Odysseus on the Wine-Dark Sea

So, here I am with my maritime theme; am I interested in seafaring? I think not, and yet, as a literary subject, I think I very much am. Or, if you will, as a chronotope. From Margaret Cohen’s fascinating essay, “The Chronotopes of the Sea”:

There are six waterside chronotopes across the history of the English and French literary traditions that date back to the novel’s prehistory in antique forms. These chronotopes are (1) blue water, the open sea; (2) brown water, the murky depths of the river; (3) white water, when bodies of water are riled up into extreme natural danger; (4) the island, land entirely surrounded by water; (5) the shore, a zone of contact between land and sea; and (6) the ship, an unstable piece of terra firma that propels humans across the sea’s inhospitable territory.

I will say that I am not terribly interested in brown water, although Cohen’s discussion makes it sound like I could be. And while I am interested in the island and the shore, I have tried to segregate them from my current undertaking, though I have considered a future island/seaside course of reading as well.

Cohen describes blue water as

the realm of the open ocean containing immense and violent powers of weather, terrain (currents, tide, water depth), monstrous animals, and aggressive warriors, as well as pirates and adventurers seeking gain in unpoliced zones beyond the control of sovereign and law. On blue water, individual characters test their agency by meeting these violent forces and struggling to survive the clash among them.

There is a lot of blue water in The Odyssey. (In fact, Cohen does not limit her discussion to the English and French literary traditions, as she brings up The Odyssey to illustrate several points.)


To a man, everyone is awed by the sea—including arrogant Odysseus. Every description calls forth its great size, depth, danger, and the difficulty in understanding it.

“…a sea so vast not even cranes could wing their way/in one year’s flight—so vast it is, so awesome…”

“No need in the world for him to board the ships,/those chariots of the sea that sweep men on,/driving across the ocean’s endless wastes…/Does he want his very name wiped off the earth?”

“Who would willingly roam across a salty waste so vast,/so endless? Think: no city of men in sight, and not a soul/to offer the gods a sacrifice and burn the fattest victims.”

“Just for hunger we rig and ride our long-benched ships/on the barren salt sea, speeding death to enemies.”

All this comes to a head when blue water turns to white water, which Cohen rightly characterizes as “not only a dangerous space but a dangerous time, a representation of time as crisis.” Clearly this happens to Odysseus quite a bit. Otherwise he’d probably have gotten home sooner, no? And these white water crises are really exciting.

At that a massive wave came crashing down on his head,
a terrific onslaught spinning his craft round and round—
he was thrown clear of the decks—
the steering-oar wrenched
from his grasp—
and in one lightning attack the brawling
galewinds struck full-force, snapping the mast mid-shaft
and hurling the sail and sailyard far across the sea.
He went under a good long while, no fast way out,
no struggling up from under the giant wave’s assault,
his clothing dragged him down—divine Calypso’s gifts—
but at last he fought his way to the surface spewing
bitter brine, streams of it pouring down his head.

And he is hardly finished. But time, which passes so slowly on the blue water, where nothing much happens except continuous movement over the vastness of the sea, has sped up dramatically. Everything is happening at once, in “a terrific onslaught.” Most, if not all, such onslaughts are brought on in The Odyssey by supernatural powers, which also bring tragedy at land. But at sea they seem even more capricious and dangerous, and sailors like Odysseus fully expect and accept it.

Poseidon has struck
their well-rigged ship on the open sea with gale winds
and crushing walls of waves, and only a few escape, swimming,
struggling out of the frothing surf to reach the shore,
their bodies crusted with salt but buoyed up with joy
as they plant their feet on solid ground again,
spared a deadly fate.

That is the life of a mariner on the blue water, which can turn to white so quickly, and where survival depends on “luck, combined with cunning and resourcefulness…epitomized by Odysseus….” (Cohen)

This essay is really great, and has given me a lot of insight into why I’m doing this in the first place. There’s a lot more to it, too much for one day.


Cohen, Margaret. “The Chronotopes of the Sea.” In The Novel: Volume 2, Forms and Themes, edited by Franco Moretti, 647-666. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006.

Homer. The Odyssey. Translated by Robert Fagles. New York: Penguin, 1996.

No fear in your heart? Wine’s got to your wits?—or do you always play the fool and babble nonsense?

So, my favorite thing about The Odyssey might be its almost incessant repetition. I had worried that I wouldn’t be able to get a real feel for the language of the poem, but in fact the words are hypnotic.

The OdysseyFirst, there are the epithets, metrical stopgaps that were an important part of oral poetry. Basically, everyone gets a set of adjectives to help his name fit into any necessary spot on a line, in any necessary case. Some examples from Bernard Knox’s introduction to the Penguin edition of the Robert Fagles translation I read:

Odysseus, for example, is “much-enduring,” “a man of many schemes,” “godlike” and “great-hearted”; the island of Ithaca is “rocky,” “seagirt” and “clear-skied”; ships are “hollow,” “swift” and “well-benched,” to list only some of the often polysyllabic epithets attached to them.

There are many, many more, and they swirl around just about every reference to a character or object common in the poem. And in addition to these there are stock phrases that are almost epithets (“bright-eyed girl,” “deathless goddess,” “blissful gods”). The effect of both is a sense of intense familiarity with nearly everything that appears—we know their characteristics inside and out. Pallas Athena, daughter of Zeus, has bright gray eyes, is deathless, blissful, and wise. The ships are swift, hollow, black with pitch, and scud along the waves. And the sea is “fish-infested.”

It was another type of repetition though that did me in. Passages two, three, a dozen lines long, repeated two, three, a dozen times throughout the text. Everything is a ritual in The Odyssey, from “when young Dawn with her rose-red fingers shone once more” to the retellings of Odysseus’s trials themselves (did I mention how much I love framed stories? there are only about a million here). Hospitality is a huge theme, and whenever a guest is offered food by a wealthy host,

A maid brought water soon in a graceful golden pitcher
and over a silver basin tipped it out
so they might rinse their hands,
then pulled a gleaming table to their side.
A staid housekeeper brought on bread to serve them,
appetizers aplenty too, lavish with her bounty. …
They reached out for the good things that lay at hand,
and when they’d put aside desire for food and drink…

When the host is ready to question the guest,

Tell me about yourself now, clearly, point by point.
Who are you? where are you from? your city? your parents?
What sort of vessel brought you here? Why did the sailors land you here in Ithaca? Who did they say they are?
I hardly think you came this way on foot!

And for the highly ritualistic and continual animal sacrifices, of course,

…they quartered her quickly, cut the thighbones out
and all according to custom wrapped them round in fat,
a double fold sliced clean and topped with strips of flesh. …
Once they’d burned the bones and tasted the organs,
they sliced the rest into pieces, spitted them on skewers
and raising points to the fire, broiled all the meats.

So visceral. And it almost makes your head spin, everything happening again to everyone everywhere. Some of these passages are introduced in the very first book, to be repeated throughout to the end (or to be saved to the end); others are just coming on for the first time when Odysseus—“there was a son, or was he all a dream”—is killing the suitors. And it’s strange, the whole time the action seems to come on so fast, only to pull you back under where you’ve heard it all before, and then the whole passage has just set up the next scene for you.

Obviously I found the technique highly effective—fugue-like and entrancing. If/when this gets a re-read, I’d like to be really methodical about noting the passages (certainly someone must have done this already); I’d also like to read a different translation, probably the Lattimore (reviving my minimal Ancient Greek is probably not an option, though tempting for this purpose). I really liked this one but of course it’s hard to trust these things, and I heard that Fagles actually has a tendency against repetition of the epithets (from a nonreputable source; is this true?).

Tomorrow: the fish-infested sea.

Who would willingly roam across a salty waste so vast, so endless?

So last week I told the consumption partner about the upcoming maritime theme. He is, as a rule, completely uninterested in the blog, but this got him very excited. He even started recommending books! One of his suggestions was a funny one, not really what you would think of as maritime literature at all, but sailing and the sea do play a large role in it, and it will also serve as my first and possibly greatest de-humiliation of the year: The Odyssey.

My first reaction was, what a great idea, a good way to start the year and the theme and get this big awesome de-humiliation out of the way. My second reaction was, how do I connect with this piece of literature? I have read a very little bit of Ancient Greek stuff before, way back in high school. But in general I don’t read many things so far removed, and I don’t read much in translation. It makes me nervous. I felt like I wouldn’t know what to do, since between the translation and the oral nature of the poem, the words seem so slippery, and all I’m looking at is the words.

That was pretty silly though. I felt better after reading Bernard Knox’s excellent introduction to the Robert Fagles translation I have, and just kind of jumped in. And I like it a surprising amount. (Warning from the CP: classical lit is pretty much all downhill from here.)

So, after that, a tentative list for the remainder of the theme (with thanks especially to Amateur Reader—several items on your list were things I’d considered but wasn’t sure about):

The Voyages of Captain Cook by James Cook
Narrative of the Mutiny by William Bligh
The Loss of the Ship “Essex”, Sunk by a Whale by Owen Chase
Two Years Before the Mast by Richard Henry Dana
Benito Cereno by Herman Melville (specifically recommended by the CP as the best of Melville’s shorter works; Billy Budd may still squeeze in)
Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad
Sailing Alone Around the World by Joshua Slocum
The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway. I’ve decided to revisit this one, the only Hemingway I ever disliked.

I think that’s all. And I’ve got my trusty anthology of American sea writing as well. What’s that, you say, she’s stopped her mystery theme halfway through? Yes, well, it happens. And it may happen again.

UPDATE: How could I have left off the list In Hazard by Richard Hughes, which was practically the inspiration for this whole enterprise, anyway?