The world of The Odyssey is defined by rules that prescribe human interactions. Important customs include hospitable behavior to strangers and guests, respect for family and marriage, and punishment of those who have violated these customs. The lines between these customs can be blurry, and at times the customs may even conflict – as in the case of Agamemnon's son Orestes, who must avenge Agamemnon's murder by his wife Clytemnestra, but in doing so has to kill his own mother. A person who fails to follow these customs usually falls victim to violent justice meted out by other humans or by the gods. Those who act quickly, selfishly, or ignorantly are likely to run afoul of the complicated interplay of these customs; at the same time, those who are cunning and thoughtful can get their way within the confines of the rules, bending but not breaking them.
The gods also reward piety and punish disrespect and hubris (excessive pride). Human piety toward the gods takes many forms, such as sacrifice and respect for a divine property and offspring. Yet the gods are often unreliable in their assessments of human piety. It can take very little for a god to feel slighted, and the consequences are often unpredictable. Poseidon remains angry at Odysseus for blinding his son Polyphemus even after he punishes Odysseus repeatedly, but eventually decides to spare Odysseus's life on a whim.
The emotions of the gods sometimes conflict, and the mysterious tugs and pulls of divine influence determine the fluctuations of justice on earth. The Phaeacians follow Zeus's code of hospitality in welcoming Odysseus and speeding him home; but Poseidon (still sore at Odysseus) interprets their actions as a mark of disrespect, so Zeus joins him in punishing the Phaeacians for an action that should have pleased him. The outlines of divine justice align with a set of assumptions about human conduct, but the details are a blurry tangle of Olympian tempers.
Piety, Customs, and Justice ThemeTracker
Piety, Customs, and Justice Quotes in The Odyssey
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.
You should be ashamed yourselves,
mortified in the face of neighbors living round about!
Fear the gods' wrath – before they wheel in outrage
and make these crimes recoil on your heads.
Outrageous! Look how the gods have changed their minds
about Odysseus – while I was off with my Ethiopians.
Just look at him there, nearing Phaeacia's shores
where he's fated to escape his noose of pain
that's held him until now. Still my hopes ride high –
I'll give that man his swamping fill of trouble!
Since we've chanced on you, we're at your knees
in hopes of a warm welcome, even a guest-gift,
the sort that hosts give strangers. That's the custom.
Respect the gods, my friend. We're suppliants – at your mercy!
Zeus of the Strangers guards all guests and suppliants:
strangers are sacred – Zeus will avenge their rights!
Even so, you and your crew may still reach home,
suffering all the way, if you only have the power
to curb their wild desire and curb your own.
I tell you this – bear it in mind, you must –
when you reach your homeland steer your ship
into port in secret, never out in the open…
the time for trusting women's gone forever!
Would I were young as you, to match my spirit now,
or I were the son of great Odysseus, or the king himself
returned from all his roving – there's still room for hope!
Then let some foreigner lop my head off if I failed
to march right into Odysseus's royal halls
and kill them all. And what if I went down,
crushed by their numbers – I, fighting alone?
I'd rather die, cut down in my own house
than have to look on at their outrage day by day.
Odysseus was torn…
Should he wheel with his staff and beat the scoundrel senseless? –
or hoist him by the midriff, split his skull on the rocks?
He steeled himself instead, his mind in full control.
You know how you can stare at a bard in wonder –
trained by the gods to sing and hold men spellbound –
how you can long to sit there, listening, all your life
when the man begins to sing. So he charmed my heart.
What good sense resided in your Penelope –
how well Icarius's daughter remembered you,
Odysseus, the man she married once!
The fame of her great virtue will never die.
The immortal gods will lift a song for all mankind,
a glorious song in praise of self-possessed Penelope.
Now that royal Odysseus has taken his revenge,
let both sides seal their pacts that he shall reign for life,
and let us purge their memories of the bloody slaughter
of their brothers and their sons. Let them be friends,
devoted as in the old days. Let peace and wealth
come cresting through the land.