I’m Not Ulysses

Having been a fan of Greek mythology since childhood, I had always meant to read the work of Homer, but I somehow never got around to it. I was given a copy of the Odyssey, translated by the late Robert Fitzgerald, when I attended a session at the Honors College I would later attend. For some reason, however, I didn’t actually receive the book until the session had ended. Great timing, Indiana University of Pennsylvania! I started in on it a few times after that, but never could remember how far I’d gotten. Finally, fifteen years later, I’ve finished the epic poem. I already knew the basic story, but what really struck me was how different the pacing was from most retellings I’ve seen. They tended to focus on the wackier parts of Odysseus’ voyage, including the battle with the Cyclops, the visit to Circe, the encounter with the Sirens, and the contention with Scylla and Charybdis. In the actual poem, however, these adventures take up only a few books, with much more attention given to Odysseus’ homecoming and plans to defeat the men who had taken over his home. By modern standards, I’d say much of it was fairly slow-paced. That said, I was pleasantly surprised by how touching Odysseus’ reunions with his family and old friends actually were. Regardless of who he really was, Homer definitely deserves the reputation he has earned.

One thing I was kind of curious about was the interpretation I’ve seen suggested before that Odysseus might have exaggerated his exploits. The contents of the ninth through twelfth books, which include everything from his visit to the Lotus Eaters to his stay with Calypso, are narrated by Odysseus himself to entertain and inform the Phaiakian court. And we know from elsewhere in the epic how adept the hero is at coming up with elaborate tall tales and half-truths on the spot. We have confirmation for his blinding of Polyphemus and stay on Ogyiga from Zeus way back in the first book, but we only have Odysseus’ word for much of the rest.

I’d say it makes a more interesting story if we take Odysseus’ accounts at face value, but it certainly wouldn’t be out of character for him to have mixed fact with fiction.

I still need to read the Iliad, which I understand isn’t as big on the monsters and magic. Actually, Eric Shanower, who prefers the Iliad, at least once said that it was more like L. Frank Baum’s Oz books, with the Odyssey more similar to Ruth Plumly Thompson’s. The Aeneid is on my informal reading list as well, but I’m not sure how soon I’ll get to either of them.

Incidentally, I recently had a dream in which someone was complaining about how the Romans called Odysseus “Ulysses,” which must have been something on my mind at the time. I do think “Ulysses” doesn’t have anywhere near the same epic feel as “Odysseus,” although maybe that’s more because of other usages of the name than anything else. Ulysses S. Grant was an important historical figure, but he was no epic hero, you know?

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14 Responses to I’m Not Ulysses

  1. vilajunkie says:

    Regarding the poem itself: Towards the end of high school or early years at college, I finally got the courage to try a line-by-line translation of the Odyssey, but I don’t remember who the translator/editor was. I remember it having an appendix on deciphering some of the more obscure phrases, but I was happy with just reading the actual translation used in the text rather than knowing the linguistics. I was somewhat surprised myself as to how little of the epic has to do with the supernatural bits (disregarding musings by Odysseus about the masochist tendencies of the Gods). I knew that those parts wouldn’t be as “interesting” in the original, but I wasn’t expecting the books on them to be so short. I, too, felt the work really deserved its reputation as an epic and a major player in inspiring later cultures when I got to the lines with Odysseus and Penelope realizing that Odysseus was still alive AND Penelope had been faithful to the marriage in her hopes of seeing him again.

    About fact vs. fiction: National Geographic back in the 70s (I think, I don’t remember what month or year) ran an article about a historian who followed the same journey as Odysseus and calculated some possible locations for the imaginary islands and Entrance to Hades. I’m not up on my Greek geography, but the evidence for the chosen locations seemed solid to me. There was even some evidence as to what natural phenomena and ancient tribal cultures were the “real” versions of the supernatural parts.

    The Iliad: Never read the whole thing myself, but of what I’ve read, I enjoyed the social interactions a lot more than the battle scenes. Like, apparently the vast majority of Trojans considered Helen “a bitch deceiving” but Hector was one of the few who showed her compassion (paraphrased from the scene at Hector’s funeral). That’s something you don’t normally read about in retellings–what the major characters thought of each other and how the general populace reacted during the war.

    • Nathan says:

      I’ve heard that the idea for the Cyclops might have come from seeing elephant skulls, with the hole for the trunk being mistaken for a giant eye hole.

      • vilajunkie says:

        I’ve read that too. And Charybdis is a real whirlpool in the Straits of Messina, just not as over-the-top, and so far no nymphs lying at the bottom. ;) Some more recent theories about Scylla is that she was a species of giant squid (the tentacles being her “heads”), but it doesn’t really fit for me. I think if Messina was a hotspot for giant squids attacking fishing boats and their bait, we’d have some reliable documentation of it from ancient and modern naturalists or captain’s logs.

      • Nathan says:

        I wonder if there was any point when there was a big rock next to the whirlpool, and the two objects were elaborated into monsters.

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