.

The Odyssey

Translator’s Note: The Odyssey, Book 1, which exemplifies
an essential feature of Homer’s art as a storyteller, the
way he composes the books of his epics as wholes, each
with its own beginning, middle, and end.

by Homer (circa 8th century BC)
Translated from Greek by Mike Solot

Book 1

THE MAN, MUSE, tell me the tale of that man
Who survived on his wits—driven afar in his wanderings
After he looted the citadel sacred to Troy.
So many cities he saw and minds he mastered,
So many heartbreaking sorrows he suffered at sea
As he struggled to save his own life and bring his men home;
But not even he could protect them, hard though he tried.
His shipmates were reckless—the fools!—dooming themselves
By gorging on cattle they stole from the pastures of Helios,
God of the Sun, who darkened their homecoming day.

Begin where you will, Goddess, and sing for us too.

AFTER THE OTHERS returned—those who had lived through
The havoc of war and escaped the abyss of the sea—
One man alone was left longing for home and his wife.
He was held in the caves of Calypso, a ravishing nymph,
An immortal who desperately wanted to make him her husband,
And did, through year after year as the seasons kept turning
Until they had come to that autumn ordained by the gods
For his voyaging home; and there, even on Ithaca,
Back among people he loved, he would still be in danger
And still have to fight. So the gods now took pity—they all did,
Except for Poseidon, the sea god who’d boil and rage
Until mighty Odysseus stepped on his homeland, at last.

But Poseidon was gone, far away, called to a feast
By remote Ethiopians, people whose faces are burnt.
They live at the ends of the earth, divided in two:
One tribe where Helios rises and one where he sets.
They’d sacrificed hundreds of rams and bulls to Poseidon,
So while he was lingering there, taking his pleasure,
The other gods gathered together to meet in assembly,
Crowding the halls of the father of men and immortals,
Olympian Zeus. And he was the first one to speak,
For thoughts of Aegisthus still rankled inside him—his crimes
And his death at the hands of that famous avenger, Orestês.

“Mortals!”—he boomed at the others—“Always complaining
And blaming the gods for whatever afflicts them. Pah!
They do it themselves! Their wantonness hurts them far worse
Than the evils they’re fated to suffer. Just look at Aegisthus!
It wasn’t his fate to go after and marry a woman
Already the wife of the king, Agamemnon, then trick him
And trap him and kill him the day he came home from the war.
Aegisthus knew well it meant death. We’d already warned him
A long time before when we sent down a message with Hermês:
‘Don’t woo the wife,’ he had told him, ‘and don’t slay the king,
Or Orestês, the son, will grow into manhood and come for you
Seeking revenge.’ So Hermês had told him, trying to help,
But he just wouldn’t listen. And now he has paid for it all.”

His gleaming-eyed daughter Athena cried, “O Son of Cronus,
Your Majesty, Highest and Mightiest, Father of All,
Yes, that dog died the death he so richly deserved,
And so should they all, the wretches who do what he did!
But Odysseus, far from his loved ones, is trapped on an island
Alone in the sea, at the eye of its spiraling whorl—
The poor man is just wasting away! It’s tearing my heart!
The island is wooded and home to a daughter of Atlas,
That sinister titan who braces the pillars of heaven
While scanning the waters for secrets that lurk in the deep.
It’s his daughter who’s holding Odysseus. Day after day
She seductively coos at him, casting a spell with her sweet talk
To make him forget about home—but he’d rather be dead!
He’s aching for Ithaca, sick with a longing to see it,
Even a glimpse of the smoke puffing up from its shore.
Now didn’t Odysseus honor you year after year,
Doing the rites by his ships on the beaches of Troy?
He worshipped you, Zeus! Why do you hate him so much?”

Zeus of the Thunderhead rumbled and scolded her, “Child!
The drivel that flies from your mouth! How can you think
I’d forget such a hero? His mind is unmatched among mortals,
And no man on earth ever offered so many sweet victims
As gifts for the undying gods, the lords of the sky.
It’s Poseidon, the Earthshaker, still in a rage at your favorite
For reaming the eye of the Cyclops, the son he begot
By that sea nymph, Thoôsa, a daughter of salty old Phorcys,
Lord of some churning abyss; deep in a grotto
She lay with Poseidon, and later she bore him a son—
Polyphemus, the biggest and strongest of all the Cyclopês.
So Earthshaker hates him, Odysseus, for blinding his son.
He doesn’t dare kill him, but won’t let him land on his island,
Making him wander instead. So let’s all think together
And help him get home. My brother Poseidon is strong
But he’ll have to let go of his wrath. He can’t stand alone
Against all the immortals, defying the will of the gods.”

Athena’s grey eyes were aglow. “O Father,” she said,
“Your Majesty, Master of All, if it pleases the gods
That Odysseus find his way home, send Quicksilver Hermês
To fly down as fast as he can to the island Ogygia
And tell her, this nymph with the lovelocks, our ruling is final:
Stalwart Odysseus must be allowed to return.
I’ll handle his son on my own. I’ll go down at once
To embolden the boy, I’ll quicken the courage inside him
And get him to summon the Ithacan lords to assembly—
The commoners too—so he can denounce all those suitors
Who day by day slaughter more sheep from his clustering flocks
And more of his lumbering, foot-flopping, spiral-horned beeves.
Then after the meeting I’ll send him to Pylos and Sparta
For news of his father’s return. He may not learn much
But he’ll mingle with men of the world and begin to be known.”

She bent down to tie on her radiant, sweet-smelling sandals—
Woven of gold, they wafted her far over waters
And endless horizons of earth on a breath of the wind—
Then she picked up her powerful spear. It was big, solid,
Heavily shafted and pointed with finely edged bronze—
The very same weapon she wields against heroes in battle
Whenever they anger this daughter of Almighty Zeus
And she smashes their lines in a rage. She leapt from Olympus
To Ithaca, landing in front of the house of Odysseus,
Right at the steps leading down from the porch to the yard,
Still holding her spear, but now in the likeness of Mentês,
A Taphian chief and a family friend from before.
Suitors were sprawled out on hides of the cattle they’d killed,
Relaxing, betting on knucklebones, passing the time
While their heralds and henchmen were busy at work in the hall,
Blending the water and wine, arranging the tables,
Sponging them down, and laying on plenty of meat.

Telemachus noticed her long before anyone else.
He was sitting surrounded by suitors, anxiously brooding,
Imagining how they would run if his father appeared:
If only he’d come out of nowhere and scatter these wooers,
He said to himself, I would finally get some respect!
My wealth would be mine to enjoy! Lost in these daydreams
He jumped when he first saw Athena and rushed to the porch,
Ashamed that a stranger should stand at his doorway so long.
He accepted her spear, clasped her right hand in his own,
And ushered her into the house, winging his words,
“Welcome, dear Stranger! Please come inside as my guest.
After you’ve eaten you’ll let me know how I can serve you.”
Pallas Athena stepped into the hall with her host.

He first set her spear in a well-polished rack by a pillar—
It still held the shafts of his father, enduring Odysseus—
Then laid out a cloth on the seat of an elegant armchair,
Smoothed it, set down a footstool in front for Athena
And drew up a chair for himself, a painted recliner.
He’d chosen a place well away from the seats of the suitors:
My guest, he was thinking, would be too disgusted to eat
In the din of those roistering louts! And I don’t want anyone
Hearing us talk when I ask him for news of my father.
A maidservant came, bringing a pitcher of water
And basin to rinse off their hands, then pulled up their tables.
A dignified housekeeper passed by with bread for the baskets
And loaded their tables with generous helpings of savories.
The carver put meats of all kinds on the platters before them
And set down their winecups, goblets of finely worked gold.
The wine-pourer filled them again and again on his rounds.

The suitors now swaggered inside, taking their places;
Some sat in armchairs, others leaned back in recliners.
As heralds fetched water to rinse off the hands of their masters
The housemaids were busily heaping up bread in their baskets
And serving-boys saw to their wine, brimming the bowls.
The men put their hands to the fare lying ready before them.
When their desire for food and drink was contented
The revellers eagerly turned to those other amusements
That follow a feast, the pleasures of dancing and song,
So they ordered a herald to carry the lyre to Phemius,
The minstrel who sang for the suitors—but not by his choice.
“Sing,” they had told him, “or else!” He plucked at the strings
As the hall settled down, then struck up a beautiful song.

Telemachus, meanwhile, bent his head close to Athena’s
So no one could hear as he said to her, “Will it disturb you,
My friend, if I speak? It’s twanging and tales they want now—
And why not? They should feel relaxed after eating for free!
That mutton and beef they devoured were somebody else’s,
Someone whose bones, on some seacoast, are rotting in rain,
Or out in the briny they’re tumbling along in the waves.
If only they saw him come home! They’d all soon be praying—
For feet that run faster, not fancier clothing and gold.
But he’s lost to some horrible fate. It’s hopeless—so hopeless
I’ll never again trust an earth-dwelling mortal who says to me,
‘Listen, your father is now on his way. He’ll be here!’
His homecoming day hasn’t dawned, and it won’t. But enough!
Please, tell me your story. I want to hear everything.
Who are you? Where are you from? Who are your parents?
What sort of ship brought you here? What course was she on?
Where is she anchored? And who are the men in her crew?
Or did you just walk here on water? Is this the first time
You’ve come to our island, or are you a friend of my father’s?
We used to have so many guests in our house, so I hear,
When he was alive and still making his way among men.”

The gleaming-eyed goddess Athena said, “So many questions—
But yes, I’ll answer each one and I won’t twist a thing.
I’m Mentês, chief of the oar-loving Taphian people,
A son of the pirate Anchialus—proud of it too.
I did come by ship, with a crew, on the wine-purple sea:
We’re taking a cargo of iron to barter for copper
At Temesê—if I can make out that lingo they talk.
We put in to water the ship at a stream you call Reithron,
Away from the town, and heaved out our anchoring stones
In a cove lying under the tree-covered slopes of Mount Neion.”

“Your people and mine have been hosting each other for years.
Go ask Laertês, your grandfather—who, so I hear,
Never comes into town anymore, but stays on his farm
Where he suffers, alone, with just an old woman to help him,
A housekeeper, someone who gives him his victuals and drink
When he drags himself in from his terraces, tired and sore
After tending his trees and his vines. So why am I here?
I heard people saying your father was finally home,
But it seems the immortals are blocking his way, even now;
I know he’s not dead—not him!—not splendid Odysseus!
Somewhere on earth he’s alive, trapped on an island
Alone in the sea, a captive of wildmen, savages—
Brutes who keep holding him back when he wants to go home.
Now listen, here is a prophecy. No, I’m no soothsayer
Versed in the secrets of birds, but I do have an inkling
The gods put inside me: your father will make his return
To the island he loves. It’ll happen, I tell you, and soon.
Even if he were shackled in irons he’d find his way home—
That’s how ingenious he is. Now a question for you:
Tall as you are, can you be the son of Odysseus?
Strange, how I see him in you. The set of the head,
That look in the eye. We two were quite thick in those days—
Before he sailed off to the war with the best of the Greeks—
But I haven’t clapped eyes on him since, nor has he seen me.”

Telemachus paused before answering, “All right, my friend,
You asked me the question so here is the truth: I don’t know.
My mother keeps trying to tell me, ‘Of course you’re his son!’
But really, does anyone know his own father for certain?
I do know I wish he were one of those fortunate men
Who stay home as they ease into age, enjoying their wealth—
But no! The most ill-fated man among men was my father!
Of him I was born! Or so I am told, since you ask.”

Athena’s eyes sparkled. “Penelope bore you,” she said,
“So splendid a son, so your family’s name will live on.
It’s what the gods wanted! But now may I ask something else?
How is it you have such a mob at this feast in your house?
Who are they to you? This ain’t no peaceable potluck!
What is it? Some big lavish banquet gone wild? A wedding?
To see them all gorging, swilling and strutting—it’s shameful!—
An outrage to anyone decent who happens to come as a guest!”

Telemachus drew in his breath, then said to her, “Friend,
Since you keep probing and asking me questions, I’ll tell you.
There was a time when our household was rich and refined,
When my father was here—but no more, thanks to the gods
Who were scheming against us. They wanted Odysseus gone
So he just disappeared, completely, like no other mortal.
I wouldn’t be moaning like this if he’d died off in Troy:
The Greeks would’ve heaped up a gravemound and I, as his son,
I’d have been famous myself for the rest of my life.
But no, he was snatched by the whirlwinds and swept to a void
Where he vanished—poof!—gone!—without leaving a trace,
Except for the troubles and tears he bequeathed to his son.
That’s all I inherit! And now, thanks again to the gods,
I’m tormented by more than the loss of my father. Much more.
All the young nobles from each of the islands around,
The lordlings of Samê, Doulichion, and wooded Zakynthos—
Along with the princes of hardscrabble Ithaca too—
They all are here wooing my mother. She never says ‘Yes,’
But she can’t bring herself to say ‘No’ to a marriage she hates
So they hang on and eat, devouring all that I have!
Next they’ll be coming for me! They’ll grind me to nothing!”

Pallas Athena broke in with a hiss as she whispered,
“Odysseus! So far away when you need him so much!
He’d give them a taste of his hands, these men without shame.
Imagine him standing there now on the threshold, your father,
Helmeted, armed with a shield and a pair of his spears—
Just like that first time I saw him step into our house
When he put in at Taphos, breaking his voyage back home
To relax and drink wine in our hall. Oh, he enjoyed it!”

“He’d just come from Ephyra where he’d been looking for poison
To smear on the tips of his arrows. King Ilus refused him
The man-killing drugs, for fear of offending the gods,
But my father was carried away by the charm of our guest
So he gave him whatever he wanted. If that old Odysseus,
As he was then, came back here and took on these wooers
They’d all soon be married—a cold, bitter marriage with Death!”

“But who can say whether or not he’ll return to his halls
And take his revenge? That’s all in the laps of the gods—
You need to start thinking yourself about how to get rid of them.
Here’s what you do, so listen, and pay close attention.
Call an assembly tomorrow to tell the whole island
You’ve made up your mind, invoking the gods as your witness:
Tell them the suitors must scatter, back to their homes,
And your mother—if she is moved to be thinking of marriage—
Let her go back to her father, a powerful man,
So her family can see to the wedding and settle her dowry—
A big one, as much as a dearly loved daughter deserves.”

“Now here’s more advice about what you can do on your own;
If you’re smart, you’ll do what I say. Borrow a ship,
The best you can find, get twenty good oarsmen and go off
To learn what you can of your father. You might hear a tale,
A report from some mortal, or maybe you’ll pick up a rumor
From Zeus—that’s the way people get most of their news.
First go to Pylos to seek out the wisdom of Nestor;
From there go to Sparta and see Menelaus the Blond,
The last of the bronze-clad Achaeans to make his way back.
If you hear that your father’s alive and is still coming home
I think you can wait for a year, whatever you lose.
And if he is dead? If you learn he is no longer living
Then come back and heap up a gravemound—doing the rites,
Whatever is proper—and see that your mother is wed.”

“But if he’s alive you’ll have to come up with a plan,
A way you can kill all these suitors infesting your house—
By stealth, if you like, or straight out in open attack.
Now is the time to start using your brains and your guts.
Act like a man! You’re not a boy anymore!
Think of the hero Orestês, the fame and the glory
He won for himself when he did in Aegisthus, that schemer,
The liar who lured in his father and killed him. My boy,
You too can be brave—I see that you’re tall and well made—
And those who are yet to be born will be singing your praises.
But it’s time I should go, back to my ship and my crew—
I know how they grumble when I keep them waiting too long.
It’s now up to you: all this I’ve told you—remember!”

Telemachus sucked in a breath, paused, and then answered,
“I will! Friend, you’ve spoken so kindly to me,
As a father would speak to his son, and I’ll never forget it.
But please, can’t you stay, as eager as you are to sail?
Why not relax with a bath, and then you can leave
With a heartwarming gift, a special remembrance of me—
The sort of thing hosts offer strangers to mark them as friends.”

Athena’s eyes flashed as she answered, “Telemachus, please,
I’m keen to pull anchor, so don’t make me stay any longer.
That gift, I’m sure it is heartfelt, but keep it for now
And I’ll take it the next time I come, on my voyage back home.
Make it a fine one! You get back as good as you give.”

With that she was gone. Telemachus looked round for Mentês
But all he could see was a swallow up high by the rafters,
Flitting away through the smoke-hole. Alive with the courage
She’d planted inside him he thought of his father—an image
More vivid than ever before—and his heart skipped a beat:
That stranger, he said to himself, that was a god!
In an instant he got up and strode like a god to the suitors.

THEY SAT THERE in silence, caught in the spell of the bard
Who was chanting out tale after tale of the many disasters
Athena inflicted on Greeks coming home from the war.
As snatches of song drifted up to Penelope’s chamber
The circumspect daughter of Icarius heard the sad stories
And came down the stairs from her room to the hall—not alone,
But with two of her servants behind. She walked by her wooers
And stopped at a column that held up the beams of the roof,
Clutching her glistening headscarf in front of her cheeks.
Her handmaids stood watchful, one at each side of their queen.

She burst into tears as she screamed at the singer, “Phemius!
Stop! With so many tales of enchantment to choose from—
The doings of men and immortals already made famous
By god-gifted minstrels—why can’t you sing something else
While these men sit here quietly, listening, sipping their wine?
Enough of this miserable song! It’s stabbing my heart
With the worst pain I know, the one I want most to forget!
I never stop seeing his face—the husband I yearn for—
A man who was famed across Hellas and deep into Argos!”

Telemachus drew a big breath before answering, “Mother!
Why are you squawking? A singer who’s worthy, like this one,
Must follow the stirrings he feels as he chooses his songs.
Don’t blame the singers—it’s Zeus! He doles out misfortune
To those who must struggle for bread, just as he wishes,
So why make a fuss over tales of the Greeks who were lost?
People like songs that sound fresh in their ears. The newest—
That’s what they want, so you’ll have to learn how to listen,
And take it. You seem to think it was only my father
Who suffered and died, whose homecoming day was destroyed—
But so many others were killed! Go up to your room
And get busy, twirling your spindle and working your loom,
And see that your women are busy with work of their own.
Speeches are best left to men, to all of us here,
But especially me: I am the man in this house!”

Stunned, Penelope turned to go back to her chamber,
Repeating the masterful words of her son in her heart.
She went up the stairs, her handmaidens trailing behind her,
Then lay down and wailed for her husband, her love—in tears
Till Athena took pity and sprinkled her eyes with sweet sleep.

Down in the hall amid torches and flickering shadows
The suitors went wild, all of them hooting and praying
To lie down beside her in bed. Telemachus shouted
“You’re filthy, you pigs! My mother’s not one of your whores!
Can’t we have quiet, at least? Stick to your feasting,
Take all the pleasure you like from the tales of this bard—
It’s lovely to listen to singing as sweet as a god’s—
But just wait! At daybreak tomorrow I’ll call an assembly
So everyone hears when I tell you all straight to your face
To stay out of my house. Go somewhere else for your feasts!
Let each take his turn being host! Eat your own food!
If you think it’s better to chew up the wealth of just one,
To reap from his ruin and pay nothing back in return—
Then eat! But I will cry out to the gods everlasting,
Praying for payback from Zeus: all of you killed,
Right here in my house, and each of your deaths unavenged!”

The suitors, all startled, sat biting their lips as they wondered,
But how can he speak out so boldly? He’s only a boy.
Antinoûs, son of Eupeithês, ended the silence:
“Listen to you, Telemachus, such a big talker!
You seem to have learned from the gods how to take us to task—
But don’t expect Zeus to be making you king of this island
Because it’s your birthright. For your sake I pray that he won’t.”

Telemachus waited, thought, and then answered, “Antinoûs,
Don’t take offense when I tell you that I’d be delighted
If Zeus were to bless me by making me king of the island.
Do you really think that’s the worst that can happen? I don’t.
It isn’t so bad: the riches flow into your house—
And fast—and as for yourself, you get more respect.
Of course there are plenty of others on Ithaca, princes,
Young ones and old, who might take the place of Odysseus,
Now that he’s dead, as our king. But here I am lord!
This is my house, these are my goods and my bondmen—
Won by my father as booty and left here for me!”

Eurymachus, son of Polybus, a baron with big herds of cattle,
Broke in and said to Telemachus, “Who will be king?
All that is lying, for now, in the laps of the gods.
I only pray you can keep all your chattels and stay here
As lord of this house. How terrible if you should lose them,
If somebody came in and snatched all your riches, and you,
You could do nothing against him because he was stronger—
Stronger than everyone living on Ithaca too!
But that stranger, your Lordship, may I please ask who he was?
What sort of land does his family farm, and where?
Did he come here with news of your wandering, faraway father,
Or did he have business, some private affair of his own?
How quickly he got up and left! We all might have met him
If only he’d stayed. Not a bad sort of fellow, he seemed.”

Telemachus sat for a moment, thinking, then answered,
“Eurymachus, I know my father will never come home,
So I no longer listen to rumors—wherever they start—
Or pay any heed to the portents revealed by diviners
My mother brings into our house, hoping for signs.
That stranger was Mentês, a friend of my father’s from Taphos,
A son of the pirate Anchialus—that’s what he said—
And he boasted that he was the chief of his oar-loving people.”

Telemachus told them that story, but inside he knew
That the stranger he’d hosted had been an immortal, a god.
The suitors returned to the music, to singing and swaying,
Enjoying themselves in the hall until evening fell.
They kept to their revels, dancing as dusk turned to darkness,
Then finally went to their beds, each to his own.

Telemachus walked through the courtyard to go to his room—
It was high, in a kind of a tower, commanding a view—
With much on his mind as he went. His loving old nurse
Eurycleia went with him, carrying torches aflame.
She was born to a family of princes—her father was Ops,
The son of Peisenor—but she had been sold to Laertês,
Long, long ago, as a nurse for his baby, Odysseus.
Back then she was blooming, still in the first flush of youth,
And he paid twenty oxen to have her—for she was a girl
He admired as much as he did Anticleia, his wife—
But he never once took her to bed. The queen saw to that.
And now Eurycleia was lighting the way for the prince.
Of all of the women who served him she loved him the most
Because just as she suckled his father, she’d suckled him too.
He opened his doors, sat on the edge of his bed,
Took off his comfortable tunic and tossed it away
To the canny old dame, who shook it and patted it smooth,
Hanging it next to the bed on a peg in the wall.
She stepped from the room, pulled the door to with a hook—
A beak made of silver—and drew the bolt home with its strap.
There, all through the night, covered in fleeces,
He thought of the journey Athena had laid out before him.

.

.

Mike Solot was born in Tucson, Arizona, where he now lives.  His translation of the Odyssey is nearly completed.


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6 Responses

  1. Cheryl Corey

    Mike, I don’t know Greek, but any translation of this magnitude is quite an accomplishment. I commend your effort.

    Reply
  2. Mike Solot

    Mr. Frank, I’m still polishing here and there and hope to be able to publish the whole thing. Thank you.

    Reply
  3. Margaret Coats

    Mike, it may have taken me quite a while to read this, but that’s because of my schedule, not because of your most readable story. Yours is an almost incredible project, but having had the opportunity of talking to Emily Wilson, I know one other person who has tried it. Her project (although different from her original motive) was to give greater attention to figures neglected by the language of other translators, particularly slaves and women. This focus enabled her to display some highly focused scenes that other English versions have missed. I wonder whether you also have areas of special attention. I see that your language is formal only in the sense of having regular meter, which I like very much as your nod to the formality of the original. That formal framework, I would say, gives you the freedom to colloquialize in what characters say. Overall, a most satisfactory presentation!

    Reply
    • Mike Solot

      Ms. Coats,

      Thank you for your kind words and thoughtful comments. I’m familiar with pieces of Ms. Wilson’s version, though I haven’t read it through. I was especially interested in those scenes in which women play a prominent part and, in particular, her handling of the disloyal slavegirls: the way they were described by Homer, by his characters, what they themselves did and said (I mean Melantho, their ringleader) and ultimately, their execution by Telemachus.

      If I have any areas of special attention as Ms. Wilson does, one might be the humor of the Odyssey–an important element, I believe, generally missed. Odysseus, for example, likes to make jokes at others’ expense in such a way that they don’t know he’s doing it. The “Noman” trick he plays on the Cyclops is famous, of course, but I find this to be a consistent feature of his character, even when dealing with his own son, wife, and father. Homer likes to be funny too, most broadly in the Ares and Aphrodite interlude (the epic equivalent of a 1930s screwball comedy) but there are many places where he more subtly mocks his own characters: Nestor is well known in this regard, and I find him doing the same thing with Telemachus, Peisistratus, Alcinous, and Theoclymenus, among others.

      Homer makes fun of Odysseus too. For example, once he and Penelope have been fully reconciled he recounts his great Wanderings for her (or, to be precise, Homer reports his tale in the third person). But when it comes to his liaison with Calypso Odysseus somehow fails to mention that he spent seven years alone with her in her fragrant island paradise and that she loved him, two facts he didn’t mind telling Arete, the Phaeacian queen. Of the nature of their affair all he says to Penelope is, “But she never won over [my] heart.” That’s literal; I give it in our own idiom as, “But it really meant nothing at all” so as to make the point Homer wants to make for his listeners. They knew all about those seven years, as Penelope did not, and they also knew that Odysseus had been well satisfied with Calypso until, as they were told in the seventh, “the nymph was no longer a pleasure.” So imagine how they responded when they heard the hero fall back on that evidently immemorial line, “But it really meant nothing at all!” Wouldn’t they have burst out laughing at him for this transparent dodge? Or maybe it was only the men in the audience who were laughing. In the shadowlands of Homeric humor we’re only guessing at the shapes we think we can see, but if the men were indeed roaring at Odysseus then the ladies, to be fair, must have been hooting and jeering the hero even more lustily.

      This is just the sort of thing that separates the Odyssey from its much more serious elder brother, the Iliad. In the Iliad men are driven by their ideals, and their struggles with those ideals give the poem a splendor and an intensity the Odyssey can never match. The Odyssey is rooted instead in the most elemental human needs and appetites–survival, shelter, sex, warmth, family, revenge, and of course food. It doesn’t aim to transcend ordinary human experience, only to heighten it and make it more noble, perhaps, in its own homely, often humorous way.

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