The Odyssey by the blind poet Homer offers helpful insight into the life of the ancient Greeks. Although Homer lived during the Greek Dark Ages (1000-750 B.C.), he based his stories on the Mycenaean Age (to 1000 B.C.). The Odyssey is the poignant tale of Ulysses, a valiant warrior, who is trying to get home from the Trojan Wars. The story includes information about Greece’s political structure, religious life, social structure, morality, and military structure.
The political structure is fairly clear through the narrative of Telemachus’ wanderings to find his father Ulysses. During the Mycenaean Age, Greece consisted f loosely allied kingdoms with only a common language. The local governments consisted of monarchies which were heavily dominated by the nobility. However, in the absence of the king, one went to the local assembly to plead one’s case before the elders of the city. The Achaean heroes in assembly had the right to hear civil cases and decide them. Telemachus went before them in hopes that they will help him get rid of the suitors who are trying to marry his mother, because they claim Ulysses is dead (Homer 4). Every man in the council had an equal vote. Decisions had to have a majority to be decided upon.
The religious life of the Greeks during the Mycenaean Age was extensive. Everyone revered the gods, and many quivered in fear of the gods’ wrath if they did anything to offend them. The main goddess in The Odyssey was Minerva, daughter of Jupiter. She portrayed the subtlety of the gods and the meddling bent that they displayed when it came to interfering with men’s lives. Ulysses credited Minerva for seeing him safely home and helping him defeat his enemies. Greeks during this time offered many kinds of sacrifices to the gods. The poor man’s sacrifice consisted of a drink offering. The rich nobles offered blood and animal sacrifices. The Greeks also had many occasions for offering sacrifices to the gods. They offered sacrifices to ask for a blessing, for weddings and children, and for safety on their journeys. Most often, they offered sacrifices whenever a visitor came to their door. Not only was this a sign of hospitality, but it also proved to the gods that they would protect the visitor since visitors were superstitiously thought to be messengers from the gods (Homer 42).
The social structure of the Greeks is obvious from The Odyssey’s story. The hierarchy followed consisted of gods, men, women, and slaves. Men showed physical greatness and honor in everything. In war time, they were to be great soldiers; in peace time, great athletes. Huge games involving foot races, wrestling, jumping, disc throwing, boxing, and dancing were often held for visitors (Homer 51, 54). Male bards sang songs of the gods and heroes. On the other hand, women had little say over their own lives. They managed the servants and the household while involving themselves in domestic affairs such as spinning and weaving cloth. If a woman’s husband died, she was forced to pick her next husband or go back to her father. Such was the choice Penelope had when everyone believes Ulysses is dead (Homer 4). Although the Greeks had slaves, class distinctions existed among the slaves themselves. The household slaves were considered a different class than those slaves who worked in the fields. Within the house, the Greeks had upper servants and lower servants who performed various functions (Homer 3).
Greece’s moral expectations are prominent through the book. The Greeks promoted honor, bravery, courage, and nobility. Their belief in arête as being a combination of excellence and nobility evidenced itself in Ulysses’ tales of his battles and adventures. The kings that Telemachus visited all expounded upon the virtues they believed the most important. The prominent virtue in The Odyssey was the idea of hospitality. Strangers were openly welcomed into Greek homes and received food, wine, and clothing out of charity (Homer 13-14). The gods frowned upon any homeowner who turned a guest away. The Greeks focused on earthly life as the highest life. Therefore, immorality flourished among the gods and men. As a note of hypocrisy, women were denounced for being immoral. Retribution against sin was encouraged as seen by Ulysses’ slaying of the evil suitors who had ravaged his house and the execution of the servants who sided with the suitors. Minerva’s part in helping Ulysses kill the suitors proved that the responsibility for sin was also divided between men and the gods. Overall, moral expectations were low in Greek culture with the exception of the virtue of hospitality and arête.
The military structure of the Mycenaean Age contrasts with the later Greek periods. During the time of The Odyssey, the hero was the key fighter, and great military leaders like Ulysses were responsible for battle victories. Several hundred years passed by before the common foot soldiers rose to prominence. The heroes believed the gods had a great deal of power in influencing battles, and they offered many sacrifices and prayers before each fight. Heroes relied on cunning and intelligence, not just their own strength. Ulysses scouted out Troy and joined forces with Helen of Troy before bringing about the downfall of the city through the wooden horse (Homer 23-24). Although the infantry became important to the Greeks, ultimately the navy dominated military affairs. Because of the position of the Greek states around the Aegean Sea, the Greeks became great sailors (Homer 31). Their ships demonstrated speed, and each soldier knew how to fight on land as well as sea. The navy was influential in many Greek battles from the Mycenaean Age all the way up to the time of Alexander the Great.
The Odyssey gives great insight into Greece’s military structure, morality, social structure, religious life, and political structure. Since historical sources for this time are few, historians must consult the literature of Homer to form conclusions about the Greek way of life during the Mycenaean Age. Through Homer’s blind eyes, historians can glimpse a civilization long past who honored courage, fortitude, and arête. Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey will always be remembered as tales of adventures and myths based on some semblance of true Mycenaean culture.
– Hannah S. Bowers
Homer. The Odyssey. Translated by Samuel Butler. The Internet Classics Archive, 2000. Accessed at http://classics.mit.edu//Homer/odyssey.html. E-book.