November 2017

Timeless Thinking

Fragments of The Odyssey by Homer i

By Carlos Fuentes

Composed near the end of the 8th century BCE, The Odyssey is one of two major ancient Greek epic poems. Attributed to Homer, the poem focuses on the hero Odysseus, king of Ithaca, and his journey home after the fall of Troy. A difficult literary work to translate, the first line introduces an adjective for which there is no precise English equivalent, but to which entrepreneurs can relate: “polytrophs” (poly=many; trophs=turn or turning). Professor Fagles translates it as “twists and turns,” but the English does not convey the depth of meaning found in the original Greek which implies that the man of twists and turns is the man blown away in many directions by forces he cannot control, the wanderer who, nonetheless can think on his feet to find ways out of difficulties, the man that uses reason to solve problems, the great communicator, the man of strategy.  

The first 11 lines (Book 1: Athena Inspires the Prince) are the famous introduction to the epic. Lines 12 through 24 (Book 5: The Princess and the Stranger) describe how Odysseus, after surviving a ship wreck finds himself at the mercy of strangers in an unknown land. He addresses eloquently Princess Nausicaa, pledging for his life. In lines 25 through 37(Book 8: A Day for Songs and Contests) Princess Nausicaa and Odysseus say farewell to each other.

Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns
Driven time and again off course, once he had plundered
The hallowed heights of Troy.
Many cities of men he saw and learned their minds,
Many pains he suffered, heartsick on the open sea,
Fighting to save his life and bring his comrades home
But he could not save them from disaster, hard as he strove—
The recklessness of their own ways destroyed them all,
The blind fools, they devoured the cattle of the Sun
And the Sun god blotted out the day of their return.
Launch out on his story, Muse, daughter of Zeus,
Start from where you will—sing for our time too.

“… Stranger,” the white-armed princess answered staunchly,
“friend, you’re hardly a wicked man, and no fool, I’d say—
it’s Olympic Zeus himself who hands our fortunes out,
to each of us in turn, to the good and bad,
however Zeus prefers…
he gave you pain, it seems. You simple have to bear it.
But now, seeing you’ve reached our city and our land,
you’ll never lack for clothing or any other gift,
the right of worn-out suppliants come our way,
I’ll show you our town, tell you our people’s name.
Phaeacians we are, who hold this city and this land,
and I am the daughter of generous King Alcinous.
All our people’s power stems from him. …”

And there stood Nausicaa as he passed. Beside a column
that propped the sturdy roof she paused,
endowed by the gods with all her beauty, gazing at
Odysseus right before her eyes. Wonderstruck,
she hailed the guest with a winning flight of words:
“Farewell, my friend! And when you are at home,
home in your own land, remember me at times.
mainly to me you owe the gift of life.”
Odysseus rose to the moment deftly, gently:
“Nausicaa, daughter of generous King Alcinous,
may Zeus the Thunderer, Hera’s husband, grant it so—
that I travel home and see the dawn of my return.
Even at home I’ll pray to you as a deathless goddess
all my days to come. You saved my life, dear girl.”

Throughout the poem, Homer highlights the role of chance and constantly talks about events that lie beyond our control. But he insists on the importance of grit, discipline, ability to communicate well and convince (as when Odysseus meets Princess Nausicaa and convinces her to help him), careful thinking, risk-taking, action and execution. The Odyssey is full of famous phrases such as:

  • Now then, I have studied in my time the plans and minds of great ones by the score (p. 132)
  • I can bear that too, with a spirit tempered to endure (159)
  • Be bold, nothing to fear. In every venture the bold man comes off best (p. 181)
  • Periboea, the lovely, matchless beauty, the youngest daughter of iron-willed Eurymedon (p. 181)
  • The man of many struggles (p. 184)
  • The man of craft replied … (187)
  • Diplomatic Odysseus answered … (189)
  • I am hardly a man for reckless, idle anger. Balance is best in all things (p. 189)
  • With warm regards from a man who knows what suffering is … (p. 206)
  • Such a blithering fool he took me for! But I was already plotting … (p.224)
  • We must think of a plan at once, some cunning stroke (p. 236)
  • Odysseus, deft and tactful (p. 237)
  • Necessity drives me on (p. 239)
  • You have a mind in you no magic can enchant! (p. 240)
  • Odysseus, born for exploits (p. 246)
  • But it gained us nothing—what good can come of grief? (p. 248)
  • The man of countless exploits (p. 261)
  • Odysseus, mastermind of war (p. 262)
  • What greater feat can that cunning head contrive (p. 265)
  • But even from there my courage, my presence of mind and tactics saved us all (p 277)
  • Always the same, your wary turn of mind (p. 297)
  • That’s why I can’t forsake you in your troubles—you are so winning, so worldly-wise, so self-possessed! (p. 297)
  • Free your mind of all that anguish now … then we’ll make plans so we can win the day (p. 298)
  • Stand by me—furious now as then, my bright-eyed one (p. 299)

i “The Odyssey” by Homer, translated by Robert Fagles, pp. 77, 174 and 206.