Emma Greensmith - Psychoanalysing Odysseus

Red-figured stamnos showing Odysseus and the Sirens.
© The Trustees of the British Museum

On 9th November, I had the luck of attending an intelligent and comprehensive lecture delivered by Emma Greensmith, an old Bancroftian (an old student at my school) who is now a researcher at Cambridge, on the project “Greek Epic on the Roman Empire: A cultural history”. Having been an ardent fan of Greek myths and stories in general since I was very young, I read the beautifully illustrated versions of both of Homer’s masterpieces, then went on to read the actual versions. So, of course, I was anticipating the lecture with delight. Moreover, lecture completely changed my opinion of the Odyssey, and to an extent of classical story-telling.

As well as a detailed psychoanalysis of Odysseus’s character (a man of many turns/wiles/journeys, or polytropon) by Classical figures such as Plato, and of course Ms. Greensmith’s own, the talk contained a general overview of the Odyssey and the Iliad, in addition to an exploration of the other well-known characters such as Achilles and Penelope. The multitude of topics covered were made intriguing by Greensmith’s obvious rhetoric skill and the use of in-depth quotations from histories about the Iliad and the Odyssey, and the renowned stories themselves.

One of the high points of the lecture was the quotations in both English and Ancient Greek from the Iliad and the Odyssey because it gave greater depth to the lecture. For example, the quotation in which Achilles angrily tells Odysseus “I will tell you straight how I feel… (I hate)… the man who thinks one thing and thinks another thing” enabled Emma Greensmith to give her opinion of Odysseus being a sly character and moreover that Achilles’s and Odysseus’s characters are very different. Furthermore, this quotation backed the point Greensmith made, that Achilles’s flaws – passion, wrath (the translation of which, menin, is the first word of the original Iliad) - are far more endearing (for example, to the American soldiers who fought in Vietnam who have PTSD) than Odysseus’s twisted flaws: slyness, duplicity and a “slimy” character (which, according to Emma Greensmith, was a Classical concept).

Greensmith concluded, in the last 20 minutes or so, that she thought that Odysseus was “a mirror of a mankind”. Again she was aided by quotations, which were both interesting and intelligent. What particularly delighted me was the fact that Homer used a “catchword technique” (in which a person phrases the other person’s words differently).  This was integral to the quotations she used when saying that Odysseus “mirrored” women and villains, for example, Odysseus and the monsters (e.g Polyphemus) and the female characters (in particular Athena) threw the other person’s words at them. According to Greensmith, the aforementioned showed a “close engagement” of the words. Her opinion that Odysseus mirrored mankind was backed by the word “polytropon” – everyone has different masks of personality which they show in different media.

In conclusion, I thought that the lecture was absolutely brilliant and certainly persuaded me that Odysseus is indeed a “twisted hero”, and, as Emma Greensmith said, “a hero of the mind” rather than the archetypal hero.