What I cannot forgive Odysseus

Odysseus, already having suffered much on his long journey back to Ithaca, arrived at Aeaea, the home of the goddess Circe. Here, as everywhere, Odysseus runs into trouble. In this case, it is that Circe turns half of his crew into pigs. But then something strange happens. Odysseus goes to rescue them, relying on the advice of Hermes for how to escape Circe’s tricks. Since he needs Circe to transform the pigs back into humans, this rescue must involve her cooperation. Sheer antagonism, such as saved him from Polyphemus, will not do. What else, then, but to become Circe’s lover? And who would not like to lay with a goddess?

All well and good, only—Odysseus forgets his home. For an entire year. All the sorrow he has endured, attempting to return to Ithaca, the pain he felt on being so close, only to have Aeolus’ winds released by his mutinous crew—all of this forgotten in Circe’s embrace. I find it difficult to forgive. How much sympathy should I invest in Odysseus’ suffering at being kept from his home if he himself forgets it so easily?

But wait, you may say: do you not love Aeneas? For he, too, forgets his destiny in the arms of a woman. True, and true. But the cases are different. Let us leave to the side that my love for Aeneas is complicated. My admiration for him is adulterated. But no matter. The case of Aeneas and the case of Odysseus are different. Odysseus is returning home. Aeneas is venturing forth to make a new home. Odysseus is drawn back to Ithaca by established ties: his wife, his son, his house. Aeneas is impelled to Latium because the gods have decreed it will be so, and perhaps by the promise of a glorious future. (But why not a glorious future in Carthage? Again, because of the gods’ decrees, and because of these alone.)

It is a very different thing to forget the past than to forget the future. Odysseus’ lapse is careless to the point of arrogance. Aeneas’ lapse is human. I, engaged in my own search for a new home (of sorts), know well the uncertainty that attends such a search. I know the sweet voice with which false terrain tempts the seeker. Aeneas errs, but in a manner I can readily forgive. Odysseus, I cannot.



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