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The Odyssey: Being a Reverse Refugee

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

A reverse refugee? That sounds somewhat confusing. What do I mean by it? I've mentioned already that the poem is set around 1250 BCE, just after the Trojan War ended and that it was composed much later, about 700 BCE. The seventh century was a very special time in Greek history. Their population was increasing dramatically at such a rate that the Greeks were being forced to establish settlements outside their traditional homeland. They were settling along the southern shore of the Black Sea, in Libya, in southern Italy, in Syracuse, and as far east as France and Spain. From numerous points of departure, shiploads of men were heading off into the unknown, trusting to fortune, hoping for a better life, like hundreds of thousands, millions, after them up until the present day. They were not all refugees, some would be better described as economic migrants, but they were all eager to better themselves. Eventually, hundreds of settlements were established.

The Greeks of this time were equipped with a spirit of adventure, daring, and wonder. They had no idea what or who they would encounter. Some succeeded and made a new life abroad, others disappeared without trace. Books 5 to 12 of the Odyssey describe encounters which Odysseus has with a variety of peoples who represent the fears and hopes of every refugee – cannibals with a single eye in the centre of their foreheads at one end of the spectrum, fairytale princesses with exquisite manners at the other.

Odysseus isn't a refugee, of course, he's desperately eager to return home. But he has exactly that spirit of adventure, daring, and wonder that I mentioned a moment ago. The Odyssey is infused with the notion that the world is a place replete with strange peoples who are very different from your average Greek. And that, too, was the mentality of Homer's audience. Whether or not they were settlers themselves, they'd all heard stories of strange and wonderful peoples, so the world that Odysseus encounters would at some level have been familiar to them, even if Homer does, to put it mildly, stretch the imagination.

Odysseus has every refugee's nightmare and every refugee's dream in terms of the encounters he has with the locals. First, the nightmare. You dock at what looks like an idyllic spot, you hope that the locals are friendly, and you wait around only to discover that they are the monstrous Cyclopes – the giants with the circle eye in the centre of their foreheads. Instead of being given food to eat, you become the food to satisfy their palettes. The Cyclops Polyphemus doesn't usually eat meat of any kind, let alone human meat, he's what we would call a lacto-vegan – milk and cheese constitute his diet – but, lo and behold, when meat comes your way, why not indulge in a change of diet. So he starts eating Odysseus' companions. The Cyclopes are monsters not just in size, not just because they are capable of devouring human flesh, however. Homer tells us that they live alone and that each is a law unto himself. In other words, there is nothing approximating to a society that they belong to.

That's one extreme. The other is the Phaeacians. Let's suppose you've been buffeted by the waves for days, having barely survived shipwreck. You manage to crawl out of the water onto the shore. You have no idea where you are. What is the ideal person or persons you'd like to greet. How about a princess? And wouldn't it be nice if the princess, whose name is Nausikaa, were to provide you with some clothes and suggest that you meet her parents so that they can help you in other ways? And wouldn't it be nice if they, the Phaeacians, offered to transport you back home in one of their fancy ships that sail by themselves, as if they've got an outboard motor?

Both encounters are at the extremes of fantasy, but they are fantasies that any Greek refugee might have had. The ultimate fantasy, we might say, however, is the imagined world of the dead, situated beyond the bounds of Oceanus. And so it is to Hades that I will take you in the next lesson.

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Written by

Robert Garland