More about the Odyssey

 

Homer’s depiction of the Ionian Islands is half imaginary, as becomes clear from his account of Phaeacia, an island that Odysseus has not seen before and will not see again, although it is less than a night’s voyage from his home.

Homer had not ‘passed that way’. So it is no wonder that his account of Ithake and the other islands does not add up, but seems like a conflation of several places, whose geography has come from hearsay; but into it, as a constant, comes Mount Neriton, still the name of the highest peak on modern Ithake.

Information is lacking also about Meges, named in the Iliad as coming from the neighbouring island of Dulichium and bringing forty ships to Troy—in contrast to Odysseus, so honoured among the Greek leaders, who brought twelve. (Iliad II.627-30).

At least four possible women have been suggested for the mother of Meges, including Ctimene, the sister of Penelope. The relation of Odysseus to Meges, and to the island of Dulichium, remains unexplained; Telemachus tells him that fifty-two of the suitors have come from there (Odyssey XVI.247).

Students fall under the spell of the Odyssey and become engrossed in its perceptions of human behaviour. But they do notice and question things, as when the Phaeacian ship carries Odysseus home to Ithaca under cover of night:

So she sped swiftly on, cutting the waves of the sea,
Bearing a man with counsels like to the gods…
(XIII.88-89)

“Hang on a bit!” said a sixth form student. “Counsels like to the gods? This is someone who didn’t even think of saying to his men, ‘Don’t touch that bag: it’s got winds in it.’”

“Yes,” said another, “and this is the man who gave his ID and contact details to the Cyclops, even when his men warned against it.”

” I disagree,” said a third. “The gods’ counsels were pretty basic—a lot of the time they carried on like spoilt brats. I think Odysseus’s counsels were often similar.”

Pupils come out with this kind of thing, and thoughtful ones even spot some of the anomalies, one of which appears shortly after this same voyage. Athene waits until Odysseus is ensconced in the hut of Eumaeus before setting off for Sparta to urge Telemachus to come home. But after that, Homer’s account almost synchronises the two arrivals.

However, this is a story, and in many a good story there comes a time—in this case approaching the denouement—when events become so much more important than the timing or the geography of them, that the writer feels free to skate over such details; and so perhaps did the committee of rhapsodists who collated the Odyssey.