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No guts, no glory. Odysseus takes this motto literally; obliterating all 108 suitors camped out in his home during the final scenes of The Odyssey. In a plot that reads like a Quentin Tarantino film, justice is served to the reckless, lawless suitors in grotesque fashion. Before the curtain closes, Odysseus’ journey home comes to an end in a gory culmination of merciless carnage, dismemberment, and bloodshed. The violent nature of the slaughter raises moral questions on the justification of Odysseus’ actions and whether or not his vengeance was merited. The suitors were trapped, drunk, defenseless, disfavored by the gods, and at a physical disadvantage: left begging for mercy to be spared from the “black death”. How could a fight with those sort of odds stacked against them seem fair? Did the suitors deserve to die?

In an attempt to fully understand Homer’s concept of justice, one must explore the logic of Grecian norms regarding honor, virtue, and moral recompense. Modern theories of justice attempt to separate questions of fairness and rights from arguments about honor and virtue, seeking to neutralize justice in order to enable people with a choice. This is not the case for an Aristotelian view or what can be observed in The Odyssey. For Aristotle, justice is teleological and honorific in nature. That is, defining justice requires one to determine the telos, or purpose and end, of the practice in question and reason about what virtues it should honor. Moral virtue regarding justice requires judgment and practical wisdom, which Odysseus has revealed to possess. Justice in this world means giving others what they deserve and giving each person his due, discriminating according to merit and relevant excellence, or lack thereof. With this understanding, it becomes clear why the slaughter is justified in the eyes of Odysseus and Homer’s audience. Zeus decrees Odysseus’ telos, or purpose: exact revenge upon the suitors, and restore honor to his household. With that in mind, readers should take note that in the context of The Odyssey standards of justice, good and evil, or right and wrong often conflict with modern principles. From this contextual definition, consider the elements of The Odyssey that contribute to Odysseus’ pursuit of justice in exacting revenge against the suitors.

Perhaps the notion of justice from the heights of Mount Olympus also conflicts with modern ideals. The gods seem to have their own standards of justice and ultimately judge the actions of mortals according to divine definition. The loyal swineherd Eumaeus says the “blessed gods have no love for crime. They honor justice…[and] the decent acts of men” (14.96-97). Again, justice for the gods is consistently based upon giving each man what he deserves, and virtue and honor are highly regarded. Athena is moved by Odysseus’ long ordeal and conceives a plan for him to return and pay the traitors back (5.6, 26-7). But ultimately, “all lies in the lap of the great gods, whether or not he’ll come and pay [the suitors] back…in his own house” (1. 308-310). This leads to the question of whether or not Odysseus was only Zeus’ pawn, and acting justly because it was in his destiny. Perchance the gods only viewed Odysseus’ actions as just because he followed their decree. Could Odysseus have chosen a different path and let the suitors live? Athena tells him that’s not possible: she willed and planned the scheme so Odysseus must endure it (13.344-49). What the gods ordain must come to pass, and Odysseus is chosen as the medium to inflict revenge upon the brazen suitors; his actions justified because it was what the gods wanted. The argument may be made that because the fate of the suitors was sealed by the gods, it was necessary for the prophesies of doom and gloom to be fulfilled.

Athena’s involvement is important in this regard, as she plays a major role in bringing Odysseus home to avenge the suitors. Odysseus finds favor in the eyes of Athena for his “wary turn of mind,” and she helps him plot the death of the high and mighty suitors (13.374, 427). Note the significance of fearing the gods, or lack thereof. Odysseus accuses the suitors of having “no fear of the gods who rule the sky” (22.39) and says they have earned the doom of the gods by their own indecent acts (22.438). Even the cutthroat bandits, Eumaeus says, are stalked by the dread of vengeance from the gods in their dark hearts, whereas the suitors have no guilt for their wickedness (14.101). The gods believe that revenge should be taken on those that disrespect them, possibly another justification for Odysseus’ slaughter (13.162). Odysseus also points out that a king “who dreads the gods” and governs the kingdom upholding justice and truth, leads his people to “flourish” thanks to his “decent, upright rule” (19.119-125). A just and fair king fears the gods, so perhaps according to Athena’s logic, Odysseus deserves justice because he has proven himself faithful to the gods while the suitors have no regard.

The suitors dishonored Odysseus’ home, ridiculed his son, plotted to kill him and his family, plundered his stores of wealth, ate all his food, and brought disrespect and lawlessness to a just man’s house. The only other example of a lawless community was on the island of the Cyclops, who is described as a “savage deaf to justice, blind to law” (9.240). There are interesting parallels in these two instances of lawlessness. Ithaca has not seen a political assembly in 20 years, and the cyclopean lifestyle lacks a formal government and justice system. The absence of order and reason creates a brutish society where injustice abounds. The reckless suitors who lack love, respect, and loyalty for Odysseus as their king are no better than uncivilized savages in Homer’s world. However, Odysseus is granted recompense after enduring divine punishment for blinding the one-eyed monster and offered his own opportunity to impart retribution and justice upon the suitors. Furthermore, he kills several suitors with a bow made for hunting animals, emphasizing their beastly tendencies. Odysseus clearly needs to distinguish himself from the lawless Cyclops and restore political order to Ithaca.

Hospitality is an important aspect in Homeric culture, and the suitors display blatant disregard for cultural norms by plundering Odysseus’ household uninvited. Reciprocity of generosity was crucial to honor and virtue, and society at the time was knit together by selfless giving and kindness to strangers. The suitors disrupt this natural balance of hospitality and take from Odysseus what is not rightfully theirs to take. Welcoming strangers and offering refuge is held in high regard in Homer’s world, because there is a strong possibility that the unexpected guest very well could be a god in disguise. Or as in the case of the suitors, it could be Odysseus, who they believed to be dead. The suitors have not only broken the traditional conduct for hospitality, they are also unwelcoming to Odysseus when he returns to Ithaca disguised as a beggar. Penelope admonishes them, declaring that they fear shame, and yet disgrace and devour a great man’s house and home (21.371). Disrupting societal norms may be another reason for justice to be brought upon the heads of the suitors who took without regard for anyone but themselves.

Throughout The Odyssey, personal possessions are closely linked to identity and honor. Treasures are the ties that bind friendships, and Odysseus is extremely protective of his household and possessions (21.41). For example, Odysseus’ bow was a gift from the murdered Iphitus, stored in the king’s home to “guard the memory of a cherished friend” (21.48). Odysseus’ wealth and home is a crucial element to his identity, so the plunder of his home and belongings is a personal affront to his honor. The courting of Penelope is an abomination, since she pines away for her husband as he heroically fights for the honor of his kingdom in a far-away land. Even Penelope plays her part, using her cunning to manipulate the actions of the suitors to further justify Odysseus’ revenge. Odysseus “glowed with joy” to hear of his wife’s trickery and luring gifts from the suitors, “enchanting their hearts with suave seductive words, but all the while with something else in mind” (18.315-19).

One may argue that Odysseus could have somehow defied the will of the gods and chosen a different fate, if they still viewed the slaughter of the suitors as unjust. Maybe Odysseus should have spared the suitors, or only killed a few as a warning and allowed the others to escape. However, remember the suitors were plotting to kill Odysseus and his household, and if he had let them live they may have gathered an army to rise up against him. The risk of allowing them to go scot-free could potentially put Odysseus and his family in even greater danger. Odysseus also offered the suitors several opportunities to escape his wrath. While still disguised as a beggar, Odysseus warns them of impending doom and bloodshed, but they refuse to listen and mock him instead. Once Odysseus throws off his rags to reveal his true identity, it is open season and the suitors are sitting ducks (or geese, according to Helen’s prophecy). Eurymachus protests Odysseus’ declaration of battle, offering to pay everything back if only the suitors could be spared (22.55-59). At this point, it is too late: the price tag is too high. Still, for the last time, Odysseus offers the suitors a choice between life and death, to either fight, or flee his wrath and hope to escape the bloody doom (22.66-69). The suitors made deliberate choices to put their lives on the line by consuming Odysseus’ worldly goods and displaying blatant disregard for the gods.

In a final sacrificial type act, Odysseus lights a fire to purify the house (22.518). Odysseus fulfilled his destiny, which was ordained by Zeus to return home, restore his honor and live in peace after justice had been served. Considering the arduous journey and injustice that Odysseus suffered, it seems noble and heroic when he viciously exterminates the suitors. Should anything less be expected from this man of twist and turns, the great war hero who inflicted violent atrocities in Troy? The slaughter was a necessary evil to establish Odysseus’ role as king and rightful ruler, to regain his pride of place and rule of his own domain.

20 Responses to “Justice and Liberty for All?”

  1. khoneycutt says:

    Hunter,

    This is a well-written piece. I like the contrast with Aristotle (though it might have been helpful to cite relevant passages from the Politics, e.g.). Though Aristotle may not hold the Homeric conceptions of justice, honor, etc., he is familiar with them and in some ways beholden to them.

    I think the comparison of the Cyclopes with the suitors is an apt one. As you note, they lack political assemblies–each Cyclops is a law unto himself (9.126) and unto his household (we are given no indication that Polyphemus is married, but presumably Odysseus saw others that had wives and children [9.126], unless this part is fanciful or a Greek assumption that no grown man would be unmarried). They also lack agriculture (9.121ff), and that is a key Homeric signal of civilization. The suitors similarly never work, it seems; their earth (i.e., Odysseus’ household) “teems with all they need” (9.122).

    But a key point with respect to your essay is that the Cyclopes also do not fear the gods, at least according to Polyphemus. Odysseus infers that they “trust the everlasting gods” insofar as they trust the earth to provide them with what they need. But Polyphemus is explicit that he does not fear Zeus or any of the others (9.306-313). Odysseus’ foreboding that he will meet “a savage deaf to justice, blind to law” (9.24) was well-founded.

    The point about the bow is a good one (i.e., that it is a hunting bow and from Iphitus), as we discussed in class. Surely the purifying fire is significant. Maybe the fire is to cleanse the house of the suitors’ presence, but maybe it is to signal that the suitors were a sacrifice on the feast day of Apollo.

    KH

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