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Odyssey: The Epic Story We Can Thank for Everything

Homer’s Odyssey is nearly three thousand years old. You won’t be the first on your block to talk about it. Chances are that even bringing it up will clear the room. People will check for cobwebs growing between your head and neck. They will ask you, “What does a twelve-thousand-line ancient Greek epic poem written in dactylic hexameter have to do with the Final Four, Dakota Johnson, Netflix, fracking, or me?”

Well, here is my answer to that: Everything.  Narrative, long or short, got its start in the oral poetic tradition that spawned The Odyssey. The journey of Greek hero Odysseus, journeying home after the close of the Trojan Wars is the template for all hero’s journeys. War, family, love, and the desperate longing for home are the components, the clay, from which this most epic of tales is constructed. In fact, if you really like to use the word “epic” to describe, say, your Spring Break trip to Cabo, you can thank The Odyssey. Do you like Game of Thrones? Thank The OdysseyStar WarsFurious 7The Hunger Games? Thank The Odyssey

We need only look at the first few lines to tell us why The Odyssey informs so much of what we love in our contemporary streamed content, but be sure to read the whole thing, because it is as gripping as House of CardsScandalBreaking Bad and Bloodline all rolled into one. (By the way, oral poetry was the original streamed content, heard fireside, enjoyed with a mug of nectar in the Athenian version of a beer koozie.) “Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns/ driven time and again off course, once he had plundered the hallowed heights of Troy.” The twelve thousand lines begin in medias res, in the middle of things. Gutsy move, Homer, even though it is Athena who gets the credit for the choice. What makes for a better story than “twists and turns/driven time and again off course?” Or plunder, for that matter. Not much, in my book. 

But here is the real reason that The Odyssey is relevant today, millennia after its creation. The triumphs and sorrows, passions and woes, yearnings, clashes, betrayals, fears, salvations and healed wounds—physical and psychic—line up astonishingly with our own. From Apollo to the Apple Store, little has changed in the desires of men and women. Human want drives us, and creates our own stories. The ancient poet reaches directly to the modern reader, almost as if he can see us all the way from the past, inviting the tale to “Launch out on his story. Muse, daughter of Zeus/start from where you will—sing for our time too.”

Alison Powell 
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