In this episode of
Literary Tales we continue from Homer’s Iliad to Homer’s Odyssey. In this lecture we explore the theme of marital fidelity in contradistinction to marital infidelity and how only human love, and not human-divine love (or vice versa) can bring healing and wholeness to human life. Love, the great theme of the Iliad, is again explored in the Odyssey.
The aftermath of the Trojan War serves as the backdrop of The Odyssey. There is comparatively little fighting in the second Homeric epic.
Joseph M.W. Turner, “Ulysses Deriding Polyphemus,” 1829. Paintings of the Homeric epics were common in the Baroque period and experienced a revival during the Age of Romanticism in the nineteenth century. Turner’s classic painting features much symbolism. Escaping Polyphemus, the ship is heading home to the rising sun, its guiding light. If you look closely, the sun is being pulled by the Chariot of Apollo and the horses are distinctly visible just to the right of the rising sun. In escaping the Cave in the background, the Cave’s glowing reddish light signifies a place of death. You can also see the sirens in the water alongside the bow of the central ship.
William Etty, “The Sirens and Ulysses,” 1837. Throughout the Odyssey the encounter with the erotica of death — the femme fatale — features prominently. The nymphs, sirens, and goddesses whom we encounter in this tremendous journey are all incarnations of death in one way or another. They serve as contrasts to the life-giving realities of marital fidelity. Owing to the West’s Latin inheritance, many references to Odysseus prior to the 1950s used the Latin name Ulysses.
John William Waterhouse, “Circe Offering the Cup to Ulysses,” 1891. Circe, like Calypso, is another divine figment of the erotic imagination. Odysseus must overcome the temptations of Circe to make his safe passage home to Penelope. It has become commonplace in the aftermath of Feminist Studies to concentrate on the absurd analysis of the anti-feminine in Homer and cast Calypso, Circe, and other female characters as victims of masculine aggression instead of properly seeing them in the tradition of classical mythology: the femme fatale. After all, the fidelity of Penelope is held up as the Homeric example of femininity and Penelope’s prominence in the epic and her faithfulness to Odysseus help ensure the epic’s triumphant conclusion.
John R.S. Stanhope, “The Patience of Penelope,” 1864. Penelope is a major character in the Odyssey. She stands as a stark contrast to the mythic and divine females who tempt and try to enslave Odysseus on his journey home. The fidelity of Penelope is meant to be understood as heroic. The heroism of Penelope’s fidelity allow for the triumphant homecoming of Odysseus who braves storms and seas and gods to feel the affectionate embrace of Penelope once more.
Peter Lastman, “Odysseus and Nausicaa,” 1629.
Giuseppe Bottani, “Athena Appearing to Odysseus to Reveal the Island of Ithaca.” There is a monumental shift in the portrayal of the gods from the Iliad to the Odyssey. In the Iliad, the gods are entirely capricious and unworthy of reverence. In the Odyssey, however, some of the gods are clearly on the side of the mortals. Athena and Hermes are two such examples who serve as Deus ex machina for Odysseus. Athena appears again at the end of the Odyssey to conclude the killing of the suitors and bring about the peace that Odysseus has desperately longed for.
As with Homer’s
Iliad, I have written several essays on Homer’s Odyssey. You can access some of them here:
Heroes of Love (15 January, 2020)
Homer’s Epic of the Family (16 October, 2018)