There is little doubt that there are few roles as important to society today as is fatherhood. And as a testament to this thought, even in the Great Books from the “Homeric” period was fatherhood described and pictured as both complex and difficult. In honor of today, we will take a look at some of the major characters from Greek mythology and their profiles as fathers: whether it be the tricky and deceitful character of Odysseus attempting to escape the Trojan War or Agamemnon who sacrificed his own daughter to earn favorable winds, or even the dubious position of soft-hearted Priam of Troy, there is a fundamental tension in the role of fatherhood: where is one’s first allegiance owed–to one’s people, one’s self, or to one’s family.
Let us take the example of Odysseus first. Before the Trojan War, Odysseus received an oracle saying that if he engaged in the Trojan War he would return twenty years later as a beggar. Odysseus, being an enterprising sort, decided that such a fate was not his best option, and fair as Helen was (who Paris had stolen, inciting the war), he would prefer to tend to his lands, family, and self without the added stress of twenty years abroad pursuing and fighting for the wife of another king. So, when an Achaian envoy came to recruit Odysseus, he acted as if he were crazy, and he plowed his fields while sowing salt on them. Palamedes, a clever Achaian in his own right, laid Odysseus’ infant son in front of him (or threatened him with a sword by another account), and Odysseus then broke character and allowed himself to be conscripted. He would later plant evidence in Palamedes’ tent (buried under it) and have Palamedes stoned for being a traitor (more on the story from Apollodorus’ Epitome here).
All this said, if one looks on either side of the war, Odysseus showed a remarkable level of care for his family and lands. In the first place, as written above, Odysseus did not want to leave his family at all. It may be objected, of course, that Odysseus, acquisitive as he is, simply did not want to lose his riches and place in Ithakan society–especially, if one considers the fact that the oracle is borne out, and that Odysseus comes home to meet 108 fine suitors eating up his substance in his stead. The lynch-pin of the argument, however, is that Odysseus chooses to save the life of his son, Telemachos, rather than maintain his charade, and he chooses war and poverty over giving up his own son. This shows a remarkable love for his family, and perhaps for the descent of his line, over even his own personal wealth and kleos (glory in Achaian time as measured by possessions and deeds of valor). This care and love for both home and family maintains itself through Odysseus’ entire odyssey home as he fights through Cyclopes, Laistrygones, and gives up the beds of two goddesses (Circe and Kalypso) in order to return to his lands, wife, son, and father. Though Odysseus is often thought of as the consummate cunning and amoral man (responsible for stealing the Paladium, ambushing King Rhesos and the Thracians with Diomedes, and the idea for the Trojan Horse), he shows himself as the perfect mixture of mastermind and family man, ever striving to be home and to fight alongside those he loves and cares for (so long as they are loyal to him).*
In one other way, too, Odysseus shows himself as an effective father. Because he allows (with the help of Athene and Mentor) his son to step out of his shadow by allowing his son, alongside his father, to have a place in the killing of the suitors as well as the fighting against the families of the suitors. Unlike in the case of say the Heraclids (the sons of Herakles), the greatness of the father does not stunt the development of the son, Telemachos.
This balance, however, of family life and place in society did not extend quite so elegantly to every Achaian hero, and from here, let us continue with Agamemnon as a father. When Helen was first taken from Menelaos by ignoble and “womanly” Paris, Agamemnon in support of his younger brother, called all the Achaian captains together who had once convened as suitors to Helen in the lands and court of Tyndareus, Helen’s putative father. Because, again, of Odysseus’ cleverness, all the former suitors of Helen had sworn an oath to forever protect the husband and person of Helen should any trouble befall them. The reason for this oath was that Tyndareus feared that with such a mass of suitors convened that whomever he chose would spark an attack or massacre, so Odysseus (vying for Penelope by suggesting this deal) suggested that all suitors swear an oath to protect whomever was chosen along with Helen herself.
In the first stages of having these captains and their men together ready to assault Paris and Troy for stolen Helen, tragedy struck. Either Agamemnon killed a sacred stag of Artemis, or he had foolishly boasted that he was a a greater hunter than she was; in any case, Artemis turned the winds at Aulis against the fleet and stranded the whole army there until expiation could be done. The prophet Calchas, who Agamemnon would come to hate, declared that nothing would appease Artemis besides a sacrifice of Agamemnon’s daughter, Iphigeneia.
Agamemnon, thus, was caught between his duty as a brother, as a field-marshal, and as a father. Which duty of his should come first? In the end, he was convinced by Odysseus to sacrifice his daughter due to the fact that Iphigeneia was not his only daughter (he still had two other daughters, Elektra and Chrysothemis, and a son, Orestes) and that he had but one brother, and as a a leader of people, his duty was to his men, not simply to his family. Was Agamemnon therefore a better leader and brother than he was a father? Is one’s highest duty to one’s people and army as a general and king, or is one’s duty to one’s own daughter? What a choice.
In any case, after the war, during the Returns, Oeax, brother of executed and disgraced Palamedes, effectively convinced Klytaimestra ( Clytemnestra, Fabulae 117) to conspire to kill Agamemnon because of his outrageous choice to sacrifice their shared daughter, and because Oeax claimed that Agamemnon would be bringing a daughter of Priam, Kassandra, as a concubine to replace Klytaimestra. Klytaimestra was convinced, and with her new lover Aigisthos, cousin (and raised brother of Agamemnon), they slaughtered Agamemnon while he was sacrificing just after he arrived home.
All this tragedy behind him, Orestes, son of Agamemnon, as much as he would have preferred a living and healthy family, did have the opportunity to avenge his father and win eternal fame because of his murder. So highly regarded was he that when Athene first appears to Telemachos in Homer’s Odyssey “to start him on his journey to being a man”, Bk I lines 299-303 (Lattimore tr.), she says, “Or have you not heard what glory was won by great Orestes among all mankind, when he killed the murderer of his father, the treacherous Aigisthos, who had slain his famous father?” She passes over in silence his murdering of his mother, Klytaimestra, as well, and seemingly maintains that as tragic as Agamemnon’s death is, the glory of his son is very great.
Standing in stark contrast and as foil to Agamemnon, too, is soft-hearted Priam, the king of Troy. Rather than making the difficult choice Agamemnon did, to value his people above his family when Paris returned home from Sparta with his stolen bride, it was Priam that promised that he would never give Helen back up to Menelaos and the Achaians. Even nine years into the war, with several of his sons slain, countless of his allies and his citizens fallen, when Antenor, his esteemed advisor spoke against Paris, and suggested, wisely, that Helen finally be returned with reparations to the Achaians, Priam again listened to his son (Iliad, Bk VII 365-379), and ignored counsel.
So, because Priam was incapable of choosing against one of his family members, during the course of the Iliad, he watches his favorite son, champion of Troy–Hektor–fall before his very eyes and get dragged and desecrated behind Achilleus’ chariot around the Trojan city three times. Then Priam must finally, in Bk XXIV, kiss the hands of his son’s killer in order to receive his body back. Oh, and then, after Homer’s Iliad, his city is destroyed alongside most of his fifty sons, and his wife is enslaved by Odysseus. Difficult choices a father faces–even more difficult in sight of his own destiny and with concern for the destinies of those about (and under) him. Did Priam fail, perhaps, the stoic ideal, or was being generous to a strange woman and to his own son the kind of man and king he wished to be known and remembered as, regardless of the cost? Did he choose wisely, or was he out of his wits?
Beyond these figures there are countless other fathers who were heroes, leaders, and complicated characters in the Homeric times and beyond. One has the image of pious father Aeneas as something of the perfect political and family father–dutiful beyond all reason, and then one has Achilleus as the image of the absentee father who only cares for how his son represents him in the world after he has died–almost as an extension of his own kleos or glory. There are many more fathers in the Great Books to choose from, and the theme of considering the relationship of one’s own destiny against providing for the destiny of those under one’s care is one of the fundamental moral and political questions in the life of a man. On today, father’s day, such a question is honored here, and it will continue to be honored in future installments of this series.
*For those of you, however, who do not care for Odysseus, check the Telegony here for his ultimate fate according to the Epic Cycle for some serious irony.