How To Read Signs
Believe it or not, I’ve never read The Odyssey. But my older son is now reading it with his tutorial class, and I’ve joined in. Kicking self for not reading it earlier! I have a copy of the Lattimore translation on my shelf, but Matthew’s class is reading the newer Fagles version, which I find more accessible. I’m on Book Five now, but I find that I can’t get the following scene from Book Two off my mind, and I’m not exactly sure why.
Telemachus, the son of Odysseus, has grown up without a father, Odysseus having not returned from the Trojan War. No one knows if Odysseus is dead or alive. In Ithaca, a group of greedy suitors have been lurking like vultures around Odysseus’s house, pressuring his wife Penelope to marry one of them. She has been delaying for as long as she can, but she can’t hold out much longer. Meanwhile, the suitors are leaching all the wealth from Odysseus’s estate, and no one can make them leave. The goddess Athena comes to Telemachus in disguise, encouraging him to man up and go on a quest to find his father. If he discovers that Odysseus is alive, he can return his father to Ithaca to set matters right in his besieged home. If Odysseus is dead, then Telemachus can come home and put matters right, giving Odysseus proper funeral rites. One way or another, only Telemachus can get things sorted — and that requires him to put his boyhood behind him, and to take on a man’s responsibilities.
Fired up, Telemachus assembles the men, tells them of his quest, and asks for a ship and crew. One of the suitors, Antinous, tells him to calm down. Stay home, he says, direct your mother to get married, leave well enough alone. Telemachus responds that he will do no such thing, because to do so would be to submit to dishonor. Suddenly, Homer tells us, Zeus sends a terrifying portent from the sky: two screaming eagles, clawing at each other, swooping through the city. “A glaring, fatal sign,” Homer calls this. Halitherses, an old soldier and prophet, declares to the assembly that this is a sign that Odysseus, who hasn’t been seen in 10 years, still lives, and that he will be coming back, “breeding bloody death for all these suitors here.”
And then, this:
“Stop, old man!”
Eurymachus, Polybus’ son, rose up to take him on.
“Go home and babble your omens to your children —
save them from some catastrophe coming soon.
I’m a better hand than you at reading portents.
Flocks of birds go fluttering under the suns’ rays,
not all are fraught with meaning. Odysseus?
He’s dead now, far from home —
would to god that you’d died with him too.
We’d have escaped your droning prophecies then
and the way you’ve loosed the dogs of this boy’s anger —
your eyes peeled for a house-gift he might give you.
Here’s my prophecy, bound to come to pass.
If you, you old codger, wise as the ages,
talk him round, incite the boy to riot,
he’ll be the first to suffer, let me tell you.
Question: if you had been in that crowd, would you have believed Halitherses or Eurymachus? Would you have called the extraordinary sight of the double eagle a sign of things to come, or a coincidence? After all, what Eurymachus says is certainly plausible. Halitherses is saying what Telemachus wants to hear — but on the other hand, Eurymachus is saying what the suitors want to hear.
We know, of course, that Halitherses was right, and that this really was a sign of things to come. But again, my question to you: if you were among the assembly that day, and you saw those eagles, and heard the contending interpretations, which would you have believed? What would you have done? Why?
What if something like that happened today? How would you know if you were seeing a sign — sent by God, or, if you prefer, the Universe — or a mere coincidence?
UPDATE: An Evans-Manning to Roland de Chanson, who put this in the comments thread below:
Many a minute, O Rod of the Drehers, I pensively pondered
The question thou posest before this assembly of ruminant bloggists:
Murky my mind it lay heavy, the baneful darkness distracting,
Drawing me far from the knowledge to mortals the gods have imparted.
Yet as the dawn’s rosy fingers enlightened my tormented psyche,
Up from the wine-darkened sea there arose the old salt Poseidon,
Quoth he to me: O Roland ne’er doubt Halitherses my prophet,
“Bold of the sea” that shaggy old sooth sayer speaketh arightly
True are his words, true those of Mentor and owl-eyed Athene
Lend to our dire foretellings thy psyche’s willing submission.
Driscoll he scattered the cards, as I started from dreamery’s thralldom.
Vanished the sea god and Mentor and bronze-breasted owl-eyed Athene:
Up to the house of Odysseus I flew as swiftly as Hermes
Thrust I wide open the portals and roused the suitors still sleeping
Heft I my bow and quiver and aided by far-shooting Apollo
All of the vile assembly dispatched at a stroke of Durandal.
Then in a moment a man all grizzled and grey from the shadows
Came into view in the courtyard. I knew him at once: the wand’rer,
Hero undaunted unconquered of the silly old epic of Homer
What in the name of the gods art thou doing, impetuous Roland?
Get the hell out of my story and go find your own god-damn epic.
OK quoth I and receding through Avalon’s misty miasma,
Sped I away. But called I in parting to shaggy Odysseus:
Oh by the way please forgive, I’m sorry I killed your poor doggie.