It seems that more students are assigned the Odyssey than the Iliad in High School; we see a lot of freshmen at Mall U who have read the former already and are now reading the latter for the first time. I suppose the Odyssey is just a more enjoyable story, with daring do, exotic locations, adventure and true love. It has inspired several later writers, most famously James Joyce, and is very accessible to a first-time reader. Knowing the mythology helps, but it's not necessary. The Iliad, in contrast, is intense, violent, and a bit dismal. Personally, however, I far prefer the Iliad. It's a more serious story, with higher drama, and the Odyssey reads a bit like a story for young boys.
The story itself takes place ten years after the end of the Trojan War, which means that there are most likely books missing in between the two stories. Achilles is dead, Menelaus and Helen have reconciled, and most of the soldiers have returned to their homes. All but one. The story begins in Ithaca, where Penelope and her son Telemachus are waiting for the long-overdue return of Odysseus. He has been gone for years now and the natives are getting restless. The local nobility are hanging around the house, drinking and making sacrifices, and trying desperately to woo Penelope, Odysseus’s wife. She is awaiting his return, but undecided about the suitors. On the one hand, she allows them to hang around; on the other, she has been tricking them into thinking she will marry once she finishes weaving a shawl, which she has been unweaving each night, perhaps the most creative example of cock-teasing in literature! She years for Odysseus, weeping each night; yet it seems likely that he will never return.
Telemachus is frustrated with these noble wooers and sets out to find news of his father. The local elders are no help, their sons after all trying to wed Penelope, so he sets off with the sailors for Pylus and Sparta to get news of his father. Or, at least, maybe his father. Descent matters here; it makes a difference if one is descended from the semi-divine race resulting from people and gods mating, or from the merely human race. It matters for Telemachus because, if he is not truly of the semi-divine race and the son of Odysseus, he likely won’t survive the ordeals he faces. In a striking passage, we are reminded that Telemachus does not know for sure who his father is because no man knows his parentage with absolute certainty. This is, after all, before Jerry Springer’s paternity test!
He has the help of Athena though and does the work of a dutiful son. Telemachus is sort of the ideal son of a great leader; loyal, brave, and able to manage the house while his father is gone. In Old Regime France, a famous and contentious novel fleshed out the story of Telemachus, giving good advice for the descendants of great leaders and, thereby, casting aspersions on the current King! It’s also noteworthy that Telemachus, if he finds his father is dead, will be responsible for marrying off his mother to one of her suitors.
In Pylus, King Nestor entertains Telemachus and tells him how the Greeks destroyed Troy and departed after the war. In Sparta, he is entertained by Menelaus and Helen, now reconciled- only fair, given that she was blinded by Aphrodite when she strayed. Menelaus tells him that his father is being kept on the island of the goddess Calypso, who has taken him for her lover, and cannot return. It has now been about two decades since his father left and Telemachus has never known him.
Athena begs Zeus, who sends the messenger Hermes with an order to Calypso to let Odysseus leave. She has him build a raft and set off, but soon Poseidon wrecks his raft, stranding him on the island of Phaecia. In a delightful scene, young maidens washing their clothes on the seashore discover Odysseus and take him to meet the king. He takes part in athletic games and recites stories of the war, including the story of the Trojan horse, and what happened afterward. A recurring theme is the importance of storytellers. The Iliad and Odyssey were recited by traveling storytellers, and such bards pop up throughout the story. When Penelope rages against a storyteller who sings of her husband, he stands up for the profession, telling her to hate the message, not the messenger.
Much of the story is told in episodes. Odysseus and his men are blown off course and visit the isle of the lotus-eaters, becoming intoxicated and wishing to stay. He leads them next to the island of the cyclops Polyphemus, who captures them and is, in turn, blinded by them. This is what sets his father Poseidon against Odysseus, and the god of the sea gets revenge by toying with the crew for years.
They next narrowly escape the cannibal Laestrygones and spend a year on the island of the witch Circe, who also falls in love with Odysseus. Finally leaving, they sail to the Western edge of the world and visit the land of the dead, guided by the spirit of the prophet Tiersias. Note the similarity to the older Mesopotamian story: Gilgamesh also sails to the edge of the world to be guided through the netherworld. Odysseus communicates with the spirits of the dead. His mother has died of grief, and now lives here in a world of darkness, devoid of joy. The Greeks had nothing to look forward to after death. Also of note is Agamemnon, who warns Odysseus of scheming women like the one who did him in. He assures Odysseus that he has a good wife in Penelope, but get home soon to kill the suitors!
Humans are toyed with by the gods in these stories and subject to fate. When bad luck befalls Odysseus, it is because he has angered some god, and when luck or good ideas come his way, they're sent by the gods as well. He is fortunate to have an advocate in Athena, but very unlucky to have angered Poseidon. Here we get a sense of the Greek religion: we make offerings to the gods in order to curry favor with a particular god who looks after us. Some of this carries over to the early Hebraic religion- the Israelites make frequent burnt offerings to God. In the Odyssey, we witness the sacrifice of a heifer in close detail.
Note also the importance of being a good host to travelers- things turn out very badly for the cyclops because he tries to eat his guests- always a bad idea! Hospitality is important in all the stories of this time. Often characters in the Old Testament make the mistake of maltreating angels or protected people of God and pay the price. Conversely, guests have to do right by their hosts: all of Odysseus's problems come from blinding his host. Throughout the story, he and Telemachus rely on the hospitality of the island-dwelllers they encounter. One interesting thing- often their hosts bathe and oil them! One would be advised not to ask for similar treatment today. But, in the world of 700 BCE, in which travelers often put their lives in the hands of their hosts, and vice-versa, hospitality is a paramount virtue.
Okay, that's enough for today. If I think of anything else, there can be a part 2 for The Odyssey. Spoiler alert: Odysseus gets home. Like I said, I'm not as fond of the Odyssey as the Iliad, but it's a nice way to spend some time reading.