Study Guide

The Odyssey Suffering

By Homer

Suffering

Book 4
Penelope

(Penelope:) "Hear me, dear friends. The Olympian has given me sorrows beyond all others who were born and brought up together with me for first I lost a husband with the heart of a lion and who among the Danaans surpassed in all virtues, and great, whose fame goes wide through Hellas and midmost Argos; and now again the stormwinds have caught away my beloved son, without trace, from the halls, and I never heard when he left me. Hard-hearted, not one out of all of you then remembered to wake me out of my bed, though your minds knew all clearly, when he went out and away to board the hollow black ship. For if I had heard that he was considering this journey, then he would have had to stay, though hastening to his voyage, or he would have had to leave me dead in the halls." (4.722-735)

Talk about mom-guilt: Penelope actually says that, if she'd known Telemachos was going to head off on his road trip, she would have literally died. Is this an overreaction? Or is it honestly kind of justified—since without her son, she'd have no male protection?

Menelaos

(Menelaos:) "[….] no one of the Achaians labored as much as Odysseus labored and achieved, and for him the end was grief for him, and for me a sorrow that is never forgotten for his sake, how he is gone so long, and we knew nothing of whether he is alive or dead." (4.106-110)

Well, this is pretty grim: Odysseus suffering and labored harder than anyone else, and he doesn't even get a glorious death—just an embarrassing disappearance. Is it all worth it when he returns at the end?

Book 5
Odysseus

(Odysseus:) ‘Ah me unhappy, what in the long outcome will befall me? I fear the goddess might have spoken the truth in all ways when she said that on the sea and before I came to my country I would go through hardships; now all this is being accomplished, such clouds are these, with which Zeus is cramming the wide sky and has staggered the sea, and stormblasts of winds from every direction are crowding in. My sheer destruction is certain.’ (5.299-305)

Odysseus despairs at the first storm sent his way by Poseidon after he leaves Kalypso’s island. So much for taking suffering in stride.

(Odysseus:) ‘What will happen now, and what in the long outcome will befall me? For if I wait out the uncomfortable night by the river, I fear that the female dew and the evil frost together will be too much for my damaged strength, I am so exhausted and in the morning a chilly wind will blow from the river; but if I go up the slope and into the shadowy forest, and lie down to sleep among the dense bushes, even if the chill and weariness let me be, and a sweet sleep comes upon me, I fear I may become spoil and prey to the wild animals.’ (5.465-473)

Odysseus wavers between his fear of suffering and his determination to endure.

(Odysseus:) "what I want and all my days I pine for is to go back to my house and see my day of homecoming. And if some god batters me far out on the wine-blue water, I will endure it, keeping a stubborn spirit inside me, for already I have suffered much and done much hard work on the waves and in the fighting. So let this adventure follow." (5.219-224)

"I will endure it, keeping a stubborn spirit inside me" isn't exactly motivational-poster-worthy, but Odysseus' attitude is still pretty inspiring. He's determined to get home, and he'll endure anything to make it happen. (Lucky for him, Poseidon is definitely willing to make "anything" happen.)

By nights he would lie beside her, of necessity, in the hollow caerns, against his will, by one who was willing, but all the days he would sit upon the rocks, at the seaside, breaking his heart in tears and lamentation and sorrow as weeping tears he looked out over the barren water. (5.154-158)

Odysseus has everything he could possibly want with Kalypso: eternal youth, luxury, prosperity, and sex – but still, he yearns for the trials of mortal life.

Kalypso

(Kalypso:) ‘[…] but if you only knew in your own heart how many hardships you were fated to undergo before getting back to your country, you would stay here with me and be the lord of this household and be an immortal […].’ (5.206-209)

Kalypso has a point – Odysseus intentionally chooses suffering. In this, he parallels Achilleus, the hero of The Iliad, who faces a choice between a long life back home and a short, glorious life fighting at Troy—and chooses Option II. And yet, Odysseus’s suffering is for the sake of getting back home—exactly what Achilleus rejects.

Book 6
Nausikaa

(Nausikaa:) ‘[…] it is Zeus himself, the Olympian, who gives people good fortune, to each single man, to the good and the bad, just as he wishes; and since he must have given you yours, you must even endure it.’ (6.188-190)

Nausikaa shows maturity beyond her age by wisely telling Odysseus he must bear all the suffering sent his way.

Book 8

So the famous singer sang his tale, but Odysseus melted, and from under his eyes the tears ran down, drenching his cheeks. As a woman weeps, lying over the body of her dear husband, who fell fighting for her city and people as he tried to beat off the pitiless day from city and children; she sees him dying and gasping for breath, and winding her body about him she cries high and shrill, while the men behind her, hitting her with their spear butts on the back and the shoulders, force her up and lead her away into slavery, to have hard work and sorrow, and her cheeks are wracked with pitiful weeping. Such were the pitiful tears Odysseus shed from under his brows, but they went unnoticed by all the others […]. (8.521-532)

Call us crazy, but we like this: the Odyssey teaches us that it's okay for dudes to cry when they're under extreme duress. (And Odysseus is under extreme duress for, oh, about the entire epic.) Anyway, it's not like a few tears are going to detract from Odysseus' overwhelming studliness.

Book 12
Eurylochos

Circe is referring here to the monster Skylla, but you can really apply her words to all forms of suffering. Pain, she tells Odysseus, is unavoidable.

(Eurylochos, in Odysseus’s tale:) ‘“Listen to what I say, my companions, though you are suffering evils. All deaths are detestable for wretched mortals, but hunger is the sorriest way to die and encounter fate. Come then, let us cut out the best of Helios’ cattle, and sacrifice them to the immortals who hold wide heaven, and if we ever come back to Ithaka, land of our fathers, presently we will build a rich temple to the Sun God Helios Hyperion, and store it with dedications, many and good. But if, in anger over his high-horned cattle, he wishes to wreck our ship, and the rest of the gods stand by him, I would far rather gulp the waves and lose my life in them once for all, than be pinched to death on this desolate island.”’ (12.340-351)

Book 13
Athene

Eurylochos considers starvation the worst death of all and prefers to commit a crime against heaven than suffer so.

(Athene:) ‘[I will] tell you all the troubles you are destined to suffer in your well-wrought house; but you must, of necessity, endure all, and tell no one out of all the men and the women that you have come back from your wanderings, but you must endure much grief in silence, standing and facing men in their violence.’ (13.306-310)

Book 15
Odysseus

Again, the message is to endure suffering as it can not be avoided. Of course, Odysseus will just be biding his time until he can deliver some serious (and seemingly excessive) payback.

(Odysseus:) ‘There is nothing worse for mortal men than the vagrant life, but still for the sake of the cursed stomach people endure hard sorrows, when roving and pain and grief befall them.’ (15.343-345)

Book 16
Eumaios

Odysseus seems to agree with his men that hunger is the worst kind of suffering.

(Eumaios:) ‘All too much with enduring heart she does wait for him there in your own palace, and always with her the wretched nights and the days also waste her away with weeping.’ (16.37-39)

Penelope’s grieving is implicitly compared to that of Odysseus.

(Eumaios:) ‘Shall I on the same errand go with the news to wretched Laertes, who while he so greatly grieved for Odysseus yet would look after his farm and with the thralls in his household would eat and drink, whenever the spirit was urgent with him; but now, since you went away in the ship to Pylos, they say he has not eaten in this way, nor drunk anything, nor looked to his farm, but always in lamentation and mourning sits grieving, and the flesh on his bones is wasting from him.’ (16.137-145)

Book 18
Penelope

Laertes mental anguish has rendered him immobile and ineffective.

(Penelope:) ‘How I wish chaste Artemis would give me a death so soft, and now, so I would not go on in my heart grieving all my life, and longing for love of a husband excellent in every virtue, since he stood out among the Achaians.’ (18.202-205)

Book 20
Penelope

This is an uncharacteristic moment of weakness for the usually patient Penelope.

(Penelope:) ‘So I wish that they who have their homes on Olympos would make me vanish, or sweet-haired Artemis strike me, so that I could meet the Odysseus I long for, even under the hateful earth, and not have to please the mind of an inferior husband. Yet the evil is endurable, when one cries through the days, with heart constantly troubled, yet still is taken by sleep in the nights; for sleep is oblivion of all things, both good and evil, when it has shrouded the eyelids. But now the god has sent the evil dreams thronging upon me. For on this very night there was one who lay by me, like him as he was when he went with the army, so that my own heart was happy. I thought it was no dream, but a waking vision.’ (20.79-90)

Book 24

Penelope suffers so painfully for the loss of Odysseus that even her dreams are haunted by his absence.

He spoke, and the black cloud of sorrow closed on Laertes. In both hands he caught up the grimy dust and poured it over his face and grizzled head, groaning incessantly. The spirit rose up in Odysseus, and now in his nostrils there was a shock of bitter force as he looked on his father. He sprang to him and embraced and kissed and then said to him: ‘Father, I am he, the man you ask about.’ (24.315-321)

(Eurylochos, in Odysseus' tale:) "Listen to what I say, my companions, though you are suffering evils. All deaths are detestable for wretched mortals, but hunger is the sorriest way to die and encounter fate. Come then, let us cut out the best of Helios' cattle, and sacrifice them to the immortals who hold wide heaven, and if we ever come back to Ithaka, land of our fathers, presently we will build a rich temple to the Sun God Helios Hyperion, and store it with dedications, many and good. But if, in anger over his high-horned cattle, he wishes to wreck our ship, and the rest of the gods stand by him, I would far rather gulp the waves and lose my life in them once for all, than be pinched to death on this desolate island." (12.340-351)

Eurylochos is actually working with a little logic here: he knows that they're not supposed to eat Helios' cattle, and he knows that he's going to get slammed for it—but if there's a choice between dying of hungry and drowning, he'd rather drown. Not all suffering is created equal.

(Odysseus:) "There is nothing worse for mortal men than the vagrant life, but still for the sake of the cursed stomach people endure hard sorrows, when roving and pain and grief befall them." (15.343-345)

Roaming around may cause suffering, but there's a part of Odysseus (the "cursed stomach") that seems to like it—as though he just can't keep himself from heading off looking for new lands and peoples.

(Eumaios:) "All too much with enduring heart she does wait for him there in your own palace, and always with her the wretched nights and the days also waste her away with weeping." (16.37-39)

Penelope may be "enduring," but she's not suffering silently. In fact, we're surprised the suitors have hung around so long.

(Eumaios:) "Shall I on the same errand go with the news to wretched Laertes, who while he so greatly grieved for Odysseus yet would look after his farm and with the thralls in his household would eat and drink, whenever the spirit was urgent with him; but now, since you went away in the ship to Pylos, they say he has not eaten in this way, nor drunk anything, nor looked to his farm, but always in lamentation and mourning sits grieving, and the flesh on his bones is wasting from him." (16.137-145)

Seriously, is anyone happy in this story? Laertes is so bummed that Odysseus is missing that he can't even get out of bed. (At least Penelope kept it together enough to weave him a shroud.)

(Penelope:) 'How I wish chaste Artemis would give me a death so soft, and now, so I would not go on in my heart grieving all my life, and longing for love of a husband excellent in every virtue, since he stood out among the Achaians.' (18.202-205)

You have to admit, it'd be pretty hard to resign yourself to remarrying if your first husband was the godlike Odysseus.

He spoke, and the black cloud of sorrow closed on Laertes. In both hands he caught up the grimy dust and poured it over his face and grizzled head, groaning incessantly. The spirit rose up in Odysseus, and now in his nostrils there was a shock of bitter force as he looked on his father. He sprang to him and embraced and kissed and then said to him: 'Father, I am he, the man you ask about.' (24.315-321)

Proper burial was super important to the Ancient Greeks including ritualized hair-tearing and dust-bathing. It may seem over the top to us, but Laertes' grief just helps us see what a good dad he is.

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