May 18, 2023

From Gerald R. Lucas

[Proem] from the Odyssey[1]
By: Homer

Tell me about a complicated man.[2]
Muse,[3] tell me how he wandered and was lost[4]
when he had wrecked the holy town of Troy,[5]
and where he went, and who he met, the pain
he suffered in the storms at sea, and how
he worked to save his life and bring his men
back home. He failed to keep them safe;[6] poor fools,
they ate the Sun God’s cattle, and the god
kept them from home.[7] Now goddess, child of Zeus,
tell the old story for our modern times. 10
Find the beginning.[8]

Notes & Comentary

  1. From Homer (2017, 1.1–11).
  2. Odysseus, the epic hero, is referred to here. He is not a simple hero but one with depth, flaws, and complex characteristics—a trademark of Greek epic poetry. Also, this phrase suggests polytropos, or “versatile”—one of the important epithets for Odysseus (Hexter 1993, p. 4). The idea of flexibility, adaptability, and deception are essential characteristics of Odysseus (Hexter 1993, p. 5).
         Compare Wilson’s more neutral translation with Fitzgerald’s—“skilled in all ways of contending” (Homer 1990, 1.1)—paean to Odysseus as the hero. Wilson’s translation seems to underscore the more problematic aspects of Odysseus.
  3. Invocation of the Muse is a common feature in epic poetry. The poet begins by calling upon a Muse, one of the nine daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne (Memory) in Greek mythology, who are known to inspire the creation of literature and the arts. By doing so, the poet seeks divine assistance in telling the story and seeks assurances that the story is true and accurate (Hexter 1993, p. 3).
  4. The epic’s plot is introduced, which describes the hero’s long and treacherous journey. This journey motif is a staple in epic poetry.
  5. The mention of Troy places the epic in its historical context. The Trojan War is a critical event in Greek history and mythology, and the Odyssey follows the consequences of this war, particularly for Odysseus. In addition, this is an allusion to the Trojan horse which was Odysseus’ idea, emphasizing his strategy over Achilles’ martial prowess. Brains ultimately succeeded in beating Troy, not braun.
  6. Epic themes of survival, leadership, and responsibility are hinted at in these lines, which will be elaborated on in the narrative.
  7. The involvement of gods and goddesses in human affairs is a common theme in Greek epic poetry. Here, the Sun God’s wrath against Odysseus’ crew for eating his cattle introduces an instance of divine retribution.
  8. These lines reinforce the idea of storytelling and the transmission of tales from the past to “our modern times.” It emphasizes the timelessness of the story and its relevance to the audience. It also suggests practical matters in storytelling: how to organize the narrative for the best affect. Odysseus will echo these lines in Book 9 when he begins relating his story.

Works Cited

  • De Jong, Irene J. F. (2004). A Narratological Commentary on the Odyssey. Cambridge, UK. pp. Cambridge University Press.
  • Heubeck, Alfred; Hoekstra, Arie (1990). A Commentary on Homer’s Odyssey. II, Books IX–XVI. Oxford: Claredon Press.
  • Hexter, Ralph (1993). A Guide to the Odyssey. New York: Vintage.
  • Homer (1990). The Odyssey. Translated by Fitzgerald, Robert. New York: Vintage.
  • — (2017). The Odyssey. Translated by Wilson, Emily. New York: W. W. Norton.
  • Romm, James (2011). "Lotophagi". In Finkelberg, Margalit. The Homer Encyclopedia. II. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell. p. 479.