Homer’s Odyssey only needs one word to describe it: epic. Seriously, this thing is absolutely awesomely, brilliantly epic.
Everyone knows the plot of this book. It was written two and half THOUSAND years ago, and it is ingrained into the fabric our society. References to it are everywhere. The Odyssey is the fountain of all literature, but it's also responsible for huge swathes of the material that our lives are made of. The Odyssey has influenced the stories we tell ourselves, our ideas about who are, and the narratives that shape our lives.
But in case you don't know it, the plot goes as follows. The patient Odysseus, after fighting honourably in the Trojan war, sets out on his journey home. A few things get in the way. When the story opens he is imprisoned by a nymph called Calypso who cruelly forces him to make love to her, beautiful Goddess that she is, for seven long years. With a prodding from another god, he takes leave of this divine temptress, escapes and starts his journey home. As before, things are not smooth and he encounters innumerable setbacks. These are caused by – Yes – another God, Poseidon the earthquake maker, a fearsome foe who seems to have taken against him. En route, a one eyed giant imprisons him a cave, syrens try to tempt him to wreck his ship on the rocks, and he has to make a quick little detour to the land of the dead. Finally he arrives home. Joy! But – oh no! – he finds his house over-run by suitors competing to marry his wife. The forgiving and merciful Odysseus thinks this a bit of a faux pas, so he and his son brutally slaughter them all, leaving just a pile of gory corpses on the floor. His wife, seeing the results of this murderous frenzy, runs to Odysseus, her love renewed, and they cosy up in bed together happy to have some snuggle time at last.
Everything about this book is astonishing. The world it describes is vivid – full of palaces, feasts, gold, gifts, sacking of cities, and men that look like Gods. And it’s full of Gods too from Athene of the flashing eyes, to Poseidon the bringer of earthquakes, and Hermes the giant killer. It’s mythology, obviously - but everything about it is unreal. The world it’s describing never exists. Ancient Greece, while incredibly advanced, was still very primitive. And the time it’s written in doesn’t exist either. Because Homer’s poem was told orally over a span of 500 years, the time periods are all squished together into one timeless epic.
Before I embarked on the journey to read the Odyssey, I thought it would be a difficult read. In my head I pictured long genealogies, perhaps lengthy battle descriptions, and dull sub stories. That couldn't be further from the truth! It turned out to be one of the more enjoyable books I’ve read this year. This book is pure myth, and it’s great fun. I was completely absorbed by the world that it creates, and I was astonished at just how modern it is to.
I found the relationship with the Gods in Homer fascinating. Their impact on human life is so limited. The most common power they exert is to ‘send a following breeze’ behind a ship. That's not really that impressive. Sometimes they will 'close someone’s eyes in sleep'. Thanks, but that kind of happens on it’s own. Even the mighty Poseidon - the earthquake maker - just whips up a few storms. The God’s also physically talk to people, but often take the forms of other people they know when they do this. I love that. For the Greeks, God’s weren’t someone with ‘divine’ powers - they couldn’t ‘answer your prayers’, or do ‘magic’, they simply were the thing that created all the awe-inspiring stuff around us. And that is a kind of magic if you think about it.
It’s also interesting because even though The Odyssey is a myth - and in the world of the myth the Gods are unambiguously real - but everything the Gods do can be explainable without them. Breezes are often following, people often go to sleep and sometimes there are storms. The limits of their power are never explicitly outlined. Athene could presumably just magic Odysseus home.
Somehow the Odyssey feels real. I unquestioningly believe in it, even though I know it is all made up. It feels deeper than made up - like it’s an archetype surging through my mind, or part of the software that my brain runs on.
Should everyone read it?
You know what, everyone has already read it. It's written into our dreams, into our stories, into the very world we have built around us. This epic poem has been squeezed like a lemon, until every last drop of influence has poured out into society. Read it or not, it's already in your head.
But should everyone read the actual thing? Yes, probably - it's great fun!