Some Universal Laws, According to Homer’s “Odyssey”

Recently I read the great Homerian epic, The Odyssey, and though I expected it to be difficult, the story was both grand and sensitive at times, and altogether very engaging.

Simultaneously, I am also taking a Coursera class aptly titled Greek and Roman Mythology from the University of Pennsylvania (for free!). I’ve been working ahead a little bit and have finished the first four weeks worth of material already.

Our beloved Professor Peter Struck generously shares nuggets of wisdom and insight while analyzing what is going on in these verses of Homer. A feature that I always looked forward to hearing him talk about was the “universal laws” demonstrated by certain situations in The Odyssey. Since I couldn’t find a place on the Coursera page where all the knowledge was consolidated in one place, I thought it might be nice to share what I gathered myself.

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Nostalgia for the past is the most powerful force in the universe.

This refers to Telemachus, the son of Odysseus. We tend to look on father figures and ancestors and myths with reverence and a sense that things were better in the past, which motivates us to strive to be better in the present. Also, the desire for vengeance for crimes in the past can be very strong and can drive sons and daughters to do what they must (see: Agamemnon).

If you want to persuade someone, know your audience.

Odysseus is crafty. He has a very good mastery of words and how to use his tongue to manipulate situations into his own favor. When he finds himself without clothes and nearly dead on the beach at Scheria, he curries favor with Nausicaa and is able to regain some of his former self.

It’s not good to be food. (humans don’t like that)

Odysseus and his men obviously hated it when the cyclops decided to use them for food and ignore the decencies of welcoming guests into his home (they were meant to be served food, not be served as food). This was one of the worst crimes they could have ever fathomed in their culture. To enter into the food chain is disgusting to us as humans.

Also, Circe turns most of his men into pigs at one point. Pigs are bred for one purpose only – to be eaten, so this is the worst possible situation. Humans do NOT like that.

Making a leadership decision usually means choosing between two evils.

Unfortunately, this is true. Odysseus has to take either the route passing the six-headed monster Scylla or the whirlpool Charybdis. He has to make that call, even though he knows he will inevitably lose some of his men.

When you tell a lie, you should tell one that’s close to the truth.

Upon his return to Ithaca, Odysseus makes up a backstory very similar to his true one. That way, not only is it easier for him to contrive, the listener can also tell that it is more genuine.

To grow up often means taking on other people’s messes.

A lot of Odyssey concentrates on the personal growth of Telemachus. He goes from an uncertain boy in the beginning to take on the traits of a hero. By the end of the book, he boldly addresses the rowdiness of the suitors, which shocks them, but he has the willingness to confront his problems rather than blame them on the gods.

Secrecy creates intimacy.

So when Odysseus talks to Penelope, his wife who he hasn’t seen in ten years, he does not reveal himself, but rather they hint very secretively to each other. Basically Penelope asks him to interpret a dream that is obviously about Odysseus. Our professor explained this universal law by saying that two people will immediately feel closer if one of them says something like, “I had a dream about you last night”, but of course, only if they know each other already (otherwise that would be creepy). Or if two people tell secrets, or form some sort of secret society, that will subsequently cause them to feel closer as well.

I think that all of these so-called “universal laws” are pretty sound, and they are demonstrated well through The Odyssey and made more memorable through these examples.


That’s all I have for you today folks! I would really recommend Coursera and/or Homer, especially for those of you who don’t know what to do with yourselves over the not-so-long summer. ~Gloria

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