Some background on the Odyssey

I enjoyed meeting you all today and hope you look forward to getting started on the Odyssey!  Below is some background information that should be especially useful to those of you who have never read the poem, but will hopefully also contain some news to those who have.  The comment function has been enabled, so if you have questions or concerns, type away!

Although the Odyssey is a self-contained epic poem, it is also part of a larger tapestry of stories that in ancient times would have been familiar even to small children.  The subject of these stories is the Trojan War, a mythical conflict that took place in an age of legends.  The Greeks firmly believed that in former times, men had been far more powerful than they are today, and that gods had mingled amongst mortals, choosing their favorites and guiding their destinies.

Modern scholars aren’t in total agreement whether the Trojan War is entirely fictional or whether the stories about it are rooted in a kernel of truth.  If there is some truth about them, then they most likely are dim memories of the dark times during the Dorian invasion (ca. 1100 BC), when migrant peoples from the north pushed down into the Peloponnese and the highly developed Mycenaean culture collapsed.  Archaeological digs have indeed uncovered a city in Asia Minor that roughly fits the description of Troy given by Homer and others, and which perished at around this time.  Whether this really is the place where Achilles and Hector did battle is anyone’s guess.  At any rate, if we accept 1100 BC as the rough date at which the Trojan War took place, then this would place it approximately 300 years before the first appearance of the Odyssey, and about 700 years before the golden age of Athens.

Like almost every other conflict in Greek legend, the Trojan War begins when a mortal foolishly involves himself in the affairs of the gods.  The Trojan prince Paris, son of King Priam, is asked to judge a beauty contest between the goddesses Hera, Athena and Aphrodite.  Instead of politely declining judgment, as would be the smart thing to do under these circumstances, Paris not only participates in the contest, but also follows his baser instincts by picking Aphrodite, the goddess of love, as the most beautiful.  His judgment earns him the gratitude of Aphrodite, but the eternal wrath of the vengeful Hera.

To reward Paris, Aphrodite promises him that he will successfully woo the most beautiful woman on earth.  Unfortunately, this woman happens to be the Achaean (i.e. Greek) queen Helena, wife of King Menelaus of Sparta.  Paris visits Sparta, abducts Helena, and brings her home with him to Troy.  This sets into motion a calamitous series of events, for Helena has a number of self-appointed guardians.  Because of her legendary beauty, all the kings of Greece at one point courted her, and formed a pact in which they swore allegiance to whomever she would pick as her husband.  This, of course, turned out to be Menelaus, and now that he has been wronged, all of Greece finds itself up in arms against Troy.

There are innumerable stories about the various Greek heroes that participated in this military exploit led by Menelaus’ brother, the powerful King Agamemnon of Mycenae.  At least one of these stories is known by almost everyone even today, namely the tale of how the Achaeans, after ten long years of warfare, eventually managed to conquer their enemy by means of the Trojan horse (a ruse, incidentally, dreamt up by Odysseus).  The most important of all the literary renditions of the war, however, is the Iliad, an epic poem supposedly authored, like the Odyssey, by the Greek bard Homer.[1] The Iliad is the story of a single crucial episode in the war that took place near its end.  Its self-proclaimed subject is the fury of Achilles, the mightiest of the Achaeans, and the destruction it brought upon Greeks and Trojans alike (the very first word of the poem famously is menin, or “wrath”).

At the beginning of the poem, Achilles finds himself at odds with his ostensible commander, Agamemnon, over the exact way in which certain spoils of war are to be divided.  Deeply hurt in his pride, Achilles decides to withdraw himself and his troops from the campaign, thereby almost certainly dooming the Achaeans to defeat.  Without Achilles’ knowledge, however, his young lover Patroclus steals his distinctive armor and rejoins the fight, trying to raise Greek morale.  Patroclus, unfortunately, is an inexperienced fighter, and is quickly killed by the Trojan champion Hector, Paris’ brother.  After much gnashing of teeth, Achilles exacts terrible vengeance upon the Trojans, killing Hector and dragging his corpse around the city behind his chariot.  In doing so, he also goes to his certain death, for there is a divine prophecy which foretells that he shall not long outlive Hector.  The Iliad ends with some measure of reconciliation between the warring factions, when a grief-stricken King Priam successfully petitions Achilles to at least return Hector’s body.

Homer does not tell the story of Achilles’ death or of the fall of Troy in the Iliad, though we will get a brief summary of these events in the Odyssey. (The Roman poet Virgil also included a much longer account in his Aeneid, which tells the story from the Trojan perspective).  The Odyssey, at any rate, takes place after the te -year war is over.  It belongs to a second group of tales–tales just as numerous and diverse as the ones dealing with the war–that take as their subject the homecoming of the victorious heroes.  In Greek legend, almost all the returning Achaeans meet a terrible end.  Achilles is already dead, as is the second-best Greek warrior, Greater Ajax (there is also a “Lesser Ajax” whose story we will hear in the Odyssey).  Agamemnon will famously be killed by his wife Clytemnestra in his very own bath.  The Cretan king Idomeneo will promise the gods to sacrifice the very first living thing he meets upon his return home, only to be greeted on the shore by his own son.  Homer will give us a partial survey of these stories in books three and four of his poem.

The most harrowing homecoming of all, however, is the one endured by Odysseus, the wiliest of all the Achaeans.  Odysseus is lord of Ithaca, a small island to the northwest of mainland Greece near what is nowadays the coast of Albania.  For all intents and purposes, this is a frontier kingdom, far removed from the cultural centers of Mycenaean Greece.  Odysseus wasn’t thrilled when he received the summons to depart for the Trojan War.  At the time, he was happily married to the beautiful Penelope, who had recently given birth to his first son, Telemakhos.  In an attempt to dodge the summons, Odysseus pretended to have gone mad, running a plow over a barren and rocky field over and over again.  The Greek messengers, however, knowing they would never stand a chance against Troy without the smartest of the Achaeans on their side, got the better of him when they placed the infant Telemakhos in the path of the plow.  Unable to kill his own son, Odysseus had to drop the pretense and join the military campaign.  Little does he know that all the fighting around Troy will account for only half of his troubles…

[1] “Iliad” means “the story of Ilium,” which in turn is a synonym for Troy.  The two stories were “supposedly” authored by Homer because it is unclear whether a person by that name actually existed.

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