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The Odyssey: The Story Thus Far

This lesson is a part of an audio course Why Read Homer's "Odyssey" by Robert Garland

If you pick up the Odyssey without knowing much about it, you could be forgiven for saying, "What's going on here? We seem to be in the middle of a story, not the beginning." And you'd be right. Homer doesn't tell his story from beginning to end. He's much more sophisticated than that. He begins close to the end and tells much of it in the form of a flashback. Don't think the flashback technique was invented in the twentieth century. It was invented in the 8th century BCE, if not earlier. The Roman poet Horace called this technique beginning "in medias res," which roughly translates "in the middle."

If Homer were telling his story in a strictly chronological way, he would have begun at line 39 In Book 9: "From Ilion, that's to say, Troy, a tempest took hold and drove my ships to Ismaros." That's the first line of the account of his adventures that he gives to the Phaeacians.

When the poem begins, Odysseus is sitting on a shore dreaming of being back home. He's consumed with nostalgia. It's not a very heroic image, but it tells us so much about the man. And in fact, he is about to face his first heroic challenge. So, where exactly is he? He's living on a private island who knows where – Homer doesn't provide us with any clues, and this is true generally of Odysseus' odyssey. Scholars have done their best to work out his itinerary, the route he took from Troy back to Ithaca, but the jury is still out. Anyway, here he is immured on an island that is owned by the nymph Calypso. He's been there for seven years. And what's he been doing all that time? Well, nothing. Actually, that's not quite true. He's been providing her with sexual favors, to put it politely. Sleeping with a goddess, albeit a minor goddess, might not seem such a bad deal, all things considered, but Odysseus is homesick. He's had it with Calypso, and he wants to go back to his wife.

And this is where Zeus steps in. He sends Hermes, the messenger of the gods, down to Calypso to tell her in no uncertain terms to release Odysseus. Calypso is piqued. It's the same old double standard, she says. The gods are quite happy to have their sexual dalliances with mortal women, but when a goddess has an affair with a mortal man, they get all upset. It's a feminist protest – the first one in western literature. But there's nothing she can do. She will have to release him – after one more night of unbridled sexual delight.

So that's where we are at the beginning of the poem. After a seven-year period of idleness, or captivity, one might say, Odysseus, is about to head home. We might expect the story to move forward at a rapid pace from now onwards, but in fact, Odysseus will be absent until book 5. The poem, by the way, is divided into 24 books. The division wasn't made by Homer. It was made by scholars studying his work in the great library of Alexandria in the 300 hundred-year period of history we call the Hellenistic era, when Greek culture spread as far east as India, thanks to the conquests of Alexander the Great.

What happens during Odysseus' absence from the poem is that Homer takes us to Ithaca, where we see the consequences of his long absence from home. The suitors – 108 of them – have taken control of his palace and are devouring his livestock, drinking his wine, and harassing his wife. In absenting Odysseus from the story, Homer shows how critical it is that he gets back immediately. If he doesn't, there won't be anything to get back to. Penelope has been holding the fort, so to speak, by a clever ruse. She's told the suitors that she will choose one of them once she's finished weaving a shroud for her father-in-law Laertes. Laertes is still alive, but he's going to need a shroud soon, so Penelope wishes to provide him with a lavish one. Except she's cheating. She weaves it by day and unweaves it by night. The suitors have finally caught on, and she can't hold them off any longer. She's a remarkable woman by any stretch of the imagination. She's held them off by her bare hands, and stayed faithful to him for 20 years, despite all the pressure she's been under.

So that's the situation at the beginning of the Odyssey. Odysseus is about to be released from the clutches of Calypso, Penelope is at the end of her rope trying to hold off the suitors, and Telemachus is just – beginning to take on the role of an adult. It's a tense situation, to put it mildly, and if you're a Greek, you'll respond powerfully to the precariousness that envelops Odysseus' home. It is in effect under siege. Let's hope it can hold out just a little bit longer. Before we discover whether it can, I want to describe to you in the next lesson the kind of mindset that has informed books 5 through 12 – the books that describe Odysseus' adventures.

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Written by

Robert Garland