Summer Reading: Homer’s Odyssey, Books 13-16

Last time, we discussed the famous wanderings of Books 9-12, but today we move on to Books 13-16:

Book 13: The Phaeacians are impressed by Odysseus’ tales and give him more gifts, before taking him to Ithaca on one of their ships. But Poseidon is furious that they have given aid to Odysseus, and with Zeus’ permission, he turns the Phaeacian ship to stone as it is returning home. Then, he threatens to enfold a mountain around Scheria, which would either cut the Phaeacians off from the world or destroy them entirely. The last time we see the Phaeacians, they are desperately praying to Poseidon. Their fate is unknown.

Odysseus wakes up on Ithaca. He encounters Athena, who is disguised as a local inhabitant, and he instantly launches into a false tale: he says he is a Cretan who has fled to Ithaca on account of a murder that he had committed. Athena reveals herself and praises Odysseus’ propensity for deception. The two make plans regarding how to exact revenge against the suitors. Athena then disguises Odysseus as an ugly beggar.

Athena disguises Odysseus as a beggar. 1775 painting by Giuseppe Bottani.

Book 14: The disguised Odysseus reaches the hut of Eumaios, the swineherd in charge of Odysseus’ pigs. Eumaios gives the “beggar” a humble meal, and the two exchange stories. The swineherd complains of the suitors’ behavior and of how they are consuming Odysseus’ livestock. The “beggar” says that Odysseus is surely on his way home, but Eumaios does not believe him.

Odysseus again fabricates a story: he says that he is a Cretan, who survived wars in Troy and Egypt, before being tricked and nearly sold into slavery twice. Only now in Ithaca has he escaped his enemies. But during the course of his journeys, the “beggar” has apparently heard news of Odysseus’ imminent return. Eumaios remains unconvinced.

Book 15: Athena goes to Sparta and urges Telemachus to return home; she also warns him of the suitors’ plan to kill him. Telemachus bids farewell to Menelaus and Helen, and returns to Pylos. He boards his ship and prepares to head back to Ithaca, but before he sets sail, he accepts Theoklymenos, a prophet on the run for killing a man, as a guest/suppliant.

Back in Eumaios’ hut, Odysseus continues to gather information about the situation in Ithaca. The swineherd recounts his own past and says he was the son of a king who ruled over a distant land. When he was young, he was kidnapped by a Phoenician pirates and sold to Odysseus’ father, Laertes, as a slave.

Book 16: Telemachus, after arriving back in Ithaca, goes to Eumaios’ hut, according to Athena’s instructions. She temporarily removes Odysseus’ disguise, so that he can reveal himself to Telemachus (though Eumaios remains unaware that his master has returned). Father and son are united for the first time, and they discuss how to handle the suitors.

In the meantime, the suitors realize that they have failed to kill Telemachus and try to figure out another way to get rid of him, but Penelope rebukes them.

So, what is significant about these sections of the Odyssey?

1) The actions of Poseidon and Zeus in Book 13 call into question the idea that there exists any true justice on the divine plane.

The Odyssey is often thought of as a poem of (somewhat brutal) justice, with Zeus punishing the companions for eating Helios’ cattle, the suitors being killed for their crimes, and the hero Odysseus emerging victorious with the help of the goddess Athena. Yet, the Phaeacians are also to be destroyed by a deity, despite the fact that they have done nothing wrong. Indeed, they have done what is considered just and right in aiding Odysseus, a suppliant deserving of xenia/hospitality.

Traditionally, Zeus is the guarantor of xenia, but here, he grants permission to Poseidon to punish the Phaeacians… for upholding the very same cultural value of hospitality which he himself is responsible for! What sort of system of divine justice is this, in which performing good acts leads to one’s destruction and just men are dissuaded from doing what is right by a threat of punishment?

Rather than thinking of a single, cohesive vision of cosmic justice which the Homeric gods collectively represent, we must imagine these deities as individual personalities, as beings representing different values and forces. So, while Zeus and Athena represent order, justice, and the final success of Odysseus, Poseidon represents chaos and the untamed natural forces in opposition to Odysseus.

What we can say, then, is that, yes, justice does exist within the context of civilization and orderly human society, but they cannot always hold back the savage, uncontrollable aspects of the natural world. Chaos and wildness must be respected, honored, and feared. Zeus, therefore, despite being the king of the gods and defender of justice, must accommodate the wishes of Poseidon.

2) Odysseus’ false tales, given to Athena and Eumaios, cause us to once again look suspiciously upon the stories of his wanderings told to the Phaeacians in 9-12.

These stories are undoubtedly fabricated, since Odysseus is obviously not from Crete. But if these tales are untrue, then how can we be sure that he told the Phaeacians the truth? If Odysseus can so quickly and easily invent false narratives, then is it possible that he has done the same with respect to his adventures in Books 9-12?

The answer is that Odysseus may have manipulated his narrative for his own advantage, but precisely which parts of his story have been falsified will probably remain a mystery.

3) Telemachus’ interaction with Theoklymenos (and Odysseus’ false tale of murder) reveal that the Homeric world has a different conception of law than what we have today in the modern age.

Imagine if a man were to approach you and beg for help, saying that he has killed a man and has people chasing after him. The natural response in today’s society would be to call the police and have the man arrested on charges of murder. But Telemachus does not turn Theoklymenos over to his pursuers; instead, he takes the fugitive back to Ithaca, where he gives him a safe place to stay. If someone were to do that today, he would be arrested for harboring a criminal!

The law of modern society is far-reaching. Murderers can flee across state lines in America and still be relentlessly pursued by police until their arrest. Anyone granting them safety is considered a criminal. But in ancient Homeric times, a killer who escapes to another town and finds a willing benefactor can escape punishment for his crimes.

The family of the victim may consider his murder a crime or a wrong, and they will no doubt seek vengeance, so long as it is in their power. But that is the extent of “law” in this ancient society: once Theoklymenos is beyond the reach of those who consider the killing to be a crime, then any law which would hold him accountable no longer seems to apply. Telemachus is not required to turn him in, as he would today; indeed, to help the fugitive is considered the right course of action.

Thanks for reading. Next time, we will move to Books 17-20, which feature the disguised Odysseus’ interactions with the suitors and with his wife, Penelope.


2 thoughts on “Summer Reading: Homer’s Odyssey, Books 13-16

  1. “Rather than thinking of a single, cohesive vision of cosmic justice which the Homeric gods collectively represent, we must imagine these deities as individual personalities, as beings representing different values and forces.”

    And this is why theodicy is so much easier in polytheism than in monotheism. If there is one all-powerful, all-loving deity, than the suffering of the righteous is harder to account for. In a system where different deities work at cross-purposes, suffering is easy to explain. In cases like this, humans just can’t win. Think of Hippolytus. It seems that in Greek thought, humans can’t satisfy all of the gods all of the time.

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