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Odyseus and Polyphemous, Arnold Bocklin, 1896

Students are writing essays considering the various decisions Odysseus makes throughout his journey. They analyze these decisions in order to consider Odysseus’s character.

We now have a rich bank of words from our previous work that reflects heroic qualities : determination, resilience, persistence, resistance, courage, selflessness, compassion. We have argued about what makes a hero a hero. We have listed flaws we see in Odysseus, Theseus, Perseus: impulsivity, curiosity, pride, arrogance. As these were words understood by many of the students we began by wrestling with the nuances of meaning. In order to tease out the meaning, to go beyond the surface, I discouraged students leaping to the dictionary as their first port of call.

I have to remind myself that these are the words that are the crux of our year. Students do not have to have bleed, dissect and beat out the meaning of every word, extort every relative in the first few sessions. Of course to know this deepens their understanding and I know would make their thinking about Odysseus even stronger. However, these words apply in many instances to the texts and issues we examine throughout the year so we will have countless opportunities to revisit our thinking.

For now, our focus is to ‘listen’ to one another and explore what we understand about the meaning of each word so far, to consider the morphemes and the related words . This is the thinking so often necessary before leaping to the dictionary and getting caught up in the ‘right answer hunt’. So initially we focus on our collective understanding. By giving time to hypothesize and question each other, when we come to the resources our understanding may then be deeper. We may understand the roots with greater clarity, truly see what lies behind each word, what common meaning is threaded through each of the related words. Too often in the last few years I have noticed students’ frantic rush to ‘google’ the answer, blindly accepting this rather than giving themselves the time and space for conjecture.

Building a Silent Conversation

Nevertheless, we are driven by time to examine all words at the same time!! Wretched time!! How, to explore all words without shallow superficiality, without me ‘giving students the answer’? How to allow enough time for all voices to be heard, for all to respond? We use the strategy of silent conversations.

In building a silent conversation (see explanation here from Facing History, Facing Ourselves), students talk with their ‘pen’.This activity slows down student thinking and allows them to focus and comment on the collective thoughts of others. Rather than one or two dominating the discussion, all students, shyer, less vocal, have a voice. Watch these ‘conversations’ in the video clips below.

Matching Root to Word

To complicate the task, although I like to think of as adding another rich layer(!),  students were able to select from roots that I had written out and place these to the word they believed had orginated from this etymon. You’ll notice that I have not indicated the language of origin, Latin, Greek, Old English. Nor did I give the meaning of the root. This time I want students to notice how letters from the root surface in the base element. Matching root to word will help students in a  later session work through the entry in the Online Etymology Dictionary. This helps them to go beyond the first layer in time, to dig deeper into the word’s past history. At the same time it helps students consider why there may be a vowel shift, to see that the Latin infinitive suffix <-ere>, <-ire>,<-are> is shed in its English adoption.

Modelling with ‘integrity’

I modelled the process with the word integrity – a quality we felt heroes possess but not necessarily present in mythical Greek heroes. We asked each other questions such as what is an act that shows integrity? What does it mean to act with integrity? We recognized that to do so could often be hard as one student recognized you do what’s right within but it may mean being at odds with your peers. Another student commented that you act with the truth within, you do what’s morally right. Another said the actions don’t chip away at your soul, or the inner you. Students picked ‘tangere’ from several possibilities as the most likely root to match to the present day English word integrity. They were several hypotheses as to the morphemes with everyone finally settling on <in+tegr+ity>.

Silent Conversations:




Finally students have consolidated their word inquiries and applied these understandings to develop their thoughts about Odysseus.

Excerpts from essays

Gunnar’s conclusion: ‘ The word hero is overused in society nowadays. If a man helps a woman across a road he is not a hero. Someone who rescues a cat out of a tree is not a hero. These are people that are doing things that SHOULD be ordinary. An act of courtesy is not heroism. A hero is someone that is motivated by empathy for others. A hero’s fuel is generosity. They do not succumb to oppressive rules or laws; they fix them. They try to make things right so that the other members of the society can live up to a full potential. They sacrifice their time, energy, and in some cases their life to end unjust ruling. Odysseus’s homecoming troubled me. That image, him standing over the people he just murdered, blood, everywhere, is a massacre. Dreadful and disgusting. Is Odysseus really driven by an empathy for others? He is more likely driven by his own success and his desire for recognition, for fame. Therefore, Odysseus cannot be considered a hero. However, Odysseus is a mirror to society. He is a reminder to the community to adopt his best traits, resilience and intelligence and avoid his bloodlust; arrogance and hubris.’

A paragraph on Odysseus’s intelligence from Julian’s essay: ‘Odysseus’s intelligence is the sole factor that he survived everything on his journey home, without it he most likely wouldn’t have survived any of the battles he faced. The root of intelligence is Latin ‘legere’ which means to read and to gather. Odysseus “reads” the situation he is in and “gathers” information to get out of the situation. If you act with intelligence, you are able to get out of many situations that others would not. You can beat anyone with intelligence no matter the size or strength and this is a skill Odysseus excels at: deceiving people and then backstabbing them when they let their guard down.  Throughout the book Odysseus showed his intelligence over and over again, that is what makes him unique. Every other hero was a demigod or incredibly strong, Odysseus was just a man with a lot of intelligence. This makes him stand out as an individual. He used intelligence to defeat one of the biggest and strongest enemies in all of Greek mythology: The Cyclops: “I racked my brain for a plan… There was a massive staff of green wood lying in the cave, and I whittled it down to a sharp point and hid it in the back of the cave…Here, have some wine, monster. I brought it as a gift, though that means nothing to you. I’ll wager it’s finer than anything you have here…” (The Odyssey)  Even though the cyclops is killing men, eating them, that’s where normal men would have faltered and given up or just charged and fight until death came. Instead Odysseus puts his mind to work, he reads the situation, gathers information and plots his way out, coming up with the most effective strategy to escape the situation. He sharpens the wood, gives the cyclops wine so that his senses are dulled thus giving him a chance to stab the cyclops’s eye. Odysseus has been smart beforehand as well: He knows that that the cyclops would call for help, so he said his name was Nobody so that it wouldn’t be suspicious. Odysseus figured he’d have to move the big rock blocking the cave, the cyclops sat in the gap of the cave and only let his sheep through so Odysseus read the situation again and gathered more information and came up with a strategy: He and his men should hold onto the bottom of the sheep thus allowing them to escape. Intelligent.’

Gigi’s paragraph on pride:Even Odysseus the hero has flaws, which prove him to be human and affect his life and the lives of the people he loves and cares about. He has too much pride in his accomplishments and he wants to be remembered for them. If he had not been so proud, he and his crew would not have suffered as they did. Still when his worn, salt crusted body returns home he understands that some things are more important than pride. Pride comes from the Old English root “prud” which means to be arrogant. Pride is to relish in your achievements, to want everyone to know that you have done something extraordinary. Odysseus wants people to recognize him as a great hero. When he taunts the cyclops, he shows that his desire for fame is so great that he would risk himself and his men for his own gain. In this instance, hubris blinds him from his common sense.When Odysseus says“Cyclops, if anyone asks who put out your eye, tell them it was Odysseus of Ithaca!” (p.109) he reveals his pride. His choice to tell Polyphemus his name is fatal for his crew and nearly fatal for him. Odysseus has many things he could be proud of, but when he lets pride control his decisions, pride becomes a dangerous weakness.’

Amanda’s paragraph courage: ‘The word comes from the Latin word cor, which means heart, to lead or fight with your heart. Courage is a peculiar trait. Courage, a rewarding trait and a death sentence. Needing to be fearful yet fearless at the same time. Too much courage could lead you to arrogance and maybe death. The lack of courage could also lead you to death. To be capable, to balance your courage is a gift. This is precisely what Odysseus displays in his journey. Men who are to be trapped in a cave is troublesome. Men to be trapped in a cave with a cyclops is deathly. Odysseus was one of those men who were trapped in a cave with a cyclops. When the cyclops goes out to tend his sheep, Odysseus observes his surroundings. He takes the staff from a corner and shapes it into a spear. When the cyclops returns, Odysseus offers Polyphemus wine until he passes out. Odysseus and his men take the spear and stabs Polyphemus in his eye. Odysseus takes that leap of faith, Polyphemus could have woken up at any moment and Odysseus was aware of that. Odysseus’s courage saves many, himself included.’

Ulysses deriding Polyphemous, 1829 Joseph Mallord Turner.

I love Turner’s watery, light filled painting. Look carefully and you will see Ulysses (Odysseus) crying out his name to Polyphemus, the cyclops- pride, hubris, gloating? This is the moment of bringing down Poseidon’s vengeance. The horses of the sun rise above the horizon. All are enveloped in the fiery light.

We groaned as Odysseus invoked this curse and have travelled with him through every obstacle this trimester. We have finally reached the shores of Ithaca alongside that ‘man of many troubles’, witnessed Odysseus’s homecoming, seen the welcoming by his loyal dog and been aghast at the slaughter of the suitors and handmaidens. On this odyssey many of these internationally diverse students have empathized with Odysseus’s nostalgia.

We understand that the word nostalgia is of modern coinage, the 18th century in fact,  drawing on Greek roots  νόστος:nostos:home and  ἄλγος:algos pain, grief after German heimweh itself a compound of  ‘home’ and ‘woe’. Ayto mentions Joseph Banks, botanist,  who in 1770 on Cook’s voyage noted this condition, then regarded as a mental illness:’The greatest part of them [sc. the ship’s company] were now pretty far gone with the longing for home which the Physicians have gone so far as to esteem a disease under the name of Nostalgia.’ Nostalgia has weakened over the years so that today it is regarded as sentimental, more of a wistful yearning.We use homesickness which entered English in1756 as a translation of Swiss heimweh for this intense longing for your country of birth. Homesick is a backformation of homesickness and was not attested in English until 1798 as an adjective. Read a detailed account of nostalgia in the Online Etymology Dictionary and discover how this condition was regarded as a serious medical issue by the North in the American Civil War.

We, for now, leave Odysseus and leave this post with the final lines from Ulysses by Lord Alfred Tennyson another inspired by the The Odyssey:

‘Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.’