Part of the reason Odysseus’ household goes to hell so quickly is probably due to the absence of any real authority, any strong household head. "Wait a minute," you might say, "look at Penelope. She's holding the household together, isn't she?" Barely. Besides, Penelope really can't muster that much authority, not because she isn't a compelling character in her own right, but because she's female.
Authority, in ancient Greece, was synonymous with being male. Odysseus is gone, and you might as well hang a sign saying FREE FOR THE TAKING on the house in Ithaca. After all, Odysseus is gone. Telemachus, in the years before the story opens (and even during the first few books) was too young and, later, too inexperienced to rule. As Sarah Pomeroy et al point out in Ancient Greece, being the son of the basileus didn’t necessarily mean that you'd inherit that office. It depended on whether or not you could defend it, and when we first meet him, Telemachus just can't.
But what about Laertes? If you don't read carefully enough, or if you're flipping through the book in a hurry, it's easy to think that Laertes is dead. Actually, he's alive and well (if bowed by grief over the untimely disappearance of his son). He's just...retired.
That's right. Apparently, at some point before the Trojan War, Laertes took Odysseus aside and said to him, "Son, remember how I told you some day this would all be yours? Well...it's all yours.” And that was the end of that.
(After psychologically manipulating his aged father into a paroxysm of grief, Odysseus finally reveals his identity. Odysseus Reveals Himself to Laertes, Theodor van Thulden. Image source: Illustrated Guide to the Trojan War.)
You'd think that, upon hearing how Penelope and Telemachus are being treated, Laertes would agree to temporarily come out of his retirement and run the show for a while--if not until Odysseus returns, then at least until Telemachus has enough experience under his belt to take over. But no, he just stays up on his mountain, moping away. True, the loss of a son and the death of a wife are both difficult blows to recover from, but you'd think Laertes would do something for his kin. Family was as important to the ancient Greeks as to any other culture--look how severely people are punished in other myths for offenses against their parents or their siblings. And by not doing anything, he's really just encouraging the suitors.
...It is possible that I am unduly influenced by the era of which I'm a product.
It seems to me, though, that Laertes is as much at fault through his inaction as the suitors are for their immoral behavior. It's too simplistic to say that this is the only cause of their congregating around Odysseus' house 24/7, but it's certainly a contributing factor. Sure, Penelope is young and good-looking, and there's always plenty to eat, but it also doesn't hurt that there's nobody in charge, nobody whose presence might make the suitors say, "Hey, maybe we shouldn't be doing this." That's why they don't take Telemachus seriously at first when he's beginning to become that person; their flippancy turns to alarm when they realize that yes, this kid is growing up, and yes, he has it in for them. Each of them wants to be the guy in charge.
...And Laertes could have prevented this, if he'd come down off his mountain.
(For a more in-depth overview of Telemachus' attempts to consolidate authority, this is a good site. Alternatively, this site focuses a little more on the metaphorical aspects of Telemachus' coming of age.)<< back to part 2 -- -- -- -- forward to part 4>>