Brian Chi Kit, LO
WL 100 Introduction to World Literature
20 February 2017
Violence's Function in the Defense of Reputation, Revenge and Protection of Possessions
in Homer’s Odyssey
Homer’s epic “Odyssey” is a challenging classical literary work that deals with the function of violence in the realm of ancient Ithaca. Gratuitous amount of violence is peppered throughout the poem, some are between mortals but some are between gods and his subjects. While the modern reader may find the detailed description of violence to be grotesque and excessive, this essay argues that violence in the Homeric world serves three functions. Firstly, violence is employed by individuals to defend their reputation. Secondly, violence is used as a tool to exact revenge against those who have done you wrong. Lastly, due to the social Darwinian nature of the Ithacan society, violence is often needed defend one’s “property” from intrusion and exploits.
Through Poseidon’s divine condemnation of the Phaeacians, the poem demonstrates violence’s value to the gods in defending their reputation among mortals and gods alike. The Phaeacians, per their tradition of returning wayfarers to their homelands provides Odysseus with their finest ship loaded with boundless gifts. Poseidon realizing the fact, laments to Zeus, “Father, I will lose all my honor now among the immortals, now there are mortal men who show me no respect” (13:146-148). In aiding Odysseus’s return, such an act represents a defiance of Poseidon’s will to make him suffer long and hard before he makes it home. While Zeus shows much affection towards Odysseus, his affection does not extend to the Phaeacians who damages the reputation of the gods. To Poseidon, Zeus replies “If any man, so lost in his strength and prowess, pays you no respect - just pay him back…...do what you like. Whatever warms your heart” (11:162-165). Zeus’s provision of carte blanche to Poseidon, to do with the Phaeacians as he sees fit demonstrates that employment of divine violence in protection of divine reputation is not unusual in the Homeric world, in fact it is an act that is endorsed by the ultimate authority Zeus himself. Following Poseidon’s sinking of a Phaeacians ship upon its return and piling huge mountains around the island home of the Phaeacians - Scheria. The Phaeacians quickly complies with his will, henceforth stopping all convoys homeward bound for every castaway. Furthermore, the Phaeacians immediately offered twelve bulls as sacrifice to Poseidon, hoping for Poseidon’s pity that he shall pile no looming mountain ridge around their ports. The reaction of the Phaeacians following Poseidon’s divine violence shows how violence’s function as a mean for the gods to maintain their reputation and ensure obedience among his subjects.
From Odysseus’s boastful attitude when he is sharing tales of his conquests with the Phaeacians, the poem made it clear that violence in the form of a successful conquest is seen as something that positively contributes to a leader’s reputation in the world of Odysseus. Following their victory at the city of Troy, Odysseus ships are driven to Ismarus - the stronghold of the Cicones. At Ismarus, Odysseus and his men dispensed the defenders with ease and proceed to sack the city, killing the men, enslaving their wives and plunders the city for its treasures. Odysseus even goes so far as to claim that for his warcraft, his fame has “reached the skies” (9:22). The assault on Ismarus without provocation may seem barbaric to the modern readers but in the ancient Ithacan society where marauding is a legit profession, the tales of successful conquest is one that lends fame and glory to the leaders of nation. Odysseus’s vainful boasting and detailed descriptions of the brutality his men done upon Ismarus, the pillaging and assumed rape that occurs, shows that in the Homeric world violence under certain circumstances serves the function of building renown not just in the realm of the gods but also among the mortals.
The function of violence in vengeance is made clear in Odysseus’ slaying his disloyal servants and Penelope’s suitor hordes. Odysseus while disguised as an old beggar, persevered against beratement and assaults by Antinous - the leader of the suitors, Melanthius’s insults, disloyal maidservants who sneak off to be with the suitors, servants who violate the tradition of hospitality, etc. Odysseus’s vengeance comes in the midst of Penelope’s challenge, where all those who have wronged him die a death on “equal magnitude” in gruesomeness to the wrong they have done. (Book 22) The leader Antinous dies an undignified death with an arrow through the throat, the sweet talking Eurymachus dies with an arrow to the liver, while the relatively good and Penelope's favourite Amphinomus dies a swift death by decapitation. The correlations of gruesomeness with their crimes and the wrong done upon Odysseus suggests there is a method to Odysseus's violence. It suggests that the goal of the bloodshed is to ensure those who has wronged him pay adequately for their crimes. Such an element is made unequivocal in the scene where Eurymachus attempts to bargain his way out of certain doom, Eurymachus plea to recoup the financial cost to Odysseus during their stay “with a tax laid down upon the land, covering all we ate and drank inside your hall.” (22:57-59). However, Odysseus rejects Eurymachus’ offer and proclaims that even if they pour in all the wealth from the world’s end, he will not rest until the suitors had “paid for all your crimes” (22: 68) with their lives. Therefore, through connecting the wrongs each individual slain by Odysseus and their death’s level of gruesomeness, the poem demonstrates the function of violence in vengeance and ensuring justice in the Homeric world is served.
Some may argue although the individuals slain by Odysseus have done him wrong, death as punishment for their deeds seems excessively violent. However, it is essential to understand the historical context of the poem. Throughout the poem there is no mentioning of the law enforcement in the form that is familiar to the modern readers, instead the burden of justice falls upon the victims themselves. Old lord Eupeithes - father of Antinous plead with his fellow Ithacans to exact revenge upon Odysseus who slayed their sons and daughters, asking the crowd to “attack, before the assassins cross the sea and leave us in their wake” (24:483-484). This suggests the notion of “law and order” in the Ithacan society exists as a form of mob justice, of which violence serves as an instrument of justice and a deterrent against intrusion against the individual and one’s family.
The notion of violence as a defender of possessions in the world of The Odyssey is also introduced by the poem but its form may not be familiar to the modern reader. After all of Penelope’s suitors has been slain, herald Medon plead for his life, for Telemachus and his father to not kill him with their swords. Odysseus smiles cannily, sparing Medon’s life and instructs him to wait outside the halls while he tends to “some household chores that call for my attention” (22:400-401). The “household chores” Odysseus mentions is the hanging of the maidservants who are identified by Eurycleia as “the suitors’ whores” (22:490). To the modern reader, Odysseus referring to the killing of his maidservants as “household chores” may seem misogynistic and dehumanizing. However, we must bear in mind the historical context of the poem. Many of the people whom Odysseus expects loyalty from are seen as his property, including his wife and his servants. Therefore, while the act of murdering disloyal servants is unjustifiable in the modern world, in the world of The Odyssey violence is merely a method to ensure loyalty among a man’s “possessions.
Homer’s The Odyssey serves as a portal into the ancient world of which we can understand the social Darwinian nature of society prior to the invention of modern law-and- order. The violent imagery throughout the poem suggests that the Ithacan society is one ruled by strength of which while the gods will aid the just in their warpath, ultimately justice must be delivered by the mortals themselves and often times violence becomes a necessary instrument. Violence, let it be in the form of threats of public reprisal or in its extreme - public executions, violence serves as a method for individuals to protect one’s reputation, to ensure wrongdoers are brought to justice and to ensure individual liberties such as “property rights” are not infringed upon. The poem’s violent depiction of archaic justice leaves a lasting image in the mind of modern readers. A further study might consider how, for example, the historical context of justice in the Ithacan society is tied to the complicated history of ideas about justice and punishment.
Homer, Robert Fagles, and Bernard Knox. T he Odyssey. New York: Penguin Books, 1997. Print.