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The Meaning of Tradition in Homer's Odyssey - By Marcel Bas

The Meaning of Tradition in Homer's Odyssey - By Marcel Bas

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Published by Marcel Bas
Homer shows us that tradition is important to ancient Greek society.
He does this, not only by demonstrating traditions, rituals and customs
in an anecdotal way, but he also shows that there is a deeper layer
hidden within tradition. According to The Odyssey, tradition and good
behaviour are things you DO and which have serious consequences
for your personal consitution. Unlike written laws, they form a part
of the characters's conscience; it is a conscience that is enforced by
the gods, who are the final law-givers. We see that rules, traditions,
honour, glory and gods are closely intertwined. Maybe Homer was
detecting lawless and honourless behaviour by younger people in
his age. Maybe he wanted to tell the listeners how to conduct. In
any case, he has provided us with an ancient window that has been
allowing us for over two millennia to look into the world of the colourful,
proud age of presocratic aristocracy.
Homer shows us that tradition is important to ancient Greek society.
He does this, not only by demonstrating traditions, rituals and customs
in an anecdotal way, but he also shows that there is a deeper layer
hidden within tradition. According to The Odyssey, tradition and good
behaviour are things you DO and which have serious consequences
for your personal consitution. Unlike written laws, they form a part
of the characters's conscience; it is a conscience that is enforced by
the gods, who are the final law-givers. We see that rules, traditions,
honour, glory and gods are closely intertwined. Maybe Homer was
detecting lawless and honourless behaviour by younger people in
his age. Maybe he wanted to tell the listeners how to conduct. In
any case, he has provided us with an ancient window that has been
allowing us for over two millennia to look into the world of the colourful,
proud age of presocratic aristocracy.

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Categories:Types, Research, History
Published by: Marcel Bas on Jul 01, 2011
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial

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04/27/2014

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The meaning of Tradition inHomer's
Odyssey 
Glorious imperatives in Homeric society
 - By Marcel Bas
The encounter with the Sirens: Odysseus with his men while he is tied to the mast
 
"La société achéenne de l'âge héroïque, pour lointaine qu'elleparaisse à nos yeux de modernes, n'est en aucune manière unesociété primitive. A l'éclat de la civilisation matérielle et de l 'art,dont témoignent notamment les vases d'or ciselés de Vaphio oude Dendra, se joint déjà un grand raffinement de moeurs."
 
- Jean Bérard in
Homère
, 1963
 In his book
Die Welt der Polis
,
 
German philosopher Eric Voegelin remarkedthat Homer was "the blind man who sees", who looked with high scorn uponthe brutal and unjust "Age of Heroes" (1). With
The Odyssey 
Homer is saidto have constructed a history in which an assembly of gods have restored justice and punished the evildoers. It is believed that Homer was an advocateof another age, where older traditions and rituals were strictly observed.Alain de Benoist notes: "Mais Homère était plus encore: le dépositaire duvieil esprit hellène dans sa pureté, le maître de toute sagesse, le gardien destraditions." (2)Regardless whether Homer's motivations for the (re)production of 
TheOdyssey 
were that of a conservative's or whether the verses had beenentirely handed down to him from earlier poets and bards, his lengthy epicthat recounts king Odysseus' wanderings provides us with a host of rituals,customs, traditions and remarkable sociocultural-religious ideas and attitudesthat seem unusual in a modern, individualistic Western person's view. Theoriginal Homeric epics have been committed to writing in the 7th and 6thcentury b.C. Today both Hesiod and Homer as well as many other poets areof an immense importance to the reconstruction of ancient Mediterraneantheology (3). This essay will try to give a critical and explanatory summary of these cultural curiosities. I will try to consider this rich array of practices andideas from a broad, cultural perspective.Much of the rituals and beliefs of the Achaeans were linked with religion, theexistential matters of life. In
The Odyssey 
we are allowed to look at funeralrituals and sacrifices. Both Odysseus and the people of Ithaca realise thaterecting a mound for their deceased ones is essential for the afterlife and for the people's esteem. As long as Odysseus is missing, the people of Ithaca- including Odysseus' wife Penelope and his son, prince Telemachus - arenot sure whether their mourning is done over a hero, who died in battle, or over a warrior who died on a lonely island, or in an other fameless fashion.Fortunately, stories were told about Odysseus which indicated that he hadbeen a good warrior. But Telemachus sighs:
"Now the gods have reversed our fortunes wit a vengeance -wiped that man from the earth like no one else before.I would never have grieved so much about his deathIf he'd gone down with comrades off in TroyOr died in the arms of loved ones,Once he had wound down the long coil of war.Then all united Achaea would have raised his tombAnd he'd have won his son great fame for years to come.But now the whirlwinds have ripped him away, no fame for him!" (4)[Book I, 272-280] (5)
Apparently, for Odysseus and his family (6), fame (Gr.
kleos
) is unattainableas long as he has not returned (Gr.
nostos
= homecoming) from Troy,
 
regardless of the Greek successes at Troy. Also Penelope will notexperience fame if Odysseus never returns, as she sighs when talking toOdysseus whom she does not recognise yet:
"'No, no, stranger,' wise Penelope demurred,'whatever form and feature I had, what praise I'd won,the deathless gods destroyed that day the Achaeanssailed away to Troy, my husband in their ships,Odysseus - if 
he
could return to tend my lifeThe renown I had would only grow in glory.Now my life is torment…'"[Book 19: 137-143]
Later we will return to the concepts of fame and glory. Mourning rituals werenot only important to the next of kin, but also to the deceased's soul. Thecase of Odysseus' brother in arms Elpenor shows us what happens to soulsthat have not had a proper burial. At Circe's palace, Elpenor had too muchwine, fell off the roof and broke his neck. There was no time to build him agrave-mound and to shed tears over him. But Elpenor's spirit will not rest. Inone of the most chilling scenes in
The Odyssey 
, when Odysseus descendsto the house of Hades where the dead live, Elpenor is the
first 
spirit out of hundreds to come up to Odysseus:
"But first the ghost of Elpenor, my companion, came toward me,He'd not been buried under the wide ways of earth,Not yet, we'd left his body in Circe's house,Unwept, unburied - this other labour pressed us.But I wept to see him now, pity touched my heart(…)'Now, I beg you by those you left behind, so far from here,your wife, your father who bred and reared you as a boy,and Telemachus (…)''I beg you! Don't sail off and desert me, left behind unwept, unburied, don't,or my curse may draw god's fury on your head.No, burn me in my full armour, all my harness,Heap my mound by the churning gray surf (…)''Perform my rites, and plant on my tomb that oar I swung with mates when I rowed among the living.'"[Book 11, 56-86] (7)
We see that a neglected ritual may cause the wrath of the gods. But ritualsand customs do not only have a religious imperative; they are also veryuseful to the characters's emotions and social lives. The English philosopher Roger Scruton noted that Odysseus' encounter with his sorrowful supplicantis an interesting example of what rituals and traditions are and what theymean to people. Scruton claims:
"Not only does Elpenor ask to be buried; he also asks that people cry over him.

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