Rereading the Odyssey: The Virtue of Piety


I first read Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey as a freshman in high school, and at the time I preferred the Iliad, basically for the battle scenes. The Iliad is a boy’s book; the hero, Achilles, is not much more than a boy himself. The Odyssey is a book for men, particularly men who have had their share of dead-ends and lessons learned, and are hoping at least to have gained some wisdom from the experience. I revisited the Iliad once, but this is my third time rereading the Odyssey.

Still, the hero of the first four books of the Odyssey is a boy, Odysseus’ son Telemachus. Since the Trojan War lasted ten years and Odysseus has been delayed for another nine, it would make Telemachus about twenty years old (though in Homer’s description he seems a little younger.) He is throughout shown as a paragon of the virtue of piety.

In our day, piety is exclusively associated with religion, and in English seems to carry a negative connotation of over-religiosity. Medieval theologians gave it a wider meaning, considering it part of the virtue of justice (giving to each his due), and it consisted of fulfilling one’s duties to God, his parents, and his country.

In the Greco-Roman world, the meaning is wider still: it is not a unilateral virtue, but a bi-lateral or reciprocal one: both parties in any relationship have duties to the other, even if the parties are not on equal terms.

For example, in Homer’s world, a home owner should show piety to a wanderer begging for a place to spend the night. Giving him food and lodging is an act of piety. The wanderer shows piety by not overstaying his welcome, and returning the favor if he ever gets a chance. A recurring Greek myth is the legend of the god disguised as a beggar who, pleased by how well he is treated by his host, blesses him for his piety.

So the virtue that governs the relationships between guest and host, father and son, god and man, is the virtue of piety.

When visited by Athena disguised as a merchant captain, Telemachus shows piety by welcoming her into his house, giving her good food and offering a place to stay, no questions asked. Athena, for her part, gives the troubled boy some good advice and does not stay too long, politely excusing herself to return to her ship and sailors. When Telemachus himself goes off to find news of his father, to confirm either that Odysseus is dead or still wandering (also an act of piety, since as son he has the duty to preform proper funeral rites for his father), Telemachus is a model guest, not insisting on his noble birth and politely turning down his hosts’ lavish gifts in favor of more modest ones he can really use.

The scene with Athena in disguise unfolds as Penelope’s suitors slaughter Telemachus’ pigs and steers, and drink his wine with not even a thank-you. They have definitely overstayed their welcome as they eat through Telemachus estate. By being boorish guests they are committing the sin of impiety, and in Homer’s mind, this merits death.

The gods are also subject to piety. Athena intercedes for Odysseus with Zeus by asking him to remember all the sacrifices Odysseus had made. Just like guests and hosts commune around a meal, the sacrifice is the place where gods and men enter communion: a group of men ritually kill a prized animal; the men and the god share the animal, the men eating the meat, and the god smelling the smoke of fat wrapped around a thighbone and burnt. The god piously attends the sacrifice, where he enjoys himself as much as the feasting men do.

The notion of reciprocal piety between gods and men is not wholly lost today. In Spanish or Italian, the modern decedents of Latin, you still hear “ten piedad de nosotros” or “abbi pietà di noi” in prayers addressed to God: asking God to display the virtue of piety towards the faithful. The sacrifices described above were not substantially different from the sacrifices preformed in ancient Judaism before the destruction of the Temple, and the Christian Mass is a bloodless version of a sacrifice.

It is wrong to see the ancient virtue of piety in terms of coldly fulfilling duties: I do this, so you owe me that. Piety is about relationships; the question is not “how much do I owe?”, but “what would a good man do in this relationship?”



  1. I too favor The Iliad.

  2. Very nice. A Greek friend complained, in reaction to a callous remark in the Greek press about the recent drownings off Lampedusa, that Greeks had forgotten the unwritten law of hospitality. He said they had become like Polyphemus, who didn’t need other people. They didn’t see them with their one eye.

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