A Crew of Dunces


Speaking of ships of fools, I can’t help but think of a sort of example from Greek literature that predated Plato by some time. In Homer’s Odyssey, Odysseus’ crew seems to be made up of a bunch of idiots. When Aeolus traps the winds in a bag to allow smooth sailing back to Ithaca, they almost make it back, but the greedy sailors think the bag contains treasure and open it. This restores the other winds and prolongs the tedious sea voyage.

And when they get to Thrinacia, the now considerably smaller crew kills the sacred cattle of Helios, for which sacrilege Zeus wrecks Odysseus’ last ship.

Only Odysseus himself, who wasn’t as much of a moron as the sailors under his command, is spared.

Thinking about how dumb these men are portrayed as being reminded me of a bit in James Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me about Christopher Columbus. Loewen mentions how a myth developed about Columbus’ sailors being fearful that they’d sail off the edge of the Earth, so they threatened to mutiny and throw the captain overboard.

Rumble, rumble, rumble. Mutiny, mutiny, mutiny.
Not only was the idea that most Europeans believed the Earth was flat in Columbus’ time false, but the tales of mutiny are unlikely as well. Loewen writes, “Such exaggeration is not entirely harmless. Another archetype lurks below the surface: that those who direct social enterprises are more intelligent than those nearer the bottom. Bill Bigelow, a high school history teacher, has pointed out that ‘the sailors are stupid, superstitious, cowardly, and sometimes scheming. Columbus, on the other hand, is brave, wise, and godly.’ These portrayals amount to an ‘anti-working class pro-boss polemic.'” I’m inclined to think the same thing might be true of the Odyssey, with the basically noble captain, who’s also ruler of a small kingdom, being hampered by a crew of greedy dimwits. Mind you, the text doesn’t appear to state that Odysseus ever told his crew what was in the bag of winds, so even though they shouldn’t have opened it anyway, there was no reason whatsoever for them to suspect it would result in their ending up at sea for much longer.

And since Odysseus was under the curse of Poseidon, the enterprise was pretty much doomed to fail anyway. Of course, despite the fact that Odysseus is supposedly the jinxed one, he survives while his bungling crew all die at sea. To be fair, though, this story WAS composed, like, 2700 years ago.

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1 Response to A Crew of Dunces

  1. Pingback: Men Are Pigs | VoVatia

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