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Homer's Odyssey, Books XVII-XXIV
(click here for Books I-VIII)
(click here for Books IX-XVI)


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What's in a name?
The names of some of the characters in the Odyssey contain clues relating to the epic's major, interrelated themes of memory (vs. forgetting), identity, and home.

As we've disussed, Kalypso's name comes from the Greek kalyptein, to cover or conCEAL (which is also, by the way, the source of our word "hell"!). True to her name, she keeps Odysseus "under wraps" on her island, "concealing" him from the many mortals who would like to hear news of him (and even, temporarily, from himself). This state of concealment stands in direct antithesis to the fame (kleos) that is central to Homeric heroism (we've seen both Telemachos and Odysseus go so far as to wish that Odysseus had died at Troy, just so that he would have received his kleos); therefore, to remain thus "covered" means sacrificing one's heroic identity. It's worth noting that when Odysseus himself conceals his identity, as in the Cyclops incident, he must "uncover" himself again (and how! He reveals not only his own name, but those of his father and homeland, as well--IX:502-505), even if it is strategically ill-advised.

So although Kalypso offers Odysseus immortality, it comes at the cost of both nostos and kleos; he would have to remain static and unsung. These conditions are incompatible with epic.

Odysseus's own name has an interesting etymology. Homer gives us the mythic explanation of it at XIX: 409; Lattimore translates it as "distasteful," Samuel Butler as "child of anger." We can think of it as a synonym for "trouble" or "curse," deriving from the Greek odussomai, "to be wroth against, to hate." Interestingly, the same quailty seems to be attributed by Odysseus's grandfather (who names him) to Ithaka--the home to which Odysseus so urgently seeks to return. "Trouble" and "anger" (as in, the gods' anger against him and his comrades) are thus encoded in Odysseus's very self-definition; another reason he can't stay in the trouble-free situations offered by Circe, Kalypso, or Phaiakia. Ease is etymologically, as well as practically, antithetical to his identity.

There's even more to Odysseus's name, though. When the Cyclops asks, Odysseus identifies himself as "Nobody," using the Greek word outis (which sounds not unlike Odys-, a foreshortened version of his real name); later, when the Cyclops cries out to his colleagues that "Nobody [Outis] is killing me," his would-be allies conclude that if "no one" (mÍ tis) is hurting him, he doesn't need their help (IX: 410). The two words they use, mÍ tis, sound together exactly the same as mÍtis--"cunning," one of the attributes most frequently ascribed to Odysseus. Thus, both cases (outis and mÍ tis), the hero is simultaneously named and concealed ≠- highly appropriate for a character whose chief tools are disguise and revelation!

By the way, we talked about the proliferation of characters named Eury___ in the Odyssey. These would seem to have some structural function (being often associated with the human challenges Odysseus must overcome), but I'm not sure they have an onomastic one...
...The Greek eurys means broad, so that, for example, Eury-alos means "wide threshing-floor"; Eury-lochos "wide ambush," and so on. (You can look the rest of them up on Perseus, if desired). I can't see any particular significance to this, but if you can, feel free to post about it in the final Odyssey discussion!

People and Places
In our last class--keeping in mind the key themes of memory, identity and home--we started to look more closely at
      (a) the series of "benefactresses" (or, as Rachel suggested, female "suitors") who preside over the successive stages of Odysseus's journey home; and, in conjunction with these characters,
      (b) some of the places Odysseus visits on his way home--notably Scheria (Phaiakia), with its "supernatural" ease, abundance, and splendor (see esp.VII: 84-132).

For Thursday, please reflect upon the structural and symbolic importance of these people and places. We've discussed the role of the "benefactresses" as Penelope surrogates--figures who, on the one hand, threaten Odysseus's eventual homecoming and reunion with his wife; but, on the other, adumbrate a "Penelope vacuum" in the Odysseus ("itinerary") narrative that complements the "Odysseus vacuum" in the Ithakan ("destination") narrative. These complementary "vacuums" are among the structural devices that enhance our suspense as we await Odysseus's homecoming. We also talked about their role as images of forgetting: see notes on Kalypso, above. What other qualities can you attribute to these female figures that might have symbolic significance? Please expand your considerations to include Helen, the Sirens, and Arete as well as Circe, Kalypso, and Nausikaa. What about Athene's role as "fairy godmother" in all of this?

Similarly, for the places: we've already talked about the contrast between Phaiakia (with its character of anti-ŰdusiÍ, a total absence of anger/unease) and Ithaka (an island both literally and figuratively rocky). Lattimore, in his Introduction (p. 15), points out that modern Corfu seems to be the site both of Phaiakia and of Ithaka, at least according to the geography implied in the Odyssey; can you "spin" this scholarly observation into a literary insight about the symbolic relation of each to the other? Why do you think Phaiaka is the last place Odysseus stops on his way home? How is it similar, and how different, from the other places he has visited (note that the Phaiakians count themselves as related to the Cyclopes--VII: 205) ?

...are important in the Odyssey, as they were in the Iliad (cf. the Choice of Achilles, Iliad IX: 410-416). We already looked closely at the Choice of Odysseus, presented in his conversation with Kalypso at V: 205-210 or so; compare now the Choice of Penelope at XIX: 524-534. Why do you think she consults Odysseus (whom she has not yet recognized) about this?

Storytelling and Metanarrative
For our last class on the Odyssey, I'd like to consider some of the metaliterary concerns that Homer embeds in the narrative: in particular,

  • Odysseus's own role as poet/narrator (narrating his own adventures; sitting down with Athene at XIII: 372 to plan out the rest of the poem; planning the words he will use on Nausikaa at VI: 143; telling "Cretan tales" to Athene, Eumaios, Penelope, and Laertes; etc.);
  • other references to poetry-making and narration (e.g. Phemios in Books I and XXII; Demodokus in Book VIII; Eumaios at XVII: 512-21; Alkinoos's comments at XI: 366; and Odysseus's at XI: 372 and XII: 450ff.);
  • the use of similes, esp. at VI: 130ff. (Odysseus as lion); VIII: 523ff. (Odysseus as weeping woman); XIX: 107ff. (Penelope as king); XXIII: 233ff. (Penelope as sailor. Compare these to the similes in the Iliad. Do they function similarly, or differently? What do the Odyssey similes do for the the narrative of the Odyssey in particular?
Recognition (anagnoresis)

In conjunction with your considerations of identity and storytelling (see above), look at the stages of Odysseus's reincorporation into (Ithakan) society. The pattern of revelation/recognition scenes is as follows: Telemachos XVI:188ff., Argos XVII: 290-376, Eurykleia XIX: 467-90, Eumaios XXI: 205-20, suitors XXII: 35-41, Penelope XXIII, Laertes XXIV: 280-360. Do any patterns obtain? What do these scenes do for the poem?

Finally, see if you can descry any patterns in the overall structure of the poem. Is any compositional design at work here comparable to the ring composition in the Iliad? How does the last book (XXIV) relate to the rest of the poem? Is it an appropriate ending for this nostos?

Structural diagram, with notes, for the whole Odyssey (by Rebecca)

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P.S.: further to the question of popular latter-day "Odysseys" (see page from Sept. 28):
here's a link to an interesting (and very accessible) paper by an amusing Australian named G.D.Wilson, who compares the Odyssey to Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn.

P.P.S.: click the link below to see notes from Thursday's in-class group discussion activities
(The Odyssey: 3 Topics for Group Discussion).

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