Homer’s Warning about Revenge Killings

Slobodna Dalmacija, "Odysseus Kills the Suitors"

Slobodna Dalmacija, “Odysseus Kills the Suitors”


Far too many times in the past seven years of this blog have I turned to literature to process mass killings such as we saw Friday night in Dallas and police killings of black men such as we saw last week in Louisiana and Minnesota. Sometimes I have looked at Grendel’s Mother, who is the spirit of vengeful blood feuds in Beowulf, and sometimes I have looked at “the witchery” in Leslie Marmon Silko’s novel Ceremony.

I particularly like Ceremony because Silko makes it clear that witches don’t care who wins and who loses when whites and Indians turn on each other or when Indians turn on other Indians. Witches just want there to be as much bloodshed as possible. Thus, when publications like The New York Post or Breitbart News use the Dallas killings to call for a civil war between blacks and whites—or use the Orlando killings to stir up hatred between Muslims and Christians–they are doing the work of the witchery. As Slate’s Will Saletan said in a recent column,

[Dallas killer Micah Johnson] didn’t join the side of black people, any more than Bin Laden or ISIS joined the side of Muslims. He joined the side of tribal enmity and vengeance. He joined the side of Dylann Roof, Anders Breivik, and David Duke.

Silko’s protagonist Tayo is therefore heroic when he rises above his thirst for blood vengeance at a pivotal point in the novel. The man he chooses not to kill, Emo, is a thoroughly despicable character who has just tortured and killed a man:

[Tayo] moved back into the boulders. It had been a close call. The witchery had almost ended the story according to its plan; Tayo had almost jammed the screwdriver into Emo’s skull the way the witchery had wanted, savoring the yielding bone and membrane as the steel ruptured the brain. Their deadly ritual for the autumn solstice would have been completed by him. He would have been another victim, a drunk Indian war veteran settling an old feud…

In other words, regardless of the anger we may feel—at police for killing innocent black men, at a black man for killing police—we have to draw upon the better angels of our nature. Otherwise we just become witchery’s tools.

Furthermore, no matter how much we may long for a strong leader to come in and end racial feuding, The Washington Post’s Paul Waldman has a good column about how no one in the current climate–not President Obama, not any public figure–can do so. Homer articulates our longing in The Odyssey and he is just as unrealistic as we are:

Homer’s poem ends with what threatens to become an endless Ithacan blood feud. Odysseus has just killed 108 young men, and all of them have families and friends. In fact, more killing has already begun in the closing pages as the friends and relatives gather and begin marching on Odysseus.

So what brings peace?  Athena, operating through the wise old man Mentor, is able to get everyone to agree to a truce. 

                                            “Now hold,
[Athena] cried, “Break off this bitter skirmish;
end your bloodshed, Ithacans, and make peace.”
Their faces paled with dread before Athena,
and swords dropped from their hands unnerved, to lie
strewing the ground, at the great voice of the goddess,
Those from the town turned fleeing for their lives.
But with a cry to freeze their hearts
and ruffling like an eagle on the pounce,
the lord Odysseus reared himself to follow—
at which the son of Cronus dropped a thunderbolt
smoking at his daughter’s feet.
cast a gray glance at her friend and said:
“Son of Laertes and the gods of old,
Odysseus, master of land ways and sea ways,
command yourself. Call off this battle now,
or Zeus who views the wide world may be angry,

 He yielded to her, and his heart was glad. 
Both parties later swore to terms of peace
set by their arbiter, Athena, daughter
of Zeus who bears the storm cloud as a shield—
though still she kept the form and voice of Mentor.

Note how, initially, Odysseus is prepared to continue enacting revenge. Athena/Mentor has to call him out, telling him that Zeus will be angry. In other words, the order of the world will be shattered if bloodshed continues, just as it has been restored by Odysseus’s return home.

Can we come together and agree to terms of peace? Where is Zeus’s thunderbolt when we need it? Unfortunately, we have no Mentor who speaks with the recognized backing of Athena and Zeus.

Or maybe we do. After all, we have “we the people.” What if we voted out of office those who prey on our fears and our tribal hatreds? What if we refused to listen to those rabble rousers who seek the adrenaline rush of confrontation? Could we not then achieve a more perfect union?

We just have to realize that there’s no savior out there. As Lucille Clifton puts it in a poem written about life after Martin Luther King,

now i guess you got to save yourselves.

Our better future is up to us.

This entry was posted in Clifton (Lucille), Homer, Silko (Leslie Marmon) and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.


  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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