Reading Homer

These notes are from Professor Struck, part of the course Greek and Roman Mythology, organised by Penn Arts and Sciences, University of Pennsylvania.

To get started on our reading of Homer.  The important aspect of this piece of text is to do with Odysseus calling for the Muse to use him as a mouthpiece for the sacred tale.  See more on this below


The first word, in Homer’s Epic, is the Greek word andra, which indeed means man.
It is the word that means a male, example of the human species.
The Greeks had another word that would, meant, meant the general example, an
un-gendered example of any, any human being.
But an andra is a male gendered version of what the human species is all about.
As the first word in the epic, in the Greek this tells us what the epic is all
about. It is epic convention that, that first word indicate that whole and most important theme of the story.

I made reference to the Iliad, and how it starts with the Greek word for rage.
[foreign], that talks about a horrible, menacing rage, that has to do with, even
divine rage. That’s what starts off that epic. Telling us that the, the, Homer’s representation of the Trojan War is going to have that as its focal point. Well, starting off his epic on the, of the Odyssey, with the Greek term, andra, Homer tells us that this is going to be a story about what it is to be a male human being. The second term in the epic, Moy. Homer brings himself in, makes reference to himself in this pronoun.

And what he wants to have happen is that someone should sing.
Enipe is a way of giving a command to someone to say, you, other person out
there, do the singing. And the person that Homer wants to be sung
to is himself. Sing to me.

Now, who’s, who’s he calling on? Who does he want to go ahead and do the
singing this Greek term mousa tells us, the muse.
Homer’s story, he, as he understands it resides with this goddess, the muse, and
she now is going to sing to him and use him as a conduit to spread his, to spread
her tale her story, using him as a mouthpiece for that story. Translate it for human beings. So this has, a, a sense of divine inspiration to it. It’s an old model.
It’s a tried and true kind of, construction that the poets fall back on
to say they’re actually just mouth pieces for the gods.
In some cultures or some, historical context that we know, this will, generate
the idea that there was a, a sacred and perfect text which could never be changed
because it came from the god. But in, in the Homeric case that’s not.
Really true, it’s understood. That’s not how they think about it.

They understand the muse is there as a inspirational helper, that uses Homer’s
vocal cords as a way to transmit the divine voice, yes.
But it’s not thought that what [foreign] is somehow perfect and unchangeable.
Although it’s pretty amazing and most of the Greeks would have thought that it was
pretty amazing. So Homer is asking the muse to sing to him
about a man. The first descriptor Homer decides to use
to tell us about this man is that its going to be a tale of twists and turns.
The Greek word polytropos there.

You see the beginning polu-, that means many. Some of you will remember from math classor where ever else you might have learned that prefix and then tropos is a term that
means a turn, a twist or a turn. The man that we’re going to learn about, this
male version of the human species, is known to be someone who has many twists
and turns. Now that Greek term, polytropos wonderful translation that Fagles has chosen for it, but, it means many other things as well. It means resourceful. You might get yourself into trouble but you know you always get out of trouble. You don’t just take no for an answer.

You have many ways at it, you can always get your way through some difficult
situation and find your way out of it. Also, with the twistiness of Fagle’s
chosen translation indicates an aspect of the Greek term that very much present as
well, which means you are a little slippery.

And maybe of a kind of trickster characteristic to you.
Odysseus is a, defined as a hero by his cleverness and his wiliness, but also,
he’s kind of a wiseguy. He sneaks around through things.
He’s a bit sneaky and, crafty. So, Odysseus is going to be a character,
that exhibits, all the greatness, of human wisdom, including the sides of human
wisdom that lead to craftiness, sneakiness, and trickery.
This male version of the human species is driven, time and again off course, time
and again of course.

The story that we’re going to hear about what it is to be a human male talks about resourcefulness and also talks about displacement. It is fundamentally dislocated.
He is out of place, not quite in the place he is supposed to be.
This is an aspect of what it is to be a male human that Homer is going to explore
with us. He once had once he had pla-, plundered the hallowed trite, heights of Troy. So Odysseus is resourceful, he has a tremendous amount of wandering, and he also has a story in his background. He has a past.

And example of this human species is that you’re going to be resourceful, you’re
going to be dislocated and you’re going to have a past.
In Odysseus’s case this past is centered on Troy, what happened there is huge and
creates, stirs up an energy, negative and positive, that’s going to drive the events
in this epic and in much, a huge swath of Greek mythology, once he had plundered the
hallowed heights of Troy. Now, during this wandering, during this
period of dislocation Odious doesn’t just shrink into himself, feel sorry for
himself, and, and fearfully stay away from what’s around him.

He sees a certain amount of serendipity, that’s possible, in this situation of
being dislocated. There are lots of things to see out there
in the world. In, in his core, internal curiosity. Ramps itself up when he finds himself in this, dislocated position. When he’s out there, there are many cities of men for him to see.
He’s not fearful of people that are different or places that are different.

He also is going to learn the minds of the people that he runs into in these many
cities. When Odysseus runs into someone that
doesn’t think quite like him, he doesn’t sit them down and lecture them, and tries
to change their mind and insists that his way of thinking about something is right
and their way must be wrong. He’s not a dogmatic man who comes in and
is interested in, in different ways of, different points of view, only so that he
can change them and match his. Odysseus is constantly curious about other
ways of looking at the world. He assimilates those, listens to them and
brings them into his own character.

This is what gives him his power and his ability to be resourceful. He knows all kinds of ways in and out because he is a wonderful student of how different people view the world.
There’s a kaleidoscopic array of viewpoints of the world out there.
Odysseus fear none of them and learns from them all.
Many pains he suffered. Heart sick on the open sea.
Odysseus is a man of suffering. He has a very intimate relationship with
pain, difficulty, suffering, and also at the same time endurance.
When he undergoes awful things, again, he doesn’t just turn tail and feel sorry for
himself. He bears up under them and presses
forward. There was something about being one of
these andra that is related also to the idea of suffering and enduring pain.

When Odysseus endures pain, he fights back.
Fighting to save his life and bring his comrades home.
Now, in our story earlier, in the earlier lecture, we talked about the nostos.
You’ll see here, the Greek term, here in its accusative form that has a different
end point, noston, but that comes from the Greek nominative, nostos, which means
home. A, a homeward, a journey that he is trying
bring his men on. So he’s trying to move them, to find their
way home. And it’s going to be a struggle through,
to endure through all of these difficulties.

But, and there’s the Greek [foreign] that changes direction.
But, he could not save them from disaster, hard as he strove.
His men are not quite, you know, up to the challenges that Odysseus himself is up to
and they succumb. Odysseus could not save them from the
difficulties that awaited them. Suffering challenges at every corner,
Odysseus gets through them, but not his men.
The recklessness of their own ways destroyed them all.
The recklessness of their own ways. When you’re a Greek.
Male and andra, being reckless is not a good thing.

Yes, you’re supposed to be fearless, yes, you should not shrink back from difficult
situations, but to walk in pell-mell into awful situations without thinking things
through first, that counts as recklessness, and that’s never a smart
thing to do. Odysseus’s men are reckless, they don’t
think through, and they pay a terrible, terrible price.
They are indeed destroyed so, spoiler alert, Homer is telling us all of the men
are going to be destroyed. Odysseus alone Is going to make it
through. Now what’s the difficulty?
What did they succumb to? What was the problem they ran into to?
The blind fools, they devoured the cattle of the sun.

And the sun got wiped from sight the day of their return.
Now, you’ll remember that in the Odyssey there are lots of different episodes.
And some of you will recall very famous ones.
For example, the cyclops or maybe you’ll remember the sirens or any of the other
many episodes that Odysseus and his men get into.
Cattle of the Sun is surely an important one, but it’s not always the, the foremost
one in people’s minds. Homer, though, look what he’s doing.
He’s placing this episode right at the beginning, showing us what’s really
important. I mean, the whole epic is contained in
these ten lines. Why does Homer decide to place the Cattle
of the Sun as the most prominent of these episodes?

This is something we’ll need to pay some attention to, and especially when we get
to our discussion of book twelve. I’ll do some talking about why it is that
Homer might have placed this episode, as a central one in, in his story.
The men devour the cattle of the sun. And when they do, the sun god wipes their
homecoming from sight. Homer then goes back to his muse, and
tells, asks the muse to, continue on. Launch out on his story muse, daughter of
Zeus. Start from where you will.
Begin from where you wish to begin, muse, and get us started on our story.
The story we’re gonna embark on, we’re gonna jump right into the middle.
We get into the action. And we’re gonna fill in the back story
with, recollections and flashbacks. And we’ll move toward the future as the
story carries on. But we’re gonna launch.

Right into it, from where the muse wants us to begin, and which is right from the
middle. And she indeed is a fugatere dias.
She is a daughter of Zeus. This muse is no small goddess.
She’s a daughter of Zeus himself. Then to close he’s opening, Homer, re-,
brings the news back into the story and asks again, this word for sing, [foreign].
And here also brings back himself, sing for our time, too.
Sing also for us, is the very literal way that the Greek works.
[foreign], sing also for us. Homer brings in the first person pronoun
again. In the first line, it was the first person
singular. Homer is invoking himself to get involved
in his own story, asking the Muse to keep it going.
By the end of the tenth line, Homer is saying, yes.
First person, let’s bring me in, But he includes us as well.
The first person singular becomes a first person plural.

So now all of us are invited to come along with Homer on this journey that is going
to be his Odyssey. As the weeks come along in the next, in
the opening weeks of this class, we’re going to spend a lot of time with Homer.
It’s an amazing story. Off we launch on our own journey to learn
from it and delight from it and to get a window into what really makes myth tick.
This concentration on the Odyssey and how its, its many twists and turns are going
to be kind of laboratory for us to understand.