Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Week 04, Homer, Pindar

General Notes on Greek Culture and Homer’s The Odyssey.

One of the best short introductions I’ve ever heard concerning ancient Greek culture is the rather Nietzschean one I heard years ago from Martin Schwab of UC Irvine. He asks us to consider Fragment 42 by Sappho: “Eros seizes and shakes my very soul / Like the wind on the mountain shaking ancient oaks” (Ἔρος δαὖτ' ἐτίναξεν ἔμοι φρένας, / ἄνεμος κατ' ὄρος δρύσιν ἐμπέσων). “Eros,” the God of love, is treated as a personalized agent, not just as a physiological passion. There is constant interaction between such external agents and the human individual. The speaker can respond to what is being done to her. Eros comes from without and is a force to be reckoned with, but Sappho’s speaker can show her mettle by the way she actively embraces this power rather than shrinking from its potentially destructive effects. Similarly, in Greek tragedies, protagonists can position themselves with respect to whatever catastrophe the gods or other human beings (as well as their own mistakes) have set in motion. With a mixture of joy and anxiety, Sappho’s speaker stands on the hillside prepared to be shaken, though not uprooted. A well-rooted persona, she lets herself be shaken; she contributes to the unfolding event because she is strong enough to let herself be overcome. The Greeks admire strength, then, both in the sense of physical valor and in the sense of remaining open to the extremes of experience. Odysseus exemplifies such openness, and nowhere is this quality more evident than in the books I have chosen to assign, 9-12, in which the hero recounts his long story of adventure to the nobility and citizens of Phaeacia, where he has found dry land after the dreadful raft-wreck that he suffers upon leaving Calypso’s enchanting island. The poet’s imperative is to send Odysseus home to re-establish his sovereignty in his native kingdom of Ithaca, but these four books betray how difficult that task is: the worldly-wise, resourceful Odysseus, always the accomplished talker, seems to relish his experiences at least as much as any intended outcomes, and he warms to the polite demand that (like a good guest) he should render an account of himself to those who have graciously extended him their hospitality. I’ll move on to some observations about Books 9-12, but first, here is some further introductory material about The Odyssey as a whole:

The consensus is that around 750-720 BCE, The Odyssey (a later text than The Iliad) was written down in complete form. The earliest surviving full manuscript is that of Laurentianus, 10 th-11 th century CE, although fragments of the text exist from the 3 rd century BCE, when there were several versions in circulation, including a commonly accepted or “vulgate” edition. Our text is probably the vulgate as corrected by the Alexandrian scholars of the third century BCE and later corrupted somewhat by successive copyists.

The storylines of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey take us back another 500 years, to 1250-1225 BCE (the late Bronze Age), which some historians believe culminated in a war between the Greeks (then called Achaeans) and the inhabitants of Troy, in modern Turkey. What were these “Achaeans” like? Well, around 2000 BCE, Indo-European people entered southern Greece , and encountered an already well-developed Minoan culture. The Myceneans or Achaeans overcame and yet borrowed from Minoan culture. Then came (perhaps) the warlike sailing expedition to Troy , in which the Achaean host proved victorious. Around 1200 BCE the glorious palace-centered lifestyle of the Mycenaean civilization collapsed during a period of invasion, and a Dark Age spanning from 1150 BCE to 750 BCE set in, during time which a people called the Dorians swept down into Greece and settled. But by around 800 BCE, the population had begun to grow, and half a century after that the city-state form of governance began to take hold in Greece . That emergence coincides roughly with the date of composition for Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. So Homer’s time was one in which a so-called Dark Age had just begun to lift and a more settled and prosperous order was on the way. The way he describes Greek life perhaps owes more to his own day than to the glorious past in which his heroes lived and acted.

It is impossible to say exactly who “Homer” was. Was he in fact the glorious blind bard of tradition, or an entire series of authors? As Homer’s best modern translator Robert Fagles says, whatever the truth may be and some middling stylistic/narratival discrepancies aside, the texts we have certainly read like the products of a single master storyteller. Experts say some parts of the two epics are older than others, and of course the written texts come from a long oral tradition in which episodes may have been recounted in their own right. Perhaps what we now have is a “stitched-together” masterpiece woven by someone who knew all the stories and their interrelations.

Homer’s poetry was meant to be heard, not read. I will read some of the original to give you a sense of its rhythm and sound. I like Fagles’ translation because I find in his version the four qualities that Victorian classicist Matthew Arnold identified as Homeric: rapidity, directness of idea and diction, and nobility. It sounds great when recited aloud. Homer impels us forward with great ease, maintaining our interest—he doesn’t dawdle (unless we expect the terseness of modern newspaper articles) or become pompous or needlessly complex, and he even describes ordinary things with such appropriateness that, as Arnold might say, his descriptions don’t break the text’s overall “nobility” of expression and subject. Homer is resourceful like his hero, Odysseus—never at a loss to find the right way to respond to his subject or situation. Since the genre we are dealing with here is epic, what are its key qualities, and how does The Odyssey show them?

1. The hero is of high standing, and usually of national significance. Odysseus is king of Ithaca , a Greek island and its mainland surroundings. He’s also something of a Greek “everyman”—the type of strong, wily character that Greeks everywhere admired.

2. Homer’s subject is heroic deeds, battles, and long journeys. For example, the Iliad is about the ten-year Trojan War; the Odyssey deals with the ten-year wanderings and homecoming of Odysseus after the Trojan War and with the maturing of his son, Telemachus, into a young man worthy to take his father’s place. The story in both epics begins in medias res (in the middle of things). By the time the Odyssey begins, the ten-year Trojan War has ended with a Greek victory and Odysseus has been wandering still another ten years; he is now ready to return to Ithaca and re-establish his authority there. The poet refers as necessary to the previous twenty years’ events, and makes Odysseus recount his own wanderings to his temporary hosts in Phaeacia. (The Odyssey’s immediate action, by the way, takes place over approximately 40 days.)

3. Epic verse is elevated and heroic in tone, but not “pompous.” We often find epic similes likening human things to divine or grand things. Epic heroes are generally “godlike” rather than merely mortal in ability and lineage. The ocean that causes Odysseus so much heartache is not just any drab ocean, it’s an oinopos pontos—a “winedark sea,” the province of Poseidon and many nymphs. And when the sun sets, Homer’s verse often memorializes this everyday event by inserting a variant of the lovely stock phrase, “the sun sank, and the roads of the world grew dark” (3.557 Fagles; 497 Perseus online Greek edition: δύσετό τ' ἠέλιος σκιόωντό τε πᾶσαι ἀγυιαί.).

4. The action involves both humans and gods. In the Odyssey, humans like Odysseus, the gods on Mount Olympus , and the underworld realm of Hades all have dealings with one another.

5. The setting is world-wide, or even cosmic, in scale. Many of the places mentioned in The Odyssey are probably real, but some—the further west one goes—are obviously mythical.

6. The story is comic, not tragic; that is, although there may be a great deal of violence and suffering, the hero is successful in his exploits and upholds the values of his culture. In a tragedy, the story begins with the hero at the height of power, and then comes a fall that the hero deserves because of his or her “hubris,” or arrogation of inappropriate powers.

7. The poet-narrator is objective and does not interpose himself between us and the story. Homer doesn’t leap out of the poem and start telling us about himself, or even about the fictional “narrator.” In the Odyssey there are, however, some interesting references to “bards” and to weaving and singing—actions that we may take as referring to the craft and significance of poetry.

8. Epic is designed to carry out a cultural task: as Martin Schwab of UC Irvine says, an epic is a long poem that participates in and tries to affect the civilization it describes. This is certainly true of great works such as Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, Virgil’s Aeneid, Dante’s Divine Comedy, Cervantes’ Don Quixote, and Milton ’s Paradise Lost. Just to take the last-mentioned example, it’s clear that Milton wants to place the failure of the Puritan cause he supported against the British monarchy in the broad context of human error, both political and personal. In The Odyssey, while Homer pays tribute to Greek wanderlust and openness to experience of all kinds, he seems determined to suffuse the difficult, post-heroic era in which he and his hearers/readers live with the resourceful valor of an earlier heroic age (circa 1250 BCE). Odysseus, a worldly adventurer and warrior who has relations with gods and demigods, must return home to make order in the small-scale domestic setting of his native Ithaca.

Line-by-Line Notes on Homer’s Odyssey, Books 9-12.

Book 9

Readers of The Odyssey know that Odysseus is a resourceful character who can size up other people and situations and find a way out of a tight spot. He is self-possessed enough to know when to conceal or dissemble his intentions and identity, and when to speak and act directly. This is a man who knows when to talk and when to act; his actions, words, and thoughts (insofar as we are granted access to his thoughts) nearly always seem to be appropriate and consonant with one another. He responds with courage to the situations that fate, the gods, and his own passions confront him with. Odysseus, then, is the ideal Greek—not perfect, perhaps, but always worthy of emulation. The subject of Book 9 is the interaction between Odysseus and crew and the Cyclops Polyphemus. How does Odysseus get his men in trouble and out of it? The men would prefer to steal their dinner and run, but not their captain. He is insatiably curious—a quality for which the narrator by no means condemns him throughout The Odyssey, but one that he will have to restrain if he is to regain his old status as King of Ithaca.

12-32. At this point, Odysseus’ task as storyteller to the Phaeacians parallels that of the narrator throughout the epic: to arrange the past in such a way as to make some order emerge, to derive some lesson from it all. Words are a vehicle for expression, but they are also a medium of self-restraint (taming, containing); they help us put our experiences into order and renew our acquaintance with priorities.

33-41. Odysseus admits the great power of Circe and Calypso, but insists that they never really stole his heart since “nothing is as sweet as a man’s own country” (38). The very names of these two witches derive from the Greek for, respectively, “circle” (but the word for “hawk” is very similar) and “to cover (kalypto).

44-70. Odysseus and his men encounter the Cicones. The Greeks dally, slaughtering sheep and drinking too much, and the Cicones band together to drive Odysseus’ men to a rather ignominious retreat. The problem isn’t that they sacked the place—Odysseus actually seems proud of his decision to do so, and such action is evidently nothing new for him (piracy wasn’t a dishonorable trade, in the ancient Greeks’ view—at least not until Classical times). The problem is that they don’t know when to move on. In light of the task they must still accomplish (the homecoming), their behavior is no longer heroic, and mutiny is the logical result. Many an ancient battle was surely lost after it was won simply because the weary, ill-remunerated troops couldn’t resist stopping to plunder what they had taken by the sword.

93-117. It seems that marijuana-like “calm-down” narcotics have been around forever, to judge from this episode. According to the Wikipedia entry on the Lotophagoi (Lotos-Eaters), the plant is most likely a North African variety called “ziziphus lotus, a relative of the jujube.” According to Homer’s fanciful episode, the lotus plant induces forgetfulness—of family and homeland, heroic quests and high words, everything. It quenches desire for everything but the lotus itself, and for sleep. Odysseus hurries his men back to their ships in the face of such danger, and indeed he hurries past the tale itself as he tells it to the Phaeacians. If we want more, we will have to look to Tennyson’s modern poem, The Lotos-Eaters, where the “brother Mariners” sing in a dilatory stupor about their resentment of the gods and of the “toil” that is the lot of human beings.

118-259. Now it’s on to the main event—Odysseus’ encounter with the Cyclops Polyphemus. This giant lives a life of pastoral ease, and cares nothing for the laws of hospitality. That kind of life (or something even easier) was what the crew wanted when they came into contact with the lotus plant, but such a life isn’t for men of action. Law and labor are the mainstays of mortal life. Driven by Odysseus’ curiosity, the Greeks behave in a rather un-guestlike way towards Polyphemus, and for once the men seem wise in their preference for simply making off with some of the delicious cheeses to which they’ve been helping themselves.

260-316. Soon enough, Polyphemus returns from his herding, only to find that strangers have taken up residence in his home. The giant turns out to be no better a host than the Greeks are guests, and we find him (a son of Poseidon, apparently) mocking the power of Zeus, god of suppliants. He flatly rejects Odysseus’ attempts at civil conversation, and wants only to find out where the men’s ship is so he can destroy it.

316-411. At this juncture, Odysseus is forced to work up a clever scheme, and his best means is Polyphemus’ tree-length wooden staff, which the Greek crew must sharpen and harden by fire while the giant bolts down six men. Οὖτις ἐμοί γ ' ὄνομα : Οὖτιν δέ με κικλήσκουσι / μήτηρ ἠδὲ πατὴρ ἠδ ' ἄλλοι πάντες ἑταῖροι ’ (“Nobody is my name: Nobody—that’s what my mother, my father, and all my comrades call me.” Perseus 9.366-67), says Odysseus, making the best of a bad situation. The brute Polyphemus has little command of linguistic subtlety, so the captain’s wordplay (along some extreme but carefully timed violence) is an appropriate way to defeat this uncivilized brute.

412-528. The hideous scheme of blinding the one-eyed Polyphemus pays off, but still Odysseus and his men must do some high-quality feigning to make it out of the cave alive: they pretend to be the giant’s sheep, and the trick works.

529-630. The danger really should be past by now, but Odysseus’ recklessness nearly gets him killed along with his entire crew. He just can’t resist the opportunity to deepen Polyphemus’ psychological wound: he declares his proper name, Odysseus. This exuberance will, of course, cost him dearly, as it gives Poseidon all the more reason to be angry with him. It commonly happens in Greek literature that a character’s most admirable trait (whether exercised too strongly or not, as it is here) is what gets him or her in trouble. Odysseus’ daring is admirable, but it is also reckless. The pre-Classical Greeks aren’t much given to praising restraint for restraint’s sake or defining virtue as the mean between extremes (as Aristotle would later do), but knowing when to keep one’s name to oneself is something Odysseus really needed to do at this point, and he has failed to do it.

Book 10

17ff. Odysseus tells his war adventures to good effect, and recounts how he stayed a month with Aeolus, god of the winds. The god gives him a bag of favorable wind, but on the tenth day of sailing, Odysseus’ resentful crew open the bag, supposing that it contains riches they deserve as well as their captain. The crew are remarkably inconsistent and very much driven by their passions: this time it isn’t fear that spurs them on, it’s their resentment of an obviously superior man’s privileges.

62ff. Aeolus rebuffs Odysseus when he returns with a plea for yet a second bag of winds. As so often in ancient literature, bad luck is considered a mark of shame—an unlucky person is like someone with a deadly contagious disease, and is to be shunned. It’s hard to see how Odysseus’ crew really deserve any help at this point: they’ve been disloyal. (Of course, one might question Odysseus’ decision not to tell the crew what was in the bag—he doesn’t seem to trust them, perhaps with good reason.)

115ff. Odysseus’ scouts meet the daughter of Lestrygonian King Antiphates, but soon thereafter the Lestrygonians eat two of Odysseus’ men, and he rows away with only his own ship and crew—the rest having been destroyed by huge rocks. This is what their abuse of Aeolus’ magical gift has brought them to: they have been reduced to barely sufficient human toil.

148ff. Odysseus and his men reach Aeaea, where the goddess Circe dwells. She is the daughter of the Sun and Perse. Odysseus kills a stag to feed his men, and tries to cheer them up.

243ff. Circe, the first of the two nymphs with whom Odysseus must contend, is presented to us as an enchanting songstress and spinner of webs: Κίρκης δ ' ἔνδον ἄκουον ἀειδούσης ὀπὶ καλῇ , / ἱστὸν ἐποιχομένης μέγαν ἄμβροτον , οἷα θεάων / λεπτά τε καὶ χαρίεντα καὶ ἀγλαὰ ἔργα πέλονται . τοῖσι δὲ μύθων ἦρχε Πολίτης ὄρχαμος ἀνδρῶν , / ὅς μοι κήδιστος ἑτάρων ἦν κεδνότατός τε …. 10.221-25, Perseus. Fagles translates these lines well as “deep inside they heard her singing, lifting / her spellbinding voice as she glided back and forth / at her great immortal loom, her enchanting web / a shimmering glory only goddesses can weave” (10.242-45). This passage might be compared to the slightly fuller vignette of Calypso in 5.65-84, Fagles translation.) Circe’s name Κίρκη may be derived from the Greek noun kirkis (“circle”), which would be an appropriate connotation because she hinders Odysseus, threatening to trap him in an inappropriately comfortable , carefree “domestic” situation when he still has heroic work to do. Circe first draws the captain’s men (Eurylochus excepted) into her charmed circle, making them forget their quest to return home, and then turns them into swine. It makes sense to suppose that the pig is Circe’s choice for Odysseus’ crew because pigs, while intelligent, are traditionally represented as easily led by desire—they wallow and feed happily, oblivious to the fact that they are being fattened to satisfy their captors’ appetite.

302ff. Odysseus, with a gift of moly from Hermes to protect him (Wikipedia describes moly as “a magic herb with a black root and white blossoms”), goes forward to confront Circe and her magic spells. This herb does what it’s supposed to do, and Odysseus remains as he is. Or at least, he remains the same in outward form. Circe has another kind of magic—the power of sex—that will work on this recalcitrant man over time. In any case, the men are returned to their original form.

472ff. Eurylochus, still afraid of Circe’s tricks, resists Odysseus’ decision to bring all his men back to the goddess’ halls. But the captain gives in to luxury and his host’s voluptuousness, and his men must remind him that it’s time to go. Sometimes for the Greeks, “giving in” to the power of sexual impulses is a mark of strength (as in the Sappho poem I’ve used, or as in William Blake’s grand line from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, “Those who restrain desire, do so because theirs is weak enough to be restrained”), but things don’t play out that way in this instance. At 506-12, Circe claims that she is offering the men a chance to recuperate and recover their strength before setting sail again. But an entire year passes, and when the men finally convince Odysseus to depart, Circe springs the information upon him that a trip to the Underworld will be necessary.

553ff. Circe gives specific directions to Odysseus on how to reach Hades: he must enact the proper rituals to enter this third of the three realms and wrest from it the knowledge he needs. Odysseus must go to Persephone’s sacred grove and to the “House of Death,” which seems to represent Hades itself, or the entrance point to that realm. At a certain sacred spot, Odysseus must pour libations of milk, honey, wine, and water, sprinkle barley, and vow to sacrifice to the dead generally and to Tiresias specifically when he returns home to Ithaca. The book ends on a sour note when the foolish Elpenor, besotted with wine, falls off the roof of Circe’s palace to his death.

Book 11

What attitude will Odysseus adopt towards the trip he must make to Hades and towards the shades he meets when he arrives there? The conclusion of this episode is chilling, and repays consideration: the shades crowd around Odysseus, terrifying even his stout spirit. One way to view Book 11 is to say that it shows Odysseus trying to gain the knowledge he needs and to maintain perspective in the midst of what threatens to overwhelm him. His trip to the Underworld is a severe trial as well as an opportunity to learn and satisfy his heroic curiosity. We recall that the three realms ( Olympus , Earth, and Hades) must remain distinct but in communication with one another. Those communications aren’t always easy—a point that Aeschylus reinforces later in The Oresteia. Hades has powers and prerogatives of its own—its presiding god is, after all, one of Zeus’ siblings, along with Poseidon and Hera.

65ff: The dead are commanded by Odysseus, but they in turn exert a strong influence upon him; they have their own demands to make. Even the drunkard Elpenor, who fell off the roof of Circe’s palace, implores Odysseus to observe the proper cremation and burial rites. A Greek owed this to the dead; it helped to put a cap on a person’s life, and made his transition to the Underworld go smoothly. But Tiresias makes a prophecy about Odysseus extending beyond the epic. How is Odysseus to take this? Does it round off his own life?

95ff: Gender is a main theme in Book 11: Odysseus’ mother Anticleia is dear to him, but he won’t speak to her until he fulfills his main mission, which is to get the knowledge and guidance he needs from Tiresias. Anticleia reinforces Odysseus’ desire to return home—in this way, like many of the dead, she participates as well as communicates with those still in the land of the living. And her account of what it’s like to live in Hades makes the affairs of the living seem all the more attractive. Hades isn’t really a place you want to dwell in or upon, so it must be that what we do on earth is of the greatest importance.

After Anticleia, Persephone sends Odysseus a catalog of famous royal wives and daughters. Of course Odysseus’ goal is to get home to Penelope, and even Agamemnon later admits that she, at least, is trustworthy, but even so this book shows some real concern for maintaining proper boundaries around the action proper to the male and female gender. The Greeks like strong women and can admire a transgressor like the still living Clytemnestra, but at the same time she must be taken down for her “male” actions because they are not permissible for a woman. (A point I draw from Martin Schwab of UC Irvine.) So the women Odysseus meets both in Hades and elsewhere represent a threat to his success—in the epic’s second half, it isn’t Penelope, much as he may test her, who causes the trouble; it’s those strumpets the palace maids, carrying on with the suitors.

413ff: Odysseus’ character and strength are plain to Arete and Alcinous. It seems that Odysseus’ strong character and clarity of mind lend authority to his fine tales. In that way his skill bespeaks or unfolds his heroic character. It isn’t only that he can spin a good story—any crafty beggar can do that, Alcinous implies. Odysseus exudes a sense of the close connection between action and words. Later in Greek history, Aristotle will say that the goal or end of life is action, and that by our actions we are happy or miserable. I suppose Homer would agree with that.

430ff: To drive home this point about action, I should say again that Odysseus sees his tales as steeling himself to grief and containing it within its proper boundaries. Grief should be a spur to action; it should be felt deeply, but it shouldn’t destroy the strong person who suffers its effects. The Sappho poem I quoted earlier is worth reiterating: “Eros seizes and shakes my very soul / Like the wind on the mountain / Shaking ancient oaks.” If the persona is well rooted, it may allow itself to be shaken by passion. Well, the Greeks liked to talk about these experiences, and it makes sense to say that telling and hearing tales of sorrow and hardship are themselves experiences. Engagement with words is experience and action, at least when someone like Odysseus is doing the talking. This way of taking language as experience is something that separates the men from the boys in Homer. It is a way of remaining open to experience. Another way to put this is that a Greek like Odysseus won’t fully separate art (i.e. tale-telling) from the other things that happen in life. Art is life experience; it is, as Kenneth Burke says, “equipment for living.”

431ff: Odysseus recounts Agamemnon’s anger and lamentation; there’s unfinished business in Argos . Where is Orestes? Odysseus doesn’t know. Here we have a shade calling for retribution from Hades. Orestes must avenge his father, whatever the cost in further retribution by the Furies. Agamemnon is angry at women—he starts sounding a bit like Hamlet at one point. But he isn’t saying that Penelope will rebel and join the Bad Girls’ Club. His concern probably is that not maintaining gender boundaries, not keeping genders within their proper sphere, will bring disaster to any kingdom. Gender is a principle that regulates action, it seems. (Consider the modern existentialist version of feminism as we may find it in Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, where the author explains that men define themselves as “authentic” and active beings, while they define women as “inessential others” upon whose inessentiality men may prove themselves.) As mentioned earlier, a strong and active woman is admirable to Greek audiences, but she is also an object of fear and may well be subjected to punishment as a transgressor.

553ff: Achilles sets Odysseus right about Hades. It’s a shadowy place, not to be considered a place to rule perpetually with the same happiness and glory as on earth. Earth is the place to be. Achilles longs to hear how his son is doing. A child offers a more satisfying chance at immortality than Hades. Never mind what Satan says in Paradise Lost— it is not “better to reign in hell, than serve in heaven.”

617ff: Great Ajax , like the other shades, “takes up an attitude” towards the living. Achilles did that too, in setting Odysseus right about the merits of the afterlife.

648ff: Odysseus’ desire to see more heroes comes to the fore. Heracles honors him with a comparison to himself—so much hard labor, a man of pain. It reminds me of how Dante makes Virgil honor him in Inferno.

End: the realms must remain distinct. Odysseus’ invasive interaction with Hades’ spirits threatens to overwhelm him, making him fear loss of command even in his own proper realm, earth. Interacting with the Powers is necessary and heroic, but it is dangerous, too. The intercommunication between realms does not mean that there’s an easy fit between them or that their respective prerogatives and claims upon us have all been settled to everyone’s satisfaction. Aeschylus will certainly point that out to us. When we get to him, ask yourself, “what is the place of the human in his drama?”

Book 12

Odysseus returns to Circe's island after his visit to Hades. This book separates the men from the boys; the crew is destroyed due to its atasthalia, reckless disregard for the gods. Book 12 is a fulcrum; Odysseus’ negotiating to return home has involved negotiating with actors in all three realms. His crew fails him at the end of the process, eating the Sun’s cattle, and only he has come through the trials.

22ff: The book shows concern for controlling the flow of information, for delineating what is proper to a hero and what constitutes mere recklessness. How to respond to experience? The crew is heedless, but Odysseus’ daring is generally more permeated with presence of mind and, sometimes, even with forethought (a quality he shares with that other great figure, Prometheus).

27ff: Circe’s attitude towards the men. Is she honest with them? The she-goddess treats Odysseus’ crew the way Agamemnon has said women should be treated: she tells them only part of the story, taking Odysseus aside to tell him all about the Sirens and about Scylla and Charybdis.

57ff: Odysseus will be allowed the maximum openness to experience because he is best prepared to “be shaken,” in the manner of the Sappho poem I quoted above. His desire is admirable, even if he must be restrained by his fellows, who are not his equals. Some people’s desires are stronger than others, and those desires will have their way—this is a point in the text where the strength of Odysseus’ desire is truly a mark of his excellence.

62ff: Scylla and Charybdis threaten catastrophe. It’s Odysseus’ choice and responsibility to take the consequences. And it’s a chance to measure up to his father Laertes, one of the Argonauts with Jason. They negotiated their way through the same trial. Odysseus keeps the knowledge of one of the killers to himself.

200ff: Here we meet the Sirens (a female noun, seiren). How much does Odysseus get to hear? More than we do? Or the same? Are they, in fact, saying anything that can be understood? Odysseus seems to be responding to a call, but I don’t believe he gets the actual knowledge, which is most likely forbidden to mortals, try though they may to discern it. These enchantresses take Odysseus to the limits of human endurance by their offer of omniscience. He braves them as a man, but in respect to the gods all is feminized. Even Odysseus can’t hear the whole story; he only hears the call to go beyond his limits.

243ff: Odysseus keeps the knowledge of Scylla to himself; he must restrain his crew from giving in to their weakness. We see a pattern of testing emerge: how much knowledge can a man take? Book 12 is a time of testing limits. And Odysseus’ retelling of this episode (along with everything else he tells them) to the Phaeacians also tests his limits of endurance—he must relive the painful experience of losing his crew to Scylla.

320ff: Eurylochus pleads weakness; the men are unheroic, and Odysseus makes them swear an oath. They are reckless because they don’t keep this oath when supplies run out. The belly is their god. But that’s not the case with Odysseus. The breaking of an oath threatens to confound the relationship between the realms; Helios complains to Zeus and says he will blaze in Hades, so Zeus has to promise he will strike Odysseus’ ship with lightning.

455: The ship is stripped bare (here the clothing/nakedness theme occurs again, as it did in the meeting between Odysseus and Princess Nausicaa at the beginning of Book 6), and it’s on to Ogygia, where Calypso abides. Odysseus says that he wouldn’t care to repeat that tale, which of course concludes with his landing on Phaeacian shores—it has been told, and told well. It’s time for him to make his way to Ithaca , with the aid of his hosts. In the grand sweep of The Odyssey, the hero hasn’t arrived at the end of his troubles and tests, but he will have reached a vital stage since from now until Book 24, his efforts will be made on his own kingdom’s rocky soil, not on the high seas or in exotic foreign lands.

Pindar Notes

Pindarus (circa 522-443 BCE), the Theban poet whose body of work has partly been lost to time (except for the epinikia or “victory odes”) writes not so much private-tending lyric as public, formal verse meant to commemorate events dear to the Greeks’ heart: victories by young aristocrats in sporting competition. For Greek men in particular, sports seem to have functioned as an analog to another key concern—prowess on the battlefield. It instilled self-discipline in young men, but also taught them how to work together to achieve a common goal (depending on the type of competition, of course). Pindar himself was an aristocrat, a member of the fabled Aegidae clan. His poetry is learned stuff, probably not intended for the common folk.

Attitude Pindar adopts towards youth – well, probably similar to that in some modern poems, such as Housman’s “To an Athlete Dying Young.” There’s some melancholy in these poems—the joy of victory can be connected to the illustrious past of the gods and one’s ancestors (a big part of what gives meaning to individuals’ lives in ancient cultures), and projected into an indefinite-seeming future, but there’s also a strong undercurrent on the uncertainties of life and its impermanence.

Notes on Pindar, Selected Odes

Isthmian 3-4 (56-61)

The third ode begins by stressing the need to avoid personal aggrandizement because of one’s wealth or athletic accomplishments. Pindar is, of course, an aristocrat, so his “don’t overplay it” ethos is especially strong, but loyalty to one’s clan and city seems to be prominent in Greek culture generally: a sense of civic pride and duty pervades it. In the fourth ode, Pindar again emphasizes the “lack of loud-mouthed insolence” of Melissos and his ancestors. They are what we would call “gentlemen,” and their deeds speak for them. But that’s where Pindar comes in since, he, as an artist, also “speaks for” such men as Melissos the excellent chariot-racer and fellow Theban: these “sons of Kleonymos” are aided by special winds or forces amongst the many such winds that “drive all men” ( ἄλλοτε δ' ἀλλοῖος οὖρος / πάντας ἀνθρώπους ἐπαίσσων ἐλαύνει,” which Bowra translates as “Many are the different winds / That rush down and drive all men.”) These special winds are paralleled, it appears, by the breath of men as they praise Melissos and his predecessors. Their accomplishments have significance beyond anything that Melissos aims at, pointing to the highest achievement of which humanity is capable and reinforcing a sense of life’s purposiveness, of the need to test the limits of our strength. Melissos’ family has been reduced by loss in war lately, but the poet invokes the spirit of seasonal rebirth: the man’s victories herald the continued flourishing of his stock. The accomplishments of these men, as sung by previous poets, are the organic soil from which Pindar’s poetry develops, and to this poetry Pindar attributes something of immortality: such speech is “undying” (4.44). For those who strive, even the silence is pregnant; for those who fail to strive, says Pindar, “silences that know them not” (35) will be the only reward. There’s no attempt to exaggerate the build of Melissos, who is described as rather a short, stocky fellow 4.53); instead, his deeds are connected to those of the great Herakles, who now enjoys a blissful afterlife amongst the gods.

Olympian 2 (80-85)

This poem, with its allusions to gods and mythical figures, and to the triumphant overcoming of heavy sorrows by great actions, promotes the ever-potent aristocratic principle. A noble family of long standing, it seems, bears within itself always the seeds of its own renovation. Characteristic of Pindar is his enlistment of the sweeping elements to figure the unpredictability and diversity of human life’s outcomes: “Many are the streams that come to men, / Now with the heart’s delight, and now with sorrow” (35-36). This ode seems to refer to Theron the addressee’s own beliefs that there’s an afterlife with a moral structure – not a notion much emphasized in ancient times. Pindar also has it in for some rival poets who may be praised Theron badly or fulsomely, rather than appropriately as he does.

Nemean 3 (101-05)

This is one of the odes that closely links the composition of songs with the athletic competitions—the best reward a victor can have, says Pindar, is not some monetary prize, it’s the song that crowns his victory. As in this one, that song will generally pay homage to the victor’s family and connect him to the stories of gods and local heroes. It’s easy to see that the Greeks are a rather competitive people: Pindar says there are appropriate trials of strength for nearly every stage of a man’s life, and excellence is to be honored in them all. There is plenty of commercialism in ancient Greece , with its thriving artisans and busy harbor towns, but evidently the games revolve around a different and more spiritual kind of economy: they are about personal, local, and regional honor, not about wealth. I like his comment at 40-41, too—as the notes say, Pindar insists that a trainer (trainers and “coaches” were apparently much in demand even back then) can only teach someone the basics—excellence in trials of strength and skill must come from within. I recall seeing an interview with basketball great Bill Russell, the center who played for the Celtics all through the 1960’s, and in it he insisted that great athletes are never “dumb jocks”—they may or may not be book-learned, but they are almost invariably intelligent people with much foresight and self-discipline, and high expectations of excellence that come from one’s own personal reserves of strength and character. Pindar would surely agree. (Or as Oscar Wilde might say, “Education is a fine thing, but it’s well to remember from time to time that nothing worth knowing can be taught.”)

Pythian 2 (146-51)

This is a guardedly expressive poem that doesn’t so much celebrate the victor Syracusan King Hieron’s accomplishment as get in a few under-the-radar digs at him for choosing another poet to craft his victory ode. Apparently there was no small amount of competition amongst poets, and Pindar doesn’t always get the better of his competition. He has a certain noble haughtiness about him, and doesn’t like being upstaged by men he considers inferior.

Olympian 7 (164-69)

Here the poet describes his song as being like a wine-pledge, something that intoxicates and unites, something that knits people together. Much of this poem, as the Penguin editors point out, emphasizes how what seems to be an accident or an error may yet be turned to good account, if we or some benevolent power shape it that way. I like the final line, ἐν δὲ μιᾷ μοίρᾳ χρόνου / ἄλλοτ' ἀλλοῖαι διαιθύσσοισιν αὖραι , which Bowra translates as “In a single moment of time / Many are the winds which blow this way and that.” Pindar uses the winds as a natural, or even supernatural, force that gives energy, purpose, and direction to human life, he treats it as something allied with fate and that action of the gods. Life is shot through with energy, opportunity, and uncertainty, and valor in sport is one way of seizing opportunities and steeling oneself to bear adversity.

Isthmian 7 (224-26)

This is a poignant poem in that, as the Penguin editor says, the victor Strepsiades’ uncle (who shares his name) has been killed in a battle against an Athenian army. Pindar reminds himself to live one day at a time, and not try to peer too far into the ways of the gods.

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