Conversations with Students XII: Odysseus’s Captivity

We are back for our second semester of seminars here with the students. After finishing Homer’s Iliad and the first four books of Homer’s Odyssey (the Telemachy) during Fall Semester, we are beginning the second semester with Books V (5) and the beginning of Books VI (6) of Homer’s Odyssey.

After finally suffering through four books of bildungsroman, the students were very happy to see a familiar face, Odysseus, in an unfamiliar place, Ogygia, the magical island of the powerful sea-nymph Kalypso, daughter of Atlas. In what will soon become a familiar trope to the students, Odysseus is trapped and in trouble. The reason, so we hear, is because Poseidon is angry at Odysseus, but we will soon learn that that is just a much larger cause in the web of events which have led to Odysseus’ shipless and companion-less fall onto Ogygia. In fact, it was due to Apollo and the foolish acts of Odysseus’ then remaining companions that left him marooned and half-dead on Ogygia, but we will learn about that in a later seminar.

Book Five opens with Athene pleading with Zeus during a council of the gods to help Odysseus due to his blameless nature. Ever quick to respond to his daughter’s wisdom, Zeus sends Hermes (note that Iris is no longer used as the messenger god in Homer’s Odyssey) to command Kalypso to release Odysseus. Kalypso, after mentioning how unfair this is and that the male gods hate seeing the goddesses happy with human males as mates (Demeter and Iasion; Eos (Dawn) and Orion), she agrees to free Odysseus but not to give him conveyance over the waters–that is, Odysseus must build a raft to complete a twenty day journey over the sea to reach Scheria, home of the Phaiakians. Before he does that, though, our first glimpse of our titular hero comes with him “[weeping] for a way home”. Very heroic! After reasoning with a coy Kalypso, admitting that she is in fact more beautiful than Penelope, and spending four days building the raft Odysseus sets out.

During his journey, Poseidon notices his hated “mortal” on the sea and decides to send a massive storm to harry his way home. The storm destroys Odysseus’ raft, and then Poseidon deciding that is enough, returns to his home in Aigai. Athene then calms the winds, and a sea-goddess, Ino called Leukothea, with a checkered past, offers Odysseus a veil which allows him safe passage through the waves (for the last 2 days of his 20 day journey) with the instructions that he must throw it back into the waves and look away after he reaches Scheria.

Odysseus arrives at Scheria, and at first, even after days of struggle, he cannot get onto the island. Briefly, then, after praying to an unnamed river, he is granted access to the land. He then, famously, decides to sleep underneath a bed of leaves beneath two interwoven and inter-grown (by their trunks) olive trees, one wild and the other cultivated.

Odysseus awakes the next day to the sound of screaming girls. Though he knows that they may be wild and savage, he also knows that his only chance at survival rests with getting help from the local people. So, risking death and capture, he presents himself to the girls with only a “leafy branch” as covering. Lucky for Odysseus, Athene had primed Nausikaa for meeting a strange man (albeit as a potential suitor) by placing the idea in her mind during a dream (very similar to an inception-like move made by Zeus at the beginning of Homer’s Iliad found here). Nausikaa withstands her revulsion to the sight of Odysseus–dirty, salt-encrusted, nude–and hears him out as he explains how he came to be in this situation. After a bath, Athene magically makes Odysseus seem taller, thicker, and curls his hair making Nausikaa switch her perspective on this stranger from her initial assessment of “unpromising” to, “If only the man to be called my husband could be like this one…”(6.244)

Summary behind us, the students considered a few difficulty and fundamental questions of Western thought today.

The first major question they encountered was: what does it say about Odysseus’ nature, and human nature in general, that he gave up the potential for immortality and a release from physical suffering in exchange for guaranteed suffering, toil, and eventual death on the high seas?

The second question was: is human nature at its core more violent and savage or more peaceful and harmonious? (This question got a lot of traction and even some helpful references to Tarzan were made.)

The third major question was: is Odysseus faithful or unfaithful to his wife Penelope by his actions towards Kalypso and Nausikaa? (and later they will learn of Circe as well).

Let’s begin with the first question. The students had a variety of responses to why Odysseus ought or ought not accept immortality. Ranging from “immortality would get boring,” to “Odysseus is already sick of Kalypso. Can you imagine spending ETERNITY with her?” But at an even more lucid level, the students engaged with the question in a fundamental and deeply psychological way. They considered the active nature of Odysseus and how much he seemed to be suffering, crying his eyes out daily, on Ogygia after only seven years. They observed that in the nature of Odysseus, and man himself, there is a need to strive, suffer, and to engage with the world in new ways–accepting always the risk of physical and emotional pain and death. At another lucid level, the students identified that it would hardly be fun to live long past all the deaths of the people one knows and loves. Intelligently they asked, how could you even connect to others just knowing they would die long before you? How indeed?

The second question was a beast with which we wrestled in each section of the class and which we had written about the week before: are humans at the core savage and violent or peaceful and harmonious? Several examples and models for attacking the question were suggested, but the two which prevailed were the (1) baby/from birth (nature) model, and the (2) Nurture/environmental model. WIthout knowing the term or prepared argument “nature vs. nurture”, the students bifurcated the scope of the issue without any prompting. The “nature” model students suggested that if one looks at infants and small children one observes that they steal, spit, bite, defecate, and are hardly civil with their tongues. They begin as savages, or at least do not know why violent actions like theft or physical violence are wrong, and that the purpose of education is to cull these tendencies so that an essentially violent being may exist in peace with others.

The second model or “nurture” model had a contingent of students assuming that people are born tabula rasa or as “blank slates”. They suggested hypothetical models where one child exactly similar to another has poor influences, endures abuse, and does not have the resources of the others–compared to his better-off “clone”–and how due these differing environments and stimuli, he could become violent and savage. In almost each section, the question remained unresolved, and most students remain either convinced of their side, or have assumed that the question is actually best answered by some sort of mix of innate tendencies with environmental stimuli.

The third question required the most symbolic thinking. How could Odysseus’ and Telemachos’ situations, which superficially seem so different, really be similar at all? Corollary to this, how are Odysseus’ and Penelope’s situations similar, and are either of them, Odysseus in particular, unfaithful to the other?

To the first part of the question, the students quickly drew on the fact that both Telemachos and Odysseus begin the story as prisoners. While Telemachos is a prisoner of his own home and people’s projection of childhood onto him–preventing him from growing up–Odysseus is a prisoner of a sea-nymph and also of inactivity on an island where development and growth cannot occur. Where their situations differ is that as Telemachos moves away from home, Odysseus comes closer, though each is pursuing, in a way, the same goal of coming home with a good reputation and fulfilling his life’s purpose.

Now, onto the question of Odysseus’ fidelity. At its basest level, clearly Odysseus has “known” or “lay with” Kalypso, a sea-goddess (and later we will see that he did so with a sea-witch named Circe as well), and that he seems very happy to flirt with Nausikaa and to neglect mentioning his wife to her. On Penelope’s account, according to Eurymachos, she has sent many private notes to the suitors in order to tantalize them, drawing them in while always keeping them far enough away. The more literally minded students were adamant that Odysseus was a cheater, but another contingent saw the parallel situations in a more expansive way. They saw Odysseus as a great lover of Penelope and his home (and potentially of his son, Telemachos, whom he has not seen since his infancy), and that Odysseus was simply doing whatever it takes to get home. In the care of a dread-goddess, confined to her island without release, really what choice did he have? Is the fact, too, that she is not only his captor but also a goddess also a mitigating factor? What of the fact that he no longer finds her pleasing? Does this suggest that he once did, and with his feelings changed, does that restore his fidelity to him? Regarding Penelope, the students cite the fact that she used the stratagem of weaving a web during the day and unweaving it at night in order to keep the suitors interested but at bay while she waited for her longed-for husband. By this view, the students saw both Penelope and Odysseus as master manipulators–doing whatever the situation demands in order, ultimately, to make it home. Whether this strikes one as the ends justifying the means, or as the means requiring appropriate definition will largely be a matter of taste to the reader.

Stay with us as we continue through our personal and objective Odysseys! Follow us on this site and at The History of Western Thought on Facebook!