1.2: Worlds of the Odyssey
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The World(s) of The Odyssey
Maps and Visualizations of the World(s) of The Odyssey
A map of the Ancient World modeled after Herodotus’ history. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.
This interactive map shows the bewildering patchwork of kingdoms referred to by Homer.
Cultures Mentioned in The Odyssey
Troy and the Trojans:
The impresario Heinrich Schliemann discovered in modern-day Hissarlik (Turkey) a site he claimed was the ancient city of Troy. One of the many layers of the city mound he excavated was potentially constructed by the Hittite civilization, a powerful rival of both the Mycenaeans and Egyptians. The “Trojans” described in The Iliad and The Odyssey may reflect elements of Hittite culture blended with elements of “Greek” culture. We should remember too, that in later periods the Greeks established colonies in the region of the Black Sea and modern-day Turkey. Depictions of the Trojans thus may be reflections of their relationships with neighboring civilizations in these regions.
Phoenicians and Sidonians:
Together with Tyre, Sidon was the most prominent city-state of ancient Phoenicia. The two cities specialized in the production of glass and the rare and expensive “Tyrian purple” dye derived from murex shellfish. and first manufactured the purple dye which made Tyre famous and was so rare and expensive that the color purple became synonymous with royalty. The Phoenicians were renowned for their naval technology and were the cultural and trading middlemen of the Mediterranean. Their alphabet was adapted by the Greeks for writing down their own language.
“Homer” is the first surviving Greek author to mention Ethiopia. Ethiopia and the term “Ethiopian” were used by Greek speakers to refer to individuals with dark complexions (literally: “burned-face” or “red-brown”) who lived in the region of ancient Nubia and other areas south of the Sahara. The historian and ethnographer Herodotus claims that he traveled up the Nile river as far as modern Aswan. He describes "Aethiopia" as the equivalent of ancient Nubia and as the farthest known inhabited region of “Libya” (Africa). In The Iliad, the hero Memnon is described as the king of the Ethiopians and was the hero of a lost epic titled The Aetheopis.
In classical antiquity, Libya could refer to what is now called the Maghreb and the region south of the Libyan desert and western Sahara (west of the Nile). Or the term Libya could be used to denote the regions of Africa known to Greek scholars. When Libyans are referred to, the Greeks appear to be referring to persons of Berber or north African descent, as opposed to “Egyptians” or “Ethiopians”.
A complex civilization at least as old as that of the Greeks, the Egyptians were powerful military and colonizing rivals and trading partners in the region. Greek artists copied kouros statues from Egyptian funerary statues and appreciated Egyptian prowess in mathematics, astronomy, divination, magic, and medicine.
Home to the Minoan culture, a powerful Bronze age civilization known for its trading networks and palace complexes. The collapse of the Minoan civilization coincided with the rise of the Mycenaean culture to prominence. The Minoan’s bull worship is probably the origin of the Greek legend of King Minos and the monstrous minotaur slain by the Athenian hero Theseus. The myth of the labyrinth may be explained by the intricate construction of palace complexes such as that excavated at Knossos.
This island was home to multiple civilization centers and was the object of trade and conquest by neighbors including Greece, Assyria, Egypt, and Persia.
An island off the southern coast of Italy, from the 8th century BCE it was gradually colonized by the Greeks, eventually becoming part of “Graeca magna” or “Greater Greece”. It was also subject to colonization by the Phoenicians, such that the tribes living there, referred to by the Greeks as the Sicels and Sicanians, were displaced further into the interior of the island.
A giant race of cannibals, they have been identified as perhaps living in Sicily but are almost certainly imaginary.
One-eyed hermits living off herding, who eat strangers, they are perhaps best viewed as an anti-civilization.
A people who appear to be largely legendary. Some ancient geographers, including Thucydides, identified Scheria with the island of Corfu, which is roughly 68 miles from Ithaca. However, Odysseus seems to suggest that he lives far away from the Phaeacians, and some qualities ascribed to the Phaeacians, including their naval prowess and spectacular walled palace compound seem to be mythological echoes of Minoan Crete. Strabo and Plutarch placed Scheria in the Atlantic Ocean!
A group later known as the Spartans. Menelaus and Agamemnon were two “kings” or war-leaders associated with this doughty culture devoted to warfare. Spartan women were renowned for the freedoms they enjoyed (their men were often off fighting for long periods and so Spartan free women enjoyed legal and financial rights other Greek-speaking women did not). Spartan helots were serf-like slaves bound to work the land. Spartan boys were taken from their families at a young age and trained in warfare in peer groups under, well, a “Spartan” regime: minimal clothing, plain food, cold baths, etc. This training and cohesion meant that their battle effectiveness was legendary.
Inhabitants of the island of Ithaca, Odysseus’ rather provincial and relatively impoverished little kingdom, which was apparently still worth fighting for.
The kingdom of Nestor, situated in the Greek Peloponnese. Archaeological remains point to a powerful Mycenaean principality existing here before the Greek Dark Ages, with palace complexes, elite tombs, evidence of trade with Egypt, and records surviving in Linear B.
Another Mycenaean city-state, rival to Sparta, also situated in the Greek Peleponnese. The name of its inhabitants, “Argives,” was often used by “Homer” to refer to the alliance of Greek-speaking peoples from various regions who went to attack Troy.
Gods, Goddesses, Demi-Gods and Mortals, by Jessalynn Bird
The topic of deity and the divine in the Greek and Roman world is an enormous one. Many of us come from cultures where monotheistic religions predominate, and so perhaps some of us think of an all-powerful singular “God.” In contrast, the Greeks, Romans, and many other cultures thought of a panoply of divine and semi-divine forces (often described or imagined as persons) which controlled various elements of everyday life and could be communicated with, pleased, or angered. These could range from the gods and goddesses of Olympus (the pantheon), to nymphs, some of whom inhabited bodies of water and trees (dryads and naiads), satyrs, and forces which predated and wrestled with the Olympian gods (the Titans).
There were deities whose power ranged over the known world, while others guarded hearth and home. Those of us coming from cultures and religions which conceive of the divine as manifested in various degrees and through various individuals (as is the case in Hinduism, Buddhism, and many other religions) may therefore have more of an advantage in comprehending Greco-Roman religion. However, it is important to realize that the Greeks and Romans themselves differed widely in their conceptions of what constituted “religion” and borrowed deities and cults widely from other cultures, including the Near East, Egypt, Persia, Mesopotamia. Greek philosophers such as Plato were inclined to explain the gods of Hesiod’s Theogony as metaphors to be interpreted figuratively, yet nonetheless participated in the public rituals of religion (sacrifices, divination, festivals) which were part and parcel of civic and political life.
In Greek myths, mortal humans could interact with any of these forces and even create offspring with them. One never knew when one might meet a divine force disguising itself as a human being (Zeus appearing as a stranger asking for hospitality, Athena as Mentor) or even an animal or inanimate object (Leda and the swan, Danae and the shower of gold). Mortals could also be elevated to the immortal status of a god. Perhaps the most important thing to remember is that Greeks and Romans often imagined the divine as possessing superhuman powers while acting supremely human: gods bicker, change their minds, seduce others, become offended or angry, prove surprisingly loyal, and can be placated through gifts and rituals.
As the Romans encountered and assimilated regions previously under Greek control (and other regions with a rich religious heritage, such as Egypt, the Near East, and Mesopotamia), they assimilated, adopted, and adapted local gods into Roman religious practices. With the exception of mystery cults (that of Dionysius, the Elusinian mysteries, the cults of Mithras and Isis), and rituals within the household to honor ancestors and gods of the hearth and threshold, most Roman religious rituals were public.
For more help on navigating the bewildering world of Greco-Roman mythology, see Theoi.
Rituals and Sacrifice, by Marirose Osborne
There were many different types of ancient Greek rituals and sacrifices. Some were major, such as the Olympic games, where contestants competed for both personal glory and to honor the gods. Others were smaller, more home-centric rituals. Offerings and sacrifice, both big and small are scattered throughout The Odyssey. When the Greeks leave Troy, it is their lack of a suitable sacrifice that angers the gods and when Odysseus and his men are stranded on Thrinacia they sacrifice the cattle of the Sun to the gods as a method of escape.
However, these are examples of big sacrifices. They were not unfamiliar to the ancient Greek peoples, but they were by no means a common occurrence. Greater sacrifices were made in times of war or hardship, but sacrificing several animals was extremely expensive, and most Greek people could not afford the cost of new animals. Kings and rich men were able to sacrifice more often, but even they only did so in times of emergency or special occasions. In The Odyssey both Menelaus and Alcinous are able to perform such sacrifices for their guests, another symbol of their wealth and prosperity. It was much more common for one animal to be offered at a festival or celebration, and even then, only a small, inedible part of the meat would be given to the gods. After the sacrifice the rest was divided up and shared amongst the people.
What was more common were smaller rituals and practices. At dinners it was common for the first part of the meal or drink to be offered to the gods. The host or head of the household would lead the drink sacrifice, known as libations, and pour out the first drink as an offering to the gods. He would raise his cup and declare the offering, most frequently to Zeus, king of the gods, though it could be for others, and pour out the first part of his wine. This happens several times throughout The Odyssey, and in Odysseus's own home. Wine was the main drink of the Greeks and common in the ancient world, so giving some up to the gods wouldn't lead to financial ruin.
Omens and Prophecy, by Brittany Blagburn
Omens were viewed as indicating the will of the gods. They were interpreted by a select group of people who formed a bridge between humanity and the divine. Many of the omens present in The Odyssey relate to ornithomancy, which is divination derived from observing the flight of birds. An early instance of bird-related omens occurs when Telemachus calls the Ithacan council together. During the meeting a pair of eagles fly directly above those assembled. Telemachus and the other people attending the council view this as an omen and immediately seek an interpretation of it because they cannot be sure what the gods intend by it. As such, they turn to a prophet in order to understand what the meaning behind the message is.
In ancient Greece, prophecies were delivered by oracles and prophets. The gods each had their own individual oracles in locations that were specific to them. Apollo had an oracle at Delphi and Zeus had one at Dodona. Once delivered, a prophecy was not to be doubted as viewed as coming from the gods. While not doubted, a prophecy could be misinterpreted. The misinterpretation of prophecy is most obvious in the case of Polyphemus. After Odysseus takes credit for blinding Polyphemus, the cyclops realizes that his understanding of the prophecy surrounding his blinding was incorrect. Polyphemus was told that he would be blinded by Odysseus. He was “expecting some one of imposing presence and superhuman strength”, and as such, thought his blinding would be the result of Odysseus’s superior physical strength (Book 9). However, he was blinded as a result of Odysseus’s craftiness and intellect. The disconnect between what Polyphemus was expecting and what actually happened highlights just how easily a prophecy can be misinterpreted.
Class, Wealth, and Status, by Carina Garza
In ancient Greece, those with the most power were the wealthy aristocrats who had political power. Greece was an agricultural society which allowed people to earn a living through farming. Most wealthy male landowners owned slaves, received an education, and were expected to play a role in public life (government) and serve in the military. The wealthier the family, the better match the daughter potentially had for a husband (and her family could expect a hefty counter-gift or bride price from a husband and his family). Those in a higher economic class enjoyed better opportunities and more luxurious lifestyles (note how The Odyssey carefully uses clothing, household furnishings, gifts, and meals to hint at or depict degrees of poverty and wealth).
Those in poverty in ancient Greece ranged from poor free Greeks to slaves. The poor could work for the wealthy, own their own home, perform manual labor or artisanal or craft work, sell and resell items as peddlers or shop-keepers, but typically did not own considerable land. For this reason, they were considered to have “low morals” and were barred from participating in politics. Some individuals experienced homelessness or had to beg resources and hospitality from others. Slaves who worked in homes or alongside owners with modest farms tended to have a better working environment than slaves who worked in mines or on large-scale farms. There were skilled slaves who worked in factories as well, although little is known about their living conditions. Slaves were relatively inexpensive, which allowed some poor Greeks to own them as well (see the section on Free and Unfree below).
Leadership and Political Life, by Jessalynn Bird
The societies depicted by “Homer” are led by kings who resemble chieftains or warleaders in their function and role. Although assemblies are mentioned, they are the equivalent of town hall meetings where individuals (males only) voice their opinions and grievances and seek consensus, but the assemblies were not decision-making or legislative bodies. Leadership in The Iliad and Odyssey can be inherited (the eldest son of a king is expected to succeed him) but can also be lost through lack of leadership capability and demonstrable weakness, poverty, or inability. Odysseus has to reward his followers with spoils from battle or risk losing their loyalty. They, particularly Eurymachus, freely question his decision-making. Cohesion between the Greek-speaking forces before Troy was based on ties of blood relation, marriage, ritual friendship, mutual obligation, and gift-giving. Followers could be gained or lost easily: Achilles was angered when Agamemnon demanded what Achilles felt were his rightful spoils (Briseis), and as a result, he withdrew his loyalty and the war against Troy was nearly lost. Individuals gained respect and leadership capability through noble birth, prowess in battle, sage strategic advice, and the ability to settle disputes. As a fast-talking and somewhat deceitful strategist, Odysseus earns respect for his creative solutions at some points (as in the construction of the Trojan horse) but perhaps will never earn a place of first rank among the “heroes” of Troy.
Warfare and Its Conventions, by Jessalynn Bird
Although the “Greeks” of The Iliad and The Odyssey display an ambivalent attitude towards the employment of strategy and trickery in battle, there is no lack of praise for individual combat in the two epics. This combat is described in formulaic fashion: a major hero encounters a lesser-known individual from the opposite camp, they exchange challenges, fight, and the lesser hero dies in battle. The defeated person’s armor and weapons are confiscated as trophies. Military historians argue over the precise nature of combat depicted in the poems. Was it a melee, with individuals challenging each other to combat in the quest for glory and fame, or did forces fight in ordered phalanxes, as they did in later periods?
It is clear that chariots were crucial to conveying individuals to and from the battlefield quickly and that, similar to the Hittite and Egyptian fighting practices, the chariots may have contained more than one individual (one to control the horses, the other to employ a javelin or bow). After projectiles were exhausted, warriors dismounted to fight with sword and shield, often with one individual providing “cover” with a shield while the other went on the offensive. Mounted warriors, war machines of various sorts and naval warfare are not featured in The Iliad and The Odyssey, but would prove crucial in later periods of Greek and Roman military history.
A victory trophy commemorating a local competition at Athens. In an event reminiscent of Bronze Age chariot warfare, a soldier leaps on and off the chariot as the horses gallop. Attic Panathenaic amphora with lid (detail), 340–339 B.C., attributed to the Marsyas Painter. Terracotta, 30 7/8 in. high. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 79.AE.147.
Mediterranean Gift-Culture and Hospitality (Xenia)
Ritualized friendship or guest friendship was a bond of trust which imitated kinship and was reinforced by rituals. It was meant to generate affection and obligation between individuals belonging to separate social units. Greek sources use the term xenia, Latin hospitium. Once joined by the bond, individuals, normally men of roughly the same age and social status, are called each other’s xenos or hospes. This relationship not only involved hospitality but also ritualized personal relationships or pseudo-kinship. According to Greek and Roman authors, this relationship involved affection and its obligations took precedence over kinship and marriage.
Typically this relationship was formed between two individuals from different regions. Like kinship, ritualized friendship was held to last even if the individuals lost contact. Their bond could be reactivated even after years had passed and was bequeathed to their male descendants. Individuals could meet and form such bonds in time of war, at festivals and when visiting colonies. Ceremonies marked the relationship: a declaration of friendship, gift exchange, handshake, and feasting. Ritual friends were meant to act as the equivalent of godparents to each other’s children and step in as a substitute parent in the case of absence or death. Ritualized friendship appears to have been confined to the upper classes and functioned as a bit of an “old boys network”. In the Homeric poems (The Iliad, The Odyssey), the hero depended on xenia and its networks when travelling. The xenos became a substitute kinsman, protector, representative and ally, providing shelter, protection and arms. Even with the emergence of the polis or city-state, such networks persisted, as they did in republican Rome.
Gender Roles (Men and Women in Ancient Greek Cultures)
It is difficult to accurately describe the gender roles and relationships between inhabitants of Greek-speaking cultures because of regional variation, a lack of surviving written sources outside of Athens, and the fact that most surviving sources were written by men. However, one thing clearly emerges from the materials we do have. Women were meant to be devoted to the bearing and raising of children and were barred from voting, inheriting land (they could inherit businesses or moveable property), and political life. But then again, in Athens, most people were barred from political life, including foreigners, slaves and non-citizens. Spartan women, on the other hand, enjoyed slightly greater freedoms because their husbands were away fighting for long periods of time. There were of course, a few exceptional individuals who rose to fame despite the handicap (and it was in that period) of being female, and we will study some of them, such as Sappho.
Although female goddesses played a prominent role in the Greek pantheon, both they and mortal women were often portrayed stereotypically as jealous or cheating wives (Hera/Juno and Clytemnestra), faithful wives (Penelope), chaste virgins (Nausicaa), or dangerous seductresses (Helen) and sorceresses (Circe), or Amazonian warriors (Penthesilea). Margaret Atwood will investigate the intriguing question of what Greek women might have made of these representations of themselves in The Penelopiad.
As was the case in most patriarchal cultures, female infants were more likely to be abandoned at birth (as were some male children, as we will see in Daphnis and Chloe). Male children of Athenian citizens and some girls studied reading, writing and basic mathematics, progressing to poetry and “respectable” forms of music, such as the lyre. Physical education was considered key for both genders, although the form of physical expressions permitted varied according to gender. Girls were directed towards dancing, gymnastics and music, while boys could box, swim, wrestle, train with weapons, foot race, chariot race, or dance. The goal of education differed by gender as well. For girls, it was to equip them for marriage, raising a family, and manage the household, for boys, it was to equip them to head a household as kyrios and engage in public political and civic life.
While most Greek men married later in life (after reaching formal adulthood and proving themselves capable of heading an oikos), young women were typically married at puberty (early to mid- teens). Marriages were typically arranged by the families involved. Fathers or a close male relative chose husbands and accepted a bride-price from him. Girls who had lost their fathers had their properties and marriages arranged by a male relative who stood in as their guardian. Most marriages were arranged for the purpose of alliances and/or children; romantic love (eros) was not expected, although affection (philia) could be hoped for. Although men could look outside marriage for intense relationships (pederasty was common, as were relationships with prostitutes and female slaves in the oikos), women were expected to remain chaste to preserve the legitimacy of any children they might bear.
Life for married women varied according to the family’s resources. Upper-class women would be expected to raise children, oversee at least several domestic slaves, and supervise the production of textiles and embroidery-work for the household. They were free to visit female friends and attend religious festivals and funeral processions, although it remains disputed whether they could attend theatrical performances, such as those associated with the god Dionysius (these included, in Athens, competitions for the “best” play -- tragedy, satyr play-- with prizes granted. Euripides, who we will meet later, wrote many of his plays for these). Needless to say, visits within and without the house were strictly supervised, largely to prohibit the crime of adultery (moicheia). As we know from Lysias’ court speech, Against Eratosthenes, male heads of households lived in fear that the legitimacy of their heirs might be in question. A husband who discovered a lover of his wife within the household could kill that lover with minimal consequences; women convicted of adultery were forever barred from participating in public religious rites and festivals.
As we will see from Apollodorus’ court speech, Against Neaira, and the fate of Neiara’s daughter Phano, in Athens, marriages could be dissolved for three reasons. Phano’s first marriage to Phrastor ended for the first and most common reason: a husband chose to repudiate his wife. Similar to a no-fault divorce, no reason need be given, but the wife was to receive back her dowry. Another more unusual reason was when the wife left her husband’s oikos. In this case, the woman was represented by her legal guardian (a husband, brother or uncle most usually), and her social status and reputation typically suffered. A third and to us unusual reason was when a father requested his daughter back, probably with the intention of arranging a marriage which better benefitted the family (for instance, if a potential husband offered a bigger bride-price). This last option was only possible if the wife had no surviving children. If a woman’s husband died, she was typically required to marry a close male relative of her husband to keep all property within her husband’s family. These customs may seem strange to us, but continue to prevail in areas of the world with strong patriarchies.
The same is true of “Greek” inheritance patterns, where the emphasis was on preserving the property and goods of the oikos in order to pass them down to a new male head of the household. For this reason, if a woman’s father died and she had brothers, the inheritance would pass to the next generation of male heirs, not her. If she had no brothers, her guardian or husband managed the inheritance. If she were unmarried and inherited her father’s property she was often required to marry her nearest male relative (for example, her uncle). In the absence of male heirs, women could also inherit all or portions of family inheritances. Most of our evidence for inheritance laws is based on Athens, however, and customs varied from region to region. What we do know is that women were able to personally own and manage portable wealth in the form of clothes and jewelry (which they could gift as they chose while alive). However, “Greek” women could not make wills, and on their death, all of a woman’s property passed to their husband or nearest living male relative.
Free and Unfree (Slaves, Freed persons, Those Born Free) by Jessalynn Bird
Slavery was common in the ancient world. Many slaves worked in agriculture, industry, crafts, retail, mining and quarrying, prostitution, and as domestic servants. In theory, anyone from any ethnic group could become (or own) a slave. Individuals could be sold into slavery by their parents (or raised as slaves if found abandoned as infants) or kidnapped by pirates or seized as war spoils or born into slavery. Likewise individuals could purchase their freedom or be freed by their owners. It was expected that slaves serve their owners and demonstrate loyalty and that in return their owners provide them with the necessities of life.
However, slaves did not enjoy equal rights under the laws of the various Greek-speaking societies. By definition, as unfree persons, slaves could not participate in politics and were represented by their owners in court (similar to minors and women). They faced harsher legal penalties than free persons and their testimony was in general inadmissible in court unless produced under torture. Slaves or their spouses or children could be sold, beaten, sexually assaulted, or tortured. However, in Athens, those injuring or killing slaves belonging to themselves or another person could be prosecuted for destruction of property and for religious pollution through bloodshed. However they tended to be subject to lesser penalties than those who killed or injured a free person. In general fines levied against criminal slaves tended to be more severe, and fines granted to the owner of a victimized slave were less substantial than they would have been for a person of free status.
Slaves formed part of the household (oikos) and could take part in major religious festivals and claim sanctuary in temples. Although slaves could not own property in some regions, they were often allowed to save up to purchase their emancipation. Emancipated slaves, although technically free persons, sometimes still owed obligations to their former masters and like resident aliens (metics), did not possess the same rights as full citizens in Athens. Some slaves acted as stewards or managers or operated businesses almost as a franchise for their owners. However, slaves’ sexuality was subject to special restrictions. The sons and daughters of defeated enemies could be enslaved and forced to serve as concubines or prostitutes. Owners frequently sexually assaulted slaves, although the assault of another’s slave could be prosecuted. On the other hand, in some law codes, such as that of Gortyrn on Crete, masters were responsible for their slaves’ misdeeds.
Workers harvesting olives (portrayed as darkened by the sun), black figure amphora at the British Museum.
The Oikos (Household) by Jessalynn Bird
The ancient Greek word oikos encompassed three related but distinct ideas: the family (including the line of descent from father to son), the family's property, and/or the house(hold), which could range from nuclear family with one or two domestic slaves to an estate with hundreds of slaves.
Based on sources such as Lysias’s speech, “On the Murder of Eratosthenes,” historians have envisaged the oikos in Athens as divided into discrete male and female spaces: the gynaikon, associated with female activities (cooking, textile production) and the andron or men’s quarters. Other historians have argued that some of the household’s areas were public (open to visitors), whereas others were private (family members only) and that these spaces could shift depending on who was present in the household.
Regardless of the physical parameters and arrangements of the household, its head (kyrios) was always a male. The kyrios not only represented his oikos to the wider polis but provided legal protection to the women and minors of the household, including its slaves. When legitimate sons became adults the role of kyrios could be transferred to the next generation. Or, a son could be given his inheritance portion and form a new oikos. Sons were obligated to care for their parents and could be prosecuted if they failed to do so. They were also required to conduct proper funeral rituals for their parents and commemorate their memory with the appropriate rites. For these reasons, a male head of household lacking a male heir could adopt one to prevent the oikos from dying out. The adoptive son left his former oikos and joined a new one.
While men could participate in both the oikos and political life (polis), women were largely confined to the oikos and could not vote or serve in the government even if citizens. All business was conducted on a woman's behalf by her husband or father, even the management of her dowry. In Athens, preference was given to male relatives in inheritance law and unmarried daughters were considered part of the oikos inherited by a male, although they were assigned dowries. The situation was somewhat different in Sparta. Although in Sparta women could own and inherit property, in both Athens and Sparta marriage was normally arranged for a woman by her father or male guardian.
The deceased woman, shown seated, is conversing with her standing relative. Between them is a young servant. 3rd c. B.C. Archaeological Museum of Thessaloniki, Greece. Photograph by Tilemahos Efthimiadis, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Within the oikos, women tended to stick to their own portion of the house, the gynaikonitis, and rarely appeared before non-related guests. Well-to-do women undertook the management of the oikos, including supervising children and slaves, food preparation and textile production. Upper class women of child-bearing age rarely left the household except for visiting other women, funeral rites, and religious festivals, and were accompanied by female slaves who acted as chaperones. Older women and widows had more freedom, as did Spartan women, whose husbands were often absent from home. Slaves and poorer married women and widows went shopping and to fetch water or worked outside of the oikos: they sold goods in the marketplace, did agricultural work, were hired as wet nurses or worked in trades alongside their husbands.
Race and Ethnicity in the Ancient World by Jessalynn Bird
The ancient world constructed difference in terms very distinct from modern conceptions of race. Modern theories of race tend to be derived from colonizing powers’ theories of “race” as based on skin color and physiological differences which colonizers believed reflected biological distinctions between discrete groups with separate origins and evolutionary paths. Modern definitions of ethnicity, on the other hand, reflect the notion of a culture shared by individuals who may or may not share a common genetic heritage.
Greek and Roman cultures tried to describe the varieties of people they encountered through origin myths, many of which claimed that all humans stemmed from common ancestors. Greek scientists and philosophers later attempted to explain differences in individuals and groups by pointing to the impact of different geographical regions and climates (individuals living in a torrid zone, according to this theory, could and would not act the same as those living in temperate zones). Ethnographers such as Herodotus pointed to differences in language, government, social and religious practices and culture but could not agree if these stemmed from nurture (culture) or nature (biology). Greeks and Romans also used the term “barbarian” to describe the antithesis of what it meant to be “Greek” or “Roman,” but recognized that Greeks (or Romans) could act “barbaric” and “barbarians” become “Greeks” (or “Romans”). At the time that the author of The Odyssey was writing, there was no united “Greek” people, but rather scattered kingdoms and city-states distinct in identity and culture and only tenuously united by speaking a common language. Each of these smaller units clung to their identity, but many engaged in trading, war, and piracy with surrounding cultures which they naturally compared to their own.
Death, Funeral Rites, and the Afterworld by Jessalynn Bird
Prothesis (laying out of the dead), Terracotta funerary plaque,
For the ancient Greeks, the spirit (psyche) departed the body at the moment of death, but to not provide a loved one a full funeral was unthinkable (this is what makes Achilles’ treatment of Hector’s body so objectionable). In fact, deprival of a proper burial and humiliation of the deceased’s body was sometimes used to punish enemies and/or their living relatives (the play Antigone explores this at length). Without funeral rituals, the ancients believed that proper entry into the afterlife was not possible.
A burial or cremation had four stages: preparation of the body, the prothesis (the equivalent of visitation or a wake), the formal funeral procession, and the entombment of the body or ashes of the dead. Those responsible for preparing the body were almost always women, normally a close and respectably aged relative. The body would be bathed, anointed with oil, and dressed the individual’s best clothes and jewelry. A coin was often placed in the deceased’s mouth or two coins laid on the closed eyes, to pay Charon for passage over the river Styx.
During the prothesis, the deceased was displayed on a bier for friends, allies, and relatives to visit and mourn. Visitors were expected to overtly and ritually display their grief through tearing hair and clothing and singing laments. Just before dawn, the funeral procession, composed of men and women, and children, accompanied the bier to the tomb or grave. The women then returned home to purify it (with water and hyssop branches) and prepare a funeral feast. Cremation or burial of the body and final offerings (locks of hair, ritual libations and food offerings, prayers, and in exceptional circumstances, the sacrifice of a black bull or ram) were the preserve of men. Musicians warned passersby of the procession so that they could avoid the ritual pollution associated with death.
Although Greek grave goods were limited in quantity and quality compared to the lavish goods which accompanied Egyptian rulers into the afterlife, spectacular examples of goldwork and jewelry have been recovered from Mycenaean tombs. Monumental earth mounds (barrows, tumuli), rectangular tombs, and/or marble stelai and statues were often used to mark the grave site and to commemorate the dead. Similar to grave sites today, surviving family members would visit the grave with food and drink offerings which honored and sustained the dead. After the burial, the family stayed in a state of ritual mourning (and pollution) for a month, during which they were not to participate in religious festivals or visit temples.
All these rites were intended to provide appropriate passage to the afterlife. See the articles linked in blue for changing conceptions of the afterlife and one artist's conceptual map of the Greek underworld.
Magic and Medicine, by Brittany Blagburn
Hecate, the goddess of magic and spells, enjoyed an official role as part of the Greek pantheon. As such, magic in The Odyssey is linked with Hecate due to her divine powers. Both men and women are seen working with magic in the epic. However, the poem focuses on female magic users the most. Figures such as Circe and Helen are seen practicing magic, often through the use of herbs.
Circe’s magical abilities are much more obvious and have a negative connotation. She uses herbs in order to influence the minds of Odysseus’s men. Then once they are complacent and forgetful, she utilizes her wand in order to turn them into pigs. Her magic is considered harmful and manipulative because she takes away the humanity of Odysseus’s men and attempts to do the same to him. The poem depicts Circe as a woman who uses her magic for her own selfish purposes. For these reasons, her magic abilities are seen as problematic. However, Circe’s magic does eventually become useful to Odysseus when, at sword point, she turns his men back to their human forms.
Unlike Circe, Helen’s magic is more subtle and described in ways to make it seem helpful and necessary. She is seen using “an herb that banishes all care, sorrow, and ill humour” on Telemachus during his visit to Sparta (Book 4). Helen does this to ease the suffering of her guest as well as those around her. Her decision to use magic in this instance is not portrayed as selfish. Instead, Helen’s magic is kind and caring. Helen uses her magic to assist others from the start whereas Circe only helps others with her magic when she believes her life is in danger.
John William Waterhouse, Circe Offering the Cup to Odysseus (1891), oil on canvas, Gallery Oldham, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.