The basis for nearly every adventure story stems from Homer’s Odyssey. Thus, the scenes of Odysseus trekking from island to island, battling frightening beasts, and his year-long affairs with beautiful goddesses, all often take precedence over the tremendously human scenes of his final coming home. It is in those scenes of his return that we get a different look of an individual personality and struggle. This is not to say there is no importance in the more exciting scenes – these scenes developed humanity’s understanding of a hero, our desire for wit and humor, and help symbolize far broader themes than one may expect on a surface read – but, pairing them with his final return makes for a far more revelatory story.
To me, Odysseus’ return home shows how universal, consistent, and everlasting human emotion is. Our style of literature and storytelling may have changed in the 3000 years since The Odyssey was first orated, but the human condition has always been the same. When Odysseus lands on the shores of Ithaka, there is a sense of uncertainty. Not only does he initially fail to recognize his country, but when he does, his first question to himself is, “am I still wanted here?” He does not expect some grand reunion – no unimpeded embrace. Instead, he seems to be at battle with his self-esteem and confidence. A renowned man who has recently defeated a cyclops, devised the genius victory of a ten-year war, and escaped the wrath of numerous gods, still feels insecurity and fear for these seemingly minor human qualms. So he dons a disguise and seeks to learn of his new status in his homeland.
The first recognition he received is from his dog – a dog he raised as a puppy and who has now been thrown out with the junk. This animal relationship is something we don’t often consider. Ancient texts may show animal worship, and novels such as 19th-century Russian classics may show animal importance in hunting and livelihood, but there are few instances of intense emotional attachment for the sake of love. Odysseus briefly recalls this memory of companionship and love he received from his dog, sheds, a tear, and is pained that he cannot go save it for fear of losing his disguise. I recall reading once that this was the scene where a person realized that The Odyssey has more to it than just an old adventure story filled with gods and trials, and I tend to agree. It is easy to pass over the reunions with the people in his life and say, well of course they are emotional. But there is something different with an animal that allows us to connect the past with the present and realizing the complexity in humanity that has always existed.
The reunions with his son, wife, and especially his father, all posit similarly human longing. He had not seen his son since he was a baby, and now he is able to plan the usurpation of his own home along with him. There is that paternal bond that is present, and despite a long parting, will likely never go away. With Penelope, his wife, there is a beautiful (and humorous) scene that brings the two back together, finding memories that assure each other they remember the times past. And when it comes to Odysseus reuniting with his father, there are now scenes in modern cinema that mimic this meeting – two parties long parted from one another now talking, one not realizing who the other is at first, and finally being rejoined in a tearful embrace.
The Lotus Eaters
Of course, previous to all of this is the adventure itself. This being my second read-through of the poem, Odysseus’ return is what struck me the most, but in the time between these two reads, most of the influence I see in literature and other fiction is from the adventure itself. There is first the land of the Lotus Eaters where the men are tested to withhold their gluttony. Odysseus himself is able to pass this task, but his men do not. They are intoxicated with these fruits of a foreign land and feel no desire to leave. This idea is explored again and again in modern literature. We see it in novels about immigration, where those immigrants to a new country are treated horrendously and yet are nearly unable to leave (see Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah) or in those where a character is held in an unending pact (see any book based on the Faustian myth, from Goethe’s Faust to Gaddis’ The Recognitions). But this theme also relates to our own lives. Today we are seeing an obsession with the quick pleasure of mindless tasks, and in the over glorification of leaders that ultimately will cause their follower’s downfall.
Here is the most widely known story of The Odyssey. It is often viewed from a more comic stance (which it absolutely should be at first) but there is also a great deal that relates to more serious themes. It’s a story that shows a character’s land invaded. This character is portrayed as an evil figure for defending his home or his country, and he is ultimately blinded by the hero of the story, left helpless in the end. Again this is seen in stories still told today – specifically, in many Westerns, where the settlers are often portrayed as the protagonists and the Natives are presented as the savages who resort to violence. Of course, it is a vastly different scenario when set to real-life events, but we can still see the ties however loose they may be.
Scylla and Charybdis, Helios’ Cattle, and on and on…
There are so many other episodes within The Odyssey that cataloging them all would be tedious to write and to read. Scylla and Charybdis represent much, from deciding between two deadly options, to choosing individual versus group victory, to dying heroically or falling into the unknown. Helios’ cattle shows how despite a majority of the group following the rules set out, a single misstep by some minor figure can cause the downfall of everyone. And this trend goes on ranging from Aeolus to Circe and Calypso to the journey to the underworld. It seems that each episode within The Odyssey gave inspiration to the vast number of stories we have today, and even further, represents true struggles that individuals and groups will always fight.
The Odyssey, if anything, gives us a look at life 3000 years ago. It shows that the human struggle has been the same for centuries and millennia – that despite changes in medicine, literature, philosophy, and technology, at our core we still hold those same fears, doubts, and joys. It is humbling and inspires hope. Whether you seek it to understand the references in more modern texts, to discover the history of where literature began, are forced to read it for a class, or of course, just simply to enjoy a great book, there are infinite lessons to be gained from The Odyssey. There is a stark reason that it has been read and used as inspiration for so many centuries, and it clearly will be for many more.
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