The Odyssey: Book 1 lines 221-229

These lines contain both Athena/Mentes‘ reply to Telemachus and her startled question about what the suitors are doing. Although this section consists of just a few lines, it encapsulates much about ancient Greek culture.

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In the first three lines, Athena reminds Telemachus of his duties to his mother Penelope by stating that she is not “from some nameless clan”. In other words, Telemachus’ mother Penelope is a great woman in her own right. I was going to use this to highlight that the religion and cultural attitudes of ancient Greece were hardly egalitarian. The concept of a hero, a godlike human, entails the idea that some people are better than others. That theme does run throughout the Odyssey so that the suitors are seen as “uppity” in the sense of aspiring to a social status to which they are intrinsically not suited. Yet at the same time these lines raise what is to me a more intriguing question. Namely the ancient Greeks are notorious for misogynistic attitudes and customs toward women. The Hellenistic “rape plays”, especially those written by the playwright Menander, are well known and remain an active subject of Classical research. Other less notorious examples of Greek misogyny abound, and yet here we have Penelope in the Odyssey as a smart cunning woman who is fully respected in her own right. She is not just sitting in Ithaca waiting for her husband to come home, but she is frustrating the efforts of would be rebels as she outsmarts those men day after day. Penelope is portrayed as very much the wily feminine counterpart to our hero Odysseus. So certainly Greek attitudes could not have been monolithically misogynistic because of the central role the Homeric epics played in ancient Greek society and its thought. Penelope too is a heroine in the Odyssey; she is not just a mindless “good wife” who serves no role apart from as an object for the hero and others, but Penelope is somebody whom we the audience are expected to respect in her own right.

In the rest of this section, Athena asks incredulously about the behavior of the suitors. Pointedly she asks if they are celebrating a wedding or a religious festival and, if not, why the suitors do not vent their desire to have a fun meal by the normal and socially accepted outlet of the time– taking a picnic. The behavior is both repulsive and imprudent. Athena foreshadows the indignation that Odysseus, the ever prudent man, will feel when he comes discreetly into his house later to see what is going on in his absence.

Nemesis

The close use of the verbs ὑβρίζοντες and νεμεσσήσαιτο in this context, especially in the mouth of the goddess Athena, strongly and purposely invokes the ancient Greek concept of the classic tragic cycle of ὕβρις, ἄτη and Νέμεσις– in English, hubris, ate and nemesis. Throughout Classical Greek literature the theme of this cycle occurs again and again, Oedipus Tyrranus by Sophocles being perhaps the most famous example. One should understand how central the notion of this cycle, viewed as a chain of cause and effect, was to Classical Greek thought; it encapsulates the mechanism of divine justice in ancient Greek religion and pious constraints on human behavior. Hubris has been characterized as excessive pride, and in a sense this rendering is correct, but hubris is really more than that. It entails wantonness, especially violence. Hubris is not just an insolent or arrogant attitude but the behavior it engenders.  For a time one might get away with it, but inevitably hubris leads to ate, the act of folly. The word denotes infatuation in the sense of a lack of clear thinking. Initially, the hubristic individual might do things which are or could be justifiable, but inevitably he will do something which is not justifiable by any means. That act in turn leads to nemesis, the destruction or poetic justice which the individual thus brings onto himself. We the audience are seeing the hubris of the suitors. When Odysseus returns to Ithaca in disguise later, we will see the suitors commit ate by their ill treatment of him, and the slaughter of the suitors and their supporters as rebels by Odysseus and his supporters will conclude the epic inevitably.

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