by Evan Mantyk

Where is Homer? The epic poems of the famous Greek bard were the cornerstone of education for young Socrates, Alexander the Great, Roman emperors, William Shakespeare, and every serious scholar in the Western world until the last 50 years. Yet, today they have nearly disappeared from school reading lists. Now, state-mandated reading lists are full of modern works—most featuring trite themes about class struggle and fighting tradition—as well as disastrously selected ancient works—after all, what normal person really wants to read about the patricidal and incestuous Oedipus Rex? Have educators gone insane? At any rate, it is time to blow off the dust and rediscover the pure enjoyment and profound lessons of Homer’s epics, beginning here with the second, and perhaps more easily digestible, of the two.

Homer’s Odyssey tells of a far flung, monster-filled sea adventure across the Mediterranean Sea. But, there is something more in this epic than mindless action. The Odyssey and its predecessor, the Iliad, were composed nearly 2,700 years ago and have survived up to the present as masterpieces because of their layers of reverberating themes and richly textured narratives. Part of this literary genius comes alive, surprisingly, in the form of food.

“I could recount a longer story—all those hardships I have had to suffer from the gods,” our hero, Odysseus, says. “But let me eat my dinner… For there’s nothing more shameless than a wretched stomach” (page 302). Odysseus’s narration of his own riveting tale just has to wait while he eats something in the palace of the Phaeacian king. Phaeacia, pronounced “fee-AY-sha,” is a land without winter, where luscious fruits abound all year around. The 18th century poetical translation of the Odyssey by Alexander Pope reads:

Here the blue fig with luscious juice overflows,
With deeper red the full pomegranate glows;
The branch here bends beneath the weighty pear,
And verdant olives flourish round the year …
Each dropping pear a following pear supplies,
On apples apples, figs on figs arise. (298)

The boundless supply of fruits of Phaeacia mirror the Phaeacians’ boundless hospitality: they offer Odysseus a feast, the hand of their princess in marriage, and safe passage home—all without even knowing his prestigious identity!

Everywhere we go in the Odyssey, new food awaits us. On the island of the Cyclops, it is the Cyclops’s cheese that plays a pivotal role in getting Odysseus and his crew in trouble. When Odysseus and his crew stop in the land of the Lotus-eaters, for example, the “sweet as honey” lotus fruit is capable of ensnaring anyone who eats it, such that they have no desire to leave.

This ancient food culture resonates all the way to the present. Stopping at a roadside diner in America, particularly the Northeast, there is a good chance it will be Greek-owned and Greek-themed. Homer’s Odyssey is a vivid experience of the significance of food in Greek culture and gives a sense as to why so many Greek immigrants to America became restaurateurs. Kitchnn writer Tracy Saelinger explains this 19th and 20th century phenomenon: “When owners inevitably started getting burnt out, many of the Greek staffers—who started working as dishwashers, paid attention to the elements of the business, and saved their money—organically started buying out exhausted owners, often in tandem with a brother or cousin.” Reading the Odyssey, it is clear, is more than reading fiction, it is experiencing some of the deepest cultural roots that have been recorded in human civilization and that still affect our world today.

In another instance in the Odyssey, food creates one of the most memorable epic similes in the entire work. It is on the eve of Odysseus’s final battle against the suitors who have infested his home, plotted to kill his son, and set their sights on his wife. Almost the entire 24-chapter poem and all of the last 20 years of Odysseus’s life have been working up to this one approaching event. Now, the night before it takes place, we get a look at our hero’s troubled state of mind. What is it like? A sausage, of course! “He still tossed back and forth. Just as a man turns quickly to and fro on a blazing fire a stomach stuffed with fat and blood when he’s keen to roast it fast, that’s how Odysseus tossed around” (403). This is a brilliant image because it is both part of the setting, as with other food references, and also a palpable reflection of the internal state of our desperate hero. We are not only camping out with Odysseus and tasting a Greek sausage, but also feeling his frustration.

This scene of our roasting hero also brings us to deeper layers of meaning that exist in the Odyssey. This is the book whose name has entered our dictionaries as meaning a long and adventurous experience. It teaches the eternal lesson of perseverance and resisting laziness, directly combating today’s failure to launch epidemic whereby a startling number of young adults are unemployed and live with their parents. When Odysseus rejects the sensual temptations of each of the beauties, Calypso, Circe, and Nausicaa, on their respective exotic islands, he provides an example for our youth who must struggle against exposure to inappropriate and pornographic material made easily accessible on the internet. Odysseus’s very words of moral restraint to sorceress Circe, “Send me home,” are described by Homer as having wings (335). They are supernatural in their power and are a gift to all readers.

Returning to the night before the big showdown with the suitors who have infested his home, we see a very realistic depiction of despair in the heart of Odysseus. We learn from him that at these moments we should turn to a higher power that represents goodness—or as people most commonly put it, God. Odysseus turns to the Goddess of War and Wisdom, Athena. Conversing with her, he says, “Yes, goddess, everything you say is true. But the heart inside my chest is worried—How can I handle the shameful suitors, just a single man against so many?” (403) Pulling through in these desperate moments is what defines people’s characters and defines victors over the vanquished in the real world outside of the classroom. A belief in the divine makes this possible.

Such lessons do not only apply to school children. Sadly, today the nation of Greece is in the middle of its own desperate moment in history. A few months ago, a wild fire killed about 100 people on the picturesque coast near Athens. It’s the kind of disaster that is supposed to be reserved for developing countries, not members of the European Union. Meanwhile the country is trying unsuccessfully to dig itself out of economic crisis that led to near bankruptcy just a few years ago. The perseverance of the Odyssey includes the hard work and discipline that can lift individuals and entire nations out of trying times. Further, the belief in goodness and the divine found in the Odyssey give people hope that fuels their perseverance. Greeks today, like all of us, can use more honest hard work and hope in times of despair.

Thus, whether it is delightful descriptions of exotic locations, insights into historical truths, or the teaching of eternal lessons that we can all benefit from, Homer’s 2,700-year-old Odyssey serves up a story that continues to be worth reading and savoring. Schools today should rediscover this classic. In fact, everyone should rediscover this classic. There is nothing to lose and thousands of years of great culture to gain.

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26 Responses

  1. Joseph S. Salemi

    The Odyssey is indeed a seminal text for western culture. However, it is best read after one has absorbed the Iliad, since much of the Odyssey presupposes familiarity with the prior work.

    Reply
    • Evan Mantyk

      Thank you, Mr. Salemi. I agree. In fact, I previously taught the Odyssey and have switched to teaching the Iliad because I find the themes are even deeper and more moving. Ideally, both should be taught in order, and it makes the reappearance of Iliad characters at the end of the Odyssey that much more sublime.

      Reply
      • Joseph S. Salemi

        I now teach only the Iliad to my Humanities classes because of time constraints, but when I taught the Odyssey I would choose only certain books where the narratives were self-contained, such as the Cave of the Cyclops, the Nausikaa episode, and of course the Killing of the Suitors.

  2. James Sale

    A great reminder of one of the wonders of Western civilisation, and I am particularly fond of the Odyssey; I like your focus on the thematics of food, which is really interesting. An interest of mine in this particular poem is that it appears that the journey of Odyssey corresponds to the nine personality types of the Enneagram, my favourite personality profiling tool. Usually, the tool (ennea-Greek for 9) is said to have originated in the 4th century AD, but this indicates it is much older, and so primarily a spiritual tool with which to understand human beings. Basically, each ‘problem’ that Odysseus encounters reflects one of the nine deadly sins of human nature. So, in reverse order, 9s sin is sloth – hence the Lotus Eaters and their drug; 8s sin is the lust to dominate – hence the Cyclops; and so on. It is an extremely profound tool, but then it is a extremely profound poem. There are several sources for this, but for readers wanting to find out more, my favourite is the American writer Michael J Goldberg and his book, ‘Travels with Odysseus’, which I recommend.

    Reply
    • Evan Mantyk

      Thank you, Mr. Sale! I will have to look into this more next time I teach the Odyssey.

      Reply
    • C.B. Anderson

      Dear Evan,

      You have certainly put things in perspective. When I was a young man, my parents (for reasons unbeknownst to me) gave me a copy of Bulfinch’s Greek Mythology, which I read avidly. In college, in a required freshman humanities course I was required to read Richmond Lattimore’s translation of the Iliad, which I found tough sledding. Perhaps his translation wasn’t a very good one. I am in no place to make a judgment about that, but for most high school students I’m sure a condensation would be a much easier read. Yes, much of the nuanced detail would be lost, but it’s unlikely that students of that age would pick it up from a full translation anyway, at least not without a lot of guidance from the teacher.

      Reply
      • Evan Mantyk

        I use an adapted version that is easier to read than the Lattimore translation, and also includes snippets of the Pope poetical translation, and I provide much guidance, including reading long sections to the class myself.

    • C.B. Anderson

      James,

      I always thought that there were seven deadly sins. Pray tell, what exactly are the two extra ones noted by the ancient Greeks? I ask this because I like lists, and it upsets me to know that my list is incomplete.

      Reply
      • Joseph Charles MacKenzie

        You are correct, there are only seven. The Enneagram which Mr. Sale cites as his “favorite personality profiling tool,” is actually the product of a New Age, Novus Ordo “priest” in Albuquerque named Richard Rohr, a communist, anti-Catholic advocate of everything from homosexuality to global warming to abortion (see comments below).

  3. David Paul Behrens

    Dear Evan,

    I have located my copy of the Iliad, which I have owned for many years. I seldom read complete books these days, concentrating more on poetry. The last book I have read from cover to cover is the Bible. You have inspired me to reread the Iliad, and then move on to the Odyssey. Hopefully, for my benefit, I will follow through. Thank you for this inspiration.

    Reply
    • James Sale

      Hi James and CB – this is correct: Deceit (personality 3) and Fear (personality 6) are the two extra ones. Pope Gregory the Great identified 8 Deadly Sins but this was cut back, probably because 7 is a more magical number. A great book to read on this is: The Enneagram: A Christian Perspective by the fabulous writer and Catholic, Father Richard Rohr and Andrea Ebert. According to them, the 9 ‘deep knowings’ correspond to the 9 qualities of God in the Jewish Kabbalah.

      Reply
      • Joseph Charles MacKenzie

        This is incorrect.

        “Tristitia” was associated with “acedia” long before St. Gregory while “vanagloria” and “superbia” were used almost interchangeably. Therefore, if one simply adds “invidia” (which has a scriptural basis), the list naturally reduces to seven. In other words, St. Gregory was simply restating tradition, as opposed to “forcing” a number.

        Notice that St. Thomas Aquinas uses the same list of seven in the Prima Secundae of the Summa Theologica.

        Given a choice between Richard Rohr and St. Thomas, I think I’ll stay with St. Thomas.

    • Joseph Charles MacKenzie

      The Enneagram is an occult New Age religion created by an invalidly “ordained” Vatican II “Franciscan” “priest” named Richard Rohr who runs the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, New Mexico. At his conferences, Rohr promotes not only the Enneagram, but pantheism (God is in everything, i.e., the earth as God’s “body”), Buddhism, and the New Ager Marianne Williamson who preaches that “Christianity is to blame for global warming”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cl4DjbHxh2M

      Rohr wrote and posted an article (on his own website) denying the existence of hell, mocking and caricaturing people who go to confession and ridiculing members of the pro-life movement.

      Rohr supports homosexual activist groups and has co-presided over a lesbian wedding in Albuquerque. He also believes that Male and Female are social constructs: https://cac.org/identity-and-desire-2017-11-09/

      In fine, Rohr’s writing are a cesspool of theological error, scriptural misinterpretation, and anti-Catholic revisionism, which is why he continues to receive support from the Novus Ordo hierarchy of Vatican II.

      Reply
      • Joseph S. Salemi

        Rohr and Williamson are indeed New Age freaks, and its amazing that even the corrupt Vat-2 church continues to tolerate the heretical Rohr as a representative. I suppose at this point they are so starved for priests that they need every warm body they can find.

  4. James A. Tweedie

    Just for fun, here’s a poem I wrote this evening to celebrate this thread, the Seven Deadly Sins (Lust, Gluttony, Greed, Sloth, Wrath, Envy, & Pride) and the two additions from the Enneagram list ( Deceit and Fear). See if you can spot them in the poem. Note that Lust is not necessarily limited to sexual desire. Also note that I put the emphasis on food to reflect Mr. Mantyk’s take on the Odyssey.

    The Seven Deadly Sins Plus Two

    I covet food and eat too much of it.
    Yet, even so, I want to eat much more,
    And when I’m done, I only want to sit
    And laze about all day and be a bore.

    This makes my wife and children furious,
    Because I told my friends that I retired
    And was too proud, afraid, imperious,
    To curb their envy by admitting . . . I was fired.

    Reply
  5. David Watt

    Evan, your essay serves as a timely reminder of the Classics’ continuing value to society. Drawing our attention to the pivotal role of food in The Odyssey, and Greek culture in general, gives new meaning to the term ‘Food for Thought.’

    Reply
  6. Joseph Charles MacKenzie

    And, of course, we owe the preservation of the great works of antiquity to the Benedictines and other medieval monastic orders.

    It was Fr. Bernard de Montfaucon, the founder of the discipline of paleography, who laid the foundation for the modern study of ancient Greek manuscripts. He remains authoritative.

    Reply
  7. Evan Mantyk

    Dear Mr. MacKenzie,
    Thank you for the insights, which I was unaware of. I will delete the links I posted above and reserve my personal judgment until I have the time and need to explore further.

    At any rate, the Odyssey has a host of lessons to teach and should not be left off reading lists! (Though perhaps I am biased since I own a Honda Odyssey and my daughter’s name is Penelope… )

    Reply
    • Joseph Charles MacKenzie

      In his De Civitate Dei, you will find St. Augustine speaking of the virtues of some pagans. However, he consistently states that such virtues, because lacking ordination to God, are insufficient. In general, the theologians hold that merely “natural virtue,” like the natural intellect, must be illumined by faith if they are to have supernatural merit.

      For St. Thomas, the moral virtues are not unimportant, but rather “cardinal,” to be sure. But he and all theologians agree that that they are only operative “in harmony with” the theological virtues.

      For St. Augustine, indeed, the virtues of the pagans are ultimately but vices.

      By a kind of academic programming we insist that Homer is somehow essential in this way or that. And yet, many a better and nobler age than ours has managed quite well without Homer.

      You may find, one day—or never find—that one paragraph of St. Bernard of Clairvaux is worth more than all the Odyssey, one antiphon of some anonymous monk worth more than all the Iliad.

      Life is very, very short. Few men ever give themselves time live their own journey.

      Every saint in heaven was the hero of his own, not another’s, Odyssey, be their time on earth ten years or a hundred.

      Reply
  8. James Sale

    “No way of articulating the human situation has proven more helpful in my personal development or in my professional work than has the Enneagram” – Suzanne Zuercher OSB, a member of the Benedictine Sisters of Chicago, in her book, Enneagram Spirituality, published by the Ave Maria Press. This gives a wonderful and positively Catholic view of the Enneagram from a very devout Catholic and I strongly recommend the wisdom contained in it – the 9 types are part of 3 wider divisions and the final chapters of the book depict how 3 people Jesus interacts with after the Resurrection reveal the three basic types: Mary Magdalene, Thomas and Peter. Fascinating stuff.

    Reply
    • Joseph Charles MacKenzie

      Is it licit for you to reference a Benedictine nun in the Society of Classical Poets, James, to quote your own statement from your comment below:

      “We need to keep in mind at all times the obvious: namely, that the SCP is The Society of Classical Poets and not The Society of Catholic Poets.”

      This is prescinding, of course, from the fact that Suzanne Zuercher was a member of the very same counterfeit Catholicism that that Rohr advocates. Nor does publication in Ava Maria Press rescue her.

      Reply
  9. James Sale

    We need to keep in mind at all times the obvious: namely, that the SCP is The Society of Classical Poets and not The Society of Catholic Poets. A small distinction, perhaps, for some, but an important issue for the many vibrant readers of and writers for these wonderful SCP pages. Long may Classical Poetry live – as it will.

    Reply
    • Joseph Charles MacKenzie

      Allow me, please, to rephrase your statement, Mr. Sale:

      We need to keep in mind at all times the obvious: namely, that the SCP is The Society of Classical Poets, and not the Society of New Age pseudo-Christianity, the official religion of the secular-atheist left…

      …a small distinction, perhaps, for some, but an important issue for the many vibrant readers and writers for these wonderful SCP pages.

      Reply

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