Greek and Roman Mythology 2

Week 2: Becoming a Hero


I found the excellent movie The Odyssey made in 1997, with excellent sets, sites, characters and actors including Greta Scacchi.  You get a real feel for the Greek environment.  The best scene was Scylla and Charybdis – very frightening as the ship fell into the abyss and the men too.

In week 2, we begin our intensive study of myth through Homer’s epic poem, the Odyssey. This core text offers us a kind of laboratory where we can investigate myth using different theoretical approaches.

This week we focus on the young Telemachus’ tour as he begins to come of age; we also accompany his father Odysseus as he journeys homeward after the Trojan War. Along the way, we’ll examine questions of heroism, relationships between gods and mortals, family dynamics, and the Homeric values of hospitality and resourcefulness.

Readings: Homer, Odyssey, books 1-8, I have downloaded the book to my kindle.  However there is a great audiobook on youtube read by Ian Mckellen, which is great because it is in a language that is easy to understand rather than old fashioned prose.

Useful site about the Odyssey. And Bullfinch‘s excellent site on mythology in general, and a link to the journey home


Hades, where Odysseus has to pass in order to arrive at his next challenge.  Here he finds his mother wandering through flames, who has killed herself out of grief

Book 1 to 4: Telemachos’ Journeys

  • Council of the Gods: The epic begins with the gods coming together on Olympus and Athene asking for Odysseus’ return home. Odysseus is on Oygia, Kalypso’s island, and is unable to return home for Poseidon is still angry with him. However, Poseidon is away so the gods decide to bring Odysseus home, Athene sends Hermes to Kalypso, and to also go to Telemachos and tell him to search for news of his father.
  • At Ithaka: Athene travels to Ithaka and disguises herself as Mentes, an old friend to Odysseus. She talks to Telemachos about the abhorrent nature of the suitors who are lounging in his home and gives him two pieces of advice: 1. to assemble the people of the island and try to rid his home of the suitors and 2. to travel and try to locate news of his father. After she has left, Telemachos realizes that he was speaking to a god, and decides to follow the advice.
  • Assembly: Telemachos gathers the people of the island to give his plea that the suitors be removed. He is met with resistance from the suitors, especially Antinoos and Eurymachos. Everyone dismisses his request against the suitors and for a ship to use to search for news of Odysseus. And the council he had called, even though there is an omen that says the suitors will die if they remain, is dismissed out of hand.
  • That Night: Athene comes in the guise of Mentor and ruses Telemachos to go. He rises and gathers a crew and they leave in the night.
  • Pylos: Telemachos sails to Pylos, the home of Nestor. There he is greeted kindly and he asks Nestor if he has heard any news of Odysseus. He has not, but says that Menelaus might. He equips Telemachos with a chariot and a guide and sends him on his way to Menelaus.
  • Sparta: He gets to Sparta during a wedding celebration for Menelaus’ son. He stays a night with Menelaus and Helen. They tell stories of Troy and of Odysseus, but Menelaus has heard no concrete word of Odysseus. He did get information from Proteus, a sea god, that might pertain to Odysseus. Telemachos thanks him and leaves back to his ship and Ithaka



The Odyssey is an epic journey, but the word journey must be broadly understood. The epic focuses, of course, on Odysseus’s nostos (“return home” or “homeward voyage”), a journey whose details a Greek audience would already know because of their rich oral mythic tradition. But Odysseus’s return is not the only journey in the Odyssey, nor is it the one with which the story begins.

After the opening passages, which explain Odysseus’s situation, the focus shifts to the predicament of Odysseus’s son, Telemachus. He finds himself coming of age in a household usurped by his mother’s suitors, and it is he who, with the support of Athena and the other gods, must step into the role of household master that his father left vacant nearly twenty years earlier. Thus, in addition to a physical journey to Pylos and Sparta to learn more about his father’s fate, Telemachus embarks upon a metaphorical journey into manhood to preserve his father’s estate.

The John Paul Getty Museum in California


Telemachus leaving Ithaca


The Citadel of Mycenae, Agamemnon’s palace, the Lion Gate

this citadel was built in the first century BC.  How was this built? Cyclopean stones.  Nostalgia is the most powerful force in the universe.  Tele is going to Nestor’s coastal city and then to Pylos.   On Pylos he sees nine divisions of five hundred people in each division on the beach.  Each of those groups is slaughtering bulls.  How barbaric they were.

We are entering into a world of grandeur and wealth.  Tele thinks that such grandeur in his household.  We are going to meet Menelaus, Agamemnon and Helen of Troy.  He is mirroring his father’s journey; for each of them is experiential knowledge.

Tele’s emotions need tobe changed.  Clytemnestra and her lover kill Aga.  His own son and daughter have to kill their own mother.  Homer emphasises the part of Aegistus, Orestes kills A.  O did what needed to be done.

In the Homeric telling of the story,  Orestes is a member of the doomed house of Atreus which is descended from Tantalus and Niobe. Orestes is absent from Mycenae when his father, Agamemnon, returns from the Trojan War with the Trojan princess Cassandra as his concubine, and thus not present for Agamemnon’s murder by his wife Clytemnestra‘s lover, Aegisthus. Seven years later, Orestes returns from Athens and avenges his father’s death by slaying both Aegisthus and his own mother Clytemnestra.

In the Odyssey, Orestes is held up as a favorable example to Telemachus, whose mother Penelope is plagued by suitors

Telemachus Problems

When Aga makes his way home, he sees his wife who has taken up with a lover and the two of them murder Aga, C, the wife kills the head of thehousehold.  According to Greek code it is your duty to kill the murderer of the father; so the children of the household have to kill, C their mother. 

Tele is a young man not quite ready to step up to the hero role.  He is old enough at 20 to be getting some adult action.  It’s time for him to become a man.  He is waiting for a miracle to happen.  Odysseus is not going to appear any time soon.  Heros take things into their own hands but T is not doing anything. He blames the gods mainly.

The Greeks had an understanding of the divine intervention in the world.  Zeus is to blame said T;  fatalist talk; yes the gods are engaged but we can’t blame them.  Heroes jump in and take action.  Fatalism is of the weak.  Zeus tells us to stop being reckless and blaming the gods.  T needs help and Athene arrives to give him guidance and leads him into a journey that is both literal and figurative.

In Book 5 we meet Odysseus, he is crying on the beach, powerless, trapped by Calypso on the island.  Book five leads us into a new set, we change course; five to eight we are with Odysseus where he can learn and rebuild.  To mark this transition, we have an audience with Zeus;  a strong marker of transition.  Z says to free Odysseus from Calypso. 


Hermes ordering Calypso to release Odysseus

Calypso gives him some tools to make a raft.  He is an enterprising man.  His wits are coming back (Page 159).  He sails as a master sailor.  But Poseidon has other ideas and sends rough seas to make O suffer, he says, but not die.  He tries to land somewhere, he ends up on land with a river.  He senses the river nymph.  Will it be wise to stay near the river.  He shelters under an olive branch; he gathers leaves for shelter.  At the end of book five, he crafts a shelter;  Homer closes the book with a nice prose about Athena and sleep and O finding his peace.

♥, He has been in a long period of suffering, now he will be enduring and getting ready to take his kingdom back.  Through book six he is going to find his first footting in human society, and in book seven and eight more steadily and in book 9 in a more heroic ways. 

He has lost everything, not even clothes.  Words are O’s friend, he makes good alliances through the arts of language.  In book six he has to make a connection with this group of young girls on this island, he has to find help.  Universal law no. 2 you should know your audience if you want to persuade people to do things for you. 

Flattery is a good way to start; O does not swagger. 

Malinowski and Functionalism (F).  There is a specific way that myths are used by cultures, they are legitimising social and cultural norms, they serve a function of legitimising.  They reassure us that our cultural norms are the right ones. 

Can we apply Functionalism to The Odyssey.  Well in my opinion functionalism is a pretty serious word to describe the analysis of myths, when most of the content of myths belongs to the supernatural, the magic, the fairy world, imagined creatures and monsters – how come we accept such stories that belong in another world, sometimes a Bosch type world of violent creatures and gods.  Maybe it’s because we were brought up on fairy stories?  who knows?

Book Seven:  King Alcinous – The Phaecians have a rapport with the gods. 

What is ring composition?  used by Homer, some specific thing is articulated; A, then a digression, B;  then we return to the first thing A, to close off the ring. 

book 7

We see the riches of this place through O’s eyes. The ring thing allows us to stop for a moment and take things in, then come back to the story.  As O steps over the threshold of A’s palace he is overawed by the wealth, we stop too for a moment imagining the wealth and the contrast with O’s own predicament, no clothes, no riches, no wife, and at the moment no home.  Also his son has let the home too, so O stands bereft of all that made up his life and his kingdom in sharp contrast to King A.

O is under no obligation to do anything, only at the close of book 8 do they ask him his name, xenia is a kind of hospitality – trade; Xenophobia?  He is now regaining his power of speech and to the centre of a helpful society. He needs food, safe secure place to recover, to recharge, a conveyance home too. The Ph will be O’s link to getting home.  O is on the island of Scheria.

Functionalism – what makes a myth a myth; Fontanelle in the Renaissance and Hume in the Enlightenment, later the Romantics see myth as a repository.

Towards the 20th century:  Functionalism is one way of looking at myth.  Malinowski studied cultures and stories which got repeated.  He noted that there was a way these stories were used by the culture; to legitimise underlying social norms; they serve a function;  like the artefacts that form part of ceremonies (crown, sceptre, etc.)  So this story legitimises xenia in that it reinforces the habits of xenia.

What culture now is telling this myth to itself?  Origin is not important to F.  Function is. 

F’s look at myths as being windows onto specific cultures.

So, Odysseus is at the next step of his recovery, ability to speak, still on Scheria.  Physical games in Book 8, rebuilding, strength.

At the end of book seven he makes alliances, one with queen arete, Alcinous is not happy with Nausicaa, he is disgruntled with his daughter for not displaying xenia.  Odysseus lied about N, to save her face, in the contests in Book 8 Odysseus knows what to do, Page 196 in Fagle, B taunts O throws the discus further than anyone else; he knows how to draw the line and how to hold back.

Page 204 book 8, B offers amends and O accepts the gift, he makes up too.  A hero can also be crafty.  He gains knowledge through experience, through travel; this knowledge is acquired through living through experiences.  A hero also makes alliances, has strength.

A hero is not a merchant!  What is his identity?  In Book 8 there is a statement from Alcinous, it is time for us to know who you are.  Tell us who you are and where you are from and your parents names.  What were your rovings? etc.

Book 8:  Democodus.  Poets had a bardic role in society, entertainers.  O asks for a tune about the Trojan horse, he weeps.   Aphrodite with Ares is a scene told by D; Areas seduces A, Helios, sees it all and tells Hephaestus; he makes a knitting out of metal and makes a trap so when A and A get into bed all the gods come and laugh,  something like that anyway!  The tryst of Ares and Aphrodite, what is this story doing here; what is Homer doing?  There are hidden messages here: one of them from Heraclitus 1st century CE the union is about love and strife.

Next Books 9 to 12.  See pdf in My Documents/Greek course