Sunday, July 08, 2007

Odysseus
I have lost the ability to title blog posts. I am trying to figure out how to get that ability back.

When studying at the liberal arts college at Cornell University, I decided to take a Greek culture course and the following year a Greek history course. Many of the storylines or story arcs of characters in dramas from today can be traced back to the plays and epic stories of ancient Greece. A recurring theme that we owe to the Greeks is the 'hidden destiny' theme (think Star Wars). Bits of the political, economic and cultural have trickled down to us, and I am not so naive as to think it was all positive. The Greeks had slaves, treated women poorly, exploited others amongst other negatives. In my eyes, there seems to be something both ancient yet forward thinking. A character that I feel exemplifies this is my favorite character of ancient Greek literature, Odysseus.

Odysseus is a nuanced character that is both honorable & just while also being devious with impure motives. When I think of modern day anti-heroes, Odysseus comes to mind as the father of that tribe of characters. I have a strong feeling, in a fictional world, Odysseus-Batman-the Punisher-Wolverine would be drinking buddies. When faced with losing the hand of Helen, Odysseus is the one who devised the oath to Menelaus to hopefully prevent anyone from trying to take Helen (backfired as Paris had not been at the suitor pageant). He also came up with this idea and received the hand of Penelope in marriage as a result. In the things that he did for the good of all, there always seemed to be a bonus for him.

Some of my favorite moments of Odysseus in literature are his discovery of Achilles, his handling of the Sirens, and his attempt to shirk his oath to Menelaus. Odysseus' discovery of Achilles was crucial in the war against the Trojans and is an example of his craftiness. The Greeks were told they needed Achilles to win, but Achilles was on an island of all women. They could not locate him as he hid amongst the young girls. Odysseus put out some swords and shields. Legend has it, when Achilles reached out his arm to grab a sword, Odysseus grabbed his wrist, which exposed hairy arms, and brought him along to fight in the war. Odysseus played to the prophecy of Achilles, the great future warrior, and was rewarded.

When the Sirens were an obstacle, Odysseus had been warned by others that their songs would shipwreck any crew. The songs enchant a crew, leading them to crash their ships on the rocks and drown. Odysseus also heard that the songs of the sirens were so beautiful that they caused this enchantment, and wanted to hear them. Here he devises a scheme to get through the peril but satisfy his needs as well. Odyseeus has his crew seal their ears with wax, tie him up to the mast without wax in his ears, and forbids them to untie him until they are out of reach fo the Sirens' call. In this manner, Odyseeus' desires are fulfilled by the songs of the Sirens reaching his ears, but his crew is spared their lives. Yes he does seem to be a genius for his move to seal the ears of the crew, but he is a selfish man for even risking their lives or his life by not sealing his own in order to listen to the song.

The last exmaple of his cleverness that makes me smile is his attempt to avoid serving Menelaus in his 1000 ships campaign to get Helen back. Odysseus fakes insanity with weird actions in his fields because he does not want to go. He fears the prophecy that his journey home, if he does survive the war, will be an arduous one. To prove his sanity, a Greek puts Odysseus' infant son in front of his plow. Odysseus has the choice of killing his son and keeping the Greeks fooled or sparing his son and sacrificing himself for the war. He chooses to spare his son, and is rewarded 20 years later to see him grown strong both physically and mentally. Odysseus' attempt to stay with his family and not honor the oath to Menelaus shows that while he is a crafty character, he does honor and love his family; even a child with whom he has shared so little.

If you consider the hall of heroic characters that have graced the pages and screens throughout Western Civilization, many have been your brawn over brains type. Odyseeus is a bit different. While he is strong, shoots arrows straight & true, and can cut through the bodies of enemies, there is another quality about him that allows him to take such a lasting role in the Greek literary tradition. The Greek word is "metis", which Wikipedia tells me is cunning intelligence. What I recall, from chats with my professor, is that there is no mystery in the reason for Athena to be the goddess of "crafts" and "cunning intelligence". This is part of the reason she loved Odysseus so much. He is crafty. He is clever. He lives in a world of grey, recognizes it, and operates in it. He is human.

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