“Be The Best”: Wonderful, Terrible Advice

This year I taught my last class at my first institution and soon I will teach my first at a very different school. Although I am happy to start anew, there will be many people to miss and among them stand many of the students who have impacted my life. This time of year teachers are mostly worn down—it is often hard to see the good we do in the midst of it. Indeed, as I tell my students, we are conditioned to see our failures (of which there are many without a doubt) and to minimize our successes.

I tried to downplay my departure—my department held a small gathering to mark it and a few students were invited. One of the students brought a card from a student who graduated several years ago:

Be the best.jpg

The bit about “be the best” is a truth that makes me shudder a bit because it can be terrible advice to set someone up for disappointment. I remember the conversation distinctly—the student had finished a senior thesis and was ready to go to law school but the process had been frustrating for us both. After letting the student know she had done just fine, I told her law school was going to be harder and she had a choice of doing well (which she would) or doing great. Then I quoted the Iliad.

Il. 6.206-208

“Hippolochus fathered me—I claim him as my father.
He sent me to Troy and gave me much advice,
To always be the best and to be better than the rest.”

῾Ιππόλοχος δέ μ’ ἔτικτε, καὶ ἐκ τοῦ φημι γενέσθαι·
πέμπε δέ μ’ ἐς Τροίην, καί μοι μάλα πόλλ’ ἐπέτελλεν
αἰὲν ἀριστεύειν καὶ ὑπείροχον ἔμμεναι ἄλλων…

And also:


“Old Peleus advised his son Achilles
To always be the best and be better than the rest.
And to you in turn your father Menoitios, Aktor’s son, advised:
‘My child, Achilles is superior to you by birth,
But you are older. And he is much stronger than you.
But you must do well to speak and give him a close word,
And to advise him. He will obey you to a good end.”

Πηλεὺς μὲν ᾧ παιδὶ γέρων ἐπέτελλ’ ᾿Αχιλῆϊ
αἰὲν ἀριστεύειν καὶ ὑπείροχον ἔμμεναι ἄλλων·
σοὶ δ’ αὖθ’ ὧδ’ ἐπέτελλε Μενοίτιος ῎Ακτορος υἱός·
τέκνον ἐμὸν γενεῇ μὲν ὑπέρτερός ἐστιν ᾿Αχιλλεύς,
πρεσβύτερος δὲ σύ ἐσσι· βίῃ δ’ ὅ γε πολλὸν ἀμείνων.
ἀλλ’ εὖ οἱ φάσθαι πυκινὸν ἔπος ἠδ’ ὑποθέσθαι
καί οἱ σημαίνειν· ὃ δὲ πείσεται εἰς ἀγαθόν περ.

In the first passage, Glaukos is telling Diomedes who he is and they ‘bond’ over their shared background (really, I think Glaukos comes out on top—though he exchanges gold armor for bronze, he lives to fight another day). In the second, Nestor is attempting to persuade Patroklos that he too is responsible for Achilles’ behavior because of their fathers’ injunctions.

Most of us who teach are more like Nestor than Patroklos, but we have Patroklos’ ability to advice, apply a convincing word here and there and hope (sometimes against all logic) that what we say will have some “good” outcome. While we watch hundreds (if not thousands) of students pass through our classrooms over the years, we remember mostly those we don’t seem to move, the good we seem not to have accomplished.

But every once in a while, we are lucky enough to hear that what we do makes a real difference. And it is often not in the exam we set, the lecture we give, or the grades we dole out. We make impacts in those human interactions between the scripted moments. Don’t get me wrong—everything else is important too: the scripted moments allow us to “be the best” in one way, to offer that “close-kept word”. But our unassessed, unquantified, and unmandated contributions help to take our work from the classroom to the world our students (and we) inhabit.

In nearly a decade at my first job I was honored to have many students like the one who sent me this thank-you note—bright young people who will go on to make their lives better and improve the lives of those around them. I am thankful to have had this opportunity and humbled that I too have been able to make a difference.

“Everything Seems Strange” – Confusion Upon Returning Home

Odyssey 12.187-202

“….Then Odysseus woke
From sleeping in his ancestral land, but he did not recognize it
Because he had been long gone. For the goddess poured a mist on him
Pallas Athena, the daughter of Zeus, so she might make him
Unknown and advise him of each thing,
That his wife, citizens and friends might not know him
Before he paid back the suitors for their transgression.
This is why everything seemed foreign to their lord,
The lengthy paths, the harbors with safe-anchorage,
The steep cliffs and the flourishing trees.
He leapt and stood on his feet as he gazed upon his ancestral land,
Then he groaned and struck his two thighs
With open hands and spoke mournfully:

“Alas! To which mortals’ land have I come?
Are they arrogant and wild, unjust men,
Or are they hospitable folk with god-fearing minds?”

…. ὁ δ’ ἔγρετο δῖος ᾿Οδυσσεὺς
εὕδων ἐν γαίῃ πατρωΐῃ, οὐδέ μιν ἔγνω,
ἤδη δὴν ἀπεών· περὶ γὰρ θεὸς ἠέρα χεῦε
Παλλὰς ᾿Αθηναίη, κούρη Διός, ὄφρα μιν αὐτὸν
ἄγνωστον τεύξειεν ἕκαστά τε μυθήσαιτο,
μή μιν πρὶν ἄλοχος γνοίη ἀστοί τε φίλοι τε,
πρὶν πᾶσαν μνηστῆρας ὑπερβασίην ἀποτεῖσαι.
τοὔνεκ’ ἄρ’ ἀλλοειδέα φαινέσκετο πάντα ἄνακτι,
ἀτραπιτοί τε διηνεκέες λιμένες τε πάνορμοι
πέτραι τ’ ἠλίβατοι καὶ δένδρεα τηλεθάοντα.
στῆ δ’ ἄρ’ ἀναΐξας καί ῥ’ εἴσιδε πατρίδα γαῖαν,
ᾤμωξέν τ’ ἄρ’ ἔπειτα καὶ ὣ πεπλήγετο μηρὼ
χερσὶ καταπρηνέσσ’, ὀλοφυρόμενος δ’ ἔπος ηὔδα·
“ὤ μοι ἐγώ, τέων αὖτε βροτῶν ἐς γαῖαν ἱκάνω;
ἤ ῥ’ οἵ γ’ ὑβρισταί τε καὶ ἄγριοι οὐδὲ δίκαιοι,
ἦε φιλόξεινοι καί σφιν νόος ἐστὶ θεουδής;


maine coast
Not Ithaca. Maine.


When Odysseus awakes back on Ithaca he is confused—he does not recognize where he is and, after his many years of misdirection and wandering, he assumes he has been tricked and is in a foreign country.

The narrative seems to put the blame on the mist that Athena has put upon him, but this divine trick is directly explained as making Odysseus unknowable (as part of the revenge plot). The passage has caused a little confusion: Aristophanes of Byzantium, according to a scholion, wanted to change ὄφρα μιν αὐτόν to ὄφρα μιν αὐτῷ, thus making the pronoun μιν refer to Ithaca (i.e. “so that she might make Ithaca unknowable to him” rather than “so that she might make him unknowable.” (Schol. H ad Odysseam 13.190 ὄφρα μιν αὐτόν] ᾿Αριστοφάνης “αὐτῷ” γράφει καὶ τὸ “μιν” ἐπὶ τῆς ᾿Ιθάκης τίθησιν).

But I think the text with αὐτόν is much better. The point is that the land and the man are unknowable to each other because both have changed. Odysseus gazes at the landscape—man-made paths through wild-grown trees on the edge of the sea. In twenty years how much have the trees grown? Without people, buildings, or the like, would anyone recognize a place after twenty years of natural change?

Odysseus comes to trees again in book 24 when he reunites with his father. Between his waking panic and his full unveiling, the epic makes us think repeatedly about what a ‘home’ is and the many (positive and negative) things a homecoming entails. The movement from book 13 to 24 is both about Odysseus becoming known again to Ithaca and Ithaca revealing itself to him. The Greek connects the mutual lack of recognition: Odysseus does not recognize Ithaca (οὐδέ μιν ἔγνω) and he himself is unrecognizable (ἄγνωστον). And the language may strain a bit to get the correspondence—a Scholiast glosses “unrecognizable” as “invisible” (ἄγνωστον] ἀφανῆ. Scholia V ad Odysseam).

This scene comes to my mind each time I return home to Maine. I grew up in a rural area in the southern part of the state and spent the long summers of youth exploring the many acres of pine-forest that surrounded us. For a time, I could have found my way blind-folded for miles around. I knew the trees I climbed in; where there were old abandoned graveyards; the safe paths through a cranberry bog; the locations of birch stands and poplar trees.

But now, nearly twenty years later, it is unrecognizable to me. The shapes of the trees are new; the animal and human paths have shifted; old clearings are overgrown. But I also know that I am nearly unrecognizable too.

And why is this in my mind? This weekend I return to New England as part of a protracted return home, for good. I have lived outside of the Northeast for fifteen years, have suffered nothing near Odysseus’ trials (nor his glory) and will certainly have no epic battles to fight—but there’s no doubt that after so much time both place and person are different. May I encounter only hospitable and god-fearing folk!

So You Think You Know Odysseus?

(Gentle Readers: The following is a summary of several posts about Odysseus for my myth class.)

Homer’s Odyssey, read by many as the story of Odysseus, has perhaps exerted a fantastic influence on the reception of the survivor of the Trojan War.  One of the things I like to encourage is the idea that rather than representing the standard view of the figure, the Homeric epic goes to great lengths to reform and re-present a traditional figure whose broader mythical tradition may have been a bit more positive.

Odysseus' Magic Raft
Odysseus’ Magic Raft

(And it is fair to say that a close reading of the Odyssey itself can produce less-than-favorable revelations regarding the man it sings about.)

Part of the difference represented by Odysseus, I think, is that he is not strictly speaking a demi-god: instead of being a child of a god endowed with super-human ability, he is something somewhat mundane, a human being one step closer to the messy world of his audiences. He is, as the epic announces, the “many-minded man” and a “man of many shapes”. For this reason especially, he becomes a protean figure in myth.

Odysseus Declaims to Sirens?
Odysseus Declaims to Sirens?

The epic may play with this when Odysseus reveals himself to Telemachus in book 16, his son at first balks, certain that this man in front of him is a god or some delusion.  Odysseus responds memorably (16.204):

“No other Odysseus will ever come home to you”
οὐ μὲν γάρ τοι ἔτ’ ἄλλος ἐλεύσεται ἐνθάδ’ ᾿Οδυσσεύς

A groundbreaking television documentary in the ancient world entitled “So You Think You Know Odysseus” might start out with his biography as popularly known and then look more closely at the epic itself.  For instance, though we often talk about his son Telemachus, his wife Penelope and his father Laertes, we often miss the small detail presented in the epic that Odysseus has a sister named Ktimene. What is going on with her? Well, it seems that she was married off into the murky relationships that pervade the background of the Odyssey‘s rather unclear presentation of the geography and politics of the islands around Ithaca, a tale which makes Laertes out to be a conqueror and brings Odysseus’ rule into question.

But if we leave the Odyssey and look into the mythical tradition, we find that Odysseus dies–according to some–because he is defecated upon by a bird. He has a grandson related to Nestor. And he has up to 18 separate children apart from Telemachus. He was, in many ways, a classic, wandering inseminator.

Odysseus Prepares to Expose his 'Sword'
Odysseus Prepares to Expose his ‘Sword’

But he was also a bit of a scoundrel. According to one tradition, he tried to stab Diomedes in the back while they slipped out of Troy. The negative associations of Odysseus become standard during the classical age when he appears often (but not always) as a bit of a villain in Tragedy and as a counter-figure in oratory where Socrates prefers Palamedes to Homer’s hero.

But it would certainly be unfair to say that the dangers of Odysseus weren’t present in the epic itself: during the middle of his own story, Odysseus as much admits that his own actions were in part cause of his (and his family’s) suffering. In the mythical tradition, Odysseus is positioned as the remorseful cause of Ajax’ madness, the vengeful scourge of Palamedes, the manipulative master of Philoktetes, and the captain who loses all his ships. His suffering is endemic. He is never innocent. But he carries on.

Odysseus and Eurykleia
Odysseus and Eurykleia

I think that this traces in part to his essential humanity: for Plato, Achilles was the best man who went to Troy, and Odysseus was the “most shifty“. His changeable nature, rather than seeming heroic, is more real, more relatable, and far less than ideal. And this is what makes him so much more like us.

The “human-ness” of Odysseus is part of what made him appealing to later philosophers, the Stoics, as a survivor. The continuation of his tale makes him an apt metaphor or available allegory for the struggle of mankind to survive after the stories are done being told.

Don’t Forget Your Homecoming: Homeric Warnings for #CAMWS2015 in Boulder

This year the annual meeting of CAMWS gathers in Colorado, where they bring new meaning to Higher Education. Oh, how we worry about the dangers plaguing our many-minded colleagues on their journeys.

Odyssey 9.82-97

“From there for nine days I was carried by ruinous winds
over the fish-bearing sea. On the tenth we came to the land
of the Lotus-Eaters where they eat the florid food.
There we disembarked to the short and we drew water;
soon my companions made dinner around the swift ships.
But after we had shared the food and drink
I sent out companions to go and find out
whatever men there were who ate the fruit of the earth.
I chose two men and send a herald as a third.
They went and met the Lotus-eating men.
The Lotus-Eaters didn’t bring any harm to my companions,
but they gave them their lotus to share.
Whoever ate the honey-sweet fruit of the lotus
no longer wished to report back or return home,
but just longed to stay there among the Lotus-eating men
to wait and pluck the lotus, forgetting his homecoming.”

ἔνθεν δ’ ἐννῆμαρ φερόμην ὀλοοῖσ’ ἀνέμοισι
πόντον ἐπ’ ἰχθυόεντα• ἀτὰρ δεκάτῃ ἐπέβημεν
γαίης Λωτοφάγων, οἵ τ’ ἄνθινον εἶδαρ ἔδουσιν.
ἔνθα δ’ ἐπ’ ἠπείρου βῆμεν καὶ ἀφυσσάμεθ’ ὕδωρ,
αἶψα δὲ δεῖπνον ἕλοντο θοῇς παρὰ νηυσὶν ἑταῖροι.
αὐτὰρ ἐπεὶ σίτοιό τ’ ἐπασσάμεθ’ ἠδὲ ποτῆτος,
δὴ τότ’ ἐγὼν ἑτάρους προΐην πεύθεσθαι ἰόντας,
οἵ τινες ἀνέρες εἶεν ἐπὶ χθονὶ σῖτον ἔδοντες,
ἄνδρε δύω κρίνας, τρίτατον κήρυχ’ ἅμ’ ὀπάσσας.
οἱ δ’ αἶψ’ οἰχόμενοι μίγεν ἀνδράσι Λωτοφάγοισιν•
οὐδ’ ἄρα Λωτοφάγοι μήδονθ’ ἑτάροισιν ὄλεθρον
ἡμετέροισ’, ἀλλά σφι δόσαν λωτοῖο πάσασθαι.
τῶν δ’ ὅς τις λωτοῖο φάγοι μελιηδέα καρπόν,
οὐκέτ’ ἀπαγγεῖλαι πάλιν ἤθελεν οὐδὲ νέεσθαι,
ἀλλ’ αὐτοῦ βούλοντο μετ’ ἀνδράσι Λωτοφάγοισι
λωτὸν ἐρεπτόμενοι μενέμεν νόστου τε λαθέσθαι.

Check out this passage about drug culture in the Odyssey.

“…One could imagine the poet deciding that drugs, too, are a part of experience, and maybe one could learn even from them. And, that being granted, given the poem’s frequent points of contact with a drug culture of some kind, it is not altogether implausible that in book 11 the poet conducts his hero on a hallucinogenic trip to the Underworld precisely when and where it will do him the most good. But only then, and for very special reasons, does it earn something like his grudging respect”

-Douglas J. Stewart. The Disguised Guest. 1976, 212.

Stewart makes this conclusion after analyzing drug use in the Odyssey: nepenthe in Sparta (administered to wine by Helen; compared by some to opiates); Lotus (book nine, he calls it “cannabis-like”); Circe’s drug (like LSD, according to Stewart) and Hermes’ antidote moly (book 10); dangerous wine (Polyphemos and Elpenor are undone); The Underworld “trip” (which Stewart suggests might be viewed as a grand hallucination which “shows signs of having been a drug experience”, 208).

Oh, and though I should not, I must, a moral from a different muse:

Is there a someone out there stalwart enough to write Classics-themed lyrics? I feel that one could rhyme Smyth with ‘high’…

Homer, Odyssey 16.147-149

“It is rather painful–but let’s let it be, even though it hurts us.
For, if it were at all possible for men to choose all things,
the first thing we would choose is the homecoming day of our father”

ἄλγιον, ἀλλ’ ἔμπης μιν ἐάσομεν, ἀχνύμενοί περ.
εἰ γὰρ πως εἴη αὐτάγρετα πάντα βροτοῖσι,
πρῶτόν κεν τοῦ πατρὸς ἑλοίμεθα νόστιμον ἦμαρ


Thus Telemachus says to the swineherd in front of his father in disguise.



Homer, Odyssey 13.397-9

“Come, I will make you unknown to all mortals

I will wither the skin on your bent limbs

And ruin your head’s blond hair…”


ἀλλ᾽ ἄγε σ᾽ ἄγνωστον τεύξω πάντεσσι βροτοῖσι:

κάρψω μὲν χρόα καλὸν ἐνὶ γναμπτοῖσι μέλεσσι,

ξανθὰς δ᾽ ἐκ κεφαλῆς ὀλέσω τρίχας…


Athena ‘dresses’ Odysseus up for his homecoming.

Odysseus is all trick and no treat.

The full text.