The meaning of Tradition in
Glorious imperatives in Homeric
By Marcel Bas
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
paraisse à nos yeux de modernes, n'est en aucune manière
société primitive. A l'éclat de la civilisation matérielle
et de l 'art,
dont témoignent notamment les vases d'or ciselés de Vaphio
de Dendra, se joint déjà un grand raffinement de
- 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
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 with a vengeance
wiped that man from the earth like no one else
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
But now the whirlwinds have ripped him away, no fame for
[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.
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
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
"But first the ghost of Elpenor, my companion, came
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
your wife, your father who bred and reared you as a
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."
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
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
Heaping his grave-mound, hauling a stone that coped it
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
Dying in battle is a noble act. Being a great winner
dying lonely at sea is, according to Odysseus, humiliating and
"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
Swarms of them, hurled at me with bronze
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: śrávas. 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 śrávas ákṣitam , 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
But if you'd laid eyes on these it would have thrilled
Magnificent trophies the goddess, glistening-footed
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
He's no mean man, not with a build like that
Look at his thighs, his legs, and what a pair of
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
"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.
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,
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:
- Build (strong, athletic body)
- Brain (intelligence)
- Flowing speech (eloquence)
- Looks, beauty, charm
- 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
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
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
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,
Nietzsche detects in an ugly person, such as Socrates, the onset of the demise of
"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!'"
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
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)
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
"'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
"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
Once they'd prayed, slaughtered and skinned the
They cut the thighbones out, they wrapped them around in
A double fold sliced clean and topped with strips of
And since they had no wine to anoint the glowing
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
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
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
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
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!"
[Book 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
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.'
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
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
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,
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
1. Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind; From Burke to
Eliot. Regnery Publishing, Inc.; Washington, 1985, p.
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
The Odyssey, p.
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
10. Ibid., p. 213
11. Ibid., p. 162
12. Sanskrit śrávas, 'fame' is related to
srotram, 'ear'; cf. Russian slava, 'glory' and
slovo, 'word' and Latin auscultare / ascultare (aus + cult + are).
Ultimately, these words are cognates of Germanic words such as Eng. listen and loud.
13. From a handout "Dichtersprache" by prof. dr. A.M. Lubotsky.
14. Homer, The Odyssey, p. 471
15. Ibid., p. 195-196
16. Ibid., p. 196-197
17. Homer's Greece; http://library.thinkquest.org/19300/data/homersgreece.htm.
Visited on 24th May 2006
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; http://library.thinkquest.org/19300/data/homersgreece.htm.
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,
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
- Benoist, Alain de, Les Traditions
d'Europe. Le Labyrinthe; Paris, 1996
- Benoist, Alain de, Vu
de Droite; Anthologie Critique des Idées Contemporaines. Labyrinthe;
- 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.;
- 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
Hierdie opstel is gepubliseer op Vrydag 2 Junie
This essay was published on Friday 2 June 2006.