Archive for July, 2012

THE ODYSSEY by HOMER

When rosy fingered Dawn rose over the wine dark sea Dave and his strong grieved companions, each in their fine palace, appointed with good things, grunted and rolled over.

When Coffee, the beloved offspring of Helios and Rumour, had ministered to the companions they gathered together in counsel. The stewards brought bread, and placed many good things upon it. They brought strong wine from the far country where the men play with balls all day and are fearsome to look upon. Then when the noble strong companions had put away their desire for eating and drinking Donfrancisco addressed them in winged words.

Beloved companions, the resolute Leannarkos, the never failing Markopoulos, the astute Petermaous, we have a Journey that only heroes and gods would attempt. Our dear companion, the most loyal of all friends, the resolute and enduring Trishanikis, whose perseverence rivals even that of immortal Sisyphus has summoned us to her strange country where dwell not eaters of bread, men as we know them, but eaters of maccaroons. We must cross the wide ocean where the fishes swarm, and Posiedon earth shaker rules. We must enter upon the roads where Eternal Traffic, despiser of men and most fickle of gods, the trickster daughter of Fate and Luck, can entrap men for many lifetimes.

And so he addressed them in winged words and they spoke back and forth among them until brave Karlaniphous spoke. Noble Donfrancisco, best of men, and all my beloved companions, this is the plan that seems best to me. We must summon the stewards from our well appointed palaces and see that all things are made ready, all provisions are stowed in the well benched black ships, then must make libations and hecatombs to the great god Google, only he can show the best way to make our journey to avoid the briny arms of Poseidon earth shaker and ruler of fishes, to defeat wily Traffic and all her allies.

And so it goes on – its a very long book and its at least 3000 years old and wasn’t written down for about 500 years after it was composed – so you have to cut it a bit of slack.

All the repetition and the unnecessary length and detail are believed to be there because it was an oral tradition. It was entertainment through the long nights so in some ways, back then, the longer the story the better. At least that is what the intro to my translation said.

There are lots of other interesting things to observe about it including the translation issue, the colour issue, the hospitality issue, the gods issue and the hero figure.

However, the first third is quite dull. The parody above is based on that section. It goes on and on like that. The book really only gets going in the middle when odysseus starts to tell the story of his adventure. While this part is still a bit annoying because odysseus himself seems to be quite obnoxious, it does have a lot of action and it does introduce a lot of greek gods. This is quite useful because we have grown up with these gods but most of us dont know them in detail.

So i would say that section is worth reading, but skip the rest – unless you have a need to feel you have read what is probably the foundational piece of literature for our western culture.

In which case, you may be interested in this  study guide and/or these observations.

The translation issue

A big question when approaching homer is which translation to read. This guide to the main ones is the best decision aid i have found. if you want to totally confuse yourself check out the full list of every english translation ever. one of the issues is that it was apparently recited in iambic pentameter (the same rhythmic structure often used by shakespeare) in the ancient greek, so is it more authentic to read a translation that is in verse or is it better to read prose which is more likely to get the translation closer because it doesnt have to worry about rhythm and loud and soft syllables etc.

The colour issue

While reading it I was listened to this radiolab podcast which had a segment about why the colour blue is never used by homer anywhere in his books. The segment said
What is the color of honey, and “faces pale with fear”? If you’re Homer–one of the most influential poets in human history–that color is green. And the sea is “wine-dark,” just like oxen…though sheep are violet. Which all sounds…well, really off. Producer Tim Howardintroduces us to linguist Guy Deutscher, and the story of William Gladstone (a British Prime Minister back in the 1800s, and a huge Homer-ophile). Gladstone conducted an exhaustive study of every color reference in The Odyssey and The Iliad. And he found something startling: No blue! Tim pays a visit to the New York Public Library, where a book of German philosophy from the late 19th Century helps reveal a pattern: across all cultures, words for colors appear in stages. And blue always comes last.
i thought it was fascinating. more on the issue here just to prove the strange folk at radiolab are not the only ones to notice this. however the translation I read does use blue. the sea is ‘wine-blue’ throughout not ‘wine-dark’ – bit of ad-libbing by the translator?

The hospitality issue

Most of odysseus’ adventures are based around the idea of people being to hospitable to guests or not hospitable enough, or guests taking advantage of their hosts. For example the central issue is that odysseus is away for 10 years and is annoyed that the ‘suitors’ abused he hospitality of his house all that time. He kills them all for this. The guest/host relationship is an odd thing to be the central theme in an adventure story to people of our time. The intro to my translation claims this is because homer was a wandering poet and effectively lived off hospitality, so it was in his self interest to encourage hosts to be generous.

The gods issue

It is very obvious from the odyssey that the ancient greeks very sensibly just made every inexplicable natural phenomena into a god. Then they made all these gods very fickle and interactive so they could make lots of stories of how various gods related to each other to explain various events. Its a great system if you have no science and its much the same approach that nearly all pre-scientific cultures adopted allround the world. The book puts you inside the head of people like that, of religious people in modern times also perhaps, so that is interesting.

The hero figure

Odysseus is literally the archetypal hero for our culture. What is interesting about that is that he has lots of characteristics we still regrd as heroic – physically big, capable and beautiful. He also seems to have quite a few we might not think of highly – reckless, vengeful, selfish, impetuous, self indulgent. Its quite interesting to compare him to arny schwarznegger, bruce willis, russell crowe or tom cruise type heroes.

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July 14, 2012 at 12:28 pm Leave a comment


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