Thursday, November 22, 2007

On the Piety of Heroes

This essay was written for my Human Events class (a class which studies the evolution of human thinking through literary works). All quotes are from a certain edition of The Odyssey which was used by the class, and the teacher said we didn’t need a bibliography for it. I’ll write one if I can find the book.

“The Odyssey” by Homer is an epic in which heroism is redefined and morals are established. They are done through telling the story of Odysseus’ travels and trials, as well as Telemachus’ search for his father, and by using examples in the behavior of Odysseus and Telemachus as good examples and of people such as Polyphemus and the suitors as bad examples. What exactly, however, is heroism according to Homer? Is Penelope a hero for remaining chaste all those years and for tricking the suitors? What makes a great man? There are many possible answers to this question, but one of the major ideas is that all heroes in “The Odyssey” are extremely pious. Everyone from the great people that Telemachus meets to the “noble swineherd” Eumaios (Homer 240) which can be classified as heroes of the story (the swineherd can be classified a hero since, if it weren’t for his help, Odysseus probably wouldn’t have succeeded) are pious and god-fearing. However, others, like the suitors take every available opportunity to ridicule these great people for their piety. Only because of this piety are they able to accomplish great things because being pious puts the gods on your side.

To be truly pious you must realize that the gods are superior to you. The gods are in control of everything and just as the gods gave you power, they can take it away. Very little is done without the permission of the gods. As Athene tells Telemachus, “I do not think you could have been born and raised without the god’s will.” (Homer 52). When Antinoos states that Telemachus should not be allowed to have the throne, even though it’s his right, Telemachus responds that he would “take that right if Zeus should give it” (Homer 37). He is taking note of the fact that Zeus is in control of his destiny and noting that he won’t be able to take the throne if Zeus doesn’t permit it. On many occasions, Telemachus asks Athene what he should do, and how he should go about it. He uses Athene’s prayer as a model for his own in Nestor’s house; and he prays to Athene for a way to start his voyage in search of his father (Homer 46; 53). Likewise Odysseus often asks the help of Athene and Circe. He asks Circe to “be our guide into Hades” , then questions her about Scylla, whether he can “fight [her] off when she attacks [his] companions” (Homer 165; 188). When he first arrives on Ithaka, he asks Athene to “weave a design” so that he can kill the suitors “for if in your fury, O gray-eyed goddess, you stood beside me/ I would fight, lady and goddess, with your help against three-hundred/ men if you, freely and in full heart would help me” (Homer 208). He also asks Athene for help in finding the palace of Alkinoos and asks her how he might escape after killing all the suitors. Many times after talking to goddesses and asking for advice Odysseus and Telemachus both “follow behind” them, “walking in the god’s footsteps” (Homer 45; 52; 112, e.g.). The idea that Homer decided to mention that they were “walking in the.. footsteps” of a goddess conveys the idea that they wouldn’t know what to do if it weren’t for this goddess leading them, and they know that. This humility; lessening yourself in comparison to the immortals (in fact praising the immortals every chance they get) and realizing that the gods are in control of your life plays out in many instances. Odysseus, when asked if he is a god promptly responds “I am not in any way like the immortals who hold wide heaven” (Homer 116). When Telemachus compliments Menelaos’ wealth, saying that “the court of Zeus must be like it” Menelaos tells him “there is no mortal who could rival Zeus” (Homer 67). Nestor simply says “All men need gods”. When Telemachus acts embarrassed about questioning his elder, Athene tells him “some of [your speech] you will hear in your own heart, some the divinity will put in your mind” (Homer 52). However, the best example of remaining humble in the face of the goddess is the scene where Odysseus first sets foot in Ithaka. Athene comes in disguise so Odysseus doesn’t recognize her. When asked about his origins, Odysseus decides to use discretion and tell a story about being from Crete. Athene then takes on her true form and tells Odysseus “It would be a sharp and stealthy one, who would ever get past you/ in any contriving; even if it were a god against you.” (Homer 205). Odysseus then responds by praising the goddess, “It is hard…to recognize you on meeting, for you take every shape upon you” (Homer 206). Athene pays Odysseus a compliment, and Odysseus tells Athene that she is much better at being crafty. Some people neglected to be humble towards the gods, and they paid dearly for it. Polyphemus says “the Cyclopes do not concern themselves over Zeus..since we are far better” (Homer 144) He then has his eye gouged out by Odysseus, and Aias claims that “despite of the gods” he survived a storm, and was promptly killed by Poseidon. The gods like people to know their place and anyone who doesn’t recognize where they stand in the hierarchy is promptly put in their place.

Since the gods are far better and know more than you do, it would be beneficial for you to follow their commands. As Menelaos says, “The gods have always desired that their orders be listened to.” (Homer 74). Many things that Odysseus and Telemachus do are spurred on by the gods and done immediately and to the letter. It is Athene who tells Telemachus go on the journey in search of his father, and Telemachus did not “delay long after he heard the voice of the goddess” Had Telemachus not been told to start working and “get ready provisions for the journey”, Telemachus would probably still be in his house because “all is delayed by the suitors” (Homer 46). It is Kalypso who tells Odysseus to leave her island and she gives Odysseus the means to do it. All Odysseus had to do was follow her instructions and make a raft. When he left, he kept an eye on the Bear “For so Kalypso…had told him to make his way over the sea, keeping the Bear to the left” (Homer 95). Then the Ino, Leukothea, told him how to escape the storm. “Take off your clothes and leave the raft…and take this veil…and fasten it to your chest…when both your hands have taken hold of mainland, untie the veil and throw it into the wine-blue water” If Odysseus hadn’t followed those instructions he would have been killed. (While he delayed, Poseidon destroyed his raft.) Afterward he duly “unbound the veil…and let it go, to drift in the seaward course” (Homer 97-100). When Circe tells Odysseus to “consult with the soul of Teresias the Theban” in Hades. Odysseus readily obeyed even though “the inner heart in [him] was broken” since Hades isn’t a place one wants to go, especially if all that person wants to do is go home. After done crying, however, the first words out of Odysseus’ mouth are, “Who will be our guide on that journey?” He doesn’t even ask Circe to change her mind. He has already submitted to the fact that he must go to Hades, and he didn’t wait long to depart after being told, either. He roused his companions, telling them that circe had “shown him the way.” (Homer 166). After Odysseus comes back, he receives step-by-step instructions for making it back home. It is only because his men force him to land on the island of Helios, even though they were told they shouldn’t, that Odysseus’ ship did not survive the journey. Odysseus’ men pay dearly for not following instructions and for distrusting their master. They opened the bag that Aiolis gave to Odysseus, thus sending themselves all the way back to his island when they were almost home. They ate the cows of Helios, after being told not to touch them. Disobeying your master is almost like disobeying the gods, especially when the master’s orders come from the gods themselves. If you do not listen to the voice of the gods you are going to pay for it.

Another example of the voice of the gods is prophecy. The Odyssey has many prophets within the verses. Prophecy is duly obeyed by the heroes of the story, while some villain, like the suitors, look onto to prophecy with scorn. Menelaos is saved because he traps the Old Man of the Sea, who tells him to make a sacrifice to the gods. Menelaos then promptly does what the Old man tells him to do “in the way he tells it” (Homer 77). So doing, he is able to make his way home. When Halithersis, a man “far beyond his generation in understanding the meaning of birds” interprets what the two eagles flying overhead meant, saying “Odysseus will not be long away from his family,” Eurymachos immediately shuts him down:

Old sir, better go home and prophesy to your children/for fear they may suffer some evil to come. In these things/I can give you a much better interpretation than you can./Many are the birds who under the sun’s rays wander/ the sky; not all of them mean anything; Odysseus/is dead, far away, and how I wish that you had died with him/also. Then you would not be announcing all these predictions,/nor would you so stir up Telemachos, who is now angry,/looking for the gift for your own household, which he might give you./But I will tell you straight out, and it will be a thing accomplished:/if you, who know much and have known it all, stir up a younger/man, and by talking him round with words encourage his anger,/then first of all, it will be worse for him; he will not/on account of all these sayings be able to accomplish anything;/and on you, old sir, we shall lay a penalty, and it will grieve your/mind as you pay it, and that for you will be a great sorrow…/Nor do we care for any prophecy, which you, old sir,/may tell us, which will not happen, and will make you even more hated. (Homer 44)

Later when Theoklymenos tells the suitors of many bad omens within the house, they “laugh happily at him”, and say that “this stranger…has lost his sense” (Homer 307). Both times they hear the prophecy, but refuse to believe it, even though both prophecies offer an escape from their eventual fate. Polyphemus suffers because he misinterpreted a prophecy. He was told that he would “lose his eye to Odysseus” yet he thought Odysseus would be a strong great man, not a man skilled in guile as Odysseus was. Alkinoos, who may be seen as a greater man than Odysseus received a prophecy that “Poseidon someday would be angry…because we are convoy without hurt to all men.” Yet he accepted it as fact, and knew it would come. When it finally did come, he knew exactly what to do: “Come then…let us all be won over./Stop our conveying of every mortal who makes his arrival/here at our city. We must dedicate also to Poseidon/twelve bulls, chosen out of the herds” (Homer 202-203). Odysseus received his prophecy from the blind, dead seer, Teresias, and after Teresias is done speaking, although he gave a prophecy that wasn’t exactly happy (”I testify to the destruction of you ship and your companions”, “You will come home in a bad someone else’s ship, and find troubles in your household”), yet Odysseus doesn’t question it or show anger because Teresias’ prophecy “must be as the gods spun it” (Homer 171). He even takes the prophet’s advice to “take up your well shaped our and go on a journey until you find men who know nothing of the sea” (Homer 171); a great premise, in my personal opinion. He took the prophecy to heart, unlike other people within the epic.

Another main point of great people is hospitality. Odysseus seems to be obsessed with it, asking himself on many occasions whether the people he sees are “violent and savage, and without justice, or hospitable to strangers, with a godly mind” (Homer 105). This is because hospitality is sacred. There are many instances in the epic that show that hospitality is sacred to the gods. Alkinoos daughter says “all strangers are sacred in the sight of Zeus” (Homer 107). And the swineherd concurs: “I have no right to deny a stranger, not even/if one came to me who was meaner than you. All strangers are under Zeus.” (Homer 211). Telemachus and Penelope are the pinnacle of good hospitality. Why don’t they force the suitors to leave? It would be just. The reason is because there are set rules for hospitality that both the host and the guest must follow. They don’t keep the suitors around for fear of the suitors, they let them stay for fear of the gods. When Odysseus finally kills them, that is because he was given the god’s permission to do so. There are other small instances of great hospitality throughout the book. When Athene first come to Odysseus’ house, Telemachus approaches and tells her she shall be “entertained as a guest” and will be questioned “afterward, when you have tasted dinner” (Homer 30). Nestor when talking to Telemachus doesn’t allow him to “go sleep on the deck of a ship”, but instead offers “an abundance of fine rugs and blankets” (Homer 60). Menelaos also shows great hospitality to Telemachus, taking him in without knowing anything about him. Alkinoos supplies Odysseus with great food and entertainment. However, there are also many people who are not hospitable, such as Polyphemus, who without even thinking about it “caught up two [men] together and slapped them…against the ground” and then ate them (Homer 144). The suitors are also extremely mean to strangers, ridiculing every guest that Telemachus brings in, and even physically assaulting them. These guests include Odysseus himself. One of the suitors got the bright idea to throw a cow hoof at him (Homer 306). At another point Antinoos refuses to give Odysseus his fair share of food, instead hitting him with a stool (Homer 265). This behavior is unacceptable in Greek culture. Any stranger asking for lodgings could be a god in disguise. It is wrong to anger the gods.

Therefore, the heroes of the Odyssey are heroes because they love and respect the gods, while the villains see the gods with scorn. One gets the sense that if it weren’t for the god’s favor, these great men would have been nothing, and would have easily been destroyed (example, Aias). The gods are to be respected and revered.

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