Odysseus has the defining character traits of a Homeric leader: strength, courage, nobility, a thirst for glory, and confidence in his authority. His most distinguishing trait, however, is his sharp intellect. Odysseus’s quick thinking helps him out of some very tough situations, as when he escapes from the cave of the Cyclops in Book 9, or when he hides his slaughter of the suitors by having his minstrel strike up a wedding tune in Book 23. He is also a convincing, articulate speaker and can win over or manipulate his audience with ease. When he first addresses Nausicaa on the island of Scheria, for example, his suave, comforting approach quickly wins her trust.
Like other Homeric heroes, Odysseus longs to win kleos (“glory” won through great deeds), but he also wishes complete his nostos (“homecoming”). He enjoys his luxurious life with Calypso in an exotic land, but only to a point. Eventually, he wants to return home, even though he admits that his wife cannot compare with Calypso. He thinks of home throughout the time he spends with the Phaeacians and also while on Circe’s island. Sometimes his glory-seeking gets in the way of his home-seeking, however. He sacks the land of the Cicones but loses men and time in the process. He waits too long in the cave of Polyphemus, enjoying the free milk and cheese he finds, and is trapped there when the Cyclops returns.
Homeric characters are generally static. Though they may be very complex and realistic, they do not change over the course of the work as characters in modern novels and stories do. Odysseus and especially Telemachus break this rule. Early in his adventures, Odysseus’s love of glory prompts him to reveal his identity to the Cyclops and bring Poseidon’s wrath down on him. By the end of the epic, he seems much more willing to temper pride with patience. Disguised as a beggar, he does not immediately react to the abuse he receives from the suitors. Instead, he endures it until the traps he has set and the loyalties he has secured put him in a position from which he can strike back effectively.
Just an infant when his father left for Troy, Telemachus is still maturing when the Odyssey begins. He is wholly devoted to his mother and to maintaining his father’s estate, but he does not know how to protect them from the suitors. After all, it has only been a few years since he first realized what the suitors’ intentions were. His meeting with Athena in Book 1 changes things. Aside from improving his stature and bearing, she teaches him the responsibilities of a young prince. He soon becomes more assertive. He confronts the suitors and denounces the abuse of his estate, and when Penelope and Eurycleia become anxious or upset, he does not shy away from taking control.
Telemachus never fully matches his father’s talents, at least not by the Odyssey’s conclusion. He has a stout heart and an active mind, and sometimes even a bit of a temper, but he never schemes with the same skill or speaks with quite the same fluency as Odysseus. In Book 22, he accidentally leaves a weapons storeroom unlocked, a careless mistake that allows the suitors to arm themselves. While Odysseus does make a few mistakes in judgment over the course of the epic, it is difficult to imagine him making such an absentminded blunder. Telemachus has not yet inherited his father’s brassy pride either. The scene with the bow captures the endpoint of his development perfectly. He tries and tries to string it, and very nearly does, but not quite. This episode reminds us that, at the close of the Odyssey, Telemachus still cannot match his father’s skills but is well on his way.
Though she has not seen Odysseus in twenty years, and despite pressure the suitors place on her to remarry, Penelope never loses faith in her husband. Her cares make her somewhat flighty and excitable, however. For this reason, Odysseus, Telemachus, and Athena often prefer to leave her in the dark about matters rather than upset her. Athena must distract her, for instance, so that she does not discover Odysseus’s identity when Eurycleia is washing him. Athena often comes to her in dreams to reassure or comfort her, for Penelope would otherwise spend her nights weeping in her bed.
Though her love for Odysseus is unyielding, she responds to the suitors with some indecision. She never refuses to remarry outright. Instead, she puts off her decision and leads them on with promises that she will choose a new husband as soon as certain things happen. Her astute delaying tactics reveal her sly and artful side. The notion of not remarrying until she completes a burial shroud that she will never complete cleverly buys her time. Similarly, some commentators claim that her decision to marry whomever wins the archery contest of Book 21 results from her awareness that only her husband can win it. Some even claim that she recognizes her husband before she admits it to him in Book 23.
As goddess of wisdom and battle, Athena naturally has a soft spot for the brave and wily Odysseus. She helps him out of many tough situations, including his shipwreck in Book 5 and the mismatched battle of Book 22. She does not merely impart sense and safety to her passive charge, however. She takes an interest in Odysseus for the talents he already has and actively demonstrates. Although she reassures Odysseus during the battle with the suitors, she does not become fully involved, preferring instead to watch Odysseus fight and prevail on his own.
She also often helps Telemachus—as when she sends him off to Pylos and Sparta to earn a name for himself—but she has the most affection for Odysseus. Athena is confident, practical, clever, a master of disguises, and a great warrior, characteristics she finds reflected in Telemachus. Her role as goddess of the womanly arts gets very little attention in the Odyssey. Penelope works at the loom all the time but rarely sees Athena, and then usually only in dreams.
Themes, Motifs & Symbols
Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The Power of Cunning over Strength
If the Iliad is about strength, the Odyssey is about cunning, a difference that becomes apparent in the very first lines of the epics. Whereas the Iliad tells the story of the rage of Achilles, the strongest hero in the Greek army, the Odyssey focuses on a “man of twists and turns” (1.1). Odysseus does have extraordinary strength, as he demonstrates in Book 21 by being the only man who can string the bow. But he relies much more on mind than muscle, a tendency that his encounters showcase. He knows that he cannot overpower Polyphemus, for example, and that, even if he were able to do so, he wouldn’t be able to budge the boulder from the door. He thus schemes around his disadvantage in strength by exploiting Po1yphemus’s stupidity. Though he does use violence to put out Polyphemus’s single eye, this display of strength is part of a larger plan to deceive the brute.
Similarly, Odysseus knows that he is no match for the host of strapping young suitors in his palace, so he makes the most of his other strength—his wits. Step by step, through disguises and deceptions, he arranges a situation in which he alone is armed and the suitors are locked in a room with him. With this setup, Achilles’ superb talents as a warrior would enable him to accomplish what Odysseus does, but only Odysseus’s strategic planning can bring about such a sure victory. Some of the tests in Odysseus’s long, wandering ordeal seem to mock reliance on strength alone. No one can resist the Sirens’ song, for example, but Odysseus gets an earful of the lovely melody by having his crew tie him up. Scylla and Charybdis cannot be beaten, but Odysseus can minimize his losses with prudent decision-making and careful navigation. Odysseus’s encounter with Achilles in the underworld is a reminder: Achilles won great kleos, or glory, during his life, but that life was brief and ended violently. Odysseus, on the other hand, by virtue of his wits, will live to a ripe old age and is destined to die in peace.
The Pitfalls of Temptation
The initial act that frustrated so many Achaeans’ homecoming was the work of an Achaean himself: Ajax (the “Lesser” Ajax, a relatively unimportant figure not to be confused with the “Greater” Ajax, whom Odysseus meets in Hades) raped the Trojan priestess Cassandra in a temple while the Greeks were plundering the fallen city. That act of impulse, impiety, and stupidity brought the wrath of Athena upon the Achaean fleet and set in motion the chain of events that turned Odysseus’s homecoming into a long nightmare. It is fit that the Odyssey is motivated by such an event, for many of the pitfalls that Odysseus and his men face are likewise obstacles that arise out of mortal weakness and the inability to control it. The submission to temptation or recklessness either angers the gods or distracts Odysseus and the members of his crew from their journey: they yield to hunger and slaughter the Sun’s flocks, and they eat the fruit of the lotus and forget about their homes.
Even Odysseus’s hunger for kleos is a kind of temptation. He submits to it when he reveals his name to Polyphemus, bringing Poseidon’s wrath upon him and his men. In the case of the Sirens, the theme is revisited simply for its own interest. With their ears plugged, the crew members sail safely by the Sirens’ island, while Odysseus, longing to hear the Sirens’ sweet song, is saved from folly only by his foresighted command to his crew to keep him bound to the ship’s mast. Homer is fascinated with depicting his protagonist tormented by temptation: in general, Odysseus and his men want very desperately to complete their nostos, or homecoming, but this desire is constantly at odds with the other pleasures that the world offers.
Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
Although throwing a feast for a guest is a common part of hospitality, hunger and the consumption of food often have negative associations in the Odyssey. They represent lack of discipline or submission to temptation, as when Odysseus tarries in the cave of the Cyclops, when his men slaughter the Sun’s flocks, or when they eat the fruit of the lotus. The suitors, moreover, are constantly eating. Whenever Telemachus and Penelope complain about their uninvited guests, they mention how the suitors slaughter the palace’s livestock. Odysseus kills the suitors just as they are starting their dinner, and Homer graphically describes them falling over tables and spilling their food. In almost all cases, the monsters of the Odyssey owe their monstrosity at least in part to their diets or the way that they eat. Scylla swallows six of Odysseus’s men, one for each head. The Cyclops eats humans, but not sheep apparently, and is gluttonous nonetheless: when he gets drunk, he vomits up wine mixed with pieces of human flesh. The Laestrygonians seem like nice people—until their queen, who is described as “huge as a mountain crag,” tries to eat Odysseus and his men (10.124). In these cases, excessive eating represents not just lack of self-control, but also the total absence of humanity and civility.
The Wedding Bed
The wedding bed in Book 23 symbolizes the constancy of Penelope and Odysseus’s marriage. Only a single maidservant has ever seen the bed, and it is where the happy couple spends its first night in each other’s arms since Odysseus’s departure for Troy twenty years earlier. The symbolism is heightened by the trick that Penelope uses to test Odysseus, which revolves around the immovability of their bed—a metaphor for the unshakable foundation of their love.
The test will also cover all stories of The Odyssey that we have read in class including: Tell the Story, Calypso, The Sweet Nymph, I Am Laertes’ Son, The Lotus Eaters, The Cyclops, The Witch Circe, The Land Of The Dead, The Sirens; Scylla and Charybdis, The Cattle of the Sun God, The Meeting of Father and Son, The Beggar and the Faithful Dog, The Test of the Great Bow, Death at the Palace, and Odysseus and Penelope.
I will ask you questions about the plots and key characters in these stories. You should use the notes that you have taken, or that I told you to take on characters and plot summary. I told you at the beginning of working on The Odyssey that the notes we take will help you, and now it looks like I wasn’t kidding. If you did not take notes I suggest you do something drastic to get some for the test, because without them, passing will not be easy.
Possible Essay Questions –
1. What is the role of family in the Odyssey? What values characterize the relationship between fathers and sons? You may wish to compare and contrast some of the father and son pairs in the epic (Odysseus and Telemachus, Laertes and Odysseus, Poseidon and Polyphemus). How does Homer portray the idea of continuity between generations?
2. What is the role of women in the Odyssey? Focusing especially on Penelope, Calypso, or Circe discuss how women are portrayed in this epic.
3. Looking at Odysseus’s narrative in Books 9 through 12, think about the techniques Homer uses to portray the magical and fantastical aspects of Odysseus’s adventures. How does he handle what we might call special effects? That is, how does he make his monsters fearsome, his goddesses stunning, the dangers frightening, etc.?
4. Describe the caring nature of Odysseus sighting examples from specific events in the story. How does Odysseus treat his men, how does he react to their demise as the story goes on? Remember to site specific examples from the text.
5. Describe in detail, the arrival of Odysseus on Ithaca and his journey to regaining his Kingdom. From The Meeting of Father and Son, The Beggar and the Faithful Dog, The Test of the Great Bow, Death at the Palace, and Odysseus and Penelope.
Study Questions –
1. How does Homer portray the relationship between gods and men in the Odyssey? What roles do the gods play in human life?
2. In what ways does Odysseus develop as a character during the course of the narrative? Does he develop at all?