The Odyssey’s opening stanza

“The man, Muse—tell me about that resourceful man, who wandered far and wide, when he’d sacked Troy’s sacred citadel: many men’s townships he saw, and learned their ways of thinking, many the griefs he suffered at heart on the open sea, battling for his own life and his comrades’ homecoming. Yet no way could he save his comrades, much though he longed to—it was through their own blind recklessness that they perished, the fools, for they slaughtered the cattle of Helios the sun god and ate them: for that he took from them their day of returning. Tell us this tale, goddess, child of Zeus; start anywhere in it!” (Odyssey 1.1-10, Peter Green trans.)

From the first word of the Odyssey, we know that our story will revolve around a very different kind of hero from the Iliad. While the latter begins with a hero embracing his divine ancestry (first word: menis, divine rage) & ends with him accepting his mortality, the Odyssey begins with a man (first word: andra) attempting to return home from the Trojan war. He is a cunning man, adaptable, enduring. Though he takes many twists and turns on his journey, he is committed to recovering, reconnecting with, returning to, his mortal identity—son of Laertes, husband of Penelope, father of Telemachus, from Ithaca.

I am endlessly fascinated by the way the poem’s meaning is encoded in its language. It doesn’t seem quite right to say that it unfolds through language; rather, it’s built into the architecture of the language in ways that are difficult to convey in English. Hence my obsession with translations and learning ancient Greek.

A few Greek words (among others) that are important in the Odyssey: polytropos, nostos, nepios, thumos, noos. So many of these have layers of meaning. Today, I’m thinking about nepios, which could mean “infant,” or “without forethought/disconnected.” Green (among others) translates it as “fools,” though there is a Greek word for this as well: anoitos—without “noos,” which in turn means thinking, perception, or even (returning to) consciousness. But the poet chose nepios. Though Odysseus himself narrates his adventures, it’s the poem narrator who distinguishes him from his comrades in this way…

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