Odyssey Readalong: Books 7–12

The Odyssey Readalong

That was the most pitiful scene that these eyes have looked on in my sufferings as I explored the routes over the water.

This part of the Odyssey is thick with gods and monsters, and I am starting to see why Odysseus can’t stop crying. Nowadays we’d say he has post-traumatic stress disorder, and with good reason. First he loses a large number of men in a foolish battle with the Kikonians, then he sees several of his friends eaten by Polyphemos the cyclops, and giants sink all of the ships but his. As if that’s not enough grief, the “evil monster” Skylla eats a few more of his friends (see quote above), and finally the rest are finished off at sea by Zeus’ thunderbolt. Oh, there was also the little matter of being surrounded by the hordes of the dead in Hades. Even the best of us would need some counselling after all that.

Of course it’s not all bad, what with beautiful goddesses throwing themselves at him and plenty of feasting. In the palace of Alkinoös he is entertained by the blind bard Demodokos, who I gather is thought to be a portrait of Homer himself. Many complimentary things are said about the singers of stories by the way.

For with all people upon the earth singers are entitled
to be cherished and to their share of respect, since the Muse has taught them
her own way, and since she loves all the company of singers.

Of course we cannot say who really composed that or any part of this epic. I haven’t made a close study of it but it seems that this section of the story has a different style than the first five or six books. There is more adventure, less psychology, and more mystery about the gods. Several times Odysseus says that a god did such and such but does not specify which. Perhaps that is just a manner of speaking but in the earlier books the gods (mostly Athene) are named when they act. And where is Athene? She does not seem to be a part of this story at all. I get the impression that the story of Odysseus’ perilous voyage originated separately from the more human story of Penelope and the suitors, and the two were grafted together, without a great deal of editing. The episode in Hades also seems like an add-on, and it’s hardly necessary since Circe gives much more detailed advice on the voyage home than Teiresias of Thebes did. However Teiresias does warn Odysseus about potential troubles back home, so perhaps the episode is essential for knitting the two tales together.

I must say I’m looking forward to more of the Penelope-Telemachos story and getting on with Odysseus’ homecoming. I don’t think Odysseus can take much more from gods and monsters!


Other posts: Books 1–6; Books 13–18; Books 19–24.

Find links to other Odyssey Readalong posts at Love, Laughter, and Insanity.

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10 comments on “Odyssey Readalong: Books 7–12

  1. Shelley says:

    I hadn't thought of it as post-traumatic stress disorder, but I think you're on to something there. The tears just don't stop, do they?
    The intro to the version I'm reading (Fagles) talks about what you mentioned about the grafting together of parts. It points out the inconsistencies that show this. Interesting stuff!
    I also enjoy the more psychological story of Telemachus and Penelope. I guess adventure just isn't my thing.

  2. Kristi says:

    I'm interested to get back to the story of Telemachus and Penelope as well. I hadn't noticed before, but you're right that these six books have a different style. Very interesting! I wonder why?

  3. Trish says:

    I had a tough time understanding the point of Circe sending Odysseus to the Underworld for Tiresias' foresight when she seemed to simply repeat all of the information herself. I think you make a strong point about the narration of these sections and how they differ in style from the first six (and as I read 13+ the later ones).

    PTSD–tend to agree. How many times I penciled in “what a bunch of whiny wimps!” in my readings. 😉

  4. Sylvia says:

    Shelley, I googled a bit and it seems that The Odyssey is viewed as the first known description of PTSD, and it has even been used to help counsel veterans with PTSD and difficulty adjusting to home life. Amazing that such an old story can be so useful today!

    Kristi, I guess I'm not alone in preferring the Ithaka plot to the literally monstrous sea voyage. The latter seems less sophisticated which makes me think it might be much older than the rest, but I'll leave it to the experts to hash that out.

    Trish, I just read 13 and it sure reads like a patch-up job to bring the two stories together. It seems a bit rushed to me.

  5. Erin says:

    In the intro to my Fagles translation, which I only skimmed briefly, it actually does bring up the question of whether the whole of The Odyssey was written by one poet or if the core was written by one and the extra pieces — like Telemachus' story — was written by another. The prophecy is an interesting link — it could have been added by the second poet to join the two stories together. The Underworld scene really doesn't have much to do with Odysseus' story. Very interesting points you make! It's crazy (and kind of maddening) to think we'll probably never have a definitive answer.

  6. joanna says:

    I didn't see a point to him going to the Underworld either, seemed very out of place.

    Too funny about the PTSD – and it seems to be correct!

  7. Stefanie says:

    I felt sorry for all of Odysseus' men. Sucked to be one of them!

  8. You know, I hadn't thought about him having PTSD. That's a more generous reading of his behavior than I might be inclined to give him. I think you're right – this section does have a different style, and I'm curious how it might keep going in the next section.

  9. Sylvia says:

    Erin, the other thing about the Hades episode is that it brings in Agamemnon, who also figures strongly in Telemachus' journey. Whoever wrote those parts was obviously strongly influenced by the Oresteia.

    Stefanie, it seems they would have been better off coming home with Nestor & Menalaos, who were supposedly “scattered” by the gods. I'm not quite clear on how they offended the gods at Troy, but it seems the gods are so easily offended it hardly matters!

  10. Sylvia says:

    Kim, I think it's just a quirk of our culture that his behaviour seems odd. What we call PTSD is really a normal human reaction to abnormal experiences, and in other times and places there is nothing wrong with men showing their emotions. It only our Anglo, stiff-upper-lip mentality that turns it into something shameful or pathological. It's too bad our vets (and men in general) don't get the same caring and understanding that Odysseus gets when he breaks down.

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