The Odyssey, written around 800 BCE near the Greek inhabited seaboard of Turkey, is regarded as one of the greatest, far reaching texts ever written, its influence felt from the Renaissance to the present day. A consolidation of thousands of lines written in Homer’s distinctive dactylic hexameter, the text was initially composed as an oral piece, deeply illustrating the way in which Greek society was personal and interconnected, vividly experienced through the word of mouth. While the story’s central plot follows Odysseus’ journey home following the devastation of Troy, the epic is brimming with an abundance of iconic characters: from the cunning and protective Athena, to the respectful and charming Nestor. In this way, The Odyssey presents an unparalleled opportunity to learn about the Ancient Greek society in which the text was situated.
All translations however, by their very nature pose an insurmountable obstacle, that because the modern cultures and languages driving our societies today are so far removed from those of the Greeks thousands of years ago, regardless of how meticulous our interpretation of the text’s underpinning themes are, any one of our contentions is tentative. But an even more formidable barrier to historical analysis is rooted in The Odyssey’s oral composition, that since much of the text has been loosely passed across generations, no single iteration can truly encapsulate the sociopolitical environment of its time; instead, the epic’s malleability and continuous reinvention directs our attention to the trajectory of Greek values as they developed over centuries. Nonetheless, in this paper I will discuss significant motifs present at the very crux of The Odyssey: attitudes towards the afterlife, gods and disguises, and the agency of women. In doing so, I will — in spite of its omnipresent challenges — dissect the social organization of Ancient Greece from 1200 to 800 BCE.
While the Egyptians regarded death as a transitional journey to the afterlife, guided by their virtue and the Egyptian Book of the Dead, and the Mesopotamians viewed it as the ultimate finality of human existence, Odysseus’s journey into the Underworld is fascinatingly paradoxical, a rare instant in which the living and dead are inextricably unified. While the Underworld is without a doubt geographically distant from the living world, impregnable even by the rays of Helios, Odysseus’ travels there highlight the bilateral relationship between the living and the dead — that just as conceptions of death and mortality systematically influence human behavior, these very actions could in turn impact the Underworld from which they were motivated. Homer’s distinctive afterlife then, highlights the complexity of life and death — that while they are deeply interconnected, they also have fundamental differences. As the living are characterized by strength and cunning, where the pursuit of intelligence reigns supreme, the dead are instead presented as intangible shadows swaying at the will of the gods. Surviving as shades, whose “sinews no longer hold flesh and bone together” they are in and of themselves inconsequential; but where they find their value is in imploring the gods to do their bidding for them, indirectly affecting the world they once called home.
In addition to shaping Greek traditions and social customs, divine entities are presented in the text as largely concerned with the integrity of human behavior. Through introducing the theme of hospitality within the epic — the expectation that hosts should shower their guests with kindness and warmth — Homer characterizes ethical conduct as conditioned rather than inherent, predicated on the idea that one’s guest may very well be a god in disguise, disciplining their host if dishonored. Moreover, The Odyssey echoes sentiments from the “Allegory of the Cave,” that humans in their natural state are far from perfection — that only education, philosophy, introspection, and divine intervention can tear them away from their primitiveness. Yet, it is equally critical to understand that, just as the fear of being punished by otherworldly entities deterred immoral behavior in Greek society, good deeds were simultaneously incentivized. For example, Nestor’s graciousness throughout the epic, in providing the disguised Athena and Telemachus his home in which to eat and unwind, is heavily rewarded. In this way, the text subtly argues that since no one can be certain of their guest’s divinity, it is of paramount importance to treat all people with dignity and respect. Otherwise, by imposing one’s own selfish desires — ignoring the forewarnings of the gods, slaughtering Helios’ cattle, murdering Agamemnon and marrying Clytemnestra, etc. — one might meet an early fate. While these superstitions illustrate the large degree to which the fears of divine intervention governed the conventions of Greek society, having close and meaningful relationships with gods could also enhance “[one’s] status as [a] hero, serving as an index of their value.
Lastly, The Odyssey’s negative representations of women unfortunately provide the most historically accurate insight into Greek society. While the epic contains a variety of anachronistic details due to the dubious credibility of all orally disseminated texts, the role of women as temptresses and witches is undoubtedly consistent with the pervasive misogyny of Greek society in the period. Accordingly, in almost all major, female-dominated instances within The Odyssey — the sirens tempting Odysseus, Circe transforming the crew into pigs, Calypso trapping and begging Odysseus to stay — all of them highlight two unequivocal truths. Firstly, women were vastly constrained in Ancient Greece, living as subordinates within the family unit. Secondly, the metric by which the power of women was analyzed stood not in their own actions, intentions, heroism, and merit; instead, it lay in their ability to seduce men, to raise children — nothing to do with the power within them, and everything to do with those who exploited them. The ideal woman was not primarily considered for her intelligence and friendliness. Instead, as Penelope so clearly displayed, she was to be beautiful, chaste, and unconditionally loyal, picked solely “for the supply of men’s everyday wants.”
It is through these distinct yet interwoven themes that we come to understand Greek society as illusory. Below the gilded opulence of its political and intellectual achievements, its obsession with ethics and propriety, lays the rotting stench of slavery, misogyny, and injustice. It was a land of both democracy and inequality, reason and superstition. A land of gods and mortals, the living and the dead. A land of men and women, the privileged and the unprotected. The physical manifestation of contradiction, its social organization has captivated humanity throughout the ages, representing both the best and worst that humanity has to offer.