If the Iliad is about going to war, then the Odyssey is about returning home from it. Reading it, Daniel discovers a man of many twists and turns named Odysseus who travels through the turbid, turbulent waters trying to return home. The Greeks, during a ten year long, devastating war are left to ask what was it all for? What went wrong? How does a people, much less a person, find their returning to set things aright?
Meanwhile, Odysseus’ own son, Telemachus, back in Ithaca, is wearily wrestling with growing pains, because he hasn’t had a father there to prepare him for manhood. Daniel takes a sigh, realizing his own narrative within the pages. With the aid of Athena herself, the grey eyed goddess of wisdom, helps Telemachus’ search for his father in hopes to bring order. Searching for his father, Telemachus ventures to see King Menelaus, husband to Helen. Without knowing who Telemachus is, he is treated well by the King’s court governed by the sacred law of Zeus, the guest-host relationship:
A maid brought water soon in a graceful golden pitcher
And over a silver basin tipped it out
So they might rinse their hands
Then pulled a gleaming table to their side.
A staid housekeeper brought on bread to serve them,
Appetizers aplenty too, lavish with her bounty.
As a carver lifted platters of meat towards them,
Meats of every sort, and set before them golden cups,
The red-haired king Menelaus greeted both guests warmly:
“Help yourselves to food, and welcome! One you’ve fined
We’ll ask you who you are. But your parents blood
is hardly lose in you. You must be born of kings,
bred by the gods to wield the royal scepter.
No mean men could sire sons like you.”
During his visit with Menelaus his wife Helen appears. She can’t help but talk about herself, and the Trojan war itself. She then pleads the insanity defense with these words:
To sail back home again! I grieved too late for the madness
Aphrodite sent me, luring me there, far from my dear land,
Forsaking my own child, my bridal bed, my husband too,
A man who lacked for neither brains nor beauty.
Menelaus quickly responds with, “There was a tale, my lady. So well told.”
That’s all he said. Can you imagine? His contempt and his fatal attraction. He hates her as much as he loves her. He can’t control himself. Meanwhile, failing to find his father after traveling from place to place, Telemachus, prepares to return home with haste.
There, young suitors try to marry his mother, Penelope. Since all the fathers have gone to war, Greece is left in chaos and disorder. None of the young men have respect for the guest-host relationship, which Zeus presides over. They eat Odysseus’s cattle, sleep with his slaves, attempt to take his wife’s hand in marriage, and plot to murder his son Telemachus.
As chaos at home happens, far away a goddess named Calypso offers to make Odysseus an immortal god! All that she asks is for him to stay with her. However, Odysseus can’t stop thinking about Penelope. In a blur, Calypso asks Odysseus If this Penelope, is as beautiful as she? No she’s not. So why are you so persistent on leaving me, she asked. After he refused the temptation of a goddess, Calypso says:
But if you only knew, down deep, what pains
Are fated to fill your cup before you reach that shore,
You’d stay right here, preside in our house with me
And be immortal. Much as you long to see your wife,
The only you pine for all you days…and yet
I just might claim to be nothing less than she,
Neither in face nor figure. Hardily right, is it,
for mortal woman to rival immortal goddess?
How, in build? In Beauty?
Odysseus turned his back on all of that to return home and it’s important to see why. What is happening here is Odysseus choosing to be a human being. Would you rather be a human or a God? I’d rather be a human because humans can always perfect themselves. A human must come to terms with his own mortality, and know how beautiful and wonderful this journey can be. That there is no time to waste, that one must discover what it means to be human and rejoice in the artful perfecting of life and one’s loved ones, for one day man’s curtain will fall, and his play will end. Odysseus’ is in love with Penelope, he has always been. How could he turn his back on her? This is akin to the question “know thyself”; know what kind of being you are and what kind of life is right for you. The man of many twists and turns, driven time and again off course, Oh, Odysseus, Isn’t that what we all want, someone true to come home to?
Back home in Ithaca, his wife, Penelope was fighting her own war. Unlike Helen of Troy, who welcomed every man that courted her, Penelope reviled the men who attempted to take her heart and hand, becoming ever more steely in her resolve. Odysseus wanted to come home and central to that home was Penelope. To be Odysseus was to be the loving husband to Penelope and vice versa. This story is about returning. After this brutal, ten-year war against Troy, and with a handful of soldiers left under his command, we find Odysseus traversing troubled seas trying to return home to Ithacan soil and sand.
Odysseus, finally returning home after overcoming monsters and touching the very depths of hell, he sees his kingdom wrecked and unchecked. He disguises himself as an old man, cloaked and tattered in rags. He heads down to his home with a limp leg. Once there he sees his old faithful dog, Argos. So excited to see his master, he bursts into joy only to have his heart halt. There lays loyal Argos, before Odysseus feet, without a pulse or a heartbeat. Penelope, restless by the suitors, gives them an ultimatum. If any one of them is man enough to string her husband’s brawn bow they can have her hand in marriage and take the vow. The old man in rags and his son, Telemachus, shut the doors behind them as suitor after suitor fail to string his bow. The old man has his turn, firmly gripping his bow, so well known, and strings it with steady ease. Meanwhile the suitors freeze. He turns around, and takes off his cloak. Thirsty for revenge he revokes with his weapon in hand, and his son beside him ready to defend. They will not bend or break, they fight with moxie and might! Covered in carmine colored blood defended the sacred law of Zeus, the guest-host relationship.
After the blood bath, Odysseus reveals himself to Penelope. There they stand in their bed chamber near the bed Odysseus built with his own bare hands, built from the stump of a great olive tree rooted firmly in the ground. This wedding bed was built to stand during the test of even the most troubling times. The bed symbolized their true love for each other. With loving eyes, they meet.
Penelope felt her knees go slack, her heart surrender,
Recognizing the strong clear signs Odysseus offered.
She dissolved in tears, rushed to Odysseus, flung her arms
Around his neck and kissed his head… (Bk 23 230-233)
So joyous now to her
Husband, vivid in her gaze,
That her white arms embracing his neck
would never for a moment let him go… (Bk 23 269-272)
That’s character. Would one contrast Helen to Penelope, they would see that there is an inner beauty that is more than skin deep.