Have you ever pondered the meaning of returning? What it truly means to come home? Home is a place where we belong, where we find our people and our purpose. But this belonging is not complete without actively choosing it and conforming to the restraints placed upon us by our dedication to a specific place and people. Dedication requires constant choosing, reaffirming, and returning. These themes of returning and belonging are explored in great depth in the epic poem “The Odyssey” by Homer.
Throughout the poem, the concept of “nostos,” meaning “return,” stands out as a key idea, as highlighted by Eva Brann in her book “Homeric Moments.” However, there are different dimensions to returning. Brann explains that coming home is not as simple as surviving the sea and reclaiming a palace; one may physically return but not truly be present or be their authentic selves. Homer presents a deeper form of return in the “Odyssey” – the perpetual returning of true fidelity.
Fidelity is a recurring theme in the poem, but its most significant expression is found in the marriage between Odysseus and his wife, Penelope. Penelope serves as a paragon of fidelity in Western literature, waiting faithfully for twenty years for her husband’s return. She fights off suitors who try to take Odysseus’s kingdom and bed, holding onto hope and her marriage vows. Her heart forever yearns for her husband, and time does not heal her longing.
Odysseus also grieves for his wife, displaying his fidelity. Although he fails to remain physically faithful to Penelope during his journey, his ultimate loyalty shines through when he chooses to forsake Calypso, a minor goddess, and even immortality itself for the sake of his wife. Odysseus longs for Penelope’s mortal being, acknowledging her imperfections and mortality, yet choosing her over the beauty and immortality found elsewhere.
Marriage requires sacrifice and forsaking of all other potential partners, even the abstract ideal that we may fantasize about. Homer illustrates this point through the relationship between Odysseus and Penelope. The ideal must give way to the real person one has chosen. Though mortal, this person is far superior to the idealized version of a mate. Penelope, flawed yet steadfast, is far superior to the hollow goddess Calypso.
The final test of Odysseus’s fidelity lies in Penelope’s testing of their marriage bed. By recognizing the immovability of their rooted bed, Odysseus proves he is unchanged and loyal to his wife and the institution of marriage. Fidelity demands a constant returning, choosing, and overcoming the challenges of life. And through this faithful devotion, joy returns as well.
Wendell Berry describes marriage as a rooted institution that offers the possibility of moments where what we have chosen and what we desire align. These moments may not be continuous, but they are made possible through fidelity. Odysseus and Penelope’s loyalty is rewarded when they reunite after a long separation, experiencing a renewed love that surpasses their initial wedding night. This experience of intensified joy is a result of fidelity.
In conclusion, “The Odyssey” delves into the concepts of returning and belonging, highlighting the importance of fidelity. Through the story of Odysseus and Penelope, Homer emphasizes the need for constant choosing and returning, even when faced with difficulties. Fidelity leads to the truest form of joy and fulfillment in a relationship. Thus, the epic poem teaches us valuable lessons about the meaning of returning and the power of fidelity.