Friday, December 17, 2010

Wrong About the Odyssey

I recently read the Iliad and the Odyssey, back to back, in their entirety. I'd encountered bits and pieces of them in high school and college, reading excerpts necessary for understanding subsequent works (damn near all of Western literature if you're to trust some sources, but that's a different essay), and I've read Joyce's Ulysses which uses the structure of the Odyssey to tell the story of hapless and heroic Leopold Bloom. There is a lot to say about both epic poems, especially when re-imagining and re-interpreting the events and images in terms of contemporary society, but one thing above all else stood out for me; how wrong I was about the Odyssey.

Being an object of culture, referenced in all media and all different levels of artistic expression, just about everyone knows something about the Odyssey. We have a cultural familiarity whether we've read the Odyssey, read excerpts of it in school, or just encountered it in references in movies and comic books. We all have an idea of what the Odyssey is about and what happens in it. Well, we're wrong.

The Odyssey is a story of the strife endured by Odysseus as he struggled against the gods to return home to Ithaca from the Trojan War. However, of the ten years it takes him to get back to Ithaca from Troy, seven are spent in the strife and struggle of being the lover of the nymph Calypso, where she fed him ambrosia, had sex with him every night (and not just regular sex, but nymph sex), kept him from aging, and promised to make him immortal if only he stayed with her. (Did I mention it was nymph sex?) That's 70% of his time abroad. May all of your struggles and strife be 70% nymph sex.

While we're on the topic of what Odysseus actually spent his time doing during his trip, he spent a whole lot of narrative time with the Phaenicians, who were not cannibals, or opium addicts, or man-eating monsters. No sea beasts. No deceitful women. No angry gods raining petty vengeance upon a powerless mortal. Rather, they are a wealthy and generous sea merchants who treat Odysseus to a massive feast, imply that he could marry the daughter of the king, and shower him with more gifts than he won in all of his plunder of Troy (which of course, went down with his ship) before returning him to Ithaca on a ship so fast and so smooth that he sleeps through the entire journey.

Furthermore, a full third of the poem takes place after Odysseus has returned to Ithaca and involves his plot to deal with the suitors, a goal “nudged” along by Athena. To recap; 70% of the journey was spent as the boy toy of a nymph, another big chunk of the story takes place on Ithaca, another substantial percent is taken up with the Phaenicians, and there's a whole bunch of stuff about Telemachus that doesn't even involve Odysseus at all. The big events from the Odyssey that we all know about even if we haven't read it; the Cyclops, the Sirens, the Lotus Eaters, Odysseus in Hades, Circe and the whole turning the crew into pigs thing, are a very small part of the actual story as it is told.

Cultural memory is a process of extrusion; as an artifact whether it's an epic poem, story, person, or idea is transferred around a culture its complexity is shaved off and members of the culture are aware of a simplified version of the entity. What a cultural artifact becomes when most in the culture do not have direct contact with it, is important, not just in understanding Homer or Shakespeare, but in more general issues of society. How many of our political decisions are based on the cultural artifacts of the American Revolution? How many of our politicians appeal to concepts of “freedom” and “liberty” without any examination of the documents and events that built those concepts? The most direct example of this is the constant claim that the United States is a “Christian Nation,” a claim that can be made when the distinction between, “a spirituality based in Christian mythology,” (which is what most of the Founders actually had) and “Christianity” is lost or ignored.

I haven't met anybody with the time to read every major readable cultural artifact and the point is not that everyone should feel obligated to read everything (there's a lot of Shakespeare out there, and frankly the Federalist Papers get a little dry after a while), but that we realize that what we know of all of these artifacts are simplified versions. This is fine when enjoying art or entertainment that references these entities, but this is not fine when, say, making a policy decision or establishing a personal belief structure. In terms of important decisions, it seems reasonable to ask people to do a little research.

Oh, and the Trojan Horse thing; doesn't happen in either of them. A bard mentions it in a song about the Trojan War (a song Odysseus requested). Nor does Achilles die his famous death. The Illiad actually ends with the funeral for Hector, the only honest to god decent human being in the entire story (No, seriously, Agammemon is an arrogant jerk, Achilles sulks in his tent while his friends die because he didn't get the slave girl he wanted, and well, Odysseus himself sacked an innocent city on his way home from the war and executed servant girls who were born after he left for Troy for sleeping with suitors.) who valiantly fought hordes of invaders and spent his last night before he knew he was going to die with his wife and infant son. And what does he get for his bravery and general decency; he gets his dead body dragged back and forth in front of the gates of Troy behind a chariot. In the extruded versions of these epic poems it's Achilles and Odysseus who are thought of as the heroes, but after actually reading them, Hector is the one worthy of respect.


  1. Hi Josh,

    Great post! I'm sorry I read it late and didn't respond earlier.

    There were three things that came to mind after reading this:

    1.) The Federalist Papers were interminable nevermind dry (P.S. this is comming from a guy who has read Foucault's "History of Madness", Wallace's "Infinite Jest" and Joyce's "Ulysses" The length of a work has no relation to suffering one can endure while reading. Just pick a random academic journal article (say 7 -30 pgs.) and try to get all the way through it without missing a detail. I'm sure you know exactly what I'm talking about. Maybe if you don't you'll get it after you've finished reading this response to your blog. ;)

    2.) Maybe you're on to something with Hector. Often times people in High Context cultures (Edward T. Hall) name their children things that reflect their values. My favorite example is "Kareem" from Arab/Muslim culture. It just means "generous." I've met several folks named Hector throughout my life. Hector means "holding fast" in Greek. Maybe the parents of these people were trying to tell them something about who they hoped their child would grow to be like. I hope we all have a little Hector in us from time to time.

    3.) Something else about Hector... There have been studies showing that when participants played an online game where they could give money to other players or keep it for themselves they were fairly generous. Until the computer player started giving more than they did. Not only did it reduce how much they handed out, when asked if they'd play with "that guy" (<-- having fun, not an actual quote) again, the majority of them would rather not. "That guy" (the computer) made them look bad. When it's a research study this doesn't seem to matter much. But, in real life? If you're "that guy" you might just get dragged behind a chariot. In social pschology there's a term "rate buster" for people who work more or perform better than their peers. They will be marginalized by their co-workers (maybe even their bosses) in an attempt to get them to conform to the expectations of the group. An example from my own life in grad school, it seems to actually read the texts assigned for a course is a fools errand. There's a developmental gravity that keeps most people from getting too far away from the rest of group. Chained, as it were, to their seats in the cave. I'm sure other examples of Hectors might come to mind (King, Gahndi, Spinoza, Occam, etc.). Their virtue had a price and murdered or otherwise, their fellow man let them know their place was behind the chariot.

    Best wishes and keep up the good work!


  2. Take a look at James Redfield's "Nature and Culture in the Iliad" whose subtitle is "the tragedy of Hector." It's a wonderful book and a good take on the book.

  3. That's an interesting point about the "rate buster," especially in the Iliad. One of the demonstrations of Odysseus' tact is when he brings Agamemnon's appeal to Achilles. The way Agamemnon phrases it, he gives Achilles a bunch of stuff, but in addition to returning to battle Achilles is supposed to acknowledge Agamemnon's superiority, but Odysseus leaves that part out when he actually tells Achilles. In fact, the core of the conflict between Agamemnon and Achilles is "superiority;" Agamemnon is a king and therefore believes he should be considered superior, whereas Achilles is essentially Superman and believes he should be considered superior.

    This might feed into the whole dragged behind the back of a chariot thing. It wasn't enough for Achilles to just kill Hector, because some debate might remain as to who was superior. They both killed a ton of their enemies. But Achilles asserts his superiority by treating Hector like an inferior, as if Achilles simply executed a common criminal. Thanks for the comment.

    And thanks Pudentilla for the book suggestion. I'm always looking for good reads.