Introduction to The Odyssey
One of the best ancient epics and the masterpiece of the blind poet, Homer, The Odyssey seems to have appeared during the 8th or 7th century BCE at any time. The poem has won popularity in almost every culture and civilization despite belonging to the Grecian civilization and yet has kept its freshness despite having survived the odds of time until this day. The poem presents the story of Odysseus, the Grecian king, his homeward journey after the wars and trials and tribulations that he confronts on the way home. The epic has not only achieved the status of a cannon but has also become a classic.
Summary of The Odyssey
The epic starts in medias res as the city of Troy has fallen and Odysseus, the Grecian hero, has not returned to Ithaca, his kingdom at that time. The suitors of his wife, Penelope, are hounding her, becoming unruly and rowdy around her palace, pillaging the land around it. However, despite this continuous brouhaha of these suitors, she carries on delaying it with the argument that she is knitting a shroud for her husband and that she would not respond to their calls until she finishes it. Although she has her son, Telemachus, with her, she does not dare to throw this mob out of the precincts of her palace. Despite the fierce opposition and Antinous’s plans to kill Telemachus, she stays steadfast.
On the other hand, daring Odysseus is in the prison of Calypso, a nymph, who has caged him and his associates on her island, Ogygia. Having no ship to return to Ithaca, he could only long to be with his family, though, Mount Olympus is reverberating with the debate between the goddesses and gods regarding his fate. Whereas Athena is her supporter, hellbent on assisting his son, Telemachus, some are fiercely opposing her argument. She visits Telemachus, disguising herself as the friend of his grandfather, and asks him to call all the suitors in an assembly and rebuke them about their misbehavior. She also helps him visit Nestor and Menelaus, the associates of Odysseus, who inform Telemachus about his father and his imprisonment on the island of Calypso. When he is about to return, the suitors plan to eliminate him.
Sensing delay in Odysseus’ return, Zeus himself dispatches Hermes for his release. Finally, she succeeds in convincing Calypso about the likely release of Odysseus who sets sail toward his homeland but finds himself trapped in a storm brought by Poseidon on account of blinding, Cyclops, his son. Here again, Athena comes to his assistance and brings him to land at Scheria where Nausicca with her parents welcomes him warmly. The hosts become enamored of his exploits after he discloses his real identity. They promise to extend all possible help to this great hero. However, before he departs from the island, he narrates his exploits, including the time at the island of Calypso, his trip to the Land of the Lotus Eaters, his time with Circe, and the temptation of Sirens until the final journey to the underworld where he meets the blind prophet, Tiresias, and wrestles with Scylla after consulting him Tiresias about this menace. The next day, the Phaeacians help him return to Ithaca where reaches the hut of Eumaeus, his faithful colleague, in the guise of a beggar.
After this, he goes to meet his son and discloses his identity after which both of them plan to eliminate the unruly suitors to gain control of their city. When the next day, Odysseus reaches his palace, the same mob of the suitors attacks him with insults and rebukes after which he meets the old lady, Eurycelia, who does not disclose his identity due to the fear lest the suitors should kill him. Penelope, on the other hand, arranges an archery competition of the suitors to engage them in stringing the bow of Odysseus at which all of them fail except Odysseus who is in the garb of a beggar. Following this, with the assistance of his son, Telemachus, he falls upon the suitors and eliminates all of them. Following this, he discloses his identity and goes to meet, Laertes, his father. They face an attack from Antinous’s father but kill him, while Zeus asks Athena to bring peace to the land after Odysseus’s ordeal ends.
Major Themes in The Odyssey
- Hubris: The Odyssey shows the theme of hubris, or excessive pride, through Odysseus who brags about his being undefeatable but then gods turn against him and punish him for this hubris. The punishment continues until Athena favors him in bringing him home and assists him to overcome his enemies not only on his way back home but also in his palace in the shape of suitors of his wife, Penelope. He overcomes Circe and the Cyclops and goes through the underworld but ultimately the goddess, Athena, supports him and saves him after going through this long punishment of journeys after he has suffered enough for his pride.
- Homecoming: The theme of homecoming is apparent from the desire and longing of the hero, Odysseus, who recalls his wife, his son, and his hometown of Ithaca whenever he is in some difficult situation. It means that he always has his home in mind even when he is trapped by Circe or spends time with Calypso. Even when the Cyclops asks him the reason for staying there, he tells that he is on his homeward journey.
- Hospitality: The theme of hospitality goes side by side with other themes due to its significance in the Grecian culture. That is why Odysseus enjoys the hospitality of Circe as well as the Cyclops, though, he is their captive in these cases, for the first one turns his people into animals and the second starts satisfying his hunger on them. Even the Phaeacians demonstrate their trait of hospitality which is benign rather than malign as opposed to the first two cases.
- Temptation: Another theme of The Odyssey is a temptation which the Grecian considered a negative human trait. Although temptations are sometimes very strong and even drives Odysseus crazy such as of the Lotus-eaters, he always considers homecoming his major purpose in life, recalling Penelope and Telemachus. He also falls to the temptation of Circe’s beauty and sensuousness and stays for a while, but again moves forward.
- Heroism: A great Grecian virtue, heroism as reflected through the character of Odysseus is another theme. Despite having human traits, Odysseus shows exemplary character traits having courage, bravery, wit, and stamina with some human aberrations of falling to the temptations as in the case of Circe and then the Lotus-eaters. However, he shows his courage when fighting against the Cyclops and even when going through his ordeal with Scylla and Charybdis.
- Deception: A minor theme, deception has also been shown as a human trait in The Odyssey that is necessary for survival. Odysseus comes to deception when sees his survival at stack such as in the case of his return when he confronts Antinous. Odysseus has already done the same when confronting the Cyclops and tells him that he is a No-man. Even gods come to deceive others by adopting different guises such as Athena does to help Odysseus.
- Free Will: Free will is another significant theme of the poem in that Odysseus has been shown as a fiercely independent person having courage, bravery, and strength yet he sometimes feels the divine act obstructing his paths such as the magic of Circe or the deathly confrontation of the Cyclops. In such cases, it seems that the gods debate and determine his fate on Mount Olympus, and had Athena not pleaded his case with Zeus, he might have not survived at several points such as in confronting Poseidon.
- Justice: The epic shows the theme of justice through the act of debates of the gods and goddesses on Mount Olympus. It seems that sometimes the gods are forced to punish Odysseus such as Poseidon does but again some other god or goddess comes to keep the punishment away from him to render justice.
- Revenge: The epic shows the theme of revenge through Odysseus’s act of blinding the Cyclops and killing the suitors including Antinous. The gods also exact revenge such as Poseidon does against Odysseus for killing his son, the Cyclops.
Major Characters of The Odyssey
- Odysseus: As the major character and great heroic figure of several adventures including the entire epic, The Odyssey, Odysseus is a human figure having a fascinating combination of mind and body. When he leaves to conquer Troy, he rules Ithaca where he leaves Penelope, his faithful wife, and his son, Telemachus, who becomes quite young in his absence, and his old father, Laertes, who takes care of his little kingdom. During his long journey toward home after the fall of Troy, he goes through various adventures, meets demons, avoids the wrath of gods, and confronts witches, nymphs, and monsters, yet he comes out of all these as a victorious to lock horns with the characters like Antinous. Despite his tough and resilient physique, he sometimes has to use his mind to deal with Calypso or the Cyclops or to go through the land of Cicones. He goes on to use his wits until Athena, the goddess favoring him, asks him to stop and be at peace.
- Penelope: In The Odyssey as well as in the Grecian literature, the status achieved by Penelope is hard to contest on account of the virtues that she displays when waiting for Odysseus. When the courtyard of her palace is full of suitors, creating a brouhaha and hullaballoo, she stays quite adamant in her argument that she is knitting the shroud of her husband and would not respond until she finishes it, extending the time for her son, Telemachus, to be able to deal with them or her husband to arrive and help her expel them. Finally, when Odysseus arrives, she informs him of the whole situation. However, this long period has tested her loyalty as well as integrity on account of which she achieves this high status in literature and myths.
- Telemachus: As the son of the great Odysseus, it is natural for Telemachus to show qualities and guts to be able to lead his city of Ithaca. Although he confronts the unruly suitors of his mother in the initial states after Athena supports him, he could not resist that huge mob. His most important mistake is to allow the suitors to arm themselves to the teeth for which Odysseus has had a hard time overcoming them by the end when he reaches Ithaca. Odysseus, then, advises him how to protect the family honor and stature by the end.
- Athena: As a goddess, Athena is quite close to Zeus, but as a supporter of Odysseus, her role in The Odyssey is laudable, for she saves him from several likely accidents where it has been hard to predict his survival. As the favorite daughter of Zeus, she holds sway on Poseidon, who is hellbent on destroying Odysseus for killing the Cyclops. She stops him from this and reaches out in different disguises to save Odysseus, who is not her son, yet becomes her favorite. Her main assistance comes in the end when she reaches out to him to help him in dealing with the rowdy rabble of suitors.
- Poseidon: Although he is a divine character, it is strange that he locks horns with Odysseus who must have been killed had Athena not come to help him. As a sea-god, he raises storms in the way of Odysseus, lengthening his homeward journey. He, including his wife, locks horns with Athena, who is hellbent on saving Odysseus from their wrath. In fact, Odysseus has blinded his son, the Cyclopes, and had left him to die.
- The Cyclops: A one-eyed giant, the Cyclops is the son of Poseidon, a god, who comes to demonstrate his hostility toward Odysseus when he blinds the Cyclops. He lives on Polyphemus island in a cave where Odysseus and his men reach to take shelter during a storm. When he reaches his cave, he becomes happy to find men there and starts killing them one by one to eat them. Finally, he becomes blind after Odysseus pokes a spear in his eye and leaves him on the island to die.
- Zeus: A divine figure and the chief god, Zeus is another significant character of the epic, The Odyssey, on account of his role in the debate of the gods and goddesses. When Athena supports Odysseus, he assists Athena in all of the exploits she takes upon herself to assist Odysseus to save his life. He also allows Poseidon to cause some trouble for Odysseus but does not let him cause his death.
- Circe: The character of Circe is significant in that she turns to Odysseus’s associates and turns all of them into animals after imprisoning Odysseus on her island. Odysseus falls to her magic and wins only due to alertness caused by Eurylochus. He finally overpowers her and wins freedom for all of his associates.
- The Suitors: The role of suitors is important to raise the status of Penelope, for they check her patience, loyalty, and integrity toward her husband. Specifically, the unruliest one, Antinous, makes her stand on her toes all the time, She, even, has to pretend that she is weaving a shroud for her husband to keep them off. Finally, Odysseus comes and kills all of them after an archery contest.
- Tiresias: The popular Grecian prophet also appears in The Odyssey like several other myths and asks Odysseus to go to Ithaca after he lets him talk to the souls of the dead in the underworld of Hades.
Writing Style of The Odyssey
The writing style of The Odyssey is exactly like that of classical poetry which is elevated or formal. As it is written in poetic form, it is a dactylic hexameter with repetitive use of phrases and cliches common during those times. The use of deus ex machina has made it more interesting for general readers, while the metrical pattern has added to its melody. For literary devices, Home resorts to metaphors, extended metaphors, similes, and repetitions.
Analysis of the Literary Devices in The Odyssey
- Action: The main action of the epic comprises the homeward journey of the great Grecian hero, Odysseus. The rising action occurs when Odysseus gets freed from the clutches of Calypso and leaves her island for his home but faces a sea storm and loses his ship. The falling action occurs when he reaches home and joins his son, Telemachus, to kill the suitors.
- Anaphora: The epic shows examples of anaphora such as,
i. Not once have we held assembly, met in session
since King Odysseus sailed away in the hollow ships.
Who has summoned us now —one of the young men,
one of the old-timers? (Book-II)
ii. “Ah what a wicked man you are, and never at a loss.
What a thing to imagine, what a thing to say!
Earth be my witness now, the vaulting Sky above. (Book-V)
These examples show the repetitious use of “one of the” and “what a thing” in the first part of the clauses of sentences ,or verses.
- Allusion: The epic shows good use of different allusions such as;
i. Zeus’s daughter plied,
potent gifts from Polydamna the wife of Thon,
a woman of Egypt, land where the teeming soil
bears the richest yield of herbs in all the world. (Book-IV)
ii. I’d died there too and met my fate that day the Trojans,
swarms of them, hurled at me with bronze spears,
fighting over the corpse of proud Achilles!
A hero’s funeral then, my glory spread by comrades —
now what a wretched death I’m doomed to die!” (Book-V)
iii. Father Zeus, Athena and lord Apollo! if only —
seeing the man you are, seeing we think as one —
you could wed my daughter and be my son-in-law. (Book-VII)
These examples show allusions of Zeus, Egypt, Achilles, and Apollo.
- Antagonist: Poseidon, the sea-god in the house of Zeus, is the antagonist of The Odyssey even before he has blinded his son, the Cyclops. He is the main hurdle in his homeward journey.
- Conflict: The main conflict of the epic is Odysseus’s homeward journey and his struggles to overcome obstacles to achieve this end to save his wife from the suitors.
- Characters: The epic, The Odyssey, shows both static as well as dynamic characters. The young hero, Odysseus, is a dynamic character as he shows a considerable transformation in his behavior and conduct by the end of the epic when he meets his wife and son. However, all other characters are static as they do not show or witness any transformation such as Cyclops, Poseidon, Circe, and even Zeus.
- Climax: The climax in the epic occurs when Odysseus arrives home after his long voyages and expeditions and sets upon killing the suitors for causing disrepute in his kingdom.
- Deus Ex Machina: The epic shows the use of deus ex machina such as,
i. But the other gods, at home in Olympian Zeus’s halls,
met for full assembly there, and among them now
the father of men and gods was first to speak. (Book-1)
ii. As the sun sprang up, leaving the brilliant waters in its wake,
climbing the bronze sky to shower light on immortal gods
and mortal men across the plowlands ripe with grain —
the ship pulled into Pylos, Neleus’ storied citadel. (Book-III)
iii. Then Zeus’s daughter Helen thought of something else.
Into the mixing-bowl from which they drank their wine
she slipped a drug, heart’s-ease, dissolving anger,
magic to make us all forget our pains. (Book-IV)
The mention of gods, Olympian Zeus, sky, Helen, and magic potion shows the use of deus ex machina in the shape of supernatural beings coming down to the earth to help human beings.
- Hyperbole: The epic shows various examples of hyperboles such as;
i. “Father Zeus on high —
may the king fulfill his promises one and all!
Then his fame would ring through the fertile earth
and never die —and I should reach my native land at last! (Book-VII)
ii. There colonnades and courts and rooms were overflowing
with crowds, a mounting host of people young and old.
The king slaughtered a dozen sheep to feed his guests. (Book-VIII)
Both of these examples exaggerate things such as fame and rooms exaggerated as having capacity and capability.
- Imagery: The Odyssey shows the use of imagery such as,
i. At last they gained the ravines of Lacedaemon ringed by hills
and drove up to the halls of Menelaus in his glory.
They found the king inside his palace, celebrating
with throngs of kinsmen a double wedding-feast
for his son and lovely daughter. (Book-IV)
ii. Thick, luxuriant woods grew round the cave,
alders and black poplars, pungent cypress too,
and there birds roosted, folding their long wings,
owls and hawks and the spread-beaked ravens of the sea,
black skimmers who make their living off the waves.
And round the mouth of the cavern trailed a vine
laden with clusters, bursting with ripe grapes. (Book-V)
iii. Here luxuriant trees are always in their prime,
pomegranates and pears, and apples glowing red,
succulent figs and olives swelling sleek and dark.
And the yield of all these trees will never flag or die,
neither in winter nor in summer, a harvest all year round
for the West Wind always breathing through will bring
some fruits to the bud and others warm to ripeness —(Book-VII)
These examples show images of feeling, color, movement, and taste.
- Invocation: The poet has used invocation such as;
i. Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns
driven time and again off course, once he had plundered
the hallowed heights of Troy.
This invocation is an example in epic style writing followed by all the great poets of every nation including John Milton. Homer here invokes Muse, the Grecian goddess of poetry, to empower him to sing in the praise of that great hero.
- Metaphor: The Odyssey shows good use of various metaphors such as;
i. Just as that fear went churning through his mind
a tremendous roller swept him toward the rocky coast
where he’d have been flayed alive, his bones crushed
if the bright-eyed goddess Pallas had not inspired him now.
He lunged for a reef, he seized it with both hands and clung
for dear life, groaning until the giant wave surged past
and so he escaped its force, but the breaker’s backwash
charged into him full fury and hurled him out to sea.
Like pebbles stuck in the suckers of some octopus
dragged from its lair —so strips of skin torn
from his clawing hands stuck to the rock face. (Book-V)
ii. And out he stalked
as a mountain lion exultant in his power
strides through wind and rain and his eyes blaze
and he charges sheep or oxen or chases wild deer
but his hunger drives him on to go for flocks,
even to raid the best-defended homestead.
So Odysseus moved out…(Book-VI)
iii. There’s nothing better
than when deep joy holds sway throughout the realm
and banqueters up and down the palace sit in ranks. (Book-IX)
These examples show that several things have been compared directly in epic such as the first one shows the comparison between fear and a roller, the second shows the comparison of a man and a mountain, and the last one shows joys compared to men.
- Motif: Most important motifs of the epic, The Odyssey, are storytelling, disguises, and magic.
- Personification: The epic shows examples of personifications such as;
i. Someone may tell you something
or you may catch a rumor straight from Zeus,
rumor that carries news to men like nothing else. (Book-I)
ii. As Dawn rose up from bed by her lordly mate Tithonus,
bringing light to immortal gods and mortal men,
the gods sat down in council, circling Zeus
the thunder king whose power rules the world. (Book-V)
These examples show as if the rumor and dawn have life and emotions of their own.
- Protagonist: Odysseus is the protagonist of the epic. The epic, after the invocation, starts with his entry into the world and moves forward as he starts his homeward journey until he reaches home.
- Rhetorical Questions: The epic shows a good use of rhetorical questions at several places such as;
i. Who has summoned us now —one of the young men,
one of the old-timers? What crisis spurs him on?
Some news he’s heard of an army on the march,
word he’s caught firsthand so he can warn us now?
Or some other public matter he’ll disclose and argue? (Book-II)
ii. She called out to her girls with lovely braids:
“Stop, my friends! Why run when you see a man?
Surely you don’t think him an enemy, do you? (Book-VI)
This example shows the use of rhetorical questions posed but different characters not to elicit answers but to stress upon the underlined idea.
- Setting: The setting of the epic, The Odyssey, is spread over several places such as Mount Olympus, Ithaca, Aeaea, Ogygia, Scheria, etc.
- Simile: The epic shows a good use of various similes such as;
i. When young Dawn with her rose-red fingers shone once more
the true son of Odysseus sprang from bed and dressed,
over his shoulder he slung his well-honed sword,
fastened rawhide sandals under his smooth feet
and stepped from his bedroom, handsome as a god. (Book-II)
ii. Here’s my prophecy, bound to come to pass.
If you, you old codger, wise as the ages,
talk him round, incite the boy to riot. (Book-II)
iii. Strangers have just arrived, your majesty, Menelaus.
Two men, but they look like kin of mighty Zeus himself.
Tell me, should we unhitch their team for them
or send them to someone free to host them well?” (Book-IV)
iv. As Dawn rose up from bed by her lordly mate Tithonus,
bringing light to immortal gods and mortal men,
the gods sat down in council, circling Zeus
the thunder king whose power rules the world. (Book-V)
These are similes as the use of the word “like” shows the comparison between different things. For example, the first example shows the beatify of Odysseus compared to gods, the second shows the person compared to time, the third shows people compared to the relatives of the god, and the last one shows the dawn rising like a person or a living thing.