Sailing the seas with Odysseus, having goddesses fall in love with him and keeping him for a year or seven to then finally make it home to do what he most loves to do–kill people–is finally ended. Homer’s Odyssey is not quite what I expected. The Iliad was brutal but there just seems to have been something more there than in The Odyssey. I know Odysseus is celebrated, the stories of his journey and hardships have entered in to the popular culture. But while I liked the story well enough, I mean I do have to hand it to the guy, he never gave up, I just can’t jump on the Odyssus bandwagon and declare him all that.
What I found fascinating about the book was the rules of hospitality. I used to wonder why Penelope didn’t just tell the suitors to get lost. The rules of hospitality state that a guest gets to stay as long as he likes, it is a no-no to even ask that he leave. So when the suitors show up she is bound to ask them for dinner and then she is not allowed to ask them to leave. Telemachus as man of the house can’t even ask them to leave. Guests, as loathsome as they may be, are protected by Zeus and he is one god you don’t want against you.
Curiously, the hospitality thing goes the other way too. Odysseus cannot leave Circe or Calypso or the Phaeacians until the host grants permission. Telemachus on his way back from visiting Menelaus has to swing by Nestor’s because he rode to Menealus’ in one of Nestor’s chariots with one of his sons. But he knows Nestor will delay him, will not let him go back to Ithaca without a longer stay so he gets dropped off at his ship and sets out immediately in order to avoid seeing Nestor. So both host and guest can get trapped in unwanted situations. The guest can at least choose in most situations, whether he wants to approach a house and ask to be a guest. The host has no choice at all because, as someone noted in a comment long ago when I first began the book, you never know if the person at your door is a god in disguise.
And how the gods travel in disguise! They make themselves look like beggars, young girls, complete strangers, and good friends. I can’t imagine living in a world where the coworker I think I am talking to is actually Athena. The uncertainty would stress me out. The best thing you can hope for is to never be noticed by the gods at all so you can be left to live your life as you will without their interference. Because how they do interfere! And their favorites don’t always make out as well as one would think. I mean, look at Odysseus. He was Athena’s favorite and she couldn’t do a thing to help him get home sooner. All she could do was give him a little extra help through is trials when Poseidon wasn’t looking.
I am very glad to have read The Odyssey. I plan on picking up a copy of Alberto Manguel’s The Iliad and the Odyssey: A Biography. I will also be picking up The World of Odysseus by M.I. Finley (an addition to my NYRB Classics collection!). After these two books I am certain I will know everything I ever wanted to know about Homer and then some.