Revenge in the Odyssey
Is revenge a meticulously detailed, clearly thought out process, or are there mitigating factors of rage that are always present – regardless of the situation? The question of revenge in Homer’s classic epic, “The Odyssey,” is how the aforementioned topic progresses. Does Odysseus exhibit factors of rage in his news of suitors’ malfeasance? Does Telemachus, prone to volatile outbursts, act with clear, prolonged, boarder-line sociopathic, rationalized rage? Or is revenge, in the eyes of the gods – and then father and son – justified? Revenge in the Odyssey is clearly defined and has specific impacts on Odysseus, Telemachus and the suitors.
To explain revenge: if it is justifiable, and how it blends with the concepts of rage or the severity of the infringement of one’s morals; we need to look at how the gods perceive the humans – because the opinions of the gods had an monumental impact on the effects of classical society. If the gods require a specific moral center of the humans, and the audience is expected to understand this concept, it has to occur in book one to give context for what is going to happen in the epic (mainly because that is the one of the only times they openly converse). Zeus speaks:
Ah how shameless – the way these mortals blame the gods.
From us alone, they say, come all their miseries, yes,
But they themselves, with their own reckless ways,
Compound their palms beyond their proper shame. (Homer, lines 37-40, 78)
Blame, miseries, recklessness, compounded palms and proper shames, all of these are ideas and concepts that connote clear images into our minds: Zeus dislikes the suitors. He finds them brash, impious and totally undeserving of the attention of the gods. This observation begs the question: why does he favor Odysseus?
Zeus, upon the pressing of Athena – who questions why he hasn’t done anything to help the forlorn king, tells his daughter that he respects Odysseus, in wisdom and in offerings. He says the only reason he hasn’t helped the king of Ithaca is because of Poseidon’s own issues with the king. Yet he, eventually, agrees with his daughter, stating the following:
But come, all of us here put heads together now,
Work out his journey home so Odysseus can return.
Lord Poseidon, I trust, will let his anger go.
How can he stand his ground against the will
Of all the gods at once – one god alone? (Homer, 1. 91-95).
The above passage provides the godly grounds for Odysseus’ and Telemachus’ tales. The pious Odysseus, and by transference, his son, have been dealt the raw hand for 20 years now. Odysseus has been stranded beside a goddess, desolate from all he cares about. His son deprived of any and all fatherly education, yearning to restore his land’s glory. Their common bond: an impending assault on Penelope, which would destroy the fabric of their lineage. Zeus and his fellow gods see this, and by the previous establishment of how Zeus feels about suitors stealing the wives of respected men, we now know that the gods deem them – Odysseus and Telemachus – just in the retaking of their kingdom.
But how does that translate to what happens to father and son while in the middle land between heaven and hell? The bard does not resign after the decree of the gods; we see Odysseus and Telemachus go through their own journeys because we are intended to see them. The struggles it takes them to get to the mede hall dining scene justify their actions. The rough, charred, juicy taste of the steak makes the cream and sugar of desert so sweet. That concept, alone, is why we need to hear the journey.
Telemachus is by far the most affected character in this story. He does not receive the attention of Penelope. He, unlike Odysseus, had to sit and witness his kingdom receive improper treatment, suitors tarnish the sanctity of his parents’ marriage bed and, as was stated earlier, he was deprived of his father’s tutelage for the majority of his life. It’s very understandable that he would have some issues. His motive for revenge lies in his mistreatment. We see the fierce velocity of his psyche when he utters the following:
I’ll cry out to the everlasting gods in hopes
That Zeus will pay you back with a vengeance – all of you
Destroyed in my house while I go scot-free myself! (Homer, 1. 435-437)
Foreshadowing runs rampant in this passage. In a rage-filled outburst we hear the first foreshadowing of fate uttered to the suitors. Telemachus will pray to the gods, he will, at one time in the future, take swords against the suitors; but the suitors just laugh him off, calling him arrogant and insignificant, holding themselves higher in significance and continue to plunder the land of someone who once provided so selflessly for them – a thing that Zeus utters utter disdains for in the previous part of the book. So the question is, “is this rage, or is this well thought out revenge?”
The first sign points to well thought out revenge. Previous to this conversation with the suitors, Telemachus speaks with a disguised as Mentes, Athena, who tells Telemachus of his still-living father, and how he should leave Ithaca for his own safety. Now, considering his action amongst the suitors, are we to believe that Telemachus acted in the room with the suitors in an effort to take revenge out of sheer, in-the-moment, rage? No. It’s improbable, it’s impossible. His conversation with Athena altered any sense of discussion making course.
But does that make him predestined to do the will of the gods in any future content? Does Telemachus, by the end of the play, develop a different decision-making process? He doesn’t. Telemachus, to his core, can be defined in the first passage he is presented next to his father. Homer writes:
Odysseus sat down again, and Telemachus threw his arms
Around his great father, sobbing uncontrollably
As the deep desire for tears welled up in both.
They cried out, shrilling cries, pulsing sharper
Than birds of prey – eagles, vultures with hooked claws –
When farmers plunder their nest of young too young to fly (Homer, 16. 244-248).
While Odysseus still has moments that need to be fulfilled after this, Telemachus reaches his point of growth with the return of father. The kingdom is being threatened with seizure because Odysseus isn’t there. His mother’s prestige is being violated because the king had not yet returned. His own personal stability was suspect because his dad was never there. All of these issues have the promised to be resolved with the return of Odysseus. The promise of resolution, in the eyes of past strife and rage moves one to feeling of valor and tact. At this point Telemachus knows that whatever is put into play will work out.
Odysseus’ story is vast, far-reaching and spans two decades. While he spent so long of a time getting home, yearning to see his friends and family, he now has to deal with the fact he will have to take care of unwanted nuisances in his home.
The interesting aspect of Odysseus’ story is how he compartmentalizes everything. He first learns of the suitors in Book 11 but he knows he cannot take action on it before he gets to Ithaca. He prioritizes each step of his journey; even in the faces of inscrutable tests by gods he remains undisturbed. He knew he could not feel the emotions of the situation (rage) because it would inhibit his ability to complete the journey. It wasn’t until Odysseus is confronted by his dog that we see the Odysseus’ cool, methodical approach to the issue begin to waver. Homer writes:
Odysseus glanced to the side
And flicked away a tear, hiding it from Eumaeus,
Diverting his friend in a hasty, offhand way: (Homer, 17. 333-335).
It’s almost gratifying to witness Odysseus exhibit some sort of emotion in the state of his dog, which serves the larger metaphor for his kingdom. This lets the reader/audience know that Odysseus isn’t a sociopath. He isn’t meticulous plotting unjustified revenge. He has been through a traumatic series of events and is taking every justified step towards regaining what is his.
The final transformation, the last bullet point, in Odysseus’ journey throughout revenge, is when, bow in hand, he tells the suitors of their transgressions. Odysseus says:
“You dogs! You never imagined I would return from Troy –
so cocksure that you bled my house to death,
ravished my serving women – wooed my wife
behind my back while I was still alive!
No fear of the gods who rule the skies up there,
no fear that men’s revenge will arrive someday –
Now all your necks are in the noose –your doom is sealed! (Homer, 22. 36-42).
The most important words spoken in the play, in this speech Odysseus justifies the topic of revenge. He condemns the suitors for not having a respect for his land after his suspected death. The speech, by all action-oriented accounts, is the climax of the work. Look at the language Odysseus uses in confronting the suitors: Cocksure, bleeding his house, ravishing his women – Odysseus plays the role of Loki, harnessing the wrath of the gods. Further, he rightly chastises the horde for having no fear of the gods – no fear that revenge for their looting will ever happen. That lack of fear is the god’s mitigating factor in allowing the pious Odysseus his revenge.
Revenge is tied very much to religion in the Odyssey. Is that the large overriding point Homer is making by telling this tale. Will the gods justify revenge for the pious people? Odysseus, and Telemachus – to an extent, in previously discussed content, exhibited all signs of reverence for the gods. The suitors, in their desire for vain, earthly opulence, disregarded the figures above. Homer, by all these accounts, is making the point for Piety. That if you stick with your faith, despite all the troubles of your journeys, you will be justly rewarded. In the case of Odysseus, his just reward was revenge on the suitors – which led to the return of his previous life and the justification of his, and Telemachus’, revenge.