‘From there, grieving still at heart, we sailed on further
along, and reached the country of the lawless outrageous
Cyclopes who, putting all their trust in the immortal
gods, neither plow with their hands nor plant anything,
but all grows for them without seed planting, without cultivation,
wheat and barley and also the grapevines, which yield for them
wine of strength, and it is Zeus' rain that waters it for them.
These people have no institutions, no meetings for counsels;
rather they make their habitations in caverns hollowed
among the peaks of the high mountains, and each one is the law
for his own wives and children, and cares nothing about the others.ʾ
Homer. (2007 ) The Odyssey of Homer. (trans. R. Lattimore), New York, HarperCollins.
It is rather difficult to like the Cyclopes. But what is the main problem with them? In answer to this question, we can say that Polyphemos is hostile and eats people for supper. While this is not endearing, we must add that he did not go out of his way to attack Odysseus and his companions; he was just living on his island, minding his own business, and when uninvited visitors turned up on his doorstep... well, he just wasn't interested to hear their story (he does ask the obligatory question, though, ll. 252-5). Polyphemos, however, is not simply a monster: he is a shepherd and a producer of fine cheese. So is he a boorish giant who doesn't like the smell of humans or a sophisticated artisan cheesemaker living and loving an isolated but idyllic existence?
I could have mentioned this earlier but somehow it slipped my mind: the Ancient Egyptian Tale of The Shipwrecked Sailor (c. 2000 BC, predating the Odyssey by about 1200 years) contains some important elements of the Odyssey. A sailor, having suffered a shipwreck and having lost all of his companions, is washed ashore on an island, in a 'thicket', just like Odysseus on Scheria. Eventually, he manages to return home and tells his story to his 'master'. According to his tale, the island was full of riches and exotic things (perfumes, ivory and baboons, to mention but a few), but there was also a huge speaking serpent on this island, which was a bit scary. The serpent dragged the sailor to his lair, but otherwise treated him very politely. He promised the sailor that he would be rescued in four months' time, so no need to worry. To kill time until then, the serpent suggested having a conversation. After telling the sailor about his serpent family living on the island with him (seventy-five of them altogether, brothers and children), he reassured him: "[I]f your heart waits patiently, you shall press your infants to your bosom and embrace your wife again. You shall return to your house which is full of all good things. You shall see your land, where you shall dwell in the midst of your kindred". The story ended happily as the sailor was indeed rescued and was given many gifts by the serpent. At the end, there is a hint that his adventure has made the sailor a wiser man.
In Book 9, things will not go this smoothly. There will be an island, a monster of some sort and a lair, but instead of many gifts, a near escape for Odysseus and his men. Also, this bit will be full of violence. Similarly to the Shipwrecked Sailor, Odysseus tells his own tale and starts by revealing his name (in contrast to the Egyptian story, where there are no names mentioned): "I am Odysseus son of Laertes, known before all men / for the study of crafty designs, and my fame goes up to the heavens" (ll. 19-20). This is important as the theme of identity will come up in Odysseus' own tale when he 'introduces' himself to the cyclops Polyphemos.
The Phaiakian people are assembled and the feast begins. King Alkinoös sacrifices 12 sheep, 8 pigs ('with shining tusks', l. 60, wild pigs?) and 2 'drag-footed' oxen (eilipodas, "having a rolling gait", epithet of oxen and sometimes women, according to LSJ on Perseus). Among those invited are 'sceptered kings' (l. 41), 'leaders of the Phaiakians and men of counsel' (l. 26) and 52 specially selected young men, 'who have been the finest' (l. 36). The young men are to serve as oarsmen on the ship that will take Odysseus home. The guest of honour, 'Odysseus sacker of cities' (l. 3) is a beggar, who has come from east or west, nobody knows (l. 29). The night's entertainment will be provided by Demodokos, 'the inspired singer' (l. 43). No-one is allowed to excuse themselves.
It's interetsing that the epithet 'sacker of cities' comes up in the third line of Book 8. In this idyllic place suddenly the trample of horses can be heard in the distance. Battle cries. Swords clinking. Blood and dust. Demodokos, who is blind but moved by the spirit, chooses to sing of the Trojan War. He sings of 'quarrelling', 'words of violence' and how 'the lord of men, Agamemnon / was happy in his heart' because, according to a prophecy, this would mean that 'now the beginning of evil rolled on' (ll. 75-82). I think there is a little bit too much of 'evil' attached to what was, after all, a story of great heroes. Especially that bit about Agamemnon with a vicious smile on his face. The song makes Odysseus weep (what kind of tears are these? of regret? nostalgia?), which he tries to hide behind his (well, not his really) mantle, but it doesn't escape Alkinoös' notice. To save him from embarrassment, the king announces that now they are going to have contests, so that the stranger, when he gets home, can tell his people how great the Phaiakians are at 'boxing, wrestling, leaping' and 'running' (l. 103).
Odysseus by the Sea (Arnold Böcklin, 1869)
We know that Odysseus is an unhappy man, but at this point in the story we are still in the dark as to how unhappy he really is. There have been huge hints and one very unpleasant sea storm, and of course we are aware of the odious suitors back home - but then again, he doesn't know about them. Odysseus actually utters this sentence about himself in Book 7, which seems to sum up his life experience and his identity: 'I am an unhappy stranger' (xeinos talapeirios, l. 24). After being washed up on the shore, he is now wearing somebody else's clothes. Still, Athene assures him that there is no humiliation in being a stranger and a beggar: 'The bold man proves the better for every action / in the end, even though he be a stranger coming from elsewhere' (ll. 51-2). Clearly this is the lowest point, and Athene again sounds like Odysseus' own cautious and mistrustul voice in the head when she advises Odysseus not to look anyone in the eye while approaching the king's palace.
Exit Nausikaa - she enters her rooms, where her old nurse, Eurymedousa of Apeire (another servant figure in the Odyssey mentioned by name) lights a fire for her. But will there be a comforting fire for Odysseus? Athene makes Odysseus invisble just to be on the safe side (there is a rather over-cautious streak in Athene), because she doesn't want passers-by to "sneer" at him. Odysseus admires the beautiful city and well-built walls of the Phaiakians, the public squares, the ships and the harbours. Athene prepares him for the royal audience: she gives him a brief history (meaning: genealogy) of the Phaiakian royal house (they are, interestingly, the descendants of Poseidon, but it's probably only because they are skilled seafarers). King Alkinoös has married his own niece, apparently, and Queen Arete (Aretē) is widely respected - so much, in fact, that Athene suggests Odysseus should supplicate her first. After the pep talk, Athene goes to Athens, to the house of Erechtheus (ll. 80-1). There follows a detailed description of the palace Odysseus is entering, which is really a description of Phaiakian "civilization". As we shall see, Scheria is a very special place.
Venus emerging from the sea famously captured the imagination of painters Botticelli and Titian, but I wondered how popular this theme was in classical antiquity and before. When the ancients thought of Aphrodite, did they think of shells, dolphins and sea foam surrounding her? To what extent were these attributes fixed or of primary importance? Mythology abounds with sea creatures and divinities emerging from or residing in the sea. The Cretan bull is an example for the former, while the Nereids, who lead a mermaid-like existence (but look fully human), for the latter. Was Aphrodite something of a sea nymph herself?
I grew up in a place where everything was overgrown. The fences around houses stooped under the burden of vegetation.
This is the essence of Dionysos and this is what makes him so powerful: he embodies unrestrained nature, growing freely, reaching all places; nature fertile and untamed. The Greeks worshipped Dionysos, among others things, as a tree god (Plutarch Moralia 675). He is also the god of all vegetation, including fruits and flowers, and most importantly, the vine. He is everything that is abundant and overflowing. "The unrestrained joys of nature", however, says Richard Seaford in his book Dionysos (Routledge, 2006), "are an urban vision. For most people in ancient societies life was a struggle to control nature" (p. 15). So Dionysos is an ambivalent deity (one of his cult epithets is dimorphos, 'dual-formed'). He is associated with the seasons, the unruliness and vitality of unchecked growth, the cyclical rebirth of green vegetation, but also with the danger present in all of this. Wine, Dionysos' gift to humankind, is a mixed blessing. It promotes social bonding but can be destructive if drunk undiluted or in excess.
Linear B is a syllabic script used in Mycenaean Greece, including Crete (then controlled by Mycenaean rulers). The clay tablets have been found in palatial centres, the main sites being Mycenae, Thebes, Pylos and Knossos in Crete. Most tablets are dated between the 14th and 13th centuries BC, and most were preserved in fires that destroyed the buildings in which they were kept. They are administrative accounts and the language they record is an early form of Greek. The script itself doesn't seem to fit Greek well - it is actually an adaptation by the Greek-speaking Mycenaeans of the non-Greek Linear A script used by the Minoans in Crete around 1750-1450 BC (which, in turn, may have been derived from the even earlier pictographic or hieroglyphic script, also found in Crete, in use around 1900-1600 BC). The two earlier scripts (pictographic/hieroglyphic and Linear A) have not been deciphered. (You can find out more about what the tablets reveal about the Mycenaeans here.)
Composed roughly at the same time as the Iliad and the Odyssey, the Homeric Hymns are poems, generally attributed in antiquity to Homer, giving individual praise to a number of Greek gods in hexameter form. The composition date given by encyclopedias varies: according to the Concise Oxford Companion to Classical Literature (accessible for OU students through the OU library in electronic form) it is 8th to 6th centuries BC, while the Columbian Electronic Encyclopedia (accessible via the same route) has "between 800 and 300 BC". Light is shed on this controversy by Wikipedia, of all things, explaining that "although most of [the poems] were composed in the seventh and sixth centuries, a few may be Hellenistic, and the Hymn to Ares might be a late pagan work, inserted when it was observed that a hymn to Ares was lacking". (I personally have found the Wikipedia entry the most informative, containing many bits of useful information, which the various Oxford Companions and Dictionaries did not choose to include.)
I had an idea about what a hymn to a god may be like - a barrage of epithets and lavish, albeit formulaic, praise (a bit like those rather repetitive votive offerings found at sanctuary sites from the same period), but I was surprised to find extended narratives in some of the poems. After the invocation and praise, the narrative passage must have provided an opportunity for the rhapsode to shine and for the audience to be entertained. In antiquity, the hymns were sometimes called 'preludes' (prooimia), probably introductions to narratives that followed, says the Introduction to the Penguin Classics edition by Nicholas Richardson. Although in many cases the narratives seem to be already included, the explanation suggested by Richardson is that the hymn or series of hymns introduced an even 'more extensive epic song'. However, he concludes, it is impossible to be sure. The Homeric Hymns page on the website of Washington State University says: "Many of the hymns function as introductions, but it is not known to what".
Modern performance of Persians at Epidaurus (Source: utexas.edu)
Aeschylus was probably born at Eleusis (at ?525 BC), fought in the Battle of Marathon (490 BC) and perhaps also at Salamis (480 BC), which is described in detail as the battle in Persians. He wrote 70-90 plays, 7 of which have survived in medieval manuscripts. Substantial fragments survive of 2 more plays. His earlier plays (Persians, being the earliest surviving Greek play, included) are designed without a skēnē (stage building).
His idea of tragedy is, in a way, a bit optimistic: all human suffering can ultimately be put down to 'some evil or foolish action' (e.g. ill-advised decisions, hubris, not caring about oracular warnings). The consequences of these actions, however, spread like fire and reach the descendants of the perpetrator and, in the end, the whole community, even though they are not to blame. (Main source throughout blog entry: OCCC)
Have studied A219 Exploring the Classical World and A275 Reading Classical Greek at the Open University. Currently studying for a Psychology degree.
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