Homer's Odyssey and Society - Justice

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Justice, or dike, as defined by Plato in his Republic, is the idea that each individual ought to have, do, and receive what is fitting for him to have, do, and receive. In the Odyssey, therefore, divine lords, mortals, servants, suitors, gods, people in general, and the aged all have their own special justice – that which is right and proper for each group (cf. IV.690; XI.217; XIV.59; XVIII.275; XIX.36; XIX.167; XXIV.253-55).

Throughout early Greek hexameter poetry, the gods, particularly Zeus, are described as justice-loving and as punishers of the unjust. The most complete discussion of justice and Zeus’s role in relation to it from within the corpus can be found in Hesiod’s Works and Days. See in particular lines 210-65, but also cf. 9; 34-5; 56; 280-5; 321-35. It may be worthwhile comparing Hesiod’s idea of justice with that suggested by the actions of the gods and heroes in the Odyssey.

The ‘right’ that appears most prominently in the Odyssey is the right of the traveller to hospitality. The traveller, lacking a community and present king to offer him protection, comes under the direct jurisdiction of Zeus.

To Hesiod, the other two major ‘unjust’ actions are violence – hubris – and dishonesty. Interestingly, in the Odyssey (VI.120), hospitality is directly contrasted not only with injustice, but also with violence. The consistent condemnation of violence is interesting in the light of Odysseus’s unprovoked attack upon the Cicones.

As regards dishonesty, Clytemnestra (XI.420-5) and Eurymachus (XVI.435-60) are condemned for their lies, as those beggars who seek gifts from Penelope through telling lying tales about Odysseus (XIV.120-35), and yet Odysseus is praised by Athene for his dishonesty (XIII.285-350), which is a crucial part of his successful return home. Emlyn-Jones (1986) suggests that lying is only bad when detrimental to the welfare of the audience, but neither Achilles (Iliad.IX.193-4) nor Hesiod seem to allow for such looseness.

Further Reading:

Lloyd-Jones, H., The Justice of Zeus, Berkeley 1983; chs. 1-2 – Highly readable and very clear, the classic discussion of Greek, and in particular Homeric ideas of justice.

Havelock, E., The Greek Concept of Justice, Cambridge (Mass.) 1980; chs. 7-11.- Rather heavier, but worth a skim if time allows.

Gagarin, M., ‘Morality in Homer’ CP 82 (1987) 285-306. – A more sociological approach to the question.

Allan, W., ‘Divine justice and cosmic order in early Greek epic’ JHS 126 (2006) 1-35.

Emlyn-Jones, C., ‘True and Lying Tales in the OdysseyG & R 33 (1986) 1-10.

This post is part of the series: Homer’s Odyssey and Society (OCR AS Unit CC2)

A series of articles intended to assist teachers and pupils studying or teaching Homer’s Odyssey, especially during the last two years of school.

  1. The Odyssey by Homer
  2. The Odyssey: Understanding Formulaic Expressions and the Use of Type Scenes
  3. Multiple Authorship and the Analysts: The Odyssey
  4. Neoanalysm and the Epic Cycle
  5. The Oikos
  6. Justice