30 Before 30: The Odyssey

Poseidon calling up the winds to destroy Odysseus

As I’m hoping to go on my own Greek Odyssey this year, starting my 30 Before 30 book challenge and New Year with Homer’s The Odyssey seemed pretty apt. Whilst I’m hoping that I don’t encounter any monsters, sea-gods or amorous females along the way (although if I happen to venture to Lesbos there’s a slight possibility that the latter may be plausible!), a journey to the Greek islands will certainly allow me to appreciate the full beauty of Homer’s poetic descriptions.

Generally hailed as the basis of all Western literature, The Odyssey is, despite its literary prestige, a story that many modern readers can relate to. In its simplest form, it’s the story of a war hero’s journey home from the battlefield of Troy; the perils he faces along the way; and the miseries his family endure during his absence.

Not all soldiers have to face the challenges that Odysseus is presented with on his trip home, however. Having incurred the wrath of the sea god Poseidon after blinding his son, a cyclops, Odysseus’s journey across the sea is no easy ride. Braving, among other things, tempestuous winds, cannibals and a seductive witch-goddess who turns half his crew into swine, Odysseus goes to hell and back, quite literally. From the depths of the underworld to the lofty heights of Mount Olympus, residence of the gods, Homer’s epic poem (which, in the translation I read, had been converted into prose) takes the reader through virtually every geographical area associated with the Ancient Greeks. Repetitious phrases like ‘When tender Dawn had brushed the sky with her rose-tinted hands’  help to root you in that ancient world, and the beauty of beginning many chapters with a description of the morning lies in reminding the reader that, despite his mortal condition, Odysseus has lived to see another day.

Overall, two things ensure Odysseus’s survival: the protection and intervention of Athene, goddess of ‘the flashing eyes’, and the cunning of Odysseus himself. While most soldiers who have spent the best part of twenty years endeavouring to get home would want to embrace their wife and son on returning to their homeland, Odysseus decides on another course of action. Having heard of the intrusion of many rich suitors vying for the hand of his wife, Penelope, he, with the help of Athene, tricks his entire household into believing he is a beggar, and executes a bloodthirsty plan to kill the men and some of the maids who’ve dallied with them. Although I can see why Odysseus may have been a little vexed, I’m not entirely sure I agree with the gratuitous violence. Couldn’t he have just threatened to let the dogs loose and sent them packing?!

Apparently not. Throughout The Odyssey, there is an overriding concern with men attaining fame through ‘brave’ (a.k.a violent) means, and Odysseus is no exception. Although my attitude towards the character is ambivalent, the death of Nelson Mandela during my reading of The Odyssey made me realise how many parallels there are between him and Odysseus. Both men were perceived to be great by most people of their generation; both could be described as being ‘favoured by the gods’ to some extent; both were radical in their actions (at least by today’s standards). Yet, despite my admiration and respect for Nelson Mandela, the jury’s still out on Odysseus. His pride and cunning may mark him out as a mere mortal, but, try as I might, I can’t overlook his failings. Perhaps the feminist within me is outraged by his brutal murder of twelve of Penelope’s maids. Or perhaps I just don’t like glory hunters. Either way, I can’t say that Odysseus will ever be included on my list of favourite fictional characters.

Nelson mandela

That is not to diminish the greatness of The Odyssey as a piece of literature. Yes, Odysseus is not a particularly likeable character (or at least not to me). Yes, it is very dense, and can be quite a tedious and laborious read. Some of Homer’s descriptions are enchanting though. What word-lover could fail to be enthralled by ‘From the flowing waters of the River of Ocean, my ship passed into the wide spaces of the open sea, and so reached the Island of the Rising Sun, where tender Dawn has her home and her dancing-lawns.’?

What’s truly beautiful about it, however, is the way it speaks to all of us of the human condition, reminding us of what it is to be mortal: the trials and tribulations we have to endure in life, and the spirit and resilience we must all find within us to overcome them. If nothing else, I recommend The Odyssey as a thought-provoking and mentally stimulating read.

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