Although the spring semester ended less than a week ago, I have been planning for my fall courses for several weeks now. Such is the life of a teacher—we often live at least six months in advance of the date on the calendar. My teammate in the freshman first semester segment of the four-semester interdisciplinary program I direct and have taught in for years and I have already made our book order with wonderful texts ranging from Aeschylus to Boethius in store for the incoming eighteen-year-olds we will meet in September.
Virtually every team teaching the first semester of this course includes one of Homer’s epics on the syllabus—the question always is “which one?” Iliad or Odyssey? This is not quite the academic equivalent of “boxers or briefs” or “Red Sox or Yankees,” but it is close. I have led discussions on each epic multiple times over the years; which is most appropriate often depends both on the interests/tastes of the faculty on the team and the chosen organizing themes for the semester. Two years ago we used the Iliad; last year my team went for the Odyssey. I profess a preference for the latter, but as my Fall 2014 colleague and I discussed the Homer issue during a planning meeting a few weeks ago, she expressed a marked preference for the Iliad for a number of good reasons. I’m senior faculty, she’s in her third year, I did not want to pull rank (imagine an academic choosing not to pull rank), I appreciate the Iliad’s greatness, so I deferred. She’s a classicist after all, has forgotten more about ancient Greek literature than I think I know, and (I suspect) just really likes the overall violence and bloodshed of the Iliad. But over the past few weeks I’ve wistfully thought “I really like the Odyssey better.” A couple of days ago I found out why.
“Which Classical Character Are You?” the latest Facebook quiz asked.
This quiz was from an Oxford Dictionaries blog, so I expected that it might be a bit more erudite and serious than most. But no, it was pretty much at the same level of complexity (about eighth grade) as the others I’ve taken over the past months. It asked first whether I was male or female, and shortly after the first couple of questions I could pretty much tell that the available options were Achilles, Hercules, Orpheus, Aeneas or Odysseus. I was not surprised when I found out that
You are Odysseus. You are renowned for your cunning wiles and fantastic plans. You’ve always got a trick up your sleeve. You are also a home-loving type and will do anything to protect your family.
I am more than happy to be Odysseus, although the quiz description hardly does him justice, nor does it sound that much like me. Odysseus was not the strongest soldier in the Greek army at Troy, nor was he the swiftest or the bravest. But he was definitely the smartest. He’s the one who manages to keep Achilles and Agamemnon from fighting to the death at the beginning of the Iliad (a good thing, or it would have been a rather short book). Other than that, he’s a relatively minor character in the Iliad. We find out from the Aeneid that the Trojan horse scheme that ended the Trojan War and sent Aeneas off looking for a new place to live was Odysseus’ brainchild.
In the Odyssey we get to know Odysseus intimately—full of hubris, always thinking and scheming, a good leader (most of the time) although all of his men die by the time he gets home, comfortable in his own skin, an introvert who has no trouble spending lots of time alone, incurably in love with his wife whom he has not seen in twenty years, and intensely focused on his one motivating goal—getting home. Tell me something I don’t know about myself.
You are Penelope. Loyal and patient you tend to avoid conflict. Everyone admires your restraint and elegance but sometimes you can be a bit of a doormat – but you never give up on someone you believe in.
This makes me even happier, because Penelope is my favorite female character in all of classical epic and drama (with the possible exception of Medea, who’s just a total bad ass). Once again, the quiz description does not do Penelope justice. She is undoubtedly loyal, patient and elegant (I am also loyal and patient, although inelegant), but she is anything but a doormat. She is a consummate manipulator, putting her long-absent husband to shame in that category as she keeps a crowd of suitors at bay for years by weaving a death shroud for her supposedly dead husband during the day and unraveling it at night. She is a dedicated mother who is struggling with how to let her young adult son Telemachus go so that he can become a man, something every parent can resonate with.
And Penelope is a brilliant match for Odysseus, his complete equal in cunning, intelligence, and insight. He is a man of action, as all Greek heroes are; given the restraints on women in the classical age, her action is limited but highly effective. My favorite passage in the entire Odyssey is in Book 23, after Odysseus has, with a bit of help, slaughtered all of the suitors who have been plaguing Penelope for years in the banquet hall. Penelope is not entirely convinced that this is Odysseus—they have not seen each other for twenty years, and she is aware that gods show up in disguise at the drop of a hat in the classical world. Odysseus, grudgingly, agrees to give her all the time she needs to be sure—he’ll sleep on the couch, so to speak, until she’s ready. When Penelope instructs her maid to have the bed from the master bedroom moved into the hall for Odysseus, he goes nuts. “What the fuck are you talking about??” (my free translation). He knows that growing through the center of the house, and hence the center of the bedroom, is an olive tree that at the time of the house’s construction was used as the center post of the bed. In other words, unless the olive tree has been chopped down, this bed cannot be moved—something that only Odysseus would know. “Gotcha!” Penelope says, they embrace and live happily ever after. Not exactly, but close enough.
All of this reminds me of one of my favorite descriptions of The World’s Most Interesting Man: “He would be in touch with his feminine side—if he had one.” Psychologists tell us that everyone—other than The World’s Most Interesting Man, of course—has both a feminine and masculine side. In my case, I am thrilled to learn that my masculine and my feminine side are so well attuned that if they met, they would get married. Talk about integrated! So Robin, if you read this you will now know what a great sacrifice I made when I agreed to do the Iliad instead of the Odyssey with our sixty-four freshmen this fall. The Odyssey is more than just one of the greatest works of Western literature. It is the story of me!