Nor did our coming back from Death escape Circe—
she hurried toward us, decked in rich regalia,
handmaids following close with trays of bread
and meats galore and glinting ruddy wine.
And the lustrous goddess, standing in our midst,
hailed us warmly: ‘Ah my darling, reckless friends!
You who ventured down to the House of Death alive,
doomed to die twice over—others die just once.
Come, take some food and drink some wine,
rest here the livelong day
and then, tomorrow at daybreak, you must sail.
But I will set you a course and chart each seamark,
so neither on sea nor land will some new trap
ensnare you in trouble, make you suffer more.’
The deeper I go into The Odyssey — my son and I are reading the Robert Fagles translation, from which the above passage is taken — the more I have come to share the goddess Circe’s affection for Odysseus and his snakebit crew. They are indeed reckless, but they are so profoundly human that it’s difficult not to care for them, even when they behave with pitiable rashness. Their follies are our follies.
Take the event that draws down the curse on Odysseus and his crew — that is to say, the reason for the epic’s existence. Having blinded the horrible Cyclops and led his men to an ingenious escape, Odysseus, vain man that he is, cannot resist taunting the wretched monster one last time. As he stands on his ship, sailing out of the Cyclops’ reach toward freedom, the captain yells to the beast:
if any man on the face of the earth should ask you
who blinded you, shamed you so—say Odysseus,
raider of cities, he gouged out your eye,
Laertes’ son who makes his home in Ithaca!’
Odysseus had to rub it in — and in doing so, gave the Cyclops, the son of Poseidon, the information he needed to call down a curse on Odysseus. The Cyclops begs Poseidon to forbid Odysseus from ever seeing his home again, or if he does make it home, that he would do so a broken man, having lost all his crew, “and let him find a world of pain at home.”
This, of course, is exactly what happens. And yet, you can imagine why proud Odysseus couldn’t resist his taunt. The Cyclops had imprisoned Odysseus and his men, and killed and eaten six of them. In a world in which glory was the highest goal of the hero, it’s natural for Odysseus to wish to add to his glory by making sure his enemy knew the name of the one who smote him. But it was a terrible mistake.
About glory, Odysseus’s trip to the underworld, where Circe sends him to consult the prophet Tiresias, is deeply moving. There Odysseus meets the ghost of his mother, and learns that she died while he was at war — of a broken heart. That is to say, his pursuit of personal glory in the Trojan war, and his long absence from home, led to his mother’s death, and to his father, though still alive, tortured by grief over his son’s absence.
Odysseus tries three times to embrace his mother, because he wants to be reunited with her, if only for a moment. It’s like grabbing at air. She reminds him that she has no flesh, no substance — and that this is what it is like for the dead.
Later, he meets Achilles, the great hero of Troy, who died in battle there. Odysseus greets him thus:
But you, Achilles,
there’s not a man in the world more blest than you—there never has been, never will be one.
Time was, when you were alive, we Argives
honored you as a god, and now down here, I see,
you lord it over the dead in all your power.
So grieve no more at dying, great Achilles.’
I reassured the ghost, but he broke out, protesting,
‘No winning words about death to me, shining Odysseus!
By god, I’d rather slave on earth for another man—
some dirt-poor tenant farmer who scrapes to keep alive—
than rule down here over all the breathless dead.
This is an astonishing thing to say. Achilles tells him that glory means nothing when you’re dead. That a man who lives in the lowest estate in life is greater than a hero in Hades. In the Greek world, achieving everlasting glory — kleos — through great swashbuckling deeds was the great goal of the hero’s life. But here, in the afterworld, the great Achilles, who should be fulfilled by the glory he won in battle, dismisses it as worthless. Better to slave as a mortal than rule in the kingdom of death.
Odysseus returns to the mortal world wiser about life, death, and the price of glory. And Tiresias, the prophet, has told him of dangers and temptations he and his crew will next face on the way home, and how to avoid them:
Even so, you and your crew may still reach home,
suffering all the way, if you only have the power
to curb their wild desire and curb your own…
Circe reinforces Tiresias’s advice, and adds even more specific warnings about the dangers ahead, and how to avoid them: the Sirens, and Scylla and Charybdis. Then she repeats the prophets warnings to leave the sacred cattle of Helios the sun god alone, should they stop on his island. Harming those cattle is the one thing Odysseus and his men must not do. Circe tells him to keep his “mind set on home,” turn from temptation, and you’ll likely make it back.
When the crew sets sail, Odysseus tells them everything that Circe has warned. As they approach the Sirens, Odysseus blocks the ears of his crew with beeswax so they can’t hear the deadly song, and, as the goddess advised, has them lash him tightly to the mast. Reading The Odyssey as a Christian, it’s impossible not to see Odysseus on the mast, bearing the tortures of the Sirens for the sake of his men’s survival, as a Christ symbol. Similarly, Christians are taught to crucify our passions for the sake of withstanding the kind of temptation that could cost us our souls. This is what Odysseus did — and the ship sailed on.
Odysseus wanted to sail past Helios’ island, but his somewhat mutinous crew insisted on stopping to rest overnight. The captain made them all swear an oath not to harm the cattle. You know what’s coming next. After an unplanned month’s stay on the island, they’ve eaten all their provisions, and the No. 2 officer on the ship talks the other men into killing the sacred cattle and eating them.
Why not? he says. We’ll sacrifice them to the gods as we slay them. When we get home, we’ll build Helios a temple on our island, and he’ll be satisfied. And if that’s not good enough, well, I’d rather die at sea that slowly starve here on the island.
That’s how the hunger in these men’s bellies caused the to do the one thing they were ordered not to do, at the cost of their lives. They rationalized it. And back at sea, Zeus struck their ship. Of the darling reckless friends, only Odysseus, who slept when the men hatched their plot, and so wasn’t implicated, survived.
All you have to do to get home is to stay focused on the point of the journey, crucify your passions, and follow the trustworthy advice gods and prophets give you. It was true for them. It is true for us. We reckless darlings can’t seem to manage it well, can we?
This book is so, so good. It tells us who we are. It feels contemporary. Reading Achilles telling Odysseus how wrong he was about glory, I thought about the men who died en masse on the battlefields of the First World War. They had studied the classics, and must have known Achilles’ warnings. Did it matter? We are all too human. We forget. In France, when news of impending war with Germany reached the populace, many men were thrilled by the life-renewing, glory-winning prospect of war. They had no idea. Even though the disasters of Napoleon’s wars, especially the Russian campaign, which destroyed La Grande Armee, were not distant in popular memory, they had forgotten.
UPDATE: Alan Jacobs has some thoughts about Odysseus and home.