Penelope Unraveling Her Work at Night (1886), Dora Wheeler, on silk. Courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Sylvia and Leonard Marx Gift 2002
Why would Odysseus dump a hot nymph? Or toyboys lust after his wife Penelope? Unveiling the erotic mysteries of the Odyssey
The Trojan Wars ended in Troy’s defeat at the hands of the Greeks, many of whom returned to their homes. But the great Odysseus was not among them. He became marooned on the faraway island of Ogygia, enjoying – or tiring of – the favours of the beautiful nymph Calypso. Homer’s Odyssey, as we all know, is the story of Odysseus’ long journey away from Calypso and home to Ithaca, where his wife Penelope waits, courted in his absence by 117 princes young enough to be her sons.
There are two erotic mysteries at the heart of the Odyssey: the mystery of why Odysseus leaves Calypso, and the mystery of why the suitors are so hot for Penelope. These mysteries shall be deepened in a moment, but first I want to add two others that are equally perplexing, though not, perhaps, equally erotic. The first concerns the savage punishment – death – imposed on the suitors. What have they done to deserve it? In the poem, their behaviour is often likened to that of Aegisthus, who took Agamemnon’s wife Clytemnestra as his lover, and then murdered Agamemnon on his return from Troy. Yet, on the face of it, the suitors have done nothing nearly so bad. Then there is the mystery presented by the form of the Odyssey itself, with its odd mixture of realism (the suitors and Penelope) and magic (the unreality of the realms that Odysseus visits between the fall of Troy and his return home). The fantastic nature of these realms seems completely mismatched to the reality of what is taking place in Ithaca. In the end, these four diverse mysteries have the same solution.
Why, then, does Odysseus leave Calypso? Or, putting it the other way around, why doesn’t he stay? Maybe you think you know. But I believe the poem intends you to be puzzled. First off, Calypso is a nymph – she will always be a babe. Her breasts will never sag. Her bottom will always be firm. Her hair will be forever luxuriant and silky. She’ll always be fun in bed, and always, it seems, willing to go there. Moreover, she can make you immortal and give you eternal youth. No need for Rogaine, no need for Viagra, you’ll be young and vibrant and virile and hairy forever. Now why would you leave all that for a middle-aged woman and your own incipient old-age and death?
The question is a sharp one, surely, but it is sharpened further in the poem. For Menelaus, the leader of the Spartans, tells us – and it is supposed to be good news, at least for him – that, at the end of his life, he won’t have to go to be a shade in Hades. Instead, as a relative of Zeus, he will go off to the Elysian Fields. Sounds hunky-dory. The trouble is that the Elysian Fields are made to sound just like Calypso’s isle – indeed, they are also made to sound like the obviously threatening lands of the Lotus-eaters:
But about your destiny, Menelaus, dear to Zeus,
it’s not for you to die
and meet your fate in the stallion-land of Argos,
no, the deathless ones will sweep you off to the world’s end,
the Elysian Fields, where the gold-haired Rhadamanthys waits,
where life glides on in immortal ease for mortal man;
no snow, no winter onslaught, never a downpour there,
but night and day the Ocean River sends up breezes,
singing winds of the West refreshing all mankind.
All this because you are Helen’s husband now
the gods count you the son-in-law of Zeus.
If the Elysian Fields are so great, Odysseus should be ecstatic at having got there so soon. Instead, he spends all day weeping – though at night, to be sure, in the way that is normal for mortal men, he takes comfort in bed with Calypso. Sorrow and depression do not dampen the libido, evidently.
So that’s the first mystery. Odysseus is in Homeric paradise. Why, then, is he so miserable?
That mystery is a confounding one, but it is nothing compared with the second. Penelope is a middle-aged woman of around 40 – not old, certainly not in our terms, but not nubile either. Past childbearing, or soon to be past it, she is not a babe. Yet more than 100 princes (117 by my count), young enough to be her sons, have been paying court to her for three years, camped out in her palace, eating and drinking, while she and they grow older. Think about that, you 18- to 24-year-old men. Think about the mother of one of your friends. Imagine that, of all the women in the world, she’s the one you want for a wife – not just for an educational Mrs Robinson-style roll in the hay, but for a wife. Now think about that in a world in which children – especially, sons – are even more important than they are in our own culture.
When Achilles among the dead hears that his son, Neoptolemus, has become a great warrior, he is temporarily reconciled even to the death he finds worse than being a slave – his steps are light as he leaves Odysseus who has brought him the news:
off he went, the ghost of the great runner, Aeacus’ grandson
loping with long strides across the fields of asphodel,
triumphant in all I had told him of his son,
his gallant glorious son.
In marrying Penelope, then, you are almost certainly depriving yourself of children, of gallant glorious sons. What could possibly compensate for that? Furthermore, why do no suitors at all show up for 17 years, and why, when they do, are they all so young? Why doesn’t anyone of Penelope’s own generation find her attractive?…