Homer’s Odyssey in Ancient Greece’s Reality

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Words: 1168

Ancient Greece stands out significantly among all other civilizations of its time due to its cultural development. The work of Greek philosophers, scientists, and writers countless times served as an inspiration to a younger ancient Rome, Europe, and consequently the whole world. Such tendency effectively showcases the definition of the term “classic.” Ancient Greece’s theories, principles, and literature do not lose their relevance as a source of wisdom even nowadays and thus are being studied and used almost ubiquitously. The same is the case with Homer’s poem Odyssey, which can be either an entertaining reading for children or a unique option for research to sneak a peek into the society of that time. It might present little reliable geographical evidence or only mere hints of the social stratification seen, for example, in the behavior of noble Antinous toward beggars.1 However, Odyssey truly shines in the way of resembling the ancient Greek worldviews: a strong emphasis on personal renown or glory, referred to as kleos, generous hospitality, called xenia, widespread superstitions, and an overwhelming fatalism.

In ancient Greece, an individual’s reputation was a factor of great importance. Kleos often appears as a leitmotif throughout Greek mythology and literature, and Odyssey is not an exception. For example, at the end of chapter nine, where Odysseus and his crew encountered and successfully escaped a cyclops. Afterward, Odysseus boldly shouts out his name, title, ancestry, and origin to “secure” the deed after himself.2 In chapter eleven, Achilles also raises the topic of kleos, although in a somewhat ambivalent manner. On the one hand, he clearly states that he would rather live a long and uneventful life as a hired laborer than die in youth for glory.3 On the other hand, he is delighted to hear that his son proved himself as a great warrior.4 These examples showcase the prideful side of kleos, which is in this context used as a boost to a person’s level of self-esteem. Ancient Greek mythology strongly emphasized heroic personalities, so it is only logical for ordinary people to try to prove themselves in an attempt to become closer to renowned idols.

Nevertheless, kleos has another, more meaningful application – it might be the best way to draw Gods’ attention. Athena, known to be the goddess of wisdom and war, favored Odyssey for many reasons, such as his wits, cunning, and previous feats at Troy. In other words, she acknowledged his kleos. With the same logic, she encouraged Thelemacus, Odyssey’s son, to embark on a journey for the news about Odyssey’s whereabouts. Despite Thelemacus showing personal growth on this journey, Athena admits in chapter 13, that her intention was for him to earn a reputation.5 Although, Gods’ attention could occur in both positive and negative ways.

The ancient Greece people’s belief in Gods was extraordinarily strong. Its influence produced admiration and fear in an equal manner, consequently creating conventional norms and obligations. Zeus, the leader of the Greek pantheon, was known to be a protector of strangers. Thus, one of the essential obligations was the concept of xenia, which implied a friendly and hospitable attitude toward foreigners. It can be seen in a way how Phaeacians treat Odyssey while he recovers from his tiresome journey. In chapter thirteen, they even exceed the usual limits of hospitality, providing Odyssey with a ship filled with gifts that brings him directly to Ithaca, his homeland.6 Xenia applied not only to hosts, though, but to foreigners themselves too. The relationship between the host and the guest created by this ritual of hospitality was reciprocal and benefitted both sides materially and otherwise. With this connotation, Thelemacus had to provide a sound reason for his swift departure from Pylos in chapter 15 not to be deemed ungrateful and impolite.7 Meanwhile, Menelaus proved to be a commendable, gods-fearing man by inviting Thelemacus to stay longer.

Ancient Greek gods-fearing nature also shows itself in their belief in superstitions. Various events, coincidences, and dreams were treated as omens sent by Gods to warn mortals of the future to come. Homer skillfully utilized gradation in the omens he described – the closer it is to the end of the poem, the more pronounced those omens become. In chapter 15, when Thelemacus is about to leave for Ithaca, an eagle flies over him, carrying a goose in its talons.8 People who saw the eagle compared it to Odyssey executing his revenge. Later, in chapter 19, Penelope, the Odyssey’s wife, sees an identical omen in her dream, although the vision is far more violent.9 Finally, in chapter 20, Odyssey is hesitant about the success of his plan, so he seeks support in his prayer to Zeus. He asks the god for a sign, and Zeus responds with a thunderclap loud enough to wake up maidservants.10 Odyssey knew that gods had decided the future by that moment so that he could hesitate no more.

There is a sign of absolute fatalism in every feature mentioned so far. People sought gods’ favor because they believed the gods were the only ones responsible for the future. The proof can be found in the gods’ capricious nature when they decide whether to support or undermine people’s plans. For example, the cyclops tricked by Odyssey turned out to be the son of Poseidon, whose wrath eventually cost Odyssey all his ships and crewmembers.11 Moreover, people do not necessarily have to invoke a god’s wrath to pay the dear price. In chapter 13, Zeus allowed to sink a Phaeacian ship despite them being true to the xenia custom – he preferred not to argue with Poseidon.12 Even Athena, the goddess of wisdom, felt no need to distinguish the imposters in the face of Odyssey’s revenge. Thus, she condemned the only person amongst them who invoked compassion all the same.13 To conclude, words like destiny or fate truly concerned people in ancient Greece to the extent that they felt utterly helpless.

Homer’s Odyssey provides an insight into the lifestyle of ancient Greeks – they honored kleos, had their moral code and complied with customs, believed in superstitions, and, most importantly, thought they did not control their lives. An individual’s success was measured with earned reputation and glory; gods might even approach the most successful ones. Breaking customs was not only a sign of discourtesy and impoliteness, but it also meant the disobeying of gods’ will in certain aspects. Different omens and coincidences were interpreted as prophecies in an attempt to foresee upcoming events. However, a person could never be entirely sure of the final outcome since the decision was always in the hands of almighty entities who shaped the world at their bidding. Such a fatalistic attitude might indicate how weak was the people’s understanding of the world around them, even despite their efforts and certain achievements. Looking back at the rich mythology of ancient Greece, it is possible to see the progress humanity has made over the last two thousand years. No one has yet proved the gods’ existence; however, the same applies to the opposite.


Homer. Odyssey. Translated by Ian Johnston. Nanaimo: Vancouver Island University, 2006.


  1. Homer, Odyssey, trans. Ian Johnston (Nanaimo: Vancouver Island University, 2006), 17:483-484.
  2. Homer, 9:664-666.
  3. Homer, 11:624-628.
  4. Homer, 11:695-696.
  5. Homer, 13: 519-520.
  6. Homer, 13: 53-54.
  7. Homer, 15: 120-122.
  8. Homer, 15: 161-162.
  9. Homer, 19: 675-680.
  10. Homer, 20: 122-124.
  11. Homer, 9: 700-706.
  12. Homer, 13: 186-192.
  13. Homer, 18: 200-201.