In Homer’s The Odyssey, the main character Odysseus goes on a long journey away from his home city of Ithaca. He is gone for so many years that in his absence his son actually comes of age. Through a series of adventures, Odysseus experiences an inner journey that eventually teaches him prudence.
Near the beginning of the adventure, and the end of the Trojan War, Odysseus and his men plunder the Kikones. This was not their finest hour, to be sure. Odysseus, being a smart man, wants to leave as soon as they are done collecting their loot, but his men are too busy celebrating. They end up being caught by reinforcements and have to fight a battle they weren’t ready for. When they sail away, they have lost men and most of their loot. The little detour to the island of the Lotus Eaters is nothing more than a footnote, and it is really in the Island of the Cyclopes that Odysseus’s personal journey begins. Odysseus, expecting the Cyclops to have basic senses of honour, goes into the island to explore, and comes bearing gifts and asking hospitality from Polyphemous. His misstep was in assuming the Cyclops was a civilized man. In fact, the concept of hospitality, so important to Odysseus’ people, is nothing to the Cyclopes—not for themselves, and certainly not for uninvited guests. In this the Cyclops plays the traditional part of giants in fairy tales, going on to lock up the small landing party and beginning to eat them, one by one. Odysseus is smart in how he deals with his escape, but full of himself when he taunts Polyphemous from the safety of his ship, causing himself to be cursed.
In their next adventure, Odysseus is gifted the wind in a bag, but because he has issues with transparency, he keeps from his men exactly what was in it. This is a failing that won’t change throughout the whole sea-voyage—the fact that he’s too closemouthed and untrusting for his own good. Because his men have no trust in him, they open up the bag of ‘loot’ and are blown off course. Odysseus tries to beg the king for another bag of the wind, but saying that Odysseus is cursed with ill-luck, the king refuses.
The adventure that follows, with the Laistrygonians, is scarring for everyone. This contributes to their wariness when they come to the Island of Circe. Again, having an island in sight, the intrepid explorers decide the thing to do is explore. This ends in the men being enchanted, and Odysseus having to come to the rescue. Odysseus’s personal journey stagnates at this time.
During the adventure in the land of the dead, Odysseus once more practices a hasty retreat, after having talks with old pals. Then they sail past the Sirens, and Odysseus alone hears their song. And after that he loses more men to Skylla. When they come to the next island everyone wants to stop and rest, but Odysseus knows of their fate if they were to eat any of the Sun’s cattle. Finally learning when full disclosure is the best option, he tells his men why they can’t eat the cattle, but facing a threat of mutiny, has to agree to land for the night. Of course, then there are storms for a month preventing them from setting sail again.
Odysseus goes off into a cave to pray, but falls asleep, coming out too late, to find that his men have weighed the options: a slow death of starvation next to cattle they could have fed on, or a quick death at sea because of eating said cattle, and made the decision, making hekatombs to try to pacify the gods. Well, it doesn’t work. They all meet their deaths except Odysseus, who ends up on yet another island, this time stranded for years.
When he finally gets back to Ithaca, he has learned a few things, such as that it is wise to scout out the land and be wary when landing on a strange island; and indeed, in some ways Ithaca is strange to him, after so long. Because Athena veiled his surroundings in mist, when he awoke, Odysseus thought at first he was in an unknown land.
Having learned prudence, he goes in disguise to his home, instead of expecting others to be civilized and keep to the rules of hospitality. This is wise, for, like the Cyclopes, the suitors don’t follow the rules. Instead of announcing himself at once, Odysseus first gets the lay of the land and gathers his allies, revealing his plan to them instead of keeping everything secret, and when he reveals himself to the suitors it is to kill all of them. When the suitors’ families come after him for revenge he does not gloat, and with Athena on his side, a peace is made, bringing his personal journey in a full circle.
Photo by Kenneth Barker, Creative Commons, via Flickr. Post by Sara Barkat.
How to Read a Poem uses images like the mouse, the hive, the switch (from the Billy Collins poem)—to guide readers into new ways of understanding poems. Anthology included.
“I require all our incoming poetry students—in the MFA I direct—to buy and read this book.”
—Jeanetta Calhoun Mish
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