The Odyssey

By Homer


Odysseus is not the only figure in the Odyssey to enjoy a well-developed character. The analysts would disagree with this idea, with the more extreme ones claiming that, as the poem is a compilation of many different authors' work, there can be no characterisation as such. They point to apparent inconsistencies in the portrayal of the characters of the leading figures. For example, at VI.127, Odysseus is described as "brave", although he is bashfully trying to approach a group of young girls, covering his nakedness in embarrassment. There are indeed many examples when the epithet does not seem to fit the situation. Telemachus is not always thoughtful, even when described as such. However, it is much more attractive to see these instances as ironic than as signs of incompetence. The epithet or simile attached to a character is almost never done insensitively.

Telemachus and Penelope

There is no need to give a list of Telemachus or Penelope's characteristics, as reading the poem will elucidate them better than any other way. Nevertheless, some points can be made concerning the issue of their role in the Odyssey and why they are portrayed as they are. Penelope is shown as a paragon of womanly virtue, continually contrasted with the Clytemnestras and Helens of this world. But she is no flat image. Her caution, intelligence, and a hint of stubbornness, as well as other qualities, make her a wife worthy of our hero, which is vital if the romantic elements of the second half of the Odyssey are to work. If Odysseus were to have laboured for ten years to be reunited with a mere cipher of a spouse, both he and we would feel cheated by such a result.

Telemachus is described to us as a youth on the verge of manhood. Some have criticised the inconsistency of this depiction, for Telemachus must be at least twenty years old by the time the Odyssey starts if he is to be Odysseus' son. Homer was not a realist, however, and we should forgive him this slip, partly because it does not seem that the Greeks were that concerned with chronology as long as there was an interesting story to tell. Thus, Herodotus could tell a story of Solo's meeting with Croesus even though he was well aware that they could never have done so, as the former died long before the latter reached manhood. Similarly, Euripides' Children of Heracles has wildly inconsistent chronologies in it, but this did not matter as long as the story, characterisation and thematic material made matters convincing internally.

Telemachus' importance comes from his role as the main hero's son, although his own characterisation is not ignored. There is considerable pathos when he first recognises his father, which would not work if he were only a flat image. He also represents the gap between the generations to some extent. The Homeric poems often depict a decline in the worth of men as time goes on, and Telemachus is inferior to his father, if only because he is still a young man. Odysseus slaughters all the Suitors soon after his arrival in an old-fashioned bloodbath. Telemachus, conversely, tries to reason with them through the assembly in Book I. He fails, but we can see a new type of government being attempted, one which is less heroic in that it takes more account of other people.

The Suitors

The Suitors are not pleasant men, but they are not uniformly or continuously bad men. They practise the sacrifices due to the gods, and a number of them are not entirely unsympathetic. Eurymachus, the chief Suitor, is conciliatory to Telemachus at the assembly in Book I, as well as showing other favourable traits throughout, even if they are always masks for a certain degree of hypocrisy. Amphinomus dissuades the rest of the Suitors from carrying on with their effort to kill Telemachus after the failure of their first attempt (XVI.400-405). He is the only Suitor to act in a friendly manner to the beggar (actually Odysseus in disguise). Nevertheless, he must die, along with the others. The fact that Homer does not just show them as paradigms of evil has been disconcerting to many readers of the Odyssey, as their slaying makes Odysseus seem brutal and extravagantly savage in his treatment of them. The question of whether they deserve their fate is a vexed one. On the whole, they treat Telemachus and his mother very badly, but is death really required? The main reason why their fate might be difficult for a modern audience to appreciate in the same way that an ancient one would is because of the importance in the ancient world of guest friendship, which the Suitors incontrovertibly violate. At any rate, Homer leaves open the question of whether their deaths are just. The families of the Suitors do not agree, whereas Eurycleia rejoices as she sees Odysseus spattered with gore and surrounded by corpses (XXII.408). The morality of the events is deliberately left ambiguous, and it is left for the audience to decide.

Guest Friendship

Homer makes great play on the theme of guest friendship and the role of the host to maintain hospitality to his guest or 'xenos'. This is hardly unusual, since Homer himself would probably been a travelling minstrel (rhapsode) himself, singing his version of the traditional epic songs of the wanderings of Odysseus. As such, he would have been reliant on the generosity of his patron, thus making the inclusion of a theme of the morality of hospitality an attractive one. Perhaps this influenced the plot at Book XXII, where Odysseus spares the bard Phemius amid the slaughter, although of course this is no more than speculation.

The highly civilised and courteous Phaeacians are contrasted and juxtaposed with the brutal and savage Cyclops Polyphemus. We have few sympathies with the conduct of the Suitors, whether we think they deserve their fate or not, for they continually trample on the most basic tenets of 'xenia'. In this aspect of their behaviour they are contrasted with Eumaeus, who not only maintains a pious attitude towards his 'xenos', but is also outraged at having to provide the profligate Suitors with his master's pigs, which is of course a violation of the normal codes of guest-friendship. The abuse of these customs and kindnesses is revealed by Aeolus' attitude when he sees Odysseus and his companions for the second time, after they have wasted his gift of the winds (Book X). They are cursed by the gods for their stupidity; further punishment is inflicted upon the Greeks when they slaughter the oxen of the Sun while staying on the island of Thesprotia, over which Helios is lord.

These numerous references to guest-friendship indicate that it was a central tenet of Greek custom, at least in terms of the eighth century's conception of the heroic world, and probably in the social structures of that time as well, when Homer probably wrote his epic down. In fact, it was of such importance that it is essential in any explanation of whether the Suitors 'deserve' their fate. To modern eyes, their slaughter by Odysseus has often seemed brutal and excessive, but this is to underestimate the significance of 'xenia' in the heroic society that Homer evokes, a society which must have had at least some relevance to his own.