During the time of Homer, Greek literature was saturated in laws and rituals carefully presented through the thrilling plots of adventure and drama. This way, a storyteller could keep the interest of his audience by relating a fantastic episode to the everyday occurrences of an oikos and give the reader both the extraordinary and the familiar. The Odyssey is an assemblage of these episodes whose cloaked intentions were to represent a distinct theme in Ithacan culture. Each story presented in the Odyssey allows the reader to further understand the true state of Ithaca and how it compares in civility to other cultures, on the basis of laws, rituals and social conduct.
A passage of particular interest is found in Book IX, lines 105-141. It is when Odysseus sits in the palace of the Phaiakians and recalls his encounter with the culture of the Cyclopes. The obvious purpose of this recount is to give the audience another adventure, a new idea which will keep their attention. Yet his journey to the land of the Cyclopes has a greater purpose. It allows the audience to consider another culture with much different civil standards than their own oikos (which in many ways is similar to Ithaca).
The Cycloptic culture is that of great indolence and barbarism. Its inhabitants are extremely lazy and live off the livelihood provided to them by Zeus. “[The Cyclopes’] neither plow with their hands no plant anything, but all grow for them without seed-planting, without cultivation, wheat and barley and also grapevines, which yield for them wine of strength, and it is Zeus’ rain that waters it for them” (Book IX. ll. 108-111). They do no take part in any of the food making process, so it isn’t even as though Zeus is helping them out, he is just doing it for them; this shows how lethargic these creatures truly are.
The culture of the Cycloptic civilization has a striking resemblance to the situation in Ithaca. Although during Odysseus’ reign of Ithaca’s, we are lead to believe that it is a great city with hard working citizens, this is not the case all the time. While Odysseus is gone, the situation Telemachos must face reflects an environment with a similar social conduct.
The suitors that have come to court Penelope have completely overtaken the oikos. All of Ithaca’s goods and services are at their disposal, of which they did not work or pay for in any manner. “[The suitors’] heralds poured water over their hands for them to wash with, and the serving maids brought them bread heaped up in baskets, and the young men filled the mixing bowls with wine for their drinking” (Book I. ll. 44-149). Just as the Cyclopes relied on the gods, the suitors did not earn any of their food, but rather they relied on the (one-sided) hospitality of the Ithacans.
The political order of the Cyclopes is a very sketchy, undefined one. There is no central government and it is as though they are in constant competition in order to maintain their survival. They do not necessarily look out for each other, but rather have their own personal goal to take care of themselves and their families by any means necessary. “These people have no institutions, no meetings for council… and each one is the law for his own wives and children and cares nothing about the others” (Book IX. ll. 110-115).
Again, this is similar to the way the suitors treat the situation they are put in. Each man is out for himself, to win Penelope’s hand in marriage. Telemachos is fully aware of this fact and tells the assembly of their misconduct. “For my mother, against her will, is beset by suitors, own sons to the men who are the greatest hereabouts. These shrink from making the journey to the house of her father Ikarios, so that he might take bride gifts for his daughter and bestow her on the one he wished, who came as his favorite; rather all their days, they come and loiter in our house and sacrifice our oxen and our sheep and our fat goats and make a holiday feast of it and drink the bright wine recklessly” (Book II. ll. 50-58).
Telemachos tells of how the suitors have no respect for Penelope or the oikos and how they do not care about whether or not the food will run out. They are only out for themselves. In fact, they did not even go to Penelope’s father’s home to pay gift because they are too lazy and selfish. They is no order in the oikos, it just an unruly chaos in which every man is out to get the grand prize for the lowest price possible.
Homer has a very ingenious style of story telling, in which he compares and contrasts Ithaca with the civilizations Odysseus encounters during his many years away. Each of these civilization is a reflection of what Ithaca is, was, or could be. In the case of the land of the Cyclopes, Odysseus has a glimpse of what is going back home without even being there. Because Odysseus goes through these journeys, he is able to better understand his own country, and gain a new appreciation for the social rituals which are common during his reign in Ithaca.
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