I have just completed Homer’s Odyssey in a prose translation by Rieu and Rieu. How could I reach such an advanced age without having read it? Yes, I did know the story, but that’s not the same thing at all. Like knowing the plot of Hamlet without ever reading or seeing the play. About 30 years ago I stumbled through the Iliad. I didn’t like the Iliad very much: too many gods, too much blood and mayhem, too many petty quarrels over booty. There’s plenty of blood and booty in the Odyssey also, with many appearances by Athena of the bright eyes in various guises, but the feeling I have for it is entirely different.
Odysseus is a true Greek hero, brave but full of flaws. He looks for more booty instead of going straight home to wife and child. He enters the Cyclops cave without an invitation and eats his cheese, no less. Not satisfied to get away after losing several of his men, he has to taunt the blinded giant who is then almost able to sink his boat. We constantly hear that Odysseus is resourceful, clever, cunning. He is all these things, but he is also curious, hot headed and more than a little greedy. Again, while sitting in disguise among the riotous suiters of his wife Penelope, he almost blows the whole thing by provoking a fight. He is no gentle soul. When the old nurse recognizes him, he grips her by the throat:
I am indeed home after twenty years of grief and touble. But, since a god has revealed it to you, keep your moth shut and let not a soul in the house learn the truth. Otherwise I tell you plainly — and you know I make no idle threats — that if the gods deliver these fine Suitors into my hands I won’t spare you, though you’re my own nurse, on the day when I put the rest of the maids in my palace to death.
In the Odyssey, we travel in a different time, a time recorded by Homer over 2500 years ago but set in an even earlier age. Men are violent, seeking food, women and treasure. They also seek adventure. They want to see the world. They know they are not perfect, yet they glory in such strength as they have and fear death. They are us, or we are them, but the focus shifts slightly, sometimes clear and sometimes fuzzy. Still, I think we can imagine them more clearly than they could have imagined us.