Our first glimpse of an epic hero always tells us something about his character. We first meet Homer’s Odysseus stranded on the island paradise of Ogygia, a prisoner of the amorous and beautiful goddess Kalypso. But we find our hero weeping for his home on Ithaka, “sitting on the seashore, and his eyes were never / wiped dry of tears, and the sweet lifetime was draining out of him.” Even for epic heroes, it seems, there’s no place like home.
But although we tend to think of Homer’s Odyssey as a story of homecoming, it has just as much to say about the terrible cost of homewrecking. It will take all of the hero’s wits and brawn to make it back alive, but Homer sets the stakes even higher than life and limb: with Odysseus’s son not quite yet of age, and his beautiful wife surrounded by violent suitors, the great tactician’s wealthy household teeters on the brink of disaster. If the hero dies or gets stranded on his way home, his house will fall. Furthermore, since Odysseus reigns as king over the island of Ithaka, the failure of his house will also have serious repercussions for his people as well. By the end of the poem, the disorder of the house of Odysseus leads to incredible violence, and almost ends in war.
Seen in this light, Homer’s Odyssey emerges as much more than simply an epic journey home. Instead, we can see Homer urgently concerned with preserving the stability of the family unit, and working out the frightening social and political consequences of familial breakdown. As such, this ancient book offers a timely lesson for modern readers living in an age when so many forces work to disrupt and erode the fundamental institutions of marriage and the family.
The Tragedy of Agamemnon’s Household
Odysseus himself tells the princess Nausikaa that “nothing is better than this, more steadfast / than when two people, a man and his wife, keep a harmonious / household”; but a household in discord leads to destruction, and Homer introduces this theme right away in The Odyssey. From the very first pages of the epic, another, darker story casts a pall over our hero’s travels: the fall of the house of Agamemnon. After the Proem, we overhear a conversation between the gods on Mount Olympos, where Zeus meditates on the “recklessness” of the homewrecker Aigisthos. We learn that while Agamemnon was away fighting in the Trojan War, the crafty Aigisthos seduced and married the great hero’s wife; the two illicit lovers then murder Agamemnon when he returns home, butchering him ignominiously while he feasts at table. It will take Agamemnon’s son Orestes to restore order to his father’s house, killing his mother as well as Aigisthos, the usurper of the hero’s throne and bed.
We might wonder why the poet chooses to begin The Odyssey with this sordid tale of adultery and murder. By planting these events in the background, the master storyteller Homer reminds us at every turn that this could also be the fate of Odysseus and his family. If the hero’s wife Penelope does not remain faithful, even a successful homecoming will mean his death. If the suitors grow impatient and seize her by force, his end will be the same. Everything hinges, then, on preserving and restoring the integrity of Odysseus’s family household: his life and his kingdom hang in the balance.
To keep this on his readers’ minds, Homer returns continually to the tragic collapse of Agamemnon’s family in the poem. When Telemachos, the son of Odysseus, seeks news of his father among the surviving veterans of the Trojan War, he repeatedly hears the story of the “monstrous plot” of “treacherous Aigisthos.” On his voyage home, Odysseus even hears the tale from Agamemnon himself, who now dwells in the murky darkness of the Greek underworld. Shocked into tears by finding his friend and comrade a ghost, Odysseus asks, “[W]hat doom of death that lays men low has been your undoing?” The great warrior Agamemnon replies that he did not die heroically in battle, but rather
Aigisthos, working out my death and destruction, invited
me to his house, and feasted me, and killed me there, with the help
of my sluttish wife, as one cuts down an ox at his manger.
So I died a most pitiful death. . . .
In one of Homer’s characteristic similes, Agamemnon tells Odysseus that he and his men were killed “like pigs with shining / tusks, in the house of a man rich and very powerful, / for a wedding or a festival, or a communal dinner.” Here Homer’s carefully chosen epic simile reinforces the terrible perversity of Aigisthos’s crime: the wedding, the festival, and the communal dinner all serve as the social glue that holds Greek society together, through marriage, religion, and hospitality.
Hospitality and Civilization
Indeed, perhaps the highest law of the Greece of Homer’s Odyssey can be found in hospitality, or xenia, a rigorous but unwritten code of social relations protected and enforced by Zeus himself. The shared meal, storytelling, and gift-giving that occur in this ritual interaction create bonds between the scattered kingdoms of Odysseus’s Greece, since a guest is expected to return the favor when his host visits him in the future. As Homer depicts them, these social bonds also transcend generations, uniting descendants in friendly relations across time. For instance, in Book VI of Homer’s Iliad, when the enemy warriors Diomedes and Glaukos meet in battle and discover that their ancestors shared xenia, the two men happily trade armor and agree not to fight each other. For Homer, the presence of xenia in a culture also reveals whether it is civilized or not. In Odysseus’s journeys, the poet always divides the peoples encountered by the hero into two groups: the “savage” and the “hospitable.” But you must have a stable, ordered household to provide good xenia. What happens in the home, then, affects the quality of your civilization.
We see this most starkly when the state of Odysseus’s home has ripple effects into the civic realm of Ithaka. As the head of his household, Odysseus has been absent for many years, and we learn that since his departure for the Trojan War, there have been no public assemblies—civic meetings among the men and elders where the kingdom’s affairs may be discussed and decided. His extended absence from home has also opened the door to moral disorder on Ithaka, incarnated in the mob of suitors overrunning his house. His absence has been felt all the more, we learn, because Odysseus was a good king: Telemachos reproaches the men of Ithaka for allowing the crowd of suitors to devastate the home of a ruler who was “kind to you like a father.” If one of these greedy and dissolute suitors ascends to the throne, Homer seems to imply, the fate of the metaphorical civic family of Ithaka may be grim.
Even within Odysseus’s household, we can see the effects of domestic disorder caused by the disruption of family life—and we might consider that these disorders could spill out into the kingdom of Ithaka. The drunken suitors eat up Odysseus’s property. They seduce Penelope’s maidservants and turn them against her. They (unsuccessfully) plot the death of Telemachos, laying a sea ambush for him when he returns from searching for news of his father. Their disorder reaches fever pitch when they abuse the disguised Odysseus within the walls of his own home. Making a travesty of xenia, they offer him gifts of hospitality in jest, only to throw stools and animal parts at him. The villainous Ktessipos calls out, “Come, let me too give him a guest gift,” and hurls an ox hoof at the hero.
The disorder of this house even has its effects on another domestic relation: that of man and his dog. In one of the most tear-jerking moments in all of Homer’s canon, Odysseus—in disguise—finds that his beloved dog Argos has been woefully neglected in his absence:
There the dog Argos lay in the dung, all covered with dog ticks.
Now, as he perceived that Odysseus had come close to him,
he wagged his tail, and laid both his ears back; only
he now no longer had the strength to move any closer
to his master . . .
Here the disruption of the orderly family life of Odysseus’s home wreaks its effects even on man’s best friend. As the swineherd says of Argos, “now he is in bad times. His master, far from his country, / has perished, and the women are careless, and do not look after him.” The loyal canine companion recognizes his disguised master, but too late, for “the doom of dark death now closed over the dog, Argos, / when, after nineteen years had gone by, he had seen Odysseus.”
Family Breakdown and the Outbreak of War
The death of the family dog, however poignant, pales in comparison to the worst consequence of a disordered home: the inevitable outbreak of violence. Odysseus must restore order to his house by killing every suitor, for the justice of the gods demands it. But the violence does not end there. After being reunited with his wife, Odysseus wakes up the next morning prepared for more battle: the families of the dead suitors are coming for revenge. In a final confrontation between Odysseus and some of the suitors’ relatives, Homer gives us a clear indication of what is about to happen. When Odysseus’s aged father Laertes, endowed with strength from the gods, casts the first spear, it pierces his foe through the helmet. Homer writes: “He fell, thunderously, and his armor clattered upon him.” This thunderous fall, with the clatter of armor, is precisely the kind of language we found in The Iliad. Homer is telling us that another Trojan War is about to break out. Only the intervention of the gods, and Odysseus’s self-control, prevent another such conflict. Break up a family, and you get the Trojan War all over again.
Finally, we should recall, as well, that the Trojan War itself started with a broken marriage. When Helen leaves her husband Menelaos to elope with Paris, the two flee to Troy, where the Greek army will pursue them. We know the rest of the story, and the decade-long slaughter that followed. Homer clearly believed, and dramatized in his epic poems, that the breakdown of marriage and the family leads to violence and death. But for the ancient poet the alternative—perhaps the cure for so many social ills both ancient and modern—lies in the “harmonious household” that Odysseus risked everything to preserve. Almost three millennia later, Homer’s readers today face our own heroic task to do the same.