Homer’s Odyssey: The Return of the Father; Part 2 of 2

Odysseus in Ithaca: The Father’s Revenge

Odysseus engages the suitors in combat. 1814 painting by Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg

Finally, Odysseus makes his way home and “he rejoiced to be in his own country” (13.165-243); “King Odysseus was filled with happiness, filled with joy that this land was his. He kissed the grain-giving soil of it, then prayed to the nymphs with uplifted hands” (13.332-422). Athena transforms Odysseus’ appearance to that of an old man, to better gather allies, observe the suitors’ misdeeds, and prepare his revenge.

Odysseus enters the palace as an elderly beggar and is mistreated by the suitors, who have been scheming to murder Telemachus. The task will not be easy, but Odysseus asserts that he would rather die than live with such indignities: “I would rather perish, rather meet death in my own palace, than look on perpetually at things as detestable as these” (16.41-133). Finally meeting Telemachus, the two emotionally embrace, but Odysseus quickly turns to business: “at Athena’s bidding, I have come to this place to consult with you on the slaughtering of our enemies” (16.222-311).

When Odysseus reveals himself to the suitors, he will not be turned away from vengeance against those who “devoured my substance, forced my serving-women to sleep with you, and in cowardly fashion wooed my wife while I still was living” (22.1-122). One of the suitors offers tribute, but Odysseus will have none of it, dishonor cannot be redeemed with gold:

Not if you all gave me all your patrimony, whatever you have and whatever more you might come to have, not even then would I hold back my hands from slaughter till every suitor had paid for the whole transgression. (22.39-122)

Through subterfuge and prowess, Odysseus and his few allies are able to overcome and kill the suitors. They are not the only ones who must pay. While the few in Odysseus’ household who helped the suitors unwillingly are spared, the willing collaborators must pay, notably the servant-women, who are hanged. As Telemachus says: “Never let it be said that sluts like these had a clean death from me. They have heaped up outrage on me and on my mother; they have been the suitors’ concubines” (22.375-466). The punishments are monstrous, but the guilty perpetrated evil deeds, and the gods willed retribution.

The suitors overthrown and his authority restored, Odysseus can then finally unite with Penelope, who recognizes him in their own bed. Penelope has remained faithful to Odysseus and, with her handmaidens, maintained “the hearth’s unflagging fire” (20.122-93). Thus, the family has been saved. There is something touching in the couple’s complicity. As Odysseus had previously said: “There is nothing nobler, nothing lovelier than when man and wife keep house together with like heart and with like will. Their foes repine, their friends rejoice, but the truth of it all is with her and him” (6.121-200). The family members’ faithfulness to one another has allowed their collective survival.[1]

This is only a brief respite, for in a social world defined by kin, Odysseus knows that the suitors’ families will not be long in retaliating for what has happened. But the three generations, Laertes, Odysseus, and Telemachus, find confidence and joy in the honor and prosperity of their line:

King Odysseus . . . said forthwith to his son Telemachus: “My son, when you enter the battlefield where warriors prove their mettle, you need not be told not to shame the lineage of your fathers. In courage and manliness we have long been foremost, the whole world over.”

Thoughtful Telemachus replied: “Father, if you are minded so, you shall watch me in my present spirit by no means shaming the lineage that you speak of.”

So he spoke, and Laertes, in his joy cried out: “Dear gods, what a day is this for me! What happiness, when my son and my grandson are vying for the prize of valor!” (24.442-525).

Odyssean Politics: King Odysseus and the Good City

One can read an implicit political philosophy into Homer’s tale. No doubt the “many cities and minds” Odysseus comes to know present so many (counter-)models to the state he will be refounding in Ithaca. Fatherless Ithaca under Penelope is powerless to prevent depredations. The strange matriarchies of Calypso and Circe are rejected. The dazed Lotus-Eaters and pre-social Cyclopes live subhuman existences. Nor do the monstrous Laestrygonians or incestuous Aeolus have true cities. Only the Phaecians — with their city walls, assembly, port, marketplace, and good king — can be seen as a model, and even they are perhaps a bit too civilized.

The Phaecians honor their parents and hope for the prosperity of their children. Kings Menelaus and Nestor on the mainland, visited by Telemachus, also provide positive models. Both are welcoming to guests and honor Telemachus as obviously of the same blood and spirit as their old comrade-in-arms Odysseus. Nestor in particular is presented as a paragon of wisdom, piously honoring both the gods and his family in the same breath.

The Homeric ideal of kingship is one of familial solidarity, moderation, trust, piety, strength, and reciprocal duties between king and people, to the benefit of one another. Hierarchy and community are fundamentally necessary in Homer’s world. Followers require leadership and, indeed, servitude in a sense makes them foolish. Odysseus’ dog Argos, upon seeing his master return for the first time, is seized by joy and promptly dies. The swineherd says: “When masters are not there to command, serfs lack zeal to do as they should, for Zeus the Thunderer takes half the virtue away from a man when once the day of bondage has come on him” (17.254-337). Loyalty is supremely valued, as when Odysseus tells a wavering follower: “It will do you no good to serve many masters” (21.337-422).

The Odyssey’s political ideal is a firm and fatherly kingship. Odysseus’ men are destroyed by their greed, lack of trust, and impiety. The good king is contrast is, like Odysseus, pious, ruthless, cunning, and self-disciplined. As King Alcinous says: “the hearth within me is never tempted to groundless anger; right measure in everything is best” (7.242-328). Sociality and piety are equated. Just rule is inspired by the divine, as evidenced when Odysseus encounters the mythical Cretan king Minos in Hades:

Then I saw Minos the son of Zeus holding a golden scepter and delivering judgments among the dead. There he sat, and around him the others sat or stood in the ample-gated house of Hades, seeking from this master of justice the firm sentences of law. (9.528-611)

Odysseus’ moderation and piety do not exclude the most blood-curdling ruthlessness, however, whenever necessary. When his second-in-command Eurylochus proves unreliable and challenges his authority, Odysseus recalls: “I was half minded to draw the long keen sword from my sturdy thigh, strike off his head and send it to meet the ground, although he was close kin of me” (10.430-502). Odysseus’ revenge upon the suitors and their collaborators is brutal, a dark deed necessary to restore his honor and authority.

Reflecting on the basic insecurity of men, Odysseus wishes that men be god-fearing, hospitable, and lawful. While disguised as a beggar, he says:

Of all things that breathe and move on earth, earth mothers nothing more frail than man. As long as the gods grant him prosperity, as long as his limbs are lithe, he thinks he will suffer no misfortune in times to come; but when instead the Blessed Ones send him sorrow, he bears these also with endurance, because he must. The father of the gods and men makes one day unlike another day, and earthlings change their thoughts on life in accord with this. Even I myself seemed once marked out as a prosperous man, and I did many reckless deeds to sate my desire for power and mastery, putting great faith in my father and my brothers. And so I would have no man be lawless, rather let each accept unquestioningly whatsoever gifts the gods may grant him. (18.112-92).

Under a pious and just king, the people flourish. Odysseus says that Penelope’s fame is

like that of a virtuous king who fears the gods and who rules a strong well-peopled kingdom. He upholds justice, and under him the dark soil yields wheat and barley; trees are weighed down with fruit, sheep never fail to bear young and the sea abounds with fish — all this because of his righteous rule, so that thanks to him his people prosper. (19.79-161)

This order of law and generosity, ultimately benefiting the people, however can only be built by the hero’s embrace of kinship and violence. The Odyssey reaffirms the Iliad’s tragic message: that good order and the community can only be guaranteed by the willingness to fight and die for family and fatherland. Upon hearing about the Trojan War, Odysseus wept:

It was as when a woman weeps with her arms around her darling husband, one who has been defending his country and countrymen, striving to keep the day of mercilessness far from his city and his children, but now has fallen and is dying and grasping his life. (8.467-547)

Conclusion: Odysseus, an Enduring European Hero

Odysseus and the Sirens by Herbert James Draper.

Homer’s Odyssey does not present a full-fledged ethno-political ideal, and indeed, perhaps such an ideal is even less present than in the Iliad. The contrasts are between civilization and savagery, kin and strangers, rather than an ethnocentric idea as such. Furthermore, the work is more personal than political. The ideal and practice of the Greek polis, while hinted at, remains to be developed, as later recounted in the works of Herodotus and Aristotle.

The Odyssey is however a tale fundamentally about kinship and identity, with politics and personal behavior reflecting a familial, aristocratic, and patriarchal ethos. Telemachus goes forth into the world and attempts to become a man to live up to his lineage. Many who meet him remark upon the resemblance between father and son. Happiness is equated with prosperous descendants. And Odysseus faces frequent dangers and temptations to abandon his quest, but never surrenders, on the grounds that his homeland and family are worth more than anything else. Identity is destiny.

Odysseus embodies the ethos and qualities of the unpretentious, competitive, and enterprising Greeks of the age of exploration and colonization. This contested king of a modest realm is also a pirate, an explorer, a carpenter, an archer, and even a farmer. Odysseus provides a model of personal behavior and kingship, characterized by determination, pragmatism, cunning, and ruthlessness. G. S. Kirk writes that Odysseus is not only a good fighter and “a man of many wiles”:

But he is also long-suffering, patient, wise, humane, resigned, philosophical, hard-headed, practical, brutal when circumstances demand it, boastful at times . . . He is a survivor who fights his way home to take up life again where it should be taken up after war: among one’s own people, surrounded by the possessions one has fought for, and solaced by the wife who is one’s partner and whom one has struggled to win. That at least is what the Greeks of the heroic tradition believed in.

To achieve all that, Odysseus has to hold firmly to the past, to what had happened at Troy, to what he knows himself to be. With Calypso [the goddess who promised him a eternal life with her apart from his people], that means above all remembering that he is mortal, a social being, not destined for solitary love with a creature of another kind.[2]

The world of Odysseus is riven by conflicts between families and strangers, from the Cyclopes and Aeolians, who have no society beyond the family, to the warring clans of Ithaca. Fatherless Ithaca’s decline shows that a righteous social order can only be restored through the father’s ruthlessness in alliance with his family. The good society is held together by powerful familial and religious sentiments, including fierce pride in one’s lineage and reverence for the gods. One can interpret the turmoil of the Trojan War and Odysseus’ journey as metaphors for the Greeks’ violent primordial past and rise to civilization. The Wrath of Achilles gives way to an ideal of kingship: that of a god-fearing, powerful, and moderate king, who rules his flourishing people as a father would.

The Odyssey has resonated with Europeans throughout the ages. The sophist Alcidamas called the Homer’s second poem “a beautiful mirror of human life” (quoted in Aristotle, Rhetoric, 3.3). Anyone who has felt themselves exiled, physically or psychologically, from their kin and homeland cannot help but identifying with Homer’s wandering hero. Children as much as adults can still cheerfully learn from this ancient tale.

One of the most famous and evocative scenes in the poem occurs when Odysseus must sail past the Sirens, whose seductive song promises knowledge of the entire world:

Never has any man passed this way in his dark vessel and left unheard the honey-sweet music from our lips; first he has taken his delight, then gone on his way a wiser man. . . . We know of all things that come to pass on this fruitful earth. (12.129-216)

Are not Western men — so bold, so restless, so curious, so wishing to overcome their own limited nature and embrace the whole — most tempted by such a promise? The Sirens of course are liars: any man who listens will only be bewitched, forget himself, and drown as his ship is dashed upon the rocks. Yet Odysseus cannot resist listening: while he has his men block their own ears with wax, he orders them to tie him to the mast, so he might still hear the Sirens’ song. Is all this perhaps a metaphor for Western man’s recurring temptation to forget himself, including the necessary limitations and foundations of his nature, in pursuit of forbidden knowledge and superhuman ambitions? While recognizing the value of such drive, the lesson of the Odyssey is clear: the most valuable thing you have in this world are your honor and your people.

[1] In stark contrast, Agamemnon is murdered upon his return home from the Trojan War with the complicity of his unfaithful wife, Clytemnestra.

[2] G. S. Kirk, “Introduction,” in Homer (trans. Walter Shewring), The Odyssey (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980), p. xix.

8 replies
  1. m
    m says:

    The question ought to be asked, “Exactly just how ‘Western’ were Greeks, and by extension, Romans? Using a linear view of history, a direct relationship can be claimed. After all, there is geography to support such a view. And the counting of years. And we do have Aristotle and Plato. But spiritually?

    Replacing a linear view with an older, more traditionally oriented cyclical, organic-cultural view of history, such as Spengler described in his Decline of the West, our relationship to ancient Greece, really the Achaeans, is not so clear cut. I suggest we take Spengler more seriously than has generally been the case, hitherto.

    This does not mean that we cannot learn from Greeks, and more importantly the fate of Romans who represent Greek culture’s historical ‘decline’ stage. It is just to say that we in the ‘modern’ West, now in our own decline stage, probably cannot be called spiritual heirs to Greeks–at least the ancient ones this article is talking about. See an example, below.

    Finally, what is the overriding moral to Homer’s story? I think it is that men should never let women control men’s actions, or let women be involved in creating conditions for politics. Men ought to keep women close, keep them and care for them as prized property. Certainly kill suitors trying to steal your woman. That is justified. But once your property walks off (other than sheep or cattle, which you can easily recover because they are not usually cunning, and walk slowly), let it go in disgust. Don’t waste time trying to get your woman-property back. Not worth it.

    But people today will say, “Horrid! Women are not men’s property!” This is one example of why we in the West are not spiritual heirs to Argives. Our thinking is too far removed from theirs. However that is, as I wrote earlier, we can still learn certain things from them. With that in mind, thanks for the essay. [PS: just to keep it fair, in the minds of many contemporary Argives, Odysseus was considered a smooth-talking weasel, not to be trusted. It’s really a mixed bag.]

    • pterodactyl
      pterodactyl says:

      “Don’t waste time trying to get your woman-property back”

      This was the purpose of the Troy War to win back Helen of Troy and it involved a 10 year war for this war aim. This was never explicitly presented as a foolish war aim, but the reader can take it as a worthy cause or a foolish one. You can choose either option. Probably older listeners would have a different take on this compared with the younger ones. It is ambiguous, unlike the war aim in Gulliver’s Travels over which end to open an egg, which was not open to two interpretations – worthy or foolish.

  2. Tomislav Tom Sunic, PhD
    Tomislav Tom Sunic, PhD says:

    Western politicians should take the oath of office on the European Homer—not on the Mideastern. i.e. Levantine, i.e. Oriental Bible. This is a good Homeric piece. Our identity didn’t start in the monotheistic desert AD I. It goes way back, tens of thousands of years earlier.

    • m
      m says:

      The idea that our heritage is somehow directly related to pre-historical Achaeans, while emotionally uplifting, is rather tenuous. We cannot simply look at geography, or an artificial historical timeline in order to make a direct connection. Don’t misunderstand. I am not discounting the historical value of Homer, whose great importance and goodness must be recognized. I think it was Ezra Pound who wrote how he wished he could really know and understand the Odyssey, in an integral way. At the same time EP understood that culture was a spiritual thing, and not simply an historical flow of related genetics. And it is culture moving toward civilization that makes a race what it is.

      Spiritually, can we really argue that the ancient Greek Soul animates anything at all, today? Read the heady exploits of Homeric heroes, and contrast them with today’s last men. It is as if we are comparing two different classes of beings. Compare the feminine oriented Justin Trudeau’s fear of ‘toxic masculinity’ with Homerian heroes.

      Next, contrast the relationship of Argives to their gods, comparing that to the sentimental Semitic religiosity that overwhelms modernity.

      If we want to go back and claim an historical kinship, can we stop at an a-historical Homer? What about the legendary Aryan migrations? Can we not hold the exploits of Arjuna hallowed? Why not honor Agni, escaping as he did (in a recurring cycle) from the long night of Arctic darkness; the legendary Aryan homeland of the Vedas?

      Again, I believe Spengler had it right. Or as close to right as history will permit. The organic process of Greek culture to Roman civilization ended. It does not live on. In literature (although ‘Homer’ did not write) the decline is evident for all to see (that is, read) in the transition from dramatic Homer to formulistic Virgil. And that was/is that.

      After Rome, a new cultural being was born, possessing (for better or worse) a mostly Christianized (Magian influenced Faustian) aspect. A being which is now declining, in fact getting ready to die. Can it be saved by reading Homer? Everyone ought to read him. But all living things die. Something will certainly come after. Perhaps even an Hellenic Achaean Spirit will reemerge. In his early writings (Pagan Imperialism) Evola argued how a Roman spirit merged with a new German Reich was possible. He soon abandoned that idea. Shows that one should never try to predict the future.

  3. pterodactyl
    pterodactyl says:

    “And Odysseus faces frequent dangers and temptations to abandon his quest, but never surrenders, on the grounds that his homeland and family are worth more than anything else. Identity is destiny.”

    In one part he stays with a goddess on an island for several years when he puts his lust above his need to return home. So he uses up his most virile years with a mistress whilst his own wife passes through her own prime years alone. So he certainly did submit to temptation.

    “Odysseus embodies the ethos and qualities of the unpretentious, competitive, and enterprising Greeks of the age of exploration and colonization.”

    One of Odysseus’s main characteristics was his boastfulness, telling us that the weight of his cunning weighed down the ram that he clung on to, and when they divided out the food, we are told he got the biggest share. His men implored him to hold his tongue as they were fleeing from the island of the cyclopes, but he ignored them and taunted the giant. This put his men in danger and nearly got them killed when the giant threw a boulder at them. He also foolishly told the giant who he had just blinded and robbed what his real name was and where he lived, so the giant was able to call on Poseidon to curse him and cause a ten year delay in getting back home, and this resulted in all his men getting killed.

    “Odysseus provides a model of personal behavior and kingship,”
    His foolhardiness got all his men killed. He spent his best years with a goddess mistress on an island whilst his wife aged, instead of getting back to attend to his family and his kingly duties. Only when he satisfied his lust did he set off home.

    The adventures of Odysseus are a series of clever adventure stories aimed at the level of a 10 year old child. This would also be the level of most of the adult audience who enjoyed the stories, and who would appreciate the more adult fantasy themes such as Odysseus’s prolonged stay on the island with the goddess, the incest story where the brothers and sisters all married each other, and the lotus flower drug story.

    But for older readers you could say the lesson was that being ‘too bold’, foolhardy in fact, and liking war too much has terrible consequences for a nation – in the case of Odysseus his foolhardiness resulted in all his men being killed, and it also meant that his poor wife spent her prime years alone and looking after the home alone, whilst Odysseus was getting his men killed and living for several years with a goddess mistress.

    Even the cause of the Trojan war was a pointless one – fighting to win back Helen of Troy. For a start we have no reason to suppose she was not happy with the king who took her/ won her , as she was a great beauty and would have high status with the new king. Surely the point of the story was how foolish it was to fight for 10 years over something so trivial. This would be the message that the older listeners would be picking up, whilst the younger ones would think it was glorious to fight for 10 years if they ‘won’ at the end of it. (Odysseus boasts that the Trojan horse was his idea).

    This reminds me of the way the British people think WWII was ‘glorious’ and very worthwhile, even though the outcome was the same as the outcome of the Trojan war – after many years and after the best men were killed off, they were no better off. All they achieved was to take men away from their families and get them killed for nothing. Surely the lesson is ‘no more cousin wars’.

    But the British people love the War, and love the stories about secret codes and sinking submarines, just as the listeners to the Odyssey love the stories about the Trojan horse and the Cyclops. Personally I also enjoy all Odysseus’s adventures and for me the Cyclops is the best one, but I never watch programmes about the War.

    • mp
      mp says:

      ‘Even the cause of the Trojan war was a pointless one – fighting to win back Helen of Troy.’

      Let me just clarify my point. If someone shows up at your house (or country) and steals your wife or queen, you have a moral obligation to go after her. You must try and save her. If, however, she runs off on her own volition, you should simply consider yourself lucky, and forget her. If you catch her packing bags, help carry them to the boat for her. You can at least do that much, I suppose.

      That Achaeans fought a war in order to reclaim Helen was one of the most idiotic adventures in history. Especially since, while they were gone, their women were whoring it up behind their backs (I’m talking about you, Clytemnestra). Although Odysseus’s wife was virtuous, that is true.

      Was there any justification for it? Only for honor. It would have been better, and completely understandable, if they’d have said, “These Trojans insulted us, so we’re going to burn their miserable city to the ground. And Helen can burn with them, on their way down to hell.” Then, it would have been a justifiable war, to avenge honor. But war for a woman? Easier to replace a woman than it is to replace a man’s honor. Once a man loses that, he becomes the woman he is sworn to protect.

      So the only way to make sense of the events is to think of them as a quest to reclaim honor. But that kind of twists the ‘happily ever after’ endings we have. Euripides’ versions are the least embarrassing for the Greeks–either she was sentenced to die, or was in Egypt all along. The former was just, however the latter thing raises the question, “What the hell was she doing in Egypt, all this time?” Knowing Helen, probably the same thing she was doing in Troy.

  4. pterodactyl
    pterodactyl says:

    @mp “Then, it would have been a justifiable war, to avenge honor.”
    This is a hard question to resolve, as the purpose of honor is to be the deterrent that stops the enemy from helping himself to your things, on a personal level or national level, as he might provoke a retaliation.

    The arab idea of honour is extra complicated, as they attach no importance to truth in their honor system. For example, you cannot say ‘you cheated’ after an exam to an arab, but they have no problem everyone knowing they did, the only issue is whether anyone says so. For Europeans there is shame in cheating or in others knowing you did, but for the arabs there is zero shame in cheating and lying, just shame in being insulted about it. We have no understanding of their version of honor that results in family murders of the daughter for ‘dishonoring’ the family. Such profound differences can surely only be explained by genetic differences, as this way of thinking requires significantly different wiring.

    There is a video on Youtube of one man on a drunken night out in a street demanding of another that he apologises to his girlfriend for some insult. The other refuses. The offended man then starts a fight and injures the other, all on camera. So one man has to have hospital treatment, perhaps dental work, because his honor says ‘do not apologise’ and the other has a criminal record as his honor says ‘fight for your woman’s honor’.
    The one I despise most here is the aggressor who assaulted the other in order to protect his lady’s honor. Sometimes we should resist reverting to primitive animal behaviour instincts. These are at the same level as the ones that politicians activate to get the people to partake in pointless cousin wars.

    On the other hand, it is good to get people patriotic and thinking of the nation’s honour, as that can lead to the people uniting and rejecting those within their own nation who wish to destroy them. At present the nations of the West have no honor and it is resulting in them not bothering to react to internal and external enemies.

    So there are two sides to it. Honor is a great thing as long as politicians do not use it to persuade the people to do things against self-interest, such as WWII.

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