So, Matthew and I have finished “The Odyssey,” which ends with a stunning chapter that I find myself walking the streets here in Paris, turning over and over in my mind.
In previous late chapters, Odysseus, who has slaughtered the suitors who were bleeding his household dry, has fled with his wife and men to the rural home of his elderly father, Laertes, anticipating revenge attacks from the suitors’ families. Chapter 24 begins with the murdered suitors arriving in Hades, and there finding Achilles and Agamemnon talking about their own deaths, and legacies. Agamemnon, who died ingloriously (after returning from war, he was murdered by his wife and her lover), praises Achilles and his heroic death effusively. He is tormented by his jealousy, inasmuch as Achilles has achieved the most glorious possible death for a Greek man.
Reading this, you recall Achilles’ confession to Odysseus when he journeyed to Hades: that he would trade all the glory he achieved in death, and indeed live as a slave to the lowest man on earth, just to be alive again.
When he spots one of the suitors arriving in Hades, Agamemnon asks how and why he came to be there. After the suitor explains events leading to his death, Agamemnon interprets the massacre in terms of his own drama: specifically, he praises Odysseus for having such a fine wife as Penelope, and mourns his own fate at the hands of his rotten wife Clytemnestra. The lesson I took from this: even in death, the passions that animated men may persist.
Why does Agamemnon hold on to his mortal shame, but Achilles managed to gain some perspective on it (per his confession to Odysseus earlier in the poem)?
Later in Chapter 24, Odysseus arrives at his father’s place, and they have a moving reunion. But there is not much time to rejoice: they must ready themselves for battle with the families of the suitors. Down in the city, the suitors’ relatives are mustering for war. But a herald who witnessed the killings of the suitors arrives to warn the throng that he had seen a god (as he had; Athena) fighting with Odysseus against the suitors. The point is that the death of the suitors had been divine justice, and that if the men seek vengeance, they will be going against the gods, and will fail.
Terror gripped them all, their faces ashen white.
So says the Bard. We know that the herald is telling the truth. His invocation of the gods stops them all dead in their tracks. The fear of God, or the gods, gives them pause. The herald reminds them that the prophets had tried to warn them to stop the suitors, but they wouldn’t listen. Listen now! he tells them.
But “more than half” of the men resumed their preparation for “their foolish, mad campaign.” They could not restrain themselves — yet it is telling that the only thing that stopped them, even for a moment, was considering that their path would be against the will of God.
The battle joined, Laertes, who has for 20 years been in mourning for his son Odysseus, gone to war and presumed lost, now watches Odysseus and his (Laertes’) grandson Telemachus, go to battle. The Bard writes:
Laertes called out in deep delight,
“What a day for me, dear gods! What joy —
my son and my grandson vying over courage!”
Observe that he has just received his son back from the dead, so to speak — and yet, Laertes is filled with joy over the sight of the last of his line going into battle in which they may be killed.
In the end, Athena, who had been helping Odysseus’s men in battle, decides that there has been enough killing, and orders all the men to stop:
“Hold back you men of Ithaca, back from brutal war!
Break off — shed no more blood — make peace at once!”
So Athena commanded. Terror blanched their faces,
they went limp with fear, weapons slipped from their hands . . .
They spun in flight to the city, wild to save their lives,
but loosing a savage cry, the long-enduring great Odysseus,
gathering all his force, swooped like a soaring eagle —
just as the son of Cronus hurled a reeking bolt
just at her feet, the mighty father’s daughter,
and blazing eyed Athena wheeled on Odysseus, crying,
“Royal son of Laertes, Odysseus, master of exploits,
hold back now. Call a halt to the great leveler, War —
don’t court the rage of Zeus who rules the world!”
So she commanded. He obeyed her, glad at heart.
And thus does peace reign among the warring Greeks.
When I first read this, I thought it was a convenient Deus ex machina episode to bring the narrative to a swift end. And it sort of is. On the other hand, the lesson here seems to be that the only thing that can bring war to an end is the acts of the gods — that is to say, the belief by the warring factions that continuing to fight angers divinity, and invites the judgment of the gods.
Also in this chapter, Zeus tells Athena that to stop the fighting between Odysseus and the suitors’ families, “let us purge their memories of the bloody slaughter of their brothers and their sons.” To be clear, the slaughter is plainly shown to be divine justice, but the memory of the killing will continue the cycle of slaughter. To me, memory seems like a curse upon these people. Look at how Agamemnon is tortured in the afterlife by his memories. The entire Greek view of honor and glory, which is why they valorize war, is based on the hallowing of memory.
And there’s that line: “the great leveler, War.” War can right injustice — but war can also destroy (it leveled Troy), and make everyone equally dead and condemned in Hades.
The thing I keep turning over in my mind as I walk is whether or not peace between men is possible without a belief in divinity — specifically, if people cannot be persuaded that to continue fighting would be to offend God. If it was hard enough to restrain war in pious times, how do we do so in impious times? Second, is it possible to have a lasting peace without forgiveness, which requires a kind of purging of memory — that is, a conscious willingness not to hold one’s enemies’ deeds against them, and to refuse the obligation of an honor code to avenge wrongs.
I believe that Jesus Christ was God, but even if I didn’t, in light of “The Odyssey,” his teaching on forgiveness, delivered with divine authority, strike me as even more revolutionary than I previously thought.