The Father and Son Relationships in Homer’s Odyssey

An interpretive look on how Homer established father and son dynamics throughout the Odyssey. It delves into the reasons behind Homer’s choice and how they are shown in the text.

Homer’s The Odyssey is an ancient tale that gives glimpses of the Greek culture at around 1200 BCE. One such glimpse is how father and son relationships impacted the culture. It was the father’s job to pass down rituals and show the son his trade. Also, father’s handed down their legacy to their sons. Legacy and reputation, usually going hand in hand, were the currency of that time period; as the legacy of the family determined business connections and the success of these business connections. The livelihoods of businesses were dependent on legacy. For  example, a man who ships olives would be dependent upon his family legacy for shelter along his stops. He would get lodging because the proprietor would know of his family, or know his family by way of legacy. The Odyssey’s father and son relationships, portrayed in mainly Odysseus and Telemachus but also Achilles and Neoptolemus, and Agamemnon and Orestes, gave insights to just how important legacy, and it’s continuation, was to the males of Greece and the dynamic of how it played out for both father and son.

            Book XI does more to prove the significance of legacy than any other. Book XI takes place in Hades, the world of the dead. Here Odysseus, Achilles and Agamemnon inquire about the fortunes of their sons. Odysseus, after speaking with the seer, talks with his mother, Anticleia. He asks her about Penelope, Telemachus and her death. She states that Penelope is faithful still, waiting for his return, that Telemachus “holds your great estates in peace” (Homer) and that she, Anticleia, died of a broken heart without Odysseus. Odysseus is the only one of the three whose response to the hearing of his son’s predicament is not shown. This is because Odysseus reacts to the last thing his mother says, that she died grieving his absence (Homer). One could argue, however, that his hearing of his son keeping peace at his home encouraged his transition from warrior to father that takes place around Hades. This is because it is after Hades that Odysseus rejects the mistakes he commonly made before and focused, finally, on returning home. An example of this is when Odysseus convinces his crew to abandon the bountiful island of Helios and continue on their way home (Homer).

            Odysseus sees Agamemnon next, and when Agamemnon speaks he wants to know about the fate of his son, Orestes. However, Odysseus cannot give the great king an answer, because he has heard no word of Orestes since the war has ended. Upon hearing this Agamemnon weeps with Odysseus (Homer). Agamemnon is sad because he does not know how his legacy has survived, or even if it survived. After Agamemnon, Odysseus speaks with Achilles. Achilles, too, wants to know of his son, Neoptolemus. Odysseus lightens Achilles’ heart with tales of Neoptolemus’ victories at war and the courage he displayed with Odysseus. Achilles is delighted to hear his son is a courageous warrior like himself. Achilles rejoiced “across the fields of asphodel triumphant” (Homer) because his legacy is being built on and that his fame will live on through his son. The heroic tale of his son lets Achilles know his son is still alive, but also has the same courage he did, making him a proud father.

            This episode in Hades shows how important sons were to their fathers in the culture through the fathers’ questions and responses. Not only were the sons loved but they were counted on to carry on all the good deeds and actions of their father and give the family a better legacy. The fathers, all given the chance to hear news from a place they have been cut off from, ask first of their sons which shows how important their legacy was to them. Odysseus hasn’t heard news from Ithaca in almost twenty years at this point, but, he too, asks for news on his son first.  Achilles says in Book XI that he would rather be a slave to a poor man then be down here with the dead. This is because the afterlife for the Greeks is more like a warehouse than like a Christian or Judaic afterlife. All the souls, good or bad, are collected in one place where they simple just exist. Only the unlucky souls who angered a god receive any punishment and there are no rewards. For the Greeks, the afterlife was not something to obtain; they did not use afterlife as a motivation for anything. Instead, they used the continuation and passing on of legacy and reputation. This shows that the afterlife is not in Hades but rather back on earth with the legacy! The legacy is how they live on and it is up to the son and his actions to keep their names and deeds alive.

            On the other end, the sons feel the pressure and/or duty in honoring their fathers. Two examples of this are Orestes and Telemachus. Orestes feels it duty to honor his father’s name above all else, even his mother, while Telemachus starts off by feeling the pressure in carrying on the great Odysseus’ legacy. He wishes that he was “the son of a happy man whom old age overtook in the midst of his possessions”(Homer) rather than not having Odysseus there, and carry the burden of his name.

            What Odysseus did not know when he spoke to Agamemnon about Orestes, the reader does. Throughout the story, starting at the council of the gods, Orestes story is told over and over again. Agamemnon’s wife, Clytemnestra had taken a lover, Aegisthus, while Agamemnon was at the Trojan War. Upon Agamemnon’s return Aegisthus and Clytemnestra slaughtered Agamemnon and his men. Orestes, in honoring the legacy of his father, sought revenge and justice. He killed his mother and her lover and reclaimed the glory of his father’s name and enhanced it with his own deeds. Orestes story is the pinnacle when it comes to honoring the family legacy and one’s father. Orestes did what most Greek sons of age would do, which is protect the legacy of his father. The mother, being a women was less important than a man, tarnished Agamemnon’s name by taking on a lover and then murdering her husband. The only way to give the legacy its rightful place back was to punish the wrongdoers. As a son his duty was chiefly to maintain the legacy of the ancestors and remember the tradition and history they created before him. Though the Furies went after Orestes, the Greeks still used the tale to show how important restoring the legacy was. Even at the price of death, which, with the discussion earlier, shows is not as important as legacy since the afterworld is not a goal to the ancient Greek people.

            Telemachus, before his own journey, feels the pressure of living up to the duties of a son. He exclaims how he wishes his father to be just an ordinary man. However, after Athena tells Telemachus he needs to journey to find news of his father and to take care of the mess with the suitors he sees the responsibility he has to fulfill his family duties, and he also sees the honor in it. In fact, Athena, under the guise of Mentes, uses Orestes story to inspire Telemachus. This story and being told he looks like Odysseus gives Telemachus the strength to take on the responsibility of being the son of Odysseus. Telemachus being told that he resembles his father is important because, in ancient times, there were no DNA tests. Especially when your father has been at war a son’s whole life, it is impossible for a son to see the resemblance of looks or personality, or character. Mentes, an old family friend, saying that Telemachus reminded him of Odysseus makes Telemachus believe more so that his father is his father.

            These episodes give the viewpoint of the son, whereas the Hades episodes give the viewpoint of the father. The son is under tremendous pressure to honor his father and the legacy of the family. They are aware, through cultural traditions, that the legacy is the main aspiration of their ancestor’s lives and it is also how they, themselves, will live on. Going back to a point in the introduction, legacy was akin to the currency of the time period. It was part of every business transaction and business experience. More so, it was also part of everyday life, introductions were made by retelling of the family heritage. Legacy was a part of every facet of Greek culture and this is why it meant everything to them. Telemachus showing how the pressure affects him, in reality, shows the reader how important legacy actually was to the whole Greek culture. It is through honoring your father’s legacy and making it your own, along with other rituals, that a boy becomes a man. Today, a man is distinguished by providing for himself and his family. In ancient Greek times, a man could not sustain business and provide for a family until he proved his worth to the family legacy. It is because of this social structure that honoring your family’s legacy helped the transition from boy to man.

            But what happens in a tribal, war culture when the boy becomes a man, overtakes the running of the household and then the father comes back from war looking to regain control? Homer’s tale answers this question in the last part of The Odyssey. In Book XXI Odysseus and Telemachus begin to lay their plan to trap the suitors. Telemachus, informs all the suitors that his mother will marry the man who can string Odysseus’ bow and shoot an arrow through twelve axe handles. It is Penelope, through Athena’s intervention, that instigates this challenge (Homer). Telemachus does this because the legend holds the only person who can do this is Odysseus, himself, and that Odysseus is among the suitors under the disguise of a beggar. What is most interesting part of this episode is not the revelation of Odysseus to the suitors or the battle afterward but, rather, a soundless exchange that happens between Telemachus and Odysseus.

Telemachus has tried three times to string the bow but failed. It is on the fourth time that he gets dangerously close to stringing it. At this moment Odysseus shakes his head and stops Telemachus from winning the test. If Telemachus wins the test, it would most likely solve the suitor problem. Since no suitor was able to be the first to do it, no suitor marries Penelope. However, it brings up the problem of Telemachus marrying his own mother. These are all problems that the reader can draw out on paper, but is not mentioned by Homer. Homer only infers another problem, a bigger problem. If Telemachus strings the bow that can only be strung by his father, then his father’s legacy is diminished. Think of it like this. Odysseus is known for many things, one of them being the only person to have the strength to string this particular bow and to also shoot it through twelve axe handles. If his son were to do it also, Odysseus would not be the only one. His strength and accuracy would not be so special because more than one person did it. That is why Odysseus stops his son from accomplishing the task, in the text by the glare from Odysseus. That and Homer’s idea for a more dramatic ending.

From Telemachus’ perspective, there is a reason he tries to string the bow. If his father was not there he most likely would not have tried to string the bow at all, as the prize was his mother’s hand in marriage. Why attempt it if not to show someone your strength. One could argue it was to show the suitors his strength, a “I could have kicked your butt without my Dad” type of act. However, Odysseus tells Telemachus to stop by shaking his head. If Telemachus was not looking at his father while he was stringing the bow he never would have gotten the signal and stopped. So it is accurate to assume Telemachus was looking at Odysseus. There is no other reason to be looking at Odysseus while he was stringing the bow then to make sure Odysseus was watching and to say with his expression, “look Dad!” If this was to show the suitors would he not have looked at Antinous, the greatest of the suitors?

This shows the dynamic of Odysseus and Telemachus’ relationship, one that was common for a tribal, war culture in Greece at that time. Although many homecomings were not as Hollywood as Odysseus’, many fathers came home from war to find their son or sons running the household like the father. This was the son’s duty, to honor the father by keeping the family going.  The issue is that with the sons taking over the roles of the fathers, what role does the father take when he returns home. Homer suggests that the father must overpower the son in some way. In his narrative it was through Odysseus’s refusal to let his son string the bow and his eventual stringing of the bow himself. This action lets the reader know and Telemachus know that Odysseus is still in charge. This was a common occurrence in ancient Greece and shows the dynamics of the father and son relationship.

            Like most literature does, Homer’s The Odyssey shows a snapshot of Greek tribal culture in ancient Greece. The tale directly and indirectly shows rituals of the people and their traditions. It shows what they valued in their culture, such as hospitality and legacy. The father and son relationships throughout the book are insight into legacy. It shows how it works, how important it is, and how it is transferred. Homer’s story shows how fathers believe their afterlife is not in Hades but in the carrying on of their story. Homer also shows how the sons feel pressure from the duty of carrying on the name and what is expected of the son. Finally, he shows how fathers coming home from war had trouble integrating back into the house hold power system.

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1 Comment
  1. Posted May 31, 2011 at 9:48 pm

    This didn’t help me with anything! Was a good article but what about Laertes, Poseidon and Polyphemus, Nestor and Pisistratus, and Eupheites and Antinous????

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