Memory is a source of grief for many characters in The Odyssey. Grief and tears are proper ways to honor the memory of absent or departed friends, but grief as a mere expression of selfish sadness or fear is somewhat shameful – Odysseus often chides his crew for wailing in grief for fear of death. Moreover, the grief caused by memory is in many instances a guide to right action. Telemachus' grief for his father spurs him to take command of his household and journey to other kingdoms in search of news. Penelope remains faithful to Odysseus because she remembers him and grieves in her memory, and the gods honor her loyalty – just as they scorn the disloyalty of Agamemnon's wife. Odysseus remains faithful in his heart to the memory of Penelope even in the seven years he spends as Calypso's unwilling lover, and his memory keeps alive his desire for home.
If memory in The Odyssey is a guide to action, it follows that loss of memory is often a loss of desire - since it is mainly desire that causes people to act. The Lotus-Eaters, Circe and the Sirens all threaten to halt the homecoming of Odysseus's crew by erasing the men's memories and extinguishing their desires. Like grief, desire can be both noble and shameful: desire for home is noble, but desire for food and drink is bestial. In the Circe episode, the men who are stripped of their desire for home become swine – as though a person without desire for something other than food and drink is no longer human.
The opposite of grief seems to be the forgetfulness and innocence of sleep, which Athena often gifts to Penelope or Telemachus to ease their sorrows. But sleep, like loss of memory, can be treacherous: when Odysseus falls asleep after his encounter with the god Aeolus, his crew opens the bag of winds that was the god's parting gift, and the winds cause a terrible storm. Grief and memory are noble, heroic experiences in The Odyssey. Lotus flower, Circe, and the Sirens are said to spellbind their victims, as the bards spellbind their listeners; but the songs of the bards enhance memory rather than destroy it. The Odyssey itself was such a song, a spell of memory and grief.
Memory and Grief ThemeTracker
Memory and Grief Quotes in The Odyssey
The belly's a shameless dog, there's nothing worse.
Always insisting, pressing, it never lets us forget –
destroyed as I am, my heart racked with sadness,
sick with anguish, still it keeps demanding,
‘Eat, drink!' It blots out all the memory
of my pain, commanding, ‘Fill me up!'
Calypso the lustrous goddess tried to hold me back,
deep in her arching caverns, craving me for a husband.
So did Circe, holding me just as warmly in her halls,
the bewitching queen of Aeaea keen to have me too.
But they never won the heart inside me, never.
So nothing is as sweet as a man's own country.
Even too much sleep can be a bore. …
We two will keep to the shelter here, eat and drink
and take some joy in each other's heartbreaking sorrows,
sharing each other's memories.
You know how you can stare at a bard in wonder –
trained by the gods to sing and hold men spellbound –
how you can long to sit there, listening, all your life
when the man begins to sing. So he charmed my heart.
What good sense resided in your Penelope –
how well Icarius's daughter remembered you,
Odysseus, the man she married once!
The fame of her great virtue will never die.
The immortal gods will lift a song for all mankind,
a glorious song in praise of self-possessed Penelope.
Now that royal Odysseus has taken his revenge,
let both sides seal their pacts that he shall reign for life,
and let us purge their memories of the bloody slaughter
of their brothers and their sons. Let them be friends,
devoted as in the old days. Let peace and wealth
come cresting through the land.