Social Structure in Homer’s Odyssey
Social Structure in Homer’s Odyssey
Homer’s epic, ‘The Odyssey’, is a lengthy poem that recounts the Trojan war hero, Odysseus’ arduous and protracted journey home to Ithaca. In it, Homer accentuates the somewhat feudal nature of his world, a societal structure that far more resembles his own than that which actually existed in Mycenaean Greece, less to supplement the story, but rather to serve as the primary focus. Despite the feudal qualities of the world that Homer relates, the poem is almost entirely devoid of class conscious thinking. Instead, the primary source of structure comes from the household.
The ‘Odyssey’ serves as something of a champion for the oixos (Ancient Greek for the household as an entity) mentality, particularly in the face of threats of dissolution. By reading the poem in the context previously discussed, that is in the context of a people acting in the interest of a stable structure within the household rather than much concern for the political climate. This gives the characters in the story, Telemachus, Penelope, and the suiters, for instance, a clearly discernible purpose in the action. Each of them is vying to expand upon their household, in some capacity or another.
Telemachus and Penelope are unable to defend or increase the providence of their household until they first restore its stability. Telemachus, though acquiring much wealth throughout the poem, has no use for it, and cannot have a use for it until the stability of the house of Odysseus is renewed and strengthened. The suiters however, coming from stable households, are free to seek to further their household in terms of wealth. At the beginning of the poem, Odysseus’ son, Telemachus has one goal. That is to restore order and oixos by asserting himself and taking his father’s role.
He is, however, ill equipped to take on this role, lacking the temerity. The now downtrodden Telemachus, has a story arc that somewhat parallels that of his father. In a quest to locate his father, or at least to find definitive answers regarding his father’s fate, so that he may either have structure restored by means of his father’s return or upon news of his father’s death, by means of inheriting his father’s role in the household, Telemachus undertakes an expedition. The journey’s first leg brings him to Pylos, to visit a friend of his father, Nestor. He accumulates a multitude of gifts.
Again he travels, this time to Sparta, and again is showered in gifts. By the end of his journey he has accumulated a substantial amount of wealth, a fact which fails to give him either satisfaction or any semblance of power in his household. This is because his role in the household is not yet as chief or as breadwinner. His winnings mean nothing without a household to support. Telemachus must first rectify his primary flaw, that is his inability to protect his household, that he may then bring his household to greatness. One of the most harshly judged characters in the poem, despite her innocence, is Penelope.
She is judged by the suiters for stringing them along and her prolonged indecision. She is judged by her household for catering to the suiters and, so far as they know, potentially betraying Odysseus’ trust. She is, however, acting entirely out of necessity, and in pursuit of some semblance of the traditional notion of oixos. The action that the suiters bore the most issue with, was Penelope’s calculated unravelling of the fabric out of which she would make her wedding gown. Daily, Penelope would weave her golden fabric, perfect row after perfect row.
Nightly, Penelope would unravel these stitches, a practice that went on long until she was betrayed by a handmaid. This action is entirely justified by the context discussed at the beginning of this paper. A woman, desperate for the stability that the return of her husband would bring, but acknowledging of the fact that that scenario, though ideal, is unlikely, and knowing that in the event her husband were to be declared lost, she would either need to choose a suitor, or live as a burden on her son, Penelope chooses indecision. Her act of defiance against, really her weapon against the threats to her already crumbling household, is time.
The suitors that swarm Odysseys’ house in the hopes that they may acquire her hand in marriage. They are a rowdy, arrogant, and decidedly unpleasant bunch, made only worse by their complete lack of concern for Odysseus and his household. But their incessant pursuit of their prize, though what ultimately condemns them, is, by the context already noted, justified. Though they are the primary antagonists in the story, and they certainly suffer the harshest fate (perhaps except for the sailors), amongst their ranks were some perfect decent, well-natured men.
It is simply a natural response (in the context of his culture) for a man, Odysseus in this case, to take revenge upon men, whether they be justified in their actions or not or whether they are well-natured or not, who threaten the stability of his household. This is despite the fact that he himself has been the aggressor at many times. Had he been killed in that pursuit, it would have only been considered natural, and so it is natural that the suitors were killed in theirs. The suitors thought, through a successful marriage to a beautiful woman from a wealthy family, they would be able to further their household in terms of success.
A notion that, in the world Homer portrays, is not entirely fanciful. What the justifications for characters’ actions are tell us various things, but the most important of which is that the person who penned the piece of literature, in this case Homer, was specifically recognizing one element of the world they describe, which in this case is the social structure. Homer chose to recognize oixos, because it was a structural societal element for which he was perhaps nostalgic. The story of Odysseus had been told many times and in many ways, but none so distinctive, nor so lasting as Homer’s The ‘Odyssey’.
This is because he chose to place the social structure in the purported time of Odysseus, in the governmental structure of his own time, perhaps a testament to his own wishes for his present. This devotion to tradition, in the case of Homer, to oixos, is something that most people, in most cultures, can understand, and with which they can relate. Most readers can justify Odysseus’ actions, because they feel empathetic towards him. He does, of course, take it to an extreme with with they average person cannot relate, but the desire to protect their own roles in life.
University/College: University of Arkansas System
Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter
Date: 4 October 2016
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