Homer, one of us

There are quite a number of ways to find a good book. Obviously, during the regular rounds at the bookshop, one takes a glance at whatever has been exposed as new good reading merchandise. One does also take note of things reviewers recommend, according to one's personal likings. Sometimes friends give a valuable tip. But then there's small joyous reference item embedded in another book. That's how I came to read Homer's Odyssey.

Lawrence of Arabia

I read somewhere - can't say where - that there's this translation T.E. Lawrence made. He's best remembered as the almost lunatic guerilla fighter dead-set on liberating Arabia from the Turks during the First World War (less successful against the English in the aftermath, alas) and the author of The Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Quite a chap.

How he managed to translate Homer is, at first sight, puzzling. One of his numerous biographers, Michael Asher, reminds us that Thomas Edward Lawrence (1888-1935) had, when he got back to England, a huge correspondance with artists, writers, composers and had many close friends in those circles, foremost amongst them Bernard Shaw. Asher, however, is wrong about The Odyssey, stating curtly that Lawrence only "started work" on the (prose) translation.

He actually finished the job all right; it was published in 1932, in New York, three years before Lawrence's fatal motorcycle accident. My copy is the 1992 British reprint in the Wordworth Classics series.

Back to Ithaca

The story is rather well-known. It's 24 "books" (chapters) long and is the story of king Odysseus' adventurous return to Ithaca and his wife Penelope following the nine-year Trojan war and his long forced exile in the care of the nymph Calypso, daughter of Atlas.

Well, not quite. The first five chapters deal mainly with his son, Telemachus, and his endeavours to bring back papa. And the last twelve chapters recounts what happens after Odysseus' return home, to Ithaca.

One funny thing, by the way, is that king Odysseus is known in French as Ulysses. We leave it to the fine members of the linguistics profession to explain how the ancient Greek Odysseus made its way, apparently through the Etruscan, to the Latin Ulixes and then to Ulysses. Other fine scholars can probably tell why James Joyce chose the French variant for his famous dreamy remake. I, for one, haven't the faintest idea.

In Gods we trust

There are many other charming things that remain shrouded in mystery. The kind of religion these people of yore had, for instance. To start with, they had a whole load of whimsical Gods to be mindful of. They could be quite erratic in their meddling with the human folks. One never knew if one would be treated as friend of fiend.

In Odysseus' case, the "grey-eyed" goddess Athena was really helpful all along the way, whereas Zeus' brother, the "land-shaker" Poseidon, held a lasting grudge against him. This, in a sense, made the events of life, good or bad, crucially dependent on celestial whims, people were like puppets on a string whose free will, however strong and heroic, remained a plaything for the Gods. In Telemachus' words: "the gods spun the web of fate for me" (book 3).

Well, it didn't matter that much. Glorious greatness could be pursued at no other cost than one's own life. So it goes, Kurt Vonnegut would have said, I'm sure.

Venus forever!

Such a way of life is vastly different from the one we're acquainted with. How this old time religion was replaced by the ticklish power-crazed maniacs of Christianity, Islam and Judaism is hard to fathom.

The Odyssey is said to have been written in the eigth century before our era. So it must have happened sometime between then and now. Near the beginning of our era, we have the great Roman poet and philosopher Lucretius. In his Of the Nature of Things (De rerum natura), atheism is the natural way to consider life. He makes, at the outset, one exception: for the one and only goddess Venus, worthy of praise, of course.

This reduces somewhat the span of the inquiry. Our mental downfall came after Lucretius. Between his time and now.

Violence and sex

Another amusing telltale piece of information Homer gives us about those ancient times is the way violence and sex made the headlines. Violence is on every page, often quite gruesome. The way the terrible Cyclop smashes Odysseus' companions on the cave floor, for instance, spattering their brains all over, then tearing limb from limb before eating them up (book 9). Just like that. Same thing with "deep, devious" Odysseus. At one point (book 9), he tells of one his raids: "We sacked the city and slew them." Their women and wealth taken as booty, equally divided, of course. And then, in the final chapters, the merciless killing of all of Penelope's numerous suitors.

With sex, on the other hand, Homer is almost prudish. When Odysseus is finally reunited with his wife Penelope, after almost twenty years of pent-up desire (one presumes), the only thing we get to know is that they then "perform their bed-rites in the old fashion"(book 23). The usual voyeurish suspects of present-day frenzied movie copulations are dealt quite a blow here.

We, feeble humans

There are charming lessons on how to behave, too. Hospitality comes naturally. When Odysseus, disguised as an old beggar, knocks on the door of one his former servants, he's of course welcomed with these words: "the needy and the stranger are all from Zeus" (book 14).

The humility pertaining to the human species also goes without saying: "of all that creep and breathe upon her, Earth breeds no feebler thing than man" reminds Odysseus (book 18).

There's also all the weeping. Just before Odysseus is set free from his calypsonian captivity, he's pictured on the shore of the island gazing at the sea, rather unmanly, through "a blur of tears". At the time Goethe lived, men still wept quite a lot. Now, boys don't cry. Existence dictates conscience, as Marx pointedly remarked.

Ah! but there many other charming things to be discovered in The Odyssey. But, then, you have to read it on your ow