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Father-Son Relationships in Homer’s “The Odyssey”

One of the most compelling things to me about the story of the Odyssey is the importance that is placed throughout the story on the relationship that exists between fathers and sons. Almost everything that happens in the story is somehow connected to the idea of family and the importance of a well-balanced unit. There are plenty of examples of good families whose balance extends to their kingdoms as well as examples of bad families whose imbalance leads to hardship in the kingdom. There are a lot of father and son relationships explored in this story as a result. These include, obviously, the relationship between Odysseus and his son Telemachus as well as the relationship between Odysseus and his father Laertes. Other father/son relationships shown are Nestor and Pisistratus, Poseidon and the Cyclops Polyphemus and Eupithes and Antinous. By focusing on these relationships, Homer is able to illustrate the importance of maintaining a continuity between the generations either for good or evil. At the same time, he shows how the strength of family can help the group overcome impossible odds. By focusing on the father/son relationship, Homer reveals what was important to the ancient Greeks and what should still be important to us today.

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The relationship between Odysseus and his son Telemachus is necessarily non-existent in spite of the fact that they are so closely related because Odysseus has been gone for most of Telemachus’ life. Because Telemachus is Odysseus’ son, he is expected to have many of Odysseus’ qualities, such as a strong sense of hospitality, loyalty to his men, intelligence and patience as well as impeccable manners. Unfortunately, since he has not had the example of his father to follow, Telemachus proves unable to manage the household effectively once the houseguests arrive and he is very awkward in his manners, which is shown when he arrives in Pylos. It is because of these problems that lead Athena to send Telemachus on his hero’s quest, hoping both that he will find his father and that he will learn those things that he is supposed to know in order to take his father’s position should that be necessary. However, Telemachus still manages to demonstrate enough of his father’s character traits to gain him the goddess’s support.

Telemachus finds the example he needs in the father/son relationship shared between Nestor and his son Peisistratus and again later in the palace of Menelaus. These examples also instruct the audience of the expected ‘father figure’ status these men adopt toward their kingdom. It isn’t until he makes contact with first Nestor and then Menelaus that he is finally provided with the examples he needs of a healthy father/son relationship as well as the example these leaders set in being a “father figure” to their kingdoms. As it is demonstrated through the story, the father/son relationship is the essential element that leads to the success of the society. Arriving in Nestor’s household, Telemachus is finally given an example of a successful male leader and a good father at the same time that he is given an example of what is expected of his own rank in the figure of Peisistratus. It is mostly Peisistratus that teaches Telemachus the lessons in manners and behavior that are expected of him. This, in turn, eases Telemachus into the court of Menelaus where he is able to practice his new skills on his own. By successfully navigating through this second court, Telemachus is able to build confidence in his own instincts and abilities. Interestingly enough, the events of his journey are very similar to the journey that is being taken by his father many miles away. Books III and IV teach Telemachus more about what is expected in the heroic life and by Book XV, he earns the right to transcend these rules in order to look to his obligations toward his family. By becoming a replica of his father during this journey, Telemachus is now able to stand by his father’s side as they outwit and outfight the uninvited houseguests and thus restore the peace and prosperity of Ithaca.

This same demonstration of love and loyalty is also shown in the relationship eventually revealed between Odysseus and Laertes. By including this relationship to the detail he does, Homer illustrates the importance of maintaining a continuity between generations in order to find success. Most of this relationship remains hidden throughout the story until Odysseus finally arrives back at a very changed Ithaca. Homer demonstrates the closeness of the relationship in the same way that he did for Odysseus and Telemachus – by focusing on the similar behavior and personality traits seen in the two men. It becomes clear very quickly that Laertes lost all of his ability to rule Ithaca when the strength of his relationship with his son was taken away from him. In Odysseus’ absence, Laertes has changed himself into a common worker of the fields, no longer taking part in the life of the court and essentially abandoning Penelope and Telemachus to the low influence of the suitors. One of the first things Odysseus wants to do when he returns to Ithaca is to visit his father. However, when he does find him, he tries to hide his identity from him for fear that the shock will kill the older man. When he tries to hide his identity from his father, Odysseus is unable to tell his story or keep up the false identity because of the great sorrow he sees in his father’s eyes. This scene illustrates both how much he loves his father and his realization of the great suffering he caused his father by disappearing. Laertes’ anguish after so many years also shows a deep love for his son. Finally, Odysseus proves his identity by first pointing out the trees Laertes gave him as a child symbolizing inheritance and then showing a scar that marked his maturation into manhood and the two are fully reunited. Together again, Laertes is able to regain his strength, “Athena herself intervened to increase his royal stature. As he stepped out of the bath she made him seem taller and sturdier than before, so that his own son was amazed when he saw him looking like an immortal god” (Homer, 368-71), and the house of Odysseus is ready to reclaim its own.

Homer also includes examples of less successful relationships between fathers and sons and the disaster that can cause through his depiction of the relationship between Eupithes and Antinous. Antinous is the man who threatens Telemachus that he’d better help force Penelope into marrying one of the suitors in order to prevent the group from destroying the house. Antinous proves his low status and inability to effectively rule when, still considered a houseguest in Odysseus’ house, he refuses to allow Odysseus, disguised as a beggar, to eat a crust of bread that Antinous is planning on discarding. He even throws a footstool at the beggar to chase him away, striking Odysseus on the back. This kind of uncharitable behavior makes the other suitors nervous, but not nervous enough to do anything to stop the behavior or attempt to correct Antinous. Homer uses this character to show what happens when people act in an unheroic way based upon the unheroic teachings of their father. Continuing the relationships between fathers and sons, Odysseus later kills Antinous with a single arrow through the throat and Laertes kills Antinous’ father Eupithes in a similar manner by thrusting a spear through the other man’s helmet. Homer makes it clear that Antinous’ behavior is a reflection of his father by including details of Eupeithes behavior after he found out the details of his son’s death at the hands of Odysseus. Eupeithes is aware that his son had behaved badly, breaking most of the accepted rules of behavior in Greek society, just as he is aware that Odysseus was well within his rights to defend his home and family. In spite of this, though, Eupithes swears he will have revenge against Odysseus and his family and rallies his men for battle. Because they have finally been reunited, the house of Odysseus is again strong and is able to fend off Eupithes’ attack relatively easily. As soon as Laertes spear kills Eupithes, the rest of his army surrenders in recognition that things have been returned to their natural and proper order.

Throughout the Odyssey, Homer demonstrates how the father and son relationship can either lead to success or failure based upon the honorability of the father and the ability of his son to mimic this. Without an example, Telemachus cannot assert himself against his mother’s suitors mostly because he has almost no concept of the true hero’s honor. The travels Athena sends him on bring him to Nestor and Pisistratus. With the example before him and a model to emulate, Telemachus is able to continue his journey and become confident in his role so that he can finally take his proper place beside his father. It is clear that this type of relationship is what once existed between Odysseus and his father Laertes and is a significant source of strength. However, negative relationships are also shown to have negative consequences. Antinous acts on the dishonorable teachings of his father and deliberately starts to destroy Odysseus’ property in order to force Penelope to marry him in Odysseus’ absence. His inability to honor the values of his society is shown in full measure in the way that he treats Odysseus when he appears as a beggar. That these are lessons he learned from his father is shown in the way that Eupithes behaves after Antinous is killed. By seeking revenge against Odysseus who was justified in defending his own possessions, Eupithes highlights the dishonorable nature of his house. In the end, the story reinforces the idea that honorable behavior builds a strong family and a strong family gives the individual strength enough to face the world. These are lessons that today’s world seems sadly short of.

Works Cited

Homer. The Odyssey. Trans. E.V. Rieu. New York: Penguin Books, 1946.

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StudyCorgi. (2021, October 25). Father-Son Relationships in Homer’s “The Odyssey”. Retrieved from https://studycorgi.com/father-son-relationships-in-homers-the-odyssey/

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StudyCorgi. (2021, October 25). Father-Son Relationships in Homer’s “The Odyssey”. https://studycorgi.com/father-son-relationships-in-homers-the-odyssey/

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"Father-Son Relationships in Homer’s “The Odyssey”." StudyCorgi, 25 Oct. 2021, studycorgi.com/father-son-relationships-in-homers-the-odyssey/.

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