This is the ultimate message of Homer’s two epics: Where family is found, life is found; where family is found, true beauty is found; where family is found, piety is found; where family is dissolved, only death and destruction follows…
The Trojan War, for our Homeric heroes, begins with marital infidelity and succumbing to temptation, but ends with marital fidelity and overcoming temptation. While the gods are ever present in the Iliad and Odyssey, I wish to examine the otherwise purely human aspect of Homer’s two great epics and how they relate to family, and the role of marital infidelity and fidelity as it relates to wholeness and life. After all, family is one of the great Homeric concerns.
The Iliad and Odyssey can be read as standalone works. However, the two great poems should be read together. Both works revolve around the Trojan War. Both stories are intimately tied together as one story, especially through the person of Odysseus who is a major character in the Iliad and the namesake of the Odyssey.
Pseudo-Apollodorus presented Odysseus’ hand in the origins of the Trojan War by fostering the compromise which would lead all of Greece to go to war against Troy. The suitors of Helen would swear an oath to support the eventual husband of Helen irrespective of who would become her husband. Thus, Odysseus’ legacy as a family man is continued well after Homer. And if Pseudo-Apollodorus’ chronology of Odysseus is to be accepted simply on literary grounds, Odysseus was considered to be a family man prior to the Trojan War.
The place of family in finding the meaning of life is best reflected by the two heroes of the Iliad, Achilles and Hector. Achilles abandons his mother and out-of-wedlock son to win his immortality through the fame that will come in war. The sword decides all, and the idea that fulfillment in life can be found by the glory of conquest and war is all too well known to the ancient world. Nevertheless, Achilles was torn by his desire for the battle-cry and his weeping mother; he eventually sides in favor of the call of the battle-cry, but not without some consideration to his family.
By contrast, Hector is the tragic hero of the Iliad. Hector is an upstanding father and family-man, a patriot, reverent to the gods, and an honorable man. Before Virgil depicted Aeneas as the upstanding figure who embraced filial piety to the uttermost, Homer casts Hector in a truly pious light; Hector is devoted to his family, faith, and fatherland (and Aeneas is often by Hector’s side inheriting Hector’s virtues). Who cannot be moved with his teary goodbye to Andromache and his comforting actions to his newborn son whom he cradles in his arm as he prays to Jove? Hector is not only physically present with his wife and son; he is emotionally and spiritually present with his wife and son before going off to battle. The intimate moment between Hector and his family is moving precisely because of its humanness; the love reflected by Hector to his wife and son the ultimate expression of the sublime.
It was Hector, not Achilles, who was considered one of the nine worthies of the medieval age and one of the virtuous pagans according to Catholicism. Hector was remembered for his honor; Achilles for his savagery. Hector fights to defend his family and fatherland; Achilles fights for himself and his own vanity. The man worthy of praise was the man counted among the worthies and immortalized in the song “British Grenadiers.” Hector dies looking at his beloved city—his fatherland—for which he gave his life; a fateful yet glorious death if there ever was one in the midst of the carnage that was the Trojan War.
While the story of pious Hector ends outside the walls of Troy, the story of Achilles and his revelation concerning the importance of family (and life) reaches fruition in the Odyssey. Homer reveals his hand that the family is the highest good to be had in life when Odysseus descends into the underworld and reunites with the heroes of the Trojan War. Odysseus’ descent into the underworld also leads him to see the many beautiful and free-loving queens and princesses of Greece; their beauty a temptation that lesser men would fall for (as Paris did Helen). The fact that beauty is presented so loosely as Odysseus comes across Antiope, Alcmena, Megara, Epicaste, and Chloris, among others, cannot be lost on the reader given the location of where Odysseus is currently journeying—the abode of the dead. Homer presents beauty as the femme fatale in his works. Thereby equating beauty with a form of control—not that beauty should be shunned, but that there is a fine line between beauty as an allure bringing about salvation and beauty as a controlling force that ultimately brings about death and destruction. Homeric beauty is related to the family, the false hope of beauty found in the individual cut off from filial relationships.
In his encounter with Agamemnon, Odysseus is shocked to see the ghost of the great king who led the Greek army to conquer Troy. Agamemnon answers that it was not misfortune decreed by the gods that brought his death, but marital infidelity that led to his murder. “Odysseus, mastermind of war, I was not wrecked in the ships when lord Poseidon roused some punishing blast of stormwinds, gust on gust, nor did ranks of enemies mow me down on land—Aegisthus hatched my doom and my destruction, he killed me, he with my own accursed wife.”
Agamemnon continues to recount his murder by Aegisthus and betrayal from his own wife, Clytemnestra. It is interesting to observe that Agamemnon was killed at a banquet feast. The literary theme of death by eating is also something that should be well-familiar to a Christian readership, as well as to readers of ancient folktales.
It is at the dinner table where betrayal or poison occurs—the place where humans are to feel at ease and comfortable, merry and drunk, loosening their fears and embracing the joy of company. The association of hedonism with destruction, for it is in a moment of pleasantry when we are easily caught off guard, is an ancient trope that begins with Homer. Agamemnon should have been home, safe and secure, but instead is more vulnerable than ever because of Clytemnestra’s infidelity ultimately leading to his death.
Euripides’ tragedy Iphigenia in Aulis presents Agamemnon in his naked vanity (while also casting Odysseus in a more negative light than Homer does). Agamemnon sacrifices his lovely daughter, Iphigenia, to the gods to procure safe passage to Troy. Agamemnon’s own bloodline is expendable if the glory of victory in battle is secured. Agamemnon’s wanton and willful sacrifice of his daughter is but another example of filial destruction—something Yahweh forbids in Genesis and establishes the principle of the sacredness of life in the Abrahamic tradition. Again and again, whether it is in the Iliad, the Odyssey, or even other Greek plays and poems, the dissolution of the family is always accompanied by death.
Agamemnon’s murder which was, in part, caused by Clytemnestra’s infidelity, leads to a collapse of trust in Agamemnon when he tells Odysseus not to tell his wife, Penelope, the total truth in all matters. The betrayal of trust in relationship is the worst of sins in Christian tradition. Dante placed such traitors in the ninth circle of hell: Those who betrayed their friends, their countrymen, and more horribly, their family. While Homer foreshadows Odysseus’ triumph when Agamemnon quips that Penelope will never betray him, the damage to Agamemnon is complete and irreversible. Not only is he dead, he cannot trust anyone as indicated in his dialogue with Odysseus—moreover, he cannot trust the person who should be trusted most (one’s spouse). The relational animus of man’s social nature is destroyed and fulfillment through a relationship can never be consummated for those who have trust issues.
Upon leaving Agamemnon and meeting Achilles, Odysseus showers the great warrior with praise. Achilles, however, scoffs at Odysseus’ praise. Achilles rebuffs the laurels bestowed on him by declaring he would rather be alive as a poor slave tenant farmer, with his mother, and with his son, than be the lord of the dead. In fact, family is the only thing on Achilles’ mind upon meeting Odysseus as he asks about his son, “I’d rather slave on earth for another man—some dirt-poor tenant farmer who scrapes to keep alive—than rule down here over all the breathless dead. But come, tell me the news about my gallant son.”
Homeric irony is on full display here, especially if the Odyssey is read after the Iliad as companion pieces. Achilles, the man who didn’t concern himself with life and chose war (death) over family comes to understand the importance of family, and therefore life, only when he is in the abode of the dead. This revelation for Achilles comes too late for his soul. He is trapped forever as master over the “breathless dead.” As Achilles’ lament goes on, he weeps to have the opportunity to return to his father’s home and to teach men the ways of life rather than lust and conquest.
Grieving, Achilles is comforted by Odysseus as he informs him what has become of his son (Neoptolemus). This is a touching moment, the contrast to Hector’s goodbye in the Iliad that brings about the completion of the contrast between the two heroes of that work. But Hector held his son in his arms and comforted him in all his feebleness; the strength and courage of Hector giving strength and courage—comfort—to Astyanax. The scene of Odysseus telling Achilles the fate of Neoptolemus is touching because it is the revelatory moment for Achilles about the importance of family. Achilles eagerly waits to hear the news of what has become of his son because he cannot watch his son to know himself. With tears coming down his eyes he had begged Odysseus to tell him what any father wishes to know: What has become of his son.
While undoubtedly moving, this scene stands in stark contrast with Hector. Hector, as mentioned, was physically, emotionally, and spiritually present with Andromache and Astyanax in an unforgettable human moment. Achilles does eagerly wait to hear the news of his son. But he is detached, a gnostic ghost without a body who cannot provide warmth and comfort to his son; neither can he help him nor congratulate him. Achilles is left in anguish from his newfound knowledge of what is truly important in life and where the desire of man is made whole.
Achilles left his mother and son to win immortality in war. It was this immortality to be won in war that Achilles thought would satiate his desires. Only in death does Achilles see through the veil that no amount of death and conquest can satisfy man’s yearnings. Instead, it is the simple life—the family life—a life spent in relationship with spouse, children, and friends (and countrymen) where desire is contented.
This revelation as to what the meaning of life is comes roughly at the half-way point of the Odyssey, thus setting the stage for the rest of the journey home. And home is where the family is. Agamemnon should have been safe at home. Reuniting with his wife and kingdom, Agamemnon’s parousia is turned against him as he is lured into a trap set by a scheming usurper and unfaithful wife. In death, Achilles learns that the glory he sought in war was vain and that the life of happiness is found in the practical wisdom and love of the simple life with family that he is now deprived of. The fates of the other heroes of the Iliad are a sharp contrast with the forthcoming fate of Odysseus.
The Odyssey is a tale of a journey home. More importantly, the journey home is not merely to a piece of land to settle and call home. It is a journey to an already established home and to a family. Home, for Odysseus, is not simply (or merely) Ithaca. Home is where Penelope and Telemachus are; home is where Odysseus’ family resides. Home is where Odysseus’ roots are.
Penelope and Telemachus are not simply characters afar referenced by Odysseus in his musings, but are given important roles in the story. They are humans whom the reader can relate to just as Odysseus relates to them as husband and son. That is to say they are real. Penelope and Telemachus have names and faces attached to them. Odysseus’ love for Penelope draws him ever closer to her and gives him the strength to persevere through temptation and imprisonment, while Penelope’s love for him keeps her faithful to him against the myriad of suitors who regard Penelope as an object of social advancement to inherit Odysseus’ kingdom and their own standing in Greek society.
Odysseus’ captivity to Calypso is the prototypical false heaven offered to men: Eternity with endless sex, comfortable pleasures, and bliss through objectified beauty (in the form of Calypso herself). Calypso, for her part, also treats Odysseus as an object of her desires and merely seeks to utilize Odysseus as an instrument of her divinity. However, it is the love of the real, and the fidelity that draws man and woman together, which allows Odysseus to overcome his shackling to Calypso as Hermes comes to his rescue. Odysseus is married to Penelope, is the king of Ithaca, and the father to Telemachus; people depend on him and he has duties and obligations to fulfill.
In overcoming the temptations of Calypso’s (false) paradise, Homer also explicitly informs us that man is a social and relational animal and not a solitary, isolated, and atomized individual seeking simple physical pleasures. No atomized individualistic hedonist could turn down what Calypso offered. And what did Calypso represent other than the life of pure self-pleasure? Odysseus’ love for Penelope and Telemachus, as well as his duties to his countrymen as king, wins out. He breaks the constrictive power of the divines for the love between humans.
While Odysseus slept with Calypso and Circe there are several things to remember before rushing to condemn the supposed infidelity of Odysseus. Both women are not really women at all but goddesses, nymphs, who are not equals with Odysseus but his superiors. Gods and goddesses interfere in human affairs all of the time in the Greek (and Roman) myths because humans are not sovereign persons as in Abrahamic anthropology, but the fated playthings of the gods. Their “love” is no love at all given that Odysseus grows ever colder toward Calypso and ever warmer in his want to be with Penelope over the years. As with Circe, notwithstanding the threats involved in their encounter, Odysseus’ actions toward another goddess—who is not a human woman—is aimed at saving his fellow countrymen, whom he loves as their patriotic king.
Odysseus feels a duty to try and protect them and see them home. It is all the more impressive that Odysseus overcomes Calypso and Circe for Penelope. Everything that Odysseus does is motivated by his love for Penelope and his love for his fellow countrymen.
Furthermore, Calypso and Circe represent figments of the imagination—imaginary desire and lust producing the most sublime of objects of the human mind. Their divinity is their unreality. They are, to the human imagination, perfect. They are everything that fallen man wantonly craves—beautiful, sexual, and vivacious objects of desire.
Odysseus overcomes both Calypso and Circe, and his love for Penelope grows ever stronger. Odysseus’ overcoming the temptations of Calypso and Circe are not moments of weakness or hypocrisy, but moments of triumph and fidelity. Not even the most perfect of beings can keep Odysseus away from Penelope.
The fact that Odysseus overcomes the temptations of Calypso and Circe should not be lost upon the reader. The warm and mutual love of two humans in the reciprocating bond of marriage is superior to the false love between an object of perfection that one cannot have an authentic relationship with. This is represented by the fact that Odysseus is a man and Calypso and Circe are nymphs.
Odysseus is in a different category than Calypso and Circe—an inferior one at that. From Odysseus’ perspective, Calypso and Circe are objects of desire rather than relational subjects of healing and wholeness. They do not represent the liberation of Odysseus’ longings but represent the enslavement of Odysseus’ yearnings. From Calypso and Circe’s perspective, Odysseus is an object of their fantasies and lusts. Odysseus is an object whom they want to control—which is precisely what would happen if Odysseus had fallen for them. He would have been an object of their enslavement. (Here, I think, Homer is also reflecting upon man’s enslavement to the passions.) In comparison, the relationship between Odysseus and Penelope is unbreakable. The men seeking Odysseus’ throne cannot break Penelope, and the woman whom Odysseus loves is the only woman who can call him home. Calypso and Circe cannot call Odysseus home but only prevent him from returning home.
Whereas Agamemnon returned home only to be murdered because of marital infidelity, this fate does not befall Odysseus because of the fidelity and genius of Penelope. Penelope is just as cunning as Odysseus as the story makes clear. Penelope is not just a faithful wife, she is a perfect companion to Odysseus—as Eve was meant to be for Adam—and together the two are made whole; indivisible. Astute Christians should also see the nature of the love between Penelope and Odysseus since their marriage is an indissoluble bond. Their togetherness in love, sanctified through their marriage, cannot be broken by man or the gods. They truly are indivisible. From the perspective of marital fidelity and the life-giving spirit it entails, Penelope is the heroine of the Odyssey. If she was not faithful to Odysseus, he would have returned “home” and suffered a fate similar to Agamemnon.
The broken marriages in Homer’s epics lead to war and death at a scale never seen before. Homer seems to emphasize the cruelty and bloodshed because this is a story of what happens to man and society when family and marriages break down. Paris betrays his father and country in seducing Helen, and Helen breaks the bond of marriage between her and Menelaus in escaping to Troy with Paris. Agamemnon is betrayed by Clytemnestra which allows Aegisthus to murder him. Achilles abandons his family to seek glory in war only to realize in death that family is the most important thing that matters in life—for family is what gives life and where life is found.
This is the ultimate message of Homer’s two epics: Where family is found, life is found; where family is found, true beauty is found; where family is found, piety is found; where family is dissolved, only death and destruction follows. Homer’s message of the meaning in life couldn’t be clearer.
Odysseus does not find peace until he returns home and reclaims his home from intruders. Duty to family is the highest call of men and women in the Iliad and Odyssey. It is fitting that the Iliad and the origins of the Trojan War starts with the dissolution of family while the Odyssey ends the Trojan War with the reconciliation of a family. The reconciliation is made even more triumphant given the trials and temptations that beset both Penelope and Odysseus.
Homer’s epic of the family is profoundly traditional in its advocacy. It is unsurprising that Christianity, the religion of love and family, took a liking to Homer’s works and themes. Furthermore, Homer’s Odysseus is a profoundly conservative figure. Odysseus is moved by love for family and fatherland, the love of the real, and desire to be reunited with Penelope with whom he shares an indissoluble bond despite the interference of goddesses and other women. Odysseus’ odyssey began because of the dissolution of a family, it comes to an end—finally bringing him the happy rest he seeks—when he reunites with his family. Home, according to Homer, is where the family is.
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Editor’s Note: The featured image is “Homère chantant ses vers” (1834) by Paul Jourdy (1805-1856), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.