The Odyssey’s opening stanza, Part 2

“Sing to me of the resourceful man, O Muse, who wandered far after he had sacked the sacred city of Troy. He saw the cities of many men and he learned their minds. He suffered many pains in the sea in his spirit, seeking to save his life and the homecoming of his companions. But even so he could not save his companions, though he wanted to for they perished of their own folly—the fools! They ate the cattle of Helios Hyperion, who took from them the day of their return. Of these matters, beginning where you want, O daughter of Zeus, tell to us.” —Odyssey 1.1-10, Barry Powell translation

The first 10 lines of the Odyssey function like a map of the poem’s meaning, the whole narrative compressed to its essence.

Today I’m thinking about line 5, which tells us that Odysseus tried to save his life and his companions’ homecoming. This distinction—his life, their return—seems striking. Aren’t the two—life & homecoming—one and the same? Aside from the obvious difference that Odysseus is the leader, why might the narrator differentiate between what Odysseus tries to accomplish for himself vs. for his companions?

Here is again where layers of meaning inscribed in language make things interesting. What Powell translates as “save his life” is “win his psykhe” (αρνύμενος ην τε ψυχήν) in Greek. Psykhe can refer both to the life force within you when you are alive and what Gregory Nagy calls the “disembodied conveyor of your identity” after death. The word “homecoming” in Greek is nostos (νόστος), which also has both surface and mystical meanings: “return home” and “return to consciousness/light and life” respectively.

Of course Odysseus‘ goal is to return to Ithaca with his companions. Nostos is the central concern of the Odyssey. Yet only nine of 12 books concern themselves with his travels, including a visit to the Underworld for him alone. Once he arrives in Ithaca, he will have more challenges to contend with before he can reclaim his mortal identity as a son, husband, father, king. For Odysseus, to arrive safely on the shores of his home is the first step but not the completion of his nostos. His does not “win” his psykhe (as identity) until he survives his battle against the suitors.

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