HOMER: The Odyssey [Book II]

In Book II of Homer’s Odyssey, Telemachus summons the suitors of Penelope and the chiefs of the city to a meeting. At the meeting, Telemachus formally commands the suitors to leave his house. He also seeks aid from the city’s chiefs to expel the suitors from his estate and to provide him with a ship so that he can sail to Pylos and Sparta to learn about the wanderings of his father, Odysseus. The suitors and the chiefs both deny Telemachus’ demands. However, the goddess Minerva provides Telemachus with a ship and crew. That night, Telemachus and the crew secretly set sail for Pylos.

Piety is a major theme in Book II. After Telemachus gives his speech before the assembly of chiefs and suitors, an omen is seen in the sky. Two eagles fly over the assembly, fight with one another, and then fly away. One of the city’s elders proclaims that it is an omen sent by Jove to warn the suitors of their doom. But the suitors are not impressed. One of them scoffs at the old man and says, “birds are always flying about in the sunshine somewhere or other, but they seldom mean anything.”

The ancient Greeks believed that the gods often send messages about the future to mortals. If one neglects these messages, then one will incur misfortune. Indeed, by the end of the epic, the impious suitors receive their comeuppance. Unlike the suitors, however, Telemachus is pious. He heeds Minerva’s advice about his father, and, while sailing to Pylos, he and the ship’s crew pour libations to honor the gods. Because of his piety, the gods favor him and aid him in his endeavors.

In regards to ancient Greek piety, 19th century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche asserts that it developed from a belief that the gods are always watching over mortal affairs. In the Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche writes, “the moral philosophers of Greece imagined the gods looking down upon the moral struggle, upon the heroism and self-torture of the virtuous: the ‘Herakles of duty’ was on stage and knew himself to be so; virtue without a witness was unthinkable for this nation of actors.” Indeed, people often behave nobler when they believe that others are watching them than when they believe that no one is watching them. Thus, the ancient Greek gods served as encouragements and witnesses to heroic and virtuous deeds.

Besides exploring the theme of piety, Book II also deals with the theme of women in ancient Greek society. Women within the ancient Greek world are merely property. The suitors implore Telemachus to give his mother Penelope back to her father, Icarius, so that he can then give her hand in marriage to one of the suitors.

But Homer recognizes that women are not merely property, but rather individuals who are just as capable of virtuous action as men are. He portrays Penelope as the epitome of marital fidelity and as capable of outwitting even men. One of the suitors recounts to Telemachus how Penelope tricked the suitors and delayed a potential marriage for three years. She claimed that she would marry one of the suitors after she had finished knitting a death shroud for Odysseus’ father, Laertes. “We could see her working on her great web all day long, but at night she would unpick the stitches again by torchlight. She fooled us in this way for three years and we never found her out, but as time wore on and she was now in her fourth year, one of her maids who knew what she was doing told us, and we caught her in the act of undoing her work, so she had to finish it whether she would or no.”

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