Study Guide

The Odyssey Principles

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Book 1

(Telemachos:) ‘I should not have sorrowed so over his dying if he had gone down among his companions in the land of the Trojans, or in the arms of his friends, after he had wound up the fighting. So all the Achaians would have heaped a grave mound over him, and he would have won great fame for himself and his son hereafter. But now ingloriously the stormwinds have caught and carried him away, out of sight, out of knowledge, and he left pain and lamentation to me.’ (1.236-243)

Telemachos holds the common belief that a death in arms is noble and honorable.

Book 2

(Mentor:) ‘Now it is not so much the proud suitors I resent for doing their violent acts by their minds’ evil devising; for they lay their hands on the line when violently they eat up the house of Odysseus, who, they say to themselves, will not come back; but now I hold it against you other people, how you all sit there in silence, and never with an assault of words try to check the suitors, though they are so few, and you so many.’ (2.235-241)

Mentor points out the cowardice (and hence dishonor) of the majority, who stay silent out of fear and respect for the suitors. They passively dishonor Odysseus by not standing up for the proper treatment of his family and household.


(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)

We're pretty sure that, no matter what the millennium, this kind of behavior is not cool. You have to respect your host's wine and oxen, people.

(Telemachos:) ‘Antinoös, I cannot thrust the mother who bore me, who raised me, out of the house against her will. My father, alive or dead, is elsewhere in the world. It will be hard to pay back Ikarios, if willingly I dismiss my mother. I will suffer some evil from her father, and the spirit will give me more yet, for my mother will call down her furies upon me as she goes out of the house, and I shall have the people’s resentment.’ (2.130-137)

Telemachos knows that kicking your mom out of your house is a definite "don't"—unless, of course, she's murdered your father (ahem, Klytaimestra). In that case, honor demands that you kill her.

Book 3

(Peisistratos:) 'My guest, make your prayer now to the lord Poseidon, for his is the festival you have come to on your arrival; but when you have poured to him and prayed, according to custom, then give this man also a cup of the sweet wine, so that he too can pour, for I think he also will make his prayer to the immortals. All men need the gods. But this one is a younger man than you, and of the same age as I am. This is why I am first giving you the goblet.' (3.43-50)

Nestor's son welcomes Telemachos and Athene (disguised as Mentor), and explains why he's giving her the goblet first: Telemachos is younger. Apparently "respect your elders" is a principle that never goes out of style.

Book 4

(Athene, disguised as Iphthime:) 'As for that other one, I will not tell you the whole story whether he lives or has died. It is bad to babble emptily.' (4.836-837)

Here's another principle that is just as good in the 21st century as it was in ancient Greece: don't run off at the mouth.


(Menelaos:) ‘[…] and sitting well in order we dashed the oars in the gray sea, back to where Egypt is, the sky-fallen 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)

Proper burial rites are a big deal in this culture, as we see over and over in the Odyssey. A man is only honored in death when he is properly respected by those still living.

Book 5

(Odysseus:) 'Three times and four times happy those Danaans were who died then in wide Troy land, bringing favor to the sons of Atreus, as I wish I too had died at that time and met my destiny on the day when the greatest number of Trojans threw their bronze-headed weapons upon me, over the body of perished Achilleus, and I would have had my rites and the Achaians given me glory. Now it is by a dismal death that I must be taken.' (5.306-312)

If you can't manage to live up to your principles, you always have the option of dying by them—that is, dying in battle like a real man.


(Kalypso:) 'Earth be my witness in this, and the wide heaven above us, and the dripping water of the Styx, which oath is the biggest and most formidable oat among the blessed immortals, that this is no other painful trial I am planning against you […]' (5.184-187)

It's a little hard to take the gods' rules seriously when they don't seem to abide by any recognizable code of conduct. But here, Kalypso sees to be acting on the level: she's promising Odysseus that her help is genuine.

Book 6

(Odysseus:) 'Stand as you are, girls, a little away from me, so that I can wash the salt off my shoulders and use the olive oil on them. It is long since my skin has known any ointment. But I will not bathe in front of you, for I feel embarrassed in the presence of lovely-haired girls to appear all naked.' (6.218-222)

Odysseus has no qualms about ripping off his shirt in a hall full of suitors, but he doesn't feel a little embarrassed about wandering around naked in front of girls with nice hair. (Well, to be honest, he's probably afraid that he'll end up having to fight them off, once they get a good look at his god-like physique.)

Book 9

(Odysseus:) ‘Then I shoved the beam underneath a deep bed of cinders, waiting for it to heat, and I spoke to all my companions in words of courage, so none should be in a panic, and back out […].’ (9.375-377)

In the Odyssey, honor is proven by showing courage in the face of adversity; Odysseus urges his men to action on the grounds that they must do just this.

Book 12

(Odysseus:) ‘But when the young dawn showed again with her rosy fingers, then I sent my companions away to the house of Circe to bring back the body of Elpenor, who had died there. Then we cut logs, and where the extreme of the foreland jutted out, we buried him, sorrowful, shedding warm tears for him. But when the dead man had burned and the dead man’s armor, piling the grave mound and pulling the gravestone to stand above it, we planted the well-shaped oar in the very top of the grave mound.’ (12.8-15)

Odysseus honors the dead Elpenor by setting up a proper burial for him. This ensures that he will not be forgotten among the living and will have respect among the dead.

Book 16

(Odysseus:) ‘I wish that I were truly as young as I am in spirit, or a son of stately Odysseus were here, or he himself might come in from his wandering. There is time still for hope. If such things could be, another could strike my head from my shoulders if I did not come as an evil thing to all those people as I entered the palace of Odysseus, the son of Laertes. And if I, fighting alone, were subdued by all their number, then I would rather die, cut down in my own palace, than to have to go on watching forever these shameful activities, guests being battered about, or to see them rudely mishandling the serving women all about the beautiful palace, to see them drawing the wine and eating up food in this utterly reckless way, without end, forever and always at it.’ (16.99-111)

Odysseus advises Telemachos that it is more honorable to die fighting on one’s feet than to live tolerating such behavior from the suitors. Honor, then, is valued above life in the Odyssey.

Book 18

(Penelope:) 'But tell Autonoë and Hippodameia to come, so that they can stand at my side in the great hall. I will not go alone among men. I think that immodest.' (18.182-184)

Women can live up to their principles by being good hostesses, but most of their honorable actions seem to consist in not doing: not remarrying, not killing their husbands, not appearing in front of a crowd of men. Sounds pretty dull, if you ask us.

Book 19

(Penelope:) 'Human beings live for only a short time, and when a man is harsh himself, and his mind knows harsh thoughts, all men pray that sufferings will befall him hereafter while he lives; and when he is dead all men make fun of him. But when a man is blameless himself, and his thoughts are blameless, the friends he has entertained carry his fame widely to all mankind, and many are they who call him excellent.' (19.328-334)

What's the point of living a totally dull, blameless life? Everyone will say nice things about you. Okay, so it's not exactly champagne and limo rides, but "fame"—what people said about you—was super important to the Greeks. Having a good reputation was just as important as it was to any 13-year-old.

Book 20

(Telemachos:) ‘But if you are determined to murder me with the sharp bronze, then that would be my wish also, since it would be far better than to have to go on watching forever these shameful activities, guests being battered about, or to see you rudely mishandling the serving all about the beautiful palace.’ (20.315-319)

Telemachos shows that he has indeed learned Odysseus’s lessons on honor; he would, like his father, rather die fighting than live humiliated.

Book 22

Then the thoughtful Telemachos said to him in answer: 'Father, it was my own mistake, and there is no other to blame. I left the door of the chamber, which can close tightly, open at an angle. One of these men was a better observer than I.' (22.153-157)

Remember how Odysseus shouted his name at Polyphemos? Telemachos' mistake wasn't quite that dumb, but it was along the same lines: impulsive and immature. Like his dad, he eventually realizes his mistake and apologizes for it.

Book 24

Laertes also rejoiced, and said to them: ‘What day is this for me, dear gods? I am very happy. My son and my son’s son are contending over their courage.’ (24.513-515)

Laertes feels a surge of pride and honor to see himself the ancestor of two such strapping and courageous young men. They have brought honor back to his family’s name.


(Agamemnon:) ‘So, even now you have died, you have not lost your name, but always in the sight of all mankind your fame shall be great, Achilleus.’ (24.92-94)

Agamemnon reminds Achilleus that honor is forever, unlike the passing glory of life. Because of his actions, Achilleus has earned immortality for his name. Still, Achilleus’s earlier comments suggest that he doesn’t agree with this: he would rather be unremarkable and alive.

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