The Odyssey: The Use of Revenge within Greek Mythology

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8th Feb 2020 Classics Reference this

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 The role of gods and goddesses within the affairs of humans can be seen as a recurring subject throughout Greek mythology. The divinities involvement and relation within mortal affairs is tremendously prominent within works such as The Odyssey. Humankind within The Odyssey is demonstrated to have a strong connection with the Greek gods, in which the hero, Odysseus, is continuously affected and guided by the many moods, grudges, and flaws of the divinities. With Homer’s work, readers observe a commonality in which the anger of the gods is performed upon mortals, due to revenge. The theme of revenge is integrated into these myths as a cautionary tale to mortals in being wry of wronging the gods. This convoluted sense of justice implemented by the divinities as the status quo, and a part of Greek life. Additionally, with the revenge, we see enacted by the gods, it is often times directed to innocent parties. Through revenge, it brings forth transformation—whether in a physical or metaphorical change.

The Gods Revenge Upon Mortals

Within Homer’s work, The Odyssey, the tale of man’s struggle and journey back home from the Trojan War is intertwined with the themes of revenge and receiving the consequences of such vengeance. With the theme of revenge, it acts as an explanation for Odysseus’ extensive and grueling trek home. A few examples of vengeance covered within Homer’s writing is illustrated through Zeus’ revenge on Odysseus and his crew. Odysseus and his men were warned, by the gods themselves, to not eat the cattle of the sun-god, Helios, on the island of Thrinakia. Even though it was not the fault of Odysseus (but of Eurylochus), since he himself wanted to bypass the island due to the temptation of hunger it would cause his men, Helios still insisted to Zeus that punishment should befall on Odysseus.

‘Father Zeus, and other blessed gods who are forever, make the comrades of Laertiades Odysseus pay a price, who killed my cattle wantonly, the cattle in whom I delighted, when I went to starry heaven and when I’d turn back again from heaven to the earth. Unless they pay me fitting compensation for my cattle, I’ll go down to the house of Hades and shine among the dead!’ Cloud-gatherer Zeus said to him in reply: ‘Yes, Helios, keep shining among immortals and mortal men upon grain-giving farmland, and I’ll strike their ship soon with white lightning’[1]

With Zeus’vengeful response, by striking Odysseus ship thus killing his men, the readers of the epic gauge on the severity of the god’s wrath when disobeying a god—no matter if the individual had a direct hand in the act. Furthemore, another key occurrence that revenge plays a hand in is the encounter of Odysseus and Polyphemus the cyclops, son of Poseidon. Thus, Poseidon’s revenge is the key event is what ultimately delays Odysseus tremendously on his journey back home. When Odysseus and his men attempt to steal subsistence from Polyphemus, while he is attending to his flock, the mission becomes foiled when Polyphemus returns and traps the mortal men within the cave—“As it turned out, he’d be no welcome sight for my comrades. We lit a fire, made an offering to the gods, helped ourselves to the cheese and ate, sat down inside and waited for him…he lit a fire, caught sight of us, and asked: ‘Who are you, strangers? From where did you sail the watery ways?… Stranger, you’re a fool, or come from far away’… threw his hands upon my comrades…He cut them through them, limb by limb, and prepared dinner”.[2]  In defense, the ensuing events result in the blinding of the cyclops[3] by Odysseus and his men, and the enragement of the god Poseidon. Consequently, the god of the sea enacts his revenge on innocent bystanders—such as the Phaeacians. Their single transgression is following the Greek norms of hospitality and generosity, Xenia (Guest-Host relationship) and sailing Odysseus back home. Upon Poseidon’s realization that Odysseus came out unharmed and unscathed within the destruction of the ship, only then does the god of sea release his frustration towards the Phaeacians. The implementation of revenge by the gods is demonstrated to be very personal in nature. Poseidon made certain that the suffering assigned to Odysseus was more intense after the suffering of his son, Polyphemus. Even after the initial distress that Odysseus had been through, like the loss of his men, his inability to make it back home to his wife and son, and the overall danger he was constantly exposed to, Poseidon still saw it fit to pass further revenge due to the prideful nature of the gods. Moreover, the bruised ego of the god of the sea seeks to explain the extraordinary vengeful nature towards Odysseus, “When the gods spun his destiny to return home to Ithaca, but he wasn’t safe from trials there…All the gods felt pity for him expect Poseidon…‘But come, let all of us contrive his return for him, as he wishes. Poseidon will let go of his anger, for he’ll no way be able to contend alone”.[4] When vengeance is executed by a god, it seems to characterize a personal form of petty justice, self-gratification, and discipline to obtain the respect initially not given.

Mortals Use of Revenge

 When vengeance is accomplished by a mortal, such as Odysseus, it is also illustrated to be the avenging of the lack of loyalty and disrespect by other mortals. Odysseus’ will to enact revenge upon the suitors that evaded his home, and demonstrated disrespect towards the moral code of Xenia, is what drives him to accomplish his journey home. His killing of the suitor’s leader, Antinous, is solidified in the reasoning of revenge—in order to avenge the lack of respect shown towards his property, family, and also lack of loyalty he received.[5] Additionally, it is also the theme of revenge that motivates the son of Odysseus, Telemachus, to excel during his period of coming of age, and to ultimately be the representative of his father while he was away—“For I would have struck you in the middle with a sharp spear…Therefore, let no one exhibit disgraceful conduct in my house, for by now I know and notice everything, the good things and the worse ones…But come, no longer do me evils in your hostility”.[6] Furthermore, by Telemachus taking control of this household affairs, due to the atrocious behaviors of the suitors, he is thus letting feelings of vengeance influence his actions to sequentially usurp the power of the dominant men residing in his home. Such emotion gives way to an immediate change in demeanor for Telemachus and resolution in what had to be done to rid of the suitors. With the emotion of vengeance, Telemachus transforms from a scared and unsure young man to a man willing to murder to defend and maintain his household.

How Does the Use of Revenge Differ?

With the theme of revenge evidently present within the epic of The Odyssey, it would seem as if there is a correlation between vengeance and a warped sense of justice being carried out. Additionally, with the god’s display of revenge, readers see it as a driving force behind the majority of the consequences mortal kind had to endure. Through the divinities anger and vengeance, we witness physical change, such as the destruction and killings of property and Odysseus’ men. It is depicted as jealous and petty rage. On the other hand, with the illustration of mortal revenge throughout The Odyssey, readers of the epic witness underlying themes of the honoring of moral codes, such as Xenia and loyalty, through vengeance. Consequently, the theme of revenge within the epic signifies the human-like characteristic that both the Greek gods and mortals share.

Bibliography

  • Homer. “The Odyssey.” The Chicago Homer. Accessed May 10, 2019. http://homer.library.northwestern.edu/html/application.html.

[1] Homer. “The Odyssey.” The Chicago Homer, 12. 377-387.

[2] Homer. The Odyssey, 9. 230-291.

[3] Ibid, 9. 394.

[4] Ibid, 1. 17-79.

[5] Ibid, 22. 8.

[6] Ibid, 20. 306-314

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