This week in the 9th grade classes we got all polytheistic.
That is, we started reading The Odyssey, a story most English classes approach as a story of the heroic journey home of the great hero Odysseus. I guess it’s okay to look at it that way (because that’s what today’s writing assignment kind of does), but that focus creates certain problems. For example, in today’s reading, Odysseus mentions, sort of offhand, that on the way home from Troy he “stormed [Cicones] and killed the men who fought. Plunder we took and enslaved the women.” I joined many students in furrowing my brow and asking, “Was that really necessary?”
And after that it doesn’t really help Odysseus’ case when he limply defends his extramarital romantic entanglements with Circe and Calypso in positively Clintonesque style: “In my heart I never gave consent.”
That’s why we spent the first half of this week getting polytheistic. See, the Greeks had a way different view of the divine and of morality than most kids these days are used to in school. In school, despite the best efforts of church/state separationists, lessons and literature still seem to boil everything down to right and wrong, the devil versus god, A or C on the multiple choice test, do what the principal says or leave, etc. We’re all about authority and objective truth here, and one right answer fits all. It’s not a religious thing, it’s just an idea about the world that’s embedded in everything we do.
That’s not a good place to be if you want to understand Odysseus, and the Homeric Greeks in general. They were polytheistic: They believed in and actively worshiped multiple gods, and these gods were as varied in attitude and action as regular people are. Being gods, and not mere mortals, they were still endowed with special powers and influence over mortals, in large part through their particular Mood. I capitalize the word Mood to draw the distinction with our usual use of this word in reference to an individual’s emotional state. The Greek god’s Mood was way deeper than that. For the Greeks, when a particular god was nearby, you would likely be subject to that god’s Mood, which meant that you should think, feel, and act as that god did. If war-god Ares was nearby, you didn’t just feel excited to get in a scuffle, you were positively consumed by rage and bloodlust. If Aphrodite was around, a different kind of lust prevailed.
Now, here’s the key. With so many different gods and so many different moods, how could a good Greek tell right from wrong? I don’t think they worried about that question. I think they wanted to always do what was appropriate, to do the best thing they could in light of the prevailing Mood. I think this idea fits nicely with the the repeated description of Odysseus as a “man who was never at a loss.” He always did what was appropriate, which in some cases meant giving in to Calypso (like that’s some sort of chore), and, in others, meant killing some men and eating their sheep.
This idea of polytheism (in contrast with our Modern, under-the-radar, schoolhouse monotheism) goes deeper than that, too. We’ll delve a little more in weeks to come.
For this week, you need to write a paper. Here’s the question:
Response Paper #5
Define what the word “Hero” means to you. Compare what you know about Odysseus at this point to your own idea of what a hero should be. Describe the life and heroic actions of a real person you know (or have heard of) that fits your personal definition of “hero.” Compare and contrast your personal hero to Odysseus and tell which you like better.
Warning: This assignment could be boring and lame unless you think creatively about what you really consider heroic, and then write as honestly and thoughtfully as you can. Question everything!
Here’s a little model outline for you to follow. The words in italics refer to the writing modes we discussed last week. Don’t forget that good writing uses all the modes (descriptive, narrative, expository, persuasive):
- Use a hook to introduce your idea of hero, such as a narrative of an impressive heroic action, or a detailed description (appealing to the reader’s 5 senses) of a particular hero
II. Define “hero”
- Choose two or three major attributes of a hero (wise, caring, wavy blond hair). Describe each attribute in detail, and explain why each is so important.
- Judge how well Odysseus stacks up to your personal idea of hero, as you described it in the last paragraph (expository)
IV. Your personal hero
- Now it’s time for you to describe the heroic life and actions of your personal hero–discuss it in terms of your paragraph number 2–explain how your personal hero embodies each of the two or three attributes you chose. Be super descriptive and use narrative storytelling techniques to get the reader super interested in your heroes actions. (Most narratives start out “One time…”)
- Wrap it all up. Restate your chosen “heroic” attributes. Compare your hero to Odysseus and express your opinion about which one you would rather have on your side, etc.
Did I ever tell each and every one of you that you are my hero? You truly are the wind beneath my wings…