The Odyssey and the Other

What the epic can teach about encounters with strangers abroad and at home

Hanna Barczyk

Who could have guessed that the time would be so ripe for an Odyssey that shrinks the vast distance between the ancient text and contemporary sensibilities? During the age when The Odyssey took form, near the end of the eighth century b.c., the Greeks were voyaging into the world once again after a period of dark decline. They were setting up colonies and resuming the trade that had been interrupted by whatever cataclysmic forces—invasions, rebellions, pestilence, natural disasters—brought down the Bronze Age civilizations of Minoa and Mycenae. Yet the spirit of the second Homeric epic is wary. Unlike The Iliad, which sings of the glorious feats of godlike warriors in a legendary heroic age, The Odyssey tells of a weary man’s fight for survival in the face of threatening Others who can never share his view of the world or take his interests to heart. This besieged sense of a realm seething with social hostilities and deep divisions, in which the very possibility of dialogue seems out of reach, may well strike a chord.

W. W. Norton

In her powerful new translation, Emily Wilson, a classicist at the University of Pennsylvania, has chosen immediacy and naturalism over majestic formality. She preserves the musicality of Homer’s poetry, opting for an iambic pentameter whose approachable storytelling tone invites us in, only to startle us with eruptions of beauty. “Then felt I like some watcher of the skies / When a new planet swims into his ken,” John Keats wrote upon reading George Chapman’s “rhyming fourteeners” (his solution to the challenge of rendering The Odyssey’s archaic Greek meter of dactylic hexameter). Wilson’s transformation of such a familiar and foundational work is similarly astonishing. I was struck with wonder at how eerily of our time it is, this tale that emerged nearly 3,000 years ago.

Andra—“man”—is The Odyssey’s first word. Instead of referring to the epic’s hero by name, it evokes a stark nakedness, the state to which he will so often be reduced in the tale that unfolds. Odysseus’s legendary craftiness—he devised the Trojan horse, delivering victory to the invading Greeks—is now devoted to the effort of fathoming what lurks within all those he meets: men and women, gods and goddesses, sorcerers and monsters. Is there a core of shared humanity he might arouse if he says exactly the right words—as he manages to do with the xenophobic Phaeacians, quelling their suspicions so that they invite him to tell his story and then offer him aid? Or are there Others with whom stories cannot be shared—whose sympathies cannot be engaged, whose very being poses an existential threat?

The sea itself, on which Odysseus and his men are forced to travel, is a treacherously alien element, even under the best of circumstances. And Odysseus is faced with the worst of circumstances: He has made an implacable enemy of Poseidon, because of yet another inimical Other, Polyphemus, the cyclops who happens to be Poseidon’s son. At first Polyphemus seems, in his pastoral way of life, sufficiently human—unlike, say, the ravenous six-headed monster Scylla or her man-slurping next-door neighbor, Charybdis—that Odysseus dares to approach the one-eyed giant as a fellow being.

He and his men, Odysseus explains to Polyphemus, are not piratical outlaws but Greeks who fought victoriously under the glorious Agamemnon. He ends on a note of supplication. He appeals to the code the Greeks called xenia, from their word for “stranger,” which regulated how guests and hosts, especially when unknown to each other, ought to behave—an exaggerated etiquette meant to preempt the violence coiled within Other-anxiety:

Now we beg you,
here at your knees, to grant a gift, as is
the norm for hosts and guests. Please sir, my lord:
respect the gods. We are your suppliants,
and Zeus is on our side, since he takes care
of visitors, guest-friends, and those in need.

Polyphemus explodes in contempt at Odysseus’s well-crafted words, declaring himself outside all norms that guide men and gods: “I do the bidding of my own heart.” And then he snatches up two of Odysseus’s men and makes a quick and gory meal of them. Such wantonness untouched by pity could not be a starker expression of an unbridgeable gulf.

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Many of Odysseus’s encounters are more subtly seductive, mingling exquisite pleasure with duplicity—on both sides. He’s the lover of both the sorceress Circe and the nymph Calypso, who forces him to stay even after he’s grown tired of her. But his erotic entanglement with these rare beauties never melts the frost of strangeness between them. Neither female has—neither can have—Odysseus’s welfare in mind, because of an essential Otherness that prevents them from understanding, much less caring about, the man they use for their own ends.

And so we come to the most unsettling encounters Odysseus must navigate: with the familiar, the familial, Other. Even when a warrior returns to the bosom of his family, his safety is by no means assured. What looks like intimacy may turn into enmity. A foe may await in disguise, ready to attack when the most seasoned of soldiers is unarmed and unsuspecting. This is the message that the shade of Agamemnon imparts to Odysseus when he ventures into Hades to ask for guidance on getting home.

Odysseus learns that Agamemnon, at his own homecoming, died at the hands of his wife and her lover. Yes, Odysseus commiserates, disaster has again and again been visited on the house of Atreus (Agamemnon’s father) by the women imported into the family. After all, Helen, Agamemnon’s sister-in-law, was the one who provoked the whole bleeding mess of the war and its aftermath. Agamemnon suggests that Odysseus is drawing too narrow a conclusion in confining the problem to Agamemnon’s family. The truth is more general:

At once he answered,
So you must never treat your wife too well.
Do not let her know everything you know.

Agamemnon reassures Odysseus that his wife, Penelope, will not kill him, but only because she is too sensible. Odysseus must not assume that Penelope—or any woman a man brings into his family—has his interests at heart. A few lines later, Agamemnon delivers his implacable conclusion: “There is no trusting women any longer.” Odysseus’s own son, Telemachus—a baby when his father left for war 20 years earlier—strives to assert his manliness in part by silencing women, his patient mother in particular. “Go in and do your work,” he tells Penelope:

Stick to the loom and distaff. Tell your slaves
to do their chores as well. It is for men
to talk, especially me. I am the master.

By contrast, Odysseus refuses to renounce the possibility that Penelope will prove to be “somebody like-minded,” as he puts it to the Phaeacian princess in describing the ideal marriage:

For nothing could be better than when two
live in one house, their minds in harmony,
husband and wife. Their enemies are jealous,
their friends delighted, and they have great honor.

Honor represents the sine qua non of the hero. Conniving suitors can’t sabotage Odysseus’s hope that Penelope, a young bride when he left her, has matured into just such a soul mate. That hope is what inspires him to spurn Calypso’s offer of immortality—an extraordinary decision, all the more so given his glimpse of the everlasting bleakness of Hades that awaits.

Dread of the alien thrums through The Odyssey, yet for its hero, canniness is not the only gift that is crucial to his happy homecoming. A deeper dimension of his much-praised intelligence—his gift for responding to like-mindedness—proves essential. And it ensures his full stature as a hero, earning him an altogether different order of honor than the city-sacking warrior can claim.

Daniel Mendelsohn’s poignant new memoir, An Odyssey: A Father, a Son, and an Epic, turns out to be about a happy homecoming of another kind. For Mendelsohn, the metaphysics of the Other recedes and the ancient tale becomes an occasion not only to explore his relationship with his own father but to transform it. The familial Other is, in Mendelsohn’s case, someone with whom, despite the best will in the world—and lots of shared genes—true communion has always seemed out of reach: The casts of mind are too different. Mendelsohn is a consummate student of the humanities, known to readers for two other memoirs as well as for his literary and cultural criticism and his translations of C. P. Cavafy’s poetry. His father is a retired research scientist whose own fine mind cants toward mathematics. Each feels chagrin that he isn’t in a position to fully appreciate the other, though the chagrin cuts more deeply for the son:

Years later—long after I had failed, in high school, to master the math courses that would have allowed me to go on to study calculus—my father would occasionally remark that it was too bad, because it’s impossible to see the world clearly if you don’t know calculus … Years after all this, whenever my father made this comment … I’d invariably reply by saying that you couldn’t really see the world clearly without having read the Aeneid in Latin, either. And then he’d make that little grimace that we all knew, half a smile, half a frown, twisting his face, and we’d laugh a sour little laugh, and retreat to our corners.

Resigned to the absence of “minds in harmony,” in Odysseus’s words, Daniel is surprised when his father, at 81, asks to audit the freshman seminar on The Odyssey that his son is teaching at Bard College. We learn within the first pages that this will be the last year of Jay Mendelsohn’s life.


In good Odyssean style—plenty of meandering and backstory looping—Daniel recounts the progress of the seminar, in which his father is a lively (often obstreperous) presence. Mendelsohn senior keeps a running account of Odysseus’s flaws: losing all the men under his command on the journey back from Troy, cheating on his wife, constantly lying, and, most damning, getting help at every turn from the gods. “You call that a hero?” the incensed father demands. “This is going to be a nightmare,” his son concludes after the first class.

For the rest of us, it is anything but. The students are invigorated by the ferocity of the octogenarian’s opinions, and by the prickly interplay between him and their professor. “I knew all this stuff before he did,” the elder Mendelsohn grinningly tells them. He continues to catch his son off guard when the two of them, fresh from their reading of the epic, depart on a themed cruise—10 days retracing Odysseus’s journey, a day for each year of his long voyage home. When the old man voices his disappointment at viewing the sites, starting with the remains of Troy, he isn’t just kvetching:

He looked at me and then, to my surprise, threw an arm around my shoulders and patted me, smiling crookedly. But the poem feels more real than the ruins, Dan! Over the next week this became a refrain of his. The poem feels more real! he’d say each evening as people discussed the day’s activities. When he did so, he’d cast a quick sidelong glance at me, knowing how much the thought pleased me.

Of course it did. In acknowledging the power of the poem to bring depth and life and complexity to human relations, his father is acknowledging the value of his son’s world and expertise. The recognition leaves Daniel free to see through his father’s hardness—his “exacting standards for virtually everything”—to the vulnerable fighter within, a scrappy, strategizing Odysseus from the Bronx.

For us non-Mendelsohns, what solace—or despair—resides in the unexpected relevance of this ancient poem, its encounters with Otherness thrown into high relief by the xenophobia of our time? Is it an enduring human trait to doubt one another’s humanity? Three millennia later, we have yet to habitually turn to the bedraggled stranger and take note of his tears, as Alcinous, king of Phaeacia, remarked on the tears shed by Odysseus as he listened to a court poet’s song. Knowing then that this visitor was neither monster nor god, the king invited the man, andra, to tell his story. The words come alive in Wilson’s version:

But come now, tell me
about your wanderings: describe the places,
the people, and the cities you have seen.
Which ones were wild and cruel, unwelcoming,
and which were kind to visitors, respecting
the gods? And please explain why you were crying,
sobbing your heart out when you heard him sing
what happened to the Greeks at Troy. The gods
devised and measured out this devastation,
to make a song for those in times to come.