Since we spent much of our discussion time today talking about the behavior of the gods and the characterization of Telemakhos, I’d like to use this blog post to share some of my early impressions about the role that physical space plays in the Odyssey – after all, the ways in which a collection of mere “places” can be turned into a “world” will be one of our major preoccupations this semester. Many of the students who encounter the Odyssey in my class for the first time are surprised by the fact that Homer takes so long to introduce us to the titular hero. Almost 2,500 lines of poetry pass before Odysseus finally appears! Like his more famous father, however, Telemakhos is undertaking a journey, and the way in which this journey unfolds tells us much about Odysseus’ more arduous travels.
Leaving aside minor variations in scenery, the first four books of the Odyssey take place in three different locations: the palaces of Odysseus, Nestor and Menelaos, located on Ithaca, at Pylos and at Sparta (we skipped the part about Nestor, but I’ll briefly talk about it anyway). The first thing I find remarkable about this is that even though the journey from Ithaca to Sparta would have been an exceedingly dangerous and difficult one for the ancient Greeks, Homer literally spends less than a handful of lines to cover it (I count one line at the end of Book II and two lines at the beginning of Book IV). Traveling is clearly not a big focus of the Odyssey, or at least not of the parts that we have read so far. Where you arrive is what matters. This seems strange to me, given that most of us are likely to think about this poem as principally a travel narrative. And it makes me wonder about other similar narratives from world literature. The story of Sindbad the Sailor, for instance, or the tale of the Argonauts. Do ships matter much there?
At any rate, we have three palaces, all very different and yet strangely similar. What’s similar about them is that life seems to be one big party. At Odysseus’ place, the suitors are constantly drinking and eating. At Nestor’s, “black bulls were being offered by the people to the blue-maned god who makes the islands tremble” (III, 7-9) and Telemakhos is immediately invited to share in the sacrificial meat. (The blue-maned god is Poseidon, of course, and Athena has a great deal of fun gate-crashing a feast in her rival’s honor). Menelaos, finally, is celebrating the wedding of his son Megapenthes, complete with minstrels and acrobats. (“Megapenthes,” by the way, means “great sorrow.” I’m guessing the poor kid got beat up on the playground a lot). Clearly, all these feasts are partly an expression of longing for “the good old days,” but they alert us to the fact that hospitality is a central theme of these early books of the Odyssey. The reasons the suitors can get away with their constant carousing, for instance, is that they are guests, and guest are to be shown a good time. This, in turn, tells us something about the relationship between Achaian households and the wider world. Strangers are to be treated with honor and should, as Telemakhos soon experiences with both Nestor and Menelaos, be asked to report their stories. These palaces, in other words, invite the world inwards, even if certain rituals are expected to be followed.
There are important differences between these various courts as well, however, and I hope you will have fun exploring them in the comments section. One thing should be immediately obvious: compared to Menelaos’ urbane manor at Sparta, Odysseus’ homestead is kind of a hovel (it is, after all, located on a rocky island at the fringes of the Greek world). When Telemakhos steps in to the palace, he exclaims: “My dear friend, can you believe your eyes? – the murmuring hall, how luminous it is with bronze, gold, amber, silver and ivory! This is the way the court of Zeus must be, inside, upon Olympos. What a wonder!” (IV, 77-80). This is spoken like a true country bumpkin, and after all, his daddy keeps the ancient equivalent of a gun rack (a “polished rack (…) where tough spear on spear of the old soldier, his father, stood in order” [I, 158-59]) in his living room. Fortunately, Menelaos is a gracious host and, overhearing Telemakhos wonderment, immediately downplays his own riches.
Given such opulence abroad (opulence which, one assumes, Kalypso can easily match), the big question for me going into Books V and VI then becomes why Odysseus is so desperate to go home at all!