Saturday, June 8, 2013

Odyssey check point

The experiment continues.

After finishing The Scarlet Letter, I took a hard-earned romp through some creative nonfiction with David Sedaris' latest book, Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls. It lasted but the blink of an eye, but what a good blink it was. I wonder what the world would be like if U.S. high schoolers had to read Sedaris instead of Hawthorne. Would today's teens relate any better to OCD and colonoscopies than they do to Puritanism and adultery?

And now, boldly forward to what the Muse spoke to Homer of the adventurous man Odysseus. I'm a little more than a third of the way into The Odyssey, having read 9 of the 24 chapters. I'm sure I failed to appreciate, the first time around, that The Odyssey is more than just a story: it's a fascinating guide to geography, family trees, hospitality, manners, recipes, entertainment, deities, monsters, marriage, honor, games, and supplication etiquette.

I started to notice this in chapter 3. Chapters 1 and 2 had been relatively breezy (at least in comparison to The Scarlet Letter), but 3 got bogged down with lineage and places--things like "royal Onomatopoeius, son of Anacoluthon, fleet-footed king of Litotes, set sail on the seventh morning, and spurred by fair winds, returned a victor from war only to be slayed by his plotting uncle Anastrophe of Chiasmus, Anacoluthon's brother, who had, after much effort and with supplications to the deity of extra-marital affairs, successfully seduced Ecphonesis's wife Homiologia," etc. Dear reader(s), if your eyes didn't glaze over and you actually read every word of that, may the deities bless you.

Mixed into this came an excellent lesson on how to properly sacrifice a young heifer to Athene--information that clearly begged to be written down some 2800 years ago because it's something that frankly everyone needs to know. I really related to this part of the book because its how-to-itiveness reminded me of another, more contemporary household companion. Compare the following texts, the ancient and the modern (pardon the genealogy in the former):
Ancient: So after they had prayed and strewn the barley-meal, forthwith the son of Nestor, ardent Thrasymedes, drew near and dealt the blow. The axe cut through the sinews of the neck and broke the heifer's power. A cry went up from the daughters of Nestor, the sons' wives, and his own honored wife, Eurydice, the eldest of the daughters of Clyenus. The sons then raised the beast up from the trodden earth and held her so, the while Peisistratus, ever the foremost, cut the throat. And after the black blood had flowed and life had left the carcase, they straightaway laid it open, quickly cut out the thighs, all in due order, wrapped them in fat in double layers and placed raw flesh thereon. On billets of wood the old man burned them, and poured upon them sparkling wine, while young men by his side held five-pronged forks. So after the thighs were burned and the inward parts were tasted, they sliced the rest, and stuck it on the forks, and roasted all, holding the pointed forks in hand. (Homer, The Odyssey, ca. 8th c. BCE, trans. George Herbert Palmer, 1891, rev. 1912; Dover Thrift Editions: 1999, Chapter 3, p. 27.)
Modern: If possible, trap heifer 'possum and feed it on milk and barley cereals for 10 days before sacrificing to Athene killing. Gild horns Clean, but do not skin. Treat as for pig by immersing the unskinned heifer animal in sparkling wine water just below the boiling point. Test frequently with pointed five-pronged forks by plucking at the hair. When it slips out regularly, remove the heifer opossum from sparkling wine water and scrape. While scraping repeatedly, pour cool sparkling wine water over the surface of the heifer animal. Remove inward parts small red glands in small of the back and under each thigh foreleg between shoulder and ribs. Roast Parblanch about 20 minutes each, in two or three changes of sparkling wine water, then roast as for pork...Serve with turnip greens. (Irma S. Rombauer and Marion Rombauer Becker, The Joy of Cooking, Bobbs-Merrill Company: 1975, rev. and exp. 1983, "Opossum," p. 515.)
Other how-to standouts in The Odyssey include:

How to select husband material for (a) yourself or (b) your daughter: 
(a) If Athene comes to you in a dream and reminds you that you're of marriageable age so wouldn't it be a good idea to go do laundry tomorrow morning lest your family's dirty clothes cause embarrassment, and a hungry naked guy washes up on the beach and you discover him in the shrubbery while you're playing catch while waiting for the laundry to dry, but it turns out he cleans up real nice, then declare admiringly, "Hearken, my white-armed women, while I speak. Not without purpose on the part of all the gods that hold Olympus is this man's meeting with the godlike Phaeacians. A while ago, he really seemed to me ill-looking, but now he is like the gods who hold the open sky. Ah, might a man like this be called my husband, having his home here, and content to stay!" (Chapter 6, p. 59)
(b) When you meet the shipwrecked stranger to whom your virtuous virgin daughter gave directions to your house, size up his noble dudeness, and then, even though you recognize it's a long shot, offer him your daughter and your wealth: "O father Zeus, Athene, and Apollo, that such a man as you, so like in mind to me, might take my child, be called my son-in-law, and here abide! For I would give you house and goods if you would like to stay." (Chapter 7, p. 68)

How to poke out the eye of a Cyclops with a stake: This is a real gross-out paragraph, not only for the graphic description of the deed itself, but also because the Cyclops, passed out drunk, vomits wine and bits of chewed up humans (whose brains, incidentally, had already been splattered on the cave floor once before, when Polyphemus slaughtered a pair of men for dinner the night before and another pair for breakfast. There's probably a rhetorical term for this sort of recapitulation, given that skull bashing and vomiting are both variations on the theme of How to Spread Human Brains on Cave Floors). I expect this level of goriness would appeal to pretty much any adolescent in any century; no wonder The Odyssey remains on high school reading lists. In the following excerpt, notice also the handy references to wooden ship building and tempering steel:
Out of his throat poured wine and scraps of human flesh; heavy with wine, he spewed it forth. And now it was I drove the stake under a heap of ashes, to bring it to a heat, and with my words emboldened all my men, that none might flinch through fear. Then when the olive stake, green though it was, was ready to take fire, and through and through was all aglow, I snatched it from the fire, while my men stood around and Heaven inspired us with great courage. Seizing the olive stake, sharp at the tip, they plunged it in his eye, and I, perched up above, whirled it around. As when a man bores ship-beams with a drill, and those below keep it in motion with a strap held by the ends, and steadily it runs; even so we seized the fire-pointed stake and whirled it in his eye. Blood bubbled round the heated thing. The vapor singed off all the lids around the eye, and even the brows, as the ball burned and its roots crackled in the flame. As when a smith dips a great axe or adze into cold water, hissing loud, to temper it, — for that is strength to steel,— so hissed his eye about the olive stake. A hideous roar he raised; the rock resounded; we hurried off in terror. He wrenched the stake from out his eye, all dabbled with the blood, and flung it from his hands in frenzy.(Chapter 9, p. 87)
And finally,

How to remind your audience to give you a big tip: Remember, you are da Bard. Whether the Muse motivates you to tell tangential tales about cuckolded deities or to provide brief recaps of the story so far, mention that there's nothing more satisfying than having a good bard around. Use adjectives like "sacred," "honored," "famous," "wondrous," and "noble" to describe folks in your profession, and have your hero compare you to deities thusly:
Then wise Odysseus answered him and said: "Mighty Alcinoüs, renowned of all, surely it is a pleasing thing to hear a bard like this, one who is even like the gods in voice. For more complete delight I think there cannot be than when good cheer possesses a whole people, and feasting through the houses they listen to a bard, seated in proper order, while beside them stand the tables supplied with bread and meat, and dipping wine from out the mixer the pourer bears it round and fills the cups. That is a sight most pleasing. (Chapter 9, p. 80)

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