What was the Definition of Faithful in 1200 BC
If faithful means "maintaining allegiance to someone or something" as defined by Funk and Wagnall, then there can be no doubt that Odysseus was faithful to his country. His faithfulness to his wife, however, would have to be scrutinized in much greater detail. We need to look at what, if any, obligations were expected of the man in a marriage taking place in the twelfth century B.C. If the obligations can be defined, then, did Odysseus honor these obligations to his wife, or is he the cad he has been cast as by numerous sources. It is possible , that even after a twenty year absence from his home and family, that Odysseus can be considered as faithful a husband as custom and circumstance allowed.
The marriage contracts of this time period seemed to indicate that the wife becomes the property of the husband, to be returned if she does not fulfill her duties . The fact that her own son, Telemachos, spoke of sending Penelope back to her father's house so that she could choose a new husband seems to confirm the contract of marriage and property.
Antinoos tells Telemachos to "send your mother back, and instruct her to be married to any man her father desires and who pleases her also" (ii 113-114). Telemachos refuses out of loyalty to his mother and fear of repercussions from the gods. The opinion seems to be that this is the right of Telemachos. The home of Odysseus would automatically go to his son, and this he does not deny. Penelope would be welcome only as long as she remained faithful to his memory in every way.
These contracts did not speak of fidelity, although customs did dictate that the wife must be
faithful and that the husband need not be. It was not uncommon for the husband to lay with other women even under the same roof as his wife, with her knowledge. Odysseus' extramarital affairs would not have been unusual for those times.
In summary, fidelity would not be a factor in 1200 B.C. for Odysseus, but the opposite would hold true for Penelope .
The Iliad, Related Stories
In the beginning of The Iliad, Agamemnon speaks about the women that he, Aias, and Odysseus have taken for a prize in another war, (i 155-163). In The Odyssey, Odysseus first slept with Circe to save his men who had been turned into pigs. He spent the next year under the spell of Circe, which was not broken until after his visit to the underworld. He then spent seven years in bed with Kalypso. Although some of this time he spent crying and wishing for home, it also mentions that it was after he had grown tired of her. It does not tell us if this is after one day or six years. Only in our romantic dreams can we hope that Odysseus wanted to return from the start. We do know that Kalypso offered him immortality if he stayed with her, and he chose death instead. It was only through the intervention of Athene that he was let go.
Cause of the 10 Year War
Odysseus did not want to leave his wife and newborn son to fight this war. It was not that he was a coward. He was a member of the Achaian army. The cause of the war did not seem to him to be a just enough reason to fight, and to leave his happy home.
The circumstance that caused the war, Helen leaving her country and her family for another man, was scandalous and inconceivable. Odysseus feigned madness and only by the threat of his son's life did he agree to go. Part of the reason must have been that loyalty to his family came before loyalty to an adulterous Helen.
The fact that the war took ten years was not uncommon. Our own wars seem to last at least that long. Unfortunately, he did not have the benefit of telephone or internet so communication was unlikely. It was also expected that he would stay until either the war ended, or his life did. Odysseus, like our own Hagar the Horrible, made his fortune and livelihood from the spoils of war. Long absences were expected and tolerated.
Ten Year Journey Home
Now we come to the truly controversial question. Why did Odysseus take so long to come home? It surely did not take so long to get to Troy, yet the trip home lasted almost ten years. Odysseus seemed to be in the hands of the gods for all this time. He was a favorite pawn in a long game, and only when it seemed that he would lose his home in Ithaka, was he finally released. We are told in the beginning of The Odyssey, that Zeus "devised a sorry homecoming for the Argives, since not all were considerate and righteous" (iii 132-133). Poseidon keeps Odysseus from coming home out of anger, and Kalypso keeps his homecoming from Odysseus out of lust, yet we are told over and over of the faithfulness of Odysseus in his desire to go home. We are told right away in book one "This one alone, longing for his wife and his homecoming" (i 11). The entire epic is about the trials and struggles of Odysseus trying to get home.
The major theme in The Odyssey seems to be about family, and knowing this fact, perhaps the question of faithfulness is answered. According to Stephen Tracy, the Greeks believed that "knowledge of one's father becomes ultimately self-knowledge; " (p 4). If this is so, then Telemachos shows his loyalty and faithfulness time and again in the epic. Penelope shows her love by waiting for Odysseus for twenty years, and confirms this faithfulness by showing Odysseus the unused bed that he made for her. Even Odysseus' dog waits to die until he lays eyes on his loving master . Perhaps the faithfulness of Odysseus can not only be judged by his actions, but by those of his loyal family. As we see, Odysseus did keep in his marriage contract of what he vowed, as his only true faithfulness was in his heart, which was all that Penelope expected in the homecoming.
Homer . The Odyssey. Trans. Richmond Lattimore. New York : Harper Perennial, 1991 .
Tinkelstein, J .J. "JAOS." The Ancient Near East . ED. James B. Pritchard. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1969 .
Tracy, Stephen v. The Story of The Odyssey. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1990.
Homer. The Iliad. Trans . Robert Fitzgerald . New York : Random House, Inc., 1990.
© 2013 Rebecca Shepherd Thomas
Rebecca Shepherd Thomas (author) from Powell Ohio on August 02, 2013:
Lia on August 02, 2013:
Much easier to read in your style, and interesting too.
Rebecca Shepherd Thomas (author) from Powell Ohio on June 18, 2013:
I will! It sounds interesting.
Robert Allen Johnson from Fort Wayne, IN on June 18, 2013:
For an interesting view of those twenty years Odysseus was away, check out Margaret Atwood's "Penelopiad." It's written from Penelope's perspective and it's quite enjoyable.
Ronald Joseph Kule from Florida on June 04, 2013:
Of course, the point is fun and fascination. Spirit of play always interests me, Rebthomas. Thanks for your kind words.
Rebecca Shepherd Thomas (author) from Powell Ohio on June 03, 2013:
What fun would we have if we can't compare it? I agree that marriages were arranged but the point was the double standards that existed and to some degree still do. I loved the story and your thoughts too!
Ronald Joseph Kule from Florida on June 03, 2013:
rebthomas, I enjoyed your writing style.
The Odyssey was one of the first stories my father pointed out to me -- he pointed to the Harvard Classics books on his shelf -- at my early age of eight many decades ago. I loved it.
However, recent research for a novel led me to discover that most marriages in that era were unions of a man and a woman designed to bind desirable tracts of land to a family. Love was almost an afterthought, making Odysseus' journey also a statement upon the moral behavior of the times. In fact, one's heart was almost expected to reside with a lover outside of the marriage in those days, often referred to in the 11th century as "courtly love."
My point is simple: we can read with fascination the well-written journey about love that transcended the culture, certainly an anomaly then, but we cannot compare usefully its mores to those most follow today. Mankind might have evolved from then but not necessarily in an uplifting manner, if what we see around us is any measure of Man's progress through the ages.
As always, though, a good story nourishes and makes us think.
Rebecca Shepherd Thomas (author) from Powell Ohio on May 08, 2013:
Yes indeed we have.
Mel Carriere from Snowbound and down in Northern Colorado on May 08, 2013:
"Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns, driven time and again off course, once he had plundered the hallowed heights of Troy." I love that line and I love the Odyssey. It is a timeless epic with timeless themes. I think we have all at one time or another felt the longing and homesickness that Odysseus suffered, hence its enduring appeal. We have all also suffered from his very human weaknesses.