Homer’s Odyssey: Book 1
“Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns / driven time and again off course, once he had plundered / the hallowed heights of Troy.” (1.1-3).
As with the Iliad, the three obligations for beginning an epic are met:
1) The Muse is invoked.
In addition to the above, the poet says, “Launch out on his story, Muse, daughter of Zeus, / start from where you will — sing for our time too” (1.11-12). The poet calls upon one of the nine muses: this one of epic poetry (vs. lyric poetry, dance, music, etc.). Part of both the mythology of art and the humility pose of poets is the insistence that the creative powers come from somewhere beyond the artist. Sometimes it simply seems that a force is working through you, supernaturally (no matter what your art or skill, during certain unpredictable periods when you are simply on fire with amazing ability). Similar to the gods, who function as higher powers in other realms, the muses traditionally function to help the lowly human artist attain heights beyond those of mere mortals. Therefore it was conventional to call upon one’s muse at the start of such an epic undertaking as this poem, a tad more impressive than calling upon Olivia Newton-John to help one build a roller-disco named Xanadu.
2) The theme of the poem is identified.
When Virgil much later will begin his epic — “I sing of war and the man…” — he is reminding us of the two Homeric epics: the Iliad (war) and the Odyssey (the man). Elegant here is that Odysseus, famously strategic, is described as “the man of twists and turns,” mirroring his external “odyssey.”
3) We begin in medias res (in the middle of things).
“By now, / all the survivors, all who avoided headlong death / were safe at home, escaped the wars and waves” (1.12-14). This convention of beginning in the middle of the action may seem disorienting and irksome, but it makes sense. It requires that we thrash around a bit trying to get our bearings within a narrative that began before our poem does. We’ll hear more later about where Odysseus has been for years; the poet will fill us in, but he needs to get us involved immediately, so a long preamble would be artificial and a drag.
More interestingly, this convention resembles real life better than the comfortable alternative. We all come into the world, into a story that has been going on for a long time, and we learn to get our bearing gradually, starting with what is immediate to us and only later being able to fill in the backstory of our families, our societies, our workplaces, and our history as humans and thinkers.
Mythology itself functions like a soap opera (or wrestling federation) where one plunges in and only later comes to a wider understanding of where each of the characters fits into a larger picture. So too with a work beginning in medias res.
We begin among the later adventures of Odysseus, when he is held by “the bewitching nymph, the lustrous goddess” Calypso (1.17) on her island. “Calypso” comes from the Greek verb “to cover, or hide.” Odysseus has been gone from his home and family for the ten years of the Trojan War and additionally almost ten years due to Poseidon’s curse, about which we will eventually learn. Poseidon is off visiting the Ethiopians for their sacrifice to him while the other gods are in council.
Zeus is all bent about “how shameless — they way these mortals blame the gods. / From us alone, they say, come all their miseries, yes, / but they themselves, with their own reckless ways, / compound their pains beyond their proper share” (1.37-40). He alludes to the murder of Agamemnon by his wife Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus — a case of a really bad homecoming….
Athena makes an appeal for mercy towards Odysseus. Zeus notes that Poseidon “won’t quite kill Odysseus [but] drive him far off course from native land” (1.89-90) due to Odysseus’ killing the Cyclops. Although Poseidon is not present to state his case, Zeus agrees that enough is enough. Athena is overjoyed. Hermes is sent to tell Calypso to release Odysseus while Athena will rouse Odysseus’ son Telemachus to defy the bunch of suitors seeking marriage with Odysseus’ wife Penelope. “She seized the rugged spear tipped with a bronze point” (1.116) — Athena is a “spear-shaker.”
Athena disguises herself as family friend Mentes — an archetypal mentor and provider of good counsel. Telemachus is seething, wanting to drive the suitors away vengefully, but he is daydreaming, awaiting daddy as a messiah. At least, though, he extends courtesy to the visitor “Mentes” — a good sign. The rituals for guests are followed, and this is not the Mediterranean diet. But I’ll take the wine.
We click on Netflix — actually the house bard, a blind man (hence the Homer legend) who sings epic songs. Telemachus laments the loss of his father with Hamlet-like morbidity, but interrupts himself to ask about his guest. Athena sticks with the Mentes disguise and refers to Telemachus’ grandfather Laertes in retirement. Telemachus provides Shakespeare with a recurring joke: “Mother has always told me I’m his son, it’s true, / but I am not so certain. Who, on his own, / has ever really known who gave him life?” (1.199-201). Athena seems to be goading Telemachus regarding the outrages committed by the swaggering suitors who “continue to bleed” the household (1.292). Athena gives Telemachus an itinerary: first to visit Nestor, then Menelaus in Sparta — see if they know what happened to Odysseus. If he’s dead then build his grave-mound and at least have resolution. Athena alludes to Orestes who avenged the death of his father Agamemnon as a potential role-model. Telemachus, already a good host, offers “Mentes” a gift; she declines and disappears like a bird.
Penelope interrupts the bard’s song: it’s too depressing. Telemachus sticks up for the arts: “Bards are not to blame” (1.400). “What a fine thing it is / to listen to such a bard as we have here — / the man sings like a god” (1.425-427). Penelope cries herself to sleep with the invisible help of Athena. Telemachus squares off against suitor Antinous with mutual not-too-veiled threats. Telemachus goes to his bedroom, attended by his nurse Eurycleia, for whom his grandfather had paid many oxen years ago.