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Nostos in Ancient Greek Culture & Beliefs

Instructor: Jacob Belknap

Jake has taught English in middle and high school, has a degree in Literature, and has a master's degree in teaching.

The Greek concept of 'nostos' was important in ancient Greek culture. This lesson will explore the three aspects of nostos: the return home, the song of the homecoming, and the return to light and life.

Defining Nostos

It is a common goal to want to be known for having completed incredible acts, but sometimes living to tell the tale is just as heroic. The ancient Greek concepts of kleos (glory) and nostos (return home) were important to the people of that long ago place.

This lesson will focus on the three meanings of nostos. The first meaning is a return or a homecoming. The second is a song about homecoming. Finally, the third meaning is a ''return to light and life.'' Let's explore each of these meanings in the following sections.

Nostos: The Homecoming

We will begin with the most approachable meaning of nostos, the homecoming. The homecoming, usually by sea, became an important part of ancient Greek culture. Going on a quest is important for Greek people and for Greek heroes, but the return can become a quest in itself. Through the theme of nostos, we understand there was not only glory in the great acts but also in surviving the struggle to return home.

Plutarch, the great ancient Greek writer, identified many common sayings of the Greeks in his work Moralia. In this work, he documented that Spartan women had a common farewell to sons departing for war. The saying was, ''Come back with your shield -- or on it.'' This phrase commanded their sons to fight well, die in battle if necessary, and never desert their posts. However, it also told the young men to return home. Even if they were not able to return alive, their comrades were meant to carry their bodies home, completing their nostos for them.

The Greek hero Odysseus struggling to return home.
Odyssey

Nostos: The Song of Homecoming

The physical homecoming leads to the second meaning of nostos, the song of the homecoming. Instead of being the physical act of return, this meaning of nostos is the report of the return. This can come in several forms from oral songs to poems. In some stories, the heroes are the characters who tell the stories of their own homecomings. With kleos, others sing songs or write poems about the hero's great acts, but with nostos, heroes give firsthand accounts of their epic struggles to return home.

The greatest example of nostos in ancient Greek literature is The Odyssey by Homer. After the 10-year Trojan War, The Odyssey recounts the story of Odysseus' return home, by sea, to his family in the Greek city of Ithaca. It takes the hero 10 long years to get home, which makes his total time away from his kingdom 20 years.

Odysseus' son Telemachus also goes on a journey to discover the whereabouts of his long-absent father. Through his journey and return, Telemachus comes to a greater understanding of himself. When he returns home, he finds his father, and he has uncovered a greater part of his identity.

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