No Man is Nameless: The Family and Identity

“The following was a college essay written by Lizzie Self. It has been edited and approved by Ariel Hobbs. If you have a Theology essay that you would like published that received a grade of an A- or higher, please be sure to contact us. “

By Lizzie Self

In the ancient Greek world, much of a man’s identity was determined by the situation he was born into; as Alkinoos, king of Phaiákia, expresses, “No man is nameless—no man, good or bad, / but gets a name in his first infancy, / none being born, unless a mother bears him!”[1] Two great works by Homer, The Odyssey and The Iliad, and Sophocles’ Antigone, reveal the connection between a life of purpose and familial loyalty again and again. It is a sense of identity that spurs Telémakhos to leave behind his childhood and that brings his father home to Ithaka. The failures of Priam’s sons and Hektor’s departure from his wife reflect different effects of the family on personal validation; Priam’s dozen sons do not bring the family the honor that would make Priam feel fulfilled, and Hektor must, more or less, choose between his father and his wife. In subordinating his family to politics, Creon suffers the consequential inability to be satisfied with life, while Antigone remains true to herself—and her family—through trial, and even unto death. In relationships such as the marriages of Odysseus and Hektor and the sisterhood of Ismene and Antigone, there holds firm a golden rule, accept it or not: family is the root of identity.

In The Odyssey, Telémakhos muses over the misfortune of his house and the unhappiness that has befallen himself and his father, Odysseus, as a result of their separation. Disconnected from a paternal figure that would provide security not only of a personal nature but also of a more public, political capacity in the kingless kingdom of Ithaka, Telémakhos communicates his uncertainty to a disguised Athena: “Who has known his own engendering? / I wish at least I had some happy man / as father, growing old in his own house—/ but unknown death and silence are the fate / of him that, since you ask, they call my father” (Homer, Odyssey, 1.260-264). Knowing Odysseus to be alive and planning to deliver him home, Athena restores hope in Telémakhos so that he might withstand the suitors that plague his house in the hope of winning his mother’s hand. At the same time, Athena directs Telémakhos to embark for news of his father, which fills him with purpose and will also make him a man in the eyes of others; “as she went, she put new spirit in him, / a new dream of his father, clearer now” (Homer, Odyssey, 1.370-371). This faith that his father is indeed alive and well drives Telémakhos to venture beyond Ithaka and into manhood.

Conversely, fathers revel in the success of their sons. In Hades, Odysseus meets briefly with Akhilleus, who inquires after his son, Neoptólemos. The great hero of old asks, “Tell me, what news of the prince my son: did he / come after me to make a name in battle / or could it be he did not?” (Homer, Odyssey, 11.582-584) Odysseus relates to Akhilleus many deeds done by Neoptólemos that show his skill as an orator and his courage as a warrior, noting that he came away from the Trojan War unscathed and laden with the treasures of a victor.  From this, Akhilleus derives great satisfaction and his ghost turns back to the world of the dead, glorying in his legacy, no longer considering troubling questions about his memory (Homer, Odyssey, 11.598-638).The dead are no less concerned with the glory of their families than those that walk the earth, and they find no peace in the afterlife until they have reason to trust that their fame is being carried onward.

The role of a family legacy extends beyond offering peace of mind to a deceased father. When Odysseus enters into the midst of the suitors under the disguise of a beggar, he recognizes Amphínomos, the son of Nísos. Word of mouth recommended Amphínomos to Odysseus. Thus, Odysseus feels compelled to warn Amphínomos of the slaughter that awaits the suitors so that he might save himself. Odysseus addresses him, “Amphínomos, your head is clear, I’d say; / so was your father’s—or at least I’ve heard / good things of Nísos the Doulíkhion, / whose son you are, they tell me—an easy man” (Homer, Odyssey,18.157-160). Amphínomos hears and understands the danger he is in, but unfortunately it is the will of the gods that he must die there in Ithaka (Homer, Odyssey, 18.191-196).  Goodwill may not be sufficient to preserve the life of Amphínomos, but it is still significant that, based on the opinions of others, Odysseus is prepared to spare him from his flaming wrath. Honor due to a father is due also to his sons, and woe falls upon those who disrespect a father in his son, or a son by way of the father. Furthermore, when the suitors disrespect the wife of Odysseus, it seems perfectly justified that he would not spare a single one of them; in purging his house of the suitors, he not only restores his home but also cleanses Ithaka of such an immoral generation.

Rather than his slaughter of the suitors, perhaps it is Odysseus’ reunion with his wife Penelope, when she puts him to the test, that most clearly marks his return to the fulfillment of his birthright. Penelope says she plans to assign him to another room of the house for the night, and so Odysseus bursts forth with proof that this home is his for the taking; he details their wedding bed, which incorporates the trunk of a tree, known only to himself and his wife. At this, Penelope finally gives way to her husband, embraces him, and exclaims, “Think / what difficulty the gods gave: they denied us / life together in our prime and flowering years, / kept us from crossing into age together. / Forgive me, don’t be angry… You make my stiff heart know that I am yours” (Homer, Odyssey, 23.237-241,258). Not only does this interaction reintroduce Odysseus to the arms of his wife after twenty years of separation and signify the completion of his odyssey, but it also highlights the centrality of marriage in the identity of both man and woman. Neither were complete while they were apart; their primary purpose as married individuals, to bear children, was deprived of them, and they could not depend on each other’s company. In addition, Odysseus and Penelope are two of one mind, and their return to each other indicates the end of a drought in their lives, a period of depravity and testing. During the first night that Odysseus spends with his wife after his arrival in Ithaka, he recounts to her his many trials and takes care to emphasize his unswerving loyalty. He tells her specifically about being detained by Kalypso, the lustful goddess. If he chose to remain with her, “she swore he should not die nor grow old, all his days, but he held out against her” (Homer, Odyssey, 23.377-378). Through all of his adventures, including some failures, Odysseus means to uphold and dignify his identity as husband of Penelope, father of Telémakhos, and king of Ithaka. His memory of them draws him across the sea, out of the arms of at least a few lovers, and through the tragedy of the death of all of his men. After all of this is done, he finds that he has a son willing to follow his lead. Telémakhos honors his father and plays a crucial role in helping him fulfill his purpose as king by matching his father’s courage and growing in wisdom.

Not all paternal figures find fulfillment in their lineage. Aineas comments on the efforts men make to build a respectable house and the futility in trying to manage their legacy: “Zeus gives men more excellence or less / as he desires, being omnipotent.”[2] Priam, king of Troy, is dismayed to find that his three best sons—those that acted honorably, and bore his name well—had died, and the nine that remained added little value to his life. Shame weighs heavily upon Priam, and he has no one to turn to in his suffering; no one is worthy of commiseration. He tries to save Hektor from certain death at the hands of Akhilleus, and shouts to his son from the walls of Troy, “To our townsmen all this pain is brief, / unless you too go down before Akhilleus” (Homer, Iliad, 22.64-65). Hektor is not only his father’s pride, but all of Troy’s as well. When fate calls him to fall before the enemy, his destruction triggers waves of fear and panic that roll through the public, who had placed their faith in the royal family. Priam’s happiness also turns on the success of his sons, and ultimately his family fails to comfort him in his old age. Perhaps Homer is commenting on the triviality of human choice and the foolishness of dependency on offspring as a source of fulfillment, but it is far more likely that he actually pities Priam in his crumbling kingdom.

One of the most human and tender scenes Homer wrote about family is Hektor’s farewell to his wife and son. Andromakhe tries to convince Hektor to remain with them, so that she will not be widowed and their son will not have to be raised fatherless. He sympathizes with her vulnerability, but he does not dare refuse to go to war; with his family’s honor at stake, growing old with his wife is not his first priority. He explains, “Long ago I learned / how to be brave, how to go forward always / and contend for honor, Father’s and mine… Let me be hidden dark down in my grave / before I hear you cry or know you captive!” (Homer, Iliad, 6.517-519,539-540)  Then, in a prayer, Hektor confesses his hope that one day people will say of his son, “‘This fellow is far better than his father!’” (Homer, Iliad, 6.517-519,557) Sure, Hektor shows a softer side of himself, the tenderness known to his wife, but still she sits below his father in the hierarchy of his regard. In this same tradition of patriarchal pride, Hektor voices his dream that his son will not only continue but build upon his legacy. This is the ultimate goal of a parent; this is Hektor’s path to fulfillment.

Sophocles explores another variation of familial relations. Creon disregards the importance of family and writes his fate when he condemns those who are loyal to people before the state; specifically his niece Antigone, who chooses to bury her brother despite Creon’s law against it. “One whose friend / has stronger claim upon him than his country, / ” he declares, “him I consider worthless.”[3] In betraying his family to his rule of law, Creon loses everything. He accuses Antigone of disobedience and ironically announces, “disobedience is the worst of evils,” (Sophocles, Antigone, l. 615) although he himself gives no real consideration to the possible repercussions his sentencing of Antigone may have on his son, Haemon, Antigone’s husband-to-be, and his wife. He realizes too late that his hard-heartedness has caused irrevocable damage to his family and has dashed any hope of happiness; both wife and son lie dead by their own hand. The Chorus says of him, “He was the sovereign and ruled alone, / the noble father of a house. / And now, all has been lost. Because a man / who has forfeited his joy is not alive, / he is a living corpse” (Sophocles, Antigone, ll. 1092-1096). The Chorus contrasts his domestic life—husband, uncle, and father—with the ensuing emptiness of his house, which mimics the emptiness of his life. Having maimed his family, the root of identity, he has no prospects for joy.

What is the crucial difference between Creon and Antigone? The latter asserts, “I am made not for hatred but for love” (Sophocles, Antigone, l. 438). Love, manifested in Antigone’s loyalty to her family, does not require her to accompany them in their foolish ways. There are times that her relatives are beyond her helping hand. She tells Ismene she must bury Polyneices, “for I owe the dead / longer allegiance than I owe the living. / With the dead I lie forever. Live, if you choose, / dishonoring the laws the gods have hallowed” (Sophocles, Antigone, ll. 73-76). Antigone is rooted in her conviction that Polyneices is owed a proper burial, as it is the rule of the gods and her duty as his sister. Furthermore, she sees Ismene’s decision of whether or not to join her in burying Polyneices as Ismene’s responsibility alone; within the family, individuals are allowed an exercise of free will, for better or worse. Later, Antigone expounds upon her statement of loyalty:

“Losing my husband, I might find another.

I could have other children. But my parents

are hidden from me in the underworld,

so that no brother’s life can bud and bloom

ever again. And therefore, Polyneices,

I paid you special honor.” (Sophocles, Antigone, ll. 840-845)

Antigone’s pronouncement is almost laughable, in that she dismisses the scenarios of losing a husband or children so matter-of-factly; she later expresses her desire for these, revealing that she is indeed a feeling woman. She continues, “No bridal bed is mine, no bridal song, / no share in the joys of marriage, and no share / in nursing children and tending them” (Sophocles, Antigone, ll. 848-850). However, her clarity of mind regarding how she might address human law in various circumstances is admirable, and it is a quality utterly lacking in Ismene. After Antigone has buried Polyneices, Ismene wishes to suffer Antigone’s sentence with her, and Antigone scolds her for her lack of integrity. “What happiness can I have when you are gone?” Ismene asks, to which Antigone responds, “Ask Creon that. He is the one you value” (Sophocles, Antigone, ll. 502-503). This may be read as a harsh and unfeeling condemnation from the mouth of a dear sister, but Antigone is grieved by Ismene’s mistake. Ismene can indeed be charged with immaturity, yet she behaves in accordance with another priority; one built upon familial obedience and traditional female subordination, but in conflict with Antigone’s. Whether one or the other is in the right Sophocles leaves for the reader to ascertain.

What forms an identity? Are identities subject to change, or are they the roots from which an entire life will sprout, determining its course? The stories of Telémakhos, Odysseus, Priam, and Hektor all inform the opinion that it is family that characterizes identity, and Antigone argues with her life that, while identities themselves are set from birth, a lifetime provides a host of opportunities to hold true to or reject what has been allotted by the gods. Many courses may be taken from a single starting place, as Ismene proves willing to demonstrate. Creon may also give credit to free will for his ability to wander so far from what is wise. Identities inform behavior, and so it is only natural that identity informs the road to fulfillment; in the ancient Greek world, life is never modeled in a fashion of individual independence, but in the context of a socially compelling, complicated world.


Homer. The Iliad. Translated by Robert Fitzgerald. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004.

Homer. The Odyssey. Translated by Robert Fitzgerald. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998.

Sophocles. Antigone. In Three Theban Plays, translated by Theodore Howard Banks, 5-33. New York: Oxford University Press, 1956. Edited By: Ariel Hobbs

[1] Homer, The Odyssey, trans. by Robert Fitzgerald (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998), 8.591-593.

[2] Homer, The Iliad, trans. Robert Fitzgerald (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2004), 20.275-276.  

[3] Sophocles, Antigone, ll. 154-156, in Three Theban Plays, trans. Theodore Howard Banks, p. 7 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1956).

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