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.