My First Cousin Odysseus

When I first started reading to my young daughter Corinna in the late 1970s, I said to her, “I am the first cousin of Odysseus.”

Homer and Odysseus

This was more than bragging to a little girl. I love Homer and Odysseus. They have been my heroes. They speak to me and they speak to all humans about the meaning and purposes of life and civilization. They are relevant today as much as they were in the age of Pericles and Alexander the Great.

Reading the Iliad and the Odyssey is reading Greek history at its most intimate: brutal wars, victories over enemies, triumph of free speech, democracy and reason — and terrible weaknesses.

Odysseus was the peasant, the soldier, the hero, the faithful and unfaithful husband, the Greek who loved his home more than anything in the world, including becoming a god.

More than 3,000 years separate me from Odysseus. He was born during the Bronze Age in Ithaca, a small island in the Ionian Sea between Greece and Italy. He was the son of King Laertes and Queen Anticleia, husband of Penelope, and father of Telemachos.

Metis

Homer was the teacher of Hellas. He was above all the singer of tales, the aoidos who sang the heroic adventures of Odysseus’ return journey to Ithaca. Homer says metis explains Odysseus, that is to say, this was a man of intelligence, cunning, craftsmanship, strategic thinking and eloquence.

The best of men had the gifts of metis, but the original model of genius was Metis, goddess of intelligence and mother of goddess Athena.

I am Odysseus

While in Phaiakia (another Ionian island with the name of Kerkyra), and the last stop before reaching Ithaca, King Alcinous feasted and treated Odysseus like a royal guest. He secretly admired Odysseus, hoping he would fall in love with his beautiful daughter Nausicaa. However, Odysseus was determined to return home to Penelope.

Odysseus introduced himself to Alcinous and other distinguished Phaiakians like the proud hero he was:

“I am Odysseus, son of King Laertes of Ithaca. Men the world over are talking about my cunning. My fame is even reaching the heavens” (The Odyssey, Book 9, 19-20).

I was born in the twentieth century in the island of Cephalonia that, in the Bronze Age, was part of the kingdom of Laertes / Odysseus. Only the gods know whether or not I am related to Odysseus. There’s only a tenuous cultural connection tying me to Odysseus. And that slender thread goes through place, time, and history.

The name Odysseus means a man of pain, one who gives woe. He did suffer. But he also enjoyed himself. All his companions, soldiers he brought with him to Troy, perished. He lived with goddess Kirke for a year. He lived with another goddess, Kalypso, for seven years. He made love to these goddesses every day. Kirke was the daughter of the Sun god Helios and Kalypso was the daughter of the Titan god Atlas.

These goddesses loved him. Kalypso offered him immortality, if only he would agree to stay with her. But even in this blissful life, he remembered Penelope waiting for him and he gently refused.

Athena and Odysseus

A third goddess, Athena, loved him and protected him. Once the Phaiakians brought Odysseus to Ithaca, Athena appeared to him as a beautiful blued-eyed tall woman skilled in weaving. They talked and Athena convinced Odysseus that he was in Ithaca. Yet Odysseus, not recognizing Athena, and as usual suspicious, he disguised himself. She cut him off. She said to Odysseus: “You failed to recognize that I am Pallas Athena, daughter of Zeus. I have stood by you forever, even making friends for you among the Phaiakians.” She started teasing him: that they had so much in common, being lovers of craftsmanship, diplomacy, elusiveness, and cunning.

“Here we are in Ithaca” Athena tells Odysseus, “the shrewdest minds in the cosmos. You are by far the best man on Earth in plotting strategies and spinning yarns, and, for my part, I am equally famous for wisdom and cunning among the gods” (13.281-302).

Odysseus won his fame and honors in the Trojan War. He was at its center. He was a great soldier and a general. He was the connecting link between the fighting kings, Agamemnon and Achilles. He soothed angry Achilles. And he invented the Wooden Horse that became the undoing of Troy. The grateful army honored him with the weapons of dead Achilles.

Return to Ithaca: Odyssey

Odysseus’ return to Ithaca, Homer’s Odyssey, is the passion of all humans to return home.

The very act of leaving home is a heroic act that leaves a vacuum in the soul. And when you reach that desired destination, the images of those you left behind, the aroma and taste of the grapes you ate from your father’s vines, are with you, reawakening all the loves that are no longer with you.

I went through this agony for years and decades, only to find myself gradually an alien in my own Ithaca in Cephalonia. No goddesses slept with me or advised me. I was alone in my fights against Cyclops Polyphemos, one-eyed monster son of Poseidon, the Sirens, bird-like beautiful female musicians, Skyla and Charybdis, water monsters of annihilation, and the Laestrygonian cannibals.

It would not make sense to use these names (mostly of monsters) in my American experience. The United States, the latest European nation in north America, is, like Europe, a clone of the original Greek vision of civilization.

I recognized lots of Greek achievements in America: in architecture, science and technology, even in politics. But like the Peloponnesian War shook Hellas to its foundations, the rush to get rich has been convulsing American society, with no end in sight: slaughtering the indigenous Americans, importing millions of black slaves, looting the land, creating genocidal weapons, and poisoning the environment.

The monsters I slew, not in my dreams, but in government offices. The cannibals could not tolerate infractions in their tastes or dogmas.

I cannot say my travel in America, decades long with many adventures, is over or that I have had a happy day of return to my Ithaca.

But that does not matter.

Ithaca

In a poem entitled “Ithaca,” the Greek poet Constantine Cavafy said in early twentieth century, it’s the journey that matters, the longer the better. He is right. He urged us to keep thinking of Ithaca. But don’t be disappointed that Ithaca has very little to give you. Instead, be satisfied by the riches of learning and experience you gained in your travels.

I learned a few things. I am grateful for the wisdom I gained from my experience: Odysseus remains my first cousin. He and Homer guided me in my life-long journey that made me who I am.

Evaggelos Vallianatos is a historian and environmental strategist, who worked at the US Environmental Protection Agency for 25 years. He is the author of 6 books, including Poison Spring with Mckay Jenkings.