The Book Gods have interrupted my jaunty 19th Century kick– forcing a repeat engagement with the Odyssey of Homer. This is the fourth or fifth reading and the only time that I’ve liked it. I suspect that this has something to do with translation. The last two go-rounds were with Fagles and Chapman. Both men did fabulous work on the Iliad (only about 400 years apart), but their Odysseys left me cold. This time I wanted Lattimore but ended up with Fitzgerald, who turns out to be up my alley, stuffy midcentury-isms and all.
I presumed that when the Book Gods demanded my return to the Odyssey, this was with a reason in mind. I have yet to find it, not even mustering an association of my own distance with the wanderings of the eponymous Hero. I will say, though, that it’s extremely interesting to read the poem after nearly seven years of contemporary continual military action– one notices how much of the poem is concerned with the cost of war. None of Iliam’s conquerors get away clean. They take the war home. Another random thought: if the Odyssey is about learning to deal with women, does the Iliad then tell us that men create war to avoid the fairer sex?
I’ve developed a fascination with the incident in which Odysseus and his men land on the island with the cattle of Helios, the sun god; this comes after Odysseus and his men have traveled to the underworld and been warned by Teiresias to stay away from the cows, and after Circe has repeated the warning. The significance of this event in the narrative can not be underestimated: of all the adventures and wanderings of Odyssey, it is the only one to be mentioned specifically in the epic’s introductory lines:
The man, O Muse, inform, that many a way
Wound with his wisdom to his wished stay;
That wandered wondrous far, when he the town
Of sacred Troy had sack’d and shivered down;
The cities of a world of nations,
With all their manners, minds, and fashions,
He saw and knew; at sea felt many woes,
Much care sustained, to save from overthrows
Himself and friends in their retreat for home;
But so their fates he could not overcome,
Though much he thirsted it. O men unwise,
They perish’d by their own impieties,
That in their hunger’s rapine would not shun
The oxen of the lofty-going Sun,
Who therefore from their eyes the day bereft
Of safe return. These acts, in some part left,
Tell us, as others, deified Seed of Jove.
(taken from Chapman’s translation. Italics mine.)
When Odysseus and his men land on the isle of Helios’ cattle (or Chapman’s oxen), it’s Eurylochus, second in command, who takes advantage of Odysseus’ hideously inopportune slumber to convince the other men to slaughter the cattle, giving the following speech:
‘Hear what I shall say,
Though words will staunch no hunger, every death
To us poor wretches that draw temporal breath
You know is hateful; but, all know, to die
The death of Famine is a misery
Past all death loathsome. Let us, therefore, take
The chief of this fair herd, and offerings make
To all the Deathless that in broad heaven live,
And in particular vow, if we arrive
In natural Ithaca, to straight erect
A temple to the Haughty in aspect,
Rich and magnificent, and all within
Deck it with relics many and divine.
If yet he stands incens’d, since we have slain
His high-brow’d herd, and, therefore, will sustain
Desire to wrack our ship, he is but one,
And all the other Gods that we atone
With our divine rites will their suffrage give
To our design’d return, and let us live.
If not, and all take part, I rather crave
To serve with one sole death the yawning wave,
Than in a desert island lie and sterve,
And with one pin’d life many deaths observe.’
(again taken from Chapman)
The reader or listener knows that this is a funeral oration. All the men serving under Odysseus die; only Odysseus lives. But he doesn’t escape vengeance. Right after, he gets stuck for seven years– the vast majority of his voyage home– with the nymph Calypso.
If you’re willing to accept the idea that both the Iliad and the Odyssey are didactic works intended to instruct their contemporary audiences in ways and customs, then one can’t help but wondering about this episode’s underlying meaning. Its paramount placement in the poem’s opening lines, plus the fact that Odyssey has been explicitly warned twice (once by a dead man, once by a witch) against this action only deepens the mystery. As I see it, the most likely interpretation is thus: there are some things and some Gods with whom one does not fuck, and Helios, who lights the whole of the human world, tops the list. Homer specifically notes the joy that Helios takes, each day, in seeing his cattle. Eurylochus and the other men could, conceivably, be screwing with the natural order of things and, thus, the whole of civilization. And the Odyssey is, if nothing else, about one’s duty to civilization.
But here’s the rub: Eurylochus accompanied Odyssey to the underworld. There are a finite number of mortal men in the Odyssey who know the whole truth of death, and Eurylochus is one. Even without this knowledge, his reasoning would be sound enough: in theory, all the men are going to die. Better to be struck down instantly than wither away with starvation. It’s entirely reasonable. The knowledge of Eurylochus makes this even more potent; he’s arguing three possibilities. Death by starvation, death by the Gods or the remote possibility of survival. But he knows to whence he goes. He’s Napoleon in rags– he’s seen too much and ain’t got nothing to lose. I wonder if there isn’t a reading here of a very Platonic idea: having the hoi polloi know how things work creates individuals independent of their duty to the state.
Tone and feel– for lack of better words– are key distinguishers between the Iliad and the Odyssey. The Odyssey feels as though it could’ve been written yesterday– meanwhile the Iliad is like a thing stolen from the dawn of time, a wild poem where the baneful wrath of Achilleos (Chapman) transforms a mortal to a beast and then a god. Both epics reflect customs and belief of their time. This is, I suspect, the final meaning of the herd of Helios. It’s not just that Odysseus’ men offended the gods or that Odysseus himself did not– it’s the Ancient sense of the total irrational unfairness of things, of a natural order over which man has no grasp and of which the gods themselves are barely in control. And some people have the right friends and listen. Others eat the oxen.
Here’s an hilarious youtube reenactment of the above mentioned incident:
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