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Our first encounter with Odysseus is on Calypso’s island, Ogygia. While the island itself is a paradise, and Calypso a beautiful goddess, Odysseus takes no joy from these and is instead presented as a devastated with longing for a return to his native Ithaca. While his detainment on Ogygia might place him in an immortal paradise, it isolates him to the point of separating him from many of the people and roles that define his identity. In addition to isolation, Ogygia also reduces Odysseus to inactivity through an unchanging existence. These ideas, separation and inactivity, create reveal Odysseus’ stay on Ogygia as more than simply delaying his voyage home. Ogygia serves the place in which Odysseus’ identity becomes deconstructed to the extreme that he is a virtually anonymous mortal; he is no longer the famed Odysseus in anything but name only.

This deconstruction begins with the isolation that Odysseus endures on Ogygia, serving to strip away many of the sources of Odysseus’ identity. The absence of other people, both humanity in a broad sense as well as specific individuals, disallows Odysseus from fulfilling many of the roles that once served to identify him. For instance, by the time Odysseus has reached Calypso’s island he has lost the entirety of his men when “Zeus hit the craft/ with lightning bolt and thunder”, and without any crew or fleet to command, he no longer fulfills the role of captain or leader (12.447-8). With the absence from Ithaca and from Penelope and Telemachus, he does not actively fulfill the roles of husband or father, nor is he actively serving as king of Ithaca. The only role that Odysseus fulfills in person is that of Calypso’s “unwilling lover”, a role in which he “had no choice” and one that only serves to further render him powerless and emasculated (5.172, 5.171).  While Odysseus may still technically retain the these roles such as father and king, he fulfills them in name only, and this separation of the identity of Odysseus from Odysseus the man is the central feature of his time on the island.

Odysseus’ identity is further separated from him on Ogygia because he no longer has the opportunity to employ his most identifying character traits. He is introduced to us as “the man of twists and turns” before even his name is revealed, as if to show the primacy that the character traits of cunning and intelligence hold within Odysseus’ identity (1.1). The importance of these traits is also revealed in his first encounter with Circe. Upon realizing that she has been outmaneuvered, she quickly realizes Odysseus’ identity. She concludes, “you have a mind in you no magic can enchant!/ you must be Odysseus, man of twists and turns” (10.365-6). Her quick determination shows the close connection between his identity and such characteristics; they are so interwoven that the observation of one conclusively leads to the deduction of the other. On Ogygia, Odysseus has no use of a quick mind, however, “he’s left to pine on an island, racked with grief” with no obstacles he is capable of overcoming with such skills (5.15). His defining characteristic falls into disuse, for on an island where nothing and no one changes there is no need to be “deft and tactful”, for there is nothing to react to, nor is he capable of holding any command over Calypso, who is a “lustrous goddess” with the power to “[hold] him there by force” (11.403, 5.96, 5.16). Essentially, the position of Odysseus on Ogygia is more than just confinement or restriction. In a sense, Ogygia also neutralizes Odysseus by minimizing or removing the roles and traits that are most essential to his identity.

The loss of identity in this way is particularly humiliating for Odysseus because he often utilized methods of deception and disguise. These methods reveal that his very identity is something that Odysseus would manipulate to serve his advantage. As such, the loss of identity is more disabling for Odysseus’ than it would be for other heroes, since identity was one of his key resources. Curiously, one of his most notable uses of disguise is during his encounter with Polyphemus when he declares, “Nobody – that’s my name”, a deception which was ultimately rendered prophetic, for the Odysseus we meet on Calypso’s island is without his former identity (9.409). Along this same theme, he seems to almost be rendered anonymous. In the conversation between Hermes and Calypso, neither reference Odysseus by his name; he is known only as “the most unlucky man” and the “man that [Calypso] saved” neither of which characterize him as an individual unto himself (5.117, 5.144). The first depicts him as subjugated by ill fate and the other as dependent upon another.

Moreover, Odysseus is a man of action, and on Ogygia he is reduced to repeating the same routine each day and night. This stands in sharp contrast to the many feats that Odysseus in renowned for. He is regarded as a “campaigner”, “mastermind of war” and  as “the man of countless exploits” and “tactics”; however, each of these epithets rings empty on Ogygia where Odysseus spends “all his days on the rocks and beaches/ wrenching his heart with sobs” (11.66, 11.458, 11.428, 11.536, 5.173-4). In this sense, his stay on Ogygia not only deteriorates his identity but also places him in a static state.This static nature of Odysseus’ stay on Calypso’s island may also have a level of dehumanization. For example, when speaking with Hermes, Calypso mentions that she “even vowed/ to make [Odysseus] immortal” (5.150-1). While this may initially present as a blessing, it would negate his humanity since it is only mortality that separates humans from the gods. One effect of this mortality is that humans are in a state of constant development and change. Such change, however, is an impossibility on Calypso’s island whether or not Odysseus would have been made immortal, for Odysseus is portrayed as “sitting, still” with “his sweet life flowing away” (5.167-8). As such, Ogygia removes not only Odysseus’ individual character but also disallows the development and activity that characterizes humanity as a whole.

The release from Calypso’s island and its effect on Odysseus also reflect the deconstruction of his identity that occurred during there. Much of the description of his encounter with the Phaeacians is evocative of a kind of reconstruction or renewal. The Odysseus that arrives on Scheria is exhausted, battered, and virtually barbaric, “a terrible sight, all crusted, caked with brine” (6.151). Upon his arrival he sleeps a “deep sleep” and bathes to “[scrub] his body/ clean of brine”, both actions associated with notions of renewal (6.2, 6.247-8). Moreover, in his first interaction with another human in seven years he also has the opportunity to begin reasserting his identity through his use of charm and cunning to craft “a subtle, winning word”, a hallmark of his former grandeur (6.160). Overall, just this first arrival for Odysseus is transformational. He transforms from a disheveled, naked barbarian to an imposing and powerful human, a physical show of his reclaiming of some of his former glory. Behaviorally, Odysseus also begins to regain his lost identity by once again utilizing long dormant intellectual capabilities. Furthermore, it is on Scheria that Odysseus literally reclaims his identity, by revealing who he his and reciting his journey. This revelation however, does not take place until three books after his release from Ogygia, an indication of the reconstructive process necessary prior to this restoration of identity.  Moreover, it is interesting that it is Odysseus himself that “launched out on his story” and is thus placed in the position of reciting his own tale (9.1). Through this, Odysseus is placed in precise control of his own story, and in a larger context, the reestablishment of his identity.

While the Odysseus that leaves Calypso’s island is one with a heavily deteriorated identity, the successful beginning of its reclaiming reveals that it was not entirely nullified. What remains constant for Odysseus during his years on Ogygia is his memory of his home and his desire to return, for “the tears he wept” all of his days were “for his foiled journey home”, and his “heart” was “set on his wife and return” (5.179, 1.16). His memory of home preserves his identity, not only because it focuses his desire on return but also because so much of his identity is inextricably interwoven with Ithaca. As king, he is the representative of the land, and he is intimately connected with it. Moreover, his father and son are both on Ithaca, and therefore his embodied past and future live in Ithaca. Penelope, too, shapes Odysseus’ identity both through his role as her husband but also in the way that they are shown to reflect each other and insofar as the “work as one” (6.202). As such there is a deep connection between Odysseus’ identity and his home, and it is no coincidence that the journey through which he will reclaim his identity ultimately culminates in his reclaiming of his home and his royal rights.

This centrality of his home to his identity also provides an interpretation for the reason the narrative begins on Ithaca. Just as we meet Odysseus on Ogygia when his identity is at its most reduced point, Ithaca is presented at the point where Odysseus’ position is in greatest peril. The suitors have “caught [Penelope] in the act” and uncovered her trickery, and are demanding Telemachus “direct her to marry whomever her father picks” (2.121, 2.126). His “worldly goods and wealth” are being drained by the suitors, and Telemachus’ right of succession is also threatened if Penelope remarries (2.136). Without an eminent return, his home, his wife, and his claim to the throne could be taken by another. As such, there is a certain parallel between the starting points on Ogygia and on Ithaca as both reveal the extent to which Odysseus’ identity has unraveled and become precarious. Furthermore, the very opening of the Odyssey, the invocation of the muse, also places his identity in uncertainty by introducing him as “the man of twists and turns” (1.1). Rather than immediately introducing him by name provides a level of ambiguity, an ambiguity that again manifests around Odysseus’ identity on both Ithaca and Ogygia.

There is another parallel within the invocation of the muse and our introduction to Ithaca. It is interesting that through these we are introduced to his character traits, a summary of his story with the “many pains he suffered”, and his positions in society and his family on Ithaca, before Odysseus the man is presented (1.5). Just as their introduction is separate from that of Odysseus, these defining positions and traits have become separate from his as well. The names of Odysseus – his titles, some of his epithets, and his very own name – are introduced separately from the man himself. The man we meet is Odysseus, man of twists and turns and king of Ithaca, but in name only. His journey once he leaves Ogygia is what allows him to fulfill and live up to these names, to become Odysseus in both name and nature. It may also be worth considering that to some extent, he even seems to reclaim each of these names in the order that they are introduced. He begins by once more becoming the deft and cunning speaker in his interactions on Scheria, and then he relates his story to the Phaeacians, and lastly he returns to Ithaca to be king, husband, and father once more.

The island of Ogygia is devoid of both human population and and any variation in activity, and, in accordance, so is Odysseus. For a mortal, and perhaps more so for one who is esteemed among others, this lack of human contact and change represents a lack of meaningful identity. Through this deconstructive effect, his stay and eventual release serve as a transformational point in Odysseus’ journey. It is the final degradation in a series of misfortunes, and the event through which Odysseus finds himself alone and reduced from a king and hero to nothing more than amusement for a goddess. As such, it is also the beginning point from which his journey to return to Ithaca becomes more fundamentally a return to himself. It is a journey of return to humanity, to what it means to be human and what it means to be Odysseus.

 

21 Responses to “The Return Home: Ogygia’s Effect on Odysseus’ Identity”

  1. khoneycutt says:

    Anna,

    This is a very thoughtful piece about Odysseus’ humanity and identity. I like the points about Odysseus being destabilized from his name and abilities at the beginning of the Odyssey. He is also separated from his lineage; unlike Achilles at the beginning of the Iliad, Odysseus is not called the son of his father (1.1, 1.24). It is perhaps worth pointing out in this context that when his name does first appear (1.24), the Greek term that Fagles translates as “great” is “antitheos,” which can mean something like “god-comparable” but also something like “god-opposed.” So even his prominence is ambiguous.

    I am not sure he never enjoyed Calypso’s island, but certainly by the end he is in despair. Perhaps this is linked to not really being able to be Odysseus any longer; he is a wanderer and explorer trapped on an island in more ways than one (your line about his “defining characteristic” being in disuse is nice, as is the connection to the Cyclops). As I mentioned in class, I think it is suggestive as a thought experiment to ponder whether Achilles and Odysseus might have made different decisions had they been able to switch places. On Calypso’s island, there is no fame, but there is immortality (although there are indications that the gods would have killed Odysseus and perhaps have killed Calypso’s lovers before [5.129ff]).

    Scheria being the scene of his reconstructed humanity is an excellent point; though it is far from clear that the Phaecians are mortals, they certainly look a lot more like mortals than most of the things Odysseus has encountered over the past ten years. And he is once again able to display his prowess both in speeches and deeds. As you note, he launches out on his story (9.1); I would add to this that he pointedly does not invoke the Muses. Perhaps this is because he does not need them in order to narrate things that he has seen (or not seen?) himself; but perhaps this marks him out as a different type of poet. He is a poet without the help of the gods, one might say.

    As you read the Iliad in Prof. Walker’s class, think about whether Achilles goes through a similar journey of rehumanization or whether it is something like dehumanization.

    KH

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