There is a stranger outside your house. He is old, ragged, and dirty. He is tired. He has been wandering, homeless, for a long time, perhaps many years. Invite him inside. You do not know his name. He may be a thief. He may be a murderer. He may be a god. He may remind you of your husband, your father, or yourself. Do not ask questions. Wait. Let him sit on a comfortable chair and warm himself beside your fire. Bring him some food, the best you have, and a cup of wine. Let him eat and drink until he is satisfied. Be patient. When he is finished, he will tell his story. Listen carefully. It may not be as you expect.
The Odyssey by Homer, translated by Dr. Emily Wilson
No, seriously. This isn’t your average translation!
For one, Dr. Emily Wilson is the first ever female scholar to translate The Odyssey into English. Not only that, she writes it in contemporary language—which means the average reader can actually understand it. Take that, Fagles! The New York Times Magazine wrote an excellent feature on Emily Wilson back when her book was published in 2017.
When I say you should read The Odyssey, I really mean you ought to read the whole epic—or at least the first 23 chapters, as the ending isn’t all that great; I say that as someone who loves this epic so much she did her best to interpret it into American Sign Language. Book 24, the final chapter, is very unsatisfying—so unsatisfying, in fact, that there are theories floating around that B24 is actually not part of the story, but is a later addition or a rewrite of another ending.
Aside from that, why do I enjoy this story? Lots of reasons:
- Monsters? Check.
- Gods? Check.
- The Chosen One? Check.
- Trials and tribulations? Never a story without them.
- Unrealistic expectations and representations of women? Check.
- Double standards? Check.
- Real love? Also check.
- Father-son reunion? Yes, please!
- Gays that historians try to paint as platonic? Of course.
Stories like The Odyssey are teaching tools. Listeners (or readers) are given emulatable* characters like Odysseus, Agamemnon, Penelope, etc., but the ways in which the narrator and/or other characters describe or interact with a particular character shapes how the audience perceives that character—and whether or not they really want to emulate them. Of course young men are to strive towards becoming an Odysseus—only a better Odysseus who doesn’t taunt blind Cyclopes or take naps while his nosy men poke around a bag of wind he got from a god. So this is a story which reveals consistent propriety, how young men and women should act in accordance with Greek ideals. Lessons are jam-packed into the story as well, as with the frequent declarations that Zeus loves visitors, and not welcoming a guest would be enraging said god.
Since the purpose of Homer’s Odyssey is not just entertainment, but told as an education tool for its young listeners, we can see that it operates within the context of its own culture quite nicely—and even has a few seedlings of contemporary ideas in the narrative, such as Calypso’s recognition and calling out of the gods’ hypocrisy regarding sexuality. Listeners are meant to understand their place in society and emulate the appropriate characters. For example, a young nobleman would be expected to strive to be Odysseus, while a young house slave would be expected to obey as the many unnamed slaves in the narratives do.
As far as diversity and inclusion, Homer is not a role model, though he is somewhat on track with this. Of course slaves, women, and poor people are often left out of the narrative entirely. Certain characters of perceived lesser status that Homer does give a voice and a lineage include Eumaeus the Swineherd and Eurycleia the Nurse. This is because they play much larger roles in the narrative, serving as enablers and messengers, heroes in their own rights. Characters like Eumaeus and Eurycleia are able to serve as such because they are totally loyal to their masters, so they reinforce to people listening that those of lower classes and the enslaved are only participants in the story if they meet certain criteria and serve a useful purpose.
It’s worth noting that something readers must consider when reading classics and ancient works is the principle of being context-specific. They must recognize that times have changed, and that in the context of the literature’s history all the characters and events accorded to their beliefs and culture. We cannot divorce works from their historical contexts, nor condemn writers for being products of their times. All the more so since Homer, as I already pointed out, has a few insightful moments: Calypso’s anger at the gods’ hypocrisy and the theme of mind over body, to name two.
Should we praise outdated concepts? Nah. Literature can be a good way to look back fondly on the ignorance of our ancestral DNA-sharers.
*I can’t think of a synonym, but I mean “able to be emulated,” not the urban definition of a person who lacks originality or brings nothing to the table.
Wilson writes in her introduction:
“Children often encounter stories from The Odyssey as their first exposure to ancient Greek culture. The Odyssey is also often used in college literature classes, as the starting point for studying Western or world literature. It is a poem that has the power to speak to people from many different social backgrounds in the contemporary Anglo-American world. Reading The Odyssey with fresh, curious, and critical eyes may help us not only rethink our assumptions about people in the past, but also break down some of our modern distinctions and assumptions. Odysseus is a migrant, but he is also a political and military leader, a strategist, a poet, a loving husband and father, an adulterer, a homeless person, an athlete, a disabled cripple, a soldier with a traumatic past, a pirate, thief and liar, a fugitive, a colonial invader, a home owner, a sailor, a construction worker, a mass murderer, and a war hero. Immersing ourselves in his story, and considering how these categories can exist in the same imaginative space, may help us reconsider both the origins of Western literature, and our infinitely complex contemporary world.”
Understanding both history and intersectionality is key when reading any work of literature, and recognizing the many roles Odysseus plays in his self-titled story can help develop that understanding.