There are certain obvious facts that are known about the nature of father-son relationships in Homer’s most famous epic poems, “The Iliad" and “The Odyssey" before the reader even enters the texts. The reader knows, for instance, that the structure and organization of ancient Greek society was patriarchal (Caldwell 40). The position of men was vaunted, especially men who were strong and courageous. Sons were prized, particularly if they promised to imitate their father’s noble achievements and exhibited the skills that would permit them to do so. In “The Iliad" and “The Odyssey", then, it is not surprising that the relationships of Priam and Hector and Odysseus and Telemachus, respectively, are as admiring as they are; these fathers are proud of their sons, who show such promise, and the sons are likewise proud of their fathers, who have earned enviable reputations as warriors who defended their territory bravely. What is surprising, however, is that the father-son affection in both epic poems is achieved only through distance. Both father-son pairs spend more time apart than they do together, and it is through distance that they develop admiration and love for one another.
In “The Iliad", the reader learns that Priam is a worthy warrior who has earned his retirement from battle after fathering fifty sons and fighting intrepidly in the Trojan War. One of those sons is Hector, a warrior in his own right who is earning a reputation as a man equal to his father in both his strength and his commitment to family. Yet, interestingly, as explained in one of the important quotes from The Iliad by Homer it is stated, “Priam scarcely has any interaction with his son" (Crotty 24). In fact, there is only one occasion when father and son share direct dialogue (Crotty 24). Perhaps it is surprising or incongruent, then, that Priam would make such a moving and passionate plea to Achilles for the return of Hector’s body after Hector is killed by Achilles, as he does at the end of the epic. His pain is so acute that he wishes to “raise him [Priam] from the dead" (Homer 293).Such emotion might seem more authentic from a father who had a closer and more affectionate relationship with his son. Similarly, it might seem strange that “Priam… and Priam’s sons…would be in jubilation" over the conflicts among other people when their own affective and physical ties seem so tenuous (Homer 26). Such seeming incongruence, makes sense, however, when one understands that larger cultural context and backdrop of the epic. As this thesis statement for The Iliad suggests, fatherly affection is not touchy-feely, nor is it necessarily given unconditionally or freely. Rather, a son must earn his father’s respect and admiration, and it is by leaving home and fighting his own battles that the son is able to achieve this. Further, the shared beliefs and values of father and son are not necessarily established or inculcated by direct contact. Distance, then, becomes one of the most important mediating factors that allows the quality of the father-son relationship to be defined and established.
Priam does not, during the time of Hector’s absence, serve as an inspiration for the son, at least not consciously. As Crotty notes, the sons in Homer’s epics are notable for their “lonely test of arms" (26), and while the “father is an important conduit for transmitting heroic values across the generations" (Crotty 26), it is not necessarily the case that Priam is at the forefront of Hector’s mind as he endures his heroic tests. In fact, Crotty contends that the son’s achievements are “based on [his] sense of the father’s absence, that is, the lack of a beneficent power that reliably shields and supports him" (26). From a psychoanalytic perspective, one might interpret this dynamic as the son’s quest to know the father through the paradoxical act of moving away from him in a literal sense, yet patterning his life in an effort to imitate the father’s actions and achievements, a common theme in mythological literature (Blazina 285; Merkur 149). For the father’s part, the absence is not a cause for profound sentiment. In Priam’s case, it is only when Hector dies that he feels deeply emotional and recognizes his son’s achievement: namely, that Hector has followed in Priam’s own heroic footsteps, a fact which confirms Priam’s greatness.
In “The Odyssey", the physical distance between father and son is also important, and is the means by which the two men establish and define their relationship with one another. The dynamic between Odysseus and Telemachus, however, is quite different of Priam and Hector. In “The Odyssey" it is the father who has created distance by being far from home; the father’s absence is the impetus for the son’s journey, and it is in his own odyssey that Telemachus begins to prove his own worth. Blazina observes that the bond between Odysseus and Telemachus is unique because the two “desired to connect all along" (285), yet the distance that was between them served to reinforce their bond because they could prove themselves to one another through the successful resolution of their respective trials. Telemachus sets out, as explained in one of the important quotes from The Odyssey by Homer, “to see lord Menelaus…There face-to-face [to] implore" of his father’s whereabouts (Homer 52). The intensity of emotion the two men share when they finally reunite also contrasts the relative coolness between Priam and Hector: “salt tears rose from the wells of longing in both men…./So helpless they cried pouring out tears,/ and might have gone on weeping til sundown (Homer 268).
There are other father-son pairs whom the reader meets in both of the epics, and again, similar themes are noted. The reader is able to gain greater insight into the nature of ancient Greek society by analyzing these father-son relationships for their complexities, digging beneath the superficial qualities and circumstances of their familial ties. With each father-son pair, Homer offers a unique perspective about the roles that were available to fathers and sons in relationship to one another. Interestingly, almost all of the fathers and sons share the circumstance of being separated, even if only briefly, and the distance becomes a significant factor that must be considered if their relationship is to be understood by the reader.
With respect to “The Iliad" and “The Odyssey", the two father-son pairs that are most important and interesting are those of Priam and Hector and Odysseus and Telemachus. The relationship between Odysseus and Telemachus is compelling, especially when the reader considers their affection and alliance in contrast to the father-son relationship of Priam and Hector. These two father-son dyads serve as distinct examples of the types of father-son relationships that were possible for the ancient Greeks to embody and express. Between Priam and Hector there was a certain degree of affection and admiration, but it was not sentimental in any way. It is not until Hector is dead that Priam is able to allow himself to express deep emotion towards and about his son, and it is notable that he does so by appealing to Achilles’ relationship with his own father, Peleus. It is even more significant that this appeal to the enemy’s sense of filial loyalty and emotion was effective.
Between Odysseus and Telemachus, in contrast, there is the sense that these two men longed for each other deeply. Furthermore, there is textual evidence to support the claim that both Odysseus and Telemachus were willing to overcome daunting obstacles in order to meet one another again after so many years and to reunite their family. Both father-son relationships in “The Iliad" and “The Odyssey" are the same, however, to the degree that the quality of the relationships and the meaning that they held for each father and his son was negotiated and determined through the variable of distance. While absence did not always make the heart grow fonder, it did serve to give each of these characters the physical and psychological space and distance to consider the nature of their relationships with one another and to define themselves accordingly.