Odyssey Spirit Caves Mom's Bones Tikkun Olam Weaving Totems


Background for Reading Homer's Odyssey

Notes compiled by Penelope Bourk, June 6, 2014


If you decide to read Homer's Odyssey, and/or the related prequel, the Iliad, you will find many different English translations, each with a different feel and sound, some literal, some poetic, some modern in tone. Some translations have added features, helpful introductions, good tables of contents outlining the separate events in each of the twenty-four "books" to guide the reader through the long, winding story. Some translation editions have good appendices, relevant genealogies of gods and human families, and even glossaries to help the reader bone up on the characters, places, events. No need to feel shut out by the passing of three thousand years! From various of those translations over the years, I have collaged a little background in my mind. I share a bit here as introduction for those who might wonder….

If the Trojan War actually occurred, it likely took place over three thousand years ago, about 1100-1200 B.C. in an area a few miles south of the Hellespont, near what is now Hissarlik in Turkey, in the valley of the tawny-shored Scamander and Simois Rivers. The Odyssey, the story of the return of the Greek leader Odysseus from the war, was likely composed as oral poetry, with significant metrical elements and clever inclusions of both daily and metaphoric detail, around the 8th century B.C., by Homer, a poet/singer from the Greek island of Chios.

The epic song/poem we know as the Odyssey was kept alive for hundreds of years by a school of singers called the Homeridae. A lyre would accompany the singer-of-tales who might have a patron and reside in the palace, or travel around, an ancient Rolling Stone. Scholars suggest that a performance of the Odyssey, at 2000 lines per session, would take approximately four hours a session for six nights; on average, one hour for each of the twenty-four "books" that form the story. The divisions of the text into traditional 24 books as they come down to us were apparently made by the Alexandrians, perhaps following an earlier tradition. The sections outlined below may be considered good lengths for readings and recitations.

The Fitzgerald translation, my first exposure to the text almost 50 years ago, roughly outlines the basic narrative structure of the Odyssey in six sections.
Bks 1-4: Setting the scene to be remedied, invoking the Muse, showing us what happens at home without Odysseus for twenty years, the trials of Penelope, and of son Telemachos who heads off in search of his missing father, visiting Helen and Menelaus in Sparta, long returned from the war, and preparing us to meet the man who will remedy the problems on the home front, Odysseus himself.
Bks 5-8: Odysseus in a distant setting, beginning at the end as it were, at his last stops on the journey home, a long sojourn as a virtual prisoner of Calypso, then a comforting shorter stay among the Phaeacians of Scheria, who will eventually sail him home.
Bks 9-12: Odysseus invited to tell the Phaeacians his story. He takes over the narrative during this section, as though he were now the poet, telling us his story, and how he has lost everything (all the stories we know, Cyclops, Bag of Winds, Sirens, Circe, etc., numbers 1 through 12 of my sculptures) – a story to which the Phaeacians respond with magnanimity, valuable gifts, and transport home.
Bks 13-16: Odysseus near home (at first in a fog) and battleground, reconnoitering and meeting his son.
Bks 17-20: Odysseus, dressed as a beggar, encountering the scene of his ruptured home, comes to grips with his situation, suffers the indignities of the suitors, etc., and sizes up his opposition and his allies while his wife Penelope struggles, both awake and in dream, to figure out who that beggar is.
Bks 21-24: Odysseus fights , reunited with his father Laertes, his son Telemachos, and recognized by his wife Penelope, wins and “recomposes” everything.

Just for fun, imagine holding your own Homerthon. Consider inviting ten to twelve friends over for six winter weekend afternoons, or six long summer evenings during tv's off-season. Before the meet, just as for a marathon, practice a little, reading aloud – read anything, a kid's story, a magazine article – get used to your own voices. Then all gather around the fireplace, the fire pit, or in a circle around a few candles, with a snack bowl nearby and a translation copy of the Odyssey to pass around. Take turns, each guest reading 200 lines per meeting, while a hearty soup bubbles in the crockpot, a pot of chile simmers, or a savory stew steeps in a slow oven. Add a loaf of bread and a potluck salad. Share a meal and conversation, considering what caught your attention during the shared reading.

The Homeric text you pass around in translation was likely first written down in the rule of Pisistratus of Athens, in the 6th century B.C. Yet a reader of today’s text might easily imagine the singer expanding some part to suit an audience one night, or shrinking a longer story another night to fit the tale to a particular audience in a particular time, thus keeping lively and relevant the labyrinthine journey of a man returning from war and of waiting family members, who in his absence hold, like a thinning thread in their hands, the hope of his return. Radio hosts Garrison Keillor (A Prairie Home Companion) in the U.S. and Stuart McLean (Vinyl Café) in Canada have made careers as traveling minstrels, reading aloud to us. We can also read aloud among ourselves, as a way to create a shared repertoire for facing live and exploring our thoughts together.

If you are not familiar with ancient Greek literature, it may help you to know that this story of Odysseus returning from the war at Troy plays against the backdrop of other Greek leaders also returning home from that war. As the "islands of experience" on this website suggest, Odysseus encounters many challenges on his ten-year journey home and more trials when he finally arrives back on his home island, Ithaca, where despite all enticements and entanglements, he finally returns to his faithful wife Penelope and caring family – as well as a lot of local hostiles! Other returning leaders have very different experiences. Agamemnon, the commander-in-chief of the Greek forces at Troy, and king of powerful Mycenae, a city on the Argolid of Greece, returns quickly from the war, only to meet sudden death at the hands of his unfaithful wife Clytemnestra and her lover, who have been keeping track of his progress by means of a succession of signal bonfires lit by their spies on mountains along the way home. The brother of Agamemnon, Menelaus, king of Sparta, on whose behalf the war was waged, to retrieve his wife Helen, takes a year to get home to Greece. Helen, who had been stolen by a Trojan prince, and whose beauty and a jealous goddess were the supposed justifications for the war, clearly still has all her seductive powers, when at one point in the story, Telemachus, the young son of Odysseus, heads off secretly in search of his father, seeking some answers from Menelaus and Helen, cozied up at home in Sparta. All three returns, of Odysseus, Agamemnon, and Menelaus, are part of an ancient cycle of stories called the Nostoi, from the same root as our word “nostalgia”, homesickness, or the yearning for return.

America is currently at war (still!). Who tells the nostoi of these wars? Do you know any stories of return from the war? How can we safely bring American warriors home and give them adequate, timely care, when many struggle with PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder), limb amputations, major head trauma, and disintegrative family life at home? How can we help our aging homeless from the last war era, from Vietnam? And those caught in prison by the "drug wars?" And what of those in other countries, where Americans have fought and like the Greeks, bearing "gifts," ultimately sailed off for home? Or in countries with civil wars? What happens in those countries where hundreds of thousands of people face their own culture's version of PTSD, deal with the dulling mental effects of child malnutrition in the face of war shortages, or without medical supplies, and lacking the necessary infrastructure destroyed in the war, pick up the pieces? The Homeric experience is, alas, timeless and global. And when Athena stands up for peace, supporting Odysseus to stand down at home, she stands up for peace of behalf of all of us. Ironically the shield of Achilles (Homer's Iliad, Bk. 18, Achilles was the young, slain Greek "star" of the Trojan war,) created for the young hero by Hephaistos, the god of the forge, models the tensions between a community at peace and one at war. Every generation, it seems, has the same options to choose among. The future of the world may well be determined by the choice we make. Peace. War. Peace….

I recently visited China at the invitation of a younger Chinese woman I had met in Canada. I was compelled as I learned more about China's history in the past hundred years, to contemplate what happens to human values – and how shared values re-emerge -- when every generation must claw through internal civil wars, or an invasive war from outside, or war waged against others from within. When each generation's trust is undermined by a new government determined to overthrown not only the prior government but the entire value system, and when holding values can cost one's life or relegate your family to poverty for generations to come, what emerges from all the destruction? What values can the populace "afford" to hold? What are yours?

Many Americans are immigrants, as I am. They consider the U.S. home, yet many also feel nostalgic for where, who, and what they left behind. Is there any tension in your family or community between those left behind, those in a new “homeland,” and those gone wandering who hope to return? The Trojan War may seem like "mythic history" from way too far back to bother thinking about, yet the destruction and return in modern times, the trials and temptations of all involved, the tragedies of loss and destruction, the astonishing recoveries, and the possibility of a life after war share much in common with the Homeric story.