January 19, 2009

#01-211: The Odyssey II: Homer - Part IV

three women display themselves to a shepherd; two of them are naked. A herd of goats stands in the distance, and a naked toddler is seated on the ground in the midst of things
Paris has to choose which goddess is most beautiful (the naked one is Aphrodite)

Note: Homer's works have contributed a number of expressions that have survived into English. Learn a few more, and see how the Trojan War started.

Get Ready: What is most important to you: love, wealth, or wisdom?

We've been discussing Homer's second great epic, The Odyssey, one of the Great Books of Western literature. Today we'll look at two trials faced by the hero Odysseus on his way home from the Trojan War, as well as some background on the war itself.

Odysseus had to sail past an island with strange creatures called "sirens," half-woman, half-bird. They sang beautiful songs, luring sailors to their island, where the ships crashed on the rocks. Today a "siren song" is something attractive but potentially harmful, such as "the siren song of the casinos."

Odysseus wanted to hear the sirens' song without dying. So he had his men tie him to the mast of the ship, and then plug their own ears with beeswax. Thus, Odysseus heard the song but couldn't act, and his men sailed the ship but couldn't hear the song.

Siren, by the way, has two other meanings. The loud, wailing horn on a police car or other vehicle is called a "siren"--not a beautiful sound at all! And "siren" is also sometimes used to mean "mermaid," a creature who is half fish (not bird) and half woman.

Next, Odysseus's boat had to pass between two closely placed monsters called Scylla (with six heads and twelve feet) and Charybdis (a kind of living whirlpool). Odysseus decided to sail nearer to Scylla, and lose a few men, rather than losing the entire ship to Charybdis.

Although it's not often used these days, there is an expression, "between Scylla and Charybdis," (pronounced SILL-uh and kuh-RIB-duss) meaning having to choose between two difficult options. (These days we're more likely to say "between a rock and a hard place.")

Of course Odysseus had many, many more adventures, but you'll just have to read the book to find out what they were!


Let's look again at how the Trojan War started.

Remember Prince Paris, who abducted Helen? There's actually more to the story than I had time to mention in Lesson #01-209.

Long before the Trojan War, Helen, who was thought to be the most beautiful woman in the world, had many suitors. All of these men were aggressive warriors, so whoever won her would probably have to defend himself against the others.

Odysseus, who was widely considered to be among the cleverest of the Greeks, suggested that all the suitors should swear to defend the winner of the marriage competition against anyone who opposed the choice. This made it possible for Menelaus to marry Helen.

Later, three goddesses were arguing over which of them was the most beautiful. They asked Prince Paris (who was disguised as a shepherd) to choose. Hera, wife of Zeus and thus Queen of the Gods, tried to bribe him with wealth; Athena, goddess of both wisdom and war, offered him wisdom (we saw her in Lesson #01-210 serving as "mentor" to Odysseus's son Telemachus); and, if chosen, Aphrodite, goddess of love, would give Paris the love of the most beautiful woman in the world: Helen. Paris chose Love.

So Helen was given to him, even though she was already married to Menelaus, who then called on all the others to fulfill their oaths and attack Troy to retrieve Helen from Paris, and that's what started the war.


Read more: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Judgement_of_Paris

Practice: Match the term to its definition below:

  1. bribe
  2. casinos
  3. luring
  4. mast
  5. oaths
  6. potentially
  7. retrieve
  8. suitors
  9. wailing
  10. whirlpool
  1. vows; promises
  2. drawing into a trap
  3. places where people go to gamble
  4. people hoping to convince someone to marry them
  5. a large, swirling body of water that can suck things down into it
  6. the large pole that holds up a sail on a ship
  7. possibly
  8. fetch; bring back
  9. give something to influence someone's opinion
  10. making a loud sound that gets louder and softer

Answers are in the first comment below.

Submitted to the Shenzhen Daily for January 19, 2009

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