Homer, The Odyssey, Books 11, 12, 13, 14


Discussion Questions:


Book 11‑‑Odysseus' tales in the Phaiakian court: journey to the Underworld and news of his parents, comrades; Odysseus learns how to return home to Ithaca.


1)  How does Homer locate the "Underworld" and what are the  habits and appearance of the dead?  Especially, what varieties of  "psyches" or spirits does Odysseus report seeing?  Why?


2)  What funeral custom does Elpenor's shade call upon?


3)  What spirit does Odysseus see just before he sees Teiresias,  and why does the poet include this detail? 


4)  When Teiresias describes the homeward route they must take,  how does he describe the encounter with the "herds of Helios"?   That is, in what verb mood does he describe the events?  Why?


5)  What does Odysseus have to do in order to placate Poseidon,  and what is the logic of these activities?


6)  What special arrangement does Teiresias explain talking with  the dead?  Why is this important to the narrative here?


7)  How has Antikleia come to be in the Underworld?  What does she  know, and of what is she ignorant?  What important information  does she provide Odysseus, and what threat does her fate  implicitly describe for Odysseus?  What happens when Odysseus  tries to embrace the spirit of his mother?


8)  What group does Odysseus see next, and why is this unusual? 


9)  After this first long catalog, Odysseus falls silent and  Arete speaks.  How does she characterize Odysseus, and what does  she ask?  How does Alkinoos respond, and what crucial issue does  he raise explicitly?  Especially see his comments on O's style.


10)  How do the last of the ladies and the first of the men's  shades form a pair?


11)  How does Odysseus think Agamemnon has died, and how does  Agamemnon describe his death?  How is this similar to and does  this differ from Aeschylus?  What advice does Agamemnon offer  Odysseus, and what does he predict about the return to Ithaka?


12)  What is Agamemnon's last question?  Why?  Compare Achilles.


13)  How does the poet characterize Achilles through his speech?   How does Achilles describe the experience of the dead?  What does  he most want to know, and what has Odysseus to tell him?


14)  What spirit will not talk to Odysseus, and why?


15)  What mythic figures from the past does Odysseus see, and  what is happening to them?  What religious idea is carried here?


16)  Who is the last figure Odysseus encounters, and how does he  address Odysseus?  What do we see on his swordbelt?  Why?


17)  Who does Odysseus long to see but cannot?  Why not?


Book 12‑‑Odysseus' tales in the Phaiakian court reach their beginning in Book 5: Elpenor's funeral, the Seirenes (singing witches), the Clashing Rocks, the choice between Scylla (6-headed monster) and Charybdis (the whirlpool), the cattle of Helios (the sun god), shipwreck and capture by Kalypso.


1)  How does Kirke address Odysseus and his crew, and how does the make the epic hero special because of the Underworld journey?  How might you interpret the effect of what he saw there?


2)  How does Kirke describe Odysseus' options for dealing with the Seirenes?  What does she recognize in his character?


3)  What options does Odysseus face regarding the "Prowling Rocks," Skylla, and Kharybdis?  What question does he ask, and how does her answer characterize him?  (Compare what he actually does.)


4)  How does Kirke describe the encounter with the cattle of Helios (see Teiresias, above)?  What aspect of the encounter do both sources emphasize?


5)  How much of Kirke's instructions does Odysseus tell the crew before they set out, and what does he leave out?  Why?


6)  How does Odysseus describe to the crew their options when they face the Prowling Rocks, and how does he defend his choice?  How does Odysseus describe his reaction to the sight of Skylla's feast, and how are we meant to interpret it?


7)  What does the crew say in response to Odysseus' urging that they not put ashore on Helios' island?  What kind of difference is the poet dramatizing here?  How does Odysseus attempt to contend with this problem, and what is the thematic line of reference?


8)  Compare the events surrounding the crew's attack on the cattle of the sun and their decision to untie Aiolos' bag of hostile winds.  What are the common features in both?


9)  How does Odysseus explain his knowledge of what Zeus said to Helios?  Why?  Does he make any other similar adjustments?


10)  With what simile does Odysseus describe the hour at which he was delivered from his long spell of dangling above the abyss of Kharybdis' pool?  Why is this simile important thematically?


11)  What playfully ominous narratological phenomenon does Odysseus mention at the end of this book, and what would happen were he to go on?  (A similar problem presents itself in the tale cycle known as The Thousand and One Arabian Nights, the tales told by Scheherezade, in which each night's tale ends with a problem that can be solved only by listening to another night's tale.)

Book 13--Odysseus ends his tales and Alkinoos and Arete order a ship to carry him to Ithaca; awakening on Ithaca and encounter with Athena


Now that Books 13-14 have returned us to Ithaka, modern readers who expect a novel-like continuity of narrative might expect that we will stay in Ithaka until the end of the narrative.  The epic's "braided" or "multi-stranded" (Aristotle's Poetics) plot insures this will not happen, however.  The stately, though sometimes slightly hurried pace of the narration often takes time to pause in order to admire a place where some profoundly good event occurs (Odysseus' storeroom in II, Eumaios' hut in XIII-IV).  (These are what Adam called "respite" passages.)  Think of them as a narrative extension of the concept of "prepon," or "what is fitting" / "decorum."  One does not hurry in sacred spaces, and one takes care to look carefully at what one is shown.  Awareness of what is fitting prepares the mind to learn secrets hidden in the ordinary but deceptive flow of time and events. 

     In this case, our narrator simply could have told us that Telemakhos awoke and returned to Ithaka, but some past poet's awareness of the importance of this time in the young man's life singled it out as a time for instruction (his/ours).  The shift of narrative place to Menalaos' hall at Sparta (XV: 1-75) specifically addresses the need for movement and action, balanced against the duty not to behave impulsively or carelessly.  Telemakhos is learning fast, instructed directly by Athena this time, but notice that Peisistratos, Nestor's son, has wisdom of his own to impart.  The combination of Athena's words and those of Peisistratos, distilled in his own mind with its Odyssean inner character, are what enable Telemakhos to make a proper and timely departure for Ithaka just in time to aid his father.  For a poet singing a song this long, a few hours a day for weeks, timing is everything.  So highly pitched is this poem's sense of balance and correct attention that the narrator describes the westward-bound chariot's sundown "halt at Pherai" in precisely the same language with which Book III described the eastward-bound halt at that same place (III: 351 ff.; XV: 231 ff.).  Though the passages are separated by eleven books of improvised epic verse, by repeating them ritualistically the singer remembers, and reminds us, of how important it is to pay attention to the return of Odysseus' son.

Graves on "Eumaios": RG's name glossary explicates the swineherd's name as "of good endeavor" (II: 391).  His note about the cult of the Eleusinean Mysteries somewhat muddies the waters by associating Eumaois (there glossed as "searching well") with "early European myth" in which "swineherd" supposedly means "soothsayer, or magician" (I: 94).  For this claim he provides no support.  It seems to be part of his creative writing toward the modern myth he published as The White Goddess, a work of imaginative revision about a matriarchal religious cult he sees behind all mythology.  At that point, Graves the scholar retires and Graves the poet stands forth.  Still, he does note correctly that the narrator uses the epithet dios or "godly" to describe Eumaios, but he does not notice that Eumaois sacrifices to the gods by burning bristles in the fire from the pigs he feeds Odysseus.  This is what makes him a "godly swineherd": he has not forgotten that even slaves live in sacred space and the gods must be propitiated with sacrifice.  Compare this carefulness with the suitors' rash and proud behavior, and the magnitude of their error will be immediately clear.



1)  On the way home to Ithaka, Odysseus sleeps.  In what other circumstances has the poet noted that he has fallen asleep, and what has happened?  What anticipations does this sleep raise?


2)  How does the discussion of Poseidon's anger at the Phaiakians establish the relations among gods and mortals, and among gods and Zeus?  Especially, what do you make of Zeus's modification of Poseidon's planned revenge?  (Fitzgerald takes liberties with Zeus's term of address--it's "friend," not "little brother," but what is our translator trying to tell us about this exchange?)


3)  Compare the type-scene of "the wandering hero awakens" with its previous instance in Book 5 (129-32).  What are its component parts, and what has the poet varied in this encounter?  Especially, what role does Athena play, and who was her counterpart in the previous instance?


4)  Why does Athena answer Odysseus' first question as she does?  Do you see some ironies here?


5)  How does the poet characterize Odysseus' speech in response to the news that he is back in Ithaka?  What sort of "duel" is this, and what happens to the allegorical character of the scene when Athena reveals herself?


6)  How does Odysseus' lie relate to his actual experience as you know it or imagine it to have been?  Keep this scene in mind when you reach the appearance of Theoklymenos at Telemakhos' ship in Book 15 (275-356),  You are looking at an anticipation of a theme to be developed later.


7)  When Athena reveals herself to Odysseus, what does she say about him and how does she characterize herself?  What does this enable the poet to do for our reading of Odysseus' character?  How does the poet intensify this judgment in his next response?


8)  What strategic advice does Athena give Odysseus, and how does the poet attach this strand of narrative to Book 4?  Take a moment to refresh your memory of that book, and consider the way the poet has woven the events of Odysseus' life, including his retold past, into the narrative in Books 5-13.


Book 14--Eumaois the swineherd-slave hosts Odysseus (in disguise), who tests his loyalty and wisdom


1)  How does the poet build our picture of Eumaios' loyalty?  Especially, how does he pass the "welcoming strangers" test?  Note especially Odysseus' response and the poet's changed address when naming the swineherd?  (It's a shift to the second person familiar, which we no longer use--"thou" in Medieval and Renaissance literature.)


2)  How does the swineherd's description of the suitors raise some familiar themes, as well as paradoxically demonstrating the excellence of Odysseus' estate?


3)  When Odysseus asks Eumaios the name of his master, note the elaborate preparation for the name.  Compare this speech with Athena's prior to naming Ithaka.  What stylistic device is this?  Also, note the surprising admission about Eumaios' parents.  Why might this be true?  Think about patriarchal farm administration.


4)  Much of what Odysseus says while he is in disguise carries extraordinary irony.  For instance, in what sense does Odysseus "expect a gift for this good news / when [Odysseus] enters his own hall" (184-5)?


5)  Odysseus says, in a Homeric formula, that he hates something "as I hate Hell's own gate" (187)--compare the similar utterance by Achilles to the ambassadors (Iliad, Book 9: 378-9, in Fagles' translation).  Why should he hate this so much?


6)  How does Odysseus' fictional identity for Eumaios adapt itself to its audience?  Also, what previous tales are rewoven for this new "garment" of identity?  Especially, how does this tale prepare Eumaios for Odysseus' return without revealing its teller's identity?


7)  How does Eumaios respond to this tale, and what pact does Odysseus attempt to swear with him?  How does O get what he wants in spite of Eumaios' refusal to agree to the pact?  Also note here the presence of Mesaulios--what is his relation to Eumaios?


8)  How does the episode of the cloak characterize life on an agrarian estate?  How would you evaluate this in economic terms?