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Women in the Odyssey: Goddesses, wives, lovers, and threats

by September 15, 2021

By Ed Whelan, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Traditionally, Ancient Greece is seen as a patriarchal society and women were marginalized and oppressed.  Yet, despite this, some women were able to be independent and play an important role in the Hellenic World. In the Odyssey of Homer, women have a significant role in the 20-year travels of Odysseus as he tried to reach his kingdom in Ithaca. Their roles in the epic in turn reveal the different roles of women in Ancient Greek society and culture and how they were viewed by the male elite.
A Roman Statue of Odysseus
A Roman Statue of Odysseus
Goddess Athena
In the Greek Pantheon, there were many female Goddesses. Athena was the Goddess of War, strategy, and craftiness. Athena favors Odysseus because he honors her and she admires his qualities. She is the patron of Odysseus and the two share many of the same personality traits. After Odysseus is shipwrecked in the land of the Phaceians and he is at his lowest point, Athena inspires the young woman Nausciaa to get her people to help him. Homer shows that Odysseus could not have made it home without her intervention.
Nausicaa was the daughter of the King of the Phaeacians Alcinous and his Queen Arete, who is shown as being the equal of her husband. Nausicaa is only a teenager, and Homer describes her as being as beautiful as a Goddess and very intelligent.  The young woman helps the hero when he was at his lowest ebb, alone and lost in the world. She falls in love with the Greek hero at first sight and she listens fascinated as he recounts his journey and tribulations.  Odysseus’ has feelings for her but does not return her love as he is married and wants to go home. Homer presents Nausicaa as in many ways the ideal of the Greek young women, innocent, caring and virtuous.
Penelope: the perfect Greek wife
Penelope is one of the most important characters in the Odyssey. She is a virtuous wife, and is faithful to her husband and protects his household (or oikos, as the Greeks would have it). Penelope rejects all the offers of marriage from her suitors because they believe that Odysseus died on his way back from the Trojan War. Penelope never gives up hope and believes that her husband is alive. She is not some meek and submissive housewife but is shown to be a strong and independent woman. This is seen in the various strategies that she uses to delay having to marry one of her 108 suitors for twenty long years. Her best known ruse was claiming that she would give her decision on who to marry after she had woven a burial shroud for the eventual funeral of her father-in-law, Laertes. Every night she would secretly unravel some of the shroud and in this way, she was able to avoid marrying one of the suitors. In many ways, she shares some of the characteristics of her husband and she was greatly admired by the Greeks and later the Romans.
Circe was a minor deity and in some myths she was the daughter of the goddess of the realm of death, Hecate. She has the characteristics of a witch; she was infamous for her potions and her staff with magical powers.  She was known to transform her enemies into monsters and beasts. Odysseus visits her, at her home on the island of Aeaea during his wanderings. The Greek heroes’ crewmates offend her, and she turns them into pigs. Odysseus manages to persuade her, with the help of Athena to turn them back and he agrees to stay with her. During his time on the island, he has two sons with her.  Circe advises Odysseus to travel to the Underworld (Hades) so that he can secure the favor of the dead spirits. Upon his return, she tells him of two equally dangerous routes home. Circe was the archetypal predatory woman to the Greeks who were sexually unrestrained and devious. Any woman that was not controlled by males was considered to be a threat to the social order in the Ancient World.
Circe from a 5th-century Greek vase
Circe from a 5th-century Greek vase
Calypso was a nymph (minor Goddess) and when Odysseus visits her, she keeps him prisoner. For seven years he is her lover but they do not have children. Calypso is infatuated with the Greek hero and wants him to become immortal, yet Odysseus is shown by Homer as pinning for his wife Penelope.  Zeus sends Hermes to Calypso and tells her to free Odysseus as mortals cannot become immortals. Without the intervention of Zeus, the King of Ithaca would have never made it home. The story of Calypso shows the Greek belief that women were driven by their sexual desires and were irrational. This type of thinking was used to justified male oppression of females, whom it was believed needed to be controlled and dominated, because of their uncontrollable and dangerous passions.
Calypso and Odysseus
An 18th century painting of Calypso and Odysseus
In the Odyssey women were either a help or a hindrance for the Greek hero on his journey home. The women in Homer offer a fascinating account of male Greeks attitudes and views towards women. They were seen as playing an important part in the family and household. Like Penelope, they were required to be good wives or virtuous like Nausicaa. Independent and sexually liberated women, who lived beyond the control of men were seen as dangerous and this was used to justify their lowly status and general powerlessness.
Cohen, B. ed., 1995. The distaff side: representing the Female in Homer’s Odyssey. Oxford University Press.

The Top 8 Greatest Inventions of the Mycenaeans

by August 3, 2021

By Ed Whelan, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
This month’s Classical Wisdom Litterae Issue is dedicated to the Mycenaeans! Get a subscription and learn more about these fascinating Bronze Age people HERE.
Who were they?
The Mycenaeans are often regarded as the first Greeks. They were the descendants of the first Neolithic farmers who settled in what is now Greece, and they were influenced by the Minoans. They developed cities and kingdoms, and in the late Bronze Age, these developed into a spectacular and sophisticated culture and civilization (1700-1100 BC). Their states were based on vast palaces and ruled by kings known as wanax. The Mycenaeans controlled the Peloponnese in Greece and eventually occupied Crete and the many Aegean Islands. Their influence was felt as far away as Cyprus and Asia Minor. The Iliad and the Odyssey, two of the most celebrated works on ancient literature, depict the Mycenaeans and their wars. Yet in about 1100 BC the Mycenaean culture had collapsed, for reasons that remain unclear. It was possibly due to natural disasters, foreign invasion, or civil wars. Here are some of their greatest achievements…
1. Mycenaean Architecture
The Mycenaeans were great builders and they engaged in some of the largest construction projects in Europe before the Roman Empire. These Bronze Age Greeks profoundly influenced the development of Archaic and Classical Greek architecture. The Mycenaean megaron, or palace complex, were monumental royal residencies that were enclosed by massive walls. These massive structures had porches, a vestibule, halls and arched corbel galleries. These were all elements that were extensively used by later Greeks. The Mycenaean Palace greatly influenced the evolution of the Classical temples and public buildings, which have significantly influenced the development of Western architecture.
'The Mask of Agamemnon'
‘The Mask of Agamemnon’
2. Mycenaean Engineering
The Mycenaeans were also great builders. Archaeologists have found that they were among the first to build stone bridges in Europe. They were also the first European civilizations that developed flood defences and even terraced agriculture. Sadly, however, much of their engineering knowledge was lost during the so-called Greek Dark Ages.
3. Mycenaeans factories
The Mycenaeans were also the first European Bronze Society who developed large scale manufacturing. These were much more advanced than other Bronze Age European cultures. They had large scale enterprises that made textiles, pottery and metalwork that were exported all over the Mediterranean World.
4. Mycenaean Writing
The Mycenaeans developed the first form of written Greek. This script is known as Linear B, and it was influenced by the mysterious Minoan script known as Linear A. Archaeologists have found many clay tablets with Linear B. The script was mainly used for record-keeping and administrative purposes. However, the Archaic Greeks alphabet was not based on Linear B, but was based on the phonetic Phoenician alphabet. Yet phrases and words from Linear B do appear in the works of Hesiod and Homer.
Linear- B script on a baked clay tablet
Linear- B script on a baked clay tablet
5. Mycenaean Cultural Achievements
The Mycenaeans had many cultural achievements. Their religion played a crucial role in the development of later Greek mythology and beliefs. They worshipped the first known representations of Zeus and Poseidon. The origin of many Archaic and Classical Greeks religious practices originated in the Late Bronze Age culture. Mycenaean stories played a key role in the evolution of Greek mythology. The Iliad and the Odyssey are both probably based on Mycenaean stories that may have been once recited in the great palaces to entertain the wanax and his court.
6. Mycenaean Military armor
The Mycenaeans were a society of warriors, which is very well shown in the Homeric epics. The Mycenaeans developed a new type of helmet made out of boars’ tusks. They used their considerable metalworking skills to develop new types of armor which were very advanced for the time. The best-known, example of this is the Dendra Panolopy (1450 BC) which is a full-body suit of armor.
Mycenaean soldiers from a fresco c 1300 BC

Mycenaean soldiers from a fresco c 1300 BC
7. Mycenaean Military Revolution
Homer describes the Mycenaean armies fighting outside the walls of Troy. The aristocratic elite fought in chariots but the Mycenaean army was composed of heavy infantry, typically armored. They used long spears and round shields. The Mycenaean military equipment and tactics were very effective and probably influenced the development of the hoplite style warfare, which was used by the Spartans and Athenians to defeat the Persians in the 5th century BC.
8. Advanced shipbuilding.
The Mycenaeans were not only great warriors they were also great mariners. We can get a glimpse of this in the adventures of Odysseus. It appears that the Mycenaeans developed trade networks over the Mediterranean. They develop new galleys that were probably based on Minoan models. The Mycenaean ships had seats with rowers and sails AND were steered by triangle rudders. Their ships, which were very large for the time, decisively influenced Archaic age vessels.
The Mycenaeans had many remarkable achievements in architecture, engineering, military tactics and shipping. These Bronze Age Greeks also helped to shape the evolution of later Greek culture, which has profoundly influenced the modern world. Sadly, some of their achievements have been lost to us. Yet nevertheless, it can still be confidently said that Mycenaean Greece was one of the cradles of civilization.
Kelder, Jorrit (2005). “Greece During the Late Bronze Age”. Journal of the Ancient Near East Society: Ex Oriente Lux. 39: 131–179.
Chadwick, J., 1976. The Mycenaean World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
The Rise and Fall of the Mycenaeans, Classical Wisdom Litterae
If you want to learn more about the Mycenaeans, check out our latest, new-look edition of our magazine, Classical Wisdom Litterae. Get a subscription and learn more about these fascinating Bronze Age people HERE.

Homer’s Real Story: The Truth Behind the ‘Iliad’

by June 18, 2021

Written by John Martin, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
For the nearly three millennia since the Iliad’s creation, its grand story remains undiscovered. Homer’s masterpiece was a brilliant exercise in telling a new kind of story while letting his listening audience think that they were hearing another (more familiar, more easily accessible) one. 
The blind poet, as antiquity knew him to be, created a beautiful and powerful work which pleased mortal audiences. But Homer’s Real Story was created for the gods, and meant to be one which only the gods could understand.
Homer and His Guide (1874) by William-Adolphe Bouguereau
The Iliads prologue invokes, not a Muse, but an unnamed “goddess”(1.1; see footnote (1) note below). Close scrutiny informs us that Homer himself, with only the most limited help from the Muses, created this imaginative fantasy. In devising his own alternative mythology, Homer the storyteller placed himself at the level of the gods.
The Real Iliad decisively departs from the traditional story of the Judgment of Paris, the ten-year war for Helen, and the Trojan (wooden) Horse. In its place, it offers a far better story that deconstructs and debunks mortal warriors, the gods who make or take sides in wars, and the glory men (supposedly) seek in battle. The great war poem is, in essence, epically antiwar.
In piecing together the Iliad‘s web of secret plans, hidden motives, and discarding post-Homeric corruptions to the text, we discover an Iliad which is not a prelude to Achilles’ glorious early death and the Fall of Troy, but the opposite. Zeus, the greatest of gods, uses the Trojan War as a theater in which to discredit war among mortals. 
In a cosmos of venal, self-seeking gods, Homer’s Zeus finally emerges as a picture of what true divinity must be like, and why it is worthy to rule mortals, and be worshipped by them.
Throughout the work, the great hero Achilles has a choice between a Short Life, in which he dies at Troy and wins imperishable renown, and a Long Life, in which he goes home and his renown is lost (9.410-5). 
Painting of the Gods in the Iliad
Athena counseling Achilles in “Achilles’ Wrath” by Michel Martin Drolling
The main subject of the poem is how he makes this choice. From the outset, Achilles is unwilling to fight under Agamemnon’s leadership, instead wanting to lead the army himself. His intentions go awry with the death of his beloved companion Patroclus. However, the glory of avenging Patroclus by killing Hector (only possible with Athena’s considerable help) does not satisfy Achilles. 
In an ending concealed in the text, towards which the entire story has been leading, Homer’s own words will tell us how Achilles, as supplicated by Priam, chooses the Long Life and goes home. 
The Greek army, unwilling to fight without its greatest warrior, leaves also, sparing peaceful, horse-taming TroyZeus’ favorite city (4.44-9). The failure of Agamemnon’s great military expedition gives the world a badly-needed lesson in the futility and folly of warfare. Perhaps that will put an end to so many unnecessary deaths, which make humans, in Zeus’ sympathetic view, the most wretched of mortal creatures (17.443-7). 
In telling this alternative tale, Homer offers a devastating indictment of the traditional gods of Greek mythology who, supposedly, caused the Trojan War and all the misery to which it led.
To illustrate how the Real Story is told, let us revisit two well-known scenes: [1] Athena orders Achilles not to kill Agamemnon, and promises compensation (1.172-222); [2] Zeus shakes Olympus with his nod, promising to fulfill Thetis’ request that he honor Achilles by helping the Trojans in battle (1.493-567).
[1] Agamemnon threatens to take Achilles’ prize, a woman called Briseis. Achilles begins to draw his sword to kill Agamemnon. Athena appears, sent by Hera, “who both equally in her heart loved and cared for [Achilles and Agamemnon]” (1.195f). 

Oddly, Athena restrains Achilles from behind, pulling his hair (1.197f). She says: “Refrain from strife, and do not draw your sword” (1.210) and promises that “three times as many shining gifts will be yours because of this outrage” (1.213f).
This objectifies Briseis to a ridiculous degree. How can shining gifts be a multiple of a woman? And if Agamemnon’s offense to Achilles’ honor is so grave as to justify Achilles’ asking Zeus to help the Trojans, how could a few gifts be expected to compensate him? After all, the ages have seen Achilles’ wrath at Agamemnon as arising from his nearly-irreparable offense to his honor.
Hera cares for the two warriors equally. Does Athena? Why does she speak only to Achilles? Why doesn’t she cool things down by also telling Agamemnon not to take Briseis?
Iliadic Athena is neither a goddess of war, nor of wisdom. She pulls Achilles’ hair, like a shy teen-ager, because she is in love with him. She saves Agamemnon, yet perpetuates, instead of calms, their Quarrel. Why? Because she is jealous of Briseis, and wants Achilles to lose her. 
Athena, attributed to Rembrandt, 17th century
Athena will appear, throughout the Iliad, as something like a virgin teenager. She is looking for a mortal man to deify, a man with a savagery comparable to her own, and she will make a mess of every major assignment given to her. The next time Hera needs something from Achilles, she will send Zeus’ messenger Iris (18.165ff).
And should we note that Achilles obeys Athena’s command to put up his sword, but disobeys her primary directive, which is to refrain from strife. Because Agamemnon has seized Briseis, Achilles can take the strife with Agamemnon right up to Zeus. Athena, in saving Agamemnon’s life, has also saved Achilles’ wrath. And without her blunder, there is no Iliad.
Athena, although selfish and inept, does know something about warriors. She obviously believes that losing Briseis should not be a cause of great wrath at Agamemnon (see footnote (2) below). But if losing Briseis is not sufficient reason for the Wrath, then what is? By this early point in the narrative, we should already have realized that Achilles is also angry about something else of much greater importance. The other scene of importance, [2], will shed some light on that.
[2] Thetis heads for Zeus’ house (1.426f), in order to supplicate him. Evidently seeking privacy, she meets him on the topmost peak of Olympus. Thetis clasps Zeus’s knees, and Zeus, although worried about trouble with Hera, agrees to help the Trojans. He seals his assent with a nod, and “made great Olympus vibrate.”

“Zeus’ nod is one of the most ‘sublime’ images of the poem, a moment of extraordinary divine action which emphasizes the gulf between us and the powers that control us” writes Richard Hunter in The Measure of Homer (The Measure of Homer (2018), page 56).
Then Zeus tells Thetis: “But now go back again, lest Hera notice you.”  It turns out that Hera has noticed, and confronts Zeus, greatly angering him.
Paradox: If Zeus wanted to avoid Hera’s notice, why did he nod in such a manner as to shake Olympus, which Hera could not fail to notice? (Zeus’ other two nods do not have external effects, 8.245f, 17.209-12.) Resolution: Anti-war Zeus hates what he has agreed to do (and has only agreed because he owes Thetis a favor: 1.393-406). Olympus’ trembling is unanticipated and involuntary on his part. It is a divine shudder. (Later, Hera shudders on her throne, and Olympus trembles sympathetically, 8.198f.) 
Achilles' mother Thetis
Achilles’ mother Thetis, with Zeus
The power is not in the nod, but in Zeus’ repugnance at committing to a battle in a war that he would like to end. And, whatever Agamemnon may have done to Achilles, the shudder marks Thetis and Achilles as completely in the wrong.
The Iliad proceeds in this manner, and we must follow it, line by line, scene by scene, from first to last, to uncover its deep story, which the ages have missed.
Homer’s masterpiece has long held a lofty place at the pinnacle of ancient Greek and Roman literature. What would the world have been like if Homer’s Real Story—his antiwar message—had been understood? Readers who grasp the Real Story will be left wondering how it could have alternately shaped literature, culture, and even history in the ages to come. 
Footnote (1): The Iliad has a very different way of invoking the Muses (2.684 and elsewhere) and they are only consulted regarding matters of simple fact, as “…who were the leaders and chiefs of the Danaans” (2.687). The full line 1.1 reveals that the goddess is Thetis; Homer’s (notably unusual) Prologue is not an invocation, since the Poet does not pray to the goddess.
Footnote (2): Aias, the Greeks’ second best warrior, agrees; see 9.628-42.
Note: All citations from the Iliad are translations by the author.
About the author: John D. Martin holds a PhD in economics and three other degrees from the University of Chicago. He first read Homer as an undergraduate in 1961. Homer’s Iliad: The Real Story is a labor of nine years, constant and continuous, and was completed at the start of the tenth. It will be published this summer with the help of AuthorHouse. The work is a line-by-line commentary, with translations supplied by the author.

The Cunning Homer: A New Look At The ‘Odyssey’

by June 16, 2021

Written by Alberto Majrani, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Who really killed the suitors in Homer’s Odyssey? A careful reading of the epic poem reveals a myriad of clues left by Homer with a surprising conclusion: Ulysses was not…really Ulysses. He was the expert Achaean archer Philoctetes in disguise! 
With this key, the Homeric poem suddenly assumes a logic and coherence hitherto unsuspected. This explains why Homer continues to praise the art of deception: it is he who has deceived us for three thousand years! And the surprises do not end there: all the apparent inconsistencies of the Iliad and the Odyssey that have plagued students and teachers for generations, known as the “Homeric Question”, now fall effortlessly in place. The ancient texts finally agree with historical and archaeological data, fully revealing the genius of their author.
It’s a strange story, that of Ulysses. Is it possible that the King of Ithaca stayed away for twenty years, missing his homeland, abandoning a beautiful nymph who would make him immortal, only to return to a wife no longer young after a dangerous solo crossing?
And when he does return, nobody recognizes him, not even his father or his own wife, so he kills all the pretenders threatening to provoke a bloody revolution, and finally, when he would have every right to a little peace and quiet, he decides to sail away in secret, leaving everyone baffled! All right, yes, it is a mythological tale, but it is not very…logical!
The Sirens in the Odyssey
Ulysses and the Sirens, by Herbert James Draper
And what if Ulysses was not actually…Ulysses? Let’s examine the hypothesis that the son of Ulysses, Telemachus, had hired a mercenary to interpret Ulysses and to slaughter of the suitors asking the hand of his mother Penelope: the same Telemachus would then cast a poet to tell a fantastic story that could justify all the years of his father’s absence. All this in order to free the royal palace of all the suitors eating them out of house and home — not to mention that if someone had married his mother, Telemachus would have lost his right of succession to the kingdom. 
In fact, Penelope was of noble birth, being the daughter of the powerful King Ikarios, while Ulysses was an “upstart” tradesman familiar with piracy and looting, activities which, at that time, were not clearly defined. The claimants themselves were plotting to get rid of him, and he had to anticipate them as soon as possible.
Who was this mercenary? Can you imagine? Think about it…it is suggested to us by Ulysses himself…when he is in the land of the Phaeacians. Ulysses claims to be the best of the Achaeans in archery, immediately after Philoctetes!
As for Philoctetes, who was he? Maybe someone remembers him thanks to the amusing cartoon “Hercules”, produced by Disney in 1997 in which the script writers got a bit too carried away by the need to invent a fun story. They changed the events and roles of various mythological characters. It’s best, then, to refer to Classical sources. 
Philoctetes, by Jean Germain Drouais
The Iliad tells us that Philoctetes was the head of a contingent of the Achaeans headed to the Trojan War. However, he was bitten in the foot by a snake, a serious wound that became infected and forced his teammates to abandon him on the island of Lemnos. As Sophocles recounts in his play Philoctetes, according to a prophecy, Troy would fall only with the help of Hercules’ weapons. Philoctetes had been a pupil of Hercules and had inherited his bow and arrows, so after being cured by the Achaean doctor Machaon, Philoctetes kills Paris, decisively contributing to the defeat of the Trojans.
Of course! The mercenary was Philoctetes! That explains a lot: he had known Ulysses for some time—that lent itself well to interpret him– he also was a “family friend” and therefore may have been more willing to risk his life in such a dangerous undertaking. He was an extremely skilled archer, requiring a level of training that Ulysses could not have maintained after so many years at sea. 
That is assuming, of course, that Ulysses was really equipped with this skill: as the Iliad recounts, Ulysses never uses the bow, even during the games in honor of Patroclus, in which he won wrestling and running competitions. And when he finally does have a bow in hand—borrowed from the young warrior Meriones—all he does with it is whip horses!  
Note also that Homer does not say that Philoctetes was abandoned on Lemnos on Ulysses’ orders: this is the work of subsequent mythographers and repeated by Sophocles, who reworked the old myths to build on his story–not very different from the authors of Disney. So there is no reason to think that Philoctetes was harboring resentment against Ulysses or his family members.
The youth of Ithaca would not have recognized Philoctetes, but some elderly people might, so it was necessary to leave the island as soon as  his mission against the suitors was accomplished. He had been seriously wounded in the foot by a snake, which would have left him with some obvious lameness. In fact, Homer, without saying so openly, does everything to make us understand that the mysterious stranger limps: he walks slowly, leaning on a cane, is likened to the god Hephaestus, who is lame too. There are many strange references to “feet”, for example the old nurse who recognizes “Ulysses” by his knee injury caused by a wild boar (which is never mentioned either in the Iliad or the rest of the Odyssey, in which the legs of the runner Ulysses are absolutely perfect), a recognition that comes just as she washes his feet. Perhaps it had more to do with the foot than the knee! 
But Philoctetes was not content with his substantial reward— i.e., all the precious objects Telemachus loaded on his ship when he sailed off—he aspired to eternal glory! And since he could not reveal the deception, he was lauded as one of “the best of the archers Achaean” by the great “Ulysses” himself. 
That same “Ulysses” even alludes — in the poem dedicated to him — that there was someone better than him in the art of archery. His words are something of a Freudian slip, a kind of “Message in a Bottle” launched to posterity, as if to say: “he who has ears to hear, let him hear!”. Homer has left a host of similar messages throughout the poem that guide us through the actual course of the action.
Polyphemus cave
Odysseus in the Cave of Polyphemus: Jacob Jordaens, 1635.
As for the real Ulysses, he had probably died long before, killed in battle or drowned at sea. This can be deduced from the fact that, throughout the Odyssey, the idea that the hero is now deceased is repeated several times. What about the fact that at some point Ulysses descends into the underworld? Or the episode in which his name is Nobody, so the cyclops Polyphemus will repeat that Nobody blinds him, No one kills him? Other messages in bottles, which.. no one, so far, had taken literally! 
And again, does it not appear very suspect the extraordinary coincidence in time, that Ulysses would return to Ithaca after two decades, and within hours his son is landing on the same beach, located on the opposite side to the main port? 
Also, what should we infer from traditional biographies which say Homer was blind? It could be that the poet was looking for a justification for not recognizing he who passed himself off as Ulysses?
Let’s reconstruct  the affair, let’s imagine how could it have taken place in reality. There is a power vacuum in Ithaca; the king left for decades and never came back. The suitors are plotting to eliminate Telemachus and take over the kingdom, so he sets sail with a ship full of precious objects to hire a mercenary (Philoctetes already means “the one who loves to possess”). Philoctetes comes and performs the massacre with the help of the most faithful servants, whom, as the swineherd Eumaeus and the cowherd Philoetius take the trouble of informing us, will be adequately rewarded 
The fake Ulysses cannot stay there pretending nothing had happened, because sooner or later someone will recognize him. So he sails off again, leaving Telemachus the kingdom… and they all lived happily ever after. 
The Odyssey is not just a fairy tale for overgrown children, but an intricate maze filled with ingenious references that will inevitably escape those who do not study it closely. Quandoque dormitat bonus Homerus–“Even good old Homer nods,” Horace proclaimed– but maybe Homer was a lot more awake than we thought!  
This article is based off a new book by Alberto Majrani titled L’ASTUTO OMERO e il geniale inganno dell’Odissea (The CUNNING HOMER – Ulysses, Nobody, Philoctetes and The Ingenious Deception Of The Odyssey) which addresses the Homeric question. As of April 2021, the book is available only in Italian. To request the complete 428-page pdf ebook, which includes 280 images at the price of Euro 6,28, send an email to [email protected] Publishers, journalists, University professors are provided a FREE copy of ebook. The paper book costs 28 euros + shipping (weight 1300 grams). More info on Internet (in English) or (in Italian)

Master of Stories: Odysseus in the Kingdom of the Dead

by February 26, 2021

Written by Justin D. Lyons, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom

Just as the adventures described in Books 9-12 of the Odyssey are often the most-remembered episodes due to their fantastic character, so Odysseusaccount of the underworld is one of his most striking. But did it really” happen? Are we meant to believe that, within the horizon of the poem, Odysseus actually traveled to the underworld—or is he telling another tall tale?

Of all the stories Odysseus tells the Phaeacians, his account of the underworld is the only one to contain an interruption, emphasizing that this is a story being told to an audience. Odysseus pauses to suggest that it may be time to break off story-telling and go to sleep. But King Alcinous urges him to continue: The nights still young, Id say the night is endless. For us in the palace now, its hardly time for sleep. Keep telling us your adventures—they are wonderful.” Odysseus is spinning a yarn to please a king from whom he has much to gain, and the King wants more.

Alcinous prompts Odysseus by asking if he saw any heroes in Hades: But come now, tell me truly: your godlike comrades—did you see any heroes down in the House of Death, any who sailed with you and met their doom at Troy?”  His host and benefactor has indicated a subject he would like to hear about, and Odysseus obliges in style, dropping a great many well-known names to help set the stage.

Odysseus in Hades by Russell Flint

But if this is theater—if Odysseus is not relating something that really” happened—what are we to make of this tale?

The story of the underworld can be seen as an expression of the hopes, fears, and doubts of a man who has been away from home for a very long time. These feelings are the material around which Odysseus builds his story. The driving themes are laid out when he questions his mother in the underworld:

But tell me about yourself and spare me nothing. What form of death overcame you, what laid you low, some long slow illness? Or did Artemis showering arrows come with her painless shafts and bring you down? Tell me of father, tell of the son I left behind: do my royal rights still lie in their safekeeping? Or does some stranger hold the throne by now because men think that Ill come home no more? Please, tell me about my wife, her turn of mind, her thoughts…still standing fast beside our son, still guarding our great estates, secure as ever now? Or has she wed some other countryman at last, the finest prince among them?(Odyssey XI.193-205)

Odysseus attempting to embrace the ghost of his mother in the Underworld, by Jan Styka, 1901

Anyone in Odysseus’ shoes would wonder if their aged parents were still living. The other concerns, also very natural, are reflected not only in these questions, but also in his conversations with the other shades. These concerns can be characterized as follows:

1) The faithfulness of his wife

2) The fortunes of his son

3) The honor of his house.

In the underworld, Odysseus is first confronted with a great crowd of wives and daughters of princes, whom he interviews one by one, reflecting his anxiety for the purity and success of the household. These women represent the theme of womanhood—some are faithful, some treacherous (unfaithfulness to the marriage bed receives much attention).

His conversations with dead heroes reflect the same anxiety. Agamemnon tells the awful story of how he and his men were slaughtered through the machinations of a treacherous wife and the lover she took in his absence.

But Odysseus reassures himself about Penelopes character using Agamemnons voice: Not that you, Odysseus will be murdered by your wife. Shes much too steady, her feelings run too deep, Icariusdaughter Penelope, that wise woman.”  Yet doubt still remains, as is evident the circumspect way he deals with her upon his homecoming.

Agamemnon also enquires about his son, Orestes. Odysseus must be wondering what kind of man his own son Telemachus has become, and how he is faring. Odysseuswords about Orestes could just as truly be spoken of his own son: I know nothing, whether hes dead or alive.” Achilles also asks after the fortunes of his son. In Odysseuss response we may see his hopes for Telemachus—that he will take his place among great men, proficient in feats of war and good counsel.

The Shade of Tiresias Appearing to Odysseus during the Sacrifice (Book XI of the Odyssey), by Johann Heinrich Füssli (c. 1780-85)

Achilles brings up another concern likely to resonate with Odysseus: the honor of his father and house without him there to defend them. Odysseus has already asked his mother about such things, and in Achillescomments we catch a glimpse of the thoughts of a son who returned to find his father abused and the honor of his house diminished: Oh to arrive at fathers house—the man I was, for one brief day—Id make my fury and my hands, invincible hands, a thing of terror to all those men who abuse the king with force and wrest away his honor!”

The story of Odysseusjourney to the underworld underlines our common humanity and the ever-lasting value of classical works. Thousands of years after its composition, readers can still identify with the hopes and fears of the hero of the Odyssey.

The Story before the Story of the Iliad

by April 26, 2019

A good story grows like a tree, upwards, seeking the sun and light. Its heavy branches, though substantial on their own, become stronger and more intriguing as plots and characters entangle. Additionally, deep below the bark and greenery, a parallel network of criss crossing roots holds up the story for all to see. The grander the legend, the larger and more intricate its backstory.

A tale on the scale of The Iliad, therefore, has an astounding myth to proceed it.

To know the roots of Homer’s epic poetry, one must dig very deep into Greek mythology… all the way to the first king of Gods and the ruler of Titans, Cronus. Despite his many attempts to prevent it, Cronus was eventually overthrown by his son, Zeus. In the process, Zeus was warned that one day he too would be replaced, just like his father.

At the same time another prophecy emerged, suggesting that the son of Thetis, a sea-nymph with whom Zeus was enamored, would become greater than his father. Zeus, therefore, ordered that Thetis should be betrothed to an elderly human king, Peleus son of Aiakos.

Judgement of Paris

The judgement of Paris

And so there was a wedding, attended by all the glorious gods and goddesses, except one. Eris, the goddess of Discord was not allowed in, for fear she would cause her usual irreparable damage. Her discordance, however, was not to be limited by a gate. Upon her dismissal, she threw a golden apple into the festivities. On it was inscribed the following: καλλίστῃ, meaning “To the fairest”.

Naturally three gorgeous goddesses claimed ownership. Hera, Athena and Aphrodite all assumed that they were the most beautiful. The other gods and men, however, smartly chose to remove themselves from the decision making process, including Zeus himself. No one wanted to incur the wrath of the other two. Instead the unenviable task was placed on the shoulders of one Trojan prince, a man named Paris. The poor fellow was unable to make a decision and so the goddesses, keen on winning, resorted to offering bribes.

Wisdom and great skill in battle were Athena’s promised rewards.

Hera tried to lure Paris with power and control over all of Asia.

Aphrodite, however, used the best bait of all: The most beautiful woman in the world would be in love with Paris if he nominated the goddess as owner of the golden apple.

Paris accepted.

Meanwhile, the wedded sea-nymph Thetis and her elderly husband bore a child by the name of Achilles. The young boy was given an intriguing destiny. He had the choice to live a long and uneventful life or to die young in glory and live forever in poetry. Achilles would chose the latter.

Thetis wanted her son Achilles to be immortal and invisible and, depending on the version, used different techniques to make this so. One source claimed that she lifted the child by the foot and immersed him in a river which ran to the underworld. Wherever the water touched him, Achilles was made invulnerable, everywhere except where his mother held him… his infamous heel.

While Achilles was growing into a hero-worthy man, Paris was eagerly awaiting his award for crowning Aphrodite the fairest of them all.

The reader may be wondering, who was the magnificent creature that the goddess of beauty promised to the Trojan prince? It was none other than Helen, whose face would eventually launch a thousand ships. Helen was the daughter of Tyndareus, King of Sparta and a woman named Leda, who had either been raped or seduced by Zeus when he was in the form of a swan.

Helen, in her radiance, had many suitors, and her father could not decide which one was best… plus those who who were not chosen might retaliate against him.  Eventually one quick witted man came to his rescue, the famous Odysseus. In exchange for support of his own marriage, he offered the following advice: Require all of Helen’s suitors to promise to defend her marriage, regardless who the father chose. The suitors eventually, and with a certain amount of grumbling, swore the required oath.

Finally a man was decided for Helen: Menelaus. The decision was political, as Menelaus had wealth and power and was Agamemnon’s brother. Unfortunately for all, Menelaus then made a huge mistake. He had promised Aphrodite a grand sacrifice of a 100 oxen if he won Helen, a promise promptly forgot after he received his prize. Thus he incurred Aphrodite’s wrath.

Paris, however, did not forget Aphrodite, nor their agreement. He set sail for Greece under the pretense of a diplomatic mission in order to claim Helen. Before entering the palace, the goddess of beauty held up her end and ordered Eros to shoot Helen with his arrow. The moment she set her gaze on Paris, Helen was in love.

Paris didn’t think this kidnapping was really such a big deal. There were plenty of men before him who had stolen women from foreign lands without repercussion. Jason, for instance, took Medea from Colchis, and Heracles captured the Trojan princess Hesione without any issues.

This time, however, was going to be very different.

According to Homer, it didn’t go straight to war. Menelaus first journeyed to Troy to seek a more peaceful solution. When that didn’t work, Menelaus asked Agamemnon to uphold the oath that the Achaean kings and princes had sworn, to defend Helen’s marriage. Emissaries were sent to them all, to gather them in order to retrieve Helen.

Not all of them came willingly.

Odysseus, for instance, feigned madness in order to avoid the war. He tried to sow his fields with salt as proof, but Agamemnon’s man tricked him into revealing his sanity. He placed Odysseus’ infant son in front of the plough’s path, and the father could not fake delusion any more. He turned aside to save his child.

The story before the Iliad

Achilles discovered by Ulysses – by Bray

Achilles, too did not readily join forces. His mother disguised him as a woman so he would not have to go to battle. When Odysseus, Telamonian Ajax, and Achilles’ tutor Phoenix came to fetch him from the island of Skyros, they could not immediately recognise him. Fortunately, they had a plan. The men pretended to be merchants bearing trinkets and weapons. They were then able to spot Achilles out the second he chose to look at the swords and spears rather than bracelets and beads.

The Achean army was almost ready. All of the suitors sent their forces to the city of Aulis, and one by one the commanders with their ships and men arrived. The last one to show up was Achilles, who was at the time only 15 years old.

An omen then occurred. A snake slithered from a sacrificial altar to a sparrow’s nest nearby. It ate the mother and her nine babies and was then converted into stone. Troy, apparently, would fall in the tenth year of war.

And just like that, with the twisting roots embedded, the bud of the story was ready to break through the soil and bloom.