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The Odyssey Reading Club -- Entry 3 -- Gloss on Book I

Okay, since many of you are (I hope) coming to this little project (#odysseyreadingclub on Twitter!) with minimal experience reading epic poetry, I thought doing something like a gloss on each book at the start of the reading period might not be a bad idea.1 Epic poetry can be challenging even when read attentively, simply because it doesn't follow the same rules the we expect from modern narrative fiction. So, just in case you need a bit of a guide, here's what happens in Book I of Homer's Odyssey:2

Lines 1-21:3 The poem opens with an invocation to the Muse and a setting of the scene as it stands now.4 Here, Homer5 is asking the Muse to sing of Odysseus, who, after sacking Troy has been unable to get home and is currently (as of the poem's opening) stuck alone on an island with nymph Kalypso, his companions having been killed by the Sun God Helios for eating his sacred cattle. He's been unable to get home because Poseidon is angry with him, but all the other gods pity and admire him.

Lines 22-95: Fade in on Mt. Olympus. Poseidon is away receiving offerings from a far-flung people. Zeus is wondering aloud why humans blame the gods for their fates, when it is their own error which brings about their destruction. In the sea god's absence, Athene takes the opportunity to discuss Odysseus' plight, asking Zeus to intervene and allow Odysseus to go home. Zeus responds that it was all Poseidon's doing that Odysseus isn't home yet, including a reference to the slaying of Polyphemus, which is the deed that initially caused Poseidon to turn his wrath upon Odysseus. The scene ends with Athene asking, and receiving, permission to send Hermes to Odysseus and Kalypso to reveal the gods' intention that Odysseus be allowed to go home. She also resolves to go to Ithaca to inspire Odysseus' son, Telemachus, to go out and look for his father and find word of him.

Lines 96-324: Fade in on Ithaca. Athena disguises herself as a man and visits the palace at Ithaca to speak with Telemachus, claiming to know his father and to have seen him since the fall of Troy. There she finds the many suitors for the hand of Penelope, Odysseus' wife--Odysseus is presumed dead by almost everyone, and they want Penelope to choose among them for her new husband. In the meantime, they're generally feasting and abusing the rules of hospitality. Athena (in a disguise that Telemachus eventually sees through, though he doesn't say so) encourages Telemachus to become the man he can be and to go out into the world to find word of his father, naming people that he should visit first. He thanks her and she leaves. He then sits with the suitors, with a greater spirit that he had before.

Lines 323-364: Penelope, hearing the song the bard is singing of Troy, comes downstairs from her chamber to ask that he sing something that doesn't remind her of Odysseus. Telemachus, much to his mother's surprise, rebukes her for focusing on her own woes and reminds her that he is now head of the household. Penelope returns to her room and cries herself to sleep thinking of her lost husband.

Lines 365-440: Telemachus silences the suitors' competing claims to be with Penelope by telling that that tonight will be the last night they feast together under his roof. If they wish to continue doing so, they can do it at their own houses. The suitors, led by Antinous and Eurymachus talk with Telemachus and wonder where his new-found courage comes from, asking about the stranger (Athena) they saw him talking with earlier. Telemachus, not wanting to reveal that it was the goddess, lies and repeats the false information Athena had told him. He also withholds the fact that she had given him news of his father and encouraged him to seek him out. The suitors return to their revels and then go home to bed. Telemachus, assisted by his long-time nurse Eurykleia (originally purchased by Laertes, Odysseus' father), goes to bed as he ponders the mission Athena had encouraged him to take.

N.B.--Scholars refer to the first 4 books of the Odyssey as the Telemachy, because they generally tell the story of Telemachus' quest for news of his father.

1. I don't need to say that reading this is no substitute for actually reading it, do I? I mean, Homer's poetry is some of the greatest ever written. I'm just some guy typing in my pajamas.

2. I'm going to do my best to refrain from commenting on what I think about the text in these gloss posts. These are simply meant to help you follow the plot, as it were. My ideas and opinions will be included in separate posts.

3. A lot of footnotes in this post it seems. Anyway, this is one is to indicate that exact numbering may be difficult as these things vary by edition sometimes (though there is a general agreement), but also because I may simply be a little off in deciding when one section ends and another begins. As I said, this is a guide--a guide does not give truth, but rather opinion.

4. Invoking some sort of divine power to sing its song through the poet, with the poet as essentially a vessel of the muse, is a tradition that appears first (to my knowledge) in Homer (cf. "Sing, Goddess, the wrath of Peleus' son Achilles" in the Illiad), but is picked up by almost every major epic written thereafter, from Virgil's Aeneid all the way through Milton's Paradise Lost and beyond. One can even see it echoed in the title of Nabokov's autobiography, Speak, Memory. An interesting (well, to me at least) exception is Dante's Divine Comedy, which has no such invocation.

5. I'm going to call the poet Homer just for simplicity's sake. Whether or not Homer ever existed (he probably didn't), that name has been attached to this poem, along with several others, for some 2500 years. Let's not break with tradition merely for the sake of accuracy.


  1. I've finished the first book. It's not as difficult as I was worried about. I'm not sure if I just assumed it would be, or if I'm smarter than I was in high school when I last tried. I'm guessing a combination of the two.


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