Homeric Values Within the Odyssey
The ancient Greeks used mythological stories as a way to instill values and provide examples of proper behavior for society. Homer’s epic tales are entertaining, but simultaneously, offer guidelines on how to be, not only better people, but a better society. Some of these values are shown through the story of The Odyssey, which tells the adventures of the journey home for Odysseus to Ithaca after the battle of Troy. As a way to understand Greek values and how their importance within Greek culture, one must look at how the values are portrayed in The Odyssey. Homer uses Odysseus’s final adventure home from the Trojan War as a way to illustrate important moral values of Greek society of resourcefulness, hospitality, and loyalty.
Homer had many values in which he deemed important for a person to embody, including being intelligent, a strategist, and clever, which all supports a broader value of being resourceful. The definition of resourceful is having the ability to find quick and clever ways to overcome difficulties. Both Odysseus and Penelope possess this quality and demonstrate it frequently throughout The Odyssey. There are times when a battle is best won not by brute strength or by any force at all, but by an individual who embodies the quality of being resourceful. Odysseus is successful in his long and arduous journey home due to his intelligence and ability to be a smart tactician when situations arise. A well-known example of Odysseus’s clever intelligence is when he encounters Polyphemos, the Kyklops. Odysseus used his resourcefulness and came up with a clever plan to get him, and his men out of the cave by first getting the Kyklops drunk off wine and then piercing his eye with a stake Odysseus and his men made. When the other Kyklopes came to the aid of Polyphemos’s screams, Odysseus’s clever plan of telling Polyphemos his name was “Nohbdy” was successful, “Nohbdy, Nohbdy’s tricked me, Nohbdy’s ruined me!” (9, 444). On hearing Polyphemos scream nobody tricked him, all the other Kyklopes left. His intelligent plan continued when he tied himself, and his men to Polyphemos’s rams, “Blinded, and sick with pain from his head would, / the master stroked each ram, then let it pass, / but my men riding on the pectoral fleece / the giant’s blind hands blundering never found” (9, 480-483). Unfortunately, Odysseus lost a few men during his encounter with the Kyklops, but because of his resourcefulness, combined with his intelligence and ability to come up with smart, clever strategies quickly despite danger, allowed Odysseus and the rest of his men to escape unharmed. These values that Odysseus possesses is also shared by his wife, Penelope. While Odysseus has been gone, over 100 suitors have come to marry Penelope to obtain more wealth and power; however, Penelope’s embodiment of intelligence, cleverness, and being a strategist is illustrated by her interaction with the suitors. As an example of Penelope’s intelligence and her clever strategy to keep the suitors at bay, she told the suitors she could not marry until she finished the funeral shroud for Lord Laertes, but unbeknownst to the suitors, she was unweaving it at night, “So every day she wove on the great loom– / but every night by torchlight she unwove it; / and so for three years she deceived the Akhaians” (2, 112-114). Penelope’s ability to create this clever deception gave her more time before she had to make an eventual decision of remarrying, something she did not want to do. Odysseus and Penelope’s own intelligence, combined with their ability for being clever tacticians on their own merit, allowed them to be together finally after twenty years. Even though resourcefulness, intelligence, cleverness, and being a tactician are very important values of Homer and the Greeks; the value of hospitality is regarded as a more significant quality to possess.
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A highly regarded value of Homer is hospitality, which can also include being courteous, having compassion, and most importantly, piety, or devotion and respect to the god. The Greek god Zeus is also called the protector of guests and travelers, and to demonstrate their piety, one must extend hospitality towards a stranger, which at times, could have been a disguised deity. Hospitality includes giving any stranger material items such as food, warmth, shelter or non-material ones such as protection or information. So as to truly be hospitable to travelers, one must exemplify the value of compassion as well as being courteous. True exemplars of good hospitality are demonstrated several times as Odysseus makes his journey home and seeks aid. In Book 7, Odysseus meets Princess Nausikaa, and then later, her parents, King Alkinoos and Queen Arete. Odysseus mysteriously shows up in their dining hall, shrouded from Athena’s cloud, pleading before Queen Arete for help on his passage home. Before asking Odysseus’s name, they are courteous, compassionate, and provide him with food, entertainment, and shelter.
King Alkinoos and Queen Arete’s hospitality, certainly, gave Odysseus the ability to make the final trek home, back to Ithaca. Once Odysseus makes it back to Ithaca thanks to the hospitality of the Phaiakians, he makes his way to the swineherd’s cabin, per Athena’s instructions. When the swineherd, Eumaios, first sees Odysseus, who is disguised as a beggar, he instantly offers his hospitality, “Come to the cabin. You’re a wanderer too. / You must eat something, drink some wine, and tell me / where you are from and the hard times you’ve seen” (14, 53-55). Even though Eumaios himself lives in a small cabin and lacks much to offer, he understands the importance of hospitality to strangers. Odysseus displays his piety when he thanks Eumaios for his hospitality, “May Zeus and all the gods give you your heart’s desire / for taking me in so kindly, friend” (14, 62-63). Odysseus and Eumaios both exemplify hospitality and respect the gods routinely. Homer believed hospitality, courteousness, compassion, and piety were important values for people to embody. However, there is another value deeming more essential; loyalty.
The most indispensable value of Homer is loyalty to family and community, which can also encompass other values, such as faithfulness, patience, and respect. When Odysseus returns home and is in need of allies, he is presented with loyalty from the swineherd, Eumaios, and the goatherd, Philoitios,” He [Odysseus] turned back / into the courtyard and the beautiful house / and took the stool he had before. They followed / one by one, the two hands loyal to him” (21, 270-273). Both men remained loyal to Odysseus over the twenty years and were patient and hopeful for his return. When questioned by Odysseus, dressed as the stranger, both men expressed their respect and loyalty for Odysseus, the King of Ithaca, “…but I keep thinking / my own lord, poor devil, still might come / and make a rout of suitors in his hall” (20, 246-248). Even though both men were treated poorly by the suitors for twenty years, their loyalty and respect towards Odysseus kept them on Ithaca, hopeful for Odysseus’s return. At the same time, Odysseus faces many challenges that tests his loyalty and faithfulness; however, through the value of patience, Odysseus was able to stay loyal to Penelope and his country of Ithaca. An example of a test against Odysseus’s faithfulness and loyalty is when he was detained by Calypso:
The gods brought me ashore upon Ogygia into her hands. The enchantress in her beauty fed and caressed me, promised me I should be immortal, youthful, all the days to come; but in my heart I never gave consent though seven years detained (7, 273-278). Odysseus’s time with Calypso tested his values of loyalty in the face of temptation, immortality.
Even though “he [Odysseus] lay with her each night, for she compelled him” (5, 163), Odysseus remained faithful and loyal to Penelope in his heart and maintained patience for seven years until the day came, and he could leave the island of Ogygia. While Odysseus was gone for twenty years, Penelope exemplified loyalty, patience, and faithfulness, not knowing if Odysseus was dead or not. She was miserable not knowing what had happened to her husband, “But for me / my fate at night is anguish and no rest. / By day being busy, seeing to my work, / I find relief sometimes from loss and sorrow” (19, 595-598). Penelope’s grief causes her to lay at night weeping, relying on the aid of Athena is true rest and sleep. Penelope proves her loyalty through her faithfulness towards Odysseus by refusing to get remarried, through twenty years of pressure from the suitors living in her house.