Essay about the Odyssey by Homer
The Odyssey by Homer (supposedly) may have been written more than 3000 years ago but it does not make it an irrelevant text for our society today. In fact, I would argue that quite the opposite is the case. In addition to serving as a fascinating read, there are elements of the Odyssey (although fictional) that highlight valuable insights and revelations that I would argue are relevant for our American society today as well as in the future. The role of the god’s as a guide, the concept of xenia (hospitality), Penelope’s relationship to Odysseus in the context of family tradition, as well as the power of language and communication as a means to get what you want, are each elements of the Odyssey that are relevant for the functioning of our society today and for maintaining our quality of life.
One element in the Odyssey relevant to our society is the concept of xenia. The concept of xenia is the equivalent to hospitality. While we tend to think of the Ancient Greeks to be fierce competitors, most notably during the Peloponnesian war in which established city-states of Greece were in constant competition with one another, the Greeks were nevertheless known for their hospitality. The Greeks had an incentive to abide by this policy since it was possible for the gods to take up the disguise of a poor beggar. Nonetheless, it became of utmost importance to treat anyone with hospitality considering that one would face the wrath of the gods if they did not. As we have seen in the Odyssey, the significance of xenia is that it often linked people closer to one another which tightened community bonds and allowed people the comfort of knowing that they could count on one another. In addition to this, it was through xenia that connections were established and news was spread. We see the benefits of xenia as well as the consequences for violating it. An example of xenia involves both Nestor and Menelaus who each provide hospitality for Telemachus on his journey to locate his father. A second example would include the Phaeacians who provide hospitality to Odysseus after he is thrashed about the sea by Poseidon. On the other hand, a violation of xenia would include Polyphemus eating Odysseus’ trapped men, or the suitors taking advantage of xenia by overindulging and wasting away the property of Odysseus’ household (Lateiner). Nevertheless, it is important to note that these examples illustrate how xenia often could mean the difference between life and death.
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Xenia in this aspect made an impact in daily life as it was something that was to be expected and reciprocated due to its importance of connecting people. Based on my experiences, it seems that the same concept of xenia as illustrated in the Odyssey still exists. For example, I have gone on several Service and Justice Trips with other Creighton Students. On one of my trips, we were travelling from Omaha to El Paso, a 16-hour car ride. We were fortunate to have the hospitality of the Caflisch’s (our host family) who lived in Denver (only an 8-hour car ride from Omaha). While we made arrangements with them about a month in advance, the concept of xenia is evident here considering that no members of my group had any close connections to our gracious hosts other than that they had previously hosted other Creighton students and had told us that they enjoy supporting our explorations (considering that we have no money as poor college students). Had we not stayed with the Caflisch’s there were many motels, hostels, hotels scattered along our route that we could have stayed at. Although we would have had to dish out a few bucks (after all nothing is truly “free”), the concept of Xenia would still applies here as well. In fairness to our culture today and out of personal experience, it is quite taxing to be the “caretaker” of guests. After all, most of us have extremely busy lives. This model of having hotels/motels seemingly scattered everywhere (at least in the United States) has proven to be extremely convenient for our society. After all, the concept of having a ‘home away from home’ is the same idea involved with xenia. Fortunately, we do not have to worry about ‘gods’ making sure we carry out xenia. Nevertheless, xenia is not something that you should practice simply out of fear that god will punish you if you do not, but rather because it is the inherently right thing to do.
The next lesson I think that we can learn from the Odyssey deals with guidance. We see that the fate of many characters in the Odyssey (as well as Homer’s epic the Iliad) are determined by the gods. Perhaps this might lead one to question whether or not we have free will. This aspect however, is not my focus. Most notably in the Odyssey, Athena (disguised as mentor and in forms other than herself) guides Telemachus in his dealings with the suitors and on his journey to locate his father. In addition to this, Athena is also the one who expedites Odysseus’ return home in overseeing his journey. It is evident that the gods play a critical role in that they have knowledge and abilities far greater than the human-beings. While we do not necessarily have gods physically appearing to us and guiding us in our lives, we are fortunate enough to be surrounded by people, with a diversity of knowledge and experiences. In terms of our life, I think that the message here highlights the importance of not being afraid to ask for help when you need it. As a result, the gods symbolize people in society who we can learn from and can provide additional advice and knowledge that we are unaware of. This leads to my next point in the importance of family tradition and a strong parental relationship in the Odyssey.
Another lesson we can learn from the Odyssey is from the relationship between Odysseus and Penelope. At the beginning of the story, we see how Odysseus’ absence has impacted Telemachus’ personality in terms of his frustration and low spirit. We understand that he lacks credibility personal power. He cannot prevail in his own home, and let alone rule over his father’s state (Lateiner). Despite his absence, Odysseus’ strong relationship to Penelope is what keeps Telemachus from completely losing his composure (Doherty). In our society, this example should illustrate the importance of a strong relationship between two parents. A good example of this in our society today would be someone in the military who might be stationed in Afghanistan or a place of turmoil for an extended period of time (a couple years at a time). If this person had children, we can understand the challenges that this can bring upon the mother or even the child’s development. From the Odyssey however, we can understand that Penelope’s relationship with Odysseus before he left has set a foundation that keeps everything from spiraling out of control. We see that this foundation is intact based on Odysseus’ interaction with the god Calypso, who holds Odysseus hostage against his will in a violation of Xenia. Odysseus shed tears as a result of this because he realizes how much he misses Penelope. His tears are cited to be symbolic of this relationship. From this we understand that Odysseus is a man rather than a god which is evidence of his strong relationship with Penelope. Tears are neither manly nor womanly, but they are not something associated with the gods (i.e. Calypso). They are merely human (Liang). It is this human aspect that provides evidence for the strength of both Odysseus and Penelope’s relationship.
As it pertains to modern society, I think that under this premise one could explain the essence of homosexual relationships, which while unheard of in Ancient Greece and during the time the Odyssey was written, has become acceptable in our society today. I think that the arguments to be made on both sides are legitimate, but only if it is under the correct premise. The question that should be asked here is whether one thinks that a male-male/ female-female relationship can provide the same benefits that a male-female relationship has in terms of the effectiveness that they can raise their children. Thus, this is where the debate should stem from. As a result, I do not think that our inherent freedom alone can justify gay marriage to be right or wrong (i.e. one cannot simply say that gay marriage is wrong because it is in our freedom to determine that). While I have digressed, the main point that I am trying to make is the importance of strong parenting. We see how the absence of Odysseus has impacted Telemachus in his development into an adult (who Athena manipulates). Nevertheless, Odysseus’ relationship to Penelope (in addition to Athena’s guidance) symbolized by his tears allows Telemachus to break out of his shell. Thus, we learn the importance of this type of strong relationship among parents as setting an example not just in the Odyssey, but also in our society today.
The next element in the Odyssey that is relevant to us deals with being aware of one’s surroundings. In the Odyssey, there are multiple instances when Odysseus demonstrates his presence of mind. The first notable example is when he manipulates Polyphemus (the Cyclops) who thinks that “no man” stabbed him in the eye. Ultimately, it was Odysseus’ ability to recognize his situation and implementing a plan of action (although he does almost negate this positive quality through his arrogance when he reveals his identity). Another notable example of Odysseus’ presence of mind is illustrated after he is disguised as a beggar when returning to Ithaca. In turn, his awareness allows him to use his metis/cleverness to maneuver through these situations. In our day in age, we are constantly glued to our phones and while our technology certainly has benefits, there are times when it prevents us from actually being present in our daily functions. What the Odyssey shows us is the importance of being present and aware of one’s immediate surroundings. It is one thing to have knowledge and cleverness, but in order to use it best, one needs to be present and aware of how to apply it in a situation.
Another relevant point of emphasis in the Odyssey deals with the power of language and communication. In the Odyssey, there are several scenarios in which words and disguises are used to manipulate as opposed to truthfully communicate (Richardson). I found this quite interesting since it kind of suggests that lying is permissible and thus diminishes the importance of the truth. For example, Odysseus omits facts in the stories he tells to King Alcinous by lying about his identity when he is asked where he is from. Even Athena’s disguise to protect her identity as a goddess is further proof that illustrates this. As a diverse society today, I have noticed a similar occurrence in our conversations in that we do not like to reveal our true identity to anyone. Let’s take the example of ‘small talk’. If your meeting someone for the first time, its really common for us to fumble around with sentences to use in a conversation and simply be uncomfortable with talking to strangers. As a result, we use small talk such as talking about how nice the weather is just to say something but without revealing too much about ourselves. With small talk, we don’t really learn anything new and arguably waste our breath, but we do it in the hope that it can be a springboard for deeper and more meaningful conversation. In the case of describing the weather, anybody could point out how wonderful a day is by simply going outside.
What is notable about Odysseus is that he can quickly progress beyond this level of “small talk” and obtain useful information for himself without having to reveal his true identity. In our society today, we generally do not have a great tolerance for people who tell lies, however it is incredibly important to be an active listener and at the same time being aware of one’s environment. While Odysseus makes the choice to manipulate, he can do so because he is aware of his environment and what is going on. In the context of our modern society, I think that this is quite a valuable trait. After all, I think that earbuds and “plugging in” too frequently to our phones can cross the line and make society less productive. While our technology has aided us in our efficiency of our daily functions, it has perhaps limited our ability to effectively communicate and be present in our life. For the future, I think that it will be important to balance our pursuits in technology with our human nature which will allow us to cherish the present to a greater degree.
By examining the parental relationship, the nature of hospitality, and the essence of effective communication, we can understand how the Odyssey still has an impact on our society today. Our society has both similarities and differences to the one illustrated in Homer’s Odyssey. While we continue to make extraordinary technological advancement in our society, I think that there are inherent values and lessons from the Odyssey, some of which we have adopted, and others that we should be reminded of in the future.