The Ancient World (HUM 124 - UNC Asheville)/Texts/Odyssey/Themes
The Role of Divine Beings[edit | edit source]
Divine Beings take a very important role throughout the Epic. They serve as a divine governing body over society, providing punishments as consequences for negative actions. They represent the values held during this time period and enforce this through divine intervention. They are placed in the center of the universe, responsible for creation. Some gods are responsible for changes in circumstance, reinforcing the commonly practiced method of sacrifice and offerings. Each God is assigned a specific role.
Throughout The Odyssey, Gods become engaged in the narrative and plot. Athena is included often and helps Odysseus on his journey. She is the goddess of wisdom and battle, and therefore forms a relationship with Odysseus, providing help with her wisdom. She also assists Telemachus.
Godly emotions also dictate the occurrences on earth. This can be observed throughout Poseidon, the god of the sea. Following the death of the cyclops, he is angered with Odysseus for killing his son. The ocean reflects this energy and Odysseus ship wrecks due to the tumultuous waves.
Examples of Divine Intervention:[edit | edit source]
- In Book 2, the goddess Athena comes disguised to give Telemachus a message and advice following his prayers. "He dipped his hands in salty gray seawater and asked Athena, 'Goddess, hear my prayer!...Then Athena came near him with the voice and guise of Mentor and spoke to him with words that flew like birds."
- A second example from Book 2, Athena disguises herself and interferes with the plot. "Meanwhile, bright-eyed Athena had a plan. Resembling Telemachus, she went all through the city, standing by each man, and urged then to assemble by the ship at night....The goddess dragged the ship into the water, and she loaded the necessary tackle for the journey."
- “Athena stood near him and increased his strength, to suit the shepherd of the people.”
- “Athena’s eyes were bright with plans. She poured sweet sleep onto Penelope... gave her gifts of godlike power...she also made her shapelier and taller, and made her skin more white than ivory”
- This quote encompasses a major idea of the time. The gods were responsible for all that happened on Earth: “When the gods bestow on us good fortune, and our legs are spry and limber, we think that nothing can ever go wrong: but when the gods bring misery and pain, we have to bear our suffering with calm"
- “Our mood depends on what Zeus sends each day”
- In Book 18, before Odysseus fights Araenus, Athena comes to his aid. (Ex. “Athena stood near him and increased his strength, to suit the shepherd of the people.”)
- In Book 15, Athena urges Telemachus to return home setting forth his reunion with Odysseus near the end of the book. She also tells Telemachus of a plan to have him killed which, if he had not been told, he may have died. Both of these interventions allowed the eventual meeting to take place. Who knows if it would have happened without her 'help'.
Hospitality[edit | edit source]
An important theme of The Odyssey is hospitality, called "guest-friendship". Guest-friendship is a custom held by the Greeks that talks about the give and take between a host and their guest. A good host, usually the host was the oldest man of the household, should provide their guest(s) with a meal, a bath, gifts, the promise of safety and a way for them to travel to their next destination. In return a good guest should be respectful, not threaten the livelihood of their host, and be a good host in return if ever the tables are turned and they must host their current host. The theme of hospitality flows throughout the Odyssey and Homer provides examples of both good and bad hospitality on the part of the guests and the hosts.
Examples of Hospitality:[edit | edit source]
- In Book 1,"The Boy and The Goddess", The Goddess Athena visits Ithaca disguised as a hero named Mentes in order to persuade Telemachus to go on a quest to find information on his father Odysseus. Homer makes it obvious that Telemachus is the only person in his home that is treating Athena with respect as seen in these sentences from page 109, "He disapproved of leaving strangers stranded, so he went straight to the gate, and shook her hand, and took her spear of bronze, and let his words fly out to her. 'Good evening, stranger, and welcome. Be our guest, come share our dinner, and then tell us what you need.'"
- Another example of the importance of hospitality and the guest-friend relationship in the Greek world comes from Book 2, "A Dangerous Journey". This example comes from the actions of Penelope's suitors that have torn her house to pieces with the absence of her husband. "Now, even worse, my house is being ripped apart; my wealth will soon be gone! The sons of all the nobles have shoved inside my house to court my mother, against her wishes." This is an example of bad hospitality because it goes against the common Greek custom of the guest-friend relationship. The suitors go against the give and take of the guest-friend bond because they take from and occupy Odysseus' house without holding any respect towards Telemachus, Penelope or Odysseus.
- In Book 9, "A Pirate In A Shepard's Cave", Odysseus is recounting his travels to Alcinous and he mentions the Cicones, the Lotus-Eaters, and the Cyclopes. Each of these people are an example of a different unbalanced "guest-friendship". In the case of the Cicones, Odysseus' crew put the scale of guest and host off balance by sacking their town, killing their men, and taking their wives as trophies. This goes against the "guest-friendship" customs because the crew is threatening the livelihoods of there hosts. Then Odysseus talks about the Lotus-Eaters. In this scenario the Lotus-Eaters are taking the role of the host to the utmost extremes by being so hospitable and kind that Odysseus' crew are tricked into eating the lotuses that make them never want to leave. Then comes the Cyclopes, who Odysseus says are, "lacking in customs." because they don't believe in the gods instead they follow their own free will. So, instead of following the Greek customs the Cyclops attacks and eats a few of Odysseus' crewmates as punishment for intruding in his home.
- In Book 18, "Two Beggars", Odysseus, who is disguised as a homeless man, gets in a physical fight with Ithaca, a beggar notorious for greed. Later, Penelope talks to Telemachus and shames him for his poor hospitality. She asks "If strangers in our house are so abused, what then? You will be shamed! Your reputation will be destroyed!" It is not good hospitality to allow your guests to fight like that, since they should all be treated with respect. 
- In Book 15, we see the theme of hospitality put to the test by Odysseus. Odysseus is disguised as a beggar and asks to stay with Eumaeus, a simple swine herder. Odysseus suggests that he will leave after only one night with the swine herder, testing to see if Eumaeus will offer him to stay longer. Eumaeus insists that Odysseus stay until Telemachus has arrived. This shows that Eumaeus is an extremely hospitable person. This may come from a reverence for the custom or for the gods.
Fate/Chance and Justice[edit | edit source]
We see examples of the themes of fate and justice throughout the text of the Odyssey. Whether it be character fulfilling or not fulfilling their fate, there is always chance at play. Sometimes this chance is just the gods intervening and sometimes it's just sheer dumb luck. We also see that the world of the ancient Greeks isn't always a just one. We can see the gods intervening in seemingly unjust ways and we wee justice being carried out less rigidly or organized as one might hope in today's society. In a way, the Greeks are subject to each of the individual god's brand of justice and what justices they felt fit to dole out to you at the time.
Examples of Fate/Chance and Justice:[edit | edit source]
- In Book 15, we are shared the story of Eumaeus the simple swineherd and how he came to be who he is today. He tells a tale to Odysseus (disguised as a beggar) about how he was born into royalty. He says he was taken as a child and sold eventually ending up in the simple life he currently leads. Some would see this as a cruel chance of fate, that Eumaeus was robbed of his rightful place in his family. Some may say this is unjust and he should seek retribution. Somehow, Eumaeus doesn't seem to think wither of these things. He shares a sort of comfort in sharing the story with Odysseus and seems thankful for the life he has.
Home and Family[edit | edit source]
Throughout the Odyssey, there are many examples of characters returning home and/or to their families. The overarching plot of the whole book is Odysseus' return to his home in Ithaca. For some characters this includes literally returning to their physical homes (Odysseus), while for others the return home is more metaphorical; returning the feeling of "home" to their physical homes (Telemachus) or reuniting their families. In many of these examples, the events after their return are directly affected by the state of their family. Those who came home to newly reunited families, like Menelaus or Odysseus, are happy and prospering, while those who returned to broken families are still grieving or are dead, like Nestor and Agamemnon. The importance of a strong family is stressed to no small degree throughout the whole book, sometimes tying into other themes, such as justice, like in the case of Agamemnon's son having to 'resolve' his family problems through vengeance.
Examples of Home and Family[edit | edit source]
- In Book 3, King Nestor shares the story of the Greeks' return home after the Trojan war. He starts by listing off a few of the casualties of the war, pointing out that the list of the dead, the people who would never return home, could go on seemingly forever. He then shares what he knows about what happened to the group during their return, including what happened to Agamemnon after he returned home. Upon his return, Agamemnon was killed by his wife, Aegisthus, and was avenged by his son Orestes. Though this text does not go into the details of these events, the background information the Ancient Greeks would have had from the Iphigenia and the Oresteia implies that his Agamemnon's demise is, in part, due to the damage he caused to his family.
- In Book 4, King Menelaus and the Spartans are celebrating the marriages of the king's children. Menelaus recounts his version of the tale Nestor shared in the previous book. He tells Telemachus of his journey home to Sparta, as well as what he knows about Odysseus last known whereabouts during the journey. He continues to talk about what Odysseus was like during the Trojan war, which was started over the fact that Paris of Troy took Helen as a wife, even though she was already married to Menelaus, thus breaking apart a family. The family is has since been reunited, and the city appears to be flourishing since the queen's return.
- In Book 22, Odysseus makes it clear that his rage towards the suitors is just as much over the treatment they have shown his family and slaves as it is over the damage to his property. He refuses any offer of repayment for the suitors actions to spare their lives, which may be interpreted as him saying that the property damage isn't what enrages him at all, but something else.
- In Book 23, Odysseus is finally able to properly reunite with Penelope, his wife. It is a very emotional reunion that, from some perspectives, serves as a climax for the epic. Odysseus is home, the suitors are gone, he has reunited with his son and wife for the first time in many years, his journey is coming to a close. This climax highlights the overarching story of the epic; Odysseus's return home, both literally and metaphorically.
Loyalty[edit | edit source]
Throughout the Odyssey the one characteristic that divides the supporting cast of the epic is loyalty. Whether or not a character remained loyal to Odysseus, the king of Ithaca while he was away for 20 years is a primary factor in whether we, the audience, see that character as a villain or not. Particularly in the latter half of the story when Odysseus finally returns home, a stark line is drawn between those who hope for Odysseus' return and those who take what is his and besmirch his name. Below there are a few different examples where loyalty played an important part throughout the Odyssey, some where characters remained showed loyalty and others where characters were disloyal.
Examples of Loyalty:[edit | edit source]
- In Book 2, Penelope, the wife of Odysseus, is pressured by many suitors to remarry so that one of the suitors may become the new king of Ithaca since Odysseus has been gone for 20 years. Penelope tells the suitors that she will marry one of them after she finishes a tapestry for Laertes' funeral. Penelope then begins to weave this tapestry by day, but by night she carefully unweaves all the work she had done during the day. Despite the time she has spent apart from Odysseus, she goes to such lengths to remain as her husband, fooling the suitors and giving more time for Odysseus to hopefully return home.
- In Book 17, Odysseus, disguised as a beggar, arrives at his palace after he returns to Ithaca. When he arrives he spots Argos, his old hunting dog. Odysseus trained Argos as a pup but before leaving. Now, 20 year later, Argos is dirty and on deaths door when he spots Odysseus, recognizing him immediately despite his disguise. This is something even his own son and wife failed to do. Odysseus sheds a tear as his dog passes away, finally able to see his master one last time.
- In Book 17, the characters of Eumaeus and Melanthius act as parallels for each other, especially in regards to the subject of loyalty. Odysseus, disguised as a beggar, is led by Eumaeus to town. On the way to town the two of them encounter Melanthius. Eumaeus is a swineherd and old friend of Odysseus who believes that Odysseus will one day return and defeat the suitors. Despite the 20 absence of Odysseus, Eumaeus still remains loyal to him. Melanthius, on the other hand, is a goatherd who has cozied up to the suitors in Odysseus' absence. Melanthius is taking his finest goats to the suitors when he encounters Odysseus and Eumaeus. Melanthius insults Telemachus and Odysseus and then unsuccessfully attacks the disguised Odysseus before running off to the palace. The stark contrast between two minor characters that are relatively similar shows how important loyalty is. Melanthius is later tortured and killed in Book 22.
References[edit | edit source]
- Homer, and Emily R. Wilson. “A Dangerous Journey.” Essay. In The Odyssey: Translated by Emily Wilson, 120–35. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018.
- Homer, author. The Odyssey. ISBN 978-0-393-41793-7.
- Homer, and Emily R. Wilson. “The Boy And The Goddess.” Essay. In The Odyssey: Translated by Emily Wilson, 105–20. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018.
- Homer, and Emily R. Wilson. “A Pirate In A Shepard's Cave.” Essay. In The Odyssey: Translated by Emily Wilson, 240–59. New York, New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018.
- Homer, and Emily R. Wilson. “Two Beggars.” Essay. In The Odyssey: Translated by Emily Wilson, 105–20. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018.