Everything you need to know to read Homer's "Odyssey" - Jill Dash

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Everything you need to know to read Homer's "Odyssey" - Jill Dash

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View full lesson- ed.ted.com/lessons/everything-you-need-to-know-to-read-homer-s-odyssey-jill-dash An encounter with a man-eating giant. A sorceress who turns men into pigs. A long-lost king taking back his throne. On their own, any of these make great stories. But each is just one episode in the "Odyssey," a 12,000-line poem spanning years of ancient Greek history and legend. So how do we make sense of this massive text? Jill Dash shares everything you need to know to read Homer's "Odyssey." Lesson by Jill Dash, animation by David Price.

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A close encounter with a man-eating giant, a sorceress who turns men into pigs, a long-lost king taking back his throne. On their own, any of these make great stories, but each is just one episode in the “Odyssey,” a 12,000-line poem spanning years of Ancient Greek history, myth, and legend. How do we make sense of such a massive text that comes from and tells of a world so far away? The fact that we can read the “Odyssey” at all is pretty incredible, as it was composed before the Greek alphabet appeared in the 8th century BCE. It was made for listeners rather than readers, and was performed by oral poets called rhapsodes. Tradition identifies its author as a blind man named Homer. But no one definitively knows whether he was real or legendary. The earliest mentions of him occur centuries after his era. And the poems attributed to him seem to have been changed and rearranged many times by multiple authors before finally being written down in their current form. In fact, the word rhapsode means stitching together, as these poets combined existing stories, jokes, myths, and songs into a single narrative. To recite these massive epics live, rhapsodes employed a steady meter, along with mnemonic devices, like repetition of memorized passages or set pieces. These included descriptions of scenery and lists of characters, and helped the rhapsode keep their place in the narrative, just as the chorus or bridge of a song helps us to remember the next verses. Because most of the tales were familiar to the audience, it was common to hear the sections of the poem out of order. At some point, the order became set in stone and the story was locked into place as the one we read today. But since the world has changed a bit in the last several thousand years, it helps to have some background before jumping in. The “Odyssey” itself is a sequel to Homer’s other famous epic, the “Iliad,” which tells the story of the Trojan War. If there’s one major theme uniting both poems, it’s this: do not, under any circumstances, incur the wrath of the gods. The Greek Pantheon is a dangerous mix of divine power and human insecurity, prone to jealousy and grudges of epic proportions. And many of the problems faced by humans in the poems are caused by their hubris, or excessive pride in believing themselves superior to the gods. The desire to please the gods was so great that the Ancient Greeks traditionally welcomed all strangers into their homes with generosity for fear that the strangers might be gods in disguise. This ancient code of hospitality was called xenia. It involved hosts providing their guests with safety, food, and comfort, and the guests returning the favor with courtesy and gifts if they had them. Xenia has a significant role in the “Odyssey,” where Odysseus in his wanderings is the perpetual guest, while in his absence, his clever wife Penelope plays non-stop host. The “Odyssey” recounts all of Odysseus’s years of travel, but the narrative begins in medias res in the middle of things. Ten years after the Trojan War, we find our hero trapped on an island, still far from his native Ithaca and the family he hasn’t seen for 20 years. Because he’s angered the sea god Poseidon by blinding his son, a cyclops, Odysseus’s passage home has been fraught with mishap after mishap. With trouble brewing at home and gods discussing his fate, Odysseus begins the account of those missing years to his hosts. One of the most fascinating things about the “Odyssey” is the gap between how little we know about its time period and the wealth of detail the text itself contains. Historians, linguists, and archeologists have spent centuries searching for the ruins of Troy and identifying which islands Odysseus visited. Just like its hero, the 24-book epic has made its own long journey through centuries of myth and history to tell us its incredible story today.

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