Thinking Out Loud about The Odyssey, Part 6

The Odyssey, Books XVII-XXIV, cont.

The gods seem to have evolved in Homer’s works, but his books do not give us hints about further development of the gods. They have particular and local affiliations, but they seem to move towards diminishing these. Thus, Zeus allows Sarpedon to die, but Poseidon is vengeful when Cyclops is wounded. The books are not philosophical: they do not present a deep analysis about life, but rather, they give some starting points for asking questions. The poetic energy is directed towards showing the possibility that the divine order is in accord with our order. No easy explanation for life is given, and the divine and human orders have moral alignment which necessitates the development of the gods.

This alignment is very significant. The Odyssey has the ghost of The Iliad lingering around bringing back Achilles (469-471). Odysseus is the new Achilles who uses the skills of a warrior—the only skills he has—to restore the domestic order (471). Interestingly enough, though Odysseus uses the skills of the warrior to restore domestic order, he does not use force to reestablish his relationship with his wife. He has to win her over again, through words.

Incidentally, sleep seems to be connected to grief, so when Odysseus comes back and his relationship with his wife is reestablished, they do not sleep until everything is told. It seems that during the happy moments, sleep is unwelcome.

The Odyssey emphasizes order, hierarchy, and loyalty to men and gods. High status, however, can still defy order, as when the suitors (high in the social ladder) bring in disorder, or when the swineherd and cattleherd (low in the social ladder) help restore order. This shows that the world does not always reflect order—even if the social order prevails—and order is not merely power, though power is required to preserve order. Disorder needs to be set right. So the warrior comes back and restores order by violent acts.

Violence, however, always produces more violence. Understanding this, Odysseus measures his actions. Achilles did not seem to see this, and thus, did not control himself and destroyed everything around him. Because violence will breed more violence, it takes a decree of the gods to restore peace. Though Athena decrees peace, Odysseus obeys her command, showing that divine decree still operates in conjunction with human consent.

The episode of the suitors’ incontrollable laugh before their destruction could point to something like demonic possession that comes from accumulated disorder, and provides a kind of moral framework for the judgment of evildoers.

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