The Odyssey: Wanderings of the Man of Many Turns

The Odyssey: Wanderings of the Man of Many Turns

Introduction and Summary

When I finished reading the Iliad, I had a fairly good idea of what I was going to write about. Homer’s earlier epic presents a straightforward war narrative with a relatively narrow range of events, and to my reading, the general topics of discussion readily present themselves. The Odyssey, on the other hand, required considerably more thought. The tale of Odysseus’ return home to Ithaca is presented in a far more complex narrative, complete with extended flashbacks, time jumps, and lots of twists and turns. It contains a much wider variety of events than the comparatively simple Iliad and is, in my humble opinion, a far richer story that outdoes its predecessor in every respect.

When the tale begins, ten years have passed since the fall of Troy. Most of the Achaeans, including Odysseus’ men, have either died or returned home, but Odysseus, having aroused the wrath of Poseidon, is being held captive on the island Ogygia as the unwilling lover of the goddess Calypso and has not seen his homeland in twenty years. His son Telemachus, an infant when Odysseus left home, is now a grown man and believes his father dead. Noblemen from the towns and villages surrounding the city of Ithaca, known as the suitors, are lounging around Odysseus’ palace, arrogantly abusing the privileges of hospitality by eating too much and trying to persuade Odysseus’ wife Penelope to marry one of them.

The first four books depict Telemachus in his struggles with the suitors as he desires to come into his own as a man and assert his authority over his father’s household. However, he is a bit naïve and impulsive, not yet having learned the virtue of temperance, so his attempts come across as petulant and the suitors ridicule him. Telemachus journeys to Pylos and then Sparta to visit Odysseus’ former comrades Nestor and Menelaus, respectively, and inquire as to Odysseus’ whereabouts. Menelaus tells him that Odysseus is alive and being held captive by Calypso, but this is the only information Telemachus is able to gather.

Meanwhile, Calypso begrudgingly releases Odysseus on orders from Zeus and Odysseus makes a perilous journey over the sea on a makeshift raft to the land of the Phaeacians. When questioned by the Phaeacian king, Odysseus relates the tales of his travels since leaving Troy in an extended flashback covering books nine through twelve. These tales include what are probably the most well-known episodes of the Odyssey: encounters with the Lotus-eaters, who subsist on a fruit that causes men to forget all thought of their intended destination; the Cyclops Polyphemus, the son of Poseidon who kills and eats several of Odysseus’ men before Odysseus blinds him, incurring Poseidon’s wrath; the monstrous Laestrygonians, who destroy eleven of Odysseus’ twelve ships; King Aeolus, ruler of the winds, who tries to assist Odysseus in returning home but fails due to the folly of Odysseus’ crew; the witch Circe, who turns some of Odysseus’ men into sentient pigs before being won over and turning them back; the Sirens, feminine monsters who lure sailors in with their beautiful voices only to devour them; the gauntlet between the six-headed sea monster Scylla and whirlpool Charybdis; a trip into the underworld to consult the shade of the prophet Teiresias; and finally the fateful stay on the island of the Sun, where Odysseus’ crew slaughters and eats Helios’ cattle, defying orders as well as prophecy and dooming the entire crew to death at sea.

After Odysseus concludes his tale, the Phaeacians provide him with a ship and crew and send him home to Ithaca, where with Athena’s assistance he disguises himself as a decrepit beggar and plots to overthrow the suitors. The epic culminates with father and son taking up sword and spear together, aided by two loyal servants, to slaughter all of the suitors in the palace. Odysseus then reunites with his wife, and peace is restored to Ithaca.

Complicating Honor Culture

The Odyssey paints a considerably more complex and nuanced picture of Greek honor culture than we were given in the Iliad. The earlier epic presents a fairly straightforward culture in which military virtues such as strength, courage, and willingness to risk life and limb are highly valued, and a man’s status and worth are signaled by outward indicators of those virtues. However, as I mentioned in my previous post, the overall message of the Iliad seems to subtly question the effectiveness of these values in leading to the greatest possible well-being and quality of life for people in the culture. The Odyssey does two things for this picture of Greek honor culture: it further questions the effectiveness of the culture towards the advancement of human well-being, and it fleshes out the culture, adding more prized virtues beyond military ones that would have been more valuable during peacetime.

We are told several times throughout the Iliad that Achilles was given a choice between a short, glorious life if he goes to fight at Troy and a long life in obscurity if he chooses to sit the war out. He chooses the former and the culture he lives in would never have had it any other way. This is exactly what a great, honorable man would be expected to do, because the highest achievement a man could attain was immortality through name repetition. In book eleven of the Odyssey when Odysseus journeys to Hades to consult Teiresias, he also speaks to the shades of many dead heroes from Greek mythology, one of whom happens to be Achilles, killed shortly before the sack of Troy. He tells Achilles how fortunate he is to have died so noble a death and gained so much honor for himself:

I have not yet been anywhere near Achaea, nor yet set foot
on my own land, but always run into misfortune. But you,
Achilles—no man has been more blessed than you, nor will
ever be. While you were alive, we honoured you like a god,
and now you have come down here you hold supreme power
among the dead; so do not grieve over your death, Achilles.

--Odyssey 11.481-6 (Odysseus)

This is certainly a view of which Odysseus’ culture would approve. However, Achilles takes a considerably different view of the matter in death:

Do not try to comfort me about death, splendid Odysseus.
I would rather be a land-labourer, bonded to another man,
one who owns no land, and with little enough to keep him
alive, than to be king over all the dead who have passed away.

--Odyssey 11.488-91 (Achilles)

Achilles not only calls into question his decision to fight and die at Troy, he outright says he would rather be a living slave (and slave to a poor man no less) than a dead hero, contradicting the view of ceaseless, enduring notoriety as the ultimate achievement for a man.

Besides questioning the prevailing cultural wisdom of the day, the Odyssey fleshes out more of the virtues that were important to ancient Greeks beyond just martial ones, namely the ability to speak rightly, to express oneself clearly and with conviction in a public forum. The most obvious way it does this is through the character of Odysseus himself, who, we are repeatedly shown and told, is a man of incredible tact, intelligence, and persuasive ability. A somewhat less obvious way is through the character growth of Odysseus’ son Telemachus.

In the first four books of the Odyssey, we are presented with the beginnings of a coming-of-age story for Telemachus. In fact, these four books are sometimes referred to as the Telemachy due to their focus on Telemachus. At the time the story begins, Telemachus is twenty years old, a young man who has grown up in the absence of his father and who is now in the position of having to become an adult and take charge of his father’s estate. Of course, the suitors present a considerable obstacle which he must overcome.

Athena visits Telemachus in book one to instruct him to take action and begin the process of taking charge of his household, telling him first to order the suitors to leave his palace and then to travel to the homes of two of Odysseus’ former comrades in search of news of his father. Then she says:

When you have done all this and brought it to an end,
then you must weigh up in your mind and in your heart
how you may kill the suitors who are in your halls,
either by tricking them or in open fight; it is time for you
to give up childish ways, because you are no longer a child.

--Odyssey 1.293-7 (Athena)

Telemachus follows these instructions, first confronting the suitors in the courtyard and bringing to bear the weight of the cultural requirements of honor:

But I, I would stand up for myself, if I had the power;
these deeds are no longer to be borne, and my house’s
ruin has become a disgrace; even you should be outraged,
and feel shame before the people who live round about,
our neighbours; you should fear the gods’ vengeful anger,
lest, affronted by these vile deeds, they turn against you.

--Odyssey 2.62-7 (Telemachus)

Telemachus speaks boldly, but as we are told a short time later, he lacks the maturity and temperance to do so tactfully, and therefore comes across as somewhat petulant to the suitors:

So he spoke in great anger, and with a sudden burst of tears
hurled the staff to the ground, and pity gripped all the people.
All the others stayed silent, and no one was bold enough
to answer Telemachus with angry words equal to his;
and only Antinous addressed him in reply: ‘Telemachus,
you intemperate public loudmouth, how your words
seek to shame us! You want to fasten the blame on us!’

--Odyssey 2.80-6

The blame for the situation does lie ultimately with the suitors, who are in serious violation of the cultural code of hospitality and have been for some time, but Telemachus is still learning to express himself tactfully and is unable to make his point to the suitors effectively.

Later, when Telemachus arrives at Pylos with Athena (disguised as his friend Mentor) to speak to Nestor, he acknowledges his own inexperience with public speaking and asks for advice:

Mentor, how should I approach him, and how speak to him?
I have no skill yet in closely argued words; and then again,
it is embarrassing for a young man to question an older one.

--Odyssey 3.22-4 (Telemachus)

Athena responds encouragingly to this, and Telemachus, having acknowledged his limitations, goes on to have a productive discussion with Nestor, and later with Menelaus in Sparta.

The point of all this is that the story is showing us the importance of clear and intelligent speech. A man’s status in this culture is affected not only by his military virtues and material symbols thereof, but also by his ability to speak effectively among his peers, a virtue which may be even more important to society than martial virtues during peacetime. Because the Odyssey takes place mostly during peacetime, it makes sense that it would place more emphasis on peacetime virtues than the Iliad.

The Odyssey is only the second piece of literature I have read on my endeavor to better understand Western culture, so the picture I have of the culture’s history at this point is almost the furthest it could possibly be from complete, but my tentative view at this point in my journey is that the Iliad and Odyssey together represent, among other things, the seeds of humanity’s gradual turn away from such a warlike culture built on honor and retribution.

The Importance of Paying Attention

During Odysseus’ journey home, we see three notable instances in which the poet seemingly goes out of his way to tell us that Odysseus falls asleep. In the first instance, Odysseus has his twelve ships within sight of his homeland after leaving the island of Aeolia when he falls asleep and his crewmen foolishly open a bag that was gifted to him by the keeper of the winds, Aeolus. Unbeknownst to the crew, the bag contains the four winds, which, when released from the bag, cause a massive storm that blows the ships all the way back to Aeolia. Not long after, eleven of Odysseus’ twelve ships are destroyed along with their crews. We will return to this episode in more detail in a later section.

The second instance occurs after Odysseus’ year-long rest on Circe’s island of Aeaea. His last remaining ship survives several deadly perils at sea before coming to the island of the Sun, on which live Helios’ cattle. Odysseus has been strongly cautioned by prophecy on several occasions not to touch the cattle, so he doesn’t want to risk stopping at the island at all, but his crew convinces him to make a short stop before the final leg home, thinking they can hunt wild game while they rest. Odysseus reluctantly stops, making his crew swear an oath not to harm Helios’ cattle. Of course, things don’t go as planned; foul winds turn their short stop into a months-long marooning, the island runs short of wild game, and the men start to get hungry. The crew eventually decides to ignore their oath as well as the prophetic warnings and eat some beef, thinking they would rather die at the hands of an angry god than slowly starve to death. Odysseus goes to sleep, and while he sleeps his crew slaughters and eats one of the cows. The winds soon turn fair again and the ship departs for Ithaca, but is shortly destroyed in a storm, killing everyone on board except Odysseus. Odysseus washes up on Ogygia, where he is destined to spend the next seven years held captive by Calypso.

The third and last time the poet makes sure to tell us about Odysseus falling asleep occurs just before he finally arrives back home. He has just spent some time with the Phaeacians, telling them the stories of his travels, after which they kindly furnish him with a ship and crew to take him home. This instance is different from the other two in that Odysseus’ sleepiness does not lead to immediate disaster; he is in good hands with the Phaeacian crew and they drop him off on Ithaca as planned, enabling him to return home and rid his palace of the suitors.

These aren’t the only times in the story when Odysseus goes to sleep, just the ones where the poet seems to make special mention of Odysseus’ sleeping habits. The other times seem less noteworthy because they make more obvious sense within the narrative: Odysseus has a late-night conversation with some other character after which everyone goes to sleep because it’s night time, or he washes up on shore after being shipwrecked and immediately goes to sleep out of exhaustion.

However, the examples I’ve mentioned above beg for more explanation. The journey from Aeolia to Ithaca must have lasted for more than a day or two, as sea voyages did in those days, so Odysseus must have slept multiple times during the journey. The poet doesn’t tell us about all the other times Odysseus sleeps, so why tell us about this particular time, and why make sure to tell us that the crew opens the bag while Odysseus is asleep rather than just out of view? The stay on the island of the Sun lasts for months, and likewise, Odysseus must have slept with some regularity during that time. Again, why mention this particular time, and why does the crew slaughter the cattle while Odysseus is asleep rather than just out of sight?

I think in these cases, falling asleep is a symbol for taking one’s eye off the ball, for failing to pay attention, for closing one’s eyes to problems that linger beneath the surface. In the first two instances, Odysseus falls asleep while problems with his crew exist, problems of which he must certainly be aware but which he has not addressed. During the journey from Aeolia, Odysseus’ crew becomes jealous of the wealth he has gained from the Trojan War, which leads them to open his gift bag from Aeolus. On the island of the Sun the crew has become hungry and desperate, and the forbidden cattle have begun to seem increasingly appetizing. As the leader of the crew, Odysseus is responsible for addressing these issues. He instead goes to sleep, symbolically ignoring problems for which he is responsible, which leads to catastrophe in both cases.

The third case, when Odysseus sails home with the Phaeacians, is unique among the three in that there is no lingering problem that Odysseus is ignoring by going to sleep. He has built a trusting relationship with the Phaeacians in the time he has spent with them, and the Phaeacians are renowned for their proficiency as sailors, so he knows he is in good and capable hands. In this case, Odysseus rests only when he has no immediate problems to address, and his slumber does not lead to disaster.

The moral of this part of the story is clear. When lingering problems exist in our lives, it is not only good but necessary to address them. Problems will not go away if we ignore them; they will only linger, grow larger, and possibly become unmanageable disasters if we ignore them for long enough. For this reason, we must go through life fully awake, with eyes open and paying attention, not blinding ourselves to problems that arise, so we are able to address them before they become impossible to manage.

Odysseus the Liar

When Odysseus first arrives back on Ithaca in book thirteen, he is met by Athena, disguised as a young herdsman. Thinking she is a mortal, and not yet knowing where he is because he was asleep when the Phaeacians dropped him off, Odysseus inquires of the goddess what land he has come to, and Athena tells him he is on the island of Ithaca. Odysseus does not, however, tell the stranger the truth of who he is, but concocts a fiction:

Speaking with winged words he addressed her; but
he held his story back and left the truth unsaid, being
always ready to put the cunning mind in his breast to use:
‘I often heard of Ithaca, even in spacious Crete, far across
the sea; and now I have come here myself, bringing these
goods that you see. I left as much again there for my sons.
I am an exile, you see, having killed the son of Idomeneus—
Orchilochus of the swift feet—who surpassed all grain-
eating men in spacious Crete in the speed of his feet;
he had wanted to rob me of all the booty that I brought
from Troy, for which my heart endured many hardships,
fighting my way through wars of men and implacable seas—
all because I would not oblige his father, nor serve him
in the land of Troy, preferring to command my own men.
So, with a friend, I lay in wait by the road and struck him
down with a bronze-tipped spear as he came back from the
fields. A night of deep blackness had obscured the sky;
not a man saw us, and I was able to take his life undetected.
But then, when I had killed him with the sharp bronze, I
made straight for a ship belonging to some lordly men of
Phoenicia and appealed to them; I gave them plenty of my
booty, and begged them to take me to Pylos and land me there,
or to the splendid land of Elis where the Epeians hold power.
But when we left Crete violent winds forced them off course,
much against their purpose, for they did not wish to cheat me.
After this we sailed aimlessly and reached this place at night,
and rowed as hard as we could into this harbour. No one had
any thought for supper, though we were in sore need of it,
but we went ashore and everyone lay down where they were.
I was exhausted, and was soon overcome by sweet sleep,
while the others fetched my goods from the hollow ship
and laid them out where I was sleeping on the sandy shore.
Then they went back on board and set off for Sidon, that well-
established city, and I, troubled in my heart, was left here.’

--Odyssey 13.253-86

Athena, being a goddess, of course knows who Odysseus really is and knows he is lying, but she is not angry with him for lying to her. In fact, she drops her disguise and speaks to him approvingly:

So he spoke, and the goddess grey-eyed Athena smiled,
and stroked him with her hand. In appearance she was now
like a tall, beautiful woman, skilled in exquisite crafts;
and she addressed him in winged words: ‘It would take
a very quick-witted man, one full of cunning, to outwit you
in any kind of trickery, even if it was a god up against you.’

--Odyssey 13.287-92

Odysseus concocts an elaborate lie which is looked upon favorably by a goddess. This is far from the only time in the story that he fabricates such a story. While disguised as a beggar, he later tells different stories to the swineherd Eumaeus, his wife Penelope, and his father Laertes. In fact, one of Odysseus’ most important character traits is his ability to adapt his stories to the audience to which he is currently speaking, a trait he maintains whether he is fabricating a story or telling the honest truth. Throughout the story, Athena assists Odysseus while looking approvingly on his cunning, strategic mind.

On some level, the Odyssey seems to present the ability to effectively deceive as a good thing, as a positive attribute of an epic hero. I have struggled with this view of dishonesty, both while reading the story and while thinking about it afterward. My own view, cultivated through my upbringing, personal life experience, and study of thinkers that I respect, is of truth as the highest possible value.

In his book Lying, Sam Harris argues that honesty is nearly always the best policy, even in situations where we might consider a little white lie to be acceptable. Harris says, “I have learned that I would rather be maladroit, or even rude, than dishonest.” Dishonesty erodes trust between friends and family members in ways that we often don’t even notice. It often compounds itself, leading to further dishonesty, and enables other destructive behavior such as substance abuse. For further reading on this subject, I highly recommend Harris’ book.

A large part of my reason for embarking on this Great Books journey was to learn valuable insights from some of the greatest minds in our culture’s history. Given this conflict between my existing values and this seeming presentation of deceitfulness as a positive character trait, what lesson was I to take from the Odyssey on this topic? Interestingly, I think the resolution to this conflict also lies (heh-heh) in Lying.

First, we need to understand why Odysseus is so prone to deceit. Besides his deceitfulness, another more unambiguously positive character trait of Odysseus is his tendency towards caution. By the time he arrives back on his home island, he has spent ten years wandering the Mediterranean while encountering a veritable laundry list of different characters, some of whom turn out to be friendly, and others who display varying degrees of hostility. On at least two occasions, he encounters foes who appear inviting at first glance, but in reality pose serious threats to his goal of returning home (the Lotus-eaters, the Sirens). Having encountered so many enemies on his journeys, some of them deceitful themselves, Odysseus would be understandably cautious about revealing his true identity to strangers.

This does not, in and of itself, excuse Odysseus’ deceitfulness, but there is more to the picture. Before he arrives home, Odysseus is aware of the situation in his palace with the suitors (having an immortal goddess on your side to tell you things is a nice asset if you’re a war hero returning to a hostile situation at home). He desires to rectify his home situation and restore his rightful place as king of Ithaca, but he is quite aware that he is vastly outnumbered and outmatched as far as a straightforward fight with the suitors goes. He further knows that if the suitors find out his true identity before he is ready, they will kill him without hesitation to eliminate any chance of his retribution. The situation has devolved beyond any possibility of resolution through words, and where words fail, violence is the only recourse.

In Lying, even as Harris argues for the virtues of honesty in almost every case, he acknowledges that this is not an absolute, and that lying can sometimes be morally permissible, or even necessary: “A total prohibition against lying is also ethically incoherent in anyone but a true pacifist. If you think that it can ever be appropriate to injure or kill a person in self-defense, or in defense of another, it makes no sense to rule out lying in the same circumstances.” Harris’ view of dishonesty is that it lies (again, heh-heh) somewhere along the continuum of violence, and that if one is justified in committing physical violence in a given situation, that person is also justified in being dishonest.

Throughout the Odyssey, Odysseus constantly finds himself not only in situations where physical violence is clearly justified, but also in unclear situations where it may turn out to be justified, but he isn’t yet sure of the disposition of the characters he encounters. Regarding the particular situation of his having to deal with the suitors in his palace, we are constantly told throughout the story that Odysseus is completely justified in using physical violence against the suitors and that the suitors deserve everything that is coming to them. Every lie that Odysseus tells after arriving on Ithaca is told in service to his goal of defeating the suitors and reclaiming his rightful place, a goal which cannot be achieved through physical force alone (there is one exception to this, which I will address in a moment). If we take Harris’ view of dishonesty as a part of the continuum of force, Odysseus’ lies are completely justified in these cases, and his skill in using them, his shrewdness, intelligence, and strategic mind, can easily be seen as virtuous.

The one exception to Odysseus’ lies being in service of his ultimate goal is in book twenty-four when Odysseus visits his father Laertes. This occurs the day after Odysseus defeats and kills the suitors. Having reunited with Penelope, and no longer in his beggar disguise, he walks to his father’s nearby house, where Laertes is tending his field. Odysseus has no real reason to lie to his father, but he has become so used to making up stories to test people he meets before he reveals his true identity that this is simply standard operating procedure for him, and he “put[s] his father to the test with teasing words.” (Odyssey 24.240)

Odysseus makes up a story, telling his father that he is a prince named Eperitus who once entertained Odysseus in his home and has now come to Ithaca to find out what became of him. When he sees Laertes’ reaction, Odysseus immediately drops the facade:

So he spoke, and a black cloud of grief enveloped Laertes.
With both hands he scooped up the sooty dust and poured
it over his grey head, groaning all the time. Odysseus’
heart was moved, and now, as he looked at his dear father
a sharp, powerful pang rose up to his nostrils. Rushing
forward, he threw his arms around him and kissed him.
‘Look, father, here I am—the very man you are asking about;
I have come home, in the twentieth year, to my ancestral land!
Come now, stop your weeping and tear-laden lamentation,
for I tell you this plainly: there is need for haste, because I
have killed the suitors in my palace, and have taken revenge
for their heart-wounding insults and their wicked deeds.’

--Odyssey 24.315-26

This is the only time in the story where Odysseus’ lying is presented as being in any way a bad thing, and the situation is one in which the lie is unnecessary and unjustified. When Odysseus realizes this, and sees how his father is suffering, he realizes this lie is a moral wrong and has an immediate change of heart.

I think the lesson here is not that dishonesty is a virtue in and of itself, just as violence is not a virtue in and of itself. Violence is not a virtue in and of itself, but the capacity to effectively use violence when necessary is certainly one. In the same way, dishonesty is not a virtue in and of itself, but the capacity to effectively deceive when necessary is a virtue which Odysseus possesses in spades. When the situation does not require their use, both physical violence and deception cease to be virtues and become moral wrongs. We should also keep in mind that situations which truly require deceit are incredibly rare in most of our lives, and we should hold ourselves to a very high standard when deciding to deceive. Harris says in Lying:

In those circumstances where we deem it obviously necessary to lie, we have generally determined that the person to be deceived is both dangerous and unreachable by any recourse to the truth. In other words, we have judged the prospects of establishing a real relationship with this person to be nonexistent. For most of us, such circumstances arise very rarely in life, if ever. And even when they seem to, it is often possible to worry that lying was the easy (and less than truly ethical) way out.

--Sam Harris, Lying

There is also a lesson here about effects on one’s character when one has repeatedly used deception over a long span of time, even if that deception was genuinely necessary. When lying becomes a normal course of action, one may become more inclined to do it unjustifiably, just as Odysseus does with his father. This is an important consideration to take into account when evaluating whether or not deception is necessary in a given situation.

Leadership and Personal Accountability

Out of the entire Odyssey, book ten stands out to me as particularly meaningful. To me it seems like the richest chapter of the story, a book of much character growth for Odysseus, and it is worth summarizing in detail. Book ten contains a portion of the story Odysseus tells to the Phaeacians while staying with them as a guest. In book nine, Odysseus and his twelve ships visit the land of the Cyclopes, where the Cyclops Polyphemus, Poseidon’s son, kills and eats several of Odysseus’ men before Odysseus blinds him, incurring Poseidon’s wrath and ensuring that he will not return home for years.

After leaving the land of the Cyclopes, Odysseus and his men come to the island of Aeolia, home to the king Aeolus, who has been appointed keeper of the winds by Zeus. Aeolus shows proper hospitality to the men for a month, and then sends them on their way with a gift of the four winds tied up in a bag. Aeolus helps Odysseus on his way by sending fair winds, and the ships swiftly sail on until they are within sight of Ithaca, at which point Odysseus falls asleep. His symbolic ignoring of trouble brewing under the surface among his crew (see earlier section on paying attention) leads to catastrophe.

Some of the crewmen have become jealous of Odysseus, who they believe has grown rich from the spoils of the Trojan War while they have gained nothing. While Odysseus sleeps, they decide to open the gift bag from Aeolus to see what treasure is inside. The four winds escape the bag, and the resulting storm blows the ships all the way back to Aeolia. Aeolus asks Odysseus why he is back, and Odysseus says his crewmen made a foolish decision which brought them back and asks Aeolus for help once more. Aeolus angrily refuses, saying he has already provided assistance once and Odysseus has abused his generosity.

Already we could ask why Odysseus’ crew feels they have been cheated out of their rightful share of the spoils of war. Since the poem doesn’t give us any information beyond their personal feelings on the matter, we don’t know how valid their complaint is, but it could conceivably fall anywhere along a spectrum from completely justified to not at all justified. Either way, Odysseus holds some measure of responsibility for this as the leader of the crew. Either he has not ensured the crew receives their fair share of the spoils of war, he has failed to notice and address the fact that they feel cheated, or some combination of the two. Yet when he arrives back in Aeolia, he fails to acknowledge his own role in what happened and how his less-than-ideal leadership and failure to pay attention led to his crew making a foolish decision, instead choosing to place the blame entirely on his crew for their misfortune. Because of this, Aeolus refuses to help him a second time.

Odysseus’ refusal to take responsibility for his situation leads to further catastrophe when the ships next come to Telepylus, city of the Laestrygonians, a monstrous race of giants who destroy eleven of the twelve ships, killing all of their crews, and only Odysseus’ ship escapes. Their morale devastated, the crew of the last ship next reaches the island of Aeaea, inhabited by the nymph Circe. Half of Odysseus’ remaining crew, led by Eurylochus, goes to Circe’s palace to find out who lives there, and Circe invites them in with an offer of wine and food, only to drug them all and turn them into sentient pigs. Eurylochus alone escapes and brings the story back to Odysseus, who sets out alone for Circe’s palace, intending to rescue his crewmen.

On his way he is met by a disguised Hermes, the winged messenger of the gods, who explains to him how to counteract Circe’s magic. Odysseus follows Hermes’ advice and persuades Circe to change his crewmen back to their human forms. After this, Circe becomes a powerful ally, showing the men generous hospitality, and they stay at her palace for a year, resting and recovering for the journey ahead. Later, after a journey to the underworld, Odysseus and his crew return to Circe’s island and she gives him a full account of the perils he will face along his route home as well as detailed instructions on how to avoid them.

On Aeaea, Odysseus shows he has learned from his previous failure to take responsibility. When he hears that half his crew has been turned into pigs, he takes it upon himself to find a way to rescue them, even doing the rescuing alone, without the assistance of the other half of his crew. As soon as Odysseus decides to take responsibility and do something about the situation in which he has found himself, Hermes shows up to help him, implying that the gods help those who help themselves. When he voluntarily confronts the unknown in the form of Circe he turns an enemy into an ally, bringing order out of chaos and securing a comfortable place for his demoralized crew to regain their strength.

Book ten contains a strong moral message. Sometimes circumstance, the universe, or the gods conspire against us. Our plight may be self-inflicted to some degree or it may genuinely be someone else’s fault, but the source of the problem hardly matters. Whatever the cause, the reality of the situation is what it is and we are unlikely to improve it by blaming others for our problems, and may well make the situation worse. However, when we take it upon ourselves to do whatever we can to improve our situation, we can often do a surprising amount of good, and gods and mortals alike are far more inclined to help a person who has already taken action to solve a problem rather than blaming others and doing nothing. When we instead take action, we may surprise ourselves with our ability to transform adversity into advantage, enemies into allies, and chaos into order.

Beggars, Disguised Gods, and the Spark of Divinity

When Odysseus first arrives back on Ithaca in book thirteen, he does not immediately reveal himself to his family and people and immediately resume his rightful place as king of Ithaca, but rather disguises himself as a beggar with the help of Athena in order to first gauge the members of his household and certain other subjects. He wishes to discover their loyalties without their being influenced by the presence of the king himself.

Later, in book seventeen, the disguised Odysseus begs for food from the suitors in the courtyard of his own palace and is treated rudely, especially by Antinous, the most prominent and arrogant of the suitors. Some of the suitors begrudgingly give the beggar something to eat, but an argument breaks out which culminates in Antinous throwing a footstool at Odysseus. When Odysseus protests and calls Antinous on his contemptuous behavior, Antinous answers him saying:

Sit quietly, stranger, and eat your food, or go somewhere else;
otherwise, your speechifying will end in young men dragging you
by foot or hand through the palace and tearing the skin from you.

--Odyssey 17.478-80 (Antinous)

Even the other suitors are not pleased by Antinous’ behavior, and they respond:

So [Antinous] spoke, but they were all exceedingly angry with him,
and this is what one of the arrogant young men would say:
‘Antinous, you did not do well to strike this unlucky vagabond;
you will be accursed if he is in fact some god from the high sky.
We all know that gods take the form of strangers from other
lands, assuming all kinds of shapes and roaming through cities,
while they observe the acts both of the violent and of the just.’

--Odyssey 17.481-7

The last three lines of this quote stand out to me as particularly interesting. The speaker, an unnamed suitor, states what is apparently a common belief among people in this culture: that gods roam the earth disguised as mortals in order to test the character of humans.

This idea is by no means unique to Homeric poetry, but is in fact fairly common throughout many of the world’s mythologies, though I imagine other mythologies were highly influenced by the Greeks in this area. In a story from the Poetic Edda of Norse and Germanic mythology, the god Odin disguises himself as a wanderer named Grímnir in order to test the king Geirrod and his son Agnar. Geirrod fails Odin’s test and is punished, while Agnar passes and is rewarded with a long and prosperous reign as king in his father’s place. I cite this particular example because I have a soft spot for Norse and Germanic mythology, but myths and folklore are full of examples of gods, kings, angels, witches, or otherwise powerful characters disguising themselves as regular mortals to test the character of certain people.

The fact that this trope is so enduring and so common across different cultures leads me to believe that it must be expressing some deeper idea. I believe this trope expresses what may be one of the most fundamental principles of western civilization: the idea that every individual has implicit value as an individual and ought to be treated as such, and by extension that effects on the well-being of individuals are the morally relevant aspects of any action we might take.

Implicit in this belief is the idea that it would probably be a good idea to treat strangers with some basic level of respect. If one believes that any given stranger could be a god in disguise, and one doesn’t wish to risk offending a god and thereby incurring his wrath, one would be wise to, at the very least, not show contempt to strangers. Thus, the moral injunction expressed by the belief is something like this: “Treat every individual with basic respect and dignity.” A more poetically inclined person might choose to express this idea more along the lines of what the Gnostics might say: “Every individual contains within them a spark of divinity, and ought to be treated as such.”

This idea of basic human dignity is particularly interesting coming from a Greek culture that placed so much value on honor and reputation. In my post on the Iliad (as well as in our episode of the Philosophication podcast) I discussed the Greek honor culture and how one’s standing within it depended on making outward displays of one’s honor. A beggar would have been considered the lowest of the low in such a culture, but according to the above injunction, even the lowest of the low ought not to be treated with contempt.

We can still see the effects of this deep-rooted idea today. We are taught from childhood to respect others, to treat them as we would like to be treated. Our legal system guarantees due process to accused criminals, even those caught red-handed, before they can be deprived of the basic respect shown to every person. If someone fails to treat another person with basic respect, most of us look on them unfavorably, and if the offense is egregious enough, we may intervene to stop it.

As with any moral rule, we hold true to this ideal imperfectly, both as individuals and as a society. The ancient Greeks certainly applied this rule with varying degrees of success. If we can better understand how deeply rooted this idea is, and why it is important, maybe we can do a better job of upholding it.

Concluding Thoughts

As I said before, the Odyssey completely outdoes its predecessor in my opinion. It is far more complex, not just from a narrative structure point of view, but from a thematic point of view as well. As I look back through what I’ve written here, this post seems less adequate in addressing the themes of the Odyssey than my previous post was in addressing those of the Iliad. That being said, my purpose here is by no means to be exhaustive, and if it was, I would be just as destined to fail as Hector was to fall at the hands of Achilles. I fully expect to return to both of Homer’s surviving epics at some point in the future after I have read and learned from more of the great works on the list, and I fully expect to learn more the next time I read them. Part of the beauty of great literary works such as these is that they are near-inexhaustible wells of wisdom.

For now, it is time to move on and continue the journey, departing from Ancient Greece for the time being to dive into the Old Testament.

Watch the Philosophication Podcast’s Odyssey discussions on YouTube:

The Old Testament: Preliminary Thoughts

The Old Testament: Preliminary Thoughts

The Iliad: The Original Heroic Epic

The Iliad: The Original Heroic Epic