Saturday, July 20, 2013

Egbert Bakker's "The Meaning of Meat and the Structure of the 'Odyssey'"

Egbert J. Bakker is Professor of Classics at Yale University. He has published widely on the language and the literature of ancient Greece, particularly on the language and the interpretation of the Homeric poems (Iliad and Odyssey). He likes interdisciplinary approaches to ancient literature, such as the anthropological perspective developed in the present book.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his latest book, The Meaning of Meat and the Structure of the "Odyssey", and reported the following:
Ancient Greece did not have environmental activists; nor do ancient Greek narratives carry an environmental message. Still, the narrative of the Odyssey, as I argue in my new book The Meaning of Meat and the Structure of the "Odyssey", revolves around a decidedly environmental issue. The poem’s central event is the criminal consumption of Odysseus’ herds and flocks by the suitors of his wife Penelope, who woo her for marriage in the hero’s absence—he is on a long quest for homecoming after he brought the Trojan War to a successful completion. The Suitors are out to annihilate the estate of the king literally by eating it up, as they sit feasting continuously as uninvited guests in Odysseus’ palace. Their massive consumption of meat must have shocked the poem’s contemporary audiences, who lived in a world in which meat was scarce due to the agricultural limitations of the environment: being dry and rocky, the Greek landscape does not allow for extensive cattle grazing.

I argue that the famous adventures of Odysseus himself during his quest are not just “folktales” or “inset stories,” but a sustained commentary on the situation back home on Ithaca. Odysseus travels in fabulous lands in which meat is limitlessly plentiful, in stark contrast to the situation in the Greek heartland. These lands are paradisiacal, but also dangerous, particularly the island of Circe, who is usually characterized as a sorceress or a witch, but whom I treat as a “Mistress of Animals:” the boundary between human and animal, eater and eaten, can become blurred, as appears from the transformation of Odysseus’ companions into swine. I show that the anthropology of hunting cultures provides parallels for this. The “bestialization” of the meat eater is a theme subtly hinted at in the depiction of the meat consumption of the Suitors.

Unfortunately, p. 99 does not address these central issues. But the argument here is preparing for one of the important roles played by Odysseus, when, after his return home, he takes his gruesome revenge on the Suitors. The role is that of Helios the Sun, owner of sacred and immortal cattle that Odysseus’ companions slaughtered and consumed in an act of illicit meat consumption that counterbalances the slaughter of Odysseus’ own cattle. It seems fitting that Odysseus, the returning master of animals, draws on the identities of the Masters of Animals that he has encountered in the supernatural world.
Learn more about The Meaning of Meat and the Structure of the "Odyssey" at the Cambridge University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue