The Odyssey and Not Knowing

I’m rereading the Odyssey right now and it has occurred to me that one of the fundamental themes throughout the entire story revolves around the problem of uncertainty.

Because Telemachus and Penelope do not know the fate of Odysseus, they cannot maintain order in his house. If he were dead, then there would be social customs Telemachus could set in motion that would keep the evil (i.e., inhospitable!) suitors at bay. But because Odysseus’ whereabouts are unknown, neither Telemachus or Penelope have sufficient grounds for taking action and restoring order to the home.

And for some reason, the gods seem to be in on the whole thing.

Athena sends Telemachus on a journey to Pylos, where he’ll meet with Nestor and eventually Menelaus to ask about his father’s condition. She goes to great lengths to set this errand in motion:

  • She pleads (twice!) with the council of the gods (…mostly with Zeus) to save Odysseus and they agree to do so;
  • She disguises herself as a friend of Telemachus (Mentor) and urges him to provoke the suitors and then to take a ship to Pylos;
  • She goes with Telemachus to visit Nestor, and then heads back to the ship.

Then there’s the strange moment where she sends Penelope a dream at the end of book IV, assuaging her sorrow about Telemachus’ journey and to encourage her to stay strong in Odysseus’ absence. Penelope, recognizing the dream as sent from Athena, does a reasonable thing: SHE ASKS ATHENA ABOUT ODYSSEUS’ WHEREABOUTS (…something Telemachus has neglected to do up to this point).

But does Athena give Penelope an answer? No.

“As for that other one (Odysseus), I will not tell you the whole story

whether he lives or has died. It is bad to babble emptily.” (IV.836-37)

Leaving aside the fact that it wouldn’t be empty babble since Athena in fact knows where Odysseus is and whether he’ll return to Ithaca, I wonder what the purpose of holding Penelope and Telemachus in suspense serves.

Is it purely for dramatic effect? Maybe. But that seems cheap and uncharacteristic of Homer if it’s the only reason.

My current thought hovers around the idea about the purpose and effect of knowledge itself. One of the conditions of the human experience is its uncertainty about it’s past, present, and future circumstances. Nevertheless, despite a felt lack of certain knowledge, humans attempt to bring order out of chaos, justice out of injustice. In order to do so, there needs to be some shared sense/acknowledgment of a fundamental ordering principle–e.g., what is justice?

In the case of the Odyssey, that principle is Odysseus. His name, his accomplishments, and his reputation have brought his house into existence by giving it definition and a source from which it’s renown and order stems. Presumably, Odysseus could die, and his house would remain given the social customs surrounding death.

(E.G., one of the reasons Telemachus wants to find out what has happened to Odysseus is so that he can erect a funeral pyre and tomb to bring everlasting honor and fame to his father).

But what do you do if the fundamental ordering principle of your house is missing? Not just dead, but absent without trace or explanation? What if he’s still alive, but you can’t find him? Do you continue to behave as if he is still alive? Or do you behave as if he’s dead?*

In other words, how should you live?

Odysseus’ house is in disarray at the beginning of the Odyssey. Not because it has been openly attacked, but because it has been in a state of arrested development for nearly twenty years, and now the effects of its slow deterioration have surfaced.

And isn’t this state of affairs characteristic of the human condition: more often than we care to admit, we suffer more from our sins of omission than sins of commission. Unlike Telemachus and Penelope, we lose hope that Odysseus will return, or fail to search for him as ardently as Telemachus. If we’re lucky, we’ll wake up to our inattention, like Dante waking up to find himself lost in a dark wood.


*Questions along these lines have me thinking a lot about the opening of Plato’s dialogue Timaeus: “One, two, three; but where, my dear Timaeus, is the fourth…?”