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morality in The Odyssey

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Penelope and her suitors

I recently read The Odyssey for the first time since high school days, in Lawrence of Arabia’s lively translation [and I can only hope it’s an accurate one]. I was, for some reason, a little surprised at how much I enjoyed it.

I found myself focusing on two particular and related aspects of the work, its religion [if we can call it that – but that’s only because I’m accustomed to such a different religion in Christianity] and its morality. This focus is obviously due to my own preoccupations of late, and my reading of this post in Butterflies and Wheels has tipped me towards exploring the moral landscape in this tale, one of the earliest in our history. I’m also interested in making some comparisons between it and the oldest parts of the Old Testament, written at about the same time [or at least so it was thought – most modern scholars have brought the writing dates forward].

We don’t really know who ‘wrote’ The Odyssey. It’s attributed to Homer of course, and, as a sequel of sorts to The Iliad, is considered the second extant work of Western literature. I put ‘wrote’ in perverted commas because the work was quite possibly not written down until much later than it was composed, and it would be better, perhaps, to describe its author as anonymous. Lawrence’s translation, like most modern ones, was in prose, but the original was composed to be sung, most probably, in dactylic hexameter. It was the product of a highly sophisticated oral culture. The pluses and minuses associated with the transformation of that culture into the literary culture of Sophocles, Plato and Aristotle, is described in fascinating style, through the transitional figure of Socrates, in chapter 3 of Proust and the Squid, by the neurologist and linguist Maryanne Wolf.

As a product of an oral culture, The Odyssey may have been honed and refined by various ‘authors’, or singers [we know they were called rhapsodes by the fourth or fifth centuries BCE] over generations, creating a kind of blended song or poem out of many contributions. Compare the Pentateuch, also anonymously written [unless you accept that it was written by the god called God], but much more the product of a scribal culture, so that particular authors [the Elohist, the Deuteronomist, the Priestley source, etc] have left the marks of their particular personalities. Even so, these two works display some marked similarities of moral outlook – though there are also some intriguing differences.

It’s a moral outlook that has been described as ‘tribal’ – though that term could do with some analysis. Certainly the major moral theme in The Odyssey is the restoration of honour. In achieving that restoration, a certain amount of what we might call ‘collateral damage’ is caused, though that’s not how it’s seen by the likes of Odysseus, Telemachus and their helpful goddess, Athena. This particular passage rather struck me:

…Odysseus called to Telemachus, to the stockman and to the swineherd, saying with energy, ‘Start to clear away the dead, making the women do the work; and then swill down the rich seats and tables with water and fibrous sponges. Afterwards, when you have restored the whole house to order, take these servants outside the stately hall to that spot between the round vault and the courtyard’s strong boundary wall and there slaughter them with your long swords till the last life is spent and their love-passages with the suitors are wholly out of mind.’

So he bade them, and the erring women trailed in, all huddled together and crying great bitter tears of woe. first they bore out the dead and laid them in heaps along the portico of the walled court – Odysseus directing that work himself, and driving them, for it took force to make them do it – and then they cleaned down the noble thrones and tables with water and soft sponges, while Telemachus with the swineherd and cattle-man scraped down the floor of the strong house with hoes, the maids carrying for them to a dump out of doors. When the house was tidy they led the women servants beyond the great hall and penned them in that blind place between vault and boundary wall, whence escape was impossible; and then Telemachus began to speak thoughtfully. ‘It irks me,’ he said, ‘to give any sort of clean death to women who have heaped shame on my head and my mother’s, and have wantoned with the suitors.’ That was what he said. He made fast a dark-prowed ship’s hawser to a pillar and strained it round the great spiral of the vault, at too great a height for anyone to touch the floor with her feet. Sometimes in a shrubbery men so stretch out nets, upon which long-winged thrushes or doves alight on their way to roost: and fatal the perch proves. Exactly thus were the women’s heads all held a-row with a bight of cord drawn round each throat, to suffer their caitiff’s death. A little while they twittered with their feet – only a little. It was not long.

A modern reader surely contemplates with horror Telemachus’s ‘thoughtful’ reflections here, and the actions attendant upon them. Not that this sort of reasoning doesn’t occur today of course. I read yesterday of two separate incidents in which young women were strangled to death by their own mothers, because, as Moslems, they had run off with and married Hindu men. They had returned to their family homes to ask forgiveness. Presumably the mothers felt, like Telemachus, that so much shame brought upon a household demanded the ultimate penalty.

Hard to know what to make of this deadly obsession with shame and dishonour, and the way that ‘morality’ was built around this obsession, in earlier times and in, to me at least, obscure places. We can’t just dismiss this and other tales in ancient Greek mythology as ‘adventure stories’. The Odyssey and The Iliad  were the sacred texts of the era, and Homer the fount of much, if not all, wisdom [though occasionally derided by the more philosophical]. I note also the discomforting mixture of poesy and cruelty – the women’s feet twittering like thrushes. You get lulled into the sense that Telemachus and co think and feel just like us. Similarly, those honour-driven Moslem women might be the most hospitable hosts, with the most poetic temperaments, when the situation demands.

The Old Testament texts, though by and large less poetic, also describe fairly indiscriminate slaughter. It’s worth looking at justifications. To compare like with like, the slaughter of the Kikonians of Ismara, in book 9 of The Odyssey, is carried out for the usual reasons of war – wealth, plunder, and the carrying off of women for sex and slavery. Odysseus and his men don’t need the consent of any gods for doing what comes naturally. Compare the notorious slaughter of the Midianites in Numbers:

 The LORD said to Moses, “Take vengeance on the Midianites for the Israelites. After that, you will be gathered to your people.”

So Moses said to the people, “Arm some of your men to go to war against the Midianites so that they may carry out the LORD’s vengeance on them. Send into battle a thousand men from each of the tribes of Israel.” So twelve thousand men armed for battle, a thousand from each tribe, were supplied from the clans of Israel. Moses sent them into battle, a thousand from each tribe, along with Phinehas son of Eleazar, the priest, who took with him articles from the sanctuary and the trumpets for signaling.

They fought against Midian, as the LORD commanded Moses, and killed every man. Among their victims were Evi, Rekem, Zur, Hur and Reba—the five kings of Midian. They also killed Balaam son of Beor with the sword. The Israelites captured the Midianite women and children and took all the Midianite herds, flocks and goods as plunder. They burned all the towns where the Midianites had settled, as well as all their camps. They took all the plunder and spoils, including the people and animals, and brought the captives, spoils and plunder to Moses and Eleazar the priest and the Israelite assembly at their camp on the plains of Moab, by the Jordan across from Jericho.

Moses, Eleazar the priest and all the leaders of the community went to meet them outside the camp. Moses was angry with the officers of the army—the commanders of thousands and commanders of hundreds—who returned from the battle.

“Have you allowed all the women to live?” he asked them. “They were the ones who followed Balaam’s advice and enticed the Israelites to be unfaithful to the LORD in the Peor incident, so that a plague struck the LORD’s people. Now kill all the boys. And kill every woman who has slept with a man, but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man [Num 31 1-18, New International Version].

Not surprisingly, this passage has provoked endless discussion amongst Christian apologists. Some argue that, because their god appears only at the head of the passage requesting an unspecified vengeance [notwithstanding verse 7], the blame for the cruelties should be heaped upon Moses, but all this is beside the point. In this world, the treatment of the Midianites requires no more justification than that of the Kikonians. They are the enemy, and thus completely outside of humane consideration.

It may well be that, in the early Graeco-Roman world, respect for Homer and the ‘heroic age’ Of Odysseus and Achilles mirrored respect for the ‘writings of Moses’ in the world of Judaism, but over time Graeco-Roman civilization become more open and exploratory – notions of honour and virtue were subjected to scrutiny and transmutation by the likes of Plato. As to why philosophy and cultural analysis in the form of the great histories and plays developed so intensively among the Greeks of a certain period, that’s a question beyond the means of this little essay. The result, in any case, is that Homer’s works came to be historicised, given their circumscribed place, much more quickly than the writings once attributed to Moses. Much of this may be due to the less central position occupied by the Homeric gods. Invoking gods always involves invoking eternality. The protector of the Israelites in Numbers and Joshua still protects the Jews today, whereas Homer’s heroes were ‘like that back then’. The Graeco-Roman gods of the time of Plato and beyond  are less visible because the age of heroes has receded. Also, those gods didn’t identify with a particular ‘nation’, and indeed argued among themselves about just who to identify with and protect. It follows from their dissension that they couldn’t be an inviolable source of human morality.

The real source of morality, though, in the time of Homer and the early Biblical writers, was in-group survival and prestige [as it still is in many parts of the world today]. The idea that a large and prestigious household’s female servants should be obliged to suffer an ‘unclean’ death because they chose to ‘wanton’ with suitors to the hand of the lady of the estate, whose husband had been absent for the best part of twenty years, seems grotesque enough to us, but the story hardly presents these women as more than the thrushes and doves they’re compared to. Prestige here is about the proper place of power, the proper order of things – it just isn’t concerned with individual needs and desires. Plato’s later proposal for a republic doesn’t fare much better, morally, on a modern view. What is perhaps more interesting about The Odyssey is that, through the writing, through the closer focus, we are given a glimpse of a more modern way of seeing things. The final ‘twitterings’ of the feet of the suffering maidservants enlists our sympathy, even if only glancingly, in a way that the slaughter of the Midianites doesn’t. For this reason The Odyssey, in spite of its sometimes shocking preoccupations, seems closer to us, on a moral level, than does much of the Old Testament.

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Written by stewart henderson

May 22, 2011 at 11:50 am

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses

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  1. Nice post.

    Ophelia Benson

    May 23, 2011 at 2:51 am


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