My Bestie, Odysseus
Three hours in the chair, my shirt pulled down below my bra strap, white knuckled and gritting my teeth. My sisters thought I was crazy, but brave in a weird way. My partner was proud; it was his art being inked on my back.
It’s a circular design with the first line of the Odyssey (in Greek) on the top, “tell me muse of the many turned man.” That’s me, the many turned man...woman, actually. I had finally passed my qualifying exams for my PhD after a year of spending nearly every night in the library after work and making my dear husband an academic widower. I failed the first time through, but in the second go-round, months later–after an identity crisis and days of uncontrollable sobbing–I emerged victorious. Thus, my need to make an eternal mark to celebrate that victory. But, the road has always been many turned, and continues to be. That’s what Odysseus taught me: the journey home is never straight and it’s never really done.
You probably know the basic story of the Odyssey, though most dare not pick it up unless under duress. And for a grade. Why on earth would you read it otherwise? But, Odysseus has been a good friend to me. He has taught me how let go of things and people that are no longer helpful. I’ve learned about the roll of struggle and its importance in life, taken refuge in the kindness of others, become more humble, and more resolute on my journey. I’ve also learned the hardest lesson, home is never the end of a journey; it’s just the resting station before beginning a new journey.
I love ancient literature. The writing style is sometimes wanting, but the insights are nearly unrivaled by more modern attempts to translate the human condition with all of its highs and lows. With a good translation of a great story, it will pull you into its slightly alien world filled with monsters and heroes. These are the stories of your cultural ancestors. That makes them your stories too. They aren’t for little kids, the way we’ve traditionally been taught. The characters, including the gods, are deeply flawed and fully us with all of our darkness. The stories are full of sex, obsession, drinking, partying, abandonment, death, torment, and victory. They ask big questions and don’t shy away from tough answers, if there really is an answer.
I’ve also learned to see all those little pushes that are all around me, guiding me, helping me, and inspiring me as bits of divine help in disguise. In The Odyssey this is Athena, friend of heroes. But, god (or whatever you choose to call it) only helps those who make the effort to help themselves in the first place. I can expect no help if I don’t get off my own derriere.
I remember the first time I read the Odyssey. I was in a class, like most people who pick it up, and I was skeptical to say the least. I got a fairly recent translation and dove in. I soon found myself highlighting, making notes in the margins, and getting into deep discussions with my classmates about the material.
Since then I have assigned it in every class that I could fit it into, which is most of them. Religion and the Quest for Meaning, you’re reading the Odyssey. Roman Culture and Religion, you’re reading the Odyssey. Western Civilization, you’re reading the Odyssey. Approaches to Literature, yup, you too, lucky ducks. This is usually met with groans, and the unique sighs of undergrads with that look in their eyes that says, “this is not going to earn me a lot of money.” True. The chances of being asked about the Odyssey during an interview is basically zero. But when you leave this book with more understanding of yourself, your colleagues, and your bosses, that knowledge will help you earn more–though that is not even in the top 10 of you’ll get out of it. It turns out, history is accurate but poetry and literature hold the truth about us, including the fact that we can often be whiny bitches when we don’t get our way (I’m looking at you Achilles).
These stories are the old charts to buried treasure. Whenever I feel lost, I remember that the road is never a straight line, at least no road that takes you someplace new and interesting. When I’m depressed, I go back to all the tales of the underworld. No one gets out unscathed; sacrifices must be made if you want the valuable insight being offered. The deeper into the underworld you go, the bigger the sacrifice and greater the treasure. That’s another part of the glory of these stories, no matter where you are they will be there to meet you, whether you’re mired in the daily grind or in the depths of trauma, Odysseus, Ariadne, Persephone, and Psyche are there for you, waiting to help you put your struggle into words, a coherent story (if not literally, then in a truer metaphor).
I will continue to sail the wine-dark seas with Odysseus. After so many classes, 5 dead languages and 2 living, 8 failed language exams, 1 failed qualifying exam, and years spent on a dissertation I got home with my degree. The next day I set off again to find a new way to use it.
That chair is calling me again to further document of my many-turned voyage and record some of the waves I’m sailing now.