The Odyssey, books 11-24

Emily Wilson’s translation of The Odyssey is unsentimental. Her language is poetic but straightforward, and never prettified. It’s unsparing about the violence and moral ambiguities in Homer’s poem, and not surprisingly, reading it is an emotional experience.

This happens often in the space of one line, or just in single word of double meaning, as in this line referring to the shades that Odysseus meets in Hades:

Teenagers, girls and boys, the old who suffered
for many years, and fresh young brides whom labor
destroyed in youth;

Sometimes it happens in the space of a short side-story. Eumaeus, the swine-herder on Odysseus’ estate in Ithaca, recalls Odysseus’ mother, who has now passed away:

“While she was still alive, despite her sadness,
she used to like to talk and chat with me—
she brought me up herself with her own daughter,
strong, pretty Ctimene, her youngest child.
She raised us both together, treating me
almost as equal, just a little less.
And when we came of age, they sent the girl
to Same, for a hefty bridal-price.
The mother dressed me in fine clothes, a cloak
and tunic, tying sandals on my feet,
and sent me to the country. But she still
loved me with all her heart. I miss them both.”

Eumaeus, who like all slaves has endured separations, still misses Ctimene. And it seems she misses him.

Eumaeus says he was brought up “almost as equal, just a little less,” with a free woman. Of course, he remained a slave, and is still not free. Yet he feels that he was treated as something like an equal, and I wonder if this is why he says also that he hesitates to call his master “by his name” and would “prefer to call him ‘brother.'”

This recalls the letter to Philemon by St. Paul, who urges Philemon to free his slave Onesimus and to receive him as “a brother beloved.”

Eumaeus tells one more story about his past, which ends —

“For seven days we sailed and on the eighth,
Artemis struck the woman with her arrows.
She crashed into the ship’s hold like a seagull.
They threw her overboard to feed the fish
and seals, and I was left there, brokenhearted.”

The woman struck down by Artemis is an unnamed slave, “tall and beautiful and skilled in many arts”. She is killed after a false promise to be taken home, and is now missed very much by Eumaeus, whom she took care of in his youth.

The little side-stories in The Odyssey have hit me just as hard as the famous episodes. And of the latter, there are many kinds of stories, but it’s the reunions that hit hardest. Here is Odysseus with his son:

hurled his arms round his father, and he wept.
They both felt deep desire for lamentation,
and wailed with cries as shrill as birds, like eagles
or vultures, when the hunters have deprived them
of fledglings who have not yet learned to fly.

Read out of context, that may read as nothing. Even I was ready to rush to past it, because at this point in the poem Homer has told us repeatedly about men weeping over one hardship or another, and all the weeping starts to sound as suspect as any repetitive performance. But in context, with the suitors having long sought to take the life of Telemachus — well I nearly wept myself.

“The Odyssey” is my third read in the past month that features a father lost at sea; the first two were “Pinocchio” and “The Old Man and the Sea“. 

Let’s get back, to perspicuous Penelope. Odysseus has arrived at his old home disguised as an old beggar, and Penelope addresses him as night falls:

“I will lie there, and you lie in this house”

You lie here, husband.

Once the suitors are dispatched, the question arises, what to do with the slave-girls of the household who have slept with them? The final decision is left with teenaged Telemachus:

“I refuse to grant these girls
a clean death, since they poured down shame on me
and Mother, when they lay beside the suitors.”

Wilson notes in her introduction that slaves would have had no choice in this matter, and this seems impossible to doubt. Telemachus seems to think they did have some choice (naivete? inexperience? pure lack of sympathy? unthinking revenge?) Odysseus may not, I can’t tell: he says the suitors have been “dragging the house girls through my home, molesting them”, and he speaks of the “slave girls dragged around, raped in my lovely home”, but he does order the girls to be executed.

I think of the women in France who slept with the German occupiers and were abused after the war, their heads often shorn. But they were not slaves, and most of them lived. These girls are hanged, and I won’t quote the passage, but their deaths stop you cold.

The entire brutal denouement of the Odyssey stops you. The lead-up is as exciting as the best thriller, but violence erupts all over the poem, and neither Homer nor Wilson covers up the details.

In all the frenzy that ends the Odyssey, there is one moment of full silence:

She crossed the threshold
and sat across from him beside the wall,
in firelight. He sat beside the pillar,
and kept his eyes down, waiting to find out
whether the woman who once shared his bed
would speak to him. She sat in silence, stunned.

Possibly my favorite scene, and I had no idea that this was how Penelope and Odysseus reunited. This is much more interesting than if she had come to him in a fervent embrace, because she has real fears of trickery, and trust does not come back suddenly, even if a man might.

His downcast eyes say so much, too.

At length, after testing her husband, Penelope finally and furiously embraces him, and she tries to tell him what lay behind her hesitation:

I felt a constant dread that some bad man
would fool me with his lies. There are so many
dishonest, clever men. That foreigner
would never have got Helen into bed,
if she had known the Greeks would march to war
and bring her home again. It was a goddess
who made her do it, putting in her heart
the passion that first caused my grief as well.

This finally explains a degree of suspicion and caution that mere prudence or natural distrust couldn’t account for. “There are so many dishonest, clever men” and gods.

Book 24, which concludes the poem, opens with a spooky and almost stately arrival by the suitors in Hades. Homer describes the place as the “the home of shadows who have been worn to weariness by life”, though this doesn’t apply to the suitors at all.

The slave-girls of Odysseus’ palace are not seen there, with or without the suitors. We can only guess when and how they will arrive there. When he had visited Hades in Book 11, Odysseus saw women gathered together in a group — elite and famous women — and they were not with any men, not even their famous husbands, fathers and sons.

by Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein (1810)

Last week’s post covered chapters 1-12, and my first attempts to read The Odyssey.

One thought on “The Odyssey, books 11-24

  1. I read the Robert Fagles translation of the Odyssey a few years ago and found it a real page turner. My interest in Homer was thus rekindled. My daughter studied the Iliad in translation for her English A Levels and we often discussed this together. How astonishing that something that was written so long ago should be such a fine work of literature. Or maybe not astonishing. Perhaps by even writing that sentence I am guilty of the kind of chronological judgement that the Inklings so vigorously opposed.
    I put Emily Wilson into my search engine and came across a fascinating interview on a site called Vox. The emphasis there is the fact that she is the first woman to undertake a translation of The Odyssey. I was particularly struck by her description of her work on Homer as an act of “intimate alienation”. I confess that the last time I read Homer I did so from a largely uncritical male perspective. I am grateful for Emily Wilson and to be daughter, Beckie Winter, for their encouragement to read Homer in a different way.

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