Fear of the Gods in Homer’s Odyssey

In honor of the new translation of the Odyssey by Emily Wilson we are reading, we’ve decided to post another essay on it.

Throughout the Odyssey, we encounter the customs of Greek society, but the most prominent and omnipresent custom throughout the epic is hospitality, proper host-guest relations. Homer’s Odyssey encourages fear of the gods through the use of Greek customs like hospitality; hosts are motivated to treat their guests well out of the fear and anxiety that guests could be gods because the gods will punish those who disrespect customs and them. Deeply entrenched in the Odyssey is a fear of the gods which motivates the interactions between parties and customs. In this essay, I will show how Homer’s Odyssey encourages fear of the gods by inspecting host-guest relationships and the motivations behind them, and the outcomes of what would be considered “proper” or “improper” custom practices.

Telemachus provides a reference point for the divine reinforcements behind hospitality when he treats Athena graciously as a guest: “‘Greetings, stranger! / Here in our house you’ll find a royal welcome. / Have supper first, then tell us what you need.’ / … Then he escorted her to a high, elaborate chair of honor /… But for himself / he drew up a low reclining chair beside her” (Homer, Odyssey, 1.141-156). One could imagine that had Telemachus not been hospitable towards Athena before he knew who she was, then she wouldn’t have been willing to help him. By earning Athena’s good favor, Telemachus is assisted by her throughout his journey to acquire information on his father and defeat the suitors, the guests who are exploiting his resources.

Image result for telemachus
King Nestor, is a quintessential indicator of proper host-guest relations and the possibility of hosting a disguised god when he receives Telemachus, his crew, and Athena who is disguised as Mentor. Nestor, along with his sons and friends, welcome them to a feast without knowing their identities and offers them a place to “slumber soft in comfort” (Homer, Odyssey, ​3.394). Afterward, Athena reveals herself as a goddess which astonishes Nestor who immediately offers his praise, which Athena receives warmly, illustrating the importance of hospitality lest the guest be a god (Homer, Odyssey, ​3. 40-420). Nestor welcomes his guests openly, regardless of their identity, and the outcome turns out to be in his favor. Both Telemachus and Nestor’s interactions with Athena model why hospitality is crucial in host-guest relations, one can never be certain who their guest is, so in order to avoid the wrath of a god, assume your guest is a god. This is the reasoning behind such a custom; they are afraid of the gods.

Though the Phaeacians were unfortunately caught in the middle of Poseidon’s anger at Odysseus, King Alcinous and his household represent the anxiety and fear of the gods behind hosting guests. After Odysseus randomly appears at the feet of the Queen, King Alcinous’s herald warns that they aren’t treating their guest properly by leaving him pleading at the Queen’s feet. After feeding their unidentified guest, Alcinous anxiously asks Odysseus if he is a god, which Odysseus replies that he is “nothing like the immortal gods… / [he is] just a mortal man” (Homer, Odyssey, 7.245-246). Because Odysseus materialized unexplained at the feet of the Queen, the Phaeacians feared that Odysseus could possibly be a god whom they just hesitated to host properly, fearing punishment. While the Phaeacians acted hospitable toward Odysseus, they inadvertently invoked the wrath of Poseidon by caring for the wrong person at the wrong time, encouraging fear of the gods’ arbitrary power. Even though one may follow the customs, unforeseeable wrath is still a cause for concern.

 

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Poseidon’s wrath toward the Phaeacians was a result of his grievance against Odysseus because of the altercation between Odysseus and Polyphemus, Poseidon’s son. Both Odysseus and Polyphemus acted as a bad guest and a bad host, respectively, and were subsequently punished. While it’s not stated whether Odysseus’s unwarranted entrance of Polyphemus’s cave and consumption of his cheese is inappropriate (presumably it is), Odysseus and his crew operated on the assumption they would reap gifts and hospitality. Upon seeing Odysseus and his men, Polyphemus accuses them of being pirates who seek to “plunder other men” (Homer, Odyssey, 9.287), but Odysseus begs for his hospitality: “we’re at your knees / in hopes of a warm welcome… / … That’s the custom. / Respect the gods, my friend … / Zeus of the Strangers guards all guests and suppliants: / strangers are sacred — Zeus will avenge their rights!” (Homer, Odyssey, 9.300-305). The implication of Odysseus’s statement is that the custom is not just by and for humans, but is respected and dictated by the gods, so an act of inhospitality is an act of defiance toward them, which Zeus will adjudicate punishment for. Polyphemus replies that Odysseus is a fool for “telling [him] to fear the gods or avoid their wrath” and that he would “never spare [Odysseus] in fear of Zeus’s hatred” (Homer, ​Odyssey​, 9. 308-312). As a result, Polyphemus eats some of Odysseus’s men which leads to a violent escape where the men blind him with a stick. Zeus actually praises “Great Odysseus” for his violent acts against the non god-fearing, custom-breaching cyclops, calling him one “who excels all men in wisdom” and that it is not Zeus who causes Odysseus troubles, but “the Earth-Shaker, Poseidon, unappeased, / forever fuming against him for the Cyclops” (Homer, ​Odyssey​, 1.79-81). This quote displays Zeus’s approval of Odysseus’s response to an unwelcoming host that didn’t fear the gods properly, giving the reader a direction to also fear the gods.

The least proper guests of the Odyssey are the suitors, who siphon the wealth of Telemachus by sheer strength in numbers because his mother refuses to remarry. Not only do they have no regard for their hosts, but they also disrespect the guests of their hosts. Telemachus brings Odysseus back as a guest to the palace while Odysseus is disguised as a beggar, and the suitors disrespect Odysseus, which also illustrates the disrespect they hold for Telemachus. At one point Antinous refuses to give Odysseus any food, and after Odysseus reprimands him for his greed, Antinous throws a stool at him. Recognizing that Antinous went too far, the other suitors panic over the maltreatment of the guest, wondering what would come if it was a god: “that was a crime, to strike the luckless beggar! / Your fate is sealed if he’s some god from the blue. / And the gods do take on the look of strangers… / Disguised in every way… /watching over us” (Homer, ​Odyssey​, 17.533-537). The suitors are clearly fearful and worried that Odysseus may be a god, because Antinous may have just invoked his wrath. The suitors are aware that they’ve disrespected the custom of the gods, and like Polyphemus, violence is used against them for dishonoring sacred relations. Their fear is warranted especially because this time, the gods not only approve of their slaughter but actively see it through. Athena encourages Odysseus into battle against the suitors, defends him from a volley of arrows,Image result for suitors and displays her aegis which sends the suitors into a panic, leading to Odysseus’s and Telemachus’s slaughter of the suitors (Homer, ​Odyssey​, 22). In the Underworld, a suitor named Amphimedon recounts their deaths, where he blames the wrath of the gods for his misfortune: “[b]ut once the will of thundering Zeus had roused his blood” Odysseus and Telemachus were fated to carry out their plan, nothing could escape the will of the gods (Homer, ​Odyssey​, 24.181). It is precisely because Odysseus was favored by the gods that he was able to overcome and defeat the suitors, displaying the gods’ magnificent power to affect the lives of men.

While King Menelaus recounted a story to Telemachus during Telemachus’s visit to Sparta, he described that he was stranded on the island of Pharos after the Trojan War because he “must have angered one of those deathless gods” (Homer, Odyssey, 4.422). When Menelaus ambushed Proteus, the god native to the island, Proteus revealed that Menelaus became stranded due to a mistake in customary practice, an improper sacrifice: “You should have offered Zeus and the other gods / a handsome sacrifice ​then​ embarked” (Homer, Odyssey, 4. 530-531). The episode described by Menelaus is an alarming display of arbitrary power that strikes shock and fear into the reader, because even an improper sacrifice is enough to anger the gods, resulting in Menelaus’s misfortune.

Homer’s Odyssey cultivates a fear of the gods by showing the depth with which gods can be involved in the life of a human, even shaping the very customs of their society. The repercussions of not fearing the gods, or disrespecting the customs dictated by them, are displayed throughout various episodes during the epic. The message is clear: do not incur the wrath of the gods and be especially wary during social interactions like host-guest relations because one may unknowingly interact with a god. It is the will of the gods that ultimately dictate the future of many of the characters throughout the Odyssey, and punishments are often adjudicated on the basis of their reverence toward and fear of the gods, and obedience of customs.

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