Head of Roman-era statue of Odysseus, found in the grounds of the former villa of the emperor Tiberius.
“Who are you, and from where? Where are your city and your parents?” Thus does a stranger ask Odysseus to identify himself in Homer’s poem dedicated to that hero, the Odyssey (10.325). Taking place after the travails of the Trojan War, the tale is fundamentally about Odysseus’ struggle to find and reestablish his place in a chaotic world. During his twenty-year absence, the hero’s native land of Ithaca has fallen victim to usurpers, and he must overcome innumerable obstacles to find his way home and restore his political authority as king through subterfuge and violence. Odysseus never gives up on his quest, nor does he settle down in one of the many places he visits, because he never forgets his dear family and fatherland, those two defining aspects of his social identity.
The Odyssey has inspired Europeans of every generation since the ancient Greeks and Romans up to the present day. Besides the picaresque quality of Odysseus’ fantastic adventures, one finds an enduring story that can only resonate with all those who long for home. Odysseus, rather unlike Achilles, is close to an ideal hero: enduring, cunning, resourceful, diplomatic, and ruthless when necessary. If the Iliad is the memory in poetry of the archaic Greeks’ countless forgotten wars of conquest and plunder, the Odyssey is that of their exploration and colonization of the ancient Mediterranean and Black Sea, endeavors which were often no less violent. If the Iliad is about the tensions between individual and community in the savagery of wartime, the Odyssey suggests a more constructive personal and political project: the journey home and the restoration of a good country.
Odysseus’ visiting various, often dystopian, societies and his quest to restore his Ithacan kingdom indeed suggest an implicit Homeric politics. The world of Odysseus is an often brutal and lawless one in which travelers are at the mercy of the goodwill of their hosts. Without reciprocity or strength, one is liable to fall victim to depredation. In this trustless world, Homer identifies two things which can serve to create more civil societies: piety and kinship. While the ideal of the polis, of individual sacrifice for the common good, is indeed hinted at in the Odyssey, Odyssean politics are firmly monarchic, with reciprocal duties between king and people.
Among the aristocratic ruling class Homer is dealing with, kinship is the basic foundation for identity and solidarity, and therefore of both personal and political action. Strangers are synonymous with uncertainty and potential violence. Kinship in contrast entails inherited resemblance and shared pride in and duties towards one’s lineage. Among kin, there is the possibility of security. That security, however, only exists by the strength of the family father, his domestic authority and his willingness to use violence against hostile aliens. The Odyssey is then also a tale of what befalls a family and country when the patriarch, by his absence, no longer meets his responsibilities.
For Homer, identity and purpose is found in one’s lineage. One acts for the sake of one’s ancestors and one’s descendants. Odysseus and his son Telemachus resemble one another by virtue of their shared blood and must work together to save their family’s status and power. The restoration of paternal and kingly authority in Ithaca is impossible without brutal revenge against the usurpers. And it is only within the circle of such violence that one’s kin can enjoy a secure and gentle life. According to Homer, a happy man has prosperous descendants and the people thrive under a righteous king, for he rules them like a good father.
Fatherless Ithaca: Victim to Parasites and Usurpers
Without Odysseus the family father, Ithaca is a dystopia, vulnerable to the depredations of selfish men. The suitors, noblemen from around Ithaca, feast on his wealth and wish to marry his wife Penelope, thus usurping his legacy. Telemachus condemns the suitors: “with their greed they waste my inheritance away, and before long they will bring destruction on myself” (1.197-278). Telemachus is also deeply disappointed with Odysseus’ subjects, telling them in assembly:
I have lost my noble father, who once was king among all you here and ruled you as gently as a father; then something far worse has befallen me, which before long will ruin my house altogether and bring to nothing my means of living. My mother, greatly to her distress, has been beset by suitors, sons of the greatest nobles here. . . . They haunt my palace day in, day out; they slaughter my sheep and oxen and fatted goats; they make merry here, they selfishly drink the glowing wine, and thus an abundance of things is wasted. All this because there is no man left with the mettle of Odysseus to ward off ruin from the house. I myself am not able to ward it off; I fear I shall always be a weakling, with not skill to resist at all. (2.1-75)
It is the rest of you [the people] I am indignant with, to see how you all sit dumbly there instead of rebuking them and restraining them; you are many; the suitors are few. (2.158-241)
Telemachus assumes that there should be reciprocity between ruler and people, the latter owing the former loyalty if he governs them as though they were kin. No one can substitute for Odysseus as patriarch. There is “no man left with [his] mettle.” Telemachus is too young, fearful of being a “weakling.” Grandfather Laertes is too old and feeble, and is left wallowing in misery on the country farm. Penelope herself is wise and virtuous, but as a woman she cannot challenge the suitors head-on. Twice she is told by her menfolk to retreat to the loom and her private chambers rather than get involved. However, Penelope has her feminine charms and is able to able to stall and deceive the suitors on occasion.
As royal heir, Telemachus has an unabashed claim to wealth, honor, and power by birthright: “Surely kingship is no bad thing; wealth flows into the palace readily, and the name of king brings a man more honor. . . . I shall reign over my own house and over the slaves that Odysseus once made his prize and left to me” (1.367-444). That is what Odysseus’ entire line risks losing if he does not return, so long as Odysseus is “away from his kith and kin” and the suitors can hope that he will “perish far from his people” (2.158-413). Fatherless Ithaca cannot ward off unscrupulous enemies: the patriarch must return to restore order and justice.
Kin and Strangers: “Bringing Havoc on Men of Another Stock”
As in the Iliad, in the Odyssey strangers and foreign lands are synonymous with uncertainty and violence. This is a world without mutual confidence. Even the gods do not trust in one another, as when the smith-god Hephaestus tells Poseidon: “Pledges for trustless folk are trustless pledges” (8.295-379). In this world of strangers, men however are bitterly driven on by “the accursed belly” to find sustenance. The only guarantee for civilized conduct is tenuous moral obligations of hospitality and reciprocity. Useless and parasitic beggar-migrants are scorned:
No man of his own accord goes out to bring in a stranger from elsewhere, unless that stranger be master of some craft, a prophet, or one who cures diseases, a worker in wood, or again an inspired bard, delighting men with his song. The wide world over, men such as these are welcome guests. But a beggar to eat up what one has—who would invite such a guest as that? (17.338-422)
Like Odysseus, Telemachus is driven by his identity. He must assert himself and learn to be a man, not only to find his father, but also to show himself to be worthy of his royal lineage. The glorification of lineage serves a double purpose: those of good stock are reassured they have the traits necessary to triumph, but it is also an exhortation to live up to the previous achievements of their line.
Traveling to the Greek mainland in search of news of his father, Telemachus encounters Odysseus’ fellow veteran of the Trojan War, the elderly King Nestor of Pylos. Nestor greets Telemachus asking: “Are you bound on some trading errand, or are you random adventurers, roving the seas as pirates do, hazarding life and limb and bringing havoc on men of another stock?” (3.36-121). The last part is a striking phrase which recurs several times in the Odyssey: in the ancient Mediterranean, encountering strangers with no ties of kinship meant the risk of being attacked, robbed, and enslaved by them.
The Achaeans are as prone to this as anyone. In Egypt, we are told, “Menelaus with his vessels went to and fro among men who spoke an alien tongue, and he gathered much substance and much gold” (3.282-369). Odysseus’ swineherd, who turns out to be the most loyal of his subjects, observes that fear of the gods’ revenge is one of the few things which can motivate “men of violence and ill-will who land on a foreign coast” to not do evil (14.42.-120). The same swineherd feared that Odysseus had been left “wandering foodless about some town or region of foreign speech” (14.42-120). In this mysterious and hostile world in which Odysseus must survive, kin and country are his lodestar.
Like Father, Like Son
Heredity is an even more pronounced theme in the Odyssey than in the Iliad. The characters frequently comment on the striking similarities between Telemachus and his father. Athena, the deity who most loves Odysseus, tells Telemachus: “are you the son of Odysseus himself? Your likeness to him sets me wondering—the head might be his, and the fine eyes” (1.197-278). She also reassures him: “If the gods let Penelope bear such a son as you, they did not mean your lineage to be inglorious in times to come” (1.197-278).
Nestor is clearly for Homer a model of the wise king and is described as a “shepherd of his people,” comparable to Odysseus. He makes several hereditarian observations. Telemachus greets Nestor by hailing him as the “son of Neleus, glory of the Achaen race” (3.36-121). Nestor is struck by the uncanny similarities between father and son. Between remarks on Odysseus’ legendary cunning and eloquence, Nestor tells Telemachus: “as I look at you, I am filled with wonder. All you say has a perfect rightness; who would have thought a man so young could display such rightness in speech?” (3.122-207). He says that Athena has punished many Achaeans on their way home from Troy due to their injustice and lack of wisdom, for “is she not the child of a mighty father?” (3.122-207).
Nestor decides to give substantial assistance and gifts to Telemachus, also on account of his obvious kinship with his old war comrade Odysseus. Telemachus later said Nestor gave him the care “a father might give a son just home after a long absence in foreign lands” (17.83-173). For Nestor furthermore, individual happiness is synonymous with the prosperity of one’s family and descendants. He remarks: “How good it is that when a man dies, a son should be left after him!” (3.208-81). Nestor is pious. In sacrificing a heifer to Athena, he prays for his family: “O goddess, be gracious to us now; give good renown to myself, my children, the queen my wife” (3.2370-452). His wife is “revered.”
Now assisted by Nestor’s son Peisistratus, Telemachus goes to Sparta, where he meets another comrade of Odysseus, King Menelaus, who has returned from Troy with his wife Helen. Telemachus finds Menelaus “celebrating with many clansmen a wedding feast for his daughter and his son” (4.1-35). The former is promised to a son of Achilles, the latter to a Spartan noblewoman, suggesting marriage strategies among archaic aristocracy.
Menelaus is impressed by Telemachus’ bearing and is also very interested in his lineage: “Surely you two have not shamed your parentage; you belong to the race of heaven-protected and sceptered kings; no lesser parents could have such sons” (4.35-122). Menelaus later adds: “What you say, dear child, is proof of the good stock you come from” (4.549-643).
Both Menelaus and Helen notice the similarities between Odysseus and Telemachus:
“This boy is far too much like Odysseus to be any other than his son [said Helen]; surely he is Telemachus . . . .”
Yellow-haired Menelaus answered her: “Wife, your thought has become my thought as well. Odysseus had just such feet and hands; his head and his hair were like this boy’s; his eyes had the same glance.” (4.123-208)
Menelaus too equates blessings from heaven with prosperous children:
There is no mistaking the child of a man whom the son of Cronus marked out for happiness both at birth and bridal; witness the favors bestowed on Nestor through all his days – for himself an old age of comfort in his own palace, for his children wisdom, and prowess with the spear. (4.209-296)
End of Part 1. Editor’s Note: This is part of a longer article that will appear in the Fall issue of The Occidental Quarterly.
 Notably by the Cyclops, who represents primitive barbarism in contrast with the wise Nestor (9.215-282), suggesting both the savage and the civilized are concerned with the issue of violence by strangers.