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Reading The Odyssey: How do Family Legacy and Ancestry Impact Identity?

Madison Loughlin

February 2nd, 2020

Ancestry contributes to the color of our eyes, our carrier status for hereditary diseases, and our nutritional tendencies. More importantly, ancestry is the premise of human nature and mental predisposition. Ancestry shapes the backbone of selfhood, enhances ambition, and emphasizes the correlation between background and perspective. Human beings utilize familial legacy as a weapon to validate their perception of control, defend their moral compass, and pursue the world with the possession of self-sufficiency. However, depending on the essence of one’s familial legacy, ancestry has the capacity to remove persistence and growth. Throughout Homer’s Odyssey, Telemachus struggles to materialize his fearlessness and adulthood, partially because he grew up without a father figure and, therefore, does not resonate with his broken ancestry. Eventually, Telemachus acquires the guidance he has longed for within his broken ancestry and paves his future with courage. So, how do ancestry and family legacy impact identity? Through the lens of Homer’s Odyssey, the Madoff case, and “Early Childhood Emotional and Social Development: Identity and Self-Esteem” by Angela Oswalt, we can understand that although ancestry is pivotal to navigating core identity and prompts one to emerge into society as an individual, the fact remains that a family legacy denoted by trauma terminates maturation and the ability to exploit the broken pieces as motivation to persevere. 

When a family legacy is characterized by ignominy and anguish, ancestry demolishes the stability of a person’s maturation. Furthermore, idealization or reliance on ancestry can undermine a person’s ability to utilize broken pieces as fuel to persevere. Homer’s Odyssey embodies this phenomenon: Telemachus—the son of the long waylaid Odysseus, who has still not returned home to Ithaca from fighting a war in Troy—is severed from his ancestral inheritance, leaving him disadvantaged. Telemachus was only a few months old when his father left for battle. By the time Odysseus, the King of Ithaca, manages to return, Telemachus is almost twenty years old and has not known his father for the entirety of his lifetime. In the midst of Odysseus’s absence, suitors have paraded into Odysseus’s home and attempted to court the harried Penelope, Odysseus’s wife. While conversing with Athena, a conscientious goddess disguised as an old friend of Odysseus, Telemachus heartrendingly states, “Mother has always told me I’m [Odysseus’s] son, it’s true, but I am not so certain...Would to God I’d been the son of a happy man whom old age overtook in the midst of his possessions” (Homer 84). The fact that Telemachus “is not so certain” that Odysseus is his father indicates his grief and unsteadiness due to the lack of a parental figure who should have been there to motivate him to embrace conflict, vulnerability, and loss of innocence as a strategy to explore identity. Due to the absence of a father figure to encourage him to venture into the complexities of life, and consequently deepen his understanding of himself and mature into an adult, Telemachus adheres to his boyhood, unable to overtake the suitors. In addition, the fact that Telemachus wishes he were “the son of a happy man whom old age overtook” suggests that Telemachus visualizes an alternate reality in an attempt to ameliorate the pain derived from his lack of guidance and legacy – one where his broken ancestry is nonexistent and he could receive direct mentorship from his father. This idealization, however, ensures that Telemachus is unable to resonate with the reality of his present, nor tap into the resources guaranteed by his legacy. If Telemachus relinquished this dream-past, he would recognize that his lack of guidance and difficult ancestry shape his identity and are fuel to incentivize his growth. However, by clinging to a distorted reflection, one where obstacles are smoothed over, Telemachus chokes his own voice, rational mindset, and ability to actively resolve the issues that plague Ithaca. A similar impact, both in terms of destabilization and destroyed idealization, can be seen in a modern day family tragedy described in “How Bernie Madoff Took His Family Down” by Kaitlin Menza. In 2009, Bernie Madoff pled guilty to eleven federal crimes and admitted to operating the largest Ponzi scheme in history and was convicted. His children, Mark and Andrew, denied knowing about the fraud. Two years later, Mark Madoff was found dead, hanging from a dog leash in the living room of his Manhattan apartment, while his 2-year-old son slept in an adjoining bedroom. On December 10th, 2010, Mark’s lawyer Martin Flumenbaum stated to the press that Mark was “an innocent victim of his father’s monstrous crime who succumbed to two years of unrelenting pressure from false intentions and innuendo” (Town & Country Magazine). Mark did not leave a suicide note on December 2010, but he did for his first attempt in 2009, addressing it to his father. He wrote, “Now you know how you have destroyed the lives of your sons by your life of deceit” (Town & Country Magazine). Mark’s own identity was impacted by “his father’s monstrous crime.” Mark, who withstood “unrelenting pressure from false intentions,” was viewed as culpable in the eyes of the public by association with his father. Madoff’s unlawful choices reflected on Mark’s character and reputation, wounding Mark’s capability to define himself outside the realm of his father’s crime. Mark’s appalling ancestry circumscribed his mindset to the point where he could not envision himself navigating a healthy existence, one where his corrupt legacy motivated him to change his perspectives and incentivize happiness. However, Mark was overpowered by the existence of a traumatic familial relationship and, therefore, was incapable of unearthing a fulfilling purpose. Mark’s self-condemnation crippled his identity and caused him to resort to ending his life as a mechanism to escape the emotional weight of his legacy. His traumatic relationship with his father clouded his rationality, thus preventing him from employing his flawed legacy as a tool to strengthen his perseverance. This directly parallels the case of Telemachus, who exists on both planes at once. His identity and adulthood are incomplete without his father’s presence and his familial security, yet he is unable to mature while holding on to the idealized concept of his father’s legacy.

Finally, ancestry is a pivotal facet of establishing a person’s foundation and encouraging them to emerge into society as an individual, capable of navigating their core identity. For example, in Homer’s Odyssey, Telemachus’s overwhelming despair, derived from his father’s absence, prevents him from surpassing the obstacles caused by the suitors. When Athena, a goddess, speaks to Telemachus, she uses his lineage as part of her argument, coaxing him to stick up to the suitors and urging him to have courage. She tells him, “‘Telemachus, you’ll lack neither courage nor sense[; your] father’s spirit courses through your veins––now there was a man, I’d say, in words and actions both’” (Homer 102). The fact that Athena justifies Telemachus’s ability to exercise courage by reminding him that his “father’s spirit courses through his veins” illustrates the underlying assumption that Telemachus’s identity is circumscribed by his father’s capabilities. Athena pictures the resemblance between Telemachus and Odysseus, although Odysseus was not present as a father to physically influence Telemachus. When this is verbalized to Telemachus and it is communicated to him that “his father was a man,” Telemachus visualizes his potential to become a “man”––one who embraces vulnerability, conflict, and loss of innocence––as a strategy to explore individualism. In this way, the legacy of his father invigorates him to break away from boyhood, deepen his understanding of himself, and grasp both his voice and senses. He aligns with his father, both literally to kill the suitors and metaphorically to become a man. Furthermore, in “Early Childhood Emotional and Social Development: Identity and Self-Esteem” by Angela Oswalt, the evolution of a child’s “self-concept” is explored. A child’s “self-concept,” or the attributes and abilities define them, is affected by both external and internal variables. In particular, the article emphasizes the significance of familial and ancestral communication in shaping “self-concept.” The article specifies, “External factors, such as messages from other people, also color how children view themselves. Young children with parents [who] provide them with positive feedback about their abilities and attempts to succeed (even if they are not successful the first time) usually have higher self-esteem” (American Addiction Centers). Children whose parents offer positive feedback have a stronger sense of self, demonstrating that familial association and encouragement fortifies self-confidence. Self-assurance is indispensable when questioning flawed principles; self-assurance has the potential to motivate a person to enrich their cultural and emotional standpoint within the world. Someone who has the self-assurance to challenge human civilization is willing to endanger themselves and embrace discomfort, both of which are mechanisms to reform perspective and accord with additional identities. Ancestry established on the practicality of risk-taking and authentic courage, rooted in heroism, is the recipe for a person’s individualistic approach to life. 

Although a family legacy denoted by trauma hinders growth and perseverance in individuals, ancestry is essential to navigating core identity and one’s role in society. In Homer’s Odyssey, Telemachus’s ancestry proves harmful because his initially anguished familial relationship, particularly regarding his father, pushes him to idealize and refuse to distance himself from Odysseus’s adolescent behavior. However, as Telemachus reconciles with his father and becomes more open-minded towards Odysseus’s actions, Telemachus is able to gather rationality and courage from his broken ancestry, thus affirming his growing identity as an independent character. The real-life case of the Madoff family and research on children in developmental periods are evidence of the message that this epic poem conveys: it is in human nature to attach meaning to familial legacy, but it is not ancestry that guarantees the existence of opportunity, leadership, and fulfillment. Everyone is capable of unlocking the welfares of ancestry, whether their legacy is defined by trauma or advantage, so long as they model their lives on the ethical principles drawn from their familial history. The significance of questioning ancestral experiences and realizing that happiness is not a product of idealization, but rather of willingness to make use of obstacles, cannot be understated. Thus, ancestry and familial legacy are crucial to mapping the world, education, occupation, and most importantly, the self.