“Tell me, Muse, of the man of many mays, who was driven far journeys, after he had sacked Troy’s sacred citadel” (1.1). So begins the Odyssey of Homer, describing not only the arduous journey of Odysseus, but also great irony in the expected character of such a famously smart and cunning individual. At one moment, he may be drawing his companions away from distraction and forgetfulness after exploring an island, but he later may himself be reminded by his own crew to remember his journey home. Next, he may encounter one creature and learn more about it without harm, but later may venture to meet another and have it end in others deaths. Within all these varied points in his life, there is a common line. Throughout his adult life, Odysseus’s steadfast curiosity causes a marked inconsistence in his life. This inconsistency is seen in his relation with his crew, his encounters with creatures, and his gathering of information.
Before the ultimate destruction of his ship, Odysseus is accompanied by his crew from the war. In his relation with the crew Odysseus’s persistent curiosity results in personal inconsistency. After departing after the incident with the Kikonians, Odysseus’s ships are blown off course before finally landing at the island of the Lotus-Eaters. As would be natural for a weary crew reaching an island, the men “set foot on the mainland, and fetched water, and my companions soon tool their supper there by the fast ships” (9.85). Now, with the crew nourished and rested, the fastest route homeward would be to depart the island now as it is just a resting point for the crew. However, this is not the course of action Odysseus takes: “after we had tasted of food and drink, then I sent some of my companions ahead, telling them to find out what men, eaters of bread, might live here in this country” (9.87). In this small act Odysseus demonstrates his constant curiosity that drives his inconsistency.
Driven by his curiosity to learn more about the island, Odysseus takes an unnecessary action because the crew has already rested, and further time spent on the island delays the ultimate goal of returning home while increasing the risk of trouble. This potential for trouble is then realized as the scouting party begins to forget their home, so Odysseus “took these men back weeping, by force […] then gave the order to the rest of my [Odysseus’s] eager companions to embark the ships in haste, for fear someone else might taste the lotus and forget the way home” (9.97). Resulting from his curiosity about the island, Odysseus initially diverges from his ultimate goal of arriving home to Ithaca, but he is quickly reminded of his true goal and he hurries the crew away from the island. However, his curiosity leads to a different outcome as he arrives at Aiaia.
Shortly after landing, “I pondered deeply in my heart and my spirit, whether, since I had seen the fire and smoke, to investigate; but in the division of my heart this way seemed the best to me, to go back first to the fast ship and the beach of the sea, and give my companions some dinner, then send them forward to investigate” (10.151). When he sees the signs of inhabitants, Odysseus’s curiosity is aroused again and similarly he decides to send forth a scouting party. As a result of this curiosity, the men meet Circe, her favor is gained, and Aiaia is their home for a full year, until Odysseus’s crew reminds him that: it is time to think about our own country, if truly it is ordained that you shall survive and come back to you strong-founded house and to the land of your fathers” (10.472). While before at the land of the Lotus-Eaters, Odysseus had been distracted away from his homecoming by his curiosity, the ensuing events caused him to remember his journey and he pulled his crew back. However, at Aiaia, his curiosity leads his direction of life the opposite way, where his companions play his role at the Lotus-Eater’s island. Between these two events, both started by his own curiosity, the outcomes are far from consistent with the actions of leader and crew markedly reversed.
Along his travels, Odysseus also encounters savage creatures which inhabit the far-flung islands. As seen when he lands on some island, Odysseus has a similar curiosity towards these entities to learn more. However, in his encounters with these creatures, his attitude of curiosity produces inconsistency in his life. After his company leaves Aiaia, the ship’s course takes them past the island of the melodious Sirens Before the crew departed, Circe had advised Odysseus: “you must drive straight on past, but melt down sweet wax of honey and with it stop your companions’ ears, so none can listen; the rest, that is, but if you yourself are wanting to hear them, then have them tie you hand and foot on the fast ship” (12.47). When his ship does run past the Sirens, Odysseus succumbs to his curiosity and tells his companions t tie him fast so he can hear the song of the Sirens. In this instance, his curiosity causes no harm to his ship and crew, as their strong lashings prevented his doom. However, despite the favorable outcome, the implications of his curiosity can still be seen.
By desiring to hear the Sirens, which certainly has little purpose in expediting his homecoming, Odysseus strays from his primary goal as he skirts closer to death in his act, which could have occurred if the lashings could not restrain him. Although this encounter incurred no harm, Odysseus’s earlier meeting with the Cyclops, Polyphemos shows another outcome resulting from his curiosity. After landing on the island and resting the men, Odysseus sees smoke and herds of livestock, so in his curiosity he announces “the rest of you, who are my eager companions, wait here, while I, with my own ship and companions that are in it, go and find out about these people, and learn what they are” (9.172).
As is his custom when landing, Odysseus is immediately curious about its inhabitants. After catching a glimpse of the Cyclops and sneaking into the cave, “my companions spoke to me and begged me to take some of the cheeses, come back again, and the next time to drive the lambs and kids from the pens, and get back quickly to the ship again, and go sailing off across the salt water but I would not listen to them, it would have been better their way, not until I could see him, see if he would give me resents” (9.224). While his companions fear the Cyclops, and desire to continue on their journey, Odysseus is concentrated on fulfilling his curiosity about the creature. Here, unlike the later encounter with the Sirens, his curiosity leads to an unfavorable outcome, with six of the crew eaten. In addition to Odysseus’s curiosity leading him away from his goal of returning home, this trait also brings much inconsistency to his life. When he was curious about the Siren’s storied song, his desire to experience it brought him some knowledge without much harm. However, when he wished to learn more about Polyphemos, Odysseus becomes the main cause for the deaths of six me and the encounter leads to the suffering from the Cyclops’s prayer.
Nearing the end of his journey, Odysseus experiences two strange lands at which he tries to gain some knowledge. In these instances of learning, Odysseus’s curiosity leads to inconsistency. First, departing from Aiaia, he is told by Circe that he must “reach the house of Hades and of the revered Persephone, there to consult with the soul of Teiresias the Theban” (11.491). In the underworld, Odysseus earns his fate and the proper rites to Poseidon from Teiresias. After completing Circe’s directive for him, however, Odysseus again demonstrated his curiosity for knowledge. After speaking to his mother, famous women of the past gather around Odysseus. As this happened “I then thought about a way to question them, each by herself, and as I thought, this was the plan that seemed best to me […] I would not let them all drink the dark blood at the same time. So they waited and came to me in order, and each one told me about her origin, and I questioned them all” (11.228). As seen previously, when presented with such a situation, his curiosity rises up within him and again he diverges from his earlier goal.
With an opportunity to learn more, Odysseus willingly takes it as he questions every one of this group of women. Returning to the mortal world, Odysseus eventually washes onto Scheria, land of Phaiakians. After being kindly received by Nausikaä, he is told by her to trail behind as to avoid arousing suspicion from the locals as she goes to inform for parents Alkinoös and Arete. As he starts toward the city, Athene appears to Odysseus, disguised as a young girl, offering to lead him to the house of Alkinoös but also warning him to “go on in silence the while I lead the way for you, and do not give any of these people your eye, neither ask them questions, for they do not have very much patience with men from the outlands, nor do they lovingly entertain the man come from elsewhere” (7.30).
In her advice to him, Athene warns against the very behavior that Odysseus has demonstrated before in actions of curiosity. Had not Athene warned him against such inquiries into the locals, his curiosity would have likely caused him to ask the about Scheria, which, if Athene speaks the truth about the Phaiakians, would have resulted in quite an unfriendly reaction from the residents. Otherwise if unchecked by Athene, his curiosity would have again led to inconsistency in his life. While his curiosity in the underworld gains extra knowledge about the great figures of the past, his curiosity on Scheria would have caused poor relations with the Phaiakians, perhaps jeopardizing his passage home.
Throughout his long journey, Odysseus consistently displays a curiosity for what he happens upon. However this attitude leads his life to inconsistency. While curiosity is necessary for discovery and knowledge, the constant appearance of this trait leads Odysseus away from his main goals, as he is constantly pulled to learn more about what interests him, shedding an ironic light upon this epithet, “the man of many ways” as he pursues many unknown goals. In extension, this trait can be seen in the perspective of his leadership. When such constant curiosity is seen to create so much inconsistency the quality of his leadership is put under scrutiny, as such diverging goals would lead to the group, in effect, to have no leader. Under the direction of Odysseus, and indirectly his curiosity, which influences many of his decisions, the ship of his leadership is thrown from heading to heading, never quite sure of its next destination or outcome while trying to sail the many ways.
Homerus. The Odyssey of Homer. Trans. Richmond Lattimore. New York: Harper
Perennial, 2007. Print.
| “There is time for many words, but there is not time for sleep.” – Homerus