Friday, September 29, 2000 English 10How can one learn about a society which has long ceased to exist?How can one learn about the things that were important to them once theirbodies have been interred for centuries? The bodies have long since beenpart of the earth, yet the voices of many of the ancients still waifclearly through time throughout the art, the music, and the literature theyleft as their legacy. A mans lifestyle, beliefs and habits as revealed intheir art mirror the culture that created him. This certainly is true inthe Greek epic The Odyssey because the characters are not just developedon paper, but actually are the embodiments of the Greek society.
Instudying the characters in the epic, it is easy to see many of the valuesof the Greeks. Hospitality is certainly a value which that societyesteemed as well as physical beauty and a clever mind. One can see allthese values distinctly in the lives and actions of Odysseus, Telemachus,and Menelaus.As The Odyssey opens, the reader is immediately confused.
Telemachusopens his home and prepares a banquet, yet behind closed doors Telemachusclearly expresses his dislike for the greedy men who seek not only hismother but all his father’s property. Why would he welcome guests who hehates? What seems to be a paradox on the surface is actually one of thevalues which is most evident in Greek literature — the value ofhospitality. Telemachus himself experiences hospitality but with a slightvariation. This helps us understand even more about the importance theGreeks placed on this value. When Telemachus sailed into Menelaus’kingdom, Menelaus did not recognize him at first. Yet, society dictatedthat one welcomes everyone, even strangers.
From these two men we get abroad view of this Greek value. It is Odysseus who completes this viewstanding in the darkness of the Cyclops cave when confronted by a one-eyedmonster. One of Odysseus’ first comments to the monster deals with theidea of hospitality. Reminding the Cyclops that honor of others is adirective from the gods which if ignored would be avenged by the gods.
“Omighty one respect the gods. We are your suppliants, and Zeus is theavenger of the suppliant and the stranger; he is the strangers friend andwaits on worthy strangers.” (p.85, IX) The reader now can step back formthe epic with a clear understanding of this Greek value. People loved orhated, known or unknown were to be welcomed and cared for. If this werenot done the gods would punish the rudeness.
Not only did the Greeks value the beauty of actions but they alsovalued physical beauty. The heroes of The Odyssey are described as havingphysical features which were not only eye appealing but seemed to indicatetheir goodness. Menelaus is described as “Light Haired,” “Famous,” and”Heaven Desended” (p.31,IV) These features made him seem almost god like.Numerous times his light hair is mentioned. This is not an accidentalfeature but is an archetype of goodness often ascribed to Heroes inliterature. Although the description of Telemachus’ physical features arelimited, what is given is very revealing.
Homer tells us that he lookedlike his father. Odysseus, the great warrior, lays upon the beach atPhaeacia, nothing about him indicates his greatness or beauty. It is onlylater as he rises up from the water that he is reborn as a beautiful manwith curly hair and glistening skin. It is this beauty thatMenelaus and Helen recognize in Telemachus. “Now I too note it, wife, evenas you suggest; such as were Odysseus’ feet and hands, his turn of eye, hishead, and hair above.” (p.
32,IV)As important as hospitality and physical beauty were in the Greekvalue system, it is far more evident that a determined, clever mind focusedsteadfastly is a quality that would rank above all others. It is such animportant quality that it becomes one of the themes of the epic. As wellas the major features of the three heroes. From The Iliad, the reader seesMenelaus, the determined king who fought a ten year war in order to get hisqueen back. In The Odyssey, however, we see the cleverness of hisdetermined mind. As Telemachus, still unknown to Menelaus feasts, Menelausovertly seeks to know the identity of his guest. With slight suspicionsthat the stranger was related to Odysseus, Menelaus begins an emotionalwarfare upon the young guest. Recounting the details of the Trojan War anddescribing the deaths of many brave, Greek warriors brings a tear toTelemachus’ eye revealing not only his emotions but his identity toMenelaus.
In this tear, the reader sees a reflection of this young manssteadfast determination to find a father he has not yet seen since he wasan infant. Telemachus only knows his father through the stories he hasheard about him. Yet his love for Odysseus causes him to set sail on ajourney to find his father. Though faced with challenges and years ofseparation, Odysseus was determined to return to Penelope and Ithaca.Telemachus is like his father because of his determined mind set. This isthe factor that will eventually bring them both back to Ithaca.Almost three thousand years ago a group of people sat by a flickeringfire, the breezes from the Aegean Sea blew through their hair, but theytook no notice of the fires warmth or the seas coolness where they wereenthralled by a blind poet with stories about a great war.
Probably basedon real events, Homer’s epics are today not seen as works of history. TheGreeks used his epics in their schools to teach about hospitality, physicalbeauty and strength, and cleverness of the mind. These virtues which weremost important to the Greeks live on today in The Odyssey. Centuries havepassed since the time of Homer, we cannot sit by the fire listening to hisstories. We can only hold his epic on our lap and travel on the adventuresroad with his heroes, and when we have finished we will not only have reada classical piece of literature but we will know a centuries dead culturemuch better.