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„... Ulysses was a prick.“



I think every generation needs its own translations of historical texts. This applies to the Bible as it does to Homer's stories.


Ulysses the hero?


With the Odyssey and the figure of Ulysses, Homer - or whoever - created an incredibly complex narrative and character. Even Sophocles is already divided about the "hero" Ulysses. On the one hand, he names Ulysses a model of restraint and tolerance; on the other hand, he describes him as a windy, even sleazy character. Ulysses is curious and open-minded, and at the same time devious and conspicuously immoral.


In her translation from 2017, US classical philologist Emily Wilson translates the original Greek term "polytropos" from the introduction of the Odyssee into „difficult man“ instead of the characterisations "much wandered", "agile", "versatile" which where used in former translations. So this changes the first impression of the King of Ithaca quite a bit.


Historian Robert Zaretsky believes that this Ulysses would fit well into our post-factual era, an era beyond truth and good decency.


The amazing complexity of the story is revealed especially where Ulysses - now already without his companions, all of whom had already perished - washes up at the Phaeacians in the Ionian Sea. There, in the royal palace, he listens to the singer who tells of the Trojan War and the heroic deeds of the Greeks, becomes quite broodly and finally reveals his story.

It becomes obvious that Ulysses repeatedly misjudged the situation and made mistakes, and even acted to the detriment of his companions. In his account to the Phaeacians, however, he presents these prodeedings quite differently, he glosses over his behaviour, shifts responsibility away from himself, in other words, he lies. And not only does he lie to the living, he also lies to the shadow of Achilles in Hades about his son, and he even wants to deceive the goddess Pallas Athena.


Homer is setting a trap for us, historian Zaretsky says, the poet is subtly misleading us. Among other things, Homer makes Ulysses blame his companions for their own death. We then learn, however, that Ulysses' descriptions are not entirely true; Homer thus forces us to question Ulysses' state as a hero.


A hero who lies, deceives and cheats? One who uses his knowledge advantage to manipulate others at the risk of no longer being able to distinguish truth from lies?


In his book "Bullshit" (2005), US philosopher Harry Frankfurt distinguishes between truth and "bullshit" (untruth, nonsense).

On the one hand, there is the liar who deliberately deceives and intentionally presents the untruth, but he knows the difference between truth and lies.

But then there is the one, says Frankfurt, who has no idea of the truth, or who is indifferent to it. He is only interested in manipulating the opinions and actions of his listeners. The dangerous thing about the later is that he ignores the fact that only truth counts, and so this makes truth meaningless.


In his story, however, Ulysses does not cross this fateful line. He deliberately breaks all kinds of rules, but comes home again. Zaretsky brings into play this image of Penelope's and Ulysses' bed, which is cut out of the trunk of an olive tree. The bed cannot be moved, as is the case with truth: it is deeply rooted and provides support, he says.


So the Odyssey fits perfectly into our time, doesn't it?



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