HOMER: The Odyssey [Book V]

In Book V of Homer’s Odyssey, Jove sends Mercury to the island of the goddess Calypso, where Odysseus is being detained. Mercury commands Calypso to release Odysseus. She obeys and provides Odysseus an axe, which he uses to hew down trees and construct a raft. When the raft is complete, Odysseus departs from the island. During his sea-voyage, Neptune sends a terrible storm that destroys the raft and nearly drowns Odysseus. By the aid of the sea nymph Ino and the goddess Minerva, Odysseus swims to the nearby country of Phaeacia, where he gratefully falls asleep between two olive trees.

Calypso’s island is an important symbol. It represents an ideal place, similar to the Christian notion of Heaven. Homer writes that “even a god could not help being charmed with such a lovely spot.” Moreover, Calypso offers Odysseus immortality if he chooses to remain with her on the island. Despite these temptations, Odysseus longs to return home to his wife Penelope and son Telemachus. This poses a very interesting question to the audience – is there something for which you would renounce an immortal life of ease and luxury?

Scholars generally identify Penelope as the epitome of marital fidelity, but Odysseus also exhibits extraordinary loyalty. “I am quite aware that my wife Penelope is not as tall or as beautiful as yourself. She is only a woman, whereas you are an immortal. Nevertheless, I want to get home, and can think of nothing else.” Odysseus’ and Penelope’s love transcends physical lust and material concerns. Both brave dangers and temptations for the sake of each other.

Another important theme in Book V is the ‘best life’. While Odysseus struggles to swim to shore during the storm sent by Neptune, he utters the following lamentation: “thrice blest were those Danaans who fell before Troy in the cause of the sons of Atreus. Would that I had been killed on the day when the Trojans were pressing me so sorely about the dead body of Achilles, for then I should have had due burial and the Achaeans would have honoured my name; but now it seems that I shall come to a most pitiable end.” Even if Odysseus survives the storm (which he does), Homer asks the reader to consider whether death on the field of battle is preferable to death after a long life filled with hardships. In other words, whom should one strive to emulate – Achilles or Odysseus?

Finally, Homer’s use of the gods to explain natural phenomena, such as the storm that wrecked Odysseus, reveals much about the psychology of the Ancient Greeks and of mankind. It would be utterly depressing if an indifferent universe were responsible for the hardships that afflict Odysseus. But through the lens of Homer, Odysseus’ sufferings are rendered meaningful. His sufferings please Neptune. His sufferings are part of his fate ordained by the gods. His sufferings are necessary to restore him to his beloved family. Thus, all mankind seeks for meaning and strives against the distressing notion of an indifferent world.

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