If you walk up to any child or teen anywhere in the United States and ask them to tell you the story of the Odyssey, they will all tell the exact same story. A hero named Odysseus goes on a long sea voyage. Along the way, he encounters monsters, usually a man-eating Cyclops and a group of fishtailed sirens, and he defeats them. Odysseus might also meet a witch who falls in love with him and tries to keep him on her island. In the end, he arrives home and is reunited with his wife.
While this story initially seems like a reasonable version of the Odysseus myth, on closer inspection it is not the story preserved in Homer’s Odyssey. At best, it represents about four books (9–12) out of the twenty-four books of Homer’s epic. The Odysseus in the US story is alone on his voyage and almost never has children or allies waiting for his return. His home only appears as a goal, whereas in Homer’s epic half of the narrative actually takes place on Ithaca. The US version of the Odyssey is not Homer’s Odyssey; it is a transformed version of the classical myth that is still an active part of American oral culture.
I am the primary investigator on a research study called the Living Odyssey Project: Greek Myth in 21st Century Folklore that uses anthropological data gathering techniques to quantify and describe modern transformed myths. I have chosen to use Odysseus’ nostos as a case study because its features are easily identifiable. In the project’s first stage, I am collecting quantitative data through survey to describe the myth’s modern North American form. The project surveys children between the ages of ten and thirteen. American children of this age have a solid grounding in their own oral culture, but have usually not read or studied Homer’s Odyssey. Therefore, any aspects of the myth that they recognize will be familiar from their own local tradition, not the ancient text.
Participating children are asked to identify any familiar creatures, characters, and gods from the Odysseus story as it can be constructed from ancient sources. The survey was developed in conjunction with two cultural anthropologists, Carolyn Behrman and Isa Rodriguez-Soto of University of Akron, and beta-tested with a group of 42 children between the ages of ten and eleven. In fall of 2017, a team of 17 undergraduates from the University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign, and I conducted a wide study of the school population in Champaign and Urbana, IL.
So far, the results of the survey match my hypothesis. Around 20% of the children surveyed recognize most of the creatures mentioned in Odyssey books 9–12, with the exception of the Laestrygonians, Scylla, and Charybidis. That number increases to 48% for the sirens, and 75% for the Cyclops. However, only 29% of children surveyed recognized the name Polyphemus. It is possible that participants may recognize descriptions or images of Scylla and Charybidis. The two appear in children’s television shows produced in North America, but are not named.
Nearly all of the gods who appear in Homer’s epic were familiar to participants, with the exception of Eos and the sea goddess Leucothea. However, since the gods are a major part of many myths, participants might know them from multiple contexts, not just the Odysseus myth. At least 20% of survey participants were familiar with the minor goddesses/witches Calypso and Circe, as well as the lotus-eaters. The only other characters to achieve that level of recognition were Odysseus himself, Penelope, and Helen. A cursory survey of American children’s media suggests that Helen is present in today’s oral and popular culture as an extension of her long-time role as the personification of beauty, but the matter needs further study.
At this stage of the survey, it is impossible to draw many firm conclusions about the transmission of the myth, but some correlations do emerge. All of the children who knew the name Polyphemus had also read the Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan, or seen the movie versions of the first two books. The type of school that the children attended did not affect their level of familiarity with the myth, although their age did. Older children showed a greater familiarity with all aspects of the myth related to the wanderings of Odysseus, although they did not show any greater knowledge of the other portions of the myth present in Homer’s epic.
Finally, I would like to conclude with a request for help. I have complied a list of English juvenile and young adult novels that are inspired by Greek mythology that I am offering to participants as an incentive to take the survey. I would be happy to provide the list to anyone who is interested and would be grateful if you would email me any titles that I may have omitted. My email address is email@example.com.
Prepared by Krishni Burns (University of Illinois Chicago)
Elaborated by Dorota Bazylczyk