One of the interesting features of the Odyssey is that it doesn't fit neatly into any literary category. Technically, it's an epic, as we've seen, but that in itself doesn't explain everything about the poem. It's lots of other things. It's a romance, it's an adventure story, it's a tragedy, and it's a comedy. It's the comedy that I want to talk about here.
I'm going to be arguing that Homer has a great sense of humour. It's not on display very often, but there are places in the poem where it definitely shows up.
The first place is when Telemachus is visiting Menelaus and his wife Helen in Sparta in Book 4. Telemachus and Menelaus have been reflecting upon the Trojan War, and Telemachus has been weeping because of his longing for his father. Menelaus is at a loss what to do when – big drumroll – Helen enters. Helen is, of course, the cause of the whole war – the ultimate cause, therefore, of Telemachus' troubles. She emerges from her bedroom, the poet tells us, looking like the goddess Artemis. Artemis? Artemis was a virgin. Not only that, but she hated the very idea of sexual intercourse. Helen is the last person on earth to be likened to Artemis, one would have thought. Helen, who ran off with Paris and brought havoc on Troy? Helen, who made her husband the most famous cuckold of all time? Helen, whose face launched a thousand ships? Yes, this same Helen, the spitting image of the virgin goddess, it seems. While her husband is still dithering, uncertain how to respond to Telemachus' tears, Helen sweeps in and immediately identifies their guest as Telemachus. Everybody has a good cry now, until Helen steps up to the plate, as we might say, and plops some medicinal herb into the wine so that everybody immediately cheers up. Helen, as ever, the perfect hostess. The scene seems to recall, though of course it is never referenced, Helen's reception of Paris all those years ago…. The all-to perfect hostess.
She then launches off into a description of how she encountered Odysseus one time during the war when he stole into the city disguised as a beggar. She tells us she was the only one to recognise him and that when she did, she bathed him, anointed him with olive oil, and clothed him. What on earth is going on here? Why is Helen performing these intimate tasks? How could she perform these intimate tasks? And why on earth is she telling all this in the presence of her husband? There's no way he can't be gritting his teeth at this moment. This woman has betrayed him bigtime, and she has no remorse. She seems to be flaunting her charms. Well, that's not quite true. She does show some remorse, not for what she did by betraying Menelaus but for what Aphrodite did. She loads all the responsibility for her desertion of her country, her abandonment of her daughter, and her unfaithfulness to her husband on Aphrodite – or rather on the madness (air quotes) that Aphrodite inflicted on her. A less self-assured woman might have deemed this to be a somewhat unpromising and indelicate topic of dinner conversation, given the situation. Not so the phenomenally risqué Helen.
And what is Menelaus' response to all this? "Quite right, dear. What you said is indeed correct."
And then Menelaus reminisces about the time Helen almost exposed the Greeks who were hiding inside the wooden horse by knocking on its hollow sides and calling out the names of the Greeks. "You were moved to do this by some divine spirit, dear," he says. It's pretty obvious to me that Helen wears the pants in this household and that Menelaus is scared stiff of offending her. I even get the sense that she might be up for a fling with Telemachus, if circumstances permitted, which of course they don't. Incidentally, it's striking that Homer presents Helen in this light. She may be a handful, but she's certainly not a monster, as he might have portrayed her. She handles the situation well and shows sensitivity to Telemachus. There's no indication to suggest that Homer is passing a negative judgement on her, despite all the havoc she has caused.
It's not exactly side-splitting comedy, but there's definitely a sardonic edge to this scene of domestic not quite bliss. For side-splitting comedy, we turn to Book 8, where the blind bard Demodocus sings of the love affair between Ares, the god of war, and Aphrodite, goddess of love and beauty. Aphrodite is married to Hephaestus, the lame metalworking god. One day Hephaestus heads off to the island of Lemnos for the day. Ares sees him head off and immediately skips round to have a roll in the hay with Aphrodite, so to speak. Hephaestus, however, has laid a trap. He's constructed a net around the bed made of invisible thread, which he suddenly releases when the adulterous pair are locked in a carnal embrace. So now he calls the other gods to come and witness their humiliation.
"Would you care to lie beside Aphrodite if you were trapped in such a tight net?" Apollo asks Hermes.
"I would indeed love to be lying beside Aphrodite with three times the number of threads holding us down and with all the gods and goddesses looking on." Hermes replies
Laughter arises among the gods. The only one who doesn't laugh – is Hephaestus.
Comedy is only a small component of the Odyssey, but it's an important one. Like the scene with the Porter in Shakespeare's Macbeth or the scenes with the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet, comedy provides variety, a change of pace, a lightening in tone, a breather.
OK, it's time to talk about Odysseus, who will be the subject of the next lesson.