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.
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.
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.
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.
Omens in the Odyssey
A series of supernatural and magical events occur in the Odyssey. A great number of these are caused by the gods—Zeus himself tells Athena in the very first book that Odysseus will eventually return home. In fact, the most clear-cut omen in the book comes in the form of an eagle witnessed by Telemachus (with the eagle being the sign of Zeus). Birds appear multiple times throughout the book, generally pointing toward some ominous event in the future.
Outside of vague omens, the gods exert direct power in the world. Poseidon brings about great storms, Hermes offers enchanted items to Odysseus, and Athena takes human form to speak to others and direct Telemachus. Even divine entities outside of the Olympians have some influence, such as Calypso's attempt to entice Odysseus with immortality. The gods are present throughout the entirety of the Odyssey, directly or indirectly.
In terms of less divine power, the trickery by Circe and the song of the Sirens come to mind. Both are potent in their own ways—Circe was capable of transfiguring Odysseus' crew, while the Sirens were capable of driving others to madness with their song. However, these are decidedly mortal influences. Each of them is escapable or avoidable, whereas the power of the gods can only be shifted by other gods.
Quotes from the Odyssey
"Just think of all the hospitality we enjoyed
at the hands of other men before we made it home,
and god save us from such hard treks in years to come.
Quick, unhitch their team. And bring them in,
strangers, guests, to share our flowing feast." -Book IV
These lines come from Menelaus, speaking to the young Telemachus. It perfectly encapsulates the principle of xenia that the Greeks held so dear. As Menelaus was treated well in need, so now will he extend his hospitality to others.
"No winning words about death to me, shining Odysseus!
By god, I'd rather slave on earth for another man—
some dirt-poor tenant farmer who scrapes to keep alive—
than rule down here over all the breathless dead." -Book XI
Upon meeting with Odysseus in Hades, Achilles reflects back on his life. He warns Odysseus that a glorious life means little at the end and regrets that he chose to live vivaciously and dangerously instead of cautiously. This reflects onto Odysseus' own actions in both the past and future. Odysseus is known for his cleverness and subterfuge—a fair, glorious fight is worth less than an unfair, swift one.
"Come, enough of this now. We're both old hands
at the arts of intrigue. Here among mortal men
you're far the best at tactics, spinning yarns,
and I am famous among the gods for wisdom,
cunning wiles, too." -Book XIII
These words come from Athena and regard Odysseus himself, adeptly establishing his character. If the goddess of wisdom acknowledges Odysseus' own cleverness, then it further establishes his mental swiftness amongst the reader.
"Of all that breathes and crawls across the earth,
our mother earth breeds nothing feebler than a man.
So long as the gods grant him power, spring in his knees,
he thinks he will never suffer affliction down the years.
But then, when the happy gods bring on the long hard times,
bear them he must, against his will, and steel his heart." -Book XVIII
Odysseus speaks these words to the suitors while in disguise, offering them a subtle warning of what is to come. He speaks these words from experience—mortals cannot stand against the will and whims of the gods and, in this situation, the goddess Athena supports him.
Homer's Odyssey is an epic poem that follows the attempts of Odysseus, king of Ithaca, to return home after the long Trojan War. The Odyssey takes place after the events of Homer's Iliad, and the themes in the Odyssey actively comment upon and reflect those in the Iliad. The three central themes of the Odyssey are Hospitality, Loyalty, and Vengeance.
Hospitality is directly connected to the Greek concept of xenia, meaning "guest-friendship." Failing to be hospitable, or taking advantage of another's hospitality, was oftentimes bad enough to invoke punishment from the gods. Odysseus receives hospitality from the Phaecian people, his faithful servants, and Circe. He receives poor hospitality from the cyclops Polyphemus (who attempts to eat him and his men,) the same Circe (who attempts to turn him and his men into swine,) and the suitors of his wife Penelope (who, not recognizing the disguised Odysseus, mock him within his own home.)
Loyalty takes a central role in the Odyssey primarily due to the character of Penelope, who remains steadfastly loyal to Odysseus throughout the entire twenty-year period of his absence. She refuses to marry despite increasing external pressure, coming up with a series of ingenious schemes to delay the interests of a growing number of suitors.
Much of the Odyssey revolves around the theme of vengeance. Odysseus is driven from situation to situation because of the wrath of the god Poseidon, whose son, Polyphemus, Odysseus blinded. Once he finally arrives at home, the narrative is driven by his desire to wreak vengeance upon the suitors who have stolen his home.
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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.
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