You learn something new every time you discuss one of Homer’s great stories, especially when you are working with actively engaged, wondering, thinking students. Sometimes, they come up with great ideas, or raise problems that you had not thought of. Sometimes they just stimulate your mind and imagination afresh.
Today, in response to the question of what Odysseus is like, someone said, “He’s a womanizer.” After discussing other things about his character (including his uncanny ability to lie), I returned to that, and asked why the student thought that. Pursuing this led me to realize that only twice does Odysseus have relations with a woman, both of them goddesses who were attracted to him. No mention is made of his having relations with a human woman, a pretty strong silent testimony to his fidelity through the long years of the Trojan War, especially when compared to the common practice of keeping female captives that led to the fight between Agamemnon and Achilles in the Iliad.
I took the opportunity to ask why Odysseus wants to leave Kalypso’s island, and the offer of immortality. This helped me to consider afresh the picture of immortality that Homer offers his listeners – to be immortal is miss out on the full, adventurous experience of human life. This remarkable affirmation of human life comes in spite of Odysseus’s hearing from the ghost of Achilles that he would rather be a slave to a thrall on earth than be king of the underworld. Yet still Odysseus refuses Kalypso’s immortality! Would that our young could be inspired by Homer to love human life so with all its uncertainties and struggles!