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The original medium for Homer’s Odyssey was the spoken word. Its original value was as an entertaining and compelling story. It has survived through the millennia because of its depth in penetrating the ever-recurring details of human interaction and social order. The very fact of the Odyssey’s enduring importance to our culture, nearly three thousand years later, illustrates the huge importance of storytelling to all human society. Storytelling is an integral part of our nature, and serves a very necessary purpose.
Storytelling is an important part of many cultures. Stories provide an easily remembered medium through which values and customs can be passed down from one generation to the next. They provide us with a framework for manners and civility, as well as warfare and violence. They can help us to examine the complex issues of right and wrong that arise in human endeavors. We are all here living and working together, and eventually through actions, emotions and a sense of propriety there arises a social problem with few clear solutions. Stories help us deal with these essentially unsolvable problems.
Homer must have had a natural affinity to stories and storytellers, but the overall structure of the Odyssey is based on storytelling. The majority of the significant events on Odysseus’ journey from Troy to Ithaca come from Odysseus’ own mouth at the feast of Alkinoos (IX.20-XI.386 and XI.439-.XII.580). The entire epic poem can even be read as a constant exchange of stories by the characters.
Zeus tells the first story (I.48-62), though he is not the last to tell it in the Odyssey. It is the story of Agamemnon’s untimely death upon returning from Troy. In the king’s absence his wife, Clytemnestra, took a new lover, Aigisthos. When Agamemnon returned from Troy victorious, Clytemnestra killed him. Subsequently, the son of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, Orestes, takes revenge by killing both Aigisthos and Clytemnestra. The furies hunt him to the ends of the globe for his matricide. Here, in the first story told in the text, we find violence and revenge within familial bonds. Immediately, Homer is setting up the parallels between Orestes’ revenge and that of Telemakhos. This creates the suggestion, or at least possibility, of a less tragic resolution to the more immediate problem of the Odyssey.
The next story comes in the same conversation, again by Zeus. This time, he tells part of a story that will not be fully explained until Odysseus tells it to Alkinoos at Scheria. This story is one of the more famous and enduring from the Odyssey. This story, in fact, illustrates the primary reason for the long wanderings of Odysseus: the story of Polyphemos (I.86-104). Odysseus blinded Polyphemos, the offspring of Poseidon. Poseidon kept Odysseus away from home because of this offense.
The first few scenes in the mortal realm finds Telemachus telling his tragic story to the city council, and passionately, asking for help in expelling the suitors from his home (I.49-85). Many of those present are swayed, and again, the power of stories and storytelling begins to show its influence even within the story itself. The storytelling train really starts to pick up steam when Telemachus and Peisistratos travel to the Peloponnese for news of Odysseus, but not before everything is tied together when a bard in the house of Odysseus sings a song of homecoming from Troy. This upsets Penelope and she interrupts the bard. Telemachus then admonishes Penelope, pointing out that other Greek families fared far worse than theirs. This may be an allusion to a story that shows up a second time on the journey to Pylos and Sparta: the betrayal of Agamemnon. On this journey, they hear Nestor’s account of the immediate aftermath of the Trojan War (III.111-217), the death of Agamemnon (III.274-358); Menelaus remember Odysseus (IV. 116-123); Helen tell the tale of Odysseus entering Troy as a beggar (IV.252-285); and Menelaus telling his version of the Trojan Horse story (IV.287-311); as well as his fight with the Old Man of the Sea, through which he gained news of Odysseus (IV. 358-633).
Homer’s epic, multi-part story chronicling Odysseus’ trip from Troy to Ithaca is made up of two overall convergent storylines–Telemachos attempts, while ignorant of his father’s doings, to expel his mother’s suitors from the family’s home, as well as Odysseus’ final journey, at Zeus’ command, from Ogygia to Ithaca via Scheria. The narrative is set up beautifully from the beginning, and structured in such a way that we are presented with a series of smaller stories, culminating in Odysseus’ marathon storytelling bout in the court of Alkinoos.
Homer gives significance and importance to bards as well as their stories through the Odyssey. In the court of Alkinoos, the bard’s songs of Odysseus’ conquests cause an emotional reaction in the hero that forces him to reveal his identity. Back in Ithaca, there is the episode of Penelope interrupting the bard. When Telemachos admonishes her for this interruption, we can hear Homer’s influence, showing how important stories and song are. Even within his greatest story, he constantly reminds us of the importance of stories and storytelling.
These stories were central to ancient Greek culture and hold important places in our cultural heritage today. They illustrate the moral clashes within each of us in larger-than-life ways. The heart-rending violence of these stories helps us examine smaller, everyday social dilemmas. There are not any modern writers composing epic poetry about how a couple’s friends are divided up, or a couch-surfing house guest that overstays his welcome, but some of the underlying social dilemmas have been difficult to solve, at least since the advent of the written word and probably longer.
These questions of morality and propriety go beyond the scope of this paper, or the Odyssey, or any human being’s grasp for that matter. Still, we find today stories of violence, greed, avarice, malevolence, hubris, and downright evil that rival any found in ancient Greek literature. The most sensational, disturbing, and powerful stories will always endure. They affect us to our very core, and they do so because they place before our very eyes the contradictory nature of our character.
Let us take, as an example, the most commonly heard story in the Odyssey, that of Agamemnon’s death and Orestes’ revenge. The ambiguity of Orestes’ ultimate fate almost grates on one’s soul–he achieved the revenge that was called for, but he went too far. He was meant to kill Aigisthos, but in killing Clytemnestra, he crossed the line and had to be punished. Perhaps the whole story goes back to another, unmentioned in the Odyssey, of Agamemnon’s sacrifice of his own daughter, Iphigenia, before the Akhaians even reached the shores of Troy. The basic human desire for revenge against those who have wronged us, especially in cases of murder, death, or bodily harm, is especially strong.
Odysseus and some of the other characters are able to turn the hearts of those they wish to convince through the telling of their own stories. The human heart is moved to empathy and compassion by an impassioned story. Powerful events like those in the Odyssey stir powerful emotional reactions. The epic, as a whole, has had a profound effect on our culture over the last 300 years, and even within it, we see how it has always been so. We tell stories to touch the hearts of those with whom we speak. Stories are a way for us to fundamentally connect with each other as human beings. They are an integral part of the human condition. Homer shows us through the Odyssey that without stories, culture is impossible.
Blog By Desmond McManus
Odyssey by Homer (circa Eighth Century B.C.)