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The Odyssey by Homer: Argument over Responsibility

By keshavc Apr 16, 2014 1257 Words
Blame Game

The great argument over responsibility is a recurring theme in The Odyssey. Through the course of the epic, Homer asks the reader the question; whether the characters involved are fulfilling their responsibilities, be it divine or human responsibility. Zeus’ argument from Book I is exemplary of the same. Zeus, the “father of all Gods and men” claims that Mortals blame all their pain and suffering on the Gods, without realizing that their own greed and foolishness brings them this suffering. Furthermore, he describes how Aigisthos had ignored the warning from the Gods sent through Hermes and as a result had to bare the brunt of it when he was murdered by Orestes. This raises the question of responsibility. However, the fact that Aigisthos ignored the said warning reveals that he did not have complete confidence in the Gods. Thus, Humans are in a state of existential crisis due to the erratic behavior of the Gods, rendering Zeus’ argument about human versus divine responsibility, invalid. Divine responsibility can be defined as maintaining order of the world and ensure offenders are being punished for their misdeeds. On the other hand, human responsibility is to differentiate between right and wrong and act accordingly, as to please the Gods. However, it is seen in the Odyssey that the Humans do not have complete faith in the Gods and their justice. As a result, the Humans begin to question the meaning of their lives in the grand scheme of things. Moreover, it is seen that the Gods often act according to their whims and fancies, thereby abusing their power and seeking their own end. The Gods do not usually get involved unless the matter concerns them directly. Uncertainty, as to what implications a Human’s actions would have tends to put him in a state of existential crisis. In the episode between Odysseus and Polyphemus, where Odysseus blinds Polyphemus in order to defend himself and escape the island, unaware that he had blinded Poseidon’s son, Odysseus with a sense of victory and pride, taunts the Kyklopes and reveals his true identity. As a result, Odysseus has to face Poseidon’s wrath. Although, Poseidon cannot stop Odysseus from returning to Ithaka, as the fates have decided he is going to return. Poseidon, the God of the Sea, stirs up a storm, which leads Odysseus’ ship astray. It is worth noting that Poseidon acted only to exact a personal vengeance against Odysseus. Furthermore, the nature of this vendetta is no different that of Orestes’ revenge on Aigisthos. Moreover, Polyphemus claims to not fear the Gods and does not behave with propriety. Thus, Poseidon, swayed by impulse shows humanlike behavior instead of acting on reason. His intervention seems irrational, considering he is a God and not a mere mortal. Additionally, seeing Odysseus return to Ithaka makes Poseidon furious and Zeus asks him: “God of horizons, making earth’s underbeam 160

tremble, why do you grumble so?
The immortal Gods show you no less esteem”
(The Odyssey, Homer. Book XIII, 172)
Zeus implies that it is justified for Gods to be angry with humans if they are not shown respect. In reply, Poseidon says he is still hungry for revenge and wishes to punish the Phaiakians for helping Odysseus make his return back to Ithaka. Zeus then, gives Poseidon his permission to exercise his authority as a God and take revenge on the mortals if he has the will to. As a result, Poseidon turns their ship into stone. However, the Phaiakians were extending their hospitality towards Odysseus, and they assembled a crew to take Odysseus back to Ithaka. Moreover, they were a pious people and behaved with exemplary propriety, unlike Polyphemus, despite which they have to bare the brunt of Poseidon’s wrath. Considering, the dialogue between Zeus and Poseidon and Poseidon’s actions, it is seen that Poseidon does not fulfill his divine responsibility and neither does Zeus. Poseidon, encouraged by Zeus abuses his power as a God and unjustly punishes the Phaiakans for fulfilling their responsibility as Humans. Yet again, Poseidon’s impulse outweighs his reason and his intervention is not only unnecessary, but also, selfish. Athena, begs Zeus to have mercy upon Odysseus and help him leave Kalypso’s island and continue his homeward bound journey. Zeus then accepts Athena’s request sends his trusted messenger Hermes to Kalypso’s island and with the instructions to let Odysseus free as Homecoming is Odysseus’ “destiny”. Kalypso, who had been having sexual relations with Odysseus, appalled by Zeus’ message, replies: “Oh you vile Gods, in jealousy supernal!

You hate it when we choose to lie with men—
immortal flesh by some dear mortal side”
(Book V, 123)

Thus, Kalypso, a Deity herself, views the Gods to be “vile” and “jealous”, reflecting upon the erratic behavior of the Gods. She then, continues to cite how the Gods have stood against immortal women and mortal men making love, while immortal men can get away with making love to mortal women. However, Kalypso has to cede to the will of Zeus or face the consequences, so she decides to let Odysseus continue his journey and help him build a raft, as Zeus had instructed. Thus, the Gods tend to behave in a very haughty manner, not just with humans but amongst themselves too. Zeus especially seems to abuse his power to the fullest. Moreover, as a Deity, Kalypso does not act with propriety herself, by making love to Odysseus and by compelling him to sacrifice the sanctity of his marriage.

Interestingly, Athena’s love affair with Odysseus, like Kalypso’s seems to have no moral grounds; they just seem to have a connection on account of a common characteristic: wisdom. Athena’s love for Odysseus is of the nature such that she decides to help him get revenge on the suitors, who were courting his wife, Penelope, in his absence. Athena’s decision does not take into regard the suitors’ behavior. Her anger does not seem to stimulate from a sense of justice or responsibility but simply because of her love for Odysseus. This raises the question, whether Odysseus deserved to reunite with his wife after having several affairs and not fulfilling his responsibility towards her. Odysseus, influenced by the behavior of the Gods, fails in doing so. Although, Zeus and Athena, helped Odysseus fight off the suitors and reclaim the throne of Ithaka, their motives are questionable. As mentioned earlier Athena helped Odysseus only because of her love towards him and Zeus does so as it was Odysseus’ fate to return as he had claimed earlier.

The Gods who assumed to show model behavior, except humans to follow in their footsteps. However their behavior is far from model, despite which the humans do follow in their footsteps. This makes the Gods far from happy, exposing their own weaknesses and as a result, the Gods punish their underlings, to exercise their might and power. Further, humans, live with sense of ambiguity, as their supposed idols do not practice what they preach. As seen from the evidence from the epic, Gods show a lot of human like characteristics such as jealousy, impulsiveness, hypocrisy, arrogance, and lust. Moreover, Gods do not just display such behavior towards humans, but also amongst themselves, which shows human like they are. Additionally, the Gods who cannot display model behavior themselves counter-intuitively expect humans to behave with propriety. As a result, the Gods deny responsibility for their actions and their ramifications. Thus, their interactions with Humans turn into nothing but an unpleasant blame game.

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