Study Guide

The Odyssey Family

By Homer

Family

Book 2
Telemachos

(Telemachos:) 'For my mother, against her will, is beset by suitors, own sons to the men who are greatest hereabouts. These shrink from making the journey to the house of her father Ikarios, so that he might take bride gifts for his daughter and bestow her on the one he wished, who came as his favorite; rather, all their days, they come and loiter in our house and sacrifice our oxen and our sheep and our fat goats and make a holiday feast of it and drink the bright wine recklessly. Most of our substance is wasted.' (2.50-58)

The problem isn't just that the suitors aren't eating up all of Odysseus' goats; it's also that they haven't done the right thing by approaching Penelope's dad. They're totally ignoring the proper family structure—just one more reason they're in for a bloody demise.

Book 4
Menelaos

(Menelaos:) ‘[…] and sitting well in order we dashed the oars in the gray sea, back to where Egypt is, the sky-falled river, and there I stranded my ships, and there I rendered complete hecatombs. But when I had ended the anger of the gods, who are everlasting, I piled a mound for Agamemnon, so that his memory might never die. I did this, and set sail, and the immortals gave me a wind, so brought me back to my own dear country with all speed.’ (4.580-587)

Menelaos shows respect for his kin by honoring his murdered brother with a proper burial mound.

(Menelaos:) 'Dear friend, since you have said all that a man who is thoughtful could say or do, even one who was older than you are— why, this is the way your father is, so you too speak thoughtfully. Easily recognized is the line of that man, for whom Kronos' son weaves good fortune in his marrying and begetting, as now he has given to Nestor, all his days, for himself to grow old prosperously in his own palace, and also that his sons should be clever and excellent in the spear's work.' (4.204-212)

What more could a proud father ask for than sons who are good at throwing a spear? Well, if you're talking about the warlike culture of the ancient Greeks, probably not much. Today, we'd settle for a nice doctor or lawyer.

They came into the cavernous hollow of Lakedaimon and made their way to the house of glorious Menelaos. They found him in his own house giving, for many townsmen, a wedding feast for his son and his stately daughter. The girl he was sending to the son of Achilleus, breaker of battalions, for in Troy land first he had nodded his head to it and promised to give her, and now the gods were bringing to pass their marriage; so he was sending her on her way, with horses and chariots, to the famous city of the Myrmidons, where Neoptolemos was lord, and he brought Alektor's daughter from Sparta, to give powerful Megapenthes, his young grown son born to him by a slave woman; but the gods gave no more children to Helen once she had borned her first and only child, the lovely Hermione, with the beauty of Aphrodite the golden. (4.1-14)

We meet Menelaos as a family man—someone who's making sure to do the right thing by his kids (with the god's help). He and Nestor make us realize how much Telemachos is missing out on by not having an involved dad around. Who's going to choose his bride?

Penelope

(Penelope:) '[…] and now again a beloved son is gone on a hollow ship, an innocent all unversed in fighting and speaking, and it is for him I grieve even more than for that other one, and tremble for him and fear, lest something should happen to him either in the country where he has gone, or on the wide sea, for he has many who hate him and are contriving against him and striving to kill him before he comes back into his own country.' (4.817-823)

Poor Penelope. She lost her husband and now her son—it's too bad she didn't have a daughter who could stay safely inside and spin all day with her. (Except for the whole super-high risk of dying in childbirth problem.

Helen

(Helen:) ‘Shall I be wrong, or am I speaking the truth? My heart tells me to speak, for I think I never saw such a likeness, neither in man nor woman, and wonder takes me as I look on him, as this man has a likeness to the son of great-hearted Odysseus, Telemachos, who was left behind in the house, a young child by that man when, for the sake of shameless me, the Achaians went beneath Troy, their hearts intent upon reckless warfare.’ (4.140-146)

Telemachos has the handsome appearance of his renowned father, but more importantly has inherited Odysseus’s character.

Book 5

And as welcome as the show of life again in a father is to his children, when he has lain sick, suffering strong pains, and wasting long away, and the hateful death spirit has brushed him, but then, and it is welcome, the gods set him free of his sickness, so welcome appeared land and forest now to Odysseus, and he swam, pressing on, so as to set foot on the mainland. (5.394-399)

Here's another of those epic similes (see "Writing Style" for more), where some big adventure is compared to a small domestic event. Most of us won't ever know what it's like to be shipwrecked, but we can probably all imagine what it's like to have a parent recover from illness.

Book 7
Athene

(Athene, disguised as the little girl:) ‘So she was held high in the heart and still she is so, by her beloved children, by Alkinoös himself, and by the people, who look toward her as to a god when they see her, and speak in salutation as she walks about in her city. For there is no good intelligence that she herself lacks. She dissolves quarrels, even among men, when she favors them.’ (7.69-74)

Queen Arete is so loved by her husband that she practically has as much ruling power as he does; her favor, not the king’s, must be won by a guest for them to stay in the kingdom, and she settles legal matters with the same authority as her husband.

Book 8

So the famous singer sang his tale, but Odysseus melted, and from under his eyes the tears ran down, drenching his cheeks. As a woman weeps, lying over the body of her dear husband, who fell fighting for her city and people as he tried to beat off the pitiless day from city and children; she sees him dying and gasping for breath, and winding her body about him she cries high and shrill, while the men behind her, hitting her with their spear butts on the back and the shoulders, force her up and lead her away into slavery, to have hard work and sorrow, and her cheeks are wracked with pitiful weeping. Such were the pitiful tears Odysseus shed from under his brows, but they went unnoticed by all the others […]. (8.521-532)

Yet another epic simile uses the familial motif to shows the depth Odysseus’s emotion.

Book 11
Odysseus

(Odysseus:) 'So I spoke, and my queenly mother answered me quickly: "All too much with enduring heart she does wait for you there in your own palace, and always with her the wretched nights and the days also waste her away with weeping. No one yet holds your fine inheritance, but in freedom Telemachos administers your allotted lands, and apportions the equal feasts, work that befits a man with authority to judge, for all to call him in. Your father remains, on the estate where he is, and does not go to the city. There is no bed there nor is there bed clothing nor blankets nor shining coverlets, but in the winter time he sleeps in the house, where the thralls do, in the dirt next to the fire, and with foul clothing upon him. (11.180-203)

When Odysseus sees his mother in the Underworld, she updates him on his family. It's not as convenience as checking your Facebook newsfeed to see how your brother's doing—and it does involve some unsavory blood drinking—but it does the job.

(Odysseus, in his tale:) "Mother, why will you not wait for me, when I am trying to hold you, so that even in Hades' with our arms embracing we can both take the satisfaction of dismal mourning? Or are you nothing but an image that proud Persephone sent my way, to make me grieve all the more for sorrow?" (11.210-214)

Say what you want about Odysseus (he's full of himself, he's a player, he got all his men killed), but he sure does love his momma.

Book 17
Telemachos

(Telemachos:) ‘We went to Pylos, and to Nestor, shepherd of the people, and he, in his high house, gave me hospitality, and loving free attention, as a father would to his own beloved son, who was newly arrived from a long voyage elsewhere. So he freely took care of me, with his own glorious children.’ (17.109-113)

Telemachos himself is treated as family when in fact he is only a guest.

Book 23
Odysseus

(Odysseus:) ‘But now I shall go to our estate with its many orchards, to see my noble father who has grieved for me constantly.’ (23.354-355)

Odysseus shows his devotion and duty to his family by immediately leaving to see his father after his emotional reunion with his wife.

Book 24

He spoke, and the black cloud of sorrow closed on Laertes. In both hands he caught up the grimy dust and poured it over his face and grizzled head, groaning incessantly. The spirit rose up in Odysseus, and now in his nostrils there was a shock of bitter force as he looked on his father. He sprang to him and embraced and kissed him […]. (24.315-319)

Poor Laertes. Having a grown-up son was pretty much the only Social Security people had for, oh, most of human history—so we can understand why he's so distressed.

(Alkinoös:) 'Or could it then have been some companion, a brave man knowing thoughts gracious toward you, since one who is your companion, and has thoughts honorable toward you, is of no less degree than a brother?' (8.585-586)

Alkinoös wants to know why Odysseus is crying while listening to his bard sing about Troy, and assumes that someone really close to his has died. But notice how he assumes a friend can be just as close as a brother. Does that seem true in the world of the Odyssey? Or are blood-bonds always deeper than companion-bonds?