I just finished reading Homer’s Odyssey last Monday. After having first read the Iliad, which is quite the war story and felt somewhat interminable at times, the Odyssey felt more readable, though equally mysterious in certain respects. If you haven’t read them or know the stories, the Iliad centers around Achilles, a Greek hero of amazing strength and battle skills, and the drama of the Trojan war. The Odyssey is the story of clever Odysseus, another Greek hero, on his long journey home from Troy after the Greeks destroyed the city. Our class found both texts to be challenging in that they do not follow our expectations for plots and characters, and because of the presence of the gods—and their nature and relationship to man—is ambiguous.
The heroes are also ambiguous: are they really virtuous and honorable? Odysseus is more endearing to me than Achilles, who is very vain and caught up in revenge, for Odysseus is made vulnerable by his sufferings and seems to value something very good: his home and family. One of my favorite passages in the whole book is a scene at the end of Book III, where Odysseus, after having been stuck on an island with a demi-goddess for many years, has arrived by raft and swimming to the land of the Phaiakian people. The Phaiakians were known for their incredible skill in sailing—they could reach their destination as soon as they set their minds to it—and for giving transport to needy strangers. That’s why Odysseus is coming to them. When he first arrives on land, he is naked and beaten down by his rough travel and needs time to rest and think about how he will approach these people. He ponders where he ought to sleep, for he fears being chilled or being attacked by wild animals.
“In the division of his heart this way seemed best,
and he went to look for the wood and found it close to the water
in a conspicuous place, and stopped underneath two bushes
that grew from the same place, one of shrub, and one of wild olive,
and neither the force of wet-blowing winds could penetrate these
nor could the shining sun ever strike through with his rays, nor yet
were they grown, interlacing each other; and under these now Odysseus
making it wide, since there was great store of fallen leaves there,
enough for two men to take cover in or even three men
in the winter season, even in the very worst kind of weather.
Seeing this, long-suffering Odysseus was happy,
and lay down in the middle, and made a pile of leaves over him.
As when a man buries a burning log in a black ash heap
in a remote place in the country, where none live near as neighbors,
and saves the seed of fire, having no other place to get a light
from, so Odysseus buried himself in the leaves, and Athena
shed a sleep on his eyes so as most quickly to quit him,
by veiling his eyes, from the exhaustion of his hard labors.”
(Bk III, lns. 475-490. Lattimore translation).
To me, this passage expresses a sudden repose for Odysseus—a way that nature, which by the power of the gods has been very harsh with him, now gives him shelter and warmth. He is brought low, like an animal, to sleep in the leaves, and yet it is so comforting to him. And from here he rises again, with regained strength, and is welcomed by the Phaiakians as if he were a god. By them he is soon conveyed home to Ithaca, where he must face the battles that await him there. I find the whole image quite beautiful and memorable. That might be because I love piles of leaves so much…
In other news, partly inspired by that book about the secret art of homemaking and from my music study group in the summer, I led a sing-a-long a few weeks ago after class. I selected some English ballads and folk songs, to complement our reading of Chaucer and Shakespeare. I discovered as I was looking for appropriate songs that the song “Greensleeves” had been sung in the original production of Shakespeare’s “Merry Wives of Windsor.” Well, I and many of us know the tune, but I had never heard the original lyrics, so I learned them and taught them to some of my classmates.
I managed to do a simple recording on the computer of it, though the quality isn’t very good and there is quite a bit of noise in the background, so please forgive it’s roughness. I just felt like sharing it with you.