Outline of Session
Course: Teaching The Odyssey
Lesson 8: Seminar #2 on The Odyssey with Dr. Hannah Hintze
(0:01) HH: We have two of the richest, most famous books of the entire epic, so if you want to go someplace that I’m not leading, let’s just go there. But here’s a place to start.
By the time the crew and Odysseus arrive at Circe’s island, they are well and truly lost. (Book 10, line 190) Odysseus goes up onto a promontory point and he looks out and says they don’t know where they are and where to go. He sees smoke rising in the middle of the island, so he wants to go there.
Is that how you get unlost, to go to the interior of the island? Why isn’t he willing to strike out into the sea?
(2:40) Student 1: The fire and smoke indicate human habitation, and that’s what’s drawing Odysseus, to know and be known by the inhabitants of the island. Previously when he landed on the cyclops island, he says he wants to “try the cyclopes to find out if they are brutal savages or kindly to guests.” I think there is always this kindling hope that the inhabitants will be kindly to guests and conforming to the law of respecting guests and hosting them warmly. I think that’s what he’s going after when he saw the smoke and decided to try it out.
(4:09) Student 2: Isn’t it now more problematic to follow the smoke after he’s followed it to the cyclops? It’s astonishing to me that he still has that kindling hope. And he’s just killed a stag, so it’s not like they’re starving. He’s made sure to provide for the crew, at least in the moment.
(4:46) Student 1: Yeah, right after Odysseus’s speech to his crewmates, everyone else started to weep, “yet there was no use in this lamentation.” I find it kind of heartbreaking that previously every time they bravely explored a strange land and got to know strangers, they’re kind of let down by them and treated cruelly, being eaten by the cyclops. It’s kind of a gamble each time, and now they’re at the rock bottom and they don’t want to gamble anymore. And yet Odysseus still decides to explore the island instead of just hiding out in the safe haven of their ships. I don’t understand why they go out into these adventures every time.
(6:04) HH: That was my second question.
I hate to say it, but Odysseus might be lying here. About 100 lines before, Homer says Odysseus saw smoke. But Odysseus tells the crew that he saw just sea with no landmarks. So maybe he did see that before, but…
(6:56) Student 2: You’re saying maybe Odysseus added in the hopelessness of the situation?
(7:03) HH: Yeah. I don’t know how to judge that, but is he that curious about the smoke? Again?
It might be worthwhile to think about these two hearths—the cyclops home and Circe’s.
(7:50) Student 2: When they get to the cyclops island, they’re not really on it at first. They’re kind of on the goat island first. Which Odysseus is at pains to describe as ideal—no one lives there and if you wanted to till the land it would be fruitful. And then they see the smoke on a different island that’s close by. And they decide to send one ship. That seems very different to me: seeing smoke at the center of the island from a high point on the island versus “Let’s go to another island.” Maybe it’s necessity the second time rather than curiosity?
(9:09) Student 3: The second time is the Circe exploration?
(9:11) Student 2: Yes. Maybe “necessity” isn’t quite the right word.
(9:20) Student 3: Why “necessity”? Why does it seem necessary?
(9:24) Student 2: I guess I was thinking about what Miss Hintze said about the smoke being the navel, or the center. They’re not only alone on the island but they have to go to the center to find out why the smoke is rising. I guess “necessity” is not the right word, but it’s something like curiosity to go out to find new things versus to go in.
(10:12) Student 3: In a way, it’s the opposite of necessity. As Miss Hintze was saying, they’ve just eaten and drunk their wine, so they should be satisfied in a way. They have no reason to go searching for something, except for something like curiosity.
(10:42) Student 1: From hindsight, Circe is kind of the key link between the first part of Odysseus’s journey and the second part. Circe prophesies what would happen next and what he needs to do about going down to Hades and seeking the counsel of Tiresius.
I feel like Circe is living right in the middle of the island and everything else is clouded and fogged except for that fire and its smoke…. That image of one island surrounded by seas and fog but with smoke coming right from the center has a strategic feel to it. Somehow it feels like Odysseus himself doesn’t know what he’s doing, but fate is driving him toward this place so that he can receive this crucial information from Circe.
(12:45) Student 3: Now I’m beginning to see where you might have found the “necessity” was coming from. I can’t help but think of the smoke as an undeniable temptation. “There’s no way I can’t go toward that column of smoke, especially when I’m so lost.”
(13:14) Student 1: When I contrast the landing on the island of Circe with the decision to go to the cyclops island…in the cyclops instance, there is this pride that’s driving Odysseus. In Circe’s case, the pride is gone. When they landed on the goat island, they were surrounded by such an abundance of goats that they don’t need to worry about food or anything anymore. But still Odysseus wants not just to shoot down his own goats but he wants the cyclops to give him gifts. There’s a certain vanity in it, especially when Odysseus is leaving the cyclops, he yells out to the cyclops in order to hurt the cyclops’s ego, out of his own pride. But when he lands on Circe’s island, there isn’t really that element anymore, probably because the tragic happenings have dampened his need for pride.
(15:34) HH: He seeks out the cyclops particularly to gain a guest-gift, but there are indications that he’s headed to a wild man’s house, so you might say he goes to get a guest-gift but suspects he won’t get one. So then why does he go to the cyclops’s house?
It may be related to vanity, in some sense, but can we understand that better? (Line 210, 214 or so) This is the reason he brings this wine—he knows it will be a dangerous undertaking.
(17:25) Student 2: When they get there, they just go right into the cave and start eating cheese. Speaking of pride, they might have waited, they might have been more careful. They make a sacrifice. It might have just been wine or barley, but did they kill one of the goats? It does seem Odysseus is very confident at first.
They don’t introduce themselves—they run off into the dark when Polyphemus shows up because they’re so frightened.
(18:24) HH: It’s only when Polyphemus strikes the match to light his fire that he sees them cowering in the back of the cave.
What do you think—is Odysseus spoiling for a fight? Is he going to the very place where he knows he’ll be affronted and where he’ll affront?
(19:04) Student 4: At the beginning of Book 9, Odysseus says his fame has gone up to the sky’s rim. It’s kind of a strange claim to make. Pretty quickly we get into the story of Polyphemus, who doesn’t have much respect for the gods in general. I wonder if Odysseus is trying to test himself in a place where the gods won’t be able to make much of a difference one way or the other. Polyphemus says, “I don’t care what the gods think, I’m going to do to you whatever I want to do.” It’s man versus cyclops. Sort of a similar thing happens with Circe. She does make an oath, so that relationship is a bit more complex. But it seems at least initially that Odysseus is trying to press the boundaries. So maybe he’s picking a fight.
(20:28) Student 1: I feel like Odysseus’s dealing with Polyphemus is kind of the extreme of tricking something that is extremely powerful and mighty and forceful with sheer cunning. The cyclops said to his friends who are trying to help—he’s crying out loud because his eye got stabbed by Odysseus, and they ask him what ails him and is keeping them from sleep. he shouldn’t pretend a mortal is driving his flocks off or killing him by tricking—that “there is no force about it.” It’s so true that Odysseus is conquering Polyphemus in a way that uses absolutely no force or direct confrontation but yet he manages to take him down. It shows how powerful cunning can be. It could be the story Odysseus could tell people as a prime example of what his cunning could achieve.
(22:26) Student 2: I can’t help but think that the fact that his cunning turns on calling himself “no one” must mean something. If this whole speech had begun with “I am Odysseus, son of Laertes” and if the incident with the cyclops ends with him proudly yelling his name…
(22:59) HH: I’m wondering whether a lawless place is the perfect place to practice cunning. There’s no magistrate, there are no judges…
(23:18) Student 2: He himself says at the end, “Zeus and the rest of the gods have punished you for violating guest friendship.” By which he means “I have punished you.” The gods aren’t helping him at this point, but he still claims the gods are helping him. He didn’t need either the gods or a judge to step in.
(24:27) HH: “My fame goes to the rim of the world.”
So that makes me wonder about the hearth smoke. That always seems like an image of home. If you head for a fire, you’ve headed for the mortal things, the comfortable house, homecoming. But here it’s a chance to be godlike. He’s going to overcome Circe, he’s going to abscond with all of the cyclops’s sheep.
(25:30) Student 1: Are you saying Odysseus is trying to be godlike in both the cyclops and the Circe instances?
(25:35) HH: Yes, I’m wondering about your question: Why embark on all these adventures? Aren’t they supposed to be going home?
(26:00) Student 1: It’s interesting that what Odysseus finds most offensive about Polyphemus is that he disrespects the guest friendship law of Zeus. I suppose that when Odysseus came to that island, he’s thinking Plan A: The cyclops will treat them as he should and give them gifts and host them well, but Plan B is that if he doesn’t, Odysseus will punish him and set things right for Zeus, with himself as the one who executes that law. In some ways, Odysseus’s plan is well thought out. Whatever happens, Odysseus knows what he will do.
(27:29) Student 3: The cyclops has this prophecy that Odysseus will come, but he doesn’t have the vision to recognize Odysseus. Whether he realizes it or not, Odysseus takes advantage of that to “become” a divine figure that’s manipulating what was prophesied as the fate of the cyclops. That makes him as an equal to the gods in some way.
(28:26) HH: At the very least, it means it’s not by chance that he’s arrived at any of these places, because of all these prophecies.
(28:36) Student 2: Circe also has one. Though she only has the chance to recognize that it’s him once he’s standing over her with a sword.
(28:51) Student 4: That part is very interesting. She says, “No mortal man has ever been able to withstand this” and then comes to the conclusion therefore that it must be Odysseus. I guess because of his will. But maybe she’s heard a little bit more about him than Polyphemus has. Odysseus becomes godlike because he fills the role that Polyphemus assumes must have been much greater and stronger than Polyphemus was. So he becomes bigger than he was.
It’s interesting that of the three things that he does—the two islands and Hades—he’s finally afraid to go to the land of the dead, where he wasn’t for the first two. If we’re entertaining the idea that he’s trying to be more godlike, it would seem a part of being godlike not to be afraid of the dead.
(30:27) HH: You mean it’s godlike to go down to the dead?
(30:30) Student 4: Yes, to go to both. Doesn’t he even start Book 10 by saying, “We aren’t going to the land of the dead before our time”? It’s the small preamble to his speech.
(30:58) HH: He says it when he brings the stag as well.
(31:15) Student 2: Does the prospect of going to the underworld make him question whether his mind and his cunning will be as effective? I’m thinking of the preordained places as ways he can pit himself against the gods or against nature. Is there some other danger there?
(32:00) Student 4: Yes, I guess there are no fires in the underworld. Maybe it’s just that there’s no mortality going on and that’s what’s worrying him? That’s what put the other people he’s encountered before on a more level playing field—the threat of death. If you take that away, then Odysseus is the only one at risk.
(32:32) Student 1: Odysseus asks Circe who can guide him to Hades—he’s not sure of the rules there and he’s not as sure how to get his way. In Hades, he’s lost that edge. Circe says he won’t need a guide. The wind will take him there. When Odysseus’s ship has gone lost ever since the crew opened the bag of winds and they blew them away, ever since then, they haven’t had a guide on their journey.
(34:48) Student 2: Odysseus encounters Hermes just before Circe; he’s usually the guide. He’s supposed to lead people to the underworld, but then he leaves.
But I find it terrifying that you just let the wind take you to the underworld. It’s that easy. You don’t have to find a golden bough, you don’t have to find the right gate—you just let the wind take you. There’s not even a dramatic moment of arrival—you’re just there. It’s another island. Just a step off a roof.
(35:59) Student 1: Isn’t that something that Odysseus needs to learn? Not to be planning beforehand and strategizing all the time, but rather just follow the lead of an external force? It’s reminding me of the ending of this book—he just goes wandering inland without having a solid plan of where the oars are. The kind of journey he embarked on in his old age is very different from in the Trojan War, when he planned an intrigue into the city and safely got back.
(37:04) HH: It’s an astonishing thing then that he introduces himself to the Phaeacians as this man of great stratagem, and then proceeds to tell a series of stories in which he gets more and more lost and his strategies don’t work, and finally Hades.
(37:31) Student 2: I’m wondering in that context too that he’s telling that to the Phaeacians. Doesn’t it seem that there are all these weird connections back to them in the stories he’s telling? Like the cyclops—the connection to Poseidon. Polyphemus is his son. The Phaeacians claim Poseidon as their special protector. Odysseus bizarrely, for someone so clever, says, “Oh yes, I offended that god deeply and now I’ve arrived at your shores and you’ve given me hospitality.” I don’t know what he’s thinking when he says that.
The meta question is “Why do they keep going on these adventures looking for the hearth smoke?” and “Why does he tell the Phaeacians about all those journeys?”
(40:00) Student 1: It can’t be that Odysseus is comparing the Phaeacians to the cyclops. Poseidon “endorses” both people, but they’re kind of opposites. The Phaeacians host their guests well, they build ships. What’s more puzzling to me is why Poseidon regards Polyphemus as his son at all.
(41:16) HH: Because he’s so repulsive? But is he? Homer does call him a monster. Did he deserve Odysseus’s visit to him? He’s the son of a god and mighty. He’s never had an occasion to eat mortal beings. He let that prophet who lived there stay for as long as he wanted. The ugliness of the cyclops comes out when faced with Odysseus. His own life, though strange, is not revolting.
(43:01) Student 2: The first thing Polyphemus asks is pointed. “Are you all pirates?” That’s how Odysseus begins the story though—the first thing they did upon leaving Troy was to sack an innocent city, take their wives, and eat all their food. His question is not unwarranted. These people may have come to take everything he has. Not to speak about justifying what he did or not, just noting how his life was changed when these pirates showed up.
(44:08) HH: When I think of the horrors in Odysseus’s own home in the last books of the epic…that’s not the Odysseus we’ve seen throughout. He’s a terrible warrior, but that kind of astonishing shedding of blood shows us that Odysseus wouldn’t have had to rise to that occasion if it hadn’t been for the suitors.
(44:48) Student 2: Oh, and so maybe Polyphemus never would have done anything like this.
(45:07) Student 3: Do we know anything about the city he first comes across, where he slaughters the men–Ciconians? Were they his enemies? What gave him the right to ravage the city and slaughter the men? Was it necessary because they didn’t have food and they were leaving the war, or was it pride or something else? It seems excusable to me if it was strict necessity in the context of war. But it really shines a poor light on Odysseus if it was just pride. It’s different from his pride when he was searching for adventure, seeking out Circe’s house and the cyclops. It seems like a really nasty kind of pride. Am I missing something about the context of the city, because I want to save Odysseus.
(46:39) Student 2: Like in some previous book we learn that they too were cannibals or something?
(46:44) Student 3: Like maybe they were allies to the Trojans.
(46:53) Student 4: It’s unclear to me too how his shipmates were seeing all this. In Book 10, they are complaining about the bag of wind and saying it probably has gold and silver in it. “Oh yeah, Odysseus is welcome wherever he goes. Hail to the captain.” But how many times has it actually happened? He was not welcome with the cyclops. The town he sacks, same thing. It’s strange that there’s a disconnect between what the sailors see and what’s really happening.
(47:48) Student 1: Every time there’s a plunder, Odysseus emphasizes that he divides it precisely so everyone gets a just share. He goes the extra mile. The jealousy of his shipmates is not founded on unjust treatment but rather some evil nature in them, maybe.
(48:47) HH: Do we think they’re jealous or have some other injury other than the apportioning of goods?
(49:01) Student 1: It’s something other than distribution of goods. Rather, it’s how much fame and honor Odysseus gets.
(49:29) Student 4: Well, they keep dying. And who knows what happens to their plunder after they die—hopefully it’s split evenly too. There’s something not as honorable in dying at sea as it is to die at home or in Troy. Odysseus is acquiring fame. It’s not just that they are not acquiring fame, but that they’re just becoming people who didn’t make it back.
(50:35) Student 1: It’s only the plunder from sacking the city that gets distributed. The guest-gifts might go only to Odysseus. The bag of winds and other gold and silver were only Odysseus’s. I can’t imagine that the king of a place would give gifts to everyone, but just the leader.
(51:42) Student 2: That makes sense to me. It seems to be what happens to Telemachus when he’s on his journey. It also reminds me that there’s something different about how Circe treats the crew. She doesn’t give them gifts but she kind of restores all of them and they all end up looking younger and healthier and fatter maybe.
HH: All those acorns.
(52:12) Student 2: Circe’s actions to the crew seem to be an exception to what normally happens.
(52:19) HH: There’s much more about the crew in the Circe story.
It might be an anachronism, but is it fair to crew members to have to obey an Odysseus? I think Homer is making us ask about their jealousy at least. I guess that’s in contrast to the idea that there’s some evil in the crew—and there may be. On the other hand, what is it like to follow a man like Odysseus, and is that just?
(53:21) Student 2: I don’t think it’s anachronistic because of Eurylochus, a crew member who stands up to Odysseus and asks, “Why would you ever follow this man since I saw with my own eyes that Circe turned half of us into pigs?” It invites me to ask if this is someone that I would follow. There are so many weird moments. He takes the people who ate the lotus—that’s good: they’ve lost their minds, so Odysseus is making sure they get home. But then there’s the Laestrygonians, at the harbor, when he’s the only one who stays outside and lets them go into the trap. Why didn’t he say something? Why didn’t he hold them back?
(54:26) Student 1: That reminds me of how Eurylochus stayed out of the house of Circe and didn’t drink the potion. His suspicion didn’t seem to be solid enough to announce to everyone since they can’t explain it. The only way to know for sure is to see the result.
The crew members are not necessarily following Odysseus. A sea venture forms the crew into a democratic relation because everyone is needed. It’s extremely important that everyone works together. It’s not tyrannical mistreating of the crew members but they themselves hold a certain power in keeping the ship moving. They are like family in that they weep together and Odysseus often has to give them comfort. When they see each other after a long while, there is an analogy that compares them to infant animals jumping together.
(57:02) HH: Line 410 in the Circe story. “Like calves gamboling together.” That was my third question. “The spirit made them feel as if they were back in their own country” when they see Odysseus. I don’t know if that’s democratic or kingly or motherly.
(57:56) Student 2: Homer says that not Odysseus but Penelope is like a sailor who’s been lost and wandering for years and years and comes home when she sees Odysseus. So it’s not the place but Odysseus himself.
(58:25) Student 4: The same thing happens in reverse at the end of the Circe section. He’s gotten caught up in staying there, but the crew says they need to go home. Odysseus tells Circe that this longing is getting worse, but also that the crew has been wearing his heart down when she’s not around to hear. They remind him of home as well.
(59:04) HH: That’s interesting: “when she’s not around to hear.” She doesn’t understand why he can’t sit down and eat when the crew is outside. Circe has such an aristocratic attitude, not to worry about the “servants.”
(59:54) Student 4: There’s a lot of reinforcement for people being what makes it home and not just the location. In maybe Book 6 or 7, when Odysseus goes to the home of Alcanus and Athena has to disguise him because they don’t like strangers there. If there is a similarity between them and Polyphemus, it’s that the cyclops and Alcanus’s people are xenophobic
(1:00:53) HH: You can treat the land differently. The same island would look different if Odysseus could convince the Phaeacians to come to the cyclops island and build the harbor the right way and till the earth.
(1:01:16) Student 1: But doesn’t that take away the cyclops island’s natural charm? It seems the crops come up on their own. If you bring artifice and agriculture to the island, the pristine abundance would be disrupted.
(1:02:00) Student 4: I might be remembering this incorrectly, because I haven’t looked at the Greek in a long time. But if the cyclops were a bit more communal, they would have known that Polyphemus was talking about a person. The word Odysseus gives that is translated as “no one” or “nobody” is the wrong case. So if they cyclops understood correctly they would have realized that “no one did this” was referring to a name instead. I might be wrong about that.
(1:03:02) HH: You can go a long way on that path. Me tis / metis is Odysseus’s great quality. His wiliness.
(1:03:33) Student 4: Even if that isn’t true, if they had been more communal, they would have understood he was talking about a person, and not just yelling.
(1:03:56) HH: I guess it’s too late by the time he shouts. Poseidon does much more for him than his fellow cyclopes could.
I keep thinking about this idea that Odysseus needs to learn how to wander or how to set aside his metis. This beautiful, primitive land—the cyclopes just wait for what the gods give them, wait for the gods to revenge them. They’re not wily. That’s kind of beautiful.
(1:05:01) Student 4: It’s interesting that the plan stops working once they’re not fighting in Troy. I mean, you have to assume whatever you’re going into is going to be chaotic so you have to plan something. But something has to change. The wandering seems to be more effective.