Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Odyssey (+ Big Question)

How does the society contained within the finite walls of this story define happiness? Is it possible to be truly happy?

A man, separated from his homeland for many years, must fight foes in all shapes and forms in hopes that he can finally make it home. On his long and perilous journey, he must use his strength, intelligence, and courage to face every obstacle that comes in his way. Yet, there is a fourth force in this man’s mind; the will to return to his family, reclaim what is rightfully his, and defeat the suitors that he knows are just dying to fill his shoes in his absence. Though this man, who we shall refer to as Odysseus, had all three traits, it is only through the fourth that he is able to conquer all the trials and eventually return home. There is something very cathartic about Odysseus’s homecoming because it is the culmination of all of his willpower and perseverance that he is back in the loving embrace of his wife and his child in a familiar land. While we cannot say this about every character (Here’s looking at you, Cyclops, Suitors, and Odysseus’s shipmates), nearly every character in the novel reaches some sort of happy ending.

There must be forces at work. Some may blame writer’s intent. Others, the internet should it have been around in ancient Greece. Personally, I blame the Greek idea of fate. Wyrd up…

Look at the three examples of the characters that I listed and some similarities come up. They all either die or suffer extreme pain at one point or another, yet at the same time they all did not obey the god’s demands at one time or another. In Greek society, a Cyclops is a person that doesn’t fear the gods like a good Athenian or Spartan would (thanks to whoever brought that up in one of the discussions) and, despite the extenuating circumstance of being Poseidon’s son, the Cyclops in the poem still does not believe in the gods and got a nice stake in the eye for not doing so. Odysseus’s men disobeyed Odysseus’s and the god’s will not to kill any animal on the island of the sun and their boat was struck by lightning and leaving the men vulnerable to the swirling maelstrom Charbyds. The suitors broke Greek custom and likely ordinances of the gods in some way through their greed, lust, and overall bad conduct as a guest and were slaughtered en masse by Odysseus and Telemakhos. Despite the more human nature of the gods, their powers gave them supremacy over Greek civilians and their word was to be obeyed if one liked their life. Should their rules be broken, the human’s fate would certainly take a turn for the worst.

So what about Odysseus? Why did he survive when he certainly was not in the best of terms with Poseidon? Except for the Cyclops incident, he followed nearly every supernatural being’s demands even when those around him were intent on doing otherwise. And they rewarded him with being able to return to his homeland to be happy. It is possible to be happy in this society as long as obeys the gods.

Well, what does this look like? For Greeks, happiness can come in a variety of forms. The first and most prominent is kinship. Greek society is very communal in nature; from Homer’s perspective, feasts and parties are a very common occurrence and almost seem to be happening daily. However, until Odysseus had lost his men and dealt with Kalypso for a very long period of time, these lavish parties were nowhere to be seen. Notice how the only completely obedient man was the only one to see one of these parties let alone civilization again?

The second form of happiness stems from the first one; possessions. The idea of sacrifice stems from the idea that one is killing the best of the flock in order to repent for a misdeed. Any animal is valuable not only because it is a sign of status if one owns enough (as kings did), but they were useful as a source of food and other materials. It was certainly a punishment that most would want to avoid, but the gods could as just as easily killed off animals through other means. The suitors were such a force; while Odysseus was gone, their ravenous feasting had its toll on the royal heard, punishing Odysseus for his actions even further. However, being loyal to the gods brought in riches in all shapes and forms. One benefit to going to a feast in a foreign land is that it is customary for the host to give gifts to the guest and, as already stated, only those who are in good terms with the gods can receive such happiness.

The final form is increased strength and ability in battle. Greeks valued war heroes above most of their population and, by extent, being able to come back from war with kills was a huge status boost. Odysseus was a war hero, but it was through the grace of the gods through which he gained his strength. Athena was always with Odysseus and his son, giving them both strength and cunning in large conflicts. One interesting point to note is that, from the Cyclops to the beginning of book 5 (during Odysseus’s fall from grace with the gods) Athena made very few notable appearances and it was only when he had endured most of his suffering when she makes a re-appearance, granting him passage from the isle and strength in the final battle. While Odysseus was not killing in a time of war, the strength he gained from favor in the eyes of the gods allowed him to successfully come home and fend off the suitors.

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