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The meaning of Tradition in Homer's Odyssey

Glorious imperatives in Homeric society

- By Marcel Bas 

Odysseus and his men while trying to resist the song of the Sirens
The encounter with the Sirens: Odysseus with his men while he is tied to the mast

"La société achéenne de l'âge héroïque, pour lointaine qu'elle

paraisse à nos yeux de modernes, n'est en aucune manière une

société primitive. A l'éclat de la civilisation matérielle et de l 'art,

dont témoignent notamment les vases d'or ciselés de Vaphio ou

de Dendra, se joint déjà un grand raffinement de moeurs."

- Jean Bérard in Homère, 1963


In his book Die Welt der Polis, German philosopher Eric Voegelin remarked that Homer was "the blind man who sees", who looked with high scorn upon the brutal and unjust "Age of Heroes" (1). With The Odyssey Homer is said to have constructed a history in which an assembly of gods have restored justice and punished the evildoers. It is believed that Homer was an advocate of another age, where older traditions and rituals were strictly observed. Alain de Benoist notes: "Mais Homère était plus encore: le dépositaire du vieil esprit hellène dans sa pureté, le maître de toute sagesse, le gardien des traditions." (2)

Regardless whether Homer's motivations for the (re)production of The Odyssey were that of a conservative's or whether the verses had been entirely handed down to him from earlier poets and bards, his lengthy epic that recounts king Odysseus' wanderings provides us with a host of rituals, customs, traditions and remarkable sociocultural-religious ideas and attitudes that seem unusual in a modern, individualistic Western person's view. The original Homeric epics have been committed to writing in the 7th and 6th century b.C. Today both Hesiod and Homer as well as many other poets are of an immense importance to the reconstruction of ancient Mediterranean theology (3). This essay will try to give a critical and explanatory summary of these cultural curiosities. I will try to consider this rich array of practices and ideas from a broad, cultural perspective.

Much of the rituals and beliefs of the Achaeans were linked with religion, the existential matters of life. In The Odyssey we are allowed to look at funeral rituals and sacrifices. Both Odysseus and the people of Ithaca realise that erecting a mound for their deceased ones is essential for the afterlife and for the people's esteem. As long as Odysseus is missing, the people of Ithaca - including Odysseus' wife Penelope and his son, prince Telemachus - are not sure whether their mourning is done over a hero, who died in battle, or over a warrior who died on a lonely island, or in an other fameless fashion. Fortunately, stories were told about Odysseus which indicated that he had been a good warrior. But Telemachus sighs:

"Now the gods have reversed our fortunes wit a vengeance -

wiped that man from the earth like no one else before.

I would never have grieved so much about his death

If he'd gone down with comrades off in Troy

Or died in the arms of loved ones,

Once he had wound down the long coil of war.

Then all united Achaea would have raised his tomb

And he'd have won his son great fame for years to come.

But now the whirlwinds have ripped him away, no fame for him!" (4)

[Book I, 272-280] (5)


Apparently, for Odysseus and his family (6), fame (Gr. kleos) is unattainable as long as he has not returned (Gr. nostos = homecoming) from Troy, regardless of the Greek successes at Troy. Also Penelope will not experience fame if Odysseus never returns, as she sighs when talking to Odysseus whom she does not recognise yet:

"'No, no, stranger,' wise Penelope demurred,

'whatever form and feature I had, what praise I'd won,

the deathless gods destroyed that day the Achaeans

sailed away to Troy, my husband in their ships,

Odysseus - if he could return to tend my life

The renown I had would only grow in glory.

Now my life is torment…'"

[Book 19: 137-143]

Later we will return to the concepts of fame and glory. Mourning rituals were not only important to the next of kin, but also to the deceased's soul. The case of Odysseus' brother in arms Elpenor shows us what happens to souls that have not had a proper burial. At Circe's palace, Elpenor had too much wine, fell off the roof and broke his neck. There was no time to build him a grave-mound and to shed tears over him. But Elpenor's spirit will not rest. In one of the most chilling scenes in The Odyssey, when Odysseus descends to the house of Hades where the dead live, Elpenor is the first spirit out of hundreds to come up to Odysseus:

"But first the ghost of Elpenor, my companion, came toward me,

He'd not been buried under the wide ways of earth,

Not yet, we'd left his body in Circe's house,

Unwept, unburied - this other labour pressed us.

But I wept to see him now, pity touched my heart


'Now, I beg you by those you left behind, so far from here,

your wife, your father who bred and reared you as a boy,

and Telemachus (…)'

'I beg you! Don't sail off

and desert me, left behind unwept, unburied, don't,

or my curse may draw god's fury on your head.

No, burn me in my full armour, all my harness,

Heap my mound by the churning gray surf (…)'

'Perform my rites, and plant on my tomb that oar

I swung with mates when I rowed among the living.'"

[Book 11, 56-86]  (7)

We see that a neglected ritual may cause the wrath of the gods. But rituals and customs do not only have a religious imperative; they are also very useful to the characters's emotions and social lives. The English philosopher Roger Scruton noted that Odysseus' encounter with his sorrowful supplicant is an interesting example of what rituals and traditions are and what they mean to people. Scruton claims:

"Not only does Elpenor ask to be buried; he also asks that people cry over him. He begs 'don't sail off and desert me, left behind unwept, unburied' (aklauton kai athapton) and Odysseus knows what he is expected to do: he must cremate Elpenor's body, weep over his passing away and erect a memorial. The unborn are of vital importance to this sacrifice of the dead, and by honouring Elpenor Odysseus is also acting for 'those who come after us'. He acts in a way that is immediate to Odysseus' perception, with Odysseus' own love for his family and respect for the father that reared him. The common culture encompasses these complex states of mind and inforces their validity." (8)

According to Scruton, in every situation the characters in The Odyssey know what to do; their emotions are pure and their minds and acts are natural. The rituals and customs of a common, public culture narrow the gap between emotion and deed: they tell Odysseus what to do, more so in the situations where love, sorrow, pain, anger or revenge are the true motives and where he meets other people. In a public culture, mourning and weeping is something you just do:

"As soon as Dawn with her rose-red fingers shone again

I dispatched some men to Circe's halls to bring

The dead Elpenor's body. We cut logs in haste

And out on the island's sharpest jutting headland

Held his funeral rites in sorrow, streaming tears.

Once we'd buried the dead man and the dead man's armour,

Heaping his grave-mound, hauling a stone that coped it well,

We planted his balanced oar aloft to crown his tomb."

[Book 9, 8-15] (9)

In Book I Athena tells Telemachus to refrain from looking for Odysseus for a year if people tell him that he has been found. Otherwise he must build him a mound, weep over his passing, and expel the suitors. In both The Iliad and in The Odyssey do we find the custom of mourners cutting off their hair. In Book IV this is what Menelaus tells Telemachus to do if Odysseus can be mourned over, but he should also have cheeks wet with tears. In Book 9, verses 72-5, we read that Odysseus "would not let his ships set sail until the crews had raised the triple cry, saluting each poor comrade cut down by the fierce Cicones." (10)

Dying in battle is a noble act. Being a great winner dying lonely at sea is, according to Odysseus, humiliating and fameless:

"Three, four times blessed, my friends-in-arms

who died on the plains of Troy those years ago,

serving the sons of Atreus to the end. Would to god

I'd died there too and met my fate that day the Trojans,

Swarms of them, hurled at me with bronze spears,

Fighting over the corpse of proud Achilles!

A hero's funeral then, my glory spread by comrades -

Now what a wretched death I'm doomed to die!"

[Book 5, 338-345] (11)

What Odysseus is after is kléos; glory and fame. These are qualifications, bestowed on you by companions, compatriots, the people around you, and by the gods. You cannot have glory without people around you confirming that ("My glory spread by comrades"). Dying without glory is just as worthless as surviving without glory. Our present age is less focused on the social implications of a person's glorious past. Today, a person can be very special without constantly receiving confirmations from the world around him and from the deseased and the unborn. Not in ancient Greece, where social circumstances decide what you are supposed to feel. In the ancient Greek non-individualistic society with strong social ties, kléos is an ancient and forceful drive: your fame should be told and heard of; the word derives from an Indo-european root *k̂leu̯os, 'fame'.  In Sanskrit the same word occurs with the same meaning: shrávas. In Indo-european languages the root has lead to words denoting 'to listen', 'word', 'call', 'listen', 'sound' and the like. The greatest reward for Odysseus is undying fame, kléos áphthitonon, on the lips of men. This two-word Homeric formula must be as ancient as proto-Indo-european times; cf. Vedic shrávas ákshitam , which consists of the exact same words. (13) Indo-europeanists believe that this two-word formula, *k̂leu̯os n̥dhgwhitom in Proto-Indo-european, must have survived millennia of ancient literature, as we find more of such shared formulaic instances in Greek, Vedic and other ancient Indo-European oral epic literature.

In the final stage of the epic the ghost of king Menelaus tells Achilles' ghost that people have reared a grand and noble tomb that can be seen from afar by generations to come. Eternal fame also gives men high esteem with the gods:

You in your day have witnessed funeral games

For many heroes, games to honour the death of kings,

When young men cinch their belts, tense to win some prize-

But if you'd laid eyes on these it would have thrilled your heart,

Magnificent trophies the goddess, glistening-footed Thetis,

Held out in your honour. You were dear to the gods,

So even in death your name will never die…

Great glory is yours, Achilles,

For all time, in the eyes of all mankind!"

[Book 24, 95-102] (14)


In such a society it is important for an aristocrat as Odysseus to behave according to rules that define nobility or heroism. Pride is closely linked to esteem. When Odysseus arrives on the island of Scheria, the Phaeacians offer him a great meal. He is very tired from his wanderings, filled with sorrow and just wants to rest. But then he is challenged by Laodamas to join him in a wrestling competition.


let's ask our guest if he knows the ropes of any sport.

He's no mean man, not with a build like that…

Look at his thighs, his legs, and what a pair of arms-

His massive neck, his big rippling strength!'[…]

'Come, stranger, sir, won't you try your hand

at our contests now?' […]

'What greater glory attends a man, while he's alive,

Than what he wins with his racing feet and striving hands?'

[Odysseus replies:]

"I've suffered much already, struggled hard.

But here I sit amid your assembly still,

Starved for passage home, begging your king,

Begging all your people."

[Book 8, 153-182] (15)

But when Broadsea - Phaeacian king Alcinous' son -- calls Odysseus a mere gold-grabbing skipper of profiteers, and certainly no athlete, he enrages Odysseus, who cannot bear the shame of being put on a par with a merchant. In our culture it would suffice to say that you are not a merchant; that will convince people. You could also ignore the allegation, because you know that you are an aristocrat. In our materialistic and economistic society being a successful merchant is the same as being a member of the élite: in circles of the jet-set arictocracy is being put on a par with merchants. We litterally see European aristocracy mingling with merchants: hundreds of princes of the European Gotha marrying rich bankers' and businessmen's daughters, etc. Today, people's claims to fame consist of attempting to amass a fortune in the field of sports, showbusiness or other mass-related market branches. Having amassed a fortune is virtually the same as being a member of the élite. Not for Odysseus: aristocracy has to do with excellence, style, tradition, prominence and good upbringing. In order to prove that he is an aristos and not some businessman, Odysseus very reluctantly accepts the challenge, but what is most remarkable is that he sharply retorts the accusation of not taking pride, by accusing Broadsea of ignoble behaviour. At the same time Odysseus describes for us what it takes to be a noble person:

    "Indecent talk, my friend.

    You, you are a reckless fool! - I see that, So,

    the gods don't hand out all their gifts at once,

    not build and brains and flowing speech to all.

    One may fail to impress us with his looks

    But a god can crown his words with beauty, charm,

    And men look on with delight when he speaks out.

    Never faltering, filled with winning self-control,

    He shines forth at assembly grounds and people gaze

    At him like a god when he walks through the streets.

    Another man may look like a deathless one on high

    But there's not a bit of grace to crown his words.

    Just like you, my fine, handsome friend. Not even

    A god could improve those lovely looks of yours

    But the mind inside is worthless.


    I'll compete in your games, just watch. Your insults

    Cut to the quick - you rouse my fighting blood!"

    [Book 8, 191-215] (16)

Here the concept arete, or excellence, is an important determiner for the nobility of a person. In Homer, a person's arete is specifically indicated by his skill and prowess as a soldier in war, and as an athlete in peace. (17) In our age Odysseus' decision to join the competition may come across as an overambitious act, but Homer does not want to show a high-flying man; he wants to show that Odysseus is a man of principles, true to the ancient rules of the aristocrat. The game is not just play, but a repetitive attempt to receive affirmation for one's fame by showing arete. Only noble men and not the common man display arete, and "the aristoi compete among themselves 'always to be the best and to be superior to others.' In his personal conduct, the Homeric hero possesses aidos, or a sense of duty. An affront to this sense of duty is known as nemesis, and is aroused in the hearts of others when aidos is slighted."  (18)

Broadsea's challenge is particularly insulting for Odysseus, who had acquired great excellence by ten years of killing, fighting and losing friends on the plains of Troy. We see that excellence and honour have merged here.

Ancient Greece was an aristocracy (Gr. aristoi = 'the best' kratos = 'power') which consisted of kings, royals and other people of excellence and great talents. In his address to Broadsea Odysseus mentions several qualities of an aristocrat:

    1. Build (strong, athletic body)

    2. Brain (intelligence)

    3. Flowing speech (eloquence)

    4. Looks, beauty, charm

    5. Self-control (remember Odysseus' patience with the suitors)

That he mentions looks, beauty and charm might come to us as a surprise. Everywhere in The Odyssey do we find this beautiful human type of the aristocrat. Laodamas says that Odysseus cannot be a mean man with a build like that; in Book 4 King Menelaos tells Prince Telemachus that his noble origin gives him wise words, and people of a distinguished origin have good dispositions. In Book 17 Odysseus, as a beggar, tells suitor Eurymachos to give him a morsel of food while reminding him of his noble personality: "You're hardly the worst Achaean here, it seems. The noblest one, in fact. You look like a king to me!" [Book 17, 458-460] (19) A noble person must give a guest food; this is the principle of hospitality or xenia. I will return to this later.)

Only by judging their looks you can tell if people are supposed to be wise and prominent. In Book 18 we find Penelope reproachfully telling her son Telemachus:

"When you were a boy you had much better judgment.

Now that you've grown and reached your young prime

And any stranger, seeing how tall and handsome you are,

Would think you the son of some great man of wealth-

Now your sense of fairness seems to fail you."

[Book 18, 245-249] (20)

People in The Odyssey are particularly proud of their ancestors and are called by their father's name, mother's name, by what their fathers and grandfathers have done in battle; Odysseus wants to return to the housing of his forefathers. We see that people consider past generations and those yet to come. Kléos is supposed to span many generations. In the Greek society, the dead play just as an important role as the yet unborn do. Names and esteem are hereditary, but so is the charisma of the aristocrat. Menelaus gives Telemachus a great compliment when he says:

    "Not even an older man could speak and do as well.

    Your father's son your are - your words have all his wisdom,.

    It's easy to spot the breed of a man whom Zeus

    Has marked for joy in birth and marriage both."

    [Book 4, 228-231] (21)

The image of aristocracy of body and soul is powerful and evokes remarks in Friedrich Nietzsche's book Twilight of the Idols (Götzen-Dämmerung) about the Greek philosopher Socrates. Being well-acquainted with presocratic Greek morals and values, he detects in an ugly person as Socrates the beginning of the demise of aristocratic values:

"By birth, Socrates belonged to the lowest class: Socrates was plebeian. We are told, and can see in sculptures of him, how ugly he was. But ugliness, in itself an objection, is among the Greeks almost a refutation. Was Socrates a Greek at all? Ugliness is often enough the expression of a development that has been crossed, thwarted in some way. Or it appears as declining development. The anthropological criminologists tell us that the typical criminal is ugly: monstrum in fronte, monstrum in animo. But the criminal is a decadent. Was Socrates a typical criminal? At least that would be consistent with the famous judgment of the physiognomist that so offended the friends of Socrates. This foreigner told Socrates to his face that he was a monstrum - that he harboured in himself all the worst vices and appetites. And Socrates merely answered: 'You know me, sir!'" (22)

It is unthinkable that Odysseus, Menelaus or Achilles would have replied in the same calm, prideless fashion. Not only do charm and beauty have people spellbound; also the gods admire beautiful persons. Clitus, son of Mantius the prophet, had been abducted by the goddess Dawn because he was such a beautiful youngster. Now he is living with the deathless [Book 15, 278-280] (23). In many instances, among which Odysseus' dispute with Broadsea, we see that people with a noble appearance resemble gods. Beauty is god-given.

The mean man is less decent. This we can find throughout The Odyssey. The poor are inclined to lie. Odysseus as a beggar tells Eumaeus: "Before, poor as I am, I wouldn't take a thing. I hate that man like the very Gates of Death who, ground down by poverty, stoops to peddling lies." [Book 14, 180-3] (24) An aristos who becomes a slave loses half his arete. (25) If ordinary people become slaves they usually will become people with little pride and with a deceitful character. While lamenting over the fact that his servants have neglected his favourite dog Argos, Odysseus says:

"Ah, but he's run out of luck now, poor fellow…

His master's dead and gone, so far from home,

And the heartless women tend him not at all. Slaves,

With their lords no longer there to crack the whip,

Lose all zest to perform their duties well. Zeus,

The Old Thunderer, robs a man of half his virtue

The day the yoke clamps down around his neck."

[Book 17, 350-6] (26)


Slaves and common people need powerful lords. But ruling with the whip is not an ideal situation for a noble person with fine manners. While referring to the lawless suitors, Odysseus' old friend Mentor reluctantly tells us in a meeting of nobles about this dilemma in case lawlessness has to be checked:

"Never let any sceptered king be kind and gentle now,

Not with all his heart, or set his mind on justice -

No, let him be cruel and always practice outrage."

[Book 2, 57-9]  (27)

As mentioned earlier, the principle of xenia should be observed by real nobles. This form of hospitality is an ideal, and by showing up as a beggar among the sponging, unexperienced and indecent suitors, Odysseus acts as a foil against which the suitors are being depicted as possibly the worst individuals that the king's palace could ever have harboured. On all the islands and in all the towns that Odysseus and Telemachus visit, the kings are most hospitable. Typically, the hosts do not want to hear their guests out about their identities, until the copious meal and the wine have been enjoyed. This stresses the principles of unconditional hospitality: it does not matter who is sitting at your table. It is an extremely un-individualistic custom, but in a large area with scattered islands and - in our modern views -- primitive infrastructure it can be a matter of survival to the guest.

Here we see one of the aspects of tradition: not only does tradition provide us with information and rules, but it also contains purely practical wisdom. In cultures where many people are remote neighbours, one normally finds traditions where hospitality is considered a great virtue. It is a mechanism of mutual aid, of which the practical purpose is not always clear, but it is still present and therefore effective.

Odysseus, his companions and Telemachus could not have survived their wanderings across the Mediterranean Sea if their hosts did not receive and treat them: at Pylos Pisistratus and Thrasymedes offer Telemachus and goddess Pallas Athena (in the guise of Mentor) a great meal and wine, and only later do they want to know who the couple is (28); the same happens at Menelaus' palace (29) and it happens at goddess Circe's house (albeit initially with the purpose of deceit). In book 15 Telemachus -- who is in a hurry -- bids Pisistratus not to tell his father Nestor that he is in town. Otherwise Nestor will demand of him to stay at the palace. Nestor is "in love with his hospitality", as Pisistratus says. (30) Telemachus has been warned: earlier in The Odysseus (in book 5), Nestor refused to let Telemachus spend the night in his own ship. And he has been overladen with gifts and gold by Nestor, Menelaus and other hosts.

Xenia is an essential virtue. When Odysseus, as a stranger - a beggar even -- stays at his old swineherd's humble abode, he is testing his hospitality by repeatedly hinting about him not wanting to be a nuisance to his host, about where he could spend the following days and about the fact that he does not need blankets during the cold nights. Luckily, the swineherd is the most hospitable host that Odysseus wants him to  be:

"and the good swineherd shouted to his men,

'Bring your fattest hog!

I'll slaughter it for our guest from far abroad.

We'll savour it ourselves. All too long we've sweated

Over these white-tusked boars - our wretched labour -

While others wolf our work down free of charge!'"

[Book 14, 67-72] (31)

Although this is a tradition, and therefore something you just do, Homer shows that there are two pragmatic reasons for xenia: you acquire a good reputation and the gods are watching you. A king feels that it is his honour to be the most hospitable man in the land if a king's son visits the country. Odysseus wants to continue his journey home, as his host Alcinous says:

"'And so it will be'-

Alcinous stepped in grandly - 'sure as I am alive

And rule our island men who love their oars!

Our guest, much as he longs for passage home,

Must stay and wait it out here till tomorrow,

Till I can collect his whole array of parting gifts.

His send-off rests with every noble here

But with me most of all:

I hold the reins of power in the realm.' (32)

The good Menelaus hopes that his royal guests, Telemachus and Pisistratus, will tell their relatives and the host's equals how good a host he has been to the princes:

"'Farewell, my princes! Give my warm greetings

to Nestor, the great commander,

always kind to me as a father, long ago

when we young men of Achaea fought at Troy.'

And tactful Telemachus replied at once,

'Surley, my royal host, we'll tell him all,

as soon as we reach old Nestor - all you say.[…]

I'd tell him (the lost Odysseus) I come from you,

Treated with so much kindness at your hands,

Loaded down with all these priceless gifts!'"

[Book 15, 167-178] (33)

The gods are watching, too. All guests, even beggars, have been sent by Zeus, Eumaeus says in Book 14, verses 63-66  (34), and the suitors volley back Antinous' shamelessly aggressive and inhospitable behaviour towards Odysseus the helpless beggar, as follows:

"Look, Antinous, that was a crime, to strike the luckless beggar!"

"Your fate is sealed if he's some god from the blue."

"And the gods do take on the look of strangers

dropping in from abroad - "

"Disguised in every way

as they roam and haunt our cities, watching over us - "

Transposed to our present days, Antinous' behaviour would be the same as swearing at a monk. The gods were regarded with a lot of ambiguity; deceitful yet just and wrathful as they could be. It reminds us of Elpenor's inappropriate burial which cannot be left unavenged or uncorrected. When Telemachus received Athena, daughter of Zeus in Book 1, he did not know that it was she, but he was most hospitable to the stranger. He stood the divine test of xenia.

In the ancient poem Metamorphoses by the Roman poet Ovid (43 BC - AD 17), this concept of the divine test of hospitality yields the beautiful story of the couple Baucis and Philemon. This poor, elderly Phrygian couple was being visited by Jupiter and his son Mercury in human shape. The couple showed great hospitality to the strangers and gave them their finest food, wine and fowl. When the strangers showed their divine powers, Bausic and Philemon were shocked. The pious couple was saved from destruction whereas their whole impious, inhospitable town was changed into a lake. Their house remained untouched and the gods changed it into a temple. The couple was transformed into two strong trees (35). The strength of this imperative is reminiscent of the Judeo-Christian Flood where sinful people are being drowned.

In The Odyssey, with every meal or slaughtering ritual the table companions perform sacrificing rituals. If the rituals are performed appropriately, the gods will be well-disposed towards man. In Book 14 we are given an exact step-by-step description of a sacrifice performed by the loyal swineherd. It is his fattest hog: he plucked tufts from its head, threw them into the fire, prayed to all the powers, begging them to bring Odysseus back; he then sprinkled barley over strips of fatty pork, and so it goes on for more verses. (36) The reason for Homer to describe it so elaborately could be that he wants to show that the swineherd performs the rituals meticulously, as a man of God. After eating, the swineherd and all the other people in The Odyssey pour their best wine as a libation.

In Book 12, Cattle of the Sun, Odysseus' men have organised a cattle raid by stealing the Sungod's cows. This is an act of desacration. But they also commited desacration when performing the ritual inappropriately:

Once they'd prayed, slaughtered and skinned the cattle,

They cut the thighbones out, they wrapped them around in fat,

A double fold sliced clean and topped with strips of flesh.

And since they had no wine to anoint the glowing victims,

They made libations with water, broiling all the innards


and the gods soon showed us all some fateful signs -

the hides began to crawl, the meat, both raw and roasted,

bellowed out on the spits, and we heard a noise

like the moan of lowing oxen.

[Book 12, 386-390, 325-8] (37)

After this Odysseus' wanderings went into their longest, most luckless stage. The gods would have all men killed, except for Odysseus, who would be confined to Calypso's island for many years. Interestingly, The Odyssey begins with a short reference to this event, as if this cattle raid and the descration were the reason for our hero's exile.

Let us turn to the fine traditional fabric of society: society in The Odyssey is clearly patriarchal. Men are warriors, they rule over their houses and families (oikos) and over their people. The main reason why Odysseus' oikos is being terrorised by suitors is that the man of the house is gone. Telemachos is the only heir to the estate and to the throne, but when Odysseus had left for Troy Telemachus was still a child. Telemachus tells Eumaeus:

    "It's not that our people have turned against me,

    Keen for a showdown. Nor have I any brothers at fault,

    Brothers a man can trust to fight beside him, true,

    No matter what deadly blood-feud rages on…

    Zeus made our line a line of only sons.

    Arcesius had only one son, Laertes,

    And Laertes had only one son, Odysseus,

    And I am Odysseus' only son."

    [Book 16, 127-134] (38)

The palace had hitherto been ruled by his mother Penelope, but as a widow she is unable to chase away the suitors. If Odysseus does not return, it is time for Telemachus to grow up soon and for Penelope to get married and leave the palace. In Indo-european societies a widow is a problem; the widower is not. Interestingly, Indo-europeanists have reconstructed a proto-Indo-european word for 'widow': *uidheuo-, denoting 'separated' (39). But they have not found a Proto-Indo-european word for widower. For example, Dutch weduwnaar and English widower both go back to widow + er/naar. The final roots -er or -naar are male suffixes, which have been added to the word later. The other Indo-european languages have, later on, added similar male suffixes to the word (40).

The rich widow is the target of suitors and of shame and grief; Penelope must be lead by a man. The suitors will continue to slaughter her cattle if she does not choose either one of them (Book 2). In Book 15 Athena tells Telemachus (while he is still at Nestor's palace, ready to look for his father):

"Even now her father and brothers urge Penelope

to marry Eurymachus, who excels all other suitors

at giving gifts and drives the bride-price higher.

She must not carry anything off against your will!

You know how the heart of a woman always works:

She likes to build the wealth of her new groom -

Of the sons she bore, of her dear, departed husband,

Not a memory of the dead, no questions asked.

So sail for home, I say!"

[Boek 15, 22 - 27]

I would like to note the following: apparently, a widow forgets about her former husband and about her first children. According to tradition, the lives of children who have lost one parent will never be the same. This is reminiscent of many ancient Germanic stories like that of Frau Holle: here a sweet and diligent stepdaughter is unloved by her stepmother, who is also a widow. The widow's own daughter is lazy and ugly, but she receives all the love. Eventually the diligent stepdaughter falls through a well into the Underworld where she meets the goddess of Death, Frau Holle (Hölle = Hell). Scholars have explained this as an attempted suicide. (41)

If Penelope gets married, it means that she will have to leave the house that she is living in now. That is what Telemachus knows, embedded as he is in his society's traditions:

"Then my mother's wavering, always torn two ways:

Whether to stay with me and care for the household,

True to her husband's bed, the people's voice as well,

Or leave at ling last with the best man in Achaea

Who courts her in the halls, who offers her the most."

[Book 16, 82-6] (42)

A woman cannot take care of all the estate and the estate should be inherited through the male line. The act of wedding implies that the man leads the woman to his house. Indo-europeanists have also reconstructed the root *uedh-, 'to lead home', which is cognate with English 'to wed'. It implies marriage purely from the man's point of view. This emphasises the importance of the man's perspective in these societies.

Suddenly Telemachus displays his manly power, and tells his mother that she is no longer in charge of the house. After all, he is older now and Athena has made him a man by sending him off on a voyage. He knows by now that the beggar is Odysseus. His mother does not. Telemachus interrupts his mother and he allows the beggar to use Odysseus' bow:


Poised Telemachus broke in now, 'my father's bow-

No Achaean on earth has more right than I

To give it or withhold it, as I please.'


'So, mother,

go back to your quarters. Tend to your own tasks.

The distaff and the loom, and keep the women

Working hard as well.'



she withdrew to her own room. She took to heart

the clear good sense in what her son had said.

[Book 21, 282-296]  (43)

Penelope retains her chastity and wears a veil, and she never enters the hall, where the suitors are, without her two dedicated maidens (44). The suitors do have sex; with eleven maids, violating yet another moral law.

When Odysseus finally comes home, he can bring back order in the house. Not only is the oikos saved from indecisive feminine rule, it is also saved from these lawless, modern suitors with their "sleek hair with oil and their beaming faces."(45) They are handsome, but they lack all excellence. With his bow, in book 22 Odysseus will kill all suitors, except the bard who was forced to join them. The suitors are the embodiment of bad habits and the breeching of sacred rules. Odysseus will also have the whore-like maids hanged.

The suitors have denied xenia, they lack kléos, they lach arete, have no honour, filthy the king's oikos (house and family), woo the queen whilst having sex with the palace maids, they are rude and have no self-control and they show no reverence for the lost or deseased king. All these characteristics form the denial of the aristocratic code of honour. Their only way out would be fameless death. Odysseus' deadly revenge is twice justified: he restores justice and order and restores his honour by killing the honourless.

Homer shows us that tradition is important to ancient Greek society. He does this, not only by demonstrating traditions, rituals and customs in an anecdotal way, but he also shows that there is a deeper layer hidden within tradition. According to The Odyssey, tradition and good behaviour are things you do and which have serious consequences for your personal consitution. Unlike written laws, they form a part of the characters's conscience; it is a conscience that is enforced by the gods, who are the final law-givers. We see that rules, traditions, honour, glory and gods are closely intertwined. Maybe Homer was detecting lawless and honourless behaviour by younger people in his age. Maybe he wanted to tell the listeners how to conduct. In any case, he has provided us with an ancient window that has been allowing us for over two millennia to look into the world of the colourful, proud age of presocratic aristocracy.



1. Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind; From Burke to Eliot. Regnery Publishing, Inc.; Washington, 1985, p. 498

2. Alain de Benoist, Vu de Droite; Anthologie Critique des Idées Contemporaines. Labyrinthe; Paris, 1977, p. 45

3. Mircea Eliade, Dictionnaire des religions. PLON; Paris, 1990, 15.3.7

4. Interestingly, the last five verses (Or died in the arms […] no fame for him!) are an exact copy of Eumaeus the swineherd's sigh in Book 14, 17-21.

5. Homer, The Odyssey; Translated by Robert Fagles. Penguin Classics; London, 1996, p. 85

6. Homer, The Odyssey, p. 394

7. Ibid. pp. 251-3

8. Roger Scruton, Moderne Cultuur; een Gids voor Kritische Mensen (Translation of: An Intelligent Person's Guide to Modern Culture). Agora; Kampen, 2003, p. 24

9. Homer, The Odyssey, pp. 271-2

10. Ibid., p. 213

11. Ibid., p. 162

12. Sanskrit srávas, 'fame' is related to srotram, 'ear'; cf. Russian slava, 'glory' and slovo, 'word' and Latin auscultare / ascultare (aus + cult + are).

13. From a handout "Dichtersprache" by prof. dr. A.M. Lubotsky. Leiden, 2005.

14. Homer, The Odyssey, p. 471

15. Ibid., p. 195-196

16. Ibid., p. 196-197

17. Homer's Greece; Visited on 24th May 2006

18. Ibid.

19. Homer, The Odyssey, p. 367

20. Ibid., p. 382-383

21. Ibid., p. 130-131

22. Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols. Penguin Classics; London, 1990, p. 40-41

23. Homer, The Odyssey, p. 327

24. Ibid., p. 306

25. Homer's Greece; Visited on 24th May 2006

26. Homer, The Odyssey, p. 306

27. Ibid., p. 100

28. Ibid., book 3

29. Ibid., book 4

30. Ibid., book 15

31. Ibid., p. 314

32. Ibid., p. 261

33. Ibid., p. 324

34. Ibid., p. 303

35. Ovid, Metamorphoses. Penguin Classics; London, 1955, pp. 185-6

36. Homer, The Odyssey, p. 314

37. Ibid., p. 283

38. Ibid., p. 342

39. Jan de Vries, Nederlands Etymologisch Woordenboek. Brill; Leiden, 1992, p. 821

40. From a personal conversation with prof. dr. A.M. Lubotsky in October 2005

41. Alain de Benoist, Les Traditions d'Europe. Le Labyrinthe; Paris, 1996 'L'Affaire Frau Holle'.

42. Homer, The Odyssey, p. 340-1

43. Ibid. p. 435

44. Ibid. p. 235-8.

45. Ibid. p. 268-9

Literature List in alphabetic order

- De Benoist, Alain, Les Traditions d'Europe. Le Labyrinthe; Paris, 1996

- De Benoist, Alain, Vu de Droite; Anthologie Critique des Idées Contemporaines. Labyrinthe; Paris, 1977

- Eliade, Mircea, Dictionnaire des religions. PLON; Paris, 1990

- Homer, The Odyssey; Translated by Robert Fagles. Penguin Classics; London, 1996

- Kirk, Russell, The Conservative Mind; From Burke to Eliot. Regnery Publishing, Inc.; Washington, 1985

- Lubotsky, prof. dr. A.M., Handout "Dichtersprache"; Leiden, 2005

- Nietzsche, Friedrich, Twilight of the Idols. Penguin Classics; London, 1990

- Ovid, Metamorphoses. Penguin Classics; London, 1955

- Scruton, Roger, Moderne Cultuur; een Gids voor Kritische Mensen (Translation of: An Intelligent Person's Guide to Modern Culture). Agora; Kampen, 2003

- Vries, Jan de, Nederlands Etymologisch Woordenboek. Brill; Leiden, 1992

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Roepstem Table of Contents / Inhoudsopgaaf:

| The Homepage of this Web-site | Zwarte Piet is niet racistisch | Die Transvaalbuurt in Leiden; 'n Nederlandse eerbetoon aan die Boere | Veelgestelde vragen / Algemene vrae | Bestel het boek 'Zwarte Piet: discriminerend of fascinerend? - Een pleidooi voor de zwarte Zwarte Piet', door Marcel Bas | Omstreden naamsveranderingen in Zuid-Afrika | Apartheid is gelukkig al lang afgeschaft | De snelle verbreiding van Engels voor academische doeleinden (EAP) | The rapid spread of English for Academic Purposes (EAP) | De eenzame strijd van Adriaan van Dis | Ter Verdediging van Zwarte Piet | Over Orania: een Nederlandstalige verklaring | Onderhoud met Marcel Bas in tydskrif In Diepte | Identiteitspolitiek in Nederland | Bezoek aan Zuid-Afrika in 2007 | Traditionele muziek van eigen bodem en van de Afrikaners | Menno van Coehoorn en de vesting van Namen | De Vier Heemskinderen | Wallonië is deel van de Nederlanden | Virginia Woolf's class consciousness | Boekbespreking: Hermann Wirth | Engelbert Dollfuss: corporatisme in Oostenrijk | António Salazar: corporatisme in Portugal | A la recherche du sens perdu? | De noodklok luidt voor het Afrikaans | De knieval van de Mondriaan Stichting | The Meaning of Tradition in Homer's Odyssey (English) | The demise of the Scots spelling system (English) | Waarom een Hollander een (halve) Vlaming is | Vlaanderen, de Calimero van West-Europa | Het Waalse aandeel in de Opstand | Haarlem heeft een Vlaams gezicht | Zannekin Jaarboek 2005 | Turkije is geen Europees land | Tegen EU-toetreding Turkije | Invloed van Afrikaans op Zuid-Afrikaans Engels | De Reformatie in de Nederlanden | Op besoek by die Boere-Sports in Patagonië, Argentinië | De Vlaamse Beweging en de (toekomstige) Macht | Verengelsing in Nederland en Suid-Afrika | Afrikaans, die Sondebok | Leiden, een Heel-Nederlands succesverhaal | Zuiderse kijk op de Nederlanden | Nederlandse handelscompagnies (1602-1795) en verbreiding v/d Nederlandse taal en cultuur | Guillaume Groen van Prinsterer en de Scheuring van de Nederlanden | Die trotse honderdjarige gemeenskap van Afrikaners in Argentinië (1902-2002) | De Engelse Ziekte van Tijdschrift Cosmopolitan | Van der Postgastehuis in Philippolis, SA | Pieter Geyl in Zuid-Afrika | Kleurrijk en Cultuurrijk Nederland / Kleurryk en Kultuurryk Nederland | De Nederlanden in de 21ste eeuw | Bezorgde kanttekeningen bij Euro en EU | De herrijzenis van de vertrapte Afrikaner taal en cultuur | "Er zijn geen Belgen!" | Bijdragen aan De Roepstem van Stichting Taalverdediging | Frans Vlaanderen | Prof. dr Geyl: "Zuid-Afrika in Heel-Nederlands verband" | Groot-Nederland versus Heel-Nederland? | Taalverslapping is Taalverloedering | Afrikaans - Nederlandse Valse Vrienden | De Nederlanden in het Verenigd Europa | Boere-oorlog: Genl. De Wetherdenking in Nederland | ANC-cultuurimperialisme bedreigt Afrikanercultuur | Paul Kruger en zijn Volk | "Julle Nederlanders vermoor julle eie taal!" | Afrikaans-Nederlandse opmerkelijke verschillen | De twee Nederlandse Volksliederen | Die Suid-Afrikaanse Volksliedere | Die Vlaamse Volkslied; De Vlaamse Leeuw | Die Volkslied 'Die Afrikaanse Leeu' | Het Wilhelmus, volledig en oorspronkelijk | Het Surinaamse Volkslied | Deel I Discussie: Prof. P.C. Paardekooper| Deel II Discussie: Hans van Zelsts Reactie | Deel III Discussie: Reactie Van Oostrum op Van Zelst en v.v. | "Die Genootskap van Regte Afrikaners" | Introduction to Afrikaans and the discrimination it faces (English) | The united Europe as an antidote to a democratic nation-state in the ideas of F. Nietzsche (English) | Het Gehele Ingescande Boek van Edmondo de Amicis 'Holland and its People' (English) |

Hierdie artikel is gepubliseer op Vrydag 2 Junie 2006.

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