Veterans Book Group is a statewide program serving Maine Veterans: combat Veterans, women Veterans, and all service members.
A colleague of mine once claimed that an epic poem is best understood as an extended meditation on a theme. I liked the idea and immediately tried to identify the themes of my favorites. Homer’s Iliad was easy: it’s an extended meditation on war. Virgil’s Aeneid can be read as an extended meditation on empire. The theme of Homer’s Odyssey, however, never revealed itself quite so clearly, and until I began reading the Odyssey with combat Veterans, I had never settled on a theme. In fact, my inability to identify a central meditative theme for Homer’s Odyssey had always come between me and the text. I never loved the Odyssey as I did the Iliad, despite having taught it every year for more than sixteen years. The best I could do was claim that the Odyssey is about identity: what it means to be male, Greek, and human. It’s well accepted that the Odyssey is at least in part about gender. In the epic, our hero is plagued by a parade of terrifying monsters, deities, and disasters — Calypso, Scylla, Charybdis, Circe, the Sirens — all gendered female. Scholars find in the Odyssey a misogynistic tendency to present the female as obstructionist, false, and downright deadly. Even Odysseus’ trusty protectress, Athena, frustrates Odysseus by appearing before him in disguise. Against this female Other, Odysseus stands as the sturdy male, tricky, perhaps, and deadly when necessary, but also faithful to his brothers-in-arms and steadfast in his mission to get home.
In addition to gender, the Odyssey explores with some thoughtfulness what it means to be Greek. Homer’s description of the land of the infamous Cyclopes highlights their waste of natural resources and their lack of trade, sailing, craftsmanship, or cultivation: “It pastures no flocks, has no tilled fields — unplowed, unsown…The Cyclopes do not sail and have no craftsmen…[it] would bear everything in season…vines would thrive…it has deep, rich soil that would produce bumper crops…the harbor’s good, too…” (65). We learn in addition that the Cyclopes are not political creatures: “They have no assemblies or laws but live in high mountain caves ruling their own children and wives and ignoring each other” (ibid.). Nothing could be further from civilization as the Greeks understood it. In this episode Homer shows us what it is to be Greek — and what it is not to be!
Finally, in the Odyssey, Odysseus flirts not with death — as does Achilles in the Iliad — but with life, eternal life. The goddess Calypso offers Odysseus as much, but he refuses: “Goddess and mistress,” he says, “…I know very well that Penelope, for all her virtues, would pale beside you. She’s only human, and you are a goddess…Still I want to go back” (35). Likewise, when Odysseus leaves the Phaeacians in Book 13, finally Ithaca bound, it is clear that he has left their uncanny utopia and its other-worldly promise behind forever.
I made myself content with these observations until I was asked to facilitate a reading group for combat Veterans through the Maine Humanities Council. I took my lead from a similar group that had found Homer’s Odyssey a particularly fruitful text. Many consider the Odyssey an epic of homecoming, and thus we settled on a theme for the first group: “Coming Home.” In Homeric Greek thought, a hero wants two things, kleos and nostos. He wants immortal fame (kleos) so his name will survive him, but he also wants homecoming (nostos) so that he can enjoy that fame with his loved ones while still alive. In all of Greek mythology, only Odysseus gets both kleos and nostos. In the word nostos you may recognize half the English word “nostalgia,” which comes from two Greek roots, nostos meaning “homecoming” and algos meaning “pain.” And with this nostalgia we finally begin to approach what I have come to understand as the organizing meditative theme of the Odyssey. In leading the Veterans group, I learned that the Odyssey is not just a story of identity or homecoming or even of homecoming pain. It is the story of a combat Veteran coming home from war. With this realization, myriad mysteries of the epic were revealed, and the text whose theme had escaped me for so long finally came into focus.
I had never fully understood, for example, why the epic named for Odysseus did not introduce its title character until the fifth book. The Veterans, most first-time readers of the Odyssey, saw immediately that the epic begins with a picture of the home front and the suffering endured when a loved one is missing in action, which is, in modern terms, Odysseus’ status when the epic opens. Similarly, I was never able to suspend my disbelief long enough to find a ten-year journey from Turkey to Greece credible, but reading the text with combat Veterans completely changed my mind. I realized that the length of the journey had to do not with geography but with psychology. Many Veterans struggle to feel truly at home in civilian life, and the process can indeed take years to accomplish.
Many other aspects of the text also made sense to me for the first time in the context of the group. Odysseus’ strained relationship with his wife and the delicate tests of faith each executes on the other resonated with the Veterans’ own experiences of returning to marriage after a long absence. Group members recognized in Odysseus their own feelings of invisibility upon return to civilian life, their desire, once home, to return to combat, and their tendency to seek ways to escape the enduring pain of what they had experienced in war.
There are plenty more examples I could offer, all of which would only lead you to ask more insistently, “How could you not have seen this?” “How could you, trained in the classics, not have understood the Odyssey’s core theme?” The answer is that I got as close as I could without proximity to the Veteran experience. The Odyssey is about how one returns to civilian life after combat. Only through the Veteran experience, so generously shared with me, could I fully understand the poem, and I will be forever grateful to the group for helping me in that regard. In his Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming, Jonathan Shay asserts that “Odysseus has shown us how not to return home from war” (149). I could not disagree more. The Odyssey is not a prescription; it is a work of art, a poem built on the deep wisdom of oral tradition that speaks to Veterans — ancient and modern — of certain visceral, timeless truths about returning to civilian life after combat.
Jeannine Diddle Uzzi, PhD, is Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs, USM. She served as the lead scholar as the MHC created Veterans Book Group. This article is featured in the MHC Summer 2016 Update Mailing.
Stanley Lombardo’s The Essential Odyssey (Hackett 2007)
Jonathan Shay’s Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming (Scribner 2002)