Tuesday, May 19, 2009

"Noman will I eat last"

Today my reading group met for the last time to read the last four chapters of The Odyssey, in E. V. Rieu's prose translation. HS, who also led us to read The Iliad last year, gave us our further reading after a most satisfying session.

One handout collects the scholia written in the margins of the manuscripts. In Book 1, someone wrote, "They say in the myth that Poseidon went to the Ethiopians at a certain season and was honored by them. But in the allegory, Poseidon is a term for water. Since water, that is, the ocean, circles the whole earth, and because the Nile at a certain season waters the land of the Ethiopians and makes the trees grow, on this account they say Poseidon, or water, is honored by them as the cause of many good things for them.

Book 9: Homer . . . seems to have been the first to devise fearful pleasantries, as in the passage describing that most unpleasant personage the Cyclops: "Noman will I eat last, but the rest before him"--that "guest-gift" of the Cyclops. No other detail reveals so clearly the grimness of the monster--not his supper made from two of the comrades of Odysseus, nor his crag-door, nor his club--as this show of urbanity.

Book 10: Erastothenes said jokingly, in reference to the mythical and incredible nature of Odysseus' wandering, that the locations of his travels would be established by anyone who found the cobbler who sawed the bag the winds were kept in.

Book 11: And how did trees stand in water? We say by imagination, for the punishment of Tantalus.

Book 13: And the olive tree is not "at the head of the harbor"--by any chance but it sustains itself the middle of the cave, planted . . . as a symbol of the thought of god. For it is the plant of Athene, and Athene is thought.

The other handouts are poems that rework or respond to Homer's epic, such as Tennyson's "Ulysses," Cavafy's "Ithaca," Edna St. Vincent Millay's "An Ancient Gesture," Frost's "The Subverted Flower," and Margaret Atwood's "Siren Song." Each age remakes Homer in its own image. The men take the man's part, the women the woman's. 

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