Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Theme of Connection in Homerian Epics

Yesterday in the comments to my post about Odysseus's twists and turns in Homer's The Odyssey, Dwight points out that both The Iliad and The Odyssey are books fundamentally about life and death.  While Achilles tries to make sense of physical mortality, Odysseus struggles with humanity and the choice he makes to be a mortal.  (Dwight lays out his arguments more fully in a terrific post on his own blog.)

As I was thinking about these comparisons, it struck me how much The Iliad and The Odyssey are also both about making connections with the world.  Achilles fights his own alienation to make connections with his countrymen and with his enemies.  Odysseus, on the other hand, struggles against his alienation to make connections with his family and with strangers.  These 4 levels of connection--to small group (family), to large group (country), to enemies, and to strangers--can express the depth of human relationships.

Some of the recent debates about "boy" books and "girl" books cast a divide between books that focus on "masculine" connections to the larger culture of country versus the more "feminine" connections to family and close friends.  Homer's exploration of the connections made with enemies and strangers might be an especially fruitful avenue for novelistic exploration right now.

In The Odyssey, Homer details the tenets of xenia--the ancient Greek word for the guest-host relationship strictly codified in tradition.  In a time and place without hotels, restaurants, cell phones, or speedy transportation, it seems almost natural that particular customs and expectations would arise to facilitate what by necessity was a fairly common situation: the arrival of a stranger seeking food and shelter at the door of someone else's home.  The traditions that arose included feasting and toasting the gods, sharing the entertainments of storytelling, and giving extravagant gifts.  Even after the visit, guests and hosts were bound to each other in a way not completely dissimilar to the relationship between relatives.  The guest-host relationship was even passed on to the next generation.  Such relationships might have underlay a certain degree of ambassadorship or peacemaking in ancient Greece.

The idea of respectful connections with strangers is also a central theme in the literature of the Old Testament, which I promise to discuss when I get there.  At least in modern interpretations of those texts, the idea of treating the stranger properly is portrayed as the moral thing to do.  In ancient Greece, "morality" doesn't seem to be a major preoccupation.  But treating the stranger properly is still seen as a way to please the gods.

As I thought about Odysseus's connection to family--that is, to the small group--I was brought back to another comment yesterday, by OfTroy (a perfect person to comment on Homer!).  She points out a religious use of the idea of turning that I had not thought of at all--the Shaker one:

Tis the gift to be simple, 'tis the gift to be free,
'Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
'Twill be in the valley of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gain'd,
To bow and to bend we shan't be asham'd,
To turn, turn will be our delight,
Till by turning, turning we come round right.

Many of the lines of this hymn fit perfectly with The Odyssey. In fact, Odysseus's main goal is return "to the place he ought to be."

But does he learn to turn to "true simplicity"?

Perhaps learning to be simple is exactly the lesson he needs to learn. Odysseus has been used to being the war hero who everyone celebrates. Now he has to return home to be a family man--a normal plain life rather than the exciting-dangerous world of war. Perhaps struggling through all the twists and turns of his journey helps him conceive of himself as something other than a warrior. These times of imprisonment or punishment turn him into a "Nobody" (see book 9). He rejects the possibilities of immortality and embraces a desire to return home to his valley of love and delight instead.

What I am not so sure of is whether, in the end, Odysseus actually learns these lessons of simple connection to family.


  1. I think I see the difference between the Iliad and the Odyssey differently, for a very simple reason: it never strikes me that Odysseus think of his family as a community, as much as a belonging. For me (and maybe this is just me), this is why the scene in which he meets Penelope again feels so awkward and uncomfortable to my modern ears - because his first thoughts are not to comfort or rebuild a community to her, but rather to ensure that she still 'belongs' to him - I think it's somewhat illustrative that substantively the scenes of people immediately recognizing Odysseus and having tearful, joyful scenes of homecoming happen with a dog and a slave. The wife really functions only s a more important slave, and the son as a more talented dog. Modern retellings of the Odyssey paint this differently (simply because out conception of family has changed)- books like Cold Mountain for instance, have the Odysseus character driven and told as seeking a sort of redemption from their wanderings. A vindication they can find in a lover and a family. The Odyssey, though, it's simply a man trying to get 'what he deserves' in some sense, and it reminds me of the (extremely chilling to me) end of the book of Job, where Job has been tested by god, and all his things have been taken from him: his cattle, his land, his health, his wife, his servants, etc - but it's totally okay, because in the end he gets NEW cattle, land, wife, etc. *shudder*. Odysseus isn't trying to go 'where he 'ought to be' at all - in fact, he seems in some sense intent on outwitting God, not on submitting to him, as it were. He doesn't seem to want to learn anything in the story. He's painted over and over as an ideal man, already, who has just had a run of bad luck and unfaithful companions. He just wants what is 'rightfully his'. In that sense, the Odyssey feels more like a revenge fantasy than it does like a heroic journey, to me - Heroism, for me, demands that the hero learn adn grow. Odysseus is perfectly happy just as he is, internally - and Homer seems to be perfectly happy with him, too.

  2. Beautifully said, Jason. I especially like your comment that heroism means the hero learns and grows. As I said in my post yesterday, I liked The Iliad so much because we watch Achilles do exactly that, where Odysseus seems much flatter. It is exactly that redemption that we so often crave in modern literature.

    I also agree with you that the "connection" to family that Odysseus is after is definitely not what we mean by connection in the modern world--as I tried to allude to in the last sentence. I keep wanting to find something that Homer might be doing that would be deeper, but I guess you are right that Homer likes Odysseus just as he is.

    The idea of outwitting the gods rather than submitting to them is fascinating. It strikes me that he is even almost imitating them. Greek gods, just like Odysseus, seem tricky and cunning and careless, often unconnected to humans and pretty unfeeling.

    Lots to think about. Thanks for your comment!

  3. Briefly--I am reading your book about Junius Wilson's life and am struck, reading this post, by the way his initial connections (with family) and later connections built through community at school were all severed without his receiving any explanation. Man's inhumanity to man is only matched, perhaps, by humanity's ability to rebuild connections, one individual at a time. But this is an early, provisional speculation on my part, as far as it regards Wilson's life.

  4. I agree, I liked the Iliad a great deal more, and have long struggled to understand why the Odyssey is the story that seems to culturally catch our imagination. It's interesting that we project so much onto the story, that we can build our whole 'Hero's Journey' idea on top of it. It's interesting, particularly, because fairy tales I love - they DO make sense to me, despite their being sort of bare skeletons of an idea or human pursuit. It's almost like the Odyssey just feels TOO fleshed out. IF Odysseus was less human, I could feel comfortable projecting on him, and if he was more human, I could feel more comfortable trying to love him. I don't know, it's a difficult middle ground.

    As for the gods - I don't know if I wrote about it in my thoughts on the Odyssey or not, I don't remember, but for better or worse, I think men become like their gods. (or create gods that are like their men? I won't get into the theological implications :D).

  5. PJ: Oh!!! I am stunned and very honored that you're reading Unspeakable. You are totally right that the themes of connection and humanity / inhumanity are at the core of that work. I had not thought of the connection between what is in this post and what is in that book at all. I guess it shows what my obsessions are, doesn't it?

    Jason: I love your last paragraph. Sounds like you've posted about the Odyssey? Could you share a link to your post?

  6. The last line of your post reminds me of the poem Ulysses by Tennyson. He assumes Odysseus can't return to the simple life and instead strives to go out and explore, to "shine in use". It seems unlikely that after the war and his journeys that he would be able to stay in the place he ought to be for very long.

  7. "The idea of respectful connections with strangers is also a central theme in the literature of the Old Testament, which I promise to discuss when I get there."-this reminded me of the tradition in the culture of Thailand of leaving clean water outside your house for passing strangers-of course the further one goes back in history the more travelers depended on the kindness of strangers in their travelers -A very good book on this I read a few years ago is Travel in the Ancient World by Lionel Casson


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...