The tale of the wandering of Odysseus and the trials, tribulations and adventures that befall him as he attempts to return to his rocky Ithaca and Penelope of the shapely ankles. It’s a rollicking read. You’ll be reminded of snippets of Sindbad, Aladdin, Watership Down, Captain Corelli’s bloody Mandolin and so many other later works that involve a “homecoming”. But this was the first.
The first time these stories about men, gods and monsters were all pulled together into a pretty coherent narrative. Most of the sub-tales such as Odysseus’ trip into Hell, his encounter with monsters such as Polyphemus the Cyclops and the Harpies; with Proteus, the Sirens and the witch Circe were all probably part of a repetoire of tales delivered by the local poet/entertainer long before someone called Homer grabbed the posthumous glory by having them ascribed to him.
Homecomings are still a pretty popular genre in film, television and print. There must be something in the plot device which touches an unconscious part of us. It’s a bit feelgood; it’s a bit dreadful. It engages us all. Is Odyseus going to get home? What will happen to his wife and son? What would I do?
So, read it first for the story. And surprise yourself at how well you recognise the motivations and actions of characters placed in these situations over 2700 years ago. We haven’t changed much, have we?
Then read it again.
This time, read it for the world of Odysseus. For what it tells you about the way we lived in a pre-literate, feudal society where any kind of progress was hard-won and very easily lost. Read it for the similes and metaphors Homer uses to describe things and events to an audience to make them come alive and be real to them. What do they tell you about the world back then? What do they tell you about the experiences of the audience and how would they feel, contrasting their life with that of this epic tale?
Read it for the insight into man’s relationship with the gods. How did the ancient audience perceive them? Were they beings to be feared and propitiated? Wasn’t that what kings were, too? Was there something more in the relationship between Odysseus and Athene? Something a little more human? Hmmmm.
Every page has something new to tell us about this now lost world. Look carefully and you can see stuff about the role of women in Homeric society; there’s stuff about the etiquette and meaning of gift-giving in there. There’s even stuff about how economics worked all those years ago. In fact, if you look closely enough (and stare at a few vase paintings as well) you can make an entire academic career out of this book.
But that would be missing the point.
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