I am embarrassed to admit this, but I have a Classics degree and prior to this challenge, had never before read The Odyssey. I am currently working with Greek director Emily Louizou on a play that takes some inspiration from this foundational myth (Babies and Bathwater! 24.2.2024! Come see it!), plus there is a gorgeous recent translation into English by Emily Wilson, the first woman to do so. And if you're picking just one thing to read from Greece, this is one of the main two contenders. It seemed a good time to finally tackle this beast.
Not a Novel
Despite not actually reading the thing, I did learn at uni what we know about The Odyssey's author Homer (not very much) and how this work was transmitted. It was performed rather than read, and in chunks rather than as a whole. So it doesn't really lend itself that well to being read like a novel, and I have to admit I did find trawling through this often repetitive epic a little boring at times. But there were some gorgeous moments, and it gave me a lot to think about. I also appreciated commentary from the podcast Natalie Haynes Stands Up for the Classics and the mini-series Stop! Homer Time from the podcast Overdue.
One of the other things I learned in my undergrad was that characters in Ancient Greek literature are a bit more like plot functions than the fully-fleshed psychological studies we've come to expect since the nineteenth-century. My supervisor - an expert in Sophocles' Elektra - used to contest this by saying "What's Elektra's function then? To moan?" But in general, I think that principle is a helpful way to approach The Odyssey. There are a whole cast of characters here, but here are my thoughts on just two.
Odysseus, Our "Many-Minded Hero"
Odyseuss' motivations are famously obscure, and The Odyssey sets us up well to expect this in its even more famous opening line:
Sing, O Muse, of the man of many wiles
Emily Wilson sets the tone for her rich, very 21st-century translation by beginning:
Tell me about a complicated man
It's frustrating not knowing why he does so many of the utterly bizarre things he does and just how long he chooses to hide himself, even upon his much-delayed return home to Ithaca. (His inscrutability reminded me a little of Eugene Onegin.) But without this turn of his personality, we wouldn't get this winding, epic story.
Athena, his patron goddess, is a powerful, severe, equally wily force. She defends his corner against the other gods, drives the whole plot, and tells Odysseus exactly what to do. Her timing about how and when to reveal that Odysseus is finally home was the most exciting part for me. She has him spectacularly win an archery competition in his own great hall with his own bow that he hasn't seen for twenty years. Then he and his son Telemachus go into full pitched battle against the crowd of suitors who have been harassing his wife. But Athena's guidance doesn't prevent Odysseus getting into many tight corners - in fact she almost seems to prefer it this way.
Theology - A Greek Word for a Greek Worldview
Ancient Greek gods have fascinated me for a long time but they came alive in a new way for me reading this. I could really sense the sheer volatile power of "blue Poseidon, Lord of Earthquakes"; Athena's cold calculations; the repeated leitmotif of Dawn and her association with roses. I have to say that having recently read Madeline Miller's excellent novel Circe helped, too, by supplying a plausible motivation for these tricksy, selfish gods: they are 1) greedy for sacrifices from humans and 2) obsessed with their own internal power struggles.
Coming from my personal background of Christian Evangelicalism, there is something delightfully foreign about this worldview. You don't have to tie yourself in knots trying to defend a perfect god; you just accept that they are selfish and flawed. And many different types of person are celebrated in godhead, including (shock) female ones.
It continues to fascinate me that the founding myths of European culture are so thoroughly pagan, when the European culture that got exported to my homeland was so purely Christian. This is not to say that I don't understand syncretism and that paganism and Christianity sit perfectly happily side-by-side in a lot of places. It's just that my experience is, Australia isn't really one of those places.
Who or What Is Greece
My main impressions of Greece from The Odyssey are:
It is a thoroughly ocean-based society. I mean, look at the map. It makes sense. Wilson evokes this beautifully: "Sea all around him, sea on every side".
In the ancient world, being a good guest and a good host were paramount. At least part of Telemachus' distress at the suitors is because they are being bad guests and he's not well equipped to fix the situation.
As above, there is a delightful, rich pagan heritage that stretches back a long, long way.
Being an Australian student of Classics, Greece has existed only in my mind for so long. My education was necessarily about ideas rather than solid earth (much more transportable across many miles to Australia); but also one of the books that changed my life when I was a young adult was Richard Buxton's Imaginary Greece. I deliberately cultivated a relationship with a Greece of the mind.
I made my first ever visit to the real thing just recently, and it and elevated my soul to see in reality this place that has existed only in my mind for so long. What a rich and beautiful place! (Also, the tzatziki at the Kalamaki Bar in Athens is truly life-changing.)