The Oikos

By Byrhtwold

What was the oikos? Why is the oikos central to the Odyssey? How does the Odyssey explore the concept of the oikos?

The oikos, or household, was the fundamental unit of Greek society. An oikos consisted of the master, his wife, their children, his parents, his servants, and all of his property including his slaves. In Xenophon’s Oeconomicus, Socrates defines the oikos as “everything that a man owns," including his wife and children, and continues by stating that the sign of a man who runs his oikos well is the fact that he increases his possessions quite substantially.

One of the main themes of the Odyssey is its examination of the effects upon an oikos of the extended absence of the master of the household. Arete of Phaecia may be seen as a ‘control’ to some extent, while the ‘good wife’ Penelope is contrasted with the ‘bad wife’ Clytemnestra.

With Odysseus absent, and with Laertes having retreated to his farm, we can see a struggle for power over the household between Penelope, Telemachus, and the suitors, who by the beginning of the epic have usurped many of the rightful roles of the master, such as control over hospitality. This struggle is thus reflected by the fact that Penelope, Telemachus and the suitors all act, or are referred to, as acting as hosts in their own right during the poem.

One major scholarly debate centers on whether or not Penelope is a truly independent character or just a subordinate part of Odysseus’ oikos. According to what is termed the ‘patriarchal’ interpretation of the Odyssey, Penelope’s role is simply that of Odysseus’ wife, subordinate, and virtual alter-ego. She can do nothing but carry out his will. This view is based largely on a rather tenuous interpretation of XVIII.275-85 and XXIV.125-190.

Cf. in particular XV.510-20; I.325-364 and II.85-135 on the relative positions within the oikos of Penelope and Telemachus as he approaches his majority.

Further Reading:

Xenophon: Oeconomicus – A treatise on the management of the household - the Oikos - from the fourth century B.C.

Katz, M. (1991) Penelope's Renown: Meaning and Indeterminacy in the Odyssey (Princeton) See p.119 on the patriarchal interpretation of the Odyssey.

Finley, M.I. (1954) The World of Odysseus (London) (currently available from Penguin), ch.4 – An investigation of the nature of the Homeric household from a historical perspective.

Marquardt, P. (1984) 'Penelope Polutropos' AJP 106, pp.32-48 – Argues that Penelope encouraged the suitors in order to preserve her position within the oikos.