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The Odyssey: Revenge is Sweet

This lesson is a part of an audio course Why Read Homer's "Odyssey" by Robert Garland

In order to come to terms with the ending of the Odyssey, we have to try to understand the very special culture that produced it. I mentioned at the beginning of this course that one of the most important features of it was the emphasis upon the oikos, the family, and household. The oikos was central to Greek society. It was the basic building block of Greek society. And for that same reason, it had to be preserved at all costs. Which is why, when someone or rather 108 people, seek to undermine its integrity and stability, there's nothing more deserving of revenge. So when Odysseus returns, he slaughters all the suitors. He doesn't bring them before a caught of law. It's not clear what system of justice prevailed on Ithaca. But I think it's pretty obvious that even if there was some justice system he could appeal to, he would still wreak vengeance his own way, and we, his audience, would thoroughly approve. In fact, we'd be cheering. Odysseus doesn't only slaughter the suitors, however. He and Telemachus hang all the slave girls who have slept with the suitors. In fact, one of the reasons why he maintained his disguise was to distinguish the loyal slaves from the disloyal slaves. Among his faithful slaves are Eumaeus, the swineherd, and Eurycleia, his old nurse. Incidentally, it's Eurycleia who first recognises him when she's washing him, by a scar on his leg. That's a lovely touch on Homer's part. It shows the closeness between master and slave, which is replicated in the relationship between Eumaeus and Telemachus. It's also a nice touch that the bard Phemius is spared, since he only performed on behalf of the suitors "by compulsion." It's nice to see Homer protecting his own, so to speak. Bards are good people, he seems to be saying. Odysseus gets the disloyal slave women to clean up the mess from his killing spree before he hangs them. Homer compares them to thrushes or pigeons fluttering their wings as their heads are placed in the nooses, all in a long line. Their feet struggled briefly but not for a long time, is the picture he gives us of their death. It's a curiously haunting image, the feet twitching, and it seems to evoke some sympathy. On some level, these women, too, are victims, we might argue. Were they really free to resist the suitors' advances? The scene always leaves an unpleasant taste in my mouth.

This is not the end of the poem. There's still Book 24, and Book 24 presents problems. An Alexandrine scholar called Aristophanes – not the comic poet but a different Aristophanes – Homer's Odyssey, actually ended Book 24 at line 296. That's after the reunion with his father Laertes. What follows after that is a bloodbath. The relatives of the suitors plan their revenge on Odysseus, so a battle takes place. Even old Laertes dons armour and fights in the battle. So the poem ends with a traditional battle of the sort that Homer describes in the Iliad. Eventually, Athena steps in and tells Odysseus to hold off, and the war ends.

Is this how Homer actually ended his poem? It seems like an anticlimax. I'm actually with Aristophanes. I think it would be much better to end the poem at line 296. Or even – to end the poem at the end of Book 24 with the reunion between Penelope and Odysseus.

But either way, there is a strain of violence with the slaughter of the suitors and the execution of the disloyal slaves that may offend some stomachs. And just one more point. When O begins the narrative of his adventures in the court of the Phaeacians, He says, "From Ilion, I was driven by the wind to Ismaros, where the Kikonians live, I sacked their city, killed the inhabitants, seized all their possessions and their women and divided them out so that none of my men should go without." It's a thruway line delivered without justification or any sense that this was a terrible thing to do. A minor act of genocide, we might say.

So we've reached the end of the Odyssey but not the end of this course. Two more lectures to go. I hope I've made a case for why the Odyssey has survived. In the next lesson, we're going to talk about how the Odyssey has survived for 2700 years.

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Written by

Robert Garland