Homer's portrayal of a society that included slaves would’ve been perceived differently by his coeval audience than it would by a modern one, as the former would have been more familiar with the idea of slaves as an accepted part of society. However, Homer’s portrayal of slaves is individual only to the context of the Odyssey and the world in which it is set – they could’ve been portrayed as more, or less valued and loyal than slaves were perceived to be in the time in which Homer created the Odyssey. In the society the Odyssey portrays, slaves are neither collectively made to seem completely disloyal or loyal, nor are they collectively seen as completely valued or unvalued. The portrayal of them could be argued as unique, case by case.
The most obvious example of a loyal slave is Eurycleia. The audience’s first impression of Eurycleia is given by her epithet of ‘faithful’. It is revealed that Eurycleia was bought by Odysseus’ father Laertes when she was only a girl, and was ‘treated… in his home with all the respect due to a loyal wife’. This presents Eurycleia to the audience as a slave that has been loyal to generations of Odysseus’ family. The treatment of her as a ‘wife’ also shows how much she was valued by Laertes; and has become part of the ‘oikos’. She also ‘serve(s) as a torchbearer to (Telemachus)’ at this point in the narrative; this shows how she is valued as source of light and guidance to Odysseus’ family, and shows how important she is to them. Eurycleia is also presented as loyal much later in the story, when Odysseus tells her not to tell anyone of his presence in the house. She says, ‘you know how staunch and unyielding my spirit is. I’ll keep silent as a block of stone or iron.’ The words ‘stone’ and ‘iron’ bear connotations of hardness and impenetrability; Eurycleia’s loyalty to Odysseus is not easily broken. The way in which Penelope values Eurycleia is explicit in her reaction to being woken up and told that Odysseus was in the household (which she doesn’t believe). Penelope says (to Eurycleia) ‘if any of the other maids had come and woken me up to listen to such a message, I’d soon have sent her packing to the servants’ quarters in tears’. The mercy that Penelope has on Eurycleia shows how much she values her - however, the way Penelope phrases it still seems slightly derogatory. It’s also made clear that the way Eurycleia is treated is different to that of a general slave – Penelope would’ve been much harsher with ‘any of the other maids’. It could therefore be argued that the way in which Eurycleia is treated and valued by Odysseus’ family is as an exception, and therefore cannot be taken as an example of how slaves are collectively valued throughout the epic.
Athene, who is seen as Odysseus’ moral compass and eponymous ‘Mentor’, advises Odysseus to visit the swineherd as his first port of call when he reaches Ithaca. She advises Odysseus to go to Eumaeus as ‘he is loyal as ever and devoted to (Odysseus, Telemachus) and Queen Penelope’. The fact that Athene values Eumaeus and sees him as a loyal man is significant, as she is the goddess of wisdom and knows who to trust. Odysseus, who is by default hasty to place his trust in mortals, tells Philoetius that he is ‘clearly an honourable man and (he) can tell (Philoetius) can be trusted’. The fact that both Athene and Odysseus place their trust in slaves to be loyal shows that slaves are capable of being valued in society.
In the society that Homer portrays in the Odyssey, slaves are expected to be loyal; the consequences of not doing so are too harsh not to be. In Book 22, Melanthius’ punishment for being disloyal to Odysseus is that he gets ‘dragged out through the hall entrance across the court’ then ‘with a pitiless knife they sliced his nose and ears off; they ripped away his genitals as raw meat for the dogs, and in their fury they lopped of his hands and feet’. The verbs ‘dragged’ ‘sliced’ ‘ripped’ and ‘lopped’ all sound sharp and quick due to their monosyllabic nature. The Odyssey is an oral epic, and the verbs, when read aloud, would evoke an empathised feeling of pain in the audience due to the purposely plosive, almost onomatopoeic nature of the words used. The brutality with which Homer describes Melanthius’ ordeal gives the audience an emotive example of what would happen to a slave in a society where they were expected to be loyal, and weren’t.
Melanthius is an example of a slave of Odysseus’ who is not loyal. Another example of this is Melantho. Both the disloyal slaves’ names bear the preffix ‘Melan-‘, probably deriving from the Greek word ‘melas’ (which means ‘black’). The inner darkness and disloyalty of Melanthius and Melantho are therefore consciously crafted by Homer, even by their names. Melanthius is seen disloyal because he wants to kill Telemachus, and he fights against Odysseus, his master, in the battle in the Hall. However, a contemporary audience could be take pity on him, as he could’ve genuinely believed his master was dead, and would’ve naturally turned to the Suitors as his new masters. Odysseus’ disregard for Melanthius’ excuses, and his disregard for the value of Melantius’ life, shows how little Melanthius is valued. However, Melantho is seemingly valued by Penelope – Penelope practically raises her, and yet she is still disloyal, taking part in sexual indiscretions with the Suitors. The fact that Melanthius appears to be unvalued by Odysseus, and Melantho appears to be valued by Penelope, yet both are disloyal, proves that there isn’t necessarily a direct correlation between a slave being valued, and a slave being loyal.
Although a lot of slaves in Ithaca are named individually, the society that Homer portrays as a whole doesn’t seem to be one that respects slaves as people with their own identities; a lot of the slaves don’t assume individual personalities. For example, in the land of the Phaecians, there is a reference to ‘fifty slaves’. Whilst they are literally there to wait on the more central characters in terms of serving them, the idea of only being there for serve the central characters is one that Homer himself could be accused of perpetuating. Slaves only appear to be significant in the Odyssey when they further a plot point to do with, or highlight a feature of one of the central characters. When they are not furthering the presentation of their masters within the narrative, they are seemingly faceless and nameless. Although Nausicaa’s maids are portrayed as being valued by her as friends, they are not valued within Homer’s narrative; they are, again, nameless and without individual identity. This portrays slaves as unvalued.
In conclusion, Homer doesn’t portray slaves as all disloyal, all valued, all loyal or all unvalued – he presents them in a more ‘case by case’ fashion. The ambiguous way in which he presents the loyalty and value of slaves as a whole is clear when Eumaus says that, ‘all-seeing Zeus takes half the goodness out of a man the day he becomes a slave’. The meaning of this is phrase clear, and if it had been stated through the means of some of sort impersonal, wholly third-person narrative, Homer’s condemnation of slaves would also be clear. However, it is significant that Homer has Eumeus say this; Eumeus, who the audience knows to be a good, loyal slave to Odysseus. The fact that Eumeus, who is a good man, is questioning his own goodness as part of the collective ‘slave’ identity, creates a certain irony which detracts from the meaning of his words, and makes it hard to interpret the phrase as an indirect comment from Homer on the apparent disloyal, not ‘good’ nature of slaves in Odyssey’s society, as Eumeus could just be being self-deprecating. Like Eumaeus, there are other individual slaves in the Odyssey that help drive the plot, but often only to aid a central character; there are no central characters who are slaves, so their importance, and therefore their value in society are not cemented. Slaves in the Odyssey are expected to be loyal, but aren’t in some cases, and are punished harshly, showing how the value of a slave lies in their ability to submit to their master in the world of the Odyssey. Homer also makes it clear that the concepts of ‘being valued’ and ‘being loyal’ are mutually exclusive – a slave can be one without the other.