. A Goddess took pity on Odysseus and gave him the advice to abandon his raft and swim to the Phaeacian coast. Before the wave crashed, this is what went through his mind:

No, I will not leave the raft for the moment. I saw with my own eyes how far the land is where she promised me salvation. I shall do what I myself think best. As long as the joints of the planks hold fast, I shall stay where I am and endure the suffering. But when the seas break up my raft, I’ll swim for it. I cannot think of anything better – Odysseus

He manages to keep his wits about him when the waves are crashing down around him. He finds a way.

Eumaeus and Lazarus

Eumaeus, the humble swineherd servant, loved Odysseus as he were his son:

… not even if I return to my parents’ house, where I was born and bred. And much as I grieve for them and long to be back in my own country and set eyes on them again, it is for the lost Odysseus that my heart aches and yearns. Even in his absence I can hardly bring myself to mention his name. He cared for me and loved me dearly. But even though he is far away, I still call him my beloved master. – Eumaeus

And in turn Homer shows his love for Eumaeus by speaking directly to him:

and you Eumaeas – Homer

I couldn’t help but think of Lazarus as we learn about Eumaeus. Lazarus, the humble beggar in the New Testament, is resurrected because of Jesus’ love for him. Both Lazarus and Eumaeus are held dear despite their position in society.

Common ground

Reading the Odyssey has sparked off several interesting conversations. A man tapped me on the leg to get my attention during the journey home from work, after I removed my earphones, I heard him ask:

But why on earth did Odysseus ever want to leave Calypso? – Fellow commuter

Another fellow apologised and asked whether this book was any good, he’d been meaning to read it but never gotten round to it.

I’ve seen the eyes of some of my colleagues light up (Classics and English graduates) when sharing their thoughts on the Odyssey.

The Odyssey is more than just a story, it’s our story.