How can one learn about the things that were important to them once their bodies have been interred for centuries? The bodies have long since been part of the earth, yet the voices of many of the ancients still waif clearly through time throughout the art, the music, and the literature they left as their legacy. A mans lifestyle, beliefs and habits as revealed in their art mirror the culture that created him. This certainly is true in the Greek epic The Odyssey because the characters are not just developed on paper, but actually are the embodiments of the Greek society. In studying the characters in the epic, it is easy to see many of the values of the Greeks.
Hospitality is certainly a value which that society esteemed as well as physical beauty and a clever mind. One can see all these values distinctly in the lives and actions of Odysseus, Telemachus, and Menelaus. As The Odyssey opens, the reader is immediately confused. Telemachus opens his home and prepares a banquet, yet behind closed doors Telemachus clearly expresses his dislike for the greedy men who seek not only his mother but all his father’s property. Why would he welcome guests who he hates? What seems to be a paradox on the surface is actually one of the values which is most evident in Greek literature — the value of hospitality. Telemachus himself experiences hospitality but with a slight variation.
This helps us understand even more about the importance the Greeks placed on this value. When Telemachus sailed into Menelaus’ kingdom, Menelaus did not recognize him at first. Yet, society dictated that one welcomes everyone, even strangers. From these two men we get a broad view of this Greek value. It is Odysseus who completes this view standing in the darkness of the Cyclops cave when confronted by a one-eyed monster. One of Odysseus’ first comments to the monster deals with the idea of hospitality.
Reminding the Cyclops that honor of others is a directive from the gods which if ignored would be avenged by the gods. “O mighty one respect the gods. We are your suppliants, and Zeus is the avenger of the suppliant and the stranger; he is the strangers friend and waits on worthy strangers.” (p.85, IX) The reader now can step back form the epic with a clear understanding of this Greek value. People loved or hated, known or unknown were to be welcomed and cared for. If this were not done the gods would punish the rudeness.
Not only did the Greeks value the beauty of actions but they also valued physical beauty. The heroes of The Odyssey are described as having physical features which were not only eye appealing but seemed to indicate their goodness. Menelaus is described as “Light Haired,” “Famous,” and “Heaven Desended” (p.31,IV) These features made him seem almost god like. Numerous times his light hair is mentioned. This is not an accidental feature but is an archetype of goodness often ascribed to Heroes in literature.
Although the description of Telemachus’ physical features are limited, what is given is very revealing. Homer tells us that he looked like his father. Odysseus, the great warrior, lays upon the beach at Phaeacia, nothing about him indicates his greatness or beauty. It is only later as he rises up from the water that he is reborn as a beautiful man with curly hair and glistening skin. It is this beauty that Menelaus and Helen recognize in Telemachus. “Now I too note it, wife, even as you suggest; such as were Odysseus’ feet and hands, his turn of eye, his head, and hair above.” (p.32,IV)As important as hospitality and physical beauty were in the Greek value system, it is far more evident that a determined, clever mind focused steadfastly is a quality that would rank above all others.
It is such an important quality that it becomes one of the themes of the epic. As well as the major features of the three heroes. From The Iliad, the reader sees Menelaus, the determined king who fought a ten year war in order to get his queen back. In The Odyssey, however, we see the cleverness of his determined mind. As Telemachus, still unknown to Menelaus feasts, Menelaus overtly seeks to know the identity of his guest. With slight suspicions that the stranger was related to Odysseus, Menelaus begins an emotional warfare upon the young guest.
Recounting the details of the Trojan War and describing the deaths of many brave, Greek warriors brings a tear to Telemachus’ eye revealing not only his emotions but his identity to Menelaus. In this tear, the reader sees a reflection of this young mans steadfast determination to find a father he has not yet seen since he was an infant. Telemachus only knows his father through the stories he has heard about him. Yet his love for Odysseus causes him to set sail on a journey to find his father. Though faced with challenges and years of separation, Odysseus was determined to return to Penelope and Ithaca.
Telemachus is like his father because of his determined mind set. This is the factor that will eventually bring them both back to Ithaca.Almost three thousand years ago a group of people sat by a flickering fire, the breezes from the Aegean Sea blew through their hair, but they took no notice of the fires warmth or the seas coolness where they were enthralled by a blind poet with stories about a great war. Probably based on real events, Homer’s epics are today not seen as works of history. The Greeks used his epics in their schools to teach about hospitality, physical beauty and strength, and cleverness of the mind. These virtues which were most important to the Greeks live on today in The Odyssey.
Centuries have passed since the time of Homer, we cannot sit by the fire listening to his stories. We can only hold his epic on our lap and travel on the adventures road with his heroes, and when we have finished we will not only have read a classical piece of literature but we will know a centuries dead culture much better.