Scholars’ Disputes over The Odyssey’s Ending – Books 23 & 24

Some notable Alexandrian scholars believed that the second half of book 23 and all of book 24 represent a spurious addition to a poem that originally ended at 23.297.

Hmm… lots of passionate/scholarly opinions on this issue by people far more expert, so I’ll venture one opinion without (hopefully) getting bitten.

Though most modern scholars no longer ascribe to the view above, I think that it merits discussion in our readings of Homer’s Odyssey. I believe Homer intended it that way (as in he deliberately composed 23 and 24, afterthought or not…) and I think he had good reasons to.

The last book and a half of the Odyssey change the poem: it adds a nice fable quality/morality tale finish to it.

I think Homer had a great marketing advisor who said, OK, you’ve wrapped this long epic poem, let’s have some inter-textual reference if possible to your other long epic poem so readers will remember your canon and to go read that too. As in cross-referencing the Trojan War, the Iliad.

What would be lost—or gained—by its removal?

I like that 24 ties up some loose ends, with what happens in the father-son reunion not just with Telemachus but also with Laertes. And that the Gods (Zeus no less) surmise what the outcomes will be.

The book kind of started in heaven with Athena conversing with Zeus so there is a nice symmetry in Hermes leading souls to the Underworld, you know, full tour of the cosmos.

24 is probably better in terms of beats than 23 unless Homer was musically into break-beats.

We’re not left hanging wondering what repercussions are on Ithaca folks after all the violent scenes in preceding pages.

I like that here the suitors are telling Odysseus’ stories to Agamemnon in the Underworld, there is a king of ephemeral/divine quality to Homer’s tale, not just that the muse or the gods talked about it, but the undead as well.

All eternity in all the cosmos. I’m guessing Homer really wanted a legacy to be passed on.


Structuralism and Homer’s Odyssey

How useful is structuralism for analyzing myths?

Structuralism is a very interesting, if too accounting t-ledger type POV, personally, for looking at The Odyssey. It’s useful in that it gives us a really quick and dirty way to find major themes or rules of the game within the narrative. It also establishes the rules of the game, perhaps even a hierarchy – white, food, good; black, not food, bad. Something is higher vs lower on the food chain, something is better than another thing. It definitely gets us curious about oppositions, and perhaps gets us asking even more relevant questions as to why those oppositions are emphasized so much, and why they are even the focus at all. To me, anything with structure also helps me remember key pieces of the story. Did cannibalism happen here? Yes. Were they eaten, or did they eat something? No….


What are its limitations?

Sure.. biological needs are important when you’re stuck on a storm-tossed ship and washing up on strange lands with limited resources to live on. But, taking the structuralist point of view all the time means we think that when Odysseus and crew are pushed to breaking point at end of leash on life, on this massive home-ward journey, all they think about is food or not food? Surely not. What about other themes that may matter? What about broken promises to family, their spiritual lives if they die, etc?

How useful is it for thinking specifically about the Odyssey?

In terms of the Odyssey, here are all the limitations I’ve found to only using structuralism: For one, it ignores the True Hero’s Journey (and our understanding of the hero). For two, really, plot, character, settings, all go out the window when you only care about binaries in biologically driven themes. Well, then what’s the point of appreciating this epic poem? For three, where’s the fire plus algebra equals art? The Passion? The creativity, in reading The Odyseey through a kaleidoscope of other possible interpretations? Structuralism seems too inflexible about putting something in one box or the opposite, and not allowing for grey areas or possible reversals of things.

Can there not be, for instance, an anti-food, or a food-multiplier? Also, structuralism doesn’t explain the rules very well to me here. At least not vis food-not food. So a god says it is, and it is food? But most of all, structuralism assumes that was is biologically binary is of paramount importance over say, historical context or spiritual ones. Ignoring context is a pretty dangerous way to look at the world, from experience. I’d much rather know context about why Homer had so much emphasis on food – not food in this particular story rather than care whether cattle is forbidden!

Becoming a Hero

What specifically makes Odysseus heroic?

What makes Odysseus heroic is his extraordinary story – extraordinary quest, settings, challenges, feats, distractions (i.e. the character as hero from a story perspective)! He’s got what it takes to be a hero (strength and intelligence above the norm), but we really only imagine him as a hero because he’s put on a True Hero’s Journey (wonderful trials and tribulations across the wine dark sea), he faces major major conflict (God’s wrath, temptations, monsters, geographical constraints), and showcases key values and actions that help him overcome, transforms him in his personal growth arc to achieve a worthy end goal (Save the world / Free Penelope from suitors / Bring glory to his Kingdom).

From a structural standpoint, Homer set it up that way: when we meet Odysseus in Calypso’s cave, stasis equals death – Odysseus has to get out of a dire situation. A Mentor (Athena) sets him on the path of The Hero’s Journey (via Zeus-Hermes-Calypso). Change is required (or die), and movement through the story-story sets this in motion. He embarks on a high-risk journey fraught with monsters and god’s wrath, he’s tempted by sirens along the way, thinks through decisions-decisions in the face of difficult choices, and struggles, showcases his wits and strength, James-Bonding it or Vin-Dieseling it (Chuck Norris-ing it?) to get to point B.

He gets tools, he collects allies, he battles it out with enemies. Conflict is everything, right. His arc of growth compels us to read and retell his story; his incredible situation, and what he does with it, becomes an example or morality tale for what other folks could be capable of if hard-pressed in a situation like that — and so this surmounting, or standing out, makes him heroic. [Even if he is supported by the gods or fated to do something]. And… worthy goals!

Right from the get go, Homer has got us rooting for him, even before we meet him in first person. Because Telemachus cares, and Penelope cares, and Athena and Zeus… so if all these worthy mortals and deities care, we must have lots of empathy for Odysseus and want him to prevail, too! And that’s what makes him a hero — someone we (as reader/audience) look up to and care about.

In what ways does Odysseus potentially present a challenge to models of heroism?

Odysseus is not quite the stereotypical alpha male hero from the outset.  He cries like this helpless baby when Calypso has him in her cavern. (Weeping, not anger) I mean, if he’s so full of wit and strength why hasn’t he moved to action and dreamt up a thousand methods to get off Ogygia?  And then when Hermes brings instructions from Zeus to free him, Odysseus questions Calypso’s good intentions.

He doesn’t immediately latch onto the opportunity to sail home without one last tryst with her and getting her to help him with the sails of his ship, etc. If he is so heroic, with worthy goals of going home to his wife, why be unfaithful and why delay any longer? If he’s so crafty, why does he need anyone’s help in building a ship? He delays a lot, he is unfaithful, and somehow takes a long time coming home. He questions Ino’s good advice about abandoning ship when Poseidon clearly has it out for him, and then begs for Nausicaa and Arete’s help when he does land in Scheria.

There is some inconsistency in how he trusts some women, not others, even when caught in similar dire situations where he needs help. It is not necessarily rational, but perhaps emotional, based on his view of the gods.

Also, he got into this whole mess in the first place because his crew stole cattle from the Sun God. If he’s the true ancient greek hero, who’s just a cogwheel in the piece of the gods’ plans, he really should have known or managed his crew a little better, and not have angered the gods so terribly in the first place. But I guess every hero makes mistakes.

What about Telemachus?

Even less the alpha male, perhaps more beta or omega, Telemachus just requires a whole bunch of handholding all the way. He’s lounging around when everyone’s ransacking his home and waiting to pounce on his mom, dreaming of the day his dad comes home to save the day. It takes Athena in disguise many times to move him to action. He has no proven track record to inspire authority when he calls for assembly, instead, he is cajoled and pitied. He doesn’t seem to have his father’s good luck being surrounded by a harem of women (did this define a hero in Ancient Greece imagination?). And Nestor, Menelaus and Helen have to bring up the story of Orestes over and over before Telemachus gets it through his thick skull that action is required to do something about his situation. Other people have to tell him what to do! It’s like he’s not even aware of how bad it is, he’s just a frog in boiling water waiting for it to get so hot he dies before jumping out. And he requires a lot of divine intervention in order to get tools and friends necessary to proceed.

Recreating new story-worlds from the past

Professor Susanna Braund, from the Classics Department at University of British Colombia, had an interesting take on re-vocalizing mythology. In her podcast, commonly available on Youtube, she looks at Margaret Atwood‘s Siren Song as a re-vocalization of the sirens (read: harpies) based on their origin stories, incorporating Homer (the Odyssey) and Ovid‘s (Metamorphoses7) versions. Her song is from the siren’s perspective; it was written during the height of postmodern feminist movement in the mid 70’s. In essence, Margaret Atwood succeeded in injecting a new perspective on an existing character (the Harpie) that many would have recognized and bought into already, familiar with stories of Persephone’s abduction, the curse of Phineus, the Greek tragedies.

Many immersive storyworlds today recreate from entire worlds of the past because they are easily recognizable and at once immersive. Greek mythology provides a great storyworld because not only is there an existing pantheon of gods, demigods and mortals to draw from for rich characters (and intertextual stories), there are famous locations rooted in real world places, and a whole set of rules/morass informed by Ancient Greek civilization. Those rules include ethical codes, societal expectations, beliefs, interpretations of the divine/supernatural, gender roles, political relationships, laws of the land.

If you have Playstation 2, play God of War. It won’t take long to recognize characters and species, locations, battle scenes taken entirely from Greek mythology: harpies, sirens, Castor and Pollux, the Minotaur, Artemis, etc. “[God of War] is set in Ancient Greece with vengeance as its central motif. The player controls the protagonist Kratos, a Spartan warrior who serves the Olympian Gods.”  If you get past Castor and Pollux at the temple, you’ll get to consult with the Oracle of Delphi 🙂 for your next steps.

Videogames are the best references for entire storyworlds re-created from myth. Sometimes they are also recreated from history, such as Assasin’s Creed, Ubisoft’s bestselling franchise. The game is a historical action-adventure where the player gets to inhabit different characters from different time periods in the past, in order to get through a challenge and complete his mission.

With so many series of the game out there, the storyworld created started getting so big that Ubisoft had to hire something like 20 writers and put them in a room to compile the be-all-end-all compendium of Assassin’s Creed for the company, so that its creators did not make mistakes that would ruin the make-believe for the players. No wonder game guides, wikias and game walkthroughs are so prevalent. They serve as references that extend and boost the make-believe of the overall storyworld.

Lord of the Rings, Britain’s most prodigious piece of mythology in the last century, was strung together from JRR Tolkien’s knowledge of motifs within two story-worlds: “Middle Earth” from the cosmology of Norse mythology, and knights and dragon-slaying and greed (represented by the obsession of the gold ring) from Arthurian legends. I don’t have to go into how much his work influenced the fantasy-fiction genre that followed.

Of course, there are really hardworking fantasy fiction authors out there who create standalone story worlds with no hook in history or myth. Trudi Canavan drew up extensive maps, characters, histories, and geo-political relationships of the Sachakan and Kyralia people for her Black Magician trilogy. Nevertheless, the inspiration for the relationship between the poor citizens who were “purged” from the cities to live in slums in Kyralia vs the Magicians who roam the guilds was taken from the Beijing Olympics held during the summer of 2008.