The mythical tale of the Greek hero Odysseus and his travels across the Mediterranean sea was first written down in Homer’s Odyssey over 2700 years ago. For the ancient Greek audience who first heard this tale sung to the lyre, or read it on a parchment scroll, the struggle with the sea was the greatest possible test for a hero, bringing the highest possible rewards and adventures, but also the most fearsome dangers and delays.
Not only Odysseus, but most other Greek heroes, like Jason (Iason) and Herakles (or Hercules) were considered to be heroic because of their success on the sea, often in fulfilment of a specific quest in a land far from Greece (though none so far as Australia). But it was Odysseus whose story was first set down in Greek poetry, and whose ‘epic’ journey formed the archetype of the epic nostos – the return home – whence both home and food came to be nostimo: the thing which is returned to each of us, which is wholesome, ripe and welcome. The 24 books (ancient scrolls) of the Odyssey recount the travels of Odysseus from Ilion, or Troy, on the shores of the Dardanelles opposite Gallipoli back to his own home island of Ithaka, identified with modern Ithake.
In Homer’s epic tales the era is always somewhere in the past – the heroic past – just out of reach of his time (or ours), but alive with many quite familiar aspects of everyday life: the drama of husbands and wives, fathers and sons, agriculture, politics and warfare. However, immortal gods and goddesses also interact with mortal heroes in Homer’s tales, looking like men and women, but wielding greater powers of knowledge, prophecy and travel.
The epic myths are adventures, but ones with lessons about mortal challenges, which can be confronted with help from higher powers – the gods – only if you respect them both in need and in times of plenty. For the ancient Greeks, the story of Odysseus was a legend from the past about the proper relationship with the gods, and the proper relationships with friends, family and the challenges which confront you through life. Many of these lessons can still be followed in the contemporary world, though we might never mingle with gods in person, or bend a bow like Odysseus.
The Odyssey begins with Odysseus himself, and why should we be interested? His journey teaches cleverness, adaptability, resourcefulness, endurance: though the goal is always to get home to his wife Penelope and son Telemachos on Ithaca, to his native land and people, he can only take proper care of them with the knowledge he has gained abroad – the proper care of guests, humility, creativity, patience and the will to learn new things. The story, however, is in the travel – there are no myths of a happy Odysseus living at home by the fire – it is learning, moving, travelling that gives his story interest, and once he returns to the arms of Penelope the epic tale ends.
Dr Amelia R Brown is a lecturer in Greek History & Language at the School of History, Philosophy, Religion and Classics at the University of Queensland.