Written by Justin D. Lyons, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
The most well-known episodes in Homer’s Odyssey are the adventures described in Books 9-12. Full of one-eyed giants, amorous goddesses and narrow escapes, they are considered the most memorable and thus most likely to be included in collections of excerpts. They have received so much attention that it is often forgotten that they make up only a small part of the epic—an epic that is far more concerned with the homecoming of Odysseus than with his wanderings.
These stories are told in the first person by Odysseus himself. Given what we know of his character from both the Iliad and the Odyssey, Odysseus does not hesitate to deceive when circumstances allow. Thus, we should carefully consider the veracity of his tales. After all, Homer calls Odysseus a “man of twists and turns,” and we expect him to live up to the description.
Odysseus’ reputation thus begs the question: Is it possible that the tales are not meant to be taken as relating “real” events? In other words, could it be that Odysseus did not actually have these adventures, or at least did not have them as he relates them?
Ulysses and the Sirens, by J. W. Waterhouse, 1891
The stories Odysseus tells have a fairy-tale, magical quality about them that is different from the rest of the Odyssey. The unreal, dream-like world of monsters and enchantresses is distinct from the more realistic, historical world of Ithaca and the Greek mainland. Further, Odysseus’ stories interrupt the forward-moving time scheme of the poem; they have the character of flashbacks, contributing to the feeling of “unreality.”
It should be noted that Odysseus is speaking to an audience, the Phaeacians, from whom he is in desperate need of aid. Certainly, Odysseus is not above using his stories to sway them according to his desire.
Odysseus before Alcinous King of the Phaeacians, by August Malmstrom
Indeed, Odysseus may have been catering to King Alcinous, who expressly asks to hear of his guest’s exciting travels:
But come, my friend, tell us your own story now, and tell it truly. Where have your rovings forced you? What lands of men have you seen, what sturdy towns, what men themselves? Who were wild, savage, lawless? Who were friendly to strangers, god-fearing men? Tell me, why do you weep and grieve so sorely when you hear the fate of the Argives, hear the fall of Troy? That is the god’s work, spinning threads of death through the lives of mortal men, and all to make a song for those to come… (Odyssey, VIII.640-650)
Odysseus’ tales conveniently sound these same themes: the savage, the hospitable, the pious, the lawless, and death. Odysseus is on next after the great bard, Demodocus, has regaled the assembly with his songs, one of which was suggested by Odysseus himself and glorified his exploits at Troy.
Odysseus has a big act to follow and, as he is about to announce his identity as the Odysseus about whom the Phaeacians have just heard so much, it would obviously not do to disappoint. Homer here refer to Odysseus as “the great teller of tales.”
Both the reader and the Phaeacians are expecting something big, and Odysseus delivers. The Phaeacians respond well to the stories, hanging on Odysseus’ every word and showering him with even more gifts. Would not someone of Odysseus’ resourcefulness be expected to knowhow they would respond and be able to tailor his adventures to the tastes of his audience?
The Phaeacians appear to be a relatively innocent people. They are no match for devious Odysseus. King Alcinous goes so far as to praise Odysseus for his honesty:
‘Ah Odysseus,’ Alcinous replied, ‘one look at you and we know that you are no one who would cheat us—no fraud, such as the dark soil breeds and spreads across the face of the earth these days. Crowds of vagabonds frame their lies so tightly that none can test them. But you, what grace you give your words, and what good sense within!’ (Odyssey,XI. 410-415)
The King’s words must come off as ironic to any reader or listener aware that wiliness is the epitome of the Odyssean character. Homer, being well-acquainted with the Odyssean character, already knows what we will think about Alcinous’ remark.
Later in the poem, when Odysseus reached Ithaca, it is amply demonstrated that he is a consummate liar. Upon arriving, he spins a series of bold-faced deceptions, commonly referred to as the “Cretan lies.”
At first, he tries to deceive a shepherd boy, who turns out to be Athena in disguise.
Athena, attributed to Rembrandt, 17th century
She, of course, sees through him:
“Any man—any god who met you–would have to be some champion lying cheat to get past you for all-round craft and guile! You terrible man, foxy, ingenious, never tired of twists and tricks—so not even here, on native soil, would you give up those wily tales that warm the cockles of your heart!”
What better candidate could there be for these “wily tales” than the stories Odysseus so recently told to the Phaeacians?
Homer has left us many textual clues which suggest that the stories Odysseus tells the Phaeacians are not meant to be taken as having “really” happened. Such a view of these stories should encourage us always to be careful readers. We may encounter unexpected “twists and turns” that reveal more and deeper levels of art and meaning, inspiring us to read old books with fresh eyes.
Written by Nicole Garrison, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
The Hellenes and Romans sure knew how to create and appreciate exceptional literature. So for all of you who are contemplating whether you should add some classics to your reading list, trust me, you should!
In the times of the ancient Greeks and the Roman Empire, literature was a prime source of entertainment. It was also used to explore new ways of thinking and philosophical expression. Just as we spend our idle days browsing the internet and checking our social media for new posts, they spent their days discussing philosophy, attending the theatre, and crafting works of art.
Thanks to the way they used of leisure time, we are now lucky enough to have all those masterpieces that give us a glimpse into the life, thoughts, feelings, and philosophical reflections of the ancient world.
Anyone looking to expand their horizons, learn something new, or find a better way to pass their time than scrolling through a newsfeed, should give ancient Greek and Roman literature a try. From romance to mythology, here is the must-read list from the ancient world:
Medea, by Euripides
1. Medea (Euripides)
Euripides is one of the three Greek tragedians whose plays managed to survive. The most famous play by Euripides is Medea.
Based on the myth of Jason (leader of the Argonauts), this plays tells us the tragic story of Jason and his wife, Medea.
It is the story of betrayal, vengeance, and cruelty. Medea’s grotesque act of jealousy and search for revenge will leave you breathless. She definitely took rage to the next level when she killed her own children after Jason left her for another woman.
To find out how it all played out for her, you have to read Medea.
Oedipus and Antigone, by Charles Jalabert, 1842
2. Antigone (Sophocles)
Your family issues will seem like nothing after you are finished reading Antigone. This Greek tragedy centers around family ties, a woman’s assertiveness, and civil disobedience.
The story revolves around the deaths of Antigone’s brothers – Eteocles and Polynices. After Antigone’s uncle, the king Creon, forbade the burial of Polynices because he attacked his brother for the throne, Antigone decided to defy the king’s order.
In addition to being a captivating read, Antigone will make you question the deeds of our heroes and anti-heroes. There’s some sort of justification for each “bad deed” as well as some criticism for the seemingly “good deeds.” It up to you to interpret and reflect on characters’ decisions.
The simple truth behind the controversy of Antigone’s story is the hardship of choosing the right between two wrongs. Is it right to show disrespect to authority to bury her mutinous brother? Or was it right to respect the king’s decision and allow that one of her family members doesn’t get a proper burial? What would you do?
Readers of various ages enjoying versions of Homer’s Odyssey
3. The Odyssey (Homer)
You have probably heard of (or possibly even read) Homer’s Iliad, the famous telling of the Trojan War. But what about the Odyssey?
A translator of the ancient works and a writer at TopEssayWriting, Angela Baker, shared why the Odyssey is a book worthy of every student’s attention.
“[The] Odyssey is also an exceptional and exciting Homer’s work. It takes us on Odysseus’s journey and his adventures on his travels back to Ithaka. Aside from reading about how a victorious Greek leader, Odyssey, and his loyal entourage took down a Cyclops, this book will also get you thinking and questioning some of Odyssey’s decisions.”
Odysseus is not our typical “good guy” type of hero. Some of his actions, such as brutally killing Penelope’s suitors or cheating on loyal and patient Penelope, are somewhat questionable. But that’s exactly what makes this book so amazing. It will leave a lasting impression on you long after you have finished reading it.
Lysistrata, by Aristophanes
Don’t think that every Greek classic is filled with tragedy, murders, and sadness. Aristophanes is a comic playwright whose bizarre comedy, Lysistrata, is full of wit and wisdom (read it here).
The hero of this story is Athenian woman Lysistrata, who thought of a revolutionary way to motivate men to win their battles: she led women in a protest that was based on the decision to deny sex to all men of the land until they establish peace with Sparta.
This comic story influenced several films such as The Second Greatest Sex (1955), The Girls (1968), The Baggy Trousers Case (1983), and Chi-Raq (2015).
Satyricon, by Patronius
5. The Satyricon, by Petronius
Delve into class struggle in Roman society in the 1st century AD Rome with Patronius’ Satyricon. You’ll learn about Roman history while being entertained by Petronius’ stories.
One of the most famous parts of Satyricon is the “Trimalchio’s Dinner,” which details the lavish yet unrefined tastes of the nouveau riche members of society.
Diana Adjadj, a writer at GrabMyEssay, said, “Don’t get surprised if you find some resemblance between the people’s behavior then to how people act now. This comic, picturesque, and highly-realistic novel will show you that centuries can pass, and lifestyles can change, but people’s nature, in essence, stays the same.”
Metamorphoses, by Ovid
6. Metamorphoses (Ovid)
Metamorphoses is the magnum opus of the incredible Roman poet Ovid. Despite his tragic destiny, Ovid wrote devotedly about love in his works.
What Metamorphoses will provide you with is hundreds of stories woven together by the repeating theme of transformation or metamorphosis. Learn more about the gender politics of ancient Rome, jog your memory about different myths you heard as a child, and enjoy stories of both joy and tragedy.
Metamorphoses inspired the artwork of numerous painters, so you can see elements of these stories on the walls of museums the world over.
Well, there you have it. These six Greek and Roman classics have the power to question your beliefs, weigh good and evil, and, most of all, educate and entertain you. Let these masterpieces take you on unbelievable adventures and introduce you to some of the most famous myths and heroes known to Western civilization.