Monday, September 22, 2008

Humans Always (Wrongly) Blame the Gods: Odyssey 1.32-35

I have been immersed in the Odyssey as of late and probably will be for another week or so. I am teaching it directly after the Epic of Gilgamesh. Fitting, in some ways, since both feature a man who goes on many journeys, is, perhaps, "polutropos" or a man of "many ways" or "many turns." Yet, there is something else that has struck me in this reading of the Odyssey: the way the gods are depicted in contrast to how they are depicted in the Iliad.

Take, for example, Odyssey 1.32-35:
Oh for shame, how the mortals put the blame upon us
gods, for they say evils come from us, but it is they, rather,
who by their own recklessness win sorrow beyond what is given,
as now lately, beyond what is given....

Zeus is the one speaking to the assembled gods on Olympos. He is actually discussing the nostos, or return, of Agamemnon, in which he will be murdered by his wife and her lover and then avenged by his son. Yet, it has an interesting placement in the narrative. It is right at the beginning. Only 30 some lines into the entire epic. Zeus, in fact, complains that humans always blame the gods for what happens to them, but it is actually humans' own fault. This is in striking contrast to the beginning of the Iliad, in which we see a balance. We see the events of the Iliad unfold due to both the wrath of Achilleus and the "will of Zeus." The will of Zeus looms large in the Iliad in a way it does not in the Odyssey. I do think that the poet in the Iliad plays with the concept of Zeus' will, turns it, inspects it, tries to see it from every angle, interrogating it with relentlessness in order to see beyond the will of Zeus, what Zeus cannot do, or, better yet, even if Zeus desires something, what Zeus will not do. I have been playing with the idea of the Odyssey as a counter-Iliad, rewriting many concepts in the Iliad with a different result. I was very happy to attend a talk today by a Classicist who sees the Odyssey as a rewriting or even a parody of the Iliad in many ways. Perhaps extending the critical examination of Zeus' will to the point that Zeus' will plays little to no role in the epic. In the Odyssey, it is human actions, inactions, false actions, deeds and misdeeds that propel the narrative. The gods are present to some extent (far less than the Iliad, in fact), but they are responding to humans. Ironically, in the subsequent narrative, almost immediately, we see Telemachos especially as well as others constantly saying that this or that is happening because of the gods, the will of the gods, or the whim of the gods, yet, right out, we have a statement from Zeus saying this is all hogwash (see 1.234, 244). Blame yourselves for your own actions: you, yourselves, hold ultimate responsibility for your own actions. It is not fate. It is not Zeus' will, nor is it the collective decision of the gods (although that is there at times; see 1.76). In many ways, I think both poems play with the varying degrees of human responsibility and the failure for humans to take responsibility for their own actions. In both poems people blame the gods, whether Zeus' will for the whole event or when Agamemnon blames "Delusion" for his misjudgments rather than taking direct responsibility, but ultimately the Iliad leaves things highly ambiguous, while the Odyssey finally chooses human responsibility in order to play with other, ambiguous, questions of the human realm.


Angie Van De Merwe said...

I was just wondering "where you were". Thank you for this blog entry. I am trying to understand what my responsibilty is, as co-dependency is taking too much or too little responsibility in life...

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Question: How do you teach these things to your students? Do you focus on virtue, value, ethics, or what?

Jared Calaway said...

My class is not an ethics class...nor do we particularly focus on moral issues per se. It is a literature class. So, we do very close readings of the text, illuminating details that most people pass over, discuss how those details play out, fit with, toy with, or even transform a particular theme within the text in order to demonstrate the dynamics of the text.

So, it may be an ethical issue, but it could be any number of themes that a particular text interrogates from multiple angles, such as ancient hospitality, nature and culture, coming to terms with one's own mortality (which includes the quest for and failure to attain immortality), family relationships, rites of passage, coming of age, or, here, the will of the gods and human action.

We look at literary techniques. I particularly like to show how different texts literarily create internality or inwardness.

So, throughout the semester (and the year--it is a year-long course), by reading and paying close attention to the details of the text, we create a huge network of interwoven themes within and between the texts.