Thus Spoke Athena

Jun 28, 2017 | 4 minutes read

Tags: History, Literature, Books, Odyssey, Greece

The Odyssey + Midyear Check-in

It took me two months to finish The Odyssey. In terms of pacing and story development, I found the story of Odysseus’s journey home to compare quite favorably to modern novels. In fact, this was something I noticed early on, when Homer introduced numerous scene changes to account for parallel events. True, we can see this in The Iliad to some degree, but the tight focus on Troy and its immediate surrounds didn’t convey the same sense to me.

The Odyssey offers a complex interplay of vices and virtues, as well as an interesting view into the proto-Greek society which it ostensibly chronicles. Whereas The Iliad expounds on military virtues, funerary practices, and the like, in The Odyssey we get a picture of domestic life in parts of Ancient Greece, including marriage customs. For instance, it is clear from the outset that Penelope has, and is expected to have, little agency except within the household. The suitors are there to lay claim to the treasures of Odysseus, of which she is merely the gateway. They couch this desire, of course, in terms of her desirability as a wife, but I think that’s beside the point.

Penelope’s chastity stands in contrast today against Odysseus’s lack of it. That men were not held to the same standards as women in Homer’s age is likewise clear, and therefore the ancient listener would have merely praised Penelope for her virtue, but not condemned Odysseus for his vice. Else why explain the lure of Calypso to remove his sense of responsibility? Moving on to less clear grounds, we have a group of suitors, seeking to gain Odysseus’s treasure by way of marriage to his presumed widow. Their behavior was portrayed as shameful, and yet the inhabitants of Ithaca somehow tolerated this. I don’t know what to make of that, really. Odysseus and Telemachus got their revenge on the suitors, but in so doing nearly caused additional strife, avoided only by the intervention of Athena’s call for peace (after she frightened the Ithacans). So in this case we have vice paid with vice, as it seems Odysseus did not have an automatic right to slaughter the entire group of suitors. Again, this is ambiguous to me, and I don’t consider this a bad thing.

I thought I would also take a moment to talk about my progress for the year. At the beginning of the year, I set out to read 12 sacred/epic works. I should have been completing my sixth this month, but instead have only completed five. This means an adjustment is in order.

There are two options, really.

  1. Double up on reading to fit the remaining 7 entries into the next six months.

  2. Bump a reading from the list.

I have a particular reason for choosing the second option. The reason has to do with the particular entry that I plan to bump, and where it’s going. Since this year is a mix of sacred and epic, I thought perhaps I would continue with sacred-only reading next year. Therefore I am thinking of bumping the last entry to next year and finishing 2017 with only 11 entries. This is not firmly established since, if it turns out I can catch up, I will do that. Nor would catching up preclude me from pursuing an all-sacred reading list next year.

So, perhaps, let this stand as an initial call for sacred texts to read. I am interested in anything canonical or semi-canonical in Buddhism, as well as good English translations of the Zend Avesta. The total number of works needs to be divisible into 12 months of reading, but otherwise there are no real restrictions.

Note: This is part of a series of posts dealing with the reading of one sacred/epic work per month in 2017. See below for more information on what I’m doing and how to follow along.

2017 Sacer-Epic Reading Journey