Friday, June 27, 2014

A tourist arrives in Ithaka

Since we're thinking about Homer's epics in connection with Heroides I, it was good to find a brief note in sententiae antiquae (Bons mots from ancient Greek and Roman authors) that brings us back to the Odyssey.

We are reminded that Odysseus arrives in his native land in Book 13 -- the center of the poem. It will take him all 12 remaining books to fully arrive, as himself, to the peace at the center of his home.

Upon waking, he has no idea where he is, or that he is, in fact, on Ithaka. sententiae notes the reversal that comes with his first encounter:
mournfully longing for his native land, [220] he paced by the shore of the loud-sounding sea, uttering many a moan. And Athena drew near him in the form of a young man, a herdsman of sheep, one most delicate, as are the sons of princes.
He is in a mist, a spell from Athena. Everything, including the goddess, seems strange, but isn't.
In a double fold about her shoulders she wore a well-wrought cloak, [225] and beneath her shining feet she had sandals, and in her hands a spear. Then Odysseus was glad at sight of her, and came to meet her, and he spoke, and addressed her with winged words: “Friend, since thou art the first to whom I have come in this land, hail to thee, and mayst thou meet me with no evil mind. [230] Nay, save this treasure, and save me; for to thee do I pray, as to a god, and am come to thy dear knees. And tell me this also truly, that I may know full well. What land, what people is this? What men dwell here? Is it some clear-seen island, or a shore [235] of the deep-soiled mainland that lies resting on the sea?”
Athena playfully plays the tourism official, speaking to the king of Ithaka as if he were a hopeless dimwit from some dark land:
Then the goddess, flashing-eyed Athena, answered him: “A fool art thou, stranger, or art come from far, if indeed thou askest of this land. Surely it is no wise so nameless, but full many know it, [240] both all those who dwell toward the dawn and the sun, and all those that are behind toward the murky darkness. It is a rugged isle, not fit for driving horses, yet it is not utterly poor, though it be but narrow. Therein grows corn beyond measure, and the wine-grape as well, [245] and the rain never fails it, nor the rich dew. It is a good land for pasturing goats and kine; there are trees of every sort, and in it also pools for watering that fail not the year through. Therefore, stranger, the name of Ithaka has reached even to the land of Troy which, they say, is far from this land of Achaea.”
Did you ever notice how local newspapers that publish on the Internet rarely indicate what state they are located in? They're the "Ithaca Times," or the "Star Herald," no need to say New York, or Maine, because of course everyone who reads that paper knows where they are. Storytellers are always at the omphalos, the center of "the" world.

It's wonderful how Homer brings Odysseus home the moment he finishes telling the tale of his voyages to "mighty Alcinous." He'd brought his Phaeacian listeners around the world to places strange, far off, and marvelous. Now, waking from the deep sleep in which he was borne home, he is that listener, utterly ignorant, unable to recognize his homeland.

The journey to full recognition - by his nurse, his dog, his son, his swineherd, his enemies, his father, and finally his wife - becomes the second half of his odyssey. It builds to a perfect pitch during the inquest (or close reading) he is subjected to by Penelope in Book 23:
. . . she went down from the upper chamber, and much her heart pondered whether she should stand aloof and question her dear husband, or whether she should go up to him, and clasp and kiss his head and hands. But when she had come in and had passed over the stone threshold, she sat down opposite Odysseus in the light of the fire [90] beside the further wall; but he was sitting by a tall pillar, looking down, and waiting to see whether his noble wife would say aught to him, when her eyes beheld him. Howbeit she sat long in silence, and amazement came upon her soul; and now with her eyes she would look full upon his face, and now again [95] she would fail to know him, for that he had upon him mean raiment.. . .
Telemachos: “My mother, cruel mother, that hast an unyielding heart, why dost thou thus hold aloof from my father . . .?"

Penelope: “. . . if in very truth he is Odysseus, and has come home, we two shall surely know one another . . ."

 . . . and the much-enduring, goodly Odysseus smiled . . .
We might want to re-read this as we think about Penelope's letter to the man whose identity she will take her time to recognize.

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