Ah how shameless—the way these mortals blame the gods.
From us alone, they say, come all their miseries, yes,
but they themselves, with their own reckless ways,
compound their pains beyond their proper share.
In the divine assembly on Mt. Olympus that follows the proem, Zeus utters these complaints against mortals who blame the gods for their suffering. Rather, men suffer more than is necessary through their own transgressions. The statement establishes a model of divine justice in which men reap their just rewards, as the poem will demonstrate in the fates of Odysseus, the suitors, and other characters.
The gods of Olympus can’t be all against this man
who’s come to mingle among our noble people. . . . .
Give the stranger food and drink, my girls.
Hospitality is an important theme in the Odyssey and an important ethical duty in archaic Greek culture. In Book 5, Odysseus build a raft and sets sail, but Poseidon shatters it and the hero washes ashore on the island of Scheria. The princess, Nausicaa, discovers him naked and in a sorry state and offers him a kind reception and the comforts of civilization. Odysseus’s reception by Nausicaa and the Phaeacians who inhabit the island contrasts with the rough treatment he receives from the suitors when he arrives at his manor disguised as a beggar.
But the god of earthquakes reassured the Smith,
‘Look, Hephaestus, if Ares scuttles off and away,
squirming out of his debt, I’ll pay the fine myself.’
At the court of Alcinous, king of the Phaeacians, the bard Demodocus tells a bawdy tale about Aphrodite’s cuckolding of Hephaestus by Ares. While the tale has a comic effect, it has a serious side as well, since Penelope’s conjugal fidelity is a source of violent strife in the poem’s major plotline. In Demodocus’ story, things are a little upside down. Whereas in the main plot, Poseidon nurses his grudge against Odysseus, in the tale Poseidon plays the mediator and reconciles Hephaistos and Ares without their coming to blows.
She’ll turn us all into pigs or wolves or lions
made to guard that palace of hers—by force, I tell you—
just as the Cyclops trapped our comrades in his lair
with hotheaded Odysseus right beside them all—
thanks to this man’s rashness they died too!
While for the most part the Odyssey shows that in a moral universe guaranteed by the authority of Zeus, virtue is rewarded and injustice punished, a tension nevertheless arises from an anti-heroic side of Odysseus himself. His desire for spoils and fame lead his companions into the cave of Cyclops, where many of them are eaten alive. Here Odysseus tries to lead a contingent of his men to the home of Circe, but Eurylochus refuses. Ultimately all of Odysseus’s men will perish, and the reader has to question the moral uprightness of a protagonist with a knack for deceit.
By god, I’d rather slave on earth for another man—
some dirt-poor tenant farmer who scrapes to keep alive—
than rule down here over all the breathless dead.
In Book 11, Odysseus narrates his journey to the underworld. There he encounters the shade of Achilles and congratulates him on the glory he won in the Trojan War. Achilles scoffs at the praise, asserting that the poorest life surpasses the noblest death. He thus refutes the heroic code whereby warriors risk their lives for the sake of honor and lasting fame. Achilles goes on to ask after his own son, Neoptolemus, and the conversation generally reveals the ethical world of the Odyssey that emphasizes survival and family over glory in war.