The Odyssey

A year ago I finished reading the Odyssey. I read the English prose translation by Walter Shewring, published as Oxford’s World Classics. I liked this translation, it evoked emotions of disgust with me as I read about the various gruesome ways in which Odysseus’ crew meet their end. Also, I like that the Odyssey has a more diverse environment than the Iliad, which is restricted to Troy and its surroundings.

What struck me was the emphasis on the importance of hospitality in the story. We did not see this in the Iliad, which was about the Trojan War, but the setting of the Odyssey is different. Odysseus and Telemachus are treated very generously as guests when they visit those people who bear them no ill will. This was the concept of xenia for the ancient Greeks, who considered it a religious obligation. The plot of the Odyssey moralizes about this issue. Penelope’s suitors abuse the hospitality of Odysseus’ household while he is away. When Odysseus visits the suitors in his palace disguised as a beggar to ask for food, the suitors insult and mistreat him. Together with their other misdeeds, this is a huge transgression which condemns the suitors to their fate. Ultimately, Odysseus sheds his disguise and kills them with the approval of the Gods.

We can still see how other non-Western cultures attach a similar degree of importance to hospitality. A friend who traveled through Iran told me he was amazed by the hospitality he was offered there as a stranger. It’s a pity we don’t have value hospitality in our Western culture anymore. Fortunately CouchSurfing is a notable exception, which I contribute to myself as a host of foreign travelers in Rotterdam.

The concept of xenia brings me to a part of the plot of the Odyssey which I did not understand. When Odysseus and his crew visit the island of the Cyclopes, the Cyclops Polyphemus makes it clear he does care for the Gods of Olympus. He even goes as far as saying that the Cyclopes are stronger than the Gods. He violates the custom of xenia by eating six of Odysseus’ men. When Odyssey and his crew blind him and escape, Polyphemus reveals he is the son of Poseidon and prays to his father to curse Odysseus’ journey. Even though Odysseus sacrifices to Zeus, in hindsight Odysseus thinks the supreme God did not accept his sacrifice and wanted to see his ships and crew destroyed. Zeus seems to consent to the vengeance of Poseidon, who wishes to prevent Odysseus from swiftly sailing home to Ithaca.

Brown (1996) explains that the concept of xenia does not apply to the Cyclopes because they live a society very different from that of the Greeks. Because Odysseus cannot make a claim to xenia, Zeus does not support him and allows to Poseidon proceed with his vengeance. Segal (1992) argues that Homer’s contemporaries would approve of the right of a family member to take vengeance if someone in their family were injured, which justifies Poseidon’s anger. Also, Odysseus does not interpret the will of the Zeus correctly. Poseidon’s wrath is the reason Odysseus is prevented from a swift homecoming, but Zeus did not plan it. Furthermore, the destruction of Odysseus’ ships and crew are not caused by Poseidon’s anger: it is the consequence of the impious acts of his men and the according divine punishment.

I think the most extensive and convincing analysis is given by Friedrich (1991) however. Poseidon’s anger is pure vengeance, but in the prologue Zeus asserts the Gods do not cause human suffering on an arbitrary basis. Zeus condones Poseidon’s persecution of Odysseus because he needed to be punished for his hybris. Odysseus visits the island of the Cyclopes because he wants to see if they are civilized or savage, but subjecting mortals to this test is the prerogative of the Gods. While Polyphemus is absent from his cave, Odysseus helps himself to the food stored in the cave, making him the first to violate the code of hospitality. When Odysseus and his men escape from Polyphemus, he presumptuously asserts that he punished him in the name of the Gods for failing the ‘hospitality test’. He forgets that the Gods did not sanction his ‘mission’. In his final remark, he insults Poseidon by claiming that the God cannot heal the eye of Polyphemus. As a consequence, Poseidon punishes him out of vengeance and Zeus punishes him for his hybris.

There is one more thing which seems inconsistent in the plot: the age of Odysseus. Before he left for Troy he was already king of Ithaca and married with Penelope, who was pregnant with Telemachus at the time of his departure. To enjoy some measure of authority with the other Greek leaders I think it is unlikely he was 20 years old, probably more like 25 or 30. The Siege of Troy lasts ten years. He wanders for ten years before he returns to Ithaca. In the tenth year he ends up on Scheria, the island of the Phaeacians, before sailing to Ithaca. During an athletic competition on Scheria the Phaeacian Laodamas remarks that Odysseus is not old at all. This seems strange, even if we assume that Odysseus was 20 years old when he left for Troy, he must have been at least 40 years old at this point. I can’t find any comments on this issue by scholars however.

One more thing which I though was remarkable is that the suitors invade the palace of Odysseus with ease. There is no one to stop them and protect Penelope and Telemachus. If Odysseus gathered such a large contingent of Ithacans to follow him to Troy, surely he could have appointed a servant to rule in his absence and some guards to protect his palace? You could argue that we should forgive Homer for this, because without the suitors and their demise the Odyssey wouldn’t have been such an exciting story. If I were Homer however, I would have constructed the story in such a way that Odysseus did make proper arrangements for the interim rule of his kingdom before his departure. Then it could be told how the servants tasked with taking care of the kingdom eventually betray Odysseus and collaborate with the suitors, so the finale of the Odyssey is kept intact.

I think the Odyssey is a great story to read, but I’m divided on whether I actually like the character of Odysseus. On the one hand you sympathize with him, you appreciate his cunning and consider him a hero. Especially memorable for me is how he tricks Polyphemus with his name. On the other hand, he is a lowly pirate. When he tells the story of his travels to king Alcinous of the Phaeacians he describes how he raided and killed the Cicones as the first thing he did on the way home from Troy. The Trojan War, if we are to believe Homer, was at least justified because Paris had taken Helen. But the Cicones were simply unfortunate to live along the route of Odysseus’ journey home. Odysseus tells of the raid so casually at the court of Alcinous, where nobody seems to be startled by the fact that he is a pirate. This seems to indicate that piracy was an accepted practice in Mycenaean Greece. Assuming that the Cicones were probably non-Greek ‘barbarians’, raiding them was probably even less objectionable.

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