Home and Homelessness in Epic, Part 2

In Part 2 of this series I look at Odysseus’ journey “home” and the way Homer unpacks what “home” is to Odysseus.

Is Paradise Home? – Odysseus at Calypso’s

In the first book of the Odyssey, Athena says to her father, Zeus, “… wise Odysseus shall return–home at last…” And later, “Odysseus journeys home–the exile must return!” What is “home” for Odysseus? The Odyssey opens with Odysseus having been on Ogygia with the nymph Calypso for several years. The island is so beautiful, “even a deathless god / who comes upon the place would gaze in wonder, / heart entranced with pleasure.” This island is paradise with a beautiful goddess satisfying any need Odysseus might have. To the reader, this island has all the markings of being a heaven. However, for Odysseus it is not heaven; he is racked with grief. He is described as, ” … weeping, his eyes never dry, his sweet life flowing away / with the tears he wept for his failed journey home …” Here it is evident that “home” for Odysseus had nothing to do with a utopian environment. With no means of leaving and over a period of seven years, it would be reasonable to expect that he would adapt to this idyllic isle and it would become his “home.” This however is not the case. In fact, he continues to pine for Ithaca with “his sweet life flowing away.”

Calypso poses a question to Odysseus. She asks, “So then, / royal son of Laertes, Odysseus, man of exploits, / still eager to leave at once and hurry back / to your own home, your beloved native land?” He already responded earlier by saying, “Even so, I wish and yearn every day to go home and to look on my day of return.” Here it is suggested that “home” to Odysseus is that place of his forefathers and his upbringing; his native land. For Odysseus “home” is in part based on heritage and ownership. “[N]othing is as sweet as a man’s own country, / his own  parents, even though he’s settled down in some luxurious house…”

The whole of the Odyssey is about the wanderings of a man returning home, but Odysseus’ departure from Calypso’s isle Ogygia is the beginning of the final phase of his return. Tossed about by Poseidon after leaving Ogygia and having his craft destroyed, he comes ashore at Phaeacia. He has lost everything, even the clothes on his back. He is dirty and hungry. He is in fact “homeless” in the strict sense of the word. His very first action on land is to assemble a “home.” He crafts a shelter to protect himself from the elements. This is not to be construed as his “home” but it allows the reader to comprehend the various levels of the meaning of this word. In a very basic and simplistic way a home is a shelter.

On his way to Alcinous’ palace, Odysseus prays to Athena, “Grant that here among the Phaeacian people / I may find some mercy and some love!” This too is part of what “home” is for Odysseus–a place where he finds mercy and love. I personally find this very eloquent. How often we feel estranged in our own home, in part, because there is no love or understanding and compassion (i.e. mercy). Slowly in this final phase of his travels to return to Ithaca, he is building his “home” bit by bit. That is to say, Homer shows the reader bit by bit what home truly is–one level at a time.

King Alcinous, Queen Arete, and all the Phaeacians are human and mortal. The other stops that Odysseus made on his extended journey tended to be occupied by other than humans. The Phaeacians’ social organization, mores and social behavior are the closest examples of Odysseus’ world since he started home from Troy. In this journey toward home, the environments he experiences become more and more familiar, that is to say similar to that of Ithaca. In this way the epic opens up the word “home.” In this context the word “home” is that which is familiar.

In Phaeacia, Odysseus is repeatedly referred to as a “stranger” but he is welcomed and treated warmly by both the king and queen. The Phaeacians perceive Odysseus as noble. In his bearing, social graces, physical prowess in competition and his eloquent story telling he is accepted as an equal. He even sits beside King Alcinous, replacing the king’s son at the banquet table. Here “home” becomes both fitting in and being accepted as equal. Although Odysseus is still not in Ithaca, this sense of fitting in and being accepted are part of Odysseus’ revival. Here at the banquet table of the Phaeacians, Odysseus gains strength bodily by the feast, but he also gains emotionally as he is restored through a home-like environment.

Odysseus finally does arrive at Ithaca. The only point I want to add here is that in this final return he is united with his father, son, and wife. Ultimately for Odysseus “home” is where his family is. All of these different components contribute to what Odysseus calls “home”.

For me, seeing the plight of Telemachus homeless in his father’s house (Part 1 of this series) and the many layers of what “home” is to Odysseus opens up what the word “home” is merely pointing to and helps my own understanding of what “home” is to me. In Part 3 of this series, I will look at what “home” is to Baby Suggs, holy in Toni Morrison’s Beloved.

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