Exploring Home and Homelessness in Epic, Part 1

What does “home” mean? The Oxford Dictionary makes reference to a “fixed residence.”  Frequently the understanding of “home” also includes a structure that shelters one from the elements. However, the experience of “being home” or “going home” as well as the experience of “homelessness” invites a deeper exploration of the meaning of this word.

Homeless(ness) is defined as “lacking a home.” In Homer’s Odyssey, Telemachus, the son of Odysseus, has a home, but he is not “at home” under his own roof. For seven years Odysseus lives on what could be viewed as an isle of paradise with all his needs provided for by the goddess Calypso. And yet, this is not “home” to him. In Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Baby Suggs experiences a fixed residence at Sweet Home and yet this also is not “home.” What is this thing we call home? And what do these epics have to teach us about the deeper meaning of it? In both epic of these stories, the home plays a significant role. Let us try to unpack what these epics tell us about “home” through the eyes of Telemachus and Odysseus in Homer’s Odyssey, and Baby Suggs, holy in Toni Morrison’s Beloved.

Telemachus–Homeless in His Father’s House

Telemachus grows from a small boy to an adult in the twenty years that Odysseus is away. As he grows into maturity, he watches the many suitors, who plague his mother, Penelope, create an untenable situation. These suitors create a degrading, destructive situation which is beyond his means to manage or control. He is caught in a trap of being homeless in his absent father’s house.

If his father is indeed dead, the house and property should become his by right. Even if his father is not dead, he does have a son’s rights and privileges in his father’s absence. The suitors deliberately go against this accepted social rule.

Telemachus as a boy has no power to reverse the trend of the suitors who consume like parasites all that Odysseus has built up. He is powerless to evict them or even to reduce the amount of the destruction. He is in fact, like his mother, at their mercy.

In this situation what is “home”? Telemachus is living in his father’s palace on his father’s estate. He has a roof over his head and he is provided for. By birthright, these actually belong to him. This sensation of “homelessness” then must derive, at least in part, from coexisting experience of “powerlessness.” In the modern sense we use the expression, ” A man’s home is his castle,” implying that he is the king of the domicile. Telemachus clearly has no authority in this home.

As Telemachus is introduced in the Odyssey, he has come of age and should be thinking of starting his own home, and if his father were home, he would be learning the skills of management and maybe even sharing the responsibility of management with his father. Instead, he is merely tolerated by these suitors who impose themselves in his home. He is marginal and he knows it. Telemachus tries to claim ownership of Odysseus’ estate through his language. He says, “they lay waste my house!” He later says, “You must leave my palace.” These are empty words. He is impotent in this demand and the suitors remain. Telemachus then is instructed to leave to finds news of his father.

There is a very strong sense of belonging and ownership. He is told, “Do hold on to your own possessions, truly your house. / God forbid that anyone tear your holding from your hands / while men still live in Ithaca.” This statement implies that Telemachus is the acknowledged owner of this palace and land. The suitors clearly disregard all social convention by their behavior. This admonishment provides an insight to the underlying belief that a home is sacred and the defiling it by the suitors is a sacrilege.

This then is another aspect of “homelessness” for Telemachus; ravaging of his home is destructive to the moral fiber of the society as a whole and an intimation of the ensuing chaos when human decency is defied. Such an idea is further supported when Telemachus himself says, “By god, it’s intolerable, what they do–disgrace, / my house a shambles!  You should be a ashamed of yourselves, / mortified in the face of neighbors living round about! / Fear the gods’ wrath–before they wheel in outrage / and make these crimes recoil on your heads.” Not only is the behavior of the suitors socially unacceptable, it is heresy. The “homelessness” experienced by Telemachus has these three major components. First, is his lack of power to direct the management of his home and his land; second, is the lack of human decency by the suitors in his home; finally, it is the loss of the sacredness of “home.”

The Odyssey provides an insight into what “home” is by presenting Telemachus’ situation of homelessness. Sometimes it is easier to grasp an idea by understanding its opposite. For example, I might say darkness is the absence of light. Here Homer is saying home is the absence of homelessness. Or, another way to say it is that a true home does not have the components that Telemachus experienced in his “homeless” habitation.

In Part 2 of this series, I will continue to examine “home” and “homelessness” through the epics of the Odyssey and Beloved.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.