HOMER: The Odyssey [Book XIII]

In Book XIII of Homer’s Odyssey, the Phaeacians escort Odysseus to Ithaca, where they place him, still sleeping, on the shore with all his treasure. When Odysseus awakens, he does not know where he is. The goddess Minerva appears to him in the form of a shepherd. Odysseus lies to Minerva about his identity until the goddess reveals herself to him. Minerva explains to Odysseus that he has finally reached Ithaca, but that he cannot immediately return to his home because the suitors would kill him. Together, they devise a plan by which Odysseus, disguised as a beggar, will slay the suitors. Accordingly, Minerva changes Odysseus into an old beggar and then flies to Sparta to escort Odysseus’ son, Telemachus, home.

Homer displays the vindictive nature of the gods in the first part of this book. Zeus remarks to Poseidon that “if any mortal is indulging in insolence and treating you disrespectfully, it will always rest with yourself to deal with him as you may think proper.” After the Phaeacians lay Odysseus on the shore of Ithaca with his treasure and sail home, Poseidon angrily turns the ship to stone, killing the entire crew. He does this because he is angry that the Phaeacians helped Odysseus, who blinded Poseidon’s son, the cyclops Polyphemus.

The desire for revenge is a human characteristic. The ancient Greek gods possessed many such human shortcomings. This renders them more intelligible to men than the abstract notion of an infinitely wise, powerful, and good God that pervades modern Western thought. Abstract notions, by definition, have no exemplar in the physical world. On the other hand, the ugly acts of revenge are exhibited everywhere. Thus, with greater understanding comes a greater conviction that such gods are real; and therefore, the ancient Greek gods’ influence over mortals is much greater than that of the modern God of the West.

Besides exploring the relationship between gods and men, Homer also discusses the relationship between men and their homes. After being away from his home for 20 years, Odysseus does not recognize it. “Everything seemed quite different to him- the long straight tracks, the harbours, the precipices, and the goodly trees, appeared all changed as he started up and looked upon his native land.” Nevertheless, when Minerva convinces him that he is indeed in Ithaca, he falls to the ground and kisses the soil. This overwhelming feeling of joy at his homecoming is a feeling that is common to all humanity. Why is it such a pleasure to return home after a long journey? I argue that it is a momentary alleviation of the pain of nostalgia, a temporary satisfaction of the desire to return to a blissful time in the past.

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