In Homer's epic "The Odyssey," Odysseus reflects the values of the culture that memorialize him, such as bravery, intelligence, creativity, etc. What cultural value, however, is missing or unimportant and what might its omission tell us about the Greek culture of the time?
It is always difficult, and usually of questionable practicality, to attempt to judge contemporary standards of morality with those that existed thousands of years ago. To attempt to impose those modern standards on a work of ancient mythology, however, is a particularly dubious proposition. Nevertheless, there is much in Homer’s epic of Odysseus and his ten-year journey home to his wife and son that informs the reader of the cultural milieu in which The Odyssey was written, and which provides some grounds for a comparison with contemporary notions of cultural values.
While the notion of allowing one’s home to be taken over by a gathering of strange men all maneuvering for position as top candidate to replace Odysseus in Penelope’s bed certainly strikes modern readers as strange and unrealistic, ancient Greek culture actually did allow for such developments. As many scholars of Homer have pointed out, the Greek concept of xenia provided for just such an arrangement, not only in Odysseus’ home, but throughout the story, as Odysseus’ grown son, Telemachus, is invited into homes, especially the home of Menelaus and his wife, Helen, where it is expected that he will remain as a guest as long as he wishes. Odysseus avails himself of this privilege when he finally returns to his own home after a 20-year absence and, disguised as a tramp, takes up residency there alongside the intrusive suitors.
The mere notion, treated matter-of-factly by Homer, of a house filling-up with suitors for the hand of the fine Penelope would certainly run counter to contemporary notions of appropriate behavior on the part of all concerned. Penelope is treated as a prize for the winning bachelor, and her pained acceptance – or tolerance – of the situation, while certainly engaging the reader’s sympathies, is nevertheless far more representative of an ancient culture than of a modern (western) one.
The most significant cultural distinction between Homer’s portrait of ancient Greece and common cultural values today involves the very mythology that makes such comparisons a questionable exercise. The Odyssey is a story dominated by the presence and influences of gods and goddesses, particularly Zeus, Poseidon and Athena. Ancient Greek culture was heavily influenced by mythology. The notion of a plethora of gods and goddesses determining mankind’s fate and posing the ever-present threat of being cast into the heavens to live in perpetuity in the form of a stellar constellation is certainly an alien concept to most cultures today. The development of monotheistic religions that account for much of the world’s population constituted a significant rejection of ancient culture. While Hinduism is founded in the concept of multiple deities, Christianity, Islam and Judaism are all founded in the notion of a single God. In that sense, the contrasts between ancient Greek culture and modern cultures is most pronounced.