THE ODYSSEY IS arguably the greatest epic poem about a man’s journey. If in the Iliad Homer sings the rage of Achilles, the archaic hero that caused the ruin of the Achaeans during the siege of Troy, in the Odyssey he sings the wanderings of Odysseus, the king of Ithaka who struggles to return to his homeland where his family awaits him. With the angry Poseidon against him, the hero can only relay on his cunning, favored only by Athena, the goddess of wisdom and craft. He is nicknamed “Polimetis”, the man of many cunnings or wits. Unlike the warlike Achilles, Ulysses is a man of resources and many skills, who uses his craft rather than his force, he can build a ship or a wooden horse.
Homer’s “Odyssey” has a timeless appeal. It is an ancient story that is significant for every generation: the struggle of a homesick, battle-weary man longing to return to love and family. Odysseus’s strivings to overcome divine and earthly obstacles and to control his own impulsive nature hold valuable lessons for people facing their own metaphorical battles and everyday challenges.
It is a story filled with beautiful metaphors; Odysseus tells his crew to cover their ears as they pass by the island of the Sirens, whom, with their enchanting music and voices, lure the sailors to shipwreck on their rocky coast. But before he ask them to tie him up to the mast of his ship, so he can listen to their beautiful singing.
Every ancient poem begins with an invocation tho the Muse, here is the invocation translated from greek by T.E.Lawrence, known as Lawrence of Arabia.
O Divine Poesy
Goddess-daughter of Zeus,
Sustain for me
This song of the various-minded man,
Who after he had plundered
The innermost citadel of hallowed Troy
Was made to stray grievously
About the coasts of men,
The sport of their customs good or bad,
While his heart
Through all the seafaring
Ached in an agony to redeem himself
And bring his company safe home.
Vain hope – for them!
For his fellows he strove in vain,
Their own witlessness cast them away;
To destroy for meat
The oxen of the most exalted sun!
Wherefore the sun-god blotted out
The day of their return.
Make the tale live for us
In all its many bearings,
Poetry was central to greek culture which was, essentially, of oral tradition. Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey were part of the Paideia or education of any greek. Poetry was meant to be sung, the spoken word was a living thing, and infinitely preferable to the dead symbols of a written language. Socrates himself believed that once something was written down, it lost its ability for change and growth. Poetry was made to be sung with a lyre.
Like the generations of leaves, the lives of mortal men.
Now the wind scatters the old leaves across the earth,
now the living timber bursts with the new buds
and spring comes round again.
And so with men: as one generation comes to life,
another dies away.
Maintain an unmoved poise in adversity;
Likewise in luck one free of extravagant
Joy. Bear in mind my admonition,
Dellius. Whether you pass a lifetime
Prostrate with gloom, or whether you celebrate
Feast-days with choice old brands of Falernian*
Stretched out in some green, unfrequented
Meadow, remember that your death is certain.
Odes (Book II, number 3)
*a fine wine from the slopes mount Falerno, near Campania, Itlay.
Pindar was the first Greek poet to reflect on the nature of poetry and on the poet’s role. Like other poets of the Archaic Age, he has a profound sense of the vicissitudes of life, but he also articulates a passionate faith in what men can achieve by the grace of the gods, most famously expressed in the conclusion to one of his Victory Odes:
Creatures for a day! What is a man?
What is he not? A dream of a shadow
Is our mortal being. But when there comes to men
A gleam of splendour given of heaven,
Then rests on them a light of glory
And blessed are their days. (Pythian 8)
As you set out for Ithaka
hope the voyage is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
angry Poseidon—don’t be afraid of them:
you’ll never find things like that on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare excitement
stirs your spirit and your body.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
wild Poseidon—you won’t encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.
Hope the voyage is a long one.
May there be many a summer morning when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you come into harbors seen for the first time;
may you stop at Phoenician trading stations
to buy fine things,
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
sensual perfume of every kind—
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
and may you visit many Egyptian cities
to gather stores of knowledge from their scholars.
Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you are destined for.
But do not hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you are old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.
Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you would not have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.
And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.
Archaic Torso of Apollo
Rainer Maria Rilke
We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,
gleams in all its power. Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could
a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.
Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:
would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.
“Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs, a kosmos”
ABOARD, at a ship’s helm,
A young steersman, steering with care.
A bell through fog on a sea-coast dolefully ringing,
An ocean-bell—O a warning bell, rock’d by the waves.
O you give good notice indeed, you bell by the sea-reefs ringing,
Ringing, ringing, to warn the ship from its wreck-place.
For, as on the alert, O steersman, you mind the bell’s admonition,
The bows turn,—the freighted ship, tacking, speeds away under her gray sails,
The beautiful and noble ship, with all her precious wealth, speeds away gaily and safe.
But O the ship, the immortal ship! O ship aboard the ship!
O ship of the body—ship of the soul—voyaging, voyaging, voyaging.
SONG OF MYSELF
Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of all poems,
You shall possess the good of the earth and sun….
there are millions of suns left,
You shall no longer take things at second or third hand….
nor look through the eyes of the dead….
nor feed on the spectres in books,
You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me,
You shall listen to all sides and filter them from yourself.
There is a coin with heads of gold
But copper tails, black and dirty,
by the mold of death.
the Europe of the museum and the music,
has a dark soul: we must keep an eye
as always did Rome.
The moon rises and think of Marcus Aurelius,
his winter campaign in the frozen plains,
on the banks of the Danube.
He wrote, under the cloak,
surrounded by military rabble,
on oblivion and melancholy.
Fires and horses guessed
behind the art and the philosophy.Joan Margarit
The wolf’s reasons (1993)