Themes of The Odyssey

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  • 0:00 Introduction to ''The…
  • 0:58 Theme: Hospitality
  • 2:56 Theme: Loyalty
  • 4:10 Theme: Vengeance
  • 5:05 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Richard Castle
'The Odyssey' tells the story of Odysseus as he tries to get home after the Trojan War has ended. In this lesson, learn about the themes of this famous Greek work.

Introduction to The Odyssey

The Odyssey is a Greek epic poem attributed to the Greek poet Homer during the late eighth century BCE. An epic tells the tale of a hero and his heroic deeds.

The Odyssey follows its hero and protagonist Odysseus as he fights to get home after the Trojan War, a war that lasted an entire decade. Not only did the war last ten years, but so did Odysseus' journey. Odysseus must battle terrifying monsters and escape from some dicey situations, but he does eventually make it back to his home of Ithaca.

As we will discuss, there are several themes at work within The Odyssey. In literature, a theme is a main idea of a work, and it can be stated directly or indirectly, such as a subtle underlying meaning. In this epic poem, there are three major themes: hospitality, loyalty, and vengeance.

Theme: Hospitality

Maybe to a modern reader, hospitality doesn't seem like a stellar theme to build a literary work around. After all, you may ask: What great revelations are going to come from not vacuuming before your friends come over? Well, hospitality was actually very important in Greek society. How you treated visitors to your home, whether strangers or friends, said a great deal about your morals.

Let's look at an example of hospitality in the story. It's been ten years since the Trojan War ended, and everyone (except Penelope, who is Odysseus' wife) believes that Odysseus must be dead since he has still not returned home. Suitors descend on Penelope's home attempting to win her hand. Regardless of her feelings toward them and her belief that Odysseus will return to her, she demonstrates hospitality by allowing the suitors to stay in her home and do whatever they want. To do anything less, even to the worst house guests, would be against her moral code. Also, the suitors are much more powerful than she and her son.

Many people in The Odyssey help Odysseus during his journey home. The Phaeacians, who sail Odysseus home to Ithaca and take good care of him, were well known in Greek mythology for being very hospitable people. Odysseus also receives help from Circe, a sorceress, although at first she does turn his men into pigs. His own servants, when he appears as a strange beggar at the end of the story, offer Odysseus food and comfort because those who are hospitable and kind to guests receive great rewards from the gods.

Others, however, are not so helpful. In the end, the suitors are punished for being terrible guests and awful people. Polyphemus, the cyclops Odysseus runs into, offers no hospitality and even pokes fun at the gods who support it, and Odysseus ultimately blinds him. So within The Odyssey, hospitality is important enough that those who don't practice it are punished.

Theme: Loyalty

Loyalty, as in devotion to helping those close to you, is also a major theme in The Odyssey. Perhaps the most well-known example of loyalty is Penelope and her devotion to her husband Odysseus. Even though her husband has been gone for twenty years, she refuses to marry any of the young, attractive, wealthy suitors who ask for her hand. She believes in her heart that her husband is still alive, and her loyalty is rewarded when Odysseus unveils his disguise and shouts that he has arrived home.

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