Should You Teach All of Them?
It may be tempting to start teaching Homer’s Odyssey by having students do background research on the Greek gods and goddesses. With twelve Olympians, it seems like a nice group project to split kids up and have them research domains, symbols, Roman names, etc. And then they present to the class, everyone takes notes, and on Friday there’s a quiz.
Please don’t. I’ve done it that way, and I think it’s confusing to the kids. There are better ways of starting The Odyssey and helping kids have a powerful experience with a very different culture and a very unusual text (at least in their experience).
Why Not Memorize the Olympians?
Most of the Olympians play a very limited role. Poor Hestia never appears. Aphrodite and Ares appear mostly in a side story told by Demodocus in Book 8. Even Hera, Zeus’s wife, is only mentioned a couple of times.
But isn’t there value in kids knowing the god of war and the goddess of love? Sure, I won’t argue with that (and in fact, I might argue for it in a future post!). The problem is if you start The Odyssey by focusing on these characters, kids expect that they will play a major role in the story. When they don’t appear in the first several books, they’re confused and feel like they’re missing something. What’s more a lot of other characters do appear. And who can remember Aegisthus, Eurymachus, and Antinous when you’re trying to keep Ares and Artemis straight?
In a world where you can Google the twelve Olympians in a second, do we really need to have them memorized? On the other hand, cultural conflict is very present today. And spending more time on a fewer number of gods and goddesses can allow your students to dive more deeply into the world of the epic and understand its culture better.
The Tense Triangle
I’d recommend focusing on what I call “The Tense Triangle” instead. The Tense Triangle is the conflict between Poseidon, who wants to harm Odysseus, Athena, who wants to help Odysseus, and Zeus, who’s caught in the middle. The Tense Triangle is at the heart of a lot of The Odyssey, so it helps kids make predictions and deal with the unusual structure and lack of chronology.
There are also many interesting questions related to The Tense Triangle. “Why is Poseidon so angry at Odysseus?” is a good question that students can read for in the first 9 books. “How do the gods and goddesses balance power?” or “Are the gods and goddesses limited by anything other than each other?” are good, too. Those questions help students understand the culture on a deeper level.
After all, this was a functioning religion for thousands of years, not a bunch of made-up bedtime stories.
Of course, there are lots and lots of other characters, both mortal and immortal, besides The Tense Triangle. Hermes’ role as messenger is important to the story, and he gets my vote for immortal #4.
After that, I’d focus on the nymphs Calypso and Circe. They bring up other interesting questions about hierarchy and control, not to mention gender. How powerful is a female immortal in a male-dominated world? Calypso’s speech in Book 5 speaks to this tension. After some close reading for comprehension, students can relate to the idea of a double standard and often have a lot to say about it.
How location works in The Odyssey is also an interesting idea that you can dig into more deeply with fewer immortals to worry about. Calypso and Circe seem to have a great deal of power over a limited amount of space, just as Penelope does. And The Tense Triangle conflict gets set into motion by the fact that Poseidon is away in Ethiopia in Book 1.
Questions about how travel builds status (think Telemachus), who has control over what space, how should hosts treat guests, and what limits the knowledge of immortals help students work on two levels. They help students understand the events in The Odyssey, as they are deeply relevant to most of the events. But they also help students deepen their understanding of Greek culture.
To sum up my take on teaching the immortals in The Odyssey: Less memorization of gods and goddesses + more in-depth exploration of culture = happier and better informed students.
Hope that helps you enjoy your time sailing with Odysseus!