Although it may be a seminal epic whose influence has thoroughly permeated almost every part of Western art and culture, The Odyssey remains a work far removed from contemporary understanding. The culture described is one that shares what might be considered the more immutable human values, nonetheless the characters’ actions may appear strange or even unfathomable to modern audiences who cannot hope to fully understand the actions and motivations of characters so completely separated by time. These cultural differences are noticeable on a grander scale: differences in gender roles, the unquestioning hospitality offered even the most mysterious of visitors, attitudes toward glory in life and the afterlife. Additionally, differences are noticeable in smaller instances, one of the most interesting being the treatment of male expressions of emotion and, in particular, crying.
Odysseus himself, as well as several other characters, is routinely depicted as shedding tears in reaction to some event. Such instances may be somewhat baffling to a modern audience: the criers are legends and kings, heroes and warriors. They are paragons of traditional Greek masculinity, and yet they do not hesitate to shed tears, whether over thoughts of home or fallen comrades. Is their crying a rare show of weakness, perhaps intended to humanize these legendary characters? Or are such expressions of emotions expected of great men?
In Book XVI after finally returning to Ithaca, Odysseus reveals himself to Telemakhos in the hut of the swineherd Eumaus. The situation is fraught with emotion: neither father nor son have seen each other since Telemakhos’s infancy and together they have some hope of purging the suitors from their home. Initially, Telemakhos is shocked by the reappearance of his long lost father to the point that he declares that in must be some god in the guise of Odysseus not the man himself. While Odysseus chides Telemakhos for his wonder-struck but tearless reaction to his father’s return saying that it “ is not princely, to be swept away by wonder at your father’s presence” (XVI, 238-239,) he is the first to shed tears. The passage seems to imply that not only is crying not necessarily frowned upon as unseemly or not befitting a prince or warrior, but rather crying, as opposed to Telemakhos’s more stoic disbelief, in such a context as a Odysseus’s homecoming is the expected and appropriate way to express emotions. When the two finally embrace and both begin to sob, the description is filled with emotion: “Salt tears/ rose from the wells of longing in both men,/and cries burst forth from both as keen and fluttering/ as those of the great taloned hawk/ whose nestlings farmers take before they can fly./ So helplessly they cried, pouring out tears” (XVI, 255-260). The juxtaposition of the strength and fierceness of the birds of prey analogy and the acknowledgement of their “helplessness” contributes to the conclusion that, in Odysseus’s time, such outpourings of love and emotion and masculinity are not mutually exclusive, rather passion and emotion are integral parts of the early Greek masculine ideal. Emotion and expression thereof are not treated as a juvenile or feminine characteristic. On the contrary, tears seems to be treated as part of the male domain (according to traditional views of heteronormative gender roles:) they are born of a surfeit of passion and emotions as opposed to weakness.