A Long and Difficult Journey, or The Odyssey: Crash Course Literature 201


Hi, I’m John Green, welcome to
Crash Course Literature! You can tell I’m an English teacher because I’m wearing a sweater, but you tell I’m the kind of English teacher who wants to be your friend because I’m wearing awesome sneakers. This is actually season two of
Crash Course Literature. If you want to watch season one, you can
do so over here. It’s season four of Crash Course Humanities –
it might even be like, season 7 or 8 if you count
all the science stuff. Whatever let’s just get started! [Theme Music] We’re going to start at the beginning of literature,
or, at least, a beginning of literature. Sing in me, Muse, and through me tell the
story of a man who lets all his shipmates die, lies to everyone he meets, cheats on his
wife with assorted nymphs, and takes 10 years to complete a voyage that, according to Google Maps, should have taken 2 weeks. That man is, of course, one of the great
heroes of the ancient world. Ladies and gentlemen, meet Odysseus,
star of Homer’s The Odyssey. Did I just say the odd at sea? That’s a good pun.
Not in the original Greek though. Now everyone knows that you can’t properly
enjoy a book until you know a lot about its author, so before we discuss The Odyssey, we’re going to begin with a biographical sketch of Homer, the legendary blind poet of ancient Greece. What’s that? Apparently we know nothing about him. Well, in fact we know that whoever wrote them didn’t actually write them, because they were composed orally. And was Homer even blind? Well, there are some verses about blindness in the Homeric Hymns and there’s a blind bard who appears in The Odyssey, But if authors only wrote about characters
who were like themselves, then James Joyce’s characters would have all had one eye, and I would
be an astonishingly handsome seventeen-year-old. As for the subject of Homer’s poems, archeological
evidence tells us that the Trojan War occurred around the twelfth century BCE, although it
probably included far fewer gods and similes
than in the epics based on it. Then again, maybe not;
it’s not like we have pictures. Anyway, Homer composed The Iliad and
The Odyssey in the eighth century BCE,
so centuries after the events it describes. And then no one bothered to write them
down for another 200 years, which means that they probably changed a lot
as they were passed down via the oral tradition, and even today there are arguments about
which parts are original and which parts are additions. There were a lot of competing poems about the
Trojan War, but Homer’s were by far the most famous, and they are now the most famous
because they were also the only ones to survive
the burning of the Library at Alexandria. So The Iliad and The Odyssey are epic poems,
and we define an epic as “a long narrative poem; on a serious subject; written in a grand or
elevated style; centered on a larger-than-life hero.” By the way, that was an example of dactylic
hexameter, just like you see in epic poems. So the events of The Odyssey take place
after those of The Iliad, so let’s have a brief
recap Thought Bubble. So Helen, the wife of Menelaus, runs off with Paris, a Trojan prince; or maybe she’s abducted, it’s not clear. Anyway, Menelaus’s brother Agamemnon gathers
allies and goes to Troy to get her back, but the war
drags on for ten years. At which point everyone is really tired and
bored and wants to go home, until things suddenly get pretty tense because Agamemnon seizes a concubine of Achilles’ and Achilles gets really angry and says he won’t fight anymore. And things go really badly for the Greeks
until Patroclus – Achilles’ best friend and
maybe also lover, it’s not clear – goes into battle in his place and does a pretty awesome job until he’s slain by Hector, the Trojans’ great warrior. Which forces Achilles to reconcile himself
with his own mortality, and return to the field where he becomes
the ultimate death-dealing machine, slaying hordes of Trojans including Hector,
whose body he drags behind his chariot
because that’s how Achilles rolls, until Hector’s father, Priam, comes and
begs for his son’s corpse and Achilles relents and they have dinner together, and then the book ends
with the war still going on and nothing really resolved. And that’s The Iliad. When The Odyssey opens, it’s 10 years
later, and everyone is already back home
except for Odysseus. His son Telemachus and his wife Penelope
don’t know if he’s dead or alive, but Homer
reveals that he’s on the Isle of Ogygia. Imprisoned by the nymph Calypso, who’s so hot for Odysseus even though he pends his days laying on the beach and crying that she won’t let him go. But finally the gods intervene and after a series of adventures and a whole lot of backstory he finally returns home to Ithaca in disguise, and kills several dozen suitors who have been
drinking all of his wine, eating his beeves, annoying
his wife and plotting to kill his son. And it seems like a cycle of violence is just
going to continue on, probably forever, until the goddess Athena who loves Odysseus
intervenes and restores peace. The end. Thanks, Thought Bubble. So, some of the big
questions around The Odyssey are Odysseus’
heroic characteristics, the epic’s double standard for women, and whether
you can ever actually stop a cycle of violence. Odysseus hardly appears in The Iliad and he’s not a particularly great fighter; in fact, he’s a pretty sleazy guy. He leads a night raid into the enemy
camp and kills a bunch of sleeping Trojans. That’s not particularly glorious. But it is typical of Odysseus, who will pretty
much do whatever it takes to survive. I mean, his distinguishing quality is metis,
which means skill, or cunning. Odysseus is smart; he’s really smart. I mean, he’s an incredibly persuasive speaker and he can talk his way out of the stickiest of situations, even ones
that involve, like, Cyclopses. He’s also kind of a monster of self-interest, and if he weren’t so smug and overconfident he might have gotten home in less than, you know, like, a gajllion years. The best example of this is probably Odysseus’
encounter with the Cyclops. So Odysseus and his men land on the
island of the Cyclops, and he and several of his guys settle into the Cyclops’ cave, feasting on the delicious goat cheese that the Cyclops has hoarded, and then, expecting the Cyclops to return
and offer them gifts, because that’s what you
do when someone breaks into your house. I mean yes, there was an ancient Greek tradition
of hospitality, but that’s taking it pretty far; and for the record, it’s also pretty much
exactly what the suitors are doing in Odysseus’
house, for which he kills them. So the Cyclops comes home and he’s so thoroughly
not psyched about these guys in his cave that he begins to eat them, and in response
Odysseus gets the Cyclops drunk and then
blinds him with a flaming spear, which is fairly easy to do because of
course he only has one eye. Odysseus has given his name as Noman,
so when the Cyclops cries out, “No man is hurting me! No man is killing me!” the other Cyclopes don’t come to his aide, because you know they think there’s no man hurting him. It’s a pun. It’s a blindingly good pun. But then when it seems like Odysseus might get away
with it, he can’t tolerate the idea that “no man” is going to get the credit so he announces his actual name, causing the Cyclops to call down curses on him, which culminates in all of his men being killed. Just as a rule of thumb, you do not want to
be friends with Odysseus, and you also don’t
want to be his enemy. Just stay away. So Odysseus is a trickster and a liar and
a pirate and a serial adulterer, and he’s responsible for the death of a lot
of people, and he also has probably the worst
sense of direction in all of Greek literature. But is he a hero?
Yes. To the Greeks, heroism didn’t mean perfection, it meant that you had an extraordinary attribute or ability, and Odysseus definitely does. It’s not for nothing that he’s the favorite of
Athena, the goddess of wisdom. I mean, she applauds all of his tricks and stratagems, and she encourages us to applaud them too, even though from our contemporary perspective, he’s a pretty shady dude. Speaking of contemporary perspective,
one of Odysseus’ least stellar qualities is his
attitude toward women. He’s really big on this sexual double standard in which the exact same behavior types women as sluts and men as studs. Actually the whole epic in general is incredibly—wait, why is my desk moving? Oh, the secret compartment is open.
It must be time for the open letter. What have we got today? Well, it’s Medusa, a
representation of woman as a monstrous serpent. An open letter to the patriarchy: how are
you so incredibly resilient? Also, please explain something to me: How is it that the only way for someone
to become like a good heroic strong man
is to have sex with lots of women, but if a woman has sex with lots of men,
she’s like tainted and impure and horrible? Patriarchy, I don’t want to get too deeply into math but in order for men to have sex with a lot of women, a lot of women have to have sex with men. That’s it, that’s the only way, patriarchy! So basically you’re saying that the only way
for men to achieve manliness is for women
to fail at womanliness! It’s bad! Actually, it’s evil! I hate you!
Best wishes, John Green. Yeah, so the whole epic is incredibly paranoid
about female sexuality. I mean the story that haunts The Odyssey is that of Agamemnon, the leader of the Achaeans, who returns victorious from the war, only to be murdered by his wife
and her lover. And then when they meet in the underworld, Agamemnon’s ghost warns Odysseus that he better come home in secret because Penelope might try and have him killed too. And the misogyny doesn’t end there; I mean this is a book full of monsters, and,
Cyclops aside, a lot of them are female; like the Sirens who lure men too their deaths,
or Scylla, who’s basically an octopus with teeth. And then of course there’s Charybdis,
a hole that sucks men to their doom. You can explore the Freudian implications of that
one over at Crash Course Psychology. Meanwhile Odysseus sleeps with like every
manner of magical lady and nearly marries
an island princess, but he assures us that he was always true
to his wife “in his heart.” Which is nice, but it would be even nicer
if he were true to his wife in his pants. Stan, who is ever the stickler for historical
accuracy, would like me to acknowledge that Odysseus didn’t wear pants because they
weren’t a thing in Greece yet, so he wasn’t true to his wife in like his toga or his loincloth
or whatever. Anyway, even as he’s sleeping around,
Odysseus is incredibly concerned with whether
or not Penelope is chaste. If she isn’t, he’ll likely kill her. After all, he later executes all the
housemaids for sleeping with the suitors,
and he’s not even married to them. The epic seems like it’s building to a
climactic scene wherein Odysseus is going
to test Penelope’s faithfulness, but instead it’s Penelope who tests Odysseus. When he reveals himself to her, she
doesn’t recognize him. She forces him to prove himself by speaking the secret of their marriage bed, and only then does she embrace
him in one of the most beautiful lines in all of Homer: “And so she too rejoiced, her gaze upon her husband,
her white arms round him pressed as though forever.” Some ancient commentators believed the poem
should end right there like any good romance would, with Odysseus and Penelope blissfully
reunited, but it doesn’t. See Odysseus and a couple of his friends, with a big assist from Athena, have slaughtered all the suitors, and the serving maids, and that’s a problem,
because this isn’t The Iliad. They aren’t at war. The Iliad is a poem of war, and it’s
main concern is kleos, which means glory or renown achieved on the battlefield that guarantees
you a kind of immortality because your deeds are so amazing that everyone’s going to
sing about you forever. Achilles didn’t get to go home.
He had two choices: he could stay and fight and win glory, or he
could go home and live a long and quiet life. In The Iliad, Achilles went for glory. But The Odyssey is about the alternative. It’s about what we do after a war,
how we put war away. Odysseus isn’t particularly good at this. He’s sort of an ancient example of Post
Traumatic Stress Disorder. He’s been through so much that he
doesn’t know how to adjust to peacetime; his response to young men taking over his dining hall and barbecuing all of his pigs is mass slaughter. And the slaughter of the suitors leads to their relatives coming to try to slaughter Odysseus, and if Athena
hadn’t descended from Olympus, conveniently, and put a stop to it, pretty soon there would
have been no one left on Ithaca alive. And that’s a sobering final thought: if it weren’t for divine intervention, the humans in this story might have continued that cycle of violence
forever. The Odyssey is a poem set in peacetime, but it reminds us that humans have never been particularly good at leaving war behind them. Next week we’ll be discussing another story
with lots of sex and violence and Greeks: Oedipus. Thanks for watching. I’ll see you
then. Crash Course is made with the help of all
of these nice people and it is brought to you today by Crash Course viewer and Subbable
subscriber Damian Shaw. Damian wants to say thanks for all your support to Bryonie, Stew,
Peter, Morgan and Maureen. And today’s video is cosponsored by Max Loutzenheiser and Katy
Cocco. Thank you so much for subscribing on Subbable and supporting Crash Course so we
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Subbable.com. Thank you for watching, and as we say in my hometown, don’t forget to
be awesome.

Danny Hutson

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