Bedding Ulysses

Dating the most clever man in the universe isn’t a bed of roses.

Posted Apr 13, 2018

For those of you not up on your Greek mythology, Ulysses is the Latin name for Odysseus, the Greek hero and king of Ithaca, who led the Greeks to victory in the Trojan War (the Trojan Horse was his idea), and who then sailed home to Ithaca and his wife, Penelope, after a journey of ten years.

Odysseus is able to sustain the Greeks at Troy because he is not consumed by anger (as Achilles is), even if he is not so swift or fierce as Ajax, whom — to everyone’s surprise — he beats in a race and draws in a wrestling match.  How does he do that?  Well, he’s Odysseus (that, and he is beloved by the Greek goddess Athena, because — well, he’s Odysseus).

Except, you know that ten-year journey home?  He spends seven of those years captured by Calypso, who forces him to be her lover, just as he spent an earlier year with Circe, the Greek goddess, who doesn’t force him to stay on her island, but who really, really doesn’t want him to leave.  You know — he’s Odysseus.

As to Circe’s point of view, Madeline Miller has written a brilliant new epiphanous novel, Circe.

You see, Circe has developed a bad reputation for turning sailors who land on her island into pigs.  Miller makes clear that this is necessary when you are living alone as a woman and you provide food and wine for a crew of men and they start asking, “Where is your husband?”

Circe does that to Odysseus’ crew (who are certified idiots).  When Odysseus arrives, Circe and he engage in oh-so-clever conversation (he is Odysseus) without his ever touching the potion-laden wine Circe offers him+, because he divines Circe’s intentions (he. . . .oh, you know).

“However I pretended I could conceal my thoughts as well as he, I knew that was not true. He would gather my weaknesses up and set them with the rest of his collection, alongside Achilles’ and Ajax’s. He kept them on his person as other men keep their knives.”

In Homer’s “The Odyssey,” he then threatens her with his sword (although she is immortal), and she returns his men to human form and beds Odysseus in apology.  Miller makes this a seduction scene.  You know, it can be tempting to bed someone like Odysseus, to revel in his scars and stories:

“Enduring Odysseus, he was, and the name was stitched into his skin.* Whoever saw him must salute and say: ‘There is a man who has seen the world. There is a captain with stories to tell.’”

Although Odysseus indicates that he really loves his wife back in Ithaca, Penelope, and wants to return to her and his son, Telemachus, Circe ardently wishes he would stay with her.  This, although she realizes that, like all men, he will die, and she never does.

Circe intones (per Miller) when Odysseus leaves her island: “Odysseus, son of Laertes, the great traveler, prince of wiles and tricks and a thousand ways. He showed me his scars, and in return he let me pretend that I had none.” (Circe had no visible scars - just those from her upbringing.)

For Odysseus was a clever man.

So Odysseus departs.  He has already killed the Cyclops but, with Circe’s brilliant directions he skirts the alluring but lethal Sirens and passes between the six-headed Scylla monster and the deadly whirlpool Charybdis. Because not only is he Odysseus, the wiliest man alive  — he now travels with Circe’s love and grace (although he will spend seven years with Calypso).

Meanwhile, Odysseus and his crew land on the island of Thrinacia and, ignoring Circe’s warnings, the men hunt the sacred white cattle of Circe’s father, the sun god Helios, who repays them by sinking the ship and drowning all aboard — except for Odysseus.

Indeed, Odysseus has a bad track record as a captain.  After all he left Troy with 12 ships, the other 11 of which sank almost immediately in a storm.

So Odysseus returns alone to Ithaca, after 20 years, ten years fighting in Troy, and ten en route (except for port calls).

At home, he confronts the many suitors of his faithful wife — and kills them all. Then he has hanged the servant women who have slept with the suitors.  Then he fights the citizens of Ithaca, who are riled up over all the men he has lost in Troy and at sea and the suitors and serving women he has killed.

Finally, Miller relates how his son with Circe, Telegonus, who has traveled to Ithaca to meet the father he has never seen, accidentally kills Odysseus with a magical weapon Circe has given him (is this her revenge?) after Odysseus attacks his own son.

While he is with Circe, she — almost as brilliant as Odysseus and more insightful and feeling — realizes that Odysseus is delaying going home because, even as he loves Penelope, he is not going to enjoy settling down to the blasé life of a country squire.

Telegonus returns to Circe’s island with Telemachus and Penelope. While Telegonus has killed their father, Telemachus had already turned against Odysseus as a merciless killer and unforgiving human being.

Today we might call it PTSD. They didn’t have that then, and so, instead, we are left to confront through Miller the unrepressed rage that billows up from Odysseus when confronted with normal human beings.  Throughout his voyage, his idiot crewmen get them all in trouble — and finally end up dead — by doubting and countermanding their leader, even as they adore him.

Despite being the most worshipped and admired of men, Odysseus seemingly cannot love anyone else.

And Circe comes to realize that he would not have been the human being for her, mortal that he was.

+ Use of psychotropic substances was commonplace for the ancients, as was the experience of phantasmagoria.

* Circe offers to remove his scars, but Odysseus refuses: “How would I know myself?”