“Let me hear no smooth talk
of death from you, Odysseus, light of councils.
Better, I say, to break sod as a farm hand
for some poor country man, on iron rations,
than lord it over all the exhausted dead.”
Right before restless Odysseus leaves Circe, she tells him that he must go down into Hades to visit the shade of Teiresias, the blind prophet who advises Odysseus of his homecoming (the Wanderings). He then goes on to meet the shades of the queens and lovers of dead heroes and finally the heroes themselves. In the quotation cited, Odysseus is talking with Achilles, the greatest hero of the Trojan War. Achilles, while alive, was fully cognizant of his choice between a long life spent in obscurity or a short life, filled with glory. He chose the latter.
I suppose Achilles quickly realized after he died that fame has no meaning for you after you’re dead. In retrospect, he understood that death gives meaning, and fills one up with the passion for life. Every action, however mundane, is filled with the miracle of life and completes itself when one interacts with others. This is what Achilles meant when he asks Odysseus about his son and his former kingdom–never mind the dead, what are the living doing? Achilles yearns to be back among the living.
This theme of death giving meaning to life is prevalent throughout the Odyssey. Hell is death, heaven is now, in life, in the field of time and action.
Odysseus nearly died of homesickness (or boredom) when Kalypso detained him on her island, hoping to make him her immortal husband. Odysseus knew if he drank that ambrosia, life would be eternal, you’d have a beautiful house and a babe for a wife, but things would get terribly vapid after a certain point. Immortality is death, in this sense. Finally, it is Athena (thought, action) who convinces the gods (who are, I think, jealous of us mortals) to let Odysseus off the island and back into his life. It is interesting to note that even Hermes couldn’t wait to get off Kalypso’s island–“who would willingly come here? There is no city of men nearby. . . . .
Ultimately, Odysseus’ journey to Ithaka is about embracing one’s life, accepting the challenges, the dangers, pitfalls, and joys, with courage, tenacity and a keen sense of what it takes to maintain balance in one’s life. As the Odyssey suggests throughout, keeping balance in your life also reflects the macrocosm–the need for reciprocity, sacrifice, justice, love, etc. One must learn to keep one’s head in an unsure world (lotus eaters, Cyclops, Laistrygonians, etc.) And enjoy the journey home because the journey is the map of one’s life. It is best to be a breathing hero, in full possession of himself, than a dead one.
Home is Ithaka, a place of completion, the sound of a woman’s voice, the merging of male and female. Both Odysseus and Penelope carried the sound of each other’s voices in their heads for 20 years. When Odysseus came home, it was both an end and a beginning. Another beautiful challenge. Another journey, another homecoming to look forward to.
Medea, on the other hand, is a nightmare. Unlike Odysseus, she has been betrayed and will stop at nothing to destroy everything around her. Life holds no meaning for her, so she sets out to destroy everything precious belonging to the betrayer–fatuous Jason. In her irrationality, death or life have no meaning–they are simply tools used for vengeance.
In a sense, Odysseus and Medea are polar opposites: he maintains the balance between the micro/macrocosm, and Medea is self-absorbed, driven blindly by love, and myopic. She is forever the outsider, the exile who knowingly destroyed the chance of ever returning home, while Odysseus (representing society here) is the preserver, who sees and understands the forest, and is, by comparison, a glowing humanist next to Medea. If Odysseus can be looked upon as a metaphor for society (and everything included in it), then Medea can be seen as Nature, what happens when you upset the balance of that society.