‘Homeric society’ cannot be easily identified with any particular period of history. The Iliad and The Odyssey are the end products, probably given final form in the 8th century BC, of a long tradition of oral poetry. Accordingly, they have picked up aspects of different societies at different points in history along the way. The setting of The Odyssey, therefore, does not belong to any one specific historical period, but is a combination of these different ideas and values within a fantasy world of gods, monsters and heroes.
Mycenaean and 8th Century BC Influences
The Mycenaean Bronze-Age period spanned from the 16th to the 12th century BC, before experiencing a collapse. There followed a so-called ‘dark age’ involving the destruction of the palaces, the loss of writing, a dramatic fall in population, and cultural and economic decline. The 8th century saw an emergence from this ‘dark age’, with a population boom, extensive colonisation, introduction of writing, and renewed trade around the Mediterranean. Permanent settlements began to be established that would flourish into the poleis (city-states) of archaic and classical Greece. Odysseus and other heroes, the Trojan War, the bronze weapons and armour, and the palace societies mentioned by Homer, all come from the Mycenaean world. However, other aspects of the poem reflect the 8th century Greece of Homer's own time.
What Was Ancient Greece Like?
Greece has a warm, dry climate. It consists of a mainland (two large areas connected by a narrow isthmus) and many small Greek islands. Ancient Greece also established colonies all over the coast of Asia Minor (Turkey), as well as in Sicily and Italy. Many areas are very rocky, especially on the smaller islands, and wood is scarce outside of northwest Greece. Ancient Greek communities lived by farming, fishing and trade. They produced products such as olive oil, wine, pottery, cheese and bronze.
How Did They Fight?
The bronze weapons and armour mentioned by Homer, as well as relics such as the boar’s tusk helmet or Ajax’s tower-like shield, reflect those of Mycenaean Greece. Wars are fought on a battlefield with spears, swords and chariots. Homeric heroes tend to fight one-on-one, rather than in organised battle-lines; this probably does not reflect real warfare but rather a literary device to emphasise a hero’s ability to influence the battle on an individual level.
Who Was in Charge?
The palaces described in The Odyssey reflect Mycenaean palace society, with the palace as the heart and administrative centre of the community. Each palace has its own king, who interacts with but does not seem to be ultimately accountable to the kings of other areas. However, who has the right to rule is a little more ambiguous; kingship does not seem to be hereditary in Homer’s epics, nor does there seem to be a clear system for deciding who holds power or authority in a community. The Greek term for ‘king’ or ‘prince’, basileus, is applied to more than just the obvious rulers, including all the Suitors, and the existence of assemblies does not seem to diminish any individual’s power. This is perhaps an amalgamation of the idea of Mycenaean palace kings with the emergence of ruling aristocracies in the 8th century BC.
What Were Houses Like?
Houses would probably have been constructed from mud-brick, with clay-tile roofs and small windows with no glass, but wooden shutters to keep out the sun. Palaces were much bigger, with many rooms for entertaining, feasting, sleeping, servants’ quarters, storerooms and workshops, opening off walled courtyards. At the centre of the palace was the throne-room or megaron, such as the great hall described in Odysseus’ palace.
What Did They Believe?
The gods in The Odyssey are the same gods of the classical Greek pantheon. They were worshipped at temples, shrines and altars, and offered sacrifice and libations on a regular basis. They are seen to interfere in the mortal world, and will punish those who offend them. The monsters of The Odyssey are the typical creatures of Greek myth, stories connecting the gods and semi-divine heroes to the world of men. Just to what extent the Greeks believed their myths to be literal fact is unclear, but they took the worship of their gods very seriously.
What Values Were Important to Them?
Values of Homeric society include the importance and power of family, good community spirit, hospitality to visitors and strangers, and proper respect for the gods. In a time when a bad harvest or hard winter could mean the difference between life and death for a family, neighbourly concern and respect for a man’s property were held as vitally important. This is the reason why the Suitors’ crime led to such a ruthless punishment.
What Was Life Like for Women?
Women took a domestic role in ancient Greek society; they were responsible for running the household, bearing children, fetching water, and spinning, weaving and washing clothes. They lived in separate areas of the house from the men and were supposed to uphold the virtues of respectability, modesty, faithfulness and restraint. Women were given in marriage at an early age, usually following an offering of gifts from the suitor to the father. A widow might move back to the household of her father, but would be expected to marry again if possible.
Most of The Odyssey, whether taking place in a real or mythical location, is set in or around the Mediterranean Sea, the only exception being the realms of the gods (though even Mount Olympus and the entrance to the Underworld can be said to exist partly in our world).
The British Museum website offers various maps of ancient Greece. Bear in mind that the 'Classical Greece' map shows city-state boundaries from a period much later than the one in which Homer's epics are set. Clicking on 'Myth Map' will reveal some of the mythical places mentioned in The Odyssey.
Odysseus’ home and the end goal of his journey is the island of Ithaca. This is also where any scenes involving Penelope and the Suitors, and some with Telemachus, take place. Ithaca is a Greek island in the Ionian sea, east of Cephallonia, west of mainland Greece. During the Mycenaean period, it was the capital of the Cephallonian area.
Pylos and Sparta were real places located in the Peloponnese (southern mainland Greece). Telemachus visits both in his attempt to find information about his missing father. Remains of Mycenaean palaces such as those described in The Odyssey have been uncovered at some Greek sites, including the palace of Nestor at Pylos.
Troy was a city in Asia Minor (modern Turkey), situated near the Hellespont (modern Dardanelles), a narrow strait connecting the Aegean Sea to the Black Sea. Excavations at the site have revealed the ruins of an ancient city, one layer of which (layer VIIa) has been associated with Homeric Troy, and appears to have been destroyed by war. In The Odyssey, Odysseus is returning home from the Trojan War.
We cannot know whether the mythical places Homer describes were intended to have counterparts in the real world, but this has not stopped scholars (both modern and ancient) from trying to identify them.
One theory places Odysseus’ adventures in the western Mediterranean, with the Cyclopes in Italy or Sicily, the entrance to the Underworld in the same place Aeneas found it at Cumae, the island of Aeolus as Stromboli, the Laestrygonians in northern Sardinia or Corsica, the Sirens on the coast of Lucania, Scylla and Charybdis at the Strait of Messina, the island of the Sun being Sicily, Circe in Italy, Phaeacia at Corfu, and Calypso’s island at Malta or in the Straits of Gibraltar.
A different view is that the episodes from The Odyssey take place in a much smaller area around the coast of Greece, in the eastern Mediterranean. The entrance to the Underworld is identified with the river Acheron where sacrifices to the dead have been found, and most of the other locations are believed to be around the Ambracian Gulf and island of Levkas, where place names with implied links to The Odyssey have been found, such as ‘Cape Skilla’.
Mount Olympus is the home of the gods in Greek mythology. Like the Underworld, it is on a different plane of existence, a place that only the gods can access, while being at the same time a real, physical place in our world. The real location of Mount Olympus is on the border of Thessaly, in northern Greece. It is the highest mountain range in Greece and one of the highest peaks in Europe.
On The Odyssey:
Peter Jones' introduction (1991) in The Odyssey trans. Rieu. 2003. Penguin Classics:London
The 'Further Reading' section in this version of The Odyssey provides some suggestions of extra reading for those interested in delving deeper.
On Greek History and Society:
Robin Osborne, Greece in the Making 1200-479BC. 1996. Routledge:London and New York
Chapter 5 in this book deals with the world of Homer.
For Greek Geography and Maps:
Robert Morkot, The Penguin Historical Atlas of Ancient Greece. 1996. Penguin:London
Jenny March, Dictionary of Classical Mythology. 1998. Cassell:London