I've been enjoying the Lombardo audiobook of the Odyssey books 9-12, the ones most familar to modern readers. These are the books with the Cyclops, the Sirens, Circe the sorceress (say that three times fast), Scylla and Charybdis, and the visit to the Land of the Dead.
It is a little-known fact that these books are not narrated by the narrator, Homer, but by Odysseus himself, as narrated by Homer. The occasion of the storytelling is a feast in Odysseus' honor in the palace of King Alcinous (Al-SIN-oo-wuss) and Queen Arete (Ah-REE-tee), the rulers of the fantasy kingdom of Phaeacia (Fee-AY-shuh). A blind bard, Demodocus (Deh-MAH-duh-cuss), starts out by recounting events from the Trojan War. Odysseus begins to cry, is asked by the partygoers why he is crying and to identify himself, and when they find out he is the Great Celebrity among them, they clamor for him to tell his story.
So he does tell-- and so well does he tell that the Phaeacians shower him with gifts and promise him safe passage back to Ithaca.
Right. Cut to Book 13 and the shore of Ithaca, then-- but not yet. The Odyssey is full of subtle, beautiful moments that are easy to overlook in the bigness of the story, especially if you, like me, are a skipper and a skimmer and impatient to get to that part of the book where Odysseus finally comes home.
If you listen to a book, you hear things that your eyes would never register. Consider the following from Odyssey Book 13, the day after Odysseus has finished his story (Lombardo trans):
Then they all went back to feast in the palace.
In their honor Alcinous sacrificed an ox
To Zeus, the dark cloud who rules over all.
They roasted the haunches and feasted gloriously
While the godlike harper, honored Demodocus,
Sang in their midst. But Odysseus
Kept turning his head toward the shining sun,
Urging it down the sky. He longed to set forth.
A man who has been in the fields
all day with his wooden plow and wine-faced oxen
longs for supper and welcomes the sunset
That sends him homeward with weary knees.
So welcome to Odysseus was the evening sun.
The similes in the Odyssey and the Iliad have an uncanny power to connect the extraordinary lives of heroes with the ordinary lives of the audience. What could be more different from Odysseus' fantastic journey than a long day spent toiling behind a smelly cow in the summer sun? Yet the emotion is similar-- the longing for home, and rest, is common to all of us.
When I was a teenager my best friend's father owned a few acres of wine grapes in California's Sonoma Valley. Now and then we'd trek up in the summer from our urban existence and spend the weekend hoeing weeds for a dollar fifty an hour. Row after dusty row of thistles and wild rye, going down begrudgingly against repeated bludgeoning with the hoe. The clang of that blade on the baked earth (it never rains in California in the summer) was like a dinner bell mocking me, or like a church bell, tolling 5 hours till you're done, 5 hours till you're done.
Quickly I learned to recognize-- and this made an indelible impression on my psyche-- the approach of quitting time. For hours and hours the sun seemed to beat down vertically on me, but I couldn't break a sweat because the humidity was about 8 percent. Torture!
Then at a certain point the sunlight would bend, slant, slacken. On good days, I wouldn't notice until the light certainly had changed, and I'd welcome that moment with the joy of serendipity. On tougher days I'd look up every few minutes and ask, "Is it changing? Is it changing?"
So there is Odysseus, at a beef souvlaki cook-out with a crowd of important, well-dressed people, with plenty of entertainment and good conversation, and surrounded by the rich gifts the people have given him. The Burger King savor of burning fat is constantly in his nostrils, and his breath and everyone else's smells like wine and garlic.
The Greek farmer's beef is there in front of him, stinking like animal, and the only wine available is for the eyes: "wine-faced" oxen colored that shade of brown that merges with rust red. The only entertainment consists of the work song the farmer sings to himself, or the music of the plow as it clatters against the rocks that fill Greek farm fields. If he is lucky he has a son or a slave who leads the oxen and pulls out the biggest rocks before the plow hits them. With what wonders must their conversation been filled?
Yet somehow Homer trusts that the farmer, when he hears these words, will experience a shock of recognition. Odysseus, for all his heroism, is just like him.
For some, this identification of disparate lives suggests that we are all heroes of our own story. The farmer, therefore, can elevate his humble existence to that of a hero's, because his suffering resembles that of Odysseus. As Odysseus plowed the sea, so he plows his field. They are both on journeys, and they both head home at the end.
Though this is an attractive notion for the modern person in the developed country who has education and a modicum of leisure, I don't think it's the way most ancient Greeks saw their lives. I think they looked at life just the opposite way.
Instead of every ordinary person imagining himself or herself a hero, every hero imagined him or herself an ordinary person.
In America we are taught to value independence, achievement, and success. Being a famous hero is the apex of achievement. Ancient Greeks were taught to value family and community. Being a famous hero often meant to be denied the benefits of family and community. So it was preferable to be ordinary, despite the toil and difficulty.
Strangely enough, Greek heroes who strived to come home-- to renew their deepest human bonds-- showed all Greeks how blessed they were to live with their crazy, dysfunctional families in their neighborhoods where everyone knows everyone, and you can't throw a rock through a window without being ratted out by a dozen moms living down the street.
Was there, then, no ambition among the Greeks to strive for greatness? Of course there was. But there was also a healthy understanding that those who rise high can also fall hard. I suspect there was something of that understanding in Greek basketball hero Theo Papaloukas, when he told the media after beating the superheroes of American basketball, "I think we showed everybody that maybe we're not very good athletes like them, but we know how to play the game."
My daughter, who started the fifth grade this year, had an assignment in Language Arts to describe herself as a superhero. She was to tell what super power she would have, and how she would use it. From somewhere she decided she would have the power to raise dead people who had not been able to fulfill their lifelong dream.
For fifth-graders in ancient Greece, the Language Arts assignment every day was to memorize Homer. They'd plow through row after row of hardy hexameters, committing to eternal memory dactyls and spondees, similes and metaphors. They weren't required to imagine that they were like heroes with super powers. They were encouraged to imagine that super-powered heroes were just like them.
And at the end of the long day, when the sun bent itself into gold from white, they'd get to go home and have their supper.