“Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns,
driven time and again off course, once he had plundered,
the hallowed heights of Troy.
Many cities of men he saw and learned their minds,
many pains he suffered, heartsick on the open sea,
fighting to save his life and bring his comrades home.
But he could not save them from disaster, hard as he strove—
the recklessness of their own ways destroyed them all,
the blind fools, they devoured the cattle of the Sun,
and the Sungod blotted out the day of their return.
Launch out on his story, Muse, daughter of Zeus,
start from where you will—sing for our time too.”
Analysis: The Odyssey begins with an epic invocation, an appeal to one of the muses, the nine goddesses of the arts. The ancient audience was already familiar with the legend of Odysseus and therefore knew the plot. The man in line 1 is obviously Odysseus. The adventure described involves his return home after the Trojan War. Shakespeare does the same with Romeo and Juliet, telling the entire story in the prologue by means of a sonnet. As with all epics, the narration of The Odyssey begins in media res, which literally means in the middle of. The major events of Odysseus’ journey are told by Odysseus to Alcinous via flashbacks.
Beating the Cyclops
you ask my honorable name? Remember
the gift you promised me, and I shall tell you.
my name is Nohbdy: mother father and friends,
everyone calls me Nohbdy.”
Analysis: Odysseus shows his cunning by calling himself “Nohbdy” (of course, how hard is it to outwit a giant one-eyed freak?). After Odysseus pokes the Cyclops’ eye out, the Cyclops yells for help, screaming “Nohbdy hurt me!” Odysseus, although physically strong, understands that outhinking an opponent often leads to victory.
“O Cyclops! Would you feast on my companions?
Puny, am I, in a Caveman’s hands?
How do you like the beating that we gave you,
you damned cannibal? Eater of guests
under your roof! Zeus and the gods have paid you!”
Analysis: Moments after defeating the Cyclops Polyphemus with cunning, Odysseus shows he is as foolish as he is intelligent. At this point, an angry Polyphemus is launching boulders at Odysseus’ ships and aims via Odysseus’ voice. Odysseus tells Polyphemus his real name. Polyphemus begs his father, Poseidon, to punish Odysseus for injuring him. Odysseus learns the danger of angering the gods.
The Suitor Slaughter
“Think of a catch that fishermen haul in to a halfmoon bay
in a fine-meshed net from the white-caps of the sea:
how all are poured out on the sand, in throes for the salt sea,
twitching their cold lives away in Helios’ fiery air:
so lay the suitors heaped on one another.”
Analysis: Homer employs an epic simile, an elaborate comparison of unlike subjects using like or as, to describe the aftermath of the suitor slaughter. The suitors learn a valuable lesson: make sure the king of the island is dead before you wreck his furniture, eat his food, and try to steal his wife. It’s also not a good idea to anger the gods by demolishing the laws of hospitality.
Circe and the Underworld
“‘Odysseus then you are, o great contender,
of whom the glittering god with the golden wand
spoke to me ever, and foretold
the black swift ship would carry you from Troy.
Put up your weapon in the sheath. We two
shall mingle and make love upon our bed.
So mutual trust may come of play and love.'”
Analysis: Odysseus’ luck has changed as Circe first tries to kill him and then, discovering his identity, invites him to sleep with her (note to guys: if at first the woman tries to kill you, leave. I don’t care how good she looks.). Odysseus stays a year with Circe. Odysseus’ fame has spread throughout the known world.
“‘Homeward you think we must be sailing
to our own land; no elsewhere is the voyage
Circe has laid upon me. We must go
to the cold homes of death and pale Persephone
to hear Teiresias tell of time to come.'”
Analysis: I can’t imagine Odysseus’ crew was too thrilled to learn they are sailing to the underworld instead of home. A visit to the underworld is an epic convention. It is in the underworld that Odysseus finds his dead mother and where the blind prophet Teiresias gives him instructions and warnings for the trip home (reason #245 for buying a GPS).
The Cattle of the Sun and the Bow Challenge
“‘Shipmates, grieving and weary though you are,
listen: I had forewarning from Teiresias
and Circe, too; both told me I must shun
this island of the Sun, the world’s delight.
Nothing but fatal trouble shall we find here,
Pull away, then, and put the land astern.'”
Analysis: During his visit to the underworld, Teiresias warns Odysseus not to kill the Cattle of the Sun. Odysseus warns his crew not to eat the Cattle of the Sun. Odysseus’ crew eats the Cattle of the Sun. Zeus destroys Odysseus’ crew.
“‘Here is my lord Odysseus’ hunting bow.
Bend and string it if you can. Who sends an arrow
through iron axe-helve sockets twelve in line?
I join my life with his and leave this place, my home,
my rich and beautiful bridal house, forever
to be remembered, though I dream it only.'”
Analysis: Penelope proves to be as clever as her husband, devising a test that she knows only Odysseus himself could accomplish. Perhaps she suspected the beggar to be her husband in disguise or perhaps the bow challenge is another stall.
- Lorcher, Trenton. His Brain. Several Readings and Multiple Teachings of The Odyssey from 1998 – Present.
- Public Domain Image courtest of Wikimedia Commons.
- Lattimore, Richmond. The Odyssey of Homer. New York: Harper Collins. 1975.