Most of us read “The Odyssey” because we have to, as a school assignment, or because we think we should. (It is, after all, one of the foundational works of Western literature; Goethe called it and “The Iliad” “the two most important books in the world.”) What surprises many readers is that it still has the power to enchant. I discovered it as a 10-year-old, after my teacher had us trace Flaxman’s spear-carrying, helmet-and-negligee-clad Athena on to drawing paper. Athena was the goddess of wisdom, she told us, and while “wisdom” meant nothing to me at the time, I was impressed that the goddess had popped straight out of Zeus’s head, in a reversed form of the virgin birth that I had first heard about the Christmas before. “The Odyssey” wasn’t on our sixth-grade reading list, but I found a children’s version in the library and plunged right in. One-eyed man-eating ogres, self-navigating ships, ghosts sipping blood at the entrance to the underworld, shipwrecks, nymphs, princesses, witches, disguises, recognitions, and, to top it all off, a wholesale slaughter of bad guys at the end! What could be more exciting?
Reading “The Odyssey,” we enter a world infused by the imagination. Everything becomes fresh and new; familiar objects light up with an inner radiance, as if we were seeing the sky or smelling the grass for the first time. And we are always carried along by the steady yet constantly varying rhythms of the meter, which serves as a counterpoint to even the most horrific events, so that everything we read is lifted up into the realm of the beautiful.
No detail is too small to escape the poet’s attentive gaze, no dream image too fantastic to be made humanly accessible. The six-headed, razor-toothed, tentacled monster Scylla, for example, might easily have seemed cartoonish in the hands of a lesser poet, but she is presented to us so clearly, and her murderous attack described with such elegant precision, that she bursts into existence, as appalling as we could wish:
“At that very moment Scylla rushed out and snatched
six of my comrades—beautiful, strong young men.
I looked up and saw their arms and legs thrashing above me,
and they shouted to me and called out my name for the last time.
And as a fisherman stands on a jutting rock
and casts the bait with his rod, and the bronze hook sinks
into the water, sheathed in an ox-horn tube,
and he catches a fish and reels it in quickly and flings it,
writhing, on to the shore: just so were my comrades,
writhing, pulled up towards the cliffs, and at the cave entrance
she ate them. They screamed and kept stretching their hands out towards me
in their hideous final agony. That was the most
sickening thing I ever saw on my travels.”
And here is a picture of the Phaeacian princess Nausicäa and her handmaids washing the royal laundry. (It’s a passage that shocked the sniffy classicists of later ages, who thought that doing laundry was beneath the dignity of a princess.)
where the washing basins were always filled with clear water
welling up through them, to clean the dirtiest clothes.
Here they unyoked the mules from the wagon and sent them
along the stream to graze on the rich, sweet clover,
then lifted the clothes from the wagon and carried them down
into the basins, and each girl began to tread them,
making a game to see who could finish first.
And when they had washed off the dirt and the clothes were spotless,
they spread them neatly along the shore, where the sea
lapped at the land and washed all the pebbles clean.
After a swim, they rubbed themselves with the oil
and had their lunch on the bank of the eddying river
and waited there for the clothing to dry in the sun.
And when they had finished the meal, they took off their head scarves
and played a ball game, tossing the ball and dancing
to the rhythm, while Nausícäa led them in song.
You can find passages like these on almost every page of “The Odyssey.” And woven through all these gorgeous or horrific scenes is the central theme: the theme of going home, which is one reason “The Odyssey” has such a universal appeal. “I know no place that is sweeter than my own country,” Odysseus says, and that is a feeling we can all recognize. The goddess Calypso even promises Odysseus eternal life, if only he will stay with her on her idyllic island and submit to a life of constant sex and unalloyed sensual pleasure. But he refuses her offer. He longs for his home and his wife more than he cares about immortality. This is not a case of nostalgia, which is a longing for a past that can never be and perhaps never has been, and therefore necessarily ends in disappointment. He is longing not for a past but for a future, in a place that is beloved beyond all others on earth or in heaven. Penelope, his wife, was 20 when he sailed for Troy; she is 40 now, and whether or not she has kept her physical beauty is beside the point. She is a woman, not a goddess, but she is the one he loves. Odysseus’s refusal of immortality is the most moving tribute that a marriage has ever received. It is like Adam’s refusal in “Paradise Lost”: when Eve offers him the fruit, Adam bites into it, fully aware of the consequences, because he loves her so deeply that he can’t bear to remain in Eden without her.
“The Odyssey” has been called the first novel. It’s also one of the best. If you want to read a terrific story told in passionately vivid language, you might take a look at this ancient masterpiece.
Stephen Mitchell’s new translation of “The Odyssey” came out this week.