Manly Tears

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.

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8 Responses to Manly Tears

  1. Ivana Surjancev says:

    Brenna, I really like that you pointed out that tears should be treated as a male domain because it allows us not only to see Odysseus in a different light, but Penelope as well. We had discussions earlier about what set her apart from the other women of Greek society, especially when Agamemnon told Odysseus “Not that I see risk for you Odysseus, of death at your wife’s hands. She is too wise, too clear-eyed, sees alternatives too well” (XI, 519-521). Overall, Penelope was said to be a good wife while most other women were generalized to lack morals and loyalty. One reason Penelope is said to be a good wife is because she is always crying and mourning her lost husband. Her tears tell others that she is loyal to her husband, just how a man’s tears would tell others that he was loyal to his fallen comrades.

    Also, there has been little to no mention of women being glorious as men like Odysseus are. You pointed out that the heroes and glorious men cried, and I think by crying, Penelope herself gains a position among these men and shows her worthiness to be Odysseus’ wife. In this sense, tears help clarify rank.

    Additionally, tears don’t only prove Penelope’s worth, but Eumaios’ worth as a servant as well. Once Telemakhos returns to Itaka, the swineherd “kissed the young man’s head, his shining eyes and both hands, while his own tears brimmed and fell. Think of a man whose dear and only son born to him in exile…now returns: how would that man embrace his own son” (XVI,21-26). Clearly, Eumaios cried as if Telemakhos were truly a member of his family, thus showing the depth of his loyalty to Odysseus’ family. What I’m trying to point out is that the tears may be used for more than just expressing or exaggerating men’s emotions, but also establishing the varying degrees of loyalties and relationships between men, friends, and family. The tears are more true than any words can ever be, and allow us to see the Greeks’ relationships for what they’re really worth.

    • Laura says:

      With the subject of women’s tears, Ivana brought up something that I remember noticing a while back, but never discussed. In Book VIII, when Odysseus is staying with the Phaiákians, we recall that he begins to cry several times while listening to the bard. One such description is as follows: “And Odysseus / let the bright molten tears run down his cheeks, / weeping the way a wife mourns for her lord / on the lost field where he has gone down fighting / the day of wrath that came upon his children.” (lines 560-564) This passage goes on further to describe how this hypothetical wife would embrace her dying warrior-husband on the battlefield, and properly mourn him.

      When I first read this, I made note of it, because it compared Odysseus – debatably the most honored and glorified mortal of his time – to a woman, and not in a derogatory fashion. In fact, the comparison seems like praise for Odysseus. On further analysis, I did, however, pick up that the hypothetical wife is crying for the loss of a man, and a warrior at that – a highly honored position in Ancient Greece. One could make the argument then, that this passage isn’t that complementary of women’s position and/or power of the time, since her tears are not for herself, but for a man. However, since Odysseus is being compared to the woman herself, and not her glory-deserving husband, I do believe this weeping comparison is supposed to use this woman’s rightful actions to extoll Odysseus’ own tears.

  2. Clare Welch says:

    Personally, I love the fact that the men cry in the Odyssey. Though it is a completely foreign concept to most men today, crying, as Brenna and Ivana both pointed out, was the proper response to many situations in the Greek world. The Greeks valued passion and loyalty and glory so much that they made the greatest sacrifices, like death or daring adventures, to achieve a reputation for having these traits. As mentioned in previous discussion, these Greek values have not been totally lost on the modern cultures of today. We have seen in maps and now from previous learning that the Greek influence was wide in the ancient world and much of their knowledge and tradition has been passed down through the generations. For example, the glorification of honor and courage and adventure can be seen in modern fairy tales and science fiction books like Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings. Our idealistic superheroes embody much of what the Greeks valued in men like loyalty and a passion for glory. I suppose my question is if all of these Greek traditions survived, why do we find crying so taboo today? When did the definition of masculinity change? Why did it change? I have no definite answer to these questions, but I think that it stemmed from women. Men saw women crying in sadness, not in joy or in remembrance and thought it weak. Its ironic that we no longer cry openly because we are feeling the same passions and emotions the Greeks sobbed over so many years ago.

  3. Annalise Burnett says:

    I think Clare raises an intriguing question here. When DID crying become a sign of weakness? Why would a scene like this be viewed as melodramatic or feminine by today’s standards? These are all questions that I’m not sure anyone truly knows the answer to, but I think it lies somewhere in the modern practice of stoicism displayed by both men AND women to attain power over others. Even though tears are not frowned upon in The Odyssey, they do occur during moments where the person is overcome with emotion, and are more of an uncontrolled reaction than a behavioral decision or choice. This shows that a person crying has lost complete control of their composure. Of course this was not an issue in The Odyssey, but I suspect that throughout the centuries since this story first was told, the people who WERE able to maintain their composure during particularly emotional or heart-wrenching moments discovered that this ability left them with some sort of upper hand. Perhaps they were more clear-headed in times of stress or panic, thus allowing them to assume a leadership role. Perhaps when others around them were consumed with grief or sorrow, they were able to be a source of comfort and guidance, placing them in a position of control. I believe that many of these factors originally contributed to the change in the world’s social perspective of crying, and that it was then that those stoic and unemotional people automatically assumed positions of power and leadership over the often more volatile and unpredictable “emotional people,” naturally altering the world’s perspective as power became associated with lack of emotion.

  4. Lindsey says:

    I think that, today and in the Odyssey, the act of crying seems to bring people closer in certain situations. In Book VIII, Alkinoos feels pity for Odysseus after hearing him weep (141. 572-4) and then asks Odysseus for more information about himself. As Brenna pointed out, the tears of Odysseus and Telemakhos were appropriate to the situation in Book XVI. I think they became closer as father and son after of the emotional reunion, as seen in lines 584-5: “Telemakhos, now strong with magic, smiled across at his own father-but avoided the swineherd’s eye.” Perhaps these emotional outpourings had the ability to solidify relationships, even more than the words between characters.

  5. Charlie says:

    As all of you are comparing the tearful overflows of the Odyssey to the present day, I think that you’ve arrived at some noteworthy discoveries- tears do not necessarily indicate weakness but communicate the fullness of emotion which words fail to capture even if such emotional displays would be seen as weak in contemporary American culture.

    But let’s step back into the context from which the tears spring. Telémakhos has never really seen his father, since he was left to his mother some twenty years ago just after his birth. All he seems to know about his father is derived from second hand accounts that have almost become legend. Afterall, no one on Ithaka has seen the good ol’ lord of the house for two decades. Now, it’s safe to assume that Mrs. Odysseus has entranced her son with stories of his father’s kindness. However, his long-lost father must feel more like a distant idea, a mere heroic outline incapable of nurturing him from afar. Odysseus has really only affected Telémakhos through his absence, that is, leaving Ithaka is the most pivotal effect he’s had on the boy. Even Telémakhos remarks early on that “My mother says I am his son; I know not surely”(I. 258-259). Odysseus is hardly a father to him and really more of a deified patriarch to which Telémakhos can point and say, “Hey, remember who my father was?” This divine view of his father is furthered when Odysseus appears in the fullness of his glory, and his son mistakes him for “one of the immortals” (XVI. 234). For Telémakhos, the man returning home is but a shade painted with stories of heroism and godlike accomplishment. The tearful “reunion,” then, seems a bit unbelievable, even contrived. Why would Telémakhos embrace a man whom he knows about as well as some mythical titan? Is the filial bond really so strong that the duo immediately cries out of love for one another and subsequently plans a nice (and murderous) father-son outing to make up for lost time? I suppose I’m not really sold on this crying scene in particular; it doesn’t seem to match what one would expect from the brooding Ithakan prince whose initial feelings toward Odysseus strike me as stoney and pessimistic.

    • Jina says:

      I am in the same boat as Charlie to an extent. Telemakhos’s reaction to Odysseus revealing himself took me a little off guard. Thus far in The Odyssey, Telemakhos seems to be fighting an internal battle on how to feel about his father. He tries to be passive or somewhat indifferent to Odysseus’s existence or lack of involvement in his life, like in the lines from Book I Charlie quoted above. Or in Book IV lines 343-351, Telemakhos asks Menelaos “My house, my good estate are being ruined./…And this is why/ I come to you for news of him who owned it./ Tell me of his death, sir, if perhaps/ you witnessed it, or have heard some wanderer/ tell the tale. The man was born for trouble./ Spare me no part for kindness’ sake; be harsh;”. Here is another example of Telemakhos’s cold and removed feelings toward Odysseus. He just wants to know what happened to Odysseus not because he longs for a father but because his house and lifestyle are being disrupted by the suitors.
      So Telemakhos’s tearful reaction to Odysseus revealing himself struck me as a little weird. I agree with everyone on this post that tears are not a sign of weakness, at least not during this time, but rather indicate fullness of emotion. Furthermore, I think tears symbolize the shedding of emotions that are not acceptable to voice, as opposed to expressing emotions words cannot capture.
      In the context of Telemakhos’s relationship with Odysseus, I would have imagined a lot of bitterness and anger brewed within him over 20 years. But during their reunion, what could Telemakhos have said to express these negative feelings? After all, it wasn’t totally Odysseus’s fault he took so long to return home. This interpretation of tears is how I understood the crew’s reaction to Kirke transforming them back to men in Book X lines 436-444. “And wild regret and longing pierced them through,/ so the room rang with sobs”. I thought the men who were transformed felt regret for making the mistake of entering Kirke’s home and trusting her offerings and that is why they cried. Their tears expel this emotion of regret during the happy occasion of their re-transformation into men.
      So maybe tears serve a cleansing purpose, to remove all negative emotions that may not be appropriate to voice out loud, like grief over a lost friend, bitterness, or regret of past misdeeds. In this world, one word that the Gods do not agree with leads to consequences and maybe that is why people cry to express “undesirable” emotions. After all, isn’t that why people today avoid crying? To avoid being perceived as weak or teasing, or in other words, consequences?

  6. Kevin Fox says:

    I think there is an interesting connection to be made here between this sort of willingness to cry and Clare’s post about the Greeks living life to the fullest. We’ve all probably been in a situation where we wanted to cry but suppressed it – whether successful or not, it’s not a pleasant experience. Letting it out like this seems like a much healthier way to handle overpowering emotions than suppressing them, and if, as we previously discussed in the Underworld post, the Greeks were truly bent on getting the most out of their lives, it would seem silly for them to “keep a stiff upper lip” and not express emotions they feel towards those important to them. In their view, this life is our best chance to let our emotions flow – so why put on any pretenses?

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