Judgement in the Odyssean Landscape
By Rory Barclay
“Ah how shameless – the way these mortals blame the gods.
From us alone, they say, come all their miseries, yes,
but they themselves, with their own reckless ways,
compound their pains beyond their proper share.” (Book 1, line 37-40)
The view of which I am to explore and reveal within this book is just that, a view. It is not the whole picture but a certain vista which I have picked out and would like to share. There are many points of view and discussions to be had within this book. This is not a statement which is in agreement with postmodern ideas of multiple interpretations and no truth, quite the contrary. Through these differences, we can come closer to the truth as a whole, and all must be shared in a common forum such as our very own OGB.
The books we read are like the islands visited by Odysseus. Sometimes, they draw us in and we wish to remain in the world they provide for us. Other times, we cannot wait to get away from them. However, each of us intrepid readers may arrive at the island by some different wind, we may land on different coastlines and therefore hack different paths towards its centre.
As readers arrive on different shores of this island, The Odyssey, one may be bathed in the rose-fingered light of Eos, while another may arrive to the West and in the shadows of Erebus. What different ways will they find the centre and reveal their understanding of their adventure? The climate may be different, the geography they encounter may also be singular to its location. By this, I mean that the way we approach these texts allows us to form our own viewpoint which may differ from that of another, as we see and understand the events in our own personal way. Only by spending a lifetime walking the island and seeing it through the multitude of pathways and viewpoints can we really understand it as a whole and perhaps be closer to the truth.
We should not wish to follow the well-trodden and signposted thoroughfares that scar the once pristine archipelago of texts on whose shores we come to tread. That is the way of the overly-taught and hand-held tour guide received in many an institution. Nor do we wish to frame all views and direct all pathways to a preconceived end, that is the way of the -ism. In the spirit of Percy at the Grand Canyon, we must hack out our own path and then show others where we have been and what we have found along the way.
As such, I shall show you where I landed on this bountiful island called The Odyssey and the meandering path I encountered – full of twists and turns. Whereas I am not the most skilled or keen-sighted explorer, I still kept my senses as open as possible to my new surroundings and saw the following landscape emerge.
“But he could not save them from disaster, hard as he strove –
the recklessness of their own ways destroyed them all,
the blind fools, they devoured the cattle of the Sun” (Book 1, lines 7-9)
Within the first moments, Homer gives us a taste of how man has some control over himself and makes it clear that the exhausted and hungry crew of Odysseus should blame only themselves. They were warned by Odysseus but had not his strength nor desire to return home and their hunger drove them to their fatal decision. This theme of tests and trials, undergone by many a character, runs as a constant reminder of the idea that man can add to his personal tragedy if he were to ignore the signs from the gods or ignore his duty. The very same happened to Aegisthus who we find out was warned by Hermes not court Agamemnon’s wife and not to have a hand in his murder.
“But would Aegisthus’ hardened heart give way?
Now he pays the price – all at a single stroke.” (Book 1, line 51-52)
We meet the same theme in the practice of hospitality towards the suppliant. As my own mother says, “always look your best as you never know who you might meet.” One never knows who the suppliant might be and it could serve disastrous to offend the wrong person:
“And the gods do take on the look of strangers
dropping in from abroad.” Book 17 Line 534-535
Just as we do not know who we may encounter, we also do not know the impact our travel on these islands can have. This is both fraught with peril but also rich with opportunity. A concept undernourished in our present-day landscape of opportunity given not seized. Our conduct may be what brings fresh winds to our sails.
Conduct is judged and tallied by higher authority on this Odyssean island. It would, therefore, be in one’s interest to act one’s best and sacrifice accordingly. Zeus tells us that Odysseus “excels in offerings too” (Book 1, line 79). With this well-understood setting of sacrifice, good conduct, and kindness to suppliants, the landscape I traversed began to unfold and in the distance is Telemachus.
Telemachus, living amongst the suitors, summons his maturity and bravery to break free from the greed and gluttony that surrounds him as his father, the embodiment of the good king, is away. His growing competence is clearly a threat to the grotesque and cowardly suitors who are fattening themselves on the coffers of the state. The potential and competency within Telemachus must be destroyed by the suitors or else it will be their ruin and they are highly aware of this as are many who perceive competence to be a threat.
“Zeus kill that brazen boy before he hits his prime!” Book 4, Line 752.
However, it is not easy for any of us to stand up to greed and consumption and carve out a true path in life. As Mentor points out, most of the states are “sitting here in silence” (Book 2, line 269) while the few suck away the wealth. Telemachus has to go beyond the limits of the normal and try to find his inner strength which is not in abundance in his home. Just as Odysseus overcomes his hunger not to eat the cattle of the Sun and leave behind those who give in, Telemachus must overcome the temptations of a lavish and lazy court life as he is told: “come, eat and drink with us, just like the old days” (Book 2 line 339). He must go beyond easy life as Athena tells him, “Few sons are the equals of their fathers; most fall short, all too few surpass them” (Book 2, line 309-310).
In Book 17, we meet Odysseus’ dog Argos. He was a loyal and athletic hound now cast out for a life of suffering and misery. Much like the state itself, he is infested with parasites feeding off him until his death. Even though the suitors know their jollification will end, they will not stop their feasting even if it means their ‘host’ will eventually die off. Homer reminds us of the dual aspect of pain and pleasure in which we can fall.
“But the fact is that men put up with misery
to stuff their cursed bellies.” Book 15, line 382-383
He reminds us our desires and wishes can lead us to be worse off in the long run. Odysseus’ return and slaughter of those who did not stay true is the penalty on this occasion. The judgemental king tests all before him. Odysseus even tests his own father to see if the greed has roots out of the city-state and in the well-kempt orchards and farmland that his father ‘wrested from the wilds.’ However, in this Edenic vision of the past, he sees only good. Penelope has also remained faithful and honest but must be tested and in turn, she tests Odysseus. A marriage of like for like, strength for strength. They keep themselves in check aspiring the best from each other. Penelope is after all “the soul of loyalty” (Book 23, line 261).
On reading this book, there are questions we must ask ourselves. Are we falling short or surpassing the fathers of our culture? Are we feasting off the treasures of our cultural ‘state’ with wanton frivolous intent in order to enjoy ourselves and profiting at the expense of our society at large? How much do we sacrifice to ensure a better future for ourselves? How faithful are we to goodness, truth, and beauty? Are we brave enough to go beyond our limits like Telemachus and say no to those who drag us down and keep us from reaching our potential? When the judgment comes, whether it be by a god, a king, or a loved one, will we be found at the feast?
To judge is to select one over another. It is to form opinion. It is to measure and weigh things up to a standard. We can not escape judgement no matter how much we try and it is essential in order for us to make decisions. We can, however, chose the standard to which we judge ourselves thereby steeling ourselves against those who judge outward more than inward. In visiting the archipelago of great books, we are like Telemachus seeking guidance from the great Kings of old and growing in stature as we measure up to them. We can judge ourselves by their great stories and wisdom and set our aims closer to their lofty peaks.
Now, as I rest from the journey I play the part of Odysseus unto myself and judge the person I am. In the spirit of Telemachus, I will set off to other islands to improve my judgement from wise counsel, carve out my own path, and raise my standards. We must make our own judgements from what we read, of who we must be and to the standards we aspire. We must also be more welcoming to the strangers we meet as they may hold the map to more islands full of pristine land waiting for exploration or be the seafarer who sails us home in times of need.
I have shared some of what I saw on this fascinating island and led you stumbling somewhat through a patch of undergrowth but when I sail out to the next adventure, I will leave with the words of Menelaus in my mind warning me to be careful what I wish for and to seek something better in life.
“So I rule all this wealth with no great joy.
You must have heard my story from your fathers,
whoever they are – what hardships I endured,
how I lost this handsome palace built for the ages,
filled to its depths with hoards of gorgeous things.
Well, would to god I’d stayed right here in my own house
With a third of all that wealth and they were still alive,
all who died on the wide plain of Troy those years ago,
far from the stallion-land of Argos.” (Book 4, Line 103-111)