Friday, July 27, 2018

Threads in the Odyssey: Hospitality

One way of reading the Odyssey is as a series of encounters with various kinds of hospitality. Put another way, this is one of the major threads woven all throughout this epic of weaving. Hospitality necessarily involves food, of course, which is why reading any given book of the Odyssey is likely to give one a hankering for cheese, wine, and mutton. I think it was Fielding that referred to it as "the eatingest epic."

There seem to be three kinds of hospitality that Odysseus encounters:

1) Right hospitality, that gives gifts, offers entertainment, exchanges and reinforces cultural norms through storytelling, sacrifice, eating, and other forms of ritual bonding. The Phaeacians are the best example of this. Closest in kinship to the gods of all mankind, the Phaeacians are good at entertaining perhaps because they are used to entertaining the gods face-to-face. Most importantly, the Phaeacians do not just show Odysseus a good time: they let him go, they prepare him for his journey, they send him on his way richly repaid for all his trials. This is the telos of proper hospitality: to send the guest or suppliant on his way again, better and richer than he was before; to send him to his homecoming well-equipped and well-prepared for what he will find there.

2) Oppressive hospitality, which we see from people who are either on the fringes of human society or on the divinity spectrum. Calypso both, course, but also the lotus-eaters. These are people who give gifts, but who make a prisoner of the guest by refusing to speed them on their way.

3) Monstrous hospitality, which we see from monsters and from evil men. Polyphemous the Cyclops is the arch example of this. He is "hospitable" in that he "offers lodging" -- i.e. he locks Odysseus and his men in the cave and refuses to let them go. He offers a "guest-gift" in that he promises to eat Odysseus last. He has his guests for dinner instead of having them over for dinner. One of the things that is stressed when the Cyclops are introduced is that they are lawless, and live "every one for himself," without king or laws. This designates them as barbaric and sub-human, and their hospitality matches. On the other side of the guest-host relationship, the Suitors are committing similar crimes.

Good old Nestor shows #1 to Telemachus, but very nearly verges on #2, so much so that Telemachus eventually has to slip away so as not to be smothered by the old man's affections and get on with his quest.

In the house of Menelaus, Telemachus finds perfect hospitality. (Not to mention the fact that Helen finally confirms the legitimacy of his parentage, something Telemachus has been worried about since the beginning of the poem). It's only then that he's equipped to head back to Ithaca, rendezvous with his father, and clean house.


Currently reading: How to be Un-Lucky, by Joshua Gibbs
Current audio book: The Odyssey, by Homer (trans. Fagles)
Currently translating: Hervarar saga

Monday, July 23, 2018

The Riddles of Gestumblindi: Riddle 8

First, here's the answer to riddle 7:

"Góð er gáta þín, Gestumblindi, getit er þessar. Þat er laukr. Höfuð hans er fast í jörðu, en hann kvíslar, er hann vex upp."

"Your riddle is good, Gestumblindi, but I have guessed it. That is a leek [or garlic]. His head is fast in the earth, and he forks as he grows upwards."

Riddle 8

Þá mælti Gestumblindi:

"Hvat er þat undra,
er ek úti sá
fyr Dellings durum;
horni harðara,
hrafni svartara,
skildi hvítara,
skapti réttara?
Heiðrekr konungr,
hyggðu at gátu."

Then said Gestumblindi:

"What is that wonder
Which I saw outside
Before Delling's Doors?
Harder than a horn,
Darker than a raven,
Whiter than a shield*,
Straighter than a shaft?
Heiðrekr king,
Ponder this riddle."

*This is the reading found in the R-text of the saga. However, the H and U versions both have "whiter than the white of an egg," which is probably closer to the original reading. The ON word for an egg-white is skjall.



Currently reading: How to be Un-Lucky, by Joshua Gibbs
Current Audio Book: The Odyssey, by Homer
Currently translating: The Waking of Agantyr

Monday, July 16, 2018

Cuckolds and Consolation: The Song of Demodocus


In Book VIII of the Odyssey, Odysseus—as part of the entertainment staged by the Phaeacian king Alcinous—listens to the blind bard Demodocus tell the story of the time Aphrodite and Ares caught in flagrante by Hephaestus. You’ve probably heard the story retold something like this:

Ares, the god of War, is having an affair with Aphrodite, goddess of sexual passion. Anytime Hephaestus is gone from home, Ares shows up and “shames” the forge-god’s marriage bed. But Helios, Titan of the sun, sees this (as he sees everything) and tells Hephaestus. Hephaestus, being no match for Ares in strength or speed, forges a net of chains so fine not even the gods can see them, and uses them to booby-trap his bed. Then he pretends to leave the house, and when Ares shows up and he and Aphrodite become, uh, entangled, Hephaestus springs the trap. It’s so well made that not even Ares, swiftest of the gods, can escape it, and Hephaestus calls all of the other gods to come and see the adulterous lovers in his bed. The retelling of this story usually ends with Hephaestus as the butt of the joke, the other gods mocking him as a cuckold before forcing him to let Ares and Aphrodite go.

But that isn’t really the version we get in the Odyssey. To be sure, Apollo and Hermes find some humor in the situation:

But lord Apollo, son of Zeus, questioned Hermes:
 “Hermes, son of Zeus, you messenger
and giver of good things, how would you like
to lie in bed by golden Aphrodite,
even though a strong net tied you down?”
The messenger god, killer of Argus, then said
in his reply:
                              “Far-shooting lord Apollo,
I wish there were three times as many nets,
impossible to break, and all you gods
were looking on, if I could like down there,
alongside golden Aphrodite.”

Kidding aside, what has happened is no joke, and the elder and more sober-minded Poseidon recognizes this. It is he who convinces Hephaestus to let the pair go free, but only after the god of the sea and earthquakes promises to be surety for Hephaestus’ demands:

At Hermes’ words,
laughter arose from the immortal deities.
But Poseidon did not laugh. He kept requesting
Hephaestus, the celebrated master artisan,
to set Ares free. When he talked to him,
his words had wings:
                                     “Set him loose.
I promise he will pay you everything,
as you are asking, all he truly owes,
in the presence of immortal gods.”
The famous lame god then replied:
                                            “Poseidon,
Shaker of the Earth, do not ask me this.
It’s a nasty thing to accept a pledge
made for a nasty rogue. What if Ares
escapes his chains, avoids the debt, and leaves—
how then among all these immortal gods
do I hold you in chains?”
                                            Earthshaker Poseidon
then answered him and said:
                                               “Hephaestus,
if indeed Ares does not discharge his debt
and runs away, I’ll pay you in person.”
Then the celebrated crippled god replied:
“It would be inappropriate for me
to refuse to take your word.”
                                              After saying this,
powerful Hephaestus then untied the netting.

A more idiomatic translation of Hephaestus’ response to this handsome offer might be, as Fagles renders it, “now there’s an offer no one could refuse!” It’s his satisfaction with Poseidon’s offer, not the bullying of the other gods, which finally motivates powerful Hephaestus to loose the chains and set the lovers free. The lovers promptly run off, but we have Poseidon’s guarantee that the wronged husband will be paid reparation. That’s how the song ends, and we are immediately told that “As he listened, Odysseus felt joy in his heart…”

I want to suggest that Odysseus’s joy goes deeper than they joy anyone with a good ear might feel at hearing a good song. Odysseus enjoys this story—and I think, the story is placed just at this juncture in the Odyssey’s narrative—because it provides him a sort of catharsis for his fears about what Penelope might be up to while he’s been away.

All throughout the Odyssey, Penelope and Odysseus both either hint at or explicitly state their misgivings about who their spouse may have become after the long years of the War and the Return. That, in large part, is the tension playing out in the series of “tests” which begin at Odysseus’ homecoming: Odysseus testing Penelope, Penelope testing Odysseus, Telemachus naively expecting them to just pick up where they left off. But at this point in the story, Odysseus has no idea what Penelope’s up to. Has she pulled a Clytemnestra and shacked up with another man, waiting to kill him when he gets home? The evil fate of Agamemnon (and the loyalty of Orestes, who seems to be a sympathetic figure in the Odyssey) has been the constant echo of Telemachus’ own quest to confirm his parentage and reclaim his patrimony.

There are several clues which suggest Odysseus might identify with the lame forge-god. Consider the description of Hephaestus’ forging of the trap:

Once he heard
the unwelcome news, Hephaestus went into his forge,
pondering some nasty scheme deep in his heart.
He set up his massive anvil on its block,
then forged a net no one could break or loosen,
so they’d have to stay immobile where they were.
When, in his rage, he had made that snare for Ares,
he went into the room which housed his marriage bed,
anchored the netting all around the bed posts,
and then hung loops of it from roof beams high above,
fine as spiders’ webs, impossible to see,
even for a blessed god—that’s how skillfully
he made that net. Once he’d organized the snare
around the bed, he announced a trip to Lemnos,
that well-built citadel, his favourite place by far
of all the lands on earth.

This smacks for all the world of one of Odysseus’ classic tricks. We see Hephaestus getting revenge, not through strength, but through guile, weaving (and weaving is what Odysseus, and Penelope, and Athena, chiefly do) a trap that will hold a rival who could otherwise easily outrun him.

Running, or the lack thereof, might be something else Odysseus has in common with the lamed forge-god. Earlier in the day, Odysseus—after being taunted by a hot-headed youngster—challenges the Phaeacian youths to all sorts of contests of strength. He’ll best them in anything, he says, except running. Back in the day he might have been a great sprinter, but years of hardship at sea mean his legs aren’t what they used to be. But Odysseus, like Hephaestus, is still powerful from the waist-up, a match for any at wrestling or boxing, archery or spear-throwing.

Where does the relief, the catharsis, come in? Hephaestus eventually gets what he demands: reparations, in the form of the bride-price he paid for the cheating Aphrodite. Poseidon, effectively Aphrodite’s uncle, assures it. In this story we see Odysseus’ worst fears—that of being cuckolded—and his best hopes—getting his own back—realized in a ribald tale of the light-living immortals.

Nowadays we would probably chide Odysseus for prizing a bride-price as high as so excellent a queen as Penelope, and maybe he would or wouldn’t have, if things had turned out that way. What’s important here, though, is that Odysseus lives in a “heroic” society, which is to say he lives in a society when a man must be extremely conscious of what honors and reparations are due to him. In this respect, I do not think it is a coincidence that it is Poseidon—the god to whom Odysseus owes all the suffering he has experienced during his Return—who guarantees that War will pay.


All quotes are from Ian Johnston’s freely available translation of the Odyssey, located here: http://johnstoniatexts.x10host.com/homer/odysseytofc.html



Currently reading: A Companion to Old Norse-Icelandic Literature and Culture by Rory McTurk
Current audio book: The Odyssey, translated by Robert Fagles
Currently translating: Sacris solemniis, by St Thomas Aquinas

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