Literature / Literary Review

Of Gods and Men: Socio-Cultural Aspects in The Odyssey

[Following is a brief essay I wrote for my course on The Ancient World as part of my Humanities program.]

Ancient cultures were understandably different from our own in many respects.  This can make it somewhat of a challenge reading ancient literary works, as the socio-cultural differences can tend to blur our understanding of the text.  Meaning, after all, does not exist in a vacuum; it lives in context (social, cultural, and textual).  Anyone who has read The Odyssey – written in the 8th – 7th Century B.C. (Campbell 564) – will have noticed these distinct socio-cultural mores.  This essay addresses what appear to be some of the more significant socio-cultural themes in The Odyssey, with the social aspect focusing on the structure of society and the cultural aspect focusing on the place of hospitality.

Gods & Men

Where better to begin a discussion of ancient Greek social structure than with a discussion of gods and men!  It could be argued that this is the fundamental social structure to the epic story.  The epic begins with an address to a Muse, most likely Calliope who was known for beautiful speech and epic poetry (Cartwright).  The poet asks the Muse to recount the story of the resourceful Odysseus.  In this request the sun god Helios is mentioned as the poet briefly recounts how some of Odysseus’s men slaughtered Helios’s cattle, resulting in the loss of their lives (1.1-10).  So, from the outset, we are confronted with the high place of the gods and the dependance of man upon them.

Two gods especially play a prominent role throughout the epic, demonstrating man’s subordination to and reliance on the gods.  Whereas Poseidon plays the antagonist, keeping Odysseus from his home in Ithaca because of Odysseus blinding his son, the cyclops Polyphemus (see Hospitality and guest-gifts below), Athena pities Odysseus’s stranded state and aids his return home.  Clearly, the gods are not always in agreement.

Throughout the epic, mankind is depicted as being at the mercy of the gods, which is why they regularly pray, offer sacrifices, and pour out libations to them, hoping to gain favor or appeasement (Hitch).  This is because the Greeks believed the gods to be ultimately responsible for what happened in the world and to mankind, whether good or ill (Musarrat et al. 18).  The importance of honoring the gods – which is to say, recognizing your rightful place in society – will especially become clear when we look at the place of hospitality in Greek culture and the downfall of those who lack it.

Telemachus, Penelope & the Suitors

Telemachus, Odysseus’s son and now a young man, exhibits authority over his mother, Penelope, while Odysseus is absent.  It is he who runs the house, not Penelope.  This is clearly seen in his words to her in Book 1 after Penelope voices her disagreement with the minstrel’s choice of song because it reminded her of Odysseus.  Telemachus responds with a rebuttal and the following words: “But speechmaking is men’s business, and mine above all, since mine is the power in this household” (1.358-59).[1]  He obviously thinks himself a man and the ruler of the house.  The next line says that Penelope was taken aback, which suggests that Telemachus had never spoken to her in such a way before.

Immediately afterwards, Telemachus addresses the suitors, telling them that he will bring his case before the assembly[2] – he wants the suitors out of his home, as they are eating up the livelihood of Odysseus’s estate – and that he will even petition the gods to make them perish.  Like Penelope, the suitors are shocked: “and all of them bit their lips hard, astonished at the way Telemachos[3] had spoken out so boldly” (1.381-82).  Telemachus has come of age, and he is making it known.  Yet, Telemachus is still limited in authority, as he must bring his case before the assembly.  The suitors, part of the assembly, put the blame on Penelope for their unceasing presence, for she continues to delay in choosing a suitor.  This not only communicates the limited authority of Telemachus, but it also suggests an obligation upon Penelope.

Slaves & Servants

Slaves or servants were captured, purchased, or born in servitude and played an important role in ancient Greek society (Emeriaud et al).  Eurycleia was purchased by Laertes, Odysseus’s father, and played a significant role raising Odysseus.  Upon figuring out that Odysseus had returned home and was disguised as an old beggar, she showed herself faithful to him and purposed to expose the unfaithful female servants in his home (19:490-98).

The position of slaves is a complex one.  For instance, the slave Eumaeus “has been able to buy a slave of his own, Mesaulios (14.449)” (Griffin 86).  Upon seeing that Odysseus had returned, Dolios, a slave to Odysseus’s father, embraces and kisses him, which suggests that he was no low-status slave, but respected and loved, even eating among Odysseus like family and sitting on a “polished chair” (24.397-411).[4]  Needless to say, in The Odyssey we see mixed relations between masters and their slaves, even between fellow slaves.

Hospitality & Guest-Gifts

Throughout The Odyssey we encounter a number of cultural customs between strangers, and this is no minor detail of the epic.  “The most important value at the core of The Odyssey is hospitality, a social custom common to nearly all pre-modern societies and essential to ancient Greek social structure” (SparkNotes).  The contrast between people who honor hospitality customs and those who do not is especially seen in the Phaeacians and the Cyclopes, respectively.  The cyclopes (plural of cyclops) are isolated and disrespectful to gods and men.  There are no established norms among them; each one does as he pleases.  On the other hand, the Phaeacians show respect to strangers and honor the gods (Kurt 147).  Following is an analysis of these two societies and Odysseus’s encounter with them.

The Phaeacians are the exemplars of hospitality in The Odyssey.  Food, a bath, an abundance of guest-gifts, lodging, and even safe travel over the “wine dark deep”[5] sea to Odysseus’s home, Ithaca, is eagerly supplied to Odysseus (SparkNotes).  The degree to which the Phaeacians were hospitable to Odysseus seems to be symbolized by the fact that Odysseus arrives on their island naked, having been shipwrecked because of Poseidon, and leaves lavishly robed and well provided for.  A civilized society takes the wild looking man from the bush and clothes him.  He is given clothes (stored in a polished chest), gold, a tripod, a cauldron, and additional gifts provided by the Phaeacian counselors (13.10-15) to take home with him.

When Odysseus and his men come to the cyclopes country, they venture to a nearby cave, but the cyclops is not there.  His men implore him to take some supplies from the cave and leave before the cyclops returns.  However, Odysseus is set on meeting him, wanting to “find out if he’d treat me as a guest” (9.229).  Note Odysseus’s words addressed to the cyclops (after he returns and discovers their presence) on the customary treatment expected of guests:

But we who come to you now are suppliants, clasp your knees, hoping you’ll treat us as guests, or in some other way give us some kind of present, as is proper with strangers.  Kind sir, revere the gods!  We are here as your suppliants, and Zeus is the protector of suppliants and strangers…. (9.265-68).

The cyclops’s response to Odysseus is telling.  Not only does he say that the cyclopes do not fear the gods, he boasts that they are “mightier than they” (9.276).  When it comes to social structure, the cyclopes apparently think themselves above all, even the gods.

Whereas generous hosts first provide food and drink for their guests before asking their name and background (cf. Telemachus’s greeting of the disguised Athena in Book 1), the cyclops, upon returning back to his cave, immediately asks who they are, from where they sailed, and what their business is.  Further, rather than provide them with food, “he makes a meal of them, snatching up two of the men and eating them raw” (SparkNotes).  The cyclops keeps the men from escaping for several days, eating two of Odysseus’s men each day.  He eventually offers Odysseus the guest-gift of having him eaten last of all – a mocking remark.  At every point we see the cyclops being the antithesis of the customary hospitality that was expected of cultured company.  Eventually the remaining men escape due to Odysseus’s quick and cunning thinking, stabbing the eye of the cyclops in the process (we find out that this is what sets Poseidon against Odysseus).[6]  Whereas Odysseus would have shown himself an honorable guest, he was forced to enact judgment on the cyclops for his lack of hospitality.

It is interesting that those who honor the gods and possess a community life (e.g. communal singing, dancing, and sport) – the Phaeacians – are the ones who show themselves civilized and cultured, being hospitable to Odysseus.  The cyclops, however, does not honor the gods and lives a private life.  He therefore sees no reason in recognizing the customary treatment of guests and comes across as uncivilized.[7]  This dichotomy is also found in Plato and Aristotle with the concept of the “political man,” which means man finds his identity in relation to the community, as opposed to living a relatively private life.  According to Aristotle, political man “attends the assembly, frequents the Areopagus, [and] is deeply immersed in what one might call civic community life” (Trueman 44).

Another example of breaking with customary practice is the way the suitors exploit hospitality by consuming Odysseus’s food and wine over a period of years while vying for Penelope’s hand in marriage.  Due to Odysseus’s absence, the suitors think they can get away with treating his home as their private guest hall, sleeping with his female servants and eating and drinking as they please without compensation (Baldwin).  The Odyssey ends with their death at the hands of Odysseus, signifying the shame and judgment upon those who exploit cultural customs for their own advantage.

Conclusion

The Odyssey, by means of epic story (indeed, stories within a story), provides valuable insight into the socio-cultural constitution of the ancient Greeks.  We learned that the gods are at the top of the social structure – although the cyclopes think themselves mightier than they – and slaves/servants are at the bottom – although various statuses existed among them.  As seen from Telemachus’s authority over his mother, for example, men were seen as being the heads of homes.  We also learned that hospitality was a strong cultural more, and to break with this cultural norm meant to bring shame upon oneself, as we saw with the cyclops (who was blinded by Odysseus) and the suitors (who were killed by Odysseus).

In light of the cultural themes throughout The Odyssey, as well as Odysseus’s role of judgment over those who break from cultural norms, Odysseus comes across as a righter of wrongs; an epic hero who represents the esteemed values of his culture – a political man.  Though he begins as a man of sorrows, he returns home to enact justice on those vying for his bride and once more takes his position as king of Ithaca, thereby re-establishing his social status and bringing peace to the island (all with the help of the goddess Athena, of course).


Footnotes

[1] All quotations from The Odyssey are from the Peter Green translation.

[2] The assembly (ἐκκλησία), a gathering of the (male) citizens for democratic decision-making, is itself an important aspect of ancient Greek social structure.

[3] Green takes a different approach to the spelling of names and places than is typically found in other translations.

[4] This, of course, is not to say that slavery is a moral enterprise.  It is simply to point out that slavery has taken on various forms, and for various reasons, throughout history, not least among the Greeks.

[5] There are many poetic descriptions of the sea in The Odyssey.

[6] The events addressed in this essay are not in chronological order.

[7] This point is also made by Frank Redmond: “The Phaeacians are also, importantly, a god-fearing people who aid strangers along their way; this attribute separates them from the savage, arrogant attitude that the Cyclopes have towards strangers.”  Redmond notes that “law, organization, and craftsmanship” is what makes a people civilized, which is what the cyclopes lacked.


Works Cited

Baldwin, Stanley P. CliffsNotes on The Odyssey. 30 Jan 2021
</literature/o/the-odyssey/the-odyssey-at-a-glance>. https://www.cliffsnotes.com/literature/o/the-odyssey/the-odyssey-at-a-glance?lcitation=true. Last accessed on January 29, 2021.

Campbell, W. John. The Book of Great Books. The Wonderland Press, 2000.

Cartwright, Mark. “Muse.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. Ancient History Encyclopedia, 14 Dec 2012. Web. 26 Jan 2021.

Emeriaud, Helene, Janet Ozsolak, and Sarah Scott. “Servitude, Part I: Female Servants in Homer”.  https://kosmossociety.chs.harvard.edu/?p=39127.  Last accessed on January 30, 2021.

Green, Peter, translator. The Odyssey. University of California Press, 2018.

Griffin, Jasper. Homer : The Odyssey, Cambridge University Press, 2003. ProQuest Ebook Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/apus/detail.action?docID=255212.
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Hitch, Sarah. King of Sacrifice: Ritual and Royal Authority in the Iliad. Hellenic Studies Series 25. Washington, DC, 2009. http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hul.ebook:CHS_HitchS.King_of_Sacrifice.2009. Last accessed on January 26, 2021.

Kurt, A. Raaflaub, editor. The Adventure of the Human Intellect : Self, Society, and the Divine in Ancient World Cultures. John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2016. ProQuest Ebook Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/apus/detail.action?docID=4517560.
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Musarrat, Maria, et al. “A Socio-Cultural Study of the Odyssey by Homer and the Odyssey by Usman Ali: A Comparative Analysis”. International Journal on Studies in English Language and Literature (IJSELL) Volume 5, Issue 1, January 2017, http://dx.doi.org/10.20431/2347-3134.0501002.

Porter, Roger J. “Convocation Talk”.  Reed College, 1999. https://www.reed.edu/humanities/hum110/odysseyconvocation1999.html. Last accessed on January 28, 2021.

Redmond, Frank. “The Concept of Civilization in Homer’s Odyssey”.  2005.  http://lucianofsamosata.info/wiki/doku.php?id=2011:the-concept-of-civilization-in-homers-odyssey. Last accessed on January 30, 2021.

SparkNotes. The Odyssey, “Hospitality in Ancient Greece”. https://www.sparknotes.com/lit/odyssey/context/historical/hospitality-in-ancient-greece/. Last accessed on January 30, 2021.

Trueman, Carl R. The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution. Crossway, 2020.

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