Homer: The European Bible, Part 3


John William Waterhouse, “Penelope and the Suitors”

1,744 words

Part 3 of 3. Read Part 1 here [2], Part 2 here [3].

Translated by Greg Johnson

The Odyssey: The Place of Man in the Cosmos

The second of the great Poems recounts, in 12,000 verses and 24 books, the difficult return of Ulysses to his fatherland. A return opposed by a thousand terrifying obstacles. The Odyssey is thus a poem of homecoming and of justified vengeance.

But the Odyssey is more than that. Under narrative pretexts different from Iliad, the second poem suggests the “worldview” suitable for Hellenes. It shows the place of man in nature and in relation to the mysterious forces that order it.

Putting mortals in harmony with the cosmic order is at the heart of the Homeric poems. But Homer’s Heaven is placed beyond the primitive times of the foundation of cosmos evoked by the old myths, whose contents were formalized in Hesiod’s Theogony: the confrontation of Ouranos and Cronos, the combat of the Olympian gods and their victory over the Titans. From all that, the Poet retains only the Olympian light, without worrying about building a coherent system. In Homer, the coherence is not in the discourse. It is in himself.

The departure from and return to the cosmic order form the framework of the Odyssey. Ulysses unintentionally provokes Poseidon’s anger by blinding his son the Cyclops Polyphemus. This is the way of man’s destiny. Unintentionally, we provoke the anger and the punishment of the gods (representations of the forces of nature). Thus we must fight and endure their torments to return to the harmony we have lost.

This is the fate of Ulysses. Facing the terrifying tests imposed by Poseidon, who plunged him into a world of chaos, monsters (Scylla and Charybdis), and of possessive or perverse nymphs (Calypso, Circe, the Sirens)—not to mention a visit to the realm of the dead—the navigator tirelessly fights to escape the traps and to find his place in the order of the world. Thrown into mortal peril, Ulysses will spend ten years returning home.

This is not merely the pretext for Homer to charm his audience with fantastic stories. The long voyage of Ulysses is drawn by the invincible desire of men, the “eaters of bread,” to escape chaos and find an orderly cosmos. No doubt the love for Penelope and longing for Ithaca are at the heart of his desire to return. But they merely exemplify the hope to again fit in to the order of the world. Having found and reconquered his fatherland, Ulysses will be able to reestablish in the chain of generations, a fragment of eternity.

In the last sequence, every step of the reconquest of Ithaca is imprinted in the memory up to the massacre of the “suitors” (usurper of Ithaca). How the hero is recognized by his son Telemachus and how they weave a meticulous plan of revenge. How Ulysses arrives at his manor, disguised as a beggar, who is recognized only by his old dog Argos, who dies of joy. How he is recognized by his nurse, Eurykleia, who sees an old scar, a souvenir of a memorable boar hunt. And then there is Penelope, anxious, worried, inquisitive. Then comes the moment of just vengeance in an orgy of bloodshed. And reunion with Penelope is finally possible. Then Athena intervenes, which delays the arrival of “rosy fingered” Dawn, so that the night of the return lasts longer . . .

In the Odyssey, Homer does not only laud the memory of the heroes. He glorifies Eurykleia, Ulysses’ nurse, and Eumaios, his swineherd, two subordinate characters who are nevertheless exemplars of intelligence and fidelity. Their role in the reconquest of Ithaca is capital. Thanks to Homer, they live on today.

The Poem of Womanhood Respected

Because of the marked presence of Penelope, the Odyssey is also the poem of independent and respected womanhood. When Penelope appears in the great hall of the palace of Ithaca, grand and beautiful, her brilliant veils drawn back on her cheeks, liked golden Aphrodite, the knees of the “suitors” go weak and desire invades their hearts (Odyssey, Book XVIII, 249).

Lover, wife, and mother, Penelope takes charge of the small kingdom of Ithaca in the absence of Ulysses, a sign of the consideration given to womanhood. Many other women are present in Homer. In the Iliad, Helen, Andromache, Hecuba, and Briseis. In the Odyssey, Helen again, Calypso, and charming Nausicaa. But Penelope eclipses all, except perhaps Helen, who is in a class by herself.

Like women of our time, Penelope had to develop the knack of remaining feminine in a social world dominated by male values. She remains beautiful and desirable in spite of time. She also knows the importance of modesty to live in the company of men. When tormented too much, she takes refuge in sleep, under Athena’s watch. Against the avid pack of suitors, she does not use masculine violence. She charms, smiles, and invents the stratagem of the perpetually rewoven shroud, turning to her advantage the cupidity of which she is the object, and that perhaps does not displease her.

However, with the return of Ulysses, the craftiest of men, she deceives him somewhat as well, pretending not to recognize him even after he massacred the “suitors” with the assistance of their son Telemachus. He will first have to prove his identity by the test of the secret of the conjugal bed, before she agrees to be given to him. In which sacred story of other cultures can one find the equivalent of Penelope and her radiant femininity?

The Political Order of the Shield of Achilles

Behind the story, there is also a vision of the world and life that awakens the memory of a lost wisdom. In Homer, the forests, the rocks, the wild beasts have souls. The whole of nature merges with the sacred, and men are not isolated from it.

If the cosmos is the model for Homer’s world, the model of society is found in the allegory of Achilles’ shield forged by Hephaestus (Iliad, Book XVIII). Depicted there are two cities, one in peace, the other in war, the two faces of life. One sees that the Greek city to come, with its citizens, institutions, and reciprocal duties, is already present in the Homeric world. Hector says explicitly that he dies for the freedom of his fatherland (Iliad, VI, 455–528).

The foundation of social organization and civil peace is the ethnic unity of the city and respect for the laws guaranteed by tradition. Men are happy in a happy society, one that always remains the same, where one marries as one’s ancestors married, where one plows and harvests as one always plowed and harvested. Individuals pass, but the city remains.

As Marcel Conche stresses, a society that can read its future in its past is a society at rest, without concern. This permanence grounds a sense of security. But innovations, “progress” will bring disorder. When one dreams of the ideal city and better days to come, everyone’s peace of mind is destroyed. Then dissatisfaction with oneself and the world predominates. What, on the contrary, is illustrated on the shield of Achilles, is a happy society, filled with love of life, as it has always been. The weddings are joyous, equity reigns, civic friendship is shared by all. When war comes, the city closes ranks and mounts the ramparts. The enemy has not a single ally in the place. What peace of mind!

Destiny Commands both Gods and Men

Homer’s heroes are not, however, models of perfection. They are prone to error and excess in proportion to their vitality. They pay the price, but they are never subject to a transcendent justice punishing sins defined by a code foreign to life. Neither the pleasures of the senses or of force, nor the joys of sexuality are likened to evil.

In Book III of the Iliad (161–75), the too beautiful Helen is invited by old king Priam onto the walls of Troy, in order to show her the two armies, for a truce had just been concluded. Quite conscious of being the involuntary cause of the war, Helen groans, saying that she would rather be dead. Priam then responds with an infinite gentleness that surprises us to this day: “No, my daughter, you are not guilty of anything. It is the gods who are responsible for it all!” What delicacy and high-mindedness from the old king, whose sons will all be killed. But what generous wisdom also, which releases human beings from the guilt that so often overpowers other beliefs.

In placing these words in the mouth of Priam, Homer does not say that men are never responsible for the misfortunes that strike them. He shows elsewhere how much vanity, desire, anger, folly, and other failings can cause calamities. But in the specific case of this war, as in many wars, he stresses that everything escapes the will of men. It is the gods, fate, or destiny that decides.

History teaches us how judicious this interpretation is. How can one not be struck by its wisdom, when so many religions claim that human beings and their supposed sins are the cause of all the disasters of which they are victims, including earthquakes?[1]

But the words of Priam have a broader meaning still. They suggest that in the life of man, many of one’s imagined faults are actually caused by fate. This distance regarding the mysteries of existences, this respect for others are constants in the Homeric poems. This goes to show the very high level of civility and wisdom of the world Homer describes, by comparison to which ours often seems barbaric.

Homer thus bequeathed us, in their unaltered purity, our models and principles of life: nature as foundation, excellence as goal, beauty as horizon, the mutual respect of man and woman. The Poet reminds us that we were not born yesterday. He restores the foundations of our identity, the paramount expression of an ethical and aesthetic inheritance that is “ours,” that he held in trust. And the principles that he brought to life in his models never cease to reappear to us, proof that the hidden thread of our tradition could not be broken.


[1] One thinks of the famous interpretations of the tidal waves that destroyed Lisbon in 1755, inspired by what the Bible says of Sodom and Gomorrah, destroyed, it is said, because of the immorality of their inhabitants . . .