Homer’s Odyssey sets the standard for an epic as it is defined: A lengthy poem of enormous scope describing the wondrous adventures of its hero (Odysseus) and composed in an elevated style of language (think of the term “Homeric simile”). It is difficult for the modern reader to comprehend that these adventures were meant to amaze, especially when such words as “adventure” have lost much of their evocative power. And difficult also to grasp the ancient Greek concept of “hero” in today’s disposable, convenience-oriented world.
Themes in the Odyssey
The Odyssey contains many themes—journey, compassion, family, and so forth—but it works best when approached as an extended narrative on the themes of nostos (homecoming or return), xenia (guest-host relationship), and immortality.
The Odyssey is the legend of Odysseus’s nostos from Troy to his home on Ithaca. In the opening line of the story, Odysseus is described as “polutropos,” which means “wandering” and “crafty.” Several lines later the “wandering” is explained not as a meaningless drifting, but as a directed action, clearly showing Odysseus’s desire for reunion with his wife and hometown. Another important theme in the Odyssey is xenia, a Greek notion encompassing the generosity and civility shown to those who are away from home. Through his journey, Odysseus learns that life after death is an empty existence lacking any satisfaction or fulfillment. Because he realizes that immortality brings no more than what he had seen in Hades, he is not lured by Calypso’s offer of eternal life. Paralleling these themes is the theme of adulthood, as Telemachus comes out from his father's shadow on his own course to manhood to establish his place in his family and in the kingdom of Ithaca.
The Narrative Structure
One problem with using the Odyssey in today's classroom is that students are often only familiar with the most popular sections of the epic, or those most palatable and comprehensible. Most people have heard of the adventures told in flashback in Books 9 through 12: Odysseus's encounter with the Cyclops, his experience with the goddess Circe, his time in Hades, the killing of Helios's cattle by his crew, and the death of all of his remaining companions. However, in formal and informal surveys of students, the Odyssey is repeatedly named one of the least-read books on the high school syllabus—most likely because of its complicated narrative structure (for example, its hero, Odysseus, does not even appear in the poem until Book 5).
To say that the narrative structure of the Odyssey is not quite linear is an understatement. The first four books deal primarily with Telemachus, Odysseus's son. Books 5 through 8, the action of which takes place at the same time as that of Books 1 through 4, deal with Odysseus as he leaves Calypso's island and journeys to Scheria, land of the Phaiakians. Books 9 through 12 are narrated in the first person by Odysseus as a flashback before the events of Book 5. Odysseus's arrival on Ithaca in Book 13 returns the narrative to a straightforward chronology. A chronological arrangement of the Odyssey would put Books 9 through 12 first, followed simultaneously by Books 5 through 8 and Books 1 through 4, followed by Books 13 through 24. I've found that students are often put off by the structure of the Odyssey and miss out on aspects of the epic that they might otherwise appreciate.
Much of the beauty of the Odyssey lies in Odysseus's skill in rhetoric and persuasion. This part of his character can serve as an exemplar for students in any literary setting. A brief look at two of his most masterful speeches can illustrate why. The first is an address to Calypso and the second is given when he washes up on the shore of Scheria and meets Princess Nausikaa. Here is the first speech (Book 5, beginning at line 215):
"Goddess," replied Odysseus, "do not be angry with me about this. I am quite aware that my wife Penelope is nothing like so tall or so beautiful as yourself. She is only a woman, whereas you are an immortal. Nevertheless, I want to get home, and can think of nothing else. If some god wrecks me when I am on the sea, I will bear it and make the best of it. I have had infinite trouble both by land and sea already, so let this go with the rest." (Butler, 1900)
This speech to Calypso explaining why he wants to leave her island, where he has lived for several years, to go home displays his oratory skill. How does one reject the love of a goddess without incurring her wrath and the terrible consequences that she can inflict? Here, he first puts her on a pedestal by telling her, "Penelope is nothing like so tall or so beautiful as yourself," to get on her good side. Then he mentions how lowly he is: "If some god wrecks me when I am on the sea ...." Finally, he says nothing of returning to his wife, which would inflame Calypso with jealousy, but talks only of returning "home." This is something that even a goddess could sympathize with, and Calypso offers her assistance to enable Odysseus to continue on his way.
Now let us look at the second example, from Book 6, starting at line 149:
"I beseech thee, O queen,—a goddess art thou, or art thou mortal? If thou art a goddess, one of those who hold broad heaven, to Artemis, the daughter of great Zeus, do I liken thee most nearly in comeliness and in stature and in form? But if thou art one of mortals who dwell upon the earth, thrice-blessed then are thy father and thy honored mother, and thrice-blessed thy brethren." (A.T. Murray, 1919)
This request to Nausikaa once again demonstrates Odysseus's skill in rhetoric and his ability to fit his words to his audience. How does a naked Odysseus approach a 14-year-old princess and ask her for assistance? He carefully constructs his speech to reassure her that he will not assault her, by alluding to the virgin goddess Artemis while never directly mentioning that possibility. He also uses his familiar tactic of putting someone on a level superior to his own in order to obtain the assistance he needs.
Here are a few questions to consider in the classroom:
- What does Odysseus's rejection of immortality from Calypso imply about Odysseus's view of what it means to be human?
- What is the purpose of including Nausikaa's story in this epic?
- While Penelope has to stay faithful to Odysseus, Odysseus remains with Calypso for several years and also has sexual encounters with other characters on various occasions. What does this reveal about the Greeks' concept of fidelity?
Butler, Samuel. The Odyssey of Homer. 1900. Ed. Louise Ropes Loomis. New York: Walter J. Black, 1944.
Griffin, Jasper. Homer on Life and Death. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980.
Kirk, Geoffrey. The Songs of Homer. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 1962.
Lord, Albert Bates. The Singer of Tales. New York: Atheneum, 1968.
Murray, A. T. The Odyssey. 2 vols. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1919, 1984. Rev. George E. Dimmock, 1995.