• Silvio Bär

Happy Belated New Year with Odysseus

Aktualisiert: 25. Jan.

How long after New Year’s Day can you continue wishing people a Happy New Year? I was not aware of the fact that there even existed corresponding rules (or attempts at establishing them) – but then, who does not like breaking, or at least bending, the rules a bit here and there? Well, I do, so: Happy Belated New Year to everyone! (And yes, I know, this expression is subject to controversy too because it is, after all, not the new year that is belated, but the wishes. But you know what I mean…)

Classical mythology too is full of characters who liked bending and breaking the rules. Perhaps the best-known example is Odysseus, who was a true master at this. In his famous encounter with the one-eyed giant Polyphemus, he abuses the holy rule of hospitality by eating up his host’s supplies in his absence – which turns out to be a terrible mistake, because the Cyclops, when returning to his cave, retaliates Odysseus’ boldness gruesomely. Likewise, when sailing past the island of the dangerous Sirens, Odysseus manages to listen to their beautiful singing without becoming their victim like everyone else before him – a “violation of law” that, according to some post-Homeric ancient interpreters, upset the Sirens so much that they all plunged themselves to death.

The bending and breaking is reciprocal, though: when you read Homer’s Odyssey, you will find numerous stories and incidents where others do not behave properly towards Odysseus either. The perhaps best example is, again, Polyphemus, who not only interprets the law of hospitality loosely like Odysseus, but who trespasses – and inverts – it outright by killing two of Odysseus’ comrades instead of entertaining them. On a macro-level, the Polyphemus episode is of course nothing else than a distorted version of what simultaneously happens at the court of Ithaca, where the suitors of Penelope are feasting on Odysseus’ supplies in his absence – a misbehaviour for which, as we all know, they will eventually be punished severely.

Another story from the Odyssey which can be read from the viewpoint of “bending and breaking the rules” is that of Kalypso, who detains Odysseus as long as seven years before she finally releases him on behest of Hermes, the messenger god (who, in turn, was sent by Zeus on behest of Athene, Odysseus’ divine helper). Kalypso knows that it is Odysseus’ destiny to return home eventually, but she ignores this until she is explicitly ordered to let him go. (Admittedly, though, it must be said that Odysseus at least occasionally enjoys the presence of Kalypso considerably more than one might expect from a faithful husband.)

Last autumn semester, my employer – the University of Oslo – generously granted me research leave, and I used the time to work on (amongst other things) one of my long-term research projects: writing a commentary on Book 5 of the Odyssey (to be published as part of the “Aris & Phillips Classical Texts” series) – the book that contains the Kalypso episode just mentioned, followed by Odysseus’ release from the island of Ogygia and his subsequent trip on a raft to the isle of the Phaeacians. One of the most famous and most touching scenes in this book is the moment when Kalypso makes her final attempt to persuade Odysseus to stay with her for good; and to achieve this end, she offers him the maximum of what a divinity can offer a human (lines 203–213; my translation):

Zeus-arisen son of Laertes, much-resourceful Odysseus!

Do you really want so much to go home to your beloved fatherland,

now, immediately? So farewell then, all the same!

But if you knew in your mind how many sorrows your destiny [it is]

to fulfil before you reach your fatherland,

you’d stay here on the spot and you’d protect this house together with me,

and you’d be immortal, no matter [how much] you desire to see

your wife, for whom you’re longing every day.

Surely I can claim not to be inferior to that [woman],

neither in appearance nor in stature, as it seems by no means right

that mortal [women] should compete with immortals in appearance and beauty.

Immortality it is what Kalypso promises Odysseus on condition that he stays with her forever – if that is not something of an offer! However, Kalypso’s offer is yet another case of rule breaking, because gods and goddesses too must adhere to what destiny has preordained; and it is Odysseus’ destiny to return to Ithaca – period. (A passage in Book 16 of the Iliad shows clearly how the deities too are subordinate to destiny: Zeus is tempted to rescue his immortal son Sarpedon from the battlefield although it is his destiny to die, but Hera warns him: Zeus may technically be able to override destiny, but if he does so, all the other gods and goddesses will henceforth want to save their favourite mortals too, and therefore, even the father of all gods had better let it be.)

But back to Odysseus! His answer to Kalypso’s offer follows promptly (lines 215–224; my translation):

Mighty goddess, don’t be angry with me for this! I too know it

very well that compared to you, prudent Penelope is

of less account in beauty and height to look at;

for she is mortal, but you are immortal and ageless.

But even so I want and desire all days

to go home and to see the day of return.

And even if one of the gods should scatter me on the wine-coloured sea,

I will endure it as I have a pain-enduring heart in my breast;

for I have already suffered very much and gone through much labour

on the waves and in war – after those things, also this shall happen!

How do you decline an offer as generous as Kalypso’s? Odysseus’ response is an example of rhetorical proficiency by and of itself: first, he praises Kalypso’s beauty and makes it clear that her appearance is far superior to that of his mortal wife – but then, he states unequivocally that he wishes to go home all the same, for this is what he desires, and his desire is stronger than anything else; and to achieve this end, he is prepared to endure even more sufferings, despite everything he has already gone through.

All its dramatic and emotional potential notwithstanding, this key scene from Book 5 has been omitted in what truly can be called the latest renarration and restaging of Homer’s Odyssey: the opera “Die Odyssee” by the Dutch composer Leonard Evers, which recently premiered at the Opera House in Zurich. I had the great pleasure of attending the penultimate performance of this world premiere on 8 January 2022 before I returned to Oslo to teach classical mythology. I am not going to pretend here to be an opera expert only because I did musicology as a second minor ages ago; but of course I cannot deny that I was unable to hand over the heart of a Classics scholar to the cloakroom attendant – so, noticing the absence of Kalypso’s offer in the story line of this opera must be the obvious result of an advanced déformation professionnelle on my part.

To be sure, Pamela Dürr, the librettist of the opera, has bent the Homeric narrative considerably on more than one occasion. The complex narrative structure of the Odyssey has been disentangled into a straightforward, linear narrative, and the killing of the suitors has been left out entirely – it is only briefly alluded to at the end before the curtain falls (the fact that the opera is meant to be a family opera suited for children must be the principal reason for the omission of the actual climax of the Odyssey). Thus, the narrative focus of the opera lies on what the Odyssey is indeed most famous and most popular for, namely, the fairy-tale part of the narration, the so-called Nostoi (Books 9–12, the “Homecoming Stories”).

Evers’ music oscillates between various, different styles and inter alia displays influence from jazz and film music; and, the fact that the orchestration does not include any string instruments may be labelled a breach of established opera practice. The majority of the singers at the premiere performance in Zurich were members of the International Opera Studio (an internationally leading institution for young opera singers who are at the beginning of their professional career), amongst whom the excellent Swiss soprano Chelsea Zurflüh should be singled out, as she delivered an exceptionally brillant performance in her double role as Circe and Kalypso.

But, as said, I am not aiming at writing a fully-fledged opera review here. All I wish for is that my enthusiasm for Homer’s Odyssey as well as for Evers’ opera may motivate some of my readers to turn to either of it. However, should I have incited anyone to make “bending and breaking the rules” their New Year’s resolution, I do not take any responsibility. Happy Belated New Year to everyone!

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Odysseus and the Sirens. Mosaic from Tunisia, second century A.D., now in the Bardo National Museum in Tunis. Picture from Wikipedia (public domain).

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