Odysseus and the Women
Ninth-graders think Odysseus is a jerk and the mess he has made of his life undeserving of their sympathy. Odysseus tours the Mediterranean to fight at Troy, to do some pirating, and then finds himself in some serious trouble with Poseidon for robbing, blinding, and mocking his kid Polyphemus the Cyclops. Poseidon settles the score by stretching Odysseus’s 10 years away from home to 20. During that second decade, Odysseus has some serious goddess trouble--and that’s what puts off my students. He is unfaithful to Penelope. The Cyclops stuff doesn’t sit well with them, either, but the dalliances with Circe and Calypso put him beyond the pale of redemption. On the level of story, the kids have it right: he is a jerk. On the mythic level, though, there’s something else going on. So it’s fun to tell a young feminist she is Odysseus. We are all Odysseus. We are all sailing that wine dark sea day after day after year in search of home--the archetypal place of pure and true belonging. It is never really the same place we set off from.
Odysseus is a warrior who is favored by the occupants of Olympus--including Poseidon, who is totally in tune with this king of Ithaca. In fact, you could argue that his pursuit of revenge on behalf of the Cyclops is his pushing Odysseus in front of a mirror, the better to understand his own nature and put behind him his plundering ways.
Odysseus and his crew’s arrive on her island of Aeaea is the first stop after they leave Polyphemus with his goats and cheese. Circe has her own little cottage industries going. She weaves and she manufactures drugs that cause men to forget. Forgetting is a major no-no in Odysseus’s story; without memory there is no story, no identity, no name, no home. Forgetting is tantamount to selling out on life. Enter Hermes, who girds Odysseus with a different herb that prevents Circe’s drugs from taking effect. Circe turns the forgetters into pigs and throws them a few acorns, such is her scorn for this kind of man. In Odysseus, she has met her match, and she shares her bed with him. It’s true on the level of story that he is not doing right by Penelope, but on the mythic level his is moving in the direction of knowing himself for who he is. Circe is larger than life who, like Penelope, weaves tapestries. Tapestries are stories; therefore, she is a storyteller. The myth is telling us that Odysseus is worthy of story because he is willing to do the hard work of remembering and of facing his own nature.
Eventually, Circe sends him on his way because Odysseus says he wants to go home. She says, “Sure, fella, but the only way around is through Hades. Go see the blind prophet who still has a pretty good mind even if he has been dead a while, and find out what you have to do to get there. And whatever you do, don’t eat the sun god’s cattle. He hates that. And steer clear of the Sirens and Scylla and Charybdis. They are nothing but trouble. So Circe, who was a threat to him is now his friend, which is to say a part of him, who helps him clean up his act.
Off they go to Hades, where Odysseus encounters many spirits, including the Greek warriors who fell at Troy. The most poignant encounter is with his mother, Anticlea. He wants to hold her but cannot. Literally, he wants to be in contact with the source of his life. She tells him how things are back on Ithaca: Penelope loves you and is miserable; Telemachus is holding his own (She gives him more credit than he deserves, but grandmothers do that.); your father is losing his mind without you around and he spends his days wandering around his orchard; and your absence broke my heart, and that’s why I’m dead. Go home, Odysseus.” This is book 11 of a 24-book epic, so we’re at a central, essential moment with Odysseus. Anticlea tells him he matters in a way that is different from the way he matters as an Achean with his concerns for honor, valor, and reputation. The man who matters is the guy who is as naked as everyone else without those things. He doesn’t need to go home to run his kingdom--it’s running without him--but to be present to the people who love him. Enough with the gold bars, tripods, and tapestries that are your freight in life, his mother says. (And Poseidon backs her up when he sends all that stuff to the bottom of the sea.)
After he sees his mother, Odysseus has a quiet word with Tiresias, just as Circe advised, and he finds out he needs to take his oar deep inland to people who have never seen the sea and do not salt their food. There, he must tell them about Poseidon and make sacrifices to the sea god. There is a lot going on there. First, Odysseus is the captain; he doesn’t really have an oar. The only way he can have an oar is by humbling himself and getting one. Which is to say he needs to power his own boat. Which is crazy to do with one oar--unless, of course, you put your boat in drydock and remake yourself by walking inland. This requires a whole new life for the seafaring warrior. Except that he must be witness to the wonders of Poseidon to the uninitiated. If Poseidon, lord of the sea, actually presides over the unconscious mind of Odysseus, then he also represents Odysseus’s vast, untapped potential. The cool thing is that Odysseus is good with that. Face to face with death, Odysseus is also face to face with life. He accepts the possible.
As his first move when he emerges from Hades, he buries the first guy he saw down there, his oarsman named Elpenor, who died when he fell off Circe’s roof and broke his neck after a night of partying. (Really.) Elpenor, a nobody from nowhere, becomes a man with a name worth remembering and a life worth honoring. (How’s that for democracy?) Here is Odysseus honoring the common man. He is humbling himself. He goes on to respect the sun god and leave his cattle alone, but his crew disregard the warning--and that’s the end of them and the ship.
After Poseidon gives him what for on the open sea, Odysseus washes up on Calypso’s island. She, like Circe and Penelope, is a weaver. Calypso holds onto Odysseus for so long that Odysseus comes to believe he cannot leave. He gives up on his journey and spends his days crying on the beach for Penelope and his nights in Calypso’s bed. Finally, the gods get together on Olympus while Poseidon is off in Ethiopia for a lunch meeting. They decide enough is enough and send Hermes to have a word with Calypso and to tell Odysseus to take his life back and go home. Calypso is none too happy about this, and she says, “If he says he wants to go, he can go.” He has to put the words on it. She is banking on his not doing this--years have gone by and he has not done it, after all. But he finds the words, and she tells him how to build the raft that will get him out of there. And then she packs him a sandwich and puts the wind to his back. Thus, Odysseus, who is never at a loss for words except when he needs to move his life into a new form, finds the words.
And then Poseidon knocks the stuffing out of him again. However, he gets a little help from the goddess Leucothea and lands on the island of Phaecia. There the princess Nausicaa finds him, naked and unknown, takes him home, gives him a bath, oils him, and gives him clean clothes. Over time, he reveals his character to the Phaecians. The see him as a man of noble character, physical strength, and intelligence. Seeing these qualities, King Alcinous offers Nausicaa for a bride. Finally, they ask his name, and Odysseus reveals it. He relates his story, and then the king sends Odysseus home in a treasure-laden boat that is magical because it knows the ways of the sea and will surely get him home. Before he leaves, Nausicaa asks that he remember that she saved him; Odysseus says he will never forget. Nausicaa is an agent of change who gives and gives and accepts what is. She speaks to Odysseus as an equal, a friend not afraid of speaking the truth, of reminding Odysseus of her place in his story. Being himself and proving himself, Odysseus finds treasure in the forms of kindness and wealth heaped on him.
And then he goes home. There, Athena disguises him so he can see his kingdom for what it is and hear the authentic voices of the people he left behind. He learns he is deeply loved. He learns that his wife has been a tower of strength in his absence. She tests him before she lets him back into their bedroom at the center of their home. He must prove he knows the bed is made of a living olive tree. He literally claims his roots and joins his life to his wife’s. His story is complete in the way of mythic marriages. He is completely the self he fought like hell to become, and he has the universe inside him. And then he tells her the journey must go on.
Ninth-graders get that, but through Star Wars first. There is, after all, one story. It’s the one we learn to live. Or at least that’s the hope.