Study Guide

The Odyssey Loyalty

By Homer

Loyalty

Book 2
Eurykleia

So he spoke and the dear nurse Eurykleia cried out, and bitterly lamenting she addressed him in winged words: ‘Why, my beloved child, has this intention come into your mind? Why do you wish to wander over much country, you, an only and loved son? Illustrious Odysseus has perished far from his country in some outlandish region. And these men will devise evils against you, on your returning, so you shall die by guile, and they divide all that is yours. No, but stay here and guard your possessions. It is not right for you to wander and suffer hardships on the barren wide sea.’ (2.361-370)

Eurykleia’s loyalty to Odysseus’s household is seen in her love for Telemachos, whom she treats like her own son.

Book 5
Odysseus

[…] the sweet lifetime was draining out of him, as he wept for a way home, since the nymph was no longer pleasing to him. By nights he would lie beside her, of necessity, in the hollow caverns, against his will, by one who was willing, but all the days he would sit upon the rocks, at the seaside, breaking his heart in tears and lamentation and sorrow as weeping tears he looked out over the barren water. (5.152-158)

Uh-huh. At least that's what he's going to tell Penelope.

Book 6
Nausikaa

(Nausikaa:) ‘A while ago he seemed an unpromising man to me. Now he even resembles one of the gods, who hold high heaven. If only the man to be called my husband could be like this one, a man living here, if only this one were pleased to stay here.’ (6.242-245)

Since we know Odysseus has no qualms about sleeping around on Penelope, we have to wonder why he holds no interest in the obviously beautiful Nausikaa. Might it have something to do with being a good guest? Hmm…

Book 7
Odysseus

(Odysseus:) ‘[…] the gods brought me to the island Ogygia, where Kalypso lives, with ordered hair, a dread goddess, and she received me and loved me excessively and cared for me, and she promised to make me an immortal and all my days to be ageless, but never so could she win over the heart within me.’ (7.254-258)

Odysseus’s claim that he "never gave consent" is worth a closer look. He seems to be saying that he passively gave into Kalypso, yet never truly desired to be with her.

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)

Loyalty here is merit-based; the Phaiakians don’t revere their Queen because of her title, rather it is because of her "grace" and "wisdom."

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 […]. (8.521-532)

This is a truly epic epic simile (see "Writing Style" for more about that), but notice that even here Homer beats us over the head with how important it is for men to have loyal wives.

There, shedding tears, he [Odysseus] went unnoticed by all the others, but Alkinoös alone understood what he did and noticed, since he was sitting next to him and heard him groaning heavily. (8.93-95)

Odysseus’s persistent loyalty to his fallen comrades is shown in his grief over their memories.

Hephaistos

[Hephaistos, in Demodokos' tale:] '"Father Zeus and all you other blessed immortal gods, come here, to see a ridiculous sight, no seemly matter, how Aphrodite daughter of Zeus forever holds me in little favor, but she loves ruinous Ares because he is handsome, and goes sound on his feet, while I am misshapen from birth, and for this I hold no other responsible but my own father and mother, and I wish they never had got me."' (8.306-312)

We're not sure why the gods expect humans to be loyal when they're obviously not too good at it themselves—talk about making (wo)man in their own image.

Book 9
Odysseus

(Odysseus:) 'My men went on and presently met the Lotus-Eaters, nor did these Lotus-Eaters have any thoughts of destroying our companions, but they only gave them lotus to taste of. But any of them who ate the honey-sweet fruit of lotus was unwilling to take any message back, or to go away, but they wanted to stay there with the lotus-eating people, feeding on lotus, and forget the way home.' (9.91-97)

Put another way, the fruit of the lotus turns people disloyal by making them forget their homes. See? Drugs really do destroy families.

Book 10
Odysseus

(Odysseus:) ‘Nevertheless we sailed on, night and day, for nine days, and on the tenth at last appeared the land of our fathers, and we could see people tending fires, we were very close to them. But then the sweet sleep came upon me, for I was worn out with always handling the sheet myself, and I could not give it to any other companion, so we could come home quicker to our own country; but my companions talked with each other and said that I was bringing silver and gold home with me, given me by great-hearted Aiolos, son of Hippotas; […] and the evil counsel of my companions prevailed, and they opened the bag and the winds all burst out.’ (10.28-36, 46-47)

The Ithakans allow curiosity to trump their loyalty to their master Odysseus.

(Odysseus, in his tale:) '"Oh, Circe, how could any man in his right mind ever endure to taste of the food and drink that are set before him, until with his eyes he saw his companions set free? So then, if you are sincerely telling me to eat and drink, set them free, so my eyes can again behold my eager companions."' (10.383-387)

Aw, Odysseus is a really good friend—if you ignore the fact that he got his men into all this trouble in the first place by showing off in front of Polyphemos.

Book 11
Agamemnon

(Agamemnon, in Odysseus’ tale:) ‘[…] most pitiful was the voice I heard of Priam’s daughter Kassandra, killed by treacherous Klytaimestra over me; but I lifted my hands and with them beat on the ground as I died upon the sword, but the sluttish woman turned away from me and was so hard that her hands would not press shut my eyes and mouth though I was going to Hades’. So there is nothing more deadly or more vile than a woman who stores her mind with acts that are of such sort, as this one did when she thought of this act of dishonor, and plotted the murder of her lawful husband. See, I had been thinking that I would be welcome to my children and thralls of my household when I came home, but she with thoughts surpassingly grisly splashed the shame on herself and the rest of her sex, on women still to come, even on the one whose acts are virtuous.’ (11.421-434)

Where Penelope is a steadfast symbol of loyalty, Klytaimestra is quite the opposite. She betrays her lord by taking a lover in his absence and shows her treachery by killing her husband when he returns. She so hates him that she refuses to honor the rights of the dead – closing his eyes or shutting his lips so that he may be granted passage to the Underworld. So embittered is Agamemnon by her betrayal that he condemns all women on the grounds that they have the same sort of treachery in them.

Odysseus

(Odysseus:) ‘But first there came the soul of my companion, Elpenor, for he had not yet been buried under earth of the wide ways, since we had left his body behind in Circe’s palace, unburied and unwept, with this other errand before us. I broke into tears at the sight of him, and my heart pitied him […].’(11.51-56)

Oops. Odysseus loses major loyalty points for not noticing that he was missing one of his crewmen. (Seriously, the buddy system? It might have come in handy.)

Book 12

(The Sirens, in Odysseus’ tale:) ‘“Come this way, honored Odysseus, great glory of the Achaians, and stay your ship, so that you can listen here to our singing; for no one else has ever sailed past this place in his black ship until he has listened to the honey-sweet voice that issues from our lips; then goes on, well-pleased, knowing more than ever he did; for we know everything that the Argives and Trojans did and suffered in wide Troy through the gods’ despite. Over all the generous earth we know everything that happens.” So they sang, in sweet utterance, and the heart within me desired to listen, and I signaled my companions to set me free, nodding with my brows, but they leaned on and rowed hard, and Perimedes and Eurylochos, rising up, straightway fastened me with even more lashings and squeezed me together.’ (12.184-196)

The Sirens represent temptation in its basest form – longing for beauty and lust for women. Temptations like these threaten the loyalty of Odysseus and the other Ithakans.

Odysseus

(Odysseus:) 'Right in her doorway she [Skylla] ate them up. They were screaming and reaching out their hands to me in this horrid encounter. That was the most pitiful scene that these eyes have looked on in my sufferings as I explored the routes over the water.' (12.256-259)

Considering that Odysseus has to watch his friends die basically one by one over the course of his voyage home, we're surprised that he holds up so well—particularly since he takes his responsibility to them so seriously.

Book 14

Only the swineherd did not please to leave his pigs, and go to bed indoors, but made preparations as he went out; and Odysseus was happy that his livelihood was so well cared for while he was absent. (14.524-527)

Odysseus is impressed by Eumaios’s devotion to his craft – even though it is something as simple as caring for swine – because it shows a loyalty to the well-being of Odysseus’s household even during his absence.

Eumaios

(Eumaios:) ‘[…] but the longing is on me for Odysseus, and he is gone from me; and even when he is not here, my friend, I feel some modesty about naming him, for in his heart he cared for me greatly and loved me. So I call him my master, though he is absent.’ (14.144-147)

Eumaios is so loyal to Odysseus that, despite the common notion that the man is dead, he still considers him lord and master.

(Eumaios:) ‘[…] any vagrant who makes his way to the land of Ithaka goes to my mistress and babbles his lies to her, and she then receives him well and entertains him and asks him everything, and as she mourns him the tears run down from her eyes, since this is the right way for a wife when her husband has perished.’ (14.126-130)

Penelope’s actions are driven by her loyalty for her husband – perhaps this loyalty is the very reason she refuses to accept the common (and, given the length of his absence, quite reasonable) belief that he is dead.

Book 15
Eumaios

(Eumaios:) ‘From the heart she [Penelope] loved me dearly. Now I go lacking all these things, but the blessed immortals prosper all the work that I myself do abiding here, whence I eat and drink and give to people I honor; but there is no sweet occasion now to hear from my mistress in word or fact, since the evil has fallen upon our household […].’ (15.370-375)

Many of the servants in Odysseus’s house hold a familial loyalty for the royal family.

Book 16

He came up to meet his master, and kissed his head, and kissed too his beautiful shining eyes, and both his hands, and the swelling tear fell from him. And as a father, with heart full of love, welcomes his only and grown son, for whose sake he has undergone many hardships when he comes back in the tenth year from a distant country, so now the noble swineherd, clinging fast to godlike Telemachos, kissed him even as if he had escaped dying […].' (16.14-21)

Let's throw a little old-school analogies at you. Eumaios : servants :: Odysseus : men. He's so loyal to his presumably dead master that he thinks of the boy as his own son.

Book 17

There the dog Argos lay in the dung, all covered with dog ticks. Now, as he perceived that Odysseus had come close to him, he wagged his tail, and laid both his ears back; only he now no longer had the strength to move any closer to his master, who, watching him from a distance, without Eumaios noticing, secretly wiped a tear away […]. (17.300-305)

Odysseus' poor, tick-infested dog recognizes his long-lost master and feebly thumps his tail. Okay, it's not a 15-million-views-and-counting video on YouTube—but it still brings a tear to our eye.

Book 22
Phemios

(Phemios:) ‘I am at your knees, Odysseus. Respect me, have mercy. You will be sorry in time to come if you kill the singer of songs. I sing to the gods and to human people, and I am taught by myself, but the god has inspired in me the song-ways of every kind. I am such a one as can sing before you as to a god. Then do not be furious to behead me. Telemachos, too, your own dear son, would tell you, as I do, that it was against my will, and with no desire on my part, that I served the suitors here in your house and sang at their feasting. They were too many and too strong, and they forced me to do it.’ So he spoke, and the hallowed prince Telemachos heard him. Quickly then he spoke to his father, who stood close by him: ‘Hold fast. Do not strike this man with the bronze. He is innocent. And let us spare Medon our herald, a man who has always taken care of me when I was a child in your palace […].’ (22.344-358)

Telemachos shows compassion and mercy for the innocent who deserve it. He returns the loyalty of his servants in kind.

Book 23

She spoke, and still more roused in him the passion for weeping. He wept as he held his lovely wife, whose thoughts were virtuous. And as when the land appears welcome to men who are swimming, after Poseidon has smashed their strong-built ship on the open water, pounding it with the weight of wind and the heavy seas, and only a few escape the gray water landward by swimming, with a thick scurf of salt coated upon them, and gladly they set foot on the shore, escaping the evil; so welcome was her husband to her as she looked upon him, and she could not let him go from the embrace of her white arms. (23.231-240)

Call us hopeless romantics, but we love this simile: Odysseus returns to Penelope like a drowning man returns to shore. (It's a lot sweeter if you ignore the fact that he spent seven years hanging out with a goddess.)