The Bucket List Book Adventure: Book 2 - The Odyssey - Homer

Dear Henry,

Book Two, Homer's Odyssey, of the Bucket List Book Adventure (read about that here) is done! Let me tell you all about it.

As I mentioned in my note about the Iliad, Homer's Odyssey is one of two remaining works written around 800 BC and about an event that occurred around 1250 BC. 

The Odyssey picks up the story of Odysseus ten years after the Trojan War and the events of the Iliad. He still hasn't made it home to Ithaca and is stuck on the island of Ogygia with the goddess Calypso. His wife Penelope and son Telemachus are in Ithica, living in limbo because Odysseus hasn't returned home yet, nor has he been declared dead. Suitors across Greece are camped at Odysseus's house, attempting to woo Penelope while eating and drinking Telemachus out of his inheritance. 

Eventually, the gods (except for Poseidon) take pity on both Odysseus and Telemachus and begin to aid the pair. Athena directs Telemachus to travel to Nestor, the King of Pylos, and Menelaus, the King of Sparta, to get information about his father and the remaining Greek Pantheon (except for Poseidon) convinces Calypso to let Odysseus go.

Odysseus manages to make his way to the island of Scheria, the Phaeacians, King Alcinous, and Queen Arete, where he recounts his tale. 

The problems began for Odysseus's crew almost immediately after they left Troy when they were struck by a storm and blown to the land of the Lotus Eaters. While not hostile, the lotus eater's shared their food, the lotus, which caused the men who ate it to forget about their homes and want to stay forever. As a result, Odysseus had to force crew members back on board before coming upon the next challenge. 

The ship then landed on the island of the cyclops Polyphemus and began to raid his cave. Polyphemus traps Odysseus and his crew in the cave and eats sailors at will. Odysseus hatches a plan to blind Polyphemus and save his men, making sure to tell Polyphemus, as he is struggling, blind, and in pain, that it was Odysseus who bested him.

Polyphemus was Poseidon's son, and Poseidon took real exception to the blinding of his son. Fortunately, Odysseus found an ally in King Aeolus, who gave him a bag of winds.

From there, Odysseus's crew felt they had smooth sailing, and with a few miles to go, the sailors opened up the bag of winds because they were sure that Odysseus was hiding gold from them. The winds blew the crew all the way back to the beginning of the journey. Opening the bag irritated many gods and prevented them from helping the men any longer. 

The crew encountered cannibals, who destroyed all the ships but Odysseus's, and that ship found its way to the island of Aeaea and the home of the goddess Circe. Unfortunately, Circe didn't appreciate visitors and turned Odysseus's men into pigs. Fortuneately, Hermes still felt some pity for Odysseus and told him how to thwart Circe's magic. Finally, after a year with the goddess and a visit to the underworld, Odysseus learned how to get home.  

Of course, it wasn't that easy.

The trip home took them past the sirens, the monster Scylla, and the whirlpool Charybdis. Odysseus loses many crew members there and finally to the Island of Thrinacia and the home of Helios's cows, which of course, the men ate, despite strict instructions not to. The god Helios punished the crew, killing them all, and only Odysseus could escape to Calypso's island before again making his way home.

When Odysseus finally arrived in Ithaca, he disguised himself as a beggar from everyone, even his own son Telemachus, because he had spoken to Agamemnon in the underworld during his visit to Circe's island, and Odysseus was afraid he may not have the homecoming he was looking forward to.  

It turns out Penelope did not plot to overthrow Odysseus, nor was Telemachus anything other than a dutiful son, and eventually,  the story ends happily.

The predominant theme throughout the book is that "there's no place like home."  Odysseus had the opportunity to live in wealth and splendor with two different goddesses but instead kept trying to reach home. Odysseus also sacrificed his entire crew to do so. 

Another strong theme throughout the book is the question of honor and what it takes to be considered honorable. The suitors at Odysseus's house are considered, then and now, as completely lacking any distinction, as are the servants who aided them. Eumaeus, however, is held up as the perfect representative of honor. Despite being enslaved, he did not act in a manner contrary to Odysseus's interests, nor did he malign him. As a result, Eumaeus would be one of the few people trusted with Odysseus's secret and ultimately help him retake his house.

Pride, and how it can cause one's downfall, also appears in the book. Odysseus would not have made such an enemy out of Poseidon had he not told Polyphemus who it was that had blinded him. This decision cost Odysseus so very much and ultimately destroyed the Phaecians.

Divine retribution is, of course, a common theme. Poseidon was very angry at Odysseus's blinding of his son, Helios was very angry that Odysseus's crew ate his cows, and all of the gods were perturbed when the band opened the bag of winds. Violating the will of the gods costs a lot, even if you offer them their cows in sacrifice. 

The book also talks about the model woman. Penelope is held up in stark contrast to Agamemnon's wife, Clytemnestra. Where Penelope had kept the home fires burning and refused to remarry, Clytemnestra plotted with a lover to overthrow her husband. Of course, one could say that Clytemnestra had more than enough reason to plot against her husband, but that story is best saved until the next book on the Bucket List Book Adventure.

This leads me to what is my biggest complaint about bronze-age Greece. Women were treated terribly, and while Odysseus was off cavorting with various goddesses on his way home, Penelope remained dutiful. The difference in expectation was staggering. Another staggering event was the punishment of the serving women who were forced to clean up the slaughter of the suitors before being hung themselves.

I will say, though, I did enjoy this story much more than I did the Illiad. The story of the Trojan war was incredibly violent (as I suppose any war story would be), and maybe because I knew the ending, challenging to stay engaged with. Whereas the Odyssey (which I also knew the end of) was much easier to stick with.  

Perhaps it is indeed the journey and not the battle that makes the best story.

xoxo a.d. elliott

*Another book I enjoyed is the story of the Odyssey from Circe's point of view:


a.d. elliott is a wanderer, writer, and photographer currently living in Salem, Virginia. 

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