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The Odyssey Reading Club -- Entry 25: Thoughts on Book IX

Finally, the story begins!

Well, of course, that's a joke, but the fact is, Book IX and the next few that follow are what people think of when asked about The Odyssey. Odysseus' story is much deeper and broader and more elusive in its ultimate nature than the stories we read in our Greek myths books as kids, however. 

To start with, as we see here, not all of his exploits are given equal weight, even by Odysseus himself. Of the three stops covered in Book IX, clearly the encounter with Polyphemus is the most important to him. (Whether that means that it's the most important element in this section to Homer himself, and to the reader in turn, is a separate question I hope to tackle later). The raid on the Cicones at Ismarus gets dealt with fairly quickly, and Odysseus saving his crew from the lotus-eaters hardly merits a mention. The bulk of this section, rather, is spent in the cave of the Cyclops. 

But first, I want to pick at the lotus-eaters passage for a bit. As brief as it is, it features a rather telling detail. Namely, Odysseus refuses to allow his men to remain under the spell of the lotus-flower. He forcibly drags the few men who have eaten the lotus away from its sweetness and lashes them to the ship so they won't forget about their journey home. This is important to note for, as we see in the story of Polyphemus, Odysseus is more than willing to risk, and to lose, soldiers when it is necessary. However, he will go to great lengths to save as many as he can, if he can. 

A quick note here about Ancient Greek vocabulary. The word often translated in Homer as "to lose" or "lost," as in "Odysseus lost all of his men," is actually a word that can also mean "to destroy." Obviously, context would give an Ancient Greek listener or reader a strong clue about which sense they are to give the word, but, even so, both meanings would be evident to the listener/reader and would intermingle with each other. That's just one of the many, many lovely little things that we lose (destroy) by having to read the poem in translation. So be aware that when Odysseus talks of having lost things, he could also be heard to be saying that he destroyed them. 

But here, with the lotus-eaters, Odysseus makes substantial efforts to ensure that none of his crew is lost. This makes his inability to save all of his men from the giant Polyphemus all the more upsetting. (Polyphemus' name, by the way, translates to "much spoken of" i.e., famous.) So what's with the whole "No One" thing? Well, I plan on writing about the importance of names and recognition later on, so I'll glide over this point for the time being, save to point out another clever Homeric pun. The two words Homer has Odysseus use ("me" and "tis") literally translate to "no one." But when elided, they form the word "metis," which means cunning or craft. This means that, not only has No One defeated Polyphemus, but that Cunning has blinded the giant. That clever Homer...full of metis.

A quick thought about the society of Polyphemus and his brethren. They live, essentially, in what would later be called a "state of nature." They do not tend the soil, or build homes, or ships, or gather together to make laws. They live as we might imagine prehistoric men to have lived--peacefully co-existing, but making no effort to improve their lot. Odysseus makes it clear that everything the cyclops may need is provided by the gods, and, just as with the lotus-eaters, when everything you need is at your fingertips, why reach for anything further. Why strive, why work, why struggle? 

But this also means that, when Polyphemus cries out in pain to his comrades, they do not come to help. They merely stick their heads out of their caves and ask what's going on. On hearing the absurd answer that "no one" is hurting him, they all tell Polyphemus, essentially, to shut up and ask his father for help. A society of lawless anarchy, lacking custom or law, may sound great in theory--until you need help and realize there is no-one to provide it. 

As you can see, I've mainly danced around the edges of Book IX in this entry, mainly because the two most dramatic moments, which come at the beginning and the end, when Odysseus declares his identity to Alcinous and Polyphemus, respectively, are part of a continuing theme about names, identity, and recognition that I want to tackle in a separate Big Ideas post later on.

And now, quotations.

************************************************************************

"Well then, what shall I go through first, / what shall I save for last?" Fagles translation, lines 15-16

Begin at the beginning, they say. But when's the beginning? Homer himself began his story much later than Odysseus does before doubling back on himself, but even Odysseus begins with his fleet already at sea, long after they split from any of the other Greek generals, glossing over the cause of the gods' ire (cf. Nestor and Menelaus' stories). Odysseus is about to recount his entire journey and for him, it's all present before his eyes, as it were. Picking out a beginning when what we have isn't a tidy narrative, but a life, is a very difficult thing to do.

"Then I will eat Nobody after his friends, and the others / I will eat first, and that shall be my guest present to you." Lattimore translation, lines 369-70

I include these lines a) because they're funny, and 2) because they are the ultimate source of every joke along the lines of "I like you. I'll kill you last," etc., etc. 

"In a smithy / one sees a white-hot axehead or an adze / plunged and wrung in a cold tub, screeching steam-- / they way they make soft iron hale and hard--: / just so that eyeball hissed around the spike."

Another Homeric Simile, this one almost too graphic to actually visualize. People who think TV is too violent obviously have never read Homer...

Comments

  1. Reading the story of the Cyclops, I couldn't help but be reminded of the Word Lord as written by Steven Hall for Big Finish. The character, called Nobody No One, clearly owes his inspiration to this chapter of the Odyssey. In the audios, the Word Lord is given power to do anything that any person says "Nobody" can do or "No One" can accomplish. As in, "No One can stop the sun from shining" etc.

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  2. Michele, totally. When I heard "Death in the Family," my first encounter with the Word Lord, I immediately thought of Homer and the story of Polyphemus. These things echo down to us, through the millennia, and still have something to say to us. Crazy, right?

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