I read this book as part of my 2021 goal to finish the “History of Civilization” course from the Harvard 5-foot-shelf reading guide. I’ve meant to read this book for a few years, and started it once before. I’ve finally finished it.

One problem in reading ancient Greek text is I can’t read Greek – I have to find a translation. The translation in the H5fs is done by S.H. Butcher & A. Lang and it’s fine. Translation is meant to keep not only the meaning of the text, but the feeling of reading the text in the original language. Capturing the feeling of a text perfectly for a particular time period may obscure the meaning in a translation in another time period. I don’t know if Alexander Pope’s translation captures the feeling of reading the original greek, but it’s about as decipherable as the original greek to me. Blazey recommended the Robert Fitzgerald translation and this seemed like a more understandable translation than the S.H. Butcher/A.Lang translation, so that’s what I read.

One particular problem with all translation is that in Greek epic poetry (evidently) there are just a million names for everything. The Greeks themselves are alternately called the Argives (20 times), Argos (24 times – 3 times it refers to a Dog named “Argos”), Danaans (10 times), and Akhaians (97 times). Also, translations differ on things like spellings of names: Telemachus vs Telémakhos. Additionally, Romans had different names for all the different names: Minerva vs Athena. Roman translations also use Ulysses rather than Odysseus. Shit’s confusing.

There are some names like “Pallas” for Athena that I just don’t know where they came from. I’m only a little ashamed to say that the “Pallid bust of Pallas” mentioned in Poe never clicked until I was about 1/3rd of the way through this book.

There are so many other events that happen outside of this story that this story only touches on. The entirety of the incident of Helen in Troy, the Trojan war, Agammemnon – all of this is mentioned, but none of it is really explored in the Odyssey. There’s a whole underworld sequence where Odysseus rattles off names like the liner notes to an album called, “NOW That’s What I call Mythical Greek Mortals: Volume I”: Kastor and Pollux, Oidipus, Hercules, Orion, Phaedra, etc, etc, etc. I guess that’s why it’s a good introduction to mythical Greece – there’s a little bit of everything. To understand every throw-away reference in the play would take forever.

Reading a great poem is a lifetime job – Charles Van Doren

A recurring thought I had during my reading of the Odyssey is: man, does the Duck Tales version really nail this. There was a 1987 episode of DuckTales entitled Home Sweet Homer that, while it doesn’t follow the detail, really does provide some memorable visuals. In DuckTales Telémakhos is King Homer and Odysseus is Ulysses. Essentially, King Homer nee Telémakhos does all the stuff that Odysseus describes to the Scherians (AKA Phaiakians, AKA Phaeacians, sooo many names) in The Odyssey.

Cerce is perhaps a bit more evil in the DuckTales version, but does turn the crew into swine just like in the story. Aeolus is reimagined as King Blowhard (which is waaay easier to remember) who is allergic to persimmons (called “Umma Gumma” fruit, but just look at them, they’re persimmons – I assumed this was a referrence to something from the Odyssey, but it’s evidently just a weird detail of the DuckTales version). There are sirens. Scylla is Yuckalinda (which is also a way better name). Ithica is Ithaquack.

Anyway, I’m not saying the DuckTales version was better exactly, but they did a lot right.

Weirdly, the DuckTales version didn’t have a cyclops. It’s especially weird because the cyclops scene had the world’s first “Who’s on First”-type routine in recorded history where Odysseus tells Polyphemos the cyclops that his name is “Nohbdy”, stabs his eye out, and when Polyphemos asks his other cyclops friends for help he says, “Nohbdy’s tricked me, Nohbdy’s ruined me!” to which comes the sage reply: “Ah well, if nobody’s played you foul there in your lonely bed, we are no use in pain given by great Zeus.” Hilarious.

Another detail mercifully absent in the DuckTales version: the ancient Greeks seem to kind of hate women. I think we’re supposed to hate all women other than Penelope, Nausicaa (princess of the Phaeacians), and Athena (who notably did not have a mother and sprang forth from Zeus’s forehead). Circe (witch), Calypso (evil nymph), Cletemnestra (murdered her husband to marry his cousin – the plays of Aeschylus make this a little more complicated), Scylla (who is literally a 3-headed serpent), the sirens (who lure men to their doom). That one random maid – Melantho – that Odysseus calls a slut and threatens to, “cut [her] arms and legs off”. Penelope, also, paitiently waited for Odysseus’s return for 20 fucking years when everyone said he was dead – and that’s the ONLY woman we’re supposed to like – that’s what it takes. Overall, the treatment of women in the Odyssey is completely fucked and makes for a dubious foundation for “the history of civilization”.

During the 20 years that Odysseus has been away – first fighting the war in Troy and then held by the nymph Calypso – Penelope has been warding off a bunch of suitors that are gradually consuming her estate. Most of the story builds to a violent ending that you as a reader are expecting from the start. While you see the eventual deaths of the suitors at the hands of Odysseus coming what you may not see coming is the Quentin Tarantino level of violence at the end of the story. The climactic scene starts with Odysseus disguised as a vagabond in his own house when Penelope announces that she will marry the suitor that can shoot an arrow through the hole in 12 axe heads.

Let me pause here to say: I had a hard time visualizing what shooting an arrow through the hole in 12 axe heads looked like so I did an image search. From this image search it’s safe to say: no one has any idea what this looks like. My best guess is that we’re talking about the haft hole of the axe, but, honestly, who the fuck knows.

Anyway, after winning the context, Odysseus and Telémakhos kill all the suitors, hang some portion of the maids, and violently remove pieces of the goatherd. There was enough murder that they end up lighting a fire for it’s “cleansing fumes” to get rid of all the murder stink, I guess. Of course then they’re briefly on the run for murder and seem likely to murder a whole lot more people, but then Athena makes them stop and they do for some reason and I guess no one cared about all the murder too much, the end.

The Odyssey is a story in three parts: the Telemachy: Telémakhos does some things, the Apologoi: Odysseus’s adventures post-Troy (Cyclops, king Blowhard, crew killed for murdering the sun’s cows, etc.), and the Mnesterophonia: all the murder. Of these parts the Telemachy may as well have not happened. Telémakhos could just as well not exist for most of the story overall he’s pretty useless.

The last thing I’ll say about this story is that there is a really sad part about a dog that Odysseus trained as a tiny puppy who recognizes him after 20 years away and then immediately dies. This is a strange throw-away detail, but it also, somehow, feels like the most modern part of the story. The relationships between men and women is different, we’ve got different religions, we blame circumstances rather than gods when things don’t go our way. There are fewer man eating giants now (aside: there 2 – TWO! – islands with man-eating giants). But dogs still love their people and I like that.