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Justice in the Odyssey

One might think it excessive, the massacre of the one hundred twenty-four suitors and servants at the hands of Odysseus. Through the lens of the present age, the slaying might seem savage or unjust, but let us try to suspend judgment to understand Odysseus’ bloody retribution in this particular setting. Odysseus acts within a conceptual universe in which he negotiates right and wrong, good and evil in a way, at times, that seems to clash with our present understanding. It would appear that within the narrative space Homer presents, a certain notion of justice arises.

During the three years before Odysseus returns, the suitors plunder his herds of goats, pigs, and cattle. They carve away at the great King’s wealth, their countless feasts bleeding dry Odysseus’ property. But, in killing the suitors, there is clearly more than a material, dollars and cents, retribution that is enacted. As Odysseus says to Eurymachus, “not if you paid me all your father’s wealth – / all you possess now, and all that could pour in from the world’s end – / no, not even then would I stay my hands from slaughter” (22.65-8). The suitors must pay for misdeeds, which cannot be expunged with simply a material exchange. Their real offense is that they have “no fear of the gods within their hardened hearts,” and no fear of Odysseus since they believe him to be dead (14.95,102). Their demands exceed the limits of hospitality decreed by Zeus. They take excessively and give nothing in return.

The gods tend to take revenge on those who disrespect them. Zeus tells his brother, Poseidon, “if any man, so lost in his strength / and prowess, pays you no respect – just pay him back” (13.162) Zeus is the one who signals Odysseus to start the slaughter with a mighty bolt flung from the heavens (21.462). Also, it is Zeus who ultimately ends the fighting with a “reeking bolt” at the feet of Athena (24.592). This seems to suggest that Zeus is behind the retribution given to the suitors, who do not fear him or act properly as guests. But, at the same time, Odysseus is disrespected by the suitors and is the one who does the killing to revenge himself and Zeus.

Odysseus’ belongings, his wines and herds, are linked to his honor and identity. Giving these possessions would create a social obligation on part of the receiver to reciprocate. This reciprocity seems to be at the basis of social relationships that create a cohesive society. As Homer states they are the “treasured ties that bind” (21.40), which knit the fabric of society together. In this way, material objects seem to be inalienable from the giver. The giver presents an object that carries a piece of his or her identity. Just as the bow, which Odysseus uses to slay the suitors, is said to bear the memory of his friend Iphitus (21.40). Possessions are never disassociated from people, but are imbued with the spirit of the owner and giver. Because the suitors take from Odysseus household, but do not reciprocate, there is no social bond or alliance that is created. There are not social actors; they are in some sense uncivilized beings.

Men show themselves to be honorable and confer honor through reciprocation. Penelope reminds the suitors that they have strayed from the honorable path wherein “[men] bring in their own calves and lambs…they don’t devour the woman’s goods scot-free” (18.309-15). They are parasites, leeches that feed off another’s wealth; they disrespect Odysseus and they have no honor. And Odysseus treats them as dishonorable beings. Odysseus dispatches several suitors with Iphitus’ bow, which he only takes hunting (21.48). They also are not given a proper burial with “the solemn honors owed to the dead” (24.209) because they are dishonorable.

The actions of the suitors incite the rage of both Zeus and Odysseus. And it is important to remember that retribution and justice need not be mutually exclusive. One might say that vengeance is a personal interest in punishing past offenses, and justice is in the interest of the people for an ultimate future good. And in fact, it would appear that within the Odyssey the revenge of Zeus and Odysseus is ultimately just. Because the suitors are uncivilized, dishonorable beings, Odysseus’ mass killing serves to remove the socially dangerous, elements from Ithaca. The palace and the land are purged and purified of those who would threaten an ordered social structure.

20 Responses to “Justice in the Odyssey”

  1. khoneycutt says:

    Kathryn,

    I think you are right to contextualize justice and to ask whether it makes sense in the Homeric setting. It may be that Odysseus’ actions do not make sense to us as actions of justice. But this may speak more about our prejudices than about the nature of justice. As we’ll see with the so-called “three waves” of Books 5-7 of the Republic, it is striking how infrequently our sensibilities seem to line up with those of Socrates’ crowd. Maybe the contexts are importantly different.

    So we should definitely try to understand the Odyssey on its own terms. I think you point to an important passage: the one where Eumaeus says that the suitors do not fear the gods and have no mercy in their hearts (14.95). We have seen this before, of course, in the Cyclopic refusal to be awed by Zeus or any of the other gods (9.309-312). And remember that there hasn’t been a political assembly on Ithaca in 20 years; in a sense, it is lawless, which is again like the Cyclopes. Something about the absence of fear of the gods is important for the suitors’ behavior.

    And you are correct to point to the right god. Why is Athena so angry at the suitors (assuming they are the true target of her ire)? They are offending Zeus, after all, especially Zeus’ concern with strangers and supplicants. They are being bad guests, and guest friendship only works if both hosts and guests fulfill their roles adequately. When Odysseus goes after them with a hunting bow, as you point out (21.48), that is a sign that they are not acting as civilized human beings.

    I like your point about gifts always being tied to someone. You see this on occasion in the Iliad, too (e.g., Glaucus and Diomedes), and it’s striking how much weight an old visit to some foreign land, with the consequent guest gift, will carry. These things are very important in the Homeric context. It is no accident that Odysseus’ bow is also the bow of another great archer; possessions change hands, but they do not change identities in a fundamental way.

    So is Odysseus just because the suitors are dishonorable (although how much of their actions were of their own choosing)? Or is Odysseus just because he is fulfilling the will of Zeus? In other words, is justice something distinct from Olympian agency, or it is completely willful (and thus, by definition, arbitrary)? This is something worth thinking further about.

    KH

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