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.
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.
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.
 In stark contrast, Agamemnon is murdered upon his return home from the Trojan War with the complicity of his unfaithful wife, Clytemnestra.
 G. S. Kirk, “Introduction,” in Homer (trans. Walter Shewring), The Odyssey (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980), p. xix.