Themes in the Odyssey

Roark Wilson, Richard Castle
  • Author
    Roark Wilson

    Roark Wilson is an aspiring young teacher with a Bachelor of Arts from Sewanee: The University of the South and a Master of Studies in eighteenth-century literature from the University of Oxford. He has acted as an informal tutor for two years and a saber fencing coach for seven.

  • Instructor
    Richard Castle
Learn the themes in The Odyssey by Homer. Identify its themes about hospitality, loyalty, and vengeance. See examples of hospitality in the Odyssey. Updated: 12/07/2021

Table of Contents


What is Odyssey?

The Odyssey is one of the two classical Greek epics composed by the poet Homer. In many ways, it serves as a sequel to the preceding Iliad. Homer's Odyssey follows Odysseus' attempts to return home after the decade-long Trojan War despite the anger of Poseidon and other forces that delay that his homecoming by a decade. While parts of the epic focus on the plights of his wife and his son's attempt to locate him, Odysseus dominates the majority of the narrative. Fittingly, "odyssey" has come to mean a long, arduous journey marked by many changes in fortune.

What is the Significance of the Theme of the Odyssey?

The Odyssey is a strangely modern-seeming story, complete with a complicating, novelistic character and many different branching themes. Because the Odyssey differs so dramatically from its predecessor the Iliad, understanding the thematic emphases will lead to a more holistic understanding of both the epic and its central character.

An error occurred trying to load this video.

Try refreshing the page, or contact customer support.

Coming up next: Geography of The Odyssey

You're on a roll. Keep up the good work!

Take Quiz Watch Next Lesson
Your next lesson will play in 10 seconds
  • 0:00 Introduction to ''The…
  • 0:58 Theme: Hospitality
  • 2:56 Theme: Loyalty
  • 4:10 Theme: Vengeance
  • 5:05 Lesson Summary
Save Save Save

Want to watch this again later?

Log in or sign up to add this lesson to a Custom Course.

Log in or Sign up

Speed Speed

Themes in the Odyssey

The three most important themes in the Odyssey are hospitality, loyalty, and vengeance. Each of these were important cultural standards held by the Ancient Greeks, oftentimes backed by divine law.

Hospitality in the Odyssey

Out of all of the themes in the Odyssey, hospitality takes center stage. Hospitality was considered an important virtue—particularly inhospitable individuals, or individuals who took advantage of another's hospitality, could expect to be punished by the gods. This particular moral obligation toward hospitality was referred to as xenia by the Greeks, meaning "guest-friendship." The Odyssey opens with a scene in which hospitality is simultaneously offered and abused. Penelope, the wife of Odysseus and queen of Ithaca, has been approached by a variety of suitors who seek her hand in marriage. As her husband Odysseus has been gone for twenty years, all are convinced that he is dead and that it is time for Penelope to remarry. Penelope is convinced that Odysseus is alive but nevertheless is forced to accede to external pressures and allow the suitors entry. She proves a very hospitable host, feeding and lodging the suitors while she subtly deflects their interests. The suitors, on the other hand, abuse her hospitality—they eat egregious amounts, are rude to their host, and get into fights that destroy Penelope's possessions. Penelope could potentially turn the suitors away, but to do so at first would be inhospitable, and to do so later would be dangerous. This scene alone showcases how important hospitality is within the work—the moral characters actively disadvantage themselves in order to extend hospitality to others.

While there are many other moments of hospitality in the work—consider the multiple occasions where Odysseus or Telemachus (Odysseus' son) are met with open arms, such as with the amicable Phaecians—there are two instances in which hospitality is corrupted or proves dangerous. The most obvious example is Odysseus' encounter with Polyphemus the cyclops. Polyphemus traps Odysseus and the other sailors in his cave-dwelling, then proceeds to batter and devour some of the sailors. This direct breach of hospitality demands punishment. As a part of Odysseus' escape, Polyphemus is blinded. Another example of twisted hospitality is offered by Circe, a witch who turns Odysseus' men into pigs. After her magic fails to transform Odysseus (thanks to gifts from the god Hermes) she becomes a genuine and delightful host. In fact, her hospitality is dangerously good—it tempts Odysseus into staying on her island and delaying his return home for a year.

An image of Circe, a powerful witch known for turning her visitors into swine.

Circe simultaneously defines good and bad hospitality within the Odyssey, as she becomes a genuine host when her magic fails.

Loyalty in the Odyssey

Loyalty is another theme that permeates the Odyssey. It most commonly occurs in relation to loyalty to Odysseus—Penelope steadfastly waiting for him, for example. Similarly, Odysseus' servants Eumaeus and Eurycleia have maintained loyalty to Odysseus throughout the years even though it caused them a good deal of grief from the suitors. When Odysseus returns to his kingdom of Ithaca in disguise, Eurycleia (his old nurse) was the first individual to recognize him due to a birthmark. Eumaeus offered Odysseus hospitality even before he recognized him, and afterward helped Odysseus in his martial pursuits to drive the suitors out. Argos, Odysseus' old hunting dog, also acts as a paragon of loyalty: despite being beaten out of Odysseus' hall by the suitors and surviving at the edge of starvation, he waited two decades for Odysseus to return.

Each of these are important moments of loyalty, but the moments of disloyalty and betrayal establish loyalty as a central theme of the Odyssey. Agamemnon's account to Odysseus in the Underworld is the clearest example of this. Agamemnon was slain by his own unfaithful wife, and he cautions Odysseus not to trust Penelope. This caution leads Odysseus to test Penelope's faithfulness later on, only for him to realize that her loyalty to him was beyond approach.

Vengeance in the Odyssey

If hospitality and loyalty flavor the story and grant it meaning, vengeance drives it. Odysseus finds himself in such dire straights due to attracting the wrath of Poseidon, whose heavy-handed ire drives him to misfortune after misfortune. Odysseus does so by taunting Polyphemus after blinding the cyclops, which drives Polyphemus to call upon his father Poseidon to give him revenge. A series of horrific storms sent by Poseidon in response drastically elongates Odysseus' journey.

Odysseus and his men blinding Polyphemus.

By blinding Polyphemus in this way, Odysseus and his men carried out a divine punishment against Polyphemus for his poor hospitality.

The most direct and brutal moment of vengeance is Odysseus' actions against the suitors. When he returns to find his loyal servants cast aside and the suitors having effectively plundered his home and possessions (and his wife being pressured constantly), he takes bloody vengeance upon all of them with the assistance of his son and a few loyal servants. Athena blesses this vengeance, granting it a certain divine justification. Altogether, vengeance against Odysseus drives the story until he arrives at Ithaca, at which point Odysseus' vengeance consumes the rest of the narrative.

Wandering in the Odyssey

While not nearly as central a theme as hospitality, loyalty, or vengeance, wandering and journeying take a large amount of space. This is epitomized by Odysseus' various challenges and trials. Odysseus wanders outside of the civilized world, and as such, he finds himself encountering monsters. Out of the many potential examples, this includes Charybdis and Scylla: the former was a creature that would inhale massive quantities of water in a strait, causing a whirlpool that would suck in unwary travelers. On the opposite side of the strait sat Scylla, a monstrous being with six heads and twelve feet that would pluck sailors off the ships attempting to avoid Charybdis. Polyphemus, Circe, and even Calypso (the latter being a very pleasant and lonely nymph that imprisoned Odysseus for seven years) all lurk at the edges of the civilized world. Wandering, for Odysseus, involved moving from threat to savage threat.

As a counterpoint to the threats facing Odysseus during his wandering, Telemachus' voyages to find news of his father was more consistently amicable. He went to visit his father's old comrades, including Nestor and the married couple of Helen and Meleneaus. Each of those visits was delightful and calm even though none of those individuals could effectively help Telemachus find his father. Journeying through civilization is a pleasant affair, mostly due to the xenia by which the Ancient Greeks abided. Journeying on the fringes of society was a dangerous affair.

To unlock this lesson you must be a Member.
Create your account

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the main theme of The Odyssey?

The most important theme in the Odyssey is that of hospitality or, as the Greeks called it, xenia. This translates to something akin to "guest-friendship." Hospitality is portrayed as a moral imperative throughout the epic, with a failure to provide hospitality or an attempt to take advantage of hospitality often inspiring divine punishment.

What is the story odyssey about?

The Odyssey follows the story of Odysseus, kind of Ithaca, as he tries to return home after the Trojan War. He is delayed for over twenty years due to a combination of forces both manmade and divine.

What odyssey means?

"Odyssey" eventually came to refer to a long and arduous journey. This reflects on the long and arduous journey undergone by Odysseus, the main character in Homer's epic poem the Odyssey.

Register to view this lesson

Are you a student or a teacher?

Unlock Your Education

See for yourself why 30 million people use

Become a member and start learning now.
Become a Member  Back
What teachers are saying about
Try it risk-free for 30 days