Greek Life As Depicted in Homer's Epic: The Odysseyby christos1
In Homer’s epic, The Odyssey, various aspects of the ancient Greeks are revealed through the actions, characters, plot, and wording. Homer uses his skill as a playwright, poet, and philosopher to inform the audience of the history, prides, and achievements of the ancient Greeks, and, also, to tell of the many values and the multi-faceted culture of the ancient Greek caste. The Greeks had numerous values and customs, of which the primary principles are the mental characteristics of an individual, the physical characteristics of an individual, the recreations and pastimes the Greeks enjoyed, the way in which a host treats a guest, the religious aspects, and finally, the Greeks’ view on life, revealed in The Odyssey which shows and defines their culture
One of the most prominent of the mental characteristics the ancient Greeks valued was the cleverness and the wit of an individual. This can be discerned from The Odyssey because of many instances and events in which Odysseus uses his brain’s wit and other tricks to get himself out of a risky situation. Examples of this are when he tells Polyphemos the Cyclopes that his name is Nobody, when he overcomes Circe’s magic with the help of moly, when he fills his men’s ears with wax and ties himself to a post so that he and his men can get by the Sirens safely, and when he disguises himself as a beggar and reveals his true identity to few. Odysseus is by “far the best of mortal men for counsel and stories” (Bk. XIII, 297 – 298). Also, Odysseus is said to be able to match a god in wits and trickery (Bk. XIII, 291 – 295). Penelope, Odysseus’ wife also uses her wit and trickery to get herself out of situations. An example of this is when she pretends to be weaving a shroud for Laertes, but actually undoes at night as much as she had done in the morning. Athene, the goddess of wisdom, provides another example of the usage of wit and tricks. Athene disguises Odysseus as a beggar and also surrounds him with a mist numerous times so that his former acquaintances will not see or recognize him.
Other significant mental characteristics that the Greeks valued are faithfulness and loyalty. There are many, many examples of loyalty and faithfulness in The Odyssey. The four most significant examples are Penelope, Eumaios, Philoitois, and Argos. Penelope is Odysseus faithful wife who never slept with anyone else besides Odysseus, even though she was tempted. She also keeps herself hoping that Odysseus is still alive and will someday come home. Eumaios is the loyal swineherd who helps Odysseus overcome the suitors. Philoitois is the loyal ox herd who also helps Odysseus overcome the suitors. Argos is the “patient-hearted … dog” (Bk. XVII, 292) of Odysseus. Odysseus tests these individuals (except the dog) to decide whether he can trust them or not. He also tests other individuals, such as the servants, to find if they are loyal to him or not.
Physical characteristics were just as important to the Greeks as mental characteristics. Strength was one of the more dominantly looked upon of the physical characteristics. Strength was a common test and was used to gauge a man’s place in the real world. Penelope used strength as a test for the competition for the suitors. The competition was to be able to string Odysseus’ bow and shoot it accurately, the prize (marriage of Penelope) going to “the one who takes the bow in his hands, strings it with greatest ease, and sends an arrow clean through all twelve axes” (Bk. XXI, 75 – 76). Strength was also a part of the Phaiakian’s competition. Strength was needed for the discus throwing (which Odysseus excelled in), wrestling, and boxing. Also, the Greeks loved competition, proven by the fact that they urged on Odysseus and Iros to fight. And when they finally saw blood, they went crazy, laughing and cheering like it was the most exciting thing in the world.
The Greeks enjoyed many recreations and pastimes, of which dancing, singing, and storytelling were dominant. The Phaiakians were known for their terpsichorean skills, and as Odysseus said, wonder and awe cane to him when he watched the dancing (Bk. VIII, 382 – 384). Singing was also a well-loved recreation. Singers were well known and loved by all. As Odysseus said to Demodokos, “Demodokos, above all mortals beside I prize you” (Bk. VIII, 487). The only survivor of those who had plotted against Odysseus was Phemios, the singer of the suitors. He survives because Odysseus allows him to live because of his gift of voice from the gods. As Telemachus says about the suitors, “This is all they think about, the lyre and the singing” (Bk. 1, 159). Storytelling is yet another virtue and is prized by Greeks. Menelaos tells of his adventures to Telemachus, Odysseus tells of his adventures to the Phaiakians, and Odysseus tells of his false adventures to Eumaios. Another pastime that the Greeks enjoyed very much is feasting, or in crude terms, eating and drinking. The suitors always eat and provide plenty, even though they eat Odysseus cattle and drink Odysseus’ wine. They have many drinking contests to see who can drink the most, and usually, at the end the contestants usually become bacchanalian. The suitors always have a “desire for eating and drinking” (Bk. 1, 150) according to Telemachus.
The treatment of a guest was very important in the times of the ancient Greeks. It defined your social class, and it also helped you in favour with Zeus, who is the god of travellers and guests. A wide range of things can be classified as hospitality, but the general idea is always the same and cannot change. Hospitality was giving any stranger food, warmth, shelter and comfort before asking questions such as their name, heritage, or means of transportation. Hospitality also meant an ear for every word and respect for every word as well. Also, the host is responsible for being the aegis of the guest while the guest resides at his home. Telemachus feels that he cannot provide this for his father (in guise of a beggar), and is therefore ashamed. “How can I take and entertain a stranger guest in my house? I myself am young and have no faith in my hands’ strength to defend a man, if anyone else picks a quarrel with him (Bk. XVI, 69 – 72). Examples of good hospitality are abundant throughout The Odyssey, such as when Athene goes to Telemachus in Ithaca, when Telemachus goes to Nestor, when Telemachus goes to Menelaos, when Odysseus goes to the Phaiakians, and when Odysseus goes to Eumaios. Presents at arrival are expected, but presents at departure are not always present. However, in case of a wealthy, generous, or friendly host, presents, even those with incalculable and immense values can be exchanged.
The religious beliefs and aspects of the ancient Greek culture are very defined and strict. The Greeks believed that the world was watched over by Zeus and other Olympian gods, and that these gods decided their future. They also believed that the gods’ wills could be turned with sacrifices. This is why Odysseus, Telemachus, and many, many other characters made so many sacrifices to the gods. These characters also pray to the gods so that the gods can hear them and fulfil their wishes. The Greeks also believed in “life” after death in the underworld with Hades. Another religious aspect of the Greek culture was prophecies. Prophecies and prophet were abundant, but the supply of accurate prophecies and prophets were much less abundant, and the demands for these were high, making them scarce. The two main prophets in The Odyssey were Teiresias and Theoklymenos. Teiresias was a dead prophet who Odysseus went to consult in the underworld. He prophesized most aspects of Odysseus’ journey accurately and because of him, Odysseus was able to survive his wanderings. Theoklymenos was a prophet from a family of prophets. He could prophesize quite accurately from bird auguries, as shown when he prophesizes that Telemachus “shall have lordly power forever” (Bk. XV, 534). Homer uses quite a few bird auguries in The Odyssey, one in the beginning to warn the suitors of Odysseus’ homecoming (Bk. II, 146 – 154), and two near the end, both to symbolize Odysseus’ triumph over the suitors.
The ancient Greeks had an optimistic view on life, a view that makes nice, happy endings, but are unfortunately not very realistic. The Greeks believed that in the end of any hardship or endurance, justice would emerge and show its victorious smile to the victim. They believed that persistence and determination would come through in the end. The Greeks also believed that in a battle between good and evil, good will triumph in the end. The view that good triumphs versus evil can be seen in the epic when Odysseus (good) kills all of the suitors (bad) against virtually impossible odds. The view that justice will emerge in the end is shown in The Odyssey when all unfaithful servants and maids are killed. The view of persistence and determination succeeding is proved by the fact that Odysseus “who, after much suffering, came at lest in the twentieth year back to his own country” (Bk. XXIII, 101 – 102) survived all of his shipwrecks, attacks, and other hindrances and ultimately succeeds in coming back home.
Throughout The Odyssey, Greek values and the Greek culture are constantly shaped by the flow of the author’s pen, which narrates a story with an intricate plot. The epic allows the modern-day public know about the times when men fought with their hands and their heads, when the gods dominated cultures, and when love and faithfulness meant something. The Odyssey is a great work of a great poet, Homer, who not only captures the essence of the ancient Greek spirit and culture, but also tells a story that can be passed down from generation to generation, without any fear of growing old.
Greek Life As Depicted in Homer\'s Epic: The Odyssey. 27 Jun 2004