Sunday, March 26, 2017

A Note On Gods And Man In The Odyssey


A Total Amateur's Note On The Odyssey 

I know even less about Homeric epics than I do about Chaucer and his times. 

And I find it hard to get my mind fully around the relation between gods and men in The Odyssey. 

Nevertheless, having read the epic, here are a few scattered observations on that relation that may possibly hold together. 

Homer's gods seem human, full of caprice, folly, vengefulness, anger, feuding, pettiness, jealousy, even evil. They meet and mix with humans, converse with them, have feelings for them, seduce and rape them, aid them in all sorts of ways, and conversely deceive, obstruct and destroy them. But too, these gods, being gods, are immortal, and, so, get to be forever young. And, too, they shape the courses of human events

They're different  from the Christian God of the three omnis--omnipresent, omnipotent, omniscient--and who is but the ideal, the just and the good. The Old Testament God is a touch more human but singularly and augustly divine compared to Homer's gods. Still for all their humanness, his gods still raise in The Odyssey the unresolvable tension between free will and fate. 

Humans in Homer are said to be god like when they excel in some way. However, when they try to exceed the human and get too arrogant and too prideful they display hubris and suffer in the consequence whatever misery the gods cause them. Mortals must observe limits. They cannot contend against the gods who are more powerful. Men must placate that greater power. And so, for example, sacrifices to the gods are common.

The gods favour some men and disfavour others. Favour facilitates success. Disfavour brings misery and death. Athena strongly favours Odysseus and Athena inclines in every way to help him and his son Telemachus, who is as well virtuous and noble. She wants Odysseus successfully to return to Penelope and retake Ithaca. But Poseidon hates Odysseus, who blinded his son Polyphemus. He strives to make Odysseus’ life miserable by causing storms to get him off course and wreck his ships. In all this, the gods hold power and men must try to please them, or at least, as gods contend against each object, please those who win Zeus's ultimate sanction.

We see in The Odyssey god caused or guided action framing human initiative and action; and we find men and gods reacting to each other over the courses of the epic, which is the interplay of the divine, for good and for ill, and the human, for good and for ill. It isn't the case that men are mere puppets in the gods' hands. There is human choice and will and characters are to be judged and fated accordingly. 

And so, finally, there is a sense in which the gods stand behind the resolution flowing out of both the good and bad men do. 

Thus, in largest example. Odysseus's final successes in reclaiming land and queen flow out of his heroism, virtues and nobility as instrumentally helped in the end by Athena as Mentor. Of necessity, that occurs by way of  the suitors' slaughter, causally flowing from their lust, sloth, greed and inhumanity. They are destroyed in part by the same instrumental actions of Athena as Mentor. The nexus between fate and righteous or ignominious behaviour is evident in the innocent two amongst the company of Penelope's suitors who escape killing. 

All of this happens with the sanction of Zeus. Zeus at a remove sanctions Odysseus's triumph by allowing it and at a remove sanctions the suitors in allowing their slaughter.

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