I’ve decided to start sharing my notes and reading questions on the Odyssey. For context, I teach a 7th grade Ancient Humanities class, so I tried to write questions that can be answered at a middle school level and also function as springboards into more complex discussions.
(Btw, we are using Stanley Lombardo’s translation, even though it’s not my favorite. Someday I’ll take a leaf from this guy’s book and write a comparison between it, Fitzgerald, and Lattimore.)
What blessing does Odysseus give Arete right before he leaves?
Odysseus wishes that the Queen would be well “all of your days, until age / And death come to you, as they come to all” (XIII.61-62) He wishes her enjoyment of her house and family (ie, a good life). Ironically, Odysseus is the reason Poseidon turns one of the Phaeacian ships to stone (see below).
How does Poseidon punish the Phaeacians for helping Odysseus? How do they react to the punishment?
The Phaeacians take Odysseus home in one of their ships, and on their return, Poseidon turns the ship into stone in the middle of the harbor. Alcinous immediately recognizes this as the fulfillment of a prophecy* and resolves to never provide safe passage to any traveler ever again. Odysseus’s visit causes the Phaeacians to repudiate the law of hospitality. The last we see of them, they are huddled around Poseidon’s altar, begging him not to surround their city with a mountain, as the prophecy foretold.
Apparently, it’s unclear whether Poseidon actually fulfills this part of the prophecy. Lattimore translates Zeus’s response as, “But do not hide their city under a mountain,” which Lombardo has, “And then hem their city in with a mountain.” Obviously, it can’t be both. Peter Jones remarks that the first reading is based on the ancient commentator Aristophanes of Byzantium, while the second relies on the testimony of another ancient commentator, Aristarchos of Samothrace, both of whom wrote around the same time. So… we don’t know. Seventh graders love that kind of answer.
*This isn’t the first prophecy mentioned after its fulfillment. See Polyphemus’s lament in IX.505-519 (Lombardo).
Why does Athena prevent Odysseus from recognizing Ithaca?
My best guess is that she wanted to do the big reveal herself (XIII.197) and maybe mess with him a little. The two have that kind of relationship. As Athena says,
Here we are
The two shrewdest minds in the universe,
You far and away the best man on earth
In plotting strategies, and I famed among gods
For my clever schemes. (XIII.306-310)
Yep, two peas in a pod.
Jones also suggests that the whole scene is designed to maximize pathos by delaying Odysseus’s reunion with his home. We definitely see the same technique writ large throughout Books XIV-XXII.
Summarize Odysseus’s lie to Athena. Why does he make up a backstory?
See XIII.265ff. Odysseus claims to have killed a man who wanted to steal the gold he plundered from Troy. He mixes fact (he was at Troy, he knows Idomeneus, he came to Ithaca by ship and was left on the beach) and fiction (he is Cretan, he killed Idomeneus’s son, he traveled on a Phoenician ship). He lies to give himself an advantage, buying time and examining the stranger before revealing anything. He continues to hone this strategy as his encounters grow more and more dangerous, preparing himself for the final challenge of facing the suitors.
How does Athena disguise Odysseus? Be specific.
See XIII.447: “She shriveled the flesh on his gnarled limbs, / And withered his tawny hair. She wrinkled the skin / All over his body so he looked like an old man, / And she made his beautiful eyes bleary and dim. / Then she turned his clothes into tattered rags, / Dirty and smoke-grimed, and cast about him / A great deerskin cloak with the fur worn off. / And she gave him a staff and a ratty pouch / All full of holes, slung by a twisted cord.”
What reason does Athena give for not telling Telemachus that his father is still alive?
See XIII.437: “I wanted him / To make a name for himself by traveling there.” It’s interesting to consider what kind of reputation she expected him to earn. He still hasn’t done anything particularly heroic. Yet he has gained the respect of Nestor and Menelaus, if only for his politeness.