Illustration of Odysseus tied to a ship's mast

The Odyssey

by Homer

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Which cultural value is unimportant or missing in Odysseus' character in Homer's Odyssey, and what might its omission reveal about Greek culture?

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A cultural value missing or unimportant in the Odyssey is a man's faithfulness to his wife. This tells us there was a double standard in Greek culture. Odysseus can engage in affairs with other women, but Penelope is expected to remain completely chaste.

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Reading the Odyssey reveals a world far more existentially brutal than that of the modern West. Its attitudes towards women are particularly unsettling.

There is a double standard at play in the text, by which Odysseus is allowed to be a philanderer, while Penelope must remain faithful to her husband. However, this is actually just the tip of a much deeper iceberg. Consider, for example, in book nine where Odysseus discusses the sack of Ismarus. In the Fagles translation, Odysseus states:

There I sacked the city, killed the men, but as for the wives and plunder, that rich haul we dragged away from the place—we shared it round so no one, not on my account, would go deprived of his fair share of spoils.

Note how the women are ultimately reduced to the status of objects and possession, removed of all humanity or dignity. Note also the lack of shame or guilt on Odysseus's part. Quite on the contrary, Odysseus is boasting about this act of intense victimization and violation. With this in mind, it might also be useful to remember the Iliad, which begins with the taking of women as sexual slaves.

In addition, you can also point towards the events of book 22, when Odysseus, after killing the suitors, proceeds to kill the disloyal female servants (some translators translate the word as "slaves"), referring to them (in the Fagles translation) as "you sluts—the suitors' whores." There is no discussion or consideration taken into the disparity of power between the servant women and the suitors, and the women are given no chance to defend themselves. Thus, the poem's treatment of women goes beyond the problem of marital infidelity, to reveal world brutally hostile towards them.

In addition, I think this point towards an even more existential problem, by which the world itself was far more casually brutal than the modern world today. Note Penelope's relative helplessness against the suitors, who seek to pressure and coerce her into choosing a new husband after Odysseus has disappeared. Ultimately, this comes down to a matter of force: with her husband gone, Penelope is vulnerable. With both her and her household weaker than they are, the suitors are thus free to impose upon her and her son. Note too that Odysseus's great triumph represents a reversal on this same theme: Odysseus is stronger than the suitors, and thus slaughters the lot of them in reprisal for their insult. Taken as a whole, however, there does not seem to be a modern sense of due process or rule of law. Certain cultural expectations hold true and remain in force (hospitality, for example, emerges as one of the core cultural values that binds the poem together), but ultimately, the world of the Odyssey seems to be largely dictated by power and use of force.

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The cultural value of a man's faithfulness to his wife is a glaring omission in the list of Odysseus's virtues. Odysseus is portrayed as the best of men, so the casual way his long term affairs with other women are treated on his voyage home suggests that male fidelity is not a value that matters much in evaluating a man's worth in ancient Greece.

Odysseus has two affairs on his homeward journey, with Circe and Calypso. He stays with Calypso on her island for seven years, having been enchanted by her song. He would have remained with her longer had Zeus not commanded her to let him go. This lack of agency suggests that Odysseus is weak when it comes to women, but this appears to lead to no stain on his character.

The tolerance of Odysseus's lingering with other women is especially shocking given the expectations placed on his wife Penelope and her own highly stressful situation. A double standard is in play. Odysseus can have long term affairs with alluring women, but Penelope is expected to be and remain completely faithful and chaste. Odysseus's sexual dilly-dallying to suit himself greatly prolongs his voyage home, thus leaving Penelope to have to protect her chastity against many unwanted suitors for a protracted period of time.

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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.

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