The Meaning and Impact of the Closing Book of The Odyssey Essay
Ancient Greek critic Aristophanes understood the end of The Odyssey as occurring with the words “rejoicing in each other, they returned to their bed, the old familiar place they loved so well,” thus rendering the final installment of the poem, Book 24, superfluous (Homer 337-38). However, Book 24 serves an essential function when we view The Odyssey as a whole. The Greek concept of honor breeds war, over and over, without end.
Those who suffer affronts to their honor retaliate, and if they cannot exact revenge in their lifetimes, their sons are charged with the duty. Book 24 of The Odyssey terminates the cycle of revenge initiated with Menelaus, Helen and Paris. Its importance lies in the assurance, underscored by the intervention of the gods, that the saga of the Trojan War is over, all wounds are healed, and the wheel of vengeance will now finally halt.
Critics such as William Merritt Sale argue that Homer’s purpose in creating the mythic poem of The Odyssey was to represent the inherent struggle of the human condition when faced with the choice between the life of a hero and the life of home and family. “The poem’s main theme, that human destiny is domestic, is greatly enlarged by the symbolism of the mythic world of Odysseus’ adventures.
Odysseus becomes an everyman, facing universal perils — Circe…erotic enchantment and bestial enslavement, the Sirens…deadly lure or artistic beauty, [and] Scylla and Charybdis…lose part or lose all. Penelope in turn becomes everywoman confronted by the perils and pleasures of masculine desire, and all of us are seen caught between the competing needs for adventure – meeting risks and satisfying curiosity – and for home and family” (Sale 1).
Similarly, Finkelberg points to numerous unheroic qualities that Odysseus displays, namely, his wily refusal to die. In Finkelberg’s words, “Odysseus is the only Homeric hero who, in both the Iliad and the Odyssey, bears the epithet polutlas, ‘much-enduring’ and who is systematically described…as passing through compromise and humiliation (Finkelberg 2). The difference between Odysseus and the dead warriors from the Trojan War remains Odysseus’ precise ability to forgo his pride for the sake of his own existence.
As critic Finkelberg puts it, “Ajax or Achilles would never have been willing to undergo some of Odysseus’ experiences – his three adventures in beggar’s disguise, for instance, and his ignominious escape from the Cyclops’ cave by hanging under a ram’s belly…distinct from the Iliadic hero, who sets an example of how one ought to die, all Odysseus’ life experience demonstrates how one ought to live” (Finkelberg 2).
Similarly, author Cook states that Odysseus “exhibits a hero whose experience is internalized; whose psyche is plumbed” (Cook 1). Odysseus “goes through varieties of experiences that intimately mirror his complexity while testing” not simply his mettle in battle but also the mettle of his “mind and emotions” (Cook 1).
However, in the warrior society of ancient Greece, as Finkelberg outlines, “a hero is one who prizes honour and glory above life itself and dies on the battlefield in the prime of life” (Finkelberg 1). This heroic code represented the apex of honor that all high born men strove to emulate, Odysseus included. It is important to remember that Homer’s heroes made their names, not to mention their fortunes, via the business of war. As Weber explains, “warfare is a quicker and more honorable way to wealth than trade.
Trade takes time and patience; warfare is about pillage, robbery, and…ideally… fighting those who cannot fight back. The spoils of war subsidize yet another form of honorable behavior: magnanimity – great-heartedness, meaning the openhandedness that attracts valiant followers. So honor is renown, glory, riches, power; but these have to be won and preserved by valiance – valor, bravery” (Weber 80)
To witness the heroic code of honor that Homer’s contemporaries lived by and aspired to, one need only look to the discussion of honor between Achilles and Agamemnon that occurs in the Land of the Shades in Book 24 of The Odyssey. Achilles expresses regret that Agamemnon did not share in Achilles’ classic honorable fate of death by war: “Oh, how I wish you’d met your fatal end in Trojan lands, still in full possession of those honours you were master of.
Then all Achaeans would’ve made a tomb for you—for your son you’d have won great fame in future days. But as it is, your fate was to be caught in a death more pitiful than any” (Homer 4). Instead, Agamemnon met his end at the hands of his wife Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus, and in a patriarchal culture such as ancient Greece, to be murdered by a woman would have produced shame and ignominy of the highest order.
Thus Agamemnon’s words, tinged with bitterness and more than a hint of jealousy, reflect this code of honor when he laments to Achilles: “The gods had that much special love for you. So even in death, your name did not die. No. Your glorious fame, Achilles, will endure among all men forever. As for me, I finished off the war, but what pleasure does that give me now? When I got back home, Zeus organized a dreadful fate for me, at Aegisthus’ hands and my accursed wife’s” (Homer 6).
Author Eugene Weber’s article The Ups and Downs of Honor defines the Greek concept of honor herein: “honor – in the sense that [has] lasted for many centuries – is power, and the glory that comes from power, and the fama, or fame, that reflects a reputation for power. Infamy is the loss of public esteem that goes with losing power and reputation; and with infamy goes ignominy, literally losing your name – a good name that is important to the individual, to the lineage, to the clan. Name, fame, stand for personality, which was, in the most concrete sense, regarded as property” (Weber 80).
This understanding of honor, shared by Agamemnon and Achilles, also appears in the ensuing exchange between Agamemnon and the suitor Amphimedon, murdered by Odysseus and Telemachus, ironically enough, for dishonoring his house and his wife in Ithaca while Odysseus remained lost at sea. Amphimedon laments: “Men collapsed, falling thick and fast.
Then we realized some god was helping them, when all at once they charged out in a frenzy through the house, butchering men everywhere. The screams were hideous, as heads were smashed apart. The whole floor swam with blood. That’s how we died, Agamemnon, and even now our bodies are lying uncared for in Odysseus’ house. Each man’s friends at home don’t know what’s happened, the ones who’d wash the black blood from our wounds, then lay our bodies out and weep for us, the necessary rites for those who’ve died” (Homer 6).
Interestingly, Agamemnon responds not by condemning Odysseus for his deceit and butchery, but by praising him for his fortunate choice in a wife. “Happy Odysseus, a resourceful man, who won himself a wife whose excellence was truly great. How fine the heart in faultless Penelope, daughter of Icarius! She remembered well the husband she was married to, Odysseus.
The story of her excellence will not die—immortal gods will make a pleasing song for men on earth about faithful Penelope” (Homer 6). For warrior kings such as Agamemnon and Odysseus, this same concept of honor extends to women. A woman like Penelope understood the code and chose not to dishonor her husband by sleeping with another man and sharing Odysseus’ house with a stranger.
A woman like Clytemnestra, clearly, did not, as she chose to partner with Aegisthus to murder Agamemnon and dishonor not only his house but his name for all of eternity. For the Greeks, Agamemnon’s exploits in the Trojan War, not to mention the sacrifice of his daughter, remain overshadowed by the disgraceful and dishonorable nature of his death. Thus Agamemnon’s praise for Odysseus, though it affirms the Greek code of honor, remains bittersweet, self serving, and ultimately acrimonious and full of envy.
The honor code appears again in the recognition scene between Odysseus and his father Laertes once Odysseus returns to Ithaca. Upon meeting his father, Odysseus “embraced Laertes, kissed him, and then said: “Father, I’m here—the very man you asked about. I’ve returned here in the twentieth year, back to my native land. Stop your grieving, these tearful moans.
I’ll tell you everything, though it’s essential we move really fast. I’ve killed the suitors in our home, avenged their heart-rending insolence, their evil acts” (Homer 11). Leartes’ reply shows that he still lives by the honor code of the Greeks, and only age and infirmity prevented him from defending his son’s honor: “With strength like that, I could’ve stood with you yesterday, my armour on my shoulders, and driven off the suitors in our home. I’d have made many of their knees go slack inside the hall—I’d have pleased your heart” (Homer 12).
Similarly, once Laertes understands that his son has returned and that the code of honor has been restored, Laertes thanks the gods, insinuating that the honor code is also maintained by the gods themselves. “Father Zeus, it seems you gods are still on high Olympus, if it’s true those suitors have paid the price of their proud arrogance. But now my heart contains a dreadful fear— all the men of Ithaca will soon come here against us, and they’ll send out messengers all through Cephallenia, to every city” (Homer 11).
In Laertes’ expression of the fear of reprisal he expects from the men of Ithaca – all relatives of the murdered suitors – we see the results of the honor code. The honor code propagates war, vengeance and reprisal cyclically. Just as Menelaus sought vengeance for Helen, so the men of Ithaca will seek vengeance for the death of the suitors. “Eupeithes rose to speak. Constant grief lay on his heart for his own son,
Antinous, the first man killed by lord Odysseus.
Weeping for him, he spoke to the assembly: “My friends, this man has planned and carried out dreadful acts against Achaeans. He’s…come and killed our finest men by far among the Cephallenians. So come on, before he can quickly get to Pylos…let’s get started. If not, in future days we’ll be eternally disgraced, since men yet to be born will learn about our shame, if we don’t act to take out our revenge on those murderers of our sons and brothers.
As far as I’m concerned, the life we’d live would not be sweet. I rather die right now and live among the dead” (Homer 13). And herein lies the importance of Book 24. Before the cycle can repeat, the gods step in. Zeus orders “since lord Odysseus has paid back the suitors, let them swear a binding oath that he’ll remain their king all his life, and let’s make them forget the killing of their sons and brothers. Let them love each other as they used to do, and let there be wealth and peace in plenty” (Homer 14).
Through the intervention of the gods, particularly the leader of the gods, Zeus, we see that Book 24 punctuates a final ending for the entire saga of the Trojan War, as Odysseus and the men of Ithaca obey Zeus and Athena’s commands: “Resourceful Odysseus, Laertes’ son, and child of Zeus, hold back. Stop this fight, this impartial war, in case thundering Zeus, who sees far and wide, grows angry with you.” Once Athena spoke, Odysseus obeyed, joy in his heart” (Homer 15).
Cook, Albert. “The Man of Many Turns.” The Classic Line: A Study in Epic Poetry. Indiana University Press, 1966. 120-137. Web.
Finkelberg, Margalit. “Odysseus and the genus ‘hero.’.” Greece & Rome 42.1 (1995): 1-2. Web.
Homer. The Odyssey by translated by Robert Fitzgerald New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1998. Print.
Sale, William Merritt. “The Odyssey: Overview.” Reference Guide to World Literature. Ed. Lesley Henderson. 2nd ed. New York: St. James Press, 1995. Print.
Weber, Eugen. “The Ups and Downs of Honor.” American Scholar 68.1 (1999): 79. Web.
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