Saturday, September 18, 2010

About The Odyssey

September rings of back to school at my house: Allie has returned to college, high school is in full swing and I too find myself back on campus. A sophomore level course on World Masterpiece Literature and Spanish 1, my first attempt, EVER, to learn a foreign language are keeping me occupied. So occupied, that I don’t have much excess energy to put into the blog. So for now, what I write is what you get and this week it was a few thoughts for my lit class about The Odyssey. I am convinced now of two things: college is so much more fun the second time around and everyone should re-read The Odyssey a decade or so after finishing college the first time – preferably in classroom setting with a really interesting and entertaining professor.

Woven into the tapestry of its complex themes, The Odyssey in the truest sense is a love story. Love is the thread that binds its hero, Odysseus, to his quest to return to his beloved home, Ithaca. Odysseus loved his family and his heritage. He loved the troops who served him, the Kings who fought along side him, and the causes they fought for. He loved the gods, at least most of them, and Athena loved him in return. He loved being on the side of righteousness, whatever “right” happened to be at the moment, as well as being the treasure laden victor in a successful raid. He even loved his dog.

In this epic drama powerful men fashioned in the image of gods are often seen weeping for their lost loves and comrades. Odysseus even shed a tear for that flea infested dog he hadn’t seen for twenty years. He spent seven long years, weeping daily on the shores of Calypso’s island, only holding back the sobs long enough to retire to her cave each night to have passionate sex. This is most certainly a love story whose implications ring true still today.

Human nature hasn’t changed much in the last three thousand years and even though required reading in most high school curriculums, the lessons on love we should’ve learned from The Odyssey remain for the most part ignored. Women still think they can capture a man with beauty and great sex - a few minutes reviewing the magazine titles in the grocery store check-out aisle will verify this. You might capture him, but you’ll never hold him for the long haul if that’s all you’ve got. Take a lesson from Circe and Calypso: they were goddesses of great beauty who never aged and they still couldn’t hold on to their men.

Girls should pay close attention to this story. Odysseus didn’t weep exclusively for love of his wife. Oh, he loved her, but she wasn’t what he longed to return to. He missed his homeland, his identity, his kingship – he missed his work. His family and his wife were a very important and integral part of what he missed, but Odysseus - if even if he’d learned Penelope was no longer there - would’ve left his chance at immortality and great goddess sex and gone home anyway. He had no problem bedding down with the goddesses when it was convenient, he just missed his life. He missed conquering cities and being worshipped. He missed his buddies, traveling around and being showered with gifts, as well as showering his guests with hospitality. Without that, he had no use for fine clothes, or Athena by his side strengthening him for his next conquest. He was okay without his wife as long as he had a job – nine years in Troy fighting someone else’s battle told us that.

So what was it about Penelope that finally brought a smile to her husband’s face after all those years? Yes, she was still beautiful, and desired by throngs of recently deceased suitors. And she was faithful, loyal past even Odysseus’ expectations. He’d given her permission when he left for Troy to re-marry if he hadn’t returned by the time their son came of age. She certainly knew how to play hard to get. Odysseus even had the house cleaned before he allowed her to be notified he of his return. I probably would’ve caved if he’d even just put his sandals away, much less had 100 mutilated corpses cleaned out from the living room.

Penelope demonstrated the one trait, that above all others was admired and prized in Odysseus himself – she was crafty. She used her wits. She did what her husband would have done. Her intelligence and cunning protected her from falling prey to the suitors for years with the ruse of weaving a shroud for Laertes, not unlike her husband lying in wait in the belly of the horse. Throughout the narrative whenever she is mentioned, Penelope is highly praised, for the way she demonstrates her steadfast devotion to Odysseus. She is viewed in contrast to the wife of Agamemnon, plotted his death on his return from Troy. Odysseus may not have made it home, but Agamemnon’s fate was viewed as far more tragic. Boys should be read this story as well; a beautiful wife might seem like a prize initially, but if she betrays you that is all you will be remembered for.
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Odysseus and Penelope were perfectly matched and he respected her. Before they could reunite as equal partners, she too had to pass a test. I think she knew all along he was back; she made it possible to deliver the bow into her husband’s hands. Penelope never would’ve relinquished that to anyone except her son – and only if she knew he could use it. She listened to the prophet declare Odysseus was already on the island, she saw the look on her son’s face and the change in his demeanor - she knew. This was a woman tenacious enough to sit up nights for three years unweaving her days work without letting on to anyone what she is doing – she and Odysseus were cut from the same cloth.

True love knows. Just like Argo the dog knew Odysseus despite his altered appearance. Respect, trust, loyalty, inner strength and intelligence were the qualities Penelope possessed that even the goddesses did not. Ultimately the matrimonial bed Odysseus carved from the trunk of the rooted olive tree symbolized the love that bonded them, firmly grounded and impossible to disguise.

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