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The Odyssey Reading Club -- Entry 16 -- Thoughts, Questions, and Ideas on Book V

And so we finally come to Odysseus. As is my custom, this is going to be a pretty jumbled, stream-of-consciousness sort of thing, so please forgive any complete and total lack of style and/or polish.

We begin with another council on Olympus. Essentially, Homer's taking us back to the beginning with this. He's finished, for now at least, with Telemachus and his mini-odyssey, and is shifting the focus onto Odysseus. This is a book parallels and returning, so it's only fitting that we cycle back to the beginning and then essentially take the second leg of Athena's initial plan: she would handle Telemachus, while Zeus sends Hermes to spur on Calypso. (I love Hermes slight bitchiness about having to come so far out of the way to relay his message--gives him a nice little bit of character.)

Calypso, by the way, means "she who conceals"--fitting, as her island is hidden from the world of man and she has kept Odysseus there, essentially as a prisoner, for 7 years. Indeed, we find him weeping, crying for the life to which he thinks he'll never be able to return. And why? "Since the nymph no longer pleased," that's why. At one point, it seems as if Odysseus enjoyed his refuge with the goddess, his respite for being tossed on the seas of Poseidon. But now, he just longs to be home. He wants his nostos--his return home. That word, incidentally, combines with one of the Greek words for "ache" to give us the word "nostaglia."

Odysseus' nostalgia is very acute, indeed. During the days. During the nights, however--well, Homer says that he's unwilling, but he's not so unwilling as to turn down an opportunity to share the bed of an unaging goddess. Hermes, however, does indeed impress upon Calypso the fact that she has no choice but to let Odysseus go--first to Phaeacia, and then on to Ithaca. Odysseus' journeys are almost at an end...

But nothing's happened to him yet, I can hear you saying. Ah-ha, I reply--that's because Homer is doing something very tricky here--he's shortly going to turn the story over to Odysseus himself, who will directly tell of his own journeys before reaching Calypso's island. But for now, we will have to content ourselves with Odysseus' final venture on the high seas, battling the sea god one last time before being rescued, as is almost always the case with Odysseus, by a woman. In this case, two women, one immortal by birth, the other a minor sea deity who was once a human woman. It takes the skill and powers of both to help Odysseus safely find his way to the Phaeacian shore.

There are so many lovely touches in this section--the gorgeous passage about the sheer beauty of Calypso's grotto; Calypso's bitterness at being made to give up her mortal lover because of the whims of Zeus; the exchange between Calypso and Odysseus about what makes Penelope so special; Odysseus' baleful lament that, if he is to die on the seas, as he seems to think, he would rather have died on the plains of Troy, sung by his comrades in arms.

In this last case, he echoes the fate of Ajax, who was a great warrior on the battlefield, but was brought low by his hubris at having "bested" Poseidon. Odysseus, in his journey and in his person, parallels so many of the heroes of Troy whose stories we have heard: Agamemnon, Ajax, Nestor, Menelaus. And yet, he is more than all of them--he endures more, and he is loved more.

And so, sleeping soundly, shaded by olive trees (the olive was regarded as a gift of Athena in mythology), Odysseus' journey is almost over, but his story is just about to begin...

Incidentally, now that we're five books in, I hope that others are starting to notice the phrases that get repeated, and by whom. A good example appears early in this book where Athena, at the council of the gods, almost directly echoes Mentor in the assembly in book two about how kings shouldn't be kind, but cruel, if they are to be remembered by their subjects. Homer is famous for this sort of internal repetition, and he uses it to link characters together and draw out the similarities, and differences, between them. If you're not noticing these little moments, no worries--as a former professor of mine wrote (in a book called Homeric Moments that I'm reading with great delight), of all genres, epic is not one to be read, but rather re-read.



"His destiny is to see his friends again / under his own roof, in his father's country." Fitzgerald translation, lines 46-7

If only we all had such destinies--yes, he encounters great hardships and suffers both losses, but moments like this are when Homer reminds us that Odysseus is still a man to be envied in some ways. Interestingly, when Hermes repeats this line to Calypso, almost verbatim, Fitzgerald changes it, since he's having Hermes speak in rhyming couplets!

And so we get:
"His destiny, his homecoming, is at hand, / when he shall see his dearest, and walk on his own land." Fitzgerald, lines 120-1

"The sweet days of his life time / were running out in anguish over his exile, / for long ago the nymph had ceased to please." Fitzgerald, lines 159-60

I don't have to justify that choice, right? I mean, just read it.

"Much have I suffered, labored long and hard by now / in the waves and wars. Add this to the total-- / bring the trial on!" Fagles translation, lines 246-8

Odysseus awakens and comes alive in that moment, doesn't he? His crying is at an end--he's ready to face the final tests of his mettle.


  1. What a delightful blog! I'm reading The Odyssey for the very first time (the Fitzgerald translation), and got here by Googling about Hermes & his rhyming couplets. (Wondering if these rhymes are in the original?)

    I look forward to checking back here for other insights about The Odyssey as I proceed.

    1. Hey, thanks for the compliments! We're doing the book at such a slow pace (to try to make sure no one has an excuse *not* to read it), you'll almost certainly outstrip us soon if you haven't already.

      As for Hermes' rhyming, I've never encountered rhyming in any Ancient Greek poetical text before, Homeric or otherwise. There are some famous translations of Homer that use rhyme, but it's not an authentic Ancient Greek poetic device. Why Fitzgerald chose to use couplets in that passage is a mystery to me--though I'd guess that it's mean to echo Shakespeare's use of them for royalty in some of his plays--to illustrate the fact that Hermes' words come from Zeus. It is a curious choice, in any case.


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